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Medieval jawbone

Kevin Mackenzie

Download this image from Wellcome Collection.

Bird's-eye view of a micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scan of a medieval human lower jawbone. X-rays were used to take 4800 virtual 'slices' of the jaw, which were made into a digital model. Colours and textures were then added to highlight the teeth (coloured blue) and bone (coloured brown). As the real jawbone is a precious sample, the digital model was subsequently cut and its teeth extracted virtually; the different levels of mineralisation present in each tooth could then be visualised and colour-coded without causing any physical damage to the real specimen. The lower jawbone, or mandible, is a horseshoe-shaped bone that holds the lower teeth. It is the strongest, largest bone in the face.

How old is the jawbone in this image?

The jawbone belongs to a child buried in the eighth- to tenth-century cemetery at Raunds, Northamptonshire, making it approximately 1000-1300 years old. This archaeological sample was curated by the Biological Anthropology Research Centre at the University of Bradford, which specialises in analysing human skeletal remains.

How was this image created?

As the jawbone is a precious archaeological sample, a non-destructive imaging technique was used to help researchers look inside it. Micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) uses X-rays to depict an object in the same way as a CT scan in a hospital, except on a smaller scale and in higher resolution.

Kevin explained: "We were looking at teeth mineralisation and were interested in the teeth forming within the jawbone. Micro-CT was the best option but unfortunately my micro-CT would not scan such a large sample, so we travelled to Belgium to SkyScan (now Bruker) to use their large micro-CT machine. This was part of a joint project with the University of Bradford. The scan took over six hours to complete. The first time the jaw moved during the scan so it had to be rescanned, but with only ten minutes to go the whole complex had a power cut. So we left the sample with the company and they rescanned again and this time everything worked."

The resulting dataset was used to create a 3D digital reconstruction of the jawbone, which can be virtually sliced and rotated as required to reveal fine details inside the object. It was obtained through the Timelines in Teeth project funded by the National Environment Research Council, in collaboration with Dr Janet Montgomery at Durham University, Dr Julia Beaumont at the University of Bradford and Dr Phil Salmon at SkyScan/Bruker.