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Roman bones from Canterbury

An afternoon spent taking x-rays of interesting bones with Lisay Duffy

One of the Roman bones. This specimen had irregular radiolucencies around the frontal bone suggestive of pathology. This radiograph was taken with the 'face' touching the x-ray detector. Within the clinical environment it would be termed a PA view- posterior-anterior. The anatomy closest to the detector suffers the least distortion.

I spent the afternoon with Lisa Duffy, a PhD candidate in archaeology studying at Canterbury Christ Church University. We worked through a large selection of bones from various excavation of Roman cemetaries in the Canterbury area. Part of Lisa's PhD is to recreate the biological profile of the people and I offer my help to image any bones that present interesting or abnormal appearances. I am not certain of the age of these bones, but I believe they are from the late Roman period (up to 410 AD).

The same cranium fragment in a lateral view. I was surprised at how many of the remains were fragmented. The Right marker indicates which side of the skull is in proximity to the x-ray detector.

In all we imaged took 40 radiographs over a few hours. A lot of the time we were experimenting with the radiographic technique. An expected problem was the inability to position the bones in normal clinical positions, however the use of foam pads and sand bags overcame most of these issues. Where possible, I advocated clinical views of the remains, and then performed a dedicated view of the bone fragment in an attempt to demonstrate the pathology seen by Lisa. In doing so I would hope that the x-rays could be compared to modern equivalents within radiological literature and aid diagnosis.

Another cranium, positioned for a lateral view. This particular specimen had increased bony protuberances within the skull vault.

A right proximal femur, AP view.. As with previous imaging sessions, the infiltration of soil within the bone cavities produced a mottled appearance of high density. In such instances, it is not possible to reliably interpret the bone trabecullae or infer bone density in these specimens.

I tried to use a systematic approach to imaging these bones, recording the 'patient' information such as the skeleton/grave number and context. If you have read my blog posts about the CoRIPS project you'd know that I'm interested in generating best practice in the radiography of human dry bones. Part of the project will involve undertaking radiography of bones from the same collection, making notes on the challenges and limitations encountered. Desp[ite being ahead of schedule, the session today provided a lot of useful experimentations that I'll include in the CoRIPS project.

Proximal femurs, or rather femora. The right femur had areas of increased thickness when compared to the left. A lateral view was also undertaken of both femora.

As with previous imaging sessions I'm still including the aluminium step-wedge in most of the imaging. I haven't got round to it, but I hope to work out the bone density by analysising the DICOM date (to gauge the amount of 'whiteness' of the bones). This is another area of interest for my CoRIPS project. I'll admit that bone mineral density of bones which are over 1,500 years old will most likely not be comparable to modern-day data sets but it would still be interesting to ascertain the density of different bones in the same skeleton and then compare to others in the same cemetary. Perhaps it would be an indicator for preservation status? Assuming there's no soil infiltration and the minerals have not been leeched then it may be possible to estimate bone mineral density of the individual.

'Stomach contents' of a late Roman grave. The radiograph shows that the stones are not uniform in composition and have a rounded lucencies. I suspect they may be gallstones, although this would be a leap of faith.

These small stone-like objects were found within the vicinity of the stomach of a deceased individual. Lisa wondered if they were perhaps stones of some sort - gallstones? I was rather skeptical that they were indeed from the stomach, as I am not aware of stones forming within the stomach. The closest structure that may have stones in this area would be the pancreas, which may have stones. Upon reflection, I think these are probably gallstones if anything at all. I'd like to have them tested, it would provide a great example of gallstones in Roman Britain.


Photographs and radiographs were taken by the author. All subject to copyright.

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