The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Bad luck, or bad intentions? Interpreting fractures from an early 20th century pauper cemetery


Dept. of Natural Sciences, Milwaukee Area Technical College

Saturday All day, Plaza Level Add to calendar

Interpersonal violence is a recurring topic of interest for archaeologists and physical anthropologists alike. Looking to clinical literature for guidance, researchers have attempted to identify specific skeletal elements most frequently damaged through interpersonal violence. This has invariably led to an anatomically regionalized injury dichotomy in which cranial fractures signify violent injury, while post-cranial fractures are produced by accidents. Parry-fractures of the ulna are the usual exception to this rule, but recent research includes the hands and ribs in the suite of violence-related fracture loci. In an effort to explore the presence of violence among an historic skeletal population, 985 skeletons from the Milwaukee County Institutional Grounds Cemetery were examined for fractures and other traumata. Two hundred forty-seven individuals had fractures. One hundred twenty-three fractures affected skeletal elements commonly associated with violent injury, such as the skull and hand. Forty individuals exhibited healed cranial fractures, with the vast majority affecting the nasals. It is overtly tempting to interpret the presence of such fractures as the outcome of violent interactions. However, observed patterns of multiple traumata make such an interpretation tenuous. In addition, historical evidence drawn from archival and contemporaneous clinical sources suggests that the circumstances through which such injuries could be received were highly variable, and need not be uniformly the result of interpersonal violence. Thus, while some fractures may have been caused bad intentions, one cannot discount the simple possibility of bad luck.

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