Journal Published Online: 01 September 1999
Volume 44, Issue 5

Recovery of Human Skeletal Elements from a Recent UK Murder Inquiry: Preservational Signatures



Factors that control bone preservation are not fully understood but generally include those that reflect “natural” taphonomic or diagenetic processes and also those reflecting anthropogenic activity. The aim of this paper is to examine whether the survival of skeletal elements from a recent UK serial murder investigation (n = 12) and three archaeological cemetery sites from England (n = 112, 95, 182; Roman to early-medieval), share a similar recovery signature. Examination of this data demonstrates that even when clear evidence of traumatic and perimortem dismemberment exists within an assemblage, the distribution of missing elements can be almost identical to archaeological material buried in normal attrition cemeteries.

Given that these preservational signatures are so similar, it is concluded that careful observation of bone surfaces is necessary to confidently interpret bone loss, particularly where dismemberment and/or element excision is suggested by the non-anatomical position of the skeleton within the grave. Where postmortem exicision of bone is suspected, careful examination of contiguous bone surfaces, both macroscopic and microscopic, is suggested to detect fine cutmark lesions indicative of anthropogenic excision. Without this evidence other preservational factors must be considered both taphonomic and diagenetic.

Author Information

Cox, M
School of Conservation Sciences, Bournemouth University, Talbot Campus, Poole, UK
Bell, L
Natural History Museum, London, UK
Pages: 6
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Stock #: JFS12021J
ISSN: 0022-1198
DOI: 10.1520/JFS12021J