Lost Kingdoms of Central America: Teotihuacan

8 Oct

The Mexica, otherwise known as the Aztecs (1), called the city Teotihuacan in their Nahautl language, roughly meaning the place where time began.  Nestled in the Valley of Mexico the Pre-Colombian city of Teotihuacan is one of the archaeological jewels of Mexico, where the pyramids of the Moon and the Sun dominate the 4km long Avenue of the Dead.  Situated around this planned civic ceremonial complex were the residential barrios of the population, largely organised along ethnic lines, consisting of open plazas surrounded by inward looking residential compound (Goodman 1999).  The 16th century rulers of Tenochtitlan, the powerful city-state at the centre of the Aztec Empire now located under modern-day Mexico City, regarded Teotihuacan as the foundation of Central American civilization  (Evans 2008).  As Dr Jago Cooper of the British Museum recounts in the new BBC series Lost Kingdoms of Central America, the city of London itself would not pass the total population of Teotihuacan at its peak (around 100,000 people) until at least the 16th century.

temple of the sun

The Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan, dominating the Avenue of the Dead. To the sides of the avenue the smaller ceremonial structures can be seen. Image credit: BBC.

The City and It’s People

As grand as the remains of the city of Teotihuacan (100 BC to AD 650) are, it is the site itself that has withstood test of time, allowing archaeologists and researchers to excavate, plan and map one of the largest cities that the 1st millennium AD world had ever seen.  Today Teotihuacan is a UNESCO world heritage site, chosen for its unique history, sheer magnificence and the incredible physical survival of planned city with a multi-ethnic population.  During the city’s history there were around 2300 stone built apartment compounds that could house up to hundred to the dozens of people, although there have been suggestions that were ‘invisible houses’ constructed on the outskirts of the urban planned city consisting of unwalled house dwellings (Evans & Webster 2005: 615).  There has been some suggestions that a portion of the early population came from the nearby basin city of Cuicuilco, which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption (Xitle) in the 1st century AD (Evans 2008).

The monumental civic architecture is heavily associated with the religious rulers of the city, although no formal burial location of such a leader has been excavated or documented.  The pyramids of the Moon (2nd largest, constructed around 200-450 AD) and the Sun  (largest, constructed around 100 AD) are the largest buildings found at the city, and would have originally had constructed temples on their summits.  The remains of adults and non-adults have been found around the perimeters and base corners of the pyramids, suggesting sacrifices (Evans 2008).  Tantalizingly the documentary highlighted the ongoing archaeological excavation of a man-made cave under the 3rd century AD Feathered Serpent Temple building, as Dr Cooper interviewed the archaeologist Sergio Gomez on what could possibly contain the remains of one of Teotihuacan’s leaders.  Excavations at the temple have also uncovered the remains of 260 individuals who had likely been sacrificed around 300 AD.  Sugiyama (2005) suggests that the remains of individuals found at the temple probably highlights individuals who were taken from conquests outside of the city or represent individuals chosen from certain areas, the archaeological evidence shows that the individuals likely had bound hands and were carefully positioned into place and decorated heavily with artefacts of value.

teotihuacan

The beautiful mural art of the Great Mother Goddess of Teotihuacan, found at the Tepantitla complex and currently residing in the Anthropology museum in Mexico City. Image credit: Thomas Aleto via Flickr.

Although home to numerous gods as was typical for the Pre-Colombian cultures in the Valley of Mexico, the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan is a god unique to the Teotihuacan population, appearing only where they have settled and appearing little after the downfall of the city around the 6th century AD.  Surviving murals in the city suggest that the individual was valued only as a part of the population, and that the gods were venerated above this.  As Evans (2008) discusses it was a rich theme in Pre-Colombian cultures that geography played an important part in understanding the cosmology and origin of the human population.  Evidence of this has already been highlighted above with reference to man-made caves, but even the monumental architecture echoed the surrounding topography as evidenced by the outline of the pyramid of the Moon (Goodman 1999).  As Dr Jago Cooper highlights in the program the belief system of binding people together through religion is not just found in the monumental architecture but also through the mural artwork and the social roles of groups (not individuals) within Teotihuacan society.  Sugiyama (2004: 99) remarks that the influence of Teotihuacan around the Basin of Mexico was notable with extensive trade links (obsidian, ceramics, foodstuffs, cotton, etc.) and it has been proposed that at least some of the leaders of the Maya city states in the Yucatan region in the Atlantic bay of Mexico may have originated from Teotihuacan (Webster & Evans 2005).

Brief Thoughts

I was first introduced to Central American archaeology during an undergraduate module focusing specifically on Pre-Colombian Archaeology, and it is always a subject that has remained vital to my understanding of archaeology as a dynamic subject.  The civilizations of Central America remind me that although archaeological sites today appear dull and dirty (think of the marble and building work of the remains of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome), more often than not they were once coloured and painted, that they were (arguably still are) integral as to how a population (or society) referred to both itself and as to how it wanted others to see it.  The ceremonial stonework around the Feathered Serpent Temple at Teotihuacan seems that bit more visceral to me than the often firm and stately sculpture of Ancient Egypt, or say the perfect bronzed anatomy of the finely wrought representations of human flesh prevalent throughout the city states of Ancient Greece.

Of course one of my main interests is in prehistoric archaeology (alongside osteology), but that doesn’t mean that influence cannot be drawn from around the world and from different time periods.  This is just a very short introduction to the city-state of Teotihuacan, but there are some further resources to have a look at below.  I highly recommend watching the Lost Kingdoms of Central America series as the episodes are informative, interesting and present up-to-date research on the sites that the series focuses on, particularly the ongoing archaeological excavations at Teotihuacan.  Archaeologists and anthropologists have uncovered and discovered a lot of information on the society, architecture, economy and religion of the Teotihuacan city-state that came to dominate the Basin of Mexico, yet there are many unanswered questions remaining, perhaps prominent of which are the identities of the rulers of the city themselves.

Note

(1).  The Aztec term, in this sense, relates to the rise of the Aztec Empire during the Mexica Triple Alliance (Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān) of the city states of Tenochtitlan (Mexica), Texcoco (Tepanec) and Tlacopan (Acolhua), who together ruled the valley of Mexico from 1428 until the Spanish Conquest of 1521.  Of these three city states it was Tenochtitlan, with a population of over 200,000, which gained dominance as the capital of the Aztec Empire.

Further Information

  • The 4 episodes of the Lost Kingdoms of Central America series can currently be found on the BBC Iplayer site (UK only, although I’m sure they can be somehow viewed outside of the UK).
  • The program is running in conjunction with the British Museum.  On their website you can find out more information on the four cultures explored, including information on the Olmec, Chiriquí, Teotihuacan and the Taíno cultures of Central America.
  • For any student studying for a degree or module in, or interested person intrigued by, the archaeology of Central America, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Susan Toby Evans‘s 2008 publication Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History (third edition out in 2013).  It is an in-depth and detailed book that highlights through clear text, diagrams and photographs the great wealth of the physical remains and cultural history of this part of the Americas.
  • Learn more about the intriguing tunnel under the Feathered Serpent Temple and its excavation by archaeologists from the National Institute Anthropology and History here.
  • I’ve blogged previously about some of the cultural destruction at Teotihuacan here.

