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Spotted: Introduction to Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology Short Course @ University of Lincoln, 27-31 July 2020

3 Mar

On the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources Facebook page recently I came across an intriguing advert for a brand new human osteology short course, which not only looks at the skeletal anatomy but also the excavation and recording methods used in forensics and archaeology to recover human remains.

Taking place over five days (27-31 July 2020), the Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology short course takes place at the University of Lincoln and is aimed at the beginner and enthusiast level with no experience needed, though forensic and archaeology professionals will find the course useful. The hands on lecture and laboratory short course is taught by bioarchaeologist Samantha Tipper and biological anthropologist, radiographer and medical researcher Charlie Primeau.

Courses such as these are a fantastic place to learn about the skeletal anatomy and variation found within the human skeleton.  They are also a great opportunity to further your knowledge, extend your skills, or to use as a springboard into pursuing a career.  Before I undertook my own MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, I participated in two short courses in human osteology and zooarchaeology (study of non-human animals within archaeology) and they helped my experience and understanding of osteological material within archaeological contexts immensely.

Check out the full Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology University of Lincoln short course details below for more information.

Laying out a human skeletal in the anatomical position. Image credit: University of Lincoln.

Course Dates: 27 – 31 July 2020 (five days inclusive).

Fees: £400 per person (£300 for students).

Application Deadline: 20 May 2020.

How to apply: If you want to book a place, or require further information on the short course, you are advised to contact organiser Samantha Tipper via stipper@lincoln.ac.uk.

Accommodation: Not included but available on University of Lincoln campus (additional fees apply).

Please Note: Payment is due by 1 June 2020, any cancellations must be requested before 1 July 2020. Attendees must be aged over 18 years.

Poster advertising the human osteology short course taking part at the Anthropology laboratory at the University of Lincoln. Image credit: University of Lincoln.

The following information is provided by the short course website:

This five-day beginner-level introduction to human osteology is aimed at students, professionals working in archaeology, heritage or museum sectors, as well as anyone with an interest in learning about human osteology. The course will provide an introduction to human osteology and will be delivered through lectures and hands-on practical sessions.

Topics covered include:

  • The application of human osteology in an archaeological and forensic context
  • Ethical issues surrounding human remains
  • Excavation and recording methods
  • The human skeleton and basic anatomy
  • Human verses non-human skeletal remains
  • Estimation of sex and age at death
  • Determination of stature
  • Human Dentition.

A Shout Out for Other Short Courses

As ever, if you know of any other bioarchaeology, forensic anthropology, or human osteology-orientated short courses taking place in the United Kingdom, then please do feel free to leave a comment below to let me know.  Alternatively please email me at thesebonesofmine at protonmail.ch – I am always happy to highlight your course here on this blog.

Further Information

  • The University of Lincoln offer both an undergraduate BSc (Hons) and a taught postgraduate MSc in Forensic Science. Check out the University of Lincoln’s past and present forensic anthropological research, news and activities here.
  • Read Dr Charlie Primeau’s fascinating blog on her website here and Samantha Tipper’s research here.
  • The University of Sheffield also offer a three-day human osteology short course (6-8 April 2020), costing £180 full price and £120 for concessions.

Game of Thrones Osteology: A Mormont Skull-Cup

19 Oct

Ever since the recent finale of season seven of the television series Game of Thrones (1), I’ve been revisiting the earlier episodes in order to remind myself of its intricate and myriad story-lines, alongside its cast of thousands of characters.  Sometimes this can be a bit of a headache and a puzzle watching an episode, trying to tease out the relationships, experiences and personal histories of the characters before the scene ends and you are whizzed off elsewhere around Westeros (or the Dothraki Plain).  This blog post may be about to do the same topic-wise, so prepare yourself!

New Lands, Old Fears

But Game of Thrones also offers a huge scope to visit different scenarios, locations and approaches, many of which are inspired from historical examples, such as the political intrigue of the War of the Roses (2.) in late medieval England and those of Imperial Rome.  One of more important settings is the The Wall, a huge ice wall construction built thousands of years before the present setting of the series to separate the wild north from the kingdoms of the south.  This structure is reminiscent of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, which separated Roman-ruled Britannia to the more northern lands ruled by associated tribes of the Ancient Britons and Picts.  In the television series though the northern lands are where ‘Wildings’ roam freely, loose tribes who live lifestyles akin to hunter-gatherers.  It is also a place where rumours of the return of ‘White Walkers’ abound, human-like creatures said to be able to bring back the dead as animated revenants to haunt and slaughter the living.

Illustration of the Jewish mythological malicious spirit known as Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925) in his Book of Job as it appeared in Die Bucher Der Bibel. The dybbuk is the dislocated soul of a dead person which goes on to possess another individual until it has accomplished its goal. Image from Wikipedia.

Before I get ahead of myself, the use of revenants in the Game of Thrones universe taps into a reoccurring and general unease in human cultures of the dead ‘coming’ back to life.  Obvious parallels can be found and cited in the historical record from medieval Europe, particularly from Norway and England, but other cultural and religious examples include Chinese Jiangshi (‘hopping zombie’), the Jewish Dybbuk (a malicious possessing spirit), and the Malaysian and Indonesian Pocong (ghost of the soul of the deceased individual).  The idea of the vampire, made famous by Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel of 1897 but present in many European traditions in one form or another in previous centuries, also fits this category.  It would be fair to say that a fundamental feature of these concepts is the unease surrounding the death in general and the transition undertaken by the body as it undergoes the processes of decomposition.

The Old Bear

During one of the recent episode re-watches I came across the breakdown of the Night’s Watch, the politically unaffiliated band of brothers who guard the Wall against northern incursions and attacks.  Safe from the internal politics of the Seven Kingdoms that make up Westeros, the Night’s Watch relies on volunteers or prisoners to help man the crumbling watch forts and man the walkways high atop the Wall.  Unfortunately the members can prove to be a traitorous lot at times, particularly in times of hardship, de-funding and general building dilapidation as the kingdoms to south war among themselves.

The character I want to focus on briefly here is the Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (the Old Bear), an elderly individual who holds top spot in the Night’s Watch and tries to provide steady leadership during trying times.  In season three, after an incursion into the frozen north ends badly following a somewhat terrifying encounter with the white walkers, the remaining men try to muster at a barely-defended longhouse (Craster’s Keep) before making for the safety of the Wall.  Before this happens though trouble breaks out and ends in outright treason among a portion of the broken and bloodied men.  The Lord Commander himself meets a bloody end at the hand of one of the mutineer’s blades and season three draws to a dramatic close.

The Lord Commander, though dead, still manages to make an appearance in season four. . .

Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, of the Night’s Watch, in better days at the Wall in Game of Thrones. Image credit: Game of Thrones Wiki.

. . . Alas not as a revenant, but as an inverted skull-cup!

In one of the early episodes to season four (it’s been too long since I saw it but I presume either episode one or two), we cut to one of the mutineers drinking wine out of the now defleshed skull of the former Lord Commander Mormont.  I have to say, the skull-cup must have been well-plugged of any canals and foramen, let alone the magnum foramen!

