“These twisted bones”: Calvin Wells and the Study of Cremations

Guest post by Clare Rainsford

Clare is a PhD researcher at the University of Bradford, studying animal remains in Anglo-Saxon burials from eastern England and Norfolk in particular. I blog about animals, archaeology and creative engagement with the past at fromthebonesoftheland.wordpress.com. Follow Clare on Twitter.

Edited Cremated fragments BA L63.jpg
Cremated Bronze Age fragments

“Yet we cannot lightly dismiss these twisted bones as of no consequence when we recall how widely scattered is their occurrence in both time and space.” (Wells 1960)

In 1960, an article by Calvin Wells was published in the archaeological journal Antiquity, entitled “A Study of Cremation”. The article begins:

“Almost nothing is known about early cremations, and as a result of this, our problem resolves itself into two main divisions:

  • To try and find out something about the population with which we are dealing, the sex ratio, age at death, individual pathology, and similar matters.
  • To throw some light on the techniques and rituals of the actual cremation…”

Until the advent of Christianity in the 7th century AD, cremation was a common means of disposing of the dead, practised in Britain from at least the Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC), although how common it was and how much of the population it represented varied widely according to time period and geographical area. Yet the article published by Wells in 1960 was the first serious study of cremated bone published in the English language and working on British material. While well-known within the archaeological record in England, it was typically assumed that cremated bone was of no use and could provide no information about past populations or burial practices beyond the fairly self-evident fact that it was cremated. The process of consigning a person to the flames was assumed to destroy all of the morphological markers which were used on buried skeletons to tell whether it was male or female, old or young, or had any evident pathologies. In 1930, an eminent Swedish anthropologist recommended in a letter to the Chief Inspector of Antiquities in Stockholm: “…my considered opinion, based on experience, [is] that cremated remains of human bones in burial urns are almost always devoid of any anthropological interest… [T]hese bones are of no scientific value, and I consider that nothing is lost if they are neither submitted to nor preserved in the Museum.” (Furst 1930, quoted in Gejvall 1969: 468). This was the attitude which prevailed in Britain until the publication of Wells’ article in 1960.

Cremated Bronze Age fragments

The body of A Study of Cremation is a case study of the cremated bone from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Illington, Norfolk.  In the east of England, and particularly in Norfolk, where Calvin Wells was based, large cremation cemeteries dating to the early Anglo-Saxon period (5th-7th century) and numbering hundreds or even thousands of urns are a common feature of the archaeological record. The abrupt change in burial method from minimally-furnished inhumation in the preceding Late Roman period indicates the practice was imported, perhaps as part of the practices of a diaspora community, from the Continent where it was more common. These cemeteries form a significant part of the relatively sparse archaeological record of the 5th-7th century. Illington itself was excavated in the 1950s for the Ministry of Works, and comprised just over 100 cremations.

Cremated molar.jpg
Cremated molar

Wells’ analysis demonstrated that you could identify age and sex from at least a proportion of cremations, based on such factors as (for age) size, deciduous / adult teeth, and bone fusion. Sex determination was substantially more subjective, with size and robusticity most often the only indicators used. Substantial space was also given to considering techniques of burning. In this, Wells was building on the work of Nils-Gustaf Gejvall, whose work he references within the article. Gejvall was analysing and publishing on cremated bone from Swedish sites in the 1950s, although his early publications were in Swedish, making them largely inaccessible to the broader British archaeological community. With the aid of J.E. King from the British Museum, Wells also identified animal bone within 21% percent of the human cremations from Illington – mostly sheep, but also horse, cattle, pig and dog – which were considered to have been included on the pyre as grave offerings. Recent reanalysis of the Illington assemblage has shown that Wells’ work contained important, if understandable, inaccuracies. Specifically, Wells tended to overstate what could be confidently said, particularly in terms of assigning age and sex. Animal bone in cremations was also underidentified, especially bone from larger mammal – in one cremation from Illington, several elements of horse probably representing a complete skeleton had passed undetected.  While not up to modern standards, the impact of Wells’ work was such that it was made impossible for anyone to claim thereafter that cremated bone was neither useful nor informative.

The impact of Wells’ article, and of his subsequent work in analysing cremated material

Cremated petrous temporal of child
Cremated petrous temporal bone from a child

sent to him by excavators, is hard to overstate. As late as 1967, Wells was almost the only palaeopathologist in Britain who regularly analysed cremated bone, but his work was sufficient to change perspectives on the usefulness and therefore curation practices for cremations. Prior to 1960, since cremated bone was considered to be effectively useless, it was not considered important to keep cremated bone which had been excavated. While artefacts and urns excavated from cremation sites were highly valued for their use in constructing typological and chronological sequences, cremated bone was for the most part discarded on site. This practice has decimated archives. Of the 70-80 burials excavated from the Castle Acre cemetery (Norfolk) between 1851 and 1897, none of the cremated bone survives, although other parts of the material archive remain in store at Norwich Castle Museum. For other sites, discard policies were more sporadic, although no less unhelpful. At the Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Caistor-by-Norwich (Norfolk), excavated during the 1930s, what was retained of the cremated bone were examples that the excavator found interesting – primarily individual elements of burnt animal bone and milk teeth from cremations of children. From this large and clearly important cemetery, containing at least 370 cremations, the material archive which survives consists of one shoebox with a few fragments of cremated bone from 43 cremations, any objects from within the cremations, and a store room with serried ranks of empty urns.

