Disability in Primates: Social Consequences

5 Mar

I am afraid I have been rather busy lately, so I have not had the time to produce posts (although a fair few are in the early daft stage).  This should be rectified with a few forthcoming posts on various topics of interest but for now I just wanted to highlight this article of note.

The article, by Turner et al (2014), highlights the lack of studies in the social treatment of disabled individuals in extant nonhuman primate populations.  Turner et al (2013) help rectify the situation and discuss a detailed case study of a population of Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), from the Awajishima Monkey Center, in their social interactions in a population which includes a number of physically disabled individuals.

A paraphrased highlight of the abstract:

“Debates about the likelihood of conspecific care for disabled individuals in ancestral hominins rely on evidence from extant primates, yet little is known about social treatment (positive, neutral or negative) of physically disabled individuals in nonhuman primates….Overall, there was little evidence either for conspecific care or for social selection against disability. In general, there was a socially neutral response to disability, and while neutral social context allows for the possibility of care behaviors, our findings emphasize the self-reliant abilities of these disabled primates and suggest caution when inferring conspecific care for even very disabled ancestral humans.”

From Turner et al (2014:1), with the added italic emphasis mine.

I am intrigued what effect this study could have on the study of physical impairment in the archaeological record.  There are a number of techniques now available to the researcher to enable to detect social responses to physical impairment in the human record (burial position, age at death estimations, care provisioning, biogeochemical approaches), but they require great care in the interpretation of results.  Turner et al (2014) study highlights the real value of being able to observe the behaviour of nonhuman primates in a simulated wild environment, something that whilst not directly able to provide answers to hominin evolution does provide an important parallel.

I will update this post further when I get chance to discuss the results of the article in more depth.

On a related note I noticed this post on John Hawks weblog recently, ‘Chimpanzee communities are hundreds of years old‘, tantalizing to think of the implications for the understanding of behaviour and attitudes in great ape groups and how they may differ in regards to physical impairment or long term disablement (Langergraber et al. 2014).

Bibliography

Langergraber, K. E., Rowney, C., Schubert, G., Crockford, C, Hobaiter, C., Wittig, R., Wrangham, R. W., Zuberuhler, K. & Vigilant, L. 2014. How Old are Chimpanzee Communities? Time to the Most Recent Common Ancestor of the Y-Chromosome in Highly Patrilocal Societies. Journal of Human Evolution. (In Press).

Turner, S. E., Fedigan, L. M., Matthews, H. D. & Nakamichi, M. 2014. Social Consequences of Disability in a Nonhuman Primate. Journal of Human Evolution. In Press. (Behind a pay wall).

Personal Effects

1 Mar

Tonight my father passed to me a small autograph book to look at, one that had once belonged to my great grandmother.  The book, which dated in use from around 1916-1919, contained small notes from friends and hospital bound soldiers from the Yorkshire and Durham areas of England, places where my great grandmother lived and worked as a nurse.

There was some fine examples of jokes, sweet messages and beautiful little ink and pencil drawings of countryside scenes.  One picture, found towards the end of the autograph book and drawn in 1919, depicts the flags of the allies draped around a peaceful landscape scene of homes with the single word ‘peace’ placed at the bottom.

This opening sweet poem to the collection also caught my attention:

I slept and dreamt that

life was beauty,

but woke and found that

life was duty.

As I delicately turned the pages I wondered what became of these men nearly one hundred years ago.

Blog Mention: American Journal of Human Biology

18 Feb

This blog has been mentioned in a recent edition of the American Journal of Human Biology in a review article on bioarchaeology and public outreach.  A hat tip to Alison of Deathsplanation for alerting me to the mention of the blog on Kristina Killgrove’s site Powered By Osteons.

Here is a quick quote of Kristina’s thoughts after reading the article:

“It could be my utter lack of sleep over the last couple weeks owing to my newborn, but it was hard not to take this article a bit personally — and my taking it personally is made all the more weird by the fact that although PbO and other blogs were mentioned in the article, their authors were not credited in either the article or the bibliography. What, precisely, are the authors looking for in public engagement in bioarchaeology? (And why aren’t these two authors themselves doing it rather than writing an armchair view of public outreach?) I’m a bit mystified.  I do agree with them, however, that whatever it is, bioarchaeologists need to be doing more of it… if possible (there are sometimes insurmountable barriers to public outreach in bioarchaeology, and the authors fail to discuss this).”

Read more of Kristina’s excellent response here.

Here is the part were my blog, Kristina’s Powered By Osteons and Katy Meyers Bones Don’t Lie are mentioned:

BlogblogamericanjournalofhumanbiologymentionTBOM

Excerpt from Stojanowski & Duncan’s (2014: 5) review article on bioarchaeology and outreach specifically mentioning this blog and others, please click to enlarge the image.

The great irony is that I cannot access this article that my blog has been named in.  (Of course I used the Open Access Button to highlight the fact that the article is pay-walled).  Also if this post is a bit frazzled, it is because I’m tired after working a late shift in my administration job.

