Archive | March, 2011

Flesh On The Bones

29 Mar

I apologise for not updating in a while.  I have been busy volunteering in York for YAT, whilst also starting to volunteer for a local council in the Cultural Services department (covering museums, collections, art galleries & education outreach).  Over the past few weeks at YAT I have had the chance to get my hands on a few of the skeletal remains, recently dug up from the ongoing Hungate site.  This included the cleaning of two Roman era skulls, of various mixed in femora (thighs) and humerii (upper arm bones), and studying a number of cleaned skulls alongside getting the chance to lay out a human skeleton.

Differences between femur & humerus elements

I am always struck by how gracile the human skeleton is, especially compared the faunal remains often found on archaeological sites.  In the first instance of seeing actual human bones, I’ll never forget remembering how small they seemed.  Of course, as osteoarchaeologists, we have to put the flesh back on the bones so to speak, to help tease out the information contained within the skeleton.  Yet, first we must know what we are dealing with.  The two elements above are quite distinctive in their size and robusticity.

As I cleaned the various bits and bobs of the skulls and bones, it was hard to remember that they came from a society and culture very different to the one I am living in now.  From the northern fringes of the late Roman Empire in the city of Eboracum, these bones had lain mostly undisturbed (apart from some Viking & Medieval action).  They had survived due to good soil preservation whilst the Empire they knew crumbled.  Everything they had once known has since become lost or amalgamated as invaders and settlers, cultures and societies, came and went.   As I cleaned each bone in isolation, in my white laboratory shirt and blue gloved hands, the archaeologists outside where digging through the layers and contexts, unearthing and freeing the remains.  This was a part of the process of archaeology- planning, researching, excavating, finding, documenting, cleaning, labelling, storing then onto investigating and researching.  Each step is vital and may uncover new things. 

When you are holding a persons earthly remains in your hands, its hard not to think what that person may have seen, heard and felt during their lifetime.  How different was this city to them?  Who had they loved?  What conditions did they live in?  What job did they have?  What relationship did they have to the other people found nearby? How and why did they die?

By holding a mandible (lower jawbone) in my hand, seeing the teeth in their sockets, and observing any tooth wear or loss, you can help to start to visualise the person before you.  If you are lucky and you have most of the skeletal elements preserved, you can start to observe sex and age characteristics of the person.  Studying the entire skeleton can highlight the height as well as the rough size of the human before you.  By observing any abnormalities or pathologies present you can start to get a feel for the person in front of the bones.  If you are truly lucky, you may get to study the skeleton within a population, and pick up on familiar traits within a selection.  Indeed, you can start to put flesh back on these bones. 

Lateral Mandible, Note The Muscle Attachment Points

It is the inquisitive nature of the archaeologist in the study of human material remains that they keep asking questions.  This is a very exciting time to be involved with, and interested in, thee study of human remains from archaeological sites.  Sites such as the Towton battle ground, from the War of the Roses in 1461 in England, are being excavated once again to see if there are any further remains of the estimated 28,000 victims of that Palm Sunday battle.  A osteological report on a clutch of the skeletons discovered in 1996 can be found here (carried out by Malin Holst, of York Osteoarchaeology).  The analysis of the remains show the male combatants to be from a wide age range, and a wide social range.  A further selection of the skeletons also show just how vicious and violent some of the wounds were. 

In a later post I will include some of my own research into how human osteology can help answer some of the questions regarding the Mesolithic-Neolithic agricultural change by studying European cultures.

Alongside general posts expect some posts detailing the vertebrae, skull, ribs, pelvic, arm, leg, foot and hand elements.  Specific areas in human osteology such as the use of chemical analysis (radiocarbon dating & stable isotope dietary data), metric and non-metric traits, lab procedures, ethics and palaeopathologies will also be discussed later on.

To end this post, have a beautiful song.

‘Removing Bodies From Display Is Nonsense’ New Scientist Article By Søren Holm 16/04/11.

19 Mar

Here is the link to the article in the New Scientist magazine regarding the display of human remains in museums, and as used for scientific study.  I discussed the matter from a British archaeological perspective in an earlier blog , but as this is the first article outside of a dedicated archaeological magazine that I have come across, I copy and paste the article in full below:

Removing Bodies From Display is Nonsense’ By Søren Holm

The removal of long-dead human bodies from view in museums for reburial is based on a warped notion of respect

WHEN I was 10 years old I saw the mummified body of the 4th Earl of Bothwell, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, on display in a church in Fårevejle, Denmark, during a school trip. I still have a clear memory of that day as it kick-started my interest in Scottish history. Some years later the body was removed from public display at the request of Bothwell’s descendants, and recently there have been calls for its repatriation to Scotland.

The Earl of Bothwell’s body isn’t the only troublesome human body around. There is increasing pressure in many countries to remove bodies from public displays in museums or from archaeological laboratories in order to repatriate them to their place of origin for reburial.

