Guest Post: An Introduction to Artificial Cranial Deformation from the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević

17 Oct

Maja Miljević is currently an undergraduate student studying archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Serbia.  Her main interest is in physical anthropology, with a research interest in prehistoric archaeology.  Maja has had previous experience of analysing human skeletal remains as a part of a faculty module in the Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, at the University of Belgrade, where she took part in the osteological analysis of a number of individuals dating from numerous Mesolithic and Neolithic archaeological sites located in Eastern and Central Serbia.


Intentional or artificial cranial deformation has been long known through human history, even though many articles have been published during recent years which have been focused on more earlier periods of prehistory.  In order to highlight historic cases that I present this short article on intentional cranial deformations from the European Great Migration period (3rd to 8th centuries AD), with a particular focus on the 5th to 6th centuries AD in modern-day Serbia and modern-day Hungary, which highlights the practices of cultural identification in these cultures in this turbulent period.

Intentional Cranial Modifications

Intentional cranial modification has been documented throughout world prehistory and history across a number of distinct geographic areas and cultural groups.  They date back to the Late Paleolithic period (1) at the earliest example so far recovered (Molnar et al. 2014).  The most well-known cranial deformations are those from the Maya culture in modern-day Mexico in the first half of the 2nd millennium AD, various South American prehistoric cultures, and from Ancient Egyptian populations of the 18th dynasty.

Cranial bones can be modified easily in the younger population, since their cranial bones are soft and elastic.  Artificial cranial modification is largely achieved through the binding of the head, using boards, straps, cords or pads (Hakenbeck 2009).  The deforming apparatus is used for a few days up to six months, or sometimes even longer ranging from 3 to 5 years of use.  Cranial deformities of this kind are done as the results of cultural practice and religious beliefs.  The main goal of this practice is to be distinguished from others within the population and to indicate special social status (White et al. 2012; Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

Intentional Cranial Deformation Types

There are five basic types and areas of artificial cranial deformation (abbreviated to ACD where appropriate) and they often involve the use of boards and pads to achieve their distinctive styles:

a) Lambdoid
b) Occipital
c) Fronto- vertico occipital
d) Parallelo-fronto occipital
e) Annular deformation

As seen above artificial cranial deformations includes various or individual regions of the skull where pressure can be applied, such as the occipital, frontal regions, or both together, the mastoid region, and finally the region just above the insertion of the nuchal ligament on the occipital bone.  These are largely referred to as tabular deformations.  As well as this there is another type practiced that included bandaging, with wrapping materials, called annular deformation, around the full circumference of the skull, which is also performed in early childhood (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012; Molnar et al. 2014; Ortner, Putschar 1981).

Origin in Barbarian World

Origin of this practice among the barbarian world probably started with Sarmatians, Huns and continued with the Germanic tribes (Alan, Goths, Gepids), as the practice was spread across Europe in the mid to late 1st millennium AD.  The practice of skull modification had probably originated in the central Eurasian steppes in the first century AD and then may have been brought to central Europe with nomadic people and various tribal units (Mrkobrad 1980; Hakenbeck 2009).


An example of ACD in an individual from a Germanic tribe, from the National Museum in Kikinda. Photograph by the author.

Thanks to this culturally mediated osteological difference in the skeletal remains in the Great Migration period, it is a key indicator for understanding the process of said migration during the Middle Ages in the archaeological record in this locality.  Not only did they just bury their dead in either settlements or necropolises, it is also likely proof that they had intentions to stay and live there, as demonstrated by the term from anthropology – acculturation (2); they lived in the same houses, used the same tools, and probably dressed like, or as similar to, the Romans themselves.  As it is seen in an example from the Gradina na Jelici site where three juveniles were buried in two basilicas, all with clear intentional deformations and grave goods that are attributed to Germanic tribes, either the Gepids or Langobards  (also known as the Lombards)(Mилинковић 2010).

In Southeast Serbia there is a necropolis site called Viminacium-Više Groblja, where a total of 94 buried individuals have been excavated and in which 31 individuals exhibit artificial cranial deformation attributed to the Gepids.  The Gepids were closely associated to the Goths due to their cultural similarity.  The reconstruction of a Gepid woman was produced and helped to highlight how her cranium was viewed in life and how her hair was tied with organic material, which probably mimicked the wrappings used to shape her head during infancy (Mилинковић 1998; Микић 1993).


Reconstruction of a Gepid woman demonstrating ACD. The reconstruction is based on an individual from the site of Viminacium, a Roman fort dating from the 1st century AD, located in Serbia which was overran by the Huns in the 5th century AD.  The site was rebuilt by Justinian but destroyed completely by the Slavs in the 6th century AD. Image credit: Mикић 1993.

According to Mikić (1985), two female skulls have also been discovered with artificial cranial deformations dating from the Great Migration period in Pančevo.  Modification was probably already visible in the second decade of life and was produced by using tight wrapping materials around the frontal, parietal and occipital bones of the cranium.  There was not only one wrapping material used that produced an annular deformation to the skull, but it was one used long enough in order to produce a high pressure effect to the skull as seen in the x-ray below.


The first skull, as viewed using an x-ray from a lateral aspect, highlighting the distinctive pressurized cranial deformation. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

As for second skull, modification was carried out a little bit differently in this instance.  Wrapping material was also used, but with a heavy burden, which gave the female individual a distinctive saddle recess as demonstrated on the parietal bones, as seen on the x-ray below.


The second skull ,viewed in a lateral aspect on an x-ray, showing the parietal deformation and the distinctive ‘saddle’ shape of the cranium. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

Besides those sites, another interesting archaeological site where there is evidence of this artificial deformation is in Sirmium, a major Roman and barbarian site in Serbia, where there is one male-assigned skull described with a deformation.  It may be possible that there are more buried individuals that belong to Germanic tribes exhibiting ACD.


The Sirmium individual with the skull indicating that ACD had taken place during their infancy. Each plane shown here highlights the effect the cranial modification had on this individual. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

So, it is obvious that they were a probable leader or someone who wanted to be distinguished from others as chosen by the individuals who carried out the artificial deformation on the infant (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).


Reconstruction of a skull from Sirmium, Serbia, described above which highlights the method used to bind the cranial bones in this manner. Sirmium was a populous settlement first founded by Illyrians and Celts and subsequently become a Roman city. In the 5th century AD the city was taken by the Huns and then by the Goths and Gepids. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

In Hungary itself we have a good example of a number of artificial cranial deformations, 9 individuals exactly who display this feature, from the Hun-Germanic period, which can help us to see that there is no difference in sex as both males and females were a part of this practice or at least subjected to it (Molnar et al. 2014).

From an anthropological point of view we need to ask how bad can the physical effects on the individual be?

We know that brain is a complex organ and that any modification or alternation to either it or the cranium may cause physical and behavioral changes in normal cerebral function.  If there is a high degree of deformation it may have influence in vision, worsening hearing ability or even cause epilepsy, depending on what type of artificial cranial deformation is used (O’Brien et al. 2013; Mrkobrad 1980).  Intentional cranial deformation may disrupt the normal closure time of the cranial sutures or produce minor effects like the increase of wormian bones in the lambdoid suture, which in life would be asymptomatic (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).


As we have seen in few historic examples from Serbia and Hungary above, this cultural practice did not stop with prehistoric people and cultures as it was carried out across the globe, including during periods of great migrations.  It is interesting that it had a great influence on the barbarian people and their leaders of this period, and that it continued to be practiced after they had conquered their enemy tribes or warring nations.  It may be hypothesized that they still wanted to be seen differently or to be seen as superior both within and outside their own cultural group.  Unfortunately intentional cranial deformations probably stopped in the Balkans with arrival of Avarians, around the 6th century AD, although the practice still continues today within a modern medical environment.


1. Late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period goes back from some 40,000 to 10,000 years before present.

2. Acculturation is cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adopting to or borrowing traits from another culture.


Hakenbeck, S. 2009. ‘Hunnic’ Modified Skulls: Physical Appearance, Identity and the Transformative Nature of Migrations. In Sayer, D. & Williams, H. (eds). Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. 64-80. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. (Open Access).

Mikić, Ž. 1985. Prilog Morfologiji Veštačkih Deformisanih Lobanja iz Perioda Velike Seobe Naroda. Godišnjak centra za Balkanološka ispitivanja. ANUBiH 23, 21. (Open Access).

Mикић, Ж. 1993. Виминацијум-антрополошки преглед групних гробова римског периода (I) и приказ некропола из периода велике сеобе народа (II). Saopštenja XXV. (Open Access).

Miladinović-Radmilović, N. 2012. Artificial Cranial Deformation. Journal of Serbian Archaeological Society. 28: 301-312. (Open Access).

Милинковић, М. 1998. Германска племена на Балкану. Археолошки налази из времена сеобе народа. PhD Thesis. Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade.

Милинковић, М. 2010. Градина на Јелици-рановизантијски град и средњовековно насеље. Београд.

