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Willem Baetsen

Archaeology, University of Leicester

Thesis title:

The future up in smoke: The effects of tobacco use on population health in Europe in the 16th-19th centuries.

In the post-medieval period, we see a decline in population health in Europe during which infectious disease is gradually replaced by chronic disease as the main cause of death. During the same period, tobacco is introduced and gains in popularity in England and the Netherlands. Despite the known ill health effects of tobacco use today, the link between commodification of tobacco and the emergence of chronic disease has never been thoroughly investigated.

Aside from the disease and death caused by tobacco use directly, maternal exposure to tobacco during pregnancy can have a profound influence on the developing foetus. Maternal tobacco exposure during early pregnancy (especially during organogenesis) can cause a wide variety of undesirable birth outcomes, including developmental delay and birth defects.

Significantly, detrimental effects of tobacco exposure during the foetal stage do not end in early infancy. Epigenetic changes – those that influence gene expression, but not the DNA itself – brought about by adversity during development can negatively impact susceptibility to risk factors for disease in later life.  

This project aims to assess archaeological human skeletal remains for proxies of early-life adversity, which will start off by recording non-metric traits, bone measurements, and morphological stages of development. Some non-metric traits are routinely documented during osteological assessment. They are defined as morphological deviations from the ‘norm’. Their aetiology is largely unknown, but disruption during skeletal development may play an important role. 

Looking at skeletal metric proportions in the human skeleton can also provide information on developmental disruption during early development, and the timing of such disruption. Different skeletal elements and parts of elements grow at set intervals and speeds, which means that environmental impacts on growth can leave some of the resultant disproportions fixed. SImilarly, differences in the relationship between metrics and morphological development (e.g. appearance of ossification centres and the fusing of elements) can shed light on moments of delayed growth.

All of these characteristics will be assessed on a population level, but also, importantly, compared between populations with different tobacco use demographics. For this purpose, collections have been selected to represent pre- (i.e. medieval times) and post-tobacco periods in the Netherlands and England, two countries with different tobacco-use and industrialisation histories.

The results of this project will provide valuable insight into the long-term effects of tobacco on population health, which will shed light on current tobacco use, the world’s leading cause of preventable disease and premature death.

Research Area

  • Archaeology


  • Baetsen, W.A., 2022. Menselijke beenderen, in D. Keijers, X.C. van Dijk & M.P.F. Verhoeven (eds) Plangebieden Hegstraat, Markt, Museum & Nieuwe Markt te Weert, gemeente Weert; Een archeologische begeleiding (WEHEG). RAAP-rapport 3828. RAAP Archeologisch Adviesbureau B.V., Weesp (NL): pp. 68-76.

  • Dediu, D., S.R. Moisik, W.A. Baetsen, A.M. Bosman & A.L. Waters, 2021. The vocal tract as a time machine: Inferences about past speech and language from the anatomy of the speech organs. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 376: 20200192. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0192.

  • Baetsen, W.A. & G. Zielman (eds), 2020. Wat de nieuwe Sint Jansbeek boven water bracht: Dood en leven in het Arnhemse verleden; Archeologisch onderzoek Sint Jansbeek te Arnhem, volume 2: Menselijk botmateriaal, bioarcheologisch onderzoek en grafgebruiken. RAAP report 4476-2. RAAP Archeologisch Adviesbureau B.V., Weesp (NL).

  • G. Zielman & W.A. Baetsen (eds), 2020. Wat de nieuwe Sint Jansbeek boven water bracht: Dood en leven in het Arnhemse verleden; Archeologisch onderzoek Sint Jansbeek te Arnhem, volume 1: Sporen, vondsten en hun context. RAAP report 4476-1. RAAP Archeologisch Adviesbureau B.V., Weesp (NL).

  • Blom, A.A., S.A. Inskip, W.A. Baetsen & M.L.P. Hoogland, 2018. Testing the sternal clavicle method on a post-medieval Dutch skeletal collection. Archaeometry 60(6): pp. 1391-1402. DOI: 10.1111/arcm.12402.

  • Baetsen, W.A., 2016. Geometric morphometric analysis of the 'skeletal vocal tract': A first step in involving osteoarchaeology in the search for a potential 'genetic bias' for language, using two Dutch historical skeletal populations. Leiden University (unpublished MSc thesis), Leiden (NL). https://studenttheses.universiteitleiden.nl/handle/1887/45959. 


  • 'DOHAD: where does it come from and where should we take it?' (oral presentation), Intersectional Bodies workshop #2: Intoxication, University of Leicester, Leicester (UK), 4 May 2022.

  • 'The future up in smoke: How early-life circumstances can have long-lasting effects' (oral presentation), Tobacco, Health and History seminar, University of Leicester, Leicester (UK), 18 March 2022.

  • 'Geometric morphometric analysis of the 'skeletal vocal tract': A first step in involving osteoarchaeology in the search for a potential 'genetic bias' for language, using two Dutch historical skeletal populations' (poster presentation), MORPH2017: A conference on the archaeological applications of morphometrics, Aarhus University, Aarhus (Denmark), 4-5 May 2017.

  • '3D-visualisaties & 3D-vormanalyse in de archeologie: Wat kunnen we verder nog met 3D-modellen?' (oral presentation), Tot op het bot uitgezocht, Keyzerkerk, Middenbeemster (The Netherlands), 12 December 2015.

Public Engagement & Impact

  • July - November 2022. M4C-funded placement at Dordrechts Museum (NL). Creating inventory and basic report of the Franciscan Friary collection of human skeletal remains from Dordrecht, enabling further research and public engagement. 

  • June 2022. Coordinator of the organising committee to the 2022 Midlands4Cities Research Festival.

  • June 2022. The Tobacco, Health and History team takes part in The Great Exhibition Road Festival at Imperial College London, with a stand entitled 'How old am I really?'.

  • April 2022. Teaching a series of classes on archaeology and the archaeologist to four groups of thirty 3-to-6-year-olds at a primary school in Heythuysen, the Netherlands.

  • October 2019. Appearing on a talkshow on death in the past at 'Herman Centraal' in Arnhem, speaking about death in medieval and post-medieval times, and giving a live demonstration of how to anatomically display a human skeleton.

  • April - November 2018. Several lectures (in both a public and private setting) on the archaeology and history of medieval and post-medieval Arnhem (the Netherlands), including:

    • Open Day for volunteers who assisted the excavation and post-ex process;

    • Series of Open Evenings for interested members of the public, including lectures and workshops on osteoarchaeological subjects;

    • Weekend van de Wetenschap and Nationale Archeologiedagen, including an introductory lecture and osteoarchaeological workshops for children between the ages of 8 and 14 years;

    • Lecture on medical care and results of the excavation in Arnhem in the 'Historische Herberg' in Arnhem (local historical society).

  • March - April 2018. ArcheoHotspots Facebook livestream appearances during post-ex work on the medieval and post-medieval skeletal collection from the St Eusebius churchyard in Arnhem, the Netherlands.

  • July - September 2017. ArcheoHotspots Facebook livestream appearances during excavation of a medieval and post-medieval St Eusebius churchyard in Arnhem, the Netherlands.

Other Research Interests

  • 3D scanning and modelling
  • Public engagement in archaeology


  • Nederlandse Vereniging voor Fysische Antropologie (NVFA; Dutch Society for Physical Anthropology)
  • Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology

Additional Websites

Previous Education

2017     Leiden University (NL)              MSc Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology

2012     University of Bradford (UK)      MSc Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation

2011     Leiden University (NL)              BA Classical and Science-based Archaeology

                                                              Minor in Human Osteoarchaeology