Archive | July, 2011

Deutsch Archaeology with Grampus Heritage

17 Jul

Tomorrow I will depart these shores to take part in the EU funded archaeology Leonardo Da Vinci scheme abroad in Germany.  I will be away for 6 weeks courtesy of the lovely Grampus Heritage  organisation, the UK company helping the Leonardo Da Vinci scheme.  In the meantime this blog may not be updated at all.  As such apologies for the rushed recent Skeletal Series post concerning the human hand, it will be updated and completed in time!

Grampus Logo

The dig in Germany will be centered in the city of Magdeburg, a city I am looking forward to exploring and getting to know.  Alongside myself there will also be 6 other UK student volunteers, helping to dig and document finds from numerous rescue excavations around the city and two archaeological sites to the north of the city.  Two sites date from the medieval age, whilst one site to the north consists of a Neolithic megalithic Tomb.  My role will be mostly post excavation work although  I hope to take part in field work, especially at the Neolithic site, if I can!

I heartily endorse that any undergraduate or graduate student takes the time to check out the fully funded European digs offered by grampus Heritage.  In this day and age archaeological fieldwork abroad can be a costly business to take part in and to gain experience in.  All the more to take advantage of the offer that the EU funds.  So for now, I say farewell!  Or auf weidersehen!

Skeletal Series Part 8: The Human Hand

17 Jul

Common names for fingers of the hand.

To my mind the human hand is a real marker of humanity.  Alongside the anatomy of the foot, the human hand is especially designed for certain actions.  Whereas the foot has changed to accommodate long distance bipedal walking, the human hand has developed to be extremely sensitive with dexterous movement.  The mammalian order of the primates are the only animals with true hands, with humans, chimps and apes having two opposable thumbs and great gripping potential (Jurmain et al 2010).  As the modified end to the ancestral fish fin, the human hand has retained the 5 original number of digits whilst a variety of animals have gone through reduction and modification in the number of their digits (e.g. horses, bats, pigs) (White & Folkens 2005: 225).  The sense of touch is anchored in and from the hand.


As ever careful excavation of the burial should take place when necessary.  The small bones located in the human hand can be hard to spot, especially distal phalanges as they tend to be very small (see diagram).  It is likely that most of the metacarpals and the larger phalanges will probably survive, however to spot the carpals care is needed as these can often look like stones.  It can be very difficult to imagine how the bones would look in articulation during excavation, and as such all material should be saved for closer inspection rather then losing valuable information (Larsen 1997). A key note is to know that the hand bones will often be spread over a wider area, unlike the foot bones.  On excavation in the summer of 2011 in Germany I realised firsthand how spread out they could be, with the phalanges of one supine burial found next to the leg bones, spread over the hip, with some lingering inside the chest cavity; the bones were all over!

Hand Anatomy and Elements

Overall there are 27 bones present in the hand.  The bones in the hand are typically classed into three groups; the CarpalsMetacarpals & the Proximal, Intermediate & Distal Phalanges.  The thumb is often called the Pollex, whilst each finger is usually referred to as a ray, starting on the index finger.  As discussed previously, the carpals articulate with the distal ends of the ulna & radius (White & Folkens 2005).

Classification of the bones in the human hand.

It is an interesting fact that most of the bones in the human body come from the hands and the feet, as such have both a large number of phalanges.  As outlined above, and discussed below, the carpals contain 8 bones, the metacarpals 5 bones, the proximal phalanges 5 bones, the intermediate 4 bones & the distal phalanges 5 bones.  The hand is used for both gross motor skills and fine motor skills with the fingertips containing some of the densest bundles of nerves (Wikipedia 2011).  Interesting the hand can reach almost anywhere on the persons body, discounting a small patch on the back and the elbow and lower arm the hand is located on.

Name of each individual element, and the anatomical position in comparison with X -Ray of a human hand.

Carpals (8 Elements)

The carpals make up the wrist, and are positioned as two tiers of four bones.  Each of the bones have a characteristic  shape, and recognizing the shapes in diagnosis of the separate carpal bones.  The first proximal row consists of (from right to left in a right hand) the Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetral & the Pisiform bones.  The second distal row consists of the Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate and the Hamate bones (White & Folken 2005: 288-233).  I advise you to click on the wikipedia links to see each element by itself, as it would take too much space up here!

Carpals in articulation.

Scaphoid– The scaphoid bone is shaped like a boat, and is one of the largest carpal bones.  It is the most lateral and proximal carpal bones, with a both a major concave and convex surface for the articulation, with the head of the hamate and the articulation surface of the distal radius.

