Archaeology Day 2014: A View From Friends

11 Jul

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

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

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

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

- Jennifer Gonissen, an osteoarchaeologist based in Brussels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Emily Evans, field archaeologist for Cotswold Archaeology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Héloïse Meziani, an archaeologist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Alex Sotheran, director at Elmet Archaeolgical Services Ltd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Humerus Tale

7 Jul

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

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

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

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

26 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More

Bibliography:

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

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

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

Pain, Briefly

17 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

Why hadn’t I noticed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

Dearne Archaeology Valley Day 2014

7 Jun

I recently had the great pleasure of attending the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day (DVAD) 2014 conference, which was organised by Elmet Archaeology and the Dearne Valley Archaeology Group, in Wath upon Dearne, South Yorkshire.  As readers of this blog may be aware that I recently posted my own abstract for the talk (here), which focused on the value of blogging archaeology and introduced this blog to members of the public as well as to archaeologists and historians.  It was certainly a first for me to talk at a conference, and I had never thought that I’d actually be talking to an audience about blogging and my own site, but it just goes to show you never quite know where blogging will take you.

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Kate Adelade‘s archaeological illustration stall.  Kate has previously wrote about cannibalism for this blog here.

The event was well attended and included a great range of speakers who covered a variety of topics in the archaeology and heritage areas.  As well as the speakers (a full list can be viewed here), there were also stalls on a number of projects from around the local area.  Jennifer Crangle, a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, was present as well with her stall on the medieval Rothwell Charnel Chapel project (of which I’ve previously discussed here) and Kate Adelade had her modern presentation displaying her fantastic archaeological illustration skills on show.  In fact I was quite impressed by each and every speaker at the day long conference, especially by the different styles and approaches that they all took.  I also learnt a great deal about various projects around the UK and further abroad.  Humour, as I discovered, really can help a talk a great deal too.  David Connolly, of BAJR and Past Horizons fame, really proved this during his animated talk about the Scottish hillforts (or rather ramped and ditched enclosures of unknown date and function) in the Lothians, as part of the on-going Rampart Scotland project.  David’s talk focused on the Iron age site of Sheriffside for his talk, and the great work that him and his team of volunteers underwent to target viable radiocarbon samples to help phase the site.

There were some great talks on community projects too, such as Mercian Archaeological Services CIC on-going Sherwood Forest Archaeological Project and a nice little round up of the great work that Elmet Archaeology have so far conducted in South Yorkshire.  Elmet further whetted the audience’s appetites by highlighting some future projects as well,  including the investigation of a WW2 POW camp at Hickleton Hall, near Doncaster, which promises to be pretty interesting in unearthing the physical remains of a legacy of war.

There were also talks that really grabbed my imagination in the size and scale of their ambitions and detail.  The first was by Victoria Donnelly, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, that focused on her research on the grey literature of the archaeological record.  This is a part of the fascinating EngLaId project, which aims to characterise and explore the extent of the archaeological landscape in England by studying English archaeology from 1500BC to AD1086.  Victoria focused her talk on her own research into the grey literature and, with the use of GIS magic (Geographical Information Systems), provided some great examples highlighting the focus of commercial archaeological investigations.  Who, for instance, knew that, in England, Suffolk County Council are one of the bigger archaeological researchers in England?  I certainly didn’t and it was an eye opening presenting into the mystery of the oft maligned grey literature that all archaeological investigations produce.

Of a particular interest to me, due in part as of having studied in Sheffield itself, was Andrew Whitham’s talk on the Sheffield General Cemetery, which was opened in 1836 to accommodate a range of burials in the burgeoning industrial city (Sayer 2010: 29).  I had known about the site thanks to reading Elmet Archaeology’s own osteoarchaeologist Lauren McIntyre and University of Sheffield researcher Linzi Harvey’s 2012 survey report of the non-conformist crypt, but I had not realised the sheer size and subterranean magnificence of the site, nor of the effort in the construction of the site itself.  Andrew’s magnificent talk highlighted the fact that the General Cemetery was, unfortunately, a failure of Sheffield with many residents of the burgeoning city of Sheffield not wanting to be interred in the numerous space saving crypts, and instead wanting to be interred individually in graves.  The General cemetery today is a place that is well loved and respected by the city as a key piece of the history of Sheffield, and a place of recognition for understanding the changes in burial law for non-conformist burials.

