The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Flowers born to blush unseen: The biological and cultural context of fetal and perinatal mortality in 18th-19th century South Shields, England


Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

April 16, 2020 , Platinum Ballroom Add to calendar

A group of 41 fetuses and perinates were interred between AD 1768-1818 just beyond the southern boundary of St Hilda’s Church cemetery, South Shields, UK. This study undertook a holistic archeological and anthropological examination of this burial group to illuminate the biological and cultural context of perinatal mortality in 18th-19th century England.

A Bayesian age-at-death distribution was generated based on a modern reference population of individuals who died in the perinatal period, creating accurate demographic data to produce an aging method based on long-bone development tailored to this archaeological population. Two peaks were identified – one at 27-29 weeks gestation which coincides with a peak in stillbirth and premature birth observed in modern populations, and another at 38-42 weeks, most likely caused by death during or soon after full-term birth. Limited disparity between skeletal and dental age suggests maternal diet was sufficient to buffer intrauterine growth from the effects of physiological stress; however, two individuals buried together, most likely twins, were both small for their dental age.

The funerary context revealed widespread use of coffins and containers, suggesting a deliberate effort to provide individualized and ‘proper’ burial to even the youngest members of society, countering any suggestion that their grouping outside the cemetery boundary was clandestine. This study demonstrates the value of the study of fetuses and infants as a physical manifestation of the complex health, religious, economic, and social factors that shaped growing Industrial towns.

Slides/Poster (pdf)