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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.

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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.

Fiesta_de_las_Natitas_La_Paz_Bolivia-19a

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.

What Not To Do In A Morgue: A Lesson For The Archaeologist?

4 Feb

The fantastic Chirurgeon’s  Apprentice Facebook page has highlighted this rather dark but entertaining article by Simon Winchester on his experience of working in a morgue for a summer in the early 1960’s.  In it Simon explains the many lessons he learned when dealing first hand with cadavers of the recently dead, but he also highlights one big mistake he made with a particular gentleman.

Winchester explains:

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled into the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery, and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through Mr. Utton’s desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. It offered me a single line of advice on leukemia: “Remove femur,” it said, “and send it for examination by the laboratory.” (Winchester 2014).

Duly having removed one of the gentleman’s femora for testing and then prepared and dressed the cadaver, Winchester waited for the undertaker to come and take the man away.  However the undertaker was not impressed by the rather floppy state of one of the man’s thighs and told Winchester to put something inside it to stabilize it whilst he went away for dinner.  Unfortunately Winchester chose a zinc metal rod to replace the removed femur, unaware that the individual in question was due to be cremated, not buried, the next day.

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A familiar scene from morgues across the land. Tags were often kept on the toes of bodies to identify them and highlight any pathology in the body (Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS, from here).

Fortunately a good dose of black humour from the family saved any law suits appearing, but the article did make me think about the implications for this in archaeological record.  For example for a person to practice a trade they must first learn and train, often undergoing an apprenticeship under a master or a tradesman.  Mistakes are bound to made in any field of trade, particularly where high technical skill is needed to carry out a procedure.  I wonder if sometimes, especially in the field of prehistoric mortuary archaeology, some things are held up as examples of ritual activities where there has perhaps been a simple mistake that has been covered up or not uncovered, or a result of the taphonomy processes at play.

It also reminded me of a particularly fine biography by Joel F. Harrington of a 16th century Nuremberg executioner that I read late last year.  Meister Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a remarkable man, known principally as a highly skilled executioner who attained a particularly high rank in the famous city.  Contrary to his official position Schmidt also became a well-respected healer in his later life.  He carried out his job, indeed his life, with the up-most respect for the sanctity of the position that his father passed down to him, even though he was largely excluded from society because of his job during the majority of his life.  Amazingly the intimate details (names, crimes and last moments) of the many individuals that he dispatched, and the execution methods that were used, were all kept in a personally sparse diary that Schmidt himself wrote.

Schmidt executing

The only reliable picture of Franz Schmidt in action, seen here executing Hans Froschel on the 18th of May in 1591. A brutal but quick death by the sword, a method that required a quick and a steady arm stroke to dispatch the victim. It could easily go wrong if the stroke was not powerful enough to slice and separate the head from the body. (Image credit: Staatsarchiv Nürnberg here).

Harrington makes the point that the young executioner, during the process of learning his trade from his father, likely used butchered animals and stray dogs to practice the various execution methods that were used during this period.  Whilst the book is full of grisly details (being broken on the wheel must have been hell for one), Harrington (2013) puts Schmidt, his life and work, into a broader German and European political framework that effectively illuminates the value that the executioner played in the keeping of law and order in the 16th century.

Being an executioner also often took a physical and mental strain as it was a demanding office to hold, having to both torture and execute criminals but also having to take part in the often elaborate processions of walking the criminal (Harrington 2013).  Further to this there was always the constant reminder that executioners who were accused of a botched torture session or execution could find themselves being penalized or outcast, or even executed, much like the doctors of the day who were accused of failing a patient (Harrington 2013).  I also recommend Winder’s (2011) informal free for all journey around Germany, which also wonderfully places the country in a historical context and is well worth a read alone for some pretty interesting historical hangouts.

Further Information

  • The article, by Simon Winchester, can be found here.
  • An extract of Meister Franz Schmidt’s diary and of a talk by Harrington can be read here.
  • Head to medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s enthralling site The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice to learn all about surgery in the early modern period.
  • For all your mortuary archaeology needs head to Bones Don’t Lie, a regularly updated blog by Katy Meyers who is a PhD candidate in mortuary anthropology at Michigan State University.

Bibliography

Harrington, J. F. 2013. The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent 16th Century. London: Picador.

Winder, S. 2011. Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. London: Picador.

Palaeo Updates: Call for Palaeoanthropologists to Study Rising Star Hominin Remains and Start of John Hawks Human Evolution MOOC

22 Jan

Another quick post here but one that highlights a project that is pretty impressive in its implications for palaeoanthropology.  Also noted here is the start of a MOOC (Massively open online course) on human evolution that may interest the readers of this blog.