As it happens I am currently reading archaeologist Duncan Sayer‘s Ethics and Burial Archaeology (2010), a fantastic Duckworth Debates in Archaeology book that focuses on contextualising the understanding how we approach buried human remains, both from a historical point of view and of an archaeology wide industry perspective.  Sayer, currently a researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, has worked extensively as a field archaeologist on many of the recent post-medieval cemetery excavations in Sheffield.  Indeed the Sheffield cemeteries make up a large portion of the case studies used in Ethics and Burial Archaeology and are used as examples of the troubles of trying to both understand the construction of graveyards and of understanding the now-outdated burial laws of the 19th century in a modern context.  It is a must read for any archaeologist or interested member of the public to understand the unique and difficult position that the UK currently finds itself in regarding the law of excavation and retention of human remains.

But finally at DVAD we had the day double-ended by talks on the Egyptian dead by both Dr Campbell Price, of Manchester Museum, who discussed the appeal of mummies in museums and by Prof. Joann Fletcher, of the University of York, who highlighted the value of working with the non-cadaver material of mummies in both Egypt and the wider world.  Both talks were eye opening regarding the practice of how the archaeology and heritage sector study and displays human remains.  It was great and inspiring to see such passion and invigoration with which the results of studies carried out by Fletcher et al. were conveyed to a largely public audience.

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The beginning of my own talk on blogging archaeology.

But coming back to my own talk, which was held at the beginning of the day, I have to admit that I was quite nervous before and during the start of my own talk, but you live and learn.  As the talk went on I did become to feel more comfortable about the topic and of my own knowledge.  However I have taken away a few points on how to improve my own public speaking, and I aim to use these to help address the issues that I faced during my own presentation at DVAD.  In fact I think this would probably be a pretty good topic for a future blog post, as presenting and communicating at conferences, and at public talks, is a pretty good skill to have and a must if archaeologists are to present the importance of their research to a wider audience.  There was one point in the talk that I had hoped to make but had unfortunately forgot to include it.  That is that the blogging format is an evolving body of text, one that needs constant revision and refinement but is, nonetheless, one of the strengths and one of the weaknesses of the blogging format.  Content, not format, is the important part of any communication, especially in the blogging world where the audience faces so many distractions at the touch of a button.

My own talk was actually influenced by the fantastic blogging carnival that Doug, of Doug’s Archaeology, carried out ahead of the SAA conference in April of this year.  My own five blog entries for the carnival forced me look again at why I blog archaeology, the effect it has had for myself and for understanding the benefit of discussing the importance of the human skeletal remains in archaeology generally.  I should also state here that I am extremely grateful to Kristina Killgrove (of Powered By Osteons), Doug Rocks Macqueen (of Doug’s Archaeology), Sam Hardy (of (Un)free Archaeology) and Katy Meyers (of Bones Don’t Lie) for providing quotes on why they blog, which I used in my presentation as examples of the reasons.  It is these bloggers, and many others, that provide me with the inspiration to carry on blogging.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my day at DVAD.  I met some great people, I learnt a lot and I had a wonderful time whilst doing so.  I owe a big thank you to Chris, Alex and Lauren at Elmet Archaeology for all of their hard work for putting on a great conference, and here is to next years conference!

It seems that we have also entered the season of the (bio)archaeology conference.  This weekend will see me attending the University of Durham Engaging with the Dead conference, and it is an event that I am particularly looking forward to.  It will be two packed days of exploring changing human beliefs about the body, death and mortality over 8000 years.  The event will have a particular focus on the archaeological remains of human bodies and of traces of mortuary culture in Britain and the Levant, as a part of the on-going Invisible Dead project, which is itself based at the University of Durham.

Note

The photographs here appear with the courtesy of Alex Sotheran.

