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Guest Interview: Putting Flesh on the Bones with James Neill

19 Dec

James Neill is a Project Archivist working on the Putting Flesh on the Bones project at the University of Bradford. Prior to this project James worked for a diverse range of arts, heritage and higher education organisations, including London Metropolitan Archives, the Mercers’ Company and the University of Arts London. As an archivist James has worked on a broad range of collections, from medieval manuscripts created by the Estate of Sir Richard Whittington to counter-cultural US comic books of the 1960s. His primary professional focus is working with archive collections with real historical, cultural or organisational value.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello James, thank you for joining me here at These Bones of Mine! I have to say I am pretty excited to talk about your new project, entitled ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’, which is based at the University of Bradford.  Could you tell us a little bit about the project and your role within it?

James Neill (JN):  Thanks David.  The ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ is an 18 month-long project which aims to catalogue, digitise and promote the archive collection of renowned palaeopathologist Calvin Wells (1908-1978).  The majority of the collection relates to Calvin’s distinguished palaeopathology career, but also reflects his many other intriguing professional and personal endeavours.  After his death Calvin’s archive of research papers, correspondence, photographs and transparencies, radiographs, and audio-visual material came to Bradford under the management of his friend and colleague Dr Keith Manchester.  This includes Calvin’s unique library of rare and antiquarian books on medicine, archaeology and anthropology.

The British palaeopathologist Calvin Wells examining a human crania. Image credit: University of Bradford.

When the collection arrived at Bradford it was divided between two different departments, with the palaeopathology material going to the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (B.A.R.C.), and his books and more personal ephemera being held by Special Collections at the J.B. Priestley Library.  This physical split as well as lack of comprehensive understanding about the contents of the collection limited its accessibility for potential users. Moreover many items, particularly the transparencies and audio-visual material, are vulnerable to deterioration and in need of professional conservation.

These factors motived B.A.R.C. Collections Manager Dr Jo Buckberry and Special Collections Librarian Alison Cullingford to bid in 2016 for a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Grant.  The purpose of the grant is to improve access to health-related library and archive collections, and is a substantial boon for archive projects across the U.K. Fortunately Jo and Alison were successful in their application and the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project was awarded a grant of almost £140,000.

We’re very fortunate because the grant has allowed us to afford a team of specialists, including a project archivist, osteologist, conservator and placement student.  As the project archivist my role is oversee each part of the cataloguing and digitisation process, as well as manage and organise all promotional aspects of the project through online and outreach activities.  Ultimately I am responsible for ensuring the collection’s potential for scientific and historical research is fulfilled by making it more accessible and known to relevant audiences as well the wider public.

TBOM:  Having been a longtime itinerant visitor to the University of Bradford, and its Department of Archaeological Sciences, I’ve always been intrigued by the fundamental role the department has played in establishing human osteology and palaeopathology as archaeological-based disciplines within Britain and internationally.  However, the university itself was the recipient of Calvin Wells physical archive rather than the base of his work. 

As such I’m intrigued by the relationship between the man and his archive.  How, and by what methods, are you making the numerous research articles, monographs, and review publications available to current researches?

JN:  Bradford’s role in developing palaeopathology teaching and research on an international level is central to the Calvin Wells Archive story.  It was Calvin’s wish that the collection be held in trust by the Wellcome Library with the intention of ultimate donation to a University offering a course in Palaeopathology to degree level.  With the introduction of the MSc Course in Osteology, Palaeopathology and Funerary Archaeology at Bradford, Calvin’s wife Freddie released the collection to the Department of Archaeological Sciences.

A collection of slides that were left behind in the archive, a very useful and durable form of documentation. Image credit: University of Bradford.

Whilst the collection is yet to be fully catalogued we’re confident that the archive holds the vast majority of Calvin’s published and unpublished skeletal research and reports.  This includes additional material, such as photographs, handwritten notes, annotated typescripts, and related correspondence.  For the first time, all of Calvin’s research will be available from one resource.  A central reason why the Wellcome Trust funded the project was our ability to demonstrate the continued interest and demand for Calvin’s work.  An analysis by Bradford’s Subject Librarian for Archaeology and Forensics Sarah George demonstrated that in the 40 years since his death, citations of his work have risen year on year.

The intention of the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project is to unlock the collection for potential researchers by producing a comprehensive catalogue of its contents. Our team Osteologist Michelle Williams-Ward is focused on parts of the collection which require specialist descriptions, such as Wells’ skeletal reports and associated photographic material. Michelle is uniquely placed for this role given that she has just completed a PhD thesis ‘Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk’ which analysed remains from many of the same archaeological sites Wells worked on.

Upon completion the catalogue will be publicly available via the Archives Hub, a national database of archives collections which covers several major UK Higher Education archives and special collections. Archives Hub is keyword searchable, so researchers will be able to search for material by site, date, persons, and, in some cases, pathology. The material can be viewed through the University of Bradford’s Special Collections at the J.B. Priestley Library.

Calvin and Freddie Wells with Vilheim Moller-Christensen, dated to 1962. Image credit: University of Bradford.

If researchers are unable to visit in person there are Reprographics and other services available upon request. Additionally any visual material on vulnerable formats, specifically Calvin’s large slide collection, will be digitised and made available via Special Collection’s digital repository which is currently in the development stage.

TBOM: ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ then sounds like it is doing a wonderful service to the work and life of Calvin Wells. Although I’ve been aware of his reputation as a palaeopathologist within the United Kingdom, and his importance in helping to establish the practice, I’m keen to learn of Calvin as an individual.

Having read Waldron’s 2014 review of his life and work in the Journal of Medical Biography, the reader is left with a strong impression of him as a somewhat intense, passionate researcher who, at times, read far too much into the skeletal remains of past individuals. Particularly so in his now notorious and problematic case of identifying rape from the remains of a skeleton identified as female and the graphic contextual details that he goes into, which is not supported by the archaeological or osteological evidence present.

Having worked with, and continuing to develop, the access and availability of both his professional and personal archive, what have your insights into his character been like?

JN:  It’s crucial for archive projects to be impartial in how they open up historical records for research and interpretation. Therefore the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ want to reveal all facets of Calvin’s character, both positive and negative.  Similarly it’s our responsibility to provide historical context alongside the material, in order to bring greater understanding about the time which Wells lived and worked.  As an archivist I can only speak to Calvin’s character as it comes across in the archive material.  There is great deal more to be understood about Calvin’s personality from reading biographies written by friends and colleagues.  In addition to Tony Waldron’s article, I recommend reading Glyn Daniel, Gerald D Hart, Cecil J Hackett, and Keith Manchester and Charlotte Roberts. Some of these articles aren’t readily accessible, and the project will change that.

A shot of Calvin working in the great outdoors, analysing skeletal remains at White Horse Cottage, Norwich. Image credit: University of Bradford.

With the exception of memoirs from his service in the Royal Army Medical Core in WWII, the archive material documents Calvin’s life from 1955 until his death at age 70 in 1978.  This was a particularly eventful time Calvin’s life when he produced the bulk of his research and established his legacy in palaeopathology.  Whilst he didn’t keep a diary as such, Calvin was meticulous in preserving his professional and personal correspondence.  We are fortunate because he often kept copies of his own letters, meaning we can read both parts of conversation.  These letters provide unique insight into Calvin’s character and his relationships with others.

An obvious aspect of Calvin’s personality is that he was a gregarious individual, eager to converse with anybody in his fields of expertise.  As a result of the popularity of ‘Bones, Bodies and Disease’ Calvin received considerable correspondence from academics, researchers and university students.  He was particularly generous with the last group, who wrote to him asking about degree courses, research areas or future career paths.  In these instances Calvin expressed earnest enthusiasm for new scientific and academic endeavours, and in many cases established enduring pen-friendship with young scholars and researchers.  It is interesting to now Google the names of these individuals and to discover that many became top doctors, scientists and even politicians.

Given his privileged background, it might be assumed that Calvin was particular about his correspondents.  However he was pleased to converse with the many strangers who wrote to him following an appearance on national radio or TV.  An ITV profile about Wells’, showing the doctor analyse ancient bones, swinging Anglo-Saxon swords and water-ski, promoted an influx of letters from as far afield as Australia.  This included an enquiry from a Norfolk sheep farmers relating to the location of large churches in rural areas with a low population.  In another letter Calvin politely declines the services of a Welsh dowser who believes he can locate bog bodies in Dersingham Bog.  There are also numerous letters from parents and teachers enquiring about how to get children involved in archaeology and osteology.  In all of these instances Calvin is polite to a fault and comes across as natural educator who cherishes the opportunity to share his intellectual passions with others.

A selection of the human skeletal remains that Calvin helped to document. Many of the skeletal remains that he studied came from sites within Norfolk and the east of England. Image credit: University of Bradford.

Concerning the more negative aspects of Calvin’s character, it’s a shame that a small number of ill-judged interpretations of human remains have come to define him as a person.  It is true that Calvin could be intense and bombastic in expressing his professional and personal opinion.  This is evident in his correspondence with Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, with whom he collaborated on the series of controversial reports on an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Kings Worthy, Hampshire.  Without hashing out the detail the Ancient Monuments Laboratory – who commissioned Sonia to produce the report on the site – resisted Calvin’s involvement on the project.  This was less to do with Calvin dramatic over-interpretations of remains, and more to with his vocal contempt for a fellow palaeopathologist on the team.  In their correspondence Hawkes pleaded with Calvin to tone his comments down, writing that they are “far too hot and strong for anyone’s but my sympathetic and sympathising eyes and ears”.

Clearly Calvin was at his most hostile when interacting with journal editors or publishers who edited his work without permission or published it with errors or inaccuracies.  In fact Calvin wrote about it in an unpublished article called ‘Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners’, where he lays into the ‘discourteous tempering’ of journal editors.  It appears that Calvin was extremely intellectually proud and felt he had seniority or ownership over palaeopathology at the time.  This is ironic because accepting some constructive criticism may have softened his language or persuaded him to omit some of the more graphic descriptions which have since left an indelible mark on his scientific bibliography.

Photograph of a slingshot wound on a crania, analysed by Calvin Wells, from ancient Cirencester. Image credit: University of Bradford.

However I think that Calvin’s archive material ultimately shows him to be a diligent and conscientious man, both at work and with friends and family.  I predict that the unlocking the collection will show a more thoughtful, progressive and accomplished Calvin than currently remembered.

TBOM: Calvin’s work has been fundamental in making the field of palaeopathology an integral discipline of study within archaeology itself. Indeed, the identification, diagnosis, and demographic attributes associated with studying both ancient diseases and evidence of trauma associated with archaeological remains allows, researchers to build up a detailed picture of human health over the ages. It also allows us to delve into ancient epidemiology within defined populations, allowing for patterns, observations and human behaviour to be identified and investigated.

However, as you have had prime access to his professional and private correspondence, I’m keen to learn what has become one of your favourite pieces of his research, whether it was his bone reports or articles on the value of human skeletal remains as portals into the past?

Related to this I’m keen to hear what you think drove Calvin Wells, the individual, to go from practising as a GP (general practitioner), from helping to heal and comfort the living, to working solely on the ancient dead, diagnosing signs of trauma and disease processes?

JN:  Being based in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Science alongside researchers and students has given me the opportunity to understand Calvin’s research in manner not immediately clear to an archivist such as myself.  Therefore I recognise the value of those parts of Calvin’s research which will be most useful and beneficial to the collection’s anticipated users – Palaeopathologists, Osteologists and Archaeologists.  In addition to his published reports on skeletal material, many of which are not currently available, the collection holds Calvin’s original research notes, graphs and tables, excavation maps, and photographs, slide and radiographs of skeletal remains.  This raw data will allow the researchers of today to reassess and reinterpret the human remains and archaeological sites initially reported on by Calvin and his colleagues.  With regard to Calvin’s bone work, I don’t have a specific favourite piece of research but rather appreciate the meticulously preserved empirical evidence which gives the archive material contemporary scientific value.

A collection shot of the archives that Calvin Wells left behind, including postcards, books, skeletal reports and photographs. Image credit: University of Bradford.

That being said I do personally enjoy the articles Calvin wrote for more popular publications, such as the Times Literary Supplements, the Reader and the US magazine Horizon.  Additionally Calvin wrote regular columns for the Eastern Daily Press under pseudonym ‘Calliphon’.  These articles show that Wells was just as enthusiastic about discussing current medical issues as he was waxing on about disease and injury in ancient history.  For example in an article from 1957 Calvin outlines the mounting evidence of direct links between tobacco smoking and cancer.  In another he provides medical and moral arguments for embracing the mass polio vaccinations in 1955, about which much of the British public were wary.  Wells also used the column to write biographies of Norwich’s great physicians or wax lyrical about primitive man in East Anglia.  It was a popular feature for which ‘Calliphon’ received a great a considerable amount of fan mail.  Adulation was something Calvin embraced, and it increased as he became more prominent in palaeopathology.

On a surface level it could be argued that Calvin devoted himself full-time to palaeopathology primarily as a means of supplementing his pension whilst pursing his interest in the ancient dead.  However, there is something in the fact that Calvin wanted recognition beyond his work as a regional GP.  It’s clear that the career change opened up a new world for both he and his wife Freddie.  From around the mid-1960s, Calvin started to forge relationships with leading scientists and academics, began lecturing for prominent organisations, and received more opportunities to appear on radio and television.  As a natural showman, Calvin fully embraced the attention and respect that being an international authority on palaeopathology brought him.  This is not to say Calvin was cynically pursuing fame, as he invested a great deal of time and research into every job and appearance.  It is clear that Calvin seemed to be gearing up for a third act in his life before cancer struck unexpectedly.

TBOM: Do you think Calvin Wells would be surprised today that his work and research (and dare I say reputation) still plays such a fundamental component in the British history of palaeopathology? Do you think he would be struck by the diverse and wide-ranging courses available, and by the active number of researchers within the field?

JN:  With regard to how Calvin would feel about the development of palaeopathology, I think he would be awestruck by the methodological and technological developments in the subject.  Most of all I think Calvin would be compelled to revise his belief that only individuals with medical qualifications can practise palaeopathology, particularly when confronted with the scale of advancements made by researchers with backgrounds in physical anthropology, archaeology, medicine, biology, and zoology.  While the discipline has significantly evolved and diversified, I think Calvin would recognise his own passion and dedication present in today’s palaeopathologists.

A shot of Calvin Wells in action, helping to teach schoolchildren in Toronto on the value in studying human skeletal remains. Image credit: University of Bradford.

I was recently speaking with Dr Keith Manchester who remarked on how proud Calvin would be that his work continues to have influence almost two generations later.  Clearly he was conscious about leaving a legacy in palaeopathology, and this is evident in the extent with which the archive collection has been cared for and maintained.  Concerning the more contentious aspects of his legacy I think Calvin would be philosophical, probably following Oscar Wilde’s famous line that ‘the only thing worse in life than being talked about is not being talked about’.

TBOM:  Indeed, I think he’d be glad that his fundamental role within British palaeopathology, and palaeopathology as a discipline within its own right, would continued to be recognised.  Thank you very much for joining me at These Bones of Mine James, and I wish you the best of luck archiving the Calvin Wells collection.

Further Information

  • Visit the Putting Flesh on the Bones project website for further information and frequent updates.  The site is a wealth of information on Calvin’s books, skeletal reports and other aspects of intriguing life and lifelong passion for palaeopathological topics.
  • To visit the Twitter page for the project please follow @PFOTB_project, for the project Instagram page please check it out at puttingfleshonthebones.

Bibliography

Daniel, Glyn. 1978. ‘Calvin Wells Obituary; A Man’s Place in Nature by Glyn Daniel’. From The Times, 5 August 1978. [Available from University of Bradford Special Collections].

Hart, G. 1983. ‘Disease in Ancient Man: An International Symposium’. Toronto, Canada (1983).

Roberts, C. 2012. Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978). In: The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects. Edited by Jane Buikstra. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 141-145.

Waldron, T. 2014. Crooked Timber: The Life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978). Journal of Medical Biography. 22 (2): 82-89. (Open Access).

Wells, C. 1961. Bones, Bodies and Disease. London: Thames & Hudson.

Interview with Alexandra Ion: Introducing DivMeanBody & The Post-Mortem Fate of Human Bodies

30 Oct

Alexandra Ion is an osteoarchaeologist and anthropologist who specialises in Neolithic deathways, theory of (osteo)archaeological practice, and the history of anatomical/anthropological body displays.  Alexandra can be found writing about her research and thoughts on her blog at Bodies and Academia, where topics include the anthropology of the body, with specific reference to the ethics and history of body research and the display of the body.  To keep up to date on the DivMeanBody project, and the latest research goings on, check out the project blog.  Alexandra’s research profile can be found here.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM): Hello Alexandra, thank you so much for joining me at These Bones of Mine! We’ve known each other for a while via our own respective blogging sites and I’m always interested to see what you post at Bodies and Academia. However, for those of us who do not know you or your bioarchaeological research, could you tell us a little bit about your background and main research interests?

Guest blog interviewee Alexandra Ion admiring a number of flints. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

Alexandra Ion (AI):  Hi David, thanks a lot for having me here!  I am trained both as an archaeologist and as an osteoarchaeologist, but along the way I came to be interested in the more reflexive approaches to the material record we encounter.  If I am to summarise, I would say that I am interested in the ethics and history of body research and display, from analyses of past Neolithic death-ways, to reflexive accounts focused on the way in which human remains are turned into an object of study and are enacted as part of the osteoarchaeological and anthropological disciplines (from contemporary excavations, to the history of anatomical/anthropological collections).

I am currently a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research located at the University of Cambridge, and I am also a researcher at the Cultural Anthropology Department of the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ of the Romanian Academy, so I can say that I am ‘butterflying’ at the cross-road of the two disciplines and perspectives.

TBOM:   It is clear that with the research positions you hold, you are able to produce an interesting perspective on both archaeology and anthropology as separate disciplines that can readily be fed from one into the other productively.

As such, and having myself come from a background where the practicalities of analyzing human skeletal remains was emphasized within an archaeological perspective, I have to ask where your interest in theorizing the human body came from within your academic and research background?

AI:  Not an easy question to answer for sure, but one which definitely goes directly at the heart of my research.  Like any exercise in self-reflection, trying to identify the ‘cause’ of something can sometimes be as accurate as the exercise of piecing back events from memory, but if I am to follow the threads back into my past I think I should start by saying that I have a BA in History.  Thus, from the beginning I have been thinking of archaeological materials as part of broader theoretical/historical processes and questions.

At the same time, I was lucky to meet and learn from a handful of archaeologists who were interested in exploring theoretical avenues, influenced by anthropological, sociological or philosophical works, and who made me question the established paradigm.  The first proper work I did where I combined the two interests was during my MSc in Sheffield, where under the supervision of Prof John Barrett I applied a sociology of scientific knowledge approach to osteoarchaeological practice – in other words, I took scientists dealing with bones as my subjects, and I tried to see what kind of interpretation they construct about past human beings through the questions and methods they follow (and the ethical implications of these practices).

Alexandra demonstrating a research poster with an study skeleton. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

TBOM:  I think that is a really interesting perspective on the research of the actual process of osteoarchaeology.  Almost, I can imagine, a meta review of humanity reviewing itself using a standardised methodology.  In that first piece of research for your Masters, what conclusions were you able to draw with regards to this, and how has it subsequently informed your following research?

AI:  I am not sure if I could draw a straightforward conclusion after that, rather it was my intention to highlight the networks in which human remains are integrated, and following sociologist Bruno Latour, the actors which take part in shaping our understanding of them – from instruments and methods, to spaces and world-views.  I think my main aim was to bring into view how our bones analysis are the product of a series of choices (what to study, why, how), and that maybe if we chose differently, then our reading of the past were different.  Liminal case studies are perhaps the best/easiest to use as illustrations of more reflexive points such as this, and I am thinking here of a piece which has recently came out in Archaeological Dialogues in which I was trying to see what happens when the standardised osteological understanding of an individual meets in the field a completely different take on humanity – in this case, that of a Church.

Namely, I’ve been looking at how the two ways of ‘decoding’ some human remains met on the territory of one body belonging to a Greek-Catholic Romanian Bishop killed during the 1950s in a communist prison.  While for the Church, the body was seen as a sign of martyrdom, a site of embodied experiences which tied it to the community of believers, past to the present, the scientific approach applied a universal and standard methodology, whose language did not leave room for an understanding of the particulars of his situation.  Once the scientist steps out of the ‘laboratory’ and goes into the field (regardless how we define that), their world-view is confronted and challenged by complex networks of actors, each with their own agendas and interpretation of what those bodies are/should be – and this can start some interesting points for reflection.

TBOM:  That particular case study that you’ve recently published is a great example of examining the cultural and social differences as documented in testimonies, texts and historical records, compared to the strict osteological interpretation of the Bishop’s body, and associated burial context, within a fraught historic period.  It is also a period that is very well documented compared to the archaeological record as a whole.  

