The Work

Specialist Report 2005 - Report on the Human Remains

Posted by steven on 10/02/2006 at 09:46 AM

Human Remains from High Pasture Cave

During the closing stages of fieldwork in 2005, human remains were uncovered in the blocked entrance to High Pasture Cave. The remains comprised the extended inhumation of an adult female, placed in the top of the blocked stairwell. Smaller, disarticulated bones were also recovered from this burial, possibly relating to a young infant or foetus. After recording, excavating and removal of the burial we continued to make our way down into the stairwell. The deposits here comprise a boulder and sediment fill, which also contain fragments of animal bone and teeth, and abraded sherds of pottery. This deposit seems to comprise some form of midden material that has been used to backfill the passage.

The extended human inhumation uncovered in the blocked stairwell, which leads down into the cave passage below

After removing around 0.6 metres of the deposit from below the level of the primary burial, we uncovered two small bundles of animal bone, which were mixed with a foetal pig. These remains were seperated from the primary burial in both vertical and horizontal planes, and had been placed below a small projecting limestone overhang at the back of the passage.

Excavation in 2005 did not proceed below the level of these burials, but we hope to start to remove the remaining deposits and make our connection with Bone Passage below during 2006. There are at least 3.5 metres of archaeological deposit to remove from the stairwell before we make our breakthrough, so it will be interesting to see if more burials have been placed at differing levels in the stairwell structure. Meanwhile, included below is the interim report submitted by Laura Sinfield, of the University of Edinburgh Medical School. The report provides details relating to the human osteological remains, which are preliminary in nature. However, on her return from fieldwork in France in April, Laura will be looking at the human remains in more detail. In particular, she will be investigating any evidence on the bones for taphonomic indicators and post-depositional trauma.

The two small bundles of human bone located in the passage, which were mixed with the remains of a foetal pig. The pig bone appears darker in colour in this image than the human remains


Laura N.Sinfield - University of Edinburgh Medical School



Individual 1:

AGE: MIDDLE ADULT, about 25-40 years
STATURE: approx. 155.5 cm/ 5’2”

Individual 2:

AGE: PERINATAL [between about 7 months in utero and about two weeks after birth]
SEX: unascertainable
STATURE: unascertainable

Individual 3:

AGE: PRENATAL [between about 3 – 6 months in utero]
SEX: unascertainable
STATURE:  unascertainable

Site: HPC Year: 2005 Individual: 01 (Adult Female)

PRESERVATION: The bone condition is grade 3 (on a scale of 0 – 5) on the scale of bone degradation published by the IFA. The bones are robust to handle, but there is considerable erosion, especially of trabecular bone (i.e. the ends of long bones, and the vertebral bodies and pelvic bones, where much of the interior is made of delicate air-filled spaces). The remains are badly fragmented in the head, chest, abdomen, right upper and lower arm and left lower arm regions. The damage is consistent with the excavators’ reports of large stones being found in these regions. Very little of the damage is excavation-damage, and is consistent with blunt force trauma from the stones. There is no sign of vital reaction in the bone – however bone takes a day or two to develop a vital reaction to injury or disease, and therefore the lack of vital reaction does not indicate that the injuries were not the cause of death.

AGE: Of the pelvic ageing elements, neither the left Auricular Surface, nor the left and right pubic symphyseal surfaces are present, so ageing was assessed only on the partially-present Auricular Surface of the right ilium. This produced an age estimate of Phase 3 indicating 30-34 years.
Of the cranial ageing elements, the sutures of the vault were present, as were all molars, and these were used for age estimation. Cranial Suture Closure is a less reliable method than most, and is used only where more reliable elements are not present. It produced an age estimate of about 35-37 with an error margin of ten years either side, i.e. late 20s to early 40s.

The teeth were assessed using two different methods, Brothwell’s and Miles’, as laid out in Hillson. Because of extensive dental disease in the right lower jaw which would have affected the degree to which that side of the mouth was used for chewing, the left upper (26, 27, 28) and lower (36, 37, 38) molars only were used. Brothwell’s method produced an age estimate of 25-35 years, and Miles’ an estimate of 30-40 years. The four methods’ lower estimate is 25 years and the upper estimate is early 40s. The most reliable indicator is the auricular surface (30-34) years, but this is based only on one, and that partially eroded. Hence my conclusion on age estimate is erring on the side of caution: 25-40 years.

