Archive | September, 2013

Guest Post: ‘TrowelBlazers’ by Alison Atkin

30 Sep

Alison Atkin is currently a doctoral researcher in osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield, where she is studying the demographic characterization of mass fatality incidents in the past and the present.  Her blog, Deathsplanation, details her on-going research and her general fascination with death and the sciences.  Alison also runs the Penny University, a site where she interviews upcoming researchers on their specialist topics.  If you are a researcher and interested in engaging the public via the Penny University, please contact Alison here.

It never bothered me growing up that I didn’t know about women like Frederica de Laguna, Mary Chubb, and Adela Catherine Breton.  It didn’t stop me from becoming an archaeologist.  The seeming lack of females in the field had no impact whatsoever on my decision to attend university for a degree in the subject for which I am most passionate.  It never crossed my mind.  I never questioned it.  Perhaps I should have.  For it bothers me now.  It staggers my mind that for years, as an individual with an interest in archaeology and related subjects, I never came across these women.  They were never pointed in my direction.  It seems an unlikely impossibility.  And yet, I am not the only one.

Enter TrowelBlazers.

A few short months ago, four individuals decided to do something about this historical void of female individuals in archaeology, palaeontology, and geology.  Because it isn’t a void at all – it’s a remarkable web of women that span the existence, origin, and expansion of these fields, inevitably impacting their current (and some would say future) place in the history of science – and, if I may be so bold, the world.

Victoria Herridge (Palaeobiologist), Suzanne Pilaar-Birch (Zooarchaeologist), Rebecca Wragg-Sykes (Archaeologist), and Brenna Hassett (Dental Anthropologist) created the tumblr TrowelBlazers.  In their own words, “This tumblr is a celebration of women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realise.  Because we think these women are awesome.  We think you’ll think these women are awesome.  And we want to keep on discovering more awesome trowel-wielding women.”  I also quite agree with the sentiment that in addition to all of the above, they also created this site because “so many of the pictures are, quite frankly, a-MAZ-ing.”  I defy anyone to resist the site for lure of the photos alone.

When I heard about TrowelBlazers I immediately recognised it as something I wanted to support.  I wanted to know about the women who has helped blaze a trail for people like me to enter these fields… often without giving them a second thought (or as in my case, even a first thought).  I wanted to be an active part of the amazing community that exists between scientists in these fields, which fosters an even deeper admiration for the subject with which I have spent my entire life becoming acquainted. I started researching these women.  Within the first week of Trowelblazers launching I had wrote a post for the site about a woman I had not heard of before their endeavour.  I only found her because they pushed me to be curious.  Am I ever glad they did.  Meet Jane.

Jane Dieulafoy TB

Jane Dieulafoy, a Persian pioneer and meticulous recorder, was one of the finest explorers and archaeologists of her age (Source: TrowelBlazers).

Jane (Jeanne) Dieulafoy (1851-1916) was a crossing-dressing, war fighting, horseback adventuring, novel writing, archaeologist – she was, very simply put, amazing.

She is an inspiring human being.

She is not alone.

There are already more than 45 featured posts on Trowelblazers and, with a list of over 100 other women to feature, it already seems a project that will continue for many years to come.  If you haven’t already, you should go and check it out.

If this is a subject that interests you – and you think that more people should be made aware of the influential female individuals in these subjects – then there is a way for you to get involved.  In addition to submitting entries for the tumblr blog, you can participate in the upcoming Wikipedia editathon, which is taking place in London on October 19th at the Natural History Museum.  This event is aiming to improve the visibility of a host of forgotten women in science on the internet, with the TrowelBlazer team focusing on Dorothea Bate, Dorothy Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Elinor W. Gardner, Etheldred Bennett, Nina Layard, Margaret Murray, Helen Muir-Wood, and Grace Crowfoot.

The event is open both to people new to Wikipedia and to experienced contributors.  There will be practical training in how to edit a Wikipedia page, support and resources on-hand to make editing easier, and they’ve also lined up a team of experts (biographers and historians) to talk about trowelblazing women and to lend their expertise on the day.  There will also be a unique opportunity to see fossils from the NHM collections collected by these pioneering women, which are not normally on display to the general public.

If you interested in the event, but aren’t able to attend, you can follow the activities throughout the day with live-tweets from both the TrowelBlazer and Women’s Room twitter accounts.

While we’re on the subject of improving the visibility of women in the past, there is something that I must mention.  I think this point needs to go hand in hand when promoting endeavours such as TrowelBlazers.  It is, that, when regarding the history of science there can be a tendency to overstate the contributions of women in the past, in order compensate for their lack of opportunity, almost in an attempt to equalise their places in the history books.  I know that I am not alone in this view, as was evidenced by the response to historian Rebekah Higgit  when she stated it ever so well on Twitter a few months ago.  I do think it is important to keep in mind that however unfortunate it is, the past was not equal (let us not broach this matter in the present as that is another post entirely).  While nevertheless some women were defying social conventions and we should indeed celebrate their efforts and their achievements (and huzzah to TrowelBlazers for being at the forefront of this) we should not forget all of the other women who played a role in the history of science (and indeed, all of those who did not).  We should look not only to the women who stood out from the crowd, but also to those who worked behind the scenes.  We should not feel compelled to alter history in an attempt to rectify past wrongs.  We should use it as a reminder to all of us who are interested, involved, and invested in these subjects today of just how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

I recently discovered an example of these women, in Anna and Susanna Lister, who are firmly rooted in the history of the natural sciences.  Their father, Martin Lister, was a medical doctor by profession but he had, in his own words, “the greatest enthusiasm” for natural history and was a collector of insects, spiders, and shells.  He compiled the first organized, systematic publication on shells and in its final edition, the work was illustrated with 1062 plates of shells – all the work of his daughters Anna and Susanna.  Yet, while their contributions to science were remembered, their identities were almost forgotten entirely.  It was not until Martin Lister’s own words were found in which he proudly referenced the plates as “the original drawings of my daughters” that credit was once again given where credit was due.  It seems there is a lot to learn about these women (and their amazing illustrations).  I imagine that there are many more women like them from history to be rediscovered, recognised, and remembered for their own contributions to science.

