Digging Deep: Alice Roberts

Alice Roberts

Paleopathologist Professor Alice Roberts tells Tom Ireland about working with human remains and the renaissance in TV science

The Biologist Vol 60(2) p32-35

Alice Roberts read medicine before specialising in studying disease from human bone specimens – known as paleopathology or osteoarchaeology. After appearing in Channel 4’s archaeology series Time Team in 2001, she is now a regular face on television and has presented programmes on subjects ranging from wild swimming to early human migrations. An author of books on anatomy and evolution, Roberts lives in Bristol, where she grew up, and is expecting her second child in April.

What originally drew you to paleopathology?

I don’t really know. I’ve always had a slightly morbid fascination with old bones and liked going to museums as a child. I studied medicine because I was interested in human biology. It wasn’t until I finished my degree, and did a six-month stint teaching anatomy to medical students, that I got into osteoarchaeology in a research way, and ended up as an academic.

What did you think of the recent discovery of King Richard III’s remains in a Leicester car park?

These one-off examples are exciting and it’s good for showcasing the range of techniques you might use to analyse a skeleton. But with paleopathology the real value, if you are asking scientific questions, comes from examining populations of skeletons. Then you can look at the sort of diseases our ancestors suffered from, the frequency of those diseases and how they’ve changed over time.

Do paleopathologists focus on mostly human remains?

Yes, but there are some animal specialists. Actually, once you start looking at animal pathologies, you find we have a lot in common – especially with other mammals. We tend to think osteoarthritis is a human disease but just about every land animal gets it. Also, with transmittable diseases, we can look at how and when diseases have made the jump between species.

But how do you find evidence of infectious disease in skeletal tissue?

It’s quite difficult because the response of bone to infection is fairly non- specific. Infection either causes us to make more bone or lose bone. Of course, we now have the ability to extract DNA from bone and even the DNA from the pathogen itself. There are researchers looking at lipids that are exclusive to TB – it has a kind of waxy coating. They’ve identified TB in bison from 18,000 years ago from finding these lipids.

How can studying disease in the past help us tackle it now and in the future?

I think it gives us the long view; it gives us an understanding of how a disease progresses over time. It’s also useful for archaeologists who were looking for information about what life was like at that time.

What would a paleopathologist in the year 3000 be able to infer from a group of 20th and 21st century skeletons?

Compared with skeletons from previous centuries they’d see there was an incredible leap in longevity. People’s lives were transformed by this expectation to live into their 80s and 90s. They’ll also find marks on the skeletons from diseases I would hope might have been overcome by that point – particular cancers, for example.

They’ll see an awful lot of knee osteoarthritis that they will be able to interpret as showing high levels of obesity in the population and evidence of our lifestyle. They’ll notice that people have lots of dental caries compared to older skeletons and I suppose see evidence of medicine and dentistry.

They’ll probably be utterly shocked that we were putting bits of metal in people when they’re likely to be growing new bones.

Does working with human remains get quite dark at times?

Yes. In the past I worked with a group of osteoarchaeologists in Brixton and we wrote reports for the police and archaeologists. When skeletal remains were found the Home Office pathologist would often call on us. Those remains are of people who died within years rather than centuries or millennia and they’ve often met unfortunate ends. I’ve never done battlefield or war grave archaeology and I don’t know how I’d deal with that.

Do you consider yourself an archaeologist and a biologist?

I work closely with archaeologists but field archaeology is a very specialist field and I would never call myself an archaeologist. Although I call myself an osteoarchaeologist it’s an unfortunate term really. Perhaps paleopathologist is better, though there is also ‘physical anthropologist’, but that also gets confused as some sort of social science. We haven’t quite decided what to call ourselves yet.

What’s been your most exciting discovery?

You get quite attached to certain skeletons. The ones I’ve spent most time with over the years are a group of five skeletons from a Viking site in Anglesey. I pitched in as a volunteer digger and worked over several summers on an excavation with the National Museum of Wales. I recently had another look at them and spotted something I hadn’t found before – a tiny cut on the back of the skulls. It’s the only evidence of some sort of violence.

The site is also the only evidence of a Viking settlement in Wales and it would have been en route to Ireland, so it’s a very detailed story emerging in situ which I find really interesting.

Another thing that has grabbed me was the subject of my PhD, which was looking at arthritic shoulder disease from an evolutionary point of view and whether apes and early humans also suffered from these problems.

How did you go from academia to television?

My first TV was as the ‘bone expert’ on Time Team. I pitched in with the dig and had my students working on the bones as well and it was a lovely example of TV and academia working well together. It was very different to presenting, though – that’s a broader job where you are extracting information from other contributors and trying to tell the story.

I did a spin-off series on archaeology and the BBC got in touch and decided to take a punt on me. So I’ve learnt presenting on the job – I feel it’s actually very similar to teaching.

As professor of public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham, what do you think the role of television is in communicating science to the general public?

I think that television is an incredibly important medium even in the age of the internet. Television is still a major way that people access science when they have, perhaps, stopped learning about it at school or university. You can’t underestimate its impact, especially in terms of sheer numbers. I do quite like the way it is supported by other media now – things like Twitter are fantastic, where people are asking you questions as they watch and you can respond to them.

You have to get the balance between entertainment and education right – and it has to be really compelling to make sure people don’t get up and make a cup of tea or turn over. That’s not about dumbing down, it’s just good story telling. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed is working with producers who know how to sell a story.

Are science programmes produced in the UK the best in the world?

I think we have something really special in the BBC. It’s incredibly precious we have a public service broadcaster which makes programmes that it thinks are worthwhile – not because they bring in massive audiences – and ones that other broadcasters wouldn’t be able to tackle.

There’s been a kind of a renaissance in science on television over the last 10 years and I think that reflects a change at a high level within the BBC about its programming output.

What else can scientists do to communicate their work to the public?

There are the traditional ways – giving talks, Q&As, school visits, but also there is new media. There’s been a frustration about the way science is portrayed in print media but scientists can now cut out the middle man and engage with their audience directly rather than be translated. Ask A Biologist, for instance, is a free website where people can ask advanced biology questions to a panel of 80 experts and we try to answer them within 24 hours.

We need to address the lack of trust in scientists that emerged in the 20th century. Scientists are tackling questions that should be making lives better and we need to showcase that. We should also be getting out there and encouraging the wider community to help decide the direction research goes in.

Professor Alice Roberts FSB is a clinical anatomist and professor of public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham. She has presented a range of programmes on BBC Two including The Incredible Human Journey, Origins of Us, Prehistoric Autopsy and Coast.