Chapter 1. The Chemical and Microbial Degradation of Bones and Teeth

  1. Ron Pinhasi PhD Lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology member2 and
  2. Simon Mays PhD Human Skeletal Biologist Visiting Lecturer member Secretary3
  1. Gordon Turner-Walker PhD Associate Professor Fellow

Published Online: 27 DEC 2007

DOI: 10.1002/9780470724187.ch1

Advances in Human Palaeopathology

Advances in Human Palaeopathology

How to Cite

Turner-Walker, G. (2007) The Chemical and Microbial Degradation of Bones and Teeth, in Advances in Human Palaeopathology (eds R. Pinhasi and S. Mays), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9780470724187.ch1

Editor Information

  1. 2

    Department of Archaeology, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland

  2. 3

    English Heritage Centre for Archaeology, Fort Cumberland, Eastney, Portsmouth PO4 9LD, UK

Author Information

  1. School of Cultural Heritage Conservation, National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, 123 University Road Sec. 3, Touliou, 640 Yunlin, Taiwan (ROC)

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 27 DEC 2007
  2. Published Print: 14 DEC 2007

ISBN Information

Print ISBN: 9780470036020

Online ISBN: 9780470724187



  • diagenesis;
  • taphonomy;
  • bone mineral;
  • collagen;
  • microscopy


The physical survival of the skeleton in the burial environment is vital to any palaeopathological study, and the extent of diagenetic degradation of remains is an important determinant of the quantity and quality of palaeopathological data that can be obtained from an archaeological skeletal assemblage. In this contribution, the chemistry, microstructure and ultrastructure of skeletal tissues are described. The changes wrought in both the inorganic and organic components of hard tissues in the burial environment by chemical and microbial agents are discussed. Determinants of the rate and extent of diagenetic alteration are considered. Prime among these is the availability of water, as this provides a medium for chemical reactions and is vital for supporting microbial metabolism. Other important factors are the pH of the soil water and the presence or otherwise of dissolved ionic species. The chapter concludes with a consideration of possible future directions for research.