Two Volunteers' Views of Washing Skeletons

Category

Category: 
Environment
Community
Medieval

Author

David Brooks (volunteer)

Jocelyn Campbell (volunteer)

Recently, volunteers from Swaledale and Arkengarthdale's Archaeology Group (SWAAG; https://swaag.org/) have been helping NAA with skeleton washing. Two of the volunteers have written about their experience here: 

 

Jocelyn

Recently I have been volunteering with Northern Archaeological Associates along with other members of SWAAG. As part of our volunteer sessions, we have been helping to wash skeletons that have been recovered from NAA’s recent excavations, which I have found surprisingly interesting. It is amazing how a bag full of vertebrae or the delicate bones of a skull can be quite challenging to clean with a toothbrush! When evidence of an injury, bone disease or fracture is found, it’s an added bonus and NAA’s staff have been excellent in showing me how these can be identified and what they can tell us about people’s lives.

One cannot help but be impressed by the scope of work undertaken. In the spacious workplace, there are stacks of boxes waiting for recording and analysis by experts, bags of archaeological finds that require washing and processing, and trays of these drying in row after row on the shelves, all of which provides impressive evidence of the tasks undertaken by NAA’s staff. It was also incredibly interesting to see the various samples being processed in large tanks of muddy water, from which the tiniest relevant pieces are painstakingly picked out with tweezers and a sharp eye, before the remaining sludge is thrown away.

The archaeologists working alongside us and the information I have gained has been really interesting. Everyone at NAA is friendly and patient with us, and the whole experience has been incredibly worthwhile.

 

David

I am a member of SWAAG, a charitable and entirely voluntary organisation based largely in Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. As a group we carry out a variety of activities, such as surveying—including earthwork and geophysics—walks, talks, local history, and an annual dig on a Romano-British site we have been looking at for some 7 years. At the dig we get involved in finds washing and processing but, so far, we have not yet found any burials; it was therefore exciting when earlier this year we were approached by NAA to help them with washing and cleaning an extremely large inventory of medieval skeletons excavated from a site near Hartlepool.

A group of members expressed an interest in trying their hand at this new skill and to start the venture NAA set up an induction, at which we were told all about the dig site and what was involved in washing the skeletons. NAA also gave us a full briefing on the health and safety aspects of washing human remains, as well as making it clear that if some people find that they just do not like washing skeletons they should not feel pressured to do so. They also assured us that at all times we would be fully supervised so there would always be someone there whom we could ask for guidance.

The washing was carried out in the environmental laboratory, under the control of supervisor Hannah Clay. The lab was a large building absolutely crammed with what looked like hundreds of boxes of environmental samples all waiting to be put through the flotation tanks, boxes and boxes of skeletons all waiting to be washed, and shelves of washed skeletons drying.  

On my first working visit, Hannah gave me a demonstration of how to wash the bones. It involved the usual: two bowls of water—the first (eventually) muddy and the second clean—with the addition of a sieve in the first bowl to catch any small pieces of bone. Our tools were sponges, toothbrushes and a wooden, pointed, oversized toothpick. Next, I was presented with a box containing finds bags of various sizes, all containing different parts of skeletons, many of them covered in soil.  Once I had deciphered the site codes on the bags and transferred that to the drying trays, I could begin washing. I found it more difficult than washing pottery sherds, as it required my full concentration to ensure that the bones were washed gently so as not to remove any staining and marking that might be useful to the osteoarchaeologists who will examine them, and also to ensure that all small bones and pieces of bone were retained. The latter was especially important when dealing with neonates, where all of the bones were very small, and skulls, especially when looking for ear bones! It was comforting that I was not on my own in all of this, as Hannah, together with some of the NAA archaeologists who were washing skeletons, was always on hand to offer guidance and advice. Someone was always there and ready to explain the differing parts of the skeleton and how they fitted together, as well as being able to show me the differing indications of disease, wear, and damage to the bones.

Before I began this project, I knew very little about the human skeleton. Thanks to the opportunity offered by NAA and the patience and good nature of the NAA staff, I now have a new skill, and I believe that I have a much better understanding of this wonderful structure which supports us. So, thank you to NAA for this opportunity and to all of their staff who guided and helped me. I am looking forward to my next visit to the environmental lab!

 

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