The Scheuer Skeletal Collection: a unique resource for archaeology, osteology and forensic anthropology

Having seen Professor Sue Black on TV, I was looking forward to hearing her at the 18th Annual Harold Plenderleith lecture in Dundee and I wasn’t disappointed. Unfortunately, her colleague Dr Craig Cunningham couldn’t attend, so instead Professor Black enthralled us effortlessly for the whole 40 minutes with very familiar collection care themes applied to a very unusual collection.

The Scheuer collection consists of skeletons or partial skeletons belonging to over 100 individuals gathered by Sue Black and her colleague Professor Louise Scheuer.  They were searching anatomy collections across the country looking for pre-natal to adolescent skeletons, in order to write a book – a guide to assigning an accurate age at death.

As the authors were given more bones, they found more to write and what started out as a handy lab reference work, evolved over 10 years into the definitive tome on the subject, Developmental Juvenile Osteology (2000). At the end of the research many of the institutions who had lent the skeletons were happy for them to remain in Dundee where they became the Scheuer collection.

Cover of Developmental Juvenile Osteology

Cover of Developmental Juvenile Osteology

Sue Black is fiercely protective of the bones themselves, because as a collection they are so rare; believed to be the only active repository for juvenile skeletal remains in the world. No destructive testing methods are allowed and less than a handful of researchers are allowed access each year.

To counteract this very limited access, the whole collection was CT (computed tomography) scanned in 2008, has since been 3D scanned and recently micro CT scanned.  3D printed surrogates can be produced as teaching aids which Sue demonstrated by tossing a replica skull into the audience! Importantly, this very thorough data collection and interpretation allows maximum access whilst only exposing the bones for essential research.  It also ensures that as much information as possible has been gleaned from the collection should legislation restricting access to human remains be tightened in the future.

Unusually, all lecturers in the Forensic Anthropology Department at Dundee have to do case work and this is where all of the knowledge learned from the Scheuer collection comes into its own. The first gruesome case described, required assigning an age to a baby buried in a plant pot; could it have been still-born as claimed by the mother? Another was a cracked skull of a toddler; was the fatal injury caused by a vigorous hug or a stamp with a boot?  It’s grim yet vital work, valued worldwide. To assist students and professionals globally, the digital 3D scans will be made available for free when the new edition of The Juvenile Skeleton by Dr Craig Cunningham is published next year.

As well as running the courses you would expect from a university department, the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) at the University of Dundee provides a Virtual Anthropology Consultancy Service (VACS), freely to all UK police forces, who can send photographs of bones via email and have them identified as human or not.

18th Annual Plenderleith Lecture

18th Annual Plenderleith Lecture

Questions at the end from Icon members and some from students who had swelled our numbers, revealed that the specimens are roughly 40% archaeological, 50% anatomical and 10% forensic; the collection contains no First Nation material and that Sue Black, whilst admiring (Bodyworks) Gunther von Hagens’s skills as an anatomist was uncomfortable with his showmanship, in what is a very sensitive field.

I don’t think I was alone in finding Sue Black’s commitment to her profession, her students and the individuals whose remains are in her care, very inspiring.

Liz Yamada

Freelance Paper Conservator

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