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.

Humerus Triptych: Fracturing & Fixing

22 Aug

I just can’t seem to help myself.  No sooner do I find out that I’d previously (and unknowingly) fractured a number of my ribs over a period of years, do I go and fracture my right humerus in the early evening sun of a peaceful July night.  It was, of course, shortly accompanied by the familiar wash of painkillers that helped numb the pain somewhat.  I’ve mentioned the humerus fracture a number of times in recent blog entries but I have not, until now, managed to obtain copies of the X-rays to highlight the break itself, and the subsequent surgical procedure that I underwent to fixate it.  With thanks to modern technology, I present to you below my right humerus in post-accident pre-surgery and post-accident post-surgery poses, if you will.  As White and Folkens (2005: 312) highlight fractures normally occur ‘as a result of abnormal forces of tension, compression, torsion, bending, or shear applied to the bone’, and they are often described by the features of the break itself (i.e. transverse, oblique, spiral etc).

I have long feared fracturing any of my bones in either upper arms (brachium), forearms (antebrachium) or hands (manus), even though I’ve had a somewhat turbulent history of pathologically fractured bones in my lower limbs.  Alongside this I have also undergone a fairly extensive list of elective surgery to fixate the femora and right tibia due to the effects of McCune Albright Syndrome (including improving the angle of the so-called shepherd’s crook deformity of the femoral neck).  Thus where a natural fracture or planned surgical procedure on the lower limbs may mean I cannot use my crutches for a few months, I can still use the wheelchair to maintain physical independence.  This is not so with a fractured upper limb, where healing will take many months.

To return to the common name usage, I rely on my arms not just for holding or grasping objects but for the locomotion of my manual wheelchair.  As such they are, in a simple essence, my legs for daily mobility.  I use them also to partially bear my weight when I use my crutches to walk, so a fractured upper limb bone would mean walking is out of the question as well.  I have fractured a humerus only once before, aged 13 at school.  An ill-advised arm wrestle resulted in my friend looking at my pale and quickly draining face in horror as I cradled my snapped right humerus in shock.  It is safe to say that my friend won that match, and I’ve been wary of competing in arm wrestles ever since!  The result of that match was a lengthy spell in plaster (or some variation thereof as, after few months, plaster gave way to support splint, and splint gave way to a laughable plastic guard).

right humerus fracture 2014 july

X-ray of my brachium (upper arm) with the transverse (possibly oblique) fracture of the right distal humerus in a cast before surgery (far left), the post-surgery fixation with a titanium plate and screws (centre), and finally a view of the brachium that highlights the plate and the depth of the screws (right), which help to keep the fixation and fracture site stable by equally distributing stress.  The tell-tale signs of the ‘ground glass’ appearance of polyostotic fibrous dysplasia (as a part of the McCune Albright Syndrome that I have) can also be seen in the X-rays, as can the evidence of a previous fracture and natural bowed shape of the humerus.

In truth the recent humeral fracture was the result of my impatience, gained as a result of quickly bouncing off a curb to catch a waiting taxi, and coming off worse for wear as the wheelchair tipped and I instinctively shot out my right arm to stop myself.  The pain from a fracture comes not from the bone breaking but from the damage to the soft tissues that surround the bone.  The periosteum, a tough connective tissue that nourishes and covers all outer external surfaces of the bones barring articular surfaces of the long bones, is home to nerves that the bones themselves are not (White & Folkens 2005: 42).  A fracture of the bone often damages the periosteum tissues (which causes pain) and leads to swelling of local tissues.  The periosteum, and associated endosteum membrane (located on the inner surface of bones), are also one of the origins where the precursor bone cells develop into chondroblasts and osteoblasts, which are essential for helping the bone fracture heal successfully (White & Folkens 2005: 43).

A small but significant benefit of having polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia is the fact that the pathological fracture patterns tend to be transverse breaks due to the weak structure of the bone architecture, which tends to limit injury to both the nerves and the soft tissues surrounding the fracture area (Marsland & Kapoor 2008: 121).  However, due to the pathological bone porosity and the often high bone cell turnover rate as a part of the overall syndrome, there is the prospect of extensive bleeding during surgical procedures.  This can lead to extensive blood loss during major operations (such as during osteotomy procedures and/or internal and external fixations to help improve the bowing of a limb or to correct pathological fractures).  As such the patient’s blood is often cross matched beforehand with suitable blood groups, for infusion during major surgical procedures to combat excessive blood loss.