It makes me very glad to see that TrowelBlazers is not alone in their aim to spread the word on the role of women in the many fields science throughout history.  Since learning about these women it has made me realise that although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was missing out.  It didn’t bother me, because I didn’t know any better.  I may have ended up exactly where I wanted to be, but I cannot help but feel that if I had known about women like Dorothy Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, or Jane Dieulafoy earlier in my life I may have got here in a slightly different way – and I might have been a slightly different archaeologist because of them.  I aim to redress issue this immediately, starting with TrowelBlazers and ending… well, who yet knows where this will end.

A Silent Angel

28 Sep

I’ve recently acquired a Pentax S1a camera so I took it for a try out with some black and white film and took some photographs of local landmarks.  Although a good few of the photographs on the roll didn’t develop (due to me being a novice with such things), I’ve managed to get a few good snaps I think, including this one below of a local cemetery.


The Stranton Grange cemetery, in Hartlepool, England, opened in 1912 and houses the town’s main crematorium, which opened in 1954.  The cemetery is still a working cemetery and accepts the majority of the town’s deceased.  The grounds accept inhumation of human remains as well as the burying of cremated remains, although markers and memorial stones are also accepted in remembrance of the dead.  The graves are orientated on the east to west axis, as standard practice in christian burial grounds, although the rows are often back to back.  Although the number of those buried at the cemetery are unknown (numbering at least into the thousands), there is still plenty of land available for future burials. Photograph by author.

Archaeologists often work with the dead, whether it is excavating the remains of individuals in long forgotten cemeteries or discovering king’s under car-parks, and are recognisably in a privileged position when doing so.  Not many professions can claim to work directly with the deceased or with the artefacts of populations long since vanished.  Although I have not worked with the osteological remains of individuals for a few months now, it takes only a second to remember that modern cemeteries are often beautiful places to reconnect with our loved ones, and for a place to sit and reflect on our own mortality.

A Quick Trip To The Deep

25 Sep

Browsing around online I happened to find this interesting article over at the Nature site based on a study of the observed osteological changes and the long-term effects of deep-sea diving on a selection of sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) skeletal remains.   The article, by Moore and Early (2004), highlights the value of conducting osteological work on animal remains, especially in consideration of furthering the knowledge of oceanic mammals and how their bodies react to their deep water lifestyle.  The study examined 16 partial or complete modern sperm whale carcasses from both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, with the results finding the effects of osteonecrosis affecting the chevron and rib articular surfaces and nasal bones, which increased in severity with age of the individuals studied in the sample (Moore & Early 2004: 2215).

Osteonecrosis itself is a recognised chronic pathology in humans, albeit one with numerous aetiologies which can include irradiation, dysbaric stress, thermal injuries, and hemopoietic disorders among others, but Moore & Early (2004: 2215) highlight the fact that “nitrogen emboli induced the observed (dysbaric) osteonecrosis” in the studied sperm whale skeletons.  This indicates that the whales suffered the progressive cumulative effects of the bends during disturbed dives which led to the destructive bone changes during the course of the whales life.  Importantly this study indicates that it “appears that sperm whales may be neither anatomically nor physiologically immune to the effects of deep diving” (Moore & Early 2004: 2215), insofar as much as previously thought.


Hopkin, M. 2004. Sperm Whales Suffer the Bends. Nature. Online Article. doi:10.1038/news041220-13.

Moore, M. J. & Early, G. A. 2004. Cumulative Sperm Whale Bone Damage and the Bends. Science. 306 (5705): 2215.

A Mesolithic Tsunami & Heavenly Bodies

23 Sep

Over at Spencer Carter’s Microburin blog a recent post has discussed the possible evidence for the Mesolithic Storegga tsunami in the Tees bay in north eastern England.  Although normally concerned with Mesolithic flints Spencer has crafted a wonderfully detailed and engaging post on the archaeological and palaeo-environmental evidence for marine regressions and transgressions in the bay, helping to highlight the rich (and perhaps I’d say overlooked) archaeological record for the north east of England.  In particular this post highlights the value of researching monographs from local archaeological units, and of new vital research into the character of the Mesolithic period in northern England.

The challenging and changing nature of the Tees bay in evaluating the palaeo-environmental changes highlights the necessity to cast a critical eye over the available literature and on-going research projects.  In particular highlighting the effects of long term international events (recline of the last great ice sheets and post-glacial recolonisation) with the regional and national differences in the organisation of societal organisation during the Mesolithic, Neolithic and preceding Bronze ages.  Spencer’s post really integrates the relationship between the physical geography and the impact on the human use of the landscape and of societal organisation: this is a rich area of investigation.  The Storegga slide events, an massive slide of landmass of the Norwegian coastal shelf around 6100 BC, would have had an phenomenal effect of the communities and landscapes affected, and although the palaeo-environmental evidence at Hartlepool and the Tees bay finds no direct evidence for it (as of yet), there are indications of similar ‘surges’ of sea level in similar horizons (Waughman 2005).  This is a fruitful topic, perhaps one of the most interesting in Mesolithic studies, and Spencer’s post helps to put it in context.

Meanwhile I was recently in Sheffield to catch a guest lecture by Los Angeles based art historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris at the University’s Archaeology department.  Detailing the findings of his recently released book, ‘Heavenly Bodies’, Koudounaris expertly detailed the majestic bejeweled saints that can be found throughout Central Europe in a captivating and enlightening lecture.  The book itself details the wonderfully decorated ‘saints’ (decorated skeletons) in more detail with a lively and informative text accompanying the highly textured photography, truly bringing the so called ‘saints’ back into the limelight.


The bejeweled skeleton of St Valerius in Weyarn, Germany. Note the careful attention to detail of the wire gold hair, jeweled mandible, eyes and nose, and extravagant torso decorations. The ‘saints’ were often skeletons picked seemingly at random from the catacombs and given a saints name, although there are many miracles attributed to the skeletons once they were placed in-situ in their church (Source, photograph by Paul Koudounaris).