In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) gave tribes extensive rights to demand repatriation of human remains that were culturally affiliated to their group. A 2010 amendment to the NAGPRA regulations extended these rights to culturally unaffiliated remains as long as these were found on tribal lands or areas of aboriginal occupation. US museums will now have to relinquish control of many more scientifically important human remains to tribal groups.

In the UK, the Ministry of Justice issued a statement in 2008 stating that human remains exhumed during archaeological excavations must be reburied within two years. Archaeologists can apply for the time limit to be extended, but nevertheless there is an expectation that all human remains found by archaeologists will eventually be reburied, thus ending any scientific use.

Does all of this official concern for long-dead bodies make ethical sense?

No one disputes that the bodies of the dead should be treated with respect and in a dignified manner. And no one disputes that bodies of indigenous people have often been removed from their place of burial in ways that resemble theft.

If a body is identified, like that of the Earl of Bothwell, there is no question of whether it should be treated with respect and dignity. What we do to Bothwell’s body can affect his reputation, and if we treat it in an undignified manner it may also harm his living descendants.

But most bodies of interest to archaeology are anonymous. If they become identified it is only through the hard work of archaeologists. This means that there is no reputation to affect and no descendants to harm. Issues of respect and dignity do not disappear, but they take on a different meaning.

For a body that was not stolen from an indigenous group the relevant question becomes: “Are any of the things we are doing to this body showing a lack of respect?” We can only answer this question based on our own understanding of respect. It is easy to come up with examples of actions that show a lack of respect, such as playing football with a skull. But none of these examples relate even remotely to the kinds of scientific exploration archaeologists perform, or to what goes on in modern museums.

It is not in any obvious sense disrespectful to display a skeleton of someone long dead, if the display has a valid purpose. After all, in Catholic countries the display of relics, often said to be bones of the saints, is still commonplace.

In this context it is important to note that the issue of consent is largely irrelevant. The long dead cannot consent to be excavated, studied and displayed, but neither can they consent to be removed from their graves to make room for roads and houses. If we relied on their consent we would be living in a static society.

What, then, about a stolen indigenous body? Here we again need to distinguish between identified and anonymous bodies. Descendants may have a strong claim to have their “grandmother” repatriated, but it is much less obvious that a culturally affiliated group’s claim for repatriation of an anonymous body is of the same strength.

What’s more, the anonymous body is part of many histories, not just the history of the group it originally belonged to. In 2009, the decapitated skeletons of 51 young Viking men were discovered in a mass grave near Weymouth, UK, during road works. They are part of both British and Scandinavian history. Even if we could determine exactly where in Scandinavia they came from 1000 years ago, a claim to have them repatriated seems without foundation.

The ethical argument becomes even more problematic when we are discussing the removal of a body from scientific exploration, whether for reburial or otherwise. The production of scientific knowledge is a very significant social good and our understanding of the past relies on the ability to analyse and re-analyse a number of different archaeological remains. The range of techniques for analysis change continually and re-analysis of old remains can often lead to significant changes in the way we understand history.

Removing the possibility of re-analysis by reburial or other means therefore has very significant and real costs. Unless it can be shown that reburial is necessary in order to prevent even greater harm or loss, or perhaps to rectify some great historical wrong, reburial cannot be justified. This means that reburial is only very rarely justified, and that it is undoubtedly unjustified in cases where archaeologists excavate long-dead, anonymous bodies.

Just as our forebears drew religious comfort from the bones of the saints, without these saints ever having consented to this use of their bones, we can legitimately draw scientific knowledge from the bones of our forebears.

Søren Holm is a professor of bioethics and director of the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, UK. He is also a part-time professor of medical ethics at the Centre for Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Norway.

The comments section is quite revealing towards modern attitudes to views about the modern body.  A recent book detailing recent changes and reviews towards human displays in public is also enlightening (Short review here).  The book, from Dr Tiffany Jenkins from the LSE, is very revealing regarding the current state of human remains in British museums:

“Dr Jenkins commented: ‘The profession is over-reacting to the claims of small minority groups – such as the Pagan organization Honoring the Ancient Dead. Curiously, the profession do not take into account the feelings of other Pagan groups who advocate the use of human remains in research and display, such as Pagans for Archaeology. This reflects the unease within the sector with researching and displaying human remains.

‘Most remarkable of all is that human remains of all ages, and which are not the subject of claims-making by any community group, have become subject to concerns about their handling, display and storage, expressed by influential members of the museum profession.

‘This is not driven by public demand, but professional insecurity. Unfortunately it will penalise the millions of people who enjoy learning from the display of human remains. It will also impact detrimentally on the research environment, making it more difficult to study this important material.”

What are your thoughts about the displays of human archaeological material being displayed to the public?  Is there much difference between that and the display of the ‘plastinated’ bodies of Body Worlds so championed by Gunther Von Hagens?  Shouldn’t there be a place in the world for education about human anatomy and biology which can engage with the public?  This is an emotional debate, one which has had many legal rammifcations throughout various countries in the dealing with and public viewing of the dead; both from archaeological samples and mummified remains (the most famous example being Vladimir Lenin).  The French historian Philippe Arés (a summary of his work is written here), in particular, invigorated the study of death from an historical viewpoint.  His book, Western Attitudes Towards Death, has highlighted trends in attitudes towards death from the early mediveal period.  It is a good starting point in trying to understand how we have arrived at where we are today.