The cranial elements of the adult woman burial, with the large stone removed that was found penetrating the skull. The fragmentary nature of the crania is primarily due to damage by the stone

SEX: Six elements in the pelvis and cranium were present and used for estimation of sex. In the pelvis, the pre-auricular sulcus was present at a Grade 3 (of 0-4) and both sciatic notches indicated a female. In the cranium, the nuchal crest and mastoid processes were inconclusive, but the supra-orbital ridges and glabella of the mid-face indicated a female. The pelvis is the more reliable indicator of sex, and my conclusion is that the remains are those of a female.

STATURE: Calculations based on the maximum length of the right femur and the left humerus both resulted in stature estimates of 155- 155.5 cm, or about 5’2”. Equations were used based on the remains being those of a White Female. Data has been derived during the 20th century, mostly from American populations, and it must be borne in mind that archaeological populations may have had slightly different ratios between bone-length and height. However, these are the standard equations applied to all archaeological remains.

Image showing the re-assembled skeletal elements of the adult woman

PATHOLOGY:  No major pathological processes, active or inactive, were observed in the skeleton. There is an area on the proximal shaft of the right mid-femur, c. 8cm supero-inferiorly x 4cm medio-laterally, on the anterior aspect: it is not clear on initial examination whether this is a periosteal reaction (i.e. the bone’s response to inflamed soft tissue) or if it is a taphonomic artefact (i.e. caused by the burial conditions). Further examination is planned to try to ascertain this anomaly’s cause.

According to the Global History of Health project, certain conditions were looked for. No cribra orbitalis was found; no porotic hypoerostosis was found; no treponomatous disease was found; Grade 2 lipping was found on the right Temporo-Mandibular Joint at the coronoid process (indicating that the right side of the jaw produced some degree of discomfot or pain at the ‘hinge’ of the jaws).

All tooth terminology is using the two-digit notation recommended by the FDI (Federation Dental Internationale).
No major signs were observed of Chronological Enamel Hypoplasia.

Tooth 47: Cementum-Enamel Junction, mesial caries c.2x3mm
Tooth 46: gross destruction of crown – caries – alveolar bone eroded by the disease process.
Tooth 33/34/35/36: lingual calculus traces – supra-gingival
Tooth 36: buccal calculus trace.
Tooth 25/26/27: buccal calculus traces – supra-gingival

Deciduous retained canine: this is a loose tooth and is probably Tooth 83. It is important to note that the right permanent lower canine, 43, which ought to have pushed 83 out in childhood and replaced it, has erupted and been in wear – in other words, both the deciduous and permanent lower right canine were in wear together.

Teeth 13-18, 21, 41 and 31-2 are loose teeth, along with retained tooth 83. All others are in fragments of jawbone. Tooth 46 is represented only by a mis-shapen root fragment, due to carious erosion during life.

18 17 16 15 14 13 —— / 21— 23 24 25 26 27 28
48 47 46 45 44 4383-- 41 / 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38

Where possible, metrics were recorded as follows. These indicate little about the individual but can be useful when looking at a population either through time or across a region. All measurements are in millimetres. The abbreviations are those recommended in the IFA’s integration of previous lists.

XLF = 410
STF = 18
TTF = 26
WBF = 60
XLH = 290
SHH = 33

GOL = 179
BBH = 121
FRC = 106
PAC = 109

Site: HPC Year: 2005 Individual: 02 (Perinatal/ infant)

PRESERVATION: The bones are fairly well-preserved, Grade 2 (on a scale of 0-5) of the IFA scale. The long bones are in two or three parts, consistent with excavation in damp conditions. Overall, there is very little excavation damage.

AGE: A large number of elements gave age estimates. Where an age estimate refers to pre-birth ages, I have used “in utero” after the age; where it refers to post-birth ages, I have used “in vivo” after the age. The normal human pregnancy is 40 weeks in medical terminology.

