Putting skulls back together again

Seems like a slow week in the archaeology world of Southeast Asia, so here’s some pictures of the archaeological material I’m working on at the centre: skeletal remains from a site in Sarawak.

Skeletons from Niah


Skeletal remains don’t last very long in the archaeological environment; these are only about 1,000 years old but they’re already quite brittle. Each bone has to be carefully dusted using a stiff-haired paintbrush before being laid out on the table. After that comes the fun part: reassembly.

Niah skeletal remains

Which is a lot harder than it sounds, considering I never had a background in biology! Lucky for me, one of the other MA students also works at the local hospital as a forensic scientist. He taught me the tricks of putting a skull together, first by identifying pieces with similar thickness, and also through the lines found in the inner skull. Very much like a jigsaw puzzle in 3D – with a lot of the pieces missing. On my first try, it took me half an hour to get my first match. After that it’s a matter of cleaning the edges with a chemical solvent and then gluing them together. The pieces are set on a small sandbox overnight and then, voila! You’ve got one less piece to worry about.

Needless to say, it’s all painstaking work! All the remains (we’ve got a few skeletons) are fragmentary so it we use the skeleton model to cross-check where each piece might go. After an afternoon of searching, I only managed to pieces four pairs of skull fragments together before I got fuzzy-eyed.

Related Books:
Early History (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia) by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (Ed)
Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton
Human Osteology, Second Edition
Human Skeletal Remains: Excavation, Analysis, Interpretation
Bioarchaeology: The Contextual Analysis of Human Remains (Bioarchaeology) (Bioarchaeology)

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

4 thoughts on “Putting skulls back together again”

  1. wow that’s so cool! im a biologist by background and what you’re doing is really some serious work 🙂

    are you based in KL? i might be going there soon maybe we can meet up hahaha!

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