Cremation Urn
An Anglo-Saxon cremation urn

Nor are these isolated examples. One of the central problems for modern researchers looking at Anglo-Saxon cremation practices in East Anglia is that most cemeteries were excavated before their importance was understood. The earliest record of their (albeit inadvertent) excavation dates as far back as the 16th century, when it was recorded that “yn digging of a balke or mere in a folde” in Norfolk, many “yerthen pottes” were found, containing cremated human remains.  Later, cremation cemeteries were regularly the target of antiquarian or early professional excavators in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Castle Acre and Caistor-by-Norwich. Within Norfolk, a survey of Historic Environment Record data indicates that there were 29 early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemeteries excavated prior to 1960, of which four (Castle Acre, Caistor-by-Norwich, Brettenham and Illington) contained over 100 cremations each. Of these twenty-nine cemeteries, only the archive from Illington survives intact – and this can be attributed to Wells’ influence.

From 1960 onwards, archives were generally retained, but many fewer cremation cemeteries have been excavated. Only 15 cemeteries containing early Anglo-Saxon cremations were excavated in Norfolk between 1960 and the present, and the majority of these are predominantly inhumation cemeteries with a handful of cremation burials. Only one large cemetery has been excavated and fully analysed, and this cemetery is Spong Hill, which has determined much of what is known about Anglo-Saxon cremation burial in eastern England. This is partly due to its very large size, but partly due to the lack of other large cemeteries to act as comparanda. Our understanding of Anglo-Saxon cremation burial has tended to rest on a few very large and well-published sites – not because museum archives are stuffed full of unanalysed material, but because they aren’t.

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Cremated Bronze Age fragments

The publication of A Study of Cremation, and Wells’ continuing work on cremated bone, had a direct impact on curatorial policy. Put simply, if a site was excavated before 1960, it’s unlikely the cremated bone survives. After 1960, it probably does. The analysis and publication of Illington by Calvin Wells was not only the beginning of the discipline of cremation studies in Britain, but also instrumental in preserving archives, even where they were not immediately analysed. Analysis by a trained specialist is now accepted best practice for all cremated bone recovered by commercial, research or amateur excavation. The demography and the pyre technologies of cremation cemeteries have been shown to be essential in reconstructing the identity of the dead and the burial process, and how the identity of the deceased affects the social choices made in funerary rites. In periods where cremation and inhumation rites are contemporary, the practices and grave goods associated with the cremation rite have often been shown to differ significantly from inhumation practices, indicating different beliefs. More than fifty years of research have proved Wells right – we cannot lightly dismiss these twisted bones.


Gejvall, N. 1969. Cremations. In Brothwell, D. & Higgs, E. (eds.) Science in Archaeology (2nd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson. 468-479.

Rainsford, C. 2017. Animals, Identity and Cosmology: Mortuary Practice in Early Medieval Eastern England. Unpublished PhD thesis submitted to University of Bradford.

Waldron, T. 2013. Crooked Timber: The life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978). Journal of Medical Biography  

Wells, C. 1960. A Study of Cremation. Antiquity 34: 29-37

Williams-Ward, M. 2017. Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bradford.


Calvin’s Slide Collection

Guest post by Meg Howe

Meg is a student of Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology BSc (Hons) at the University of Bradford and member of the Putting Flesh on the Bones team.

As part of my placement year I am working in the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (BARC) on the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project. Given my interest in Osteology and Forensic Anthropology, I have a significant interest in the Calvin Wells Archive and the many hundreds of slides in the collection.

A major part of the archive is the approximately 1600 35mm transparencies created and accumulated by Wells over the course of 30 years. The slides were used by Wells for research and lecturing purposes, and reflect his diverse professional, academic and personal pursuits. Having been donated to the University of Bradford in 1983, the slides were used for teaching and publication purposes before being overtaken by modern media. Despite their age, the slides are still of unique informational value and historical importance. Given the fragility of the format, it is our intention to digitise the slides and make them available online.

Dr Jack Roberts poses with a Mammoth femur (c.1960s)

In my role as Placement Student, I’ve been involved in the project since day one. While I was aware of Calvin Wells and the archive collection, I had little idea of its content or why it was important to preserve it. Originally, there were 12 slides boxes of all shapes and sizes. While some of the boxes we labelled by subject area, others remained a mystery. My first task was to catalogue slides in their original order. This entailed recording the labels on each slide, describing the image depicted, and noting whether it required conservation work. Most of the slides had Wells’ original numbers though many were missing labels or in wrong boxes. Moreover some of the slides are too fragile to handle and will be assessed by a conservator later in the project.

Osteoarthritis in archaeological remains

As previously mentioned, Wells had a diverse range of interests which is demonstrated within the slide collection. This includes human and animal palaeopathology, clinical and medical illustrations, and anthropological images from Africa, South America, Asia and Europe. It’s clear that Wells obtained the images from various sources, from his skeletal analysis work, museums and galleries, and from other publications or picture libraries.