Bibliography

Evans, S.T. 2008. Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. London: Thames and Hudson.

Goodman, D. 1999. Cities of the New World. In: Chant, C. & Goodman, D. (eds.). Pre-industrial Cities & Technology. London: Routledge. pp.242-262.

Sugiyama, S. 2004. Governance and polity at Classic Teotihuacan. In: Hendon, J. A. & Joyce, R. A. (eds.) Mesoamerican Archaeology: Theory and Practice. London: Blackwell Publishing. pp.97-123.

Sugiyama, S. 2005. Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Webster, D & Evans, T. 2005. Mesoamerican Civilisation. In: Scarre, C. (ed.) The Human Past. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. pp.594-639.

The Bone Ages: MOSI on Down to the Manchester Science Festival, Sunday 2nd Nov 2014

3 Oct

A date for the diary for all bone and science lovers!  Skeletal researchers from the University of Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan University will be at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) on Sunday 2nd of November 2014 (from 10.30 am to 4 pm) helping to present an event called The Bone Ages to the public.  The Bone Ages will bring together the social sciences and lab based research in helping to present the wonders of studying the human skeleton, detailing how bones can teach us about the history, health and society of past populations and individuals using live demonstrations.  The event will include interactive showcases and activities for children and adults of all ages, from learning about how to age and sex the skeleton to understanding what DNA testing of skeletal material can reveal.

The Bone Ages event is being run at MOSI as a part of the Manchester Science Festival (which runs from 23rd October to 2nd November), which is aimed at engaging the whole family in understanding the wonders of cutting edge science and ground shaking research.  The Manchester Science Festival is free to attend and will be running a whole host of events to do with innovative scientific topics in a variety of locations across Manchester.

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A flyer from the website advertising the Bone Ages open day. Image credit: MOSI.

So what is actually happening at the Bone Ages event?

Well there will be a host of hands on demonstrations and live shows by the researchers of the Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Sheffield staff.  There will be four staff from MMU who each specialise in different areas of skeletal research including:

  • Dr Craig Young (human geography), who will be discussing the importance of human remains as a part of the socio-political processes linked to cultural identity.
  •  Dr Seren Griffiths (archaeology), who will provide a live demonstration of 3D laser scanning and talk about the importance of the technique to accurately digitally record excavated specimens.
  • Dr Kirsty Shaw (molecular biology), who will be demonstrating the application of miniaturized technology that allows the DNA sampling of remains in the field.
  • Dr Alex Ireland (health science), who’ll be demonstrating how scanning bones can reveal the permanent record of previous activity, to help prevent health risks in the present day population.

On top of this researchers from the University of Sheffield, including doctoral candidate Jennifer Crangle, will be discussing and highlighting the value of analysing the human skeleton, from how to age and sex remains (using casts and examples) to talking about the nature of archaeological bone, from complete to fragmented remains.  I will also be there, helping to engage the public how and why osteoarchaeologists analyse bones and generally helping out.  Alongside this I’ll also be assisting with the exciting ‘exploding skeleton’, a fun and interactive way to learn about the skeletal anatomy of the body by having members of the pubic trying to figure out what piece goes where in the human body.

The demonstrations for The Bone Ages will be taking place at the new purpose built PI: Platform for Investigation arena at the museum, which is part of a new monthly contemporary science program aimed at the bold, innovative presentation and engagement of science with the public.  I, for one, am thoroughly looking forward to this, so I hope to see you there!

Learn More

  • Look out for the #boneages hashtag on twitter for further information and updates.  There will also be a number of guest blogs produced for the Manchester Science Festival, which will also appear on the Institute of Humanities & Social Sciences Research, run by Manchester Metropolitan University.
  • The Manchester Science Festival runs from 23rd October to the 2nd of November, with events being ran all day, and for free, during these dates.  The festival will fuse art and science together in an intoxicating mix for all of the family, with topics ranging from industrial archaeology to 3D printing, from film showings to computer coding.  Find out more here.

Revisiting ‘Nazi War Diggers': Editorial in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology

30 Sep

In the latest edition of the Journal of Conflict Archaeology there is an editorial that briefly discusses the professional response of archaeologists (via social media) to the proposed (and now cancelled) National Geographic Channel show Nazi War Diggers (Pollard & Banks 2014).  As readers of this blog, and other archaeological blogs, may be aware that a whole can of worms was opened when the National Geographic Channel started to advertise their Nazi War Diggers program online.  The clips that the station put up online showed almost zero respect to the uncovering and exhuming of the dead of WWII on the Eastern Front (the clips shown seemed to focus primarily on a battleground site in Latvia), and little (if any) attention paid to the archaeological context of the remains themselves.

Field archaeology is a largely destructive method of uncovering and documenting a unique and non-replenishing resource, hence why great care is taken in the contextual recording and analysis of archaeological sites in various mediums (in the use and application of excavation methodology, on-site recording, recording of site formation, specialist reports, conservation of artefacts, film photography, digital media, etc.).  So it was no surprise that, when the footage of Nazi War Diggers was promoted, archaeologists and other heritage specialists were horrified at the unprofessional and unethical treatment of both the human material recovered and of the associated artefacts, such as the Nazi memorabilia uncovered.  Perhaps what was/is even more worrying is the long-term deposition and custody (i.e whereabouts) of the remains and artefacts that were excavated, alongside the actual legality surrounding the actions of venture itself.  As osteoarchaeologist Alison Atkin succinctly highlighted at the time – ‘it  is every kind of wrong’.

As Pollard & Banks (2014: 51) remark it was not just social media that picked up on the outrage of the show but also mainstream media, such as newspapers, that highlighted the professional and personal distaste with the Nazi War Diggers program.  A very important point here is highlighted in the editorial, which bloggers such as Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities also noticed, was how the National Geographic Channel replied.  The company removed the questioned video from their site, edited the text and removed damaging quotes from the lead presenter (‘by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with‘, as quoted in Pollard & Banks 2014: 51).  As readers will no doubt be aware individuals who fell in the Second World War can still be identified, can still be returned to their families for burial, can still have living relatives who may have known them.  With these points in mind, even barring the unethical exhumation and nonsense comments, it becomes clear that the treatment of the remains on Nazi War Diggers was, at the least, potentially offensive.

Still the debacle helped to unite a range of heritage professionals in condemnation and, to their good and commendable credit, the National Geographic Channel have pulled the show and have started an inquiry.  This very fact highlights that the company have at least heard the views of the many professional individuals and members of the public that have contacted them (tough though that may have been).  As Sam Hardy further highlights the narrative isn’t that clear-cut either as there were a number of different organisations involved during the making and producing of Nazi War Diggers, including Legenda, the company used in the Latvian sequence of the show.  It is pertinent here to include a quote from hardy’s blog entry regarding the Legenda organisation, and those like it, who work in tough environments:

Since there are still war survivors and missing persons as well as mass graves and battlefields in Latvia, Latvians are still living in the aftermath of the conflict. Dealing with survivors’ and relatives’ loved ones as past, as archaeology, is a delicate, painful process.

