Blogging Archaeology: Round-up and the Book

14 Aug

Okay, so this is perhaps a tad late as were most of my entries for Doug’s fantastic Blogging Archaeology series.  Just a quick re-cap for anyone that missed it: over a period of 5 months, from November 2013 to March 2014, Doug openly asked members of the archaeology blogging world to take part in an online blogging conference where each month he would set a question and hope that arch bloggers would answer the world over.

Doug (who blogs at Doug’s Archaeology where he profiles the archaeology profession) was influenced and moved to start the blogging carnival back in November 2013 because the Society for American Archaeologists were, in April 2014 in Austin, Texas, having their annual conference which included a session on blogging archaeology (view the full preliminary program here).  As he himself could not make the conference (and neither could many other archaeology bloggers), Doug decided to open the floor and host a monthly blogging carnival on his site where he posted a specific question each month for bloggers to answer on their own respective sites.  Doug helped build up a fantastic collection of results and links each month detailing the wide variety of thoughts, experiences and wishes of the archaeology blogging world.

Although the carnival has been over for some months now I have been meaning to collect together my own series of entries for the carnival.  This is mostly for my own benefit as I am very interested to see how I feel about each question Doug posited in a year’s time or so, compared to what I felt at the time that I wrote the entry.  It is in essence, I’m afraid, some blog navel gazing!  But it is also a way in which to track the changes that I have made to the blog, both in content and approach, and also helps me remember what statistical form the blog was in at a certain point.

A Personal Curation

So below are the links to the five blog entries that made up my own personal entry to the carnival:

BA November: Why I Blog

This was a two-part question consisting of ‘why did you start blogging’ and ‘why do you continue to blog (or not, as some have stopped)’.  This post details the origins of this blog, of wanting to start it to improve my own knowledge and skills, and wanting to discuss and open up communication about my own bone disease.  The second part of the post dealt with how the blog has expanded (with interviews, guest posts, skeletal series) and why this expansion has taken place.

BA December: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

This, a three-part post, details the good, bad and ugly aspects of blogging archaeology in all of its glory.  The good side is the ability to open myself up, talk about my passion and also discuss my own bone disease.  Through this I have met many wonderful people.  The bad is the lack of access to the journals whereas the bad isn’t so much bad as highlighting other blogs that do a fantastic job of highlighting the darker aspects of archaeology.  This is in both the commercial and academic sense, and the personal sense (i.e. unpaid internships, poor job conditions, lack of recognition in sector and government, poor pay etc that can pervade through the industry).

BA January: Best and Worst Posts

The January edition of the blogging carnival was interesting for people’s interpretations of what good best and worst could mean.  In my entry I discussed the blog statistics, including overall page views, comments, and number of followers.  I discussed the relevant merit of each basic statistical detail, but highlighted some shortcomings of each and of the WordPress format in general (although I do only use the basic free edition of the site).  I also mentioned a basic trend that appeared in the statistics over the months and weeks, which correlated with what other bloggers of archaeology reported- that namely views tend to fall in the summer (our target audience is too busy excavating probably!) and perk in the winter season.  As a part of the entry I also looked at the most popular and least popular posts, although there were no surprises there as the skeletal series are the most viewed posts.  This is largely due to their collective attractiveness to a broad range of disciplines such as medicine, anatomy and forensics, and not just the archaeology sector.

BA February:  What Does it all Mean to Me?

The February edition of the carnival was actually an open-ended question poised by Doug.  Unfortunately it led to the lowest turn out, however I ventured a topic and asked what this blog means to me.  In it I discussed the digital aspect of the blog, how information can change, transform and be curated.  I also highlighted the fact that I see the blog as a part of my personal academic world, a place where I try to understand what is happening in my field (bad archaeology joke there!) and why.  I also briefly discussed the social aspect of blogging through understanding the impact of blogging human osteology and bioarchaeology as discussed in a recent academic journal article, and how this view was rebutted and challenged by those very blogs it discussed.

BA  March: Future Goals of Blogging

In the final entry of the blogging carnival Doug asked the bloggers what their future hopes were, how they thought their blogging may change or change them.  In my response I further detailed my view on blogs as a space between the commercial, academic and voluntary worlds of archaeology, where they (the blogs) often rest on the shoulder of just one person and are often a reflection of that aspect; that they are an expression of interest in the chosen topic and a personal journal at the same time.  I also discussed the idea that blogging validates our interest in our chosen subject, and that this is reflected by the recognition and reference of our sites as markers of interest or worth in the academic world (via article references) and/or by the public interest expressed.  Further to this I highlighted the nature of the blog itself, both the presentation and the form, and how these can be changed and manipulated as the blogger sees fit.  Ultimately, as Spencer noted in the comments, archaeology blogging bridges a gap, that we can provide, and that it is inclusive.

The Book

The utterly fantastic outcome of the blogging carnival was the publication of the Blogging Archaeology (2014) book, edited by Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Chris Webster, in which beforehand the editors openly called for articles from the blogging community online.  There are not many opportunities in the archaeological world where you can mix a full panoply of personal and professional perspectives as much as this publication has produced, from the worlds of commercial archaeology, academia, and the voluntary sector.  It is an amazing 293 page volume which manages to fit in the breadth and beauty of blogging archaeology online discussing, as it does, a variety of topics in archaeology, heritage and digital media.  This includes topics such as (but is certainly not limited to): understanding mortuary archaeology and blogging, understanding the commercial sector and social media use, teaching public engagement in anthropology, understanding the perceptions of archaeology and the language used when discussing the subject, to a range of personal reflections on blogging archaeology.  The publication is available for free to read and download here.

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The front cover of the Blogging Archaeology (2014) publication. The volume includes a number of articles from prominent arch bloggers, including Katy Meyers (Bones Don’t Lie), Kristina Killgrove (Powered By Osteons), Sam Hardy (Conflict Antiquities) and Howard Williams (Archaeodeath). Read the book here.

As I stated in my last entry for the series back in April, I sincerely hope that the archaeology carnival becomes an annually recurring feature of blogging archaeology online.  There are certainly many potential subjects left to be covered by such a venture and the carnival truly brings an inclusive aspect to the archaeology blogging world and archaeology in general.  It also helps to highlight the sheer amount and wealth of archaeology and heritage themed blogs that I, personally, had not previously known about.

It has also shown that you shouldn’t be afraid about jumping into this world yourself, no matter what your background, interest or experience.  It really is open to anyone who wants to write or talk about archaeology, where the number of platforms and ways to engage the audience is limited only by your own imagination.  Overall the blogging carnival was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on what blogging meant to me, where it has taken me so far and where I hope it will take me in the future.  So to Doug I say a big thank you for putting this together and for producing the publication.

Tenacious Sailing: Introducing the Jubilee Sailing Trust

8 Aug

As readers of this blog will be aware I recently had the joy of fracturing my right humerus during a pretty interesting trip to Sheffield.  Unfortunately this impacted on another event that I had planned for in July, which was to join a voyage aboard a tall ship and sail around southern Norway with my older brother (as you do).  I originally intended to post an entry highlighting the charity behind this adventure before I was due to sail, but owing to the accident the post has been a bit delayed and my participation in the voyage was negated to viewing my brother’s awesome photographs on his return from said trip.

But all is not lost!  Instead I’m going to quickly introduce the Jubilee Sailing Trust, the UK charity behind the sailing of two specially adapted ships that travel around the world, and highlight just why their work is so important.

The Jubilee Sailing Trust, a registered charity, was founded in 1978 by the intrepid Christopher Rudd.  Christopher Rudd had, throughout the 1970’s, been working with disabled and special needs children helping and training them to sail dinghies in sheltered waters.  However, he thought that there was no reason that people with mixed physical abilities couldn’t sail together and learn to sail properly in tall ships on the open sea.  All that was required was careful consideration of the design of the ship and of the use of equipment.  Furthermore Rudd believed that prejudices and misunderstandings between people with different circumstances in life could be broken down by the co-joining of sailing together, as part of a crew that relied wholeheartedly on each other for support, both emotional and physical.  It took time but the idea gained traction and admiration from various individuals (including the Duke of York) and a pilot schemes with various ship designs was carried out and tested to see which type offered the best conditions.

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The Jubilee Sailing Trust tall ship Tenacious on a recent voyage in Norway. Tenacious, built in the late 1990’s and launched in 2000, has been specially adapted for able and disable crew of mixed physical abilities and has been sailing the seas non-stop since its launch.  Image credit: Peter Mennear.

Square rig ships suited the aspirations of Rudd and his idea best as it allowed numerous tasks of differing ability to be carried out simultaneously, which suits the varying physical needs that the crew will have.  Although it was a tough to convince backers and funding bodies of the idea Jubilee Sailing Trust managed to design and build its first tall ship, the sleek and beautiful Lord Nelson, in 1986, which set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton to Cherbourg, France.   It was clear within a few years of Lord Nelson’s launch that demand outstripped the ability to cater for the growing number of would be crew-members.  Thus the plans were laid down in 1992 to raise the funds to build a second specially adapted ship for the Jubilee Sailing Trust.  Not only were disabled people going to enjoy having the chance to sail this new ship but they also had the opportunity to form a part of the build team which built the ship, from the keel up until the moment it was fitted with the living quarters.

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‘Going aloft’ is a key part of any sailing experience, in this instance we see part of the crew helping to unfurl and furl the sails. The two JST ships have a permanent crew on board and up to 40 voyage crew helping to sail the ships. Here the Tenacious, as she appears from the bow backwards, is sailing in the waters off Norway. Image credit: Peter Mennear.

