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Centre for Integrated Bioarchaeological Research in Health, Diet, Disease & Migration (Bioarch-HDDM)

Centre for Integrated Bioarchaeological Research in Health, Diet, Disease & Migration (Bioarch-HDDM)

A world-leading facility, enabling innovative research on life in the past.


The Bioarch-HDDM facility enables comprehensive analysis of human remains in one location, using the most up-to-date technological equipping, and providing an essential interface between field and lab-based research. The portability of key equipment also permits access to collections around the world that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Our facility is composed of four integrated laboratory spaces

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The Bioarcheology Analytical Suite

The Bioarcheology Analytical Suite is dedicated to cleaning and curating skeletons brought from archaeological sites for research. The centrepiece of this facility is the Portable Digital X-ray and X-ray lead box that is used for radiographic analyses of human remains. It also serves as a workspace for graduate students and visiting scholars when analyzing our skeletal material or working with archives of our previous bioarchaeological work.

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The Microscopy Suite

The Microscopy Suite houses 3 high-powered microscopes, including a Keyence Portable Digital microscope (with resolution up to x1000). The portable microscope can be used to examine and digitally record pathological lesions and trauma on skeletal samples from around the world. These images can then be brought back to McMaster University for analysis and integration in the digital image database and will be available for future research even if the original samples are no longer accessible.

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The Isotope Sample Preparation Suite

The Isotope Sample Preparation Suite provides a secure sample-preparation facility to prepare human tissues for staple isotope analysis, focusing on diet and migration in past human populations. This facility can also be used for the preparation of modern human tissues for isotopic analysis.

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The Brickley Bioarcheology Lab

The Brickley Bioarcheology Lab has the equipment and capacity to prepare a wide range of bone and tooth samples for further analysis, particularly histological work. Facilities include equipment for embedding bone and tooth samples in a variety of media, thin-sectioning equipment, and preparation of blocks for SEM analysis.

Current Research Projects

This SSHRC-sponsored project is quantifying evidence of vitamin D deficiency in populations from different parts of the Roman Empire and explore reasons for differences identified.


Our research has three linked objectives:

1. To examine the social and cultural factors that might contribute to vitamin D status.

2. To assess the vitamin D status of individuals of differing age, gender, and socio-economic groups, from a range of urban and rural sites from different regions and climates (England, Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal).

3. To consider the possible consequences of Vitamin D deficiency in different groups in the Roman social hierarchy across status and gender boundaries through an integration of paleopathological, funerary (e.g., grave goods) and conventional textual sources.

Ongoing excavations of the Roman period cemetery at Vagnari (1st to 4th centuries AD) in southern Italy have uncovered over 100 burials of the people who lived and worked on this rural Imperial estate.


Research projects on the collection include:

  • Analyses of burial practices and distribution of grave goods.
  • Skeletal and dental evidence for childhood stress.
  • Diet and dental health.
  • Breastfeeding, weaning, and childhood health.
  • Trauma and markers of occupational stress.
  • Geographic origins, genetic diversity, and migration.


An Interdisciplinary Study of Lead Production, Lead Exposure, and Health on an Imperial Roman Estate in Italy


Understanding the history of lead production and contamination

In the Roman world, lead was a valuable and abundant commodity with many uses that are described in ancient written sources and understood through the recovery of artefacts from archaeological sites. The toxicity of lead has led to sensational claims that lead poisoning caused the fall of the Roman Empire through its ubiquitous use in aqueducts, water pipes, household implements and medicine. However, there has been no study of the remains of individuals who are known to have been regularly exposed to lead, as indicated by archaeological evidence for lead production and lead use on the site where they once lived and worked.


What are the long-term consequences of lead in the environment?

The SSHRC-sponsored Deadly Lead project will investigate lead production and exposure among ordinary Romans using excavated artefactual and skeletal material from the Roman rural estate at Vagnari in southern Italy (1st to 4th centuries CE). The research question to be investigated is if, and to what extent, the ancient inhabitants at Vagnari were exposed to lead and lead toxicity through industrial activities and daily living at this site. Further, where did this lead come from and what was it used for? By answering these questions, this study will explore the entire picture of lead production and consumption at Vagnari, ranging from the physical context of manufacturing in the estate village, and the procurement and processing of ores, to the physiological effects of this type of industrial production on the men, women and children living at the site. The results will be of relevance to those who seek to understand this history of lead production, lead contamination, the long-term consequences of lead in the environment, and the associated risks to human health.