Lunate– The lunate takes the form of a crescent moon.  Its deeply concave surface articulates with the capitate, whilst articular point opposite shares the distal radius with the scaphoid surface.

Triquetral-The triquetral is the third bone in the carpal row and its main distinguishing feature is the three articular surfaces.

Pisiform– The pisiform is a pea shaped bone and the smallest of the carpal bones.  It actually develops inside a tendon, and as such does not articulate with any other bone directly.

Trapezium– The trapezium is an irregularly shaped bone of medium size and is most distinguished by the largest facet and saddle shaped articular surface for the base of the first metacarpal.

Trapezoid– The trapezoid bone is boot shaped, and it is the smallest bone in the distal row.  It articulates distally with the second metacarpal (White & Folkens 2005: 231).

Capitate– The capitate is a larger carpal bone that articulates distally with the metacarpal 3, 2 and sometimes 4.  The end is squared off whilst the proximal end is rounded.

Hamate– The hamate is the carpal bone which has the hook shaped non articular projection called the hamulus.  This is a key aid in the diagnosing the hamate carpal.  The hamulus is the fourth attachment point for the flexor retinaculum.

Metacarpals (5 Elements)

The metacarpals are numbered from MC1 (thumb) to MC 5 (little finger).  As White & Folkens discuss (2005: 233), the metacarpals are all tubular bones with rounded distal articular heads with the more rectangular proximal ends.  As such they are most easily identified and sided by the morphology of the bases.

Metacarpals of the human hand in articulation, where 1 represents the pollux.

Metacarpal I:  The first metacarpal is the shortest, broadest & more robust of the five.  The singular proximal articular surface is saddle shape which corresponds to the fact on the trapezium (White & Folkens 2005: 236 & here after for the metacarpal section).

Metacarpal II:  The second metacarpal is normally the longest of the five with the base presenting as along curved blade like wedge.

Metacarpal III:  The third metacarpal lies at the base of the middle finger and it is the only metacarpal that has a sharp projection, called the styloid process, at its distal base.

Metacarpal IV:  The fourth metacarpal is shorter and more gracile then the MC 2 or MC 3 with a fairly square base with 3 or 4 articulating facets.

Metacarpal V:  The fifth metacarpal is the thinnest and shortest of the non-pollical metacarpals (ie first or MC 1 rays).

As a reference for siding either in the lab or on site I highly recommend White & Folkens 2005, this blog entry can be only just a short guide.

Proximal, Intermediate & Distal Phalanges (14 elements)

The phalanges consist of the last three digit of each finger (only two for the thumb).  They are all shorter then the metacarpals and tend to be somewhat flattened as well.  The thumb phalanges are shorter and thicker then the other rays, whilst it also lacks a intermediate phalanx.

Proximal, intermediate and distal phalanges (MMG 2004).

Proximal Phalanges:  Each of the proximal phalanges has a concave proximal articular facet for the metacarpal head. The thumb proximal phalanges is easily recognizable for its stout and squat appearance.

Intermediate Phalanges:  Following the proximal phalanges is the intermediate phalanges which has a double articular proximal facet for the head of the proximal phalanx, whilst each also has a distal articular facet.

Distal Phalange:  Each of the distal phalanges has a double proximal articular facet for the intermediate phalanx.  The end of these phalanges terminate in the distal phalangeal tuberosity, which is a key indicator that you’ve found a pinky!

As above, please note my main source is White & Folkens (2005) Human Bone Manual.

Brief Discussion

As mentioned above in the beginning of this entry, I noticed first hand in Germany on placement whilst excavating in a medieval cemetery of how dispersed the carpals, metacarpals & phalanges can be in a grave context, especially in a supine burial context.  Due to the nature of the position of the body during burial and the subsequent flesh decomposition and natural earth movements, the delicate bones of the hand can often move around.  Care really is needed to recover each of the bones that survive.  I include below a photograph I took at the Domersleben medieval cemetery excavation in the summer of 2011 to present how the hand bones had moved around and displaced since internment of the body.

Note the position of the metacarpals and phalanges in this Medieval cemetery burial.

The recovering of the hand bones depends on the burial context (supine, extended or flexed burial, whether cremation was carried out etc), and of careful excavation around the areas where you expect the recovery of hand bones themselves (Larsen 1997).  Although the carpals can be hard to identify and to side, it is well well worth spending a good few days with a reference sample to make sure you understand the basic anatomy and main skeletal landmarks of the individual elements.   The evolution of the human hand has been critical to the way Homo sapiens both express themselves and how they interact with the environment.  Without the incredible grasping powers of the pollex, it is unlikely Homo sapiens and other later hominids would have been able to create such intricately carved lithics or artworks such the Upper Palaeolithic cave site of Lascaux in modern day France (Jurmain et al. 2011).