The second ship was named Tenacious and set sail on her maiden voyage 1,548 days after her keel was first laid.  Although differing in design somewhat from the Lord Nelson, Tenacious offered the same accessibility as her sister ship which guaranteed her ongoing popularity with people seeking an alternative to a holiday in the sun.  It is perhaps somewhat surprising to learn that there can be a voyage crew of 40 people on-board alongside the permanent staff, but this is no lazy holiday as every hand is needed on board.  You are expected to pull your weight and join in with the various timed watches and may be needed at a moments notice when the signal for ‘all hands on deck’ goes out.  There  are limitations as to how many wheelchairs are allowed on board however, but there is space for 9 or so on each ship.

The Jubilee Sailing Trust have not been idle in running their ships either as they are constantly at sea travelling Europe and the world and have, since 2000, taken part in many of the Tall Ships Races.  The Sail Training International organisation help run the Tall Ships Races throughout various countries around the world and have offices in many countries throughout the continents.  The organisation is dedicated to the development and education of young people regardless of nationality, religion, culture, gender or social background, and offer the chance to race tall ships in groups of up to 100 ships at a time between various locations.  Jubilee Sailing Trust offers many options for the intrepid sailor, including taking part in the Tall Ship Races, single day cruises, relaxing voyages from the UK to the Canary Islands or even trips to Antarctica!  The Lord Nelson is currently on a two-year globe-trotting trip as a part of the Norton Rose Fulbright Sail the World Challenge, which will see it take in 30 countries altogether and 50,000 miles with a mixed ability crew.

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One of the crew going aloft and being hosted to the middle platform of the ship. Both the Lord Nelson and the Tenacious have lifts on-board, accessible deck levels and offer the opportunity to head up the masts. Image credit: Jason Pealin.

The Jubilee Sailing Trust offer the opportunity to join a ship for the full voyage or to join part for only a leg of a journey.  My brother and I joined up for two weeks, to head from Fredrikstad in southern Norway and sail around to Bergen on the west coast of the country as a part of a cruise between legs of the 2014 Tall Ships Race.  As a part of the crew you will be buddied up with either a disabled individual or with a physical able individual.  It is your job to look after your buddy and vice versa.  The cost of your participation in a trip is offset by 50% from funding but can still be expensive.  There are many options available to help offset the costs, this can include sponsored fundraising or by doing sponsored challenges before the voyage.

The Jubilee Sailing Trust is still the only sailing charity in the world to offer physically and mental disabled individuals the chance to sail on the open sea as part of an active crew.  Over 3o years of operation has seen the ships carry over 39,000 people on voyages across the world and have helped improve individual perceptions of learning disabilities and physical impairment.  In particular people who take part in voyages have stated that they gain a greater understanding and awareness of different abilities by being partnered with and/or being grouped into a watch with mixed abilities.  The effect of sailing as a unit can help highlight the value of working in a team as well as lead to deep personal development in areas such as health, social interaction and fulfilling aspirations.  Further to this crew members often report positive self-esteem and a greater understanding beyond the stereotypes of disability (source).

Although I did not manage to join my brother in Norway and it’s beautiful fjords and coastal waters, I have had the chance to do a day sail from my home town of Hartlepool, in the Lord Nelson, in a visit to the town just before it hosted the 2010 Tall Ships Races.  I even managed to get half way up the mast, which was a fairly nerve-wracking experience at sea!  One of the great experiences of that trip was being able to leave and enter my town via the sea, to feel like what it must have been like so many years ago when Hartlepool was a major fishing and industrial shipping town.

So I highly recommend reading more about this fantastic charity and opportunity to take part in something rather special.  If you are looking to challenge yourself, help others, meet new people and explore new countries by sea then this is the perfect choice!

Find Out More

  • Frequently asked questions on sailing with the Jubilee Sailing Trust can be found here.  Please be aware that there restrictions in place regarding wheelchair size and occupant weight, alongside some disabilities that may mean that JST is unable to accept you as part of the crew.
  • Find out about the range of options for sail adventures and how to fund your journey (with funding tips) here.
  • Both the Lord Nelson and Tenacious have individual blogs, find out what they are up to here.

Upcoming Conference: Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology 17th-19 October 2014

3 Aug

Somehow this conference nearly slipped me by.  Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, are hosting an upcoming international workshop and conference entitled Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology on the 17th to the 19th of October 2014.  Registration is now open, but please note that this closes the 30th of September.  The workshop, to held on Friday the 17th of October, includes a taught and practical session and will focus on the growing use of the archaeothanatology methodology in osteoarchaeology and forensic anthropology (further information here).

Essentially archaeothanatology is the studying of human remains in situ, which combines the use of the knowledge of human anatomy, the recording of the burial context and an understanding of taphonomic processes to recognise what processes the body has undergone from burial to excavation.  The workshop will be led by Dr Stéphane Rottier and Professor Chris Knüsel from the University of Bordeaux.  Booking early for the opportunity is a must however as there are only 40 places for the workshop.

The conference has 8 sessions spread over 2 days covering a wide variety of topics in human osteoarchaeology.  The sessions titles are:

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland: Kick-starting the conference on the Saturday is this session focusing on the study of human osteoarchaeology in Ireland.  This session will focus on health and disease in the medieval population, the archaeology of childhood in the medieval period, and workhouse conditions post-medieval Ireland.

Grave Concerns: This session will discuss funerary archaeology and the deposition of human remains with examples from around the world, including leprosy mass graves in Copper Age Hungry, the use of storage pits in Iron Age France, and medieval post-burial funerary practices in England courtesy of Jennifer Crangle (see Rothwell post below).

Death and Identity: This session will focus on the use of stable isotopes in archaeology and their ability in helping to understand geographic and dietary signatures in human and animal populations, amongst other uses.  This session covers both prehistoric and historic contexts.

Tales from the Grave: This session will detail case studies making explicit use of the archaeothanatology methodology.  The Neolithic shell mounds and island archaeology, body manipulation in Ancient Egypt in the Early Dynastic and Predynastic periods, and coffin burials from the Anglo-Saxon period in England will be topics discussed in this session.

Life before Death: Kick-starting the Sunday will be this session on reconstructing past social structures, populations and traumas.  Another wide-ranging session, with talks on the Roman York population courtesy of Dr Lauren McIntyre mixing with a talk on understanding cranial trauma in medieval Ireland.

In Sickness and in Health: Perhaps not surprisingly health, trauma and palaeopathology will be discussed in this session, which will have a particular focus on the population of medieval Ireland.

Open Session: The open part of the conference will focus on new techniques in human osteoarchaeology, including multivariate analysis of the hip, bone histology from a medieval collection, and an experimental examination of cranial trauma caused by archaic artillery.  One not to miss!

The Remains of the Day: The final session will focus on ethical issues, legislation and reburial of human remains in the context of working in the archaeological sector.

The conference cost varies depending on which day you would like to attend, with the conference days costing £20 each and the workshop priced at £25, with discount rates are available at £20 and £15 (a conference dinner is also available for a price).  Alternatively you can pay in one go for the whole event at £60 (includes dinner) and £50 for discounted tickets.  The wide range of research topics on display at this Day of the Dead conference make it one not to miss, so check it out.

A Brief Photo Essay: Rothwell Ossuary and Charnel Chapel

2 Aug

On the same trip as the Sheffield General Cemetery post below I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Trinity church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, which houses a unique medieval charnel chapel and ossuary.  It is only one of two remaining charnel chapels and ossuaries in England known to have survived the 16th century English Reformation in the original location, with the other site being St. Leonard’s in Hythe, Kent, although others may possibly exist intact elsewhere (Jupp & Gittings 1999).  As previously mentioned on this blog I was at Rothwell to volunteer for the day, talking to members of public about the value of human skeletal remains and giving demonstrations of how to age and sex the skeleton.

On first glance the Holy Trinity church is perhaps surprising in its size for the first time visitor as it is a building that dominates the modern-day village of Rothwell.  The origins of the church can be traced back to the early part of the 12th century during the reign of Henry I when the church was built by Earl Roger of Clare.  It was subsequently much improved in size when it was acquired by the wealthy Augustinian abbey of Cirencester in the 13th century, appearing today as much as did in this period (Garland et al. 1988: 235, also see here).  During the 14th and early 16th centuries further extension of the church was completed, including the addition of a spire to the west tower and expansion to include a lofty sanctuary.  However the church faced ruin with the dissolution of the monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign.  In the late 17th century the building could not longer be kept at the size it was, so the north and south transepts were demolished.  Further natural disasters followed which reduced the building and left it in ruin, right up until the 1890’s when it was decided that the church needed to be restored, a process which was not completed until the 1980’s.

It was only during the 18th century that a previously much used charnel chapel and ossuary was unexpectedly re-discovered (Parsons 1910).  It is this ossuary, and its contents, that will be the focus of this brief photographic essay.  So once again with friends from the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield and my trusty Pentax S1a camera loaded with black and white film, I took my first trip down to the ossuary.

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One of the first things that visitors will notice, after having made the journey from the spacious church and down through the rather small and somewhat suffocating stone staircase to the ossuary and charnel chapel, is that the visitor is greeted with numerous crania.  These stare somewhat impassively out from their wooden shelves.  It can be cold in here, in a room three-quarters underground which is dark and damp.  It is the perfect environment for the post-mortem demineralization of the bones, and for the breeding of micro organisms (including fungi), which have infiltrated the human remains and remain active in their decay and physical degradation (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  The likely original entrance to the ossuary was probably from the outside of the south-west wall, which now has an 18th to 19th century porch covering the medieval entrance (Crangle 2013).  Originally a black and white photograph, coloured in Windows Media Player.