The Rising Star Expedition in South Africa has uncovered around 1200 skeletal elements from around 12 individual hominins in the first season of excavation, an unparalleled find in the excavation of palaeoanthropological sites.  Now the project is advertising openly for early career scientists to examine and describe the skeletal remains found in the cave (my favourite quote: “Palaeoheaven has arrived, it’s just solid fossils”).  This is a unique opportunity in the field of paelaeoanthropology.  Typically fossil hominin sites are kept secret with only a lucky few allowed access to prepare, study and describe the fossils once they have been carefully excavated on site and taken to a palaeo laboratory to be looked at in more detail.  This is usually a process that can take years of careful work by a small team.

But the Rising Star Expedition has been different from the very beginning, with key members of the team tweeting and blogging every incredible scene of the South African cave site and openly advertising for participants.  Now the team have advertised for early career scientists to apply for the chance to study the hominin fossils.  As stated on John Hawks blog entry on the advertisement, the Rising Star team want to recruit a large group of scientists to come together for a five-week long workshop in May/June of this year to study the remains and produce the first high quality and high impact research papers on this batch of fossil hominins.

Here is Rising Star director Lee Berger’s open invitation to study the hominin remains gathered from the Rising Star Expedition project in South Africa:

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The announcement by Lee Berger, professor at the university of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and describer of Australopithecus sediba, found at the Malapa site.

Graduate students who have finished their data collection, and have the support of their supervisors, will also be considered for the opportunity.  As John Hawks states in his blog post the applicant for the workshop should be very clear in stating their experience and the datasets that they can bring to the project, be clear about your own skills, knowledge and value and do not be afraid to apply.  This is a fantastic opportunity to be involved in the study of human evolution, at the very cutting edge of the research.  I wish all the applicants the best of luck and I look forward to the dissemination of the research itself.

In other news today marks the beginning of the 8 week free MOOC course on Human Evolution: Past and Future produced by the aforementioned palaeoanthropologist John Hawks.  The MOOC, provided by Coursera, takes a in-depth look at human evolution detailing not just the complexity of the fossil record but also of the genetic record.  The course includes all the exciting news from the Rising Star Expedition and exciting footage and interviews with palaeoanthropologists at sites from around the world (including the Dmanisi site in Georgia, Malapa in South Africa and others).

I am particularly looking forward to the discussion of human evolution within the past 10,000 years and the stunning advancements made with extracting ancient DNA from fossil hominins.  I joined this course a few months ago when I first mentioned the course on this blog but you can still join up now.  Just remember that the course is split up into weekly topics so you may not want to miss one.  I have so far watched the majority of the interesting and well presented videos for the first week, the focus of which is our place among the primates.  I cannot wait to join in and participate in the course fully, hope to see you there!

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‘Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton’ by Clark Spencer Larsen

13 Jan

For me there are two key books that are needed in the human osteologist’s  personal library for reference that highlight the value of the trade (1).  The first one, perhaps unsurprisingly, is White & Folkens 2005 book The Human Bone Manual.  It is a book that I’ve mentioned plenty of times here, and it is one that remains the combined field/laboratory bible for identifying fragments and individual bones of the human skeletal system.  Although the authors, along with Michael T. Black, released a 3rd edition of the Human Osteology book in 2011 (a heavier reverential tome with input on palaeontology and forensics), the human bone manual itself remains the best easy-to-transport identification book on the market today – a beautifully realised manual which is hardy and ready for the field and the lab, for the under-graduates and the professionals alike.

The second book for me however highlights the true wealth that knowledge of human osteology can unlock in the archaeological record, especially when interpreting past human behaviour from a number of different cultures in an international context.  It is, of course, Clark Spencer Larsen’s 1997 book Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton (2) (published as part of the Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology series).  Illuminating in its archaeological scope and international context, the book is itself a marvel and a testament to the great breadth and depth of the bioarchaeological work that has been carried out as a whole in the discipline.  If there is a single book that I could recommend to an audience who is interested in learning about bioarchaeology work and the value of interpreting the skeletal record that it would be this comprehensive book.

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Weighing in at 461 pages, Larsen’s book will ground the reader in the scientific approaches used to ascertain behaviour from the human skeleton in the archaeological record (Image credit: source).

Clark Spencer Larsen is incredibly well positioned to have produced such a tome as he has with this book.  Currently a Distinguished Professor of Social and Behaviour Sciences at the department of anthropology at the Ohio State University, Larsen has focused his diverse skills as a researcher in producing a very fine synthesis of the value of bioarchaeology.  In particular by focusing on human behaviour, as can be inferred from human skeletal material, Larsen highlights the very real and integral worth of the study of human osteology and bioarchaeology in the wider historical context.