Update 20/02/14

The brilliant Bodies and Academia has made me aware (below in the comments) of a free online version of the article on academia.edu, posted courtesy of the second author Duncan, W.  Read the open accessibly article here!

Read more (or not):

Stojanowski, C. & Duncan, W. 2014. Engaging Bodies in the Public Imagination: Bioarchaeology as Social Science, Science, and HumanitiesAmerican Journal of Human Biology. In Press. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.22522. (Email me for a copy).

Institute for Archaeologists on Track for Chartership

12 Feb

The Institute for Archaeologists (IFA) has announced that chartered archaeologists are to be a reality in the UK after receiving news on the advancement of the recent chartership bid.

IFA

The banner for the IFA, an organistion that covers a broad swath of the historic environment in the UK, including the full involvement of archaeological work and research. (Image credit: IFA).

This is a fantastic move for helping to recognise the value and importance of archaeologists across the land in the heritage and cultural sectors.  The IFA represent the interests of archaeology and archaeologists to the government, policy makers and industry, as well as helping to set down guidelines and standards.  Furthermore the IFA also provide training opportunities and promote the wealth and value of archaeology to the country as a whole.

As well as raising the profile of archaeology generally (and in turn the accredited members of the IFA), the chartership status will also bring archaeologists up to step with surveyors, planners, architects and engineers in recognising the value in and of the sector.

The fact that the IFA are now to be a chartered institute indicates that they work that they have done, and continue to do, has proven to be of real value to both the industry and to the general public.  In this time of fairly deep cuts to the cultural and heritage sector, this is something to get behind and support if you support heritage and archaeology as a whole.  Archaeology is a finite resource – it is not renewable, thus it needs our support now.

Further Information

Russian Magic Tales

11 Feb

Lately I have been reading Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress (2013), an excellent and well researched book on the history of the Kremlin and of Russia at large.  So far I am only half way through the book but I am thoroughly enjoying it.  I’ve wrote briefly before about reading Russian literature (specifically Platonov, Sholokhov and Solzhenitsyn), but I realised recently my small bedside pile of books has become a small mountain, swelling as it has with a glorious mixture of archaeology, osteology and fictional offerings.  Never being able to resist a bookshop I also added Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (2013) to it, thinking that it would make a particularly good companion piece to Merridale.

On a separate trip to the library I happened to come across Chandler’s 2012 collection of Russian magic tales (which often termed Skazka).  Taken from a variety of Russian authors who span across three centuries, the book represents the authors who had collated and collected the tales and then wrote them down in their own hand.  I have never particularly been into magic tales or folk stories, but upon delving into this collection I found I couldn’t really resist not borrowing the volume.  It also makes a beautiful companion piece to the above two history books, grounding me as it does in the oral cultural tradition of folk tales that have been told for centuries, and in some cases for millennia, in Slavic populations.  The tales are also the perfect length to digest and read through on train journeys, and provided a welcome relief from my somewhat heavier archaeological readings.

babayagaivanbilibin

A representation of Baba Yaga by the artist Ivan Bilibin. In Russian and Slavic folklore Baba Yaga is an ambiguous and often ferocious older women who lives deep in the forest, either helping or hindering those who seek her out. Along with Koschey the Deathless, Vasilisa the Beautiful and other colourful characters, Baba Yaga often pops up in the folk tales of Eastern Europe/Russia. (Image credit: Ivan Bilibin).

I have really come to enjoy reading Chandler’s collection of skazka, particularly in the arrangement of the book itself which forms a readable narrative of the historical documenting of the skazka and of the re-working of some of the skazka by selected Russian authors themselves.  This approach not only highlights the interesting form and content of the tale itself but also briefly documents the historical and cultural context that the author worked in to produce or collate the tale.  Generally the skazka can be viewed as one of three general presentations: scenes from real life, magically tales or tales involving talking animals.  Often they can be mixed but they often include characters (such as Baba Yaga and her three knights) that are used repeatedly in a wide variety of circumstances.

In general folk tales are a valuable cultural resource in a few senses of the term.  Firstly, they are essential in helping to understand cultural modes of oral transmission.  This can be identified in two ways, by either understanding differences at regional or national levels between tales and in parsing, or understanding, the developing identities by solidifying through oral repetition a unifying myth or theme (Chandler 2013: x).  Secondly, they can of course also imbue moral and ethical lessons to the listeners or participants, particularly in the role of individuals in societies (Forrester 2012: 427).  Thirdly, it must be noted that some of the tales are pretty vivid in their detail of the character traits and actions, but this is the fun of reading and hearing the tales.  (I recommend reading them out to get a sense of what the oral tradition was like).  These are real and deeply developed characters that although may change their actions in some aspects from tale to tale, they still largely retain their purpose and description or function.