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The second immediate sight that the visitor will notice are the two large stacks of bones that dominate the centre of the 13th century building, which measures 9 meters long by 4.5 meters wide (Garland et al. 1988: 236).  It is often mistaken that the two stack collections contain just the crania and the femora of the human skeletons however this is not true as many individual elements are represented in the stacks, including the odd animal bone.  The bones were stacked in this way as a result of the changes made during restoration of the ossuary in 1911, where previously, and likely originally, the bones had all be stacked against the walls of the crypt (Parsons 1910: 484).  Later studies have shown that the bones are still undergoing macro and microbial damage as a result of the damp environment (Garland et al. 1988: 248).

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The osteological remains charnelled in the ossuary represent the secondary post-deposition movement of many individuals from the medieval period (13th to 16th century) from Rothwell and the surrounding area (Garland et al. 1988: 239).  Parsons (1910) & Garland et al. (1988: 247) have both noted the appearance of bacterial destruction within the bones and damage within the charnel chapel itself, with Garland et al. stating that further investigation and conservation is likely needed for preservation.  White & Booth’s (2014: 93) experimental research into bioerosion on pig carcasses highlights the importance of understanding the context of the depositional environment of bodies and activity of putrefaction.  In particular understanding the importance of the position of the body (surface exposure or primary burial) in relation to the role of the body’s intrinsic microbiota will leave specific diagenetic signatures in bone microstructures in the form of bioerosion (White & Booth 2014: 101).

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A close up of some of the crania on the shelves.  The osteoarchaeological research that has been conducted on the ossuary remains has all taken place with the charnel chapel itself due to the fragile nature of the remains and the ethical considerations of removing the bones from the place where they were intentionally deposited (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  The site is an important location for understanding the cultural heritage for Rothwell and for the country, as there is much still to be researched and investigated in the ossuary and charnel chapel and of its importance for the surrounding area and historical population (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  It is also a site that continues to see the latest implementation of archaeological and osteoarchaeological techniques to record and conserve sites and human remains (Gonissen 2013).

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The original black and white photograph of the first.  The ongoing Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project, spearheaded by the University of Sheffield doctoral candidate Jennifer Crangle, aims to investigate the funerary practice of charnelling at Rothwell and the long-term conservation of the skeletal remains.  Traditional and emerging osteological techniques are also being implemented in the study of the skeletal remains and their context.  This has included the use of CRANID, a statistical program used to ascertain the geographic origins of the individuals represented in the ossuary, and the use of 3D imaging techniques, such as photogrammetry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), to digitally record fragile osteological material in-situ and then use the images produced for anthropological analysis of the remains (Gonissen 2013).

The above photographs of the Holy Trinity church ossuary are all largely focused on the crania present at the site.  Although this was not a deliberate attempt at capturing the individuals, I think it helps to highlight the fact that this isn’t just a random assorted collection of bones.  Far from being shunned or hidden, this charnel chapel and ossuary would have been known about and visited from the 13th to 16th centuries by the many residents of Rothwell and by the many visitors to the area (Crangle 2013).  I also hope, in part, that this photographic entry entices you to visit Rothwell to see, explore and learn about a now rather unique collection of skeletal remains and their historical context.

 Learn More

  • The crypt and ossuary at Rothwell’s Holy Trinity church is open to visitors each and every Sunday during the summer period, with church guides on hand giving out information.  It is also open every second Sunday during the winter months from October on-wards.  Everybody is welcome to take a look at this fascinating site.
  • The University of Sheffield regularly hold annual open days for the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project at the church, with doctoral candidate Jennifer Crangle researching the ossuary as part of her ongoing research into the post-depositional treatment of medieval human remains.
  • More information on fascinating ossuary of St Leonard’s church in Hythe, Kent, (the only other known surviving medieval English ossuary), can be found here.
  • Read about the free-to-use CRANID program, which assesses a probable origin using cranial morphological measurements to assess likely geographic origin, here, the use of photogrammetry in archaeology here, and finally the use of Reflectance Transformation Imagery in archaeology here.

Bibliography

Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.  Accessed 29th July 2014. (Open Access).

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). Unpublished MSc Thesis. The University of Sheffield.

Jupp, P.C. & Gittings, C. (eds.). 1999. Death In England: An Illustrated History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Parsons, F. G. 1910. Report on the Rothwell Crania. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 40: 483-504.

White, L. & Booth, T. J. 2014. The Origin of Bacteria Responsible for Bioerosion to the Internal Bone Microstructure: Results from Experimentally-Deposited Pigs. Forensic Science International. 239: 92-102.

A Brief Photo Essay: Sheffield General Cemetery

26 Jul

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Sheffield to take part in an archaeological excavation in the nearby Peak District but, after hearing about the beauty of the Sheffield General Cemetery at the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014 conference, I thought it was time to give the cemetery a visit whilst I was down.  With a good friend and my trusty old Pentax S1a camera loaded with black and white film, I set off to take a look.

The fully landscaped Sheffield General Cemetery was opened by the Cemetery Company in 1836, a year before Queen Victoria took the throne of Great Britain, in the south-west part of the city on a patch of steeply rising land.  It was closed for burial by Sheffield City Council in 1978.  It was constructed in response to the overcrowding and poor conditions that haunted many of Sheffield churchyards in this period of rapid economic and population growth of the city during the industrial revolution, and subsequently extended on the east side in 1846 at the request of the Anglicans (Hartwell 2009).  It is a cemetery that is noted for its unique history and architecture – being home to (the unfortunately unpopular) two terraced catacombs, a Gothic-style Anglican chapel, a two-storey Non-conformist chapel with subterranean burial vaults (which was built in the classical style with Egyptian features), and a prominent gatehouse alongside other interesting features (McIntyre & Harvey 2012).  It remains an overgrown and poignant home to around 87,000 or so Anglican (Church of England) and Non-conformist inhumations.  Individuals were buried throughout the span of the cemetery lifespan, with the majority being buried after the 1855 Burial Grounds Act was passed (Sayer 2012: 29).  Today the cemetery is open to all to explore the interesting architecture, beautiful grounds and the famous individuals from Sheffield’s past.

Although this is just a brief post I highly recommend taking the time to read the sources below and to give the cemetery a visit if you are in the area.  It is really is beautiful and serene – perfect for a summer stroll if you are not on an excavation!

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A moment to pray.  A particularly elegant statue on the top of a grave plot commemorating a family.  During the Victorian period it was the vogue for memorial sculptures to hark back to classical antiquity and the Sheffield General Cemetery has many monuments with obvious architectural motifs and influences from the Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures.  Unlike modern cemeteries, and indeed some of the more recent 20th century gravestones at the General Cemetery, Victorians tended to elect for elaborate memorials that commemorated family ties, christian values and the remembrance of the individual; essentially mourning was not hidden from the actual burial or commemoration site (Sayer 2010).

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A moment to commemorate.  This now crumbling monument was installed in the cemetery to honour George Bennet (1773-1841), who was sent around the globe by The London Missionary Society to report and discover the state of ‘Godliness’ around the globe.  He spent 8 years (1821-1829) covering the far reaches of the globe, making a total journey of around 90,000 miles before returning home.  Although the monument is a dedication to him he was not buried in the cemetery itself (SGCT website).  The majority of the monuments at the cemetery can be found in the western Non-conformist area, where many notable citizens of 19th century Sheffield can be found.  This includes the grave of Mark Firth (1819-1880) who was a steel industrialist, philanthropist, and the founder of Firth College in 1870 (which later became the basis for The University of Sheffield).  Many of the monument’s fencing in the cemetery is made of Sheffield steel and remain fairly intact to this day, although larger monuments themselves and the Non-conformist chapel have suffered damage and neglect (McIntyre & Harvey 2012: 2).

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The fenced off plots of Non-conformist graves awaiting restoration and conservation.  In this particular area  many of the gravestones and monuments have been crowded together and are slowly being covered by vegetation.  Although closed for burial in 1978 Sheffield City Council still own the site and it became run down in the 80’s and 90’s, however it is now managed by the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust (formerly known as the Friends of the General Cemetery).  The Trust is a charity organisation which was formed in 1989 and its aim is to help conserve the cemetery, run educational tours and workshops, and help in the historical research of the cemetery’s architecture and occupants.  The cemetery and the landscape is listed as a Grade II* building environment by English heritage, and it is also home to a designated Local Nature Reserve.

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A different view of the above, showing an uphill shot of crowded monuments and gravestones that mark burials.  A portion of the Anglican area of the cemetery was leveled of gravestones and markers in 1980, which cleared some 800 markers, to make a playing field (Hartwell 2009).  A number of these, and some of the older gravestones that had fallen or become rubble, were used in the construction of rain clearways or pathways.  The cemetery is also home to individuals who have died during pivotal points in the city’s history.  This includes victims from the great Sheffield flood of 1864 when 270 people were killed when a reservoir dam breached uphill, soldiers from the First World War (a war which helped influence a change in style towards simpler memorials in the western world), and people killed during the blitz from the Second World War where a total of 700 people died in Sheffield, some of whom were buried in the General Cemetery (SGCT).