Various Imperial Roman catacomb burials of Christians (such as Coemeterium Jordanorum & Coemeterium Priscillae) were rediscovered accidentally during the 15th and 16th centuries in and near Rome, at a time of revolt in the Christian world as the Protestant Reformation helped to split the Catholic church in Europe.  The Catholic church, sensing a possible use of the newly discovered skeletons, used the remains as examples of early Christian martyrs despite next to no evidence and only vague documentary evidence in the catacombs themselves.  Having agreed that certain skeletons represented Christians martyred during the Roman period, the church shipped many of the articulated and non-articulated remains to German speaking lands (such as Germany, Austria, Poland and Switzerland, as they represented the heart of the Reformation movement) and had the remains re-enforced with gauze, decorated with jewels and silk and displayed them in prominent positions in churches throughout Central Europe as a method of inspiring and supporting the counter reformation movement (Koudounaris 2013: 32).  Following centuries of displaying the holy relics, many of the ostentatiously decorated individuals were removed from show during the 19th and 20th centuries as they became viewed as being outdated and embarrassing motifs for the Catholic church.


The remains of St Albertus, arrived in Burgrain, Germany, in 1723. Note the particularly fine decoration of the golden hair and heavily jeweled torso, which indicate the wealth of heaven awaiting the faithful. Often the skeletons were re-enforced with gauze, silk and sometimes cardboard inside to support the torso. St Albertus clearly has a mandible which probably does not belong to the above crania, note the uneven dental wear (Source, photograph by Paul Koudounaris).

Frankly the saints that Koudounaris has managed to find in the predominantly German speaking countries of Central Europe are first and foremost works of art of a very high standard, many crafted with care and dedication over months and years by small teams of nuns and church members.  Although many are now lost to history, either destroyed, lost or hidden completely, a small platoon still survive and still on view in many churches across Central Europe (Koudounaris 2013: 174).

If you ever happen to be around Sheffield, the University archaeology department often run Tuesday dinnertime guest lectures which are sometimes (I believe mostly) open to department members and the public alike, it is well worth a look in!  Paul Koudounaris is also currently taking in a number of guest lectures with upcoming talks based in north America, further information can be found here.


Carter, S. 2013. Storegga Mesolithic Tsunami: Is There Evidence in the Tees Area?  Microburin Blog. 24th August 2013.

Koudounaris, P. 2013. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Waughman, M. (Ed.) 2005. Archaeology and Environment of Submerged Landscapes in Hartlepool Bay, England. Tees Archaeology Monograph. Vol 1.

A Capital Visit

14 Sep

Ah London, the capital city.  I was just a day tripper but I was greeted by the usual spectacle: the cacophony of car horns, the multitude of legs pounding the pavement and the incessant drizzle of the rain.  It all helped to provide a fine backdrop to this most hectic of cities.  It was the first visit for me to that bastion of the bibliophile, the British Library, a mere stones throw from King’s Cross.  Primarily here to view the ‘Propaganda‘ exhibition, I was left with a tangible taste of excitement upon seeing a copy of the Magna Carta (who knew there were 4 copies surviving?).   I was further left in awe whilst viewing the actual hand writing of Henry the VIII, of a letter sent to friends from Sir Isaac Newton in the midst of a probable mental breakdown during his mid 50’s, and on being able to read a note wrote by Darwin when answering his mounting correspondence and queries after the publication of ‘On The Origin of Species‘.  The detailed drawing of the dimensions of the human body by Albrecht Dürer, and the doodles of ideas and architectural fancies by Leonardo, on display were certainly worth the train journey down alone and it was hard to believe that these diagrams were over, or nearing, 500 years of age.  The propaganda exhibition was good (worth a look certainly, just bring some money), but it was these historic pages upstairs in the free to enter Sir John Ritblat Gallery that fired my imagination.

It was great to be able to read Elizabeth the I’s delicate but iron script, of the two examples juxtaposed next to each other: a letter she wrote from her days a young princess to a royal friend sitting quietly next to a death warrant she signed as Queen, both with the same elegant swaying ‘z’ of her signature.  Furthermore the exhibition made me realise the value of the written word, of the official documents and the personal papers that we leave behind, of our own letter trail that lasts long after our own deaths.

But also of the non-physical words we read each day, of the digital.  This blog will leave no material or physical self behind once it has gone.  I may have to print out copies of the posts themselves for my own future reference.  (I have also briefly considered printing the Skeletal Series posts out and making them into some sort of mini-manual to be posted out for free for any interested people, after they have been revised/edited of course).  But this is a tangent for another post, on the value and longevity of blogging.  Of course I could not leave the Library without first grabbing a new work of literature to read, and, true to the theme of the propaganda exhibition, I chose to indulge in some Soviet literature in the form of Platonov’s The Foundation Pit*.  Although not published in the Soviet Union during Platonov’s lifetime (1899-1951) due to his views, the book, and his canon of work, have gone on to acclaim despite his sidelining during the Soviet years.

After leaving the grand British Library we ambled over to the Wellcome Trust’s permanent exhibition entitled ‘Medicine Now‘, located at the Trust’s base on Euston Road.  A vibrant mix of art and science, the exhibition introduces challenging and rewarding concepts in the field of human biology, particularly in the individual perception of the body itself.  The exhibition itself, though small, makes the visitors interact with the displays themselves, actively encouraging participation and learning.  Science itself is intensely creative, whether in research or in it’s application, and the exhibition helped to demonstrate this most important of facts repeatedly.

So if you find yourself on a wet and gray day with a few hours free in central London, I’d highly recommend you check out the British Library and the Wellcome Trust for the free exhibitions on offer.

* I have since finished reading ‘The Foundation Pit’, and I highly recommend reading it.

Interview with Lorna Tilley: The ‘Bioarchaeology of Care’ Methodology

10 Sep

Lorna Tilley has just completed her PhD studies in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra.  Her PhD thesis focused on the behavioral and social responses to the individual experience of disability in prehistoric communities.  Lorna has developed a methodology titled the ‘bioarchaeology of care’ that contextualises, identifies and interprets care-giving in the archaeological record.  Lorna can be contacted at

These Bones of Mine: Hello Lorna and welcome to These Bones of Mine! Firstly could you tell us a little about yourself and your research interests? 

Lorna Tilley: Hello David – and thanks for having me.