Sling shot wound in skull from Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Human palaeopathology is the largest subject area in the collection, totalling 668 slides. Many of these slides are of bones which Wells analysed in his published skeletal reports. The palaeopathology subjects include fractures and blunt force traumas, infections, dental disease, histology and osteoarthritis.

The animal pathology slides contain very similar pathologies as the human

Deformed elephant tooth

palaeopathology. There is a mix of animals, such as elephant, deer and dolphin as well as prehistoric mammals and reptiles such as images of a mammoth femur and stretosaurus (a giant Pliosaur) tarsals and metatarsals.

Within the collection there is also a number of clinical photographs, which demonstrate pathologies such as tumours, elephantiasis and rhinophyma. Wells had a fascination with how such diseases were represented in ancient artwork and other cultural artefacts. This interest is further demonstrated in the numerous Anthropology slides, which are a mixture of photographs of figurines and paintings from around the globe. Most of the anthropological slides are pathology related, such as paralysis masks of in from the Makonde group in Tanzania and figurines or painting of individuals with tumours or scoliosis. Additionally, there is also a selection of slides classed as ‘erotica’ as depicted in ancient art and sculpture.

Slide Blog
Pottery vase in shape of a human head, Peru

One aspect of Wells’ research which was relatively unknown before starting the project was that of Ancient Egypt and the practice of mummification. Included in the slide collection are radiographs of pathologies in mummified remains, both human and animal, and microscope slides of mummified soft tissue.

While the collection is primarily related to Wells’ professional and academic life, there is a small number of personal photographs of family and friends. This includes pictures of Wells studying at home in Norfolk, holidaying in France and participating in his favourite sport – water-skiing!

The slide collection is now currently sorted into five key subject areas; Human paleopathology, Animal paleopathology, Anthropology; Africa, America/South America, Asia, Europe, Ancient Egypt and Personal.

Calvin Wells 1976 M102
Calvin enjoys a picnic in the South of France (c.1960s)

The next phase of the project will involve a conservator working on the slides and preparing them for digitisation. It is intended that many of Wells’ slides will be accessible via the University of Bradford’s Special Collections’ digital repository. This should be a valuable resource for those interested in palaeopathology, archaeology, osteology, and anthropology. Moreover the slides provide a visual historical record of Wells’ distinguished, varied and often eccentric life.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?


Animal Minieral Veg Logo
‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?’ logo

The Calvin Wells Archive Collection has its fair share of weird and wonderful items which reflect the doctor’s endeavors in palaeopathology, archaeology, palaeopathology, and Egyptology. These items are primarily historical records in the form of research notes, correspondence, photographs, radiographs, transparencies, and audio-visual material. There are exceptions however, and one peculiar bird-shaped object has left the Putting Flesh on the Bones team stumped. See image and x-ray image below:

The object is approx 30cm x 7cm.

In the spirit of the classic BBC gameshow ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’ – hosted by Wells’ close friend Glyn Daniel – we are asking our specialist audience to help us identify the object. If we cannot get the correct answer, we might at least be able to get a few interesting ones.

Feel free to post your answer in the Comments below. We have put the mystery to our followers on  Twitter and Facebook (BioAnthropology News, Paleopathology Association Student Group, Paleopathology)

Update :

To our happy surprise Calvin’s mystery object generated a lot of conversation among archaeologists, biological anthropologists and palaeopathologists on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the more interesting answers included a child’s toy, a replica human organ and a bag-pipe. The most common – and convincing – answer we received is that it is a fake mummified bird, or a fake mummified African sacred ibis to be precise.

IbisSpot the resemblance? An African sacred ibis feeding (via Wikipedia)

It was extremely common for the Ancient Egyptians to trade in mummified animals, and they often contained only traces or remnants of the original creature. These mummies served as votive gifts or effigies to be used in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. Given that Calvin had a deep interest in Ancient Egypt and the process of mummification it would seem fitting that he would own a mummified ibis.

Following this lead we contacted Dr Lidija McKnight, Egyptologist and expert in mummified animal remains, and Andrew Chamberlain, Professor of Bioarchaeology, at the University of Manchester. Based on our photographs, they have concluded that the object is not a mummy but rather a bird decoy. In Dr McKnight’s own words:

‘Rather than scaring birds away (like a scare crow), the sight of an ibis-type bird feeding, would have lulled other birds into a sense of security, perhaps allowing the opportunity for capture’

It is possible that at some point the object had a legs, hence the hole in the bottom of the torso, and could be placed standing up. Like our respondents, Dr McKnight suggested that we get the object carbon dated in order to verify whether it is indeed ancient. This is our next step and we will keep you posted.

Thanks to Dr Lidija McKnight, Professor Andrew Chamberlain and all our expert respondents on Facebook and Twitter.


