Can We Interpret Smoking Habits in Historic Skeletal Remains?

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

This semester I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to teach an introductory archaeology course that I designed from scratch. This week of teaching is definitely my favorite week- its about bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology. In class yesterday, the lecture taught the students what can be interpreted from human remains including age, sex, ancestry, disease and health, and trauma. One of the important things I make sure to stress when we’re doing this discussion (beyond the fact that we are looking at the biological and not cultural side of human remains) is that we are missing a large piece of evidence when we study bones- the soft tissue. We can learn a lot about disease, health and trauma, but only if it occurred in a manner that caused changes in the bone. So many things that cause death don’t leave marks on the bone. I would have thought that smoking habits would have fallen under this category of something that we wouldn’t be able to see in human remains. A recent study by Walker and Henderson (2010) argues otherwise.


Smokers in an Inn via Wikimedia

The negative effects of smoking weren’t fully realized until the mid-20th century, and before the 20th century, a low life expectancy didn’t let us recognize the full range of adverse health effects. However, looking at smoking habits in the past could help us better interpret social status, gender and general quality of life. Walker and Henderson (2010) examined human remains from the cemetery of the Catholic mission of St Mary and St Michael, a lower class cemetery located in London. The cemetery was only in use for ten years during the mid-19th century, although during this short period over 750 people were buried there. The burials were excavated in 2005 and 2006, and studied by the team at the Museum of London.


St Mary and St Michael, Whitechapel, London: individual [1099] with ‘pipe facet’, via Walker and Henderson 2010

St Mary and St Michael, Whitechapel, London: individual [1099] with ‘pipe facet’, via Walker and Henderson 2010

In order to examine smoking habits, Walker and Henderson (2010) examined the teeth of the individuals from this sample. They examined the teeth of 705 individuals, including both adults and sub-adults, for evidence of smoking. There were two types of evidence in the teeth that could indicate smoking: 1) smoking a pipe can cause the teeth to wear down and lead to a notch in the teeth where the pipe sits, or 2) staining on the tongue-facing surfaces of teeth as a result of the tar from burning tobacco.


In the adult sample of 268 individuals, 58 of them (23.4 %) showed signs of a notch in the teeth from habitual use of a clay pipe. When the upper and lower teeth of these individuals was placed together, a clear circular notch could be seen. Staining on the teeth indicating tobacco smoking was found in 32 of the 58 individuals (55.8%) who had evidence of pipe facets in their teeth, and 8 individuals (4%) who didn’t have any pipe facets had evidence of tar staining on their teeth indicative of cigarette smoking. In both cases of pipe facets and tar staining, the individuals were overwhelmingly male. Only 2 females had evidence of a pipe facet, 3 had evidence of tar stains, and only 1 had both a pipe facet and tar stains. There was a high amount of ante-mortem tooth loss in this sample (pre-death tooth loss) which may mean that the actual number of people smoking may have been much higher.

They also examined the presence of bone buildup and lesions on the interior of the ribs that could be indicative of respiratory issues such as lung cancer or infections of the lungs.  They found that 26.5% of all individuals from the sample, both those with evidence of smoking and those without, had signs of lesions on the interior of their ribs. 40% of individuals with pipe facets or staining also had lesions on the ribs. Both these numbers are high given that the upper class cemetery at St Marylebone had only 4% of lesions on the interior of the ribs.

Walker and Henderson (2010) argue that this evidence shows that pipe smoking was more popular among the lower class in London, and would have had a detrimental effect on their health. Among the individuals with evidence of tar stains and pipe facets, there was increased lesions on the interior of their ribs and they tended to die at a younger age than those who didn’t have stains or facets. Victorian literature supports this perspective, with a quote from a historic text stating that pipe smoking was “seen as an essential part of working class culture” (Walker and Henderson 2010). The tobacco industry didn’t grow among upper classes until later in the 19th century. During the period when the cemetery at the Catholic mission of St Mary and St Michael was open, smoking was a male activity among lower classes, especially immigrants, and was considered a communal and social activity.

What is really interesting about this article is that Walker and Henderson (2010) are able to connect the evidence in the skeletal remains to a lot of text, art and propaganda from this period of history. Their study confirms what we know from text- that pipe smoking was a lower class activity and that it has negative effects on health. It is always interesting when we can make these types of comparisons. By adding the osteological evidence to the historical texts, it makes our interpretations of the past so much deeper and well-grounded.

Works Cited

Walker, D., & Henderson, M. (2010). Smoking and health in London’s East End in the first half of the 19th century Post-Medieval Archaeology, 44 (1), 209-222 DOI: 10.1179/174581310X12662382629373

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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