All in all I am glad I stopped to read through a few of the tales in Chandler’s book at the library, as I feel it has made me appreciate the work of some of my favourite authors a whole deal more.  By making me familiar with several important folk characters in the Slavic folk world, the deeper meaning of some of the recurring characters and folk myths that pervade through Russia’s literature becomes evidently clear.  This is especially the case when I originally read Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (2010), a novel that he wrote during the early Soviet period which includes many allegorical and frank representations of the oral folk body of work.

To my mind folk tales in general are a pivotal part of the rubric of culture, a one that sadly is often missing in the archaeological record.  So if you find yourself on an excavation this summer in the middle of nowhere, why not make a fire, grab a few drinks and tell tales to keep an oral tradition alive?

Bibliography

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Forrester, S. 2012. ‘Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East’. In Chandler, R. (ed.) Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

Interview with Paul Koudounaris: Behind the Lens

5 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Munich-Germany-big-1024x682

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiesta_de_las_Natitas_La_Paz_Bolivia-19a

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

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

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

Further Information

  • Paul will be appearing for a talk and exhibiting a number of his photographs at the Manchester Metropolitan University Encountering Corpses exhibition on the 28th of March 2014 (exhibition on from 28/02/14 to the 10/04/13).
  • Paul’s personal site can be found at Empire de la Mort.
  • Read Deathsplanation‘s fantastic interview with Paul here.

Select Bibliography

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

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

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

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

4 Feb

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

Winchester explains:

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

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

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

Morgue1

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

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

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

Schmidt executing

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

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

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

Further Information

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

Bibliography

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

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

The Wonders of Easter Island: A BBC Documentary

2 Feb

I have been pleasantly surprised by the great many documentaries aired on the BBC Four channel that focus on archaeology, perhaps none more so than a recent series entitled Lost Kingdoms of South America.  Presented by the knowledgeable and engaging Dr Jago Cooper, the series explored various (and to me some unknown) cultures in the pre-Colombian continent.  I admit to having a great interest in Mesoamerican and South American archaeology, as such it was a delight to watch these detailed documentaries.

Therefore I was quite happy to come across another BBC 4 feature the other day, this time with a focus on Easter Island (here-after Rapa Nui), a tiny Pacific volcanic island well-known for the megalithic human moai statues that dominate the landscape and the birdman cult that super-ceded the creation of the statues (Lipo et al 2013).  For a previous undergraduate essay I had researched the island’s history so I was familiar with the ecocide theory, the tale of the island’s supposed descent into war/ruin after using up the majority of the island’s natural resources.  However this documentary discovered a far more nuanced tale to tell.

easterislandmap

Geographic location of Easter Island, one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Annexed by Chile in 1888, the island remains a special territory of the country. The aboriginal habitation of the island from Polynesian populations is hypothesized to have been in the mid 1st millennium AD (700-1100), although dates vary widely (Chapman 1997). The pre-European contact population maximum is thought to have been around 14,000 individuals, although post 1722 (the year Roggeveen landed) the aboriginal population greatly diminished and fluctuated due, in part, to slavery exploitation, the introduction of new diseases and repeated famines. The modern population currently stands at around 5800. (Image credit: Eric Gaba 2008).

Once again presented by Dr Jago Cooper, an archaeologist and curator at the British Museum, the 90 minute documentary was an interesting and informative show.  It was a pretty comprehensive overview of the history of the people of Rapa Nui, discussing their somewhat still mysterious origins (Chapman 1997) right through to the issues that dominate the island to this day.  It was also a show that actively engaged with a wide range of current specialists on the history and archaeology of the island.  It detailed not just the controversial theories of the island’s ecological diversity decline, but also the range and depth of archaeological research conducted on an island that has captivated and captured the hearts of many.

I am not going to review the whole program here but I do want to highlight a few parts where, for me, the program really came alive with the great value that archaeology has to offer.

Ecology and Landscape at Rapa Nui

The ecology and landscape environment of Rapa Nui have undergone extensive changes throughout the human habitation of the island, perhaps none more so than in the last 400 years.  Visitors to the island today will note the largely steppe like appearance of the landscape – the only trees still standing can largely be found around the main settlement of Hanga Roa in the south-west of the island.  The island was previously heavily forested with trees, shrubs and ferns.  The main predominate tree of the forested island was the now extinct palm tree Paschalococos disperta (Rapa Nui palm), which disappeared from the environmental record around 1650.  It is important to note that while there are various extinction events of various flora and fauna (land-birds such as herons and parrots) throughout the island’s natural history, there seems to be a fairly major change in landscape and ecology in the middle of  the 2nd millennium AD (Chapman 1997).

Although there are many theories on the collapse of the ecology of the island (from over-population, the various causes of intense deforestation and the impact of invasive species) it is likely thought that a combination of these and other factors were involved.  It is not my intent here to discuss this but to highlight the implications of this in the archaeological record.

