Britain's dug-up skeletons show signs of syphilis, rickets and the plague. Now they're going on tour

By Culture24 Reporter | 18 August 2016

There are 20,000 skeletons catalogued in boxes at the Museum of London. They range from prehistoric remains and Roman citizens to Plague victims and 19th century corpses. Some of them are about to go on tour

A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2016
The pains of this mass of skeletons are manifold: fractures, trauma, multiple myeloma, STDs and bone diseases.

“We identify with their rotten teeth or broken bones,” says Emily Sargent, a curator at the Wellcome Collection who has helped organise the tour of this bone census of the dead.

“These individuals offer us a rare and special glimpse into history. Skeletons can tell us more about what people lived with, rather than what they died from.”

A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© Wellcome Library, London
One of them is this woman, who had syphilis in post-medieval times. She was between 18 and 25 and also suffered rickets, according to the tell-tale residuals.

She was excavated from Cross Bones – a cemetery for paupers and prostitutes. The scarring on her skull comes from ulcerated lesions caused by the syphilis. The rickets has left a distinctive bowing in the long bones of her legs.

A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© Courtesy Museum of London / Wellcome Images
A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© Wellcome Library, London
Blood plasma cancer left this guy with small round lesions in his skull. His affliction caused his bones to soften, and the fissures in his back teeth were ground flat by the gritty food of the Roman diet.

A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© Courtesy Museum of London / Wellcome Images
That process actually helped to protect the teeth from dental caries. He was discovered at Holborn Viaduct.

A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2016
A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2016
This is how a Neolithic individual from Tiree, in the Inner Hebrides, looked when they surfaced in 2012.

Archaeologists believe their distinctive breastbone could be the result of a vitamin D deficiency in childhood.

A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© Maverick photos / Callum Bennetts
Jelena Bekvalac, the Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum of London, is taking a look at what could have been the victim of a late medieval murder in Scotland.

A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© Maverick photos / Callum Bennetts
The skeleton is usually stowed at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, having been buried in the city’s Horse Cross Cemetery.

A Pictish woman, found on the beach of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, is part of the collections at the Museum of the Isles – set in a 20,000-acre site on the Isle of Skye.

Her teeth weren’t good. When she died – at some point in her 30s and 40s – she had severe decay and heavy wear on them.

A photo of a human skeleton from the museum of london collection
© Courtesy Museum of London / Wellcome Images
The iron projectile lodged in this medieval man’s spine was probably an arrowhead. The surrounding bone has healed – the man just carried on living with it stuck in his body for years.

He was between 36 and 45 when he was buried at a “catastrophe” burial ground for victims of the 14th century plague in London.
 
  • Skeletons: Our Buried Bodies opens at the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow tomorrow (August 19 2016) until January 8 2017; then M Shed, Bristol, April 2017 – August 2017; Leeds City Museum, September 2017 – January 2018.

Three more places to see


Among the many exhibits on display in this gallery are a full skeleton of a human girl and a beautifully detailed belt-buckle depicting two peacocks by a tree.

, Edinburgh
The winter exhibition, Monkey Business, will explore the diversity of primates from the tiny mouse lemur to the mighty gorilla, examining their key characteristics and how they have evolved and adapted over time.


A newly-discovered dinosaur on display is approximately 200 million years old - the oldest Jurassic dinosaur ever found in the UK. It belongs to the theropod group and is related to Tyrannosaurus rex, although this dinosaur was walking the earth about 130 million years earlier than its more well-known cousin.
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