Molnar, M., Janos, I., Szucs, L., Szathmary, L. 2014. Artificially Deformed Crania from the Hun-Germanic Period (5th- 6th century AD ) in Northeastern Hungary: Historical and Morphological Analysis. Neurosurg Focus. 36 (4).

Mrkobrad, D. 1980. Arheološki nalazi seobe naroda u Jugoslaviji. Belgrade: Muzej grada Beograda.

O’Brien, G. T., Peters, R. L., Hines, E. M. 2013. Artificial Cranial Deformation: Potential Implications of Affected Brain Function. Anthropology. 1 (3): 2-6. (Open Access).

Ortner, D. J. & Putschar, W. G. J. 1981. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

White, T. D., Black, M. T. & Folkens, P. A. 2012. Human Osteology (3rd edition). San Diego: Academic Press.

The Guardian Seeks Archaeology & Anthropology Bloggers: Deadline 7th November 2016

15 Oct

Whilst I’ve been away gallivanting on the other side of the world on holiday, and subsequently musing over my next blog post, a friend has kindly informed me that The Guardian have recently advertised a position available for archaeology and anthropology bloggers to write for the Guardian science blog network on the specialism of their choice.  This is a fantastic chance to reach a broad audience, disseminate academic research, and to clarify and contextualize the importance of the aims of sub-disciplines within anthropology and archaeology, such as bioarchaeology, social anthropology and biological anthropology, to a wider acknowledgment within the public mind.  I remain unclear whether this is a paid role or not (1), but the opportunity seems quite interesting in and of itself.

It also makes me wonder if the Guardian have seen how great and wide-reaching anthropological and archaeological educational outreach can be, as example by Kristina Killgrove of Powered By Osteons fame who writes a regular blog for Forbes on bioarchaeological topics.  If you are an anthropology and/or an archaeology blogger, one of the growing many who now have an online presence, and are interested in going for the role then the short online application form asks for a provisional blog title, a breakdown of why you should be picked for the available role(s), and finally requires that you provide an example of your writing style.  The deadline closes at midday on Monday 7th November.  Good luck to any applicants!

Updated Notes

1). According to a source the blog role is paid!

Further Information

  • To read the current blog(s) focused on palaeontology on the Guardian website, which includes posts on ancient animals, vegetables, minerals, and the natural history museum sector, you can check out the Lost Worlds and Lost Worlds Revisited sites.

Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations

3 Sep

There was something comforting about a strangers dog looking up at me with unadorned glee at my open car door, waiting to be either patted on the head or to be fed a treat (perhaps both if they are lucky) I thought, as the car seemed to drag me into the parking space at work.  Earlier in the day I had stopped at a nearby nature reserve to break the journey in half in order to get some fresh air before the back shift started at the office.  To see the leaves dancing in the wind, to feel the sun on my skin; to know that there is beauty in the scenes where we are not the main actors but merely the passive observers.  I took out my notebook and scratched a few words into its carefully kept pages.  Today was going to be a good day.

Once parked up at work, and upon opening the door a fraction, my eyes spotted a fragment of bone on the tarmac.  One, two, perhaps three pieces?  One solid chunk and two small slithers of bone, the physical remnant of a body dispersed.  The larger chunk grabbed my more immediate interest and I stood up, leaned over and picked it up and carefully turned it over in my hands.  As I expected it was not human, but it was definitely from a mammal.  I chuckled to myself thinking it was a gift from the osteological gods.

Based on a quick morphological assessment it seemed to be a left distal humerus fragment (or, more simply, the top part of the elbow), as I recognised both the posterior olecranon fossa and the anterior coronoid fossa with their familiar shapes.  I also noted the slight ridge of bone that would have led to the medial epicondyle where it not heavily abraded.  Most of the articular surface of the trochlea survived although there were fragments abraded or chipped off either side of this.  Some of these minor breaks were clearly recent, the largest break had exposed a brilliant white patch of the dense cortical and honeycomb-like trabecular bone in clear contrast to the grayer surface that surrounded the broken area.  Still clearly visible, but largely fused, was the posterior line between the metaphysis and distal epiphysis indicating that the animal had not quite reached full adult growth, or skeletal maturity.  There was also a distinct clear transverse saw cut through the full shaft of the distal metaphysis, which indicated that the animal had likely been butchered or processed in some way.

UCL mammal compare humerus taxon

The humerus bone of a horse (Equus), cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep/goat (Ovis/Capra) and dog (Canis) in comparison to one another. Scale bar in increments of 5cm. Image credit: Boneview via University College London.

Based on size alone it likely belonged to the Ovis or Capra genera, that is either a sheep or a goat.  There is the possibility that it could belong to the Sus genus, a pig perhaps, as they can be awfully similar in shape and size, particularly if they have not reached full skeletal maturity.  Zooarchaeologists, those who study the skeletal remains of animals from archaeological contexts, often pair sheep and goat together as it can be exceptionally tough to differentiate those two species from fragmented or isolated skeletal remains.  I could see immediately that the bone was not fresh, that the ashen tone indicated that it had likely spent time being bleached by the sun in the open air.

I knew that even though the industrial estate seemed nice enough, with the gleaming glass paneled Art Deco offices and funky design logos that adorn the signage boards, that behind the lush bushes and full trees that lined one side of the main avenue there was likely a rubbish tip of some description bordering it.  A dump that gathered all of the waste of modern life together to be compacted and squashed, to be buried beyond sight rather than to be dispersed invisibly into the sea or rivers as effluent is.  I had suspected this and wondered if this is where the bone had come from, carried perhaps in the beak of one of the numerous European herring gulls (Larus argentatus) that frequent the area.  They can be seen at all hours, chasing one another on the air currents or taking part in great aerial feats of imaginary bombardments over the great length of the industrial estate.


Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film.

I’d come across bleached bone fragments before in such settings where gulls in particular rested and squawked at one another.  Still, it was interesting to see a few fragments of bone and to be able to identify and side which part of the skeleton they represented.  The material was clearly modern, even if sun bleached, and likely represented the fragments from waste sources, scattered by the combined action of animals and natural processes.  The bones had long ago lost their original context, had long ago lost even the rest of the body in which in life they were once a part of.  They could, though, still tells us something about the age of the individual that they represented, the likely size and the probable butchery of their body too.

Later on in the week, a few days after having discovered the bone fragment at work and when the weather had noticeably taken a turn for the better, I find myself happily sat outside in the back garden at home taking it in turns to read and to write.  But I am not alone out here.  I am joined by feathered friends that we keep in a coop towards the bottom of the garden, the three unnamed domesticated hens (Gallus gallus domesticus) that make their home here as we collect their eggs; they are a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) who range over Southeast Asia and from which each domesticated chicken can trace its origin from.  The chickens in this garden are of the Gingernut Ranger type, a friendly, inquisitive and distinctive breed which are well-noted to be friendly and are always keen to peck, dig and generally explore the garden in search of hidden insects.  They also react quite joyfully to owners bringing scraps of food as daily treats.  The chickens are only unnamed because they are so similar-looking to one another, however we can easily tell them apart by their distinct personalities and social identities.

For instance, one of the chickens is remarkably independent and unrelentingly curious about the garden and any unusual sights or sounds therein.  She will be one of the first to peck and prod each section if we allow them into the garden or into an enclosure that we sometimes extend onto the grass via the use of spare chicken wire.  Furthermore, if she has the chance to, she’ll be the first to crouch down and take a flying jump out of said enclosure to scurry around in the undergrowth that lies temptingly out of the reach of the makeshift pen.  (I can only imagine the terror the bugs must feel on seeing this incessant eater appear in their midst).


The three inquisitive ladies. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography colour film.

The other two often keep together, but invariably follow the more independent chicken once it has taken flight. As they push their heads repeatedly through the wire to see where their fellow hen has gone their soft fleshy combs ping back and forth, a harbinger of their impending flight for freedom.  Truly it is a joy to look after these beasts, to watch them rake into the freshly upturned soil with their tyrannosaur-like claws, methodically working the soil searching for sustenance and then move forward once they have cleaned the section of life.  I wonder, briefly, if this is perhaps a new approach to tackling trowelling back on archaeological digs.  Again I chuckle at this flight of fancy and gently my thoughts return back to the fragment of bone found at work, wondering where the animal had originated from.

It was in this environment, watching the chickens explore the delights that the garden had to offer and intermittently reading Philip Hoare’s delightful 2013 memoir The Sea Inside, that I remembered the odds and sods collection of non-human skeletal material that I kept from various random chance occurrences.  Within this small collection were the skeletal remains of a shoulder of mutton meal that my family had eaten one Sunday afternoon.  The remains, cleaned of any surviving muscles, ligaments and tendons by knife, were slowly boiled in water over the course of an afternoon to further remove any remaining soft tissue.  It isn’t a perfect bone cleaning method though, and I’d recommend you read the blogs mentioned below for better tips on animal skeletal preparation.  What remained after a number of hours though were gleaming white bones; the complete humerus, radius and ulna bones of a sheep which could perfectly articulate together.  Perfect and whole examples to use as comparative osteological material in order to compare the distal humerus fragment against for both size and morphological differences and similarities.

