A Note

3 Sep

In a blog whose main content is aimed at the introduction of the human skeleton, and its application in the scientific analysis in the fields of bioarchaeology and heritage, that invariably comes with understanding that those who we have studied, and continue to study, have first died.  That their agency as a living individual is over, and their agency as a dead individual within a (largely) archaeological context remains, often as the total physical and anonymous sum of their existence on earth.

That can seem to be a heavy burden, as least in its theoretical implications of education outreach and dissemination, yet a number of fantastic bioarchaeology bloggers are helping to maintain and break down the ‘ivory tower’ of academic research and the sometimes dense issues that propagate the bioarchaeology discipline.  Some, such as Jess Beck of Bone Broke and Kristina Killgrove of Powered By Osteons, make it fun and interactive.

This blog has never, unlike other well respected and much-loved bioarchaeology blogging sites, aimed to be a purely academic enterprise.  I’ve always included the personal, the outraged, the fictional, and the didactic.  Since starting this site I have always tried to at least regularly update it, where possible.  That is not the case at the moment.  I feel in some sense tied to the mast that I should explain why this is so.

Unexpectedly a close friend has died.  There was no warning, just the act of a life taken in the prime.  I’m not particularly young, I’m not particularly old, but the thought of death stalking my age group (my friends!) is almost alien.  Grief has captained my feelings and I fear that it shall be so for a while longer yet, how deep that it will go I do not know.  As such I do not foresee any posts appearing on this blog for the immediate future, due to this and to current outstanding obligations.  I will write again though, and I will think of my friend as I do for they also loved heritage and archaeology.

Day of Archaeology 2015: Long Read – A Chat On Blogging With Robert M. Chapple

26 Jul

This is a late entry for the 2015 Day of Archaeology Festival, which was held on the 24th of July.  You can read some cracking entries here, and also read all about the purpose of the event as well!  For the Day of Archaeology 2014 I put together a post detailing views from a range of my friends who are involved with archaeology at all sorts of different levels (students, researchers, commercial, voluntary, academic, etc.) and this post can be read here.  This year I decided to do something a little bit different and a little bit more in-depth to helpfully discuss and highlight different views points on both a) archaeology as a commercial sector to work or volunteer in, and b) the experience of blogging about archaeology.  So I’ve roped in Robert M. Chapple, an archaeological friend based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a web-based discussion.  Happy readings, and I hope you too have had a good Day of Archaeology 2015!


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Robert, thank you for joining me here today to talk about all the great things that archaeology is and can be!  We are here to talk about the day of Archaeology, a day every year set aside for archaeologists to talk about what they normally get up to on an average day to celebrate the diverse topic archaeology is.  Firstly would you like to introduce yourself for the readers of These Bones of Mine?

Robert M. Chapple (RMC):  Hi there! Where to start?  I was born in England, grew up in the west of Ireland, I hold BA and MA degrees in archaeology from the National University of Ireland, Galway.  I moved to Belfast in Northern Ireland for one year … in 1997 … and I’m still here.  I worked in commercial field archaeology for about 20 years – most of it in Northern Ireland and the border counties.  I left the profession in 2011 and have since retrained in IT, but I remain active and connected to that world through blogging and my ongoing research interests.  What is your background and how did you get into archaeology?


A digital conversation. David Mennear (L), of These Bones of Mine and Robert M Chapple (R) swapping thoughts over the web. For the record I’d like to say that I have now shaved and I had bed hair when I took this photograph. Image credit: Robert M Chapple.

TBOM:  Ah so you have always had a foot in the commercial sector in Ireland then?  Well as the youngest in the family I always remember holidays, or day visits, to historic or prehistoric places of interest, whether they were buildings or landscapes.  My dad has a bit of a background in the museum sector so they always figured quite highly on our list of places to visit as a family, but he and my mam are also interested in the countryside more generally as well (history of how it was used, etc.).  I first got into archaeology on a school work placement where I ended up washing the bones of animal remains from a medieval excavation.  I loved history at school (specifically the history of medicine module that I studied) then focused on history at college.  It wasn’t until University where I studied a BA in History & Archaeology at Hull that I became fascinated by the mixing of the humanities and sciences and how much they could tell us about past populations.  I decided to pursue a MSc at the University of Sheffield where I studied human osteology as although I love prehistory, I love the fact that with human osteology you can study human remains and activity in a variety of contexts.

How did you find the commercial sector?

RMC:  Your description of your early exposure to archaeology brings back so many memories of my own … my parents were very keen on ‘improving’ activities and pastimes.  So it wasn’t unusual to find ourselves on a day out to some form of ruin or historical site.  As a young child, I clearly remember going on a rather mad-cap tour organised by the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, led by the later Prof Etienne Rynne.  He brought us across a damp field to show us an example of a particularly poorly understood site type, very few of which had been excavated at that point.  It was a ‘burnt mound’ or fulacht fia – at that time so few had been excavated it was still valid to talk about them as being an Iron Age phenomena.  Since then (largely as a result of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ development boom), they’ve become the most commonly investigated site type in Ireland.  While their use spans a wide time-frame, they’re now understood as being a largely Bronze Age type. Etienne spoke with wild enthusiasm and managed to inject much interest into what can be seen as a relatively uninspiring site type.  On the same trip, he dragged a busload of us across several damp fields to look for a ring barrow he had once excavated, but now appeared to have vanished.

He conducted a spirited lecture on the approximate spot where he thought the site had lain, pointing to spots on the bare earth and saying ‘the cremated bone would have been about … there …’ etc.  Looking back, I feel that if I could be convinced to look at a blank patch of ground and imagine how a burial was once laid out, the archaeology bug had already bitten pretty deep.  The other big influence on my early interest in archaeology was volume two of Children’s Britannica.  My ‘improving’ parents had decided around the time I was born, to subscribe to an encyclopedia.  By the time they’d signed up they’d also decided to move to the west of Ireland and Britannica refused to spend the extra on postage.  To this day, we only have the first two volumes.  But in the second one (Aran to Bee) there’s the entry for ‘Archaeology’ … and as a child, it absolutely fascinated me.  In particular, there’s a drawing of an archaeologist photographing a vertical section that gives a clear explanation about stratigraphy and relative dating.  Apparently, as a rather precocious kid, I used to dig this out and annoy relatives and visitors with my explanations as to how cool and important it was. … some things don’t change … but I do think that the signs were there from an early age that archaeology would become a significant part of my adult life.  I find that I’m rather more keen to discuss other things than some aspects of commercial archaeology.

I’ve been out of that world for over three years now, and I still have so much residual anger and bitterness that I find it difficult to be reasonable on the topic.  I will say that, unlike many people, my entry into that world was relatively slow after university.  I had done one university research excavation in 1989 and after that, I’d drifted into various field survey programmes and related stuff before going back to study for a Masters.  There were occasional excavations along the way, but nothing significant until I got a job on the tail end of the Lisheen Mine excavations in Co. Tipperary  in 1998.  Up until then I’d found the atmosphere on many sites to be relatively stifling, with all minor increments in experience and ability very closely guarded.  The reasoning was simple – if I teach you to do ‘x’ that’s a skill you’ll have the next time we both go for the same job and nobody wanted or needed the competition.

By the time I arrived at Lisheen, times had moved on and the field of commercial archaeology was starting to blossom.  Here there was a huge generosity to teach and impart knowledge – based on the simple need to have as many skilled people available as possible.  Having not been involved in regular excavations for so long, I was something of an anachronism, but I loved the experience and it ignited my passion for excavation – the joy of being the first person in however many years to look at an artefact and know what it was for and how it was made, or the moment of realisation that this set of post-holes represents a structure … these moments became sustaining supports throughout much of my later career.  I often think that, had the financial crisis not occurred, I’d probably still be in commercial archaeology – I loved the work, I adored finding stuff, and was I was really committed to getting stuff published.  It was where I saw myself for the rest of my days.  As Abraham Lincoln said ‘… and then the war came’ … the global financial meltdown from 2008 onward had a huge effect on the commercial sector.

The company I was with at the time just started shedding jobs back to only retaining the ‘core’ staff.  They went from employing over 30 or 40 people down to less than 10 almost overnight.  We took pay-cut after pay-cut, and I took a drop in position (with a further pay-cut) … all to keep the company afloat and keep ourselves in the job we adored.  We went to rolling layoffs, sometimes for two or three weeks at a go.  I frequently didn’t know on a Friday if I had work to go to on the following Monday.  All of these things I endured, if not particularly cheerfully, then for the love of having a job in the field I loved.  What snapped for me was the quality.  I was used to trying to do a quality job under tough conditions – usually uncaring developers and inclement weather.  But what I saw during the recession was company management, who called themselves ‘archaeologists’ deliberately encouraging us to do poor quality work.  They’d sold their souls to the few developers who were left and felt that the only way of remaining in business was to prostrate themselves further and kowtow to anyone with the money to pay them.  If that meant abandoning much of the standards that were considered basic and minimal, too bad!  By that point we were – at best – merely relatively well-educated dirt shovellers.  I saw less and less of what would be considered actual archaeological practice on sites. Something had to give … and that was me!  Like I say, I’m pretty bitter about how it all worked out in the end.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though … I’ve regained much of the stuff that I actually loved about archaeology – the getting out and seeing sites, reading the books, and writing stuff for magazines and my blog.  Not being dependent on archaeology as the day job has allowed me to say and do stuff that I couldn’t have imagined if I was still in the Northern Irish commercial sector.

One thing I wanted to circle round to with you is the influence of your parents.  You say that your Dad was involved in the museum sector, so he must have had some knowledge of the precarious nature of a career in archaeology.  Did he try to dissuade you in any way and go for something ‘safer’ and more conventional?

TBOM:  The archaeology unit which he often had contact with was, and still is, a unit attached to the local council, so the experience that he’d had didn’t really relate as such to the purely commercial world of the field archaeologist and the trials and tribulations that they endure.  He, and the family really, had always been aware of how precarious the heritage and archaeological sectors are in general, what with often being one of the first areas for government and council cuts generally since the recession, but everyone knew each other and my town (Hartlepool) was in a blossoming period of the extension of the heritage sector more generally.

We have the fantastic Maritime Experience museum complex, helped built partly with the funds for regeneration, and dedicated plaques around town indicating the importance of the area during the industrial and medieval periods.  As a child I often remember visiting the truly awe-inspiring Royal navy frigate HMS Trincomalee, one of Britain’s oldest warship afloat dating from 1812, safely ensconced in a dock as a part of the Maritime Experience, where you can climb aboard and relive the life of sailors from the 19th century.

My town in general already has strong links to the past even without being the current home for the HMS Trincomalee, often physically in the landscape but also in the folk tales of the people and area.  To take a few instances: we have a surviving medieval town wall up on the headland; Hartlepool was the first place in the First World War where a British soldier was killed on active duty on British soil during the bombardment of the east coast in 1914 by the German navy.  We have a strong volunteer run museum where original and replica guns from that period, and modern, are stationed within their historic bunker and fortified coastal firing position; the headland was the location where Hilda, now St Hilda, founded a mixed-sex monastic community and abbey in the 7th century AD (rare for that period, although no surviving building from this period remains, a 12th century church, St Hilda’s, still remains on or near the location of the original), before Hilda moved on to Whitby to help found and take charge of the abbey; the Summerhill outdoor park in the town features an extensive Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British archaeology site, which has been the focus of several excavations in the past 60 years.  These are just a few of the main prehistoric and historic calling points of Hartlepool – there are of course many more, especially in the industrial period in the late 19th century where the town served as one of Britain’s busiest ports, helping to export coal from the Durham minefields across Europe and the world.


A photograph capturing a view across the bay of Hartlepool, detailing the rocky coast of the historic Hartlepool headland and a morn ship dredging the channel to clear the silt. Author’s own photograph.

As I’ve said my father (as well as my mother) had both had the chance to study at university (first of their families) and my father’s background included the study of geography, geology and archaeology, and my mam had studied languages and literature, so we were always interested in the deeper story of the areas we visited.  My dad still to this day asks us what we think of the museums we visit and see on various trips across the country and the world at large.   It was when I did the work experience that I came to realize my own interest in the physical past, of how past populations lived and behaved within their physical and cultural landscape.  My dad had never dissuaded either me or my two older brothers in their chosen careers – they (both my mother and father) have always been positive and helpful (even after glancing at the cost of a Masters and realising how much it’d cost me!).  My two older brothers, though they do not work in the heritage sector now, both worked at the local museum from a young age for a number of years.  Even with my disability (see here), I was never persuaded to study or to pursue another career.

