Archive | September, 2011

The Beginning of the MSc at Sheffield….

23 Sep

So I have finally landed in Sheffield, ready to start the Masters course in Human Osteology & Funerary Archaeology based in the Archaeology department.  I have had the introduction talks to both the University and to the course, and I am now filled with both trepidation & excitement!

The Sheffield program in Human Osteology offers several key things that made me sign up for their course above all others in the UK.  Firstly they offer the degree setting in a first class department with a wide variety of specialities, and numerous well-known archaeologists.  Secondly, the degree doesn’t just focus on the human skeleton in death but also on the soft tissues in life.  A core module this semester is Human Anatomy, in which I’ll be expected to learn the musculoskeletal system in detail through both lectures & dissection classes in the Biomedical department.  Thirdly, the course offers a more hands on approach to learning, by laying out the skeletons & getting the chance to study an individual in-depth.

The modules in the program include:-

1. Human Osteology

This lab and lecture based module will introduce the students to the core basics of the human skeleton.  Each week we we’ll be examining a part of the skeleton and studying its major muscle attachment features, ossification points and major landmarks.  We’ll be tested with a series of mini quizzes in both identifying fragments of bone & remarking on the major landmarks present.

2. Human Anatomy

A lecture & dissection based module in which all of the muscles of the musculoskeletal system will be studied in anatomical position, and how the origin and insertion points correspond with other muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves and bone.  I am feeling quite apprehensive regarding this module as it will be the first time I’ve dissected a human body (wonderfully donated to the biomedical services of the University by generous members of the public), and the first time I’ve had to learn anatomy in detail.

3. Biological Anthropology 1

The BioAnth 1 module will deal with the wider issues, uses and research of the human skeleton in biological anthropology.  This involves the discussion and methods used in the taphonomy of remains, how to age & sex the skeleton, metric and non-metric variations & traits, bone microstructure & chemistry, analysis of cremated material, and finally how the skeletal data is assessed and reported; all taught through lectures & labs.  This allows the core skills to be acquired and built upon in the next BioAnth module.

4. Biological Anthropology 2

The second module builds upon what is learnt from the first module, and deals with the broader issues regarding palaeodemography, growth and development, functional anatomy,  biological evolution, population affinities & dietary reconstruction amongst others.  Again, this module looks very interesting and I’m quite keen to get my teeth into some of the issues discussed.

5. Funerary Archaeology

A core module of the MSc, the module deals with the various ways in which human societies worldwide deal with issues relating to death.  The societies discussed include both past and present throughout the world, and includes the varying funerary rituals present and the human responses to death.  The module will include case studies and focus on interpretation of the material and funerary culture alongside symbolism used in funerary rituals.

6. Quantitative Methods in Anthropology

Perhaps the module I am most nervous about!  This module will introduce and discuss various computational methods used in osteology, physical anthropology and palaeanthropology.  Both lecture and computer lab based classes will discuss various statistical methods used in modern anthropological research; this includes the use of modern computer programs such as CranID amongst others.  The use of statistics in human osteology is really key as a lot of time is spent interpreting the data from metric measurements to discern morphological changes and population affinities in skeletal populations.

7. Research Design in Anthropology

This module is primarily concerned with the dissertation aspect of the Masters so will include discussions such as feasibility studies depending on topic to be researched. (I’d better get thinking!).  Essentially it will prepare the student with critical skills in thinking of original and worthwhile topics to pursue an original program of research for the dissertation aspect of the degree.

8. Biomolecular Archaeology (My one free choice module!)-

This is a lecture based approach to methods & issues used and discussed in the field of biomolecular archaeology.  I’m particularly looking forward to learning more about aDNA & the use of stable light isotopes, both of which are helping to change and improve the knowledge of human evolution & diversity as we know it.  This module also discusses biomolecular techniques on both archaeobotanical and archaeozoological material, something that I’m also looking forward too.  The subjects that will be discussed include isotopes, lipids, proteins, and aDNA, which will be applied to key aspects of the human past such as dispersal, the rise of agriculture & investigation of disease.

The first semester will lay the groundwork for the modules and dissertation research in the 2nd semester and Summer dissertation research period.  The first semester topics include Human Osteology, Human Anatomy, Funerary Archaeology & Biological Anthropology 1.

And Thus

I started this blog to help introduce the field of Human Osteology from a student who is just starting to study the subject.  I also use this blog to update on various new finds or reports in the wider archaeological fields.  I will continue to do this as my program proceeds, however I may be slower in posting as the course is very intensive.  I also want to take this opportunity to thank readers, both past and present, for providing positive feedback thus far into the journey.


It is hereby noted that the information is taken from the Archaeology Departments information freely available over the internet and from my own personal notes and module information booklets.

