Nelson’s Skeleton Crew

The Napoleonic Wars were a series of battles from 1803 to 1815, declared between Napoleon’s French Empire and various coalitions, with Great Britain as a primary combatant. While Napoleon’s armies were fierce on the land, Great Britain’s navy ruled the sea with Admiral Nelson as their star leader. The British navy was known for its prowess, and the Battles of the Nile and Trafalgar solidified this. However, while the navy as a whole had reached a new level of success and efficiency, the bones of the sailors tell us a new side of the story.

Excavations over the past years of British Royal Navy cemeteries from the mid-18th to early 19th century have unearthed the remains of numerous sailors. Detailed examination has been conducted of 340 skeletons, including 120 skeletons from Greenwich, 50 from Gosport and 170 from Plymouth. Archaeologists have looked at the remains in order to better understand the conditions and life of British sailors during the Napoleonic wars. Not only were they able to learn more about life as a sailor in the British Royal Navy, but comparison between the cemeteries showed the variation in these conditions. The results of this examination aired as the television series: Nelson’s Navy: Back From the Dead

The television segment focused on the remains of six individuals. There is little information about the sailors from textual or historical records, so osteological evidence is extremely important for understanding their lives.

The first individual, an adult male, had serious fractures on his jawbone, elbow, humerus, wrist bones and a high number of other fractures throughout his remains. This suggests a serious fall, although signs of healing show that he survived this fall. His muscular attachments and stature led them to determine that he was a smaller individual with a gracile physique. They infer from this that he was a ‘top man’, a man who worked in the rigging of the sails. Since it is recorded in captain’s logs that ‘top men’ rarely fell accidentally, archaeologists believe that the individual was likely to have fallen during a battle. The masts and sails were often the target of cannons in order to incapacitate the ship.

The second individual was a child between 11 and 13 based on the length and fusion of his bone and the development of his teeth. From the knee down on his left side he was missing his leg. The scars of amputation remain on the skeleton, likely due to trauma and infection. Young boys who were either delinquents or orphans were often put into the navy. One out of ten sailors were young boys would were learning the trade from the older men. They were often ‘powder monkeys’ in the heat of battle, running powder to the cannons. Shrapnel from exploded walls, shards of broken wood and cannon balls, could have led to this boy losing his leg. Splinters of wood were recorded as being a major source of injury. It was likely the amputation was conducted on-board.

The third individual is an adult in his thirties, about 5’7″ with an extremely robust upper body suggesting large muscles. His build suggests he was a gunner, one of the most important roles in the British Royal Navy. One of his feet had the large toe crushed, which could have been caused by the backlash movement of the cannon during battle. Strontium isotope analysis showed that he was likely American. Further, periostitis, a fine layer of new bone across his long bones, is a possible sign was he vitamin C deficient and therefore suffering from scurvy.

To learn about the other three (the marine, the bare-knuckle fighter, and the lusty sailor)  you will have to watch the show for yourself, which is something I highly suggest anyway!

What I like aout this program, and others like it (Gladiators: Back from the Dead), is that it shows the wealth of information that we can get when we combine osteological evidence with historical and archaeological evidence. While this type of program does tend to take the interpretations beyond the evidence, it does so in a way that more suggests possibilities rather than stating facts. While we do need to be careful with our interpretations and remember the limits of our evidence, it is nice to see a program that draws from evidence to provide a popular version of bioarchaeology.


One response to “Nelson’s Skeleton Crew

  1. Pingback: The Diet of Nelson’s Navy « Bones Don't Lie·

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