As such I’m wondering how you can use your approach to the skeletal remains of individuals, or populations, from prehistoric contexts where documentation is either non-existent or enigmatic in nature, i.e. structural remains that are of unknown function or use?

AI:  I think this is the challenge indeed!  Recently I took part in the Cambridge Science Festival and I have received the same question from members of the public, under various guises: what do you do with these human remains?  Of course the first level of analysis involves sexing, ageing, identifying pathologies, traumas etc. on the human remains, with the goal of piecing together their (post-mortem) biography.  However, I think that we need to go beyond the data encoded in the materiality of bodies, and think of them in the wider context of their deposition/discovery.

Of course there is not a single/simple answer to how to go about this, but ultimately it is a question of scaling: finding the right (useful) balance between the singular case study and the wider population data, between the human remains and their context, between a site and the wider cultural patterns.  Anthropology, history and even philosophy of science might provide inspiration when reaching a dead-end, leading to new questions for old materials.  Ultimately, I think one also has to accept the limits of what we can do with certain kinds of discoveries, due to the fragmentary and heterogeneous nature of the material.

TBOM:  I’m really excited by the announcement recently of your latest project, DivMeanBody, based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, which will investigate the construction of the prehistoric body and identity from Neolithic settlements (7th-4th millennia BC), from around the Balkans area of southern Europe.

What is the focus area of the study, along with the bioarchaeological material, that you’ll be studying specifically?  As we’ve discussed above, I’m really keen to see how you fuse together the biological data from the human skeletal remains with the cultural material of ancient societies, in order to explore the meaning and use of the human body within funerary practices during the Neolithic period.

AI:  My research is designed as an exploration in the construction of the prehistoric body and identity, by studying the post-mortem fate of human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements in the Balkan area (between 7th-5th millennia BC).  These settlements have yielded collections of disarticulated/fragmentary/scattered human remains.  Traditionally such human remains have been either a focus of osteological studies, looking at them in a biological dimension, or subjected to cultural analysis.  My project aims at taking a multi-disciplinary comparative perspective, at the cross-road of archaeology and osteology, towards the re-interpretation of such deposits from a taphonomic perspective to answer the question of whether these are deliberate depositions or more complex, including non-cultural processes, might explain this fragmentation.

The DivMeanBody blogging page, check out the University of Cambridge project website page here. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

Given its broad time span, apparent uniformity on a large geographical area and across multiple prehistoric cultures (from southern Romania to northern Greece), studying this depositional practice is key to understanding the context which shaped the beginnings of settlements, agriculture and the Neolithic way of life in Europe.  Thus, I hope to better understand how these past people were performing and dealing with the dynamic processes of life and death in their communities and the relation of these practices to the formation of archaeological deposits.  At the same time, it will surpass the divide present in contemporary research between a biological body (studied by osteology) and a cultural body (by archaeology).

The materials I will be looking at are of three types: skeletal materials who have already been excavated, old archaeological reports/photographs, and archaeological/osteological publications.  Of course the access to all these kinds of data is not even, especially when it involves researches from three countries (Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania)- either some of the materials are not available any more (lost, or not available for study), or the initial documentation is not present, so the bones have no context.  Beyond an interaction with these past bodies, the project turns out to be also a trip down memory lane, an archaeological investigation into storage areas, publications and academic networks.

TBOM: I’m looking forward to reading some of the outcomes of your research, so I’ll be sure to keep an eye on the dedicated website that you have for the project.

The geographic and population focus of the majority of your research has largely been in eastern and southern Europe, covering anthropological topics and the curation of historic and prehistoric human osteological collections, such as the Bucharest-based Francisc. I Rainer Anthropological Research Center, Romania, which houses one of the largest human osteological collections in Europe.  With your experience of academic work and associated field experience across a number of countries, I’m intrigued as to your views on how anthropology and osteoarchaeology is taught and if you have experienced any differing approaches in their application?

AI:  This is an important question indeed, thank you, one which I think should be more often discussed!  I am not sure though if I am the best person to answer it, as I have no extensive experience with how osteoarchaeology is being formally taught throughout the world – besides my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I am mostly self-taught/ I’ve been taught the basis of osteology by my colleagues at the Institute.  In an indirect way, my answer speaks about the academic situation of the discipline in my country, and the absence of a formal qualification.  Even in the United Kingdom, there are not that many programmes offering osteology training, and even less a combined degree (with funerary archaeology)- I recall you made a list a while ago.

Furthermore, when it comes to the interest in the history of body collections and the ethics and politics of human remains research and display there does not seem to be a specific path for training either, and those interested, like myself, seem to come from various backgrounds (e.g. I have a PhD in History, Elizabeth Hallam in Social Anthropology, Tiffany Jenkins in sociology, while Liv Nilsson Stutz and Duncan Sayer have one in archaeology – and this is just to name a few; others come from the world of pathology, forensic anthropology or philosophy).  Due to this fluid nature of the discipline, each of these specialists brings their own questions and perspective on things, which in a way is just a reflection of the multi-faceted nature of the topics explored.

But if you ask me about the specific osteoarchaeological training, the only broad remarks I can make are that I have noticed that in France these studies are sometimes more closely connected to pathology and taphonomy than in other places, that there is a difference between seeing osteoarchaeology as part of a historical discipline (like in my academic background) versus seeing it as a biological science (as I’ve often encountered it in UK settings), or as part of cultural anthropological concerns (as is the case in the USA).  Of course these are very rough generalisations, but I think what is certain is that there is not just one osteoarchaeology, and would be interesting to talk more about how various traditions define the concept (even a quick glance at the names which are used in various places is indicative of the heterogeneity of practices- from bioarchaeology to archeothanatology or osteology).

TBOM:  Your observations seem to collate with my own experience of both osteoarchaeology and bioarchaeology, alongside their related fields, in other countries.  Particularly so as to where osteology fits within its confines in an archaeological or anthropological setting.  I sometimes wonder if this acts as an almost linguistic straight-jacket on respective researchers who are confined within their narrow field of study, as espoused by their department or traditional approach within their country of research.

Returning again to your new project, DivMeanBody, how did you come to focus on the Neolithic period of south-eastern Europe?

AI: Indeed, I share you concerns regarding ‘a linguistic straight-jacket’, though I would rather call it an epistemological straight-jacket.  In the same time, I think that what we witness – the cohabitation of multiple archaeologies (some taking very hard sciences approaches, while at the other end of the spectrum we have postmodern narratives and even performances – a colleague mentioned of a dance ‘presentation’ he witnessed in a conference panel) – should prompt some reflection and dialogue in respect to the kinds of basic principles that we share/should share.

But returning to your question, I think this was, like many other decisions in research, a serendipitous encounter.  Quite early in my undergrad (and even before that) I was fascinated by the Neolithic period, especially by the Vadastra pottery.  The black polished pots, decorated through deep incisions filled with white paste, and with helix or geometrical models are extremely elegant and special, and they definitely drew me in to deep time.  For a couple of years, I have also been to two different tells in southern Romania, and then it came the moment of choosing a topic for my BA thesis.  At first, I had been offered the opportunity of publishing the pottery from a late Neolithic site, but as I soon discovered I did not get too excited about drawing pot shards on millimetre paper.

An anthropomorphic vessel made of fired clay, Vădastra, Vădastra, 5500-5000 BC. National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest: 15908. Image credit: Marius Amarie, New York Times.

By this time, I was already working at the Institute of Anthropology, and one day when I was sitting at my desk by the skull shelves my colleague Andrei Soficaru popped in and said: ‘Why don’t you study the human remains from Neolithic settlements in Romania for your thesis?’.  That was to be my topic for my first Master thesis as well, and it stayed with me even when I moved more into the theoretical aspects.  Thus, when I had to choose a topic for this postdoc I went back to what I knew, and to what I have left ‘unresolved’ in a way, the interpretation of human remains discoveries from settlements from Southern Romania; then extending the area to the Balkans made sense, as in the Neolithic times this area would have shared many cultural commonalities.

TBOM: Thank you very much for joining me today Alexandra, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. and good luck with your DivMeanBody project!

At These Bones of Mine we’ll definitely be keeping a look out as to how the project develops.  I’m sure that my readers would be interested in hearing about the results as well.

AI:  Thank you David for a wonderful opportunity to talk about some of my work!

Further Information

  • You can check out Alexandra’s personal blog, entitled Bodies and Academia, which features a great range of thought-provoking and interesting posts on osteoarchaeology and anthropology.  Alternatively, for bite-sized chunks, check out Alexandra’s Bodies and Academia Twitter page here.
  • For all of the latest updates on the DivMeanBody project check out the website home page here.

Bibliography

Ion, A., Soficaru, A., & Miritoiu, N. 2009. Dismembered Human Remains from the ‘Neolithic’ Cârcea Site (Romania). Studii de Preistorie6: 47 – 79.

Dobos, C. & Ion, A. (eds.) 2015. Bodies/Matter: Narratives of Corporeality. Special Volume of Martor -The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review. 20. Bucharest: Martor. (Open Access).

Ion A. 2015. Breaking Down the Body and Putting it Back: Displaying Knowledge in the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ Anthropological Collection. Martor – The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review20: 25-50. (Open Access).

Ion, A. 2016. The Body of the Martyr. Between an Archival Exercise and the Recovery of his Suffering. The need for a Recovery of Humanity in OsteoarchaeologyArchaeological Dialogues. 23 (2): 158–174. doi: 10.1017/S1380203816000209.

Ion, A. 2017. And then they were Bodies: Medieval Royalties, from DNA Analysis to a Nation’s Identity, in Premodern Rulership and Contemporary Political Power. The King’s Body Never Dies, (eds.) Karolina Mroziewicz, Aleksander Sroczyński, 217-237. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Guest Interview: Turbulence Ahead? Introducing Archaeologist and Agitator Spencer Carter

28 Jun

Spencer Carter.

Spencer Carter is a freelance commercial and community field archaeologist, prehistoric stone tool specialist, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and member of the Hatfield College Senior Common Room at Durham University, as well as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (FSA Scot).  He is presently Archaeological Project Officer for Breedon Group’s Black Cat North (there’s a large metal black cat on the A1 roundabout, for whatever reasons) aggregates quarry, Bedfordshire, along with involvement in other community and commercial projects.

He studied archaeology at Durham in the 1980s and, after an extensive business career, currently researches the early prehistory of north-east Yorkshire and Teesside.  He was recently chair of the Teesside Archaeological Society, sits on the committee of Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire and the council of RESCUE: The British Archaeological Trust, as an advocate for our archaeology, heritage-at-risk and the profession.  He’s an affiliate member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA), passed the CSCS health and safety test, and knows the colour of various cables and fire extinguishers.  “Quarries”, he notes, “offer endless, visceral, mind-bending experiences within the bund-bound anonymity of a developer-led engagement”, adding “all name-dropped characters in this interview are likely fictional or caricatures rendered by misrepresentation”.

Spencer maintains a professional website at TimeVista Archaeology and an informal Mesolithic archaeology blog at Microburin. His Twitter ID is @microburin.

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These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Spencer! Welcome to These Bones of Mine and thank you for joining me today.  We both have a shared enthusiasm for the heritage and archaeology of the North of England, alongside our prehistoric passions, but for those of us who do not know you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to find yourself in archaeology?

Spencer Carter (SC):  Hi David, it’s a pleasure to be interrogated!  I think the journey of self-discovery, more so in later life, is perpetual and the convoluted steps to where I am today are likely unconventional.  Let’s see. Born in pre-decimal 1966, I grew up on Teesside, the southern borders overlooking Roseberry Topping (our local Matterhorn), the Cleveland Hills and North York Moors.  As kids, we spent a great deal of time outdoors—a farm near Northallerton, in Wensleydale, on the fabulous coast around Whitby and in our local corn fields, woods, streams and bogs.

Sadly many of those childhood wild places are now housing estates or festooned with dog-poo bags, mounds of beer cans and vodka bottles, although my ‘thinking tree’ survives (barely, as an ash) still displaying the now-distorted carved initials of our tribe.

“I will be an archaeologist!” Teen rebel, Nunthorpe School 1981. © Evening Gazette.

Somewhere in that jumble of experiences a connection with the landscape was forged.  A fascination for why things are as they are benefitted from frequent primary school weekend walks and map-reading.  I’ll admit to having an ordnance survey map fetish of sorts (as well as Munsell soil colour charts) and refuse to entertain GPS in the car.  I spent my early years collecting fossils from the beaches, beaches before plastics, accompanied by an Observer Book of such, until I’d pretty much identified and catalogued everything one could find.

We were also a family who visited our many ancient monuments, the cathedrals, castles and abbeys for which northern England is renowned.  Hopefully some folk will remember the rather austere blue-covered Ministry of Works guides?  What started a rumbling, I suspect, is twofold: Sunday afternoon trips to Hadrian’s Wall; being unleashed on my own into the moorlands on my bicycle, phoning home from an iconic Gilbert Scott telephone kiosk as far away as I could reach, in order to cause alarm.  I think the greatest round trip, about the age of twelve, was sixty miles and then a significant period of recovery.  The finding of a flint microlith, a composite projectile armature, on a lonesome ramble, figuring out what it was, triggered something extraordinary that persists today.  THE MESOLITHIC was reborn!  A local retired dentist-and-genealogist added fuel to the fire by gifting a duplicate set of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.  You see where the carnage began, a misspent youth?

Early Mesolithic microlith, a projectile point of Deepcar style from Eston Hills, Teesside, ninth millennium BC. Image credit: S. Carter.

People who know me, and to the frustration of my parents, teachers, attempted-managers and similar victims, will understand that “The Spence Will Never Be Told What He Cannot Do”.  It’s like the “DO NOT press the big red button” principle!  Imagine then, when asked pre-teen by a teacher “what are you going to be when…?” (I still haven’t adulted at fifty), and upon announcing in a loud, clear and determined voice ‘I am going to be an archaeologist’, to then be admonished “don’t be so daft; there’s no future in that; do something sensible like engineering (or even bricklaying, or as a female, secretarial work)”, what The Spence did, in gritty rebellion?  I began digging at the age of twelvish, surveying at eleven.  We don’t talk about the chemistry set.

Temptation!

Having completed the weirdest mix of clashing A-Levels that I could muster, I studied archaeology at Durham University under the incredible stewardship of Prof. Rosemary Cramp (by whom I am still occasionally scolded, but less today about “being too thin”) when the department was on Saddler Street.  The room I used to do post-ex work in – plans and sections – is now, appropriately, the roof terrace of a pub.

Our class graduated, pre-email and computer, in good form and yet, after a final digging adventure in Iron Curtain Poland with Anthony Harding, I ran away to London on a 125, sat on a suitcase in the vestibule, having made mum cry and having negotiated a handshake from dad (and £20 for my train fare home upon “inevitable failure”, which I still possess).  That mum had transformed my bedroom into some kind of plant sanctuary merely accelerated the need to run.  What I recently learnt is that somebody forgot to ask me to consider staying on for a Masters. Perhaps that’s just as well, David?

Durham University dig in Poland, 1987.

What then followed has been twenty-odd incredible years spanning an aspirational role (sic) as a box-packer of the first UNIX software (we don’t talk about Linus Torvalds, damn his open source) in a Soho basement to, ultimately, managing international teams of customer service and support personnel, trying to keep sales people out of prison (99% successful), across twenty-three time zones, and the privilege of experiencing the extraordinary evolution of computing, email, the Internet, web-services (the world’s first online pizza order—then inevitably delivered to the wrong address in Santa Cruz, CA), and social media.  That said, traveling 80% of the year until dizzy, being chased around Moscow by armed security (and I’m sure filmed in the hotel room, certainly followed around), shot at in Sao Paulo Brazil (wrong turning in a taxi), and ultimately eliminated for being too expensive and over forty, are experiences only enjoyed after a number of years of reflection, and some counselling.  More importantly, THE MESOLITHIC (and archaeology) never died in the corporate soul.  So I think the question, David, is probably “how you came to re-find yourself in archaeology”?

I took voluntary redundancy six years ago (ageism is pernicious in hi-tech), spent three months asleep or staring at walls, determined to write-up and publish some flint finds, and knew nobody in archaeology although I hadn’t ever stopped reading.  Where to begin, when so many seemed to be leaving the profession?  How much had changed?  What survived the big crash? How would one build acceptance and trust, a network of friends?  Should I take a job at Sainsbury’s (or retrain as a bricklayer), now too old to heed the teacher’s advice?  I also wonder if one is ever not an archaeologist even when pursuing other career paths.

“Who wants to be an archaeologist?” Kids finding bling during the Lost Village of Lodge BIG DIG, Nidderdale 2016. Image credit: Jim Brightman, Solstice Heritage.

TBOM:  I think many can emphasize with the thought of being an archaeologist whilst pursing other career paths, even as there is an upturn in the archaeological sector currently with the boon of infrastructure projects in the country.  Your recollections of family journeys to historic and natural environments of interest certainly remind me of my own family’s trips – perhaps we can blame them for leading us down the archaeological track!

I’m keen to hear how you built up your contacts within the sector though after having such an illustrious and globe-trotting career in the tech sector because, as many can testify, it really is who you know and not just what you know, especially within our sector which can be quite small!

SC:  I’ve got to say, David, that 2011-12 was a strange and disconcerting place to be, having turned my back on an ostensibly successful career, albeit one that was having an adverse effect on my health—having an ECG was a levelling, alarming event.  I could also hear my late dad’s remonstrations in my head, to persist with a sensible job, but as I’ve mentioned, I’ve never been one to be told.  I was determined to re-evaluate life’s values, declutter and simplify, try to take some risks in the sense of “life is too short”.  Sorry for the cliché.  My usually sanguine GP put it directly: “you’re not going to be around much longer if you carry on like this”.  Luckily, I still had enough savings sufficient to relax for a little while, not including the £20 that dad gave me back in 1987 at Eaglescliffe railway station on an overcast afternoon as mam wiped away her tears.

An archaeologist’s mam, during Wimbledon week.

I think trouble started when I committed to work on three or four thousand Mesolithic lithics—flints—that I’d recovered from excavations on the North York Moors, a rescue dig in a rapidly eroding area, with features, and charcoal, in hearths.  I rented an office unit in North London and laid out all the flints, also reconciled with a 1:1 scale site plan drawn on a huge sheet of B&Q plastic.  That’s twenty rather ridiculous square meters, now folded up in the under-stairs cupboard.  Other than the office folk looking at me in a satisfyingly troubled way, at first, through the open door, I ended up offering guided tours of a hunter-gather camp, replete with hearths, and flints in a millennia of ziplocks.  Incidentally, the office was burgled twice, the door kicked off its hinges, but not a single flint was touched.

Nor can you take the Mesolithic out of the Spence; you can only have him sectioned.  I’ve now added thirteen radiocarbon dates for the Late Mesolithic and Neolithic transition in north-east Yorkshire where there are essentially none so far except for Star Carr, one from Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales, one from a fish trap at Seaton Carew, and one from peat around a stray serrated flint blade in a bog.  I funded most out of redundancy money, topped up by the lovely folks at the North York Moors National Park—Graham Lee, now just retired.  I’m not very good with waiting, and the gestation period for radiocarbon results is not particularly pretty in my household.  That’s probably why I live alone these days?  I did a brilliant radiocarbon course at Oxford last year and, after a lab tour, I can now understand why.  The machine also issued an alarm and promptly broke down, Bayesianally.

All spread out in the lithics lab.

However, I still need to publish the 14C results once I’ve re-assessed all the flints and feature associations, with great caution since some of the calibrated dates are effectively right at the transition to the Neolithic, essentially overlapping with early Neolithic ones from Street House, Loftus, on the coast between Saltburn and Whitby.  I’ve been digging there with Steve Sherlock and friends, of Anglo-Saxon Princess bling in a bed fame, for the last few years—clay in clay on clay, under clay, generally.  As of last year, we’ve added Teesside’s oldest “hoos”, dated to around 3700-3900 cal BC, to the mortuary structure and long cairn excavated in the 1980s.  It’s as if the hunter-gatherers were hanging on, stubbornly roasting their eco-nuts, in an enclave on the uplands while the grain bashers ground their cereals on the coast, and threw a few pots around, Grimston style.  Some things have not changed on Teesside.  Anyhow, I digress: it’s the quarry syndrome.

The stage is set for a Day of Archaeology blogpost in 2012.

I knew nobody, David.  I’d never really had time to engage with any organisations, societies or events in the heritage and archaeological world.  That had to change.  I’ve also always been a believer in the fundamental importance of people-networks, surrounding oneself with the inspirational.  I’ve learned in the last six years, if nothing else, that archaeology remains a world of “who you know”—yes you’re right there, as well as what, as I aspire to CIfA accreditation in mi’steel toecaps and hi-vis hard hat (the sensible one with steam-vent holes on the side, four squids in a B&Q sale).

