Accepted Paper:

Bioarchaeology and Identified Skeletal Collections: Problems and Potential Solutions   


Jennifer Sharman (Durham University)
John Albanese (University of Windsor)

Paper short abstract:

Identified skeletal collections are used to develop age and sex determination methods, which are essential to bioarchaeological research. However, problems with documentation, collection composition and bias can affect studies using such collections; we will discuss these and possible solutions.

Paper long abstract:

Accurate and precise assessments of sex and age at death of human skeletal remains are the essential first steps in the bioarchaeological reconstruction of past human populations, including patterns of morbidity and mortality, demographic reconstruction, diet and health, mobility and social status. Identified skeletal collections have been indispensable for developing and testing the methods used to estimate age and sex.

The value of these collections is entirely based on the quality of the documentary information for any one individual and for a collection as a whole. However, there are limitations and pitfalls involved in research using identified collections. How does a researcher know if 'known ages' are indeed correct? If a collection has been curated over the course of many decades, does it constitute a population, or simply an assembly of individuals unrelated in time and space? How should such a collection be sampled? Further problems and limitations associated with each collection are context-specific; for instance, the politico-economic context of the collection process can have an enormous impact on the structure and composition of the collection. Why were some skeletons included in the collection and have the retained documentary data been assessed for accuracy? Drawing on our experience conducting research using various identified collections from around the world (Coimbra, Dart, Forensic Anthropology Databank, Grant, Huntington, Lisbon, Pretoria, Spitalfields and Terry), in this paper we present some practical suggestions for overcoming the possible problems with reference collections and maximizing their research potential.

Panel LD26
Identified skeletal collections: the testing ground of anthropology?