Further Information


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

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marsland, D. & Kapoor, S. 2008. Rheumatology and Orthopaedics. London: Mosby Elsevier.

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

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease Third Edition. Stroud: The History Press.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology: Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Sheffield Human Osteology Short Course

10 Jul

I recently attended the week long Human Osteology short course at the University of Sheffield, at the back end of June.  This course was offered within the Manor Lodge excavation project, and was ran by the archaeology department.  It was particularly great to see so many interested (and interesting!) young people into human osteo and willing to learn.  The course covered all the basics of aging & sexing skeletons found in archaeological contexts, as well as recognizing human bone elements.  We also had the chance to examine both adult and juvenile skeletons. alongside a good look at the different pathological diseases that can be present on skeletal remains.

The course was delivered by lectures and hands on work, with the opportunity to lay out the skeleton each day of the course.  Although this course was part of the Manor Lodge excavations, it is held every year at the University of Sheffield Archaeology department, and as such I’d highly recommend it.  There is also another day coming up in September where people in professional jobs which includes looking at or moving/using human remains in the heritage sector can have an intensive day study of the human skeleton.

On a personal note, it was great for me to experience what it will be like to start in September, on a day to day basis.  The short course helped to strengthen my resolution in the feeling that I have picked the right University, in pursuing this course.  In the future I aim to include upcoming human osteology short courses when I know they are available, for future reference is anybody is interested.

Article: Nuances in the Archaeological Record Regarding the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition

2 Jul


The aim of this article is two-fold; to help show the effects of an integrated multidisciplinary approach in studying and understanding the MesolithicNeolithic transition, and a discussion on the several issues that the transition had on selected archaeological sites and cultures.  Thus the article will limit itself in scope, with discussion of two European cultures and a Japanese culture, which will help to highlight the different techniques and approaches used in understanding the nuances in the archaeological record.

Key Words: Mesolithic, Neolithic, Osteology, Palaeoenvironmental, Europe, Japan, Agriculture, Palaeopathology, Stable Isotopes, Ethnography.


The transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming, as means for a stable food return, varies enormously depending on which cultures are under discussion and investigation.  Nor was this fundamental transitional period an immediate or permanent change in lifestyle; the boundaries between the Mesolithic and Neolithic are becoming ever more blurred as new evidence comes to light (Price 2000: 4).  As Zvelebil (1986: 13) notes, ‘The adoption of farming must have had a number of causes which were variable from region to region and were contingent on the region environmental and socio-economic conditions’.  This is manifest in the long duration of the ever changing archaeological record.

The LBK Across the Central European Plain

For our first culture under discussion we shall turn to the Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) of the Central European Plain.  The predominant impulse of the spread of the LBK has been pinpointed and dated from 5700 BC to 4500 BC, and has its origins ascertained to the Middle Danube, and tributaries in Hungary (Scarre 2005: 407).  Throughout the LBK culture it has been noted that the sites are often found on fertile loess soils of the CEP as they provided the optimal growing conditions for agricultural use.  This, Price notes, is in contrast to the ‘Mesolithic foragers (who) were (more) concentrated in marine, riverine and rich lacustrine environments’ and that ‘recent surveys in the interior European basins have failed to reveal substantial Mesolithic remains’ (Price 2000: 5).  The numerous LBK settlements, often located in fertile forest clearings, are very similar in both structural and material remains which suggests a relatively strong cultural coherence which ‘colonised’ its way across central Europe(although this has recently been debated).  There is also suggestion in the LBK of a movement from a communal to a later household level of organisation, as the long houses excavated are unique familiar units in the typical village layout (Keeley 1992: 86).  It must be noted however there were regional differences in lithic, ceramic and dietary choices within the composition of the LBK culture.

There is also evidence of violence in neighbouring LBK groups from osteological analysis of human remains at the both Talheim site in Southern Germany, Herxheim in SE Germany and the LBK site of Schletz in Eastern Austria, suggesting cultural in-fighting.  The evidence points towards LBK inflicted weaponry injury, and not between foraging or other farming groups, alongside selected targeting of the male population (Scarre 2005: 411).  Violence, it seems, is endemic to human populations throughout the course of human history.  The geographical predisposition for farming and intensive adaptation of fertile land for farming settlements themselves presents a key development in the nature of land use by human societies in the spread of European agriculture. Interestingly the spread laterally across the European central plain is in contrast to the later up take of agriculture around the eastern Baltic and western Russia in 3500 BC, where biologically wild resources were still heavily used up until the 3rd millennium BC (Price 2000: 16, Zvelebil & Lillie 2000).