The soul has always been in North Yorkshire and the north of England, despite subsisting in the Smoke for twenty-odd years.  So, off I trotted to York for a social media course hosted by CBA Yorkshire.  It wasn’t a big turnout, maybe a dozen folks.  I felt rather shy (which means I talk too much, ironically).  But I met Paul Brayford, then chair, Kev Cale, a community archaeologist for whom I’ve now delivered lithics training—for feisty school kids and the local society ahead of leaping around in ploughed fields.  I also met the lovely Pat Hadley who was, at the time, engaged in Mesolithic stuff at the University of York.  And I learned about WordPress blogging.  The microburin Mesolithic blog was born soon after.  It was Pat who mentioned on Facebook, one weekend, the first Wild Things Palaeolithic and Mesolithic conference at Durham.  “Why don’t you come along?” he nudged.  “Crikey” I indigested, “an academic conference”.

I swung to and fro, procrastinated with professional finesse, booked myself into mam’s airBNB sofa hospitality, and got myself a train ticket.  I actually ended up staying in my old university college room, Hatfield on the Bailey, and wondered how a human being could occupy such a tiny space, and a George VI period bed, for so long, as I consumed a newspaper-wrapped fish and many delicious scrappy chips in a stottie, alongside a dollop of mushy green squidge: perfect.

Wild Things was sublime.  The roll-call of new friends—including your good self—and acquaintances, kind introductions, compelling conversations, was mesmerizing, and immensely confidence building.  I could talk Mesolithic.  I can, and I will.  It was a pinch-yourself experience to actually have a poster at the second follow-on conference, where I met Harry the Fish (now Dr Robson) from York, amongst many miscreants.  Indeed, the Star Carr gang with whom I’m still largely in touch (I dug there for two seasons, mostly in rain, with Tim Schadla-Hall in the 1980s, a friendship recently reconnected; he marked my dissertation), are such a fab bunch of people.

Seamer Carr excavations which included test pitting at Star Carr, 1985-6. It rained every day except this one.

Actually, it’s the connectivity—as well as shed-loads of fieldwork and training refreshers, CPD if you will—that carried me to the point of having the confidence to re-position my LinkedIn profile away from corporate soundbites.  It’s now years since I last typed “reach out to” or “stretch goal”, since I toyed with a Boston Square or Nine Grid employee-eliminating value matrix.  I’d rather have a natter these days and pop a date in my diary, less “calendarizing” another human being.  I’m proud of quarter-of-a-century of business, and obviously you can’t delete that from a CV.  However, changing the job title to “Archaeologist”, hitting <save>, was a nervy moment—but a commitment to making a massive career switch a reality, engineering a new, or at least re-invigorated life.  That’s a lifestyle without money or luxury of course, one almost entirely coated in mud, infiltrated by gravel, but at least my heart thumps with a passion again.  And I’m not short of a ziplock or sharpie; yet I can whine justifiably.

It’s also about trust, David, frankly—building trust versus being perceived as a loopy crank.  Trust then has a direct, proportional relationship with self-confidence.  I’ve never been afraid to speak up, about advocacy—human, LGBTQ, social, archaeological—but with the concomitant fear of saying something stupid.  It’s a difficult path, but I’d rather take some risk in being a fool than a timid, subservient follower of others, or fashion, like bell-bottoms.  The sense of “no such thing as a dumb question” (and if you don’t know, ask) has generally worked, most of the time anyway.  Dark humour helps.  While I’m not altogether comfortable with being middle-aged now, there is some advantage in the silvering hair (Prof. Cramp’s “my, what an interesting hairstyle”) and an excuse for a goatee.  I guess I’ve also had my hedonistic years in 1990s Soho.

It’s been quite a revelation to be able to shake the hand of somebody I would have doffed my cap to as an awfully juvenile undergraduate.  The generosity and friendliness of the folks in archaeology, academic and commercial, by and large, has been the most delightful experience.  Nonetheless, the pay sucks.

Commercial archaeology: section drawing at -5°C with steel toecaps frozen to the gravel.

While this interview is feeling like a meandering autobiography, sorry, there are a few other key activities which have been important.  Serendipitously, as is often the case, I ended up volunteering as editor of CBA Yorkshire’s annual journal, now refreshed and eye-catching, and sitting on their committee, as I still do.  Editing and the diplomacy of sometimes having to turn down an article—not often though—is hard work.  Just when you thought you had a basic grasp of English grammar, hyphenation, conditional subjunctives, words contrive to prove you wrong.  Editing is also supremely rewarding, and printing things is almost a fetish (yes, another), if nerve-racking.  Whenever I open a page, the first page I open, the typo leaps out, laughs at you before slapping you in the face.  However, I think I’ve always been addicted to the smell of old books, journals, bindings—as well as the hot-off-the-press satinesque sensation of fresh ink and glue.  I’m also probably the only child who had chewed off the corner of his WH Smith logarithm booklet—the corner with the cosine I needed in the maths exam—fool.  Knowing Yorkshire, knowing Yorkshire folk and knowing enough about Yorkshire archaeology to be quite dangerous, my tenure has been an incredible opportunity to forge many friendships in that community, as well as with the other regional groups and “corporate” CBA.

On Teesside I re-joined the archaeological society too, and turned up to monthly lectures, ribbing one of the more vocal members for exploiting me as child labour in the 1980s—when “worms froze to my trowel” in a kind of allegorical Laurie Lee rosie without cider-esque way.  It wasn’t long before I was co-opted onto the committee, and ultimately arm-twisted into becoming chair—damn it.  Volunteering is like a Dyson—involuntarily sucked in and churned around forever without a dust bag.  However, we reversed the declining membership, refreshed the committee, and established an Internet presence—a website social media and mail-chimping.  “Thank god” somebody posted “TAS has entered the twenty-first century!” What was also been satisfying is the sense that despite over two elapsed decades, I was still known to many, as if there hadn’t been a hiatus.  In fact, Blaise Vyner, former Cleveland County archaeologist, mused that everybody thought I’d graduated and been sucked (sic) into the bowels, or consumed by the infinite bureaucracy, of what was then English Heritage.

I lasted a year as chair of TAS but, having succumbed to the ‘advocacy’ bug—inevitably with a political bent—it was clear that ventures beyond an annual lecture series were not entirely everybody’s cup of tea, although I valued and enjoyed developing the speaker portfolios.  The mileage every month from London was also the equivalent of driving to Hawai’i and back.  I’m still a TAS member of course, and pleased to be involved in some of their upcoming fieldwork this year, as a flinty specialist, soon to be announced.

New friends: “You’ll be Spence, then?” Street House, Loftus 2014.

If there’s time and space later, I’d mention the crucial role of social media, and of blogging, and syndicated blog referencing, as an icebreaker strategy.  It’s always a joyous thing, with all humility, to feel a tap on the shoulder: “are you Spence, Microburin?” whether at an event, a conference, a training course or on a dig; occasionally in my local Sainsbury’s superstore although that might have more to do with past misdemeanours in the days before integrity.  Of course, there’s also the tribal ritual that is the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) event, and the associated flu pandemic, the wonderful Day of Archaeology blogfest, and I have booked this year’s CIfA conference in Newcastle.  Now that I recall it, back in 2012, it was at a then IfA’s Diggers’ Forum day at MoLA-on-Thames that it dawned on me how little some things had changed in archaeology—the profession as it were—pay, conditions, benefits, ludicrous minima, intra- and post-recessional carnage and, well, to read that there’s a shortage of experienced archaeologists in the commercial sector.

Out and about: Prehistoric Society trip to the Bronze Age site of Must Farm in 2016 with the fantastic Mark Knight, bobble hat, centre. Image courtesy of the Must Farm excavation team.

Nor have impenetrable theoretical papers dropped out of the periodical arena, despite paywall protection.  Oh, and I’d add the chilling horror of how relatively little practical fieldwork training there appears to be for many undergraduates. My Durham course required a substantial proportion of fieldwork during almost every vacation, as a mandatory part of the final honours degree.  There are still, it seems, many irreconcilable, post-processual and contradictory home truths. So I wrote an article. It was published. And now I am on the inside of commercial archaeology, with more poorly-remunerated work lined up, for better or worse, for sand and for gravel, and impregnable boulder clay.

TBOM:  I have to say you sound pretty well integrated now – and you’ve also given me a renewed vigour for my own (pre)historic region. I think that, with your experience of coming back to the world of archaeology and re-connecting with both the professional network and research interests, therein lies a truly useful road map for individuals wanting to kick start an archaeological career.  We both know it takes dedication, groundwork and time to get to know people, to join associations or societies, and to attend events and workshops.  The ability to master new skills is also a bonus, particularly one in archaeology where it seems each archaeologist has their own specialism (or two) and focus area.

How have you found being on the numerous boards and advocating for the archaeology and heritage sector though?  Has there been any particular differences on national boards compared to more regional or research specific associations or societies, for instance?

SC:  I’m not sure I’ve been on a sufficient number of councils and committees to form a representative view, but I can acknowledge the diversity of interests, demographics, degrees of health and challenges.  There was a particularly insightful conference hosted by CBA in York in 2013 where a large number of county societies and local history groups gathered to share their experiences, successes, and their difficulties.

Council for British Archaeology Groups conference, York 2013. © Council for British Archaeology.

There’s a useful distinction to be made, in general, between the more traditional ‘heavy-weight’ organisations like period-based or county-based groups, organisations geared to advocacy like Save Old Oswestry and, closer to my home area, Hands On Middlesbrough, and organisations built around fieldwork, almost inevitably supported by the Heritage Lottery.  There’s diversity too on the national scene. I’ve been a member of CBA, both national and regional, since a teenager.  While some of the regional groups, again very diverse in nature, sometimes struggle to differentiate their roles, and of course to adequately resource their ambitions, I’ve always seen CBA as an impeccably diplomatic organisation navigating between (or above) national politics and policy, and the convolutions of the volatile sectors across academic, commercial and public domains.  While I respect the diplomacy, I sometimes wonder that it is perhaps a little too discreet, careful to balance differing positions if you will.

For that reason, and spurned on like many of my peers by the last couple of general elections, I joined RESCUE for different reasons, as an ‘activist’ counter balance.  It was a little daunting to then be invited to join their council committee but satisfying in the sense that I believe campaigning and having a voice requires something a little more provocative—challenging intransigence and the status quo.  Advocacy can be a-political in a party political sense, but for me it is inevitably politicized at both a local and national level.  Austerity is a choice, a set of policies, attitude and dogma, and so its impact in our world of archaeology, heritage and place-making, and the decisions around investment or attrition, are absolutely political.  I also prefer to be a voice on the inside of an organization, like CIfA for example, than whining from the outside: “having skin in the game” from my distant business-speak past.

Teesside Archaeological Society lecture, here with Gary Bankhead talking about his medieval finds from the River Wear in Durham. Image: S. Carter.

The mixed fortunes of the more traditional societies have seen some difficult decisions being made around financial wellbeing and their existing membership – and their ambitions to address a still very much white, middle class and aging demographic.  Some are more savvy around trying to address, evolve, and frankly market, their offers while others perhaps struggle to maintain their value (and for whom) in an Internet-dominated digital world.  Nor does one size fit all in the sense of risking the alienation of a proportion of the in situ membership. The ability to maintain a dedicated headquarters without a sufficient income stream has affected a number of societies, such as the Yorkshire Archaeological (and now also Historical) Society, as has the ever increasing cost of print and postage, and hosting events.  Recalling the CBA conference I mentioned, almost every organisation recognises the desirability of increasing the diversity and sustainability of their subscription base—age, background and ethnicity, from cradle to grave if I can phrase it like that. From personal experience, not everybody is keen on advocacy work either – having a voice – versus a genteel lecture-based agenda and occasional forays into the field “in suitable footwear”.

On the other hand, Web-based technologies have revolutionized the ability for groups to reach, at least in principle, larger audiences.  Yet the presence of somebody on the committee with the technical ability and, importantly, the time to exploit the online, and largely free, tools is a very practical challenge.  This is also an area where consistency and follow-through is important in order to build, maintain and grow an audience.

So the strength and weakness of a committee or board of trustees often relies on the passion and energy of a spirited individual, or a few members, on that committee.  Even for organisations, charitable or otherwise, with a constitution, there is often a gulf between the need to rotate the management team periodically, usually every three or four years, and the willingness of the membership to get involved with both its strategic direction as well as its day-to-day operation.  While it is rewarding, it is, in many senses, also a very time-consuming commitment.  It is tremendously easy to get drawn in and less easy to extract oneself or find a line of succession!

TBOM:  I think anyone who has ever sat on a committee, or a trustee board, knows that the vibrancy to achieve the aims and continued function of the organisation can be tough, but it is very much necessary in order for them to remain dynamic.

I’ve read your recently published article ‘Middlesbrough has no Archaeology? The Unique Archaeology of Teesside‘, at Hands On Middlesbrough, on the real wealth of archaeological sites within the local region.  As I reread it now I am again stunned at the sites on my doorstep from all periods, a few I have had the pleasure to excavate at or to analyse the human skeletal remains, but more I have only passed in the car, sometimes unknowingly.

Also mentioned in the piece is the scrapping of the AS and A Levels in archaeology, anthropology, and classical civilizations by the AQA exam board in the United Kingdom without any form of consultation.  I’ve been meaning to write about this for my site, but I am stunned once again reading it, especially when the fruits of such programmes as Operation Nightingale (where ex-service individuals who have been traumatically injured are given the opportunity to learn new skills via archaeological practice) are reaping rewards with the approach.

Spencer, you have mentioned the importance of advocacy for the heritage and archaeological environment, both between the practitioners and their representatives, and the public and elected officials, but how can this be implemented on the ground, so to speak?  I guess I’m also asking how you are approaching this, with the development of your knowledge and now extensive experience and contacts within the region.

SC:  Advocacy or agitation, David?  In the present times of political austerity, I feel increasingly an agitator, and that archaeology is, and must be, inherently political—as I’ve mentioned already.  It has a cost and a proven return on investment and wellbeing, so it’s economic too.  There’s a good article on the BBC website about the challenges posed by HS2 and megaprojects.  I wonder if ‘advocacy’ has taken on a more passive meaning, over-used in a similar way to ‘heritage’ risking the de-coupling of on-the-ground cultural value from what the past actually contributes to communities and stakeholders.  I think a number of us felt uncomfortable with the recent British Academy report (not least with the make-up of the panel of experts) Reflections on Archaeology. It risks perpetuating hard-line boundaries between ‘public’, ‘professional’ and ‘academic’ and, for me, fails to reflect on the larger stakeholder diversity and interaction, although it recognises the need for greater cooperation. Even defining ‘public archaeology’, as distinct from ‘community archaeology’ is a contentious can of worms reflected in many a Doctoral thesis!

On that note, and having been able to attend the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists conference a few months ago in Newcastle, I particularly enjoyed the research of Gemma Tully and Tom Moore at Durham University on stakeholder-building around ‘cultural landscapes’, in both France and Britain: REFIT: Resituating Europe’s First Towns, a case study in enhancing knowledge transfer and developing sustainable management of cultural landscapes.  What started off as Iron Age oppida-centric became a much richer insight into public engagement, some transparent, some not.  Of particular interest, gleaned through extensive community surveys and interviews, are the different perceptions (and comprehension) about the stability and resilience of landscapes through time.  To quote from the excellent presentation, the project took “an ecosystems services approach to assess how stakeholders understand and manage cultural landscapes, integrating stakeholders’ perceptions into future management strategies.”

So having dug a trench for myself here, David—and not wanting to backfill it on myself—I think it might be better illustrate the power (and complexity) of networking around a set of inter-related causes and interests, archaeological, historical, environmental and utterly social.  And efforts bring us to Teesside again, the well-trodden woods and moorlands of a misspent youth.  Recent years have seen a rapid increase in vandalism, arson, illegal off-roaders which are causing irreparable damage to both the natural and archaeological environment of the Eston Hills – an outlier of the North York Moors sitting above the urban and industrial sprawl of Teesside.  By example, there have been over 16 devastating fires (and burned out vehicles) in April this year alone—that’s 60% of such events for the entirety of 2016!

With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund North East and Teesside Archaeological Society, I’ve been working with my friend and Durham archaeology student Adam Mead, and many others, on building a community project, for which Adam is director, to assess, sample and rescue the archaeology, but also to pull together the many stakeholders across the community to focus on sustainable solutions—with political momentum. ICE AND FIRE is making excellent progress, ahead of summer fieldwork, on rallying many voices, including the Friends of Eston Hills, around a single ‘landscape’ community cause.  Our aim is to try and turn around perceptions and behaviour, across generations and backgrounds, to make the destruction by a minority socially unacceptable.  From an archaeological perspective we have a unique landscape, and a wetland that holds great potential, dating back at least to the early Mesolithic in the ninth millennium BC! We know because flint artefacts are being brought to the surface by off-road vehicles, erosion and fires.  Indeed, if the wetland proves to date back to the end of the last Ice Age, the potential is both rare and very exciting.

What’s more, Media engagement has helped underpin a recent public meeting hosted by Redcar’s MP (now re-elected), Anna Turley who has been horrified by the carnage—and the very real risk to human life.  A great turnout, and vociferous opinions, were addressed to a panel which included emergency services, council representatives and community organisations.  The story is very much ongoing!  We also hope that this will form a kind of template set of options and case studies in building a stakeholder campaign against the seemingly intractable challenges.

There are a number of ways to get involved, both in the field as it were, but also in finds processing.  We have interest across the community, including school kids and a visually-impaired volunteer, and from the continent.  Diversity and inclusion are core to the project’s goals, and we hope it endures well beyond this year thanks to interest and support from Durham and Teesside Universities.  It would be great to see you around for a bit of flint washing and good humour! Teesside is on the map!!

TBOM:  As you know I hope to join the Ice and Fire project within the next few months, depending on my health, and I am very much looking forward to it.  From the regularly updated social media accounts to the community engagement and involvement, I’ve been impressed by what Adam, yourself and countless others have so far managed to achieve with the project.  It has been far too long since I have had the chance or opportunity to look at prehistoric flints and landscape features, and the opportunity to do so in my own backyard is a one that invigorates me.  To me this is one of the core strengths of archaeology as a whole – the ability to understand the (pre)history of a landscape and its people, from changes in population in the larger scheme of time to the minute aspects of change over a few years.

We’ve managed to cover a lot of ground during this interview, including the chance to highlight the rich cultural heritage of our beloved Teesside, but before we conclude our talk I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the future of archaeology as a sector.  What can up and coming archaeologists, students and volunteers do to help preserve, conserve and educate others?

SC:  Thanks, David, for the opportunity to share a personal side of a lifelong archaeological passion—the one you and I ruminate about for Teesside, and way beyond. Teesside is on the map these days!  I know that not everybody will share the same views, vistas into the past, largely white (male) and economically-priveleged historical narratives about our “shared” space.  However, the chance to be provoked—to think, assess and imagine ahead—is always cathartic. I hope this interview nudges some agendas forward, makes folk think.  We all need to transform our neighbourhoods to reflect what and who we are, together, every day.  Archaeology is contemporary, in this sense.  We constantly change and interact—as humanity does.  We need to be more confident, locally, to develop our heritage and socially-cohesive agendas here – what we value and what makes us part of the “same but disimilar community team”.

More recent media pieces perhaps assume varying degrees of doom and crisis in our sector.  We bleed into many others, unwittingly subservient to “lowest-cost basement” drainage ditches of archaeological sector undercutting—cogniscent of the folks who can’t sustain a viable lifestyle on this; such is our present political world.  That is what the media want and do, too.  I remain confident that our profession will play a key role in at least four ways:

  • Developing synergies—true investment and collaboration (howsoever funded)—between Communities (localism), local interest (representation) and campaign groups (gatekeepers for our environment against government folly) empowered to challenge bad planning decisions, and funded to explore and understand their (our) own place through time;
  • As part of understanding, with confidence, we recognise a joined-up approach to an ecological space that encompasses both climatic, natural environmental and human influences, sustainably—and not least lessons we can so definitely learn from the past (Brexit in mind);
  • Integrate present social realities that need to make inclusion, a respect for our continuous flux of incomers and outgoers (our dynamic communities), relevant, inviting and engaging;
  • Build our neighbourhoods around diverse cultural legacies—our own, like Teesside—but also of those from the most spectacular of global heritages too that back-challenge and ask for inclusion (challenging Brexit head-on).

TBOM:  I think there is a lot to chew over there and I wish you the best of luck with your engagement and research Spencer!  More importantly I look forward to joining you on the Ice and Fire project in the near future, ready to help make a difference to our local archaeological and contemporary environment for everyone.  Thank you once again for joining me today at These Bones of Mine.

Further Information

  • To learn more about the latest Mesolithic archaeology research and news, check out Spencer’s excellent Microburin blog.

  • Head over to TimeVista Archaeology to learn more about the commercial and academic research that has been carried out by Spencer.  TimeVista Archaeology is a freelance practice for commercial, non-profit and community-based engagement events who specialize in a whole host of archaeological-related fun.  This can include learning about and taking part in activities such as field archaeology events, providing expert help on social media outreach and the education of the fun and importance of lithic analysis!