Grampus Heritage German Excavation Write Up

15 Sep

As previously stated, I recently went to Germany for 6 weeks participating in archaeology with Grampus Heritage.  Here is the first post and here is a post with various photos from the dig.  I completed a short report on the placement, and its available here (2011 excavation), on the Grampus website.  I will re-post the report in full to give an impression of what its like to partake in adventure, and encourage all European undergraduates and post graduates to take part.


Ease Magdeburg Leonardo Da Vinci Placement 2011

I had the pleasure of spending six weeks in the city of Magdeburg, Germany, on a Leonardo Da Vinci placement, organised by Grampus Heritage and hosted by the Landesamt für Denkmalspflege und Archäologie Sachsen Anhalt in the summer of 2011.  The archaeological work was based both at the archaeological department and two archaeological sites outside Magdeburg.  The first site was a rescue site ahead of road construction at the village of Domersleben, to the west of the city.  This was a previously unknown medieval cemetery, possibly dating from around the 10th century (the dating wasn’t complete or known), or thereabouts.  The second site was a University of Kiel research dig at a Linearbandkeramik (LBK) site located near the town of Hundisburg, again west of Magdeburg.

Our accommodation was located in the north of the city, in 3 flats in one building.  Before I went I invested in a small guide to basic German Language, and now looking back I wish I had spent a few days learning the basics rather than slowly learning them whilst I was there.  It’s definitely recommended as it helps with basic communication with the residents of the city, and whilst shopping alone.

Magdeburg on the Elbe River

The City

Don’t let first sight of the city deceive you! Magdeburg is a glittering diamond of a city, hewn from a historical smorgasbord of repression and destruction (The 30 Years War, Nazism, & Communism to name a few). Yes, it is plain to see the physical damage wrecked on the city from the Communist city planners, but look a bit closer and it becomes plain that Magdeburg has some rather wonderful and strange buildings.  It also has historical architecture to rival any other German city.  On first entering the city via the RE Bahn, we passed several dilapidated buildings and structures, and each with a nervous glance aside, we wondered what we had let ourselves in for.

But we needn’t have worried.  From the rightly famous Gothic Dom (the first gothic cathedral outside France), to Hundertwasser’s ‘Grune Zitadelle’ & the Jahrtausendturm (Millennium Tower), Magdeburg offers architectural treats in various forms from all sorts of eras.  The wide plazas, from the GDR era, offer lovely views down the long main streets.  The trams that go all throughout the city are easy to hop on and off, and are accessible for wheelchairs, bikes or prams etc.  Just don’t make the mistake of not buying a ticket or sharing the wrong ticket as the tram officers can fairly brusque & rude!  It is very much worth having a good walk around the city to understand the different residential areas & where the main attractions can be located after a few days.

The MIllennium Tower & Dom Cloister

The main drinking outlets of Magdeburg city centre are located in Hasselbach Platz, where the bars tend to be open fairly late and where most people congregate on Friday & Saturday’s.  There are some particularly lovely bars just off this area, and the group located a Turkish Shisha bar just near the main museum.  For a small price you can smoke a variety of flavours of shisha & drink some pretty good cocktails.  Definitely recommended!

After work, I enjoyed nothing more than heading to the nearest lake (in this case Neustadt See- more below), and having a swim in one of the little remote beaches dotted along the lake side.  There is no better way to relax after a hard (and hot) day in the office then to swim in the cool waters.  It also offers a chance to try out some basic German with the Magdeburg residents!  For the more adventurous there was also ‘CableIsland’ at Neustadt See, which offers water skiing on the lake.

There are plenty of shops nearby the flats where we stayed (Neustadt Platz, just North of the city centre and a quick ride on the tram), including a variety of food shops.  One of the first things we noticed was the relative cheaper price of food and everyday goods; beer in particular was also cheap!  Some of our favourite food shops were Kaufland & Pennymarkt, which quickly became a mecca for cheap goods and a wide variety of fresh foods.

The Grune Zitadell

In the city centre there were internet cafes (no disabled access though!), large shopping centres such as the Allee centre & the main post office.  There are plenty of little cafes around offering excellent ice creams and a large selection of foods.  An Italian café near the University soon became a favourite.  Also in the city centre was the Opera House, the main museum, and of course the famous Magdeburg cathedral (or Dom).  These are not to be missed!  Just outside the city centre is the rather impressive and somewhat hidden away Magdeburg Zoo with a wide range of animals on display.  Across the river Elbe to the south of the centre there are a variety of parks such as the Elbaeunpark which houses theMilleniumTower, and the Rotehorn park which has numerous cafes and is ideal for a stroll around. Magdeburg is noted for its greenery and has been noted as one of the top green cities in Germany today.