If you are an adult check out the video below and see if you can tell, from an osteological standpoint, what the mutineer did incorrectly whilst handling a human skull (minus the drinking of a cold vintage from it)?  Please note that the video contains strong language, sexual violence, and nudity.

If you had said grabbing the skull by the orbits (eye sockets), you would be quite correct!

Never grab a skull by the orbits or any other hole presented, as you run the risk of damaging and breaking the delicate facial bones by doing so.  Particularly at risk are the bones that help form the orbits and nasal aperture (nose hole), such as the lacrimals, nasals, zygomatics and sphenoid skeletal elements.  There is also a bit of a give away that this is either a plastic model or cast, as in the first shot of the skull you can clearly see the shallow depth of the anterior nasal aperture.  Apart from that though the model/cast looks quite good, relatively speaking.

A Mormont Skullduggery 

There is of course another oddity here – why go to the hard effort of cutting off the calotte (skull cap) and use the base of the neurocranium (brain case part of the skull) and splanchocranium (facial part of the skull) as the drinking vessel, instead of using the calvaria (the skull without the facial bones or lower jaw)?  Not only do you have the huge foramen magnum to plug, but also all of the intricate canals and foramen of the sphenoid bone, alongside the nasal aperture and orbits to prevent leakage.

It is, of course, for the shock factor and not for the practicality of drinking wine out of a skull.  This is Game of Thrones after all.  Still, it is impressive to see and one can imagine the (theoretical) hard work that has gone into plugging the anatomical gaps to make the butchered skull into a drinking vessel!

From Lord Commander to cup, the sorry fate of Jeor Mormont. Image courtesy of Youtube and HBO.

This thrilling north of the Wall strand in series three and four also reminded me of a few real-life archaeological parallels; from the Upper Palaeolithic post-mortem skull modification at Gough’s Cave, to the medieval treatment and disposal of the dead at Wharram Percy.  So without further ado, let us take a look at the archaeological evidence and see what the individuals at Gough’s Cave did differently to the mutineers at Craster’s Keep.

Upper Palaeolithic Head Scratcher: Gough’s Cave

At the Upper Palaeolithic location of Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England, evidence for the post-mortem butchery and processing of human remains is present in the skeletal material recorded and excavated from the archaeolological site.  The Magdalenian-period site dates to around 14,700 cal Before Present and is one of the few British Upper Palaeolithic archaeological sites to feature human skeletal remains at all.  It is also the only site in the British Isles to feature the presence of directly-dated skull-cups (N=3), as documented in the two images below for location of butchery marks and the skull-cups themselves (Bello et al. 2017: 1).

Though Gough’s Cave is not the only Magdalenian culture to feature human skull-cups, as the French sites of Le Placard and Isturitz also have evidence for the post-mortem production of skull-cups, it is unique to feature both the production of skull-cups and the evidence for cannibalism together at one site.  I’ve previously wrote a blog entry regarding the osteological and archaeological evidence for post-mortem manipulation of the bones, but it is worth just briefly going through it again here.

A selection of the skull elements from at least three individuals found at Gough’s Cave. Note the processed remains. Image credit: Natural History Museum.

The first hint that the skeletal remains were likely butchered was the find location and treatment of the skeletal elements.  The remains of at least five individuals, including children, adolescents and adults, were co-mingled with butchered animal remains.  The remains showed distinctive evidence for cut-marks and chopping, but more commonly for slicing and scraping (Stringer, et al 2011: 19).  In total three skull-cups were identified from individuals of differing ages and all butchery marks were identified as ectocranial (outside of skull) in nature.

The archaeologists were able to identify the five-step method for producing the skull-cups as the following:

  1. The head was detached from the body shortly after death, cuts at the base of the skull and cervical vertebrae indicate this.
  2. The mandible (lower jawbone) was then removed, with evidence of percussion fractures on the teeth of both the mandible and maxilla (lower and upper jaws), where present.
  3. The major muscles of the skull were carefully removed, along with the soft facial tissues and organs.
  4. Cut marks then indicate scalping took place.
  5. Finally the facial and base of the cranium were carefully struck off and the edges chipped to provide smoother surfaces (Bello et al. 2011).

The main locations of reshaping of the human crania from Gough’s Cave IMage credit: Figure 8 in Bello et al. 2011.

Once created it appears that the skull-cups were used as liquid vessels rather than for anything else, although the reason for their production remains unknown.  This function is similar to the fate of Lord Commander’s skull in the Game of Thrones television series, though we cannot know the reasons that drove the individuals who created the Gough’s Cave skull-cups in the first place.  The possibility of funerary ritual could be floated, but this would be speculation.  What is clear is that these skull-cups demanded careful preparation and processing to minimise damage.  The 2011 PLoS ONE article by Bello et al., referenced in the bibliography below, is well worth a read for the full archaeological and osteological context.

Medieval Wonders: Wharram Percy

In more recent research on a skeletal assemblage from the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire, dating to the 11th to 13th century AD, indicate a number of peri-mortem and post-mortem practices being carried out in distinct phases (Mays et al. 2017).

A study on the disarticulated assemblage of human skeletal remains (N=10), located within a pit-complex at the village, has uncovered evidence for peri-mortem breakage, burning and knife and chop marks.  The archaeological context of the remains of the individuals indicated that this was a not discrete one-off episode but a part of a number of episodes within the residua of more than one event (Mays et al. 2017).  A minimum of at least ten individuals are represented by the skeletal material within the study, ranging in age from 2-4 years old to >50 years at death.

The osteological analysis of the nature of the peri-mortem and post-mortem treatment of the remains indicated that there could have been motivating factors of starvation cannibalism or fear of revenant corpses driving the behaviour.

The modern view of the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy. Photograph by Paul Allison, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The examination of peri-mortem marks, largely sharp-force marks such as knife-marks, are largely confined to the upper body, along with evidence of long-bone peri-mortem breakage and low-temperature burning of a number of the bodies.  The image below highlights a number of the knife-marks present on rib elements, but it was noted that cut marks could be found on various clavicles, humeri, mandibles, vertabrae and crania bases present, indicating there was a concentration on the head and neck area in order to separate the head from the vertebral column and inflict injuries upon a severed head.  Meanwhile clavicular and upper rib cuts could be associated with dismemberment of corpses post-mortem.  Unlike the cut marks and low-temperature burning, the evidence for long-bone peri-mortem breaking involved both the upper and lower limbs to a similar extent, although the presence of breaking was limited among the assemblage (Mays et al. 2017: 450).

The sequence of events, from the osteological material and archaeological contexts, suggests that the bodily mutilation preceded the burning, where both where in evidence (Mays et al. 2011: 449).

Evidence of parallel cut marks on the external surface of one rib fragment (a) from Wharram Percy, with (b) showing further cut marks on another rib fragment indicative of peri- and post-mortem funerary processing. Image credit Mays et al. (2011: 441).