The book is therefore split into discrete chapters that deal with specific clusters in the osteological record, each with their own introduction, over 461 pages.  Topics include but are not limited to: injury or violent death, activity patterns, stress and deprivation markers during growth, infectious pathogens, isotope and chemical signatures in bone.  There is also extensive discussions on skeletal variations in populations.  It is, to put it simply, an invigorating, engaging and a wide-ranging read.  Larsen confidently sets out his view that skeletal remains have so much to offer in understanding the past lifestyles and behaviours of cultures, populations and individuals from the archaeological record.  The diagrams are often clean and easy to read, although some of the black and white photographs suffer from a loss of clarity in my paperback version of the 1999 reprint.

Larsen includes a reflective final chapter on the changes and challenges in bioarchaeology, noting the differences used in data recording standards, highlighting problems of sample representation and raising issues involved in cultural patrimony.  In particular he highlights the osteological paradox in the inference of health and lifestyle, noting that continued advances in bioarchaeology must always go hand in hand with diligence on a part of the researcher in understanding the very real and necessary limitations of the data set (Larsen 1999: 337).  He ends, somewhat emphatically, with the statement that “the chance is now at hand for sharing this information widely, especially regarding the large and crucial part that human biology and bioarchaeology play in understanding the history of the human condition” (Larsen 1999: 342).

There are however a few caveats I would add to anyone reading this rather wonderful book.

It should be noted here that the book itself is a synthesis of the bioarchaeological record as it stood in 1997, and as such it is assumed that the reader is already relatively cognizant of the terminology used when discussing the human skeletal system and the wider application of human osteology in archaeological remains.  Having said that Larsen does provide a straightforward introduction to both the book and human skeletal biology in the first chapter.  Personally I approached this book after first reading the White and Folkens (2005) human bone manual and Mays (1999) book on the use of human remains in archaeology when I realised during my undergraduate degree that I wanted to specialise in this area of research.

For those that are unused to reading academic textbooks there could also be a jarring issue with the sheer amount of references used throughout the text.  The referencing system used here (as in most archaeological departments, journals and books) is the Harvard system, where the author(s) and year of publication are stated within the sentence itself.  As such this can lead to fragmented and broken sentences that can potentially be tough to digest on a first read.  The upshot of this, and I would argue that it is a big one, is that half of the page is not taken up with footnotes.  Further to this there is an incredible bibliography at the end of the book detailing each of the articles cited within the main text – it is a veritable goldmine for researchers and interested readers who went to delve further into the techniques used in bioarchaeology.

Larsen’s book is still a first edition that has not been updated since the original publication date of 1997, thus the reader should be aware that there have been marked advances in certain fields in bioarchaeology.  This is perhaps most deftly illustrated in the discussion of chemical and genetic markers, which are commonly used in bioarchaeology, specifically the changes in the way stable light isotopes are used and the quite incredible advances in understanding and sequencing ancient DNA from archaeological bone (Killgrove 2013).  There will likely be other instances where the information provided may now be out of date within the purview of the current scientific literature.  I have heard that Larsen is producing a second up to date edition of ‘Bioarchaeology’ (I would readily buy a second edition as soon as it was published), but I have heard no firm knowledge of this as of yet.  I have also had the pleasure of watching Larsen talk at a conference in Wales that I attended a few years ago on the topic of the Neolithic period and the lifestyle change from hunter-gathering to farming, and I remain upbeat to read more of his prestigious work.

Although I have highlighted a few caveats to be aware of when reading this book I would recommend it without doubt; it is only one of the few bioarchaeological books out there that attempts to take in the whole glorious sweep of bioarchaeological knowledge for a general and interested audience, detailing where the field is heading and why we, as practitioners, must insist on the importance of studying the human skeleton in the archaeological record.

Notes

(1) It should also be noted here that there are human osteological standards available (Schwartz 2006, Buikstra & Ubelaker 1994) but they are not discussed here.

(2) Please note that this book is not a standard for interpreting and studying skeletal material first hand, but rather a book that demonstrates the breadth of bioarchaeological knowledge and discusses some of the approaches used.

Bibliography

Larsen, C. S. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Killgrove K. 2013. Bioarchaeology. In Oxford Bibliographies Online – Anthropology. (ed.) Jackson, J.L. Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Schwartz, J. H. 2007. Skeleton Keys: An Introduction to Human Skeletal Morphology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Questions to Remember when Considering a Human Osteology Postgraduate Course

8 Jan

This post is a follow-up the now-updated Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses In The UK post that I produced last year (which is kept up to date, so please leave a comment below or email me if you know of any courses that should be added).  Whereas that post dealt with the cold hard facts of which universities in the UK offer human osteology courses this post will deal with you, the student.  The post is aimed at those who are interested in pursing a master’s degree in human osteology, either as a Masters of Science or a Masters of Art, as it is at this level that the course goes into the depth of detail needed to either go into research or into commercial archaeology.  I believe that it is vital that you know the course that you want to go on but that you also know the reputation of the department, what the course offered entails and what your prospects are job-wise after you have completed the course.  As this post is aimed at universities within the UK bare in mind that travel distances are fairly minimal compared to continental Europe or elsewhere, however the pound is a fairly strong currency and, as such, it can be expensive to live here.