I’m a latecomer to archaeology.  Ten years ago I decided I needed a change in life direction, so I returned to university to  indulge a long-held passion for prehistory.  I studied for a Graduate Diploma in Archaeology at the Australian National University (this was a ‘bridging course’ for people with qualifications in another field), and was then awarded a scholarship to undertake the PhD research which resulted in the bioarchaeology of care approach.

Stepping back, my first degree (1981) was in behavioural and social psychology – in other words, a focus on the study of human behaviour in the present, which from the very beginning provided an invaluable perspective for addressing questions about behaviour in the past – because, for me, archaeology is fundamentally about understanding people and their agency.  My background in psychology made a major contribution to constructing the conceptual foundations for the bioarchaeology of care.

I’ve had the usual range of mundane to exotic jobs, all of which are part of the life history I bring to interpreting evidence from the past.  But it’s my work in the healthcare sector that’s most immediately relevant to my archaeological research into the implications of healthcare provision in prehistory.

For example, after leaving school and through part of my first go at university I did quite a bit of nursing – in public and private hospitals and in nursing homes, including work in general nursing, care of the intellectually disabled, rehabilitation and aged care.  While I didn’t go on to qualify as a registered nurse, this hands-on experience clearly helped to inform development of aspects of the bioarchaeology of care methodology.

I’ve also helped develop public health policies and programs, and for almost a decade before beginning archaeological studies my job included advising on, monitoring and disseminating research on health outcomes assessment and health status measurement. All this fed into my work in developing a bioarchaeology of care methodology that, while qualitative and – inevitably – restricted to individual cases of care-giving, nonetheless provides a level of standardisation that allows review and replication by others.

My PhD thesis is titled Towards a Bioarchaeology of Care: A contextualised approach for identifying and interpreting health-related care provision in prehistory, so it’s fairly obvious where my research focus lies – the provision and receipt of health-related care in prehistory, and what such instances of care can reveal about both the community in which care occurred and the agency and identity of those involved in the care-giving relationship.

Being insatiably curious, however, my interests are even wider – any evidence of superficially anomalous behaviour in the past grabs my attention.  Why did the people of this community make pots in this way rather than that?  Why are people in one cemetery buried in seemingly random orientations and positions, when people in a contemporary neighbouring cemetery are all buried supine, extended and with heads to the east?  Why are stone tools found in a certain site made from materials sourced over a hundred miles away, when there is perfectly serviceable stone available in the immediate vicinity?  And so on.

TBOM: Could you explain your methodology, the ‘bioarchaeology of care’, and a bit of background as to why you thought it was necessary to produce such a method?

Lorna: Firstly, the methodology itself.  I won’t go into a lot of detail here (this would take pages), but for readers wanting more I’m attaching the text version of an invited article describing the bioarchaeology of care approach for the theme issue ‘New Directions in Bioarchaeology’, published in the Society of American Archaeologists’ journal The Archaeological Record, May 2012

In brief, the bioarchaeology of care is an original, fully-theorised and contextualised case study-based approach for identifying and interpreting disability and health-related care practices within their corresponding lifeways.  Its goal is to reveal elements of past social relations, socioeconomic organisation and group and individual identity which might otherwise slip below the radar.  And that would be our loss.

Before describing the applied methodology, some scene-setting is necessary.

In archaeology, the experience of pathology during life may be expressed in human remains through anomalies in either bone or preserved soft tissue.  Health-related care provision is inferred from physical evidence that an individual survived with, or recovered from, a disease or injury likely to have resulted in serious disability.

Following from this, I define ‘care’ as the provision of assistance to an individual experiencing pathology who would otherwise have been unlikely to survive to achieved age-of-death.  This care-giving may have taken the form of ‘direct support’ (such as nursing, physical therapy, provisioning) or ‘accommodation of difference’ (such as strategies to enable participation in social and economic activity) or a mixture of both.

I use the term ‘disability’ in the same way as the World Health Organisation – to refer to a state (temporary or longer-term) arising from an impairment in body function or structure that is associated with activity limitations and/or participation restrictions, and – very importantly – given meaning in relation to the lifeways in which it is experienced.

The central principle driving the bioarchaeology of care approach is that caring for a person with a health-related disability is a conscious, purposive interaction involving caregiver(s) and care-recipient(s).  Care is not a default behaviour – care giving and care-receiving constitute expressions of agency.

Neither does care take place in a void – understanding the context of care provision is absolutely essential in trying to understand (i) what constitutes ‘health’, ‘disease’ and ‘disability’ in the first place; (ii) the options available for care and the options selected; and (iii) what the likely choices made in relation to care reveal about the players involved.  If we can deconstruct the evidence for care within this framework, then we may be able to achieve some insights into aspects of culture, values, skills, knowledge and access to resources of the society in which care-giving occurred.  And if we can draw out some understanding of how the person at the receiving end of the care equation responded to their experience of disability we can even, perhaps, achieve some feel for aspects of this individual’s identity.

If you think this sounds deceptively easy, you’re right.  There are important caveats, and some of these are identified in the attached article.

The bioarchaeology of care methodology comprises four stages of analysis: description and diagnosis; establishing disability impact and determining the case for care; deriving a ‘model of care’; and interpreting the broader implications of care given.  Each stage builds on the contents of preceding ones.

Stage 1 is triggered by human remains showing evidence of living with, or following, a serious pathology.  It records every aspect of the remains, the pathology, and the contemporary lifeways.

Stage 2 considers the likely clinical and functional impacts of the pathology on the subject.  Modern clinical sources are used to consider likely clinical impacts.  This is legitimate because human biology is a constant; tuberculosis, for example, would elicit the same potential range of physiological responses in the past and present (it’s important to remember that each individual with this disease will respond in their own way, and that we can never recover this level of individual detail).

Estimating functional impacts involves considering likely demands, obstacles and opportunities in the contemporary lifeways environment, and evaluating the probable effects of clinical symptoms on the subject’s ability to cope with these.  For example, could the individual have carried out the most basic tasks necessary for personal survival – such as feeding or toileting themselves – often referred to as ‘activities of daily living’?  Or an individual may have been independent in this regard, but could they have fulfilled all the requirements of a ‘normal’ role (whatever that might have been for someone of their demographic) in their community?

The second stage establishes whether, on balance of probability, the individual experienced a disability requiring either ‘direct support’ or ‘accommodation’.  If the answer is ‘yes’, then we infer care.