Further strontium isotopic analysis of the dental enamel of sixteen molars, to test the range for geographic origin via local geology, were selected from the medieval cemetery population and the pit-complex assemblage.  The testing revealed that nearly all individuals investigated all had local strontium values.  Only one pit-complex individual, ‘mandible D’, had a non-local value which may have been from further afield (but only just, possibly).  This analysis helped disprove the hypothesis that the pit-complex individuals, those with the knife-marks, and evidence for burning etc. came from a different geographic region than from the local area as compared to the control population of the cemetery group (Mays et al. 2017: 446).

In a 2017 University of Southampton press release for the article Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist at Historic England known for his bioarchaeological research (such as Mays 1999), stated that:

The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best.  If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice. It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own.

As the above and the Mays et al. 2017 research article below make clear, there is good evidence within the Wharram Percy pit-complex assemblage for the argument of starvation cannibalism and/or for treatment to combat the revenant dead, that is in order to stop a corpse from re-animating as per traditional mythology.

And yet there are arguments against both interpretations – the fact that there are barely any cut or knife-marks below the chest on the osteological material analysed, that there is a lack of pot-polish from boiling of the remains, or the fact that the revenant dead are usually male whereas the Wharram Percy pit-complex individuals include well represented females and non-adults.

Instead the investigators are careful with their interpretation and note the likelihood that the assemblage at this location, time and evidence point towards revenant activity rather than starvation cannibalism.

A Worthy End?

So there we have it, a very quick tour through the ages to see that although the Lord Commander Mormont suffered an inglorious end as a skull-cup, he was by no means the only one and he could not come back as a revenant.  Although I picked fault with the method of his skull processing, we can see in the osteological and archaeological examples above that there are no set ways to process bodies during the peri- and post-mortem phases, therefore as bioarchaeologists or archaeologists it pays to investigate each avenue of evidence and see where it fits best within our current knowledge base.

Notes

(1.)  Okay, I admit it – I started to write this post a while ago and I never quite finished it or got round to writing out a full draft.  Game of Thrones, the HBO television series, has now finished with the somewhat rushed conclusion to Season 8 airing in 2019.  As of this blog post I am currently four volumes into the book series on which the television series is based, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  It’s intriguing so far and I’m keen to see how it diverges from the television series.

(2.)  The Wikipedia page on the War of the Roses has a fantastic family tree diagram with the affiliation of the kings, families and nobles of the various English civil wars that make up the 15th century conflict.  It is well worth having a look and then trying to take it in the full page – it is not something I am particularly familiar with!

Further Information

Bibliography

Bello, S. M. Parfitt, S. A. & Stringer, C. B. 2011. Earliest Directly Dated Skull-CupsPLoS ONE. 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017026. (Open Access).

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Mays, S., Fryer, R., Pike, A. W. G., Cooper, M. J. & Marshall, P. 2017. A Multidisciplinary Study of a Burnt and Mutilated Assemblage of Human Remains from a Deserted Mediaeval Village in EnglandJournal of Archaeological Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2017.02.023. (Open Access).

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Handy Field Hint: Palpate Your Own Skeleton

2 Sep

My somewhat battered and muddied version of The Human Bone Manual, by White & Folkens (2005), has sadly sat unloved and unused atop of a chest of drawers over the past half year or so.  Instead my focus has been on my current employment situation working for a delightful heritage and natural environment project, which also partly explains my absence from this blog for a short while.  So if you have been a keen reader when I was a more proficient blogger, I do apologise.

As I flicked through the volume I was again reminded why it is the manual for the anatomical identification and siding of human skeletal elements in archaeological, anthropological or forensic contexts, combining as it does clear and precise descriptions with excellent photographs of each element in a largely 1:1 format.  It is built for the field but it is also incredibly useful in the lab too, fitting snugly in the hand in either situation and quite ready to sit in a rucksack as much as the shelve (or in my case atop the chest of draws).  I’ve written previously about this book throughout this blog and it has formed the basis for many of my Skeletal Series posts as well because it is so damn handy as a reference volume.

The compact Human Bone Manual by White & Folkens (2005) provides one of the bedrock identification textbooks for the fields of bioarchaeology, forensics, and human osteology. Great for the field and lab alike. Image credit: Elsevier Academic Press.

I picked up my copy earlier tonight to have a glance through it, and also to remind myself of the bony anatomical landmarks of various elements – in particular the tibia, which had been tickling my brain with the terms for the intercondylar eminence and associated anatomical landmarks!  It is all too easy to forget the intricacies of the human skeletal if you are not working with material regularly or, as in my case, are elsewhere distracted on other projects.

I came across this very useful hint early on in the manual on rereading sections of it:

In bone identification it pays to remember that the osteologist always has an intact comparative skeleton close at hand, even in remote field locations. . . that skeleton is embedded in his or her own body.

Which goes on to give the advice that it is:

Useful to visualize and even palpate (feel your own bones through the skin) the way in which an isolated skeletal element might “plug into” your own body. (White & Folkens 2005: 5).

It is an easy point to miss, especially if the osteologist wants to compare teeth (the only directly exposed-to-the-environment element in the human skeleton) in the field as this can be readily done with a willing volunteer or by using your own jaws to visualize and orient said teeth, or to compare other skeletal elements against your own body.

Check out the example below for how useful this can be when using it in conjunction with your own osteological knowledge, experience and palpation skills in helping to identify and orient fragmented skeletal elements in the field:

Palpating another person’s hand to locate and identify the carpal bones, in this case the scaphoid and trapizeum tubercles. This can be easily down on your own hand. Image credit: Musculoskeletal Key.

It may also be a useful and quick ‘rough and ready’ guide to identifying any expressions of bone affected by palaeopathological disease processes or trauma, such as misaligned healed or healing fractures, where the bone appears abnormal to the normal element expression of expected angle or length.  I’m thinking here particularly of long bones, such as the humerus, ulna, radius, femur, tibia or fibula, rather than smaller elements which could be different to contrast again palpated bones within your own skeletal system.

Bearing this in mind then, it may be best to practice palpation on yourself or a friend before heading into the field in order to familiarize yourself with skeletal palpation.  This way you can quickly identify the main skeletal elements and the major skeletal landmarks that are palpable through the skin and muscle, whilst also having a ready-made comparative skeleton on hand at all times!

Bibliography

White, T. D. & Folkens, P. A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

British Student Opportunity: Erasmus+ Grant Funded Placement to Alba Iulia, Romania, April-May 2019

7 Feb

For the second time I have the pleasure of advertising available European Union-funded archaeological placements for British students, courtesy of the British heritage organisation Grampus Heritage.  As long time readers of this site may remember I had the great pleasure of attending a Leonardo Da Vinci European Union archaeology placement in Magdeburg, Germany, via Grampus Heritage in 2011 for six glorious weeks.  (If you’re interested in reading what I got up to over there you read my review here).  Now, courtesy of the Erasmus+, a successor of the Leonardo Da Vinci programme, there are a small number of Romanian placement places still available for summer 2019).  You can snap one up if you meet the criteria.