Possible Calliphon Image
Calvin Wells a.k.a. Calliphon

Between 1953 and 1969 Calvin Wells wrote numerous columns for the Eastern Daily Press under the nom de plume ‘Calliphon’. Wells was a well-known physician of high social standing in East Anglia and it is possible he found greater freedom of expression writing through a pseudonym. Although many readers wrote letters of enquiry, Calliphon never revealed his true identity or the origin of the name. One correspondent who came closest to guessing was local artist and yachtsman G. Coleman Green who wrote

 “After some consideration I concluded I should approach the Muse in a masculine form, perhaps a man from Knossos or Greece itself.”

Given his fascination with the art and literature of antiquity it would seem fitting that Wells was inspired by a figure from Ancient Greece. The Historical Dictionary of Greek Philosophy gives the biographies of two prominent individuals named ‘Calliphon’. The first was a philosopher from 2 BC who is most closely associated with the Peripatetic school. There is little information about this Calliphon though Cicero condemned him several times for ‘making the chief good of man to consist in a union of virtue and bodily pleasure’. Despite being renowned for having a cheeky sense of humour, it is unlikely this particular Calliphon was admired by Wells. It seems more appropriate that it was Calliphon of Croton, a Pythagorean  physician and ‘man of great civic importance’, whom Wells sought to emulate. However it is also possible that as a linguist Wells appreciated the combination of the Greek word ‘Kali’ or Calli, meaning ‘good’, and Phon’, meaning ‘voice’ or ‘sound’. In essence Wells perhaps conceived ‘Calliphon’ to be a good or trusted voice for the people of Norfolk.

Taming a Hare

Initially Calliphon wrote lighthearted anecdotes and musings on family life in sections called ‘The Country Scene’ and ‘Norfolk Miscellanies’. These articles have a literary quality, and tell tales of Calliphon exploring abandoned castles with his children and training a wild hare to be a family pet. In one such article titled ‘Daddy, Is It True?’ Calliphon discusses the ethical and philosophical aspects of deceiving children about Santa Claus.

Santa Claus
Calliphon on the truth about Santa Claus

In every article Calliphon sought to impart some form of practical wisdom or advice, and he became popular with readers. Eastern Daily Press editor Stanley Bagwell encouraged Wells (only he knew Calliphon’s true identity) to tackle more serious subject matter and also to incorporate his medical expertise. At a time when the NHS was in its infancy and medical information relatively scarce, Calliphon provided informed analysis of important public health issues. In one such article ‘Doctors and the Vaccine’, Calliphon considers the debates surrounding the first mass polio vaccination programme in 1955. In judging the mood among the nation’s parents Calliphon writes ‘The Ministry of Health urges us to go; natural caution inclines many of us to hold back’. Without dictating to readers Calliphon argues that ‘despite all my cavilling, doctors do a sight more good than harm’ and after much ‘heart-searching’ concludes vaccination to be necessary.

Smoking Cancer edit
Annotation on Calliphon’s rejected smoking article

On other matters relating to public health Calliphon’s opinion was not always appreciated. In an article titled ‘Smoking and Cancer’ he discusses the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, which ‘only a generation ago was a rare disease’. Like most people at the time, even many in the medical profession, Calliphon was undecided about the connection. He wrote ‘whether the puzzle will be solved in our own lifetime or in centuries no-one can tell’. In the meantime Calliphon advises that ‘we must deny ourselves the solace of the cordial weed or puff it at our peril’. The article in question was left unpublished as it was deemed by Bagwell to be ‘too sombre for sombre times’.

This is not to say that the Eastern Daily Press shied away from printing Calliphon’s coverage of more alarming global events, such as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. In an article titled ‘Brainwashing’, Calliphon delved into the various brainwashing techniques adopted by the Soviet regime to suppress dissenting political opposition. In the writer’s belief, a close examination of Communist brainwashing methods is ‘the best way of resisting its subtle attack’. Whilst Calliphon concedes that such advice may not be applicable to the average Norwich citizen, he warns that ‘the 20th century has shown that it cannot be trusted to leave the most idyllic places undefiled’.

Brainwashing Edit.jpg
‘Brainwashing’ (1956)

It was when writing about subjects related to Norwich and the Norfolk area that Calliphon received the greatest feedback from readers. This is most evident in his readers’ reaction to the etymological essay Norfolk Place-Names. In the article Calliphon declares that the village name of ‘Wormegay stole my heart away’ and goes on to discuss the rich variety of Norfolk place-names and their origins.

Norfolk Names
‘Norfolk Place-Names’ (1955)

However, it is the article’s blithe assumption that ‘most people can work out that Horsford means the ford of the horses’ which caused some to write in. Mr. John F.E. Alpe of Norwich argued:

“As for Horsford being a horse ford, if a horse could not cross, it would not be a ford. Horsford together with Horsham St. Faith and Horstead received their names from the little river Hor, or more correctly the Hor Beck.”

Norfolk Names Letter.jpg
Calliphon’s retort to a critical reader

Naturally Calliphon contested Alpe’s point and the debate played out for days on the letters  Eastern Daily Press. It culminated in an interjection by the linguist Dr. O.K. Schram of Edinburgh University in support of Calliphon’s original assertion. A similar article on the origin of Norfolk pub names proved less controversial. In this area Calliphon admitted that he was not a true expert as it “would need years of bibulous devotion and an almost professional thirst”.