I shall leave it here for now, but a later post will deal with anthropological investigations and changing cultural viewpoints of the dying and the dead.  I will also dicuss viewpoints from various cultures about how a body is used after death.

I reiterate that the above article, copied in full, is from the current New Scientist magazine, and as such the author (Søren Holm) should be recognised as the writer of the piece, and quoted as such.


Professor Søren Holm’s article is located here:

The review about Dr Tiffany Jenkins’ book is here:

Access And Issues In Archaeology

18 Mar

In between the guest blogs on cannibalism by Kate Brown, I have stumbled across this website called Past Horizons– related to the Past Horizons magazine.  As the site deals with various facets of archaeology, it is a veritable treasure trove of information.  Ranging from excavations, cultural practises and opinion pieces (not to mention detailing the best tools for arch jobs!), this multimedia website has something for everyone.  Two articles aroused my interest.

Katy Meyers article on Open Access Archaeology provides interesting information on how archaeology is presented across the medium of the world-wide web.  As a subscriber to the British Archaeology magazines, I notice they  too have a column detailing new and interesting websites related to heritage and archaeology.  The exploitation of the internet as a place to spread (mostly free) information about heritage & archaeology has led to a burgeoning amount of websites available, both to the common public and the academic researcher.  Interactive sites, such as the one mentioned in the article on Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest, commonly include vast databases on archaeological sites.  These often include information on the structures present, artefacts found, cultures present, detailed maps, excavation histories at the sites and everything in between.  This is vitally important in the study of archaeological sites as context and providence is everything.  This can only be a good thing.

As Meyers concludes her article, she states that –

We have a responsibility to make our data available to scholarly, public and online communities, preserve it in a format accessible to future researchers, and do so in a way that faithfully represents the real nature of our data. And it is through this pathway that we can further knowledge of our past“.
Katy Meyers informative blog on Mortuary and Bioarchaeology can be found at Bones Don’t Lie.

Further to this, Jane Woodcock also has an article on the website detailing the Catch 22 situation of recent graduates gaining archaeological field experience.  Jane notes that –

Many people, including some undergraduates studying archaeology, are under the impression that once you have a degree qualification you are employable as a field archaeologist. In practice, however, most commercial employers require a minimum of 3-6 months’ on-site experience before they consider offering you a job. A clean driving licence and a CSCS card will put you further up the list. Unfortunately, most archaeology degrees only require you to do very little field work to pass, usually 2 weeks or less”.
As is often the case with access to archaeological jobs, you need experience of excavation before a unit or company will take you on.  You can gain experience by attending field schools or excavations; however these often cost money, sometimes a lot of money.  How can you afford to attend courses and excavations with (often) little or next to no money to gain experience to get an often low paid job in archaeology?  As it is often said, you do not enter the archaeology profession for money, but for the passion you have for the subject!
It pays to be in touch with local archaeological units and societies in your area, as well as any universities or academic departments nearby.  Often, if the unit is funded by the local council, community digs can be free to attend and participate in.  It makes sense to try to get a broad range of experience too.  From experiance of watching briefs and desk based studies at sites and monuments records office, to commercial watching briefs & full scales excavation with units.  It also pays to bear in mind the sheer range of jobs and applications available in the archaeological sector.  From being a GIS savvy techno wizard to studying faunal or flora remains, investigating human remains or living the life aquatic with maritime archaeolog; there are a broad range of options available.
Although this blog deals specifically with human osteology, it also deals within the wider world of archaeology, anthropology and heritage.  This is because nothing can be seen in isolation.  Indeed, as in archaeological excavation, context is everything.

Guest Blog: ‘Cannibalism In Archaeology Part 1: Recognition and Debate’ by Kate Brown.

12 Mar

Kate Brown is a current archaeological undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research interests include Osteology, Zooarchaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, and Scandinavian archaeology alongside the study of funerary rituals in human culture.


Cannibalism in Archaeology

Cannibalism is generally defined as the conspecific consumption of human flesh (White 1992). It is often used to support perceptions of savagery or primitiveness; however, the reasons for cannibalistic activity are often complex, and indicative of a basis in more than simply hunger, with evidence for this based across a long time period around the world (Hogg 1958).

A Still From Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

There are two major classifications of cannibalism; exocannibalism, the eating of persons outside the cultural or social group, and endocannibalism, where members within the social or cultural group are consumed by other members (White 1992). These can further be broken down into the respective reasons behind the act of cannibalism, or the method of consumption:

Survival cannibalism – Also referred to as obligatory or emergency ration cannibalism. Actual or perceived starvation leads to cannibalistic consumption.

Aggressive cannibalism – Consumption of enemies. Can be interpreted as a form of reveng

Affectionate cannibalism – Consumption of friends or relatives. Thought to ‘keep them close’.