Learn More

  • The Elmet Archaeology blog has a nice little summary of the day’s speakers along with some great photographs, read more here.
  • The University of York Mummy Research Group Home Page has detailed information on the analysis of the many mummies that the group has looked at and continues to study.
  • The Rampart Scotland homepage can be found here, with information on the range of hillfort sites in Scotland and the importance of these longstanding monuments in the landscape.
  • The EngLaID home page, the project to analyse change and continuity in the English landscape from the early Bronze Age to the Domesday survey, can be found here.   The site blog also have a review of DVAD here.

Bibliography

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

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

BAJR Update: The More Than Minima Campaign

21 May

The British Archaeology Jobs and Resource (BAJR) site has recently unleashed a new campaign aimed at highlighting job adverts that pay more than the minimum salary wage.  The More than Minima campaign aims to highlight and recognise any job advertisement on the BAJR website that pays beyond the minima as a starting rate, which helps to promote fair pay within the archaeological industry.  Advertisements that meet this criteria will have the BAJR grene thumbs up logo attached to the job advertisements, so that potential applicants can immediately know that the company and position pay above the recognised and current pay grades.

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On all archaeological job advertisements on the BAJR website look out for the green thumbs up logo to show that the advertisement offers a More than Minima salary (Image courtesy of David Connolly/BAJR).

I had the chance to ask David Connolly, who runs the BAJR site and has kickstarted the campaign himself, why he felt it was necessary to bring in the More than Minima campaign now and what he hoped to achieve with it.  This is his response:

I think the point is the positivity of the campaign.  This is not a punishment driven proposal, it is one that commends the companies that try that little bit extra to provide better pay (and conditions) for their staff.  Flagging these adverts is a way of saying thanks! It also hopefully suggests that paying better than the bare minima is a way to attract staff, who will be more inclined to feel valued.

Of course the campaign will continue along with the skills passport (which is to be ready in 1 week).  The real battle is in getting the archaeologists to support it as well. Not to take below minima jobs, not to accept poor pay and not to continue the fallacy that any job is better than none.

This is a big directional campaign rewarding companies and asking archaeologists to help it grow.

The new campaign follows hot on the trail of the announcement this week that the rising levels of interest rates and inflation rates threaten the recovery of the UK economy.  Whilst it is hoped that the rise in wages will outpace inflation in the long term, it is news that will worry many.  Archaeology is a profession that has long been undervalued, both in terms of actual inherent worth and in the many diverse skills that the sector and it’s employees actually have.

Here at These Bones of Mine I heartily endorse the new campaign and hope that you to can join in and spread the word about it as well.  We must not, as archaeologists, undersell or undervalue our skilled industry.  As such I believe that this campaign will benefit not just the job seeking archaeologist and the companies themselves, but archaeology as an industry by setting an industry standard.   The recent approval and success  for the Chartership of the Institute of Archaeologists has come at a great time for the archaeology industry, but we must continue to promote the value and wealth of the archaeology profession as a whole.  The More than Minima is one more such campaign and I urge you to back it.

Further Info

  • See the BAJR forum for the announcement of the More Than Minima campaign and for some reaction from the archaeological community.

Brief Updates: Archaeological Desks & Palaeoanthropology

17 May

The archaeologist Robert M Chapple has recently done something a bit special to celebrate his 100th post over at his blog.  In a thoughtful and entertaining entry Robert discusses the writing and thinking space of the humble desk, that much maligned friend of the archaeologist.  Indeed when a person thinks of an archaeologist the first thing that pops into a person’s head is the excitement of fieldwork in far-flung countries, a trowel perhaps, maybe some bones or Indiana Jones cracking his whip.  It is rarely the vital tool that is the desk, a space in which to hunker down, study site reports, books and process the archaeological record properly over a hot cup of tea, that pops into the minds of people asked to think about archaeology.

