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.
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 Many of Wells’ reports remained unpublished at the time of his death in July 1978, and it became something of a raison d’être for Freddie Wells to ensure their publication.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”
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.
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:
“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.
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?
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”
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)