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Project to compare health of Londoners from medieval and industrial eras

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The Museum of London will be starting a ground-breaking research project to explore the effects of industrialisation on Londoners. The research hopes to uncover new clues about the very nature of disease and how it has affected people as Britain has moved into the age of industrialisation.

17th century map of London

The three-year research project has been made possible by a £80,000 grant from the City of London Archaeological Trust, through a bequest made by the late Rosemary Green. John Schofield, Secretary of the City of London Archaeological Trust, said, “The City of London Archaeological Trust is very happy that the Rosemary Green bequest is used to gather this cutting-edge data on the signs of industrialisation in the skeletal collections on the Museum of London.”

Leading the project is Jelena Bekvalac, based at the Museum of London’s Centre for Human Bioarcheology, along with her research team, Gaynor Western and Mark Farmer.

Bekvalac explains, “The most tangible evidence we have for the long-term consequences of the industrialisation process upon us is, quite simply, written in our bones. Using the very latest digital technology, we will examine the skeletal remains of over 1,000 adult men and women from industrial-era London in addition to a further 500 skeletons from the medieval metropolis.

“Modern health trends have seen a shift towards increasing life expectancy but we want to look again at what are often thought of as ‘man-made’ conditions like obesity and cancer. Given today’s more sedentary lifestyles, far removed from the physically active and natural existence of most of our forebears, there are some big questions about the origins of these diseases and how they relate to the modern environment.”

The research aims to address some of these questions by analysing diseases affecting the human skeleton. The museum will use the latest clinical techniques, including direct digital radiography, CT scanning and 3D modelling, to get a better understanding of what the bones tell us and to assess their change over time. The research aims to examine the influence of the industrial revolution, a pivotal catalyst in the formation of the modern age, on the changing nature of disease – from the medieval and post-medieval periods through to the present day.

The project offers an exciting opportunity to digitise some of London’s most important skeletal collections, while simultaneously telling a new story about the health of Londoners over time.

This work will culminate in the creation of an extensive new interactive digital resource that can be explored online. Jelena Bekvalac plans to make an immediate start on the digital scanning. She aims to publish her team’s findings as soon as possible and deliver a series of lectures about the work.

Click here to read a more detailed outline of The Impact of Industrialisation on London Health project 

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