Yet the desk is where the action happens!  This is where the hard work of the amalgamation of knowledge happens, where the fieldwork is fleshed with the existing archive and the site is put within a larger context.  Interpretations are made and broken on the humble desk.  So Robert, recognising this vital space of thought and action, also saw it as a deeply personal space for the individual.  As such he asked a wide variety of his archaeological friends to send their own photographs of their desks for his 100th blog entry.  And it is a lovely entry, displaying both academic desks and personal spaces.  I was also asked to join in and you can see my little bedside table from which I am writing this now!  Although my work area is pretty bare compared to the desks (and fantastic 2 or 3 screen adapted computers) on show here, I got a serious longing for the university library where I carried out the majority of my dissertation research.

In other news I have produced a small article for the Teesside Archaeology Society TEESCAPES magazine.  I was kindly asked to write for them by my good friend Spencer Carter, who is the edited of the magazine and a specialist in studying and understanding the context of prehistoric microlithics.  Spencer is currently researching the Mesolithic period of northern England and his fantastic Microburin site, which documents his research and outreach work, can be found here.  My article, which was published in the 2014 Spring Edition of TEESSCAPES, focuses on the amazing palaeoanthropological highlights of 2013 and specifically mentions the Georgian site of the Homo erectus finds at Dmanisi (1), the Spanish site of Sima de la Huesos, and the Rising Star South African project.  It is an informal look back on year of research and excavations that bought much to the table in terms of our of knowledge of understanding human evolution.  (I may also have sneaked in an Alan Partridge joke).

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A great Spring 2014 edition of TEESSCAPES by the Teesside Archaeological Society with articles on a variety of topics including, but not limited to, history and archaeology in the national curriculum, the Mesolithic forests of the coast of NE England, museum reviews, Streethouse before the Saxons and human evolution. There are also field notes and books reviews. Read more about the editor’s views, Spencer Carter, in his enlightening blog on post on publishing and editing archaeology journals and open access in archaeology over at Microburin here.

I’ve tried to frame the article within a basic introduction to palaeoanthropology, some of the major new techniques being used in the study of past populations and some of the problems in trying to understand the fossil record and of human evolution in general.  It is a short article but I have to say I am very impressed by the presentation of the article, so a big thank you Spence!  I hope to start producing articles for TAS as and when I can, but this aside I would urge any reader to check it out and to check out any local archaeology societies or companies near to you.  They really are a wealth of original research and really help you get to grips with what is going on in your region and further abroad.  My own article also includes a cheeky photography of me in a lab coat which is sadly, at the moment, a rare occasion.  If you are an archaeologist, a student archaeologist or someone who just manages to engage in their passion between sleep and work then I heartily recommend jumping in and writing for your local society!

Notes

(1).   The article is a review of the amazing palaeoanthropological finds and research of 2013 and as such is likely to become out of touch with the passing of years, as new research highlights new evidence or different perspectives are investigated, hypothesized and studied in-depth.  A good example of this is the fairly recent claim that the Dmanisi individuals, discussed in my article, could possibly (but unlikely) represent different lineages of hominin species (check out Jamie Kendrick’s site The Human Story for more information on this issue and for in-depth entries on human evolution in general).

Further Information

  • Learn about the Teesside Archaeology Society here.
  • Current and past editions of TEESSCAPES can be found here.
  • Robert M Chapple’s awesome blog can be found and read here.
  • Spencer Carter’s fantastic Microburin site can be read here.

Body Worlds Vital Exhibition Comes To Life

11 May

Just a quick post here to highlight an exhibition that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

The International Centre for Life, located in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, is playing host to the Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds Vital exhibition from the 17th of May to the 2nd of November 2014.  This  promises to be an interesting opportunity for the public to see first hand the exhibition of human bodies and associated prosected organs and tissues, and a chance to learn about the value of human anatomy and physiology.  As well as the main exhibition there will also be numerous special events taking place throughout the seven month showing.  This includes the opportunity to attend public lectures on the ethics of displaying dead individuals, the relationship between art and the dead (featuring one Paul Koudounaris) and the chance to learn how to draw the human body, amongst other topics as yet to be disclosed.

