In January 1934 a homeowner in Woodingdean discovered a skull whilst digging the foundations of a sun terrace at the side of his house.
As reported in the Brighton & Hove Herald of 3rd February 1934, experts were then called in to excavate the rest of the skeleton and Herbert Toms, curator of Brighton Museum, declared it to be the remains of a young woman of around 25 years and approximately five to five foot six inches tall. It was noted that her teeth were ‘white and perfect’.
The body had been buried in an extended position and is reported to have been enclosed in a flint coffin – completely surrounded by flint pieces, many of which were burned. Although it’s stated in the newspaper report that Sir Arthur Keith (of Piltdown Skull fame) was due to make a detailed analysis of the skeleton, we have no further information as to whether this was actually undertaken. However, because of the extended position of the skeleton, it was assumed to date to the late Bronze Age or Iron Age.
Based on the features of the skull and pelvis, we agree that this is the skeleton of a female but we think, on balance, she was a little older than originally thought, probably somewhere between 30 and 45 years. The skeletal evidence is a little contradictory, though, which makes it difficult to be sure. On the one hand she has some probable indicators of youth, for example the ends of her collar bones and the edge of her pelvis haven’t completely fused. However, she also has bone formation (‘ossification’) of the thyroid gland in her neck, which is more usually seen in older people. There is spondylolysis, a defect or fracture usually of the lowest (5th) vertebra of the spine, and this woman would no doubt have suffered back pain as a result of this.
Interestingly, she has what is known as a persistent metopic or frontal suture of the skull. The frontal bones of the skull usually totally fuse together by seven years of age but in some people this doesn’t happen and the ‘junction’ between the bones remains into adulthood. A recent visitor to one of our open days, coincidentally also from Woodingdean, had one of these herself and kindly let us have a feel of it!
Her teeth are indeed white although not perfect as, on closer inspection, there is wear to the teeth, which could be age or occupation related, and there is also a nasty-looking abscess below the bottom front incisors.
As with the Moulsecombe skeleton we blogged about last time, the Woodingdean skeleton has been assigned to the Bronze Age or Iron Age on the basis of her burial position. It would be good to use scientific techniques to find out more precisely when this Brighton ancestor lived and to tell a bit more of her story.
Andrew Maxted, Curator (Collections Projects) and Dawn Cansfield