As it has worked out I currently work in administration to earn my wage, but I retain strong links to both the academic, voluntary and commercial worlds of archaeology.  For instance I have recently been working on a chapter for an edited volume, for a session in an international conference where I gave a talk, and I am currently in the middle of an analysis of the human skeletal remains from the above Iron Age/Romano-British site.  I do this, of course, in my spare time and my current job allows me the expenses of pursing these interests where they are not paid themselves (every academic writer will know this!).  It is safe to say that a large part of my current connections and experience has come via blogging on this very site.  I was wary at first of entering the blogging world but, after the degree at the University of Hull, I knew I wanted to keep up my own personal interest in archaeology and try to improve my own knowledge of human osteology by writing and providing information to others who wanted to learn more about why archaeologists study the past and past populations.

There is, of course, another major influencing factor here that I haven’t mentioned – my own skeleton as a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome.  My parents, and my family and friends, have seen me undergo many major surgeries to either rectify traumatic fractures or as a preventative measure (internal fixation of the femora using intramedullary rods, and the titanium plating of the right tibia and humerus) to decrease future fracture occurrences and stabilize the bone.  Necessarily I’ve always had to catch up on school work and social life, but I’ve become fairly determined as an individual to pursue my own interests, almost in spite of myself – of course it also made me interested in the skeletal system itself!  I was intrigued and wanted to hear what the consultant was doing and why, I got to see the numerous x-rays where transverse fractures were the norm or to see the newly implanted metal work.  It was fascinating and I was fascinated!  But before I become sidetracked, you have mentioned about your parents encouraging educational and ‘instructive’ visits and upbringing – how did that come about?  The field trip sounds utterly enthralling!

RMC:  Ah, man! My youth (or at least my memory of it) was one field trip after another.  Sometimes we teamed up with the Galway Archaeological & Historical Society, but more often than not we just went off to find stuff on our own.  As a kid you didn’t realise that the person guiding the tour was a university lecturer or published author or some other august individual, and I remember being in such awe at the amount of knowledge that they just seemed to have at their instant recall.  Having since been in the position of giving various tours, I’m now all too aware of the amount of work and preparation that goes into it. Despite all this, my favourite trips were always the family-only ones … just us turning up at a ruined abbey somewhere off in the countryside.

There was no pressure of having to stay politely quiet while an eminent Prof wheeled out his personal theory on the place and then quickly back on the coach to see the next spot.  Instead, my dad would often insist on reading out the contents of the information board and then it was down to the serious business of exploring.  These expeditions may not have been academically rigorous, but they were filled with wonder and a frisson of excitement.  I’ve wonderful memories of listening to people like the late Etienne Rynne explain the sequence of construction of a monastery over several centuries, but they’re really rivaled by experiences with my family crowded round a headstone, puzzling out the inscription and the meanings of the symbolism.  The other thing I found about getting to see so many places when I was so young was not particularly associating the sites with any degree of importance … sure, they were interesting and great to visit, but I didn’t think of them as having a larger significance … they were just places where we stopped on a Sunday trip into the countryside, or on a holiday day out.  It was only when I got to university and found that they were illustrated and discussed in the text books and you were now expected to research quite a bit more about them (and remember it!) that I realised the broader importance of these places.  It was certainly valuable to be able to go back to personal memories of visiting such sites – in many ways it made the academic research much easier and more enjoyable.

Years later, in discussing this with my parents, we agreed that it wasn’t too surprising that I ended up in archaeology, having been exposed to so much of it as a child.  Now that I think of it, I’m surprised how my brother and two sisters didn’t end up in archaeology!  I suppose this is the thing … to my parents, theses were just day trips – somewhere nice to see on holiday, or just get the family out of the house for the afternoon, but to me these were deeply formative experiences that shaped my entire life … I’m lucky my siblings even talk to me!  I used always say that the best advice my Dad ever gave me was to find the job you enjoy and you’ll never feel that you’re working.  He’d left school and wanted to join the RAF, but it didn’t work out for him.  He ended up drifting through a number of jobs until he found that accountancy not only interested him, but he had a huge aptitude for it.

I now realise that my mother only wanted the best for me, but when I was a kid I only ever felt that I was being pushed into joining my Dad’s accountancy firm.  I think that she had a pretty good idea as to how difficult life might be as an archaeologist and felt that I should head for something safer and more secure.  When we finally talked it out that I didn’t fancy a life as an accountant, she instead suggested that I become a teacher … again, something considered safe and secure. When even that failed to convince me, I remember that she suggested that I entered the priesthood … a nice safe livelihood that would allow me to bring up a family in financially secure environment … it would even come with a house and car, and I could still pursue archaeology as a hobby.  I pointed out that I lacked sufficient levels of belief for this to be a viable proposition and the idea was quietly dropped.  All the while, my dad was very supportive … he’d worked on an archaeological excavation when he was a schoolboy and, had things been different, would loved to have gone on to study archaeology himself.

But here’s the thing … twenty-odd years later, I see things rather differently.  I’ve relatively few regrets about my time in field archaeology, other than the poor pay and conditions and the wreck it made of my knees and major joints.  If I’d not ended up with a non-archaeologist wife, I’d never have had sufficient financial security to afford a house and raise a family.  It’s one thing to ponder the advice you’d give to young people in general about whether or not they should consider archaeology as a career, but when it comes to what I may yet have to discuss with my sons (The Chapples Minor), I really struggle to find any good reasons to do it.  I went into archaeology knowing that it would require ‘sacrifices’.  I thought that they would be about long hours, hard work, and travelling miles to excavations and not being particularly appreciated for what you do when you get there, but I never realised the true implications of it all.  The lack of financial security, the lack of simple job security, the absence of any real career progression to speak of … all these things … and still enough of the excitement remains that I feel unable to condemn it completely.

As I said before, being out of the business of archaeology, has allowed me huge freedoms to concentrate on the bits that I still love doing. I’ve gotten back to visiting sites – and bringing my kids along – and I still write and research for my own hobby projects.  I suppose that brings us back – in part – to blogging.  For my part, I started in August 2011 when I was looking to find ways of raising my public profile.  The company I was with looked likely to go under and I wanted to have something – anything – to differentiate me from the rest of the gang out looking for work.  I considered various strategies, including getting some rather nice business cards made up and, for want of anything better to do, I reckoned I’d set up a blog.  My primary concerns were that I’d not find enough to write about and that no one would be interested in what I had to say.  You mention that you were ‘wary’ of embarking on your own blog.  What gave you cause for concern and how did you decide to move ahead with the idea anyway?

TBOM:  You know, I have yet to get business cards but they are on my list!  That is something I shall have to look in to… So yes, I started this site back in January or February 2011, on roughly the same grounds as yours – I had finished my undergraduate degree, I was hunting for a job and I knew that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree to specialise in human osteology.  Yet I felt that I needed to do something else, that I wanted to continue to write about archaeology and bioarchaeology for the sheer fun of it partly.  I had quickly surveyed the online blogging bioarchaeology world and could not find much out there in break downs of the skeletal system, as it is studied in human osteology for bioarchaeology, so I had my unique selling point (the half-finished Skeletal Series posts).  Further to this is was also a personal occupation – I wanted to write, and I wanted to improve at it at the same time.

But yes, I also had reservations about the enterprise.  I was worried that I’d trash my name if I wrote freely online; I was worried that whatever I wrote could potentially impact on someone’s career or personal reputation;  I was worried that I’d write and frankly that it would not lead anywhere.  At this point I still envisioned a full and lasting career in bioarchaeology (it has not been deflated since, but I am in a position where I must work to fund my hobbies but the work impedes on my progress).  Blogging at the academic level, I thought, was only pursued by those who are focusing on the discipline themselves, researchers who devoted themselves full-time to their passions.  This was, of course, a naive assumption on my part.


Where blogging archaeology can take you, part 1. Yerba Buena area in San Francisco, April 2015. I was here as a part of the Society for American Archaeologists annual 80th conference, taking part in a session on the theory and method of the bioarchaeology of care methodology. Author’s own photograph.

But I thought in the end, nothing ventured nothing gained, and why not?  In the end blogging has kept me distinctly in the loop as it were – it is how I remain informed on field schools, specific new technologies and methodologies.  It has also had a great impact on the ability to meet people with the same interest and not just online (thank you once again for the meal and the drinks in Belfast following the Day of the Dead conference in 2014 at Queen’s University!).  I have to say I am very glad I joined the blogging world – I would suggest to anyone to get involved but I’d make sure you have your own morals and ethics to posting, to be aware of the information that you are putting out and why.  Also, try to be consistent in some way or form.  Nothing says half-arsed like a barely wrote blog that still exists!

What are your feelings on blogging?

RMC:  First thing I’d say is not to underestimate the importance of shelling out a few quid on business cards – I don’t think they’ve ever gotten me work, but there have been some dark times when seeing the words “Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist” written down on a piece of paper has brought some much-needed reassurance!

With regard to my motivations in embarking on a blogging adventure, I see that you thought the whole thing through with more depth and clarity than I did.  I never really thought of the downsides, other than the entire archaeological world having irrefutable proof that I’m pretty shallow and without much capacity for original thought.  I do say that it was started as a semi-cynical attempt at self-promotion, but that is not completely true.  There remains the simple fact that I’ve always loved to write and I wanted to try my hand at something looser than the very formal ‘academic tone’ I’d become so used to.  As anyone can see from my early posts, this was a steep learning curve and it took me quite a while to find my place and speak with an authentic voice.

I suppose another difference from your approach is that I didn’t particularly feel that there was a niche that particularly needed me in it.  There were already a decent crop of skilled communicators out there writing for and about Irish archaeology.  If I’d been a deeper thinker, I reckon I’d have left the blogging scene in the capable hands it was already in … but where’s the fun in that?  I really want to talk about your comment ‘Nothing says half-arsed like a barely wrote blog that still exists!’  That was my only real fear in starting blogging … that I’d not find the stuff to write about, or the time to do it.  I’ve written before that an article on Cracked.com about ‘The 8 Worst Types of Blog on the Internet‘ was very influential on my thinking.  One of the offences they identify is ‘The “Let’s Start a Blog” Blog’ … a blog with only one post where the author got caught up in the idea of having a blog, but not in actually providing content.  I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I knew that I was going to have to make an effort – it might be badly written and boring, but there would be more than one post!

One way or another, I had envisioned my blogging as something I would be doing within the context of remaining as a professional field archaeologist.  I had intended that it would be a place where I could write about the things that interested me, but I wasn’t particularly convinced that anyone would read any of it.  The first ‘breakthrough’ piece I wrote that seemed to make people sit up and notice was in response to a another blog post that claimed the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ years had been detrimental to Irish archaeology.  I disagreed and wrote: Was the Building Boom so Bad for Irish Archaeology? A reply to Fin Dwyer.  It was a pretty big hit for me … when most of my posts struggled to hit 100 readers in a week, this shot to over 1000 reads in just a couple of days.  Up until that, I couldn’t have begged or bribed people to engage with me in comments, but suddenly I was in the midst of a (to me, at least) significant little media storm, with multiple simultaneous conversations going on across the comments section of the post and in various corners of social media.  I’m not sure if I was writing it today, I’d be so fully committed to the arguments I present in that post, but I think its an interesting artefact of where my thinking lay at that time.

