A few days ago I came across this photo that had been posted on the The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice Facebook page, run by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. It was captioned, “A skeleton of a mother, and her baby, who both died during her pregnancy.”
Now, something about this photo immediately struck me as… off.
Therefore, in a similar vein to Dr. Kristina Killgrove’s ‘Who Needs an Osteologist?’ series over at Powered by Osteons, I’d like to welcome you to this little feature – Real or Replica?
Why? Because this photo isn’t real. Or rather, while the photo might be real – it’s not of a real burial, but rather a replica of a (perhaps real) burial.
I mentioned this in the comments of the post, which I ended by saying, “It’s a good replica, but not entirely realistic (shan’t list issues unless you ask).”
I therefore give to you, my reasonings for coming to this conclusion:
- The preservation of the skeletons is remarkable. While it isn’t unusual for bone to be well preserved archaeologically, depending on the surrounding soil and environmental conditions – it is very rare that you would see such a high level of soft tissue preservation, such as that seen in this photo. All of the ribs are articulated to the sternum with cartilage, all of the small joints (elbow, wrist, etc) are articulated with ligaments. Everything is exactly in the right place… if the person were alive and fleshed.
- Essentially, if this were real, the whole thing would look a lot more flat. When the soft tissues of a body decompose, the space they take up within the grave becomes an empty pocket and with the soil from above pressing down, the skeleton will be shifted and disarticulated and scattered until it has all settled (this is why you can get a depression on the ground surface, in the months following a burial).
- Without the soft tissue (like cartilage and ligaments) to hold everything together, the ribs would collapse down, the hand and wrist bones would disconnect and settle into the cavity amongst the ribs, after separating at the joints the arms would join this jumble of bones below too. A similar situation would typically occur with the pelvis as well. As the soft tissue connecting the two os coxae (left and right side of the pelvis, on either side of the sacrum) decomposes they will often fall open, usually pushing the femurs out of their sockets ever so slightly. And while I wouldn’t necessarily expect the skull (cranium/mandible) of an adult to disarticulate, I would at least expect it to have some suture lines (the joins between the different bones – as the skull is made up of 28 different ones).
- This process of bones disarticulating, while still appearing in roughly articulated/anatomical position not only happens to adults, but also juveniles (or in this particular case a neonate – a juvenile individual who has died around the time of birth – either shortly before or after). Without soft tissue to hold it together, this little fella’s arms would have collapsed down at the shoulder, as would the hips, all of those cute little ribs, and of course the teeny tiny hands. And importantly, because the cranium isn’t fused together yet (our brain cases continue to grow for some year after birth) the entire skull area would appear flattened as well, in most cases of neonate burial.
The reasoning for this in a replica? I can only assume that it makes it easier to demonstrate their point, without all of the bones from the two different skeletons being all jumbled up together.
- While neonate skeletons are recognisable in the archaeological record (although they can be missed by those who haven’t been trained to identify them) and their bones can be very well preserved – this wee one, if real, would be an astonishingly good condition. Seriously good – there is very little post-mortem damage or deterioration to their bones at all.
- In addition, if I had excavated this individual, I would have also been interested in writing it up as a case study, as many of its skeletal elements (long bones, mandible, etc) are fused together – and for these particular bits of bone that doesn’t happen until at least the latter half of the first year of life (and up until your late teens or early twenties for many of them). Atypical development is a good thing to note when you’re doing a skeletal assessment and this dude/tte has heaps of it!
- There’s no photo scale (another tip off that this isn’t real – or if it were, then it’s a sign of a bad site photo) but that tot looks big. Comparing the length of its long bones as a ratio to the same long bones of the adult (which is obviously not a proper method for measuring anything, but I’m working with what I’ve got) this is an infant that has refused to leave the womb when the time for to be born came upon it (although maybe not, as some babies are immense things – relatively speaking).
The reasoning for this in a replica? It’s a lot more moving if the skeleton of a neonate looks like a recognisable child. Instead of say this:
- That skeleton is REALLY well excavated. I mean, I’m not making any claims that I’m the bestest excavating osteologists ever – but those bones are CLEAN. Like… super clean. And that grave cut is crazy flat (although maybe the soil is just lovely and loamy). But really, pfft, no way people, that is just unreal.
- There isn’t any soil, mud, etc on the surface of the bones. I mean, at least they’re off-white, but unless that dark brown greyish soil is insanely dry those bones aren’t the right colour. I’d expect more a brown/yellow tinge to them. There also isn’t any soil in between or around the bones, although this is an issue that is compounded from No. 1 above.
The reasoning for this in a replica? It looks nicer.
Oh, and then there’s this:
- On the right-hand side of the photo there is just the edge of an interpretation panel in shot (although obviously cropped). No.3 “Baekken…” is describing the pelvis. Sooo… uhh… I reckon this is maybe at a museum or heritage site in Finland (or somewhere else in Scandaweiga). Anyone?
Right, so the above list is not exhaustive, although I am exhausted. If you’ve noted anything else supremely obvious (to the eye of an osteologist) hit me up in the comments. Excavating skeletons (or rather, supervising the excavation of skeletons) is tiring work… satisfying, but tiring.
[For the record, I did try to reverse image search the photograph when I first came across it. Initially I didn’t come up with much… however I have just found a related Reddit thread. It seems that perhaps this is a replica slash (peculiar) reconstruction from Æbelholt Abbey, in Denmark. Maybe it’s a realplica? Can that be a thing now? Because I think it might need to be. Is anyone up for some translation? I’m currently too sleepy to type that interpretative panel (from the ‘more photos’) into Google translate. I will do it soon if someone’s doesn’t get to it before me.]
If you’re interested in reading more about childbirth and female fertility in the archaeological record, you should check out Katy Meyer’s post over at Bones Don’t Lie – it’s a great introduction to some areas of this subject and it even links to a brilliant paper on an Anglo-Saxon neonate/adult burial.
The students at the Poulton Research Project, where I am currently supervising, have been working on a double burial this week (an adult and a neonate). If you’d like to follow the excavation, check out my weekly update this weekend (which will be cross-posted here) or you can search #PoultonProject on Twitter.