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Exhibition at the Centre for Life in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. The display has a number of human bodies and prosected organs and tissues on show, often promoting a healthy lifestyle message. A number of the bodies are placed into classical poses from the Renascence era.  Image credit: Centre for Life.

The Body Worlds organisation has been around for a while now and is currently running a number of exhibitions around the world, although it has not been without its criticisms (see below).  The International Centre for Life itself is a pretty unique complex of buildings (a science village) which plays a major focus in funding and researching the life sciences in the heart of Newcastle, as well providing a family friendly interactive museum at the Centre for Life itself.

Ethics

The bioarchaeology researcher Jess Beck, over at Bone Broke, has a particularly good blog entry detailing the varied views on the ethics of displaying human remains for the public and her post mentions specific criticisms of a previous incarnation of Body Worlds.  This has focused, in the past, on the actual providence of the bodies of the individuals on display and of the actual feasibility of the anatomical positions of the bodies themselves (Moore & Brown 2004, see this 2006 NPR article for further details).  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition has made explicit announcements stating that each and every body or organ on display has been donated specifically for the Body Worlds Vital exhibition with the blessing of the person when they were alive.  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition, housed at the Life Science Centre, has been thoroughly vetted by the Human Tissue Authority and the exhibition approved (the report can be read here).

The Exhibition

I have been twice now to view the exhibition, and I really think that it pays to visit these types of exhibitions a few times.  The first time I visited by myself, allowing plenty of time to become acquainted with the outlay and display of the human bodies.  The second time I went with a few friends of mine and experienced a different kind of interaction with the displays.  Each time I went I saw a mixed age audience with both women and men of all stripes taking in the show.  Most importantly I saw enthused children looking at the bodies, asking their parents what each part of the body does and why, sometimes asking pretty tough and interesting questions (‘how many red blood cells are there in the body?’).  This was fantastic to see and especially parents taking their time to explain the human body, the differences as the body ages and the anatomical differences between the sexes, to their children.

The exhibition layout seemed a bit all  over, with no main overarching theme, I had expected a lifespan approach with the bodies displayed in various approaches as you went along but instead they were placed along the edge of the exhibition length punctuated by prosected tissues.  Each little area often a health point (obesity, cancer, dementia and over-drinking to name but a few) highlighted with a diseased and non-diseased specimen on show.  Personally it was a bit too black and white moral wise, no care giving was mentioned.  The terminology sometimes changed from the common name (collar bone) to the medical (sub-clavian  artery), which may confuse visitors as to the medical terms used- it would have made more sense to stick to one approach and to explain it to the viewer what precise terms used meant.

The bodies themselves were spell-binding although all lacked adipose fat, which had been removed as a part of the plastination process.  This made me curious as it highlighted ‘perfect’ bodies, whereas in real life most people have, and need, an amount of body fat for survival.  Furthermore the individuals are not named, as a matter of course, as the individuals had only died within the past few decades.  But it did bring up an interesting discussion point with my friend Will in the pub afterwards.  Archaeology often deals with the nameless dead, whereas this actively made the bodies anonymous, to represent a human ‘individual’ and not a person with a family or a social package.  A part of me still can’t help but wonder what their lives were like, who did they love and what did they do with their lives.  The posing of the fleshed bodies was certainly unique and allowed for an in-depth look into the musculature and nervous systems of several individuals.

Overall I really felt that the public had the opportunity and chance to look at the human body in all of its wonder.  The body was not hiding in morgues, research rooms or funeral homes, it was on display for all to admire and learn from.  Visit, you will not be disappointed.

Preserving Bodies

Whilst this is just a quick post, I would like to highlight that the plastination technique that Gunther von Hagens uses is but one method of preservation for cadaveric material.

The Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, at the University of Dundee in Scotland, currently uses a fascinating technique called the Thiel Cadaver Facility to preserve human cadavers for use in anatomical and forensic laboratory sessions.  This soft-fix method preserves the body’s tissues and ensures a life-like quality of flexibility which enables tissues such as muscles and the skin to be flexed fully during teaching and dissections sessions.  The Thiel process, although long, also helps to retain the original hues of the body as opposed to the usual formaldehyde method, which usually leaves bodies and tissues looking pale and anaemic.

