Human comparative collection

Human remains.

Hand-coloured steel engraving from Dr Joseph Nicolas Masse's Pocket Anatomy of the Human Body, first published in 1848. © Florilegius/The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London 

The Museum's human comparative collection is one of the largest collections of human remains in the UK, comprising around 25,000 individuals and representing a worldwide distribution of the human population.

25,000

Individuals represented

Origins of the collection

The remains of about 600 individuals were transferred from the British Museum to the Natural History Museum just before it opened at South Kensington in 1881.

A number of donations were made to the Museum over the following decades, and major collections were transferred from the Royal College of Surgeons and the University of Oxford in the mid-twentieth century.

The Museum collection is comprised of remains from over 50 countries, covering all of the inhabited continents. Around half of the remains originate from archaeological excavations in the British Isles.

Historically important collections

in the department include the Greenwell and Rolleston collection, the Poundbury collection, the Nubian Pathology collection and the Christ Church Spitalfields crypt.

Greenwell and Rolleston collection

This collection contains the remains of over 200 individuals from the Bronze Age. It was excavated by archaeologist Canon Greenwell and noted physician and zoologist George Rolleston.

The individuals were found in barrows in Yorkshire and neighbouring counties, with most of the material from the graves now stored at the British Museum.

The Bronze Age in Britain is usually said to have lasted from around 2,100 BC to 750 BC. The period was characterised by the presence of more complex metal tools after around 1,500 BC and clear evidence of human migration from the continent to the British Isles.

Poundbury collection

These human remains from Roman Dorchester date from the first to the fourth century, and were excavated between 1966 and 1987.

Remains from around 1,000 individuals are held at the Museum, while materials from the graves are stored at Dorchester's Dorset County Museum. There are more than 100 published studies on this collection.

Human skull.

Romano-British human cranium from Poundbury in Dorset

 

Nubian pathology collection

This collection consists of around 80 individuals excavated at the seventh-century cemetery of Biga in Nubia, Sudan. It was donated to the Museum by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1948.

The individuals in the collection show of a range of pathologies, including:

  • cancer of the cranial base
  • cleft palate
  • hydrocephaly
  • inflammation in response to trauma
  • leprosy
  • mastoiditis
  • paraplegia
  • Pott's disease

Christ Church Spitalfields crypt

Currently on loan to the Museum, this collection is comprised of the remains of over 900 individuals from the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields. These are the remains of Londoners who lived between 1646 and 1859.

Documentation exists detailing the sex, age at death and occupation of around a third of the individuals. This collection is the subject of forensic, clinical, historical and archaeological research.

Human skeleton.

Romano-British perinatal human remains from Poundbury in Dorset

Collections team

Principal Curator

Dr Heather Bonney

Curator

Dr Rachel Ives

Curatorial assistant

Jennifer White

Any questions?

If you would like to use any specimens for research, please get in touch

Accessing the Human Comparative Collection

Access to the collection for academic research is restricted to researchers affiliated with universities and associated institutions.

Please contact the curator to request an application form.

Opportunities for employment, work experience and volunteering in the anthropology collections are advertised in the Museum's careers section.

Publications

Molleson T and Cox M (1993). The Spitalfields Project. Volume 2: The Anthropology - The Middling Sort. CBA Research Report No 86, Council for British Archaeology, York, UK.

Molleson TI (1993). The Nubian Pathology Collection in the Natural History Museum, London. In: Davies WV, Walker R, eds. Biological Anthropology and the Study of Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press, London p. 136-143.

Farwell D and Molleson TI (1993). Excavations at Poundbury, Volume 2: The Cemeteries. DNHAS Monograph Series No 11, Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society, Dorchester, UK.

Collections management

Our duty is to provide a safe and secure environment for all of our collections.