  • Head over to the awesome Ice and Fire project homepage to learn about the heritage of over 10,000 years in the Tees estuary in north-east England.  This Heritage Lottery funded project unites a range of specialists to provide a community-led endeavor to ‘explore, record and celebrate over ten thousand years of human life, death, ingenuity and persistence’.

Guest Interview: Introducing the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS) with Marit Van Cant, & Co-Founders Davina Craps & Hélène Déom

27 Feb

Marit Van Cant is a PhD-fellow for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and in a joint PhD between the Free University of Brussels (VUB, Belgium) and the University of Sheffield (UK).  She completed her Master’s Degree in Archaeology at the VUB in 2012.  Since 2010 she has been specialising in human osteology by participating in several key courses at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Leiden University (The Netherlands), and also in the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield as a part of the European Union Erasmus exchange programme in 2011.  Approaching the final stage of her PhD thesis, Marit has been appointed as Student Representative of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in 2016-2017, for which she has organised its annual Student Colloquium in Brussels, the first time that the event took place outside the UK.

Dr. Davina Craps, finished her doctoral degree at Durham University in 2015 and specialises in palaeopathology (the study of disease in the past), with a research focus on rheumatology.  She completed her undergraduate studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and went on to get Master’s degrees specializing in osteology, anatomy, funerary archaeology, eastern Mediterranean archaeology and palaeopathology from the Catholic University Leuven (Belgium), the University of Sheffield (UK), and Durham University (UK).  She is currently applying for postdoctoral funding, and runs her own freelance osteology company called Osteoarc, which specialises in the analysis and assessment of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts for commercial units and museums.

Hélène Déom undertook a Master’s degree in Archaeology at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium) then another Master’s degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Practices at the University of Sheffield (UK).  During her studies, she specialised in prehistoric burials from Belgium and England.  After graduation in 2014, she started to work for archaeologists from the Public Service of Wallonia (SPW), examining skeletons excavated from medieval parish cemeteries.  She’s been working freelance since 2015 under the name of TIBIA, which specialises  in the analysis of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Marit, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I know you, of course, from my time at the University of Sheffield a few years ago but since then you have been working on your PhD, alternating between the University of Sheffield, in England, and Free University of Brussels, in Belgium.  How is your research going?  And how did you become involved in helping to set up Belgian Osteoarchaeology and Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS)?

Marit Van Cant (MCV):  Hi David!  Indeed a while ago – besides the several times we met at conferences, remember the Society of American Archaeology 2015 annual meeting in San Francisco where I had the privilege to listen to your nice talk on the public importance of communicating bioarchaeology of care research (and not to mention the famous Vesuvio Cafe we frequented afterwards!).  Time flies indeed since we both studied together at the University of Sheffield!

I am currently in the writing up stage of my PhD research, which is about the skeletal analysis of rural and small urban sites, mainly in Flanders, and one rural site from the United Kingdom.  Besides the general health status, I’ll look at entheseal changes on both inter- and intra-population level, and the impact of occupational activities and the environment on these populations, in conjunction with archaeological and historical sources.  But, enough said of this project – I would like to defend my PhD by the end of this year! – and this interview is all about BOAPAS, right?

So, this is how it all started: In October 2015, I was asked to give a presentation at the Dead Men Talking Symposium in Koksijde, Belgium, on the state of the art of osteological research in Flanders. 

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The meeting taking place on the 27th February 2016 at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

It was clear that, not only in Flanders, but also in Wallonia, (I will not dwell on details of the complex political situation in Belgium, but briefly: Flanders is the Dutch speaking part, and they speak mainly French in Wallonia), many young (and less young) researchers in bone studies are forced to study abroad, such as in the United Kingdom, in France, or in The Netherlands.  Although we do have many skeletal remains in Belgium, previously excavated or even to be uncovered in the (near) future, there is currently no clear overview of which skeletal collection is yet to be studied, or of the depository this bone material is stored at.

So, me and three other participants at the conference, Hélène Déom, Davina Craps and Marieke Gernay, decided to gather not only all osteologists (human bone specialists and archaeozoologists) in Belgium, but also employees working in heritage agencies, museums and archaeologists (both contractors, including commercial and academic researcher and lecturers) in order to provide a platform for everyone working with osteological material from archaeological contexts.

We started with an announcement and a mailing list at this conference, and collected the contact details of c. 30 people on that day.  We created a mail address, which was still called Belgian Osteological Research group as we hadn’t decided on the name of our society yet!  Our next step was to announce our first meeting.  This was organised on February 27th 2016 in the small auditorium of the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, with many thanks to Caroline Polet for providing us this location.

TBOM:  I certainly do remember the Versuvio Cafe, and I think if you had told 16-year-old me that he would be drinking where Kerouac and Ginsberg had drunk in San Francisco, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.  (Not to mention visiting the City Lights bookstore and watching an excellent band in a dive bar!).  I wish you good luck with your PhD defense, but I’d like to know more about the topics that were discussed in regards to setting up the society.

I’m impressed that your group managed to pull together and contact a full representation of the individuals who are involved with skeletal remains from archaeological contexts in Belgium, but how did you decide what topics to mention and how did you move forward?

MVC:  That bookstore was indeed amazing!  And the beatnik spirit still surviving in that bar . . .  Good memories will never fade away!

We welcomed 11 members at our first meeting, both from Flanders and Wallonia, and decided to communicate in English to facilitate international accessibility.  On the other hand, French and Dutch translations on our website will be available too.

Further topics we discussed included the aims of our society:

  • To provide information about professionals in the field within Belgium.
  • To improve communication in osteological matters, especially between people from the different regions of the country.
  • To produce a database of skeletal collections and the relevant institutions that hold the various skeletal collections.
  • The legalisation of our society, and whether to become a non-profit society or not, and which steps should be undertaken to achieve that goal.
  • Decide on the name and logo of the group itself.

To choose the latter one, an online poll was created, and finally, BOAPAS, or the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society, came out as the most favoured name for our new society.

Once the name and vision statement were created, we worked on managing and maintaining our visibility.  Online visibility comprehends a website with a forum as well as social media profiles such as on Facebook and Twitter.  But, there is always room for improvement of course, so we are still working on the design and content of the site itself and how we reach out to individuals and other like-minded societies and organisations.

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The delightful BOAPAS cards advertising the society, and the joy of using sliding calipers to measure skeletal elements and anatomical landmarks. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

The site gives an overview of our aims and vision statement (why we are doing it) and ways to contact the group (via email address, possibly via social networks).  At a later stage, we would like to include a forum and the database can be linked to it.  All details that will be added to the website can be discussed, tested, improved or removed as appropriate.  We also created a list of people who are currently available for short or long term assignments, or available in the future, with their photograph and biographical details demonstrating their background and skill sets.

TBOM:  I have to say I do adore those business cards, they manage to effectively communicate the message of the aim of the society and the methods used in physical anthropology and osteoarchaeology in a lovely way!  So, do you foresee any major areas where you may run into problems in setting up the society?

Aligned to this question, do you, by starting up BOAPAS, hope to bring into existence a firmer framework for osteological studies, within academic research and commercial work, in the Belgian archaeology and anthropology sector?

Hélène Déom (HD):  Thank you, those business cards are the result of effective teamwork to create them.  We are really proud of them.  There are, of course, major problems, as usual, when a society is being set up and they include time, money and legislation.  I’d say that is a long shot, but I’m dreaming of creating such a strong framework for osteology in Belgian archaeology…  What about you, ladies?

Davina Craps (DC):  Thank you for the nice compliment.  The business cards are one of the many examples of effective teamwork within BOAPAS.  We believe in involving our members as much as possible in the decisions and the running of the society.

We don’t really foresee any major problems, as there is a definite interest in BOAPAS both from the physical anthropologists who are active in Belgium and from the archaeological community itself.  One of the smaller issues that we have to deal with is the time it takes to set up a society.  All three of the founding members have other obligations aside from the society, thus it can be challenging to create enough free time to spend on the society’s needs.  Another issue that we are currently dealing with is how to create a more official platform for BOAPAS to operate from.  We are currently looking at legislation when it comes to societies and other options to allow BOAPAS to continue growing.

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A photograph of the founding members of BOAPAS, left to right: Marieke Gernay, Marit Van Cant, Davina Craps and Hélène Déom. Image credit: Hélène Déom.

We are indeed hoping to create a strong framework, where there currently isn’t really one in place.  The aim of BOAPAS is to facilitate stronger lines of communication between commercial archaeology, museums, and the physical anthropologists.

MVC:  Yes, thanks David for your comments on the cards.  I believe the major challenges we are facing right now is sorting out legal issues on non-profit organisations, and who we should contact for external advice regarding this.  Setting up a society requires after all a whole procedure we need to take into account.  This means in the near future, we have to elect board members such as a president, treasurer, and secretary, and to accomplish this, we hope we can find people with the right amount of time and dedication to work, especially on the further development of our website, FB-page, newsletters, communication on meetings, vacancies, conference calls, etc.

It is very supportive to notice the mainly positive feedback we have received so far, and it is also good to know that the Dutch Association of Physical Anthropologists (the NVFA) has offered to set up joint-events in the near future.  I believe it is important to maintain close relationships with our foreign partners, such as British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteology (BABAO) and the NVFA, as several members (like me) are a member of both societies.  Finally, our main goal is indeed to develop a strong and consistent framework in Belgium (this means both Flanders and Wallonia!) in osteology matters.  On a later stage, another motivation would be the development of offering osteology courses, for instance within the archaeological training at our universities, but that would be another challenge on the long run.

TBOM:  That sounds great about both the future collaboration between The Netherlands and Belgian organisations, and the possible development of offering osteology courses.  I always think that tailored osteology short courses can offer both the public and the practitioner alike opportunities to increase their knowledge base, and also remain up to date on the theories and methodologies that inform osteological research, especially so if some form of accreditation can take place.

So, I think I must ask that, having been a member of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) and the Palaeopathology Association, both of which have been around for some time, I’m curious as to why has it taken a while for Belgium to have a osteologically focused society?

MVC:  These short courses would be a good start indeed to show the basic principles of osteological research, both in- and ex-situ to principally archaeology students and archaeologists dealing with skeletal remains.  Outreach to the general public is currently undertaken through workshops to mainly high school students, or even to children from minority families living in ‘deprived areas’ in Brussels.

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Marit Van cant examining human skeletal material. Marit is currently the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s student representative, check out the society’s website for more information. Image credit: SMA/Marit Van Cant.

Although Belgium has a longstanding and internationally acclaimed tradition in palaeontological studies with the discovery of hominid remains in several caves in Wallonia in the 19th century, it was not until the 1950’s when the study of human bones from an archaeological context advanced here, and this is mainly due to pioneer research from scholars working in the field of medicine.  In Flanders, osteological research within an archaeological context have only really developed since the late 1990’s.

A shortage in human osteology studies was also noticed by Leguebe (1983: 28-29) who argued that the expansion of (physical) anthropology in Belgium, compared to other countries, was impeded by a lack in ‘organized teaching ratified by a legal diploma’.  In 1919, plans were initiated to found an institution for anthropology studies in Brussels, but, these attempts were unfortunately unsuccessful.  Other factors that might influence a deficit in an organised osteology framework are scarce funding and resources, alongside the complex political structure in our country.  Belgium has one society, the Royal Belgian Society for Anthropology and Prehistory (RBSAP), founded in 1882, and which co-operates closely with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

DC, HD and MVC:  Although the RBSAP publishes a yearly bulletin with articles, and organises an annual general meeting, their website (which is only accessible in French) has not been updated since 2010.  Further, we believe that the RBSAP is slightly more focused on prehistoric research, which we obviously support since the many findings of fossil remains in Wallonia (e.g. in 2010, the RBSAP organised an excursion to the Spy cave).

In addition, with BOAPAS, we would like to pay attention to osteology studies covering all historic periods from both Wallonia and Flanders, and to offer a vivid platform and discussion forum via social media and our (partially trilingual, but mainly English) website, on current and future research of skeletal remains.  We certainly believe in co-operation and the free flow of information, thus we have reached out to the RBSAP to hold a meeting with the organising committee in order to discuss joint possibilities.  Perhaps this collaboration between the established values of RBSAP and the fresh, motivated perspective of BOAPAS can truly invigorate the scene of osteology in Belgium.

TBOM:  In that case then, I can see why there is a need to set up BOAPAS in order to improve upon the knowledge and research base for osteological studies within Belgium.  Please do keep in touch as both myself and my readers would love to know about upcoming events and courses.

MVC:  Thank you very much for the discussion!  Just to let you and your readers know we do have a collaboration between BOAPAS and the Gallo-Roman Museum in Ath, Belgium, is currently undertaken for an exhibition on funerary traditions, and it is scheduled to open in 2018.  And keep an eye on our website at www.boapas.be for upcoming news and events!  We are also still looking for volunteers to help out with the design and layout of the site, so please do get in touch if any of your readers are interested and able to help us build the website.

TBOM: Thank you very much for talking with me today, and I wish you all the best of luck with BOAPAS!

Further Information

Interview with Natalie Marr & David Ashley Pearson: Introducing the Short Film ‘Visitor’

21 Jun

Natalie Marr is an artist who works across video, sound and performance, and draws inspiration from science fiction, landscapes and different experiences of time.  She is currently completing a Masters in Filmmaking and Media Arts at the University of Glasgow.  After the release of ‘Visitor’ Natalie will be taking up a research position at the University of Glasgow in a multidisciplinary project to study the impact of the Galloway Forest Park, Scotland.  For current and previous multi-media projects please check out her website here, ‘Visitor’ will be released in Autumn.

David Ashley Pearson is a multimedia artist who focuses primarily on sound design.  He is particularly interested in exploring improvisation, acoustics and the physicality of sound.  His approach to sound is ever-changing but is underpinned by a curiosity for its substance and a passion for musical exploration.  His blog entitled Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, games and music, can be found here.


These Bones of Mine:  Hello Natalie, thank you for joining These Bones of Mine! In something of a first for this blog our main topic of discussion will be a short experimental film of which you are currently in the process of producing.  Visitor, your upcoming film focuses on people who stargaze and the entwined personal stories of the night sky.  It promises to be something special; however speaking as an archaeologist interested in the lives of others, I’m keen as to what led you onto the path of film making?

Natalie Marr:  Thank you for inviting me! I feel like film has always been there in my life as something that I just love, it is a form that transfixes me, surprises me, soothes me, challenges me.  One of my greatest pleasures is to go to the cinema alone and just sit in the dark with a great film!

I have a background in the arts and I would still struggle to call myself a filmmaker – it doesn’t even matter really – but I suppose what I’m getting at, is that film is just one form that I am drawn to working with, and the qualities of film that I particularly love are the immediacy of it, the way it moves me on a physical, emotional and sometimes spiritual level, and also the way it plays with my experience of time.  These are qualities that I also try to explore in sound and performance.  I am also interested in the experience of seeing a film, sitting in the dark, the way you give yourself to a film for a period of time.  But that’s obviously a very purist way of looking at it!

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A detail from ‘Visitor’. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

Visitor is very different to any films I have made before…  It has been a very social process. In the past I have tended to shoot abandoned buildings, landscapes, environments that I freely walk around and capture and onto which I project my own story. There is landscape (or skyscape!) in ‘Visitor’ too, but because of this social process of interviews, spending time with people under the stars, as well as the autobiographical aspect, my approach to filming environments has changed too: it is not something I just project onto, it is another element that I am interacting with and learning from.

TBOM:  The interaction of the social process, within the creative production of a piece of art, is an idea that grabs me.  It is much the same in archaeology where archaeologists are never quite just the bystander to the material remains of the past – they act as both the interpreter of the architectural features and artefacts uncovered, but also as a gatekeeper to unlocking the potential knowledge of the remains and disseminating it to a wider audience. We even, acting in an environmental context, landscape the past through the examination of archaeobotanical remains and populate it with species through zooarchaeological analysis.  

In this context the personal voices of the past are largely silenced by time, but I’m left wondering how have you found the effort of capturing the social process?  Have you felt a greater duty to represent those who you film, as oppose to the silent landscapes and skyscapes of your earlier short films and photographs, or is this a false distinction?

Natalie:  Yes! The process has really sharpened my sensitivity to observing and recording and the challenge of how to represent other people’s stories, other people’s lives.  What I’m trying to do is build the experience of that challenge into the film and make myself – as a narrator or guide – vulnerable, responsive and unfinished.  It is very subjectively led, and most documentary/non-fiction films are to some extent – they are personal theses – but what I like about the essay film format, is the emphasis on the personal and the impressionistic and that’s what I’m running with in this film.  ‘Visitor’ deals a lot with projection: how we project ourselves onto the night sky, how we make Space personal.  Constellations as one example: they enable us to navigate our way around the sky, and we give them names that have their own historic and cultural colourings.

But the film is also about being responsive and like you say, it is a mistake to think of the land as silent, though in terms of ‘duty’ or a relationship of care, there is a more obvious concern for me when thinking about representing people, and maybe that’s because the effects of my actions are much more immediate.  It is so so important to get out of that mindset though, and spending time under a dark sky helps!

When I look at the stars, I feel I am tuning in to them.  I’m interested in the experience of darkness and how the body changes in a dark environment.  I get a stronger sense of this out on location in a place like the Galloway Forest Park, in Scotland, maybe because I’m standing outside for hours and time seems to slow down, and maybe it is also because I slowly start to tune in to the sound of the forest and of the different creatures that live there.  A funny side note on that – the last time I stayed in Galloway, one of the best night-time sounds I heard was a cow somewhere off in a neighbouring field, softly mooing as it slept, lovely!

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A silent salute in space. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am a big fan of science fiction and in particular its commitment to ‘becoming other’.  There is a quote I carry around with me all the time, which is from Fredric Jameson in his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions; he’s talking about the challenge in science fiction of representing the other when it is beyond our comprehension or experience, how do you do it?!  And his answer is that the ‘other’ demands a new kind of perception, which demands in turn a new organ of perception, and ultimately a new kind of body (sorry – I am paraphrasing!).  So the problem sort of creates its own solution if you are happy to let it work its magic on you.  With ‘Visitor’ it is a kind of feeling around in the dark at times and not knowing exactly what I’m working with, but it is hugely rewarding to be open to that.

TBOM:  Having seen the two trailers for Visitor a number of times now I am struck by the two timescales represented – the human lifetime and memory contrasted to the great age of the universe and its celestial bodies.  There are also similarities to Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, particularly in the revealing scenes of drawing back the covers for the apparatus that are used to peer into the inky darkness.  

However, whereas Guzmán contrasted the interviews of the astronomy and archaeological researchers with the family members searching for the remains of Pinochet’s victims hidden in the Atacama desert, your film is of a more personal nature.  Indeed there is the sense of personal solace present in it, the calm movements noted in the preparation of the equipment to observe the stars.  Where have you drawn your influence for this project from?  How has it developed as you have moved along the length of producing Visitor? 

Natalie:  Yes, its been a while since I saw ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ but it’s definitely there.  I was so moved by it, there was a special kind of quiet power about it, it’s deeply political but also deeply personal.  You are right, there are definitely shared motifs between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’, personal projections, the unknown, darkness, light.  I see lots of correlations between looking up and looking down, and of course, looking into space is effectively always looking into the past.  I see these women, who are spending every waking moment searching for the remains of their loved ones, as located neither in the present, nor the past.  ‘Nostalgia for the light’…a longing for light cast from the past perhaps, but how long will they have to wait for it to reach them?  They are trapped in a time-scale that will likely outlive them and it’s intensely sad.

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A detail of one of the telescopes at the Galloway Astronomy Centre. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

The phrase ‘to be in the dark’ is about not knowing and not having answers or facts and this is definitely something shared between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’.  In ‘Visitor’ there is a reading of darkness in terms of being unanchored, in free fall.  This is how I felt when I lost our mutual friend Holly, like I lost my grip on reality for a while, and it felt very destructive.  In ‘Nostalgia…’ an interviewee comments that to be without memory is to be nowhere, and I think of a tiny body surrounded by total darkness, spinning like the astronaut Ryan in the film ‘Gravity‘, unmoored and alone.  This also makes me think of the Disappearance at Sea short film by artist Tacita Dean about Donald Crowhurst who died at sea, unable to locate himself geographically, because his chronometer was not giving him a correct reading on the local time.  Tacita Dean uses the image of a lighthouse in her film, another motif for searching.

But spending time under dark skies over the last 6 months is changing my relationship with darkness; my body and mind sense in a different way.  It’s like the lights go out and something else switches on, it is a bit like being in a car picking up a radio station that starts off as noise but as you travel into its field of transmission, it becomes clear.  Vision is obviously an important aspect of stargazing, but also the feeling of being outdoors at night, the very different qualities of sound that emerge, and a sense that your ‘time’ vibrates with so many other ‘times’.

When I looked through the telescope at Jupiter recently, I saw this incredibly distant planet and four of its moons, but pressing my face against the eye piece, the darkness of Jupiter’s ‘world’ encloses me and it feels like it’s right there and I can touch it, it is very intimate.  I was speaking to one of the Galloway Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers recently about stargazing as a very intimate activity that involves a lot of trust.  She mentioned that if she were to meet her workshop participants the next day in the sunlight, she may not be able to tell them by face!  So the experience of darkness and of stargazing is quite complex and also transformative for me, and I believe transformative for others too.

