Working your fingers to the bone

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Working your fingers to the bone

July 6, 2016 - July 8, 2016

An interdisciplinary conference on identifying occupation from the skeleton

The aim of this interdisciplinary conference is to bring together researchers interested in disease, injury and other effects of occupations (in the broadest sense) on the human skeleton to improve the interpretation of these changes in archaeological and forensic contexts.

Why Occupational Health?

Identifying occupation, task division and activity-patterns from skeletal remains past populations and using this to assist forensic identification, has been an alluring prospect in bioarchaeology from its earliest inceptions. Some occupation identification can be made by pathognomonic changes, e.g. “phossy jaw” which was characteristic of those working with white phosphorous in the matchstick industry, however, the majority of skeletal changes cannot be ascribed to a single task or occupation, e.g. entheseal changes or cross-sectional geometry. Recent research has highlighted that the multifactorial aetiology of many skeletal changes previously used to identify activity-patterns cannot be applied simplistically.

Conference Content

This conference will build on recent advances in related fields to provide a direction for future research on using skeletal changes to identify occupations (and activity-patterns) based on what is currently known. Abstracts are invited on a diverse range of approaches including: palaeopathology, biomechanics, ethnography, modern medicine, forensic science, archaeology, socio-cultural.


The deadline for abstracts is the 13th of March and for early registration, the 3rd of April.

Scientific committee

The organisers and:

Prof. Eugénia Cunha, Department of Life Sciences, University of Coimbra.
António José Vilar Queirós, MD, Health and Safety Management Department, University of Coimbra Social Services.
Prof. Peter Kirby, Professor of Social History and Leverhulme Research Fellow, Glasgow Caledonian University.
Sébastien Villotte, CNRS Researcher, University of Bordeaux.
Cynthia Wilczak, Associate Professor, San Francisco State University.

Abstract Submission and RegistrationTravel, Accommodation and VenueConference Keynote Speakers

Abstract submission

Abstract deadline: Sunday 13th of March, 2016 (midnight GMT)

Please follow the guidance in this document for abstract submission.


We would like to include a broad range of topics, both theoretical and practical, to make this a truly interdisciplinary conference on identifying occupational disease and injury in human skeletal remains. Topics we would welcome include:

  • Experimental archaeology
  • Trauma and risk factors for trauma
  • Palaeoparasitology
  • Entheseal changes
  • Dental indicators
  • Cross-sectional geometry
  • Respiratory disease and its risk factors
  • Infectious disease and its risk factors
  • Testing of methods on identified skeletal collections
  • Documentary evidence and medical history
  • Modern analogues


Conference registration will open on the 18th of January, 2016.

Please follow this link to complete the registration form and then pay in Loja Virtual UC.

Conference fees*
Early registration (up to 3rd of April) Late registration (from 4th of April )
Students and unemployed** 50 euros 80
Non-students 120 euros 180

  * Registration fees cover refreshment breaks, lunches and a welcome reception.

 **Note proof of status is required. Details of accepted methods will be available on the registration form.


Coimbra can be easily reached from the airports in Lisbon and Porto. The metro (Lisbon and Porto) runs from each airport to the main station and from there IC and AP trains run to Coimbra. The station to change at in Lisbon is Oriente, and the station in Porto is Campanhã. Coaches also run to Coimbra. More details on travel to Coimbra can be found at:

Getting around Coimbra

By train you will arrive at Coimbra-B station, there is a taxi rank outside and a bus stand. Trains also run to Coimbra-A which is in the centre. It is possible to walk but the route is not signposted.

Coimbra is a mediaeval city situated on a hill and has winding, narrow, steep and cobbled streets. If you have mobility problems then please take this into account when choosing your accommodation. There are numerous bus routes in Coimbra including ones running near the venue.


Accommodation in Coimbra can be found at usual comparison websites as well as at the Tourist Office.


The conference will be held in the Department of Life Sciences, in the College of

São Bento next to the Botanical Gardens.

Cynthia Wilczak

Associate Professor, San Francisco State University

Title: Methods in Reconstructing Past Activities: Can the new approaches deliver any substantial new insights?

Abstract: The study of “markers of occupational stress” (MOS) in bioarchaeology has its roots in early occupational medicine. In skeletal populations, MOS have been classified as bony changes caused by long-term patterns of activity that result in excessive mechanical forces on the bone, including the formation of flat surfaces (facets) where bone comes in contact with bone; changes at muscle insertions (entheses); patterns of osteoarthritis in joint complexes; cross-sectional geometry of the long bones; as well as stress fractures and other types of traumatic injuries. The pattern of these changes has been used to infer the life history and physical labor of many prehistoric and historic populations yet there are considerable questions surrounding the accuracy and limits of such reconstructions.  Some of the problems are methodological while others stem from an incomplete understanding of how bone responds to strain, complicated by other factors, such as age and pathology, that can also induce bony changes and have the potential to obscure the biomechanical effects, if any, on bone.  Each type of MOS represents a distinct challenge and some of the underlying assumptions about the relationship between activity and skeletal changes have recently received increased scrutiny. After a survey of the history of MOS studies, this presentation will critically examine the clinical and experimental work that might provide support for biomechanical stress as a factor in the etiology of the skeletal changes currently used in activity studies and will then review the most recent advances in methodological approaches in bioarchaeological studies. Finally the limitations of what we can reasonably infer about activity patterns in past populations in light of the most recent advances in skeletal biology and suggestions for future research studies will be presented.