Ritual cannibalism – Also known as ceremonial cannibalism. The consumption of human flesh as a part of spiritual belief or ritual undertaking.

Gastronomic cannibalism – Cases of cannibalism that are neither starvation nor ritually motivated.

Auto-cannibalism – self consumption

How is it Recognised?


Hammerstone abrasions from impact (White 1992, 152)

In an archaeological context, cannibalism can be very difficult to recognise. A majority of the following archaeological standards must be met to prove the presence of cannibalistic consumption at a site (Villa et al. 1986):

–          Skull modification in order to expose the brain

–          Facial mutilation

–          Evidence of cooking, including burnt bone and fragment end polishing, which is a result of cooking in course  ceramic pots

–          Dismemberment or butchery marks. Similar to that seen on animal remains on the site if present

–          Pattern of missing elements. Post processing discard again similar to the treatment of animal bones if present

–          Green-stick splintering of long bones. This facilitates the extraction and consumption of bone marrow, which is highly nutritious

–          Cut marks

–          Bone breakage

–          Anvil and hammerstone abrasions

–          A significant number of missing vertebrae

Shaft breakage types (White 1992, 135)   Cutmarks on front of skull (White 1992, 170)

The Cannibalism Debate

When discussing cannibalism, the argument against such interpretations cannot be ignored. As well as the evidence and interpretations supporting cannibalism, there are, as always, other schools of thought.  Because archaeological evidence of cannibalistic activity is so varied and often circumstantial, this has been used to discredit any interpretations of cannibalism. Paul Bahn (1990) is well known for his work on cannibalism, and scepticism of interpretations of such activity at a site. Even with a protein only occurring in humans being found in a human coprolite at the Anasazi site of Mancos, in the South West of the USA (Whittell 1998), Bahn remains unconvinced.

Most opposition stems from the reliability of the evidence, both archaeological and ethnohistorical.

Cannibalism in Brazil described by Hans Staden (1557)

Because it is so circumstantial and subject to interpretation, it can be seen as inaccurate to derive interpretations of cannibalism from. Especially in ethnohistorical accounts of cannibalism, prejudices and the desire to promote themselves above ‘savages’ are relatively clear, and this is used to discredit them as an archaeological source (Arens 1979). Some have argued that this completely removes them from being used in terms of research into cannibalism, because such biases could have caused them to fabricate stories of the natives in order to elevate themselves above them. However, even though they may be subject to personal views and opinions, they are still a valid description of cannibalistic activities.

Recent research may yet put to rest the constant debate around cannibalism in archaeology. Hannah Koon (2003) of York University has conducted extensive research on the effects that cooking can have on bones, and how this can be visible in the archaeological record.

What began as research into heat induced morphological changes in bone collagen based on earlier research by Jane Richter (1986) has become one of the most high profile advancements in the cannibalism debate in recent years. Although the initial use of her work was in forensics, and not archaeological, it has been demonstrated to be particularly important in the debate surrounding cannibalism. In observing that the collagen structure of bones changes and deteriorates when heated, or more specifically boiled, it can be inferred within reasonable doubt that cannibalism must happen in at least some cases, as the cooking of human remains is extremely unlikely unless there is the intent of consumption.

Analysis using this new technique is currently being carried out on some of the human remains that have previously been recovered from Herxheim, a site in Germany with evidence of what has been interpreted as cannibalistic consumption (Boulestin et al. 2009), which I will cover in more detail in a later post. However, to my knowledge the results of this analysis is as of yet unpublished.

The Problem With Cannibalism

The main problem surrounding the interpretation of any cannibalistic consumption is that it is such a sensational subject, both within archaeology and outside it. There is the significant potential for any modern attitudes, semantics and social constructions we have created around the word cannibalism to affect any interpretations and research based around it. The current approach regarding and leading to conclusions of cannibalism can be quite restrictive and leading, with judgements based on associated archaeological interpretations as well as ethnohistoric accounts being used to both prove and disprove instances of cannibalism (White 1992). Following this approach can lead to the exclusion of many of the necessary indicative features of cannibalism, because under such an approach they become inconsistent with such instances.

Ideally, sites with suspected episodes of cannibalism should be approached on an individual basis, which would ensure an objective approach to something that can differ so dramatically across the archaeological record both in manifestation and survival of evidence.

Part two can be found here.


Arens, W. 1979. The Man-Eating Myth. Oxford: University Press

Bahn, P. 1990. Eating People Is Wrong. Nature 348.

Boulestin, B., Zeeb-Lanz, A., Jeunesse, C., Haack, F., Arbogast, R., Denaire, A. 2009. Mass Cannibalism in the Linear Pottery Culture at Herxheim. Antiquity 83

Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. Online image available at last accessed 12th March 2011

Cannibalism in brazil described by Hans Staden. 1557. Online image available at last accessed 12th March 2011

Hogg, G. 1958. Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice. London: Hale.

