Burnt bones and teeth: an experimental study of color, morphology, crystal structure and shrinkage

Pat Shipman, Giraud Foster, Margaret Schoeninger

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Abstract

Burnt osteological materials are one focus of interest in forensic, archaeological, and palaeontological studies. We document the effects of experimental, controlled heating on a sample of modern bones and teeth from sheep and goats. Four aspects of heating specimens to between 20 and 940°C were considered: color, microscopic morphology, crystalline structure and shrinkage. Our results show that changes in both color and microscopic morphology of burnt bones and teeth can be divided into five stages each of which is typical of a particular temperature range, although the stages based on color do not correlate exactly with those based on micromorphology. These stages can be used to determine (1) if specimens of unknown taphonomic history were burnt, and (2) the maximum temperature reached by those specimens. In addition, powder X-ray diffraction studies show that heating causes an increase in the crystal size of hydroxyapatite, the major inorganic component of bones and teeth. This fact in conjunction with the microscopic morphology can be used to confirm deduced heating to 645°C or more. The data on shrinkage are analyzed to yield a polynomial expression that summarizes percentage shrinkage as a function of the maximum temperature reached by bones. Thus, the original size of specimens can be reconstructed within limits since the maximum temperature reached by the bones can be deduced on the basis of color, microscopic morphology and/or powder X-ray diffraction patterns. Finally, because there is a discrepancy between the maximum heating device temperature and the maximum specimen temperature, caution must be exercised in distinguishing between the effects of man made and natural fires.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)307-325
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Volume11
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 1984

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All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology

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