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13th century stillborn found at Huntingdon dig

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Rowan
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13th century stillborn found at Huntingdon dig

Post by Rowan » Thu April 11th, 2013, 12:41 pm

I really know nothing of the medical ins and outs of this kind of thing, but it just doesn't seem possible to me. Are bones of an infant well developed enough at this stage to last for hundreds of years if buried in the earth?
Experts identified the child as a stillborn of about the 28 to 36-week stage of pregnancy and the tiny remains could have been there since the 13th century.

The infant skeleton was one of several pieces of new evidence of medieval settlement at a site near Ermine Street – other finds include a blacksmith’s hearth, a cobbled street and pottery dating back to the 11th Century.

Archaeologists at the site believe they may have only scratched the surface of the area they are excavating, which is thought to be in the vicinity of the lost church of St Andrew’s and a former Roman road.

Senior project manager for the Oxford Archaeology East team Aileen Connor said the baby was most likely stillborn.
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Post by Lisa » Thu April 11th, 2013, 1:35 pm

Wow this is looking like a great year for archaeology!

I'm absolutely no expert, but my thoughts on the baby's bones are: maybe it depends on the type of soil? On the one hand we have the 'sand bodies' at Sutton Hoo, which decomposed into the acidic soil but left behind 'impressions'. But, on the other hand, small bone objects, tools and even bone needles have survived from as far back as the Stone Age. I suppose they could have come from a bigger animal and would therefore be more developed, but if the objects were so small and the bone already weakened by carving, it might be that it is quite resilient in certain burial conditions.

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Post by Rowan » Thu April 11th, 2013, 1:43 pm

But we're talking about still born infants. I know that when an infant is born, its scalp isn't even fully developed so, based on that, I am wondering if a still born infant's bones would be able to stand up to time.

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Post by Madeleine » Thu April 11th, 2013, 1:52 pm

I'm no expert either, but I thought the same as Lady B, that it depends on the type of soil the remains are preserved in? Peat, for example, is known as an excellent preservative. And the poor mite was nearly full-term. As Lady B says, small animal bones have also been found.

The sand bodies are mentioned in Barbara Erskine's "River of Destiny" (set near Sutton Hoo) - spooky.
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Post by Lisa » Thu April 11th, 2013, 2:11 pm

[quote=""Madeleine""]
The sand bodies are mentioned in Barbara Erskine's "River of Destiny" (set near Sutton Hoo) - spooky.[/quote]

Yes, I looked up the sand bodies after reading about them in RoD, there are some interesting photos online! I had heard about them before but not having been to Sutton Hoo I just assumed they were like fossils - turns out they're spookier than that!

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Post by Carla » Thu April 11th, 2013, 5:47 pm

[quote=""LadyB""]Yes, I looked up the sand bodies after reading about them in RoD, there are some interesting photos online! I had heard about them before but not having been to Sutton Hoo I just assumed they were like fossils - turns out they're spookier than that![/quote]

When I first saw pictures of the sand bodies they reminded me of the plaster casts from Pompeii. Spooky indeed.

I'm not an expert on foetal bone formation, however, as I understand it the skeleton starts off as cartilage and then gradually bone forms to replace the cartilage (called 'ossification'). At least some of the bones start to ossify well before birth, so I would think that a baby of 28 to 36 weeks would have at least some bones that were already properly developed bones. I think that the reason the skull is still flexible at birth is partly because the different bone plates that make up the skull haven't yet fused together, so they can slide past each other to be squeezed through the birth canal. I think they are at least partly actual bone by that stage, though. So it seems quite possible to me that a late stillbirth would have bones that could be preserved for centuries in favourable soil conditions. I'd certainly trust the archaeologist's word on it.
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