Today I went to the Wellcome Collection's exhibition Skeletons: London's buried bones. The concept and design are simple, but work really well: a small selection from the Museum of London's collection of 17,000 skeletons are displayed with panels setting out their age, sex, date of death, burial location and a short explanation of the information their bones reveal. Around the edge of the room are photographs of the burial sites today: most have long since been built over. The style is understated and respectful, with the focus on human and social history rather than morbid sensationalism.
Some of the skeletons' features are unsurprising: signs of rickets, broken bones (often connected to drunkenness in the days when beer was safer than water), syphilis and smallpox. Seeing the traces of these diseases, though, makes them much more real than written descriptions can. No one would imagine that congenital syphilis (contracted in the womb from an infected mother) would be anything other than unpleasant, but to see the terribly affected skeleton of an infected child really brings home the horror. Tuberculosis might be associated with the lungs, but left its mark on the bones too; by contrast, plague killed so quickly that the skeleton tended to show few signs - its presence in a plague pit might be the main evidence for the disease.
Less unpleasant were the green stains on some bones. They're bright enough to look like deliberate markings, but in fact were caused by copper, either from objects such as shroud pins or, in the case of one almost entirely green skull, by copper waste from the manufacture of coins seeping into the ground.
Diet and working habits, good or bad, all leave clues behind. Other features gave rise to more questions. For example, several skeletons had bathrocephaly, explained as a genetic trait manifested as a protruding ridge at the base of the skull. While the exhibition informs you that this was once common (present in one in ten Londoners), but is now very rare (affecting only one in a million people), it doesn't say why. Perhaps that's the sign of a good exibition - it leaves you wanting to learn more....
Practical information: the exhibition runs until 28 September, so you've still got time to go! It's open Tuesday to Sunday until 6pm (8pm on Thursday) and admission is free. The Wellcome Collection is at 183 Euston Road (nearest tubes Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street).
There's no photography allowed in the exhibition (the image above is from the Paris Catacombs).