How do the environments and social structures that we create and modify to suit our needs affect the individuals that live and work within those environments? Bioarchaeology and political ecology provide novel means by which to understand how the environments we create, both social environments and our modifications of the natural environment, can affect the body and individuals’ health disproportionately. This dissertation uses osteological analyses, historic records, trace element analysis (arsenic, barium, and lead), and isotopic analyses (various lead isotopes as well as strontium 87/86) to evaluate how different types of anthropogenic environments can be retained within and have an effect upon the body. Key in this dissertation is how anthropogenic environments and industrial practices transformed environments during the Industrial Revolution in England, and how individuals’ interaction with their environments depended upon elements of their biosocial identity and the inequality present within society, both of which ultimately dictate what environments individuals can access. Accordingly, the anthropogenic processes that transformed environments in England and which were prevalent during the industrial period were a systemic threat that had far reaching consequences throughout the country, and possibly the world.
This dissertation studies two archaeological collections of individuals from England during the Industrial Revolution. Neither collection is extreme in being either completely industrial and urban, or completely rural and agrarian. Instead, these collections fall within the mid-range of industrialization, though one is larger and more industrialized than the other. The more industrial population was buried at St. Hilda’s parish in South Shields, a large industrial town with a variety of industries that include nearby coal mines and the construction of ships and steam engines. The more agrarian population was buried at St. Peter’s church in Barton-upon-Humber, a small market town focused on agriculture. These collections were chosen, as was this time period, because they represent populations of individuals who lived during dramatic environmental change, but before environmental and occupational legislation was passed to prevent pollution and job-related hazards. Therefore, this dissertation focuses on the extent to which individuals were exposed to the pollutants present in their environments, and how this exposure occurred disproportionately based on aspects of their identity and the regions in which they lived.
Prior to osteological and sample analyses, it was predicted that the population from St. Hilda’s would have experienced greater pollutant exposure and adverse health outcomes than the population from St. Peter’s, and that this could be seen in the concentration of key trace elements in their bones. It was also predicted that men from St. Hilda’s should have greater concentrations of trace elements in their bones compared to women due to the more hazardous nature of men’s work during this time period. Furthermore, it was predicted that as a consequence of the concentrations of trace element pollutants in individual’s bones, the population from St. Hilda’s would have experienced a greater variety of negative health outcomes associated with exposure.
The findings of this dissertation do not support all of these predictions, however. There were no differences in stature between the two populations, indicating that either there was some buffer in South Shields that protected the individuals from St. Hilda’s from the causative factors of decreased stature, or that there were similar hazards in both South Shields and Barton-upon-Humber. There were also a significantly greater number of older women among the population from St. Hilda’s compared to St. Peter’s, further reinforcing this finding. In regard to the pollutants present in both environments, there were harmful concentrations of different trace element pollutants in the skeletal samples from both populations (lead among those from St. Peter’s, and barium and arsenic among those from St. Hilda’s), and women from St. Hilda’s show significantly higher levels of arsenic and barium in their bodies compared to men. Furthermore, the men from St. Peter’s had significantly greater skeletal concentrations of lead compared to the men from Sr. Hilda’s.
The findings of this dissertation contradict the assumptions that the countryside and more rural environments provided safe and clean escapes from industrial cities and towns, and that women experienced fewer hazards in terms of pollutant exposure compared to men. Instead, there was continuity in environments throughout England during the Industrial Revolution such that the major changes and processes that occurred in industrial cities affected the entire country. A more agrarian town like Barton-upon-Humber was not immune to the pollutants and harmful effects of industry. However, living in a larger and more industrial town like South Shields was not entirely harmful to its population, either. Potential routes of exposure to pollutants and toxic compounds include not only occupational exposure, but also exposure as a result of burning coal in the home and workplace for heat, energy, and to cook food, as well as the use of goods made with toxic compounds – “silent killers” that could be found in homes throughout the country.