5.2.5 Body Build


Stature was estimated using long bone measurements following Trotter and Gleser (1958). The bone formulae with the lowest standard error of estimate were used. Where the right and left bone were present but of unequal length, the maximum measurement was used. Table 16 shows the distribution of stature of the 47 males and 28 females for which long bone measurements were available. The male mean was 170 cm (5'7"), with a range from 163 cm to 184 cm (5'4"–6'½"). The female mean was 158 cm (5'2") with a range from 147 cm to 172 cm (4'10'–5'7½") (Table 17).

Stature estimates can be considered to be a measure of the health status of a population. Whilst the effects of a short period of growth disruption are generally counteracted by catch-up growth once conditions improve, chronic or frequent disruptions may have a permanent effect on growth. This appears to be the case with most historic/archaeological groups as the height of Britons did not reach modern standards until after the last World War when conditions improved enough for most people to reach their genetic potential for height. Stature can increase significantly in a single generation given appropriate stimuli and young adults today are generally 2 to 5 inches taller than their grandparents (Knight 1984).

The level of sexual dimorphism in modern Caucasians is approximately ten percent, the populations in Table 16 range from five to nine percent. The better nourished a population is, the greater the level of sexual dimorphism, with males increasing in stature relatively more than females. Aberdeen females attained 91% of male stature, indicating that the population may have been relatively well nourished by late medieval standards. However, the short stature compared with modern populations indicates that the group was probably subject to frequent episodes of 'stress' (nutritional and/or disease) during childhood which restricted growth and final stature.

Head shape

Comparison of the length and breadth of a skull allows the head shape to be determined (Table 18).

Lower limb shape

External femoral and tibial shape is commonly described by the meric and cnemic indices respectively, both of which measure the amount of 'flattening' of the upper portion of the bone. Both bones tend to be flatter in archaeological groups than in modern populations, the tibia becoming 'modern' earlier than the femur. Flattening of the femur and tibia may be due to mechanical adaptation.

Meric index

It was not possible to compare femoral measurements directly between the two phases of the excavation. The frequencies for the 1980-1 excavation are derived from data from 'Three Scottish Carmelite Friaries' (Stones 1989). The present group falls at the lower range of reported frequencies for platymeria, indicating that the femora were relatively 'rounded' and modern in shape (Table 19, Table 20, Table 21, Table 22).

Lateral flange

A flange on the lateral aspect of the proximal femoral shaft was present on 45% (28/62) of adult and 36% (12/33) of immature bones. The development became more pronounced with age, being noted in 48% (10/21) of immature femora over two years old and 70% (7/10) of immature femora over six years old. More females than males displayed a flange (female 50% (8/16); male 36% (8/22)). The subjective impression of the present author that the smallest femora had the strongest flanges is supported by the work of Lee (1984) who found that the smaller, less robust femora had significantly greater development of the lateral flange.

Cnemic Index

Various explanations have been proposed to account for variation in bone shape. Buxton (1938) suggests that where nutrients are in short supply and bone-building material limited, bone is laid down where it is most needed (i.e. side to side in the femur and front to back in the tibia) whilst other workers suggest that platycnemia is related to 'squatting'. More recent studies suggest that although nutrition may affect bone density, it probably has limited effect on bone shape which is mainly dependent upon activity (Brock and Ruff 1988). Finite element analysis suggests that the flange acts as a buttress as most stresses are transmitted down the outer margin of the femur during locomotion (Lee 1984) although why it should vary geographically and temporally remains unclear. As yet this debate is unresolved but merits further study since it may reflect lifestyle variations.

Females in the 1994 sample tended to display a 'primitive' femoral shape combined with a 'modern' tibial shape when compared with the males. The more flattened femoral shaft is probably at least partly accounted for by greater development of the lateral flange in women. That the two may be related is also indicated by the large proportion of flanged femora at Whithorn (67% of adult femora) which was associated with high levels of platymeria (Cardy 1997a) (Table 23, Table 24, Table 25, Table 26).


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing IA

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.