Skeletons Resurrected At London's Wellcome Collection

By Dawn Marshallsay | 23 July 2008
Photo of a full skeleton lying in a display case.

Bones bent by rickets and tooth decay from dietary deficiency are visible in this post-medieval 11-year-old, found at Chelsea Old Church. © Dawn Marshallsay/ Culture 24

Exhibtion Review - Dawn Marshallsay isn't scared at all by Skeletons, London’s Buried Bones showing at the Wellcome Collection until September 28 2008.

Anyone going to this exhibition and hoping for a horror show should try elsewhere – there are no blood and guts to be found at the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Skeletons, London’s Buried Bones’ exhibition.

Instead you will come face-to-face with bones that once lived and breathed like you, but whose injuries you will hopefully never need to endure.

Photo of a skull with the top sliced off.

Craniotomy – removal of the top of the skull to examine the brain – was common practice during 19th century London autopsies. © Dawn Marshallsay/ Culture 24

The Museum of London has dug up 37,000 Londoners over the years, discovered during construction work in the ever-growing city. While most were re-buried, the bones of 17,000 are stored in boxes in the museum’s Central London headquarters to aid scientific study.

The 26 skeletons reconstructed at the Wellcome Collection were chosen to demonstrate the effects of various living conditions and chronic diseases on bones, spanning a range of London locations throughout 2,000 years.

Photo of a woman overlooking a skeleton in a display case.

Jelena Bekvalac, research Osteologist for the Museum of London, ogles the legs of this medieval monk found at the Bermondsey Abbey site. © Dawn Marshallsay/ Culture 24

The mutant man in the horror film Creep, set on the London Underground, may be fictional, but the skeletons of other creatures retrieved from London's depths often indicate that they were no prettier… except for one.

“He’s got a nice head and probably would have been very good looking in real life,” says Jelena Bekvalac, research Osteologist for the Museum of London, ogling a skeleton with femurs similar in length to those of England footballer Peter Crouch. “He also has lovely legs.”

Ironically, this guy probably led a life of chastity, with his legs hidden under a habit. The Southwark monk earned his exhibition spot by surviving until the age of 46, despite fractures to his lovely legs and hips.

Parts of the monk's skeleton had to change structure to compensate for his leg and hip injuries, while the syphilis eating into the skull of the 20-year-old on display would have produced open sores on her forehead.

Photo of a baby skeleton whose skull was eaten away by syphilis.

Amazingly this child lived to the age of 11, despite contracting congenital syphilis in the womb. © Dawn Marshallsay/ Culture 24

Therefore, just like London's traditional hardwood umbrellas, bones are strong and often repairable, but damages are clearly visible on the outside and throw the rest of the frame off balance.

Many of the diseases - and there are many on show - are now under control, but today's society has yet to free itself from binge drinking and obesity.

The alcohol in beer made the contaminated water of 18th century London relatively safe to drink. This resulted in numerous broken ribs and noses, however, as people often found it hard to walk in straight lines.

A fat Chelsea butcher, meanwhile, developed extra growths on his spine, due to DISH (diffuse idiopathetic skeletal hyperostosis), a condition caused by high consumption of protein.

Photo of a skull with a circular facet between its upper and lower teeth.

This post-medieval man developed a pipe facet by habitually gripping a pipe between his teeth. © Dawn Marshallsay/ Culture 24

If you are starting to feel fragile, Jelena reassures us that the exhibition will cure your fear: “It’s phenomenal the kind of injuries these people lived with, especially in times of poor medical care.”

The Museum of London wishes to re-bury its collection of skeletons, but the new building work that caused their discovery in the first place has now been completed, such as the Pizza Hut on the site of Merton Priory where Thomas Becket was educated.

If you have a bone to pick on this issue, a panel of experts will debate scientific, philosophical and historical perspectives on the rights of the dead at the Wellcome Collection’s ‘London’s Dead’ talk, Thursday September 18, 7-8.30pm.

Photo of a digital photo of Pizza Hut.

Re-burying bones found at the former site of Merton Priory may prove difficult. © Dawn Marshallsay/ Culture 24

Want to bring some more bones back to life? The Wellcome’s Collection Dem Bones Day will stage free activities for all ages, such as analysing new skeletons with the help of the Museum of London’s bioarchaeologists, on Thursday July 31, 2-6pm.

The details of 11,000 skeletons can also be found on the online Wellcome Osteological Research Database.

More information at www.wellcomecollection.org

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