Liz Eastlake is an osteoarchaeologist from Yorkshire and a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology from the University of Sheffield. With a strong background in fieldwork Liz also regularly engages in public outreach and education on the topics of archaeology practice and human osteology, both in museums and in colleges around Yorkshire. Her research interests lie in dental bioarchaeology and understanding the implications for markers of occupation in the human skeleton. In her free time Liz can often be found at the York branch of Dr Sketchy’s anti-art art school.
These Bones of Mine: Hello Liz and thank you very much for joining me here at These Bones of Mine. For those that do not have the pleasure of knowing you, please could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?
Liz: Hi David, thanks for having me. I am a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology program from the University of Sheffield and I am currently working for York Archaeological Trust at their archaeology museum DIG. I also do the occasional spot of digging and skeleton box organisation with the Trust on a volunteer basis. Further to this I teach human osteology workshops with the Workers’ Educational Association as part of their Digability Project. To top it all off I also work providing disability support at the local university a few days a week! Needless to say I have very little free time and run mostly on caffeine.
TBOM: That certainly sounds like you are getting a full experience of living the archaeological life! What sparked the interest in studying human osteology and funerary archaeology, and what was the experience learning about skeletal anatomy like?
Liz: I went on a rescue excavation in the grave yard of my village (Sheriff Hutton) church when I was 15 years old. The church itself supposedly contains the remains of Richard III’s son, although I never really considered how blessed I was growing up in such a historic environment until much later, especially with recent events. It was the discovery of the different elements of commingled human remains we were uncovering that fascinated me the most.
A number of skulls from the site still had small amounts of hair surviving due to the environment created by contact with copper shroud pins. It really stuck with me that something so fragile could survive for so long beneath our feet. Skeletal anatomy itself is a fascinating subject. Most people are completely unaware of what goes on within their own bodies and so this aspect of archaeological study is pretty relevant and interesting to everyone.
TBOM: The rescue excavation must have been an informative introduction to the human skeleton in an archaeological context, especially considering the level of preservation present. Your current job with York Archaeological Trust involves helping to present archaeology to the public, how have you found this and has it made you change the way you think about archaeology itself?
Liz: Working with children in general is pretty hilarious, I love the way the mind works without any of the barriers that adults would normally put up. In the context of archaeology a kid can really make you think about things in a different way with the answers they come up with, which is great as it is all so open to interpretation. Often, I meet kids who are so excited to tell me all about what they have found in their own back garden or can’t wait to go home and dig up their parents flower beds after a visit (sorry parents!). It’s so important to be inquisitive and that transfers to other aspects of life, including the process of growing up.
What’s also great is that parents or grandparents come along thinking perhaps its a couple of hours to kill with the kids on a weekend or during the holidays, and they end up enjoying it more than the children do! Few people realise they have an interest in something until you present the information and let it grow from there. Archaeology is all about people – everyone has an interest in how we got to where we are today. Most people I meet are at least amateur archaeologists in some way!
For me personally the job has given me a broader knowledge of archaeological periods, which is always beneficial when looking at specific burials. Human osteology can be such a narrow field of study, for example when I look at teeth, which is such a tiny area, you even begin to ignore the rest of that same skeleton because there is so much to focus on when studying teeth alone. Context is everything. Before starting with the York Archaeological Trust I knew embarrassingly little about the archaeology of York itself. It is easy to take things you have seen so often for granted, especially when you grow up with all this old stuff around you as you think nothing of it. I definitely appreciate York more now than I ever have before and have the best time doing what I do.
TBOM: That is fascinating to hear about how interested children and adults become when presented with what archaeology actually is and how their experiences differ. As previously mentioned you’ve also been working with the Workers’ Educational Association in South Yorkshire, helping to lead and present classes on human skeletal anatomy. How have you found the audience’s reaction and participation in such activities?
Liz: The reactions are quite mixed. Most participants are fascinated with how the body works. Physical demonstrations of how bony articulations work and comparing them to the movements they can make in their own bodies helps bridge the gap between us and pile of bones. It can be hard to think of a skeleton as a once living, fully fleshed person like ourselves.
A few participants have felt uneasy about the bones, despite the knowledge that the skeleton I bring is just an accurate plastic copy. I think this mostly comes from the portrayal of bones and death in the media. I saw a really interesting talk by Campbell Price at Manchester Museum a while ago that talked about how skeletons and mummies especially are portrayed alongside werewolves and vampires and it is not surprising that people, especially children (but not always), ask ‘is it real?’ when faced with a preserved Egyptian mummy in a museum. A feeling of unease might also come from a fear of death itself and the uncertainty it brings. This is a completely understandable feeling but I think it is important to try to break this fear down in an educational setting and challenge misconceptions about what happens to our bodies after we die.
TBOM: As well as helping to de-mystify the human skeleton for the public, you’ve also presented your MSc dissertation research on the study of the dentition of two 18th and 19th century populations from northern England at a recent Elmet Archaeology talk. What was your research about and how did you come to focus on teeth specifically?
