Novel insights into the daily lives of early industrial women workers

What hand skeletons tell about working in the 19th century: Re-searchers from the University of Tübingen and the Natural History Museum of Basel combine bone analysis with historical archives.

The hand skeletons of women workers from the early days of industrialization reflect the diverse and unstable manual activities of their everyday lives. New research led by Dr. Alexandros Karakostis from the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at the University of Tübingen and Dr. Gerhard Hotz, Curator of Anthropology at the Natural History Museum of Basel, demonstrated for the first time that hand bones preserve extensive information on the daily lives and activities of past women and men. The results have been published in the American Journal of Biological Anthropology.

The researchers have applied an innovative methodology called “V.E.R.A.” on the 19th century hand skeletons of workers from St. Johann Hospital Cemetery in Basel, Switzerland: They examined them with a virtual 3D analysis, reconstructed their daily manual activities and compared those with documented life histories. “This validated approach relies on the 3D analysis of the bones, focusing on the areas where the muscles attached during life”, says Dr. Alexandros Karakostis, lead author of the study and creator of this novel approach.

Changing jobs

Our skeletal analysis precisely reflects the division of manual labor among early industrial working-class women and men. The vertical axis separates male long-term construction workers (up) from precision laborers (below). The horizontal axis shows that women with more specifically defined occupations (e.g., tailors and seamstresses) presented direct evidence of more variable and demanding manual labor.Image: Karakostis et al. 2022

Karakostis and Hotz addressed this crucial gap by performing the first anthropological research that focuses on the hand bones of historic low-status women workers from early industrial Basel. For their study, Karakostis and Hotz used finds and data from the Basel Spitalfriedhof project, which provides insights into the living conditions of Basel’s lower class in the 19th century through identified skeletons, associated medical records, and documented life stories.

“The daily lives of these women laborers are documented in a level of detail that is universally unique,” says Alexandros Karakostis. The large archives associated with each of these skeletons have been carefully studied for over 15 years by a large number of volunteers of the “Citizen Science Basel” project, under the direction of Gerhard Hotz.

“The findings provided revealing insights into the daily lives of working-class women and men from early industrial Basel, attesting to the promise of our methods and documented samples for exploring the lives of other humans that lived in the past”, highlights Karakostis.


Karakostis, F. A.* Hotz. G. (2022). Reflections of manual labor in the hand entheses of early industrial women workers with extensively documented life histories, American Journal of Biological Anthropology:



Press release from the University of Tübingen

Dove i classici si incontrano. ClassiCult è una Testata Giornalistica registrata presso il Tribunale di Bari numero R.G. 5753/2018 – R.S. 17. Direttore Responsabile Domenico Saracino, Vice Direttrice Alessandra Randazzo. Gli articoli a nome di ClassiCult possono essere 1) articoli a più mani (in tal caso, i diversi autori sono indicati subito dopo il titolo); 2) comunicati stampa (in tal caso se ne indica provenienza e autore a fine articolo).

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