Dactyl & Skelly Pad: Apps for Digital Bone Identification and Inventorying

10 Mar

Updates have been somewhat sparse on this site as of late due to varying workloads, both archaeological and osteological in nature, that have thus far maintained the focus of my free time.  So this is just a quick post highlighting new digital applications that have recently been released that have a specific focus and use for bioarchaeologists, palaeopathologists and forensic anthropologists, and that may be of interest amongst other related disciplines.

The first of these is the Dactyl application that has been produced by forensic anthropologists at the University of Teesside, spearheaded by Professor Tim Thompson (with a bit of help from my friend and doctoral researcher David Errickson) through the Anthronomics business.  Dactyl is a 3D viewer with photo-realistic models of actual scanned human skeletal elements that aids in the identification, siding and pathological analysis of osteological material from archaeological sites or forensic contexts.  Further to this the app also provides information on the anatomical landmarks present on individuals bones, indicating both the origins and the growth of the bone under study.  The models themselves can be zoomed in and out off, markers can be placed on the bone, and the models are full view-able from a number of directions and viewpoints (including lighting aspect).  This makes the app particularly handy for the field bioarchaeologist, or osteologist, in the identifying of skeletal material on-site or in the site hut.

dactyl

A screen shot of the Dactyl application as it currently stands. In this view a right Os Coxa (i.e. the hip, consisting of the fused ilium, pubis and ischium skeletal elements) can be viewed and explored. Notice the blue and red pins identifying landmark features and their uses. Image credit: Apple iTunes store and Dactyl App (2015).

The basic app costs £16.99 from the Apple iTunes store, and there are currently three additional add-on packs available.  These are available for a further £1.99 and consist of a) basic trauma, b) basic pathologies, and the c) non-adult pack.  It should be noted here that each of these only include two skeletal models, with the basic trauma containing four individual bone models, rather than a full range of skeletal elements.  Further updates will include more examples, but I am currently unsure whether the app will be available on more than just the Apple range of devices.  Atkin (2015) has written a fairly comprehensive review which is a useful and interesting read on the benefits and limitations of the Dactyl app itself.  The app is currently under review of a second version of the program as an improvement on the first version, but this promises to be an extremely useful application for iPad wielding archaeologists regardless of further improvements on the current model (which, of course, will surely happen).

The second is the Skelly Pad application for tablets, initially a free to use app designed to aid in the digital inventory of human skeletal and dental elements in archaeological or forensic contexts (a professional version of the app may lead to a charge to download it).  The importance of maintaining a proper inventory of skeletal remains cannot be over estimated, as this is the basic task that first allows for identification and analysis of the remains under observation.  Although it is at the early stage of design and production, the Skelly Pad application is now available to download and use on tablets.  It works across a wide variety of different operating systems and devices, including iPads, Kindle Fire and Samsung Galaxy tablets.

The product is the outcome of Gill Hunt’s BSc project at the University of Reading, in an attempt to digitise and streamline the recording of skeletal remains rather than rely on a paper record.  Currently Skelly Pad is only able to inventory the remains of adult individuals in the latest version of the application, although this includes all of the normal inventory sections (including completeness, age-at-death, biological sex, stature, pathology, etc).  The full range of current features that the Skelly Pad incorporates can be found here, and it certainly looks useful for the bioarchaeologist or forensic archaeologist, particularly in a setting where paper recording may be unsatisfactory for rapid recording of a skeletal inventory.  The Skelly Pad is now available through the App store, Google Play and Amazon.

By highlighting the two above applications, I think it becomes clear that as technology advances and powerful computers are now available in the palm of your hand, that innovation in the archaeological world also continues to make use of it, helping to overcome the limitations of access to skeletal collections, dreary weather and taking the weight off your shoulders (literally, if you have ever tried to carry around an anatomical textbook or a collection of osteological reference manuals).  Together with online resources such as Digitised Diseases (where 3D models of the effects of disease and trauma on human skeletal material are available to view for free), we are really seeing barriers being broken down to the access of both knowledge and collections.

An interesting side feature of this is the ethical edge of digitising and replicating the skeletal remains of individuals.  As we model their remains, replicate them on hundreds, if not thousands of machines, or create isolated 3D models of isolated elements, do we dis-embody and de-individualise the person themselves that they (the skeletal elements) once belonged to?  Does the educational need to correctly identify, record, and ultimately protect uncovered remains trump the loss of physical context of the bones that are used for digitisation as we transport them into the digital realm?  Are we distancing the feel and handling of bone itself, by relegating it to a flat screen?  These are broad-based questions with no straight forward answers.

It is clear, I hope, that I heartily approve of the magnificent steps forward that digital technology is allowing researchers to make in the understanding and recording of human remains using innovative techniques, particularly so given the fragile nature of the material (see Errickson et al. 2015 for good practice guidelines regarding scanning of osteological material).  The above are only two such examples of what I am sure is a thriving, independent and growing market.  A balance is always needed between access to physical reference collections, 3D models and osteological manuals, when assessing and analyzing assemblages from archaeological or forensic contexts.  One method cannot replace another.

As satisfying as having a handbook of osteology on your phone or tablet may be, nothing beats the heavy thud of a good reference textbook going into a rucksack or the boot of a car, ready for a days work.

Further Information

  • The Dactyl application for Apple products can be found either on the Apple app website or on Google Play.  The company behind the product, Anthronomics, can be found here.  It is an interesting company started by Professor Thompson himself which aims to invent useful programs, applications or devices to help aid in the recording, identifying and analysing of human skeletal material.  One to watch!
  • The Skelly Pad application for tablets (for use with Android, Amazon and Apple devices) can be found here and is available at each of the device makers stores to download for free.  The Skelly Pad blog can be found here also, which details the current version, and will host regular blog updates as the app as it proceeds to include further sections.
  • Digitised Diseases, a project spearheaded by the University of Bradford with a range of partners, depicts a number of 3D models of scanned human skeletal elements from archaeological sites with evidence of trauma or disease processes.  The models have been recorded and scanned using radiography, CT scanning and laser scanning techniques to produce highly accurate models showing the effects of disease or trauma on human skeletal elements.  These models can be viewed on the website itself or can be downloaded onto a computer, tablet or smart phone for future offline use.  I have previously discussed the open access site here.  You can also have a look to see how useful the site is for bloggers, as I helped illuminate one of my previous arm fractures with an example from the site, see here.

Bibliography

Atkin, A. 2015. Review of Dactyl: An Interactive 3D Osteology App [iPad]Internet Archaeology. 38. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.38.5. (Open Access).

Errickson, D. Thompson, T. & Rankin, B. 2015. An Optimum Guide for the Reduction of Noise using a Surface Scanner for Digitising Human Osteological Remains. Archaeology Data Service. Guides to Good Practice. (Open Access).

Aging: ldentifying Puberty in the Osteoarchaeological Record

15 Feb

Aside from some recent technological mishaps (now resolved!), which has resulted in a lack of posts recently, I’ve also been doing some preliminary research into human skeletal aging and human biological aging in general.  Partly this has been out of general interest, but it was also background reading for a small project that I was working on over the past few months.

Knowledge of the aging of the skeletal system is of vital importance to the bioarchaeologist as it allows age estimates to be made of both individuals and of populations (and thus estimates of lifespans between generations, populations and periods) in the archaeological record.  The aging of human remains, along with the identification of male or female biological sex (not gender, which is socially constructed) and stature in adults, when possible, provides one of the main cornerstones of being able to carry out a basic demographic analysis of past populations – estimates of age, sex, stature at death, the construction of life tables and the construction of mortality profiles of populations, etc.  At a basic level inferences on the funerary treatment on individuals of different ages, and between different periods, can also be made.  For example, in identifying the possible differential treatment of non-adults and adults in funerary customs or of treatment during their lifetime as revealed by their burial context according to their age-at-death.

Growing Pains

However, aging is not quite straight forward as merely understanding and documenting the chronological age of a person – it is also about understanding the biological age of the body, where the body undergoes physiological and structural changes according to the biological growth stage (release of hormones influencing growth, maturation, etc).  Also of importance for the bioarchaeologist and human osteologist to consider is the understanding of the impact and the implications that the environment (physical, nutritional and cultural) can also have on the development and maturation of the skeletal system itself.  Taken as such aging itself is a dynamic process that can depend on a number of co-existing internal and external factors.

For instance, environmental stresses (i.e. nutritional access) can leave skeletal evidence in the form of non-specific markers of stress that can indicate episodes of stunted growth, such as Harris lines on the long bones (identifiable via x-rays), or episodic stress periods via the dentition (the presence of linear or pitted enamel hypoplasias on the teeth) (Lewis 2007).  Knowing what these indications look like on the skeleton means that the bioarchaeologist can factor in episodes of stress which may have led to a temporary cessation of bone growth during childhood or puberty, a period where the bones haven’t achieved their full adult length, due to a lack of adequate nutrition and/or physical stresses (White & Folkens 2005: 329).