I also remembered that in one of these pots outside I had buried the skeletal remains of an ox tail, again the leftovers of a family meal that had taken place some time ago.  This was, I think, a number of years ago now and I really should go and dig them out at some point, to see the state of preservation of the caudal vertebrae and identify which bones remain intact.  But, to return to the present line of inquiry, I rummaged around the metal box which held the small collection of animal bones I had collected over the years and found a match for the distal humeral fragment, that I had found at work, with the cleaned bones parsed from the remains of the shoulder of mutton meal.  And so, through the analysis of the morphological features present, combined with my previous handling experience of animal remains and the use of comparative modern examples, my hunch at the species identification had proved correct in this instance.  I felt a sense of satisfaction in my positive and appropriate analysis of this random fragment.

Oh I patted that dog (Canis familiaris) in the car park on the head by the way, watched its chocolate coloured eyes lock briefly and keenly with my own before it decided to wander back over to its owner on the other side of the small car park, perhaps knowing I had no treats to give it that day.  Next time I return to the nature park I hope I shall see it again, and perhaps then will be able to give it a treat in return.

Sometimes it is the little things in life that make you realize that we do not share this world just with one another but with a wide variety of life forms, each within their own lives.

Further Information

  • Check out Zygoma, a regularly updated blog by Paolo Viscardi that highlights non-human skeletal remains and discusses the differences in skeletal morphology between species.  Paolo is a natural history curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London.  His Friday mystery objects series of entries are fantastic to note the differences in skeletal morphology between species, ages and sexes of non-human animals.
  • Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!) is a fantastic blog that focuses on ancient animal species, including dinosaurs, and their fossils and general anatomical variation.  Ran by palaeontologists Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor and Daren Naish, SV-POW! also covers a broad arrange of topics related to academia, research and scientific publishing, particularly in relation to copyright and public access to scientific literature.
  • Read Jake’s Bones for a fantastic resource on modern animal remains for comparative osteological purposes, ran by the eponymous Jake.  His site is child and family friendly and offers a wide range of comparative material from a whole range of animals and he also introduces the importance of natural history and conservation.  For a great guide on how to clean and process skeletal remains check out his guide here.
  • Bioarchaeologist and human osteologist Jess Beck has a fantastic site called Bone Broke, which introduces readers to the beauty of the human skeleton and the information which is encoded within bone, and to what archaeologists can learn about past individuals and populations in the archaeological record from the study of them and their context.  Check out her useful resources page here, where you can test yourself on the human bone quizzes, learn how to prepare animal skeletons or just to brush up on your anatomy!

Listen to Christopher Knüsel’s Talk on ‘Bioarchaeology: Achievements & Future Potentials’ (29th August 2016)

2 Sep

The Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) have recently uploaded a talk to their Soundcloud account by Christopher Knüsel on the subject of bioarchaeology and its aims as a multidisciplinary area of research.  The talk, titled Bioarchaeology: Achievements and Future Potentials, was presented on the 29th August 2016 and discusses just what bioarchaeology is and why it is so important.  Importantly Knüsel, a Professor of biological anthropology at the Université de Bordeaux, France, emphasizes the deep importance of interrogating the data collected from human and hominin skeletal material to investigate the context of the remains.  I’ll quote the CBRL Sound homepage here for a brief breakdown of what the talk is about:

‘Bioarchaeology is a sub-discipline at the crossroads between biological anthropology and archaeology. It developed as a result of a desire to draw on and apply techniques developed in the natural sciences, while addressing issues of general concern in the social sciences and humanities. Its inspiration, then, comes not only from biological theory, but also from those developed in subjects such as history, sociology, political science, economics, and sociocultural anthropology. It is intended to cement the bonds with these disciplines to address questions of broad interest. This presentation highlights some of the long-term themes in bioarchaeology, while also addressing some of its current concerns, and charting its future developments.’  

Listen to the invigorating hour-long talk by clicking here.


A few of my favourite bioarchaeology, archaeology and history publications. Photo credit: author.

If you are interested in learning more about the history, theory and methods used within bioarchaeology, and the disciplines importance in a number of fields, then I highly recommend any of the above books.  In particular I’d say both The Archaeology of Human Bones by Simon Mays and Clark Spencer Larsen’s Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton are great starting points.

Stewart Lee on Ritual & Symbolic Landscapes

30 Aug

Recently, whilst reading the British comedian Stewart Lee’s latest book titled Content Provider: Selected Short Prose Pieces, 2011-2016, I came across this gem of a section that made me chuckle.  The context for the extract is a satirical article written on the subject of the marriage of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and his bride-to-be Kate Middleton, which took place in April 2011.  This was a momentous occasion for the British Royal family and for the country in general.  It was also, perhaps, a useful distraction from the ongoing austerity cuts that have so affected the heritage and cultural sectors:

‘First of all, Marlborough College, where Kate Middleton flushed into womanhood, is set in a magical landscape that has been declared a world heritage site, being only five miles from the exact centre of the Avebury stone circle.  Perhaps Kate’s growing body absorbed the magical energies of the region.  Perhaps it did not.  It does not matter.  She is from, and she is of, the ancient wetland.  The arrangement of the 6,000-year-old circle, and the stone rows, burial chambers and mounds that surround it, is explicitly symbolic, explicitly sexual and explicitly ritualistic, and as such it shares the same transformative agenda as Friday’s Royal wedding.’

Avebury English heritage

The Avebury landscape (dating to 2850-2200 BC). A huge Neolithic circular bank and ditch enclosure surrounds a number of stone circles, which contain over 100 individual stones, in Avebury and remains one of Britain’s largest stone circles. The site is located in the southern English county of Wiltshire and it is well worth a visit for the sheer scale of the landscape. Photograph credit: English Heritage.

He continues:

In Avebury, the West Kennett Avenue, a long row of erotically paired stone, uncoils snake-like from the circle, as if to penetrate nearby Silbury Hill, a fecund thirty-seven-metre-high female belly, which rises from the marsh to meet it.  The prince has taken his lowly bride from within this charged landscape, where our ancestors celebrated the union of man and woman in stone and earth, and began the communal processes that forged a nation from their descendants, the broken nation that William the Fisher King must now heal.’ (Lee 2016: 4-5).

This almost hits too close to home.  It reminds me of visiting a well-known British Bronze Age site, whilst on a university day trip, and having a relatively famous archaeologist describe the smelting process in terms of human reproduction.  This may possibly have been the case in the past, at a certain period, but it was quite something to see described in person.  The section also reminds me of the joke prevalent in the archaeology sector that, if a feature or an artefact cannot be defined as having a functional purpose, then you can always chalk it up to either being of symbolic or of ritual value!

Read More

Lee, S. 2016. Content Provider: Selected Short prose Pieces, 2011-2016. London: Faber & Faber.

Updated: Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses in the United Kingdom

14 Aug

Note: I originally wrote this post a few years ago in order to outline the available human osteology/bioarchaeology postgraduate courses in the United Kingdom as a guideline for the degree fees and topic availability.  However since then a number of substantial national and international changes have occurred.  These include, but are not limited to, the increase of undergraduate tuition fees to £9000.00 per academic year; the general increase of the price of Masters degrees; the new availability of student loans for Masters students; changes to Disabled Students Allowance from the 16/17 academic year onward; the transfer of some Student Finance grants to loans; the Government White paper released in May 2016 outlining challenges and changes needed in higher education, etc.

One of the more important changes was the outcome of the referendum in the United Kingdom whether it to remain or not a part of the European Union, this resulted in a very tight result in which the majority voted to leave the European Union.  This process will take many years, but the Government of the United Kingdom recently stated that it would guarantee European Union funding for projects signed before the Autumn Statement until 2020.  Doug, of Doug’s Archaeology, has an interesting and somewhat depressing post on what Brexit could mean for archaeology as a sector more generally


Whilst I was doing some light research for another article I made a quick list of every course in the United Kingdom that offers human osteology as a taught masters (either as an MA, Masters of Arts, or as an MSc, Masters of Science) or offer a distinctive human osteology module or component within a taught masters degree.  Human osteology is the study of human skeletal material from archaeological sites.  Human osteologists study bones to identify age, biological sex, pathology and pre- and post-mortem trauma alongside other avenues of research in human behaviour and activity, such as investigating diet and mobility of post populations.  The subject is generally only taught as a Masters level within the United Kingdom.

Within the list England as a whole is well represented within the universities highlighted, Scotland only comes in with two entries whilst Wales and Northern Ireland, as far as I know, offer no distinctive osteological courses at the Masters level.  Further to this the reader should be aware that some universities, such as the University of Leicester, offer commercial or research centers for human and animal osteology yet run no postgraduate courses that provide the training in the methods of osteoarchaeology.  Thus they are excluded from this list.