Being respectfully scientific with fallen soldiers can be experienced by soldiers’ relatives as being disrespectfully clinical. And that pressure is felt by the volunteers who do the work as well as by the archaeologists who cannot secure professional standards of work.” (Hardy 2014, but see here also).

Yet there are still serious questions that remain in the commission of Nazi War Diggers and of the relationship between the television and archaeology in general.  Battles, and battlefields, have long been a staple for re-enactments on historical documentaries on television, yet not many have actively highlighted the excavation of human remains with such abandon as Nazi War Diggers.  Furthermore, there is the very real danger that this show has undermined the credibility of conflict archaeology as an emerging, but important, field in itself.  With the centenary of the First World War upon us, and important archaeological investigations into the sites where the horrors of the holocaust were carried out in the World War Two (see Sturdy Colls 2012 for non-invasive techniques used at the Treblinka camp), this can be seen as particularly insensitive and crass.  Archaeology is not the handmaiden of history, but walks alongside it hand in hand, helping to provide vital physical evidence to the documentary evidence.  A particular problem is further highlighted by Pollard & Banks, which is this:

How did we get to a situation where something like Nazi War Diggers is regarded as a desirable product by a major broadcaster such as National Geographic Television? This is not the place to attempt an answer to this question but we have clearly reached a point where some self-reflection is called for, especially by those of us who have benefitted from our involvement in television.

We can only hope that National Geographic Television’s decision to pull the series means that a change of commissioning policy will be considered, with a return to more responsible programming, which does both television and the practice of archaeology credit.” (Pollard & Banks 2014: 52).

The editorial is an interesting piece and I’d recommend taking the time to read it.  In the meantime myself and other archaeology bloggers will be keen to see what the National Geographic Channel get up to with the footage already shot for the Nazi War Diggers program and whether it comes back, or not, in any shape or form.  The response of many of the bloggers to the show (including myself) has been a reactive reaction to it, decrying it for the lack of care and thought put into the show’s presentation and approach.  However it has undoubtedly raised knowledge of what is a very tangible and emotional remainder of the actual human cost of conflict and war – the survival, exhumation and recovery of the remains of individuals killed in action, whether participating as active soldiers or as civilians.

As Pollard & Banks (2014: 52) highlight we, as active bloggers and specialists in this area, must also engage, educate and help inform both the general public and organisations (including National Geographic Channel) as to what is the appropriate approach when it comes to excavating, analysing, and presenting the remains of humans excavated from both archaeological and historic contexts.  If we don’t more programs, such as Nazi War Diggers, will be produced, which will lead to the decay of contextual information and, ultimately, the loss of knowledge.

Learn More:

Bibliography

Hardy, S. 2014. A Note on the Volunteer Human Rights Exhumers Legenda. Conflict Antiquities. Accessed 30th September 2014.

Pollard, T. & Banks, I. 2014. Editorial. Journal of Conflict Archaeology9 (2): 49-52. (Open Access).

Sturdy Colls, C. 2012. Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution. Journal of Conflict Archaeology.  7 (2): 70-104.

Osteological and Forensic Books of Interest

23 Sep

I’ve been reading Doug’s latest blog series on archaeological publishing with increasing interest.  I’ve recently ordered a copy of Mary E. Lewis’s 2007 publication The Bioarchaeology of Childhood: Perspectives  from Biological and Forensic Anthropology, and I am very much looking forward to reading it as I am keen to improve my own knowledge of human non-adults, i.e. of juvenile remains.  It has also sadly been a while since I have ordered a new osteology reference book.  This isn’t from a lack of bioarchaeology books that I would like to read, far from it, but it is partially due the cost of buying such copies.  There have been a few recently released books (such as the 2014 Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict by Knüsel et al. and the 2013 Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Martin et al.) that I’d love to own for my own collection, but I’m waiting until they come out in paperback as they are rather expensive otherwise.

On this blog I have often mentioned discussed and highlighted the wonders of the fantastic Human Bone Manual (2005) by White & Folkens, of Larsen’s (1997) Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton reference book, and of Gosling et al.’s (2008) Human Anatomy: Colour  Atlas and Text Book, amongst a few others.  But I haven’t really mentioned other texts that have been especially helpful in piecing together the value of studying and understanding the context of human osteology for me, personally.  The following publications are a collection of reference books and technical manuals that have proved helpful in understanding human and non-human skeletal material, adult and non-adult remains, and on various aspects of forensic science.  I have dipped into some, read others completely – regardless they are of importance and of some use to the human osteologist and osteoarchaeologist.

So without further ado here are a few osteological and forensic themed books that have proved especially helpful to me over the past few years (and hopefully for many more years to come!):

tbom booksss 2

Books covers of the below.

I. Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification: A Colour Atlas. Diane L. France. 2009. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Aimed at the forensic anthropologist, this concise comparative osteology guide on how to identify human skeletal remains compares and highlights anatomical differences between numerous (largely North American) mammal species (such as seal, cow, mountain sheep, domestic sheep, moose etc.).  This book highlights well the challenges faced in recognising skeletal material in the field, and trying to distinguish whether the remains are human or not.  Organised largely by element from superior to inferior (crania to pedal phalanges) into three sections, each detailing a different theme – 1. General Osteology (which includes gross/anatomy/growth/development), 2. major Bones of Different Animals (which are grouped by bone) and 3. Skeletal Elements of Human and Nonhuman Animals (which includes bones from each species shown together).  This is a great immediate reference to recognising the osteological landmarks of various species.  This book should be of particular importance to forensic anthropologists, osteoarchaeologists and zooarchaeologists.

II. Developmental Juvenile Osteology. Louise Scheuer & Sue Black (illustrations by Angela Christie). 2000. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

At the time of publication this volume was one of the few human osteological books focusing purely on the developmental osteology of juveniles.  Arranged into eleven chapters, the book details an introduction to skeletal development and aging, bone development and ossification, and embryological development before focusing chapters to specific areas of the human body (vertebral column, pectoral girdle, lower limb etc.).  The book is really quite important in understanding the juvenile skeletal, as to the untrained eye juvenile material can look nonhuman.  For any forensic anthropologist, human osteologists, or osteoarchaeologist examining juvenile skeletal material this volume is one of the best publications available in order to recognise and understand the skeletal anatomy that can be present at forensic or archaeological sites.  It is also recommended for field archaeologists who may come across juvenile skeletal material and be unaware of what it exactly is.

III. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology. Arthur C. Aufdeheide & Conrado Rodríguez-Martín (including a dental chapter by Odin Langsjoen). 1998. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A standard reference book in the fields of archaeology, palaeopathology and human osteology, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology presents concise yet detailed descriptions and photographs documenting the variety of diseases and trauma that can affect the human skeleton.  This is a standard reference book that is heavily used in the osteoarchaeological field.  Split into chapters that detail each kind of skeletal lesion, and its recognition, within a type (endocrine disorders, skeletal dysplasia, metabolic disease, trauma, infectious diseases, etc.), the volume describes contextualises each entry with its known history, etiology, epidemiology, geography and antiquity.  Soft tissues diseases that can be found on mummies, or otherwise fleshed bodies from archaeological contexts, are also highlighted and discussed.