It is recognised that humans have a relatively long adolescence and that Homo sapiens, as a species, senescence rather slowly.  Senescence is the process of gradual deterioration of function that increases the mortality of the organism after maturation has been completed (Crews 2003).  Maturation simply being the completion of growth of an individual themselves.  In an osteological context maturation is complete when the skeleton has stopped growing – the permanent dentition, or 2nd set of teeth, have fully erupted, and the growth of the individual skeletal elements has been completed and the bones are fully fused into their adult forms.

This last point refers to epiphyseal growth and fusion, where, in the example below, a long bone has ossified from several centres (either during intramembranous or endochondral ossification during initial growth) and the epiphyses in long bones fuses to the main shaft of the bone, the diaphysis, via the metaphysis after the growth plate has completed full growth following puberty (usually between 10-19 years of age, with females entering puberty earlier than males) (Lewis 2007: 64).  Bioarchaeologists, when studying the remains of non-adults, rely primarily on the development stage of the dental remains, diaphysis length of the long bones (primarily the femora) and the epiphyseal fusion stage of the available elements in estimating the age-at-death of the individual (White & Folkens 2005: 373).

bone growth

A basic diagram showing the ossification and growth of a long bone until full skeletal maturation has been achieved  Notice the fusion points of the long bones, where the epiphysis attaches to the diaphysis (shaft of the bone) via the metaphysis. Image credit: Midlands Technical College. (Click to enlarge).

After an individual has attained full skeletal maturation, the aging of the skeleton itself is often reliant on wear analysis (such as the wearing of the teeth), or on the rugosity of certain features, such as the auricular surface of the ilium and/or of the pubic symphysis, for instance, dependent on the surviving skeletal elements of the individual.  More general biological post-maturation changes also include the loss of teeth (where there is a positive correlation between tooth loss and age), the bend (or kyphosis) of the spinal column, and a general decrease in bone density (which can lead to osteoporosis) after peak bone mass has been achieved at around 25-30 years old, amongst other more visible physical and mental features (wrinkling of the skin, greying of the hair, slower movement and reaction times) (Crews 2003).

Gaps in the Record

There are two big gaps in the science of aging of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts: a) ascertaining the age at which individuals undergo puberty (where the secondary growth spurt is initiated and when females enter the menarche indicating potential fertility, which is an important aspect of understanding past population demographics) and b) estimating the precise, rather than relative, age-at-death of post-maturation individuals.  The second point is important because it is likely that osteoarchaeologists are under-aging middle to old age individuals in the archaeological record as bioarchaeologists tend to be conservative in their estimate aging of older individuals, which in turn influences population lifespan on a larger scale.  These two issues are compounded by the variety of features that are prevalent in archaeological-sourced skeletal material, such as the effects of taphonomy, the nature of the actual discovery and excavation of remains, and the subsequent access to material that has been excavated and stored, amongst a myriad of other processes.

So in this short post I’ll focus on highlighting a proposed method for estimating puberty in human skeletal remains that was published by Shapland & Lewis in 2013 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Identifying Puberty in Human Skeletal Remains

In their brief communication Shapland and Lewis (2013: 302) focus on the modern clinical literature in isolating particular developmental markers of pubertal stage in children and apply it to the archaeological record.  Concentrating on the physical growth (ossification and stage of development) of the mandibular canine and the iliac crest of the ilium (hip), along with several markers in the wrist (including the ossification of the hook of the hamate bone, alongside the fusion stages of the hand phalanges and the distal epiphysis of the radius) Shapland and Lewis applied the clinical method to the well-preserved adolescent portion (N=78 individuals, between 10 to 19 years old at death) of the cemetery population of St. Peter’s Church in Barton-Upon-Humber, England.  The use of which spanned the medieval to early post-medieval periods (AD 950 to the early 1700) (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

All of the individuals used in this study had their age-at-death estimated on the basis of dental development only – this is due to the strong correlation with chronological age and the limited influence of the environment and nutrition has in dental development.  Of the 78 individuals under study 30 were classed as probable males, 27 as probable females and 21 classed as indeterminate sex – those classed as a probable male or female sex were carefully analysed as the authors highlight that assigning sex in adolescent remains is notoriously problematic (the ‘holy grail’ of bioarchaeology – see Lewis 2007: 47), therefore only those individuals which displayed strong pelvic traits and were assigned an age under the 16 years old at the age-at-death were assigned probable male and female status.  Those individuals aged 16 and above at age-at-death were assigned as probable male and female using both pelvic traits and cranial traits, due to the cranial landmarks being classed as secondary sexual characteristics (i.e. not functional differences, unlike pelvic morphology which is of primary importance) which arise during puberty itself and shortly afterwards (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304-306).

The method involves observing and noting the stage of each of the five indicators (grouped into 4 areas of linear progression) listed above.  It is worth mentioning them here in the sequence that they should be observed in, together in conjunction with the ascertained age at death via the dental analysis of the individual, which is indicative of their pubertal stage:

1) Mineralization of the Mandibular Canine Root

As noted above dental development aligns closer with chronological age than hormonal changes, however ‘the mineralization root of the mandibular canine may be an exception to this rule’ (Shapland & Lewis: 303). This tooth is the most variable and least accurate for aging, aside from the 3rd molar, and seems to be correlated strongly with the pubertal growth spurt (where skeletal growth accelerates during puberty until the Peak Height Velocity, or PHV, is reached) than any of the other teeth.  In this methodology the stage of the canine root is matched to Demirjian et al’s (1985) stages, where ‘Stage F’ indicates onset of the growth spurt and ‘Stage G’ is achieved during the acceleration phase of the growth spurt before PHV (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 303).

3) Ossification of the Wrist and the Hand

The ossification of the hook of the hamate bone and of the phalangeal epiphyses are widely used indicators in medicine of the pubertal stage, however in an archaeological context they can be difficult to recover from an excavation due to their small and discrete nature.  The hook (hammulus) of the hamate bone (which itself can be palpated if the left hand is held palm up and the bottom right of the hand itself is pinched slightly as a bony protrusion should be felt, or vice versa if you are left handed!) ossifies during the acceleration phase of the growth spurt in both boys and girls before HPV is attained.  The appearance, development and fusion of the phalangeal epiphyses are also used to indicate pubertal stage, where the fusion has been correlated with PHV in medical research.  With careful excavation the epiphyses of the hand can be recovered if present.

4) Ossification of the Iliac Crest Epiphysis

As this article notes that within orthopaedics it is noted that the ‘Risser sign‘ of the crest calcification is commonly used as an indicator of the pubertal growth spurt.  The presence of an ossified iliac crest, or where subsequent fusion has begun, can be taken as evidence that the PHV has passed and that menarche in girls has likely started, although exact age cannot be clarified.  The unfused iliac crest epiphyses are rarely excavated and recorded due to their fragile nature within the archaeological context, but their absence should never be taken as evidence that this developmental stage has not been reached (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

5) Ossification and Epiphsyeal Fusion of the Distal Radius

The distal radius epiphysis provides a robust skeletal element that is usually recovered from archaeological contexts if present and unfused.  The beginning of the fusion is known to occur during the deceleration phase of puberty at around roughly 14 years of age in females and 15 years of age in males, with fusion completing around 16 years old in females and 18 years old in males (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

Results and Importance

Intriguingly although only 25 (32%) of the 78 individual skeletons analysed in this study had all five of the indicators present, none of those presented with the sequence out of step (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 306).  The initial results indicate that it is quite possible to identify pubertal growth stage for adolescent individuals in the archaeological record based on the preservation, ossification and maturation stage of the above skeletal elements.  Interestingly, the research highlighted that for all adolescents examined in this study from Barton-Upon-Humber indicated that the pubertal growth spurt had started before 12 years of age (similar to modern adolescents), but that is extended for a longer time than their modern counterparts (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 308).  This was likely due to both genetic and environmental factors that affected the individuals in this well-preserved medieval population.

Further to this there is the remarkable insight into the possible indication of the age of the females entering and experiencing menarche, which had ramifications for the consideration of the individual as an adult in their community, thereby attaining a probable new status within their community (as is common in many parts of the world, where initiation ceremonies are often held to mark this important stage of sexual fertility in a woman’s life).  This is the first time that this has been possible to identify from skeletal remains alone and marks a landmark (in my view) in the osteological analysis of adolescent remains.

As the authors conclude in the paper the method may best be suited to large cemetery samples where it may help provide a ‘broader picture of pubertal development at a population level’ (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 309).  Thus this paper helps bridge an important gap between childhood and adulthood by highlighting the physiological changes that individuals go through during the adolescent phase of human growth, and the ability to parse out the intricate details our individual lives from the skeletal remains themselves.

Bibliography

Crews, D. E. 2003. Human Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. E. 2007. The Bioarchaeology of Children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shapland, F. & Lewis, M. E. 2013. Brief Communication: A Proposed Osteological Method for the Estimation of Pubertal Stage in Human Skeletal Remains. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 151: 302-310.