CNV00038

Silently guarding his home.  This bear doesn’t belong in the Sheffield General Cemetery but comes from the nearby Sheffield Botanical Gardens, which was founded in 1836, the same year as Sheffield General Cemetery.  The Anglican side of the Sheffield general Cemetery (designed and extended in 1846) was designed by Robert Marnock, who also designed the Sheffield Botanical Gardens (Hartwell 2009).  The botanical gardens hosts a wide range of flora from each corner of the globe and covers a grand total of 19 acres.  The bear pit in the botanical gardens was home to a duo of brown bears that entertained the public from 1836 until the 1870’s when a tragic accident involving a boy falling into the pit and being killed resulted in their removal from it (source). The pit itself was particularly small and I can only imagine the stress that the bears themselves must have felt.  Today the botanical gardens remain open and free to the public and are a popular attraction on a summer day.

It is worth mentioning here that during the Victorian and post-Victorian periods there were many different Burial Act Laws initiated and implemented, which have subsequently heavily influenced the approach and actual access that archaeologists have during planning processes and exhumation of human remains in many of the UK’s urban areas.  This is an ongoing source of contention and conflict between heritage bodies, contractors, the public and the government, and it remains likely to continue to be so in the future (Parker-Pearson et al. 2011: 819, but also see here with regards to exhumation and burial law).

Unfortunately I only had one roll of black and white film and I wanted to save some film for something else which, tantalizingly, will follow this post!

Learn More

  • The Sheffield General Cemetery Trust website can be found here, where a record of both the history of the site and of the individuals buried at the cemetery can be accessed.
  • The Urban Ghosts website has a fantastic selection of photographs, including of the Non-conformist chapel and views of the terraced catacombs, and information on the cemetery here.
  • A list of common symbols on Victorian graves and their meanings can be found here.
  • Read about just why the cemetery and park is listed as a Grade II* building by English Heritage here.
  • Delve into the delights of the Sheffield Botanical Gardens, where the bear pit and curvilinear Glass Pavilions are also Grade II and II* listed buildings, here.
  • Over at Spoilheap Sue Anderson has a very considered and enlightening range of issues that should be taken into account regarding the legal aspects of burial archaeology.

Bibliography

Hartwell, C. 2009. Sheffield General Cemetery (List Number 1001391), English Heritage List Entry Summary.  Accessed 25th July 2014. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Harvey, L. 2012. Non-Conformist Crypt Survey, General Cemetery, Sheffield. Report No. GCN01. The University of Sheffield. Unpublished report. (Open Access).

Pearson, M.P., Schadla-Hall, T. & Moshenska, G. 2011. Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. 21: 5-9. (Open Access).

Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd.

Book Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.

22 Jul

The British Museum in London is currently playing host to the Ancient Lives, New Discoveries exhibition, from the 22nd of May to the 30th of November 2014, which focuses on the innovative use of non-destructive CT scanning to digitally unwrap and investigate eight individual mummies who spread the span of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese history.  It is a unique opportunity to explore the individual bodies and mummy styles, from a naturally preserved desiccated corpse from 3500 BC, right up to the late richly decorated and individualised Roman period mummies of the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and the early Christian burials of Sudan from the 7th century AD.  Taylor & Antoine (2014) have produced a publication (priced at £19.99) in conjunction with the current British Museum exhibition and it is this that shall be reviewed here, rather than the exhibition itself.

But first we are going to quickly delve in the tantalising world of the mummy in archaeology.

britmus

The reader friendly yet relatively in-depth 192 page publication by Taylor and Antonio (2014) whets the appetite to learn more about Egyptian and Nile cultures. The front cover displays the painted case of  Tamut and the CT of her body, Tamut was a priestess from Thebes circa 900 BC.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Thinking About Mummies

The mummified remains of humans retain a unique position in the popular perception of past civilizations, offering as they do a face to face fleshed representation of the human past.   In the fleshed state the historic or prehistoric mummified individual helps to represent this version of the human past in an immediate biological projection, rather than through a secondary non-biological artefact, i.e. the individual is present.  This representation however works in a variety of ways.  The mummified person is, of course, the physical remains of an individual who had once lived, yet they also often actively represent the values of the culture that they came from (through the interpretation of the mortuary and funerary evidence and deposition contexts on a part of the archaeologist).  The modern person who views or interacts with the mummy also projects their own views and feelings onto the mummified person by, for instance, their thoughts of displaying the dead (Alberti et al. 2009).  Added to this is the fact that mummies are often seen as mysterious and filled with a silent potent dread, forever linked in the popular cultural mind with the supernatural wolf man or vampires of the Hammer horror films for instance, or remain linked with the so-called mythical curse of Tutankhamen.

In short, the mummified remains of human beings are often emotive physical remains.  Yet they remain popular with both members of the public in museums and with archaeologists and physical anthropologists in studying the remains of past individuals and populations.  The preservation of soft tissues (including skin) can often highlight cultural practices or pathological evidence that do not survive in the skeletal record or remain undocumented in the written record (Panzer et al. 2014, Taylor & Antoine 2014).

Mummification Briefly

It also must be noted here that there are generally two processes of mummification that take place with human remains which are (a) active mummification of remains as practiced by humans, where the body of the deceased is prepared and preserved before final funerary deposition, and (b) accidental mummification, when the body is preserved through the luck of the burial environment.  Examples of natural preservation include the fascinating Pazyryk kurgan burials in the Altai, who have some of the earliest physical evidence of tattoos, and the western European bog bodies of the Iron Age, whose soft tissues are preserved in acidic bog and marsh environments.

The word mummy is itself a broad term, encompassing not just the classically bandaged Egyptian mummies but also the high altitude mummy bundles of the Inca, the Altai burials, and Tarim mummies of China, amongst many other known examples across the world.  We think of these exotic locations when we think of mummies, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the mummification of composite bodies (elements of individuals pieced together to form one and left above ground) took place during the British Bronze Age at a variety of locations (Parker-Pearson et al. 2005), and it may possibly have been a widespread mortuary phenomenon.  The work by Parker-Pearson and others (2005) is throwing light onto a practice that has, so far, been relatively invisible in places that do not have a favorable climate or burial conditions to preserve mummified individuals intact.  The purposeful mummification of the body then was a widely practiced process in both prehistoric and prehistoric contexts, practiced for a variety of reasons but it is often linked with the values held of an afterlife, of keeping the body as whole, lifelike and as safe as possible from decomposition (Alberti et al. 2009).

Many mummies from ancient (and not so ancient) Egyptian contexts were often used in corpse medicine (and as paint) in the late European medieval period and many more were excavated, transported and unwrapped in the 17th and 18th centuries during the gradual development of scientific inquiry.  It was in the 19th century that, in Europe, the unwrappings of mummies in both public and private contexts took off, as archaeological expeditions uncovered further named individuals at various sites and recordings were made of the anatomical aspects of the individuals that were unwrapped and dissected (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 17).  It should be noted however that many surviving mummies in collections from this period often have little to no documented provenance or contextual information regarding their find location and often placed in sarcophagi that are not from the same period (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 155).

Two important milestones in Egyptology stand out from this period.  The first was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which allowed the decipherment of the hieroglyphic text and thus the history of Egypt, which sent the European public into a tailspin of ancient Egyptian frenzy allowing many museums to build up substantial collections which were not always legally acquired.  The second was the advancement of medical science and the discovery and invention of the X-ray in 1890.  Mummy unwrappings continued but have become rare in recent decades, carried out only when there is a real need to and often only by a multidisciplinary team.  It is the use of X-rays and the development of CT scanning in the 1970’s (or CAT scan, computerized axial tomography) that has allowed non-invasive exploration of fragile mummies to produce 3D models that has really taken off, alongside the development of non-invasive biogeochemical sampling of mummy wrapping materials and mortuary substances (Panzer et al. 2014, Parker-Pearson et al. 2005).

Regardless of this wealth of knowledge and investigation, the ancient Egyptians themselves never fully documented the process of mummification in any records that have survived.  New techniques and on-going investigations are pushing back the boundary in understanding the origin and context of mummification however, as Jones et al. (2014) highlight in recent research in which the advent of purposeful Egyptian period mummification has been pushed back to over a thousands years before previously thought through study of the linen wrappings and resins used during the preservation process.  As Fletcher & Buckley (in Vogels 2013) highlight the fact that mummies are often still misunderstood and little studied in the archaeological record and it is, they state, very possible that mummies thought to be naturally preserved may well have been embalmed or treated on purpose for the preservation of the body, particularly in South American contexts.

Ancient Lives

The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries publication aims to highlight just what can be found using the latest in digital imaging technology on a selection of 8 human mummies from along the River Nile area.  The British Museum archive holds a total of 120 mummified individuals altogether, collected stage by stage since the museums foundation in the 1750’s, whilst the majority of the mummies highlighted in this publication were collected in the 19th century (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 13).  The period of intentional mummification by the Ancient Egyptians probably took place around the 2nd to 4th dynasties (3000 BC) right up until the Roman period of the fourth century AD.  The individuals under consideration span the Predynastic period (5500-3100 BC) right up until the Medieval period of the 7th century AD, a clever chronological approach in understanding the longitudinal aspects of mummification in ancient Egypt and northern Sudan.  The publication mixes the naturally mummified and the purposefully mummified, with the naturally preserved bodies of Gebelein Man B (3500 BC) from the Predynastic period and the anonymous 7th century AD tattooed medieval christian woman from Sudan both book-ending the publication.

