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Trauma Analysis on Skeletal Remains

Documentation of Skeletal Trauma

Our aim is to develop a standardised set of forms for the documentation of lesions left by physical traumatisation on human skeletal remains. We believe in the necessity to pool data from various sites for palaeoepidemiological studies on a larger scale. On the other hand, we are aware of the ambivalence of traces, necessitating a thorough documentation of lesions and diagnostic reasoning. With our documentation system, we hope to make palaeopathological data traceable and accessible to other researchers for incorporation in their studies.

Mission Statement

With our documentation system, observations are sketched out in drawing, coded, and described. The resulting output provides both a data basis for quantitative analyses and a coherent text, relating to individual specifics and diagnostic uncertainties. There are also options for the documentation of non-pathological traces. Given the often ambivalent nature of the evidence, we consider it as appropriate to explain the exclusion of cases that other scholars might judge as relevant. This complies with the basic principle to keep description and interpretation apart. Information is collected on various levels. While individual lesions are documented separately, there is space for noting connections between them, if applicable. Taphonomic influences are also recorded on skeleton level. The construction of the system allows for expansion by including further pathologies, other than trauma. There are separate forms for the documentation of cranial and postcranial lesions, to account for special implications from the spherical architecture of the skull. Further elaboration of the postcranial forms might necessitate an even bigger variety of analytical options. Our system has been developed for use on skeletal material from archaeological contexts where bones can be assigned to individuals, e.g. from the excavation of graves in a cemetery. Other contexts might call for different types of documentation, provided by alternative concepts.

Project Status


The following features are available right away:

  • paper forms for the documentation of material preservation and other information on skeleton level
  • a set of paper forms for the documentation of cranial trauma, consisting of templates for schematic drawings, check lists and free descriptions
  • a detailed manual, explaining the application of the existing forms
  • drafts for a set of paper forms for the documentation of postcranial trauma

Open Tasks

We are currently developing the following features that we hope to make available in the future:

  • a more elaborate version of the paper forms concerning postcranial trauma
  • publication as a formal standard (cf. Osteologic Database Project)

How to obtain the documents

Our documentation system is available at RDMBA.

-> go to the download page

Participating Researchers

Felix Engel, Physical Anthropology - Faculty of Medicine, University of Freiburg (Germany)
Felix used the documentation system to analyse cranial trauma for his dissertation project on traces of armed conflict.

Simon Kramis, Institute for Prehistory and Archaeological Sciences (IPNA, University of Basel / Switzerland)
Trauma analysis is part of Simon's dissertation on special burials at the Roman settlement site Augusta Raurica.

How to Contribute

We are inviting all researchers to participate in the development of the documentation system. If your are using our forms for your own projects, we would be delighted to get some feedback from you as this is the only way to really improve them. Also, we welcome you to join our ranks in developing new features. Currently, we are looking for people who are keen to tackle postcranial trauma analysis. But we are also interested to integrate forms on other pathologies. So if you have developed a documentation scheme for your own work and would like to share it, do not hesitate to get in touch with us.

Related Projects

Global History of Health Project

The project pools coded information on pathological conditions on skeletons from all parts of Europe dating from late antiquity to the 19th century. A former project phase investigated the Americas, and the scope of the project is to be expanded even further.


At the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists at Minneapolis / Minnesota, the Smithsonian Institution presented their data base 'Osteoware' that has been designed to catalogue the museum archive of human skeletal remains. The software contains sections for storing information on pathological conditions.

Processing of Commingled Remains

Anna Osterholtz and Ann Stodder presented a system for processing large quantities of commingled human remains from the Sacred Ridge site in Southwestern Colorado at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Associaion of Physical Anthropologists at Albuquerque / New Mexico.

Osterholtz AJ, Stodder ALW. 2010. Conjoining a neighborhood: Data structure and methodology for taphonomic analysis of the very large assemblage from Sacred Ridge. American Journal of Physical Anthropology Supplement 50:183.


The data base is designed to manage all kinds of archaeozoological data, not just pathological observations. The data base structure, however, might serve as an inspiration also for the analysis of commingled human remains.


Engel F, Kramis S (2010) Documenting Skeletal Trauma: A Proposal for a Standardised Routine. In: Buhl CA, Engel F, Hartung L, Kästner M, Rüdell A, Weißhaar C (eds.) Proceedings of the 4th Meeting of Junior Scientists in Anthropology. Freiburg: University Library, 35-42.