Essentials for studying human osteology and forensic anthropology

Today I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the books, online resources and little bits of equipment which i’ve found most useful during study and research.

So first off…BOOKS! One of the most important places to start is with the written word.  Some books are more useful than others, but of course everyone has their own preferences.  Books on the study of human remains for archaeological and forensic purposes can unfortunately often be expensive.

Books and Journals

Two of the first books I bought on the subject which I still use are: firstly, McMinn’s colour atlas of human anatomy is useful for learning all the boney features and muscle attachments; though I’m thinking any basic anatomy text with the skeleton and musculature will be useful.  Secondly, Tim White’s Human osteology text; there is also a smaller version of this book – The human bone manual, this version is cheaper and more portable so I’d definitely recommend this.  Some people prefer Bass’s Human osteology manual and this is also a useful all rounder for the techniques of working out various aspects of human remains, such as age, sex, stature and race.

Once you’ve learned all about identifying human remains and the basics of age and sex estimation, you may (if you’re a bit of a sucker for punishment!) become interested in palaeopathology.  Books on this subject are particularly expensive, so first off if you are at university check what journals your library subscribes too.  The ones I’ve found most useful are the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology and The American Journal of Physical Anthropology.  If you can gain access to these journals they will provide you with lots of information on various topics within these disciplines.  A newer journal is the International Journal of Paleopathology which you can get free access to if you become a member of the Paleopathology Association.  I have done this myself and membership is quite cheap for students.

Books on the subject available in libraries and to buy which I have found useful include Ortner’s Identification of pathological conditions in human remains (an expensive one!) and also Waldron’s palaeopathology which is a more basic all rounder which is a good starting point.


Sometimes finding information is easiest on the internet and you can sometimes find learning resources for free.

A useful website is at here you can inspect various aspects of the human skeleton and compare it to other skeletons – such as that of the gorilla. is a site for archaeologists but has an extensive list of online resources as well as manuals for various aspects of archaeology including one on the analysis of human remains.

Museum of London Archaeological Services also have a great website as well as a blog for their digitised diseases project


My list of crucial objects which I take with me one research trips includes:

– Digital callipers (150mm) these are available on amazon and past horizons for around £15.  I have used these mostly for measuring the size of cremated fragments but they are most often used for metrical measurements (count yourself lucky if you are looking at skulls which are complete enough to do this!).

– Spreading callipers:  if you decide to invest in ‘proper’ spreading callipers these are highly expensive up to around £500-600.  I ended up buying some Igaging digital outside callipers from Past Horizons which are under £30 and do the job.  These are sold mostly to measure pottery but they work just fine for measuring skulls to get your racial measurements.

– Another useful piece of equipment is a small magnifying glass or hand lens.  These are great for getting a better look at particular features if you have no access to a microscope.

– Black cloth for photography: If you end up doing any coursework on the subject then you will need to take photos.  If you are working in a lab then all the equipment for this may already be set up.  If you end up travelling about for research like I have then it’s good to invest in a piece of portable black fabric.  I ended up buying a black pillow case.

– Other items for photography: If you can afford it then a small digital camera with a good macro setting is what you want.  Some universities may allow you to borrow one.  Another crucial item for photographing human remains or archaeological artefacts is a scale.  If you get desperate you can use callipers or a ruler.  You can buy small scales at quite cheap prices online, you could also do an online search for a scale, print it and laminate it for little cost if you are feeling thrifty!

The right equipment can help you take good photos even in bad light.

The right equipment can help you take good photos even in bad light.

– Osteometric board:  If you are doing a lot of stature measurements then these are useful.  Unfortunately if you are a travelling researcher these are not very portable.  They are also usually quite expensive.  My solution to this when travelling to museums was to buy giant callipers from ebay, these were around £15 (these are used in the construction trade).  They did require some adjustment as the measurement wasn’t lined up properly but otherwise are adequate for the job.

I hope this is useful…if I think of anything else I’ll update the post!

Thats all for now


3 responses to “Essentials for studying human osteology and forensic anthropology

    • your’re welcome! Hopefully I’ll do more hints and tips type things on specific subjects…along with more on my research now i’m getting my ass in gear on this blogging malarky! just been noseying on your blog, lots of useful stuff, have complete admiration that you are finding time for that whilst doing a masters! keep up the good work 🙂

      • Thank you! I keep forgetting to do hints and what not, so I’ll look forward to your entries! Cheers, I will do, although I’ve finished the Masters now so I have plenty of time to write. You as well, and good luck with the PhD outcome. I’m looking forward to reading some of your work, living as I am in the north of England 😀

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