This information is correct as of September 2016, but please expect at least some of the information to change, especially in relation to course fees for United kingdom, European Union, and international students.  It should be noted here that the education system in the United Kingdom is internationally well-regarded and the educational institutions are often in the top 10% in world league tables; however it can be very expensive to study here, especially so in the consideration of prospective international students.  Please also take note of the cost of renting (especially in London and the south of the country generally) and the high cost of daily living compared to some countries.  The list is not an exhaustive attempt and I am happy to add any further information or to correct any entries.

Other Sources & Prospective Student Advice

As well as the list below, the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology also have links to human osteology and bioarchaeology courses in the United Kingdom.  You check the list out here.  The British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) site, ran by David Connolly, also has a plethora of useful resources to check as well as an active Facebook group which is a great place to ask for advice.  I’ve also wrote a second post to compliment this one which entails what you, the prospective student, should keep in mind when looking at degree courses to pursue. You can check out that post by clicking the title here: Questions to remember when considering a postgraduate course in human osteology.


An example of an archaeological skull. Image credit: source.

Courses in the United Kingdom, please note that the fees stated are for full time students.  For part time students the price is normally halved and the course carried out over two years instead of the usual one year that is common for Masters within the United Kingdom.

MA/MSC Degrees in England

Bournemouth University:

  • MSc Forensic Osteology (UK/EU £5500 and International £13,500, from 17/18 UK/EU £5750 and International £14,000).
  • MSc Biological Anthropology (UK/EU £5750 and International £14,000, from 17/18 UK/EU £6000 and International £14,500).

University of Bradford:

University of Cambridge:

  • MPhil Human Evolution (amazingly there are 18,000 skeletons in the Duckworth Collection!).

Cranfield University:


University College London:

University of Durham:

University of Exeter:

  • MSc Bioarchaeology (Offers choice of one of three core pathway topics, including human osteology, zooarchaeology and, new for the 16/17 academic year, Forensic Anthropology) (UK/EU £6900 and International £15,950).

Universities of Hull and York Medical School:

  • MSc Human Evolution (A very interesting course, combining dissection and evolutionary anatomy) (UK/EU £6650 and International £15,680).

University of Liverpool:

Liverpool John Moores University:

University of Manchester:

  • MSc Biomedical and Forensic Studies in Egyptology (course under review).

University of Oxford:

University of Sheffield:

University of Southampton:

University of York:

MA/MSc Degrees in Scotland

University of Dundee:

University of Edinburgh:

The following universities offer short courses in human osteology, osteology, forensics or zooarchaeology

Short Courses in England

Cranfield University:

University of Bradford:

  • On occasion run a palaeopathology course, please check the university website for details.

University of Sheffield:

Note: I am still genuinely surprised there are not more short courses, if you find any in the United Kingdom please feel free to drop a comment below.


A University of Hull and Sheffield joint excavation at Brodsworth carried out in 2008 helped to uncover and define a Medieval cemetery. Image credit: University of Hull.

A Few Pieces of Advice

A piece of advice that I would give to prospective students is that I would strongly advise researching your degree by visiting the universities own webpages, finding out about the course specifics and the module content.  If possible I’d also visit the department and tour the facilities available and seek advice from the course leader with regards to potential research interests.  I would also always advise to try to contact a past student and to gain their views on the course they have attended previously.  They will often offer frank advice and information, something that can be hard to find on a university webpage or from a course leader.  Also please do be aware of the high cost of the United Kingdom tertiary education as prices have been raised considerably in the past few years and are likely to rise again, especially so in comparison to cheaper courses on the European continent.

Finally, if you know of any other human osteology or bioarchaeology Masters or short courses in the United Kingdom please do comment below or send me an email and I will add it to the list here.

Brief Updates: A Possible Publishing Rule of Thumb, Socio-Sexual Lives in Bioarchaeology & Memories of Fractures

8 Aug

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the power of the written word, and of the associations with both personal jottings and more wider ranging long form pieces such as academic text books or investigative journalism.  Partly this has been guided by the growing number of books on my bedside, but also by a personal milestone in the publication of a bioarchaeology chapter by yours truly.  I’ll try not to mention this too much but it has been, and it will be, the realisation of a dream of mine to become a published author and particularly so in a topic that is close to my professional and personal interests.  But more on that below.


Two of the texts discussed in this entry below are Ann Oakley’s part memoir and part sociology study in Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body and Pamela Geller’s research into socio-sexual lives in the archaeological record, which investigates past human sexuality.

Publishing: The Invisible Researchers

The term Publish or perish is a popular and well-known academic phrase that highlights the fact that research that isn’t published appropriately, or in a relatively timely manner, can easily become lost to the archives and the relevancy of the researcher to their discipline to disappear.  Any academic employed at an educational institute and conducting research will likely regularly produce articles, chapters, and books as appropriate, and actively take part in conferences giving papers or leading workshops to disseminate and communicate knowledge.  This is a normal part of the workload (heavy though that can be) of a research position.

Whether that phrase is helpful or stressful depends on the context – rushed research can lead to false or doctored evidence and the increased pressure to publish, along with the normal duties of lecturing, likely being a course or module tutor, and the administration accompanying such positions, can indeed lead to a hefty work load.  My interest in this though is the invisible researchers who are not employed within academia but are located on the fringes, those such as myself who work full-time in other sectors and publish and research in our own free time.  This blog is a prime example of that, but also of the mixing of the boundaries between the personal and the academic which would not normally be found within journals or published volumes.  Rather this is space to inform, educate, and communicate the interests and experiences of the individual.  The published work, of which I have only a few examples currently with more emphasis currently on specialist reports, requires a change of tone and, often, of approach.

Publishing Date Rule of Thumb?

I’ve also recognised a relatively reliable rule of thumb for academic book publishing.  For instance, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of my own chapter within an edited volume titled New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Theory, to be published as a part of Springer’s Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series.  The edited volume builds upon Lorna Tilley’s 2015 Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care publication in identifying and interpreting cases of care provision in prehistory through osteological and contextual analysis, and by furthering the theoretical framework.  It is exciting to a part of such a volume as a result of the SAA session in 2015 and I’m keen to hold a copy of the finished work and to read the other authors contributions.  I’m also intrigued by the reception that the volume will hopefully receive and the criticism too, with the opportunity to learn from others in the field of bioarchaeology.

But the rule of thumb!  Springer obviously mentions their forthcoming volumes on their site as do other commercial online retailers, however I’ve noticed they tend not to add a specific date for publication whereas some retailers, such as Amazon, do under the title release date (1).  This is useful to know as the publishing date tends to change depending on when the individual chapter and volume editing and proof-reading tasks have been completed, and as to when the publishing production units can start to print.  In my case I’ve noticed the dates shift around a few times due to various factors but I’ve always known when roughly publication and release date should be, sometimes ahead of emails from the volume editors.  Of course this won’t really be a rule of thumb until the volume is published and collaborates my theory, but you can expect another blog post then!  If you have noticed the same trend please let me know below.

Socio-Sexual Lives In Bioarchaeology

Through serendipity I happened to come across Pamela Geller’s 2016 book The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, published in the same Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series by the above and due for release shortly.  I am very tempted to order a copy of this volume as it seems to challenge the binary orthodoxy of sexuality and identity so prevalent within bioarchaeological analysis of past individuals and populations.  That is an interrogation of the assumption of stability with regards to the values of hetero-normative relations within today’s Western world that is so often projected onto past populations and cultures.

The wide range of cultural case studies and the deep chronological scope of the volume also promises to make it be an invigorating and exciting read.  As with the Bioarchaeology of Care publication, this volume probes the archaeological record into areas of research that have rarely been investigated in-depth, thus potentially opening up the record to a far greater scrutiny of the lived experience of sexual identity and gender.  As such, it is very much on my bioarchaeological books to read next list (you know, after I’ve read this other pile of books by my bedside table!).  It isn’t very often that I purchase bioarchaeology volumes as they can be quite expensive if they are not available in paperback or second-hand (2), but I’ll think I’ll make a change for this volume.  If I do I’ll be sure to write-up an entry for the blog.

Memories of Fractures

And so to bring this post to a timely conclusion I return to my opening paragraph.  One of my favourite books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading within the past few years remains the sociologist Ann Oakley’s (2007) Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body, an essay on the impact of the author’s traumatically fractured humerus that covers much ground within a relatively slim volume.  I largely adore this book because it is so relatable and so readable, the descriptions of the personal and professional impact of her fracture is something that I can very much sympathize and empathize with.  However the strength is also the breadth of the book, through the historical, medical and sociological musings on the frailty, health and image of the human body and entwined identity.  This volume then represents a fine mix of the personal and the academic, never afraid to speak freely on the issues and challenges that face society in accepting the differences in human form and the obstacles.