Koon, H., Nicholson, R., Collins, M. 2003. A practical approach to the identification of low temperature heated bone using TEM. Journal of Archaeological Science 30, 11

Richter, J. 1986. Experimental study of heat induced morphological changes in fish bone collagen. Journal of Archaeological Science 13, 5

White, T.D. 1992. Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTUMR-2346. Princeton: University Press

Whittell, G. 1998. Tell-tale protein exposes truth about cannibals. The Times 8th November 1998.

Villa, P., Bouville, C., Courtin, J., Helmer, D., Mahieu, E., Shipman, P., Belluomini, G., Branca, M. 1986. Cannibalism in the Neolithic. Science 233

All The Different ‘ologies’…

12 Mar

Here in my first post I described what human osteology is and what it can be used for.  As I have now written posts concerning the basics of human anatomy (muscles, bone, teeth), and a current key matter in British archaeology (reburial), it is now time to explain further the basic name terms.  As we define terms and their meanings, it is useful to note that is often a difference in meaning between the US and the European terms.  This will be pointed out as and when necessary.

He haunts all of archaeology…

Anthropology:  At its core, anthropology is the study of man; its behaviours, origins and cultures.  This is carried out in a range of ways; both by studying the biology of man and his descendants, and by studying culture in a broad context.  Anthropology in the USA is sub divided into four fields; Archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology & physical anthropology.  Each of these fields itself has many sub disciplines.  In the UK this is not as distinguished so much, and archaeology especially is considered in its right.

Archaeology: At its most basic archaeology is the study of past material and lifeways by previous people’s, populations and cultures.  This is carried out by the ‘scientific recovery, analysis and interpretation of the material remains’ (Jurmain et al 2011).  Evidence from the artefacts, ecofacts and structures recovered and investigated help to reveal information on the identity and social organisation of the culture under consideration.  Archaeology can span a vast amount of time, from early hominid remains right up until the 19th century.

Human Osteology:   This is the study of human skeletal remains, often from archaeological sites.  The interpretation of human bones often includes recording and investigating the remains for skeletal anatomy present (termed as elements), bone physiology, growth and development, and any pathology present.  Scientific investigation is used to discern relationships between individuals and populations, changes in diet or activity patterns, migration and morphological change.  Human bones are often the only organic remains of people present at archaeological sites.

Bioarchaeology:  In the USA bioarchaeology is the prefered term exclusively used for the study of human skeletal material from archaeological sites.  The originator of the term ‘bioarchaeology’ in the USA is Dr Jane Buikstra, interviewed here.  In the United Kingdom, bioarchaeology often includes the study of archaeozoological (or Zooarchaeology) and archaeobotany material.  That is animal osteological remains and plants remains (pollen, seeds, & phytoliths) from archaeological sites.

Physical Anthropology: As Jurmain et al (2011: 9) remark, physical anthropology is ‘the study of human biology within the framework of evolution and with an emphasis on the interaction of biology and culture’.  Once again, it is often named Biological Anthropology as well.  Physical anthropology includes knowledge of human osteology, and comparative knowledge of apes in producing a synthesis of human evolution.  This is achieved through the study of genetics, molecular biology, animal behaviour, cultural, palaeontological and osteological data.

Palaeoanthropology:  This is an interdisciplinary approach to the investigation and study of human evolution.  Spanning around 7 million years, there are many fragments our of ancestors stored in collections across the world, and waiting to be discovered in various countries in Africa.  The ultimate aim of palaeoanthropology is to collect and study the human and various hominid species to discern adaptations and behaviour characteristics.  The working out of the lineage of human evolution in all its complexities is the key aim in this.

Palaeopathology:  This is the study of pathological disease or trauma as evidenced on bones from archaeological or palaeontological sites.  Although only a small margin of trauma or disease affects the bone, palaeopathological studies are important in considering past population demographics and disease spread.  By studying past trauma, it can reveal the cultures and life patterns that people led.  It can also inform on diet and activity patterns.

This is only a short guide to the main fields of investigations used to shed light on the human past.  As Jurmain et al (2011: 19) comment, the ‘aim of all anthropology and related fields is to broaden the human viewpoint, both through time and space’.  That is to put ourselves in a biological and behavioural context alongside fellow creatures and the natural world.  It is the boundless curiosity of the human race itself that it seeks to define and explore our origins, behaviours and cultures.  That we should ‘hope to avoid falling into the ethnocentric pitfalls inherent in a more limited view of humanity’, and instead appreciate our place in nature.

Hard at work…


  • Here is a handy little guide to other specialisms often clumped within the field of Anthropology/Archaeology etc… Visiting journalists please take note of the differences between Paleontology and Archaeology!

N.B. In the American use of ‘palaeo’, the second ‘a’ is often left out.

The Basic Muscles In The Human Body

10 Mar

The muscles are the main contractile tissues of the body involved in movement.  They cause motion and produce force that the body uses to move and manipulate the body.  There are both conscious and subconscious movements of muscles in the body system of a human as a whole.

Each muscle also has its own blood supply, including an artery and vein, alongside  its own nerve connections.  These three supply vessels are often aligned tightly next to each other. Depending on the class of muscles we are looking at, or taken as a whole, the human body consists of around 640+ skeletal muscles.  As we are just looking at the basics to help understand where they are in relation to the major skeletal elements, I will not go into an in-depth discussion here just yet.