Further Information

  • A detailed Centre for Life FAQ on the Body Worlds Vital exhibition can be found here.
  • Learn about the history and the aims of the science village The International Centre for Life here.
  • Jess Beck’s Bone Broke entry on the ethics of displaying human remains can be found here.  Particularly of interest is the double standard of criticism that exists in the ethics between museum and academic institutions displaying of human remains compared to the ‘overtly commercial nature’ of the Body Worlds style of exhibition of human remains.  It is a thoughtful point that Beck raises in her blog entry.
  • Visit Empire de la Mort, the website of artist, historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris.
  • Learn about Gunther von Hagens intriguing method of plastination that he uses on both human and animal cadavers.
  • Learn about the Thiel cadaver technique here or here, which is currently being pioneered in the UK at the University of Dundee.

Bibliography

Moore, M. C. & Brown, C. M. 2004. Gunther Von Hagens and Body Worlds Part 1: The Anatomist as Prosektor and Proplastiker. The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist. 267B (1): 8-14. (Open Access).

Gaming Archaeology: Digging Up E.T.

1 May

Imagine finding thousands upon thousands of copies of a game thought long-lost (well at least since the 80’s).  You may think they’d be worth a fortune, you may wonder who did could fund such a scheme, or you may simply wonder why it would be worth digging or searching for the games in the first place.

Courtesy of NPR and The New Statesman I’ve found out about a pretty interesting project to recover the mythically dumped 1983 E.T. movie tie-in game cartridges from a suspected landfill site in Alamogordo, New Mexico.  Although the rumour of the Atari company dumping truck fulls of this wildly unsuccessful tie-in game was long thought to have been an urban legend, the film director Zak Penn and associated archaeologists have managed to find, excavate and recover thousands of the said game from the landfill site in the southern US state, proving that Atari really did dump their sadly unloved game en mass.

Is this really archaeology though?*  In a way it is as it fits the basic concept of recovering the material remains of past populations and cultures.  The video game cartridge itself is now a relic in the modern gaming age, an age where games can be downloaded and played almost anywhere in the world, on a wide range and ever-increasing variety of platforms.

Cartridge and retro gaming still retains a strong and vibrant audience however, and the media attention that this uncovering has gained has gone some way to prove that there is still a deep interest in what was then the emerging gaming market.  It is highly likely that the above game also represents a touch point for a certain gaming generation audience, a period where money flooded into the development for the nascent gaming industry.  Indeed, amongst a selection of my own  friends you only have to mention the 1997 Nintendo 64 James Bond game Goldeneye and you are instantly met with misty looks of nostalgia and fond memories spilling from their mouths (and mine).

My immediate thought on hearing of the uncovering of thousands of copies of the game?  Where are they going to go!  There is a persistent rumour that the games may number in the millions, but this has yet to be seen.  It is likely that there will be a vibrant market for such early video gaming memorabilia, as keen gamers, for instance, have already set up shop at the site to play the copies that are coming straight out of the ground.

Yet the story of the E.T. games, resting in their thousands unloved and out of sight in a dumping ground in New Mexico for many years also reminded me of a challenge currently facing archaeology in the UK.  This is the issue of storage space.  Currently the storage space in museums and commercial units for the produce of archaeological investigations, namely the artefacts, environmental samples and archive documents produced or excavated during a projects lifetime, is already at bursting point in many institutions and organisations throughout the UK.  Thousands, if not millions, of artefacts and environmental samples are waiting to be either recorded, preserved, stored, curated or displayed.  The planning and excavation of archaeological sites is but one facet of archaeology as a whole, but every archaeological excavation (if it is necessary) must budget and plan for the storage and accession of the artefacts uncovered and of reports, plans and documents produced before, during and after the actual act of digging.

It is not an area of simple answers, nor could I suggest one here.  It is an area that I hope to explore in future blog posts as this is a rich area for study, and one intricately linked with the Open Access movement, digital media and the changing face of heritage in the UK.

* Yes!