Biography: Cynthia Wilczak received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1998. She has worked on the development of both quantitative and qualitative methods for recording entheseal changes and coauthored “Atlas of Occupational Markers on Human Remains” with Luigi Capasso and the late Kenneth AR Kennedy. As a member of a methodology working group established at the 2009 workshop on Musculoskeletal Stress Markers held at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, she has collaborated with her colleagues in developing and testing the Coimbra method for recording entheseal changes.  Her other research interests are in paleopathology, particularly disease processes that are associated with bone formation. Dr. Wilczak formerly worked in the Repatriation Laboratory at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C. and is currently an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at San Francisco State University.

Peter Kirby

Professor of Social History and Leverhulme Research Fellow, Glasgow Caledonian University

Title:  The Body and the Industrial Workplace in Britain, 1780-1850

Abstract: Before the mid-nineteenth century, ideas about the relationship between the human body and the industrial workplace were rooted largely in theoretical medical opinions and rarely informed by empirical observation. Most early medical commentaries on the ailments of industrial occupations were influenced by the theories of early authorities such as Ramazzini who ascribed workplace ailments variously to influences such as harmful vapours, raw materials and unfavourable ergonomics. Medical witnesses to early industrial inquiries seized upon ergonomics in particular to explain skeletal deformities amongst child workers in factories. It was argued that unusual postures and long periods of standing in factories led to widespread skeletal distortion and disabilities. In coalmining, meanwhile, widespread short stature and distinctive body shapes were ascribed to constrained working positions and heredity. This lecture examines how industrial influences upon physical growth and development were reported in the early nineteenth century and suggests that the high profile given to medical diagnoses at the early industrial inquiries into child health tended to divert attention from more tangible causes of industrial ill-health and injury.

Biography: Professor Kirby is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (2014) and an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (2010). He was honoured in 2014 to be an invited Visiting Professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social  Sciences (EHESS, Paris) as a guest of the French Government. Prof Kirby sits on the Executive Committee of the Economic History Society and is Chair of the Information Technology Committee. He has held academic posts in the universities of Sheffield, Sunderland and Manchester and before joining Glasgow Caledonian University he was an elected Research Associate at St John’s College, Oxford. He was appointed Professor of Social History at GCU in April 2012 and spent three years as Director of the Social History of Health and Healthcare. His main research interests are in the historic labour market and especially the health and working conditions of child workers in the past. Prof Kirby’s most recent book, Child Workers and Industrial Health, 1780-1850 (2013) discusses the illnesses, disabilities and ill-treatment of child labourers in textiles and mining. He has also published widely on the labour market in journals including Past and Present, Economic History Review and Continuity and Change and recently published an article in the Economic History Review on the attendance patterns and productivity of men in the coalmining industry.

Sébastien Villotte

CNRS Researcher, UMR 5199 PACEA.

Title: Division of Labour in European Prehistory

Abstract: Cultural anthropologists have long recognised that the age and sex of individuals determine the level of participation in activities among human groups cross-culturally. On this basis, it seems legitimate to formulate the hypothesis of a division of tasks within prehistoric European societies as well. In the absence of writing the number of possible approaches to test this hypothesis, however, is quite limited. On can analyse art manifestations depicting everyday activities, artefacts (mostly to discuss  the level of experience or specialisation needed for their realisation), grave goods, or human remains  themselves. None of these kinds of study is without limitations, but the bioanthropological approach  seems the most promising. Based on examples of studies of human remains dated from the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic, I will attempt to illustrate how to address independently (and thus avoiding circular reasoning so commonly seen in this field) task divisions in European Prehistory. The purpose of this kind of research is twofold: on the one hand it can allow to better understand the structure of these societies; on the other hand it may highlight cultural universals.

Biography: Sébastien Villotte is involved in interdisciplinary projects that focus on biological characteristics and burial practices of European Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic populations. One strand of his research focuses on the behaviour of past human populations; the main issues addressed being division of labour and workload, human-environment interactions and group mobility.

Duarte Nuno Vieira

Director and professor at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Coimbra

Title: Work, skeletal changes and identification

Biography: Duarte Nuno Vieira is visiting professor in several Portuguese, European and South American universities. He is President of the European Council of Legal Medicine, of the Ibero-American Network of Forensic Medicine and Forensic Science Institutions and of the Portuguese Association for Bodily Injury Assessment and Vice-President of the European Confederation of Experts on Evaluation and Repair of Bodily Injury. He is also Chairman of the Forensic Advisory Board of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal. He has been President of the International Academy of Legal Medicine, of the International Association of Forensic Sciences, of the World Association of Police Medical Officers, of the Mediterranean Academy of Forensic Sciences, and of the Latin American Association of Medical Law. He also had been Director of the Institute of Legal Medicine of Coimbra, President of the Portuguese National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences and of the Portuguese Medico-Legal Council and President of the Portuguese Superior Council of Legal Medicine and the College of Forensic Medicine of the Portuguese Medical Association. He is Chairman of the Thematic Federation on Legal and Forensic Medicine of the European Union of Medical Specialists. Coordinator of the Competence in evaluation of Bodily Injury group of the Medical Association. Member of the Executive Committee of the Working Group on Pathology and Forensic Anthropology of Interpol Standing Committee on Identifying Mass Disaster Victims. He works on regular basis as Temporary Forensic Consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and he is Member of the Forensic Advisory Board of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Member of the Forensic Expert Group of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, among many other functions.

João Rovisco

Serviço de Reumatologia do Centro Hospitalar de Coimbra

Title: To be confirmed


During this days, a workshop on the New Coimbra Method is also being offered. Click here for more info.

Working your fingers to the bone


July 6, 2016
July 8, 2016
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Charlotte Henderson, Ana Luisa Santos, Francisca Alves Cardoso, Sandra Assis and Alejandra Acosta.


Department of Life Sciences, University of Coimbra.
Calçada Martim de Freitas
Coimbra, Coimbra 3000-456 Portugal
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