Assessing the relative benefits of imaging with plain radiographs and microCT scanning to diagnose cancer in past populations

Piers D. Mitchell*, Jenna M. Dittmar, Bram Mulder, Sarah Inskip, Alastair Littlewood, Craig Cessford, John E. Robb

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Objective: To determine the degree to which plain radiographs (x-rays) and microCT scans can improve accuracy in the diagnosis of cancer in human remains from past populations.Materials: The skeletal remains of 143 individuals from medieval Cambridgeshire, dating from 6th-16th century CE.Methods: Visual inspection of the skeletons for lesions compatible with malignancy, coupled with plain radiographs and microCT scans of the pelvis, femora and vertebra.Results: Three individuals had visually apparent metastases on their skeletons. Plain radiographs did not identify further individuals with cancer, but did show further lesions in bones with normal external appearance. MicroCT scans identified cancer in two further individuals with normal visual appearance and normal plain radiographs. Conclusions: Imaging human skeletal remains increases the detection rate of cancer in human skeletal remains. We found microCT scanning to be a much more sensitive imaging modality than plain radiography. It improved our diagnostic accuracy and enabled us to more reliably distinguish between malignant lesions and taphonomic change.Significance: Future studies investigating the prevalence and nature of malignancy in past populations would benefit from systematic microCT scanning of pelvis, femora and vertebrae of skeletons to optimise their diagnostic accuracy.Limitations: MicroCT scanning is more expensive than plain radiographs, and may not be easily accessible to biological anthropologists.Suggestions for further research: To apply this approach to skeletal series from different time periods and geographical regions, where the types of cancer existing in the local population may differ from those we studied in medieval Britain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-29
Number of pages6
JournalInternational Journal of Paleopathology
Early online date16 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

This study was funded by the Wellcome Trust, UK (Collaborative Grant 200368/Z/15/Z). Plain radiography was performed by Reveal Imaging Ltd. The individual with cancer from Edix Hill was originally identified as such by Corrinne Duhig. We are grateful to Ket Smithson of the Cambridge Biotomography Centre, Trish Biers of the Duckworth Collection at the University of Cambridge, and the members of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit.


  • Bone malignancy
  • Computerised tomography
  • Medieval
  • Metastases
  • Oncology
  • X-rays


Dive into the research topics of 'Assessing the relative benefits of imaging with plain radiographs and microCT scanning to diagnose cancer in past populations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this