IV. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains: Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 28Donald J. Ortner & Walter G. J. Putschar. 1981. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

As above, this publication is another standard reference book for identifying pathological conditions in the human skeletal.  The 1981 edition is now slightly out of date regarding the etiology of some of the diseases discussed in this work, but the photographic images depicting the gross osteological change are still reliable.  Regardless this is still a vital book in understanding the development and sheer breadth of palaeopathology as a field in itself.

V. Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. Edited by William D. Haglund & Marcella H. Sorg. 1997. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Forensic taphonomy,  the study of the processes that affect decomposition, burial and erosion of  bodies, is the focus of this publication.  This edited volume contains chapters discussing a wide range of different aspects of forensic taphonomy.  Split into five sections (1. taphonomy in the forensic context, 2. Modifications of soft tissue, bone, and associated materials, 3. Scavenged remains, 4. Buried and protected remains, 5. Remains in water) the book provides an overall perspective on important issues with pertinent case studies and techniques referenced throughout.

VI. Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory and Archaeological Perspectives. Edited by William D. Haglund & Marcella H. Sorg. 2001. Boca Raton: CRC Press. 

The second volume of the Forensic Taphonomy publication, this updated edition deals more widely with the issues that surround the bioarchaeological perspectives of forensic taphonomy, and how it relates to forensic anthropology.  This version includes chapters focusing on mass graves and their connection to war crimes (archaeological and forensic approaches), understanding the microenvironment surrounding human remains, interpretation of burned remains, updates in geochemical and entomological analysis,  and also highlights the updated field techniques and laboratory analysis.  Again this is another hefty publication and one that I have only dipped in and out of, but it is well worth a read as it can bring new insights into the archaeological contexts of human remains.

VII. Skeletal Trauma: Identification of Injuries Resulting from Human Rights Abuse and Armed Conflict. Edited by Erin H. Kimmerle & José Pablo Baraybar. 2008. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

This publication focuses on human rights violations in conflicts where forensic evidence is to be used in international tribunals.  It highlights a variety of case studies throughout each of the eight chapters from the numerous contributors (including the late Clyde Snow), describing both the protocols for forensic examination in human rights abuse and violations to the specifics of different classes of trauma (blast, blunt force trauma, skeletal evidence of torture, gunfire etc.).  Importantly the first two chapters focus on an epidemiological approach to forensic investigations of abuse and to the differential diagnoses of skeletal injuries that forensic anthropologists should be aware of (congenital or pathological conditions, peri- vs postmortem injuries, normal skeletal variation etc.).

VIII. The Colour Atlas of the Autopsy. Scott A. Wagner. 2004. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

A slight deviation from the curve above perhaps, but this is an informative read on why and how autopsies are carried out.  It also introduces the purpose and philosophy of the autopsy, and then the importance of circumstantial and medical history of the individual.  The book is, after the first chapter, set out in a step by step style of the procedure with numerous images, helping to detail the aim of the autopsy in medical and forensic contexts.  The book also details the different types of trauma that can be inflicted on the human body (blunt force, sharp, projectile, ballistic, etc.) and their telltale signs on flesh.  It is certainly not a book for the faint of heart, but it is informative of modern medical practice, of a procedure that has had a long and somewhat troubled history of acceptance but still remains a decisive procedure in forensic contexts.

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Book covers of the above.

Readings

Although this is just a short selection of publications in the fields of osteology, biological anthropology and forensic anthropology, I hope it gives a quick taste of the many different branches that can make up studying and practicing human osteology.  A few of the publications highlighted above are reference books with chapters by various authors, or are technical manuals, highlighting the step by step techniques and why those methods are used.  A number of the publications above remain standard reference books, while others will of course date somewhat as new techniques and scientific advances come into play (perhaps most evidently in the forensic contexts).  However the core value of the publication will remain as evidence of the advancements in the above fields.

Writing this post has also reminded me that I must join the nearest university library as soon as I can…

Learn From One Another

This is just a snapshot of my own readings and a few of the publications have since been revised.  I’d be happy to hear what readers of this blog, and others like it, have read and recommend in the above fields.  Please feel free to leave a comment below!

Note

The reason that CRC Press appear often in this selection is because the organisation is a recognised publisher of technical manuals in the science fields.

Bone Quiz: Osteology From Outer Space

23 Sep

I saw this pop up earlier on my friend Charles Hay’s social feed and it immediately clicked as I saw osteology in space.  It’s actually the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (bit of a mouthful) rather than a skeletal element lost in space, but can the readers of this blog identify what I think I see below?  If you can, let me know what you think it is in the comment section below and, for bonus points, tell me how these generally differ from others found in the body.  You may have to squint a bit and remember that the distal parts of this element can vary somewhat in shape…

This comet is currently the focus of attention of the space probe Rosetta’s lander, Philae, as the European Space Agency hopes to soon land on and investigate this intriguing piece of rock.  The comet is currently (in the words of Col. Chris Hadfield, or at least his FB profile) spewing out water, methane, methanol, CO2 and ammonia, a mix that is the stuff of life (but probably quite smelly).  Keep up to date here as the ESA attempts to land Philae on the comet in early November.

spacethumb

A recent image sent back by the ESA Rosetta probe of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam/Emily Lakdawalla.

I’ll put the answer up in a few days or so, so please leave a comment if you think you know what this is!

Bone quizzes are part of a staple diet that anybody learning human osteology at university takes part in regularly.  They are often timed tests (normally a minute or so) where you can be asked to identify a fragment of bone, side it and name any anatomical landmarks that are highlighted on the element.  It is a great way to learn your skeletal anatomy, especially before heading into an archaeological excavation where bones can often be found in unexpected places and isolated from other elements.

Further Information

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Bone Quiz Answer

This quiz was probably picked bit too arcane an object for a bone quiz, but the answer can be found below.  Note in the comment’s section JB and Keneiloe’s answers for different views!

Image credit: source.

Round-up of Doug’s Disability In Archaeology Posts

15 Sep

Back in mid August Doug (of Doug’s Archaeology) posted a series of blog entries focusing on disability in the archaeology sector, with five posts discussing different aspects and implications for those with disabilities or long-term illnesses with accessing and/or working in the archaeology profession.  These are fascinating posts detailing issues that have long been bubbling in the archaeology sector.  With Doug’s permission I’d just like to highlight the series of posts here as he has done some fantastic research and initial questioning of the data.  As always I’d recommend you go on to the Doug’s site to read the posts fully.

1Professional Archaeology – Disabled Friendly?

The opening post in the series quickly profiles the meaning and population effect of having a disability in the UK, where Doug considers the national statistics of employment vs disability employment statistics:

In 2012, 46.3% of working-age disabled people were employed compared to 76.4% of  non-disabled people. But, that makes sense right? The definition of a disability, in the UK at least, is-

‘if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’

Working is a normal daily activity and so we should not be surprised that people with disabilities might not be able to work. Still, if all things were proportionate we would expect to see about 11% of working professional archaeologists to have some sort of disability, but we don’t.” (Doug Macqueen-Rocks 2014).