If you picture mummies you see Tutankhamen, his ornate golden mask adorning his young body.  It may be a tired paradigm of Egyptian archaeology but this publication makes it clear that there was much more going on with regards to mortuary behaviour and funerary styles than is normally appreciated along the banks of the River Nile (Meyers 2014).  Thus the cross-section of individuals studied here spans not just a wide chronological time but also includes male and female adults and juveniles of different ages.  Alongside this the individual all come from different social groups and communities from villages, great temples and cities along the spread of the River Nile.  What this publication highlights then is the both the great variety in mortuary behaviour within the practice of mummification, but also the individual stories of the persons under study (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 2).

The 8 individuals under study, in publication order, are:

1. Gebelein Man B (Male, adult, Gebelein, c.3500 BC).

2. Unknown Man from Thebes (Male, middle/older adult 35 years and above, Thebes, c.600 BC).

3. Tamut (Female, adult, Thebes, c.900 BC).

4. Padiamenet (Male, middle adult 35-50 years, Thebes, c.700 BC).

5. Tjayasetimu (Female, juvenile 7 ± 3 years, Thebes or Fayum area, c.800 BC).

6. Roman Period Male (Male, adult, Thebes, 1st to 3rd century AD).

7. Roman Period Juvenile (Male, 2 years ± 9 months, location unknown, c. AD 40-60).

8. Christian Woman from Sudan (Female, young adult 20-35, Fourth Cataract Sudan, c. AD 655-775).

Although I will not discuss each and every individual above as it really is worth reading the book or visiting the exhibition if you can, I will highlight the Roman Period Male and Gebelein Man B as these are two mummies that really caught my attention.  They also represent two different approaches in the mortuary and funerary treatment of the individual and the society that they came from.  The Roman period male, below, is a particularly unique individual, stylized heavily to capture what the person looked like during his lifetime.

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The painted face of an unusual Roman period mummy dating from the c.1st to 3rd century AD. The adult male individual has several interesting features such as individually wrapped toes and fingers, padded thighs and breast area. It is likely that this is to represent the man as he was during life, possibly obese. The black bands on his cheek are a standard stylistic representation of a beard. Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Before the mummy had been CT scanned it was assumed for many years that the individual was a female due to the nature of the packing of the thighs and breast area.  Analysis of the skeleton highlighted that he was in fact an adult male, who had a lot of unusual dental wear by the time he died.  His incisors, canines and premolars showed heavy wear yet the molars have hardly any, although many of his molars had been lost ante-mortem.  This is suggestive of a change in the way this individual ate, using his front teeth as molars to crush and grind his food (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 144).  The way that this individual has been represented as a living individual on the front of his wrappings is a standard of the Roman period mummification, although many mummies also have encaustic life-like portraits painted on wood, often incorporated onto the bandages and packing of the mummy (the examples such as the Fayum portraits are well-known).

New Discoveries

It becomes evident quite quickly when reading the publication just how important the use of non-invasive scanning and imaging techniques are in the study of mummified individuals.  Not only are the bodies themselves not disturbed but they can be digitally stripped back layer by layer, from the bandages to the bone to unveil the person underneath as last seen by the embalmers and mortuary workers who prepared the body and decorated it.  As such the method highlights not just the soft tissue and skeletal anatomy but also the fabrics, packing and artefacts used and located on and within the mummy.

It can also highlight ante-mortem and post-mortem damage to the mummified remains, as well as the mistakes of the embalmer.  Padiamenet’s body, an adult male temple door-keeper from the 25th dynasty (c.700 BC), displays evidence that his head had become detached from his body during mummification.  The scanning of his body highlighted two poles inserted into the chest are used to support the head, with evidence of the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae remaining slightly misaligned (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 105).  Alongside this his coffin had to be extended, with linen wrap covering his protruding feet.  Cartonnage cases and coffins were often mass manufactured, only personalised as and when the individual died.

One of my personal favourites of the mummies investigated here is the naturally mummified body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male who died around 3500 BC in the Predynastic period.  One of 6 natural mummies in the British Museum collection, Gebelein Man B  was buried in a cemetery in Upper Egypt dating to the middle Predynastic period and lived in an era before Egyptian unification when chiefdom’s ruled the area.  The area in which he was buried suggests that Gebelein was a relatively important local settlement who practiced mixed subsistence of agriculture (cattle, sheep, and goats) with the fishing, fowling and collecting of wild fruits and berries (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 36).  The burial site of Gebelein Man B have provided the only evidence, or expression, for religious belief as the body was placed in a formal grave, with evidence for the crouched body having been placed between mats and probable deposited with offerings which have subsequently been removed by grave robbers (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 38).

gebelein man b skelly

The skeleton and body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male and a natural mummification from c.3500 BC.  Notice the semi-circular unknown artefact towards the bottom of his torso and the fracture of the right femur and ribs, likely due to post-mortem movement or excavation.  Fractures tend to break in a characteristic way when the person is alive (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 31).  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Gebelein Man B lived during a period of change in which the introduction of writing was eventually introduced, but no name was recorded for any resident of Gebelein, thus this individual, unlike many in the book, remains nameless.  His body is remarkably preserved for a body that has survived for over 5500 years, with his beard, nails and hair still in evidence.  The teeth are lightly worn, the presence of fusion lines in the long bones and the pelvis (pubic symphysis) all highlight that he was in his early twenties when he died (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 33).

Although the majority of the soft tissues have been preserved, the major organs have shrunk due to the desiccation process which must have been rapid to allow for such extensive preserve ration of his body.  When mummification became intensely practiced in the Dynastic period of Egyptian and northern Sudanese history the organs were often removed, preserved and kept in canopic jars separate to the body, so the preservation in-situ of Gebelein Man B’s viscera may offer a rare chance to sample human health during this period.  Perhaps most  interestingly is the preservation of foodstuffs in both the stomach and the colon, which could allow analysis of the foods consumed during Gebelein Man B’s lifetime.

gebelein man b skelly belly

Gebelein Man B (c.3500 BC) stripped back from the above image to reveal the soft tissues (in blue) still present in his cranium and torso.  The tissue highlighted in his pelvis is likely to be remains of his last meal.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Importantly Taylor & Antoine (2014: 39) highlight that whilst Gebelein Man B was a natural mummification, it should not be noted as a precursor to the artificial mummification that was practiced later.  Although re-cutting into a graveyard and noticing the preserved burials may have influenced generations of the population, at all times during the prehistory and historical span of this book people of lower status were buried in simple pits.  The long mortuary and  funerary rites involved in depositing the dead alongside deeper graves to protect bodies from grave robbing may have been two processes that influence the uptake in artificial mummification of individuals from around 3000 BC onwards.

The book does a fantastic job at introducing the importance of mummification to the ancient Egyptian and north Sudan cultures.  Today it may seem unusual, and at odds with the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage of depositing a body in the ground as soon as possible mentality, that this was a period of time where it was important that the body was prepared properly, over long periods of time, to maintain the individual identity of the deceased (Vogels 2013: 11). Yet it is an endlessly fascinating period of time that has captured the heart of many archaeologists, Egyptologists, and the general public.  Ancient Lives, new Discoveries will, no doubt, do the same.

Conclusion

As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if there was some variation within the same period for at least some of these individuals highlighted here.  It was a question that went unanswered in this publication, but I did feel that the book highlighted that the archaeology of mummification had much more to offer, especially in the realm of non-invasive imaging.  As such the publication is an invigorating read, wrote in a straightforward and easy to read manner that doesn’t skip on explaining the techniques used in the approach to understand the individual mummies skeletal biology, artefacts found with the bodies, and burial or deposition context of the individual.

This contextualisation of the individual is a smart approach in being able to engage an audience to understand that these mummies are individuals with their own life history.  I did feel that perhaps a larger contextual approach on funerary and burials rites could perhaps elucidate further information on a general population scale, however this was a minor niggle.  I was impressed at the use of the clear and precise terminology and the overall style of the publication.  The images in particular are clearly and precisely presented, and it is a joy to study the cross sections throughout the book, offering as they do, an unparalleled view of the ancient mummies.

It is wrong, though, to think that the mummification of human remains is something that was done purely in the past.  Recent research led, in part, by Buckley & Fletcher (2013: 12) has led to the actual mummification of a recently deceased person to explore the actual embalming chemicals and methodology used by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the body.  Alan, who donated his body to archaeological science, has already provided a wealth of knowledge on the actual mortuary process of embalming a human body the ancient Egyptian way by highlighting that a natron salt bath was the most effective way to preserve a body during the act of mummification (Marchant 2011).  Yet there are still many mysteries sounding the actual step by step method and role of mummification in the cultures of ancient Egypt and northern Sudan but this publication, and the exhibition at the British Museum, go some way to (digitally) unwrap the secrets that they hold.

Acknowledgements

I thank Hattie Clarke of the British Museum Press for providing the images for this post and for quickly answering  any questions that I had.  I also thank Loretta Kilroe for providing helpful comments on the archaeology of Egypt and Sudan.

Disclaimer

A copy of the British Museum publication Ancient Lives, New Discoveries was provided for the author to review.  No monetary transaction took place.

Further Information

  • The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries British Museum exhibition in London, England, is now open to the public until the 30th November 2014 with ticket prices at £10.00 for adults, £8.00 for students and children going free (other discounts are available).  Learn more about the 8 individual mummies at the British Museum website here.
  • An enlightening interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen Buckley, who are both a part of the York Mummy Group, on mummification and the Mummifying Alan project can be found here at The Post Hole journal.
  • The journal Papers in Anthropology, issued under the European Anthropological Association, have a new open access special edition out (Vol. 23 (1) 2014) which focuses exclusively on mummy studies and mummification.  Click the title above to learn more.
  • Head over to Loretta Kilroe’s blog, Cake and Ceramics, here to learn more about the daily life of an Egyptologist and to learn about her other projects on the go.