The loss of the forests that covered Rapa Nui has led to some serious consequences in the landscapes ability to hold minerals and water in the soil.  The Roggeveen expedition of 1722, at least a century after the extinction of the main palm trees, stated that Rapa Nui was exceptionally fertile in its soil quality, that the population successfully cultivated sweet potatoes, bananas and sugar cane.  Further expeditions in the 18th century repeated claims of fairly well fed individuals.  This is interesting as we have archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence of a decrease in the ecological flora typically ascribed to a sub-tropical Polynesian environment.

The program shed light on this topic in a few surprising ways.  Firstly there are numerous caverns throughout Rapa Nui, some of which have carved artwork and glyphs attributed to different tribal groups.  Some, however, were clearly used as agricultural areas to help grow banana crops and sweet potatoes.  Further to this there was also evidence of lithic mulch across the island, that at least some of the forest chopped down was to make way for agricultural plots of land.  This, for me, was a new term I had not come across before.  It is the laying stones (of varying sizes, but in this case just under football size) across the landscape in small plots of lithic mulch gardens or in larger areas to encourage more nutrients into the soils and stabilize the landscape.

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Dr Jago Cooper, some rocks and a horse.  The process of using lithic-mulch to help grow food produce has been used in countries throughout the world, and it is a distinct process though one that can be overlooked. (Image credit: BBC).

This encourages the retention of minerals and water in the soil below encouraging plant growth and helps to increase  the crop biomass and overall yields.  The stones also help to decrease/stop the rate of soil erosion from wind or water run off and shadow the soils from direct sunlight whilst also producing an environment which encourages other vegetation to grow (Lightfoot & Eddy 1994: 425).  Lithic mulch gardens have been noted at a variety of archaeological sites across the world that occur in predominately dry environments (Anasazi and Hohokam sites in Arizona, Negev in Israel, Maori in New Zealand etc) (Lightfoot & Eddy 1994: 426).

Inevitably the ecology and landscape has changed due to the actions of the human populations, both from those that are aboriginal and those that visited the island post-European contact.  Perhaps most damaging to the island soil ecology was the widespread grazing of over 70,000 sheep in the early 20th century, helping to destabilize the soils which has led to intense soil and field erosion ever since.

 The Moai and the Ahu Platforms

The moai are the quite wonderful sculpted megalithic stone statues, made mostly of volcanic tuff, that dominate the island.  They are largely found on either ahu platforms in groups or dotted around inland individually (termed road statues).  They are largely quarried from the main site of Rano Raraku on the foothills of the Terevaka volcano, the highest point on the island.  Around 887 statues have been documented and recorded so far, with almost 50% of them still located in and around Rano Raraku in a variety of completed states (Lipo et al 2013).  The statues were created over a 500-600 year period in the early part of the 2nd millennium AD, although exact dates are not known.

The smoothed statues are known for their overly large heads and minimal stylistic appearance that are carved in flat planes.  With an average height of 4 meters and width of 1.6 meters, the statues weigh in at 12 tonnes on average, although there are exceptions and some are often rather larger and heavier.  Some statues also have pukao, either hats or hairstyles, that adorn the top of the statue heads, which can weigh many tons themselves.  Although nearly every statue recorded is in a standing pose there is one statue that shows a kneeling position, Tukuturi at Rano Raraku, that also has a beard – a highly unusual feature of the statues and reminiscent of other Polynesian societies.  It is thought that this individual was carved late in the statue phase.          

easterislandahu

The Rapa Nui moai, with one of the individuals ‘wearing’ a pukao. Note the ahu stone platform on which the statues are standing on, and the fairly desolate landscape behind the statues. There is evidence to believe that the statues, or at least some of them, had been painted over in a variety of colours with coral and stone insets for eyes.  During the Birdman cult era glyphs were also added to some of the statues (Image credit: BBC).

A number of the statues are found on the ahu fitted stone ceremonial platforms that can be found around the whole perimeter of the island.  Nearly every ahu platform faces inland – there is only one documented case where the statues face out towards the sea.  It is thought that the statues represent the chiefs of ancestors of the aboriginal population, with the individuals facing inland towards their respective tribal land (Lipo et al 2013).  Researchers have also noted the boundary motifs of tribes on some moai throughout the Rapa Nui island, suggesting that fairly individual identities existed (Chapman 1997), regardless of their ancestral origin (Stefan 1999).  The ahu platforms consist of carefully fitted stone sections with distinct stone wings to the side of the platform and stone fields out to the front of the platform.

The documentary highlighted the fact that it is likely a variety of methods were used to transport the statues to their respective sites. There was a pretty impressive part where it was highlighted that the statues could walk to site:

easterislandwalking

Noted in the oral tradition of the native Rapa Nui population, the walking of the statues to their site could have been possible as Lipo et al. (2013) demonstrated with their smaller size replica statue in some rather interesting experimental archaeology. Wooden rollers and other methods of transportation have also been discussed. (Image credit: BBC).