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

The Death of a King

25 Jan

In life he was the absolute monarch of a wealthy and highly conservative country, who wielded influence and power across the Arabic region and whose country (along with Kuwait) currently holds reserves of roughly 20% of the world’s conventional oil supply.  Following his death his body is buried in an unmarked and unnamed grave within 24 hours of his passing, that is in keeping with his religion, with the minimum of both official and public mourning.

It is, of course, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who passed away on Thursday 23rd of January 2015 after a short illness.  King Abdullah (full name Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud) was the third absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia following the formation of the modern country by his grandfather, King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, in 1932.  To put it simply the House of Saud rules Saudi Arabia completely: for instance the members of the Saud royal family now number into the thousands, although there had been speculation and contention regarding the succession following the initial news of King Abdullah’s ill-health in December 2014.

King Abdullah was something of a slow reformer within Saudi Arabia itself, helping to extend the right to vote in municipal elections to women in 2011 and allowing mild criticism of the government in the press in the later years of his rule.  A firm believer in pan-Arab unity, King Abdullah also helped negotiate and settle numerous contentions in the Middle East during his reign, including in both Palestinian disputes and the American-led actions in Iraq in 2003, amongst other conflicts.  As a predominantly Sunni sect of Islam the Saudi Royal family and the country have also been the focus of some Islamic extremist groups and sectarian violence, particularly during the late 1970’s and early 2000’s.  Tensions have, at times, also been tested with the largely Shia-led country of Iran and their combined vying influence within the Middle East (in, for example, the ongoing civil war in Syria which has divided the two power bases, where each country support different factions that are currently fighting in Syria and across the border in Iraq).  It is pertinent to mention here that Saudi Arabia adheres to the codified system of Islamic law, and that the influence of strict conservative form of Islam known as Wahabbism is still strongly felt in the kingdom to the present day, particularly in the social ethos of government responsibility for the country’s moral code.

Following the announcement of his death, his half-brother Salman was pronounced King of Saudi Arabia.  The country currently faces a turbulent period as oil prices have dropped significantly, Islamist extremists threaten both the North of the country (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and the South (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Pennisula in Yemen), and international condemnation of the harsh sentencing of the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi continues to mount (amongst other noted human rights abuses).  In an impressive study of current Saudi society the anthropologist Menoret (2014) has detailed the feeling of tufshan among the young and working class in Riyadh, where torpor sets in due to the rigidity of social and political life in the country.  Saudi Arabia is also the country that is inherently the focus of the world’s 1.6 billion strong Muslim population, who worship the Islamic faith, as the twin holy cities of Medina and Mecca are located within Arabia’s borders and the country itself acted as the religion’s cradle in the 7th century AD following Mohammad’s revelations.  It was Mohammad who helped unify Arabia into a single religious polity under the banner of Islam, who is himself considered a major prophet in Islam, alongside the recognition of established prophets (by the time of Islam’s foundation) such as Adam, Moses, Jonah and Jesus, etc.

However, this post isn’t about the socioeconomic status of Saudi Arabia, nor of its strategic importance and international standing (interesting though that may be in itself).  Rather, the news of the King’s passing and subsequent funeral interested me on an archaeological level.  Far too often we associate archaeology from an early age, particularly so the remains of individuals in the archaeology record, with the wealth, power and domination of society’s elite – the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs in their pyramids, perhaps Alexander the Great leading his forces across continents, or the various King’s and Queen’s from European history.  Rarely do the remains of individuals buried in simple graves make the headlines (unless of course they are discovered in unexpected places) or imprint on young minds in association with archaeology itself.  Human osteology and bioarchaeology, as specialist sub-disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, help give a voice to each and every individual excavated and analysed (regardless of their final deposition or storage).

In archaeology, though, context is king.  If a burial is an ‘obvious’ (relatively speaking) wealthy individual for their site, our perceptions can be changed.  The analysis of Richard the III’s skeleton included scientific analysis that would rarely be carried out for normally buried individuals from the same Tudor period.  Context, of course, hinted at the possibility of royalty lying undisturbed in that Leicester car park, palaeopathological and ancient DNA analysis helped confirm suspicions of the finding of the lost king.  In prehistoric archaeology, where no written documents were made or existed and where history was likely only passed down orally or coded in artefacts we cannot read, the archaeological remains of individuals and their burial context are the keys to help the archaeologist unlock their lives.

Therefore, when I read further into the death and burial of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, I was surprised at first to see the funerary procession and burial location as it was presented in various new articles.  Below is a photograph following the burial of the King’s body within 24 hours, as often stipulated within the Islamic faith as it is in the Jewish faith, highlighting a simple grave with a topping of small stones.  There are no obvious markers of the role that this individual played in life and no markers detailing the name or life of the occupant of the grave will be left in-situ.  This is in keeping with the Wahhabi Sunni view of curtailing idolatry and of recognizing Allah as the creator and giver of life, regardless of the social role the individual played in their lifetime.

kingabdullah

The grave site of the former King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with male mourners paying respects (females are banned from cemeteries in Saudi Arabia). His body was buried in a simple shroud within a day of his death, in an unnamed and unmarked grave in the El-Ud public cemetery. This religious observation is a strict interpretation of the Sunni Islamic faith which states that to name a grave would be tantamount to idolatry, which is forbidden in the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. Note the other stone covered grave plots in the background. Image credit: Faisal Al Nasser/REUTERS & the Daily Telegraph.

It is interesting to note that, in death, Abdullah has resumed the role of an individual once more reflected only by his biological identity that will not be defined by his status during life, and that King Salman has carried onward the House of Saud in the country of Saudi Arabia.

Further Information

  • I have previously written about the Bedu of Arabia after reading Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands book which detailed his time spent living and travelling with the Bedu in the mid and late 1940’s, the period just before the oil boom fundamentally helped change Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Read the post here.
  • The Economist and the BBC have particularly detailed articles on Saudi Arabia, and the differences between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam.  It is also worth browsing Wikipedia’s page on the history of Islam itself (a monotheistic religion founded in the 7th century in Saudi Arabia by the Prophet Mohammed).
  • Of archaeological and cultural heritage interest is the continued destruction of buildings, tombs and cemeteries associated with the early personalities and prophets of Islam, mainly centered around Mecca and Medina in the country, in an effort to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims who attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage; though it can also be seen as iconoclasm as an interpretation of conservative values.  Read more here.

Bibliography

Menoret, P. 2014. Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt. Cambridge Middle East Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

The Coimbra Method: An Entheseal Scoring Workshop at the University of Sheffield, 28th January 2015

18 Jan

The University of Sheffield is playing host to a day-long workshop on the Coimbra method of scoring enthesophytes on the Wednesday 28th of January 2014.  It is a first come first served basis as attendance (at £10 and £5 concessions) is limited, though there are still some places available – you can find out more information and book here.  Dr Charlotte Henderson from the University of Coimbra, is one of the developers of the Coimbra method of recording enthesophytes in human skeletal remains and will be helping to lead the workshop.  The workshop welcomes anyone who works with the skeletal remains of past populations, although it would be particularly suitable for researchers and students involved in biological anthropology or osteoarchaeology.

Enthesophytes, also known as musculoskeletal markers (often abbreviated to MSM), are observable indicators of activity-induced stress on bone, often appearing as bony projections.  They are present on the origin and insertion of muscle on bone in the form of the ossification of the tendon and ligament attachments that help anchor the body of a muscle to the bone itself.  They are often the product of repetitive movements or of a demanding physical lifestyle and, when scored and recorded at a population level with the correct controls in place, can be used to infer as Markers of Occupational Stress (MOS).  This is partly why it is important to become familiar with musculoskeletal anatomy as a human osteologist because the two systems are so entwined in their action.

It should be mentioned here that enthesopathies are distinct from osteophyte formation on, or around, the joints (and not at muscle origins or insertions) which also look like bony projections.  There can also be a presumption in the palaeopathological literature to use the evidence of osteoarthritis alone in skeletal remains as an indicator of a physically demanding lifestyle; this should only be considered when used in conjunction with the observation and the recording of differences in the size of the left and right-side bones, size and location of any enthesophytes present, other pathological lesions, and certain non-metric traits in the individual (Roberts & Connell 2004: 38).

Although well-studied within the osteoarchaeological literature, there are still gaps in the knowledge of the cause of enthesopathies.  Further to this is the fact that rarely are musculoskeletal markers recorded in detail during the initial osteological analysis of archaeological remains. There is also, for instance, ongoing debate regarding the action of disease processes in the forming, or influencing, of both fibrous entheses and fibrocartilaginous entheses, as well as the difference in left and right side prevalence, and the effect of life course changes on enthesophytes (Hawkey 1998, Villotte & Knüsel 2013).  However, there has been a deepening of the understanding of the cause, development and implication of enthesophytes in the human body in the recent osteoarchaeological literature (Villotte et al. 2010).  Particularly regarding the likely multi-factorial influence in the aetiology, or cause, of these physical alterations (Villotte & Knüsel 2013).  New technology, such as 3D photogrammetry, is also helping to produce large databases of comparative material, as well as clearer macro and micro visual images of the anatomical changes present in enthesophytes.