Bibliography

Alberti, S. J. M.M., Bienkowski, P., Chapman, M. J. & Drew, R. 2009. Should We Display the Dead? Museum and Society. 7 (3): 133-149. (Open Access).

Jones, J., Higham, T. F. G., Oldfield, R., O’Connor, T. P. & Buckley, S.A. 2014. Evidence for Prehistoric Origins of Egyptian Mummification in Late Neolithic Burials. PLoS ONE(8): e103608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103608. (Open Access).

Marchant, J. 2011. Egyptian Mummification Method Resurrected in the UK. New Scientist. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Meyers, K. 2014. Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Fascinating Look Into the Life and Death of Eight Ancient Egyptians.  Bones Don’t lie. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Panzer,  S., Peschel, O., Haas-Gebhard, B., Bachmeier, B. E., Pusch, C. M. & Nerlich, A. G. 2014. Reconstructing the Life of an Unknown (ca. 500 Years-Old South American Inca) Mummy – Multidisciplinary Study of  a Peruvian Inca Mummy Suggests Severe Chagas Diseas and Ritual Homicide. PLoS One. (2): e89528. (Open Access).

Parker-Pearson, M., Chamberlain, A., Craig, O., Marshall, P., Mulville, J., Smith, H., Henery, C., Collins, M., Cook, G., Craig, G., Evans, J., Hiller, J., Montgomery, J., Schwenninger, J-L., Taylor, G. & Wess, T. 2005. Evidence for Mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity. 79 (305): 529-546.

Taylor, J. H. & Antoine, D. 2014. Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.  London: The British Museum Press.

Vogels, R. 2013. Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings – An Interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen BuckleyThe Post Hole. Special Edition. 1-16. (Open Access).

Archaeology Day 2014: A View From Friends

11 Jul

Friday the 11th of July marks Archaeology Day 2014, a tremendous initiative designed to showcase the diversity of research and work that is found in the archaeological sector and industry across the world.  But rather than have this blog entry focus on me specifically, I wanted to present the view of a few of my friends that are involved in the archaeology community worldwide, whether they are a volunteer, a student or an academic, be they in it for the fun or employed in the commercial sector.  So without further ado here are a few of my friends and what they will be up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014!

So firstly we meet up with my friend Jennifer in Belgium, who has some skeletons that need examining:

“I am a graduate in Prehistoric archaeology, and in funerary archaeology and human osteology.  On archaeology day I will be conducting an osteological study on a skeletal collection.  Firstly there is a need to assess the completeness of the bones that were excavated in the Belgian town of Rebecq.  This excavation by the SPW (Public Service of Wallonia) is one of the fieldworks I took part as a volunteer in 2012.  The cemetery is early medieval, and the individuals seem to show a lot of pathological lesions.  The sex and age at death of the individuals is estimated based on metrical and morphological features expressed in the remains.  Understanding the health conditions and the demographic profile of the people buried in this cemetery will help understand how they lived in Rebecq in the Middle Ages.
jennifergonnisenreb

Jennifer Gonissen excavating an early medieval cemetery at Rebecq in Belgium. Photo credit D. Bosquet-SPW.

Besides that, I have also been helping at the lab for the Palaeoanthropology course led at the University of Brussels this academic semester.  I am also working on publishing my two master thesis.  Everything is done on a volunteering basis as there are very few paid opportunity for osteoarchaeologists in Belgium.  This does not mean that there is nothing to work on, as Belgium is rich in skeletal material excavated in numerous fieldworks across the country, a large part of which still has to be properly studied.”

- Jennifer Gonissen, an osteoarchaeologist based in Brussels.

Keeping with the skeletal theme we now turn towards Cheshire, England, where we find Alison helping archaeological students:

“While I often spend a lot of time at a desk for archaeology, this summer I am back in the field: from June to September at the Poulton Research Project field school in Cheshire. As there is a cemetery on site it is my role to oversee any excavation involving human remains. In addition to this, I also to teach students (from all subject backgrounds and levels of experience) how to identify, excavate, record, lift, and clean skeletal material.

alison poulton

Students record a burial on site, before the skeleton is lifted. Photo credit Alison Atkin, with permission.

While it’s my job, I consider it a privilege to be involved in their introduction to osteoarchaeology – and thus far I’ve been nothing less than impressed with their enthusiasm for and insights into the subject.”

- Alison Atkin, a Doctoral Researcher at University of Sheffield, osteoarchaeologist at the Poulton Research Project and blogger at Deathsplanation.

After which we join David in Haddington, Scotland, as he balances his community and commercial archaeological work:

Currently the world of my archaeology revolves around 5 major suns, all equally bright and demanding.  The Skills passport is printed and being packed, with the final text added to the website,  BAJR is campaigning for more than minima, the preparations for fieldschools and training with Rampart Scotland are at warp factor 7 (days to go)  and of course Past Horizons articles never end.   Finally, and slipped into the mix is my commercial sun, three reports to be completed, two tenders to submit and a rather complex negotiation to tiptoe through.   Also helping to organise a medieval conference in Haddington in September and a new social enterprise archaeology group.   So all in all a fairly busy, but exciting time!”

- David Connolly, owner of BAJR, co-writer at Past Horizons and creator of the Archaeology Skills  Passport.

davidconnolly

David Connolly horsing about on an archaeology project – business as usual!

What is it like to work in the field as an archaeologist and what can it involve?  Kevin provides a breakdown of what he gets up to in the fields and offices of England:

“I am currently working with Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, as a casual field archaeologist out of their Carlisle office.  They have me doing a little bit of everything in terms of work, though mostly within the early stages of pre-planning on sites due for development, including surveys (mostly geophysics) and evaluations.

Unfortunately I have been told I am not allowed to divulge detailed information on current projects for obvious reasons, but I can talk about the projects I’ve been involved with recently that have been made public.  For example, I helped throughout most of the post-ex for the predominantly Roman site at Blackfriars, in Leicester; washing all the finds as they came back, helping to catalogue them, writing small-finds sheets etc., which was great because there were some very interesting finds.  Pretty much everything you would expect from a domestic, urban Roman site, complete with coins, copper brooches, various other types of jewellery, iron tools, hoards of pottery and colourful painted wall plaster.  There was even a couple of roof tiles baked with animal paw prints still in them, which were interesting, giving a very intimate snapshot of Roman life.

kevinhor

Kevin building a snapshot of every day life by processing the archaeological artefacts.  Notice the regulatory Richard the III mug that can be found in every archaeologists office (click to enlarge!).

However, my primary role these days is with the geophysics team, travelling all over the country, Essex, Wiltshire, Staffordshire, Cumbria, Kent, Lancashire and on Archaeology Day I will theoretically be on the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Nice and close to home.  As I said, I can’t go into details about the job other than it is in advance of a housing development.  Doing the geophysics itself is hard work.  I am not going to lie! We shall be walking, I’ve been told, through knee-high sugar-beet, which will make walking with the twin-probed magnetometers awkward at best.

I think I’ve done geophysics through every type of crop and across every type of terrain (and through every weather condition!).  Sometimes it’s quite enjoyable, other times, like I say, it’s bloody hard.  No doubt I will need to buy a new pair of wellies by the end of the second day.  That’s right, we wear wellies!!! Our company won’t supply non-metallic shoes, so we’re all wearing rubber wellies which are uncomfortable to walk in over long distances and very hot and sweaty in the summer heat! Fun fun!  I suppose the odd aspect to my doing geophysics is that I’m not a geophysicist, and I certainly have no formal training in geophysics.  I’m very much an archaeologist who has been pulled in to do the surveying work, learning on the job!”

- Kevin Horsley, a commercial field archaeologist with his hands and feet dipped into all the pots archaeology has to offer.

My undergraduate university friend Emily also enjoys the variety that life in archaeology has to offer:

“If I am not in the field digging evaluations or excavations with my team, I am in the office processing finds and preparing archaeological archives for museum accessioning.  This weekend I’ll be celebrating the Festival of Archaeology by heading down to the nearby Milton Keynes Central Library to talk to the public about archaeology and local finds! 

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Emily and company at Cotswold Archaeology processing and recording archaeological data, ready to archive and store material. Photo credit: Cotswold Archaeology.

I really enjoy both the fieldwork and post-excavation elements of my job, it is nice to have the variety and I feel one improves the other as it gives me a better understanding of the different aspects of commercial archaeology.”

- Emily Evans, field archaeologist for Cotswold Archaeology.

Is field work all there is to archaeology or can you get involved in other ways as well?  Robert provides a different view:

I was forced to leave the archaeological profession in 2011, mostly owing to the difficulties of providing for my family on ever diminishing wages, and the requirement to erode standards to the level that there was no longer a point in doing the job. Three years later I’m still in archaeology, but not in the way I ever expected. Today my ‘day of archaeology’ will involve leaving the house early and going to work in IT. Once I’m home in the evening and the kids are fed, washed, and put to bed do I generally get a chance to sneak off to my study and write.

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Robert Chapple hard at work writing about archaeology.  Read more about Robert, his desk and others (including mine) here!

These days the main drive of my archaeological writing is for my blog, the uninspiringly named ‘Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist’. I write about archaeological and heritage stuff that interests me, from days out with my family at ancient sites, to campaigning on a variety of heritage issues. However, the stuff that brings me the most pleasure right now are various accounts of lectures, conferences, and symposia – either written by myself or fellow conspirators – that I help to bring different aspects of archaeological research to a wide audience. It’s not what I ever imagined I’d be doing, but I’m still here and I’m still enjoying being able to contribute to the field.”