Lipo et al. (2013) have stated that wear marks on the torso and heads of the statues indicate that great pressures were hinged at these areas suggesting that the size, shape and centre of gravity of the statues all point towards a rocking motion to gather the momentum to walk the statues.

After the initial contact with European sailors following Roggeveen’s landing in 1722 (in which the moai were still standing) it was reported that the toppling of the statues had commenced, with almost no statues standing on the ahu platforms by 1868.  It has been postulated by some researchers and historians (Lipo et al. 2013) that the statues were thrown down with force by rival tribal bands, but others have pointed out that at least some of the statues were carefully placed face down.  What is known is that some of the ahu platforms where the statues are face-down also function as ossuaries or burial complexes.  Today a total of 50 moai have been placed back in the standing position, whilst a few have been shipped to institutions are the world (Lipo et al. 2013).

For further information on the Moai I’d recommend checking out an ongoing project entitled Easter Island Statue Project, co-directed by Jo Anne Van Tilburg and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, whose homepage can be found here.  A detailed map of the moai on the ahu platforms on the island can be found here.

Human Osteology and Population Origin

I think it is pertinent to touch on here a few of the (few) human osteology studies that have been carried out on aboriginal skeletal material of the Rapa Nui.  It has long been argued by some early archaeologist, such as Thor Heyerdahl, that Rapi Nui and other Polynesian islands were settled by Native Americans.  Although some archaeologists concede that contact between Native Americans and Polynesians was feasible (Chapman 1997: 161), the majority of the osteological and genetic tests carried out on human skeletal material indicates a Polynesian origin for the aboriginal inhabitants of Rapa Nui (Chapman 1997, Chapman & Gill 1998, Stefan 1999).

Chapman & Gill (1998: 189) measured the stature of 92 individuals from the Rapa Nui aboriginal population (54 males and 38 females from prehistoric (A.D. 1680-1722) and protohistoric (A.D. 1722-1868) populations.  The individuals were taken from the various tribal populations on the island and the bones (in ranked order: femur, tibia, fibula, humerus, radius or ulna) were measured and analysed using a regression formula devised for New Zealand Maori populations (Chapman & Gill 1998: 189).  The results stated that there was no statistical difference between the tribal areas of the island and stature, male average was 1726 mm and 1595 mm for females, reflective of general sex dimorphism (Chapman & Gill 1998: 191).  The stature range was found to be within range of other Polynesian groups and there were no obvious differences in stature within the population of the Rapa Nui island.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Measuring a right humerus with an osteometric board and a calculator. Stature estimation is a vital technique in bioanthropology to gauge the height of past populations (useful guide here, image credit: Paul Duffy at Aberdeen Council).

Stefan (1999) and Chapman’s (1997) studies both indicate that the initial aboriginal population of Rapa Nui were from Polynesian origins.  Stefan’s (1999) studied 50 cranio-facial measurements on the crania of  prehistoric/protohistoric Rapa Nui populations and discovered greater between-group homogeneity in males than females but not the population as a whole.  Chapman (1997: 171) study does highlight the need to thoroughly investigate the prehistoric and protohistoric populations genetically for any further population admixture and genetic drift from later populations, with the need to specifically sample individuals from each main geographic location of the island.  As far as I am aware I do not know of any stable isotopic work that has been carried out on the skeletal remains, but this could add another informative dimension to understanding the Rapa Nui culture (1).

It must also be remembered  the island was repeatedly visited (and raided) after Roggeveen’s first landing by European ships in the same century, which ultimately led to a rejection of all ships by the Rapa Nui.  During the 19th century Peruvian ships also repeatedly and successfully made slave raids on the island, capturing up to a thousand aboriginals to work in the mines in Peru.  The slave raids, but also the introduction of new diseases from the Europeans and from surviving miners, caused the aboriginal population to dramatically fall resulting in an aboriginal population of only 111 individuals at one point in 1877.  Although a historic low, the population had undergone fluctuation before but probably never to this dramatic extent.  The documentary state that around half of the modern population (around 2500 individuals) claim to be genetically related to the original aboriginal population.

The program also produced a succinct point by highlighting the ongoing struggles of Rapa Nui to become recognised as an independent island.  There are still many controversies surrounding the Rapa Nui culture and as highlighted above there is still little agreement on certain key points of the population history of the island and the ecological effects that this produced.

Conclusion

Although only briefly mentioned here it is worth noting that Rapa Nui has evidence for a rich and diverse culture.  Interestingly Forment et al. (2001) highlight the fact that the wooden carvings of human figures, known as moai kavakava, were being carved and produced in the same period as the terminal phase of the megalithic statues.  Also noted is the fact that the wooden carvings probably do not indicate accurate physical reflections of the population (Forment et al. 2001: 532) as some researchers have suggested.  There are also numerous petroglyphs present throughout the island as well as an apparent script called rongorongo, which included glyphs of geometric and pictographic images (Chapman 1997).  Although Rapa Nui is only 15 miles by 7 miles in size, it has produced an incredibly diverse cultural legacy and material culture.  This is echoed today by the living population who understand the very real threat of population collapse and remain intent to keep their culture, and cultural heritage, alive.