Although I’ve not discussed it publicly before, probably the biggest lesson I learned at that time was my vulnerability in speaking my mind and still being employed with an archaeological consultancy.  At that time, as a ‘senior’ staff member with the lot I worked with, I had administrator access to the company Facebook Page and could post as the company.  I’d emailed the office manager and if it could be put on the page … I even cautioned that it might be deemed ‘controversial’ and was told to go ahead and do it myself, it’ll be fine!  Although one of the company directors had seen the post elsewhere and loved it, the office manager decided that it was more controversial than she’d imagined.  I got a strongly worded email saying that the company could not allow itself to be associate in any way with the post and that it had been deleted.  I also found that I, and the rest of the senior staff, no longer had administrative privileges for the Facebook page.  It was, really, only a minor altercation, but it made me very aware of how precarious the right to freedom of speech is when attempting to balance a number of variables … especially when you run the risk of offending the sensibilities of some little martinet.  After that I, consciously or not, seem to have played it safe for a while as I appear to have concentrated on book reviews and similarly non-confrontational pieces, but the lure of jumping in with all guns blazing was too tempting to make me stay out of trouble for long …

As things have worked out I left archaeology as my day job.  I’m now rather happily employed in the world of IT.  It had many advantages, including decent pay, regular hours, adherence to legal requirements for health and safety, and I’m not made to regularly give thanks for the pleasure of being treated like dung for the privilege of having a job etc. … all stuff I sum up as ‘it’s indoors & there’s no heavy lifting!’.  For all that, back in December 2011 I was still in the position of being 40 and unemployed … I’d walked out of my supposedly ‘permanent’ job in the profession I adored and now had no idea where I’d go and what I’d do.  While I was receiving notifications that I wasn’t qualified for basic entry-level positions in various places, I kept writing for my blog.  At that stage, I just needed something to keep me sane and stop me from despairing at my lack of success and direction in life.  By the time I got the post where I am currently, I just continued writing … it seemed therapeutic and it has allowed me to transition from one realm of employment to another with much greater ease than (I imagine) it would have been if I’d just made a clean break of it.  As I’ve alluded to before, the fact that I’m independent of the archaeological world has allowed me to be much freer in what I write about, knowing that I’m not beholden to anyone in the field for work and, most especially, that I don’t have to face an angry employer, or their office minions, after I post something controversial.

I very much agree with you on what you say about blogging allowing you to feel connected to the wider archaeological world.  I remember, years ago, going to a conference on the burgeoning field of archaeological perspectives on gravestones and feeling overwhelmed that there were other people out there that shared my interests and were thinking along the same lines as myself.  Even trying to keep in touch with the published literature, you never got the same sense that there were other people out there working away in universities and in spare bedrooms to hone their ideas and publish their findings.  With social media, all that has now changed … you can be anywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and (once you have an internet connection) you can tap into what the latest research, though, and discussion is in your preferred field.  Blogging is, to bloggers at least, a vital part in that great effort of communication and, yes, I really do feel connected to the wider archaeological world through it.

I’ve joked before (and with only slight bitterness) that I’ve become more influential and respected in the time since I left professional archaeology than I ever was in the twenty years previously.  Since emerging as a blogger, I’ve had numerous requests to produce papers for collected volumes, been offered noticeably more speaking engagements, I’ve been asked to act as session chair for a conference, later on this summer I’m participating in a summer school discussion panel.  I even get invited to discussion/interviews like this.  Frankly, it’s brilliant!  I feel like some forgotten painter that’s died and suddenly there’s significant interest in his work … thankfully, without the requisite of having passed away!

I think I’ve yammered on for long enough and it’s time to turn some questions over to you.  We’ve both spoken at a bit of length about how we got into blogging, but how do you find it as an ongoing experience?  How do you decide what to write and what to prioritize?  … and, by extension, what won’t you write about or what do you shy away from addressing?  More broadly, I wonder how you feel about your initial fears now … from an outsider’s perspective, you’ve very much emerged as an engaging and authoritative voice and public face to human osteology for bioarchaeology in social media.  I would certainly rate you among the top handful of bloggers in your area.  I’ll admit that I don’t read everything you post, but what I do see is really well written and informative – even if much of it is clearly aimed at a more specialist reader than myself.  It’s an unfair question, but I’ll ask it anyway, how do you see yourself and what do you feel the successes of your blogging experience have been?

TBOM:  I shall look into those business cards!

Ah quite a few questions there but ones that are pertinent to our general discussion today so I’ll answer them one by one.  As an ongoing experience blogging is endlessly fun, interesting, frustrating and time-consuming!  I often think of ideas for future blog posts and quickly jot down a skeletal entry, only for them to get bogged down in the detail when I come to think of writing them out more fully.  I’ve never particularly been a fast writer who can type out paragraph after paragraph without a break.  Editing takes the longest time and still mistakes get through!  I think, after a while, you become blind to your own mistakes, although this may also be an effect of the fact that I tend to write the majority of the posts around 1am or 2am after a shift at work!  As an ongoing experience I do love it, I hope it is evident that I do.  Recently I’ve found myself wanting to explore different issues on the blog, as well as the more ‘daily’ posts of short course updates, book or conference mentions and basic human osteology, or bioarchaeology, centered posts.  The further that time, and the life of the blog, goes on the more cautious I become in quickly writing posts.  I try to vary the output, including things often not talked about in other bioarchaeology blogs (the social and academic aspects and costs of bioarchaeology, and archaeology more generally, open access to journal articles, personal views of bone disease and fractures etc).

As the blog has gone on I feel that, in order not to mislead readers and subscribers, that hard subjects should not be avoided or fobbed off.  I’ve been working on a draft of a post on the bioarchaeology of suicide attacks (tentatively titled ‘the body as a weapon’, but each time I add to the disjointed post I can’t help but feel what other people may think of it – however it will be posted, I just need to find more time to sit and work on it, or on the modern case studies and the implications for this as-yet theoretical model.  Same too for the embryonic posts focusing on disability & sexuality and disability & film, two posts focusing on the intersection of their subjects that sit half-finished in the draft folder.  I feel a greater responsibility to the authors of the research that I cite, or of the short courses or conferences that I attend, in order not to mislead readers on their research.  This has often led to fruitful collaboration on editing posts, especially so when bioarchaeologists are excited about the impact and reach of social media.  I’ve been lucky in another area of the blog – the willingness to extend invites to guest blog entries and interviews (and now discussions!).  The interviews are something in particular that I want to develop and extend.

I should prioritize posts really! I have a write-up of the Belfast conference I attended last October and the San Francisco conference from April that need to be finished up and posted.  I always feel a greater debt to editing and giving feedback to guest bloggers first and foremost.  The ideas for posts generally come fairly randomly, if they are ton already sitting in the draft folder or ones that I aim to write within a series.  For instance, the Skeletal Series next two posts will focus on the aging and sexing techniques used in bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains.  There is something that I do shy away from writing about: famous skeletons, i.e. the Medieval English king Richard III or the new research on Phillip II from ancient Greece.  I feel that other blogs often cover these more expertly then I and that the remit of famous skeletons does not fit this blog, even as broad as this is (which reminds me I need to cover some human evolution research!).  Personally, I feel that the great and growing battery of bioarchaeological analyses is brought down on these individuals to the detriment of the anonymous skeletal remains of past individuals.  It reminds me of material wealth as the great social indicator of power, or at least our view of it (think of any headline from an archaeological site that made it into the public domain and it will largely focus on any extravagant burial).  Aside from that there isn’t much I would not discuss on the blog.  I am sometimes dismayed that employment within bioarchaeology isn’t discussed on other blogs, or the stress of the lifestyle and the sheer tenacity needed to succeed, or even just survive, in this field.  Which conveniently leads onto the next point…

Meyers-Emery and Killgrove (2015, open access) recently succinctly highlighted the dearth of consistently updated bioarchaeology blogs out there.  Mine was one of 6 that was discussed and quoted in the article, although one of those is now not regularly updated.  I feel a greater responsibility but understand the very privileged position that this blog has attained throughout the past 4 years.  I should say that I do no speak for any organisation, institution or discipline directly, or have any direct affiliation, through employment, with a company, that I speak only as myself.  I do wonder, though, whether this blog has cost jobs before or whether my physical disability has already helped in that area (the combination of the two may just be a dastardly mix!).  Still, and this is an area that I am keen to write about more, I am proud to write about my own bone disease on the blog, and of disability more generally, as in both as a feature of the bioarchaeological record and of those who work, study or just have a passion in archaeology more generally.  I hope I can be held up as a positive example that disability does not hold you back, no matter what.


Where blogging archaeology can take you, part 2. Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, April 2015. This was a pretty busy area of the city, but also one that harked back a bit further to its maritime history. Author’s own photograph.

I guess I am uncomfortably comfortable in my blogging position of bioarchaeological authority.  I’ve put time and effort into maintaining this site for the benefit of the readers and subscribers, and of my own ongoing education.  There is something that I’m keen to highlight though, and I’d be interested if any other bioarchaeology bloggers heard the same, that some of my friends (which includes a broad range of specialists and non-specialists) have fed back that sometimes they don’t understand the posts.  Whether this is a failure of my own communication and/or the extent of the specialised lexis used within bioarchaeological research I am not quite sure.  But it reminds me that not everything is as open as you’d think.  How do I see myself?  That is a good question.

I am more intrigued how others see me, and that they may not realise but that I largely do the bioarchaeology blog on the side when I have the spare time and inclination to research and write.  But how do I see myself… I guess I see that I have succeeded in one childhood dream – that I am a writer of sorts (watch this space for a forthcoming book review and a chapter in an edited volume!).  I am slightly afraid that people will see this blog as the total sum of my being, which sounds pretentiously philosophical.  Curiously, for blogs dedicated to the study of the dead, whether through skeletonized or mummified remains, there is little discussion of the personal memento mori, of thy own death. Specifically of the blog online, and its life, after the death of the author(s).  This is a relatively new digital horizon, but the majority of archaeological blogs in both the UK and the US (where many of the English language archaeology blogs and bloggers are from, are single authored and, more often than not, not affiliated with any academic institution or company.  In essence, the blogger will die twice.  Once physically and once digitally, once the log is no longer updated and the SEO indexing of the site goes south.  There may be a field that is forever England, but the digital landscape, and the companies online, quickly change or are forgotten in time.

The personal success has been connecting and meeting people with the same bone disease as me.  Up until I started this blog I had never physically known, or communicated with, any individual who had the same syndrome and associated bone disease (McCune Albright Syndrome, though the bone disease specifically is Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia).  It is all about the human connection, not the views or visitors (though I feel an obligation to be open about those – on a side note does the figure of the views grant a greater authority despite, or because of, the position held in real life?).  Apart from that, the ability to spend time and effort in a didactic exercise that has seemingly also helped others, is a value of which I hold as a success.

How about yourself Robert?  What do you hope to achieve and why?

RMC:  As I’ve said before, if I’d been a deep enough thinker, I’d probably never have taken on writing a blog. My initial aim was to ‘raise my profile’ in the hope of bettering my chances of getting archaeological work.  From that initial standpoint, I’ve failed miserably … I don’t work in archaeology as the day job anymore and I doubt I ever will again.  It’s not that I don’t love archaeology, it’s simply that other professions are much better paid, more secure, have better prospects, and don’t expect me to appear on the side of a hill in Tyrone at 07:30 for a day of rain and not much above the minimum wage.  So … why am I still doing it?  I think that, whatever bitterness I still feel about my former career, the lure of archaeology is immense and blogging gives me a prefect platform to remain involved.  With modern digital technology all you need is the will to communicate … after that, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a highly-respected member of staff at a prestigious university or – like the pair of us – doing this in your spare time after getting home from work.  It just comes down to that will to communicate and whether or not anyone is interested in reading what you have to say.  As an ongoing activity, I really do see my blogging as some weird form of therapy – it has really made my transition to a life in IT much easier and less traumatic than it might other have been.

If I’m honest, I don’t really have a long-term plan as to what I want to achieve with the blog.  I had read that most blogs – if they ever get off the ground at all – last, on average, only three years.  For a long time I was obsessed with surpassing that limit, as though it was some curse-laden prophesy … as the blog is now happily scooting along towards the four-year mark, that’s less of a problem.  I suppose I’ll keep writing as long as I’m able to balance it with work and family commitments and so long as it feels good to write and – most importantly – so long as there are people out there interested in reading what I’ve got to say.  I’m afraid I’m still obsessed with the numbers.  I suppose it’s all tied up in the need for acceptance that’s inherent in any public performance … I still remember my first few months blogging and getting even 20 visits/reads a day was an amazing feeling.  These days it’s a bit more than that, though it’s hardly the Huffington Post, but seeing a popular post surge in reads still brings a huge thrill. I’ve learned from my involvement with the ‘Cherrymount Crannog Crisis‘ group that, used wisely and judiciously, I do have some small amount of power to influence situations and events.