Memories of Magdeburg. One of the photographs that I took visiting the remains of a deserted medieval village near the city in eastern Germany, as Claire and Emma walk towards me and Loretta heads off to explore the inside of what remains of the church.

This is the chance to join a fantastic placement in Romania, aimed at recruiting students in the United Kingdom and introducing them to a fascinating Romanian cultural exchange.  It is also a great introduction to Romanian Neolithic rescue archaeology and an opportunity to experience working in laboratory conditions analysing prehistoric human skeletal remains. Read on to find out more and how to apply if you are eligible . . .

Student Erasmus + Grant Funded Placements Available for Alba Iulia, Romania

Date: April-May 2019 (1), or soon as possible but returning to the UK by 31 May 2019.

Places & Experience: 2-3 places available, experience in human osteological analysis preferred.

Eligibility & Applying: This placement in the European Archaeology Skills Exchange (EASE) is offered through Grampus Heritage, based in the United Kingdom, as a part of the European Union funded Erasmus + scheme with a vast range of European partners. This placement is open to British students studying in the United Kingdom who wish to gain human osteological and archaeological excavation experience abroad. Full eligibility and application details can be found here. Please note there is only a few spaces remaining.

Funding: Funding information is available on contact.

The following placement information (in italics) has been used with permission from Grampus Heritage:

Placement Information: Ideally for forensic anthropology students, this is an 8 week practical placement that will see you working and contributing towards the work of the university. There will also be the chance of working on a rescue excavation during the 8 weeks, details still to be confirmed, so there will be a mix of excavation and post excavation work.

Site Background: The placement will be once again take place at Lumea Noua where the group will work alongside a team on a Neolithic site in the Transylvania historical region that has been going since 2002. The Neolithic settlement of Lumea Noua is located in the north-eastern part of the city of Alba Iulia, on the second terrace of the Mures River. In charge of the dig is Mihai Gligor, PhD, Head of the History, Archaeology and Museology department within “1 Decembrie 1918” University in Alba Iulia.

Discovered in 1942, there have been archaeological campaigns on the site right up until 2011. Rescue excavations focusing on recording the site have been the most recent activity, starting in 2002 and continuing in 2017. During the excavations, a site of some 40ha has been discovered, though it is estimated to be larger than this.

A range of the tasks undertaken during the Romanian placement, including human skeletal excavation and analysis in the laboratory. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

The most intensive habitation period appears to have been around 4600-4500calBC when the Foeni group used the site, a group attributed to the funerary complex that has been the focus of the most recent excavations. So far, the discovery of around 120 disarticulated individuals mainly represented by skull caps has been very interesting as there are traces of burning on the caps and no facial bones are present. This appears to indicate one of the unusual mortuary practices of the Lumea Noua community. Males, females and children are all present.

It has been suggested that the human remains were not interred during an epidemic; moreover, collective death as a result of violence is unlikely since there at no traces of interpersonal violence, such as wounds inflicted by arrows or lithic weapons. In addition, no arrow tips or axes have been found in connection with human bone material. One possible explanation of this funerary practice is that Alba Iulia was a ceremonial centre where Neolithic communities practiced organised burial rituals, including special treatment of human cranial remains.

Pottery has been found associated with the bone remains, of very good quality, made with clay with no impurities. A large quantity of well burnished black topped fired vessels have been found at the site. Pottery that has had painted decoration applied before being fired without any slip are also typical of this site.

A snapshot of the work undertaken during the Romanian archaeology placement from previous years. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

Several ditches have also been identified at the site of different shapes and sizes. At the time of the Foeni habitation of the site, the ditches appear to represent a circular concentric plan to the settlement for that time period.

Work Schedule: The group will be working with the team, continuing the excavation of this interesting site and labeling finds. Some days will be based in the labs, washing and analysing human remains and pottery. The working week is Monday – Friday. They will also do some experimental archaeology and assist with setting up an exhibition.

Conditions: For fieldwork please bear in mind that. . . as with most archaeological sites, expect a degree of physical work. As with all our placements, participants are joining partner excavations. These are not UK led excavations. The group will be learning different methods and techniques that are used for this particular site, so must expect differences in how the site is run.

Updated Notes

(1). I was mistaken in my original post as to which placement this applied to and it is the EASE not PEATS placement offered by Grampus Heritage through the Erasmus+ programme. This site was updated on 8 February 2019 to reflect the change and opportunities available.

Further Information

  • Read more about Grampus Heritage and the other opportunities which are European Union funded Erasmus+ Placements in Environment, Archaeology, and Traditional Skills (PEATS) here.
  • Read my own reflection on the 6 week German archaeology placement in Magdeburg here, courtesy of Grampus Heritage and the European Union back in summer 2011.
  • Read a guest post by Joanne Wilkinson, from 2012, on the joys of attending and taking part in a cultural heritage scheme as promoted by the Leonardo Da Vinci and Erasmus+ schemes here.
  • Try your luck guessing which anatomical landmarks I’ve highlighted on a bone from my Magdeburg placement in my human osteology quiz here.
  • If you are curious about the Magdeburg placement, check out the 2019 information here.

Spotted: Early Career Human Osteologist Job(s) in London

9 Aug

The core source of commercial archaeological jobs in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is BAJR, the British Archaeological Jobs & Resources website.  It is the golden door to finding a foot or a rung up the greasy ladder of employment (barring knowing folks!).  Ran by David Connolly, BAJR tirelessly fights for fair wages and good working conditions on top of this.  I highly recommend joining the Facebook group for entertaining talk and top advice.  But that isn’t what caught my attention earlier today, it was this:

The badge of the advert as seen on BAJR on 09/08/2018. Image credit: BAJR.

Seeing a Human Osteologist role advertised on BAJR can be quite rare indeed as these job roles are often only available within larger commercial units who have the facilities and expertise to analyse human skeletal remains from archaeological sites, or are contracted out to sole traders or university specialists.

So the opportunity to work in central London on a major urban infrastructure project with the excavation and analysis of some of the country’s largest cemeteries looks like a once in a career chance.  Even better, they want early career human osteologists!  The job itself is contracted to run until the end of March 2019 and the lucky employees will be contracted to either MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) or Headland Archaeology to work on the jointly ran project.

Please note the specific details, as quoted verbatim from the advert:

Working closely with a team of highly experienced archaeologists and human osteologists you will contribute to and develop understanding of the past through the excavation, identification, processing (washing and packaging) and recording of human skeletal remains.

Successful candidates will have a degree in Archaeology or a related subject and post-graduate qualification in Osteology or a related subject. Candidates with a demonstrable background in Osteology will also be considered. Proven ability in the identification of human remains and pathological bone conditions and knowledge of current legislation and guidelines are essential.

A good general knowledge of British archaeology and commercial archaeology, particularly in the excavation of post-medieval burial grounds would be an advantage.