Notes

(1). If I am mistaken (I only did a quick literature search) please email me or drop a comment below.

Further Information

Bibliography

Chapman, P. M. 1997. A Biological Review of the Prehistoric Rapanui. The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 106 (2): 161-174. (Open access). 

Chapman, P. M. & Gill, W. G. 1998. Estimation of Stature for the Prehistoric/Protohistoric Rapanui. The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 107 (2): 187-194. (Open access).

Forment, F., Huyge, D. & Valladas, H. 2001. AMS 14C Age Determinations of Rapanui (Easter Island) Wood Sculpture: Moai Kavakava ET 48.63 from Brussels. Antiquity. 75: 529-32. (Open access via academia).

Lightfoot, D.R. & Eddy, F.W. 1994. The Agricultural Utility of Lithic-Mulch Gardens: Past and PresentGeoJournal. 34 (4): 425-437. (Partially open access).

Lipo, C. P., Hunt, T. L. & Haoa, S. R. 2013. The ‘Walking’ Megalithic Statues (Moai) of Easter IslandJournal of Archaeological Science40 (6): 2859-2866. (Abstract only).

Stefan, V. H. 1999. Craniometric Variation and Homogeneity in Prehistoric/Protohistoric Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Regional Populations. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 110 (4): 407-419. (Abstract only).

Coursera MOOCs blocked in Sudan, Cuba and Iran

29 Jan

I have to say I am loving the Human Evolution: Past and Future MOOC (massive open online course) as it continues into the 2nd week.  I am not currently at university or in a position to access journal articles easily so I really value the fact that the team behind the MOOC and Coursera have put together such an informative and up to date course.  Could you imagine if you were taking part in that course, or any of the hundreds of other free online courses offered by Coursera, and woke up one day to find that your access to the course had been shut off?  Unfortunately that is now the reality for any one taking a Coursera MOOC in Iran, Cuba or Sudan.

In a blog entry dated to the 28th of January 2014 at 8.22pm Coursera declared that the US government had enacted a sanction on the US based course provider effectively blocking any access to courses in the above three countries.  Syria was also blocked but that has since been lifted.

Here is part of the transcript:

Providing access to education for everyone has always been at the core of Coursera’s mission, and it is with deep regret that we have had to make a change to our accessibility in some countries.

Certain United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Under the law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries, with the exception of Syria (see below).

Our global community is incredibly valuable to us and we remain committed to providing quality to education to all. During this time, we empathize with the frustrations of students who are affected by this change and we have made it a top priority to make rapid progress toward a solution” (Read the full entry here).

There are also worries that people living along the borders of these countries will also be affected by the ban.  Although Coursera is based in America there are a high number of its academic staff and organisation partners based all over the world.  This has affected many academic institutions and individuals.

I dearly hope this is temporary.  To my mind it seems a bit of a step backwards to limit the accessibility of free online academic courses.  I have blogged on related topics before about the value of MOOCs, of Iran’s often restrictive attitude to education, and I’ve also highlighted just how little a proportion of the world’s population have access to the internet itself.  I have also blogged before about my worries for net neutrality in a quickly changing world.

It has to be said that there are sadly a number of countries that ban or severely limit access to the world wide web, with China having a particularly strict firewall.  Some countries have a very limited internet capability while others simply have a very mobile population.

There are a number of programs and software installations that can be used to circumvent the IP address ban.  These can include VPN (Virtual Private Networks) or use of the free Tor software (see comments below though), a program which allows anonymity and censorship resistance and is widely used by the public, clandestine humanitarian centers and undercover agents.  There are a number of other methods that can be used as well – see here.  Be aware that the above methods of internet anonymity may be illegal in certain countries and is no way encouraged.

I will try to keep abreast of this development in the accessibility of Coursera MOOCs and I will update this entry as necessary and appropriate.

Blogging Archaeology: Best & Worst Posts

24 Jan

This is the third entry in a blogging carnival that Doug, of Doug’s Archaeology, started back in November last year.  Just another quick recap: the whole idea of this blog carnival was started by Doug after he saw that the Society for American Archaeology are having their 79th annual conference in Austin, Texas, in April 2014.  Doug specifically noticed that they are including a session on the rise of blogging in archaeology and, since he cannot be there himself, he thought it was pertinent to start a blogging carnival online to get the archaeology blogosphere alive with monthly questions.  The questions are posted at his site in the first week of each month.

blogging-archaeology1111

The best and worst, readers may notice the slow evolution of this banner! I spent more time on this than I care to admit (Image credit, remixed with MS Paint).