So, for as long as that lasts, I’m happy to ‘use my powers for good’ and try to bring about positive change in Irish and Northern Irish archaeology.  Obviously, this is very much tied into my lack of affiliation with any archaeological company, or institution … the lack of formal ‘respectability’ remains freeing and it allows me to tackle topics that might frighten off others/the sane.  Thankfully, those controversial pieces are pretty rare and I’m more interested in using the audience I’ve built up to help where I can, in particular the next generation of archaeologists.  Where I can, I try to offer my blog as a platform to help researchers gain information, support, or (most importantly) giving them a means of getting their research out to a wide audience of professional and public.  In the cutthroat world of modern academia, it’s no longer enough to write interesting and important papers for worthy journals, you have to get your message out there too.  I don’t seek to overthrow the formal peer-reviewed publication route, but I see that blogging has an important place in the grand scheme of things and I’m proud to be part of that world.

I will admit to a hearty laugh of recognition in reading your description of jotting down ideas for posts and the need for editing!  I used to keep a list of ‘things I’d like to write about’ … unfortunately, I didn’t add enough detail to some of the list items and when I looked at it recently I was unable to decipher what I meant by several entries.  If I ever find out what I meant by the line ‘post on the thing about the circle’, I’ll let you know!  Editing, of course, remains a terrible bugbear … I do my best to ensure that all the errors are excised, and that it reads like I do actually speak English, but looking back on some stuff, I’m simply shocked by the apparently obvious errors that I should have picked up on before I hit ‘publish’.  I do like your idea of the blogger dying twice … a physical and a digital death.  It’s very evocative of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The valiant never taste of death but once, bloggers do it twice’ … which I’m sure is the actual quote (translated from the original Latin!) but I disagree – I think that digital archives are much longer lasting and robust than we give them credit for.  It may be one thing if you’re a government minister who had an affair or expired in a particularly unedifying manner … that stuff will be around to haunt their great-grandchildren, but less flamboyant material, like blog posts, will probably stick around too.

For example, I made an abortive attempt to start an on-line archaeological journal nearly 20 years ago. When it finally all fell through and the rental of the server space expired, I though it was gone for good, deleted, and never to be seen again.  As it turned out, it wasn’t gone … just hard to get.  I think that as digital storage gets cheaper and more commonplace, the volume of saved data will simply explode.  Even more so, with developments in the analysis of ‘big data’, apparently mundane material will gain greater and greater value.  I don’t think that our blogs will necessarily survive in the way they’ve been presented.  They may become harder to find – accessible only to dedicated Data Archaeologists … but they will be there.  As far as immortality goes, it’s not a bad digital afterlife to look forward to!

Maybe it’s too far off to imagine the long-term future of our respective blogs, well I certainly hope it is!  Right now, the furthest I’m willing to look forward to is the Day of Archaeology … I’ll be doing my IT day job, and covertly cruising various blogs and social media and maybe even planning to get a bit of writing done in the evening.  How about you?  What are your plans for the day?

TBOM:  Oh I definitely agree with your comments on the fact that the blogs themselves will likely last a long time in the digital world, I just wonder about the effects that the death of the blogger would have on the site itself – how they would be curated, maintained or stored.  A digital data archaeologist sounds like a fascinating job!

On the Day of Archaeology (which I heartily invite readers of this blog to take part and join in at here) I’ll also be at work in my administration job and then, thankfully, I’ll have an early finish where I’ll go and join friends around a BBQ and have a few drinks to welcome in the weekend.  A part of me will be wishing that I was finishing the day on site, having helped to excavate a prehistoric site, or a medieval burial ground perhaps, and that I could be one of those dirty diggers who get to apply their academic knowledge with the physical hard work of excavation.  I, for one, am just glad that I an involved in archaeology in some way.  For instance, I’m currently waiting for feedback on a draft publication and I’ve got a few skeletons to continue inventorying and analysing for a report.  So as I sip on a beer, I shall also think of the work that lies ahead and the opportunities to become more involved with archaeology as whole!

Thank you for joining Robert, and good luck continuing writing at your excellent blog.  As I said in Belfast, I am always amazed at the quantity and quality of your writing, keep it up!

RMC:  Well, I think that about wraps it up for this conversation!  Thanks very much for having me and for coming up with the idea for this two-way discussion.  We’re having this conversation in the virtual world, but next time you’re back in Belfast we’ll have to meet up for pizza and pints gain!  All the best until our next encounter – virtual or ILR!

Further Information

Classical Art: A Portal To The Past

21 Jul

During a Sunday house clean-up my parents found my copy of Classical Art: From Greece to Rome by Mary Beard and John Henderson (2001), a lovely introductory book on art (including architecture, portraiture, and sculpture) from the classical ages of ancient Greece and Rome, sitting somewhat unloved on a bookshelf.

The book contextualises the main masterpieces of the periods, their form, origin and meaning, and explores their influence on the history of art within Western culture, and the origins of art history more generally.  Further to this the publication manages to present an impressive array of information from the archaeological, historical and geographical contexts of the art works, and provides a thorough grounding on the various examinations and interpretations of the motives and representations of why and how the art was produced.  It is, if I may borrow one more review trope, also a thought-provoking piece, not content to provide an overview of the art context and the constant cannibalization and exploration of those forms that went before (Roman of Greek art, Renaissance of Classical, etc.), but one that questions the reader’s understanding of what they think they knew of Western culture and the differences in social structure and expression.

mummy of artemidorus2

The well decorated mummy case and detail of the portrait of Artemidorus, from Roman-period Haware, Egypt, AD 100-120. Artemidorus was a male individual who was aged between 18-21 years old at the time of death, based on CT scans of his skeletal remains in the coffin. His impressive funerary artefacts and context helps to highlight the mix of cultural styles present during this period and location – the coffin details traditional Egyptian funerary motifs and symbols, the individual has a Greek name, and the portrait is Roman-style in style. As Beard & Henderson (2001: 232) highlight, the rituals of death and burial have preserved a wonderful collection of  personal portraits in funerary contexts (on coffins, etc.) from Fayum and other areas of the Roman province of Egypt, where this style of commemoration was practiced. However, it is debated whether these portraits, as a whole, capture the person at the age at death or, as in some cases, represent the individual at a different point in their life. The face, and the head, are strong focuses of artwork, both sculpture and portraiture, in the ancient Roman world.  The Roman period Egyptian tradition of painting portraits on linen and wood echoes vibrantly across the centuries due to the vitality and likeness of the person’s image. As Beard & Henderson comment, ‘the challenge to figurative art is to metaphorize human beings convincingly’ by using whichever medium (marble, wood, or pigment on wood and linen, etc.), and that ‘the ideology of the portrait depends on this ability to carry (the) conviction’ of its representation (2001: 233). Image credit: the British Museum (main) and Invision Free (inset).

I got a copy of the book for a module I studied in my first year at undergraduate level, one entitled cities and civilizations if I remember correctly, that studied the origin and influence of art at certain periods in European history (the Geek and Roman classical worlds, Gothic architecture in Western Europe in the Medieval period, the art of the Italian Renaissance, etc.).  It was an enlightening module, one that made me think deeper on the artistic expression of society within a cultural milieu.

Towards the end of the publication there is a fascinating discussion on the use of the portrait in forming an image of an individual, in this case the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as described in a series of pen portraits and dialogues by his pupil Plato.  Socrates, who died (in the words of Plato) a ‘martyr for the truth’ in Athens in 399 BCE, has become of the most sought after face of Antiquity when, after comparing the many statues of him that survive (which include the ‘type A’ and ‘type B’ heads from Italy and the damaged statues from Athens), that at least one of these portraits ‘taps into first hand acquaintance with the fifth-century guru’ (Beard & Henderson 201: 236).  Socrates pupil Plato posits, in a pen portrait that emphasizes each aspect of his master throughout his dialogues that, ‘feature by feature’, sets him apart from humanity and creates the paradox of Socrates, the ‘wisest of men’, compared with the bestial nature of his physical representation.  The last point concerns the nature of reality and its images; that Plato encourages us to ‘imagine what Socrates was like, but at the same time radically undermines the status of anything in our visual world‘ (Beard & Henderson 2001: 237, emphasis mine).  The authors indicate that this is the paradox on coming face to face with one of the most ‘individual physiognomies of them all, yet also being confronted with a portrait  that was designed to remind us just how contested the relationship is between how people look (or are made to look) and how they ‘really’ are’ (Beard & Henderson 2001: 237).

Necessarily this raises the question of what is captured by art, how and why?  What are these representations of and in what context are they represented?  These are basic questions that a researcher must always bear in mind when dealing with both the artistic artefacts and documents of the past.  For the archaeological researcher they too are fine guiding questions to consider when analyzing the physical material remains of the historic and prehistoric past.  How are they represented and why?

24/07/15 Update

By happenstance I have come across a lovely cheap paperback book of Socrates’ Defence by Plato in the Penguin Little Black Classics series earlier today, in which Plato recreates the dialogue of Socrates defending himself at trial in 399 BC.  Socrates’ Defence is taken from Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates.  The Little Black Classics series covers many renowned writers, bringing their fiction or non-fiction work, or extracts of their work, together in small volumes at affordable prices (in the UK they retail at only 80p or $2 CAN.  I shall update this entry as soon as I’ve read it and had time to digest it.  Perhaps unwitting the above fits quite nicely into my current long read (books that I am taking my time with), which include Albert Camus’s The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.


Beard, M. & Henderson, J. 2001. Classical Art: From Greece to Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plato. 2015. Socrates’ Defence. St Ives: Penguin Classics.

Future Funding: A Blow For UK Students? Maintenance Grants Converted to Loans from the 16/17 Academic Year

14 Jul

The British government have recently released the first financial budget since the conservative party majority win in the general election in May 2015.  There is currently much debate on the nature of the reforms that George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has proposed (including the Living Wage replacing the Minimum Wage for people over 25), and whether the budget dis-proportionally targets the middle and lower-income earners (via scrapping working tax credits, removing housing benefit for under 21’s, etc.).  Regardless of the merits and negatives of the budget as a whole, there was one piece of information that is pertinent to the readers of this blog.

That is the proposal to turn maintenance grants (which currently do not have to be paid back unlike the maintenance loans, of up to £3,387 per academic year for lower-income students whose family household income is below £25,000 per annum) into loans from September 2016 (or the 16/17 academic year) for English and Welsh students.  These loans would have to be paid back by the student after they have started earning above a certain income (£21,000 per annum).  Osborne has also stated that the available loaned finance available for students in total will thus be increased up to a total £8,200 per academic year (there is a higher allowance in place for London), dependent on the financial status and background of the student.  This is an overall general increase of £766 per year, the highest that it has been.  Further to this is the possibility and suggestion of the uncapping of the £9000-a-year maximum of student tuition fees that universities in England and Wales can currently charge from the 17/18 academic year for the institutions which offer high-quality teaching, linking it instead with inflation.  There is currently no definition of high-quality teaching institutions and the rise in fees will likely be mentioned in further budgets in the remaining terms of this government.

It should be mentioned here that, for English and Welsh students, university is still free at the point of entry (Scotland has a different system due to greater independence).  Still, I cannot help but think that the loans may discourage students from poorer economic backgrounds in pursuing a degree. I also worry that this could affect different non-finally related sectors of the population more disparately than others in the access to education, when it is well-known that access to education offers the means to improve the circumstances of your life.

Last year I highlighted the changing nature of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) from the 15/16 academic year for new students starting from that year.  DSA helps to level the playing field for students with disabilities in accessing tertiary education by equipping the students with non-medical help, transport costs, technological equipment and IT training, once they have been assessed on how their disability, or disabilities, affect them in an academic environment to the detriment of their studies.

It is well acknowledged that adult disabled individuals in the United Kingdom tend to be financially poorer than the norm.  The Papworth Trust, a charity focused on providing help for the disabled and elderly, cited the fact that, in a wide-ranging study of disability in the United Kingdom reported in 2014, the employment rate among disabled adults in March 2013 was 49% (4.1 million) compared to the national average of 81.8% of non-disabled people (source).  The two main barriers to work were seen as access to job opportunities (43%) and difficultly with transport (29%), whilst disabled adults are three times likely to have no formal qualifications as non-disabled individuals at 30% and 11% respectively in the reports study cohort.  In an Office for National Statistics report on adult health in Great Britain in 2013, more than 1 in 3 individuals responded positively to having a long-term disability or illness which affected their life (source).

Of course, this all may appear a minor financial quibble in the United Kingdom compared to the ongoing massive financial and business crisis in Greece (with the ‘troika’ of the EU, ECB and the IMF imposing strict financial settlements and austerity measures) and the possible first signs of trouble, or at least signs of slowing down, in the Chinese economy.