The dental development of the two teeth, the lower right central incisor (81) and the lower right second incisor (82), still within the mandibular fragment, indicate an age of around 40 weeks in utero.
All non-dental bones are assessed by maximum length or width measurements.
Left clavicle indicates 38 to 40 weeks in utero.
Right humerus indicates 37 to 40 weeks in utero.
Left humerus indicates 37 to 40 weeks in utero.
Left ulna is too incomplete for use.
Right radius is too incomplete for use.
Right ischium (pelvis) gives conflicting ages – the length indicates 34-36 weeks, and the width indicates only 30 weeks in utero.
Right femur indicates 38 to 40 weeks in utero.
Left tibia indicates 38 to 40 weeks in utero.left fibula indicates 40 weeks.

It should be noted that where there is a range of 38-40 weeks in utero, this is derived from using various charts, some of which indicate one age and some another. Where possible, calculations were carried out according to Scheuer and Black – each of these calculations gives a slightly younger estimate. This is of importance as the Scheuer and Black calculations are regarded as the most complete and relevant methods for foetal bone in the United Kingdom. It should also be noted that their data is derived from ultrasound on 20th century foetal individuals. Archaeological pregnancies, in times without modern medicine and nutritional levels may have involved smaller birth sizes and therefore may differ from modern development measurements.

Those bones and their Scheuer and Black ages are as follows:

Right humerus = 37.31 weeks +/- 2.33, i.e. 34.98-39.64 weeks in utero.
Left humerus = 37.31 weeks +/- 2.33, i.e. 34.98-39.64 weeks in utero.
Right femur = 38.33 weeks +/- 2.08, i.e. 36.25-40.41 weeks in utero.
Left tibia = 38.82 weeks +/- 2.12, i.e. 36.70-40.94 weeks in utero.

My conclusion is that the individual was a “perinate” – either in the last two months of foetal development or the first two weeks of post-birth life.

SEX: It is not possible to ascertain sex in so young an individual.

STATURE: It is not possible to ascertain stature.

Image showing the human infant and foetus bone recovered from the primary burial, along with the adult female

Site: HPC Year: 2005 Individual: 03 (Prenatal/ Foetus)

PRESERVATION: the bones are well-preserved, Grade 2-3 on the IFA scale (scale of 0-5). The bones are fragmented and incomplete but each individual fragment is robust enough to handle.

AGE: Five bones represent this individual, at the time of writing. Each is at the stage of development and general size which is considerably earlier and smaller than the stage and size it would be at birth, but far enough developed to be identifiable as a particular bone, and even if it is left or right. The fragments of left scapula, right radius, right clavicle and right femur are too fragmented for any useful measurements to indicate age more closely, but the right humerus has a maximum distal width of 5.5 mm which indicates an age of 16-18 weeks in utero. This is a single measurement of a single bone and is unfortunately not enough to rely upon.
Therefore my conclusion is that this individual is a “prenate”, i.e. from the middle trimester of pregnancy – between 3-6 months, or 12 – 24 weeks of gestation.

SEX: It is not possible to ascertain the sex of so young an individual.

STATURE: It is not possible to ascertain the stature.


Although interim in nature, Laura’s report on the human remains and the nature of their deposition within the blocked stairwell, pose some interesting questions. It now appears that the human infant and foetal bone from the primary burial belong to the two bundles of bone uncovered lower down in the structure. There is therefore a strong possibility that these two individuals were left to decompose elsewhere, along with the foetal pig, before their bones were collected together for burial in the blocked entrance. Excarnation has been inferred at other sites in Scotland, so it is possible that it was used here at High Pasture Cave.

Excarnation and secondary burial rites have been identified at a significant number of sites within the British Isles, while burial deposition within built structures (whether in use or abandoned) has been found on a wide range of sites in Scotland. Burials below house floors, underneath the floors of metalworking structures and within abandoned buildings, have been recorded in the Western and Northern Isles. In some contexts, these may be seen as a form of closing deposit prior to abandonment of a site, and this may have been the case at High Pasture Cave.

What we cannot be sure of at the moment is whether the infant or fotus was related in any way to the adult woman. DNA analysis would be one method to attempt to answer this question, but this all depends on survival of the DNA and contamination of the bone through the recovery process. However, isotope analysis of the human remains will allow us to investigate where the adult woman lived and what constituted her diet. This work is being undertaken by Janet Montgomery (University of Bradford) and Jane Evans (Natural Environment Research Council), who have been conducting isotope analysis of human and animal remains recovered from archaeological sites in the Hebrides.

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