So without further ado I present here a quick list of thoughts* to think about before you apply for a course in human osteology.  Please bare in mind that although this post has been produced with the UK in mind it can, or could, be applicable for any other country where the student is considering applying for a master’s degree in human osteology.

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1) Think Carefully Before Committing

Pursing a masters course in human osteology is not a course to be taken lightly as it will incur a significant financial commitment, both for the course itself and for the accommodation and living costs whilst studying for the degree.  It pays to think carefully about your interest in a specific specialist course in archaeology and whether you could make a career from it or not, therefore it is worth seeking advice out whilst at the undergraduate stage.  Further to this it is wise to remember that many universities will want to see a 2.1 Upper Second Class degree attained at the undergraduate level whilst some courses do preferably ask for 1st class degrees before being considered for a Master’s program.

However, stating that, experience and knowledge can count for an awful lot, especially demonstrable knowledge and experience (i.e. volunteering or working for an archaeological unit).  By taking the time and effort to gain excavation and post-excavation experience (especially bone processing) it will show determination and a willing effort to learn on your behalf.  A final piece of advice for this part is to be honest with yourself regarding what your options are.  The majority of human osteology courses in the UK are available as a full-time course only, although a select few have been known to offer them as part-time courses.  It is always worth asking the course director for further information.

2) Know The Courses On Offer

It always pays to be informed of archaeology departments that offer human osteology as a taught or research Master’s.  There will be certain criteria which will impose limits on the options of courses available to you, whether they are imposed by outside factors or factors of your own choosing.  Necessarily the list will often include financial cost, travel times and extent of knowledge of academic universities.  I would heavily advise that you spend time reading through departmental literature to get a feeling for each academic course under consideration, and to make a note of the facilities that each department has.  A great way for feeling what the strengths of a department are is by looking at past research topics (in the form of dissertations) and by looking carefully at the modular choices on offer.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, isolate what you most want out of such a degree, what your research interests are and what department can best serve you.  Different courses have different focuses, for example the University of Durham’s MSc in Palaeopathology course specifically focuses on trauma and pathology in the human skeleton, whilst the University of Exeter’s MSc in Bioarchaeology course focuses on a range of topics in biological archaeology, including plant and animal remains.

Remember to also consider the course director and associated teaching staff research interests as they may correlate with yours, which would be beneficial.  Pertinent questions to consider are:

Does the department have the technical expertise or the right equipment on hand or on site?

Does the department have a fully kitted out human osteology lab or will you be cramped for space?

Would you have access to the human osteology lab at all hours or only during week days?

What modules does the course offer and what modules are core or free selective choices?

What scholarships or funds are available for you to apply for?

When this has been considered I would email the course director with a few basic questions pertaining to how successful the course is, success rate of employment afterwards, and by directly asking what the strengths of the course are.  You will need to be careful in keeping the email concise, polite and straight-forward as course directors are usually busy people!  Further to this I heavily advise emailing a current student of the course or a PhD research student, politely asking questions directly on what their views are of the masters course and of the department as a whole.  This will bring you a generally much more honest answer from someone who is not tied down to the department directly.  You can also get in touch with people from the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources group at their forums or the Facebook group and as k the great British archaeological hive mind for advice and experience.

3) Attend Open Days

Be aware that when emailing staff members and research students it may take some time for a response, be patient as they are often very busy people dealing with a wide range of pressures and deadlines.  Once you have narrowed down the course wish list I would advise attending a departmental open day to see for yourself what the atmosphere is like.  Are the staff friendly?  Ask the staff questions and do not be afraid to mention your interests and any considerations you are having.  If you can attend open days try to see each university that interests you, and even some that don’t quite offer the course you want but offer interesting alternatives.  You never know what actually attending a university open day will quite be like, and it could lead you down a research alley or area of interest that you had not considered before.

4) Decision Time

Having isolated the university courses of interest, emailed course directors and current student,s and having toured various university departments and campuses, you are now in a good position to be able to select at human osteology course that you want to pursue.  This is the period where you get to sell yourself to the department by highlighting how attractive you are as a future student for their department.  Also be aware that you are paying money to attend a course and to receive tuition.  The majority of human osteology courses in the UK are taught at internationally recognised institutions, some of which have set the bar for how the courses should be taught.  Remember however that times change, get views now on what is happening in the department, what changes are expected to come and what resources will be available for the foreseeable future.

It also pays to remember that it does not have to one university specifically, pick a range of 3 or 4 ideal universities that offer courses that you are interested, maybe even pick 3 different ones that offer different aspects of the topic that the others do not.  I personally picked the University of Sheffield for my choice of human osteology courses specifically because it was the only program that offered human dissection in a separate human anatomy module, whilst also offering 3 modules on human osteology and biological anthropology.  However I also liked the look of the University of Exeter’s bioarchaeology course because it offered modules in palaeobotany and zooarchaeology (which I thought could have been beneficial on the job market), whilst still offering the chance to specialise in human osteology.

