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Human Osteoarchaeology

Human osteoarchaeology is the scientific study of human skeletons excavated from archaeological sites.  It can tell us about the health, lifestyle, diet, mortality and physique of people in the past. It may also be able to shed light on genetic relationships and movement of people.  Techniques used by human osteoarchaeologists range from visual examination, through measurement of bones and teeth, to chemical and physical analyses.

Three vertebrae from three different women of different ages at death from a medieval burial ground. There is progressive thinning of the internal structure due to osteoporosis.
Vertical sections of vertebrae from the spines of a young, a middle aged and an older woman from medieval Wharram Percy. They show progressive thinning of the honeycomb structure of the bone with age, a sign of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is an important disease today and study of its history in archaeological remains can help us understand how lifestyle affects its severity. © Historic England

Who we are

Simon Mays is Human Skeletal Biologist for Historic England, and is part of the Environmental Studies team.  In addition to his Historic England duties, Simon is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Southampton, and an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.  


  • Responsible for shaping Historic England policy regarding all aspects of human remains, and liaising with professionals outside Historic England to inform the wider treatment of human remains in archaeology
  • Providing  advice, both within Historic England and externally
  • Assessing the human osteology components of projects funded by Historic England to ensure best practice and value for money
  • Producing guidance documents and conducting research, normally in collaboration with internal or external colleagues


Research centres both on the study of human skeletal remains to reveal new information about our past, and on improving methods for studying human remains.

Most research is conducted in collaboration with other institutions both in the UK and abroad.  It involves biomolecular techniques (stable isotopic and DNA analyses) as well as visual and measurement studies of remains.

Current research themes include the study of lifestyles and disease in the past, and improving methods for determining age at death in skeletal remains.

Research resources

We are responsible for collections of archaeological human skeletal remains, representing about 5000 individuals.  They are all from England and mainly date to the Roman and medieval periods.  These collections are available for use by external researchers.  For details please contact Simon Mays.

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Simon Mays

Human Skeletal Biologist

Investigation & Analysis

Fort Cumberland,
Fort Cumberland Road,
P04 9LD

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Also of interest...

  • A triple burial dating to the Roman period, being excavated at Stanwick, Northamptonshire.

    Human Remains

    Historic England technical guidance on human remains and information about the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE).

External links