[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Journal Homepage]

3 Previous Work on Skeletal Recording Systems

Almost all human osteologists working in archaeological and forensic settings use some form of recording bone presence as an initial step in their study of osteological material. An informal survey of the CAPA members revealed that all but one of the respondents used some form of visual recording of skeletal elements in both the archaeological and forensic context. For the most part, they use some visual form or 'diagram' representing a skeleton on which preserved elements are shaded in. This very simple and basic tool is crucial whenever there is any doubt about a certain record. Most people will often refer back to the forms for cross checking, and as a repository of a number of relevant observations. Human osteologists rarely discuss these forms and present them only when they need to illustrate certain points – such as the doubling up of bone elements indicating the presence of more than one individual in the grave (Helgar 1984), or connecting elements of the same body found in two geographically distinct contexts (Haglund 1998). They are sometimes found in field reports where the space limitations are not as strict and where documentation needs to be thorough (at least in the UK, C. Roberts, pers. comm. 01/03). However, publishing a substantial number of forms (one for each individual) is impracticable, even in monographs, and this is of course to be expected. What is surprising is that textbooks and manuals do not often feature these forms, even though they are a part of the common procedure and are often provided to students of human osteology by their instructors.

Over several years in the field I have used a number of the published and unpublished forms and I have often found them either lacking in detail – with a number of bones or bone parts missing – or difficult to use, requiring excessive repetition for certain skeletal features, especially the skull and pelvis, because of their three-dimensional nature. Similarly, most of the respondents in the CAPA survey used a form that was not published, a form developed by them or one of their collaborators, stressing again the inadequacies of the currently available forms and the need to have a better standard form published. As an illustration, a sample of published forms is described below outlining the problems that I have encountered while using them in the field.

In his classic book Digging up Bones Brothwell (1981, 32 and 33) provides four 'standard checking sheets' for adult female, adult male, a three-year-old and an embryo. These schematic representations fail to provide sufficient anatomical detail, especially of the three- dimensional elements such as skull and pelvis. Rather than recording the exact fragment of the bone in question we can only indicate to which bone the fragment belongs. In some cases we can be more precise, but it remains arbitrary (or connected to excessive written records), and often difficult to determine what the researcher was indeed recording in each individual case.

The forensic anthropology manual by M. Skinner and R. Lazenby provides a detailed inventory of skeletal elements entitled 'Field recovery form' (Skinner and Lazenby 1983), but no visual recording form that could be filled in during retrieval of bones. The same is true for Ubelaker's manual (1984) with its focus on archaeology, or Bennett's (1987) book that has both fields in mind. While Mays reports the expected presence of bones (1998, 24) and uses skeletal forms to illustrate different problems in palaeopathology, he does not provide a specific visual recording form for this purpose (Mays 1992; Mays 1998).

Burns (1999, 246 and 247), on the other hand, provides a descriptive 'Bone Inventory Form' with 'Full Skeletal Diagrams' in anterior and posterior views. These are lacking in detail and therefore supplemented with 'Cranial', 'Axial', 'Innominate' and 'Dental' diagrams and 'Dental Inventory Forms'. While their value in individual forensic cases is unquestionable, they all require a substantial amount of repetition in recording individual bones and are not easy to use in a standardised manner. A similar problem of repetition is encountered in Standards (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994), the most commonly used of the published forms by respondents in the CAPA survey. The main form lacks detail and is supplemented with diagrams of individual bones. While this repetition is not a problem when dealing with individual cases – on the contrary, it is very useful for cross-referencing and checking observations – it is very difficult to use for a large collection, because all skeletal recording forms that show both the anterior and posterior aspects of the body in separate images, in addition to a number of individual bones, require repetition. This is both time consuming and potentially confusing, especially if more than one researcher uses the forms for the same series. Inevitably, some of them will record the bone fragment on both of the separate diagrams and, if visible, on the cumulative diagram, while others will not, due to a number of field and laboratory constraints. This makes the information on the cumulative diagram (the one most anthropologists will consult in case of doubt) incomplete and unreliable. While one researcher, or a group of researchers, can often decide on appropriate procedures, using forms filled in 10–20 years ago by someone we may no longer be able to contact over doubtful cases, becomes difficult. If, in addition, only the cumulative forms are available at the time of analysis, there are substantial grounds for error. While studying one series where the records were entered by a number of researchers, I could not use this visual inventory and had to check and re-record all individuals. When funding and time-constraints are important (which is unfortunately often the case) this exercise, from which we benefit by getting better acquainted with the material, becomes a real problem.

The best solution to this problem of concise schematic representation of skeletal elements seems to be to present all individual bones in one view and to allow for the 'spreading out' or 'ironing' of the three-dimensional features such as cranial bones, pelvis and vertebrae. One such form – but only for adult skeletons – is published in the context of palaeopathology (Fulcheri and Rabino Massa 1993). The bone diagrams are detailed enough and presented in a schematic and 'spread out' form, but there is no hyoid bone or neural arches of the vertebrae.

[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Journal Homepage]

© Internet Archaeology URL: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue13/3/previous.html
Last updated: Tue Feb 25 2003