However, I’d argue that, as a potential barrier in accessing higher education, and hence skills, this poses a problem in the ability for students from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities having to justify their course choices and, more generally, the financial ability to pay the loan back once the course has been completed.  Furthermore, there is the potential for the cost to fall back on the UK taxpayers if these loans are not repaid by the student.  There are no easy answers to the funding of higher education, especially as more students gain entry than ever before.  Universities are dynamic places though, both in as centers of employment and of research and teaching – to undervalue them would be to do great discredit to their economic and educational value.  There is a crushing amount of debt to face already as a new university student in the UK, however it is realised that the student loans system is quite unlike high street bank loans, in the fact that the interest rate is much lower and the individual is given a much longer time back in which to pay back the loan, and only after a certain amount of annual income has been reached.  Still, I would, as a new student today, think twice regarding whether a course was necessarily worth the debt (though I have no doubts the value and real wealth of the British university system, in both the quality of the research and the experience itself of being a student).

It is this last point that makes me think of archaeology in all of this.  Most practicing archaeologists in the UK today are highly educated, often needing or pursuing post-graduate courses to specialise within the sector.  It is well recognised that, at the moment and historically, archaeology is a poorly paid employment sector and, especially if you are primarily a field archaeologist, that this employment can be precarious in nature.  With recent changes in planning and construction law, the ability of archaeological companies to safeguard both the work and the quality of the archaeology uncovered is also in real danger.  We gain must ask ourselves who is archaeology for and who is involved?  What are the barriers to everyone accessing archaeology and how can we overcome these barriers as a sector?

I’ve got confidence that the archaeological market will adapt to the challenges posed, that students will still attend university, and that loans will, in one form or another be paid back as possible.  It is clear though that barriers to accessing education at a higher level in the UK are rising.  We should be wary of this, and we should be wary of the longer term implications of it, especially when we come to view our past.

Further Information

  • A full breakdown of the financial entitlements available to students who study in the United Kingdom is available here via the government website.  The page includes all the information available for the pricing of the maintenance loans, maintenance grants and the terms and conditions of the financial agreements themselves.  The website for the Office for National Statistics, which houses many open access reports, documents various national statistics, including the health and disability status of the population of the United Kingdom and the individual countries within it.
  • The previous post detailing the available human osteology taught masters courses in the United Kingdom (or courses where modules in human osteology and anatomy are included), along with the guidelines on course prices for domestic and international students, can be found here.  A supplementary post on the questions to remember to ask when thinking about studying human osteology, or bioarchaeology, at the masters level can be found here.

Views on Archaeology and Social Media Sought

10 Jul

Fleur Schinning, a graduate student in Heritage Management at Leiden University, is conducting research on how social media and blogs contribute to the accessibility of archaeology in the Netherlands and seeks readers of blogs to help fill in a quick questionnaire.  The research is focused on investigating how often, and why, readers access the social media range (with a strong focus on blogs) access and read about archaeological projects and news in order to ascertain their use as methods for education outreach and improving the accessibility of archaeology.

The readers questionnaire focuses on the motives and takes only a few minutes to fill in and can be accessed here.  It is well worth it as participants are automatically offered the chance to win 6 copies of the Archaeology magazine for free.  The questionnaire close at the end of July 2015 in order for Fleur to analyse the data and allow her to conclude her research.

As long time readers of this blog may know that I’m a keen advocate of blogging as a method of educational outreach, and as an interactive use of reaching a wide and diverse audience.  Blogging archaeology has never been more popular, both as a topic of academic research and as an actual activity.

A few quick highlights of this for me include Doug’s Archaeology blogging carnival from 2013-2014 (and the subsequent published Blogging Archaeology edited volume), where over 70 archaeology bloggers gathered every month over a 5 month period to discuss the questions that Doug posed.  This brought together a lively bunch of people and posts from all over the world, allowing for a range of fully fleshed out thoughts on a wide variety of blogging archaeology topics (you can see all of my replies here!).  Further to this is the ever expanding and growing Day of Archaeology project, held each July (I’m slowly cooking up an entry for this year), which brings together archaeological bloggers and social media users to show the diversity of a day in an archaeologists life.  This is a lovely event which really indicates just how wide a subject archaeology is and can be, with entries piling in each year from every aspect of the discipline you can think of.  Be sure to check out their website on the 24th July this year, or better yet join in.

On a quick bioarchaeology point I’m always impressed by Kristina Killgrove’s work over at Powered by Osteons and now as a bioarchaeology writer at the Forbes website (check out this interactive map of her coverage at the company).  Her work on the blogging site is really linking the academic research with public communication and engagement by making her teaching and research methods open to public access and engagement (and making it fun!).  One of the latest posts promotes the publication of her human osteology laboratory workbook for interested members of the public and specialists alike.  It is the product of the classes in human osteology that she has taught, and continues to teach, in her role as an associate professor.

Blogging archaeology and bioarchaeology has, for me, opened up so many new doors and has introduced to me wonderful people and fantastic opportunities that I could only of dreamed of before I started blogging back in 2011.  If you value reading about archaeology across social media and blogging sites, such as this one, that help a researcher and indicate how you interact with archaeology online.

Replies to Fleur Shinnings questionnaires are greatly received and, on behalf of this blog, I wish her the best of luck in her research!

University of Sheffield Human Osteology Short Course 26th-28th August 2015

3 Jul

Interested in the human skeletal system but don’t know your lacrimal from your zygomatic, or your talus from your patella?  If not then the University of Sheffield is offering the chance for students, enthusiasts and members of the public a chance to get to grips with the skills and techniques used in human skeletal analysis with remains from archaeological contexts in an upcoming human osteology short course.

The mysterious left human talus, a paired skeletal bone. This talus is in the inferior view where anterior is up. Where is this bone found in the human body? Clue: if, as it goes in the idiom, you put your ‘best **** forward’ you are trying to make the best impression! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The course will run from the 26th to the 28th of August 2015 at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  The short course is led by Dr Diana Mahoney-Swales and Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, with support on hand from graduates from the human osteology program.  The course costs £120 for reduced rates (students and unwaged) and £180 for full rate (employed).  The osteology laboratory at the department is well equipped for the study and analysis of human remains and should provide an accurate picture of how bioarchaeology analysis is carried out within the British system today.

The content of the course will include an overview of the human skeleton, how to identity and side each element (including major anatomical skeletal landmarks), how to recognise and identify markers and techniques for the age and biological sex of individuals and the presence of any pathology present on the bones.  Further to this the course will cover archaeological aspects that affect the recovery and presentation of human remains (taphonomic changes and funerary/mortuary behaviours) and give an overview of the ethics involved in human osteology.  The Department of Archaeology at Sheffield have successfully ran this course for a number of years now, and have helped inform many of the importance of the scientific analysis of human skeletal remains.  The university is one of the major universities in the United Kingdom for the study of this topic, although the Universities of Bournemouth, Bradford, Durham, Edinburgh, Kent, and UCL all offer specialism in this topic at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.

More Bones…

As always if you are a member of an archaeology department, or alternatively an archaeological unit/community organisation, in the UK or Europe, who are running a short course focusing on the analysis of human remains, then please contact me and I’d be happy to mention the course on this site.  Regular readers will know I happily champion a range of courses and educational open days in the United Kingdom on this site.

This blog reaches hundreds of individuals a day and, if advertised on social media sites, can reach thousands of views for a single entry across a global context within a day or two.  If this short course above tickles your fancy and you are interested in studying human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts at a Masters level (known as bioarchaeology or human osteology) then please see this entry where I have cataloged available UK Masters course and prices (correct as of the 13/14 academic year, expect price increase since).

Further Information

  • Information for the August 2014 short course can be found here.  Please be aware that these courses are ran throughout the year so if you are unable to attend this session it is likely that there will be another in the not-too-distant-future.
  • The department also regularly run a palaeoenvironmental short course (10-11th September 2015) which focuses on geological and organic remains from archaeological sites, and zooarchaeology I (7th-11th September 2015), a short course focusing on the analysis of animal skeletal remains from archaeological contexts.  The zooarchaeology course covers a wide range of animal remains found on archaeological sites within Britain and Europe (including large mammals and avian species).  Information on these courses can be found here.  Price range is the same for the human osteology course above (£120-£180).
  • The University of Sheffield is also playing host to the 2015 British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology 17th annual conference from the Friday 18th to the Saturday 20th of September (costs from £150-180).  The association conference is one of the top places to meet and greet important British and European researchers discussing recent research in the fields of human osteology, bioarchaeology and physical anthropology.  More information and a booking form can be found here.

Guest Post: Telling Stories about the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project by Alexis Boutin

26 Jun

Alexis T. Boutin is associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of the cultural resources M.A. program at Sonoma State University.  In addition to co-directing the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project, she is starting a new community-based field project that studies the casualties and legacy of California’s Bear Flag Revolt of 1846.  Read more at her Academia.edu page or faculty webpage.  When not working or chasing after her children, Alexis spends her free time…actually, she doesn’t have any free time. 


Like most good stories, this one starts in an unassuming way: a lone researcher, flipping through yellowed index cards in the wooden drawer of a museum registrar’s card catalog, stumbles across one for human remains from “Saudi Arabia; Bahrein Island”.  Casually mentioning the find over lunch with her colleague, who happens to be a curator at the museum, he expresses interest in helping her dig deeper into the collections and archives to find out how these bones came to be in the museum.  Thus was born the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project in late 2008 (Porter and Boutin 2012).  The researchers in question are Alexis Boutin, now of Sonoma State University, and Benjamin Porter, of University of California Berkeley.  The museum is the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  The bones, and associated artifacts, belong to the only substantial assemblage from ancient Dilmun in a North American museum. And they have many stories to tell.

Peter Cornwall’s search for Dilmun

We must begin with Peter Bruce Cornwall, the scion of a distinguished family with deep roots in northern California.  He found privilege in his education at Andover, Toronto, and Oxford, but was challenged by the deafness that afflicted him late in childhood.  As a doctoral student in Anthropology at Harvard, Cornwall’s objective – which his advisor would call a “mania” – was to locate the place named in ancient Near Eastern texts as Dilmun.


1. Peter Cornwall’s 1932 yearbook photo from Phillips Academy Andover.

Dilmun served as a setting for Mesopotamian creation myths and fantastical events.  For instance, the hero Gilgamesh found Utnapishtum there, a former king who was granted immortality after a great flood in a story that mirrors that of the biblical Noah.  Dilmun also was well-known as a trading emporium in commercial networks extending to the Ur III societies of Mesopotamia, Magan in Oman, and Meluhha, the Harappan societies of the Indus River Valley.  But modern scholars had never agreed upon Dilmun’s actual location or extent.


2. Map of the Arabian peninsula, with ancient locales identified. Image by Benjamin W. Porter.

After overcoming the doubt of his academic advisors at Harvard and eventually winning limited backing from the Hearst Museum, Cornwall sailed for Bahrain in Fall 1940.  His journey was made no easier by its route across the Pacific and Indian oceans in the midst of World War II.  Cornwall excavated human remains and artifacts from at least 24 tumuli, or burial mounds, on Bahrain, followed by survey and surface collection at 16 or more archaeological sites in eastern Saudi Arabia.


3. Cornwall’s team excavating a tumulus in Bahrain. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

The cost of shipping the finds to his northern California home was covered by the Hearst Museum, in return for their eventual accession there.  Cornwall’s analyses allowed him to conclude that Dilmun was a political entity that ran along the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula from Kuwait to Qatar and was centered on Bahrain.  After publishing his PhD dissertation and several journal articles, Cornwall donated the assemblage to the Hearst Museum as promised in 1945, but provided minimal assistance with its accession.  He then began to withdraw from the academic world, moving to Rome and reportedly spending the rest of his days travelling and collecting art and antiquities, before dying in his late 50s of cirrhosis of the liver.  Although Cornwall’s contribution to Gulf archaeology has lived on in the works of many others (e.g., Bibby 1970, Crawford 1998, Højlund 2007, Potts 1990), the location of the materials that helped him make this discovery was not known outside of the Hearst Museum.

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project

Some 4000 years after these people died and 65 years after their remains were brought to California, Porter and I identified this assemblage (referred to hereafter as the “Cornwall collection”) as a rich source of information about life and death in ancient Dilmun.  Although the materials donated by Cornwall had been inventoried during their accession to the Hearst, they had undergone no further systematic analysis since that time.  Working with students from Sonoma State and UC Berkeley, we have determined that the Cornwall collection includes over 3,700 objects made from materials including metal, bone, ivory, pearl, shell, and alabaster, although stone and ceramic objects dominate.  The datable objects derive mostly from the Early Dilmun period, ca. 2050-1800 BCE.  This was a period of unprecedented political and economic prosperity in Dilmun, as suggested by fortified settlements, temple complexes, administrative seals, and imported goods.