U.E.A. article edit
Calliphon recalls his rebellious student days in an unpublished article on student activism.

Another area in which Calliphon felt inclined to apply his expertise was on the whereabouts of King John’s lost treasure. In assessing a highly publicised hi-tech treasure hunt by the Wash Research Committee in 1957, Calliphon wrote: ‘I cannot but suspect that they will have missed the treasure by the not inconsiderable margin of about six miles and seven hundred and forty years’. Like many of his readers Calliphon believed that little treasure was actually lost, and that any remaining items would have been quickly scooped up by fortunate locals.

Ancient Norfolk
Calliphon imagines prehistoric Norfolk.

Inspired by excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Thornham , Calliphon was compelled to explore even further into Norfolk’s history. Assessing the various hereditary  links between Anglo-Saxons and Neanderthals, Calliphon gives a brief overview of the theory of evolution and natural selection.

“It was the discovery of Neanderthal man just a hundred years ago which gave the evolutionists the precise material they wanted in applying their theories to human development. A hundred-year-old discovery from a German cave may seem remote from our Anglo-Saxon excavation at Thornham, but in fact they are by no means unconnected.”

Not all of Calliphon’s readers agreed with his analysis of primitive man. W.E. Earl of Norwich complained that ‘to suggest man was originally descended from apes is grotesque and an insult to his Creator’. In Calliphon’s defence, F.J. Newton of Worlingham recommended that Earl ‘listen to the B.B.C. broadcast to children “How things began” on Mondays at 9.55am’. 

Something Good
From an article on Norwich’s street furniture

If Calliphon ever used his column to vent any strong ideology it tended to relate to matters within his more immediate surroundings. In an article on street furniture Calliphon bemoans ‘the rash of pillars, posts, telephone kiosks police boxes, traffic signs and other impedimenta’ cluttering the streets and pavements of Norwich. Whilst lamenting that he lives in ‘an age which dedicates its wealth to lethal weapons rather than works of beauty’, Calliphon insists that Norwich’s elected representatives pay heed to preserve his fine city.

As well as city councillors, Calliphon had strong words of advice for Norfolk’s holidaymakers. In response to a rise in fatalities on the Norfolk Broads, Calliphon urges that ‘something more is needed than the pious exhortations which fall on unresponsive ears’. Being a good citizen and competent sailor he then provides a guide on water safety, covering everything from boat maintenance to diving techniques. Whist Calliphon is confident his advice can help prevent fatalities; he admits that nothing can be done ‘for the pig-headed fool who still refuses to wear a life-jacket’.

life jacket
Calliphon strongly advocated water safety

It is uncertain why Wells retired Calliphon and ended his run at the Eastern Daily Press in the late 1960s. Correspondence in the archive collection shows that Wells enjoyed writing the articles and that he built a core fan base of readers. During this period Wells started to focus full-time on palaeopathology and perhaps felt he could no longer commit the intellectual energy required by Calliphon. Fortunately Wells kept a well organised file of Calliphon’s work in his archive which reveals a previously unknown side of his enigmatic and multifaceted character.

The Bone Reports

Calvin Garden Cropped

In the late 1960s Calvin Wells closed his general medical practice to focus full-time on palaeopathology through lecture tours and producing bone reports for archaeological organisations, university departments and academic journals. Already established as the leading palaeopathologist in the UK, it was during this period of official retirement that Wells was most prolific in publishing skeletal analysis. Based at White Horse Cottage in Hapton Norfolk, Wells usually received specimens by post which he examined in his kitchen or, weather depending, garden. A consummate professional, Wells offered an efficient service and expected that his reports be both paid for and published. During this period Wells’ expertise was in high demand and he worked for clients across the British Isles.

Romano-British Cemteraries
Published posthumously in 1982

Following a cancer diagnosis in 1976, Wells cancelled all future speaking arrangements yet continued writing up bone reports. Many of Wells’ reports remained unpublished at the time of his death in July 1978, and it became something of a raison d’être for Freddie Wells to ensure their publication. Given their impact on the study of palaeopathology and continued citation in literature today, Wells’ bone reports are a vital part of his legacy. In their biography of Wells, Professor Charlotte Roberts and Dr Keith Manchester write:

“The reports are remembered for two reasons: the data presentation is meticulously executed and useful to bioarchaeologists today, and his interpretation for the evidence of disease are fascinating and creative, if not necessarily scientifically supported”

Cavlin Toronto 1966 flipped
Wells analysing skeletal remains, Toronto (c1960s)

This thorough approach to skeletal analysis is confirmed by the archive collection, which show that Wells produced a handwritten draft and several annotated typescripts before submitting every report. Wells adopted a coherent and consistent style, displaying raw data in an accessible format. Although stubborn in his belief that skeletal analysis should be informed by medical training, his clinical expertise and experience proved an asset to the discipline in its formative stages. In a memorial speech on Wells, the distinguished Austrailian doctor and anthropologist Dr Cecil J Hackett wrote:

“His examination of such skeletons and his intimate knowledge of the normal as well as the pathological appearance in each bone revealed the underlying thoroughness of his work and records, which had established him as the leading British palaeopathologist”

Given his adherence to medical techniques and a conservative approach to diagnosis, it is somewhat paradoxical that Wells became known for his eccentric interpretations of the causes of death, disease and injury. For those familiar with Wells’ bone reports it should not be surprising to lean that he penned a great deal of dramatic fiction, poetry and stage plays in his spare time. A fascination with the romantic and the tragic bled into Wells’ skeletal reports, leaving a lasting mark on his scientific bibliography.

