Unlocking the city's past through its former residents

Students at the University of Aberdeen are reconstructing the lives of people who lived in the city hundreds of years ago through clues contained in their bones and teeth.

They are part of a new osteoarchaeology course that is using the University’s unique collection of skeletons – dating from the Neolithic period to the Middle Ages – to investigate everything from the health and lifestyle of people in the past to how they died.

Bones retain a huge amount of information, which when extracted using modern techniques can show what someone ate, an individual’s health and lifestyle and even indicate the community in which the person lived.

The new MSc in Osteoarchaeology course is based at Marischal College to allow students to work within the museum collections centre – home to one of the largest collections of human skeletons in Europe

Dr Rebecca Crozier, who leads the course, said that human skeletons are ‘essentially a diary of our lives’

“Human skeletons are the most tangible way of engaging with the long and rich story of our human past; providing an unparalleled insight into the lives of past people,” she added.

 “Our students will learn how to unlock the wealth of information human skeletons can contain – from the techniques used in identification of human skeletal remains such as age-at-death, biological sex and height, to identifying and interpreting pathological lesions which can tell us about ancient health and disease and approaching more complex collections including those which have been cremated or burned.

“Human osteoarchaeology is a rapidly advancing discipline, with new techniques providing information on not only what people ate, but also migration patterns and familial relationships.

“The scale of the collection in Aberdeen, and the fact that many of the skeletons come from the surrounding region, will allow the students to gain a real insight into what life was like here over the centuries.

“There is some exciting work going on in the field of human osteoarchaeology, and we are very fortunate to be able to draw on such a large resource for research here in Aberdeen.

“I am thrilled that our students will have access to these collections to develop their own research. So whether they are interested in prehistoric cremations, or medieval Aberdeen, the Marischal collections can offer research material – a unique opportunity!’

Renovations of the former museum gallery in Marischal College have created a modern laboratory for the students.

In addition to its use for archaeology students, as part of the Museum Collections Centre, it is also being used for museum studies, anthropology, history and other disciplines. It also provides study spaces for visiting scholars and members of the public who wish to investigate the University’s diverse museum collections.