There are three kinds of muscles we need to know.

A) Firstly there is the skeletal muscle, which is used for locomotion and skeletal movement.  These muscles are often anchored by Tendons.  A tendon is simply a fibrous connective tissues, from the muscles to the bone elements.  A Ligament is often found in the joints of the body, and are connective fibrous tissues from bone to bone.  The movement of skeletal muscle is often a conscious decision.  The major muscles of the bum, the gluteal muscles, are some of the largest in the human body and are classed as skeletal muscle because they help locomotion of the thighs during ambulation.

B) The second type of muscle is the Smooth Muscle.  The smooth muscles are often found within the organs and structures of organs.  These movements tend to be subconscious, and help in the normal regulation of the human body.  An example of smooth muscle movement is in the use of swallowing food down the esophagus when eating, which involves the peristalsis movement.

C) The third type of muscle is the Cardiac Muscle.  As these muscles are only found within the heart, inside the pericardium sac; therefore detailed knowledge of this muscle collection is not needed when studying osteology.  The cardiac muscles are similar to the skeletal muscles.  However, they are subconscious as the heart beats at a fast and steady rate.

Below is the basic diagrams of the main muscles used in the movement of the modern  human body…

Anterior Muscles of the Human Body

Posterior Muscles of the Modern Human Body

Although this post was originally wrote a fairly long time ago, I have now finished the anatomy module of my MSc course here at the University of Sheffield.  This module composed of dissecting a human cadaver to help understand the vital soft tissues (muscles, nerves, arteries and fat) that are vital in the movement of a human.

I cannot say how vital this experience was in understanding the isolated, and even fully laid out, human skeleton.  It is vital in my opinion that practitioners of human osteology are given the chance to see how the flesh articulates, combines and moves with the skeletal anatomy.  Indeed, understanding the neuronal impulse from the brain, that then flows along the nervous system to engage the muscles to move,  and the skeleton to sustain and support that movement, is really key to understand the different elements, or systems, that make up the human body.

The Recent British Reburial Debate

7 Mar

For those of you interested in the excavation and study of archaeological human remains in the British Isles, there has been a recent upheaval…

(Here is the pre-requisite back ground information)

Following a report in the magazine British Archaeology regarding the excavation and treatment of human remains, the archaeology community has rose up in anger over the legislation currently in place.  The crux of the matter is that since 2008, any human skeletal remains that have been dug up have to be returned (via either re burial or other internment) within a stated period of time, often within a two-year exhumation order.

As a member of BABAO, I received this email from Mike Parker Pearson, Mike Pitts and Duncan Sayer.  All reputable experts in the knowledge of archaeology and human osteology.  The following is the full email.

Dear Colleagues:

In 2008 the Ministry of Justice took over the administration of the 1857 Burial Act. Since then, licences for the archaeological excavation of human remains in England and Wales have required the eventual reburial of ALL remains and screening off of ALL sites of ALL periods, no matter what their value to scientific research, public outreach and the advancement of knowledge.

In the Nov/Dec issue of British Archaeology Duncan Sayer and Mike Pitts brought this issue to public attention and on 14th of October 2010 they were interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s science show Material World

In response to this, Andrew Miller MP, chair of the select committee for science and technology, wrote to Kenneth Clarke MP, Secretary of State. In his reply, Clarke indicated that there had been no formal complaints from the heritage profession.

On 2nd February 2011, forty of the UK’s leading professors of archaeology wrote to Kenneth Clarke expressing their concern about this situation. We have published the professors’ letter in British Archaeology. Alongside it, we have published letters from school children describing their fascination for science and history when visiting the archaeological excavation of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

The professors’ letter, a background document, and a letter to the archaeological profession asking them to act now can all be found below. We have also included a template for a letter to Kenneth Clarke so you or your organization can let him know your concerns; the address can be found in the letter to archaeologists.

This is an important opportunity to act and we hope that you will add your voice as soon as you can.

Yours sincerely
Duncan Sayer, Mike Pitts and Mike Parker Pearson.

This is a matter currently affecting archaeology in the UK and these are the views of a number of people working in the heritage profession, not those of ASDS who have kindly agreed to host this material. A forum for open discussion by members of the ASDS may be found inside the members’ area.”

Here are the links to the directed webpage, on which is the information and template letters for the MP Kenneth Clarke who deals with the Ministry of Justice.  There is still time to sign a letter, add your own thoughts and worries, and send it to ministers who represent you.

As anyone who knows the amount of knowledge locked inside human remains, how the bones of our ancestors can be used for various research proposals and investigations, and just how fast our field is changing with various new scientific multidisciplinary techniques; knows that  to have to specifically re-bury recently unearthed  human remains is tantamount to destroying the bones themselves.  It is to wipe these people off the face of the earth, and to never have the chance to tell the unique stories that can be gleaned from the remains.

