chapter  7
40 Pages


When excavating a burial on an archaeological site, a question one is often asked by visiting members of the public is ‘How did he die?’ Generally speaking, the answer that one has to give is that we don’t know. Evidence for lethal injury is rarely found in archaeological skeletons, and in any case most deaths in the past were doubtless due to disease and, unfortunately from the osteoarchaeologist’s point of view, most diseases leave no traces on the skeleton. This is certainly true for the acute infectious diseases which were the great killers in antiquity. The response of bone tissue to disease is relatively slow, so that in general only the longer-lasting conditions even have the potential to affect it. Even for those life-threatening infections which do have the potential to spread to the skeleton, the absence of effective treatment in antiquity would have meant that few individuals would have survived long enough for them to do so. This would have been particularly so if the individual’s resistance was lowered as a result of having had no previous exposure to the disease or through poor nutrition. Most skeletons excavated from archaeological sites therefore show no signs of cause of death.