Wells Bone Report.jpg
Dramatic excerpt from report on ‘Human Skull from Turret Lane, Ipswich’ (c1960s)

One example of Wells’ imaginative reading of skeletal remains is a 1963 report ‘The Human Skeleton from Cox Lane, Ipswich’. In this instance Wells analyses a male skeleton in his early thirties with six injuries caused by blunt force trauma. Confident that he could “deduce the probable sequence leading to the man’s death” Wells concocts a scenario wherein the victim is pulled from horseback by two assailants before being gruesomely stabbed by a third. Well concludes that the victim was:

Skeleton from Cox Lane, Ipswich

“a young, vigorous energetic man who had probably led a not unadventurous life and finally died in some blood foray fighting desperately and it would seem not ingloriously”

This explicit and dramatic narrative does not hold up against contemporary scientific scrutiny. In a 2015 article titled ‘Making Sense of the Archaeology of Armed Violence’, archaeologist M.R. Geldof singles out Wells’ Ipswich report as exemplifying ‘the furthest reaches of over-interpretation’ with regard to skeletal analysis. In Geldof’s view Wells’ explanation for each wound is as unsupported as the last. However his major criticism of Wells is ‘not in his specific scenarios but rather his belief that he could create such a scenario in the first place’

Given his reputation as an leading authority in palaeopathology who resisted his reports being edited, it is a valid criticism that publications too readily indulged Wells’ overactive imagination. Given that it was often set alongside objective analysis and hard data, Wells can generally be forgiven for his habit of veering off into ‘airy conjecture‘. On the other hand, there are instances when Wells clearly subjugated scientific fact and the historical record to salacious invention.

Crime and Punishment in an Anglo-Saxon Cemetery
Annotated transcript of Worthy Park report (1975)

In reviewing criticism of Wells’ bone reports it would be amiss to ignore works such as ‘Crime and Punishment in an Anglo-Saxon Cemetery?’ (1975). Written in collaboration with Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, the report focuses on the skeleton of a sixteen year female Anglo-Saxon excavated at Worthy Park, Winchester. Based solely on analysis of the left and right femora, Wells deduces that ‘it is nearly certain this girl was raped’ as a form of punishment for being pregnant and the ‘tarnish she brought upon her family’s name’. Following a graphic description of the victim’s demise, Wells concludes that ‘her passport to merciful oblivion is likely to have been the slime and mire of this chalky trench’.

One major criticism of this report is that Wells expresses a sensationalist narrative at the expense of pure fact. Secondly he eagerly adopts explicit language and terminology which detracts from the report’s scientific content and value. Whilst the report was later republished as part of a larger work with Wells’ more objective findings attached, he publicly rebuked critics of his initial interpretation.

Slides from Wells’ research on Paget’s disease (c1970s)

In consideration of their various faults, fictions and deviations, to what extent do Wells’ bone reports have value for researchers of today?

Foot showing effects of leprosy, Anglo-Saxon, Beckford (c1970s)

The Putting Flesh on the Bones Project’s team osteologist Michelle Williams-Ward is uniquely placed to answer this question. Michelle is currently  working on a collaborative doctoral award between the University of Bradford and Norfolk Museums Service on the subject ‘Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk’. In the course of Michelle’s research, she has analysed remains from many of the same sites as Wells, including Illington, North Elmham Park and Caistor-by-Norwich. As a result, Michelle has compared her findings and results against the research notes, contextual materials and reports created by Wells. In discussion of the value of Wells’ skeletal analysis today, Michelle notes that:

“Calvin took giant leaps between the evidence and his conclusions, and on certain subjects his mind ran away with him. Whilst he often went off at tangents in his discussion, his documentation is often right on the money. Whilst it is easy for researchers today to pass judgement on his findings, he represents the state of knowledge at that time and in many ways propelled new ideas forward”

Cremated fragments, Lancashire (c1970s)

As a pioneer in the discipline of palaeopathology and archaeological thought Wells introduced many firsts. For example, he was the first person writing in English to scientifically study cremation burials and also introduced the concept of pseduopathology. His work on leprous individuals from a medieval cemetery in Norfolk was one of the first bioarchaeological reports on leprosy and is still cited today. Similarly his collaboration with Nicholas Woodhouse on a person with Paget’s disease in medieval North England is considered a classic example against new data is compared.