Let us not kid ourselves that the people who we unearth are not people we can ever  fully understand due to the cultural & temporal differences.  But to re-bury these people, to not have the chance to study their remains for clues about our shared past, to bury them in ground that may be offensive to them (Viking persons reburied in Church ground for example), would be a mistake indeed.

The study of Human Osteology has always been cross disciplinary from the range of medical anthropology, genetics, palaeoanthropology, archaeology & historical sources and investigations, human osteology has enveloped all of these.   

I know this post is late, but I urge you, as an interested member of the public, to contact and send out this information to Westminster, for them to hear our voice as one.

I sent my letter off two weeks ago.  I received a reply on the 3rd of March 2011, not from Kenneth Clarke, but from an unidentified person working in the Coroners & Burial Division.  It states that the MoJ has long noted and have been aware that the Burial Act of 1857 is not well suited to the need of archaeologists.  Although it has not been possible to find a way to amend the 1857 Act without recourse to the Primary legislation, the writer states that there is room to apply for provisions and flexibility.  The letter mentions that an opportunity to amend the legislation is not expected to be available in the short to medium term.

Is this good enough for you? What in the meantime will be lost?  Can you put a value on human remains?  Is anyone keeping a note on the number of reburials currently taking place across the country?  We shall see what happens.  In the meantime, I encourage you to write to your MP, to the MoJ, and stand as one to make your voice heard in the Houses of our representatives.

Institute For Archaeologists: ‘Employing People With Disabilities’ Report. 13/01/11.

5 Mar

Here is the link describing a newly published IFA report on best practise guidelines for employing people with disabilities

IFA – ‘Employing People With Disabilities: Good Practise Guidance For Archaeologists’ by Tim Phillips & John Creighton.

On My First Archaeological Dig (Romano-British Site)

I have read most of this report, and it gives me great joy.  The comments on disability in the workplace were mostly positive, and highlighted that if people talked a bit more openly about various disabilities then compromises can be reached.  The report covers areas such as the guidelines for good practise, disability and professional archaeology, alongside personal stories at the end.  One of the summary comments is that a ‘lack of awareness and understanding was…a major problem, especially with hidden disabilities’.  An environment in which it is ‘okay to explain your disability’, ‘discuss the options open’ and for ‘compromises to be made’ where cited as critically important steps in the archaeological world to include those with disabilities enter the working world.

This report makes clear the different models that disability can take.  Firstly there is the slightly dated view that disability is an illness; a person with a disability is a subject purely for treatment and cure.  This is the Medical Model.  Next is the Charitable Model.  This view sees the individual as a tragic individual, an object of pity who needs care and to be protected from the everyday rigours of life.  So far, these models hardly seem charitable to the disabled person themselves!

The final model, and the one which sets the tone for the IFA report, is the Social Model.  This model shifts the emphasis away from the view that there is something wrong with the person; that they are excluded from social, economic, physical and attitudinal behaviours of society because of their disability.  This focuses instead on the need for society to change its attitude.  That reasonable adjustments can be made.

The report has provided a safeguard in the fact that although I’m trying hard to break into archaeology, I know that at least a good portion of interested disabled people already have succeeded.

I also came across this blog, a small online community dealing with various issues of being disabled and available disability aids.  This post in particular caught my eye, as it details finding work, and disclosing a disability on your CV.  The fact that the writer mentions archaeology and heritage only helped to intensify my interest.

I’ve also been turned down from many jobs – from the archaeologists who never called me back to the museum curator who was happy for me to volunteer at his living history museum but wouldn’t hire me because he was afraid I would “fall in the well”. This was the large, obvious well I walked past every day, the well that was covered over with a steel grating.

But I’m not bitter, not at all. I’ve always taken the attitude that if an employer is that close-minded when it comes to hiring a person with a disability, then I wouldn’t want to work for them anyway“.

As a disabled person currently trying to find work, it is a staggering number to read that the author notes up to 70% adults who identify themselves as disabled are not currently employed.  I’m not sure how verifiable that number is, but it makes me think for a moment.  The decision to make public the acknowledgement of having a disability can be a very personal one, and no doubt turns many employees off.  As unfair as this, it certainly isn’t helped by the media at large, who often portray Equality laws as divisive barriers to ‘ordinary people’, whoever ordinary people are.  It is my hope that reports such as the IFA one can help to increase knowledge about disability, the many guises it can take, and the determination disabled people often have.

This brings me to my main point.

Disability acceptance into the workforce, and into society at large, is not a one way process.  We can be a part of that change as much as anyone else.  We should not leave it up to others when we can have a positive say, and help change society for the better.  Equally it is also up to other sectors of society to embrace the disabled community.



Access For All


Skeletal Series B: The Biological Basis of Teeth and Anatomical Directional Terms

5 Mar

As mentioned in the previous post teeth are a distinct part of human anatomy and are of special interest to the human osteologist in archaeological contexts.  Teeth are the most resistant skeletal element to chemical or physical destruction during burial of human remains and as such are often over represented in the archaeological record.  As the only skeletal element that directly interacts with the environment (via mastication of food) teeth are a vital source of knowledge on the age, sex and diet of individuals and past populations (White & Folkens 2005).  There is now an extensive academic research body of materials and articles available on the study of both hominin and archaeological teeth.