The Great Questions of Bioarchaeological Research

To me then bioarchaeology and its associated disciplines offers the chance to investigate on a fundamental level one of the central facets of our existence; what does it mean to be human? How is this represented and approached in the archaeological record?  How were individuals treated within their respective populations, and what were the lived experiences of these populations and individuals like?  The ability to answer some of these questions, in part at least, endlessly fascinates me.  Some of the publications named above aim to answer these questions and may do just that.


(1).  I have just rechecked this and sadly my thumb of thumb can seemingly be thrown out of the window.  It appears that Amazon does seem to have a better rough date for volumes in preparation, but that by the final month or so within publishing and release date Springer also update their website.

(2).  Joining local or university libraries, where possible, can be great to order books in or to borrow books that are otherwise un-affordable or rare to find.  I generally only purchase bioarchaeology manuals that can be used in osteological analysis or are otherwise handy reference books, but otherwise some books can make great presents!


Geller, P. L. 2016. The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender and Sexuality. New York: Springer.

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

Tilley, L. 2015. Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. New York: Springer.

Conference Review: Day of the Dead Conference at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, 17th-19th October 2014

31 Jul

As highlighted in an earlier blog post (alright, this post is quite late!) on this site Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), in Northern Ireland, recently played organizer and host to the Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology conference on the 17th to the 19th October 2014.  Yours truly went along on a propeller plane departing from Newcastle across the Irish Sea to Belfast to what turned out to be one of the best conferences that I have thus far had the pleasure of attending.  It was a conference that aptly and ably mixed funerary archaeology with human osteoarchaeology into a delicious few days that demonstrated the strength and wealth of ongoing research.  Of particular interest was the current human osteoarchaeological research on-going in Ireland itself, but we’ll come back to that shortly.  This brief post will cover a few of the research highlights of the event itself, and I hope it is a conference that will be repeated in the not-too-distant future.


The 19th century Lanyon building, at the centre of the Queen’s University Belfast campus in the south of the city, a fine host building for the conference. Home to some more than 17,000 students and 3500 staff, the university and it’s School of Archaeology, Geography and Palaeoecology boasts the facilities of a radiocarbon laboratory with AMS facilities. Photograph credit: QUB.

Spearheaded by Catriona McKenzie and her able assistants (the fantastic Deirdre Drain, Jeanna Loyer, and Roisin O’Reilly) from the Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology department (GAP) at Queen’s University Belfast, the Day of the Dead 3-day conference attracted delegates from around Ireland, Europe, and the wider world to present poster and podium papers on a smorgasbord of bioarchaeological topics.

Archaeothanatology Workshop

The conference kicked off with a workshop on the archaeothanatology methodology on the first day, which was spearheaded by Stéphane Rottier, Christopher Knüsel and Jeanna Loyer.  Archaeothanatology, or the similar anthropologie de terrain, is a method of recording the in-situ position of the body in the grave as proposed by the French archaeologist and anthropologist Henri Duday.  Unfortunately I did not get to attend the workshop itself as I arrived in the city mid-way through the first day, whilst the workshop itself was in mid-session.  However, I heard from friends that did manage to attend it that much was learnt regarding the importance of understanding the context of the body in-situ.  Of particular importance are the differences between coffin and non-coffin burials, where the position and rotational axis of certain skeletal elements, such as the humerus, radius and ulna, can indicate funerary and post-burial taphonomic body positions.

I managed to have a quick word with Chris Knüsel, who helps to advocate the use of the methodology, and he gave me a quick break down of what the methodology hopes to achieve. Archaeothanatology, Chris stated, ‘links bioarchaeology with funerary archaeology in a way that has never previously been considered.  It has the potential to distinguish natural phenomena from human agency and to reveal behavioural details of much more variable patterning of human remains than anticipated from burial types.  The methodology does require sound field recording of the archaeological and bioarchaeological contexts however for the full implementation and usefulness of the methodology to become apparent.

For further information and a good introduction to archaeothanatology, whose majority of publications have been written in French, I highly recommend Bradley’s 2010 open access article ‘Les Tomes Belle: The Use of ‘Anthropologie de Terrain in Prehistoric Archaeology‘, published in the University of York’s student journal The Post Hole.  I also recommend Katy Emery Meyer’s Bones Don’t Lie blog article on the inference of perishable grave goods in a prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age cemeteries in Ban Lum Khao and Ban Non Wat, Thailand, respectively, on Harris & Tayles 2012 research using archaeothanatology.  For a recent look at how archaothanatology, when used in conjunction with taphonomy, scanning electron microscopy, histological analysis, and Micro-CT scanning, is unraveling social practices in prehistory I highly recommend reading Smith’s et al. 2016 (paywalled) article on the British evidence for mummification and retention of the dead around a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age monument at Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

It should also be stated here that anthropologie de terrain underpins archaeothanatology, however there is some confusion on my part as to whether the methodologies are analogous due to translation intricacies or whether archaeothanatology is the natural progression of anthropologie de terrain.

Conference Sessions & Related Papers

The papers were presented over 8 sessions over the weekend of the 18th and 19th October, and dealt with a number of different themes relating to human osteoarchaeology in general.  I won’t go into detail regarding the papers presented but I will pick out a presentation or two to indicate the range of the topics.  I have to say I was quite impressed at the standard of the research presented and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the conference as a whole.

day of the dead

The really rather lovely logo for the Day of the Dead  conference. Image credit: QUB.

It was also a real credit to the organizers of the conference that such a wide number of European and international countries were represented.  Of course one of the best things for any conference attendee who has to pay their own fees is the realization that a conference that is affordable is also filled with some of the best researchers in the field.  But anyway, enough of my praise and let me introduce a talk or two…

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland

After a welcome talk by Catriona McKenzie and Eileen Murphy the first session got underway and focused on the topic at hand within Ireland.  The chronological period covered here largely focused on the medieval and post-medieval history of Ireland, but Catriona McKenzie did present recent research  on the health and disease status in adults from a population analysis of the Gaelic Irish cemetery site of Ballyhanna, County Donnegal.  The cemetery was in use from the 7th century AD to the 17th century AD and has so far revealed the skeletal remains of over 1300 adult and non-adult individuals, making it one of the largest native medieval collections in Ireland.

On the other end of the spectrum Jonny Geber introduced the bioarchaeology of childhood during the Great Irish famine (AD 1845-1852), with a particular focus on the ‘experienced realities and institutional care of children in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse‘.  This was a hard-hitting talk focusing on the origins, impacts and repercussions of the Great Famine through the non-adults of the workhouse and the remains uncovered within a number of mass graves at the site.  Importantly the talk presented ‘a “dialogue of evidence”, the story of the often invisible disenfranchised and socioeconomically marginalized populace of Ireland during a period of severe suffering’ (Gerber 2014, presentation abstract).  This is the human experience as recognized through osteological and documentary evidence, and stands as a testament to one of the most profound events in Irish history.

Grave Concerns

The next session focused on the graves of the dead and introduced a wider range of topics from prehistoric Europe, with a strong focus on Hungarian archaeology.  One of my favourite presentations in this session was the evidence for physical aggression and a possible putative leprosy case from a Copper Age mass grave at Abony, Hungary, dated to 3800-3600 BC belonging to the Proto boleráz phase, as presented by Kitti Köhler.  I was quite impressed by the inclusion of a 3D model which really highlighted the importance of visual understanding of archaeological contexts and palaeopathological features.  Also discussed in this session was a presentation by my good friend Jennifer Crangle on English medieval post-burial funerary practices, which should be no surprise to blog readers here due to my posts on the charnel chapel at the Rothwell Holy Trinity church which helped form a key part of Jennifer’s research and talk.

People & Places

This shorter session contained a talk given by Thomas Khador focused on Carrowkeel, a truly remarkable Neoltihic passage tomb complex located in County Sligo, where his team analysed 39 individuals found at the site.  Interestingly the remains of the individuals were excavated from the Carrowkeel complex in 1911 but subsequently disappeared for nearly a century before being rediscovered again.  Osteological and stable isotopic analysis indicated that the individuals may have had selective access to the passage tombs (certainly in death but possibly in life as well), which raises questions for the social mobility and social networks during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods for Ireland and Atlantic Europe.  There was also a keynote talk by Barra O’Donnabhain titled Anglo-Saxons and Celts: Race, Science and the Irish which was thoroughly thought-provoking, discussing as it did the legitimization of history, identity and selective narration.  This was tied in with the discipline of bioarchaeology and the resilience of some of the older narratives within it.

The Archaeology of Death

Another broad ranging session, from ancient Egyptian body manipulation to Far Eastern Neolithic shell middens in island archaeology.  Also introduced were two talks on the archaeothanatology methodology, with a talk by Emma Green on the application of the principles to identify funerary processes, in this case the use of coffins in burials.  Her research, presented in conjunction with Elizabeth Craig-Atkins at the University of Sheffield, focused on the middle to late Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sedgeford, in Norfolk, England.  She emphasized the important of accurately recording the archaeology in the field as it is uncovered, using not just context sheets and drawings, but also film and digital photography to ensure each details can be accurately recreated within the analysis and investigation of the research.

