Adolescence, Puberty and Health: Bioarchaeological Approaches

Puberty and Adolescent Growth Workshop 2020

All available spaces for the Puberty and Adolescence in Bioarchaeology workshop 2020, have been filled and the registration page has been closed.

Follow the link above for resources to accompany the workshop in July 2020.

Adolescence in BioarchaeologyProf Lewis

The study of adolescence has been a central concern to human biologists, psychosocial, behavioural scientists, neurobiologists, geneticists, and social historians for decades, but is only just emerging as an area of interest in bioarchaeology. While the study of child skeletal remains (non-adults) has become central to our understanding of the past, the absence of research into this unique stage of the human life course is evident. The adolescent period encompasses physical and psychological changes encompassing sexual maturation (puberty) and emotional preparedness for the adult world. It is a complex and dynamic stage of life, and while it is universal, its experience is contextual and individually tailored, dependant on social status, religion, location, culture and family circumstances. Puberty itself provides a window of opportunity for measuring and understanding health before and during adolescence, both today and in the past. All of these factors make it a rich area of study for the bioarchaeologists.

Puberty MethodsAdolescent Skeletal features

At Reading, our research explores adolescent health in combination with the physical changes associated with puberty. In 2013 we published the first of a series of papers outlining a method to identify stages of puberty in children aged 10-25 years, using particular skeletal maturation markers adapted from current medical practice. Results suggest that children entered puberty at the same time as today (between 10-13 years), but took longer to reach each stage, and some individuals died at 25 years, before competing their development. We proposed methods to identify the age of menarche, showing that in London girls finished the majority of their growth and had their first bleed around the age of 17 years, compared to 15 years in the less urbanised medieval sites and 12.5 years today. In addition, infections sic as TB significantly delayed the progress of puberty. Works continues to refine these methods and to explore puberty in individuals and populations from different periods and geographical regions.

Key Publications:

Shapland F, and Lewis ME. 2013. Brief communication: A proposed osteological method for the estimation of pubertal stage in human skeletal remains. AJPA 151(2):302-310.  

Shapland F, and Lewis ME. 2014. A proposed method for the assessment of pubertal stage in human skeletal remains using cervical vertebrae maturation. AJPA 153(1):144-153.

Lewis ME, Shapland F, and Watts R. 2016. On the threshold of adulthood: A new approach for the use of maturation indicators to assess puberty in adolescents from medieval England. American Journal of Human Biology 28(1):48-56.  Accepted Version Here

Lewis ME, Shapland F, and Watts R. 2015. The influence of chronic conditions and the environment on pubertal development. An example from medieval England. International Journal of Paleopathology 12:1-10.

Public facing articles:

Falys C. And Lewis ME. 2020. Puberty in the Past. The Archaeologist, 109: 10-11

Lewis, ME. 12 Feb 2018. Children aren't starting puberty younger, medieval skeletons reveal. The Conversation. Here

PhD projects exploring Puberty and adolescent health:

Valme, S-R. 2019. Puberty and Adolescent Health in Post-Medieval England (1550-1850). Awarding Body: University of Reading.

McGovern, C 2019. Coming of Age as a Woman in Roman Britain: physical development and the life course from puberty through adulthood. Awarding Body: University of Reading.

Medieval Adolescence

In 2011-2014 we ran a Leverhulme Trust funded project exploring evidence for occupational hazards (disease, trauma) and migration (lead and strontium isotope analysis) in young inhabitants from urban and rural medieval England. The project was carried out in collaboration with Prof Janet Montgomery (Department of Archaeology, Durham University), and research fellows Dr Fiona Shapland and Dr Rebecca Watts. Research student, Petra Verlinden conducted research on the identification of child trauma. The final sample comprised 4940 individuals aged 10-25 years and represents the largest group of adolescent skeletons ever studied in the archaeological record.

 Urban Trauma (14-17yrs)














The results revealed that males and females had very different patterns of trauma and joint lesions, with males displaying more evidence of interpersonal violence and females showing spinal lesions indicative of hard manual labour in domestic service. Females also carried the burden of infectious diseases, with double the prevalence of TB, sinusitis and treponemal disease than the males. Both urban and rural adolescents showed evidence for occupational pathology from the age of 10 years. Watch a video of Prof. Mary Lewis talking about the project to the public at the University of Victoria, British Colombia here.

Key Publications:

Lewis ME. 2016. Work and the Adolescent in Medieval England (AD 900-1550). The osteological evidence. Medieval Archaeology 60.

Shapland F, Lewis ME, and Watts R. 2015. The Lives and Deaths of Young Medieval Women: The Osteological Evidence. Medieval Archaeology 59(1):272-289.

Verlinden P. 2015. Child's Play? A New Methodology for the Identification of Trauma in Non-adult Skeletal Remains. PhD Thesis: University of Reading.

Verlinden P, and Lewis ME. 2015. Childhood trauma: methods for the identification of physeal fractures in non-adult skeletal remains. AJPA 157(3):411-420.

Dewitte, S and Lewis ME. in press. Medieval menarche: Changes in pubertal timing before and after the Black Death. American Journal of Human Biology.


Research continues into the evidence for migration among the males and females from York and Lincolnshire, in addition to the extent of lead exposure and its impact on their health.

Lewis ME. and Montgomery J. in prep. Mapping Migration: lead concentrations in medieval adolescents from England. Implications for migration and health.

...and in exploring adolescent health before and after the Black Death in England

Botta, F. in progress. Was Childhood Health Declining in the Period leading up to the Black Death?


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