Stage 3 identifies what – in broad terms – this care likely comprised, producing a ‘model of care’ within the parameters of the possible and the probable in the contemporary context.  The fine details of care will always be inaccessible, but basic practices – such as provisioning, staunching bleeding, massage and manipulation – don’t change.  Sometimes there may be evidence of treatment intervention in the remains themselves, but most often the practical components of treatment will be deduced from knowledge of the likely clinical and functional impacts.

Stage 4 unpacks and interprets the model of care developed over the first three stages.  It explores what the constituent elements of care-giving – singly or in combination – suggest both about contemporary social practice and social relations and about group and individual (care-recipient) identity.

I’ve presented the case of the Burial 9 (M9) so frequently over the last few years that I almost feel I know him personally – M9 was the young man from Neolithic Vietnam who lived for around a decade with total lower body paralysis and limited upper limb mobility following complications of a congenital condition (Klippel-Feil Syndrome).  His survival with (partial) quadriplegia for approximately 10 years, under very physically and psychologically challenging conditions, provides an indisputable example of past health-related care. There is simply no way that he could have survived without constant and often intensive care provision.

In the graphic that follows I’ve mapped the analysis of M9’s experience against the four stages of the bioarchaeology of care methodology described above.  More detailed information can be found in ‘Tilley, L. and Oxenham, M.F.  2011  Survival against the odds: modeling the social implications of care provision to seriously disabled individuals.  International Journal of Paleopathology 1:35-42.’ (anyone having difficulty obtaining the article can email me).


Source: Tilley (2013: 3).

You also asked me why I thought it necessary to develop the bioarchaeology of care approach.

Researching my thesis I found at least 35 publications, dating back over more than 30 years, that explicitly identify the ‘likelihood of care provision’ in respect of archaeologically-recovered individuals.  But none has analysed the evidence for care in a structured, systematic manner capable of providing access to the sort of information illustrated in the case study of M9.  It was obvious to me – particularly given my pre-archaeology experience – that a very rich source of information was being overlooked.  True, the bioarchaeology of care only allows us to look at individual instances of care-giving (this is elaborated in the attached article) – but this case study focus provides a very intimate look at broader aspects of past lifeways.  Not quantity, perhaps, but quality.

TBOM: Are there any boundaries as to when the ‘bioarchaeology of care’ model can and can’t be applied to individuals in the archaeological record?  Could you apply it to historic and prehistoric contexts, or is it mainly a tool for prehistoric cultures and periods?

Lorna: In developing the bioarchaeology of care I concentrated exclusively on evidence for health-related care-giving in small groups up to, and around, the period of the ‘early Neolithic’ – in other words, the time before the establishment of larger, more socially and economically complex, settlements.  This was entirely pragmatic – to make my task simpler, I wanted to deal with lifeways contexts in which it would be justifiable to assume that an individual with a disability would likely be known to all community members, and where it would also be justifiable to assume that, if care provision entailed substantial cost, that cost was likely to have been an impost born by the group as a whole.  This made it easier to figure out how analysis and interpretation might work.

I don’t see any reason why the bioarchaeology of care couldn’t be applied to later prehistoric and even historic settings – and actually, I’d love to do this.  It would obviously involve looking at some additional and/or different questions – for example, how might individual status within the group be related to need for, and receipt of, care?  What happens to care-giving when healthcare provision is outsourced to ‘specialist’ carers?  And how do documented approaches to healthcare (particularly in early historic periods) tally with what the archaeological evidence suggests?  Exploring such questions will be a lot more complicated than I’ve made it sound here.  But how challenging to look for possible answers!

TBOM: As stated in your 2011 article in the International Journal of Palaeopathology, the ‘bioarchaeology of care’ models the social implications of disability for the impact on not just the individual afflicted but the society as a whole, why is that such an important part of the model?

Lorna: I hope that I’ve already answered this question – at least implicitly – in what I’ve written above.  Perhaps it would be acceptable to limit bioarchaeology of care analysis to teasing out the impact of disability on the individual alone, but it would only be part of the story – and it seems to me that to stop at this point would be a criminal waste of the sparse evidence we have about  past lives and lifeways.

I think it’s quite possible that some archaeologists dealing with evidence of likely care-giving may have to stop at Stage 3 of the methodology, because not enough is known about the social, cultural and physical environment in which care was provided to enable an attempt at further interpretation.  That’s fair enough.  However, I also think that some researchers may be so uncomfortable in attempting the interpretive analysis demanded in Stage 4 that they’ll decline to do so, on the grounds that such analysis is merely ‘speculation’.  I think that’s a shame.

I don’t think there’s ever 100% certainty in archaeological interpretation. But what matters is that we approach the task of interpretation systematically, rigorously and transparently, presenting arguments in such a way that others can follow the steps taken and, where appropriate, challenge both the evidence and the reading of the evidence – refining and even recasting conclusions reached.

Even putting forward possibilities later shown to be improbable opens our minds to considering a broader vision of the past.  This sounds a bit abstract, I know – but I’d invite readers to return to the graphic summarising the bioarchaeology of care analysis of M9’s experience.  M9 comes from the Man Bac community.  Before the bioarchaeology of care analysis we knew quite a lot about how this group lived in general terms – their diet, economy, demography and mortuary customs.  But we didn’t know anything about who they were – and now I think we do.  I think the bioarchaeology of care analysis revealing the agency of caregiving can pay rich dividends.

Man Bac Burial 9 in situ

An in-situ photograph from the early Vietnamese Neolithic site of Man Bac displaying the individual known as M9 immediately before removal. Man Bac burials were typically supine and extended, but M9 was buried in a flexed position – this may reflect muscle contracture experienced in life and unbroken in death, or a deliberate mark of difference in mortuary treatment. M9’s gracile limbs show extreme disuse atrophy, a product of quadriplegia resulting from complications of Klippel-Feil Syndrome (Tilley & Oxenham 2011: 37).

TBOM: Dettwyler, in her 1991 article ‘Can palaeopathology provide evidence for compassion?’, questioned the assumptions underlying the inferences of archaeologists and human osteologists, and famously stated “what, then, can we learn of compassion from a study of bones and artifacts?” The answer must be, “practically nothing”.  How does your own methodology change or challenge this view?