5) Application Time

It is easy to get carried away with the personal statement during the application process and, in truth, it is not really a personal statement at all.  Be concise and professional, try not mention the course director too much (I cringe when I recall my personal statement!), and be confident to mention your previous experience but also your future research ideas and academic strengths.  If you can add something that will stand out amongst the competition then do it.  It is worth mentioning here that it is probably best to apply for more than one course, even if you already have a place at another university.  Be aware that you may receive a conditional or a none-conditional offer, conditional offers are normally given to those students that have yet to finish their undergraduate degrees.  Remember that if you are dead set on pursuing a masters in human osteology and have yet to finish your undergraduate degree aim for a 2.1 or a 1st.  However try not to pressure yourself too much as you can always apply at a later date, when you have more experience.  Completing a masters now is no shortcut to a job and, in fact, in archaeology it is becoming almost the norm for many graduate to go on to complete a masters in an archaeological topic before working in the field.

Note

*This is just a quickly compiled guide to how to approach the best choice masters based on what I went through, feel free to mix it up!

Further Information

  • My blog entry on all known human osteology MSc and MA courses and short courses available in the UK.  Please contact me at thesebonesofmine at hotmail.com if you would like a course added to the list.

Digitised Diseases Website Live Tomorrow!

9 Dec

Something pretty spectacular and interesting is happening in the world of online access as the Digitised Diseases project website goes live tomorrow night (09/12/13) with a grand opening at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London.  This means that a grand total of around 1600 scanned human skeletal specimens will be made available to researchers and the public to view for free.  The aim of the project is ‘to create a web-accessible archive of photo-realistic digital 3D models of pathological type-specimens’ from human remains (source).

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The Digitised Diseases blog banner. The site is an excellent resource detailing the pathological bone changes which occur as a result of either trauma or disease progression.

The project is using the latest in 3D laser scanning, high resolution photograph and CT scans to provide free examples of palaeopathologies that affected the skeletal anatomy.  The populations that are represented by the skeletal series used to illustrate the various traumas and diseases will include individuals from a variety of archaeological contexts from England, including late Medieval  and more modern 18th and 19th century contexts.  The team that is spearheading the project is largely based at the archaeology department at the University of Bradford with support coming from the Royal College of Surgeons of England, who are based in London.  One of the main reasons for initiating the project was the poor state and bone quality of the pathological examples, so by creating an online depository, which is free to access, it is hoped that the knowledge can be spread far and wide whilst the bones themselves can be preserved and maintained.

The popular Digitised Diseases blog for the project has been up and running for a while now and it is currently helping to showcase examples of scanned bones with clinical descriptions and case histories of their various maladies.  It is a fantastic site and well worth a visit.  Once the proper site is up and running I can imagine that it will be extremely popular with human osteologists, medical historians and archaeologists.  It will be the perfect site to quickly log and compare an example of a suspected pathology right in front of you with one recorded properly and scanned on the site.  I am also looking forward to seeing what impact this will have on other academic institutions and whether the site will evolve to contain further pathological examples, perhaps some prehistoric ones or examples on other hominins.

On a side note the Royal College of Surgeons of England’s base in London is also home to the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy and Pathology and the Hunterian Museum, two excellent museums that document and present the value of human osteology and soft tissue pathology to a wide audience.

Updated 09/12/13

The website is now live and the available models are excellent!  It is a fantastic resource for learning about the trauma and disease process and the effects that they can have on human bone.  I have only just started to play around with the live beta version of the website and there are quite a few of the models that are currently unavailable to view.  I expect that this will change in the upcoming days and weeks as this project becomes fully live.

Below is a quick screen shot of an adult individual (sex undetermined) who presents with a surgical trepannation on the left parietal bone, quite something!  I did have difficulty zooming into the model as my laptop lacks a 3 buttoned mouse.

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A screen shot of the ectocranial view of trepannation model (left parietal bone in the skull) found in the surgical sub-menu on the Digitised Diseases website. Note the model can be enlarged and the description box on the right hand side details the anatomical pathology on this specimen.  Click to enlarge (source).

I am looking forward to investigating Digitised Diseases in further detail as it is a great resource, openly available to everyone to investigate pathological bone changes and the effects of disease, trauma and surgical procedures on human skeletal remains.  The models can be viewed online, as I did (see above), or can be downloaded and used at your pleasure.  Please remember to cite the program where it has been used in research.