The data scored and documented on individuals can, when analysed at the population level, lead to observations on the physical repetitive movements needed to produce the musculoskeletal markers.  The Coimbra method has started to become a standard within the recording of enthesophytes, although I personally will have to wait until the workshop to learn about this in detail.  Interpretations can thus be made, and hypotheses tested, on the ability in identifying past-activity patterns of archaeological populations.  They can also be used to hypothesize the actual range of active movement during the life of an individual.  Hawkey (1998), for instance, has demonstrated the ability to reproduce possible movement patterns available to a severely disabled individual in a Pre-Colombian context in New Mexico.  Hawkey & Merbs (2005) later used MSM’s to highlight subsistence change within the Hudson Bay Eskimos, noting that different activities could be differentiated via the skeletal anatomy and related changes to stress.

Although this entry is possible a tad late, I will be attending the 1 day long course and will endeavor to produce a blog entry detailing what I learnt during the workshop itself.  As always with this blog, if you or your department are hosting a workshop or a short course in human osteology, biological anthropology or osteoarchaeology, and want to let others know about it, then please feel free to contact me and I’ll help spread the word.

Further Information

  • Details of the 1 day long Coimbra method workshop at the University of Sheffield can be found here.  The university has a well-developed osteology laboratory and Masters program at the Department of Archaeology – you can learn more about the osteoarchaeological research carried out at the University of Sheffield here.
  • The University of Coimbra’s Department of Anthropology hosted an international workshop back in July 2009, titled Musculoskeletal Stress Markers (MSM): Limitations and Achievements in the Reconstruction of Past Activity Patterns, that has proved instrumental in rejuvenating the scientific study of MSM’s.  A full workshop abstract booklet can be found here and Prof. Charlotte Robert’s thought-provoking perspective on 25 years worth of study on MSM’s can be found here.
  • If you have either academic access or subscribe to the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology journal, it helpfully released a special edition in 2013 (Vol 23 (3): 127-251) titled Entheseal Changes and Occupation: Technical and Theoretical Advances and their Applications, which details and summaries the importance of the many recent approaches to MSM’s and OSM’s.  Read it here.

Bibliography

Hawkey, D. E. 1998. Disability, Compassion and the Skeletal Record: using Musculoskeletal Stress Markers (MSM) to Construct an Osteobiography from Early New Mexico. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 8 (5): 326-340.

Hawkey, D. E. & Merbs, C. F. 2005. Activity-induced Musculoskeletal Stress markers (MSM) and Subsistence Strategy Changes among Ancient Hudson Bay EskimosInternational Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 5 (4): 324-338.

Roberts, C. & Connell, B. 2004. Guidance on Recording Palaeopathology. In: Brickley, M & McKinley, J. I. (eds.). Guidelines to the Standards for Recording Human Remains. IFA Paper No. 7.  IFA & BABAO. pp 34-39. (Open Access).

Villotte, S., Castex, D., Couallier, V., Dutour, O., Knüsel, C. J. & Henry-Gambier, D. 2010. Enthesopathies as Occupational Stress Markers: Evidence from the Upper Limb. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 142 (2): 224-234.

Villote, S. & Knüsel, C. J. 2013. Understanding Entheseal Changes: Definition and Life Course Changes. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 23 (2): 135-146.

2015: A Year in Preview

7 Jan

Instead of regaling you, my dear readers, with posts of the past let me instead introduce to you posts of the future from my mystical green crystal orb (i.e. my neglected draft folder).  Whilst 2014 has indeed been a busy period, it has also been a particularly downcast sort of year punctuated with moments of beauty and intense clarity.  As such I’d thought it be more interesting to delve into some upcoming posts, highlight a few interesting events in my 2015 archaeological calendar, and also show just where this osteology thing has taken me and where (I hope) it will take me in 2015.  (Remember you can see my haul of 2014 posts in all of their naked glory here, and a quick round-up of the 2014 stats at the end of this post).

It also pains me somewhat to realise at this point that the awesome Blogging Archaeology carnival’s first entry took place well over a year ago.  Ran by Doug Rocks-Macqueen, this online archaeology blogging carnival helped bring together archaeologists from around the world in producing reflective entries on the importance and wealth of blogging archaeology.  In my series of Blogging Archaeology entries I made some vague and, looking back, crazy predictions of what I wanted to do with this blog in 2014.  A lot of this (including a PDF of the ever-popular Skeletal Series entries) didn’t really happen (about do check out Bone Broke’s awesome collection of handy osteo tips for PDF perfection).  Adding to that, I actually barely added to the Skeletal Series at all in 2014 (may the gods of osteo forgive me!).  But I kept blogging, sometimes not as much as I hoped, but the fantastic guest entries kept coming in and the internationally flavoured interviews and mini-photo essay posts began in earnest as well.  I diverged and that is always good.

On a general note 2014 did provide some paid archaeological work, I also got to excavate a few skeletons with friends in the surroundings of the lovely Peak District and I got to take part in some fantastic education outreach in both Sheffield and Manchester.  I also had the great joy of attending excellent conferences in both Belfast and Durham.  Although I was out of action for around 3-4 months mid 2014 due to a broken arm, I did manage to cram a fair bit in alongside the normal non-archaeological day job.

So in this 2015 preview I want to introduce a few blog posts that have been sitting quietly in my draft folder, where I’ve regularly updated them and added in new references, but haven’t completely finished them to post them to the blog itself.  As such this is just a sneak peek of a few thoughts that have been rattling around my mind…

1) The Body as a Weapon: The Bioarchaeology of Terror and Thoughts on Suicide Attacks

Given the rise in the recognition and importance of conflict archaeology and the role of understanding the bioarchaeology of violence in past societies, I think it is probably time we took a look at a modern-day phenomena through a bioarchaeological approach.  For the past few decades terrorism has become a dominant feature of continuing international and transnational conflicts as asymmetric warfare has largely replaced conventional warfare.  I’ll be particularly focusing on suicide attacks, where an individual or group aim to kill both themselves and others in an explosive act of violence.  As such in this post I’ll explore some initial thoughts on suicide attacks from a futurist bioarchaeological perspective (the bioarchaeology of terror).  Primarily focusing on the body as a weapon (both actual body damage and perceived threat based on body type) this post will also highlight a range of suicide attacks carried out by terrorists from across the globe and analyse both the bioarchaeology implications of these, and the differing cultural/national considerations in response to them.

2) Disability at the Movies: Physical and Mental Impairment on the Big Screen

As a fan of film I have long been interested in the representation of physical and mental disabilities in the movies.  As a relatively new artistic medium film has risen over the past century or so to become a vital, and major, part of the world’s culture, helping to document changing attitudes and explore artistic expression.  In this meandering entry I’ll discuss a number of films from the past 100 years or so and highlight the use and representation of both physical and mental disabilities (or impairments).

3) Disability and Sexuality: Looking through the Lens

Sexuality is often taken to be an integral part of the nature of human expression and humanity.  Disability, as either a mental or physical impairment, can be present at birth or occur during the lifetime of an individual and can mean impairments in the cognitive, emotional, developmental, sensory and/or physical sense.  If sexuality is the expression and capacity for erotic experiences and responses, what does this mean for individuals with disabilities and, more specifically, what does this mean for us as a society in the representation of people with impairments as members of that society?  How does this differ culturally?  This post will look at the intersection of the two and discuss the considerations of what is meant by disability or impairment, and how this is approached and understood in the context of human sexuality.

4) Ageing: Puberty in the Osteoarchaeological Record

This is a quick post highlighting some recent articles and books that I’ve been reading lately in understanding the ageing of the human body (particularly focusing on the biology of human senescence).  Being able to age a human skeleton is one of the fundamental skills in bioarchaeology, used as a basic demographic attribute for understanding past population structures.

However, there are still two age stages that can be ‘invisible’ in the archaeological record – old age and being able to identify the advent and process of puberty in the osteoarchaeological record.  The older age categories, used when skeletal maturation has been achieved (when full adult growth has been attained), are largely based on the degradation and wear stage of certain skeletal elements (pubic symphysis, auricular surface of the ilium, cranial suture obliteration, tooth wear stage, etc).  After the fifth decade of life it can be hard to successfully pin a small age range on an individual, particularly if there is no reference population to serriate against to gauge expected differences in bone change at known, or documented, ages.  This will probably be a post by itself.

The focus of this ageing post though is on puberty, as the measure when the non-adult individual grows to become an adult (sometimes taken as juvenile to adolescent to adult).  As both males and females reach puberty at different ages (females normally start it a year or two before males), this has posed bioarchaeologists problems in understanding when past populations reached this.  Shapland & Lewis (2013) have a method for this though, and I’ll post about it shortly!