This is contrasted against the number of individuals working in archaeology who identified as disabled in a 2005, where it is evident that the categories of unseen disabilities is by far the most prevalent category.  Unseen disabilities include asthma, diabetes, agoraphobia, arthritis and heart conditions etc., rather than such visually obvious disabilities such as physical impairment (think wheelchair or the use of walking aides).  The next part of the post highlights the fact that profession archaeological work is often physical and can be carried out in remote places, and that stigma (or stigmata) can play a deciding factor on employment in archaeology (either by reporting or not-reporting disability, which can lead to negative consequences dependent on the context).

Archaeology can also be bad for mental health, as field work in particular can lead to extrinsic and intrinsic pressures on the quality of life for the disabled and non-disabled field archaeologist.  Issues such as constantly moving for work, strained relationships through long working hours, and sheer physical exertion and potential injury, can play a deciding and significant part in the change of mental health of field archaeologists (see Stuart Rathbone’s exceptional post on the strains of field work here on Robert M. Chapple’s site).  This could potentially compound an existing disability in making field life untenable.  Doug wraps the first post by stating that access to university level education for disabled students could also be in danger due to the proposed cuts in funding for the Disabled Student Allowance in the UK (see my post here).  Doug concludes with this statement, wondering if disability in the archaeology profession under-reported, or is it the nature of the sector that has produced these figures?

2Archaeology – The Dyslexic Profession or the Profession of Dyslexics?

The second post focuses on dyslexia, as a high number of both field archaeologists and archaeology students have been indicated to have dyslexia (See this 2005 Archaeology and Disability Survey for further information).  Doug compares the general university wide population in 2004 that registered with a disability at 6.5% compared to almost double that figure for archaeological students (although the data is pulled from two different sets of data).  This is then compared to dyslexia specifically and Doug finds that archaeology is firmly over half for students with dyslexia (8.6%) compared to just 3% of university students as a whole.  This post is open-ended as there are no firm reasons why students with dyslexia are to be found in archaeological courses in a higher proportion compared to the general university level, especially considering that archaeology often involves a lot of reading (site reports, articles, technical manuals, monographs, edited books, theses) and mathematical formulation (statistical analysis, chemical analysis).

In this post the comments are quite interesting to read and highlight a number of possibilities.  It may be the case that many students are attracted to the physical side of archaeology and that university in the modern era offer a good amount of student support.  However it should be noted that dyslexia can affect people in different ways (see also related conditions), that some individuals may not even be diagnosed until they are at the university and that some may never be diagnosed due to a variety of extrinsic/intrinsic factors.  As Doug notes in his conclusion to this post a staggering 47% of UK archaeologists have at least Masters degree or a PhD (data for 2012-13 here), so it appears that dyslexia does not hold back archaeological students academically.  I’d be interested to see this data broken down further by archaeology specialism, to see if there was any trend regarding the scientific fields against the more humanities driven fields in academic archaeology.  As an unrelated aside to this it has been noted that bioarchaeological cohorts at Masters level are often skewed at around 70/30  female/male ratio, yet no single or general reason has yet been deduced to explain this split.  I’d expect further research into the demographic breakdown of archaeological courses to appear over the next few years or so.

3My Disabilities, My Archaeology

A personal post by Doug here as he highlights his own battles with dyslexia, slurred speech and trouble reading, and how he has managed them throughout his fantastic archaeological career.  This is a great post that details Doug’s own views and experiences, and I think it’s best if you read him in his own words.  I do want to point out quickly this point that Doug makes here:

“…I am one of those 1 in 10 archaeology students that has a disability. I am also one of those 1 in 50 professional archaeologists that has a disability. Though, I am in ‘that group‘ of archaeologists who does not considered my problems as disabilities.” (Doug Macqueen-Rocks 2014).

This is an extremely interesting point as people with long-term illness and/or a disability are not a indistinguishable lumpen mass.  Personally I have been largely open about my own disease on this site (although I do understand that could possibly harm my archaeological career), having highlighted the many orthopaedic surgeries that I have been through.  I am state registered disabled and accept that my condition means that I am physically impaired to a certain degree, however I think people can be surprised by what individuals can and cannot do.  I am always personally happy to discuss any aspect of my own disease, but this should not be a generalization of disabled people at large.  A main thrust of this blog is in fact to highlight my own experiences because, until I started this site, I knew or had not met any one individual with the same bone disease.  This site has opened up the opportunities to meet individuals who have been through similar procedures or know what it is like living with McCune Albright Syndrome.  Regardless of this though, it does not detract from my being an archaeologist or a bioarchaeologist although it may limit my opportunities.

4Disclosing Disability: Employment in Archaeology

In the penultimate post Doug tackles the question of disclosing disability on an archaeological employment application.  This is a deeply personal choice as disability can come in all sorts of forms (both seen and unseen), which can affect the performance of the employee and have impacts on the employer.  Again this is quite a personal and insightful post, discussing the problems of special treatment at work and what may, or may not, be a disability that has an impact on archaeological work.  This post definitely hit home.  I’ve been for a few archaeological job interviews now and although I’ve never quite got the job, I have had praise from the interview panel.  At the back of my mind I always wonder if my physical disability has played a deciding factor in the outcome or not.  As Doug concludes, the decision to disclose a disability or not must be undertaken with the view that health and safety takes overall precedence, in consideration of both the employee and employer.  Issues can be worked around and situations can be resolved, however you do not want to put yourself, or somebody else, in harms way.  If you are open and honest about your limitations and abilities this will help both yourself and your potential employer to enable and enact adjustments that work for the benefit of you both.

5Disabilities in Public Archaeology

The final post in Doug’s series highlights the trends present across public archaeology and disability issues in the UK (where the data is taken from – as Doug points out it is likely that this can be extrapolated to other populations in general).  Using various public surveys for the data, the age groups who visit historic places of attraction is discussed and contrasted to age groups with disabilities or long-term illness, graphically showing the relatively strong correlation between age and disability, as perhaps is expected.  Further points in the post  include the need to understand the different types of disability (such as vision, mobility, hearing, mental health etc.) that can affect individuals of different ages, alongside the differences in gender by age groups.  This post is particularly valuable for anyone that works in public archaeology and the heritage sector as it highlights the differing issues that will directly affect your target audiences.

I highly recommend reading the highlighted posts in full as Doug has produced a fantastic series of posts, even as he continues to expertly profile the archaeology profession and sector more generally on his site.

Further Information

Philips, T. & Gilchrist, R. 2005. Disability and Archaeological Fieldwork: Phase 1 – Summary of a Report Based on a Questionnaire Survey of Archaeology Subject Providers, Disability Support Services in HEIs and Archaeological Employers. University of Reading. Archaeology Data Service. (Open Access).

BABAO Online Forum Goes Live Today

9 Sep

The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology have produced an online forum for both members and members of the public to join and discuss topics relating to biological anthropology and osteoarchaeology.  The site goes live today and it is available to join for free.  BABAO, The organisation who encourage and promotes the study of biological anthropology in understanding humanity’s past and present, is also open to all and the association acts as an advocate to encourage discussion and guidance regarding new research, investigation, and the study of human and non-human primates.