Teeth in situation in the maxilla (upper jaw) and mandible (lower jaw) of a Saxon skull.

Origin & Anatomy

Dentition is often found in the lower and upper jaw of most animals, and are thought to have developed originally from fish scales (White & Folkens 2005, Shubin 2008).  Teeth throughout the animal kingdom have different uses, and come in a variety of different shapes and sizes.  Homo sapiens (modern-day humans) have two sets of teeth throughout their life.  Each set is located in the Mandible & Maxilla, and often refered to as the ‘dental arches’ or dental arcades”.  The deciduous dentition appears during early infancy and consist of around 20 individual teeth.  The permanent dentition gradually replaces the deciduous dentition, and is normally complete by around around 18 to 20 years of age, with females possibly exhibiting earlier eruption rates.  Typically the wisdom teeth (the 3rd molars) are the last to erupt fully towards the end of adolescence (Mays 1998).

The permanent dentition consists normally of 32 teeth with 8 teeth in each quadrant of the mandibular and maxilla dental arcades, although care has to be taken when noting the number from archaeological examples as teeth can easily fall out of the sockets.

Here is a basic diagram of the inside of a normal healthy molar tooth.  As you can see the second diagram shows the basics again but also introduces the 4 different teeth that the human dentition is composed of.  Enamel is one of the hardest biological substances and the hardest in man and, alongside the dentine, provides the main cutting framework for each tooth.  Unlike human bone tissue, the tooth cannot regrow or repair damage.

Basic anatomical details of a generic molar tooth.

Enamel is almost entirely inorganic material, mostly hydroxyapatite arranged in think rods whilst the “dentine is around 75% inorganic material (again hydroxyapatite) with a mainly collagen organic component” (Mays 1998: 11).

The general anatomy of teeth alongside the 4 classes of teeth In the human (Homo sapiens) dentition.

Again, please click on the above diagram for the detail to be clear.

The four classes of teeth in the human dentition consist of the following (White & Folkens 2005):

1) Incisors (4 altogether, two to each quadrant).  The incisors are  flat and blade like, whose main job is to cut the food before mastication takes place.

2) Canines (4 altogether).  The canines are tusk-like and are conical in shape.  Their main job is to pinch and grab the food helping to bring it into the mouth for mastication.

3) Pre-Molars (4 altogether).  They are rounder and shorter than the canine crowns (see below for directional and anatomical terms) and usually have two cusps.  They are used primarily for grinding the food.

4) Molars (6 altogether).  The molars have crowns that are squarer, larger, and bear more cusps than any other tooth.  They are used , along with the pre-molars, for grinding and chewing the food to make it more palatable and easier for the stomach to digest.

Standard Anatomical Directional Terminology

Here are some basics terms for tooth terminology and anatomical positions based on the White & Folkens manual (2005):

The Mesial portion of the tooth is the closest to the central incisors (see above diagram). The Distal portion of the tooth is the opposite of Mesial.  The Lingual part of the tooth faces the tongue, whilst the Labial portion faces the lips, and is only used for the incisors and canines.  The term Bucccal is used for the opposite of Lingual, for the Pre-Molars and Molars.  The Interproxmial surfaces contact the adjacent teeth.  The biting surface of both dental arches is called the Occlusal Surface.  The root of the tooth is called the Apical.  The Crowns are the enamel tops of each tooth, whilst the Cusps are the bumps on the Pre-Molars and Molars.

Cambridge Manuals On Human Evolution on the anthropology of modern teeth, a great core guide to how human teeth are studied in archaeology.

This is a basic guide  from White & Folkens (2005), does not include the very specific terminology for the cusps on the molars.  A handy guide to the introduction and more in-depth use of teeth is the book above.  In the human dentition the teeth as a whole have been noted as being very similar in design (or homogenized) in comparison to other species whilst the morphological variation of each class of tooth (think canine, molar etc) has increased over on each of the teeth (White & Folkens 2005).  This seems like a contradiction in terms but human teeth are designed for an omnivorous diet, meaning that that  our dentition is designed to chew both plant and meat foods for our dietary requirements.

When the teeth are found in relative isolation they can be sided and matched with relative ease to either the maxilla or mandible portions of the human skull.  This can be done by noting the wear patterns on the crowns of each tooth and by looking at the size and root variation of the tooth.  Generally speaking males tend to have larger teeth than females, although there are idiosyncrasies present throughout human evolution (Jurmain et al 2011).  A later post will include talks on the palaeopathology of tooth disease and trauma.  In the meantime this guide should help in providing the basic information.

Until next time, keep smiling! (A. Boisei reconstruction pictured – notice the large teeth made for chewing tough fibrous plant material and flesh).


Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Schwartz, J. H. 2007. Skeleton Keys: An Introduction to Human Skeletal Morphology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shubin, N. 2008.  Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body. London: Pantheon.

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