5) Review: Day of the Dead Conference, October 2014, Queen’s University Belfast

I had the great joy in attending this wonderful conference in Belfast at Queen’s back in October.  Focusing on both bioarchaeology and funerary archaeology, the Day of the Dead three-day conference confidently brought together a slew of new research from both Ireland and the wider world on prehistoric and historic sites and cultures (including an awesome presentation on cannonball damage in deer and a possible universal code for sexing skeletal remains).  The conference was ably hosted by Dr Catriona McKenzie with a keynote speech by Dr Barra O Donnabhain and help from the ever affable Prof. Chris Knüsel.  This post, which detail a few of the presentations in detail, should also be up shortly.

6) The Anatomical Position: A Short History of the Internationally Agreed Standard

One of the first posts where I have actively engaged and sought the views of others before commencing the writing of the post.  I have struggled so far to exactly find what I am looking for, but this has only spurned me on.  In this post I’ll take a quick look at how the anatomical position used in bioarchaeology, forensic science, medicine, and the anatomical sciences, has became so widespread as an internationally agreed standard and convention for the positioning and examining of the human body.  This is one of the posts that may take a while to appear, but it is there!

and finally…

7) Skeletal Series Part 13: How to Age a Human Skeleton

8) Skeletal Series Part 14: How to Sex a Human Skeleton

Two much delayed posts helping to highlight the next stage of the Skeletal Series posts.

This is really just a quick housekeeping post, making me more aware of what I need to do.  As highlighted towards the end of last month there will be a few posts on musical interludes, highlighting the evidence for music ability in the archaeological record.  My one big event for 2015 so far is the upcoming Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in April in San Francisco, USA.  I am particularly excited as there is a session on the Bioarchaeology of Care methodology by Lorna Tilley of Australia National University.  The methodology is an important step not just for understanding physical impairment in the past, but also for collating, using and distributing knowledge of the archaeological record via the Index of Care online tool.

All in all 2015 looks to be rather productive.

Notes

For die-hard stats fans this blog was viewed around 260,000 from 206 countries in 2014 (if I remember correctly this is down from 2013).  Averaged out this is around 5000 views a week, with the majority of the views taking place Monday to Friday rather than on the weekends.  The top 5 annual posts per views were (as it typical for each year that this blog has existed) the Skeletal Series posts.  Blog views, especially toward the last few months of 2014, tailed off noticeably.

Guest Blog Guidelines: General Advice and Thoughts

3 Jan

This blog has always sought to highlight a wide range of subjects of interest within the remit of archaeology and osteology (and often outside of these boundaries).  Having had the luck to have continued to bring a variety of guest blog entries to the readers of this blog, I’d thought I’d share a few guidelines that I’ve often sent to potential guest bloggers for their information and digestion.  This is, in effect, an open invitation to those who are willing to participate.  I also thought I’d be open about the advice I offer in the vague and somewhat distorted hope that someone out there may well be inspired to host guest blogs of their own!

blogblogblog guest post

The downside of offering guest blogs! Both Digital Sherpa and Spin Sucks have some good advice for blogs offering guest posts, as well as highlighting the spam bots of SEO (Search Engine Optimization, normally spam advertising a company or products). If you have evidence of the health benefits of a chocolate only diet, please contact me! Image credit: Spin Sucks.

Advice

First of all, thank you for helping to contribute to the blog site – without you the blog would not be what it has become.  Please use the guest blog entry as a chance to highlight and advertise your archaeological project and research, as well as a chance to promote and educate readers on the value and importance of archaeology and osteoarchaeology, from wherever you are from or have experience of.  The blog is a mixture of informal and formal approaches to a variety of topics in the above subjects – aim to inform and engage the audience and not to alienate them.  Please see the below tips as general points, as you will approach the guest blog in your own way (which is great!).  Once again thank you for taking an interest in These Bones of Mine.  I personally always welcome updates on your ongoing projects, as do the wider readers of the blog!

Basics

  • Please send the guest blog in a Word .doc format and attach any images as Jpeg file formats (this can include photographs, diagrams, and/or graphs).  If images used are not your own, please ensure that copy right or permission to use the image has been attained beforehand.  This will be edited in Word and sent back for your edits/comments.  Once both myself and yourself are happy with the entry it will be posted onto the blog with appropriate categories and tags.
  • Word limit is generally kept at around 1000 words to 2500 words for the guest post entries.  Remember though that sometimes less is more, but complex topics may need to be introduced and discussed in-depth.  Interview posts are often longer than this as they cover more topics, albeit in briefer detail.

Content

  •  The content is up to the individual person and depends on the project or topic of the guest post.  This blog primarily focuses on the topics of archaeology, human osteology, bioarchaeology and human evolution.  As such these are subjects that guest posts are particularly welcome in.  However, I am also interested in the wider aspects of the above topics and related disciplines.  These include forensic anthropology, zooarchaeology, and ethnography, amongst others.  I am also particularly interested in public outreach and multidisciplinary projects.  For a full list of subjects that I am interested in please see the Guest Posts page.
  • As the guest blogger introduce the topic, state the overall general aims of either the project or the research, indicate the timescale and your personal involvement.  The last point is important as this can help engage the reader on a fundamental level: what are your experiences of archaeology, how could I get involved?
  • Write for an interested and informed audience, but be wary that an academic approach to writing on a blog can potentially bore or isolate the audience.  I will hyperlink to any specialist terms used in the post (for example to either Wikipedia for general terms and background knowledge, or to a dedicated archaeological site for specific information).  Remember the people who read These Bones of Mine are already generally interested in archaeology and osteology, so don’t worry about how specialised your topic is (though this can be a tricky wire to navigate).
  • Remember that as the guest blogger you yourself will be representing what you are writing about. If in doubt please contact either a project or academic supervisor if you are not sure that the information you are writing is not meant for public consumption (or is under commercial constraints, for example).  If you have conducted original research and are looking to publish your results, please remember that a blog post probably isn’t the ideal way to break a new methodology to world, lest another researcher claims credit.  Remember this is a fully public blog!  But please also see this as an opportunity to communicate on a big scale (typically a ‘front page’ entry will get hits from people just looking at the site, and hopefully you may get an email or two if someone is interested in your research!).
  • At the conclusion of the post I will add a Further Information section, a set of links with a short introduction on where to go next to learn more about what the guest post content was on.  The post ends with a bibliography in the Harvard style that will be compiled by the guest blogger themselves, although I will edit this if necessary and add relevant hyperlinks.  Remember that Open Access articles are appreciated by the general audience.

Format

  • As already mentioned book and article references are welcomed (especially Open Access sources) and the referencing system used is the Harvard method, as is generally typical for archaeology in the UK.  I will hyperlink the reference to an online source if there is an open access publication – otherwise I’ll link to the publisher’s website, google books, etc.  (Heck, even Amazon sometimes lets you read a few pages for free!).
  • There will be an introduction paragraph about the author of the guest post, citing the academic, volunteer and/or commercial archaeological background, education, and any general interests that the writer of the guest post has.  I will likely write this, so please do feel free to add any information on non-archaeological interests or links to personal/academic websites (after all, can we archaeology all of the time?!).
  • I will do the final edit of any guest entry submitted, but I will show you this before it goes on the blog to enable you to edit the guest blog entry again if necessary.  I will also highlight when the guest blog is put onto the blog itself (please be aware it will look different on the blog than on Word!).  Editing is available anytime and I am very happy to update old guest blogs to reflect new projects/positions, etc.  (As much as I enjoy writing posts for this site I do find writing to be a slow process and editing myself a necessary, but painful, evil.  In contrast to this, however, I quite enjoy editing other guest blog entries and interviews).
  • Diagrams or pictures or photos are recommended as they help break up the blocks of text, are very useful to engage the audience, and are great at communicating complex ideas.  Please be aware of copyright and I will credit the image appropriately to either the author of guest blog or to the other copyright holder.

Style

  • Remember that there should be no pressure for writing the guest blog entry, there are no deadlines.  Please see this as an opportunity to highlight and promote the value of archaeology, specifically breaking down the barriers between access and availability – of both the archaeological information and of access to that information.
  • As such feel free to stylise the post how you see fit to see how effective you think it may be.  Think about the audience you are wanting to reach – the public, academic, or commercial, or a mix of these audiences?

Who Can Contribute to These Bones of Mine via a Guest Blog?

Anyone!  I’ve had feedback from a few non-archaeological or non-osteological minded friends now about this blog and they say that sometimes it can be a bit too academic, a bit too dense and special interest in scope.  This has always been the risk in trying to combine both my personal and profesional interests and my experience of academia itself.  However, I do also try to vary both the tone and approach depending on the topic of the blog post.  I realise I am reaching out to an audience that can be tiny – osteoarchaeology is not of primary concern to many people, nor is it a vital subject (as much as it pains me to say that).  I’d argue thought that it is diverse, that it is interesting and, finally, that it is relevant to the world at large (hence this blog).