BABAO

The BABAO website header, highlighting both human and non-human primate remains. Image credit: BABAAO 2014.

This is an important step for BABAO as it is a direct attempt at reaching out to both individuals involved in the field and to members of the public, aiming to help educate and inform public debate and knowledge about these often specialist topics.  The site itself is split into different sections, with the majority of the focus on the main topics of research for BABAO members (such as forensic anthropology, human evolution, osteoarchaeology and palaeopathology).  However there are also areas (including media, publish or perish! and opportunities) where it is hoped that researchers and interested individuals can share information, tips and hints on how to prepare publications, apply for grant proposals, apply for jobs and also share favourite websites, etc.

So I heartily encourage readers of this blog to register, join up and get involved.  You can find me there under the moniker of this blog (thesebonesofmine) and I shall hope to see you there!

Further Information

  • BABAO’s online forum can be found here.  The BABAO Code of Ethics and Code of Standards for the handling, storage and analysis of human remains from archaeological sites, can be found here.
  • The association’s 16th annual conference is taking place this week on the Friday 12th to Sunday 14th of September at the University of Durham.  More information on the four sessions running at the conference (Body and Society, BioAnth and Infectious Disease, New Biomolecuar Methods, and an Open Session) can be found here at the University of Durham’s website.

The Trials and Tribulations of Homo floresiensis: A Quick Introduction

1 Sep

I haven’t wrote about palaeoanthropology much recently, but I have been meaning to write about Homo floresiensis for a while now.  The diminutive hominin, most likely a new Homo species although this is still debated, was discovered by chance on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 during the excavation of the Liang Bua cave site, which was led by the now sadly deceased New Zealand archaeologist Mike Morwood (Brown et al. 2004).  The team that excavated at Liang Bua cave found the remains for a probable 12 separate H. floresiensis individuals dating from around 95,000 years ago to around 13,000 years ago, making H. floresiensis one of the last hominin species to live in conjunction with our species, H. sapiens (Brown et al. 2004: 1055).  One of the most complete individuals found at the site is LB1, an adult female aged around 30 who has almost both lower limbs, upper right arm, pelvis and cranium surviving (see image below).  It is this individual that has become the holotype, or type species, for H. floresiensis and on who most of the current research has, and continues, to focuses on (Brown et al. 2004, Brown 2012, Falk et al. 2005, Henneburg et al. 2014).

The majority of this research has been focused on the skeletal remains themselves and archaeological context as attempts to extract ancient DNA (aDNA) from the remains has not been successful, likely due to the cave environment that the skeletons were excavated from and the fragmentary nature of the surviving aDNA.  Morwood’s team formally announced the details of the skeletal remains in 2004 and stated that the remains included primitive and derived features resulting from long term isolation and endemic dwarfing (Brown et al. 2004: 1055-56).  It is important to note here that up until the excavation of H. floresiensis in 2003 it was thought that only H. erectus and H. sapiens were the only Homo hominins present in Late Pleistocene Asia (Brown et al. 2004: 1056).  Later hominin finds, such as at the Denisova Cave excavations in Siberia in 2010 and the announcement of the Denisovan species, have highlighted that other unknown hominins were present in Late Pleistocene Asian contexts helping to fundamental change, and challenge, the way that we think of the evolution of our species H. sapiens (Reich et al. 2010: 1053).

LB1

The species holotype is LB1, found in 2003 in the Liang Bua cave site on Flores, Indonesia. The adult female individual dates to 18,000 years old, stood 3.5 ft tall and represents one of the most complete H. floresiensis individuals found. Notice the large dentition relative to the overall cranium size. Image is not to scale. Image credit: Jennifer Clark (Human Origins Program) and Chip Clark (Smithsonian Institution).

There are many issues surrounding the remains of the H. floresiensis hominins that serve to obstruct and help obfuscate the research that has taken place into understanding the origin and anatomy of the floresiensis hominin.  Inevitability this is ongoing as McVie (2014) highlights in a recent Guardian newspaper article.  Thus it is pertinent to highlight them here to help understand where we are at with understanding the remains of the Flores hominin.  Indeed the H. floresiensis case has all the unfortunate tropes of a spectacular palaeoanthropological find (1) (the unexpectedness of the finds, the bickering academics, mishandling of remains etc.) and continues to show no sign of abating.

As is indicative above, H. floresiensis is a unique and interesting recent hominin ancestor, even more so as the only physical remains of the species are the 12 individuals found and excavated at the Liang Bua cave site in Indonesia.  It is the opposite to our modern notion of the (much maligned) Neandertal, being gracile, petite and small in statue and body.  Perhaps inevitably it was labelled a ‘hobbit’ species (although this word has led to problems with the Tolkein estate).  The type specimen LB1 was quickly repudiated as a H. sapiens individual with a pathology by several researchers and others who have, at various times, stated that all the H. floresiensis individuals, and in particular LB1 and partial skeleton LB6, display attributes varying from myxoedematous endemic cretinism (Oxnard et al. 2010, Brown 2012), Laron Syndrome (Falk et al. 2009, see Hawks 2007), or Down Syndrome (Benton 2014, Henneburg et al. 2014).  There have also comparisons even being made of the singularity of the Late Pleistocene epoch species being compared to the K/T impact boundary event 65 million years ago (Eckhardt et al. 2014), which frankly is a little mystifying.

McVie (2014) has highlighted a potential conflict of interest with regards to both the Eckhardt et al. (2014) and Henneburg et al. (2014) publications, as there is a suggestion that Henneburg (who helped author both articles) picked his reviewers to help favour his research team’s hypothesis and investigation.  The journal that both of the articles were recently published in, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (or PNAS), does not operate a peer review policy in the recognised sense, as most of the other respected journals use, but uses its own specific and trusted system (see here).  Perhaps most surprising is the fact that this team have now published 3 separate papers each focusing on different pathological conditions each time in their continued belief that the H. floresiensis remains are probable members of H. sapiens and represent pathological processes (Henneburg et al. 2014).

Regardless of the ongoing new-species-or-not debate there must be further investigation of the context of the remains.  As Hawks (2007) highlights it is the exact nature of where H. floresiensis fits in both the evolutionary tree and the archaeological context of Asia that remains to be thoroughly demonstrated.  This can only be determined by further finds with consolidated archaeological contexts over an extensive period of time and, with luck, further specimens of this hopeful new species.  The specimens of this population found on Flores, Indonesia, are both tantalising for the human evolution implications and frustrating for their apparent uniqueness in location and time.  As such the Flores H. floresiensis remains are surely one of the most interesting and divisive points of interest in the palaeoanthropological world today.

Notes

1. An excellent counter example of this is the University of the Witwatersrand and National Geographic funded Rising Star project currently underway in South Africa, where the remains of a spectacular palaeoanthropological site (with the evidence of numerous hominin individuals of some importance) has been well and truly open to researchers and members of the public to take part in and to learn about.  This has included an extensive and on-going social media presence and an open call for researchers to join collaborative workshops to study the remains.

Lean More

Bibliography

Benton, A. 2014. Was the “Hobbit” a Human with Downs Syndrome? Probably Not. EvoAnth. Accessed 19/08/14. (Open Access).