The Jomon and Yayoi Cultures of Japan

Not all societies were exposed to agriculture so quickly, as is evident throughout the Jomon period in Japan.  Lasting roughly from 14,000 BC to 300 BC, the Jomon culture has evidence for the earliest use of pottery in the world, and made extensive use of the large variety of environments in the Japanese archipelago (Akazawa 1986, Kaner & Ishikawa 2007, Mithen 2003).  This culture has been classed as largely hunter-gather-forager in lifestyle, until roughly the Yayoi period around 300 BC, when the adoption to agriculture was fully implemented with intensive rice agriculture, weaving and the introduction of metallurgy (Mays 1998: 90).   There has long been discussion as to whether the Yayoi culture were settlers from mainland Asia who explicitly brought agriculture to the Jomon of Japan, as an integration model, or if the Yayoi superseded the Jomon as propagators of agriculture (Akazawa 1986, Kaner & Ishikawa 2007, Mays 1998).  Studies have been carried out on the measurements of skull morphology, in particular in the study of the modern-day aboriginal Ainu people located in Hokkaido, a large island north of mainland Japan, who maintain they are the Jomon’s descendents.  Craniometric and multivariate analysis of human skeletal measurements have led to results that indicate that the Jomon are distinctive in head shape from the Yayoi, whilst they share distinct similarities with the modern-day Ainu population (Akazawa 1986: 151, Mays: 90).  This has led to theories that population pressures have pushed the Jomon northwards up through Japan to the modern day island of Hokkaido, whilst the Yayoi immigration wave helped to spread agriculture across Japan.

The importance of this work highlights the movement of the adaptation of agriculture in a relatively late time frame, in comparison to mainland Asia and Europe.  Palaeoenvironmental evidence suggests the richness and diversity of the Japanese archipelago, with heavy densities of the Jomon population in 3500 BC located in central and eastern Japan (Kaner & Ishikawa 2007: 2).  Stable village sites with pits dwellings, storage areas and burial facilities have been excavated and studied, yet there is only a hint of cultivating nuts and plants.  Yet it also has to be noted that Akazawa (1986: 163) points out that

‘rice cultivation would seem redundant to those Jomon societies whose procurement was regulated by year round demands of different major food gathering activities whereas it would seem attractive to those Jomon societies characterised by a simple food procurement system, supported by a single major food gathering activity’.

Ongoing date conflicts with the Accelerated Mass Spectrometry results from human and animal bone have resulted in suggestions for the impact of the Yayoi culture to be pushed back to 1000 BC or 900 BC.  However, the results from sites located on coastal areas could be contaminated with the ‘marine radiocarbon reservoir effect’, a natural distortion of radiocarbon dates by the dissolving of calcium carbonate, which could thus require a possible need to recalibrate existing dates (Kaner & Ishikawa 2007: 4).  The outcome of the timing of adoption of agriculture in the Late Jomon/Yayoi period is still hotly debated, as outlined by a few issues discussed above. Yet the archaeological evidence presents a hunter gather society managing to thrive without agriculture in a range of diverse environments, until later cultural re-adjustment and migrations of people came into contact with the existing Jomon culture, and fostered a change towards widespread rice agriculture (Akazawa 1986, Mays 1998).

Portuguese Mesolithic to Neolithic Changes on the Atlantic Coast

Moving on to the Portuguese Atlantic coast, the evidence points to a different motivation in the timing for the implementation of agriculture.  Stable isotopic analysis and the dental attrition rate of a number of skeletons have revealed a great variety of information regarding the diet, and changes during the Mesolithic to Neolithic transition.  Work carried out by Lubell et al (at the Moita do Sebastiao, Melides and Fontainhas Roche Forte II sites in SE Portugal) demonstrate a gradual dietary change; from a mixture of terrestrial and marine resources in the Mesolithic to a diet more dependent on terrestrial food in the Neolithic (Lubell et al 1994).  The date for this transition has been dated to around 5000 BC in central Portugal, with initiation of change beginning around 6000 BC, possibly even 7000 BC (Lubell et al 1994: 201).  This indication of change in food origin is a feature of the ‘Neolithic package’; but as we have seen with the Jomon culture, key indicators of the Neolithic (such as pottery and long-term village sites) do not always show a movement or adoption towards full-blown agriculture.  This key concept, of the ‘Neolithic’ package, is being reassessed as new evidence blurs this important transitional period in the development of humanity (Zvelebil 1986).

