Interpreting pathological evidence in ancient skeletal remains can be made difficult, either by of the nature of the specimen itself or due to what is known as pseudopathology.

Our research in this area is led by Dr Mervyn Harris.

What is pseudopathology?

Pseudopathology is where what is seen on the remains mimics evidence of a pathological condition but is in fact due to other factors.

These factors can be the soil conditions in which the specimen has been found or other causes such as insect or animal factors.

They can be insects burrowing their way into bone fragments suggesting the presence a pathological condition or animals gnawing away at bone fragments giving the impression of trauma or a particular disease process.

Certain soil conditions such as an acidic or alkaline environment can cause demineralisation of bone, giving the appearance of diseases resulting in low bone density such as osteoporosis. All of these serve to make an accurate diagnosis more difficult.

Revisiting research

Much published work on ancient specimens was carried out many decades ago using the equipment and scientific knowledge of that or earlier periods. Revisiting such specimens with 21st century equipment and scientific knowledge can help to either confirm or challenge previous findings.

Radiographs of anatomically normal joints demonstrate a visible joint space which is often most clearly seen in radiographs of the hip joints. In arthritic disease such as osteoarthritis, this anatomical joint space decreases as the disease process progresses, ending with total obliteration in serious cases.

In radiographs of Egyptian mummies, the joint spaces, especially those of the hip joints and vertebrae, are often seen to be reduced or absent suggesting progressive degenerative joint disease but are in fact due to tissue dehydration secondary to the mummification process.

It is clear therefore, that skeletal evidence of pathology seen in ancient specimens must always be very carefully evaluated before reaching a definitive diagnosis.

Very many external factors can influence the appearance of ancient specimens leading one to arrive at an incorrect interpretation and diagnosis if one it not too careful.