Having looked through the application form I also noted that there would be an opportunity to pursue your own research interests – an invaluable opportunity for early career human osteologists with access to such a large collection of human skeletal remains.

The Deadline is Monday 20th August 2018 for applications, good luck to everyone applying!

If any other employment opportunities arise on BAJR specifically for human osteological or bioarchaeological positions I shall try to endeavor to mention them on These Bones of Mine.  Please do be aware that the jobs advertised from this site are generally for the United Kingdom and restrictions may apply for potential applicants from abroad.  As such I would advise would-be applicants to carefully consider the job and role specifications, alongside the essential and desired criteria, as outlined by each company individually.

Further Information

  • The job application and specification details can be viewed and downloaded from the BAJR website here.
  • The indefatigable David Connolly has previously and kindly produced an eye-opening and inspiring series of guest blog posts on These Bones of Mine detailing the rise of BAJR.  Check the entries out here.

Casting A Wider Net: An Example of Care in a Prehistoric Context

27 Jul

Due to a number of factors I haven’t updated this blog for a while now, but that doesn’t mean that I am completely inactive.  A number of posts are upcoming, however they just may take a while to be published due to a number of other issues that mean this site takes a back seat (I have been blogging elsewhere though).  I do still keep an eye out on other osteologically and bioarchaeologically focused blogs (such as the fantastic triplet of sites that includes Bone Broke, Bodies and Academia and Powered By Osteons).  Occasionally I also scan the relevant journals for updates and news, printing articles of interest (and praying that they are open access when I click them!).

Today two such articles caught my eye on the always reliably diverse and interesting International Journal of Palaeopathology website.

The first, by Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer, discusses the possible differential diagnoses of a juvenile female whose skeletal remains display ‘pervasive bone wasting and fragile jaws’ (2018: 1).  The individual, known as Burial 2, was aged 16 years at death and located within a Late Archaic cultural context dating to roughly 3000 BP (Before Present). This cultural context at the Hind Site in Middlesex County, Ontario (Canada), represented a highly mobile society who practiced a seasonal and migratory foraging and hunting lifestyle.  Through careful anatomical study of the skeletal elements, including the patterns of bone wastage and growth, along with a thorough differential diagnoses investigation, the researchers conclude that the individual known as Burial 2 likely had Osteogenesis Imperfecta (type IV), a very variable type of the disease which predominately affects the skeletal system due to a lack of type I collagen in connective tissues.

Photograph taken from the original 1968 Late Archaic excavation in Middlesex County, Ontario. The site dates to roughly 3000 BP. Burial 2 (right) is a juvenile individual (aged at 16 years old at time of death), who has been sexed as a female, located next to the adult female Burial 3 (left) within the same grave. Both were in a flexed body position and facing each other. Image credit: Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer 2018: 3.

What really intrigued me about Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer’s study was the model of care discussion (2018: 6-7) which though exceptionally brief indicated the sociocultural background of modern individuals who live with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) in its many forms:

A medical anthropological study that interviewed people of diverse socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds who have OI describes such individuals as small (22-45kg), and having a particular behavioral phenotype of ‘resilience’.  This phenotype is characterized as being bright, accomplished and often adventurous (Ablon 2003). (Emphasis mine).

It is good to see this being highlighted within the (impressive) osteological analysis of the human remains, of the 16-year-old female now identified through the modern moniker of ‘Burial 2’.  This was an individual who likely needed care and assistance in daily ambulation, along with the preparation of a soft food diet, transportation, hygiene, and various activities regarding upper limb strength (Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer 2018: 7).  Whilst reading through the paper I thought that the individual would make an interesting Bioarchaeology of Care case study, particularly so as the archaeological context is well documented and a number of other individuals representative of Burial’s 2 immediate temporal population are available for comparative analysis.

On a personal level this also reminded me of what a former orthopaedic consultant had mentioned to me previously regarding the hardiness of children after extensive skeletal trauma and surgical interventions, the fact that juveniles are far more resilient than is often expected of them by adults.

The second article by Gresky et al. (2018: 90) focused on a palaeopathological case study of a male aged 22-25 years at death, skeletally complete and excavated from a mound at the burial ground of Budyonnovsk 10 in the Stavropol region of southern Russia. The site itself dates from the Middle Bronze Age to some partial use of the mounds up until the late Middle Ages, however the archaeological context of Burial 14 dates to the Late Catacomb Culture, approximately 2500-3000 BCE (Before Common Era).

The Catacomb burial of Burial 14 at Budyonnovsk 10 in Burial mound 7. The individual is buried in a crouched position, head orientated south. Image credit: Gresky et al. 2018: 92.

A discreet dysplastic lesion was discovered in the mandible of Burial 14, with the involvement of the right lower canine alveolus.  This was examined via macroscopic analysis, digital microscopy, plain and contrasting radiology, and by thin slicing sections of the mandible itself.  Again a thorough differential diagnoses analysis was carried out and helped rule out Fibrous Dysplasia (monostotic) and Ossifying Fibroma as likely culprits, as Osseous Dysplasia (periapical) suited the physical and microscopic presentation of the lesion.  The important point from this study is that researchers should be aware of the frequent presence of fibro-osseous lesions within archaeological material (Gresky 2018: 97).

The above study initially caught my attention as I have Fibrous Dysplasia (polyostotic), as a part of the rarer McCune Albright Syndrome, and I was keen to see if the osteological literature had identified another individual with Fibrous Dysplasia.  Although this was not the case, it was a particularly interesting read to help differentiate osseous lesions found in skeletal elements within archaeological contexts.

Bibliography

Ablon, J. 2003. Personality and Stereotype in Osteogenesis Imperfecta: Behavioral Phenotype or Response to Life’s Hard Challenges?. American Journal of Medical Genetics. 122A (3): 201-214.

Gresky, J., Kalmykov, A. & Berezina, N. 2018. Benign Fibro-Osseous Lesion of the Mandible in a Middle Bronze Age Skeleton from Southern Russia. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 20: 90-97. (Open Access).

Vairamuthu, T. & Pfeiffer, S. 2018. A Juvenile with Compromised Osteogenesis Provides Insights into Past Hunter-Gather Lives. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 20: 1-9. (Open Access).

Updated II: Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses in the United Kingdom

27 Mar

Please note: I originally wrote this post a few years ago in order to outline the available human osteology/bioarchaeology postgraduate courses in the United Kingdom as a guideline for the degree fees and availability.  However since then a number of substantial national and international changes have occurred.  These include, but are not limited to, the increase of undergraduate tuition fees to £9000.00 per academic year; the general increase of the price of Masters degrees; the new availability of student loans for Masters students; changes to Disabled Students Allowance from the 16/17 academic year onward; the transfer of some Student Finance grants to loans; the Government White paper released in May 2016 outlining challenges and changes needed in higher education, etc.  There is also ongoing discussion between the government and the educational sector regarding the pricing of courses according to economic worth and employability.