Brown, P. 2012. LB1 and LB6 Homo floresiensis are Not Modern Human (Homo sapiens) Cretins. Journal of Human Evolution. 62 (2): 201-224.

Brown, P., Sutikna, T., Morwood, M. J., Soejono, R. P., Jatmiko, Wayhu Saptomo, E. & Rokus Awe Due. 2004. A New Small-Bodied Hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, IndonesiaNature. 431 (7012): 1055–1061.

Eckhardt, R. B., Henneburg, M., Weller, A. S. & Hsu, K. J. 2014. Rare Events in Earth History Include the LB1 Human Skeleton from Flores, Indonesia, as a Developmental Singularity, not a Unique Taxon. PNAS. 111 (33): 11961-11966. (Open Access).

Falk, D., Hildebot, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M. J., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., Jatmiko, E. W. S., Brunsden, B. & Prior, F. 2005. The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. Science. 308 (5719): 242-245.

Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Jungers, W., Larson, S., Morwood, M., Sutikna, T., Jatmiko, E. W. S. & Prior, S. 2009. The Type Specimen (LB1) of Homo floresiensis Did Hot Have Laron Syndrome. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 140 (1): 52-63.

Hawks, J. 2007. Another Diagnosis for a Hobbit. John Hawk’s Weblog. Accessed 24/08/14. (Open Access).

Henneberg, M., Eckhardt, R. B., Chavanaves, S. & Hsu, K. J. 2014. Evolved Developmental Homeostasis Disturbed in LB1 from Flores, Indonesia, Denotes Down Syndrome and Not Diagnostic Traits of the Invalid Species Homo floresiensis. PNAS. Early View: 1-6. (Open Access).

McKie, R. 2014. Homo floresiensis: Scientists Clash Over Claims ‘Hobbit Man’ was Modern Human with Downs Syndrome. The Guardian. Accessed 19/08/14.

Oxnard, C., Obendorf, P. J. & Kefford, B. J. 2010. Post-Cranial Skeletons of Hypothyroid Cretins Show a Similar Anatomical Mosaic as Homo floresiensis. PLoS ONE. 5 (9): 1-11. (Open Access).

Reich, D., Green, R. E., Kircher, M., Krause, J. Patterson, N., Durand, E. Y., Viola, B., Briggs, A. W. & Stenzel, U. et al. 2010. Genetic History of an Archaic Hominin Group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature. 468 (7327): 1053–1060. (Open Access).

Guest Post: Brief History of Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd by Alex Sotheran

1 Sep

Alex Sotheran is the Archaeology Manager at Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd.  Alex has worked in field archaeology since 2001 after graduating from the University of York and helped to set up Elmet Archaeology in 2009.  He has a particular interest in the First World War and has worked on battlefield sites and training areas in the UK, France and Belgium.  In 2013 Alex graduated with an MA in British First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham.

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Elmet first opened its doors in 2009 during the student training excavations at Brodsworth in south Yorkshire.  These training digs were run by Sheffield and Hull universities and were a chance for the archaeology students at both universities to undertake some archaeological fieldwork.  The Brodsworth project was also open to members of the public and it was noticed by Elmet’s founder, Christine Rawson, that there was a demand for archaeological volunteer work from people in the local areas of South Yorkshire.  Archaeology is one of those subjects that many people are interested in but few get a chance to actually take part in any hands on work, so Elmet was set up with that in mind.  It was intended to create a company that would specifically allow members of the public with no background in archaeology to take part in archaeological investigations with full training provided.

Therefore, Elmet was not only directed by community involvement but also steeped in educational outreach as well.  The company largely depends on funding from various community bodies across the UK, including, but not exclusively, the Humber Learning Consortium, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Council for British Archaeology and the Coalfield Regeneration Trust.

One of the first projects began in 2010 and was conducted alongside the University of Sheffield at Monk Bretton Priory; the two-week project attracted over 300 people through excavation work on a Tudor mansion and local history and family sessions.  On the back of this success, the Dearne Valley Archaeology Group was created with help from Elmet staff; it is now self funded and features regular talks on archaeology from various experts.

alex ulley

Elmet Archaeology Investigates the site of Ulley in South Yorkshire, where geophysics was used to determine the nature of the archaeological remains beneath the field. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

In 2011 work began at one of Elmet’s long running projects, the Hickleton Hall Prisoner of War Camp.  Whilst searching for prehistoric remains the team came across the remnants of a Second World War camp, first used by I Corps as a headquarters and then used for housing prisoners from Germany and Italy.  The project is ongoing and 2014 saw a new season of work uncovering concrete hut bases, again with the help of volunteers.  Alongside the fieldwork was a project strand which aimed to collect memories and stories from local people who had experienced the prisoners first hand, one lady told us that two Italian prisoners would call round to her parent’s house every Sunday for tea!

The summer of 2013 saw staff from Elmet branching out into various commercial archaeology jobs.  The sites were in North Yorkshire and various levels of archaeological investigation were stipulated by the county archaeologist before wind turbines were erected.  One of the sites had a Romano-British boundary ditch running through it, but very little else.

In 2013 another large-scale project was completed after Rotherham Archaeological Society had approached Elmet with the intention of locating a possible Roman fort at Ulley.  This project took the form of a fieldwalking exercise and geophysical survey of a field that had been identified as containing a Roman fort by the one of the society’s founders, Mr Philip Smedley.  This potential site was flagged up in 1953 and the project was carried out as a memorial project for Mr Smedley.  Unfortunately the results proved negative and it appears that Mr Smedley had misidentified medieval ridge and furrow marks for the layout of a fort.  However, the project engaged over a hundred people in their local history and taught them archaeological skills at a basic level, further to this the project helped to raise the profile of the Society and increased their membership.  We like to think that Mr Smedley would have been pleased with what was achieved by the Rotherham Archaeological Society and Elmet.

alex ulley field

Members of the public taking part in field walking a site, looking for surface finds and artefacts that could indicate the nature of the archaeological remains underneath. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

The winter of 2013 saw Elmet excavating a cementation furnace in the industrial heartland of Sheffield’s Kelham Island.  This large brick-built structure dated to the middle of the nineteenth century would have been capable of producing large amounts of steel and was part of Sheffield’s industrial growth.  This was a commercially led project so only two members of staff were on site to conduct the work; however, we still continued our commitment to the wider community by sharing photographs of the project as work progressed.

In April of 2014 Elmet began work at the Silverwood Scout Camp, which previously had been the training ground for the Barnsley Pals during the First World War.  This project was particularly pertinent given the centenary of the First World War was just around the corner when the work began.  Again community members were involved in the geophysical survey and excavation of several concrete bases which formed the ablutions and latrine blocks of the First World War camp.  We even had a visit from the retired Colonel of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment whilst on site!