In the immediate aftermath of the fracture I was given heavy painkillers and taken to hospital where, after a light sleep overnight, my arm was put into a cast before I underwent surgery later in the week in a hospital nearer my hometown.  The decision was taken not to reduce the bone before the surgery and just to rest it.  On weight bearing bones (such as the tibia or femur) or load bearing bones (such as the mandible in adults), it is important that the bone is reduced quickly and properly to minimise complications and induce good healing (Marsland & Kapoor 2008: 120).  The humeral fracture was openly reduced and fixated under general anesthetic with a titanium locking plate, as can be seen in the above X-ray, and the surgeon achieved a good fix and stability of the distal humerus with the plate.  Curiously, even though the fracture was trauma induced, it was less painful than the fracture that had occurred when I was 13.  The arm still feels heavy and slightly cumbersome, but there is no doubt that the internal fixation is preferable to the months in the plaster cast.  It will still take many months for the bone to heal properly as it is still in the early stages of the primary bony callus, a process where woven bone bridges the initial fibrous connective tissue callus that responds to a fracture in the first few days.  This woven bone is, after a few months, later converted to lamellar bone and the fracture site will be further remodelled.  Eventually, if a fracture site is initially kept stable by immobilization or by fixation as in my case, the bone can remodel so completely as to eliminate any trace of the original fracture (White & Folkens 2005: 48).

Traumatic fractures are found in all periods of human and hominin history, and it is likely that you yourself have suffered a fractured bone of some description, perhaps even unknowingly (Marsland & Kapoor 2008: 121).  They can be devastating, requiring many years of surgery or physiotherapy to gain and improve movement as the sociologist Ann Oakley highlights in her 2007 book Fracture: Adventures of  Broken Body, a personal account detailing the social and professional impact of a fractured right humerus accident which had impinged on nerves, leading to reduced function and feeling.  Fracture treatment has been practiced for thousands of years and it has long been known that, with the reduction of the break and stabilization of the limb, good results can be achieved (Marsland & Kapoor 2008).  The study of fractures in populations can also highlight trends in the attention received as Meyers (2012) has highlighted in an entry on the differences of fracture treatment between Iron Age and Romano-British populations in Britain.

fractured right tibia digistied diseases 0365

The right tibia of an adult, courtesy of the free online resource Digitised Diseases. Notice the well healed mid-shaft oblique fracture in the (a) anterior view, (b) is the posterior view and (c) is the close up posterior view, where right is proximal and left distal. The callus is fully remodelled with smooth bone over the fracture site, where the end is displaced laterally and proximally. Image credit: Digitised Diseases 2014 (Master Record Number 0365).

Still this entry’s approach is focused on the personal, not at the population level.  Another part of my body has broken and it is once again held together by titanium, likely to be a permanent addition to my skeleton.  The movement at the glenohumeral joint (otherwise known as the shoulder) is normal while movement at the elbow joint (comprised of the humeroulnar, humeroradial and superior radioulnar joints) is almost back to normal.  There is still a lack of full extension of the joint, with noticed tension in the biceps brachii muscle as it acts as the antagonist to the triceps brachii muscle during forearm extension, although daily physiotherapy should help to regain full movement.  I am no stranger to the strength of the metal in my body and I remain impressed by its capability in the use of orthopaedic fixation.  The use of metallic implants to fixate fractures is nothing new as Lane (1895) and Uhthoff et al. (2006) attest.  Whilst the use of casts to set fractures continues, it is the increase in the use and versatility of technology and materials to give nature a helping hand that remains the next big step in treating bone fractures (Bali et al. 2013).

Metal plates have been in use for over a hundred years where early pioneers such as Lane (1895), Lambotte (1909) and Sherman (1912) first introduced plates to help stabilize fracture sites and help mobilize patients faster than plaster casts could allow (Uhthoff et al. 2006: 118).  Although these early plates suffered from corrosion problems it soon became apparent that internal plate fixation could provide a safe and efficient way for patients to heal, whilst also regaining some form of movement.  Various plate designs improved on earlier designs, allowing for micromotion at the fracture site and compensation for bone resorption during the healing process.  Uhthoff et al. (2006: 124) contend that there are still problems in the form of internal plates, where compression and stress shielding can still lead to bone necrosis and cortical porosis.  In their conclusion they argue that there still needs to be a fine balance attained between a plate design that managed to reduce stress shielding and allows adequate micromotion at the site of a fracture, both which they concur would help mimic biological healing.  There also drawbacks that can include plate palpability, risk of infection, temperature sensitivity and possible growth restriction with metallic implants (Bali et al. 2013: 167).   Ultimately however the body still has to heal the fracture itself over a matter of weeks and months (White & Folkens 2005: 48).