Lorna: While it’s true that the title of Katherine Dettwyler’s article is ‘Can paleopathology provide evidence for compassion?’, the real argument in this article is that archaeology can tell nothing meaningful about individual experience of disability in its entirety.  The author questions whether archaeological evidence for disease can be used to infer a disability requiring care in the first place, and uses ethnographic analogy to support this position.  I’ve probably said enough about the bioarchaeology of care approach to make it clear how strongly I oppose this view.

While I greatly admire Dettwyler’s passionate support for the modern disability rights agenda – which I see as the sub-text of her writing – I disagree with almost every point she makes in her article about archaeology’s (lack of) ability to identify care and compassion in the past.  I’ll just make a couple of general observations here.

I think one of the most fundamental problems with this paper is that it doesn’t provide clear definitions of concepts central to its argument.  Disability (or ‘handicap’, a more commonly used term twenty years ago) is referred to as a purely social construct throughout, and this allows the proposition that what constituted disability in prehistory must forever be unknowable because the social values that determined disability are inaccessible through archaeological analysis.  But this ignores the reality of the at least partially ‘knowable’ clinical and functional impacts that people with health-related disabilities also have to manage in their lives.  Discerning social disadvantage may be problematic, although arguably not always completely impossible, but – as demonstrated by the bioarchaeology of care methodology – given adequate contextual information it’s possible to identify some of the likely barriers to participation in cultural, economic and physical activities that required a care-giving response.

The paper also conflates ‘care-giving’, which is a behaviour, and ‘compassion’, which is a motivation, and fails to define either.  This is of significant concern, because these terms have very different meanings.  It is undeniably easier to infer the likely provision of care-giving from physical evidence in human remains than it is to identify the motivation(s) underlying this care, which are always going to be multiple and messy – because this is simply how life is.  I believe that this semantic confusion, allied with a lack of consideration of the clinical and functional implications of disease, invalidates both the five ‘implicit assumptions’ presented by the author as underlying archaeological interpretations of disability and the paper’s criticisms of the three studies (Shanidar 1, Romito 2 and the Windover Boy) used to illustrate supposed deficiencies in archaeological claims for care.

Katherine Dettwyler’s 1991 article has had a powerful negative influence on archaeological research into health-related care-giving, and it’s widely cited in explaining why such research is ‘impossible’.

I think the bioarchaeology of care approach shows the exact opposite – not only is research into past care-giving eminently possible, but in terms of getting an insight into complex, interpersonal dynamics operating in prehistory it’s potentially one of the most rewarding areas of focus available.

TBOM: Having now completed your PhD study at the Australian National University, what is the next step for yourself and your research?  Are you continuing projects in South East Asia, with on-going excavations in Vietnam?

Lorna: I’ve got a couple of projects in mind.

Firstly, I’m hoping to turn ‘Towards a bioarchaeology of care’ into a book.  There’s already been some interest in my dissertation from (bio)archaeologists as well as from researchers in other disciplines, so I’m hoping that such a book would have an audience.  Anyone interested in exactly what my thesis covers can email me (, and I’ll send you my thesis abstract.

Secondly, my thesis introduces the Index of Care, which is a non-prescriptive, computer-based instrument intended to support ‘thinking through’ the application of the four stages of the bioarchaeology of care methodology.  I describe the Index as a cross between a prompt and an aide-mémoire, and I’m planning to develop it as a web-based application freely available to anyone who wants to use it.  The present Index is in the very early beta version stage – I’m responsible for the content and interface design, and I’m open in saying that these require a lot more work!  (My partner did the actual IT production, so I take no credit for this aspect – which actually works!)  I’ll be calling for volunteers interested in helping to test and provide feedback on the Index in the near future, and I’d love to hear from anyone interested in learning more about this project.

Regarding excavations – well, immediately after submitting my thesis for examination I went out to dig for four weeks in the Northern Vietnamese pre-Neolithic site of Con Co Ngua (~6000BP).  It was great to get my hands in the dirt again after the extended dissertation-writing vigil in front of the computer!  However, analysing the over 140 remains recovered from this site will likely take years – so, even as we speak, I’m chasing up other options for expanding on the bioarchaeology of care work done to date.

The Man Bac landscape looking southwest - excavations centre right

The Man Bac excavation site in Vietnam where the individual M9 was found and excavated. The archaeological site can be seen centre right, whilst a modern cemetery takes precedence in the foreground.

TBOM: That brings us to the end of the interview Lorna, so I just want to say thank you very much for your time!

Lorna: David – and any readers that have made it this far – thank you for asking me along and for being interested.  I can’t sign off without saying how much I value this website – it is dangerously seductive in coverage and content.

Select Bibliography:

Dettwyler, K. A. 1991. Can Palaeopathology Provide Evidence for “Compassion”? American Journal of Physical Anthropology84: 375-384.

Tilley, L. & Oxenham, M. F. 2011. Survival Against the Odds: Modelling the Social Implications of Care Provision to the Seriously DisabledInternational Journal of Palaeopathology1 (1): 35-42.

Tilley, L. 2012. The Bioarchaeology of Care. The SAA Archaeological Record: New Directions in Bioarchaeology, Part II12 (3): 39-41.

For further Information on SE Asian Archaeology and it’s Bioarchaeology:

Oxenham, M. & Tayles, N. G. (Eds.) 2006. Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oxenham, M., Matsumura, M., & Nguyen, D. Kim. (Eds.) 2011. Man Bac: The Excavation of Neolithic Site in Northern Vietnam (Terra Australis 33). Canberra: Australian National University E Press.

Archaeology and The Damage Done

8 Sep

Following on from the previous posts on Free Archaeology and the excellent guest post on Commercial Archaeology by Charles Hay on my site, I recently spotted this informative, evocative and important article by Stuart Rathbone on Robert M Chapple’s site entitled The Four and a Half Inch Pointing Trowel…And the Damage Done.  The post discusses life as a field archaeologist, not just the routine hardships of a lifestyle constantly on the move but one of the stresses of the job that are not often mentioned or discussed in mainstream archaeological outlets.  This includes the physical hardships of the job on the body and the emotional hardships on maintaining relationships with the constant stresses and strains of moving for work, whilst also putting up with low pay and often sub-par working conditions (especially in comparison with other skilled workers).

