Osteology - the science of bones.


The human skeleton is the door to the biological archive of prehistoric man. Osteology studies skeletal remains of both humans and animals which are important finds within archaeology. The scientific study of bones within the field has been labeled differently despite having roughly the same content and ambitions. Terms in use are for instance Bioarchaeology, Osteoarchaeology, Archaeoosteology, Archaeozoology, Zooarchaeology, Historical Osteology only to mention a few. An important field is also forensic anthropology which often relies on osteological analyses.

The field of osteology is closely associated to anatomy and anthropology and thus includes the study of the structure of bones, skeletal elements, teeth, the skeletal development and morphological assessment such as age and sex. The study of prehistoric bones and teeth found in archaeological contexts highlights living conditions, health, demography, stature, diet and mobility in the past. Extensive analyses have in recent years been conducted and produced a wealth of information on hunter gatherers, neolithization, urbanization, social organization such as gender and age related questions.

All individuals studied within the ATLAS project have been analyzed osteologically and sampled through careful consideration of the archaeological contexts. For each individual the ATLAS will contribute with information on the genetic variability, dietary patterns, mobility through DNA and stable isotope analyses. Osteology offers specific information on the age, health, trauma, activity patterns and stature, not available through other methods. The life history imprinted in the bones may be studied both on an individual, as well as on a population level and contribute to cultural historical interpretations.


Sex assessment: Sexing of skeletal remains on the basis of the morphology of the bones may be done most reliably by examining the pelvic bones. The cranium may exhibit morphological differences between males and females but the traits are variable between different populations or even different age groups within the same populations. Metric investigations of skeletal elements may be performed and they rely on the general size difference between males and females. In recent years biomolecular methods have become available and they will offer possibilities to assess the sex of skeletal remains of children, who normally not exhibit morphological differences between boys and girls. This opens up a new possibility to study childhood.

Age assessment: The aging of skeletal remains of subadults – or immature skeletons – may be done using observations of tooth eruption and development of the bones (i.e. level of epiphyseal closure). It is more difficult to assess the age of a mature skeleton, i.e. an adult individuals. Such estimations have to rely on tooth wear patterns and alterations of certain features or traits in the skeleton such as the pelvic bone. These traits are, however, variable in different populations and may vary between females and males. Thus, they are tentative.