Elephants at Play

The Work & The Unit

As stated the work in Magdeburg, in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, involved two archaeological digs & finds work at the base.  The first dig, which was open throughout the whole of the six weeks, was a rescue archaeological site which was a medieval cemetery located in the village of Domersleben.  This previously unknown site was earmarked for road construction & expansion, and so ahead of the diggers the cemetery was excavated fully.  We received lifts to and from the site from the on site archaeologists.

Sam & Me excavate a skelly, and view across Domersleben excavation

Altogether at the site numerous burials were found, aligned East to West in the Christian tradition.  On two of the burials knives were found, and it is thought that they cemetery could date from around the 10th to 12th centuries AD.  This was the first time I had worked with human remains in the field, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!  Although I was only able to get out on site 4 times or so because of how damp the site was and because of my own mobility restrictions, I found it engaging, informative & interesting.  I learnt how to carefully uncover the grave cut, how to record and bag the skeleton, & how to be very careful not to miss out any of the bones in the grave fill.  The German team on this site were kind, instructive and helpful.  It was clear that they expected us to get on with the work, rather than nannying the students.

The other site that opened up in the 3rd week was a research led dig by the University of Kiel, of a LBK site near Hundisburg, around 30 to 40 minutes drive  from Magdeburg.  Although I did not take part in this dig because of accessibility issues, I am reassured it was a hard-working site!  The excavation technique at this site was different then the open air site of Domersleben.  Square meter pits were opened and dug to around 10-15cm with sites found being bagged and pinned in situ.  The hours of work were longer then Domersleben, and the students who worked at this site came back quite tired!

I worked mainly at the finds department, engaging in activities I have little done in British archaeological units.  This included drawing artefacts to archaeological specifications, piecing together medieval roof/floor tiles & helping to glue them, and various Bronze Age pottery pieces, back together when/if they fitted.  I also partook in some finds cleaning including processing of human & animal bone, and the usual suspects of ceramics and tiles.

Drawing the artefacts…

My praise of the German finds department team cannot be higher.  Sven, Rainer, Claudia, Secret, Christine, Angelica & Peter all provided a warm welcoming environment in which to learn new skills and acquire new friends.  The archaeological units in Britain could learn a thing or two from the mighty breakfasts enjoyed here!  At the start of the placement the other students rotated round as to who was volunteering with me, but as the second site opened up I went to the department alone.  I was very happy to work with the finds as they provided help when needed and in particular Rainer Kuhn provided a helpful hand in pointing out points of interest in the city.  He, and others, also provided lifts from the University Platz to the department, of his own accord, which was most helpful to me.

Numerous cleaned finds (spot the human bones!)

At first it seemed as if only Rainer and Claudia could speak English but as the weeks progressed and I tried to speak some basic German, communication became easier, and with the help of the translators of Rainer & Google translate conversations were able to take place.

Life Abroad & Trips Out

We had the weekends free and the days and weeks passed by in an easy hypnotic rhythm as we got used to working and living abroad.  We had day trips out to see archaeological sites around the Magdeburg and Sachsen-Anhalt area.  These were provided by Dr Thomas Webber alongside a few other key archaeologists, and included visits to the Palaeolithic Hundisburg site, a medieval deserted village, a Neolithic Megalithic tomb, a wooden castle, and a road development archaeological site.

Hundisburg Deserted Medieval Village

Neolithic Megalithic tomb near Hundisburg

One of my favourite trips and museums was seeing the Prehistory Museum in Halle.  This has got to be one of the most impressive prehistory museums in Germany, with its range from human evolution (Homo Erectus onwards) up until the Bronze and Iron Ages.  In particular some of the displays of the artefacts and block lifted archaeological specimens were amazing and inspirational.  Whilst in Halle we also got to look at a modern archaeological laboratory and were suitable impressed by the block lifted Neolithic well that Goetz showed us.  Halfway through we also all had a trip overnight to see the sights in Berlin.  This was a fantastic trip, with a delightful stay in a St Christopher hostel in Rosa Luxemburg Platz.

The Reichstag!

We managed to cram in most of the museums on Museum Island (Neues Museum, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Museum etc) alongside seeing the sights such as the Berliner Dom, Brandenburg Tor, the Reichstag, a chilling look around the memorial & museum to the murdered Jews of Europe; as well as a walk to the 1.5km stretch of the Berlin Wall that is now given over to artists.

Museum at the Museum Island, Berlin.

All in all Magdeburg provided the perfect base in which to work and relax, and I’m very thankful that Grampus provided the opportunity to live and work abroad.  I have very few regrets about choosing this placement as it was all set up fine, with enough money given for spending and activities, the training given was competent & the archaeological sites were varied and interesting.  Above all I praise dearly the German staff who provided such a warm environment in which to live, work and learn.

Report online here.

My Readings…

13 Sep

Soon I’ll be moving down to Sheffield to study anew.  At the moment, this is my current core collection of books but I feel it will soon be expanded upon…

All the classics… just missing an anatomy book!