Robert M. Chapple, whose work and blog can be found at Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist.

Ancient Egypt entices a lot of children and teenagers into studying archaeology but what is it really like?  Loretta presents us with a snapshot of where her research is at:

“I am due to start my PhD on ancient Egyptian and Sudanese ceramics this autumn at the university of Oxford; specifically looking at pilgrim flasks from the New Kingdom to the Roman period. This year, I have been working as an independent researcher and consultant, and a book I have consulted on, ‘Discover More: Ancient Egypt‘ has recently been published. This summer I am busy working on a project analysing infant jar burials, which I am developing into a paper.”

- Loretta Kilroe, an Egyptologist specializing in pottery who is based at the University of Oxford.

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Loretta working on documenting Egyptian pottery from a recent project with the British Museum in Sudan.

Heading over to Australia now, we have my good friend Lorna explaining a bit about her research and why it’s important:

“My PhD thesis, Towards a Bioarchaeology of Care: A contextualised approach for identifying and interpreting health-related care provision in prehistory, was finalised last year – I’ve included the whole of this cumbersome title because it’s a reasonable summary of my research focus.  Over the next twelve months I’ll be putting my efforts into improving and extending the bioarchaeology of care approach.  This will include refining the Index of Care – a freely available application, launched earlier this year, designed to support the four-stage bioarchaeology of care methodology (user feedback is enthusiastically solicited!); editing my thesis for publication (look out for Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care in 2015); and helping to organise a special session – ‘Building a Bioarchaeology of Care’ – to be held at the Society of American Archaeology 2015 meeting in San Francisco (and at which David Mennear, the creator of this blog, will be speaking). 

1   Man Bac Burial 9 in situ

The first case study to apply a ‘bioarchaeology of care’ methodology focused on Man Bac Burial 9, a young man from Neolithic Vietnam who lived with quadriplegia for around a decade (see more here).

As time permits, I’ll also be trialing the Index of Care on new cases of past health-related caregiving; I hope to explore the experience of individuals from historic as well as prehistoric contexts, which will give me the chance to look at how information from archaeology conforms to information on care practice from available texts.” 

- Lorna Tilley, a visitor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at Australia National University.

From Australia we jump back to Belgium and Héloïse, who introduces us to her research interest in Benin pottery:

My name is Héloïse Meziani, I graduated from a Master’s degree in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, in 2012; and continued on with a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, in The Arts of Africa, Oceania and The Americas. I decided to enroll in this second MA to wider my opportunities in the “world art and archaeology” field. However, after this successful year in England, I came back to Belgium to unpaid internships as only opportunities. Jobs in our field are few and funded PhD hard to obtain.

On Archaeology Day, I will be continuing my volunteer internship at the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Tervuren, Belgium. I am currently studying pottery sherds brought back in February 2014 from the archaeological habitat site of Kantoro, northern Benin, by the Crossroads of Empire project team. My work consists in the systematic study of 2 Surveys; one of 283 sherds, another of 859 sherds. After inventorying, reassembling and imputing all of those shards in a database (by shape and decor), I am in the process of photographing and studying the diagnostic material to understand its use and its variation through time. We can already see a dichotomy between two types of ceramics: thick and large ones decorated using folded strip roulette or by cord, probably made for storage, and a finer, more polished ceramic, decorated with thinner tools, possibly used for serving food.

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Examples of pottery sherds from the above mentioned project. Pottery sherd survey II, 40-50cm, and second pottery sherd survey II, 80-90cm. Photo credit Héloïse Meziani.

My interests are in African pottery and beads (my UEA’s master’s dissertation was on a collection of archaeological beads from northern Benin), but also in Mochica’s ceramics (Peru). In the future, I am hoping to find a job (research or museum work) in link with one of those fields of studies.

- Héloïse Meziani, an archaeologist.

And from Belgium we jump to Germany, where we find Anna carrying out all sorts of duties for her archaeological company:

Currently I’m working for an archaeological company in Cologne (Archbau Köln) being the handy man – so that means I’m mainly working in the office finishing projects that mainly involve counting sherds of pottery, organising excavations but also being on site. Besides all of this, I am also the main anthropologist of my company – so whenever we dig up some skeletons I’m responsible for their examination.  So basically, I’m always quite busy archaeology wise.”

- Anna Marschner, an osteoarchaeologist.
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Next we find Adam talking about the often unsuspecting and adventurous pathways that archaeology can take you on:
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I finished my M.A. at Sheffield in 2012 and moved to London in April 2013. I was a bit upset that I was not doing anything with my degree so I looked for work, which I found, at the Palestine Exploration Fund. Through a connection there I ended up going on a two and a half month excavation in Sudan of a medieval Nile River fort. It was an amazing site but the living was very rough but that is half the fun of it!
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Adam Fraser relaxes in Sudan after excavating in the heat, and considers relaxing in London before taking part in some Oman archaeological exploits.

While I was in Sudan one of the team members received an email from a friend back in the UK. The email was about potential work in Oman. Nobody on our team was able to accept the invitation so I did. After finishing in Sudan I was in London for a few weeks indulging in the various vices that one misses while on excavation. Before I could settle down I was on another flight to Muscat. Upon arrival I was informed of the enormous task before our small team. We had to excavate and document a very large tract of land which was being developed for a highway. Scattered through the designated landscape were many Bronze-Iron Age tombs. We ended up with a few skeletons to show for it and a good collection of beads and some other jewellery. I did not expect that things would turn out this was when I was looking for work a year ago.

- Adam Fraser, a field archaeologist and a librarian at the Palestine Exploration Fund.

From Adam to Alex, who explains what it can be like to direct an archaeology company:

“As archaeology director for Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd I have a many varied role and I can be seen with many different hats on. This 2014 Archaeology Day finds me editing a report from a site that we worked on last year, whilst trying to get to grips with the vagaries of ArcMap; the commonly used GIS program for mapping sites.

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Alex in full recruitment mode for a community archaeolgy project looking at the evidence for WWII prisoner of war camps at Hickleton Hall.

I shall also be getting ready for our yearly excavations at Hickleton Hall in Doncaster, beginning in two weeks!”

- Alex Sotheran, director at Elmet Archaeolgical Services Ltd.

 And finally we have Spencer who’s often busy staring at rocks, looking for clues to our past:

I’m an archaeological lithics specialist with a particular passion for the Mesolithic period in north-east England. Somebody has to be! This period, between the last glaciation and the onset of the Neolithic revolution, is a boiling pot of potential in our region – tantalising glimpses of transitions, human reactions to major climate events and natural disasters like tsunamis.

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Spencer Carter hard at work threading the ties of humanity via the lithic analysis of Mesolithic flints from the north of England.

On the Day of Archaeology I will be in the lithics lab in north-west London. The door is always open during the day because people drift in and out wondering what on earth I’m doing with tiny bits of stone in their thousands. I tell them the story because archaeology is about a narrative, about our shared past and lineage. Having been burgled twice, the door is double-bolted each evening (nothing was taken). I’m continuing the detailed cataloguing and photography and awaiting, chewing on fingernails, the final set of radiocarbon dates for an exciting excavated Mesolithic ‘persistent place’ on the North York Moors.

On top of that, I’m helping to organise a CSI Teesside forensics event for the Festival of Archaeology and, as editor for Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire, calling for papers for our annual FORUM YORKSHIRE journal.”

- Spencer Carter, who blogs at Microburin, is a member of the Lithoscapes team and the Teeside Archaeology Society chairman.

So there you have it!  A short selection of what some of my friends involved in the beautiful, but sometimes frustrating, world of archaeology are up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014.  

The question now is what are you going to be doing?  Let me know in the comments below! 

A Humerus Tale

7 Jul

After a tremendous time volunteering for the recent Rothwell medieval ossuary open day last weekend, and having taken part in the University of Sheffield Castleton field school for a few days afterwards (nothing beats excavating skellies in the beautiful peak district!), I had the rather unfortunate occurrence of fracturing my right humerus (upper arm bone) early last week.  Following surgery to fixate the rather stark break with the insertion of a permanent plate and screws, I remain rather immobile.  Being predominately right handed this means that posts on this site will take longer to write and produce as I cannot move the right arm.  However there should hopefully be a number of upcoming guest posts so please stay tuned.

Whilst I was volunteering at Rothwell, helping as I was to inform members of the public on how osteologists age and sex skeletal material and the limitations of the methodologies, it really made an impression on me how important it was to engage with the public face to face , especially on discussing the importance of human osteology in archaeology.  As such it is a future aim of mine to become more fully involved in outreach work.  But first I need to heal and normally for someone with McCune-Albright Syndrome this means that it could take some time.  If I can I’ll put up a picture of the x-ray as it really was an impressive full break!

As such I want to re-iterate the clarion call for guest post entries and for blog interviews across a range of osteological and archaeological themes.  Please feel free to contact me and send me an email for further information.

Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Open Day 28th June 2014

26 Jun

I’ve previously discussed the Rothwell medieval charnel chapel and ossuary project before on the site, but I just wanted to highlight another open day coming up on the Saturday 28th of June at Holy Trinity church in the village of Rothwell, near Northampton, for this great site.  The ossuary at Rothwell is one of only two or three surviving medieval charnel houses in the UK, so it is a fantastic and rare opportunity to visit this wonderful site and to learn about the history of the church and it’s importance in understanding medieval funeral and mortuary archaeology.