As such I am interested in hearing from potential guest bloggers from all walks of life, not just those from academia.  If you are a volunteer, a commercial archaeologist, a undergraduate or early career academic, a member of the public with an interest in heritage and archaeology – if you have something to say then I will consider it.  I may not always accept, but I will be interested.  I am particularly interested in hearing from people who are on the margins of society (this includes those marginalised in the world of archaeology, be it in the commercial, academic and/or voluntary sectors).  I am particularly interested in hearing from early career archaeologists or osteoarchaeologists.  If you are struggling to get an archaeological PhD position, struggling to get on a masters course due to funding, struggling to get a position post-PhD and you have something to say about your research, your experience, your knowledge, then yes I am interested in hearing from you.

Do not be afraid to contact me.  The archaeological record does not belong to one person, one nation or one ideology.  It belongs to humanity, as a gift from humanity.

Final notes….

A final point is to note that I cannot, nor will not, offer any monetary incentive for a guest blog.  Furthermore a guest post entry will not be hosted here to advertise a commercial venture where profit is the only aim, nor will anonymous ghost authors be accepted (i.e. SEO spam).  This blog is pretty much free via the wonderful people of WordPress and I, for one, very much appreciate their hard work.  One final remark: in archaeology, especially in UK archaeology, your name is your currency and reputation.  Always be careful!

For previous guest blog entries and interviews please do take a minute and have a look at the growing collection here.  As always I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who have already contributed, many thanks!

P.S…I also do interview style blog entries where a conversation between myself and the interviewees is conducted via email.  If this interests you please feel free to contact me via a comment below or this blog’s email address on the About page.

P.P.S... It has been a while but I should (honestly!) have a few posts up soon.  Time seems to be passing quite regularly – a belated happy new year to the readers of this site!

Winter’s Wishes

25 Dec

A part of me can never resist wondering what people in the past used to listen to, or participate in, music wise, no matter from which period they came from.  How did music change within a person’s individual lifetime, how did it come to differ generationally, and what were there influences when it came to the composition of the music and their participation within it?

Perhaps now more than ever we as the audience can choose to listen to an almost infinite range of musical styles and genres, all (largely) accessible within easy reach of our fingers via the internet, television or radio mediums.  Alternatively we can choose to actively participate in creating music by (for example) joining the school band, getting friends together to start a rock band, and/or by participating in communal music at important points of the year (such as at birthdays, weddings, christenings, Christmas and New Year celebrations, etc).  Music can of course be made and produced by the individual or as a group activity, although it often includes an audience that watches and listens to the music produced and on occasion also join in with the performance.  As such music is a particularly important part of the artistic expression of human emotion, helping to transcend and bond together visual activities with story telling into a compelling (and somewhat intangible) mixture.

Can we, as archaeologists, excavate music though?  This is a topic I’ll be looking in 2015 as music plays a pretty important part in my own life and I am interested in focusing on the archaeological evidence for music in the past, particularly so in prehistory.

In the meantime I’ll leave you with a little festive compilation (and re-imagining) by the gravel throated singer and musician Mark Lanegan….

Ancient Water, Deep Life

18 Dec

I haven’t posted here as much as I have wanted to recently due to a combination of factors.  Firstly my laptop broke, secondly I’ve been busy at work now that the arm has healed up (x-rays of the fracture here), and thirdly I’ve also been conducting an osteoarchaeological side project.  (I’m also expertly, somewhat even academically, ignoring a slew of deadlines which are fast approaching for a few writing projects).  However this is just a quick post to say that there should be a few posts over the next month or so.  A few of these posts have been drafted earlier in the year and are half-finished, but it is hoped they’ll be finished shortly.

In the meantime, and in non-osteo news, I couldn’t help but notice two particularly interesting science articles on the BBC news website earlier today.  Both news articles are probably not new to geologists, oceanographers or geophysicists, but they have certainly piqued my interest.  There is evidence that biological life, in the form of microbes, have been found living at a depth of 2400m beneath the seabed off the coast of Japan.  Although the organisms are single-celled they do seem to manage to survive on a diet of hydrocarbon compounds whilst only expending low amounts of energy.  The microbes have been found in coring samples from an ancient coal bed system, which was drilled by the International Ocean Discovery program in 2012 in the Shimokita Peninsula, Japan.  Amazingly the drill was sent down through 1000m of seawater and through 2446m of rock under the seabed itself.  At such depths there is little water, limited nutrients, no light and no oxygen, yet life still survives.  Tantalizingly research still remains to be conducted on how the microbes came to be at this location and at this great depth.  Read the article here on the BBC.

The other science news article deals with water of a different order.  The world’s oldest deep water is present in a much greater volume than previously estimated.  Located within the Earth’s crust, where some of the oldest rock can also be found, ancient water has been sampled through boreholes and mines and the revised estimate of the volume suggests there is around 11 million cubic kilometres present in the crust.  The world’s oldest dated water has been located in present day Canada in a mine located 2.4km down into the crust, estimates put the water at around 1 billion to 2.5 billion years old (yup billion!).  The fact that the water is so old, and preserved so well, has surprised many and also revises the estimates of hydrogen produced on earth.  Previously it was thought that continental crust produced almost zero hydrogen compared to ocean crusts.  Again, the full article can be found here on the BBC (1).

Both news articles are the result of research coming from the currently ongoing 47th American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco (15th-19th December with a whooping 24,000 delegates!), which covers Earth and space science topics.  I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for further news as this is incredibly interesting as scientific research continues to extend our knowledge of where, and how, life not only survives but seemingly thrives.

Notes

(1).  The scientific literature has not been referenced in this post but I will update once this becomes either available and/or when I have the time.

19/12/15 Update

In other extreme life news the New Scientist magazine has reported the filming of a fish (a possible snailfish) at the depth of 8143m below the surface at the Marianas Trench, in the Pacific Ocean.  The Marianas Trench is the deepest part of the world’s oceans, and the filmed footage of the snailfish at this extreme depth highlights once again how life can survive in hostile environments.  The intense pressure at this depth places severe limitations on the function of muscle and nerve tissues, however snailfish are known to survive in such intense pressure environments with another species, Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis, having been studied and recorded at depths of 7703m before.

Interview with Liz Eastlake: Dental Delights and Estonian Escapades

13 Dec

Liz Eastlake is an osteoarchaeologist from Yorkshire and a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology from the University of Sheffield.  With a strong background in fieldwork Liz also regularly engages in public outreach and education on the topics of archaeology practice and human osteology, both in museums and in colleges around Yorkshire.  Her research interests lie in dental bioarchaeology and understanding the implications for markers of occupation in the human skeleton.  In her free time Liz can often be found at the York branch of Dr Sketchy’s anti-art art school.

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These Bones of Mine: Hello Liz and thank you very much for joining me here at These Bones of Mine. For those that do not have the pleasure of knowing you, please could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?

Liz:  Hi David, thanks for having me.  I am a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology program from the University of Sheffield and I am currently working for York Archaeological Trust at their archaeology museum DIG.  I also do the occasional spot of digging and skeleton box organisation with the Trust on a volunteer basis.  Further to this I teach human osteology workshops with the Workers’ Educational Association as part of their Digability Project.  To top it all off I also work providing disability support at the local university a few days a week!  Needless to say I have very little free time and run mostly on caffeine.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you are getting a full experience of living the archaeological life! What sparked the interest in studying human osteology and funerary archaeology, and what was the experience learning about skeletal anatomy like?

Liz:  I went on a rescue excavation in the grave yard of my village (Sheriff Hutton) church when I was 15 years old.  The church itself supposedly contains the remains of Richard III’s son, although I never really considered how blessed I was growing up in such a historic environment until much later, especially with recent events.  It was the discovery of the different elements of commingled human remains we were uncovering that fascinated me the most.

A number of skulls from the site still had small amounts of hair surviving due to the environment created by contact with copper shroud pins.  It really stuck with me that something so fragile could survive for so long beneath our feet.  Skeletal anatomy itself is a fascinating subject.  Most people are completely unaware of what goes on within their own bodies and so this aspect of archaeological study is pretty relevant and interesting to everyone.

TBOM: The rescue excavation must have been an informative introduction to the human skeleton in an archaeological context, especially considering the level of preservation present.  Your current job with York Archaeological Trust involves helping to present archaeology to the public, how have you found this and has it made you change the way you think about archaeology itself?

Liz:  Working with children in general is pretty hilarious, I love the way the mind works without any of the barriers that adults would normally put up.  In the context of archaeology a kid can really make you think about things in a different way with the answers they come up with, which is great as it is all so open to interpretation.  Often, I meet kids who are so excited to tell me all about what they have found in their own back garden or can’t wait to go home and dig up their parents flower beds after a visit (sorry parents!).  It’s so important to be inquisitive and that transfers to other aspects of life, including the process of growing up.

LIZDIG

‘I think it may be a bit late to help this person’. The chance to draw a in-situ skeleton is one of the many interactive exhibitions on offer at the DIG museum of archaeology in York. Image credit: Liz Eastlake.