Further Information

New Introductory Short Courses In Human Osteology Announced for 2014

18 Nov

Oxford Brookes University is playing host to a new one day introductory human osteology course in 2014.  The course is due to run on the 11th of April 2014 and will be staffed by the former knowledgeable organisers of  the University of Sheffield human osteology short courses.  The price of attending the one day event costs £120 falling to £100 for concessions and can be booked through the Oxford Brookes shop here.  For anyone that is interested have questions to ask, or simply wish to engage with the course providers, they are advised to head over to and join the friendly Facebook group for updates.  It is hoped that this one day course will lead to further short courses in human osteology at Oxford Brookes University.  I will update this when more information becomes available, although there are hopes a five day long course will run after the one day event.

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The poster for the Human Osteology short course at Oxford Brookes University in April 2014 (click to enlarge).

In other news the University of Sheffield is still running its own human osteology short courses.  The next installment of the 3 day long course runs from the 10th to the 12th of April 2014 and costs £180 to attend (£120 for concessions).  The course will be delivered by Dr Diana Mahoney Swales and Lizzy Craig-Atkins, both For further information or to book a place please contact Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins at e.craig-atkins@sheffield.ac.uk or join the Archaeology at the University of Sheffield Facebook page for updates.

Further to the above two courses Bournemouth University are also offering a 3 day human osteology short course in April 2014.  The course runs from 29th of April until the 1st of May and it is priced at £300 to attend (with a 10% discount for  BU alumni or students).  Importantly this course highlights both the archaeological and forensic value of human remains, with both ancient and modern populations and case studies being considered and studied in this short course.  Bournemouth University has a well respected and dedicated laboratory for studying the remains of archaeological skeletal remains.

It has also come to my attention that Luton Museum is holding a 1 day course in advanced practical human osteology on the 21st of June.  The cost to attend this day long course is £75 and it includes a free meal.  The Luton Museum team regularly run human osteology events and has been a regional store for human remains for 80 years, it is also expected that information on further courses to appear at the Luton Museum website for future events.  The Luton course is ran by Dr David Klingle, a human osteology associated with the University of Oxford, and Tim Vickers, the collections care officer at the museum.

All four of the intensive courses detailed above are open to anybody who is interested in acquiring knowledge of human skeletal anatomy and are taught by professional human osteologists.  The participant will get to learn new skills, utilize the knowledge of the practitioners and apply the skills learnt when studying actual archaeological human skeletal material.  I for one have attended the university of Sheffield’s short course previously, before I proceeded onto the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology, and I found the course invaluable.  If you are curious about human skeletal remains in the archaeological record and want to find out exactly what they are used for and what you can tell from them, then plunge right in and join a course!

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A chance to get face to face with humanity’s past.

If you have always been interested in the human skeletal and want to develop this further, then take a look at my earlier post on human osteology courses in the UK at the Masters level.

Furthermore if you know of any other short courses in the UK please comment below or send me an email and I will add it to the list here and to my UK human osteology blog entry.

Further Information

Guest Post: ‘Bones in the Backyard: Bringing Forensic Anthropology into the Science Classroom’ by Shivani Lamba.

18 Jun

Shivani Lamba is the Company Director of Forensic Outreach, based in London, which she initially joined as Programme Coordinator in 2009. She spearheaded the organisation’s initiative to create public engagement experiences online. The organisation was established in 2001, and has long been a dynamic and active part of the science curriculum in classrooms throughout the UK and EU. It was conceived to introduce forensic science as an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to science education, and has delivered programmes to over one-hundred academic institutions and charities.


The Stories They Tell

There are, to put it mildly, some rather surreal moments in my time as a Forensic Outreach instructor.  I’ve cataloged medieval skeletal remains on the wooden office floor, sifting through them next to a newly-qualified doctor with an almost preternatural ability to instantly recognise bone types on sight. These specimens had been selected for shipping to the fabled Bone Room in Albany, California – and the task of wrapping and labelling led us late into the evening.  There were the innumerable times a small portion of our collection had been carefully packaged into a rolling suitcase, transported along with our instructors on the London underground, ready to be handled by keen children and adults across the country (and later the continent). And finally, there was the rather macabre experience of opening a new shipment to encounter a beautiful rib cage specimen – without any prior warning, of course.

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Bodies and Bones, read more at Forensic Outreach.

When I’m pressed by my students to tell these stories, it’s with mixed feelings: concern that this is all too bizarre an existence (for two years, the office housed another medieval skeleton affectionately named Horace) and strangely, gratitude.  Reassuringly, it’s in part because of our small collection that Forensic Outreach has engaged children and adults alike – where possible, we allow our audiences to handle them, to turn them about, to draw themselves close to these bits and pieces.  There’s no better way to inspire an interest in forensic anthropology than to ensure that our students come to grips with it – quite literally – and understand the experiences real field anthropologists have everyday.  In actuality, the forensic anthropology component of our workshops is usually just that: part of a larger day which includes other “forensic” exercises, or a component of a class series.

Still, for years, we’ve found that forensic anthropology – and the bones – are perhaps the most compelling sessions we offer.  It begs the question: just what is it about this field that has everyone intrigued?

