Tobacco, Health & History – Team on Tour!

Dr. Anna Davies-Barrett

As usual, the THH team have been keeping busy this summer, making plenty of research trips across the country and further afield!

At the end of May, Maria and I returned from a two week trip to the Faculty of Archaeology, at Leiden University, in the Netherlands. As well as having one of the most well equipped labs we’ve had the pleasure to work in, the Faculty of Archaeology curates an impressive collection of archaeological human remains from various cemetery sites in the Netherlands. While we were there, we undertook preliminary osteological assessment and sampling. This will form the foundation of a comparative sample group, to allow us to investigate how different trends in smoking behaviours in the UK and Netherlands may have impacted on disease expression in these populations.

While visiting beautiful Leiden, I also took time out to visit the famous Naturalis Museum to see “Trixie the T-Rex”, spent time in the wonderful tropical hot houses of the Hortus Botanicus, and Leiden-native Maria took me to try the local speciality – pancakes!

In June, the THH team made a trip to London to participate in the Great Exhibition Road Festival 2022. Located in the hall of the beautiful Royal Geographic Society building, our stall, “How Old Am I Really?”, consisted of a collaborative group of interactive activities put together by four UKRI-FLF funded projects, all with an interest in the scientific investigation of aging. Alongside the THH team’s activities on the osteological methods we use for establishing how old a skeleton is, our stall had activities on aging using forensic metabolomics, how we measure and understand quality of life in older age, and how we measure biological age and degeneration using tests such as grip strength and cognitive ability. While sporting our very own T-shirts with the awesome “How Old Am I Really?” logo, we were able to speak with hundreds of visitors about our work, and were blown away by the interest and curiosity shown by the general public for our research.

At the end of June, we also said goodbye to THH project PhD student Willem, who will be undertaking a four month work placement in the Netherlands as part of his M4C funding scheme. Willem will be providing much needed curatorial aid for a skeletal collection from Dordrecht and will be assessing the suitability of the collection for his own research project (I’m sure there will be more to come on this from Willem, himself!)

Never missing an opportunity to investigate future pathways for research, in July, Sarah and I visited the amazing new Northamptonshire Archaeology Research Centre (ARC) at Chester House and on-site Roman town archaeology dig, undertaken in partnership with the University of Leicester. The dig has uncovered numerous Roman burials and the ARC houses a wide range of archaeological burials from across Northamptonshire. Here, we had a chance to take a look at the impressive new archaeological store and discussed with dig leaders and curators possible projects for investigating life and disease in the Roman towns of Northamptonshire using the many cemetery collections recovered in the county.

Sarah and I also visited the British Museum in July to take part in a Wellcome Trust funded workshop on calculus, hosted by Dr Anita Radini. Here, among experts on archaeological calculus, both Sarah and I presented on how our research could be complemented by calculus studies. The day proved to be packed full of interesting discussions on the future potential of calculus studies, and provided an opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet new potential collaborators!

The end of July also saw the delivery of more skeletons to the project lab, which is now at maximum capacity! We now have access to all the skeletons we need to complete our research on the British populations from London and Barton-upon-Humber. My job this summer has been to focus on the osteological analysis of these skeletons, collecting information on the different diseases these people lived with. Meanwhile, Maria, Sarah, and Diego have been fast tracking the sampling of these final skeletons, so Diego can begin running metabolomics analysis to look for biomolecular evidence of tobacco consumption. We hope that, together, the palaeopathological and metabolomic data will shine new light on tobacco consumption and its relationship to disease in the post-Medieval period.

Finally, in a classic collaborative research exchange, we are now looking forward to welcoming to our lab visiting PhD researcher Maia Casna, hailing from Leiden University. Maia’s research focusses on respiratory diseases in populations from the Netherlands – plenty of research interest cross over with our project! Maia will be helping us collect even more data for our project, with the aim to compare and refine our methods for analysing respiratory disease in past populations. We are hoping our collaborative work together will result in some interesting new publications!

It’s wonderful to see how much the team has managed to pack into this Summer – stay tuned for more updates in the future!

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