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A close up of a lower jawbone with deformed teeth

Our archaeologists have helped shed new light on the health of children living in North East England during the Industrial Revolution.

A new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, involves the analysis of remains excavated from a former Quaker burial ground on Coach Lane, North Shields, in the North East of England in 2010. 

Our Department of Archaeology curates the Coach Lane collection and our scientists analysed the bones for evidence of vitamin D deficiency. 

Vitamin D deficiency explained 

Vitamin D can be ingested as part of our diet, especially in food such as fish and eggs, but most of our vitamin D is produced in our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight.  

Our analysis of the skeletons from Coach Lane showed a very high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency during the 18th and 19th century, leading to high rates of rickets.  

Rickets is a condition that affects bone development in children and causes pain, poor growth and soft, weak bones that can lead to bowing deformities and fractures. 

Dental tissue analysis 

In this latest study, microscopic analysis of teeth from the Coach Lane collection, in collaboration with researchers at The University of Otago, New Zealand, revealed the prevalence of rickets was even higher than anticipated. 

Around three-quarters of the 25 individuals examined showed evidence of poor mineral metabolism during childhood. 

The researchers also found evidence that the disorder was linked to the seasons, with the condition worsening during the winter months when sunlight hours are reduced.  

Gender difference discovered 

Our scientists have been developing a new method of sex estimation from the teeth and the application of this method here showed for the first time that boys were more likely to suffer from vitamin D deficiency than girls in this sample.  

This might be related to social dynamics such as gendered work practices in industrial England. 

Given the importance of vitamin D for immune function as well as bone mineralisation and other biological processes, this study has significant implications for the overall health of children during this time as well as for our understanding of vitamin D in the present. 

Find out more 

  • Our Department of Archaeology is a leading centre for the study of archaeology and is ranked 10th in the world. We are an inclusive, vibrant and international community. Our students develop knowledge and gain essential and transferable skills through research-led teaching and lab-based training.  
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