What’s also great is that parents or grandparents come along thinking perhaps its a couple of hours to kill with the kids on a weekend or during the holidays, and they end up enjoying it more than the children do!  Few people realise they have an interest in something until you present the information and let it grow from there.  Archaeology is all about people – everyone has an interest in how we got to where we are today.  Most people I meet are at least amateur archaeologists in some way!

For me personally the job has given me a broader knowledge of archaeological periods, which is always beneficial when looking at specific burials.  Human osteology can be such a narrow field of study, for example when I look at teeth, which is such a tiny area, you even begin to ignore the rest of that same skeleton because there is so much to focus on when studying teeth alone.  Context is everything.  Before starting with the York Archaeological Trust I knew embarrassingly little about the archaeology of York itself.  It is easy to take things you have seen so often for granted, especially when you grow up with all this old stuff around you as you think nothing of it.  I definitely appreciate York more now than I ever have before and have the best time doing what I do.

TBOM: That is fascinating to hear about how interested children and adults become when presented with what archaeology actually is and how their experiences differ.  As previously mentioned you’ve also been working with the Workers’ Educational Association in South Yorkshire, helping to lead and present classes on human skeletal anatomy.  How have you found the audience’s reaction and participation in such activities?   

Liz:  The reactions are quite mixed.  Most participants are fascinated with how the body works.  Physical demonstrations of how bony articulations work and comparing them to the movements they can make in their own bodies helps bridge the gap between us and pile of bones.  It can be hard to think of a skeleton as a once living, fully fleshed person like ourselves.

A few participants have felt uneasy about the bones, despite the knowledge that the skeleton I bring is just an accurate plastic copy.  I think this mostly comes from the portrayal of bones and death in the media.  I saw a really interesting talk by Campbell Price at Manchester Museum a while ago that talked about how skeletons and mummies especially are portrayed alongside werewolves and vampires and it is not surprising that people, especially children (but not always), ask ‘is it real?’ when faced with a preserved Egyptian mummy in a museum.  A feeling of unease might also come from a fear of death itself and the uncertainty it brings.  This is a completely understandable feeling but I think it is important to try to break this fear down in an educational setting and challenge misconceptions about what happens to our bodies after we die.

TBOM: As well as helping to de-mystify the human skeleton for the public, you’ve also presented your MSc dissertation research on the study of the dentition of two 18th and 19th century populations from northern England at a recent Elmet Archaeology talk.  What was your research about and how did you come to focus on teeth specifically?

Liz:  I seem to have focused on teeth since I first became interested in human osteology.  I find them fascinating because they look pretty much the same in death as they do in life.  There is such a wealth of information you can gain about people’s lives in the past by studying dentition.  I have focused on what they can tell me about the general health of the population I’m studying and also whether they can give an indication of individual occupation.  At some point everyone has grasped something between their teeth, like house keys for example, when your hands are full.  Repeated use of the teeth as a third hand can leave tell-tale marks on the tooth surface, for example basketry weaving or even sewing; snapping a thread between the incisors.

My dissertation topic focused on identifying occupation from the teeth of two Victorian era cemetery populations, one of high status individuals from the St Bride’s assemblage in London and the other of low status people from Coronation Street assemblage in South Shields, northern England.  Social status for these two sites was known from written records, but the difference was also apparent from the teeth.  A number of individuals from the high status group had solid gold dentures and fillings, as well as other evidence for dental intervention and aid.  Those from the low status site had no clear evidence for dental work by a professional and would have likely extracted a troublesome tooth themselves or had a similarly untrained acquaintance do it for them.  These individuals also had some quite extreme dental wear patterns indicative of use of the teeth for grasping and pulling materials within their mouths. Unlike the high status site which had only one example of an older adult female with grooved patterns of wear in her anterior dentition, perhaps from snapping threads whilst sewing.

To most people it can be quite unsettling to envisage the pain a large abscess or gross caries would have caused a living person hundreds of years ago.  However, the information that can be gained through the study of teeth is so extensive and informative about past populations, that it is a fascinating area of osteological analysis, which I hope to pick up again by completing a PhD in the future.

TBOM:  That sounds like a fascinating comparative study on Victorian populations.  So as well educating the public on the value of archaeology and human osteology and as well as conducting original research, you have also recently been excavating an Iron Age site in Estonia.  How did that come about and what were your experiences there like?

Liz:  A friend of mine from my masters course at Sheffield, Anu Kivirüüt, invited me along to the excavation she was running with her department at the University of Tartu.  It was a fantastic couple of weeks of perfect hot weather and digging in the shade.  I particularly enjoyed the excavation methods employed in Estonia which are so different to the strict regulations in the U, although I discuss this more at Anu’s site here.

The excavation was on the Aakre Kivivare tarand-grave site, which are Iron Age in date.  This type of grave sites are communal burial places with rectangular above-ground stone wall enclosures, which are often labelled and described as  tarands-graves.  When these graves first appeared on the landscape in the Pre-Roman Iron Age (around 500 BC – AD 50), they contained only inhumation burials and one rectangular enclosure was assigned for one body.  However, over time, cremation became a more frequently recorded way of disposing of the dead and the subsequent cremated bones and most of the artefacts were scattered in the tarand-area, mostly inside but also outside of the walls (see more information here on this ongoing project).

The entire site was recorded using digital photography, in a technique called photogrammetry, and converted into a 3D model after each layer of soil and stones was removed.  This was a great time-saving method and the 3D model really helped visualize the site layers.  Unfortunately, very little bone, cremated or otherwise was recovered from the site.  However, there were numerous beautifully preserved brooches of different typologies, a selection of which can be viewed here.

As well as a fantastic excavation there was also opportunities to explore other nearby archaeological and cultural sites, taste the great food, swim in the lakes and enjoy a sauna (including being whipped with birch bark – it is good for you!)

TBOM:  Swimming in the lake sounds quite beautiful, but if I ever head to Estonia I think I’ll avoid the birch whipping!  The use of technology to quickly record the site at Aakre Kivivare certainly sounds innovative and extremely useful, please do let me know how the excavations and research turn out.  In conclusion, though, it is clear you have managed to gain a lot of experience in the various aspects that archaeological life has to offer.  Do you have any advice to the next crop of archaeologists and, finally, what are your plans for the future?

Liz:  I would say volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!  Getting involved with excavations as well as post-ex stuff before starting at University, during your course and over summer holidays shows you are keen and can make you lots of useful connections for the future.  Then when you are qualified, especially in a specialised area of the profession, try to never work for free again (chuckle)!

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One happy skeleton. Drawing bones in-situ at YAT’s DIG museum helps children (and adults) understand the importance of context in archaeology. Image Credit: Liz Eastlake.

I would love to do a PhD in some aspect of dental anthropology at some point in the future, as well as getting more experience in the commercial side of archaeology.  I think it is important to see things from start to finish where possible, as context is everything and it can be easy to detach a single skeleton from its surroundings and consider it individually.  However, this does not benefit our view of the past.  Working in the field will also mean a chance to experience all aspects of archaeology and not just bones.

But before I get PhD crazed I am going travelling around the world, admiring old things and rock climbing (but mostly trying not to be an obnoxious cliche for the benefit of people who follow me on social media!).

TBOM: Thanks for the advice Liz and I hope you enjoy your travels!  

Further Information

  • Head to York Archaeological Trust’s portal to learn more about their museums and archaeological here.  If you are an interested member of the public, an archaeological student or simply want to learn about archaeological artefacts YAT always welcome volunteers.
  • Learn more about Elmet Archaeology’s upcoming lectures and annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day here.  Elmet participate in both commercial and community archaeological projects and are always active in education outreach.  Check out some of their courses for 2015 here.
  • The Workers’ Education Association’s are always actively promoting education outreach in a variety of locations and involving a wide range of subjects.  As a part of the ongoing Show Us Your Research! project by the universities of Coimbra and Algrave, Portugal,  Beauchamp and Thorpe (2014) have produced an assessment of WEA’s ongoing inclusive archaeology education project.  Read the PDF summing up their research on the benefits and outcomes so far of the inclusive archaeology project for free here.
  • Head over to the Aakre Kivivare blog site to learn more about the fascinating finds from this Estonian Iron Age site (site can be translated).  Liz has also produced a post on her experiences from the 2014 summer excavations which can be read here.

A Brief Photo Essay: Lithic Lab at Bradford

4 Dec

As you can probably tell from a previous post I recently spent a day in Bradford catching up my good friend Natalie Atkinson, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.  Natalie is currently researching microwear on lithics, investigating new ways in which to quantify and record data as a part of the Fragmented Heritage project (more on that below).  Whilst I was there I managed to take a few brief photographs of the lithic lab with my trusted Pentax s1a camera loaded with black and white 35mm film, which will be the focus of this entry with Natalie kindly modelling.  Although this post won’t be focused on bioarchaeology, it is pertinent to briefly mention it here as Bradford has, and continues, to play a vital role in the research and teaching of bioarchaelogy in the UK.