The fact that citations of Wells’ bone reports have increased in the forty years since his death are a testament to their enduring scientific value. As the team open up the Calvin Wells Archive Collection we are discovering the extent of research and thought behind every bone report. Similarly we are finding out more about the life and personality of their enigmatic author. Although forthright and resolute in his opinions, Wells by no means thought himself as completely infallible. As he was keen to remind every scholar attempting to recognise and record disease in the remains of the past:

“When we remember the many ways in which a pseudopathological appearance can be produced – or a genuine lesion obscured – it no longer seems extraordinary that palaeopathologists occasionally make a wrong diagnosis. The wonder is that we ever make a right one”


‘Pseudopathology’ by Dr. Calvin Wells ‘Diseases in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diseases, Injuries, and Surgery of Early Populations’ Edited by Don Brothwell Springfield, Illinois: C.C. Thomas (1967)

‘Disease in ancient man : an international symposium’ Edited by Gerald D. Hart Toronto Canada (1983)

‘Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908–1978)’ by Charlotte Roberts and Keith Manchester ‘The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects‘ Edited by Jane Buikstra and Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012)

‘Crooked Timber: The life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978)’ by Tony Waldron in Journal of Medical Biography (May 2014)

‘And to describe the shapes of the dead: Making Sense of the Archaeology of Armed Violence’ by M.R. Geldof in ‘Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture’ Edited by Larissa Tracy and Kelly DeVries Brill Online (2015)

The Curious Case of the Skeleton in the Car

A particularly valuable part of the Calvin Wells Archive Collection is his correspondence files which have letters, note and postcards from prominent figures in the worlds of medicine, science, humanities, and arts. As the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project develops we will delve deeper into the conversations, collaborations, debates, and arguments which played out in Wells’ correspondence. Here is a just a selection of more informal communication from his friends and colleagues which serve as amusing vignettes into unique and often eccentric lives.

Detail of R R Clarke Postcard

A news cutting attached to a postcard from archaeologist and former Curator of Norwich Museums, Roy Rainbird Clarke. The article tells of Vilhelm Møller-Christensen driving across Denmark with a 500 year old skeleton in order to attract donations for Æbelholt Klostermuseum in North Zealand. This was not the first time the Danish palaeopathologist caused a stir by taking medieval skeletons on a long distance road trip. In 1953 he journeyed to the 6th International Congress on Leprosy in Madrid by car with ten leprous skeletons for use in a demonstration on bone malformations.

Above is a postcard from Møller-Christensen with an image of his aforementioned driving companion. Like Calvin Wells, Møller-Christensen’s reputation of being something of an enigmatic showman spread beyond the world of palaeopathology. Graham Greene included a reference to the Danish doctor in A Burnt-Out Case (1960) based on stories from their mutual friend, the famous leprologist Michel Lechat.

‘This character looks very distracted to me…’

Surprisingly schoolboy humour exhibited by the distinguished Welsh scientist, archaeologist and television personality Glyn Daniel. As editor of Antiquity, Daniel published, reviewed or declined Wells’ frequent contributions. In an unpublished article titled Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners, Wells praises Daniel’s ‘scrupulous and gracious’ professionalism over the ‘discourteous tempering’ of other leading journal editors. The book referred to in the postcard is Bones, Bodies and Disease, which formed part of the Ancient People and Places series overseen by Daniel.

‘The brain is made in Germany’

A Thank You note to Calvin Wells from Folke Henschen, Professor of Pathological Anatomy at Karolinska Institutet and Chairman of the Medical Nobel Committee. The annotation ‘Gudden Del’ suggests that the image was created or featured in a publication by the renowned German neuroanatomist and psychiatrist Bernhard Von Gudden. Many of the books, journals and images in Wells’ archive collection show he had fascination with the human mind and mental health.

Felices Pascuas y Próspero Año Nuevo

A homemade Christmas and New Year card from the family of Peruvian pathologist Dr Oscar Urteaga-Ballon. During the 1960s, Calvin Wells corresponded with him regularly about the anthropology of ancient Andean societies. The front of the postcard shows the elongated head of a Paracas mummy aside a flower and potato plant. This unusual juxtaposition of images is made clear in Urteaga-Ballon’s accompanying correspondence. In ancient Paracas culture it was common practice for the dead to be mummified then buried in a funeral bundle with flowers, fruits and vegetables. However it remains unclear why the doctor thought this was a suitably festive concept for expressing Season’s Greetings.


The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects Edited by Jane Buikstra, Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012)

Remembering Calvin

with Dr Keith Manchester

Dr Keith Manchester instigated the academic discipline of human osteology and palaeopathology in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford in 1980. He is an Honorary Visiting Professor in Palaeopathology, retired General Medical Practitioner with fifty years’ experience, and author of numerous articles and publications.

Keith 1]
Keith Manchester with graduate student (c1980s)

A close friend of Calvin and Freddie Wells, Keith was instrumental in securing the transfer of the archive collection to the University of Bradford. His expert subject knowledge alongside unique personal connection to the collection means Keith is a significant asset to the Putting Flesh on the Bones project.

Dr Keith Manchester Meg Howe 2017
Keith and BARC Placement Student Meg Howe (2017)

In this interview, Keith talks about Calvin’s background, his friendship with the Wells family, and the story behind the archive collection and library. We also delve into the more controversial and enigmatic aspects of Calvin’s life and legacy.

