Brighton & Hove’s Prehistoric Ancestors

Funded by an award from the Prehistoric Society, Royal Pavilion & Museums is presently working with Dawn Cansfield (PhD student at Winchester University) and Dr Paola Ponce (human osteologist from the Institute of Archaeology, UCL) to catalogue and research our collection of prehistoric human remains.

Over the next few months we will be publishing extracts from that research which will hopefully give a better insight into some of the earliest residents of Brighton & Hove.

The Moulsecombe Skeleton

R3027, Sussex Daily NewsOn 19 July 1928 workers carrying out road excavations in Wild Park, Brighton, found a human skeleton. The find was reported in the Sussex Daily News as being that of an elderly prehistoric person, probably female, found lying on their left side, facing north-east with their knees slightly drawn up, about 4 feet (1.2 metres) below the ground surface. No grave goods or other artefacts were found with the skeleton. The burial was located next to a saucer-shaped pit, thought to perhaps have been the hearth from the floor of a prehistoric hut.

The human remains were taken to Brighton Museum for preservation and further examination. As was often the case at that time, a report on the human remains was carried out by Sir Arthur Keith of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Contrary to the original newspaper report and based upon tooth wear and the appearance of the skull and long bones, he assessed the skeleton to be that of a man, 5 feet 4 inches tall and approximately 60 years of age. He noted that his teeth were almost ground to stumps and that as well as having an extra incisor, he suffered from dental abscesses.

In the absence of any dating evidence and relying solely on the ‘crouched’ burial position and particular features of the skull (a method no longer used) he came to the conclusion that the individual had lived in the Early Bronze Age ‘Beaker’ period roughly 4,500 years ago.

Moulsecombe skull
Moulsecombe skull (dental abscess arrowed)

OSTEO Notes: The Moulsecombe skeleton, although damaged, is fairly complete. We would agree that the individual was a mature male (45+ years), a good age for prehistoric times. The skull was reconstructed at some point and the wires holding the pieces together are clearly visible. His teeth are indeed very worn due to his age and perhaps diet, and there are clear signs of dental abscesses (see photo above) which would, no doubt, have been very painful.

Worn upper teeth
Worn upper teeth

In some joints there is evidence of osteoarthritis, a bone disease of age that can also result from earlier injury, which would probably have caused him pain and stiffness and affected his mobility. There is an interesting lump on his right lower leg (tibia, pictured below) which is probably bone growth within damaged muscle called myositis ossificans traumatica, perhaps caused by excessive or repetitive physical activity. Alternatively, it could be a benign bone tumour known as an osteochondroma. Investigation by x-ray could clarify this further.

Tibia with probable myositis ossificans traumatica
Tibia with probable myositis ossificans traumatica

Radiocarbon dating would enable an accurate date to be arrived at for when this man lived in Brighton & Hove. Further scientific analysis could also tell us about his diet and where he grew up.

Andrew Maxted, Curator (Collections Projects) and Dawn Cansfield