Life Before Death

Osteoarchaeologists, dealing with the bones of individuals who may have died hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before analyze them, can sometimes forget that what we view is the culmination of a life lived and all that entails.  This session introduced the study of the individual and the population, with presentations on Roman York by Lauren McIntyre which provided evidence on the demographic composition of the city.  (For those interested in Lauren’s work, and the life of a human osteologist in general, can also read a previous interview with her on my site here).  Ylva Bäckström presented the osteological analysis of a 16th century cemetery from the Sala Silver Mine in central Sweden, highlighting the social composition and differing treatment given in funerary contexts.  The analysis indicated a prevalence of fractures among the burials in earthen graves compared to the burials of individuals within coffins, suggesting one special social category as discussed in written documents; those known as war prisoners.

Population Health

I was particularly intrigued by a few talks in this session, specifically the talk led by Abigail Ash and Ron Pinhasi entitled Difference in Uniformity: Health and Stress in Early Farming Communities, which focused on the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) and their geographic spread.  Their investigation into the geographic spread of the LBK and use of five representative skeletal populations (for a total of 516 individuals) highlighted palaeopathological changes (non-specific indicators of stress) indicative of differing behaviour between population stress levels within one cultural group.  You can read the open access 2016 article on the results here.  I should state here that my MSc research investigated mobility and social stratification (particularly evidence for the practice of patrilocality) within the LBK of central Europe, so I took a great deal of interest in this talk.

Open Session

This session introduced a number of really interesting talks ranging from analyzing markers of occupational stress by Roisin O’ Reilly, one of the conference organizers, to a multivariate approach to sex determination in ancient and modern pelvis by Samuel Rennie and James Ohman (pleasantly titled ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, which made me chuckle).  The multivariate approach bamboozled me a little at first as the module I did in statistics for my MSc was hard-won, but Samuel quickly demonstrated the importance of the research presented, both for palaeoanthropological and archaeological contexts but also for forensic contexts in the ability to determine the sex of an individual with a 95.65% without a priori knowledge of sex in some instances.  This is definitely one to watch and I am excited as to where this research is heading.

Ethics, Legislation & Reburial

The conference ended with a session on the ethics, legislation and reburial aspects of osteoarchaeology, with talks from Caroline Bennett on the changes of excavation human remains, from once living breathing individuals to archival objects and documents of a past long gone.  This was a thoughtful talk and I really enjoyed being able to think morally and ethically the value of human remains, especially in consideration of the previous talks of the conference as a whole.  In essence this was considered breathing space in order to understand what we do and why we do, the impacts of the job and the value of it.

Catching Up & Saying Goodbye

Whilst I was in Belfast I also made sure that I met up with a fellow (and prolific) blogger Robert M. Chapple, an Irish archaeologist (now retired and happily working in IT) of some repute.  It was with great pleasure that I got to chat to him about Ireland’s archaeology, history and the general state of academia over a delightful meal with the man himself.  (And I must say I owe a debt of gratitude for the free meal, and I aim to pay it forward to the younger generation of archaeologists at my next conference, if I can!).  If you have haven’t already I heartily recommend that you take a look at Robert’s own site, pull up a seat and have a good read – it really is an awesome place to become acquainted with the richness of Ireland’s archaeology and history, complete with personal touches and exciting first hand experiences.  Robert also keeps a downloadable database record of Irish Radiocarbon and Dendrochronological Dates (IRDD), click the link to the website to delve into more than 8000 radiocarbon determinations and more than 300 dendrochronological dates.

As well as catching up with old friends at the conference I also got to meet a host of new friends, including Laura van der Sluis, a doctoral candidate at GAP at QUB who is currently researching 6000 years of subsistence of human populations at Limfjord, Denmark, from the Mesolithic period to the Viking period utilizing stable isotope analysis.  Laura’s research will also analyse the evidence for palaeomobility and changes in palaeodiet in an effort to determine if the availability of marine resources helped to drive cultural changes as recorded in the coastal archaeological record.  I had the joy of talking about the above methods and the laboratory facilities at QUB with Laura whilst taking in the ambient cool October night around the campus and surrounding streets.  Of interest to readers of this site is Laura’s latest co-written research article presenting the results of a palaeodietary analysis of a multi-period (AD 9th to AD 18th centuries) churchyard in Stavanger, Norway, using carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur isotopic analysis which indicated a change in diet due to changing religious beliefs and related dietary restrictions.

So all in all I am very glad that I made the short hop across from England to Northern Ireland to attend this rather beautiful conference in Belfast, as I was struck by the very real wealth of Ireland’s history of bioarchaeological investigation and research.  I hope that certain sites and skeletal populations become wider known within British archaeology as a whole as I felt I was discovering it anew.

Interview with Natalie Marr & David Ashley Pearson: Introducing the Short Film ‘Visitor’

21 Jun

Natalie Marr is an artist who works across video, sound and performance, and draws inspiration from science fiction, landscapes and different experiences of time.  She is currently completing a Masters in Filmmaking and Media Arts at the University of Glasgow.  After the release of ‘Visitor’ Natalie will be taking up a research position at the University of Glasgow in a multidisciplinary project to study the impact of the Galloway Forest Park, Scotland.  For current and previous multi-media projects please check out her website here, ‘Visitor’ will be released in Autumn.

David Ashley Pearson is a multimedia artist who focuses primarily on sound design.  He is particularly interested in exploring improvisation, acoustics and the physicality of sound.  His approach to sound is ever-changing but is underpinned by a curiosity for its substance and a passion for musical exploration.  His blog entitled Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, games and music, can be found here.

These Bones of Mine:  Hello Natalie, thank you for joining These Bones of Mine! In something of a first for this blog our main topic of discussion will be a short experimental film of which you are currently in the process of producing.  Visitor, your upcoming film focuses on people who stargaze and the entwined personal stories of the night sky.  It promises to be something special; however speaking as an archaeologist interested in the lives of others, I’m keen as to what led you onto the path of film making?

Natalie Marr:  Thank you for inviting me! I feel like film has always been there in my life as something that I just love, it is a form that transfixes me, surprises me, soothes me, challenges me.  One of my greatest pleasures is to go to the cinema alone and just sit in the dark with a great film!

I have a background in the arts and I would still struggle to call myself a filmmaker – it doesn’t even matter really – but I suppose what I’m getting at, is that film is just one form that I am drawn to working with, and the qualities of film that I particularly love are the immediacy of it, the way it moves me on a physical, emotional and sometimes spiritual level, and also the way it plays with my experience of time.  These are qualities that I also try to explore in sound and performance.  I am also interested in the experience of seeing a film, sitting in the dark, the way you give yourself to a film for a period of time.  But that’s obviously a very purist way of looking at it!

Trailer - rough cut.Still002

A detail from ‘Visitor’. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

Visitor is very different to any films I have made before…  It has been a very social process. In the past I have tended to shoot abandoned buildings, landscapes, environments that I freely walk around and capture and onto which I project my own story. There is landscape (or skyscape!) in ‘Visitor’ too, but because of this social process of interviews, spending time with people under the stars, as well as the autobiographical aspect, my approach to filming environments has changed too: it is not something I just project onto, it is another element that I am interacting with and learning from.

TBOM:  The interaction of the social process, within the creative production of a piece of art, is an idea that grabs me.  It is much the same in archaeology where archaeologists are never quite just the bystander to the material remains of the past – they act as both the interpreter of the architectural features and artefacts uncovered, but also as a gatekeeper to unlocking the potential knowledge of the remains and disseminating it to a wider audience. We even, acting in an environmental context, landscape the past through the examination of archaeobotanical remains and populate it with species through zooarchaeological analysis.  

In this context the personal voices of the past are largely silenced by time, but I’m left wondering how have you found the effort of capturing the social process?  Have you felt a greater duty to represent those who you film, as oppose to the silent landscapes and skyscapes of your earlier short films and photographs, or is this a false distinction?

Natalie:  Yes! The process has really sharpened my sensitivity to observing and recording and the challenge of how to represent other people’s stories, other people’s lives.  What I’m trying to do is build the experience of that challenge into the film and make myself – as a narrator or guide – vulnerable, responsive and unfinished.  It is very subjectively led, and most documentary/non-fiction films are to some extent – they are personal theses – but what I like about the essay film format, is the emphasis on the personal and the impressionistic and that’s what I’m running with in this film.  ‘Visitor’ deals a lot with projection: how we project ourselves onto the night sky, how we make Space personal.  Constellations as one example: they enable us to navigate our way around the sky, and we give them names that have their own historic and cultural colourings.