It is not just all twentieth century archaeology though, in 2013 and 2014 Elmet worked with the Wetlands Archaeology & Environmental Research Centre (based at the University of Hull) at Sutton Common, close to Doncaster.  The site at Sutton Common has an Iron Age enclosure, surrounded by banks and ditches and a complex entrance way.  However, Elmet were concerned with rather older remains, in the form of Mesolithic flint scatters and possible structures, which were located on the edge of a palaeochannel.  Volunteers and students from various universities helped on the work and it proved to be a rather interesting site.

alex silverwood

After highlighting the archaeological features of this trench at the WW1 site of Silverwood, excavators define the features by cleaning back the soil. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

Outside of archaeological investigations, Elmet have several other strands of community involvement, one being our weekly reminiscences group which brings together people suffering from dementia and gives them an outlet to attempt to alleviate their condition.  We also host a weekly family history group, where access to computers and heritage websites are provided to the attendees.

The next big project for Elmet is the investigation of a back garden in a village called Swinton, near Rotherham.  This is an exciting new venture for Elmet as it is a crowd-funded excavation, something we have never tried before.  The project came about after the house tenant, Mr Andrew Allen, found a surprisingly large amount of Roman pottery during gardening work.  Not knowing what to do with the finds Andrew contacted Elmet and we decided that we could excavate the garden, teach people the rudiments of archaeological excavation and recording and hope to understand what a large deposit of Roman artefacts was doing there in the first place!  The project can only be carried out by the willingness of people to donate to the fund and each strand of donation has its own reward, with the larger tiers carrying a chance to actually come and excavate with us!  There is more information on the Sponsume site for our project, it can be found here.

Elmet has also hosted several yearly Dearne Valley Archaeology Days, where we have attracted speakers from all over the country talking on a variety of current archaeological topics. Each year has been well attended and has grown in size and scale with each event. The 2014 event was a resounding success, with speakers such diverse topics as blogging in archaeology, the archaeology of Sherwood Forest, Egyptian mummies and Scottish hill forts! This is a tradition that is set to stay and only grow!

Elmet have many future projects on the boil, including a return to Hickleton and Silverwood.  Beyond this we hope to expand into education and training with our series of monthly archaeological workshops.  These are open to members of the public and are taught by experts in many fields.  The workshops we have run already have been well attended and received and included the varied themes of human and animal bones, stratigraphy, illustration, industrial metal working, GIS and a whole host more!  We have several fieldwork opportunities in the future that we are working on, so please drop us a line or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to see our regular updates!

Further Information

  • Details on the Elmet Archaeology’s remaining 2014 workshops (topics include an introduction to human evolution, map regression and archaeological illustration) can be found on the above link on their website.  The workshops are often held in Wath-Upon-Dearne, South Yorkshire, on Saturdays throughout the year.
  • Elmet have a Facebook project page for Unlocking Swinton’s Roman Past, and you can also sponsor the excavation and research with a donation here.  Backers of the project can choose what level of involvement they’d like in the project (dependent on the amount donated), and they can also take part in the excavation themselves and receive copies of the report produced.
  • The Dearne Valley Archaeology Group regularly meet up to discuss heritage and archaeology in South Yorkshire.  They hold monthly lectures from specialists around the region on a variety of topics.  DVAG also help Elmet Archaeology with their annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day conference.  (I can attest as to how good these conferences are as I attended and spoke at the magnificent 2014 edition!).

Literature Travels

28 Aug

In a brief aside from osteoarchaeology, I thought I’d focus a quick entry on what I’ve been reading lately as I wait for my arm to heal.  I have a particular soft spot for travel literature, so I’ve been delving into some classic books from the 20th century.  Among these are American writer John Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue Travels with Charley, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s 1943 autobiography The World of Yesterday, and the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s 1959 memoir Arabian Sands.

By chance my current haul of literature deals with the themes of cultural change (and, in the case of Zweig’s, the devastation of his previous way of life with the rise of Nazism in Europe) and the beauty of the natural landscape in their respective environments.  Thesiger, for instance, relates his constant worries of the impact of petrochemical prospection and development in his beloved and desolate deserts in Saudi Arabia and Oman and the anticipated effects on the Bedouin (Bedu) way of life.  Steinbeck, meanwhile, mourns a population that he barely knows any longer, even as his magnificent and diverse body of work champions their history and lifestyles.

I’m currently in the middle of Thesiger’s memoir detailing his epic 1945-1950 explorations in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and the Empty Quarter in Arabia (Rubʿ al Khali, one of the largest sand deserts in the world spanning parts of Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Yemen and Oman).  I’m struck by his lucid description of Bedouin life, of their harsh but close living environments and tight social structures.  As with reading any literature endeavor care must be taken in understanding the motives of the writer, but it is clear that Thesiger held the Bedouin close to his heart and set about emulating and living their lifestyle as close as he could and was allowed to.

During his numerous journeys into the Empty Quarter Thesiger often acted as an impromptu medic, dispensing medicines he had brought with him to his guides and friends as needed.  In one scene he highlights the use of old remedies that have been passed down in Bedu culture:

During the days that I was at Mughshin my companions often asked me for medicines.  Bedu suffer much from headaches and stomach trouble.  Sometimes my aspirin worked, but if not the sufferer would get someone to brand him, usually on his heels, and would announce a little later that his headache was now gone, and that the old Bedu remedies were better than the Christian’s pills.  Bedu cauterize themselves and their camels for nearly every ill.  Their bellies, chests, and backs are often criss-crossed with the ensuing scars.” (Thesiger 2007: 112).

One first thought by me was the fact that branding would certainly make you forget about headaches quickly!

However it also reminded me of perhaps the most famous iceman in Europe, Ötzi, an individual who lived and die around c.3300 BC during the European Chalcolithic period.  Ötzi, whose naturally mummified body represents the oldest so far found in Europe, has evidence for many distinct line and cross tattoos across his preserved body.  The location of the majority of his 50+ tattoos could possibly be related to the underlying pathologies that are present on his bones.

Radiological investigations have highlighted evidence for osteochondrosis and spondylosis in the lumbar (lower back) region, knee and ankle joints in Ötzi’s skeleton, whilst microscopic analysis of his gut has highlighted evidence for a whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) infestation (Dorfer et al. 1999: 1024).  It has been suggested that the tattoos could relate to an early form of acupuncture to help with the pain, or aches, that Ötzi probably felt (Dorfer et al. 1999: 1025), rather than the tattoos reflecting, or assuming, a purely decorative or ritual form (Scheinfeld 2007: 364).

In the case of the brandings that Thesiger describes in his travels with the Bedu above it is obvious that they have a functional aspect in their use as a treatment for illness, but it is likely that there is deeper meaning ascribed to them.  As such I should probably head back to reading the book!

Bibliography*

Dorfer, L., Moser, M., Bahr, F., Spindler, K., Egarter-Vigl, E., Giullén, S., Dohr, G. & Kenner, T. 1999. A Medical Report from the Stone Age? The Lancet. 354 (9183): 1023–1025. (Open Access).

Scheinfeld, N. 2007. Tattoos and Religion. Clinics in Dermatology. 25 (4): 362-366.

Steinbeck, J. 2000. Travels with Charley. Penguin Modern Classics.

Thesiger, W. 2007. Arabian Sands. London: Penguin Classics.

Zweig, S. 2014. The World of Yesterday. London: Pushkin Press.

* Publication dates are for modern editions.

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