When people died in Early Dilmun, their bodies were laid to rest in distinct mortuary monuments that are still visible across the island today.  These mounded tumuli usually consist of a stone lined burial chamber covered by a cone of sediments and gravels.  In most tombs, one or sometimes two individuals were interred, often in a relaxed fetal position.  Surrounding them were ceramic vessels, jewelry, metal weapons, and very rarely alabaster vessels or ivory objects.  A sheep or goat might also be included, likely an offering for the deceased to carry into the afterlife.  Not all tumuli had the same level of elaborate commemoration.  Differences in the size of monuments and the amount and quality of objects indicate that the privileged and wealthy were granted the most elaborate burial conditions.

The human remains in the Cornwall collection represent a minimum of 34 people.  Twenty-four adults, as well as one adolescent, were sufficiently well-preserved to permit sex estimation.  Nineteen are males/probable males, while six are females/probable females.  Of the skeletons for whom an age category could be estimated, the vast majority are adults, with middle adults (35-50 years) being the best represented.  However, adolescents, children, infants and one fetus are also present in smaller numbers.

Figure4 (1)

4. The author at work in the Hearst Museum collections. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

Unfortunately, the notes that Cornwall deposited in the Museum’s accession files are very limited.  They contain very few associated field notes, such as photographs of the burials, the position of bodies, and even the geographic coordinates for specific tumuli around the island.  We are not sure if Cornwall produced this documentation in the first place, or perhaps he never gave it to the Hearst Museum.  We are hopeful that someone will come forward with missing information about Cornwall’s research from a family archive.  Nevertheless, important insights can be gained from the Cornwall collection when its contents are analyzed in the context of better-documented research in Bahrain and surrounding regions.


5. Cylindrical wheel-thrown ceramic jar (9-4680) typical of Early Dilmun burial assemblages. Photo by Colleen Morgan. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Bioarchaeological analysis of skeleton 12-10152 provides a powerful example of one ancient Dilmunite’s experiences in life and death.  Cornwall excavated the remains of this person—a male who was at least 60 years old when he died—from a tumulus in the Dar Kulayb mound cemetery near Bahrain’s western coast.  No durable objects were buried with him, although multiple bones (including the skull) from a sheep (Ovis aries) or goat (Capra hircus) suggest that he did receive a large portion of a recently butchered animal.  The three stories that follow illustrate how bioarchaeological data from one skeleton (here, 12-10152) can be assembled and interpreted in various ways, to tell multiple stories through multiple media.

The Osteological Version

Analysis of 12-10152’s skeleton reveals a long lifetime of physical activity based on degenerative joint disease (DJD) throughout his skeleton.  Degenerative joint disease occurs when chronic stress on joints progressively damages articular cartilage and, eventually, underlying bone surfaces.  Bone formation and destruction characterize DJD, including the breakdown of articular cartilage, formation of osteophytes at joint margins and entheses, degeneration and consequent porosity of the articular surface, sclerosis, and eburnation caused by direct bone-on-bone contact (Larsen 2015; Ortner 2003).  This male’s DJD is more severe in the right shoulder, facet joints of three cervical vertebrae, lower lumbar vertebral bodies, hips, and knees.  The degeneration of the right shoulder joint is particularly marked, with significant osteophyte growth on the articular margins of the right humeral head, and extensive eburnation here and on the glenoid fossa of the scapula.  Osteophyte formation on the distal femora, more extensive on the left side, indicates degeneration of both knee joints.  The articular surface of the left patella (the only one extant) exhibits macroporosity and destruction of the subchondral bone.


6. Severe degenerative joint disease affecting 12-10152’s right humerus. 6a) eburnation of humeral head (superior view); 6ab) osteophyte growth on margins of humeral head (posterior view); 6c) eburnation of posterior face of glenoid fossa (right scapula, medial view). Photos by the author. (Click to enlarge).

As was common for the elderly of Early Dilmun, this male experienced extensive antemortem tooth loss.  His mandible is edentulous, and all but five of his maxillary teeth had fallen out by the time of his death.  Moderate DJD of the right temporomandibular joint is evident.  The left side is unaffected.  Atrophy of the right half of the mandible is also apparent, perhaps caused by a preference for the non-arthritic left side when chewing.  In a forthcoming publication, we compare his skeleton with those of two other elderly males in the Cornwall collection to explore how masculinity was embodied in Early Dilmun (Porter and Boutin forthcoming).


7. Extant cranial skeleton of 12-10152. Note antemortem loss of all teeth in mandible. Photo by the author. (Click to enlarge).

The Visual Version

The comparatively good preservation of 12-10152’s cranial and post-cranial skeleton provided an excellent opportunity to tell his story visually, through a forensic facial reconstruction.  This method had already been employed by the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project on a teenage boy from Early Dilmun with excellent results (Boutin et al. 2012), and we hoped that a facial reconstruction of this older man could provide unique insights about embodied experiences toward the end of life.

Creating a replica of the skull is the first step in facial reconstruction.  For 12-10152, whose remains are very delicate and brittle, stereolithography—scanning the skull with lasers to create a digital file—was the best option.  Dr. Sabrina Sholts (now of the Smithsonian Institution) obtained multiple scans of each portion of the fragmented skull with a NextEngine 3D laser scanner. After she processed the data on a laptop, the resulting digital files were sent to GoEngineer in Santa Clara, CA, where they were “printed” three-dimensionally in plastic.  I brought these plastic cranial bones to the studio of forensic artist Gloria Nusse (San Francisco State University), where she and I worked together to rearticulate them into a model on which the face could be reconstructed.


8. Printed components of 12-10152’s skull, before and after re-articulation in Ms. Nusse’s studio. Photos by the author. (Click to enlarge).

When the plastic skull replica was ready, Nusse attached tissue depth markers at standard cranial landmarks.  Next, she used oil-based modeling clay to simulate the cranio-facial muscles, with “skin” of the same material eventually added to meet the height of the markers.  Once the basic form of the face had been completed, Nusse made small adjustments to the shapes of certain features, such as the eyelids and lips, and used a sponge to texturize the facial skin.  She carefully incorporated skeletal features distinct to 12-10152 into his visage: for example, the atrophied and edentulous nature of his mandible gave his lower face a sunken and asymmetrical appearance.  Nusse collaborated with Porter and me to create the hair and eye color, hair style, and dress for 12-10152’s reconstruction.  Our decisions were informed by texts and iconography from ancient Mesopotamia (which are lacking from early Dilmun), as well as a survey of publicly available photographs of modern Arabian Gulf citizens.  The resulting reconstruction has been displayed with that of the teenage boy in an exhibit entitled “From Death to Life in Ancient Bahrain,” which has traveled to several university museums in California.


9. Facial reconstruction of 12-10152 by Gloria Nusse, on display at Sonoma State University. Photograph courtesy of Alexis Boutin. (Click to enlarge).

The Narrative Version

The final way that I tell 12-10152’s story is in fictive narrative format, which is informed by the Bioarchaeology of Care and Bioarchaeology of Personhood models.  Having described the Bioarchaeology of Personhood in print before (Boutin 2011, 2012), I provide just a few highlights here.  Essentially, I have taken Clark and Wilkie’s (2006) concept of an Archaeology of Personhood and adapted it to focus on the relationship between human skeletal remains and embodied experience.  These models feature a less ethno- and temperocentric emphasis on individuality than other (bio)archaeological approaches to identity.  One of the only constants is the passage of time, which is marked bodily by aging.  Although age should not be privileged over other axes of personhood (e.g., gender, class, ethnicity, etc.), it is age that undergirds their fluidity over the life course.  So the Bioarchaeology of Personhood attends to the stories that skeletons tell us about how their personhoods were embodied across the life course.

In addition to telling these stories in traditional academic language and scholarly venues, I also write fictive narratives about the skeletons I study.  This allows me to draw together socio-historic contextual data, clinical research on health and illness, and bioarchaeological analysis in a way that provides a more humanizing view of past personhoods.  But no matter how well-substantiated, these narratives are always the products of my imagination.  They could be told in different ways by different authors, depending on which lines of evidence s/he chooses to prioritize.  For this reason, the qualifying term “fictive” (after Wilkie 2003) is essential.  I have also found the Bioarchaeology of Care (Tilley 2015) to be an extremely useful heuristic tool in creating fictive narratives based on the Cornwall collection.  I particularly appreciate how its focus on the provision of health care and support foregrounds the notion of community: each and every life course plays out in concert with those of others to which it is inextricably linked – mothers, husbands, children, neighbors, dynasts, etc.  What follows is an excerpt of a fictive narrative about 12-10152’s life course, focusing on the care and support that he may have required during old age.

The heat and dust rose in waves from the road as the young men padded by, their arms full of recently harvested dates.  I envied them in more ways than one.  “Grandfather, your stew is ready.”  It’s been many years since I was able to shimmy up the date palms, let alone chew my favorite date nut treat.  But even the few teeth left in my head are enough to enjoy my granddaughter’s fish-and-vegetable stew (as long as she cooks it long enough and I remember to chew on the left side).  Finding my walking stick with my left hand and heaving myself up with a grunt, I make my way into the house.  A wince and a groan as I raise my right arm to take the bowl from my granddaughter.  Ah well – if you live long enough to see your great-grandchildren, some aches and pains are to be expected.

The End

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project aims to maximize the interpretive possibilities of the human remains that we have the privilege to study.  Telling 12-10152’s story in various ways reminds us that identities are always multi-faceted and that there is no one “right answer” to how bioarchaeological evidence can be interpreted.  Another example of this approach can be seen in the multiple stories that we have told about a young woman with disabilities (12-10146) from the Cornwall collection.  These include an osteological analysis of her skeletal pathologies (Boutin and Porter 2014), a narrative telling of her embodied experiences in the recent Bioarchaeology of Care session at the 2015 SAAs (with a manuscript in preparation for International Journal of Paleopathology), and a full-body reconstruction by Ms. Nusse planned for 2015-2016.  Documentation and analysis of the Cornwall collection will conclude over the next couple of years, with the results to be published in a book entitled Embodying Dilmun: The Peter B. Cornwall Expedition to Eastern Arabia and Bahrain.  Will this be the final word on life and death in ancient Dilmun? As the saying goes, the best stories never end.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Boutin, A.T. 2012. Crafting a Bioarchaeology of Personhood: Osteobiographical Narratives from Alalakh. In A. Baadsgaard, A. T. Boutin and J. E. Buikstra (eds.), Breathing New Life Into the Evidence of Death: Contemporary Approaches to Bioarchaeology. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 109-133. (Open Access).

Boutin, A.T. 2011. Written in Stone, Written in Bone: The Osteobiography of a Bronze Age Craftsman from Alalakh. In A.L.W. Stodder and A. M. Palkovich (eds.), The Bioarchaeology of Individuals. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 193-214. (Open Access).

Boutin, A.T. & and Porter, B.W. 2014. Commemorating Disability in Early Dilmun: Ancient and Contemporary Tales from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection. In B.W. Porter and A.T. Boutin (eds.), Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 97-132.

Boutin, A.T., Nusse, G.L. Nusse, Sholts, S.B. & Porter, B.W. 2012. Face to Face With the Past: Reconstructing a Teenage Boy from Early Dilmun. Near Eastern Archaeology. 75(2): 68-79.

Bibby, G. 1970. Looking for Dilmun. London: Collins.

Clark, B. & Wilkie, L.A. 2006. The Prism of Self: Gender and Personhood. In S. M. Nelson (ed.), Handbook of Gender Archaeology. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 333-364.

Cornwall, P.B. 1943. The tumuli of Bahrain. Asia and the Americas. 42: 230–234.

Cornwall, P.B. 1944. Dilmun: The history of Bahrein Island before Cyrus. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Harvard University.

Cornwall, P.B. 1946. On the location of Dilmun. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 102: 3–11.

Crawford, H.E.W. 1998. Dilmun and its Gulf Neighbours. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Højlund, F. 2007. The Burial Mounds of Bahrain: Social Complexity in Early Dilmun. Moesgaard: Jutland Archaeological Society Publications.

