A Window Into The Past: A Healed Fracture of the Tibia


Cleaning the bones of the adult male from grave G-155 of the Arch Street Project provided us with a fascinating window into what life would have been like for someone living in the 1700s or early 1800s in Philadelphia. The image here shows the left and right tibiae from this individual, and it is easy to see that they are not the same. The tibia on the top is normal, whereas the tibia on the bottom shows evidence of a break or fracture in the bone which has subsequently healed. Anthropologists refer to healed fractures as "antemortem" (meaning "before death"). You can see that there has been new bone growth around the place where the fracture has occurred, giving the shaft of the tibia on the bottom a “zig-zagged” appearance as opposed to the  straight appearance of the shaft of the uninjured tibia on the top. Today, a patient with a fractured tibia would have an X-ray of the bone to determine the precise location of the break, and then the bone would be supported by means of a cast, and where needed, surgical plates and screws to keep the bone stable and in the correct position during the healing process. Because the tibia is a relatively thick bone, the amount of force needed to cause a break of this type would be substantial. Modern fractures of the tibia shaft could be found associated with high energy impacts to the leg such as a motorcycle accident or a collision during skiing. Of course, we will never know for certain what might have caused the fracture in the tibia from this Arch Street individual but, in the 1700s or early 1800s when he would have lived, one could imagine that a kick from a horse might do the trick. One thing for certain is that without the benefit of modern medicine, this man would have been in tremendous pain and his gait may have been affected  for the remainder of his life.