Initially there was a course that ran every 2 years at UCL during the 1980s that covered the study of archaeological human remains, taught by Don Brothwell, and a course at the University of Sheffield, run by Dr Judson Chesterman (the former is now the MSc in Skeletal and Dental Bioarchaeology run by Professors Simon Hillson and Tony Waldron).  In 1990 the universities of Bradford and Sheffield started to run a joint course (MSc Osteology, Palaeopathology and Funerary Archaeology).  This was initiated and taught by Professor Keith Manchester, alongside Professor Charlotte Roberts, the latter now at Durham University and running an MSc in Palaeopathology.  The course ran from 1990-1999, with Bradford now running the MSc in Osteology and Palaeopathology, and Sheffield running a course in Osteology and Funerary Archaeology.  The joint course has formed the basis for the development of many UK university masters courses on archaeological human remains.

I should perhaps also admit to a twinge of osteology envy here as the technical facilities and osteological reference collections at Bradford is perhaps one of the best in the UK, ranging, as they do, from the ability to analyse stable light isotopes on-site in a dedicated lab, 3D scan using a FARO laser, stock an extensive traditional and digital radiography equipment and x-ray library, and have the facilities for the carrying out of microscopy research, histological sampling and analysis.  Alongside this the department also hosts a human skeletal reference collection spanning from the 19th century to the Neolithic period.  (For further information on the history of bioarchaeology in the UK see Roberts 2006 & Roberts 2012 below).

But I digress!  This post is not about bones, it is about stones, about the physical artefacts produced and crafted by Homo sapiens and our ancestral hominins over hundreds of thousands of years, indeed millions of years.  It is also about a department of archaeology that specialises in the scientific study of the archaeological record.  Indeed it was this department that first introduced me to the joys of archaeology as a post-college but pre-university archaeology student-to-be.  It was here on the many itinerant trips to visit friends from home that I became aware of the great breadth and depth of the archaeological world.  Returning to it again reminded me of the sheer size of the department and of the many specialisms, and specialists, within archaeological science that the department is home to.

But this is a brief introduction of the lithics laboratory at the university rather than the department or of lithics themselves (although see some of the core texts such as Andrefsky 2005 & Keeley 1980 for detailed introductions to studying lithics).  It is pertinent to point out here that physical objects can also be considered to have lifespans, where, with the increased age of an object, comes the increased possibility of a extrinsic mishap and intrinsic fragility, i.e. accidents and/or breakages due to the deteriotation of the material used to construct the object.  As Crews (2003) mentions in his book on human senescence objects do not age biologically as plants or animals do, but they do age with use and wear.  This is highlighted when Crews (2003: 34) discusses this in reference to the lifespan of glass test tubes as researched in Medawar’s 1946 wear-and-tear theory, where it is possible to understand likely lifespans of objects based on observation and material studies.  This is an important point as artefacts in the archaeological record likely had a finite life, much as objects do today, such as T.V’s which can become quickly out of date or obsolete as digital technology changes and improves.

Lithics, or stone chipped tools, are often produced using flint or chert material and are knapped from source material (such as naturally occuring flint nodules or mines) to produce a wide variety of tools.  Perhaps some of the most immediate visual tools that are recognisible include the mighty handaxes seen in the Upper and Lower Paloaelithic periods down to the specialised microlithics of the Mesolithic and beyond.  These can of course have a range of different applications depending on the context of their use.  Lithics can also be retouched and reused as necessary, can be the product of mass produce or can be singular one-off productions (Andrefsky Jr 2005).  Use-wear analysis is a major academic and commercial focus today in understanding the role that lithics have played over their lifespans, from original use to final deposition within the archaeological record.  As such this mini photo essay presents the lithic lab at Bradford, home to this literal cutting edge technology.

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Remains of the day. Archaeologists can largely be found at one of three places: excavating in the field, typing in front of a computer or analysing in the laboratory. This is the lithics laboratory at the Department of Archaeological Science at the University of Bradford. It is a place where time spans hundreds of thousands of years as Neolithic flints mix with Palaeolithic handaxes, where the debitage of modern reconstructions lay in buckets beneath the technical knapping manuals.  Lithic analysis involves being able to recognise, re-piece and understand the production of lithic flakes from flint or chert nodules. The material produced can be as varied as projectile points, scrapers, burins or handaxes, depending on the aim of the original knapper. Lithics, as in the above photograph, are often stored securely and safely in archives accessible to specialists , museums and researchers, sometimes heading out for public display. Lithics survive particularly well in the archaeological and palaeontological record due to the robust material and natural composition.

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Analysing the physical artefacts of the past. Natalie takes a look at the fracture patterns and use  wear on one of the many lithics that the lab at Bradford holds in its store. It is important that, as well as the original lithics spanning many different period sites, that the researchers can carry out experimental work by knapping their own flint examples to replicate the methods that our ancestors used.  As a researcher on the Fragmented Heritage project Natalie will be investigating the tool use, production and object manipulation using imaging and analysing techniques.  This will involve the use of  the latest technology such as Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), laser scanning, CT scanning and 3D microscopy to help quantify use-wear analysis amongst other aims.  The doctoral project is partly experimental, but will also possibly use existing lithic assemblages from Spain, England, Kenya and Jordan from the Palaeolithic periods to investigate new methodologies in identifying and quantifying use wear.

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Projecting the past.  Natalie’s part in the Fragmented Heritage project is just one facet in this international research project. A second doctoral position will be looking at the post-depositional movement of archaeological remains, helping to implement new and existing methodologies in understanding the lithic microwear involved in identifying post-depositional signatures.  The Fragmented Heritage project is looking to improve the recording the scale and nature of fragmented remains in archaeological contexts, involving the use of new landscape survey technology to help highlight new hominid sites.  The partners of the project also include the Home Office (for forensic applications), Citizen Science Alliance , the National Physical Laboratory (measurement and materials science laboratory), Science Museum Group, and Historic Scotland.  The core project staff, from the University of Bradford, are Dr Randolph Donahue (lithic microwear), Dr Adrian Evans (quantification in lithic functional studies), and Dr Andrew Wilson (digitisation technology).

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An important part of any scientific research is the ability to document, describe and understand the implications of your research.  However you also have to be able to defend your research and accept or challenge new interpretations as necessary.  Archaeology may be stuck in the past but revolutions, both in the methods and use of new technology, and in the actual archaeological, or palaeoanthropological, records are coming thick and fast.  Researchers will come and go, but the artefacts and contextual information will, if stored correctly and safely, always be available to analyse and interpret using innovative methods to maximize the information  that archaeological sites artefacts hold.

This has been a brief foray into the world of lithic research at the University of Bradford but it has been eye-opening journey for me.  As an osteoarchaeologist I admit that I can sometimes become too biased towards the skeletal remains found in the archaeologically record, that I wonder what that person saw, felt and did in their lifetimes, that I can forget we have such a vast catalogue of physical artefacts stored at universities, institutions, museums and units across the world.

It is these artefacts that document the technology of previous populations – of how the individuals and populations adapted, responded and lived in their environments during their lifetime.  The study of these artefacts clearly benefit from new technological approaches, but they also benefit from holistic approaches and multidisciplinary influenced projects.  Perhaps most of all they benefit from researchers coming and going, sitting silently in their storage boxes waiting for their chance to tell their story of their lives, both during active use and deposition into the archaeological record.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr Adrian Evans for the permission to post the photographs here that are of the Lithic Lab at the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.  Thanks also to Professor Charlotte Roberts for clarification on the history of bioarchaelogy in the UK.

Further Information

  • Further information on the Department for Archaeological Sciences, a part of the Faculty of Life Sciences, at the University of Bradford can be found here.  More detailed information on the two main core research strands (social and biological identities and archaeological sciences) can be found here.
  • Head over to lithic specialist Spencer Carter’s Blog at Microburin to learn about the identification and use of microlithics in the Mesolithic period (particularly in northern England).  Spencer has dedicated a few entries on the blog discussing his amalgamated methodology for processing lithics from archaeological sites and his set up for the photography of lithics to archaeological publication standard, which are very handy.
  • Check out Hazelnut Relations, a blog ran by archaeological researcher Marcel Cornelissen, to learn about studying lithics and use-wear analysis in a laboratory setting, and also to read about the author’s research into the European Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.  Marcel is also particularly keen on fieldwork so the blog entries are particularly interesting as they combine the joy of the field and the lab together.

Bibliography

Andrefsky Jr, W. 2005. Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crews, D. E. 2003. Human Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keeley, L. H. 1980. Experimental Determination of Stone Tool Uses: A Microwear Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, C.A. 2006. A View from Afar: Bioarchaeology in Britain. In: Buikstra, J. & Beck, L. A. (eds) Bioarchaeology: Contextual Analysis of Human Remains.  London: Elsevier. pp. 417-439. (Open Access).

Roberts, C. 2012. History of the Development of Palaeopathology in the United Kingdom (UK). In: Buikstra, J. & Roberts, C. (eds.) The Global History of Palaeopathology: Pioneers and Prospects. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 568-579. (Open Access).

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