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Skeleton. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Littleton, J. & Frohlich, B. 1993. Fish-eaters and Farmers: Dental Pathology in the Arabian Gulf. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 92:427-447. (Open Access).

MacLean, R. & Insoll, T. 2011. An Archaeological Guide to Bahrain. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Ortner, Donald J. 2003. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. 2nd edition. San Diego: Academic Press.

Porter, B.W. & Boutin, A.T. 2012. The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project:  A first look at the Peter B. Cornwall Collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. 23: 35-49.

Porter, B.W. & Boutin, A.T. Forthcoming. The Elders of Dilmun: A Bioarchaeological Analysis of Masculinity from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection. In L. Gregoricka and K. Williams (eds.), Life and Death in Ancient Arabia: Mortuary and Bioarchaeological Perspectives. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Potts, D.T. 1990. The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity, Vols. 1 & 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tilley, L. 2015. Accommodating Difference in the Prehistoric Past: Revisiting the Case of Romito 2 from a Bioarchaeology of Care Perspective. International Journal of Paleopathology. 8: 64-74. (Open Access).

Wilkie, L.A. 2003. The Archaeology of Mothering: An African-American Midwife’s Tale. New York: Routledge.

Introducing Show Us Your Research! An Open Access Anthropological Project

17 Jun

One of the aims of this blog, especially more so since it has grown in the past few years, is to highlight the opportunities available to both bioarchaeology researchers and the public alike.  As a previous post highlighted, never has there been a better time to be involved with bioarchaeological research and never has it been so open before to members of the public to engage with it (for instance, try your hand here or check out some resources here!).  The communication of the aims, and the importance of the discipline, in the aid of understanding past populations and their lifestyles is of vital interest if we are to remain a dynamic and responsive field.  As such it gives me great pleasure to announce that, starting from now, I’ll be helping to disseminate the results of the Show Us Your Research! (SUYR!) project spearheaded by researchers at the University of Coimbra and the University of Algarve in Portugal.


The SUYR! logo. Image credit courtesy of GEEvH  at the Universidade de Coimbra.

The SUYR! project aims to promote the projects that archaeologists and anthropologists have been involved in by diminishing the gap between the researchers and the public by regular concise publications aimed at the public (Campanacho et al. 2015).  The project is aimed at researchers from the anthropological and archaeological fields from around the globe and accepts entries on methodologies, artefacts, theories, site studies and pathological studies, amongst other topics.  To me this is a really exciting opportunity for early career archaeologists and anthropologists and one that I am thrilled to disseminate the results of.  It is hoped that the project expands into interviews with researchers as well!

SUYR! 2015 Entry No. 4: Carina Marques and a Palaeopathological Approach to Neoplasms

The latest entry in the series focuses on malignant tumours (or neoplasms) in the palaeopathology record.  The entry, submitted by researcher Carina Marques who is based at the Research Centre for Anthropology and Heath (CIAS) at the University of Coimbra, focuses on the skeletal evidence for malignant tumours in archaeological populations by investigating prevalence and typology of their presence.  Cancer, as the World Health Organisation figures testify, is a major cause of human mortality internationally; however their neoplastic natural history, physical manifestation and evolution remains something of a ‘challenging endeavor’ (Marques 2015).

As such Marques has studied and analysed Portuguese reference collections of numerous skeletal remains dating from the 19th to 20th centuries to try to identity and catalog neoplasms in the aim to ask how precise the pathological diagnosis of malignant tumours are in fairly modern skeletal remains.  The research highlighted that the skeletal manifestations of tumours can vary and that they can present similarly to other pathological processes which can be hard to identify down to a single process.  However, the research also documented that malignant tumours often left their mark on bone, particularly metastases (after the cancer had spread from one area of the body to another).  The research has helped produce a body of data that characterizes neoplastic prevalence in these populations, providing an important historical context for the evolution of neoplasms.  Furthermore Marques (2015) has also helped clinicians identify and characterize the early lesions that can often be missed on radiological examination.

How to Submit Your Research

There are a number of formats in which submissions to SUYR! can be made – these include either a 500 word abstract of your research project, a picture or photograph with a note of no more than 200 words, or via a video lasting 3 to 5 minutes detailing the research undertaken and its importance (the specifics of the video format and style can be found here).  Remember that you are writing for interested members of the public who want to hear and read about the interesting research topics that archaeologists and anthropologists are pursuing and why.  These necessarily precludes that the use of isolating jargon is limited and that the writing is clear to understand.  More importantly, this fantastic opportunity levers the researcher with a communication channel to both the academic and public spheres alike.  SUYR! has three major themes of interest (bioanthropology, archaeology, and social and cultural anthropology) for the submissions and three researchers to contact for each interest.  The following image highlights who to contact to send your research to:


Subjects of interest in the SUYR! project and the contact details to send the research to. Image credit courtesy of the Universdade de Coimbra.

Get on Board

If you are a blogger, a microblogger (ie a Twitter user), or merely want to share your interest in the fields of archaeology and anthropology to your family and friends, then you too can join in spreading word about SUYR!  Simply copy and paste the website and share with your circle of family and friends.  The articles are freely available from the main SUYR! site.  If you are a college or university student who is interested in highlighting the various projects discussed via the project then perhaps you could even print out the pages and put them up on the community noticeboard in your department.  If you are an active researcher within the above fields then why not consider sending in your own past or current research?  This is a great opportunity to highlight the knowledge, breadth and depth, of archaeological research and the value of bioarchaeological research to the public.

Further Information

  • The archives of the SUYR! project can be found here for 2014 and here for 2015 years.  Both of the years papers detail some really interesting projects going on in the anthropology fields, particularly in bioarchaeology.  For example, Dr Charlotte Henderson kicks off the 2014 papers with an exciting and enlightening piece on the ability, and problems, of osteologists to infer occupation from skeletal remains.  Later on in the year Victoria Beauchamp and Nicola Thorpe investigate the work of The Workers’ Education Association (WEA) in England and assess the impact of using heritage as a teaching aid.  Both papers can be downloaded for free here.  In 2015 Dave Errickson (a friend and a previous guest blogger on this site) has an entry on his work digitizing forensic evidence using 3D scans and laser scanning.  The site itself is available to translate into a number of languages by simply clicking the scroll down box on the right hand side.
  • The Grupo de Estudos em Evolucao Humana (Group of Studies in Human Evolution), at the University of Coimbra, have a website highlighting the ongoing initiatives, activities and projects by the members of the group.  This includes hosting conferences, workshops and open days on any number of evolutionary topics.  You can find out more information here.


Campanacho, V., Pereira, T. & Nunes, M.J. 2015. Show Us Your Research! An Anthropological and Archaeological Publication for the Greater Public. Palaeopathology Newsletter. 170: 26.

Marques, C. 2015. A Palaeopathological Approach to Neoplasms: Skeletal Evidence from the Portuguese Identified Osteological Collections.  Show Us Your Research! 2015, No. 4. (Open Access).

Bioarchaeology Updates: Upcoming Conferences, Books and Medieval Bones

12 Jun

There really hasn’t been a better time to be involved with the fantastic field of bioarchaeology.  The study of ancient and historic human remains is deeply rooted within the archaeological and osteological fields, but it is its own specialised niche that carefully combines the study of cultural and environmental variables in the scientific study of human skeletal and mummified remains.  It mixes the methodologies and approaches used in the hard sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, to help determine relevant interpretations and processes at play when studying past individuals and populations.  Even though my day job is currently in another field completely (I don’t think my work colleagues would take too kindly to me bringing in bones to study!), I am still an active researcher within the bioarchaeology discipline (as highlighted through my recent trip to San Francisco – expect a post relatively soon).

The discipline has really grown within the last two decades (both theoretical and scientific applications in biochemistry) and it is steady embracing and using new technologies (such as 3D printing and laser scanning) to help further the information that is present in the bioarchaeological record.  As such this post will briefly highlighted forthcoming conferences, some publications, and briefly highlight some of my own work in this discipline.

Upcoming Conferences

This small list of conferences highlights some of the larger conferences in archaeology and bioarchaeology in the UK and Europe.

21st Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, Glasgow, 2nd-5th September 2015

Hosted at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, the city will play host to the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) annual meeting this year, with an expected c.2500 delegates attending the multiple sessions on archaeology theory, method and history.  Registration for the conference costs from £145 down to £80 dependent on EAA member status (student, retiree, or Eastern European status) of the applicant and rise up to £212 for non-member status.  The conference is split into seven different themes, including the following:

1) Archaeology and Mobility – Using 21st century Europe as a jumping off point for the issues of mobility, this session seeks to see how archaeological research identifies mobility in the record.

2) Re-configuring Identities – The levels of identity are important, from state, group, familial and individual.  This session explores the archaeological representation of identity and how this is expressed.

3) Science and Archaeology – This sessions explores the use of hard science in archaeology, such as stable isotope analyses, lipid analyses and DNA explorations.

4) Communicating Archaeology – How do we communicate archaeology, why is this important and how can we improve it?  This sessions will highlight what we do well, how to improve and why.

5) Legacies and Visions –  This session will focus on the legacies of archaeological exploration and the use of vision within communities of archaeological projects.

6) Celtic Connections – Detailing the Celtic phenomenon and what it means.

7) Interpreting the Archaeological Record – How do we interpret and why?

Full details on the themes can be found here.  The 21st annual meeting promises to be an exciting opportunity to meet archaeological researchers from across Eurasia, and several of the themed sessions will be attractive to the bioarchaeologist.  These include the expression of identity in the archaeological record and the ability to identify mobility.  The full scientific and artistic program will be released shortly, whilst the key information can be found here.

British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology conference, Sheffield, 18th-20th September 2015

Hot on the heels of the EAA conference, which is conveniently held in the UK this year, is the more specialised British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) annual conference held at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Taking place over three days from the 18th to the 20th of September, the conference is the main event for bioarchaeologists in the UK covering the fields of biological anthropology, osteoarchaeology (both human and non-human), physical anthropology and aspects of forensic anthropology.  The registration fee for members is £150, non-members £185, and students prices varying from £125 to £150 for members or non members.  The fee does include a conference meal at a restaurant but not accommodation.

The poster for the BABAO 2015 conference held at the University of Sheffield.  It also features the fantastic artwork of Jennifer Crangle, a doctoral candidate at the Sheffield department of archaeology.

As highlighted above there are four main session themes for the BABAO 2015 conference, each allowing for significant room for research topics.  Alongside the poster and podium presentations are two exciting workshops.  The first is a particularly hot topic in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology – 3D scanning and printing of skeletal elements, whilst the 2nd is of similar importance – museum studies and curation methods.  Both workshops will be delivered by experts in the field.  The BABAO conference is a well-known event in the UK bioarchaeological calendar and as such is definitely of interest for both European and non-European researchers as it highlights upcoming and ongoing research of international importance.  Details of the conference outline can be found here, alongside the BABAO 2015 Facebook page.

Little Lives: New Perspective on Child Heath and the Life Course in Bioarchaeology, Durham, 30th January 2014

The Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham is playing host to a one day conference on the bioarchaeological importance of non-adults (neonates, children, juveniles, etc) in the archaeological record.  Non-adults in the bioarchaeological record were once accorded little status and study, however times have fundamentally changed and focus has shifted onto the importance of non-adult individuals in the archaeological record.  There are no details on the cost of the day long session as of yet, but I will update the post once information is available.


Little Lives conference post held at the University of Durham in early 2016.

The day-long conference is split into three separate sessions with keynote speakers in each.  The four sessions include:

1) Life before Birth – research into current maternal and infant health in bioarchaeology.

2) Growth, Health and Childhood – studies looking at the period of growth, general health and isotope studies.

3) Back to the Future! – effects of childhood stress on adult outcomes, stature, body proportion and longevity

Abstracts, of 250 words with institute affiliation, are being accepted until the 30th of September 2015.  Please send them to littlelivesdurham (at) gmail (dot) com.

Books, Briefly…

Alongside the upcoming conferences above that look particularly interesting, I have also been reading a few different books recently that may be of interest to bioarchaeologists.  I shall very quickly sum them up here.