It is important that these aspects of the job are talked about, are mentioned and are discussed within the profession.  It is an important post and one worth a read for everyone involved with, or interested in, archaeology as it is carried out by field workers.  Ultimately Stuart writes that “what I desperately hope is that we can begin to resolve the situation and that the next generation of aspiring archaeologists will not have to put up with the same bullshit that we have already had to put up with for far too long.

If you want to help contribute please comment or message Stuart Rathbone or Robert Chapple on the above blog post link and let them know of your experiences as a field archaeologist.

Skeletal Series 11: The Human Foot

4 Sep

The human foot is as distinctive and as complex as the human hand (D’Août et al.  2010).  The foot, or Pes, forms the distal terminus of the leg.  It helps to perform the two basic important functions of shock absorption and propulsion during bipedal locomotion, both of which require a high degree of stability.  The foot bones are the serial homologs of the hand bones an each foot individually is comprised of 26  individual skeletal elements as opposed to the hand’s 27  individual skeletal elements, indicative of the differing evolutionary roles of both limbs with the digits undergoing reduction and modification in mammals (White & Folkens 2005: 225).

As White & Folkens (2005: 292) note, the ‘human foot has changed dramatically during its evolution from a grasping organ to a structure adapted to bipedal locomotion’, where ‘mobility, flexibility and grasping ability has been lost’.  As humans are bipedal walkers the feet must take the full weight of the body during locomotion and this is reflected in hard and soft tissue anatomy (D’Août et al. 2008, D’Août et al. 2010, Gosling et al. 2008, Jarmey 2003).  The diagram below demonstrates the robust and compact nature of the pes elements.


The human foot, highlighting the articulated individual skeletal elements in dorsal and lateral view. Note the arch of the foot, the size of the calcaneus and general robusticity of the bones in comparison to the hand bones (Image credit: WebMD 2013).


The excavation of the human skeleton should, where possible, be conducted with patience and great care for the recovery of all skeletal material possible (Brothwell 1981).  The elements that make up the foot, a total of 26 individual bones altogether (see below), are sturdy and largely compact bones, although it is likely that there will not be complete recovery of the distal phalanges due to their smaller size.  In supine and crouched burials the foot bones are likely to survive, although care must be taken when excavating at an unknown burial depth (Larsen 1997).  In cremation remains of individuals from archaeological sites it is still possible for certain elements to be recognised and described, especially in the case of the compact tarsal bones (Mays 1999).  In crowded burial grounds where the body is laid out in a supine position (lying flat on the back), as n the photograph below, burials often intersect each other, cutting off the lower part of the legs (Mays 1999).  This is a common feature in crowded burial grounds, and care must be taken when excavating and assigning individual skeletal elements to specific individual skeleton’s (Brothwell 1981).

bones brodsworth 07pic3 - Copy

A photograph of a Medieval burial ground near Brodsworth, Yorkshire, UK, from the 2007 excavation. Note the orientation and sequential laying of supine burials, and how the lower portion of the legs have been covered or destroyed by other burials. Courtesy of the University of Hull and the Brodsworth project.

Basic Musculature and Skeletal Anatomy

There are 26 bones in the human foot which are grouped into 7 tarsals, 5 metatarsals and 14 phalanges, for a total of 33 joints, of which 20 are actively articulated (See image below for skeletal elements in articulation, and Gosling et al. 2008, Mays 1999, White & Folkens 2005, for further reference).  The main joints of the foot itself include the transverse tarsal joint and tarsometatarsal joint (see figure below).  The talocrural (ankle) joint, the articulation between the leg and the foot, forms an important part of the stability of the foot, one of the main differences behind the pes and the manus (the wrist is extremely movable and flexible in comparison to the ankle).  Unlike the hand the foot cannot grasp and is not capable of fine motor movement, however the adipose tissue and plantar fascia (or aponeurosis) is tightly packed underneath the heel (calcaneus bone) for shock absorption during locomotion (Gosling et al. 2008: 304).  The stability of the ankle joint is strengthened by the wedge shaped articulation of the talus and calcaneus bones and by the strong collateral ligaments helping to tightly pack the anatomy during movement (Gosling et al. 2008: 304-305).


The individual sections and bones of a right sided human foot, which includes the tarsals, metatarsals, and phalanges from proximal to distal (Image credit: Encyclopedia Britannia 2007).

It is important to note here the two main arches of the human foot, the transverse arches and the medial and lateral longitudinal arches.  The functional anatomy of the arches allows the foot to remain stable during the pressures and energy exertion of locomotion but also retain flexibility so that it can grip different surfaces whilst enhancing forward propulsion (Gosing et al. 2008: 309).  The transverse arch is located along the cuneiforms, the cuboid bone and all of the metatarsal bases, and simply forms a domed shaped which strengthens the foot during locomotion.  The medial longitudinal arch is the highest of the arches and runs along the instep of the foot, alongside the calcaneus, talus, navicular, and cuneiform bones and up to the first three metatarsals (Gosling et al. 2008: 309).  The lateral longitudinal arch is lower and flatter than the media arch and runs alongside the calcaneus, the cuboid, and the fourth and fifth metatarsals (Gosling et al. 2008: 2010).

The arches are supported in their skeletal frame by a complex arrangement of extrinsic and intrinsic muscles, ligaments and tendons.  The sole of the foot contains numerous intrinsic muscles which mimic the muscles found in the hand, which include digitorum (flexor/abductor) and lumbrical muscles, whilst the plantar view houses the inter-osseus planar muscles (Gosling et al. 2008: 284).  It is worth remembering that the majority of the larger muscles that articulate and move the foot are located in the leg itself (soleus, gastrocnemius, and the anterior/posterior tibial muscles).  Although I will not discuss the soft tissues further, I highly recommend the ‘Human Anatomy Colour Atlas and Textbook’ by Gosling et al. (2008) as a key reference source.  The book has a high number of quality dissection photographs and anatomical diagrams clearly highlighting the different muscle, ligament and tendon structures.