TBOM:  Yes, after losing our friend Holly I also felt an incredible sense of darkness and disarray.  Light eventually returned, particularly when I think of the time that we had spent together and also through getting to know one of her favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens

It seems to me then that memory and distance are recurring motifs within ‘Visitor’, from both your own viewpoint and from the people who you have interviewed for the film.  As an anchor to these themes, and as a comfort to the sheer size and depth of the universe, the bonds of family and friends also seem to play a pivotal part within the film.  Is this a fair assessment?

Natalie:  Yes, definitely.  I keep coming back to distance and proximity.  A lot of the people I have interviewed share their night sky experiences with loved ones or close friends.  It might be a phone call in the early hours of the morning between two people at different ends of the country looking at the same planet, or a certain constellation that makes you think of the person you first encountered it with.  Distance gets collapsed in those moments of remembering.  And I guess that’s what you mean when you have said to me that you feel close to Holly when listening to music she loved and in particular the musicians she introduced you to or that you listened to together.  Memory is a strange thing, as are dreams and sometimes they cross over.

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A walk in the wild as preparations for a night of stargazing take shape. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am definitely partial to the mystical qualities of the universe, as well as the hard science (!).  Astrophysics is fascinating to me and never stops surprising me; though it is extremely rigorous in its science, I think that it is also an area that allows space for speculation and wonder which, for me, is hugely creative and helpful for thinking about slippery things like memory and experience.  The language of astrophysics alone is incredibly rich and strange, and speaking it or listening to it transports me somewhere beyond my usual experience and I guess I’m trying to follow that and see where it leads!

TBOM:  Speaking of other languages I know we have spoken about music before this, with reference to our shared love of Fever Ray, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Vladislav Delay for example, and I feel I can almost hear their influences within the trailer for ‘Visitor’.  How did you approach the sound and music composition for this film though, and where did your influences for this come from?  

I know that you regularly collaborate with your partner David Ashley Pearson on your productions, such as on the 2013 short film Waiting for an Answer (Waiting for a Sign), and that he has helped produce the soundscape for ‘Visitor’, so this may also be a question for him as well.

Natalie:  It really does help that we’ve known each other for such a long time and also worked on projects together or been witness to each other’s projects.  I’m not great at describing sound, it is very slippery to me.  David has a more nuanced understanding of it and the physics behind it. We didn’t discuss much in the way of influences…  I think we both know what we like!  In terms of soundtracks that have really blown us away recently though…  Definitely Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin (2013) and we also loved the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto for The Revenant (2015).

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The preparation of a Bahtinov mask. A Bahtinov mask is a device utilizing focal grids and variations in angle diffraction to help achieve optimum focus when using small astronomical telescopes, or when conducting astrophotography, to view bright stars accurately. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

There are obviously a set of themes or motifs in ‘Visitor’ which you can sink your teeth into sonically and some of the main aesthetic approaches for this have been thinking about tuning in/tuning out, sounds that take us away from ourselves and yet have an uncanny familiarity and the idea of signalling or sending out a message, a beacon.  We both share an interest in experimental music, but I would say I’m more partial to looking for a beat that I can cling on to, whereas David is a bit more fearless when it comes to sound!  I think it makes sense here to let David talk more about his approach to the sound design…

David Ashley Pearson:  Hi there, thanks for showing such an interest in our film, it means a lot.  My relationship with music (and sound in general) has been incredibly intimate and personal my whole life, I find it embarrassing to listen to the music I love with others as it’s like revealing a part of myself, it makes me feel somewhat naked and exposed!  Even music that it is incredibly social such as Punk, Dance or Pop I find difficult to listen to with others.  I like to delve into sound and find a personal connection, typically when I find that connection I can become obsessed and mesmerised by the sound and feel I own it in some way.

Before moving to London in 2007 I was always looking out for new and interesting sounds, I’ve always listened out for something that struck me as unique and creative but it wasn’t until I got to London and got to listen to and attend some Free Improvisation concerts that I felt my ears truly open up.  I’ve always loved and strove for ambiguity and multiple meanings in my work and I find that in its purest form in Free Improvised music.

When I first moved to London I went to Mark Wastell’s – now sadly closed – Sound 323 record shop in Highgate; exposing myself to a whole new sound culture, it was a phenomenal experience just leafing through all the CDs and absorbing it all.  That first time I went there I bought Lawrence English’s For Varying Degrees of Winter (2007) which is an incredibly meticulous and icy ambient album, I love it but it was probably one of the music conventional CDs there!  At the time Mark had some music playing in the shop that was like nothing I’d heard before; it was an incredibly unusual, textural, hard to place sound… and very slow!  I didn’t know how to interact with it and what it meant, it was alien to me and I loved it because of that; it was Free Improvisation!

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A Scots Pine garden, Glasgow, Scotland. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

With Free Improvisation (and in particular the ‘New London Silence’ scene that I gravitated towards) all sounds come out of silence and the player’s environment.  Traditional ideas of instrumentation, musical notation and scales are chucked out the window in favour of a purer listening to sound as sound, the sound’s interaction with the space and the sound’s interaction with other sounds.  This idea of sound coming out of silence is incredibly important to me for this film and it’s also important that sounds come out of the imagery and montage that the film paints.  I have made sound concepts/sketches for the two trailers but I hesitate to truly start on the final soundtrack until more sections of the film are in place – as I want to interact with the imagery.  I also want to keep in mind the cinematic space and how my music interacts with the voices of those we’ve interviewed for the film.  I can’t wait to see and hear how it comes together!  The soundtrack will feature voices, textures, field recordings, synthesizers and other bits and bobs… whatever works in driving forward the story Natalie wants to tell!

TBOM:  The two trailers released so far certainly indicate the sound coming out of the silence, and I’m looking forward to seeing how your exposure to Free Improvisation influences the soundtrack David.  Natalie, the initial release date for ‘Visitor’ is September to coincide with the end of your Masters course and you are currently crowdfunding for the remaining production.  What are your hopes for ‘Visitor’ and do you have any plans after? 

Natalie:  Yes, very soon! The film is being produced as part of my degree and will be completed in September.  Once ‘Visitor’ is completed, we’ll be submitting it to festivals, so fingers crossed it gets some interest and circulation and it will be interesting to discuss it with a bit of distance.  In the meantime though, we are working on raising funds to finish the shooting and for some post-production work.  Any support is welcome and we are really pleased to offer some night sky-related perks including a stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre and an astrophotography workshop with Viridian Skies, also based in Dumfries & Galloway.

 

Beyond the film, there is so much still to be explored.  Recently I’ve been very lucky to be accepted for an incredible research project based at the University of Glasgow, with a focus on mapping the values of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, so that’s the next three and a half years of my life.  I’ve become really attached to the area (and to its skies!) so it is a dream to be encouraged to delve in deeper.

TBOM:  It certainly sounds like you have plenty to contend with and I wish you the best of luck with the release of ‘Visitor’.  I shall look forward to experiencing it when it comes out.  I’m sure readers of this blog will also be interested to hear how your research into the Galloway Forest Dark Sky park takes shape so please do keep in touch.  Thank you and David once again for joining These Bones of Mine.

Natalie:   Thank you also for your support of the film and for taking the time to discuss it in more detail, it really does help to unpick it a bit and reflect on it while it’s still being made.  It is also fantastic to be in such good company on These Bones of Mine!

Further Information

  • Visit Natalie Marr’s website for further information on her current and previous projects.  You can listen to David Ashley Pearson’s sound projects here, and visit his blog Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, music and games.
  • You can help fund and donate to the making of  the short film ‘Visitor’ on the IndiGoGo webpage by visiting here.  Dependent on the amount of money given the individual backer can receive a number of perks related the production of the film.  These include, but are not limited to, special riso print postcards, an invitation to the opening night of the film, as well as a night’s stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre for two.

Interview with Liz Eastlake: Dental Delights and Estonian Escapades

13 Dec

Liz Eastlake is an osteoarchaeologist from Yorkshire and a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology from the University of Sheffield.  With a strong background in fieldwork Liz also regularly engages in public outreach and education on the topics of archaeology practice and human osteology, both in museums and in colleges around Yorkshire.  Her research interests lie in dental bioarchaeology and understanding the implications for markers of occupation in the human skeleton.  In her free time Liz can often be found at the York branch of Dr Sketchy’s anti-art art school.


These Bones of Mine: Hello Liz and thank you very much for joining me here at These Bones of Mine. For those that do not have the pleasure of knowing you, please could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?

Liz:  Hi David, thanks for having me.  I am a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology program from the University of Sheffield and I am currently working for York Archaeological Trust at their archaeology museum DIG.  I also do the occasional spot of digging and skeleton box organisation with the Trust on a volunteer basis.  Further to this I teach human osteology workshops with the Workers’ Educational Association as part of their Digability Project.  To top it all off I also work providing disability support at the local university a few days a week!  Needless to say I have very little free time and run mostly on caffeine.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you are getting a full experience of living the archaeological life! What sparked the interest in studying human osteology and funerary archaeology, and what was the experience learning about skeletal anatomy like?

Liz:  I went on a rescue excavation in the grave yard of my village (Sheriff Hutton) church when I was 15 years old.  The church itself supposedly contains the remains of Richard III’s son, although I never really considered how blessed I was growing up in such a historic environment until much later, especially with recent events.  It was the discovery of the different elements of commingled human remains we were uncovering that fascinated me the most.

A number of skulls from the site still had small amounts of hair surviving due to the environment created by contact with copper shroud pins.  It really stuck with me that something so fragile could survive for so long beneath our feet.  Skeletal anatomy itself is a fascinating subject.  Most people are completely unaware of what goes on within their own bodies and so this aspect of archaeological study is pretty relevant and interesting to everyone.

TBOM: The rescue excavation must have been an informative introduction to the human skeleton in an archaeological context, especially considering the level of preservation present.  Your current job with York Archaeological Trust involves helping to present archaeology to the public, how have you found this and has it made you change the way you think about archaeology itself?

Liz:  Working with children in general is pretty hilarious, I love the way the mind works without any of the barriers that adults would normally put up.  In the context of archaeology a kid can really make you think about things in a different way with the answers they come up with, which is great as it is all so open to interpretation.  Often, I meet kids who are so excited to tell me all about what they have found in their own back garden or can’t wait to go home and dig up their parents flower beds after a visit (sorry parents!).  It’s so important to be inquisitive and that transfers to other aspects of life, including the process of growing up.

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‘I think it may be a bit late to help this person’. The chance to draw a in-situ skeleton is one of the many interactive exhibitions on offer at the DIG museum of archaeology in York. Image credit: Liz Eastlake.

What’s also great is that parents or grandparents come along thinking perhaps its a couple of hours to kill with the kids on a weekend or during the holidays, and they end up enjoying it more than the children do!  Few people realise they have an interest in something until you present the information and let it grow from there.  Archaeology is all about people – everyone has an interest in how we got to where we are today.  Most people I meet are at least amateur archaeologists in some way!

For me personally the job has given me a broader knowledge of archaeological periods, which is always beneficial when looking at specific burials.  Human osteology can be such a narrow field of study, for example when I look at teeth, which is such a tiny area, you even begin to ignore the rest of that same skeleton because there is so much to focus on when studying teeth alone.  Context is everything.  Before starting with the York Archaeological Trust I knew embarrassingly little about the archaeology of York itself.  It is easy to take things you have seen so often for granted, especially when you grow up with all this old stuff around you as you think nothing of it.  I definitely appreciate York more now than I ever have before and have the best time doing what I do.

TBOM: That is fascinating to hear about how interested children and adults become when presented with what archaeology actually is and how their experiences differ.  As previously mentioned you’ve also been working with the Workers’ Educational Association in South Yorkshire, helping to lead and present classes on human skeletal anatomy.  How have you found the audience’s reaction and participation in such activities?   

Liz:  The reactions are quite mixed.  Most participants are fascinated with how the body works.  Physical demonstrations of how bony articulations work and comparing them to the movements they can make in their own bodies helps bridge the gap between us and pile of bones.  It can be hard to think of a skeleton as a once living, fully fleshed person like ourselves.

A few participants have felt uneasy about the bones, despite the knowledge that the skeleton I bring is just an accurate plastic copy.  I think this mostly comes from the portrayal of bones and death in the media.  I saw a really interesting talk by Campbell Price at Manchester Museum a while ago that talked about how skeletons and mummies especially are portrayed alongside werewolves and vampires and it is not surprising that people, especially children (but not always), ask ‘is it real?’ when faced with a preserved Egyptian mummy in a museum.  A feeling of unease might also come from a fear of death itself and the uncertainty it brings.  This is a completely understandable feeling but I think it is important to try to break this fear down in an educational setting and challenge misconceptions about what happens to our bodies after we die.

TBOM: As well as helping to de-mystify the human skeleton for the public, you’ve also presented your MSc dissertation research on the study of the dentition of two 18th and 19th century populations from northern England at a recent Elmet Archaeology talk.  What was your research about and how did you come to focus on teeth specifically?

Liz:  I seem to have focused on teeth since I first became interested in human osteology.  I find them fascinating because they look pretty much the same in death as they do in life.  There is such a wealth of information you can gain about people’s lives in the past by studying dentition.  I have focused on what they can tell me about the general health of the population I’m studying and also whether they can give an indication of individual occupation.  At some point everyone has grasped something between their teeth, like house keys for example, when your hands are full.  Repeated use of the teeth as a third hand can leave tell-tale marks on the tooth surface, for example basketry weaving or even sewing; snapping a thread between the incisors.

My dissertation topic focused on identifying occupation from the teeth of two Victorian era cemetery populations, one of high status individuals from the St Bride’s assemblage in London and the other of low status people from Coronation Street assemblage in South Shields, northern England.  Social status for these two sites was known from written records, but the difference was also apparent from the teeth.  A number of individuals from the high status group had solid gold dentures and fillings, as well as other evidence for dental intervention and aid.  Those from the low status site had no clear evidence for dental work by a professional and would have likely extracted a troublesome tooth themselves or had a similarly untrained acquaintance do it for them.  These individuals also had some quite extreme dental wear patterns indicative of use of the teeth for grasping and pulling materials within their mouths. Unlike the high status site which had only one example of an older adult female with grooved patterns of wear in her anterior dentition, perhaps from snapping threads whilst sewing.

To most people it can be quite unsettling to envisage the pain a large abscess or gross caries would have caused a living person hundreds of years ago.  However, the information that can be gained through the study of teeth is so extensive and informative about past populations, that it is a fascinating area of osteological analysis, which I hope to pick up again by completing a PhD in the future.

TBOM:  That sounds like a fascinating comparative study on Victorian populations.  So as well educating the public on the value of archaeology and human osteology and as well as conducting original research, you have also recently been excavating an Iron Age site in Estonia.  How did that come about and what were your experiences there like?

Liz:  A friend of mine from my masters course at Sheffield, Anu Kivirüüt, invited me along to the excavation she was running with her department at the University of Tartu.  It was a fantastic couple of weeks of perfect hot weather and digging in the shade.  I particularly enjoyed the excavation methods employed in Estonia which are so different to the strict regulations in the U, although I discuss this more at Anu’s site here.

The excavation was on the Aakre Kivivare tarand-grave site, which are Iron Age in date.  This type of grave sites are communal burial places with rectangular above-ground stone wall enclosures, which are often labelled and described as  tarands-graves.  When these graves first appeared on the landscape in the Pre-Roman Iron Age (around 500 BC – AD 50), they contained only inhumation burials and one rectangular enclosure was assigned for one body.  However, over time, cremation became a more frequently recorded way of disposing of the dead and the subsequent cremated bones and most of the artefacts were scattered in the tarand-area, mostly inside but also outside of the walls (see more information here on this ongoing project).

The entire site was recorded using digital photography, in a technique called photogrammetry, and converted into a 3D model after each layer of soil and stones was removed.  This was a great time-saving method and the 3D model really helped visualize the site layers.  Unfortunately, very little bone, cremated or otherwise was recovered from the site.  However, there were numerous beautifully preserved brooches of different typologies, a selection of which can be viewed here.

As well as a fantastic excavation there was also opportunities to explore other nearby archaeological and cultural sites, taste the great food, swim in the lakes and enjoy a sauna (including being whipped with birch bark – it is good for you!)

TBOM:  Swimming in the lake sounds quite beautiful, but if I ever head to Estonia I think I’ll avoid the birch whipping!  The use of technology to quickly record the site at Aakre Kivivare certainly sounds innovative and extremely useful, please do let me know how the excavations and research turn out.  In conclusion, though, it is clear you have managed to gain a lot of experience in the various aspects that archaeological life has to offer.  Do you have any advice to the next crop of archaeologists and, finally, what are your plans for the future?

Liz:  I would say volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!  Getting involved with excavations as well as post-ex stuff before starting at University, during your course and over summer holidays shows you are keen and can make you lots of useful connections for the future.  Then when you are qualified, especially in a specialised area of the profession, try to never work for free again (chuckle)!

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One happy skeleton. Drawing bones in-situ at YAT’s DIG museum helps children (and adults) understand the importance of context in archaeology. Image Credit: Liz Eastlake.

I would love to do a PhD in some aspect of dental anthropology at some point in the future, as well as getting more experience in the commercial side of archaeology.  I think it is important to see things from start to finish where possible, as context is everything and it can be easy to detach a single skeleton from its surroundings and consider it individually.  However, this does not benefit our view of the past.  Working in the field will also mean a chance to experience all aspects of archaeology and not just bones.

But before I get PhD crazed I am going travelling around the world, admiring old things and rock climbing (but mostly trying not to be an obnoxious cliche for the benefit of people who follow me on social media!).

TBOM: Thanks for the advice Liz and I hope you enjoy your travels!  

Further Information

  • Head to York Archaeological Trust’s portal to learn more about their museums and archaeological here.  If you are an interested member of the public, an archaeological student or simply want to learn about archaeological artefacts YAT always welcome volunteers.
  • Learn more about Elmet Archaeology’s upcoming lectures and annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day here.  Elmet participate in both commercial and community archaeological projects and are always active in education outreach.  Check out some of their courses for 2015 here.
  • The Workers’ Education Association’s are always actively promoting education outreach in a variety of locations and involving a wide range of subjects.  As a part of the ongoing Show Us Your Research! project by the universities of Coimbra and Algrave, Portugal,  Beauchamp and Thorpe (2014) have produced an assessment of WEA’s ongoing inclusive archaeology education project.  Read the PDF summing up their research on the benefits and outcomes so far of the inclusive archaeology project for free here.
  • Head over to the Aakre Kivivare blog site to learn more about the fascinating finds from this Estonian Iron Age site (site can be translated).  Liz has also produced a post on her experiences from the 2014 summer excavations which can be read here.

Interview with Jaime Ullinger: Bioarchaeological Outreach

31 Oct

Jaime M. Ullinger is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Quinnipiac University in the United States of America, where she currently teaches numerous courses in biological anthropology.  Jaime gained her PhD from the Ohio State University and her research interests include the bioarchaeology of the Levant and the Near East, particularly the Early Bronze Age, which has seen Jaime produce a number of publications from sites across the region.  She is also interested in palaeopathology, dental pathology and mortuary archaeology.  Recently Jaime has presented the case of an enslaved individual from 18th c. Connecticut at the 2014 Palaeopathology Association meeting in Calgary, Canada, as an important study in public outreach and interaction.


These Bones of Mine: Hello Jaime, thank you very much for taking the time to join These Bones of Mine! For those that do not know you could you please tell us about yourself and your background?

Jaime Ullinger: Thank you for inviting me to participate.  I am a bioarchaeologist who looks at questions about diet, health, and genetic relatedness in past groups.  My interest in bioarchaeology began as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, where I had the amazing opportunity to work with some very inspiring mentors.  I got my M.A. at Arizona State University and my Ph.D. at The Ohio State University.

Again, I was very lucky to work with great mentors at both of those schools, where there are lots of bioarchaeologists!  My research interests are primarily in the Middle East generally, and the Levant more specifically (modern-day Jordan, Israel, West Bank), although I have also worked in Egypt and the American Southwest.

TBOM: Lets talk a little about your past projects and where this has led you to today. How did you become interested in working and researching in the Middle East and the Levant?

Jaime: As an undergraduate, I eventually discovered anthropology, and bioarchaeology more specifically.  I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, but when I applied, I didn’t have an interest in a particular region.  I worked for Dr. Susan Sheridan during my senior year at Notre Dame.  Toward the end of my senior year, she asked if I would be able to go to the Middle East with her and two other undergraduates to work on a skeletal collection.

I immediately, without thought, said “Yes!” While there, I worked with a collection that eventually became part of my master’s thesis.  That sparked my interest in the archaeology of the region, and the rest is history.  My advice to every undergraduate is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along.  You never know how it may alter your life in a positive and permanent way!