Update 02/05/14

It seems as if I was too hasty to think that no archaeologists were involved with the project.  Comments on this post, from the ever helpful Doug (of Doug’s Archaeology) and from John of Where The Hell Am I fame, have highlighted the fact that archaeologists have been involved from the off in helping to manage the project, and locate and excavate the E.T. games.  You can read a pretty fantastic interview her with Andrew Reinhard, the lead archaeologist for the project, which discusses the contextualisation of the project.  Team member Bill Caraher also has a blog where he has written about the Atari project, and you can read a fascinating post here discussing the often limited mention of archaeologists in mainstream media.

I often try to let a blog post slowly materialise as I think about an angle and gather sources together to help form a wider view on a particular issue, but I wrote this particular entry pretty fast after reading a few mainstream media articles highlighting the project.  As an archaeological blogger (although arguably leaning towards osteoarchaeology more) I made the relatively fatal but benign error of not digging deeper and actually discovering myself that archaeologists were involved in this fascinating project.  So I thank the commenters on this post for keeping me right and for pointing me in the direction of the archaeologists themselves.

Future Funding: Disabled Students Allowance in the UK

21 Apr

There are some quietly dramatic changes ongoing in higher education in the UK currently but there is one issue that is particularly close to my heart that, as I scanned newspapers and current affairs magazines over the past few weeks, seems to have received scant media coverage or attention.

On the 7th of April David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, released a ministerial statement on future changes to the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) that will affect new students from the 15/16 academic year on-wards.  The Disabled Student Allowance are non-repayable grants, available to both part-time and full-time undergraduate or postgraduate students, that assist with additional costs that a disabled student incurs in relation to their study in higher education, such as when a disabled individual may need a note taker during lectures, a library helper to find and handle books, or when they require specialist equipment for studying and for producing written work.  Those disabled students who are currently enrolled and agreed DSA will not be affected by the new changes, but students who start in 15/16 academic year will be affected.

The aim, Willetts declares in the statement, is to modernise Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) by reviewing the £125 million-a-year support given to thousands of disabled students in the UK.  Essentially the Student Loans Company, the not-for-profit company that provides student loans and DSA in the UK, will be limiting the support types and equipment allocation that they currently fund for disabled students who attend higher education.  Willetts states that he would expect the higher education institutions (HEI’s) to pick up the slack, and provide and pay for the more general support types needed by individual students with disabilities.  Thus the limited public funds available for DSA will support and supply disabled students applying for higher education with a core allocation for certain complex types of support (such as specialised software), whilst hoping that the individual institutions will have the frameworks in place for providing more generalised support types for disabled students in conjunction with support suppliers.

The only mainstream magazine that I have seen mention or discuss the announcement is the ever reliable Private Eye magazine (current edition No. 1364, page 9), and online independent bloggers such as Assist Tech.  Private Eye quote the fact that the National Association of Disability Practitioners (the providers of support that invoice the Student Loan Company for support given) have stated that the move as described by Willetts would create an enormous disincentive for universities to recruit disabled students because of the costs involved.

The value of having a centralised loan company that can collect information, review procedures and investigate providers of equipment and support will surely be lost if individual HEI’s have to rely on a  binary system of dealing with both the Student Loans Company and the individual practitioners, during the providing of support for disabled individuals in higher education.

Following the ministerial statement by Willetts, Paul Higgs, as a part of the Higher Education Student Funding Policy in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also released a more in-depth Student Support Information Note in April 2014 (SSIN, fully accessible here).  In it the nuts and bolts of the modernisation program is highlighted, and it makes for depressing reading:

  • The bulk of the non-specialist non-medical helpers (NMH) support that is currently funded by DSA will no longer be funded by the Student Loan Company.  This includes library or laboratory assistants, note takers, personal helpers, mentors or specialist helpers.
  • The majority of the equipment that is currently funded by DSA will no longer be funded from 15/16 on-wards, only specialist equipment that is specifically needed by the student will be funded.
  • No assistive technology support or related non-medical helper support is expected to be funded either.
  • Funding will no longer be provided for consumable items (paper, ink etc).
  • No funding will be given for additional costs regarding accommodation changes where the accommodation is funded by the HEI, if this is to be a problem the HEI itself is expected to meet the cost.