One of the more important changes was the outcome of the referendum in the United Kingdom whether it to remain or not a part of the European Union.  The resultant outcome led to the voting majority opting to leave the European Union.  This is due to happen in 2019, with a probable period of transition that has yet to be agreed in parliament, but the Government of the United Kingdom recently stated that it would guarantee European Union funding for projects signed before the Autumn Statement until 2020.

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Whilst I was doing some light research for another article I made a quick list of every course in the United Kingdom that offers human osteology as a taught masters (either as an MA, Masters of Arts, or as an MSc, Masters of Science) or offers a distinctive human osteology module or component within a taught masters degree.  Human osteology is the study of human skeletal material from archaeological sites.  Human osteologists study bones to identify age, biological sex, pathology and pre- and post-mortem trauma alongside other avenues of research in human behaviour and activity, such as investigating diet and mobility of post populations.  The subject is generally only taught at a Masters level within the United Kingdom, although some undergraduate courses in archaeology offer the opportunity to take individual modules during the third year of study.

Within the list England as a whole is well represented within the universities highlighted, Scotland only comes in with three entries, Wales has two courses coming online in 2019, and finally Northern Ireland, as far as I know, offer no distinctive osteological courses at the Masters level.  Further to this, the reader should be aware that some universities, such as the University of Leicester, offer commercial or research centers for human and animal osteology yet run no specific postgraduate courses that provide the training in the methods of osteoarchaeology.  Thus they are excluded from this list.

This information is correct as of November 2018, but please expect at least some of the information to change, especially in relation to course fees for United Kingdom, European Union, and international students.  It should be noted here that the higher education sector in the United Kingdom is internationally well-regarded and the educational institutions are often in the top 10% in world league tables; however it can be very expensive to study here, especially so in the consideration of prospective international students.  Please also take note of the cost of renting (especially in London and the south of the country generally) and the high cost of daily living compared to some countries.  The list is not an exhaustive attempt to collate all British post-graduate courses in human osteology and bioarchaeology and I am happy to add any further information or to correct any entries.

Other Sources & Prospective Student Advice

The British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) site, ran by David Connolly, also has a plethora of useful resources to check as well as an active Facebook group which is a great place to ask for advice.  The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO)  site contains a page with a useful link of current human osteology and bioarchaeology courses in the United Kingdom accessible in the Student Hub area, however it is only view-able for paid up members of BABAO.  If you are interested in human skeletal remains and are keen to learn more about the human osteology profession in the United Kingdom I heavily suggest joining BABAO for their support, annual conference and access to grants for students.

I’ve also written a second post to compliment this one which entails what you, as a prospective student, should keep in mind when looking at degree courses to pursue.  You can check out that post by clicking the title here: Questions to remember when considering a postgraduate course in human osteology.  Since the posting of this blog entry it has come to my attention that a number of universities now offer postgraduate courses as diplomas, which enable prospective students to undertake either practical modules or assignments or instead offer commercial certification in place of the typical formal requirement of the dissertation thesis.  This may be something to think on if you are seeking to work in commercial osteology for archaeological units or forensic companies, rather than heading into academic research or academia itself.

skull-saxon

An example of an archaeological skull. Image credit: source.

Please note that the fees stated are for full-time students only.  For part-time students the price is normally halved and the course carried out over two years, instead of the usual one year that is common for Masters within the United Kingdom.  Several universities also have stipulations that international students are barred from taking MSc/MA course part-time.

MA/MSc Degrees in England

Bournemouth University:

University of Bradford:

University of Cambridge:

  • MPhil Human Evolution (amazingly there are 18,000 skeletons in the Duckworth Collection!).

Cranfield University:

University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN):

University College London:

University of Durham:

University of Exeter:

  • MSc Bioarchaeology (Offers choice of one of three core pathway topics, including human osteology, zooarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology) (UK/EU £7,995 and International £16,995).

Universities of Hull and York Medical School:

  • MSc Human Evolution (A very interesting course, combining dissection and evolutionary anatomy) (UK/EU £7,940 and International £20,910).

University of Liverpool:

Liverpool John Moores University:

University of Manchester:

  • MSc Biomedical and Forensic Studies in Egyptology (course under review).

University of Oxford:

University of Reading:

  • MSc Professional Human Osteoarchaeology (includes commercial training, such as how to tender for projects, making quick decisions in the field, etc.) (UK/EU £8,620 and International £19,230).

University of Sheffield:

University of Southampton:

University of Winchester:

University of York:

MA/MSc Degrees in Scotland

University of Aberdeen

University of Dundee:

University of Edinburgh:

MA/MSc Degrees in Wales

Wrexham Glyndwy University*:

  • MRes Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology (UK/EU £7,000 and International £15,000).
  • MSc Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology (UK/EU £7,000 and International £15,000).

*In conjunction with Cyprus Institute of Sciences and Humanities (CYPISH) and the Centre for Forensic Anthropology & Bioarchaeology (CeFAB), from 2019.  No current course pages exists, this post will be updated when there is a dedicated MRes and MSc web-pages.

The following universities offer short courses in human osteology, osteology, forensics or zooarchaeology

Short Courses in England

Cranfield University:

University of Bradford:

  • On occasion run a palaeopathology course, please check the university website for details.

University of Sheffield:

Note: I am still genuinely surprised there are not more short courses.  If you find any in the United Kingdom please feel free to drop a comment below.

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A University of Hull and Sheffield joint excavation at Brodsworth carried out in 2008 helped to uncover and define a Medieval cemetery. Image credit: University of Hull.

A Few Pieces of Advice

A piece of advice that I would give to prospective students is that I would strongly advise researching your degree by visiting the universities own web-pages, finding out about the course specifics and the module content.  If possible I’d also visit the department and tour the facilities available and seek advice from the course leader with regards to potential research interests.  I would also always advise to try to contact a past student and to gain their views on the course that they have attended previously.  They will often offer frank advice and information, something that can be hard to find on a university web-page or from a course leader.  Also please do be aware of the high cost of the United Kingdom higher education as prices have been raised considerably in the past few years and are likely to rise again, especially so in comparison to cheaper courses on the European continent.

Finally, if you know of any other human osteology or bioarchaeology Masters or short courses in the United Kingdom please do comment below or send me an email and I will add it to the list here.

British Undergraduate/Postgraduate Opportunity: Erasmus+ Grant Funded Placement to Alba Iulia, Romania, March-April 2018

2 Feb

As long-term readers of this site will know I had the great pleasure of attending a Leonardo Da Vinci European Union funded archaeology placement in Magdeburg, Germany, via Grampus Heritage, in 2011 for 6 glorious weeks.  If you’re interested in reading what I got up to over there please read my review here.  I now have the pleasure of highlighting a placement, courtesy of Joanne Stamper of Grampus Heritage, under the Erasmus+ banner (a successor of the Leonardo Da Vinci programme) that still has a small number of places for spring 2018.