TBOM: That is some great advice and a point that I would recommend for all archaeology undergraduates!  Since that first trip you have produced a non-stop corpus of bioarchaeological research based on sites throughout the Levant, from the Early Bronze Age to the Byzantine period.  Do you feel that your work will stay largely focused on this area or are you actively involved in pursuing other avenues of research?

Jaime: My current and future research plans include the continuation of work in the Levant — particularly from the Early Bronze Age sites of Bab adh-Dhra’ (in Jordan) and Jericho (in the West Bank).  But, I have worked recently on a number of projects through the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University (BRIQ) that are not in the Middle East.  Two projects grew out of BRIQ’s relationship with the state archaeologist in Connecticut and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — one involving the skeleton of an enslaved man that had been on display at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT, the other related to human remains that were used in a Santeria/Palo Mayombe ritual.  I have also recently examined 17th-19th century skeletons from St. Bride’s Lower Cemetery, housed at the Museum of London.

TBOM: As mentioned you recently presented the important case of the enslaved man at the recent 2014 Palaeopathology Association annual conference in Calgary, Alberta, and suggested that the case has a vital significance for public bioarchaeology.  Why is this the case?  Do you think it is important that the public have an understanding of the work of bioarchaeologists, and archaeology, in general?

Jaime: I feel incredibly privileged to have worked with Mr. Fortune – the man who was enslaved, and subsequently used as a teaching skeleton.  His story is important for a number of reasons.  It is not uncommon to hear people in the Northeast of the US saying that slavery was something that “only happened in the South”.  His skeleton was a visible and tangible reminder that slavery was a vital part of the economy in most of the United States in the 18th century.  He was afforded no greater freedom in death, as he was turned into a teaching skeleton and inherited by numerous ancestors of the bone surgeon that owned him before going on display as a curiosity at the Mattatuck Museum.

The museum removed Fortune from display following the Civil Rights Movement, and has worked tirelessly with the local Waterbury, CT community in order to arrive at a consensus regarding his final disposition.  The Mattatuck Museum’s African-American History Project Committee (AAHPC) has been involved in the discussion for decades, debating all sides of the issue.  The main questions were: Should he be buried? Should he be stored for future research?  Another powerful side to this story is the amount of thoughtful discussion that went into the ultimate decision that he should be buried.

From a bioarchaeologist’s perspective, I am grateful that we were able to examine his skeleton one last time before he was buried.  And, we were able to learn some things about his skeleton that hadn’t been identified in earlier examinations.  For me, this was important because it showed just how much information can be obtained from the skeleton.  I have participated in a number of group panels, and discussion with members of the AAHPC, and that has reaffirmed that people generally value the information that can be learned from a skeleton — it is an objective, scientific approach to learning about the past.  And, in some ways, it was the only way that Fortune could actually speak on his own.  That was a very powerful realization.

I think it is very important to discuss bioarchaeology in a public setting.  We can learn an incredible amount of information from the things that people leave behind (the archaeology part of bioarchaeology), and we can learn about the people themselves from their skeletons (the “bio” portion).  Giving a voice to skeletons that may not have had a voice in life is an incredibly powerful tool, and most people that I have met want to know more about Mr. Fortune and what we can determine about his life and death.

TBOM: That is great to hear that the outcome of working with Mr. Fortune benefited the community, but also (and perhaps most importantly) that it resulted in him being given a final and respectful resting place.  As bioarchaeologists we must always respect the fact that whilst we work with skeletons in our daily lives, we must also remember they are the physical remains of an individual person who had once lived.  Do you think that bioarchaeologists, or archaeologists in general, are doing enough to publicize their work?  Or is there an area that you think we could improve on?

Jaime: I think that there are a lot of great bioarchaeologists and archaeologists who are communicating their work to a much larger community than just academics.  There are a number of blogs that report on original research, as well as current news stories.  And, there are typically several sessions at annual meetings related to community archaeology and archaeological heritage/ethics.  We can always make improvements, but I think that this has become a much more visible and important part of academia.

TBOM:  I think that even since I started this blog there has been an incredible and diverse array of archaeological and bioarchaeological blogs appearing all the time.  It is a great indication of the initiative of individuals and organisations to spread the word about the value of archaeology.  You previously mentioned the Santeria Palo Mayombe ritual, could you give us a little insight into what this is and what your investigation and research consisted of?

The Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac was contacted about a ceramic vessel that had a human skull inside (visible with the naked eye), as well as other items: feathers, stone, sand, etc.  It had been recovered with a box of bones from an apartment in Connecticut.  The ceramic vessel was viewed with CT and x-ray in order to further determine its contents before “excavation” of the pot.  Most likely, all of the components were used in Santeria or Palo Mayombe rituals.  We digitally imaged the vessel (and its contents) as well as the accompanying skeleton, and tried to learn as much as possible about the skeletal remains, which we believe were historic.

In addition, I taught a forensic anthropology class last spring, where pairs of students worked together in order to address multiple questions about the vessel and remains, such as: Were marks on the bones from decomposition, or part of a ritual process? What parts of the skeleton were present, and did they have particular meaning? Can we match the excavated artifacts with particular images in the CT scans? What was written on the numerous sticks in the pot, and what did it mean?  We wanted to understand the event from a greater, biocultural perspective.

TBOM: That is a fascinating find, and one that I imagine could be fairly rare.  Finally Jaime, I wonder what advice you would give to the budding bioarchaeologists and human osteologists out there.  You have already highlighted the need to seize each and every opportunity, but do you have any other advice or guidance that you could give?

While I think it is important to seize every opportunity that comes along, it’s also important to remember that you can “make” many of those opportunities appear.  Talk with faculty and fellow graduate students about what they are working on.  Volunteer in a lab.  Ask a professor if they need assistance with research.  Attend conferences if possible.

Above all, remember that you love what you study.  At times, it can be difficult to pursue a career in academia, and you may meet naysayers along the way.  But, not many people can say that they are passionate about their work.  I feel lucky to be one of those people.

TBOM: Thank you very much for taking part and good luck with your continuing research!

Further Information

  • Jaime Ullinger’s research profile on academic.edu can be found here, which details some of her recent bioarchaeological publications.
  • Read about recent research by members of the Palaeopathology Association here in their41st annual North American Meeting in Calgary April 2014, including Jaime’s fascinating research abstract on the life and death of Mr Fortune.  Head to the Mattatuck Museum’s site on Mr Fortune to learn about his life.
  • Have a read about life and bioarchaeological study at Notre Dame University with this coffee interview with Dr Susan Sheridan here.

Select Bibliography

Ullinger, J. M. 2002. Early Christian Pilgrimage to a Byzantine Monastery in Jerusalem — A Dental Perspective. Dental Anthropology. 16 (1): 22-25. (Open Access).

Ullinger, J. M., Sheridan, S. G. & Ortner, D. J. 2012. Daily Activity and Lower Limb Modification at Early Bronze Age Bab edh-Dhra’, Jordan. In Perry, M. A. (ed). Bioarchaeology and Behaviour: The People of the Ancient Near East. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 180-201. (Open Access).

Ullinger, J. M., Sheridan, S.G. & Guatelli-Steinberg, D. 2013. Fruits of Their Labour: Urbanisation, Orchard Crops, and Dental Health in Early Bronze Age Jordan. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. DOI: 10.1002/oa.2342. (Open Access).

Interview with Lauren McIntyre: Handful of Bones

24 Mar

Dr Lauren McIntyre is an osteoarchaeologist based in Sheffield, England.  Having recently completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield on analysing the Romano-British human population of York, she is currently working as a project officer and osteoarchaeologist for Elmet Archaeology.  Volunteers for Elmet’s ongoing projects are welcome and Lauren can be contacted at l.mcintyre at elmetarchaeology.co.uk for further information.  As well as her fascination for all things archaeology and bone related, Lauren has a particular passion for horror films and can often be found at Sheffield’s own Celluloid Screams film festival.

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These Bones of Mine:  Hello Lauren, welcome and thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  For those that don’t have the pleasure of knowing you, please could tell us a little bit about yourself and your archaeological research?

Lauren McIntyre: Hi David, it’s nice to be asked!  OK, so I finished my undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield in 2004.  I returned there to do an MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology in 2005.  I started my PhD there in 2010, which I’ve just completed.  I’ve spent the time between completing degree courses working as a professional field archaeologist and osteoarchaeologist.  I’ve worked for a number of commercial field units such as ARCUS, Mike Griffiths and Associates and On-Site Archaeology, and I’ve also done a lot of work supervising and teaching on student fieldschools and community archaeological projects.

I got my osteological “big break” as it were with On-Site Archaeology in 2008.  I’d already worked as field staff of their excavation of the medieval All Saints Fishergate cemetery the previous year.  This was right at the beginning of all the economic problems in the UK, and there were problems with the developer who owned the site and trying to establish a budget for post-excavation analysis of the vast quantity of human skeletal remains that we’d already removed from the site.  I helped put together a funding bid to the AHRC for post-excavation osteological analysis with Andrew Chamberlain (then University of Sheffield, now University of Manchester).

Lauren at Rothwell.

Lauren analysing some of the crania of the  charnel material at the medieval Rothwell crypt in Northampton, England.

Fortunately we won it, so I spent a year analysing about 750 Roman, medieval and post-medieval skeletons.  We’d had a big surprise on the site in that as well as the medieval cemetery, we also found ten post-medieval mass graves that no-one knew existed.  Research showed that they might have been Parliamentarian soldiers killed by infectious disease during the 1644 siege of York.  So as well as the osteological report we did an article for Current Archaeology, a (rather ill-fated) TV programme for the BBC and a ton of other media output.

Since I finished writing up the Fishergate assemblage, I suppose my next big move was conducting and completing my PhD.  Again, I was funded by the AHRC to conduct a comprehensive analysis of all the Roman skeletal material from York.  My aim was to reconstruct the population in terms of size and composition, diet and health status.  I collected data for nearly 800 individuals, either by using data from modern osteological reports or analysing the bones myself.  It was a really tough job, but I’m pleased with the results!

I finally had my PhD signed off in February this year, and I’m now working for Elmet Archaeological Services, organising their conference and workshops series, and putting together funding proposals for new osteological projects.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you have studied a large number of individuals in some pretty interesting assemblages!  How important has it been that you have had both the academic experience and the professional field experience of excavating and studying human skeletal material?

Lauren:  I think it’s very important to get both.  There are plenty of researchers (and not just in osteology) who go straight through University from one degree to the next, and never go out in the field to get excavation experience.  I’ve even heard people saying that they don’t want to try excavation because they don’t think it’s relevant to their work!

The long and short of it is that yes, academic work and experience is important, and helps you learn to construct a sound research design, formulate research questions, learn the methodologies and so on.  But working in the field, even for just a few weeks, makes you learn about the process by which remains are dealt with before they get to the lab, and also helps you to understand how important the other site data is to any project you may be working on.

Researchers sometimes have a habit of getting stuck in their own tiny niche, and forget that much of the work they’re doing may be rendered completely pointless if they don’t consider other information from the site that will help both interpret and put their own work in context.  I think working in the field is highly beneficial to anyone who wants to work as an archaeological specialist, and also gives you a healthy appreciation and respect for the field archaeologists without whom specialists would have no material to work on!

TBOMIndeed, I have to agree with you on the benefit of working in the archaeological field if you can.  Just to take a quick step back to the basics – what was it that made you want to study human skeletal remains?  What were your inspirations, and has it been anything you thought it may have been like?

Lauren:  I’d never really thought about taking on an archaeological specialism – I always intended to stick with field archaeology.  I never even studied osteology during my undergraduate degree!  I had done some work on prehistoric funerary practices (my undergraduate dissertation was supervised by Mike Parker Pearson, investigating post-mortem treatment of the dead in Bronze Age Britain), but nothing directly involving human bones.

Then, when I was working for ARCUS (University of Sheffield’s commercial field unit), I got asked if I’d mind working on the Sheffield Cathedral cemetery excavation for a week because they were short staffed.  I said yes, and I’m so glad I did.  I totally fell in love with human skeletons!

I think the thing that gets me most is how amazing the human body is – how much we can learn from just the bones, how much stress the skeleton can put up with, and how it responds to different stimuli.  Some of the pathological specimens I’ve seen are absolutely incredible – in this age of sophisticated medicine, we don’t often encounter gross pathological cases, but looking at archaeological examples you can get an idea of just what the human body can cope with if it needs to.

laurenfieldarch

Lauren working on an archaeological site in England. The field archaeologist has to work in all weather conditions, often where wet mud is a perennial friend.

There are some really inspirational, hard working people in human osteology, who always work to a very high standard.  Charlotte Roberts in particular is a great researcher, who has conducted some invaluable work in this field.  Malin Holst is another researcher who works really hard and has produced some great work.  I think Jo Appleby has done exceptionally well with the Richard III study.  Work produced to such a high standard continually motivates me to improve myself and become a better researcher.

It can be very competitive working in human osteology, because there are so many talented osteologists and only a limited amount of new finds or jobs in osteology every year.  I didn’t really expect it to be such a competitive field when I first got into it – but you soon learn!  Having said that, I have been fortunate enough to work on some great material, so it just goes to show that if you continue to work hard, you can maintain a career in this subject.

TBOM: For readers who are interested, what happens to a human skeleton once you have found an individual on an archaeology site?  How is it processed? 

Lauren: Well, the skeleton will be cleaned, recorded and lifted from the excavation site. Once it is bagged up and labelled, it will be sent either to be cleaned and analysed by the osteologist, or it will be put into storage (in some cases bones will be stored until the excavation has finished so that all the bones can be sent to the osteologist at the same time).

Once the bones have arrived at the lab, they will be carefully cleaned by the osteologist – either dry brushed or washed in water over sieves so that any small fragments will be caught during the washing process. If the bones have been washed they will then be left to dry for a few days. It’s very important that bones are left to dry at room temperature – extreme temperatures (either very warm or very cold) are not good for the bones and can cause them damage. Room temperature should also be monitored if bones are being stored long term, for the same reason.

Once the skeleton had dried it will undergo osteological analysis. Once analysis is complete, it may either return to storage, if the bones are being curated for educational or research purposes. In some cases, the bones will be reburied instead of being stored.

TBOM:  It is well known within the archaeology sector that, at least in the UK, human osteology can be a very competitive field, but I think it is that core attraction of studying the skeletal remains our of past ancestors that draws so many to study the subject of archaeology as a whole.  Would you have any advice for someone starting out in archaeology who perhaps has an interest in pursuing human osteology or bioarchaeology?

Lauren: Absolutely, people are fascinated by the physical remain of our ancestors – despite occasional controversies, human skeletons and mummies and suchlike are usually the most frequently visited archaeological remains in museums.  So it’s unsurprising that it’s such a popular area of study.

I would say that if you’re wanting to pursue a career in human osteology or bioarchaeology, at first have a good think about it – as I said before, it is a very competitive field, and will require a lot of dedication and hard work.  There is a lot of competition for jobs, so you have to be good at what you do.

The next step would be to acquire suitable training   – usually a masters degree in the subject.  You can visit the BABAO (British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology) website to see a list of institutions that offer degrees in human osteology.  Joining BABAO is also a good step to take, as they set the professional working standards for human osteology in the UK.

As well as a degree, it’s necessary to get a lot of experience in handling and identifying human skeletal remains.  This is where a lot of people tend to fall down – they think that because they have a degree, or maybe attended a couple of courses, that they’re all set to go.  There is no substitute for practical experience.  I usually recommend to students that they start off getting handling experience with helping to do things like bone washing or cleaning.  When you’re processing hundreds of tiny fragments, you soon learn how to identify where in the skeleton they’re from.  You really start to notice the diversity in shape and size of bones in different individuals, as there’s a massive spectrum of normal variation (inexperienced osteologists sometimes tend to interpret features on bones as pathological, when often the features just have a slightly different appearance to what the person has observed before and are actually completely normal).  It also helps to get you used to distinguishing post-mortem and taphonomic damage from genuine osteological features.

Lastly, I’d recommend that you put yourself out there and talk to people!  As with any job, nobody is going to offer you work if you don’t put yourself out there.  So go to conferences, do talks for community, student and any other interested groups and get to know people.  Once people start to know your name you can build yourself a reputation, and hopefully this will lead to work.  Be positive and keep trying!

TBOM: Great answer, I thoroughly agree that you have to continually handle skeletal material to get a feel for natural variation in remains.  To add to your point I also took a short course in animal remains, as I think it is important to be able to identity different species as well.  Speaking of studying skeletal populations, as a part of your PhD research you studied the human skeletal remains of Roman period York  (71AD to 410AD), what was your main project aim and how did you achieve this?

Lauren:  Well, I wanted to see how far I could use skeletal material to reconstruct the population.  More specifically, I wanted to look at population size and composition, diet and health.  This came out of my frustration at the situation in archaeology whereby academic and commercial archaeologists rarely talk to each other.  So there is a lot of skeletal (and other archaeological material) that’s been excavated by commercial archaeologists, but is completely unknown to the academic sector.

At York, there was a load of Roman skeletal material that had come up on commercial excavations, and in particular, a lot of piecemeal burials all scattered around the city.  Nobody had put the information for all these burials together to make a bigger assemblage – instead, anyone examining the population of Roman York tends to rely on one or two larger assemblages (Trentholme Drive and the Railway cemetery).  I wanted to see how our perception of the population would change once I’d factored in the piecemeal burials.

Data collection was difficult, but I’m happy that I got a decent sample, even though I didn’t quite get hold of all the material I wanted.  I got hold of a couple of human skeletal databases from City of York Council, I bugged commercial units for reports, nagged every museum I could think of about their collections, spent a long time trawling online archaeological databases such as ADS and Heritage Gateway.  But it paid off!  I think persistence was the key.

massgravefishergate

An archaeologist (one Alex Sotheran, founder of Elmet Archaeology) and Lauren’s hand excavating the unexpected discovery of ten mass burials, which dated from the English Civil war period in the 17th century. A lack of trauma wounds on the mostly male individuals in the mass graves could have pointed to the effect of an infectious disease taking its toll on hard pushed soldiers. Read more here.

Once I had the data, it was just a matter of synthesising it in a way that made sense, quantifying everything, applying lots of statistics (I have so many SPSS and Excel documents now it’s not even funny), and then comparing the results to other known data ad evidence to come up with an interpretation.  Being methodical and systematic helps.

Although it’s a very broad study (I had problems with dating because a lot of the material has never been dated specifically, or even approximately – this meant I had to lump everything together instead of doing an earlier/later comparison and examination of change), I did get results that I’m very happy with.  I am the first person to systematically estimate the size of a Romano-British urban population, and it’s looking as though there were more people living there (on average) than we originally thought.  I’d like to have a go at re-estimating population size in a few other towns from the same period, to see how thy compare to York and also to other previous population size estimations.  The demographic composition part of the study pretty much confirmed what people thought anyway, about the military having a huge bearing on the composition of the population, but at least there is now some tangible evidence to base this on!

TBOM: The fact that you are the first person to study the whole Romano-British human population of York highlights, to me, the value that osteoarchaeology can bring to a wider archaeological perspective in understanding past populations, especially in historic periods that we think are already largely well known or studied.  For anyone that is interested in the results of your research, is there a publication being considered or any resources that you can recommend?

Lauren:  Well, I’ve not had much chance to publish anything yet, although that is something I’m thinking about doing.  I have been giving talks to local groups about my results over the last few months, and I’ll also be speaking at this years’s TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference) at the University of Reading at the end of March.  Hopefully I’ll do some more conferences over the coming year.  If anyone’s interested in the subject in general, I highly recommend Patrick Ottaway‘s book “Roman York“, which was a crucial text in terms of my background research.  Patrick has spent a lot of his career collating archaeological and historical data from Roman York.  Other than the work I’ve been doing, Patrick’s book is the main source that explores the town as a whole rather than focusing on one site or theme.

TBOM: As you noted at the beginning of this interview you are currently working for Elmet Archaeology, who are noted for having a strong community and educational outreach background.  How has this experience of working for them, helping to organise workshops and a conference for example, differed to the academic, and the purely commercial environments of archaeology, that you had worked in previously?  Do you see them as shades of one colour or as different facets of the same dice?

Lauren:  I think that commercial, academic and community archaeology are very much like different sides of a dice – part of the same whole but distinct from each other.  I love community engagement and outreach, as you get to work with very enthusiastic people who are very passionate about the subject, even if that subject is a minor part of a small scale project.  I think community archaeology (which is definitely on the rise – Elmet were one of the first – maybe even THE first – community archaeology units, being established in 2009) has the potential to combine the best parts of academic and commercial archaeology.  Community projects that are adequately funded enable us to conduct great quality research within a realistic time frame, and using experienced field staff who really know what they’re doing, with the added bonus that the local community can get involved.

Although academic fieldwork projects usually have the luxury of lots of time, they are not always funded well enough to be able to employ supervisors and teachers that can work to commercial field standards, and may have to rely on post-graduate students who themselves have little field experience.

bilhamkatironageskellie

Students excavating an archaeological site in Yorkshire help to uncover an individual found near an Iron Age deposit. You can read the report of the osteological analysis of this individual (SK 1022) by Lauren here.