Skeletal Elements: Tarsals

The 7 tarsal bones of the foot help to form the longitudinal and transverse arches of the foot, which is often called the tarsus.  The talus articulates superiorly with the distal tibia and fibula, the calcaneus forms the heel of the foot and supports the talus (White & Folkens 2005: 291).  The navicular sites between the 3 cuneiforms and the head of the talus (White & Folkens 2005: 292).  The 3 cuneiforms and the cuboid act as a second row of tarsal bones and articulate with the proximal heads of the 5 metatarsals.


Dorsal view of the tarsal elements and proximal metatarsals (Image credit: University of Cincinnati).

The Talus

The talus (astragalus in animals) is the 2nd largest tarsal and sits atop of the calcaneus, between the tibia and the fibula.  It is distinct in it’s saddle shape, with a head (that sides medially when viewed from above) and a body that forms the posterior portion of the bone.

The Calcaneus

The largest tarsal, forming the heel bone, the calcaneus is located inferior of the talus and supports the distal portion of the foot.  An intact calcaneus is extremely distinct, and can be sided by placing the ‘heel’ away from you and the articular surfaces superiorly, and the shelf (sustentaculum tali) should point the side it is from.

The Cuboid

The cuboid is located on the lateral side of the foot, between the calcaneus and the 4th and 5th metatarsals.  It is distinct in appearance because of its large size with a cuboidal body.  There is no articular surface on the lateral side of the bone, and the inferior surface has a pronounced cuboid tuberosity.

The Naviculuar

The navicular sits snugly between the talus and the cuneiform elements, and has a distinct concave proximal surface.  A tubercle points medially when viewed from the view of the talus.  It is similar in shape to the scaphoid carpal.

The Cuneiforms:


The medial cuneiform is the largest of the three cuneiforms, sitting between the navicular and base of the first metatarsal.  It is less of a wedge shape than the other two cuneiforms, and distinguished by it’s ‘kidney-shaped facet for the base of the first metatarsal’ (White & Folkens 2005: 298).


This cuneiform is the smallest of the cuneiforms and is located between navicular and the 2nd metatarsal base.  It articulates on either side with the lateral and medial cuneiforms.  The non-articular dorsal surface is key for siding, with a projecting surface points towards the side it comes from when the concave facet is pointed away from the holder (White & Folkens 2005: 298).


Located at the centre of the foot, and intermediate in size between the intermediate and medial cuneiform, the lateral cuneiform sits at the base of the foot.  It articulates distally with the 2nd, 3rd and fourth metatarsal bases, proximally with the navicular, medially with the intermediate cuneiform and laterally the cuboid (White & Folkens 2005: 299).


The 5 rays of the metatarsals are typically labelled as MT 1-5, with MT1 representing the hallux, or the big toe (as the thumb is named the pollex).  The metatarsals are all ‘tubular bones with rounded distal articular facets (heads) and more squarish proximal ends (bases)’ (White & Folkens 2005: 300).  They are more easily sided by the morphology of their bases.  It is important to note that each of the tarsals in the distal row (either of the 3 cuneiforms or the cuboid above) articulates with one or more of the metatarsal bases (White & Folkens 2005: 300).  The first metatarsal is the most massive and squat, whilst all non hallucial metatarsals articulate with each other.  The fifth metatarsal bears a distinctive blunt styloid process on it’s lateral side that makes it fairly identifiable.


A basic dorsal view of the metatarsal and phalangeal bones in the right foot. Note that the hallux (first digit medially) has only a proximal and a distal phalanx whilst the other digits have a proximal, intermediate and distal phalanx (Source).


The foot phalanges are the same in design as the hand phalanges with heads, bases and shafts but are much shorter and squatter than the hand phalanges.  Again they come  in three rows, with 5 proximal phalanges4 intermediate phalanges and 5 distal phalanges;  it should be noted that the MT1 hallux has, as does the thumb (pollex), only the proximal and distal phalanges with no intermediate phalanx, and is remarkably more chunkier then either of the other four rays.

Each Proximal Phalanx displays a ‘single, concave proximal facet for the metatarsal head and a spool-shaped surface distally’ (White & Folkens 2005: 306).

Each Intermediate Phalanx displays a ‘double proximal articular facet for the head of the proximal phalanx’, and again have a trochlea shaped distal articular facet (White & Folkens 2005: 306).

Each Distal Phalanx displays a double articular proximal facet for the head of the intermediate phalanx and a terminal tip of the bone, resulting in a non-articular pad (White & Folkens 2005: 307).

These phalanges are all much shorter than their companions in the hand, with the foot phalanges having a more circular shaft cross section compared to the D shape  shaft of the hand phalanges.  Foot phalanges generally display a more constrictive shaft than hand phalanges, although it can be difficult to side them and it is best done with a full replica or whole specimens for comparative analysis (White & Folkens 2005: 308).  

Further Online Sources

  • A detailed map of each element and the surrounding musculature (as well as relaxing classical music!) can be found on the website of the UMFT Department of Anatomy and Embryology site.  Be aware there are detailed anatomical prosection and dissection diagrams, but it is a free, fascinating and wonderful source (and with the music especially relaxing!).
  • A number of websites have detailed diagrams and photographs of the foot from a medial/lateral and a dorsal/planar view, including this site and this one.
  • Finally, do you know your tarsal bones? Test yourself here!


Brothwell, D. R. 1981. Digging Up Bones: The Excavation, Treatment and Study of Human Skeletal Remains.  Ithica: Cornell University Press.

D’Août, K., Pataky T.C., De Clercq, D. & Aerts, P. 2009. The Effects of Habitual Footwear Use: Foot Shape and Function in Native Barefoot Walkers. Footwear Science1 (2): 81. doi:10.1080/19424280903386411 

D’Août, K., Meert, L., Van Gheluwe, B., De Clercq, D. & Aerts, P. 2010. Experimentally Generated Footprints in Sand: Analysis and Consequences for the Interpretation of Fossil and Forensic Footprints. American Journal of Physical Anthropology141: 515–525. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21169

Gosling, J. A., Harris, P. F., Humpherson, J. R., Whitmore I., & Willan P. L. T. 2008. Human Anatomy Color Atlas and Text Book. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier.

Jarmey, C. 2003. The Concise Book of Muscles. Chichester: Lotus Publishing. 

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.

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