There is, of course, core funding that will remain in place and accessible for disabled students from The Student Loans Company itself in complex situations (although complexicity in this instance is not defined further).  The HEI should hopefully have core support ring-fenced from its own allocation of funding and have such frameworks in place for the support of disabled students from the 15/16 academic year on-wards.  The aim of the statement and intended proposals from Willetts and Higgs is to ensure that the DSA is up to date, consummate with the use of public funds and its spending, and to make sure that HEI’s are abiding by the 2010 Equality Act, which ensures that disabled individuals have an equal playing field, in both academia and in employment compared to the average non-disabled individual.  This is an honourable view certainly.

Yet I retain deep reservations about this latest move by the government.  Yes it has only just been announced and yes it is not currently in practice, but I worry for disabled students access to higher education and to academia generally.  This move will force a greater financial burden onto educational institutions throughout the country.  The economic worth of study, and of the place of academia within a national economy generally, is not in dispute, but the availability of access to academia by every sector of society is.  The move is also slowly breaking down the great vision that study is worth it for its own sake as limitations are further placed on the value of access to education.  Furthermore it is another demoralising move towards eroding the individual freedom of disabled people by dismantling core government support, and fanning it out instead to a variety of organisations and companies.

Dr Sarah Lewthwaite, who is a post doctoral research associate in student experience at King’s College London, argues in a critical and perceptive article for The Guardian‘s Higher Education Network that the latest publicly available records state that the DSA annual spending statistics are actually down compared to previous years (12/13 academic year compared to previous academic years).  Further to this, she also questions the areas that are being proposed to be cut by central funding from The Student Loans Company, highlighting that the

Proposed changes to DSA funding may fundamentally redefine disability in higher education. Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ADHD, have been singled out for the largest cuts, and there is a real danger that their needs become invisible.

Willetts has chosen to restrict focus to more “complex” SpLDs and those requiring “most specialist” support. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between a medical diagnosis and the support requirements that students may have. Indeed, it is ironic that the one group singled out for cuts to academic support are those whose disability explicitly affects learning.

It is worth reading Lewthwaite’s full article as it exposes some of the concerns from the academic sector itself, as well as highlighting issues that will affect disabled students and their access to education.

Patoss, the professional association of teachers of students with special learning difficulties, has also raised its concerned with the changes proposed by Willetts.  In a statement, mentioned on their post on the proposals, Paddy Turner has stated that “the size and the scale of these cuts is unprecedented and represents a retrogressive step in equality for disabled people“.  Needless to say I will be interested to see the development and implementation of the modernisation of DSA in the upcoming years ahead.  I will also keep an eye out for further information as and when it becomes available.

Note 1

A thank you goes to Chris Morley, who highlighted in the comments section below several invaluable articles that helped improve this post.

Note 2

Please note that students in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland may be affected differently due to national changes.  It has also become apparent that different universities may have allocated funds for disabled students which could be used for support.  However the problem still remains that universities that formally received DSA support from central government may no longer be able to provide for disabled students.  Please remember that this is dynamic situation and I’d expect changes to happen, especially as a General Election is due in 2015.

Further Information

  • The ministerial statement by Rt Hon. David Willetts, MP for Universities and Science, can be read here.
  • Paul Higgs SSIN statement on the changes in DSA for 15/16 can be found here.
  • Read Sarah Lewthwaite’s perceptive article in the Guardian’s Higher Education Network section here.
  • Have a read of Assist Tech’s personal view and much more detailed response to Willett’s and Higgs’s statement here.  Worth noting is where the ministerial statement found the statistics it uses on the access to a laptop question.  It is misleading at best.
  • The National Union of Students has blasted the decision by Willets in this article here.
  • Read the legislation for the Equality Act 2010 here.
  • The University of Sheffield Union is holding a demonstration against the cuts on the 6th of June, as part of an on-going campaign.  Find out more information here.
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