Liz: I seem to have focused on teeth since I first became interested in human osteology. I find them fascinating because they look pretty much the same in death as they do in life. There is such a wealth of information you can gain about people’s lives in the past by studying dentition. I have focused on what they can tell me about the general health of the population I’m studying and also whether they can give an indication of individual occupation. At some point everyone has grasped something between their teeth, like house keys for example, when your hands are full. Repeated use of the teeth as a third hand can leave tell-tale marks on the tooth surface, for example basketry weaving or even sewing; snapping a thread between the incisors.
My dissertation topic focused on identifying occupation from the teeth of two Victorian era cemetery populations, one of high status individuals from the St Bride’s assemblage in London and the other of low status people from Coronation Street assemblage in South Shields, northern England. Social status for these two sites was known from written records, but the difference was also apparent from the teeth. A number of individuals from the high status group had solid gold dentures and fillings, as well as other evidence for dental intervention and aid. Those from the low status site had no clear evidence for dental work by a professional and would have likely extracted a troublesome tooth themselves or had a similarly untrained acquaintance do it for them. These individuals also had some quite extreme dental wear patterns indicative of use of the teeth for grasping and pulling materials within their mouths. Unlike the high status site which had only one example of an older adult female with grooved patterns of wear in her anterior dentition, perhaps from snapping threads whilst sewing.
To most people it can be quite unsettling to envisage the pain a large abscess or gross caries would have caused a living person hundreds of years ago. However, the information that can be gained through the study of teeth is so extensive and informative about past populations, that it is a fascinating area of osteological analysis, which I hope to pick up again by completing a PhD in the future.
TBOM: That sounds like a fascinating comparative study on Victorian populations. So as well educating the public on the value of archaeology and human osteology and as well as conducting original research, you have also recently been excavating an Iron Age site in Estonia. How did that come about and what were your experiences there like?
Liz: A friend of mine from my masters course at Sheffield, Anu Kivirüüt, invited me along to the excavation she was running with her department at the University of Tartu. It was a fantastic couple of weeks of perfect hot weather and digging in the shade. I particularly enjoyed the excavation methods employed in Estonia which are so different to the strict regulations in the U, although I discuss this more at Anu’s site here.
The excavation was on the Aakre Kivivare tarand-grave site, which are Iron Age in date. This type of grave sites are communal burial places with rectangular above-ground stone wall enclosures, which are often labelled and described as tarands-graves. When these graves first appeared on the landscape in the Pre-Roman Iron Age (around 500 BC – AD 50), they contained only inhumation burials and one rectangular enclosure was assigned for one body. However, over time, cremation became a more frequently recorded way of disposing of the dead and the subsequent cremated bones and most of the artefacts were scattered in the tarand-area, mostly inside but also outside of the walls (see more information here on this ongoing project).
The entire site was recorded using digital photography, in a technique called photogrammetry, and converted into a 3D model after each layer of soil and stones was removed. This was a great time-saving method and the 3D model really helped visualize the site layers. Unfortunately, very little bone, cremated or otherwise was recovered from the site. However, there were numerous beautifully preserved brooches of different typologies, a selection of which can be viewed here.
As well as a fantastic excavation there was also opportunities to explore other nearby archaeological and cultural sites, taste the great food, swim in the lakes and enjoy a sauna (including being whipped with birch bark – it is good for you!)
TBOM: Swimming in the lake sounds quite beautiful, but if I ever head to Estonia I think I’ll avoid the birch whipping! The use of technology to quickly record the site at Aakre Kivivare certainly sounds innovative and extremely useful, please do let me know how the excavations and research turn out. In conclusion, though, it is clear you have managed to gain a lot of experience in the various aspects that archaeological life has to offer. Do you have any advice to the next crop of archaeologists and, finally, what are your plans for the future?
Liz: I would say volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! Getting involved with excavations as well as post-ex stuff before starting at University, during your course and over summer holidays shows you are keen and can make you lots of useful connections for the future. Then when you are qualified, especially in a specialised area of the profession, try to never work for free again (chuckle)!
I would love to do a PhD in some aspect of dental anthropology at some point in the future, as well as getting more experience in the commercial side of archaeology. I think it is important to see things from start to finish where possible, as context is everything and it can be easy to detach a single skeleton from its surroundings and consider it individually. However, this does not benefit our view of the past. Working in the field will also mean a chance to experience all aspects of archaeology and not just bones.
But before I get PhD crazed I am going travelling around the world, admiring old things and rock climbing (but mostly trying not to be an obnoxious cliche for the benefit of people who follow me on social media!).
TBOM: Thanks for the advice Liz and I hope you enjoy your travels!
- Head to York Archaeological Trust’s portal to learn more about their museums and archaeological here. If you are an interested member of the public, an archaeological student or simply want to learn about archaeological artefacts YAT always welcome volunteers.
- Learn more about Elmet Archaeology’s upcoming lectures and annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day here. Elmet participate in both commercial and community archaeological projects and are always active in education outreach. Check out some of their courses for 2015 here.
- The Workers’ Education Association’s are always actively promoting education outreach in a variety of locations and involving a wide range of subjects. As a part of the ongoing Show Us Your Research! project by the universities of Coimbra and Algrave, Portugal, Beauchamp and Thorpe (2014) have produced an assessment of WEA’s ongoing inclusive archaeology education project. Read the PDF summing up their research on the benefits and outcomes so far of the inclusive archaeology project for free here.