Lessons learned from broken bones

You don’t need to break your bones to become an expert on ancient injuries. But for Rebecca Gilmour, repeated fractures are part of her enduring fascination with bone trauma. Photo by J.D. Howell

A vinyl skeleton grins down at Rebecca Gilmour from the wall in her office, where she is casually holding a skeletal foot.

“It’s a model,” she’s quick to clarify, perhaps because she’s just been talking about handling ancient human remains — in Austria, Italy, Hungary and the U.K., to name a few.

Gilmour, an assistant professor of anthropology, studies bone trauma and broken limbs in ancient Roman remains. It’s like kinesiology, she explains, but applied to archeology: You’re studying how the body moves and works, but the body in question is really, really old.

She is one of several anthropologists at Mac whose work on health in ancient civilizations holds implications for modern-day health and resilience.

“I do a combination of paleopathology and biomechanics,” she says. “I look at health and disease in the past, but also at how people responded to activity and loading and the sort of habitual strains and stresses we put on our skeletons day to day.

“And I look at the long-term consequences of trauma, their recovery from broken bones and their response to these injuries.”

Gilmour has been fascinated by broken bones her whole life, she says, “and it’s not just because I’ve broken so many of my own.”

How many is that, exactly? She cheerfully launches into a list of injuries.

“When I was a kid, I broke an arm Roller-Blading, and I broke another arm snowboarding,” she starts off. “Then I broke my leg horseback riding And as I got older, I broke my leg in a car accident again.

“Then two years ago, I broke my leg in another horseback riding accident, and I spent a year and a half on a ‘peg leg’ knee crutch …” It made for great conversations at academic conferences where she was presenting her work on bone trauma, she says with a laugh.

You can learn a lot about an individual’s lifestyle and the circumstances from their bone injuries, Gilmour explains.

You can reconstruct an injury based on the nature of the fracture and figure out what caused it, she explains. And that can tell you what the person might have been doing to get that fracture — the level and nature of activity.

Then, if you look at broader patterns of injury and the distributions of injuries, you might get a sense of the social circumstances people lived in, she says.

“In some places, men tend to have injuries that are really active and reflective of work in the fields and with animals and in really physical situations, and sometimes women have injuries that are more reflective of falling on outstretched hands,” she says. “And sometimes there’s no difference at all, because males and females are doing the same things in that particular society.”

How individuals respond and adapt to injuries sometimes offers an insight into how their society treated physical impairments.

A lot of things — financial situation and socioeconomic status, age and gendered identities, cultural affiliation — play into how we approach injury and recovery, Gilmour points out.

If an individual was richer, perhaps they could afford to take it easy after an injury. But if they were a labourer, they probably had to work through a higher level of discomfort.

While her work is rooted in the past, it resonates today. Gilmour mentions a number of contemporary studies that look at pain and pain response, and how some people push through injury.

“Two people can experience the exact same pain and have very different responses to that pain,” she notes. The more we know about the way diverse populations respond to injuries, the easier it might be for medical professionals and rehabilitation practitioners to treat them.

Gilmour also wants to work on adapting a clinical method for bioarchaeological use that could allow researchers to analyze bone amounts even when there’s only a small portion of bone available.

“If that takes off, it’ll allow me to revisit some of my other data, because I have X-rays from all of the arm and leg bones from so many different sites,” she says.

As well, she hopes to begin studying age-related bone loss and fragility fractures in ancient populations, with the possibility of investigating long-term consequences of injuries and frailty.

With all that on the go, the best part of Gilmour’s job is still teaching, she says. Of the courses she runs — including a popular first-year class called Sex, Food and Death — her favourites are the ones about bones.

Gilmour plans to have labs where her fourth-year bioarcheology students will work with human bone and apply some the methods they learn to put together and complete a hands-on research project.

“Then they can create their own knowledge,” she says. “They can start with nothing but a sample of historic archaeological remains and come up with really interesting, well-researched stories about who these people were and what they did and what they experienced.”

Just as her experiences with fractures contributed to her research interests, Gilmour’s findings affected how she handles her own injuries.

“As far as I can tell from the evidence I have available, ancient Romans just kind of got on with their lives after they hurt themselves,” she says. “Sometimes the fractures healed— there usually was no surgery and no way to make the bones restore perfectly, so it may not have been ideal. But even in these cases, these ancient Romans didn’t seem to show any evidence that suggested that their mobility was impacted.

“I think they had to just keep going. They had to remain active and mobile, they had to support themselves and their dependents, even if it was uncomfortable. And I thought: If they could do it, I can do it.”

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