Last month a total of 58 amazing bloggers joined in answering the December topic of the Good, Bad and Ugly of blogging archaeology.  This is an awesome number of people involved in spreading the word about the joy and sorrows of blogging about archaeology.  My entry for December can be read here.  Remember that if you are a blogger writing and posting about archaeology and you want to take part then go right ahead!  Feel free to join at any point, answering the past questions is also encouraged.  The previous past few months questions can be found here, please do jump in and join us!

January’s topic is the best and worst posts.  The topic is actually quite diverse and allows the blogger to approach it from whichever angle they want, either by looking at blog statistics or by talking qualitatively about the posts.  I think it would be pertinent of me to discuss the posts in both ways.  As much as I babble on about the blog here I rarely mention the site in person.  Regardless I’ve always tried to be open about the blog’s visitor statistics, topics discussed and sources used on the blog itself.

Defining Best & Worst

I really think only the audience can decide whether posts are good or bad.  I know, this is a very lazy way of getting out of the question!  But seriously I enjoy writing the majority of the posts here and I am happy to have produced a few that question politics in archaeology/forensic anthropology.  Another bench mark that seems to be pretty popular for measuring good and worst amongst the blogging carnival goers is a statistical breakdown of the blog entry hits.  For this blog it is undoubtedly the skeletal series posts that provide the big hits with the most views.  As I’ve stated in an earlier carnival post the skeletal series was, to me, my unique selling point.  It is a series of, as of yet, unfinished posts breaking down the constitute parts of the human skeleton (I will honestly finish them soonish).  This naturally has cross over value for the medical fields and natural sciences, as well as to the aimed audience of the archaeology, human osteology, physical anthropology and bioarchaeology fields.  I must say though that some of my best, or favourite, entries are ones I haven’t even wrote myself.  The are of course the interviews or guest posts.

As for worst? Hmm that is tricky one.  I have a few posts that don’t really say anything at all, but they are a part of how the user uses the blog and how this develops naturally I’d say.  I think I have changed in some way from how I originally used it to how I do now, but this is just a natural progression of what works and what doesn’t.  For instance I once just posted a song (a smashing song though!) that wouldn’t really be of much archaeological value to viewers of the site, but it does have an integral meaning to me as to how I think about cultures and the processes that play behind the veil of archaeology (plus Gogol Bordello are amazing).

Statistics: An Addictive Evil

There is no getting away from the fact that it is a small to mild thrill to check how many visits your site gets each day or so, and it is equally interesting to see the inevitable slumps and to hypothesize why they appear.  The weekly stats are also vaguely reminiscent of medieval ridge and furrow landscape features, reminders of a past long gone.  Although WordPress go out of their way to tell you how to optimize blog visits (I, for one, never knew about slugs before!), it really is up to the blogger how much they advertise the site.  I also include a large categories list and blog roll so the interested audience can click on whatever takes their fancy.  In fact, apart from sometimes posting a blog entry on Facebook, I almost never advertise the site.  To many this is probably a good way to kick yourself in the face but I do try interact with other bloggers and the folk that kindly email me.  This is important in my view as blogging is a community: you talk to each other and learn from each other.  Who knows, you may make a few good friends as well.  The one other important rule that should be kept in mind for all bloggers seeking a bigger audience is to simply keep writing and producing posts!

So because I’ve always been open and transparent about the site, let’s now have a look at the statistics and try to see if we can see any trends.

The first thing to notice is the overall views for the blog, which is currently standing around 937,913 views from February 2011 to the current day (it is probably just me refreshing the page!).  This is a good figure I believe, especially for a specialist blog such as this.  There are 257 subscribers to the blog, a low number in relation to the views (maybe because I keep the email button on the bottom left?).  Around 453 comments, half of which are me replying I believe, but is none-the-less a good turnout for the books.  The best ever one day for views was 4354 views back in 2012, which was pretty sweet and surprising.  As far as I can ascertain, or guess, I believe the blog views are fairly consist throughout a 24hr period, with no obvious peak viewing time noticed so far.

Okay, so moving to the badly done cut and paste paint graphs below we can see some fairly obvious and repetitive trends occurring.  In graph A, which shows individual days, we can see a pattern whereby the blog is more popular for views during the weekday, that is Monday to Friday, as oppose to the weekends.  Not particularly surprising as people will be learning or reading online at this point if they are at work or studying.  Furthermore in graph A we can see some movement towards higher viewers from late December until today’s date.  Not unexpected as we are moving away from a holiday period to one where work and study returns to a normal pace.

Moving to graph B, and the number of views per week, we see a fairly consistent fall of views during the holiday weeks as suggested by the day graph.  The summer period is noticeably quiet whilst the September/October/November periods are visibly quite busy.  My initial theory is based purely on academic timetables and the fact that the first semester tends to be a heavy onslaught, especially at the Masters level where in most UK universities the teaching of human osteology and anatomy is most hands on at this point.  However, as Doug has pointed out in the comments below, it could also reflect an archaeologists yearly working pattern.