It is interesting to note that Sir William Lane himself, writing in the late 19th century and primarily focusing on lower limb fractures, indicates the marked differences between upper and lower limb fracture treatment.  He states that although the upper limb does not take the weight of the body:

… in the arm very considerable alterations may occasionally develop, and are more marked and depreciating to the value of the individual as a machine in proportion as changes have already taken place in the particular joint or joints from the prolonged pursuit of a laborious occupation.” (Lane 1895: 861).

Deciding that fractures of upper limb need not be set directly in their original anatomical form, whereas lower limb bones should be set as close to as originally constituted due to their weight-bearing nature.  Furthering this view, in the same letter to the British Medical Journal in 1895, he highlights that:

One cannot but feel that the perpetuation of methods of treatment which have been in use up to the present time must depend on the fact that surgeons have not taken such trouble to inquire into the subsequent life-history of these patients as they have done in other departments of surgery.” (Lane 1895: 863).

There have been some distinct advances in using biodegradable plates in non-weight bearing locations, such as in the maxillofacial region, a position where many would like to avoid the intrusive nature of a temporary or permanent metal plate.  A study by Bali et al. (2013: 167) has highlighted the value of using biodegradable material to help fixate trauma-induced facial fractures, reporting that each individual in the small study cohort (N=10) of varying ages, reported good reduction of fracture and evidence for the total biodegradation of the plate after two years.  They also reported that no further surgical procedures were needed on their test cohort, a significant finding as metallic implants often either need removing if they are temporary or debriding if they become infected, both quite serious surgical procedures (Bali et al. 2013: 170).  Unfortunately the study highlights that biodegradable implants are unlikely to be currently safe to use in weight-bearing or load bearing bones.  Bali et al. (2013:171) conclude by stating that further studies are needed but biodegradable plates and screws can provide satisfactory, if expensive, stabilization as internal fixations for midface fractures.

Medical science and engineering has certainly come a long way since Lane first introduced the internal fixation plate, yet humans are as prone as ever to fracturing their bones.  As a person with McCune Albright Syndrome I may know the pain of breaking a bone, but I can be thankful that I live at a time and in a place where fractures can be confidently treated.

Further Information

  • I’ve written in more detail on polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia and McCune Albright Syndrome here, which details the way in the which the disease has affected my skeleton.  Also, on that particular post, are a host of medical, palaeopathology and osteology related articles to do with McCune Albright Syndrome and Fibrous Dysplasia in general.  Alternatively search the blog for the keywords and numerous posts in which I’ve highlighted the syndrome, and the bone disease, will appear.
  • A previous post on 3D printing in orthopaedic surgery can be found here, and an entry giving a quick overview of some of the problems and approaches used in studying physical impairment and disability in archaeological contexts can be found here.

Bibliography

Bali, R. K., Sharma, P., Jindal, S. & Gaba, S. 2013. To Evaluate the Efficacy of Biodegradable Plating System for Fixation of Maxillofacial Fractures: A Prospective Study. National Journal of Maxillofacial Surgery4 (2): 167-172. (Open Access).

Digitised Diseases. 2014. Master Record Number 0365. Accessed 18/08/14. http://www.digitiseddiseases.org/viewer/viewer_overlay.php?MRN=0365#.

Lane, W. A. 1895.  Some Remarks on the Treatment of Fractures. British Medical Journal1 (1790): 861–863. (Open Access).

Marsland, D. & Kapoor, S. 2008. Rheumatology and Orthopaedics: Crash Course 2nd Edition. London: Mosby Elsevier.

Meyers, K. 2012. Break a Leg! Fracture Treatment in Iron Age and Roman Britain. Bones Don’t Lie. Accessed 11th August 2014. (Open Access).

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

Uhthoff, H. K., Poitras, P. & Backmann, D. S. 2006. Internal Plate Fixation of Fractures: Short History and Recent Developments. Journal of Orthopaedic Science. 11 (2): 118-126.  (Open Access).

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

Blogging Archaeology: Round-up and the Book

14 Aug

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

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

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

A Personal Curation

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

BA November: Why I Blog

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

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

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

BA January: Best and Worst Posts

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

BA February:  What Does it all Mean to Me?

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

BA  March: Future Goals of Blogging

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

The Book

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

blogging arch book cover

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

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

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

Tenacious Sailing: Introducing the Jubilee Sailing Trust

8 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

tenacious peter menner ship

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

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

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

tenacious peter menner wheelchair

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

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

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

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

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

Find Out More

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

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

3 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Photo Essay: Rothwell Ossuary and Charnel Chapel

2 Aug

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

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

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

rothwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Learn More

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Photo Essay: Sheffield General Cemetery

26 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

22 Jul

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

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

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

Thinking About Mummies

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

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

Mummification Briefly

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Discoveries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

Disclaimer

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

Further Information

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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