There will also be University of Sheffield researchers there on the day, talking to members of the public about what human osteologists can tell from the human skeletal itself, and of the recent bioarchaeological and historical research that continues to be carried out at Holy Trinity itself.  Jennifer Crangle, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield who established and is leading the research at the chapel as a part of understanding the post-depositional treatment of human remains, will be organizing the event along with Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield (Crangle 2013).  The team on the open day will also include a number of past and present researchers from the archaeology department from the University of Sheffield.  I, too, will be present helping by talking to members of the public on how to age and sex skeletal remains of individuals from the archaeological record.  It is something I am deeply looking forward to.

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Family friendly events will be taking place, and there is also the the unique chance to learn about some of the research that has been carried out by Masters and doctoral students at the University of Sheffield.

The open day is part of the project to help understand the osteological remains present at Rothwell and to introduce members of the public to the human skeletal and what we can tell about individuals and populations from the archaeological record.  The open day will include crypt tours, where the stacked remains of medieval individuals (consisting of rows of crania and stacks of femora, amongst other bones) are stored alongside church tours of the early 13th century building.  The event will also be host to a number of family friendly activities which are focused on understanding what the human skeleton can inform us of.  This will include:

An Exploded Skeleton, with attempts made to piece the individual back together.

Mr and Mrs Bones, to see if there are differences in male and female remains and why this may be.

Old Bones, on how the skeleton changes as an individual ages and how this can effect the individual person.

My Aching Bones, detailing which diseases can affect the skeleton and which may be visible on skeletal remains themselves.

The research at the Rothwell ossuary and crypt is part of an ongoing and long term study into understanding the skeletal remains and their physical condition at the site.  This involves trying to ask what the bones are doing in the crypt in the first place, why they were placed as they were and what their function was by being placed in such a way.  The second major aim is to try to understand the composition of the stacked remains, highlighting the fact that it is not just the crania and femora but also many of the bones in the skeleton that are present in the stacks, as well as animal bones.  The third aim is to investigate where the people who are present in the crypt came from.  This includes the osteological analysis of the bones themselves for composition and for preservation levels, as well carrying out a statistical analysis on the bones using measurements based on anatomical landmarks to help indicate what populations/geographic areas the individuals came from.  The fourth major aim is to ask in what way new technology can help and supplement the standard osteoarchaeological approaches used by bioarchaeologists.  At Rothwell this has involved laser scanning the remains to produce 3D images, which is helping to promote the non-movement of some very fragile bones (Garland et al. 1988: 246) and highlight the value of new technology in human osteology (Gonissen forthcoming).

The importance of understanding the post-depositional movement and composition of the skeletal remains at Rothwell is really important as the site itself is not environmentally stable for the long-term storage of the remains.  By investigating the physical remains at Rothwell and understanding the funerary context that they were used in, it is hoped that the project can initiate and produce a more stable environment for the remains to be stored in, whilst also documenting mortuary behaviour that has largely gone under-studied when historians and osteoarchaeologists have studied the skeletal remains of individuals in the English medieval period.

In a curious way the Rothwell project has been highlighted on this site a few times, in blog interviews and in a number of posts on conferences, so it will be great to finally visit the site myself to see the stacked remains of medieval individuals and also to talk to members of the public about the real value of understanding human remains.

Learn More

Bibliography:

Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). Unpublished MSc Thesis. The University of Sheffield.

Pain, Briefly

17 Jun

Just a quick note here.  I had the good luck of hearing historian Joanna Bourke on BBC Radio 4 program Start the Week yesterday morning who was on the show debating the topic of her latest publication titled, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers.  The book focuses on trying to understand and contextualise the feeling of bodily and physical pain from the 18th century AD to the modern period.  Bourke, who is a Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, presents a holistic history of understanding pain in which the topic is approached from numerous angles, including not just the medical but also the cultural, religious and political.  The book also deals with the personal experience of pain and the nature of suffering, both in the individual sense and within wider society from the family out.  It certainly looks like an interesting and enlightening read.

Having read a few reviews of the book itself, and of having heard Bourke herself discuss the differences in understanding the many types of pain, it reminded of sociologists Ann Oakley’s 2007 book Fracture , of which I discussed a little here.  Although Oakley’s book is a much more personal and reflective study with its focus on the modern health perspective, Bourke (2014) also discusses the role and changes that medicine has gone through in the past and present approaches and treatments when considering illnesses and patients themselves.  Of particular interest on the radio show this morning was Bourke’s assertion that different cultures experience pain in a myriad of ways.  This, of course, made me think of how bioarchaeologists approach the archaeological record and how we try to understand palaeopathology in relation to the individual osteobiographic context, within the population and society that the person lived in, together the original context of the landscape environment of the archaeology site (read more about osteobiographical examples here).

Bioarchaeology is, as a field, a burgeoning area of archaeological research, one that ably and actively straddles the humanities and science divide with ease.  Bioarchaeologists often complement their normal macro and micro assessment of the skeletal remains with the regular use of the latest scientific techniques and refinements, including but not limited to stable isotopic and ancient DNA analysis, to help understand the processes, implications and contexts of a pathology within a population.   This often includes trying to contextualise and understand traumatic or congenital pathologies that can be present in the skeletal remains of humans (White & Folkens 2005).  It must be remembered, of course, that only a small fraction of diseases known ever affect or actively present on bone itself (Waldron 2009).

Pain though is rarely considered when describing a pathology that is present on an archaeological bone.  This is partly due to the nature of the limitations of archaeology, but also partly due to the existing bioarchaeological literature.  Care to not exceed the evidence must take precedence, otherwise bioarchaeologists risk inflating the boundaries between the known and the unknown.  Pain itself is a uniquely personal feeling and it can be a difficult feeling to describe.  It can also be paradoxical as to know pain is to be reminded that you are alive, but to know that pain means it is also a warning that life is threatened.

As a purely personal perspective I have recently found out something rather interesting about my own skeletal biology.  As readers of this blog may be aware that I have McCune-Albright Syndrome (MAS) and, as a part of this, polyostotic fibrous dysplasia.  MAS is, as far as it is currently possible to tell, a fairly rare bone disease that can lead to fractures and bowing of the bones (more information here and also Dumetriscu & Collins 2008) amongst other things.  Having broken a good number of the long bones of my body, I am now acutely aware of what a fracture feels like.  Recently however, and completely unbeknownst to myself beforehand, I learnt that I have been fracturing my ribs for a number of years, as both x-rays and a CT scan showed a fair amount of bone re-modelling and faint healed fracture lines on a number of ribs.

Why hadn’t I noticed?

Partly it was because the fractures themselves weren’t that painful (I am well aware that rib fractures are usually pretty painful).  In fact I have been aware for years that I occasionally pull the superficial or intercostal rib muscles on either side periodically, and that this had always led to a good few days of unease if I slept on the affected side, coughed or laughed too hard.  I had put this down to using the wheelchair more over an extended period of time starting from my mid adolescence, following several major surgeries on the femora.  I reasoned that, due to repetitive nature of the motion of wheeling in a manual wheelchair, that the muscles were bound to get sore and fatigued at some points.

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A copy of the posterior to anterior x-ray of my chest. Although the healed rib bruises and fractures cannot clearly be seen on it, the constriction of the chest wall is highlighted (black arrows).  This can have an effect on the air intake of the lung capacity.  Generally fractured ribs are left to heal naturally unless there has been puncturing of internal organs by the ribs themselves, in which cases surgery is needed.  (Read more here).

I was well aware that the ribs are one of the more common areas of the body to be affected by MAS, along with the femora and cranial bones, yet I paid little attention to what I thought was a pulled muscle  (Dumetriscu & Collins 2008, Waldron 2009).  I could still move relatively fine afterwards, and it certainly wasn’t that painful.  So, as you can imagine, I was somewhat surprised to hear that I had at least 4 previous rib fractures that had healed, which were clearly evident on the X-rays and the scans taken of my chest as I saw.  I should state though that it is likely to have been a mix of micro, hairline and full fractures on pathologically diseased bone, and not traumatically induced fractures which, I hear, can be extremely painful.

As such, and having heard Bourke talk about how individuals cope with pain, it should be taken into account by bioarchaeologists that skeletal pathology probably elicited different responses dependent on the social and cultural context of the individual.  This is of course important when considering the impact of a pathology present on the bones.  This, necessarily, becomes more problematic as we reach further into history and prehistory, where the lack of contextual and written evidence can be missing or non-existent.

However, as archaeologist, we must also continually ask questions regardless and especially when skeletal material has already been analysed.  New techniques, theories or methodologies are only useful once they have been applied to the existing archaeological record and are repeatedly tested against what we think we know.

Alongside Bourke on the Radio 4 show was the current director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, who discussed his experiences as a medical doctor and the possible implications of the overuse antibiotics, and Norman Fowler, a conservative MP who oversaw the public health campaign against the spread and threat of HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s in Britain.  Each guest on the program was well worth a listen.

It is safe to say that Bourke’s work is another book that I shall be adding to my ever increasing pile.

Further Information

  • Listen to the Start the Week program, on which Professor Bourke appeared, on BBC Radio 4 here.
  • A review by The Guardian of the History of Pain: From Prayers to Painkillers book be found here.

Bibliography

Bourke, J. 2014. The History of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dumitrescu, C. E. & Collins, M. T.  2008.  Overview: McCune-Albright SyndromeOrphanet Journal of Rare Disease3 (12): 1-12. (Open Access).

Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures Of A Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology (Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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