A History of Disability by Henri-Jacques Stiker (1999), Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 240 pages

In a relatively new (okay, a few decades old) English translation provides the French historian Henri-Jacques Stiker’s attempt at a framework for analysing disability across the ages – starting in the biblical age and ending in the late 20th century at the introduction and use of legal frameworks in understanding the concept of disability in society.  This was one of the first books that detailed the changing nature and understanding of disability within society itself and across cultures.  In particular Stiker highlights the cultural assumption and ‘contemporary Western discourse’ principle that ‘equality/sameness/similarity is ideal’, which he states exposes society’s basic intolerance of individualism and diversity as a whole.  This is an interesting and thought-provoking publication that requires close reading, yet I should state here that this book has no basis in bioarchaeology.  Stiker takes the reader on a journey through the changing language and thought on disability, highlighting appropriate cultural trends or changes in the perception and reality of disability (in all of its various modes) throughout some three thousand or more years of historical and cultural change.

Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Debra L. Martin, Ryan P. Harrod & Ventura R. Pérez (2014), London, Springer, 262 pages

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on a paperback version of this manual as it looks (and indeed is) fantastic.  This book is largely aimed at the practicing bioarchaeologist (whether commercial, academic or student) and it is a book that profiles the bioarchaeology discipline as a whole.  This includes, but is not limited to, the bioarchaeological methods used in studying human remains and their archaeological context, the role and use of theory, general best practice guidelines, and the ethics and applications involved in the discipline.  As such this publication covers a lot of ground in a proficient and reader friendly way, whilst never losing its clarity or the rich depth of the subject itself.  I highly recommend you read a copy if you are interested in the objectives and importance of bioarchaeology as a whole.  Alongside Clark Spencer Larsen’s 1997 Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton (now in an updated 2nd edition!), which informs the reader on the past population behaviours that can be gleaned from human remains (both skeletal and mummified), and Tim D. White and Pieter Folkens esteemed Human Bone Manual, which is a key first text for the anatomical identification of skeletal elements in either the laboratory field environments, Martin et al.’s book highlights the discipline as a whole and acts as a fantastic reference book on any number of bioarchaeological issues that the practitioner or researcher faces.

Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives by Douglas E. Crews (2003), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 291 pages

I’ve mentioned this publication by Crews before on the blog but I think it is worth mentioning again as it highlights the importance of understanding the fundamental processes of biological processes at play within both the individual and population that can affect the archaeological record, and our perception of it.  Late life survival, and the way in which humans senesce slowly, is a particularly interesting area of human biology – it is the how and why we age as we do, what influences are behind this and what the cultural and social expectations, or impacts, this can lead to or can be predicated.  For the bioarchaeologist this is important to consider when examining an older individual as bone density decreases and osteoporosis rises as a risk, leading to both functional loss and loss of life (specifically in complications from fractures in osteoporosis cases).  The biocultural, and anthropological, implications of senescence are of primary importance in the world’s population today as developed countries (such as the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States) have a higher percentage of elderly individuals across the national population than ever before, and seems to be a developing pattern across economically developed and developing countries.

And Finally

I’ve put up a recent human osteological report that I have completed as a freelance specialist that analysed the partial remains of a Medieval adolescent (HCD 12), found by chance on the north-east coast of England, on my personal Academia page here.  Regular readers of the site may find the report interesting in the use and application of the methods applied in the bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains.  It is certainly an interesting individual due to the burial location of the body, however it is also frustrating due to the inability to recover the in-situ remains due to landscape instability.  I should state here that this is purely an osteological analysis of the skeletal remains themselves rather than an in-depth study of the archaeological context of the remains.  It is, as such, a specialist report.

Please feel free to take a look and let me know of any critique – I’d value this as this is one of my first osteological reports outside of academia itself.  If you anyone wants a copy of the report that doesn’t have the skeletal inventory and associated appendices somewhat horribly marred by Academia’s upload program, then please feel free to email me at thesebonesofmine (at) hotmail (dot) com!

Guest Post: Review of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Beckenham, Kent, by Jessica Sajovie

4 Jun

Jessica Sajovie is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but is currently a London-based writer responsible for Diverting Journeys, a blog dedicated to irreverent reviews of museums and other curious destinations around the world, particularly (due to a limited travel budget) those in London and Southeast England.  In addition, she volunteers with a local history project, researching the First World War and its impact on Merton.  Jessica holds an MA in Early Modern History from King’s College London, with a focus on 18th century Britain and the history of medicine.  Her other interests include collecting vintage cookbooks and Pez dispensers shaped like American Presidents, a never-ending quest to find blueberry cake doughnuts in London, and reading books on ill-fated maritime expeditions and lurid titles picked from the historical “True Crime” section at the library.  She also enjoys classic rock.


Though I’m keen on almost all museums (the possible exceptions being particularly dreary local affairs, or anything sport-related), medical museums are a particular favourite of mine.  Over the past few years, I’ve blogged about a number of them around Britain (the Gordon Museum of Pathology, the Royal London Hospital Museum, Dr. Jenner’s House , the Royal Berkshire Medical Museum, and many others, if you feel like digging around my blog), and elsewhere in the world (even in places as far-flung as Thailand) but being a homebody at heart, I was excited to discover that a new medical museum had opened right on the outskirts of London – the former Bethlem Hospital Museum, which was recently revamped and re-opened as the Museum of the Mind.


The entrance of the Bethlem Hospital museum in London.

Bethlem Royal Hospital has been around in one form or another since AD 1247, making it the oldest mental hospital in Britain (although it started strictly as an almshouse, and only began to be used for mentally ill patients in the early 14th century).  It was initially located in Bishopsgate, just beyond the old City of London, but was moved to Moorfields in the late 17th century, which is around the time it began to acquire its tumultuous “bedlam” reputation (the name of the hospital had been shortened to “Bedlam” for centuries, but it was only in the 1600s that the word began to be used as a synonym for chaos), as the hospital encouraged paying visitors, and gawking at the “lunatics” became a popular day out for the wealthy.  In 1815, the hospital moved again, this time to Southwark (what is now the Imperial War Museum), and due to a damning report about conditions in the hospital, Bethlem gradually developed more humane treatments for its patients, and put an end to the sight-seeing. Finally, in 1930, Bethlem moved out to its current location, in Kent, where the museum is located today.


A detail of one of the entrance statues by Caius Gabriel Cibber in the museum highlighting the representation of mental illness via the shackles.  This is a continuing theme at Bethlem Hospital as shackles and chains were often previously used to subdue patients.

Firstly, some practicalities.  The Museum of the Mind is not too far from Croydon, so most Londoners should be able to make their way out there using a combination of trains and buses (or the tram from Wimbledon…if you don’t hate it as much as I do; ugh, it’s so slow, and the unfortunately named “Therapia Lane” creeps me out).  I chose to travel by car, which in retrospect may have been a mistake as it took about an hour to get there from Southwest London, but at least there was ample parking in the visitor lot at the hospital, which is a short walk away from the museum (and I had the freedom to sing along (poorly) to all my favourite classic rock songs in the car, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in the tram without getting weird looks).  The museum is normally open Wednesday-Friday, and the first and last Saturday of the month, and admission is free.


A patient’s creative representation of mental illness.

My first impression was that it was like a small-scale Dr. Guislain Museum (a fabulous museum in Belgium that is located in a working mental hospital and provides a comprehensive history of psychiatric medicine, in addition to art galleries featuring works by people suffering from various mental illnesses), as it incorporated both museum space and art galleries with works by some of its service users.  I started with the gallery space on the ground floor, which was compromised of two rooms: a display area and a workshop whose walls were also lined with pictures.  A two or three paragraph description was provided for each piece; I particularly liked an artist with a penchant for photographing crows.  The workshop seems to be frequently used for various classes, as there was one starting up when I was in there viewing the art (and purchasing a Dan Duggan print), and since I was asked if I wanted to join the class (which I awkwardly declined, as I didn’t have time and totally lack artistic talent anyway), I assume at least some of them are offered free of charge.

The stairwell leading up to the first floor is flanked by the famous statues Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness (by Caius Gabriel Cibber, father of the much-maligned Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, though I have to say Alexander Pope’s constant mockery of the younger Colley livened up the 18th Century Literature classes I took in my undergrad days) which stood atop the gates of the late 17th century hospital, and truly demonstrate Restoration-era conceptions of madness, as the faces of the figures are so contorted that they scarcely look human.

Statues flanking the entrance stairs.

Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness by the artist Caius Gabriel Cibber at the 1st floor stairs in the museum.

There’s also an old donation box where visitors back in the sight-seeing era of Bethlem’s history were encouraged to leave money (although the treatments at the hospital have radically changed, the box is still in use for its original purpose, and they gladly welcome any donations).

The first floor is divided into a museum and another art gallery, which hosts temporary exhibitions.  The one I saw, which ran through May, featured the paintings of Bryan Charnley, who had schizophrenia, and “use[d] visual metaphor and symbolism to vividly illustrate the physical experience [of schizophrenia]” (taken from Bethlem’s website).  Many of his paintings featured his girlfriend, who struggled with depression herself and attempted suicide multiple times, eventually resulting in her paralysis, and thus the overwhelming impression I had of his art was one of poignancy.


A Bethlem Museum of the Mind poster set in the historic hospital grounds.

The actual museum is fairly small, and is split up into several sections.  Unlike the Dr. Guislain Museum, this was far from a comprehensive history – being more a brief overview of changing attitudes towards mental illness over the years, and the ever-evolving treatments at Bethlem, as well as providing some perspectives from some of its service users.  The museum does make an effort to draw in the visitor by including lots of eye-catching displays (like a wall full of apothecary bottles) and a few interactives (some videos, and a computer where you could learn more about various diagnoses), but it wasn’t as interactive as one might expect from a brand-new museum, and the displays weren’t quite enough to distract me from the lack of content.


A detail of the various concoctions and medicines used in the course of treatment for the individuals who stayed at Bethlem Hospital.

That said, I found the small collection of restraint devices used in the past fascinating, albeit disturbing, and I was also captivated by the before-and-after photographs of Victorian patients at Bethlem (the historical signifier of insanity apparently being unkempt hair, if these pictures were anything to go by).  I believe the hospital had something like a 47% recovery rate in the Victorian era, though with the lack of effective medication, you have to wonder how many of those “recovered” people should have even been placed in Bethlem in the first place (given the Victorian zeal for labelling anyone who didn’t quite adopt society’s mores as “insane,” I would imagine it was a fair few).

This section also contained even more art from former patients, and although many pieces were quite gloomy in nature (perhaps understandably reflecting the mental states of the artists), I was charmed by the many cat paintings of Louis Wain, who was briefly a patient at the hospital (his diagnosis is widely disputed, and is listed as anything from schizophrenia to Asperger’s…all that is really known is that he suffered from mood swings and was occasionally violent, although you really wouldn’t know it from his cheerful pictures).  Fortunately, postcards of his pieces are available at the gift shop (because everybody loves cats these days, right?), so you can take a little piece of Wain’s art home with you.


A small selection of Louis Wain’s cat pictures.

Although I could tell that a lot of effort had been put into making the museum visually appealing, I do think it just needed to have more content.  The historical objects were my absolute favourite part, and I think the museum could be vastly improved by including more history, and more artefacts, because even though many historical psychiatric treatments are hard to stomach nowadays, they are a vital part of our past, and I think it’s really important that people learn about them just to see the strides medicine has made within the last century or two.

Although they offer classes and lectures, and the art displays do change from time to time, for me, one visit here was enough, as it just wasn’t extensive enough for my tastes, and didn’t really add anything to my understanding of psychiatric medicine (even the history of Bethlem itself was lacking, with more detail provided in a timeline at the top of the stairs than in the museum itself).  I really think the focus here was on the art, so if that interests you, you may enjoy the Museum of the Mind (and some of the artists were very talented, so their art was well worth seeing), but if, like me, you’re looking for something that skillfully combines history with some art, then I’d urge you to go to Ghent (if you can) to see the Dr. Guislain Museum, as it goes into so much more detail.


A selection of the vials and bottles that the hospital used to store and use in the medicine collection.

In conclusion my score for the Museum of the Mind is 2.5/5 (and if anyone knows of a better mental health museum in Britain, please do let me know in the comments!).


All photographs in this guest entry are by Jessica Sajovie.

Further Information

  • The Bethlem Museum of the Mind details the story behind the museum and the role that the hospital played in its own history.  The site also highlights upcoming exhibitions and the collections that it holds (including the wonderful artwork produced by some of the patients and its archive).  The museum blog, with regular updates on both the exhibitions at the museum and issues that affect the museum, can be read here.

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