St Hilda's Church

The research potential of the St. Hilda’s Church collection

The department currently curates several osteological collections, most of which are used in our postgraduate teaching or research programmes. One of these collections represents a cemetery population from early 19th century South Shields. The collection is unique, as the material culture of the cemetery points to the population belonging to the lower middle class. The pathologies visible on the skeletons corroborate that this was a working class population, some of whom likely experienced high risk work environments, as indicated by severe forms of trauma. Contemporary records indicate that coal mining was carried out in the area, and that the chance for disfiguring or debilitating injuries was high. Currently, we have one post-doctoral project in development to further explore different research aspects of the collection, provisionally entitled ‘the social dimensions of joint disease’.

Osteoarthritis is a condition which is commonly encountered in skeletal populations (Rogers et al. 2004; Weiss and Jurmain 2007), and consists of systemic damage to, and loss of joint cartilage which results in osteophyte formation and subarticular bone remodelling (Litwic et al. 2013). Patients with osteoarthritis may experience pain and loss of movement, but also suffer from mental distress (Litwic et al. 2013; Penninx et al. 1996). These personal and social aspects of osteoarthritis have never been studied for skeletal populations. Perhaps this is because the skeletal severity of the condition may be only weakly linked to the actual personal experience of the individual (Litwic et al. 2013).

One way in which we could explore the experience of osteoarthritis in the past is the use of medication. In the 19th century, opium was available in local corner shops, and was sold in different forms and preparations, without any regulation or control. The potential for regular use and overuse by patients with chronic pain was therefore very great (Berridge 1978; Meldrum 2003). The University of Sheffield holds a relatively large collection of individuals from a 19th century cemetery in South Shields. Many crania show preservation of small quantities of hair. As the analysis of drug use from hair samples is well-established within the forensic sciences (Kintz 2004), a combined analysis of osteoarthritic skeletal severity and drug use may broaden the scope of our understanding of pain experience and drug use in 19th century individuals with osteoarthritis.


Berridge V. 1978. Victorian opium eating: responses to opiate use in nineteenth-century England. Victorian Studies 21(4):437-461.

Kintz P. 2004. Value of hair analysis in postmortem toxicology. Forensic science international 142(2):127-134.

Litwic A, Edwards MH, Dennison EM, and Cooper C. 2013. Epidemiology and burden of osteoarthritis. British medical bulletin:lds038.

Meldrum ML. 2003. A capsule history of pain management. JAMA 290(18):2470-2475.

Penninx BWJH, Beekman ATF, Ormel J, Kriegsman DMW, Boeke AJP, Van Eijk JTM, and Deeg DJH. 1996. Psychological status among elderly people with chronic diseases: does type of disease play a part? Journal of psychosomatic research 40(5):521-534.

Rogers J, Shepstone L, and Dieppe P. 2004. Is osteoarthritis a systemic disorder of bone? Arthritis & Rheumatism 50(2):452-457.

Weiss E, and Jurmain R. 2007. Osteoarthritis revisited: a contemporary review of aetiology. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 17(5):437-450.

We are happy to work with any interested candidates to develop the specifics of this project further and identify relevant funding sources in the future. First point of contact for more information is Dr. Elizabeth Craig-Atkins (