The British Isles are really one huge cemetery. Think how many generations have lived, died and been buried over the time that our islands have been permanently inhabited. Many of these people lie in places that we can recognise, in churchyards and cemeteries, or under prehistoric burial mounds, but many more lie unrecognised, in places that were special to those who buried them, but have now faded from memory. Many of these burials are rediscovered and excavated each year, either because sites need to be developed for roads, housing or quarries, or for research purposes, to help in our understanding of the past. In either case, the excavations are carried out by trained archaeologists, the remains treated with great respect, and the results of both excavation and scientific analysis made available through publications and museums.
Coming across human remains may often be the most exciting part of a dig, but in many ways the most important (and time-consuming) part of the whole process is what happens after the excavation is over. This is the 'detective story', where the bones and other finds from the site are analysed to provide the clues that we need to build a picture of a person and their surroundings. The skeleton itself will provide the first clues. The question of whether the person is male or female can usually be answered by examining the pelvis and skull. Height can be calculated from the length of the femur (thigh bone) and age from teeth and other aspects of the skeleton's growth and degeneration.
Injuries and diseases sometimes leave traces on the bones although the actual cause of death is often the most difficult to determine. Many injuries don't damage bone, their effect is just within the overlying soft tissue. Likewise many infections, without the aid of modern medicines, would have proved rapidly fatal, too swift to allow bones to develop tell tale signs and changes.
Radiocarbon dating, the analysis of ancient DNA and of isotopes locked into bones and teeth are all part of the scientific armoury that can be used to help build up a picture of our ancestors. Used together these techniques can tell us when a person died, their diet and family relationships and even their place of birth and subsequent travels.
Where the bones themselves allow it, facial reconstruction techniques can be used to allow us to come face to face with the past. The techniques used have been developed for forensic work in tracing missing persons through their often fragmentary remains and for surgical reconstruction. Both sculptural and digital images are used to create an image of a person from the past that, although not claimed to be a precise likeness, would most probably have been recognisable to that person's friends or relatives.
The excavation of human remains, of whatever date, from their place of burial, is regulated by law and requires a licence from the Home Office. But even after excavation has taken place there is the question of what happens to the remains. The divide is often between Christian and non-Christian, with Christians more likely to be re-buried while prehistoric burials more often than not end up in museum storage. With museum storage there is the advantage that these remains are available for subsequent study or for the application of new methods of analysis. There is also the consideration that, in the majority of cases, the original place of burial, which may have been of great significance to the person buried there, has been destroyed by development.