Using dental wear to estimate age at death – work on cave archaeology

Human teeth from Backwell Cave, Somerset showing dental wear.

Sammy Field, from the University of Southampton, visited the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society’s collections as a PhD researcher to collect data for her thesis, ‘Re-evaluating the use of dental wear to estimate age at death of British archaeological remains.’ Sammy has kindly written a guest blog about her work in the UBSS collection.

Age at death is one piece of information archaeologists attempt to establish when examining archaeological human remains. There are many ways to do this but one approach, and possibly the most commonly used way, is to examine the amount of dental wear on the permanent (adult) molars.

Teeth, unlike bone, do not remodel during life. This means dental tissues do not regrow or heal when damaged. Therefore, eating a hard, coarse diet (such of those in the past) will gradually wear down the white enamel revealing the yellowish sentinel underneath. This produces a pattern of wear that changes with age. It is this pattern that archaeologists use to estimate age at death.

One of the most frequently used methods to age human skeletons was produced by Brothwell (1963). Brothwell introduced a chart of dental wear patterns in his book ‘Digging Up Bones,’ which, he suggested, could estimate the age at death of individuals dating from the Neolithic (4000BC) to the Medieval period (1550AD).

Brothwell’s chart

Although Brothwell’s chart is often used by archaeologists the samples used and approaches taken to produce the chart are unclear. My research aimed to establish whether a single chart for estimating age at death using dental wear could be applied to remains dating from multiple different archaeological periods.

To carry out this research, a large number of archaeological human remains were required. UBSS holds material from archaeological digs including Neolithic human remains from Backwell Cave, Somerset. The remains from this site were combined with others from around the UK to produce period-bound samples.

The pattern of wear and crown height of molars was recorded from a total of 861 individuals. A comparison of wear rates across these multiple archaeological periods suggests that a single wear rate could indeed be used to estimate age. This supports the work of Brothwell.

Molars showing wear

However, the research from this project strongly recommends further development and the use of population-specific wear rates to obtain the most reliable estimates of age.

With thanks to Dorset County Museum, and the many other institutions, for granting access to their collections. Without this the research was not possible. Further thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Historic England for funding this research, and to my supervisors, Sonia Zakrzewski and Simon Mays, at the University of Southampton and Historic England.

Correspondent: Sammy Field

If you would like a copy of Sammy’s thesis please contact her. You can also follow Sammy on twitter. @BeautifullyBony.

Reference: Brothwell DR (1963) Digging up Bones: the Excavation, Treatment, and Study of Human Skeletal Remains (First Edition). London: British Museum