Looking Closely at Bonefied Amazement

On a serious note, I’d venture to say it has a bit to do with audiences actually examining their own mortality. Our older audiences, for some reason, seem particularly engrossed. They are eager to ask who these individuals were, and where in time their lives were situated. Our specimens were initially supplied by a company located in the charming old-world Bloomsbury, London, which specialised in models and skeletons for use in medical school lecture theaters. We didn’t know much about their persona lives, other than the fact that their remains had been dated to the High Middle Age (which began after AD 1000). There’s a certain fascination in facing the inevitability of it all — the fact that this is an individual who existed centuries ago, and that perhaps we all face a similar fate as history relegates us to our true position. Of course, this isn’t the case in forensic anthropology, which of course involves the recently-deceased.

Another aspect (also speculative) may be that this is the closest our audiences will come to analysing the “most valuable piece of evidence” or the body itself.  There are no dissection rooms open to the public – for good reason – and a gap therefore exists in their practical understanding of why the body is so significant in criminal investigations. Forensic anthropology usually follows an introductory workshop on death and decomposition when delivered as part of a masterclass; or at the very least, some indication of what normally precedes the “drying out” of the corpse.  Afterwards, our students are told they will have an opportunity to get up-close and personal with real skeletal remains, and examine them for clues that betray the gender, age and health of the individuals in question.  Out they come, then, the plastic containers with pieces of our collection laid neatly inside, surprisingly hardy and prepared for anything.

STEM, Public Engagement and Why We Do It

The aim of our lectures, workshops and other programmes is to encourage an interest in STEM, as well as to improve public understanding of what forensic science entails and what the discipline truly entails. Our organisation originally began as a Widening Participation initiative, and was designed to inspire children from socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds to embrace new career paths in the sciences.  Eventually, the responsibilities became too great for a University department to manage single-handedly, and Forensic Outreach spun off in its own direction – with links to UCL (and now the Jill Dando Institute of  Security and Crime Science) intact.  We’re fortunate to have the autonomy to continue developing our own innovative programmes without institutional limitations, but close ties to ensure that joint-activities are still possible.

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Careers and Classroom, read more about science education at Forensic Outreach.

Without waxing lyrical about CSI syndrome, there is also a legitimate concern that for the layman, forensic science is entirely informed by popular media: Bones, Dexter and even more unfortunately, CSI.  There’s therefore a focus on ensuring accurate information is disseminated – and where possible (especially in our online activities) we integrate the recommendations and suggestions of forensic scientists who watch us to improve our outreach.

Further Information:

If you’re interested in finding more about Forensic Outreach, please visit our website. We also run a Twitter feed (@forensicfix), where we provide a seemingly endless drip of forensic trivia. Considering booking an event with us? Write to hello@forensicoutreach.com.

Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’

5 Apr

I still remember seeing the vivid woodcuts of the human body looming out of the school history textbook for the first time, as clear as the sunlight that entered that dark room.  The course title was ‘Medicine through Time’, a fascinating ramble through man’s attempts at healing the body that started at the Upper Palaeolithic and ended at the beginning of the NHS and modern medicine.

The figures that loomed out were of course from Andreas Vesalius’s (1514-1564) anatomical book, ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libre Septem‘ (1543), an illustrated manual of the human body in 7 books.  Produced at a time of great learning, during the flourishing of the Renaissance, the books depicted the human body in vivid anatomical detail.  Remarkably Vesalius published the first edition of the book at the age of 30, taking great pains to present the illustrations as accurately as possible.  By using woodcuts throughout the text, with the odd use of intaglio (engraved copper plates), Vesalius cultivated great artists to help detail his anatomical and dissection findings.  He had the text printed by Joannis Oporini  in Basel, Switzerland, who was a printer of foremost talent in 16th century Europe.

But where did Vesalius, as a anatomist and dissector, fit into anatomical history?  Vesalius was born in Brussels, Belgium (then the Hapsburg Netherlands), in 1514 to a family of physicians and, under the directions of Jacques Dubois and Jean Fernel, studied anatomy and the theories of Galen at the University of Paris in 1533.  He was forced to move his anatomical studies to Leuven, Netherlands, at the outbreak of war between the Holy Roman Empire and France in 1536,  However he shortly moved to Padua, Italy, to complete his doctorate and took up the chair of surgery and anatomy after its completion.  It is during this time that he conducted dissections on cadavers as a regular part of his student lessons as a primary learning tool, and promoted the use of directly observed descriptions during the dissections.

This was a challenge to the established orthodoxy of Galen‘s (AD 126- 200) anatomical legacy.  Galen studied the Hippocratic theory of pathology, and heavily promoted the theory of the 4 bodily humors and the idea of human temperaments.  In particular Galen advanced the knowledge of human anatomy in many areas, including describing muscle tones and the functions of agonists and antagonists in the musculo-skeletal system, alongside major progressions in the understanding of circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems.  Although Galen’s medical corpus was accepted as largely fact, his anatomical dissections were carried out on Barbary apes and pigs, as Imperial Rome in the 2nd century AD prohibited human cadaver dissection.