This is the chance to join a fantastic placement in Romania, aimed at recruiting undergraduates and postgraduates in the United Kingdom and introducing them to a fascinating cultural exchange and introduction to Romanian Neolithic archaeology.  The exciting placement involves archaeological excavation of a Central European Neolithic site, human osteological analysis, and finds processing of the excavated material.  Read on to find out more and how to apply if you are eligible . . .

Student Erasmus + Grant Funded Placements Available for Alba Iulia, Romania

Date:  1st March – 29th April 2018.

Funding:  The grant will cover accommodation, so participants would need to get their own flights and budget for food (£50-70 per week depending on meals out) as well as the usual money for presents, toiletries, etc.  Participants also need to make sure they have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).

Placement Information:  The placement is hosted by Satul Verde with Universitatea „1 Decembrie 1918” in Alba Iulia.  The group will be assisting the team in analysing the human remains and pottery from the Neolithic excavation that has been run by the university for the past several years.

A snapshot of the work undertaken during the Romanian archaeology placement from previous years. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

The most intensive habitation period appears to have been around 4600-4500calBC when the Foeni group used the site, a group attributed to the funerary complex that has been the focus of the most recent excavations.  So far, the discovery of around 120 dis-articulated individuals mainly represented by skull caps has been very interesting as there are traces of burning on the caps, with no facial bones noted as being present.  This appears to indicate one of the unusual mortuary practices of the Lumea Noua community.  The demographic details of the site indicate that both adults and non-adults are represented, with male and female individuals present in the adult population.

It has been suggested that the human remains were not interred during an epidemic; moreover, collective death as a result of violence is unlikely since there at no traces of interpersonal violence, such as wounds inflicted by arrows or lithic weapons.  In addition, no arrow tips or axes have been found in connection with the human bone material.  One possible explanation of this funerary practice is that Alba Iulia was a ceremonial centre where Neolithic communities practiced organised burial rituals, including special treatment of human cranial remains.  Pottery has been found associated with the bone remains, of very good quality, made with clay with no impurities.  A large quantity of well burnished black topped fired vessels have been found at the site.  Pottery that has had painted decoration applied before being fired without any slip are also typical of this site.

A range of the tasks undertaken during the Romanian placement, including human skeletal excavation and analysis in the laboratory. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

The group will also be assisting in a rescue excavation, site details of which will be discussed with the group when the dates are confirmed during the placement.

Application:

Potential student applicants are advised to send in their application form as soon as possible via the Grampus Heritage website, where the form can be downloaded.  Please make note of the eligibility and conditions attached to each of the placements, including the above Romanian placement.  To contact Grampus Heritage regarding the above placement please email enquiries AT grampusheritage.co.uk or telephone on 01697 321 516.

Further Information

  • Read more about Grampus Heritage and the European Union funded Erasmus+ placements here.
  • Read my own reflection on the 6 week German archaeology placement in Magdeburg here, courtesy of Grampus Heritage and the European Union in 2011.
  • Read a guest post by Joanne Wilkinson, from 2012, on the joys of attending and taking part in a cultural heritage scheme as promoted by the Leonardo Da Vinci and Erasmus+ schemes here.
  • Try your luck guessing which anatomical landmarks I’ve highlighted on a bone from my Magdeburg placement in my human osteology quiz here.

Speaking to the Dead: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

3 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication, which was released in 2013.  It is a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including the present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book in a blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for sustained periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1985 volume The Unwomanly Face of War (У войны не женское лицо), recently translated into English and republished, which uncovers the role of USSR females in the Second World War and the subsequent silence of their contributions, alongside 1997’s Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва),  a volume which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  That book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) was due to be published in 2017; the volume looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless, there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field.  It is one I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends describing their experiences of encountering human skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and how it inspires them – into careers, into dreams, into labours of love and worry.

A two-part previous edition of this series focusing on the life and thoughts of archaeologists can be read here and here.


The author’s monologue

– Buried and cremated, dismembered and decapitated, axial and axis, perimortem and postmortem.  The language we use to describe the dead can seem cold and clinical, a hidden distance in our lexical choices to keep the emotive at bay.  If we think of the skeletonized dead as people, with their own lives, thoughts and memories, instead of objects taking up space on the finds shelves or boxed silently away, it is perhaps then we remember that the past is not so different, not so foreign to the present.

Fragments of crania, rolled across my open palm for tactile inspection, used to remind me of the intangible border of death.  Reminded me that I too would die.  Bone, that wonderous structure of both flesh and stone, reminded me so vividly of what it is to live.  Having broken many of the elements within my own skeleton, I could feel kindred to those naturally fractured fragments before me, couldn’t I?

That decisive snap, the innervation of electric pain that contorts to dull throbs . . .  What I thought I knew, I desired to know in more depth.  My own experiences of skeletal breakages and repeated surgical interventions, my own handling of the blade cutting into flesh to show bone the sordid light of the dissection room.  The smell of my anatomical guide – the paper protected by clear plastic wallets, but the pages of which had nevertheless become permeated by the chemical smells of preservation.  These were the experiences that pushed me on.

From excavation to analysis, pulled from birth to death anew.  A whole new context of meaning imbued by the discipline of archaeology . . .  These were my dreams, the dull and long-drawn out thoughts that lay behind daily concerns and speculations.

What do others think, how do others interact with the skeletal material that represents an individual, a population, a species?


The illusion of mortality and the fickle nature of finality

Gabriela H.  Late twenties.  Post-doctoral researcher.

– I don’t know what drew me into studying skeletons – it was not the morbid aspect for sure.  I have never been to a funeral, and I don’t feel a pang for skull-themed aromatic candles spread around the house.  I might be ‘in search for a stable ground to step on’, as a psychologist once told me . . .  I don’t know if that is true, it might be, but it might as well have something to do with people.  I like people, and have always been interested in watching them, in understanding their passions, actions and thoughts.  But I should probably bear in mind that these are dead people.  Most of the time I try to ignore this though . . .  The image of a crime movie in which body parts are stacked in jars on shelves comes vividly to mind, and the comparison is rather worrying to be frank.

However, aren’t we (those studying the dead) caught in this eternal (no pun intended) puzzle?  Between having to acknowledge that these are dead people – that on the lab table and on the museum shelf it is death and mortality looking back at us, confronting our own fear of death.  Or seeing them as mere bones, objects that are there waiting for us to turn them into ‘high-impact’ articles?  Boundaries, and absences are unsettling: someone has forever disappeared, though some part of them has been left behind.

‘It is the living who expect insights from the dead’ a friend once told me, and he couldn’t have been more right (as you see I am trying to avoid saying ‘dead right’).  As a ‘dead bodies’ practitioner I think this line cuts to the core of the whole challenge of writing narratives about them – what are we hoping to achieve?  I think most of the times we are unsure, but it is rather hard to be sure about something like death, isn’t it?


On the joy of working with the hands and the truth concealed

Abigail L.  Mid-twenties.  PhD candidate.