But the film is also about being responsive and like you say, it is a mistake to think of the land as silent, though in terms of ‘duty’ or a relationship of care, there is a more obvious concern for me when thinking about representing people, and maybe that’s because the effects of my actions are much more immediate.  It is so so important to get out of that mindset though, and spending time under a dark sky helps!

When I look at the stars, I feel I am tuning in to them.  I’m interested in the experience of darkness and how the body changes in a dark environment.  I get a stronger sense of this out on location in a place like the Galloway Forest Park, in Scotland, maybe because I’m standing outside for hours and time seems to slow down, and maybe it is also because I slowly start to tune in to the sound of the forest and of the different creatures that live there.  A funny side note on that – the last time I stayed in Galloway, one of the best night-time sounds I heard was a cow somewhere off in a neighbouring field, softly mooing as it slept, lovely!


A silent salute in space. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am a big fan of science fiction and in particular its commitment to ‘becoming other’.  There is a quote I carry around with me all the time, which is from Fredric Jameson in his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions; he’s talking about the challenge in science fiction of representing the other when it is beyond our comprehension or experience, how do you do it?!  And his answer is that the ‘other’ demands a new kind of perception, which demands in turn a new organ of perception, and ultimately a new kind of body (sorry – I am paraphrasing!).  So the problem sort of creates its own solution if you are happy to let it work its magic on you.  With ‘Visitor’ it is a kind of feeling around in the dark at times and not knowing exactly what I’m working with, but it is hugely rewarding to be open to that.

TBOM:  Having seen the two trailers for Visitor a number of times now I am struck by the two timescales represented – the human lifetime and memory contrasted to the great age of the universe and its celestial bodies.  There are also similarities to Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, particularly in the revealing scenes of drawing back the covers for the apparatus that are used to peer into the inky darkness.  

However, whereas Guzmán contrasted the interviews of the astronomy and archaeological researchers with the family members searching for the remains of Pinochet’s victims hidden in the Atacama desert, your film is of a more personal nature.  Indeed there is the sense of personal solace present in it, the calm movements noted in the preparation of the equipment to observe the stars.  Where have you drawn your influence for this project from?  How has it developed as you have moved along the length of producing Visitor? 

Natalie:  Yes, its been a while since I saw ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ but it’s definitely there.  I was so moved by it, there was a special kind of quiet power about it, it’s deeply political but also deeply personal.  You are right, there are definitely shared motifs between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’, personal projections, the unknown, darkness, light.  I see lots of correlations between looking up and looking down, and of course, looking into space is effectively always looking into the past.  I see these women, who are spending every waking moment searching for the remains of their loved ones, as located neither in the present, nor the past.  ‘Nostalgia for the light’…a longing for light cast from the past perhaps, but how long will they have to wait for it to reach them?  They are trapped in a time-scale that will likely outlive them and it’s intensely sad.

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A detail of one of the telescopes at the Galloway Astronomy Centre. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

The phrase ‘to be in the dark’ is about not knowing and not having answers or facts and this is definitely something shared between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’.  In ‘Visitor’ there is a reading of darkness in terms of being unanchored, in free fall.  This is how I felt when I lost our mutual friend Holly, like I lost my grip on reality for a while, and it felt very destructive.  In ‘Nostalgia…’ an interviewee comments that to be without memory is to be nowhere, and I think of a tiny body surrounded by total darkness, spinning like the astronaut Ryan in the film ‘Gravity‘, unmoored and alone.  This also makes me think of the Disappearance at Sea short film by artist Tacita Dean about Donald Crowhurst who died at sea, unable to locate himself geographically, because his chronometer was not giving him a correct reading on the local time.  Tacita Dean uses the image of a lighthouse in her film, another motif for searching.

But spending time under dark skies over the last 6 months is changing my relationship with darkness; my body and mind sense in a different way.  It’s like the lights go out and something else switches on, it is a bit like being in a car picking up a radio station that starts off as noise but as you travel into its field of transmission, it becomes clear.  Vision is obviously an important aspect of stargazing, but also the feeling of being outdoors at night, the very different qualities of sound that emerge, and a sense that your ‘time’ vibrates with so many other ‘times’.

When I looked through the telescope at Jupiter recently, I saw this incredibly distant planet and four of its moons, but pressing my face against the eye piece, the darkness of Jupiter’s ‘world’ encloses me and it feels like it’s right there and I can touch it, it is very intimate.  I was speaking to one of the Galloway Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers recently about stargazing as a very intimate activity that involves a lot of trust.  She mentioned that if she were to meet her workshop participants the next day in the sunlight, she may not be able to tell them by face!  So the experience of darkness and of stargazing is quite complex and also transformative for me, and I believe transformative for others too.

TBOM:  Yes, after losing our friend Holly I also felt an incredible sense of darkness and disarray.  Light eventually returned, particularly when I think of the time that we had spent together and also through getting to know one of her favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens

It seems to me then that memory and distance are recurring motifs within ‘Visitor’, from both your own viewpoint and from the people who you have interviewed for the film.  As an anchor to these themes, and as a comfort to the sheer size and depth of the universe, the bonds of family and friends also seem to play a pivotal part within the film.  Is this a fair assessment?

Natalie:  Yes, definitely.  I keep coming back to distance and proximity.  A lot of the people I have interviewed share their night sky experiences with loved ones or close friends.  It might be a phone call in the early hours of the morning between two people at different ends of the country looking at the same planet, or a certain constellation that makes you think of the person you first encountered it with.  Distance gets collapsed in those moments of remembering.  And I guess that’s what you mean when you have said to me that you feel close to Holly when listening to music she loved and in particular the musicians she introduced you to or that you listened to together.  Memory is a strange thing, as are dreams and sometimes they cross over.

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A walk in the wild as preparations for a night of stargazing take shape. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am definitely partial to the mystical qualities of the universe, as well as the hard science (!).  Astrophysics is fascinating to me and never stops surprising me; though it is extremely rigorous in its science, I think that it is also an area that allows space for speculation and wonder which, for me, is hugely creative and helpful for thinking about slippery things like memory and experience.  The language of astrophysics alone is incredibly rich and strange, and speaking it or listening to it transports me somewhere beyond my usual experience and I guess I’m trying to follow that and see where it leads!

TBOM:  Speaking of other languages I know we have spoken about music before this, with reference to our shared love of Fever Ray, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Vladislav Delay for example, and I feel I can almost hear their influences within the trailer for ‘Visitor’.  How did you approach the sound and music composition for this film though, and where did your influences for this come from?  

I know that you regularly collaborate with your partner David Ashley Pearson on your productions, such as on the 2013 short film Waiting for an Answer (Waiting for a Sign), and that he has helped produce the soundscape for ‘Visitor’, so this may also be a question for him as well.

Natalie:  It really does help that we’ve known each other for such a long time and also worked on projects together or been witness to each other’s projects.  I’m not great at describing sound, it is very slippery to me.  David has a more nuanced understanding of it and the physics behind it. We didn’t discuss much in the way of influences…  I think we both know what we like!  In terms of soundtracks that have really blown us away recently though…  Definitely Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin (2013) and we also loved the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto for The Revenant (2015).

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The preparation of a Bahtinov mask. A Bahtinov mask is a device utilizing focal grids and variations in angle diffraction to help achieve optimum focus when using small astronomical telescopes, or when conducting astrophotography, to view bright stars accurately. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

There are obviously a set of themes or motifs in ‘Visitor’ which you can sink your teeth into sonically and some of the main aesthetic approaches for this have been thinking about tuning in/tuning out, sounds that take us away from ourselves and yet have an uncanny familiarity and the idea of signalling or sending out a message, a beacon.  We both share an interest in experimental music, but I would say I’m more partial to looking for a beat that I can cling on to, whereas David is a bit more fearless when it comes to sound!  I think it makes sense here to let David talk more about his approach to the sound design…

David Ashley Pearson:  Hi there, thanks for showing such an interest in our film, it means a lot.  My relationship with music (and sound in general) has been incredibly intimate and personal my whole life, I find it embarrassing to listen to the music I love with others as it’s like revealing a part of myself, it makes me feel somewhat naked and exposed!  Even music that it is incredibly social such as Punk, Dance or Pop I find difficult to listen to with others.  I like to delve into sound and find a personal connection, typically when I find that connection I can become obsessed and mesmerised by the sound and feel I own it in some way.

Before moving to London in 2007 I was always looking out for new and interesting sounds, I’ve always listened out for something that struck me as unique and creative but it wasn’t until I got to London and got to listen to and attend some Free Improvisation concerts that I felt my ears truly open up.  I’ve always loved and strove for ambiguity and multiple meanings in my work and I find that in its purest form in Free Improvised music.

