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The diagnosis and context of a facial deformity from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spofforth, North Yorkshire

The diagnosis and context of a facial deformity from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spofforth, North Yorkshire

By Elizabeth Craig-Atkins and Geoff Craig

International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Vol.23:6 (2013)

4-757dd5812a

Abstract: An individual aged between 6 and 7 years at death from a 7th to 9th century cemetery at Village Farm, Spofforth, North Yorkshire, presented significant pathological swelling to the left facial bones. The ectocranial surface was bulbous and uneven, and the expanded diploë was densely packed with a mass of thick trabeculae. Radiographic and histological analysis, in combination with the macroscopically observed pathological changes, supported the differential diagnosis of fibrous dysplasia. The skeletal changes to the left face and jaw would have resulted in a significant facial deformity. Examples of individuals with physical impairments or disfigurements from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are rare.

Nevertheless, it seems that a significant proportion are afforded unusual burial practices more often associated with deviancy, for example, at the edge of cemeteries or on a reversed orientation, seemingly indicating that their diminished physical capabilities or altered physical appearance had a detrimental effect on their social status. The child from Spofforth was, however, buried in a normative manner, extended, supine and in a plain earth-cut grave, with no indication that their facial deformity had prompted unusual funerary provision. This example of facial disfigurement contributes to a growing corpus of potentially disabled individuals from early medieval England.

Introduction: The cemetery at Village Farm, Spofforth, North Yorkshire was excavated in 2001, revealing 169 inhumations from 117 distinct grave cuts and a considerable quantity of disarticulated charnel comprising a minimum number of 250 individuals (Craig, 2008; NAA, 2002). Radiocarbon dates obtained from nine burials across the site indicated that interments were made between the mid-7th and mid-9th centuries (A.D. 660-780 (sk 60), A.D. 660-810 (sk 229), A.D. 660-830 (sk 247), A.D. 680-880 (sk 429), all to two sigma), the period often associated with the conversion of the majority of England to the Christian faith. Osteological analysis of the complete skeletal population identified one individual, Skeleton 177, who presented an abnormal and pathological swelling to the left facial bones. The following discussion describes these pathological lesions and presents a differential diagnosis based on visual, radiographic and histological examination. A context for the pathological specimen from Spofforth is also provided by consideration of the relationship between physical impairments, social status and funerary provision at early medieval sites across England.

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