Principal Investigator, Dr. Tracy Prowse

Dr. Tracy Prowse (Anthropology) is the Principal Investigator, and is an expert on the study of Roman skeletal material to understand diet, health and mobility in the past. She is investigating the evidence at Vagnari for lead exposure through the quantification of lead found in teeth formed in childhood, while also compiling lead and stable isotope data on mobility. The Co-PI is Dr. Maureen Carroll (Archaeology, University of Sheffield), an expert on Roman death, burial and commemoration, particularly of infants and children. Her contribution to this project is to investigate the function of the lead artefacts from Vagnari and to conduct a study of Roman medical texts pertaining to the health risks of the metal-working industries.


Collaborating for a Brighter World

Research collaborators on this project are: Dr. Jane Evans, an isotope geochemist and the head of the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory (NIGL) at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, UK, who will conduct biochemical analysis of the lead artefacts from Vagnari to determine the origins of lead ores and their composition; and Dr. Michael Inskip, Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences program, McMaster University, who is an expert in the analysis of lead isotopes in modern biological tissues.


Learn more about the Vagnari Bioarchaeological Field School

Re-analysis of the bone fragments excavated from the Smith’s Knoll memorial site in Stoney Creek (Ontario) has contributed to on-going research on geographical origins and diet through analysis of stable isotopes, disease and trauma experienced by past groups, and development of techniques used for estimation of age at death. This 19th century sample from the War of 1812 has also been used to evaluate issues linked to disarticulated, fragmented and commingled human remains.

Bioarch-HDDM Student Projects

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Recent Graduate Student Projects

Doctoral Research

  • Matthew Emery – Migration and genetic origins in pre-Roman and Roman Italy.
  • Lori D’Ortenzio – The invisibility of old age: The potential value of tooth dentin for age estimations in older adults.
  • Rebecca Gilmour – The long-term effects of healed fracture trauma on the northern Roman frontiers.
  • Kalyna Horocholyn – The relationship between childhood health and long term effects on bone growth in medieval Poland.
  • Laura Lockau – Bioarchaeological examination of vitamin D deficiency in Roman Italy.
  • Madeleine Mant – Perimortem trauma in skeletal remains of individuals from 19th century London, UK.
  • Robert Stark – Migration and biological distance using stable isotopes and nonmetric traits.
  • Lelia Watamaniuk – Qualitative and quantitative analysis of histological techniques in the differential diagnosis of anemias in past populations.

Master’s Research

  • Lisa Semchuk – Status and isotopic evidence for diet at Vagnari, Italy.
  • Xuan Wei – An evaluation of transition analysis and mandibular ridge resorption in age estimation of older individuals.
  • Sarah Timmins – Rickets, socio-economic status and their effects on juvenile growth from the Western Roman Empire.
  • Creighton Avery – Exploring gender inequality in Roman social classes through dental health.
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Completed Bioarch-HDDM Masters Theses

  • Lia Casaca – The Representation and Weathering of Human Remains
  • Lori D’Ortenzio – An Isotopic Evaluation of Human Hair from Belleville, Ontario
  • Matthew Emery – A Stable Isotopic Investigation of the Smith’s Knoll Sample
  • Joelle Ingram – Activity and Aging in Adult Males: Investigation of Entheses and Cortical Bone from the Late Roman Site of Lisieux-Michelet in Northern France
  • Laura Lockau – Bioarchaeological Analysis of Trauma in a Skeletal Sample from Smith’s Knoll Historic Cemetery
  • Annabelle Schattman – The co-occurrence of scurvy and rickets in 16th-18th century skeletal material from Douai, France
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USRA Projects (Undergraduate Student Research Awards)

Completed through McMaster’s Experiential Education program:

  • Mara Dragomir – Analysis of Smith’s Knoll Human Skeletal Remains
  • Marissa Ledger – Analysis of Traumatic Injury on a Roman Imperial Estate (Vagnari, Italy)
  • Murray Clayton – Gender Divisions of Labour in Imperial Rome: An Investigation of Bone Loss through Paleopathological Analysis in Southern Italy
  • Helena Ramsaroop – Use of Transition Analysis for Aging Adult Skeletons

Learn more about McMaster Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRAs)

Meet the Team

Megan Brickley

Professor | Graduate Chair | Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) Bioarchaeology of Human Disease

Chester New Hall (CNH) 518
905-525-9140, ext. 24256


Tracy Prowse

Ph.D., Anthropology, McMaster University, 2001

(she/her); Associate Professor; Associate Dean Academic, Faculty of Social Sciences; Associate Editor, American Journal of Biological Anthropology

Chester New Hall, Room 514
905-525-9140, ext. 20191 (ADA Office)