How did you come to develop a correspondence with Calvin?

I first had contact with Calvin in 1972, seeking his opinion on human skeletal remains recovered in excavations at Sandal Castle. He was immensely helpful and, indeed, very patient with me, not a characteristic for which he was generally known. Our relationship developed and we became close corresponding friends. Sadly, I never got to meet him personally, and he died having just written to me with his terminal cancer diagnosis of carcinoma of the prostate, enumerating, in his matter of fact way, the sites of his skeletal metastases.

Classroom Combined
Calvin conducts a lesson for Toronto school children (c1960s)

After Calvin’s death you developed a close friendship with his wife and daughter?

Yes. As a consequence of a paper which I wrote on the palaeopathology on the Royalist Garrison at Sandal, which was published in OSSA, Freddie contacted me. She said that, on reading my paper, she felt that I was the reincarnation of Calvin. I felt very honoured, just as I did when Professor Vilhelm Møller-Christensen said that I was his alter ego.

The friendship of my wife, myself and our family with Freddie and her daughter Satra rapidly developed into a close relationship with mutual visits being frequently paid to Bradford and to their house ‘White Horse Cottage’ in Hapton, and this continued throughout the lives of Freddie and Satra.

Calvin and Freddie Wells, Vilheim Moller- Christensen 1962 Cropped
Calvin and Freddie entertain Vilhelm Møller-Christensen at Mulbarton Old Hall, Norwich(1962)

Tell me a little bit about Calvin’s archive and library, and your role in bringing it to Bradford?

Calvin had amassed a very considerable archive of books, papers, photographs, 35mm slides, x-rays, and palaeopathological specimens, of immense academic value, all of which were kept in a large library at their cottage. This was overseen by the cremated remains of Calvin in an urn, which Freddie kept in the library and talked to frequently.

During one of my visits my wife and I made to Hapton, Freddie expressed that it was Calvin’s wish that his archive should  be donated to a University which established a graduate course in palaeopathology. In the interim it was being looked after by The Wellcome Trust.

When the MSc in Human Osteology and Palaeopathology was introduced into the curriculum of the Department of Archeological Science in Bradford, Freddie deemed that Bradford was the correct recipient. We owe her an enormous debt of gratitude, as there were several other international academic institutions vying for the collection at the time.

Neanderthal Skull. Mount Carmel
Detail from Calvin Wells notebook ‘Homo neanderthalensis, Mount Carmel, Palestine’ (c1970s)

What are your favourite parts of Calvin’s Archive Collection ?

His slide collection, notes and correspondence, and not to mention the huge collection of books. Calvin had the ability to explore a wide variety of subjects in palaeopathology and the history of medicine. He was a very talented man all round, a polymath really. This is reflected in the archive material.

Calvin clearly left an impressive legacy but he also held some controversial opinions. For example, he was adamant that anybody practicing palaeoathology should have qualifications in medicine. Considering the evolution of discipline, do you think he would’ve changed his mind?

I’m not sure Calvin changed his mind about anything! That will likely come across in his correspondence. Though the discipline wouldn’t now exist if it had to rely on people who were medically qualified. Really for doctors, palaeopathology can only be taken on as a part-time interest. Though with the current demands on the profession in the UK, it would be far more difficult for a GP now to do what Calvin and I did.

Detail from bone report on excavations at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk (c1960s)

A significant criticism leveled at Calvin is that in both his professional correspondence and publications he had habit of being too emotive in his language. Critics have commented on his inappropriate language and terminology. Do you think this is a fair criticism?

Calvin didn’t have any hang-ups but he also didn’t suffer fools gladly. Perhaps he was guilty of making interpretations with too much exaggeration. For example, he talked about Anglo-Saxon serfs romping in the haystacks of East-Anglia. I mean they may well have done, but I don’t think Calvin could find any skeletal evidence for that!

However I think that I knew Calvin, by correspondence, better than anyone now alive, and knew Freddie and Satra very well. In addition to be being a much beloved family man and friend, he was an ethical and highly regarded physician and palaeopathologist.

Calvin water-skied daily (c1960s)

Is it unusual for a medically trained professional, who was known for being conservative in his diagnosis, to make such imaginative interpretations of what he saw?

Sir Mortimer Wheeler said that ‘Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows’. In other words, unless you start making an interpretation then all you have are lists, diagrams, tables. I feel the same way about palaeopathology, if you’re just going to describe palaeopathological lesions and not extend beyond that, then that too is the ‘driest dust that blows’. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t advance anything. In my opinion archaeology, and palaeopathology, is a way of understanding people in the past. If you don’t use modern methods, modern experience, to interpret the lesions that you see in skeletal remains then there is no way you can put flesh and blood onto the bones. This is necessary to understand the sufferings, disabilities, and pains of people in distant antiquity. Those were Calvin’s ethics as well.

Keith Manchester at the University of Bradford (2017)

Dr. Keith Manchester and Charlotte A. Roberts authored a biography on ‘Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978)’ in The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects Edited by Jane Buikstra, Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012) pp.141-145