So what other evidence is present in Portugal?  Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy (1986: 68) note the continuing Mesolithic economy, with large shell middens present on the River Muge located at Cabeco da Amoreira and Cabeco da Arruda.  Palaeoenvironmental evidence indicates that they were located near shallow lagoon and estuary type environments, with the shell middens themselves dating back to mid 4000 BC with long periods of use.  Evidence has also been recorded of middens of fauna present with remains of auroch, roe deer,red deer, badger and lynx found, suggesting a rich environment of availability.  Evidence of cemeteries include those found at the above sites alongside Moita do Sebastiao, with evidence pointing towards a ‘probable increased group size and (increase in) social complexity’ (Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986: 68).  This suggests socially and economically complex hunter gatherer communities near the Atlantic coast, with a dependence on seasonal marine resources.  The use of cemeteries and long-lived sites suggests greater sedentism which could have opened the hunter gatherers up to pre-adaption of agriculture.

The early conservatism of the Mesolithic population is noted by the choices of marine and some terrestrial food illustrated by the narrow nitrogen isotopic range from stable light isotope studies carried out, along with a homogenous diet recorded in the earlier middens.  This is in later contrast to the wider range of carbon and nitrogen isotope averages, and the broader range of molar attrition recorded in the Neolithic skeletons, which suggests greater inclusion of terrestrial foodstuffs into the diet (Lubell et al 1994: 213).  The timing of the adoption to agriculture was culturally defined in this locality, and Lubell et al concludes that the Neolithic was ‘an intensification of a trend which started as an adjustment of food supply during an earlier period of sea level, climatic and vegetation change’ (Lubell et al 1994: 214).  This, with the above evidence cited drove the long-term changes and adoption to farming, as it was culturally embraced, implemented and practised as the trend continued.


Throughout this discussion it has become clear that the mechanics of the transitional period are various, and too diverse to fully discuss here.  Inevitably different timings of the adoption occur throughout the world; not one single cause can be suggested for the emergence of agriculture (Lubell et al 1994, Price 2000, Scarre 2005, Zvelebil & Lillie 2000).  It is the amalgamation of a multidisciplinary investigation that helps to clearly define and produce a record of this key prehistoric period and its outcomes for the human population, and it is hoped that this article shows but a small part of that effort.


Akazawa, T. 1986. ‘Hunter-gatherer Adaptations and the Transition to Food Production in Japan’. In Zvelebil, M. (ed.) Hunters in Transition: Mesolithic societies of temperate Eurasia and their transition to farming. 151-165. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaner, S. and Ishikawa, T. 2007. ‘Reassessing the concept of ‘Neolithic’ in the Jomon of Western Japan’.  Documenta Preahistorica. 2007. 1-7.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keeley, L. H. 1992. ‘’The Introduction of Agriculture to the Western North European Plain’. In Gebauer, A. B. And Price, T. D. (eds.) Transitions to Agriculture in Prehistory.  81-96. Madison: Prehistory Press.

Lubell, D. and Jackes, M. Schwarcz, H. Knyf, M. Meicklejohn, C. 1994. ‘The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in Portugal: Isotopic and Dental Evidence of Diet’. Journal of Archaeological Science. 21. 201-216.

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

Mithen, S. 2003. After The Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000 BC. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Price, T. D. 2000. ‘Europe’s First Farmers: An introduction’. In Price, T.D. (ed.) Europe’s First Farmers. 1-19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease Third Edition. Stroud: The History Press.

Scarre, C. 2005. ‘Holocene Europe’. In Scarre, C (ed.) The Human past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. 392-431. London: Thames and Hudson.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology: Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zvelebil, M. and Rowley-Conwy, P. 1986. ‘Foragers and farmers in Atlantic Europe’. In Zvelebil, M. (ed.) Hunters in Transition: Mesolithic societies of temperate Eurasia and their transition to farming. 67-93. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Zvelebil, M. 1986. ‘Mesolithic prelude and Neolithic revolution’. In Zvelebil, M. (ed.) Hunters in Transition: Mesolithic societies of temperate Eurasia and their transition to farming. 5-16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zvelebil, M. and Lillie, M. C. 2000. ‘Transition to agriculture in eastern Europe’. In Price, T. D. (ed.) Europe’s First Farmers. 57-92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.