4.2 What is pathology?

Pathology can be simply defined as 'the signs of disease and injury in ... hard and soft tissue' (O'Connor 2000, 98). However, given the unknown aetiology of many pathological conditions, it is perhaps not surprising to find that palaeopathology is often equated with 'abnormality' by archaeozoologists. Such a definition broadens the scope of the field and raises questions concerning what is 'normal' and what is 'abnormal'. To take one example, periodontal disease typically exhibits the development of porous bone around the margins of one of more alveoli and this might be taken to be diagnostic. However, close examination of a series of mandibles may well demonstrate a range of bone surface porosity. The ends of that range will define 'normal' and 'pathological', but numerous specimens will fall somewhere in between (O'Connor 2000, 107). Moreover, what falls within the 'normal' or 'abnormal' ranges for one population of animals might differ in another.

Non-metric variation is also often conflated with palaeopathology (e.g. Andrews and Noddle 1975; Baker 1984, 255; Brothwell et al. 1996; Manaseryan et al. 1999; Baxter 2002). Non-metric variation can be defined as discontinuous variation, with traits exhibiting only one of a fixed number of variables. An example of this might be the congenital absence of the hypoconulid in the lower third molar of cattle. While this may be defined as an 'abnormal' feature, the absence of this part of the tooth would not have affected the animal and could represent 'normal' genetic variation within a given population.

This issue is complicated further by the fact that distinguishing between pathological or congenital traits can often be difficult. Several conditions that might once have been viewed as pathological are now instead considered to be examples of non-metric variation, and there are other conditions where the precise aetiology is still unknown. An example of this debate can be seen in discussions relating to the cause of perforations in cattle skulls (Brothwell et al. 1996; Manaseryan et al. 1999; Baxter 2002). Explanations for these lesions have included parasites, tumours, infection and chronic recurrent pressure from yoking, although congenital factors are now seen as the most likely cause.

This example is not isolated and a decision was therefore made to develop a generic system that would facilitate the consistent recording of all conditions perceived to be pathological. Thus, the described recording protocol enables the consideration of all variations from the normal structure of bone owing to bone formation, bone destruction, and/or alterations in size and shape.


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Wednesday 8th November 2006