One of the 'muscle men', displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (source).

One of the ‘muscle men’, displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (Source: University of Glasgow).

This led to several major inaccuracies in the work of Galen and in the understanding of the biology of the human body, and it wasn’t until Vesalius that certain views were corrected and amalgamated into Galen’s legacy.  This included a number of corrections from Galen’s original works, such as recognising that the human jawbone (mandible) is one bone and not two, that women do not lack a rib compared to males (taken from the biblical idea), and that the interventricular septum of the heart is not porous as Galen advocated, alongside a plethora of other insights.

This largely occurred because Vesalius advocated active learning during dissection of human cadavers (themselves often executed prisoners).  Importantly it should be noted that Vesalius work built upon work throughout the intervening centuries, particularly in the view of contemporary Renaissance artists and anatomists.  His was not the first body of work focusing on the intricacies of the human body during this period, but it was one of the most detailed and finely executed, leading it to become an instant classic in his own lifetime.  Although he improved Galen’s theory of circulation, it wasn’t until the English doctor William Harvey (1578-1657) accurately described the systematic circulation and properties of blood (1628).

The University of Toronto has recently acquired a previously unknown and privately held 2nd edition copy of ‘De Human Corporis Fabrica’, and it is making the book accessible for researchers to study the text itself at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.  Remarkably the unknown edition includes annotations likely made by Vesalius himself, notes where he has corrected the printed text or made notes regarding what to include in the next printed edition of the book, which unfortunately was never printed.  This typifies the character and nature of Vesalius as a dissector and researcher, but it also helps highlight the nature of science itself, how through the investigation of previous studies can inform future work and rectify mistakes or misunderstandings.  In particular is also raises the subject and value of comparative anatomy between species, of homology, of the similarities and differences between mammals.

Perhaps gruesomely, a human skin bound edition of the book survives and currently resides at Brown University.  The practice of human skin binding is known as ‘Anthropodermic Bibliopegy’ and, as Wikipedia points out, dates back till at least the 17th century.

Human Osteology Courses in the UK

22 Jan

This is something I should have done a while ago.  Regardless, whilst I was doing some light research for another article I made a quick list of every course in the UK that offers human osteology as a taught masters (either as an MA – a Masters of Arts or as an MSc – Masters of Science) or offer a distinctive human osteology module or component within a taught masters degree.  England is well represented within the universities highlighted, Scotland only comes in with two entries whilst Wales and 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 postgraduate courses that provide the training in the methods of osteoarchaeology.  Thus they are excluded from this list.

This information is correct as of the 8 January 2014, but please expect at least some of the information to change.  I think we could likely see a raise in the tuition fees for MSc and MA courses within the next few years, as a direct knock on effect of the upping of undergraduate fees.  It should be noted here that the education system in the UK is well-regarded, and it’s 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 the south east of the country) and the high cost of daily living.  The list is not an exhaustive attempt and I am happy to add any further information or to correct any entries.

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

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:

Liverpool John Moores University:

UCLAN:

University College London:

University of Durham:

  • MSc Palaeopathology (Fees available on request, expect UK/EU £5000 and International £14,000).
  • MSc Evolutionary Anthropology (Fees available on request, expect UK/EU £5000 and International £14,000).

University of Exeter:

Universities of Hull and York Medical School:

  • MSc Human Evolution (A very interesting course, combining dissection and evolutionary anatomy) (UK/EU £4620 and International £16,540).

University of Liverpool:

University of Manchester:

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

University of Oxford:

University of Sheffield:

University of Southampton:

University of York:

MA/MSc Degrees in Scotland

University of Dundee:

University of Edinburgh:

Please be aware of changing program fees, as some of the above information has come from the 2012/2013 course fees, and these can, and are likely, to change during the next academic year.  In conjunction with the above, a number of universities also run short courses.

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

Short Courses in England

Bournemouth University:

Cranfield University:

Luton Museum

Oxford Brookes University:

University of Bradford:

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

University of Sheffield:

I am surprised there are not more short courses in the UK.  If you find any in the UK 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.

Note: A final note to prospective students, I would strongly advise researching your degree by visiting the universities own webpages, finding out about the course specifics and the module content.  I would also always advise to try and contact a past student and to gain their views on the course they have attended.  They will often offer frank advice and information, something that can be hard to find on a university webpage.  Also be aware of the high cost of UK tertiary education as prices have been raised considerably in the past few years and are likely to rise again.

Furthermore if you know of any other human osteology Masters or short courses in the UK please comment below or send me an email and I will add it to the list here.

Further Information