Commercial archaeology, on the other hand, has a wealth of amazing, talented field archaeologists who are excellent at their jobs, but tendering for contracts between companies often means undercutting each other in terms of time and cost.  The things that suffer as a result are job time frames – so the archaeology may not necessarily get the time, care and attention it deserves in order to met developer deadlines – and field staff wages, which are notoriously low.

I really think that community archaeology is only going to grow in popularity over the next few years – this has certainly been aided by an increase in public awareness and interest in archaeology, as a result of all the television and other media coverage it gets nowadays.  The public are starting to realise that archaeology doesn’t have to involve large scale excavations that dusty old academics do in far away places like Egypt and Greece!  Local archaeology groups and communities are increasingly starting to tell us what they want to know about the areas that they live in, and we as community archaeologists can help them find out.

As a cheeky aside to this, I should also say that if there are any community (or other) group out there that would like to get involved in archaeology in any way, or have archaeological projects that they would like to undertake but don’t know how, get in touch with us at Elmet and we’ll see what we can do for you!

TBOMI never knew that Elmet were possibly the first community archaeology group!  I have taken part in a few local community digs myself and know the value of engaging the local community.  I very much encourage readers to get involved with their local archaeology group.  Thank you very much for agreeing to be interview Lauren, and good luck with your osteological projects and keep up the good work with Elmet archaeology.

Learn More

  • Lauren, with Elmet Archaeology, will also be helping host the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014 on the 31st of May 2014.  The one day conference will feature a range of papers on a variety of topics in a friendly setting.
  • You can also learn more about the work that Elmet Archaeology conduct with local communities here.  They conduct a broad range of projects taking in everything from exploring WW2 prisoner camps to reminiscence groups, find out more here.

Select Bibliography

McIntyre, L. 2009. SK 1022, Bilham Farm, Brodsworth. Human Bone Assessment Report. Unpublished report. The  University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Bruce, G. 2010. Excavating All Saints: A Medieval Church RediscoveredCurrent Archaeology. 245: 30-37. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. 2011. Osteological Analysis of the Stanwick Skull. Unpublished report. The University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Harvey, L. 2012. Non-Comformist Chapel Crypt Survey, General Cemetery, Sheffield.  Report No. GCNC01. Unpublished report. The University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

Ottoway, P. 2004. Roman York. Stroud: The History Press.

Ottoway, P. 2013. Roman Yorkshire: People, Culture & Landscape. Stroud: The History Press.

Interview with Paul Koudounaris: Behind the Lens

5 Feb

Paul Koudounaris is an art historian based in California, USA, who specializes in the documenting and photographing the use of human remains in sacred contexts, especially in ossuary and charnel houses.  Perhaps best known for his two books, Empire of Death (2011) and Heavenly Bodies (2013), Paul gained his PhD in art history from the University of California Los Angeles in 2004.  Paul’s personal website can be found at Empire de la Mort, which contains a whole host of information on upcoming talks, books and an extensive selection of his stunning photography.


These Bones of Mine: Hi Paul, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I recently had the great pleasure of watching you speak at the University of Sheffield on the topic of your latest project ‘Heavenly Bodies’, the so-called saints from the catacombs, but for those that don’t know of your research interests how would you best describe your previous and ongoing work?

Paul Koudounaris: I basically study the use of human remains in sacred contexts. Heavenly Bodies was my second book with Thames and Hudson, and it was a study of the skeletons of supposed martyrs taken from the Roman Catacombs starting in the late sixteenth century, and magnificently decorated with jewels. The book that preceded it was the Empire of Death, which was a study of ossuaries. By training I’m an Art Historian, not an archaeologist or anthropologist, and it’s important to note that because my primary interest has always been in documenting how what I am studying fits into the visual culture of its period. I’m not trying to come up with a provenance for these bones, that’s outside of my skill set and usually not terribly relevant to what I want to probe, which is what people saw in them at the time, how and why they decorated them, or decorated with them, and what that meant.

rothwellkouddou

A beautiful photograph of the stacked crania and long bones from the medieval Rothwell crypt at Holy Trinity Church in Northampton, England.  Rothwell is only one of a few surviving English charnel houses and is currently being assessed by a team from the University of Sheffield for best conservation methods and examination of the skeletal remains.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

If by training I’m an Art Historian, I have to also fess up that by nature I am something else–by nature I’m kind of a dilettante. I came into Art History through the visual arts, before I went and got the PhD I used to do assemblage sculpture and installation work, and while the rigor of studying the material for the two books was important to giving the subject matter meaning, it also left me kind of cold. It’s for that reason that the next book will turn out to be radically different. Both of the previous books are very photo heavy–they need to be, the images themselves are an important part of the story–and I do all my own photos. There was an interesting personal transition for me in completing those books: when I started, I thought of myself as an Art Historian who did photography, now I think of myself more as a photographer who does Art History.

For that reason, I wanted to do a book that would allow the images to break free of the need to conform to the text. The text was crucial to the two books, but it was also tyrannical when it came to the images, the text dictated how the images needed to be used, where they could appear and in what context. But the next book, which will be much more global (including copious material related to the veneration of human remains I have shot in Asia, South America, Africa), will be formatted in a very different way. The images themselves will construct the story–they will be arranged based upon their aesthetic qualities, and the text will be made to conform to them. This will allow different, maybe more romantic and imaginative connections. There is no reason why, say, a decorated skull from Nepal cannot sit alongside a painted skull from Austria, other than the fact that the previous texts wouldn’t allow that. But this time the images will be laid in first, and I have instructed the designer to simply leave me blank text boxes within the layout, and it will be my job to go back in and construct texts that will link these images together. In essence, we’re working in a way that’s exactly opposite of how we had worked before.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read any of your books, or has come across your photography work before, will recognise the fact that you have a real passion and skill for capturing the innate character of your subject.  Do you ever feel a personal connection to what, or who, you are photographing, or is the act of photographing itself a sort of personal veneration of the object or individual?

Paul: That’s a great and complex question. I find the term “innate character” a bit tricky, but what I try to capture is whatever I feel is most expressive about a site or skeleton, based on my own innate, intuitive reaction. With the charnel houses, I figured out very quickly how to take great looking pictures of them–if you have the right equipment, it’s not that hard, there are just a handful of technical things that are important. But shooting that way, just to make things look good, gets rhetorical. When I was shooting Empire of Death, it was important to me not just to shoot to make things look good, but to walk into a place and try to assess my own reaction to it–or rather, what my reaction would have been had I not already visited scores and scores of other charnel houses. That’s not easy to do, to try to erase your own callousness towards the subject matter and look at things with fresh eyes. But that was the goal, to try to retain some freshness of vision to shoot each site so that it expressed whatever impact it might have had on me, had I walked in totally naive.

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A photograph from the 2013 Heavenly Bodies book, reported to be the Saint Munditia, the patron saint of Spinsters, in Germany (termed the Katakombenheilige).  Notice the fine silk screen, exquisite metal work and re-made eyes.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

When I was shooting Heavenly Bodies, each time I would come to a new skeleton, I would try to come up with a single word that best distilled what I felt it expressed. So some conjured for me the idea of pride, others loneliness or abandonment, others humility. Of course, the skeletons express none of these things, these are my own reactions to them, but it was important to me to get a simple and clear sense of what I was receiving from them, and then try to capture that single expression. It was a terribly hard task–if shooting charnel houses is, as I said, relatively easy if you have the right equipment, shooting those skeletons was torturous at almost every turn. They are awkward items, the angles are invariably difficult, the lighting is horrendous, and worst of all the vast majority are encased in glass shrines that cannot be opened without breaking them–so not only are you dealing with issues of reflection and glare on the glass, the glass itself could be upwards of 400 years old, so not only dirty, but filled with defects and divets I would have to somehow avoid. You’re not asking about the photography on a technical level so I won’t go into detail on what I had to do, but as I said, it was very, very difficult to even get a shot in many cases, and even more so to try to get any kind of expressive effect.

To me, though, that is where artistry lies–not just reproducing the object, but responding to it. That approach has puzzled a lot of people, frankly. People at the sites were expecting someone who was simply interested in studying them as historical objects, and in such a mindset, pretty much any picture will do, and the optimal quality to be striven for is clarity. But I was doing something else, trying to find some expressive quality–as I said, it was often puzzling to people. Many thought I was just nuts, because I might be walking around a site or staring at a skeleton for long periods of time not doing anything, just staring, or spending long amounts of time making tiny adjustments with the camera or lenses or filters. Is it a form of veneration? I don’t know. Maybe. I think it’s a form of respect. I think it’s also a form of bonding. I don’t know about veneration. The thing to remember, though, is that all those pictures are my own reactions to the objects or sites, so there is a level on which they also serve in an inverse way as portraits of myself. Anyway, long answer, but as I said, it’s a complex question.

TBOM: I very much like the idea that it is a form of bonding with the subject, especially in the case of the saints in Heavenly Bodies.  It has been noted that you are also keen to study the burial places of animals, especially pet cemeteries.  Are you fascinated by the human-animal relationship through time and do you regard the burial places as outpourings of human grief for animals or as examples of demonstrative wealth?

Paul: That’s another complex question, more complex than I would have thought before I had started looking into pet cemeteries–and yes, I have become rather fixated on them lately. You mention the “human-animal relationship through time,” but we need to be aware of how that relationship has evolved, and how it varies historically and cross-culturally. It’s a very hard evolution to trace, since it is not something that was typically documented in texts. In short, what we call “pets” were basically an invention of the nineteenth century, particularly in France and the UK. OK, sure, people had always had domestic animals, apparently dating back to prehistoric times–I say this because graves have been found containing people and animals buried together, so presumably in such cases there was some domestic relationship between them.

But what we call a pet–the way we conceive it, the way we treat it, the way we feed and groom it–is as I said something that really starts in the nineteenth century. I wouldn’t even use the term “pet” for animals before then, because to me that term has a cultural specificity. Well, it’s a long story, obviously. But when it comes to pet cemeteries, not surprisingly they also start in the nineteenth century, and not surprisingly then they also start in the UK and France. They start with the modern conception of pets. Animals were buried before then in their own graveyards, this dates back again to ancient times–but a place like Bubastis, where cats were mummified in Egypt, was not a “pet” cemetery, because of course these were sacred animals.

Anyway, regarding the burial places, they likewise have a different meaning depending on the culture and era and the way the animals were conceived, but one interesting thing I have noticed about the modern pet cemeteries is that they really aren’t examples of demonstrative wealth, which seems counter intuitive. To some extent they are I suppose, because the very poor are excluded due to cost, and the very wealthy have greater means to memorialize their animals, but by and large wealth has nothing to do with it–it’s more a question of the attachment to the animal, and whatever ritual its owner feels is necessary to gain closure.

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Unknown individuals at a Ruamkatanyu skull shrine in Bangok, Thailand. As part of a charitable foundation that provide coffins to low-income families, the skulls are the patrons of dead paupers and unidentified individuals that symbolises the value of the work that the foundation carries out. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

I have been talking to a lot of people who work at and have animals at pet cemeteries, and even gone to some vigils at one here in LA (they have a monthly candlelight vigil). I have yet to come across anyone I would consider in the top-tier economically, but have found many people whom I would consider no better than middle class. They have no interest in demonstrating wealth or status. Like I said, the decision to memorialize in a cemetery is due almost exclusively to attachment to the animal and the need for closure. It’s love in very pure form. Sometimes in a frightening form because it can be obsessive, but it’s based in love, and, with the filters we use for grieving humans removed, the emotion is often raw and poignant to the point of pain.

TBOM: Could you tell me more about the monthly candle lit vigils for animals in LA?  Also have you noticed any obvious differences between modern countries for pet cemeteries?

Paul: Sure. They hold these candlelight vigils at night, once a month. Anyone is invited to come, it is a chance to speak about their departed animal–to help the person who lost the pet find some measure of solace and resolution in the company of others who are struggling with the same grief. After a person speaks their candle is then placed in a box with those of the others who have previously spoken, it’s obviously a symbol of solidarity. Pet cemeteries are odd places, because as I have said the normal conventions and formalities we have with other people are removed when it comes to animals–think about it, no matter how giddy I might be feeling, I simply can’t walk up to another person on the street and pat them on the head, pinch their cheeks, and start saying, “oh you look so cute”–but I can do that to a dog, so you can encounter pretty much anything when it comes to people grieving an animal. When it comes to these vigils, mostly it’s pretty straight forward and dull, but sometimes it can get very odd–the last one I went to, there was an elderly woman in a wheelchair singing “My Darling Clementine” to her dead dog in an operatic voice, it was like something from a David Lynch movie.

As for differences between cultures when it comes to the pet cemeteries, they’re really a very American thing–the vast majority of pet cemeteries are in the USA. I mentioned that they started in the UK and France, but the place they caught on is here in the USA. I am still not entirely sure of what that says about us as a culture, but my intuition is that there are two ways it could be interpreted. One is that we are simply more devoted to our pets, and thus willing to publicly memorialize them. I would have to somehow to find statistics on per capita expenditures on animal toys, accessories, and other related items to confirm if that might be true. The other way to interpret it is simply that, hey, it’s the USA, and we can create a commodity out of absolutely anything, we can even find a way commodify your dead dog. I have a hunch the answer will turn out to be the latter, sadly.

TBOM: As a part of the ‘Encountering Corpses’ art exhibition at the Manchester Metropolitan University in March, you are displaying some of your original photography from the Heavenly Bodies and Empire of Death books and presenting a talk about your work.  What for you is the driving force to document these bodies and the pet cemeteries?

Paul: Hmmmm. Well. What is the driving force that compels me to do this kind of stuff . . . to answer that properly would require deep introspection. On a more superficial level, I tend to be interested in things that have a profound, emotional meaning, but have fallen through the cracks of history. Of course, I have chosen *these* topics in particular, which I suspect appeal to me because in addition to their historical and emotional value, they also often have a surreal weirdness associated with them.

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A still from the Fiesta de las Natitas in La Paz, Bolivia. The festival, held every November, is little known outside of Bolivia where the living commemorate the dead and especially venerate the skulls of the ancestors. Paul has written an informative article for the Fortean Times here on the festival and it is well worth a read. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

To pry a little deeper, they all obviously involve death and remembrance, which is a topic I was obsessed with ever since I was a child. I used to try to talk to my mother about exactly what I wanted written on my tombstone (yes, she thought I was odd, and no, she did not particularly want to talk about that topic as it seemed to unnerve her). But it’s hard for me to come up with an answer beyond that. Obviously, we are talking about topics that are part of the great mystery that binds us all as living creatures–but there was no specific incident I can recall that would have made me any more macabre than anyone else.

TBOM: Thank you Paul for that response, I think a lot of archaeologists and human osteologists will agree that in a large part, the study of history, our interactions and thoughts about death and remembrance, all drive our passion for pursuing our chosen fields.  A final thank you for joining These Bones of Mine and for enlightening us to the worlds of Saints, pet cemeteries and your inner thoughts!  I look forward to the culmination of your next project.

Further Information

  • Paul will be appearing for a talk and exhibiting a number of his photographs at the Manchester Metropolitan University Encountering Corpses exhibition on the 28th of March 2014 (exhibition on from 28/02/14 to the 10/04/13).

Select Bibliography

Koudounaris, P. 2010. Skulls Cops and the Cult of the Natitas. Fortean Times. Accessed 05/2/14.

Koudounaris, P. 2011. The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. London: Thames and Hudson.

Koudounaris, P. 2013. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Interview with Stuart Rathbone: A View from the Trenches

8 Nov

Stuart Rathbone is a field archaeologist with considerable experience in the UK, Ireland and the United States of America in excavation and project supervising a number of important prehistoric and historic archaeology sites.  In conjunction with field work, Stuart has also held academic positions and writes regularly on a broad range of topics in archaeology for varied audiences.  Stuart has recently left the role of an archaeological project officer, based in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland with ORCA, to persue an archaeology career in the United States.  Stuart’s Academia profile, with links to his papers, can be found here.

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These Bones Of Mine:  Hello Stuart, welcome to These Bones of Mine!  For those who do not know could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do please?

Stuart Rathbone:  Well I’m really what you might call a jobbing archaeologist. I graduated from Bournemouth University about 13 years ago and since the week I left I’ve been earning my living doing whatever jobs people were willing to pay me to do. I left England in 2001 to do a 6 month contract on one of the Irish motorway jobs and without ever intending to I guess I ended up emigrating. I worked my way up the career ladder within one of the bigger contracting firms ACS. By 2006 I was licensed to direct my own excavations and I spent a couple of years on the M3 Motorway project running some fairly tasty sites. Unfortunately in 2008 the Irish economy tanked and I found myself unexpectedly unemployed. I was fortunate to land on my feet and spent the next four years running a field school on Achill Island in County Mayo training archaeology and anthropology students from all over the world. That job was great fun, a real change from the commercial world. I also managed to pick up a little contract with University College Dublin helping to write up the overdue reports for the Céide Fields Neolithic Landscape Project. That all came to an end in 2011 and I moved home to England and spent some time out in East Anglia doing more contract work. At the start of this year I moved up to the Northern Isles where I’ve been doing more pre development stuff but also a little bit of time over the summer spent at the Neolithic Ness of Brodgar site. Basically that’s me, some commercial work, some research work, lurking around the university departments without ever becoming a faculty member and really just doing whatever anyone with a cheque book asks me to!

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Somewhere in Wicklow in 2001. Every one who works in Ireland will remember their first Burnt Stone Mound.

I guess part of the reason you’ve asked me to do this interview is because other than digging holes I write quite a bit of archaeology. I have quite a few specific areas of interest that I plug away at. I enjoy looking at the way the profession works across different sectors and also how we communicate archaeology in different media and to different audiences. In terms of more traditional topics I’ve written a lot about prehistoric settlement, and a few bits and pieces about post Medieval vernacular buildings. Finally I do some more wayward and experimental stuff which provides an antidote to all the serious pieces I write. It would be unfortunately rare for me to actually get paid for any of this writing, so it’s definitely a sort of a hobby. The nice thing about this though is that because I’m not being paid or funded I’m not really beholden to anyone either. Not only am I very free to choose what I’ll work on, I’m also very free to express myself in the which ever way my mood takes me.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read your William Burroughs influenced ‘cut up’ archaeology article probably wouldn’t forget it in a hurry!  Having been a field archaeologist since 2001 and writing widely on the subject, how well do you think the world of archaeology is presented or made accessible to the public?  Do you think a dichotomy exists between the public’s perception of archaeology and its value compared to what the researchers and diggers actually do?

Stuart: Well there’s certainly problems. I think we don’t communicate with the public directly enough, or certainly not at a serious academic level. Everything is mediated through a series of interchangeable TV presenters, who may have backgrounds and expertise in totally different areas. Time Team was fabulous and irritating in equal amounts, and that’s not just from a professional point of view. A lot of the time they thought they were being clever but they weren’t fooling anybody. We certainly need more archaeology on TV, and there’s so many ways that it could be worked out. The old documentary formats are far from irrelevant, they just need people to figure out new ways of getting decent archaeological content into them. But somehow some shows really need to exploit the potential for following longer and more complicated excavations. I’m sure it could be done, but it needs to be a really fabulous set of sites, really competently run and with beautiful project design, and it needs to be cinematic. A damp field in rural Leicestershire just isn’t going to cut it.

The main problem with TV isn’t even the shows, it’s what the effect has been on popular publishing. Almost all the popular archaeology books are now written by, or ghost written for, the people from TV and linked in to the sales generated during the airing of a particular show. It’s all incredibly basic, watered down and insipid. Mostly it’s the same generic information endlessly recycled. If you are lucky enough to still have a bookshop, go and have a look at  the history shelves. You’ll find they are teaming with books on a huge range of historical subjects, and only a small percent are tied into TV shows. If you find the little corner of the shelf where the archaeology books gather it’s a very different, and very sad, story. So it seems there is still an audience for proper books about history, but we’ve just not got that for archaeology. Maybe it’s a fundamental problem with the subject matter, that it just doesn’t lend itself to interesting tales, but I’m sure it’s also because we just don’t have the skills that historians do in finding exciting ways to share our information.  That’s where all the ancient aliens and mother goddess stuff comes in. Because people are interested in the archaeological landscapes they see around them and they want to know about them, but they sure don’t want to be bored. And the way that stuff works is that firstly it’s exciting and secondly it makes the reader feel special, like they are being initiated into this realm of secret knowledge. For all the horrendous liberties taken with the archaeological content, those books are successful because they utilise a good dynamic. So we need to be braver, we need to start writing more interesting books, more amusing books. And I don’t believe for one minute that we have to water down our concepts. Seriously, thinking we’re so clever that ordinary folk wouldn’t understand us is ridiculously arrogant. We just need to have a bit of faith that an audience we have been failing to reach is out there waiting for us to come to them.