– I often miss working with my hands.  The hours spent staring at a screen or trawling through journals are necessary for research, but they make me realise that the physicality of handling human remains, the engagement that comes with examining the material myself, is what really helps me to understand my subject best.  Carefully sorting through someone’s bones removes the abstraction of talking about statistics, trends and probabilities, and brings it back to the individual level, the only one that we can really identify with.  I gain satisfaction from the ordered and methodical work; the rest of my time is spent chaotically moving between tasks and failing to cross anything off my cluttered stacks of physical and digital to-do lists.  With the bones, I arrive early and skip lunch to give myself more time to work slowly and carefully.  I don’t feel the need for the extended walks around the park that my ‘office work’ prompts.  Almost everyone else smokes.

With long periods where I am kept in the office, the growing anticipation of these sparsely distributed tangible interactions with my subject sometimes leads to frustration.  Missing limbs (misplaced in the last decade; “I’m sure they were on display once”); a severe case of mould spreading through the axial skeleton; another “sorry it was lost in the war;” a set of misidentified and mis-catalogued remains that belong to some other site (which one, though?).

My recent osteological work has been characterised by dismay . . .  I’m concerned by the mishandling of human remains in museum and university contexts, but I can’t talk about it as I’m still relying on the goodwill of these institutions.

I can discuss general access issues and curatorial ethics in my thesis, but I can’t refer to my personal disappointment over being prevented from doing something I enjoy.  Is it even okay for me to enjoy this work?  To enjoy sorting, measuring, and recording human remains?  We are supposed to be enthusiastic about our research: engagement, outreach, impact, et cetera.  But people don’t always want to hear the specifics.  I was recently asked (by a palaeoethnobotanist) what I do to ward off all the bad Juju I must be attracting . . .  Alongside my enjoyment, if that is allowed, I also feel a deep anxiety about getting something wrong that I don’t feel in relation to other areas of my work.  It doesn’t seem to go away with experience.  Another topic with no real home for discussion.

My main anxiety at the moment, though, is in relation to my future employment prospects.  While the practical work is what sustains my interest, I also know I need to develop other research interests, other skills, other areas of expertise, in order to compete for jobs.  Most of these keep me inside.  I am increasingly realising that I will soon have little choice in the matter.


The search for identity in a modern context

Richard Smith.  Late forties.  Recovering field archaeologist.

– I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that for many people outside of the profession, the chief occupation of an archaeologist is digging up skeletons (at least for those who don’t think we’re looking for dinosaurs).  To be honest, that aspect probably played into my own set of disjointed reasons for wanting to become an archaeologist . . .  There is something very reassuring about seeing archaeologists carefully excavating away soil from around a skeleton – you know you’re seeing some ‘proper’ archaeology!

And yet, I had worked for more than 20 years as a commercial field archaeologist before I got the opportunity to excavate a ‘classic’ laid out flat skeleton.  It’s not that I’d not been doing much, but every site I seemed to work on was composed of pits, ditches, post-holes, and the like . . .  It’s not like I didn’t encounter human death in those years, but it was invariably in the form of cremated remains, frequently having undergone heavy comminution.  Say what you like, but it’s hard to perceive the humanity in the occasional flecks of white in a black and grey soil.

All that changed for me when I ended up working on a 19th century urban graveyard that was being cleared to allow the church to rebuild, expand, and cater for its dwindling flock into the 21st century.  For someone only used to human remains in the form of gritty powder, coming face to face with a skeleton was nothing short of shocking.  After two decades in the profession, I thought I was well beyond romantic notions of imagining myself into the lives and situations of my ‘subjects’.

But here I was, carefully scraping around a rib, an eye socket, or a femur, wondering about who this person might have been or how they lived their lives.  Admittedly, this was rather short-lived as some of the burials contained their original coffin plates that had their names and dates . . .  Some we eventually were able to track down to published obituaries only to find that they were all wonderful people who were sorely missed by all who knew them.  I wonder where they buried the bad blighters that everyone was glad to see the back of?


The author rejoins

– An historical aside:  ‘Do not divide the dead!’  A Soviet saying dating from the Second World War.  The blurring of lines between the immensity of the Jewish loss of life, and the death wrought across nationalities and ethnicities, versus the continuing vulgarities of Soviet antisemitism post-war which culminated, but did not end, with the Doctor’s plot of 1952-53.

Dividing the dead into known and unknown, into memory and out of time.  The question we never really ask is how much do we need to know, what can we afford not to know?  The almost intangible nature of truth, hidden within the Haversian canals and housed in osteons, each containing a multitude of experiences.

Experiences for which the individual, partitioned by plastic context bags placed among kin, friend or foe, known or unknown, remain silent; they are ready instead to be analysed by the skeletal specialist.  The step by step motions of measurements and non-metric notes taken; occurrences of presence and absences discussed; the archaeological context pondered over.  Relationships are suggested and situations hypothesized, the motivations are almost always guessed at.

An archaeological aside:  ‘The dead do not bury themselves.’  The individual, either as a single outlier or as part of a larger assemblage, become detached from their lived context and are given over to the researcher with the status of temporary ownership.  The dead have already died and their active participation in life is now over, but still they speak to the living as arbiters of the present.

We are not just analysing ourselves when we look into the empty eye sockets of the dead, we are commenting on the past and the vast variations found therein.  There is no distance greater than between the living and the dead, yet there is no closer divide.  That is the juxtaposition lying in wait, entombed within the cortical and trabecular bone, trapped within the enamel and dentine, ready to surprise the unwary.

Introducing Polska Antropologia Fizyczna on FB

16 Nov

If you are anything like me, you will have a large pile a books by your bedside either waiting to be read or already partially digested.  And sometimes this dirty habit of reading too much will catch up with you.  At the moment I’ve somehow managed to buy, borrow or otherwise lend a mountain of books that will last me through a cold and dark winter.  I’m not particularly sure why I thought starting five (non-academic) books at once was a good idea!  I’ve recently added one more in the form of Knüsel & Smith’s excellent 2014 The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict, a volume I’ve long wanted to read but is frankly too expensive to buy.

A stellar volume of bioarchaeological research for the low, low price of £175.00 in hardback or £142.20 for an ebook version. Image courtesy of Routledge.

Where did I find this fine volume, I hear you ask? Whilst browsing the awesome Polska Antropologia Fizyczna (PAF) Facebook group (don’t tell the publishers though!).  PAF is a group set up by Oskar Nowak, who is an assistant professor at the Institute of Anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, dedicated to sharing anthropological research online and to fostering an active research community.  I love browsing this FB group as there are always links to open access articles on a wide variety of research topics, including bioarchaeology and related disciplines (osteoarchaeology, palaeopathology, etc.).  Like a number of FB groups, such as BAJR – UK Archaeology, Palaeopathology and Council for British Archaeology, the PAF are a pretty active community, so it is worth checking out.

But for now, if you need me, I’ll be buried under a pile of books on Scandinavian, Soviet and post-Soviet literature and history!

Bibliography

Knüsel, C.& Smith, M. J. (eds.) 2014. The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict. Oxon: Routledge.