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My statistics for the These Bones of Mine blog and yes, I used MS Paint.  Initial thoughts on a) days: ah it is going up, b) weeks: aw it is all over the place but mostly down compared to a few months ago, c) months: ah it is really down compared to 2012!  The differing blue bars highlight the fact that the site gets more views than actual visitors, but also note that this only came into effect around November/December 2012.  The date for the stats go up to today, the 23rd of January 2014.  (Click to enlarge).

In graph C we can see some longer month-long trends of the blog.  Perhaps most interesting is the peak of 80,000 plus views in October 2012, a distinct outlier, although a sudden and vaguely sustained peak is also noted for December 2011.  Then we can see the great fall (I am holding back the tears!) starting around February/March of 2013.  I am curious as this leads in with the change that WordPress made with the viewer stats, from lumping them all together as views to separating them to views and visitors in December 2013.  Either way I am not too sure that would make that much of a difference looking at the views altogether.  Sometimes Google just degrades you!  What we can say is that we see the October trend, or what I am calling the First Semester Panic, is still distinct in each year of the blog.  Summer also tends to be a dead time, likely due to extensive fieldwork being carried out.  All in all I think the viewing stats back up my lazy assumption of academia having a fairly strong exertion or influence on when the blog is viewed (1, but also check comments).

From the counter stats of the countries the viewers come from it is evident to see that the majority of the visitors are American, but the majority of net traffic is routed through America plus the country runs a lot of forensic anthropology and physical anthropology courses with often great internet access for the population.  As such it is naturally a fairly big market.  Second is the United Kingdom with Canada coming in at a distant third,  the top three being all predominantly English-speaking countries (please note the country stats only go back to February 25th 2012).  After this it is kind of free for all, with countries such as France, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Germany and South Africa all having fair hits in the low thousands.  There are only a few countries that I’ve had no hits from whatsoever, unsurprisingly including North Korea as well as some sub-Saharan African countries.

Moving onto the individual blog entry views can see that there is no real surprise in which posts are the highest viewed.  People seem to like their bones!  There isn’t too much to say in area either, although I am always curious as to what the outcomes would be if I changed the appearance or menus of the blog outlay.

Blogstatsjan23alltime

Statistics for the number of hits per blog entry, although I have cut them off as there are now around 150 separate blog entries. Note the very high number visiting the home page/archives of the site, probably due in some part to the large categories menu. Unsurprisingly the skeletal series posts are the most popular, with functional posts appearing higher on the list than reflective posts, guest posts or link posts. From the beginning of the blog until January 23rd 2014 (Click to enlarge, yes I used MS Paint again!).

For some reason that beats me the post about the ribs is particularly popular, although by far and away the most popular post is the biological basis of bone and the anatomical terminology with a quite staggering 33,240 individual views.  Thus I am sure you can imagine my horror when I went back to it recently and realised it severely needed a grammar and spelling miracle work-over.  All top individual posts (discounting home page/archives) are to do with human osteology and not strictly archaeology at all, which is pretty interesting in itself.

Qualitative Reasoning: A Thoughtful Devil

By far and away the best posts are the ones where I have had active feedback.  However some of my personal favourite posts are the two interviews I have conducted so far.  The first interview with Lorna Tilley on the new 2011 Bioarchaeology of Care methodology for investigating care-giving in the archaeological record has led to some fruitful discussion on research ideas and proposals.  Also the opportunity has given me the lovely experience of being able to share my osteoarchaeological passion and photographic interests with a lovely person.  The second interview, with Stuart Rathbone on field archaeology, has provided me with a great opportunity to learn more about commercial archaeology in Ireland and Britain.  It was really interesting to his views about the field as a whole, the impact of the economic climate and what the archaeology excavations can do to the body.

Also I don’t think it would be right to highlight some of my best posts without mentioning the wonderful guest bloggers, each and every one who have taken their time to read my ridiculous blog briefs and have written interesting and varied entries.  Further to this I see it as almost a prerequisite of blogging that, where you can, you highlight the work and value of other bloggers, particularly of course those that are in a similar field.  I have tried to do this, to highlight the vast shared wonder of the archaeological and osteological fields through the vast many blogs out there, but it may be a quixotic ideal for this blog alone.

Conclusion

I should probably spend a bit less time staring at the screen and open that door to the great wide world!  Joking aside, I am happy with the blog and the audience it has managed to reach.  At the end of the day it all comes down to the viewing audience, the feedback on the site and the fantastic interviews and guest posts.  So in a nutshell, my best posts aren’t my best posts at all, they are your posts.

The next blogging carnival question will be up at Doug’s Archaeology in early February so please do jump in and join!  The summation of the January blogging carnival topic of best and worst blog posts will also be up at the same time.

Notes

1. I’d love to hear other archaeology bloggers feedback of this, whether I am just seeing patterns and making wild hypothesise or you are also getting the same patterns as my statistics likely demonstrate.  Feel free to comment or email me.

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