When I first moved to London I went to Mark Wastell’s – now sadly closed – Sound 323 record shop in Highgate; exposing myself to a whole new sound culture, it was a phenomenal experience just leafing through all the CDs and absorbing it all.  That first time I went there I bought Lawrence English’s For Varying Degrees of Winter (2007) which is an incredibly meticulous and icy ambient album, I love it but it was probably one of the music conventional CDs there!  At the time Mark had some music playing in the shop that was like nothing I’d heard before; it was an incredibly unusual, textural, hard to place sound… and very slow!  I didn’t know how to interact with it and what it meant, it was alien to me and I loved it because of that; it was Free Improvisation!

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A Scots Pine garden, Glasgow, Scotland. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

With Free Improvisation (and in particular the ‘New London Silence’ scene that I gravitated towards) all sounds come out of silence and the player’s environment.  Traditional ideas of instrumentation, musical notation and scales are chucked out the window in favour of a purer listening to sound as sound, the sound’s interaction with the space and the sound’s interaction with other sounds.  This idea of sound coming out of silence is incredibly important to me for this film and it’s also important that sounds come out of the imagery and montage that the film paints.  I have made sound concepts/sketches for the two trailers but I hesitate to truly start on the final soundtrack until more sections of the film are in place – as I want to interact with the imagery.  I also want to keep in mind the cinematic space and how my music interacts with the voices of those we’ve interviewed for the film.  I can’t wait to see and hear how it comes together!  The soundtrack will feature voices, textures, field recordings, synthesizers and other bits and bobs… whatever works in driving forward the story Natalie wants to tell!

TBOM:  The two trailers released so far certainly indicate the sound coming out of the silence, and I’m looking forward to seeing how your exposure to Free Improvisation influences the soundtrack David.  Natalie, the initial release date for ‘Visitor’ is September to coincide with the end of your Masters course and you are currently crowdfunding for the remaining production.  What are your hopes for ‘Visitor’ and do you have any plans after? 

Natalie:  Yes, very soon! The film is being produced as part of my degree and will be completed in September.  Once ‘Visitor’ is completed, we’ll be submitting it to festivals, so fingers crossed it gets some interest and circulation and it will be interesting to discuss it with a bit of distance.  In the meantime though, we are working on raising funds to finish the shooting and for some post-production work.  Any support is welcome and we are really pleased to offer some night sky-related perks including a stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre and an astrophotography workshop with Viridian Skies, also based in Dumfries & Galloway.


Beyond the film, there is so much still to be explored.  Recently I’ve been very lucky to be accepted for an incredible research project based at the University of Glasgow, with a focus on mapping the values of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, so that’s the next three and a half years of my life.  I’ve become really attached to the area (and to its skies!) so it is a dream to be encouraged to delve in deeper.

TBOM:  It certainly sounds like you have plenty to contend with and I wish you the best of luck with the release of ‘Visitor’.  I shall look forward to experiencing it when it comes out.  I’m sure readers of this blog will also be interested to hear how your research into the Galloway Forest Dark Sky park takes shape so please do keep in touch.  Thank you and David once again for joining These Bones of Mine.

Natalie:   Thank you also for your support of the film and for taking the time to discuss it in more detail, it really does help to unpick it a bit and reflect on it while it’s still being made.  It is also fantastic to be in such good company on These Bones of Mine!

Further Information

  • Visit Natalie Marr’s website for further information on her current and previous projects.  You can listen to David Ashley Pearson’s sound projects here, and visit his blog Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, music and games.
  • You can help fund and donate to the making of  the short film ‘Visitor’ on the IndiGoGo webpage by visiting here.  Dependent on the amount of money given the individual backer can receive a number of perks related the production of the film.  These include, but are not limited to, special riso print postcards, an invitation to the opening night of the film, as well as a night’s stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre for two.

Historical Lens: The Past and the Present

19 Jun

As regular readers may recall I have a deep love for both historical and modern literature, with a particular soft spot for travel writing or for literary memoirs.  Good travel writing, I find, delves not just into the adventures or mishaps of the writer and the contemporary individuals that they bump into but also of the cultural, geography and history of the places that they visit, as and where necessary.  That there is a sense of the present, but also links to the past and the lure of the future.  As many readers may also know that there have been a lack of posts over the past half a year or so due to a number of factors.  I do apologize, but I have at least managed to read a good many books that may also interest some readers here!

In particular I have recently rekindled a love of Russian literature through the acquisition of the recently published English translation of Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by the humorist writer Teffi (the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952).  The memoir recounts her 1919 flight from her home in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Moscow and then onto to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey), in the Ottoman Empire, following the twin revolutions of 1917 with the Bolshevik rise in power and the subsequent Russian Civil War (1917-1922), which tore apart the Russian Empire and ended the rule of the Tsar.  The outcome of the civil war resulted in the birth of the Soviet Union (1922-1991).  It is out of the scope of Memories but Teffi moved to Paris, France, and joined the émigré Russian cultural circle there, a city where she remained for the rest of her life never to return to Russia to write or perform.


Humourist ‘Teffi’, the pseudonym of the Russian writer Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya. Image credit: Wikipedia.

It is an illuminating read and one that richly rewards the reader with Teffi’s sense of humanity and humour in each line of text.  I had not heard of Teffi before I happened to come across and read a review of the book in a newspaper, but this is perhaps not unusual as she has been rarely published into the English language following her death in 1952 and the once-famous poet and feuilletonist, who at one point was read by both Tsar and Lenin, had largely disappeared from sight under the blanket of history.

Memories strongly reminded me of another book of reportage that I had recently completed, Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us by the journalist Janine Di Giovanni, which documents her experiences of reporting the unrest on the ground following the Arab Spring protests that rocked the country in early 2011, and a host of others in the Middle East and North Africa from late 2010 to mid 2012, and her experiences of the early stages of the Syrian Civil War (March 2011 – present).  Both Teffi and Giovanni each respectively document the individuals involved in the fighting, the civilian and soldier alike regardless of the faction that they are fighting for or fleeing from.

Acknowledging the Past, Documenting the Present

This blog has always had a relatively humanist core running through the posts that I have published here, and this continues to be the case.  Archaeology though, as a discipline, is never a static subject of study.  This is the case in fact of the archaeological material itself, both through the associated site formation processes at play and through the prism in which researchers view said archaeological sites and their material accumulation.

We are informed of the past through the lenses of our personal bias, cultural bias, and material survivor bias.  The good researcher can recognize these bias, and their filtration into the analysis and research produced, and integrate or parse them aside as necessary, or at least acknowledge them as such.  The great researches uses their bias to illuminate the effect that they can have on the understanding of the nature of the material under study.  This isn’t just limited to researchers though – the artist, the writer, the director, these and others from many different creative fields influence and and document the times and cultures that we both experience and know of.

Memory As Written

Therefore I am always intrigued by travel and memoir writing, by the documentation and views of the traveler writing in depth on the culture and history of a time they knew, how history is contextualized.  One of my most treasured works that I have come across is the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom’s Roads To Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History Germany, which documents his experiences working and travelling throughout the country and its capital city within the greater history ans culture of Germany.  Perhaps I am biased as, having visited Berlin in college and having spent an extended time on a European Union funded archaeology placement in Magdeburg, I have a love for the country and its peoples.  (Alas however as my tongue is no good with languages!).

This could be a matter of mere exposure to something different, something beyond the everyday interaction of your own expected experiences.  There is learning to be had in expanding your literature horizons, however.  I’ve yet to truly delve deep into German literature, but I think I know where I’d like to visit next on my mental map of cultural investigations.

Hopping Aboard A Russian Ark

So, having just ordered a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I am taking a break from the world of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle of books (after recently and ravenously finishing the fourth volume) and instead jumping from the Scandinavian literary scene to the Russian world once again.

On a related side note, I’ve also somewhat belatedly realized during the writing of this post that the banner photograph that I chose for the blog back in 2011 is by the photographer Alexey Titarenko.  It is a detail taken from a single photograph from one of his City of Shadow series (1992 to 1994) which documented life in St. Petersburg at the fall of the USSR, and transition into the Russian Federation, and capture the chaotic political changes and economic upheaval that this brought with it.

This is all really tying in quite nicely with the interest that I have developed in Russia and the country’s history through its literary giants.  Finally, and to complete the cultural immersion of the photographic, literature and film mediums, I am off to watch Sokurov’s majestic Russian Ark, a 2002 film that promises to present a fantastical portal into the imperial history of Russia taken in one stupendous long shot.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Chandler, R. 2014. Stepping Across the Ice: Teffi (1872-1952). Article published September 25, 2014, in The New Yorker. (Includes excerpts of Memories).

Di Giovanni, J. 2016. Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us. London: Bloomsbury.

Nooteboom, C. 2012. Roads to Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Germany. Translated from the Dutch by L. Watkinson. London: Maclehose Press.

Russian Ark. 2002. [Film] Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Germany/Russia: The Hermitage Bridge Studio (St. Petersburg) & Egoli Tossell Film AG (Berlin).

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Titarenko, A. 1992-1994. City of Shadows. [Photography]. Nailya Alexander Gallery.