On a more positive note we do lots of things right, but mostly when we communicate directly. I don’t really like the term Community Archaeology, it seems so… medical. What was wrong with having societies? But anyway those groups provide fantastic interaction between the public and the archaeologists, and they are thriving. Unfortunately they are only involving a small number of people, there just isn’t the capacity to reach everyone that might be interested. And they tend to be a little bit elusive, they don’t reach out to new potential members so much. I think there will always be a natural group size for things like that, somewhere between 10 and 30 people, probably better near the lower end. It’s a club structure, operating at a very local scale, it just doesn’t work with big numbers. So all the archaeology days and all of those things are great, but they don’t solve the issue of the missing popular archaeology. Same sort of thing with the public lectures. You know when archaeologists go out and give their lectures at little groups and societies? Well that’s fantastic, and I love doing that sort of thing myself, but at 30 people a time it’s not like the message of archaeology is getting spread far and wide. That’s probably where the internet can step in. I love the way archaeologists have all these new ways of communicating with the public and, just as importantly, with each other. It’s totally changed things in an awful lot of ways, in particular because the academic structure really isn’t carried over to the digital realm where people use all these weird nicknames and avatars and identity is hidden, or even on Facebook where identities are normally genuine, people don’t advertise their job title so much. So you’ll see a question go up on a board from a member of the public or another archaeologist looking for information and advice, and they’ll get all these useful answers, really helpful stuff. But if you know who the people are who are giving the information away it can be these really important archaeologists, contractors with decades of experience, state sector archaeologists, University lecturers, or just random gobshites like myself. People are getting access to some really highly qualified people and they may not even realise it. That just makes me very happy every time I see it.

TBOM: It seems that reality has read your reply and answered in the form of making the TV presenter Dan Snow the new president for the Council of British Archaeology!  Stuart, you have written movingly of the issues facing that much-maligned face of archaeology, the field archaeologist, over at Robert M. Chappel’s blog.  Having been a field archaeology for some 13 years now what, in your view, has improved and what conditions remain to be improved for field archaeologists in the UK and Ireland?  More importantly, what can people who run archaeological units or are field archaeologists themselves do to the improve conditions?

Stuart: Yeah that thing on Bob’s Blog is probably the most successful thing I’ve ever written, it got a ridiculous number of views. I’d like to think that’s because it really hit the spot for a lot of people but of course, you can never be sure. I think the main point by the end of that piece is that the conditions in field archaeology could be having  a much worse affect on peoples over all well being than has ever been acknowledged. There’s certainly every possible combination of circumstance that would promote ill health, in particular poor mental health, but we just don’t know if it is a problem or not. There is no data. We have all these surveys of the profession but they are so limited in terms of what they’ve examined. We really need a sociological study of Field Archaeology, that’s kind of what the paper is about. That someone needs to really go out and conduct some very in depth interviews with a great big pile of archaeologists and see what the situation is. I suspect it would be bad, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if people are coping better than they might. Archaeologists are fairly rugged individuals and tend to have a bitter sense of humour that can see them through. I’d love to do it myself but it’s such a huge project and I have no funding. I’m up to my eyes in unfunded hobby projects so I just can’t take it on. What I am doing at the moment is asking for people who have read the article to contribute their own experiences either as a comment at the bottom of the blog page or if they want to stay anonymous just to email it to me, or send it to me on Facebook or whatever. That came about because quite a senior Northern Irish archaeologist wrote a lengthy and really emotional account of why she left the profession as a comment after the piece. I was just blown away so I’ve asked for more and any that come in will be included as an appendix in a physical version of the article that should be coming out next year. I’ll probably take the chance to make my own testimony, and that would  explain a lot about how I got interested in working on that topic in the first place.

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The top of Slievemore in County Mayo, during the summer of 2010. One of those moments when the great out doors really just takes the piss.

As for the problems facing field archaeologists in Britain and Ireland, well the situations are quite different, and that’s going back for ten or fifteen years at least, but in many ways it’s equally bad. It’s no secret that there is a major problem with careers in field archaeology, in terms of payment, job security and career progression. I don’t really have any answers I’m afraid. The current mechanisms of competitive tendering in a deregulated market just don’t allow for much progress to be made. The Institute for Field Archaeology and the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland are both in the same boat. Whilst they perform some important functions they just won’t get involved in the issues which most field staff want them to. Archaeologists look for them to replicate some of the functions of Unions, but they can’t or won’t do it. It doesn’t help of course that many of the people running the companies that treat archaeological staff so poorly are heavily involved in these professional bodies. The people directly responsible for the situation are members of these organisations and if there was a will to change it’s always been in their power to make it happen. It often seems like they are only involved in order to protect their own interests, but that’s probably an unfair and over simplistic view. The involvement of the company owners provides a fantastic resource and they have such a wealth of knowledge about things the rest of us only ever get small glimpses of, but at the same time it causes a lot of bitterness and distrust. Perhaps the company owners need to be separated off from the main body of the groups in some way, like having them form an advisory panel that places their skills at the disposal of the rest of the membership but doesn’t let them influence or even partake in voting.

I’m sure both organisations would see membership rocket if there was a genuinely feeling that they were going to sort out these problems. I know the Diggers Forum are trying to orchestrate a takeover of the IFA, building a new world inside the shell of the old and all that. And I wish them the best of luck, it’s the way the syndicalists in France managed it so it’s a tactic that does have history. Personally though I think the only way it will change is through direct action. David Connolly at BAJR has a mild version of this, he’s always saying that when archaeologists see poorly paid jobs they simply mustn’t apply for them. And he’s right, we can’t fight against each other like that, if no one takes the jobs at rock bottom prices they will have to offer more money. So not taking work at lower than BAJR rates is kind of a minimum requirement. But I think it needs to go a little bit further than that. I was disappointed that the Representation for Irish Archaeologists group got diverted into a sort of sub committee within the IAI, I feel they would have been more effective as a separate organisation. Unfortunately at the moment the sub committee convened  what had been a very lively and public discussion between lots of different people with lots of different views just ended. And the handful of people that got onto the sub committee went off and that was that really, the discussion group died and all of that energy and vitality evaporated.

I think history shows that with these struggles you need big popular movements, an empowered collective of the staff. Secretive closed meetings between a handful of people on behalf of the rest… well I wish them luck, I really do, but I do think it was a tactical error, and made no secret of that at the time. More interesting perhaps is what’s going on with the Unite Union in Ireland at the moment, as they are making a big push to get archaeologists on board. I guess there’s  a lot of scepticism about Unions, the profession isn’t really their working class semi skilled natural environment, but I’m waiting to see how that goes, in terms both of the level of engagement and to see if there’s much in the way of a specific plan put forward. Jean O’Dowd is involved in that, and she’s bang on so I have some hope, but whether that sinks or swims will really be down to Unite producing a convincing document detailing the specifics of what they can do for archaeologists if enough of us join. The sad thing is of course that the interests of the owners needn’t be different from those of the staff. If wages were higher contracts would be more expensive and the company owners could make more profit. It’s just something has to be done to take wage costs out of the equation when it comes to competitive tendering, and no one is ever willing to make that first move. The profession exists in an eternal Mexican standoff.

The other really big thing we have to tackle, once we have basic rates of pay sorted out is going to have to be pensions. We need to find a way of getting a pension scheme for archaeologists, something that can work for a career based on continually shifting between companies and regular bouts of unemployment. This is were the IAI and the IFA could really do something positive, find a pension provider that can design a product with our needs, find a way of companies being able to include a standard set of pension contributions along side wages. Because at the moment the reality for any archaeologist in my position is extremely grim. I don’t own a house and probably never will, I’ve never earned enough to buy one. On occasion I have savings, but every time I have a period of unemployment they get burnt up covering the bills and paying child maintenance. At the moment if I were to retire I would be essentially destitute and the state would look after me. But in 30 odd years time once the demographic crisis has kicked in? Forget about it! When I think about my retirement I just see a cardboard home under a bridge in London and meals from a soup kitchen. When my alcoholic compadres finally beat me to death for my spare change the local newspaper might run a small article about how I had once been an archaeologist and was known on the streets as ‘the professor’…

I know a lot of archaeologists in their mid to late thirties who have really been screwed over. They went to college to get degrees, fought like ninjas to get established, worked in some pretty awful conditions because they were so committed to the work. And basically they got nothing out of it at the end of the day. They don’t own houses, they don’t have good cars, they don’t have pension funds or savings. It’s like there’s some hidden law that says archaeologists can’t have nice things. But we deserve better than that, we really do. And the thing is… would you recommend your own kids followed you into archaeology? I know I certainly don’t.

TBOM:  Would you say specialising in archaeology could provide a way for field archaeologists to branch out?

Stuart: Yeah… why not. There’s certainly something a bit more like a normal career if you can get established as a pottery expert or an animal bones expert or that sort of thing. You have to be very careful though if you’re going to pay for training in some areas, like surveying for example, firms may be quite happy to use self taught bodgers rather than to pay for properly trained staff. And of course if they can just get any old person to do it you can be damn sure they won’t be paying very much money for a trained person. I think it’s a terrible shame people are expected to pay for their own training these days, but that’s across every industry. Companies are just no longer willing to commit to a person and fork out some cash to increase their skills. As they have made no financial investment in their staff they are always dispensable. Horrible really. But as it’s going to be a personal investment you really need to do your research before handing over your money to a University or whoever is going to train you. That stuff can get expensive really fast and you need to be completely sure that you will be getting high quality training that will actually be recognised and  that there are genuinely improved career prospects for you at the end of it. If you think about it in a particularly harsh way someone making these choices will have already wasted a lot of time and money doing an archaeology degree that hasn’t provided them what they wanted, so they mustn’t make the same mistake again. It’s really at this point when you have to make the choice about whether to stay in archaeology and improve your skills, or leave archaeology and get some entirely new ones instead.

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Wandering into the massive souterrain at Carn Euny in Cornwall. This was during the brief but glorious heat wave of 2013. It was nice to be cold and damp for a change!

But this sort of thing is sad in another way. It always seems that specialists tend to be treated better than field staff, especially if they are taken on to work in the company offices. It all gets very cosy inside. They get paid more, get treated with more respect by the management, they aren’t putting up with all the constant relocation, long commutes and shitty weather. I suspect there is often cake. And when you compare that to how field staff are treated it just doesn’t make sense. It’s field staff that are out there doing the hard work, having to deal with the developers face to face, doing the graft that generates the companies profits and where’s their cake? Honestly, when does the boss ever turn up at break time on site and drop off a nice cake? Cake withholding bastards the lot of them!

More seriously though, one of the old IFA guides made the point that on site specialists should be used to do certain tasks, precisely because they are specialists and have the training, but at the same time it should be acknowledged that the experienced site staff are specialists in the process of excavation, and they have expertise and skills that are just as highly developed in their respective field and those skills should be fully utilised. That always struck me as a very telling remark. Experienced site staff may have ridiculous amounts of experience, literally decades of the stuff. They can excavate any site you throw at them, project mange the heck out of it, know the legislations and regulations inside and out, identify and process finds, design and run sampling strategies, undertake all manner of surveying tasks, write reports, provide training, lecture, tour guide, pass peer reviews… and certainly in the UK there isn’t much in the way of financial recognition of the body of skills they are able to bring to bear. When they made the excavation License interview in Ireland much harder about 10 years back at least there was a clear understanding of the range of skills and depth of knowledge site directors needed. It isn’t a perfect system by any means but because it is a hard qualification to acquire and every site has to be run by a License eligible archaeologist located pretty permanently on the site it provided a great mechanism to raise wages.

All screwed now of course but that’s a different story. In the UK there’s really no requirement to hire anyone with any serious level of experience to run sites so a company has some choices. They can hire someone really capable that deserves and expects a decent wage, they can offer an experienced archaeologist a job at an insultingly low rate or they can take some kid just a few years out of college, pay them peanuts and give them sites to run they may or may not be able to handle. Using inexperienced staff to save money is a practice that goes wrong. It goes wrong a lot, and we all damn well know it does. I don’t mean to do younger staff down at all. There’s just so much to learn and it takes a long time to build up the skills. It doesn’t do a promising young archaeologist any good to be put in a situation they aren’t ready for and just expect them to handle it with minimal support. And it’s certainly no good for the archaeology.

The other issue here is that there have been lots of scientific advances in the last while. Now there are specialists doing stuff that is frankly ridiculous. The stuff that can be done with soil chemistry these days is insane. They can pull viable and useful DNA samples out of soil samples for crying out loud! But that’s confined to the university excavations. That stuff hasn’t really filtered down to the commercial world. Again we’re back to the competitive tendering system, it just doesn’t allow for these new techniques to be used. And the typical commercial dig is starting to look archaic, when it should be the state of the art. We really shouldn’t be doing commercial work as second rate excavations, but soon it will be clear to everyone that we’ll be doing them as third rate excavations. We need a fresh generation of specialists bringing these new methods out into the commercial environment. That’s only going to happen if there are requirements to do these new analysis imposed upon the commercial sector from outside of it, from the regulatory bodies. But whenever the archaeological community has looked to the various organisations for leadership, the state archaeologists, the Institutes, the associations, the government… there’s never been anyone there.

TBOM: A very interesting point made on the commercial excavations.  Noted also are the higher university fees for courses in the UK, perhaps hindering specialism’s in archaeology.  You have also started a ‘Campaign for Sensible Archaeology‘ group on Facebook, could explain why you felt that this was necessary?  I have noted with amusement a few of the articles you have posted about the often obtuse and confusing use of the English language.

Stuart: Well that’s been running quite a few years now, there’s  a decent little introduction to the group over on Past Horizons here.  I think the first thing to point out is that there really isn’t any such thing as ‘Sensible Archaeology’. It was just a joke, just me getting annoyed at some of the way archaeology is written and some of the projects that are undertaken. When I put it together I defined a ‘sensible archaeology’ as one in which the style of writing is only as complicated as is needed to explain and explore the points you want to discuss; as one where some of the arguments being made are supported by actual archaeological evidence; and one where the topic chosen for study is appropriate for analysis using archaeological methods. Now think about that for a minute. There really isn’t a single archaeological project that should be unable to meet those criteria. If someone is using excessively complicated language, beyond that which is merited by their research, why? What’s wrong with them? If an argument isn’t based on any archaeological evidence, it’s just historical fiction, which is really a different genre all together. If a topic isn’t suited for exploration through archaeological methods, which are powerful but horribly flawed and limited, use one of the more appropriate methods that are available.

So that’s it really, it’s just a simple little thing that at its heart is about promoting better project design. The thing is people read the name of the group, or see any of the little bits I’ve written about it, and some of them just flip out. It’s actually been really odd at times. I’ve been called a good few names, “the intellectual equivalent of a hairy arse” was an early favourite, and “not just annoying, politically annoying” was a more recent one that, to be honest, still confuses me. Why am I politically annoying? One prominent academic, who I won’t name here, came to the site to insult us during the early days, and instead I really tried to engage with him about his work and at first it was cool because I had been reading his work and really thinking about what he was trying to say, but the more I pushed him for straight answers the more evasive he got until he just started lying about things. That was just so peculiar it got kind of embarrassing really.

Anyway the group is basically just some people having a bit of a laugh, kicking a few ideas around, sharing interesting or irritating archaeological news stories. A lot of members are in the same sort of position as me, that sort of independent academic position, or to use the more technical term, deluded. So we spend a lot of time sharing any freely accessible resources we find, because lots of us find it hard to operate when we’re locked out of the university library system. It’s been very useful for me really. A lot of ideas I’ve kicked around on there have subsequently been included in my work, and it’s certainly helped me engage a bit more with the theoretical side of archaeology, which as a field worker it’s kind of easy to just end up detached from. I think it’s a nice group, a bit of communal therapy or something, and normally good for the odd giggle.

I was discussing the point about complex language with Joanne Bourne, a freelance writer I made friends with this summer on the Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney. Well Jo said she used to think the same thing, that the function of writing is to communicate ideas neatly and efficiently. But then she decided that’s a bit like saying a coat is used to keep the rain off. That’s a pretty good way of seeing things, but I’m still not convinced for the need to smother things in dense impenetrable language. Obviously we don’t all walk around in exact replicas of the same colourless ‘rain deflective garment’ like in some 70’s parody of communism. So we’re also using our coats to express all these other things about ourselves, about the way we perceive ourselves, the way we wish to be perceived, our  cultural allegiances, all sorts of other stuff.  I guess Jo was saying writing is a bit like that. So there is the actual archaeological content that needs to be explained and anything beyond the functional needs of the research is expressing other things. In the case of too many archaeologists it seems to be a compulsion to really impress upon the reader how marvellously clever the author is. I just can’t be arsed with that. That was one of the points of my article on William Burroughs’ cut up technique that you mentioned before, that you can just line up these strings of long complex words and it will sound kind of deep and meaningful even though it’s nothing of the sort.

nessbroadgarstuartrathbone

Excavation of one of the Late Neolithic buildings at the Ness of Brodgar during the summer of 2013. Simply sensational digging.

TBOM: And finally, what, so far, has been your most treasured memory of an field excavation or moment in archaeology?

Stuart: Ah well thanks for asking about that. I know in some of the things I write I can come across as utterly negative and really that’s a bit unfair. The critical pieces seem to generate much more interest than the other stuff I do, the stuff on prehistoric settlements or transhumance or whatever. If anyone has ever seen me lecturing they’ll know how much I enjoy myself, sometimes that humour comes through in the written stuff but writing funny archaeology is a hard trick to pull off. Although there are all these really serious topics, and clearly I’m none too happy about where archaeologists are financially or in terms of job security and career progression, I’ve had a really great time being an archaeologist. Really my whole adult life has revolved around it, and it’s pretty much a 24/7 thing for me. So rather than just pick one moment, here’s a quick run through of some of the highs, by way of redressing the balance a little.

Getting an email from some guy in Ireland offering me my first paid job; doing that first contract in Ireland and discovering that something as ludicrous as the digging scene existed in  the real world not just in the pages of an old beat novel; getting my first promotion; excavating the Bronze Age village at Corrstown, Portrush; having my kid, Adam; seeing my first article being run in Current Archaeology; meeting Steve Linnane; giving my first lecture at IPMAG 4 in Derry; meeting the whole Clerks Bar crew in Drogheda;  passing my License Interview and getting to run my own excavations; finally seeing the Corrstown volume published after all the hard work Vicky Ginn and I put in to get that done; working on the M3 Motorway where we really pushed the limits of what can be done in a commercial setting, something I was incredibly proud to see Martin Carver acknowledge in his recent book on pre-development archaeology;  getting the job running the field school on Achill Island, excavating the Slievemore Roundhouses and having such a laugh with the students;   meeting my wife Christina; moving to Belderrig and getting to work on the Céide Fields material with Seamus Caulfield; the whole Facebook archaeology scene kicking off and out of the blue becoming involved with so many interesting and amusing archaeologists; meeting Bob Chapple and then finding he would run with pretty much anything I sent to him no matter how off kilter; having a paper run in my favourite super serious journal PPS; seeing the sites on Shetland and Orkney and getting to work on the Ness of Brodgar excavation.

And the adventures continue. This summer I was invited to write a book for a new publisher, and given a very open remit. So I’m working on that almost round the clock and I’m loving where that’s heading. It’s called Archaeological Detritus: Experiments, Discussions and Unprovoked Attacks and is definitely a bit different so who knows how it will be received. Just the other night I was driving back to where I’m staying on Shetland through this horrible storm and all of a sudden the rain stopped, the clouds parted and there were the Northern lights in all their glory. Simply magnificent. How many other jobs would provide such a roller coaster through all of these highs and lows?

TBOM:  Indeed, thank you very much Stuart for taking part!

Select Bibliography:

Ginn, V. & Rathbone, S. (eds.). 2012. Corrstown: A Coastal Community.  Excavations of a Bronze Age Village in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Rathbone, S. 2010. Sensible Archaeology. Past Horizons website. 23/10/10.

Rathbone, S. 2010. Booley Houses, Hafods and Sheilings: A Comparative Study of Transhumant Settlesments in and around the Northern Basin of the Irish Sea. In: Horning, A. & Brannon N. (eds.) 2010. Ireland and Britain in the Atlantic World: Irish Post-Medieval Archaeology Group Proceedings 2.  Dublin: Wordwell.

Rathbone, S. 2011. Dig, Draw and Digitise: Guard Houses of County Mayo. Past Horizons. 23/04/11.

Rathbone, S. 2011. The Slievemore RoundhousesArchaeology Ireland25 (1): 31-35.

Rathbone, S. 2012. Deer’s Meadow, Hut Group CUlster Journal of Archaeology69: 150-154.

Rathbone, S. 2013. A Considerations of Villages in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 79: 1-22.

Rathbone, S. 2013. Optical Stimulated Luminescence Dating of ‘Problem’  Sites on the M3 Motorway. In: Kelly, B., Roycroft, N. & Stanley, M. (eds.). 2013. Futures & Pasts: NRA Monograph 10. Dublin: Wordwell.

Rathbone, S. 2013. The Village People? An Early History of Neighbourly Disputes. Past Horizons. 01/08/13.