Before I left for Sheffield I picked up a DK guide to the complete human body today, alongside a copy of the Concise Book of Muscles; so I have plenty of hard reading and memorising ahead.  Now that I have recently arrived in Sheffield and had the introduction talk for the MSc in Human Osteology today (21st Sept),  I also gained the Human Anatomy Colour Atlas & Textbook by Gosling et al for the Human Anatomy module.  Now I have too much reading!

Any recommendations?  Please comment below!


8 Sep

Apologies for the lack of updates; please bear with me.  I’ve had a busy past few weeks & the future doesn’t look any less busy! Preparation for moving down to start the Msc Human Osteology & Funerary Archaeology program at the University Sheffield have begun, but I’m still on the look out for a lab coat!  I move to the city shortly, but I’m still enjoying the time I have left in my hometown.  This year has flown by a bit too quickly!

The next Skeletal Series update will concern the human hip bones, and their form and function.  They are particularly key in both age and sex diagnosis of the individual.  I’ll also shortly start a brief write-up of the German Grampus placement & the activities we got up to, since I’ve finally just got round to finishing their report for the program online.

I did manage to read my way through Waldron’s (2009) ‘Palaeopathology’  manual whilst I was in Germany, and what a delight it was too! I’d highly recommend reading it, especially if you are going to be working with human bones from archaeological sites.  I have a feeling that this book, and the Human Bone Manual, will not be far from my side in the next few months.  ‘Palaeopathlogy’ offers ‘Operational Definitions’ which help to improve the diagnosis of disease in ancient human remains via clinical definitions and backgrounds. I would say this is a must have, especially since a lot of the palaeopathogical literature cannot be cross examined due to the differences in rational & criteria used.

A quick scan of BBC’s online news website reveals that a late stone age skull discovered from Iwo Eleru in Nigeria has some interesting ‘primative’ features associated with human evolution.  The online article can be found here at PLoS online.  The article deals with the chronology and morphology of the Iwo Eleru calvaria.  This is a very interesting article as it deals with a skull that shows similar morphological features present in archaic homo sapiens humans around 100,000 years ago but its found in a  context that is dated to around 15,000BP.  It is also rare that human remains are found during this date in West Africa.  The article states that this cranium fragment represents ‘evidence of deep population substructure in Africa and complex evolutionary processes for the origin of modern humans’, that the archaic homo sapiens didn’t just cut off after Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) appeared.  Frankly, I think this also highlights what is often forgotten in the prehistoric & palaeolithic archaeological record.  It is not just migration out of Africa and the dispersal of AMH that is fascinating and interesting, but also to still keep looking and researching inside Africa to see the evolutionary and populational changes still concurrent with human expansion elsewhere.

I also noticed the other that over at John Hawks’s weblog he has announced the Malapa Soft Tissue project.  This project aims to discover if soft tissues from an ancient hominid has been preserved from the Malapa site cave site, just outside Johannesburg in South Africa.  Recently discussed in the National Geographic magazine, the hominids discovered at this site are believe do to be Australopithecus Sediba, a possible intermediate form between the Australopithecus & Homo genus.  Much information remains to be gleamed from these exciting and relatively complete finds.  Up to date information on the MST project can be found on the John Hawks link.  Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this project is that is it open access science; you are encouraged to take a part and offer your expertise!  Keep an eye on it and see where it leads…

I’ll be back shortly.

Further news on A. Sediba

My Mesolithic-Neolithic Article in The Post Hole!

2 Sep

Unbeknownst to me whilst I’ve been gallivanting  in central Europe an article that I wrote for The Post Hole, a University of York student ran archaeological journal, has finally been published in the magazine and has been let loose online.

The Post Hole is an online magazine set up by the University of York archaeological students, for both students to write articles in and to promote ideas in the wider archaeological community.  Several editions of the magazine are released each academic year, often with a vast range of topics covered in the same edition.  This edition (the 17th) covers the theme of prehistory, and specifically the Mesolithic & Neolithic periods.  My article, ‘Nuances in the Archaeological Record Regarding Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition’, can be found here.

Post Hole Article

My article as it appears on the Post Hole journal site.

Also in this edition of the Post Hole are articles dealing with the media perception of prehistory, assessment and usefulness of radiocarbon dates during colonisation events & an argument for a greater integrated approach in interpreting prehistoric cultures.  Some of you who have been following the blog for a while may recognise my article from an earlier entry but there have been some time lapses between my original submission and availability online (so keep shtum!).  Writing for university student ran journals or papers can be a great way to meet new people, spread new ideas and highlight little researched areas as well as helping to practicing your writing style and presentation.  I’d encourage everyone to have a go!


Mennear, D. 2011. Nuances in the Archaeological Record Regarding the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition. In The Post Hole. 17: 5-9.