Archive | June, 2014

Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Open Day 28th June 2014

26 Jun

I’ve previously discussed the Rothwell medieval charnel chapel and ossuary project before on the site, but I just wanted to highlight another open day coming up on the Saturday 28th of June at Holy Trinity church in the village of Rothwell, near Northampton, for this great site.  The ossuary at Rothwell is one of only two or three surviving medieval charnel houses in the UK, so it is a fantastic and rare opportunity to visit this wonderful site and to learn about the history of the church and it’s importance in understanding medieval funeral and mortuary archaeology.

There will also be University of Sheffield researchers there on the day, talking to members of the public about what human osteologists can tell from the human skeletal itself, and of the recent bioarchaeological and historical research that continues to be carried out at Holy Trinity itself.  Jennifer Crangle, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield who established and is leading the research at the chapel as a part of understanding the post-depositional treatment of human remains, will be organizing the event along with Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield (Crangle 2013).  The team on the open day will also include a number of past and present researchers from the archaeology department from the University of Sheffield.  I, too, will be present helping by talking to members of the public on how to age and sex skeletal remains of individuals from the archaeological record.  It is something I am deeply looking forward to.

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Family friendly events will be taking place, and there is also the the unique chance to learn about some of the research that has been carried out by Masters and doctoral students at the University of Sheffield.

The open day is part of the project to help understand the osteological remains present at Rothwell and to introduce members of the public to the human skeletal and what we can tell about individuals and populations from the archaeological record.  The open day will include crypt tours, where the stacked remains of medieval individuals (consisting of rows of crania and stacks of femora, amongst other bones) are stored alongside church tours of the early 13th century building.  The event will also be host to a number of family friendly activities which are focused on understanding what the human skeleton can inform us of.  This will include:

An Exploded Skeleton, with attempts made to piece the individual back together.

Mr and Mrs Bones, to see if there are differences in male and female remains and why this may be.

Old Bones, on how the skeleton changes as an individual ages and how this can effect the individual person.

My Aching Bones, detailing which diseases can affect the skeleton and which may be visible on skeletal remains themselves.

The research at the Rothwell ossuary and crypt is part of an ongoing and long term study into understanding the skeletal remains and their physical condition at the site.  This involves trying to ask what the bones are doing in the crypt in the first place, why they were placed as they were and what their function was by being placed in such a way.  The second major aim is to try to understand the composition of the stacked remains, highlighting the fact that it is not just the crania and femora but also many of the bones in the skeleton that are present in the stacks, as well as animal bones.  The third aim is to investigate where the people who are present in the crypt came from.  This includes the osteological analysis of the bones themselves for composition and for preservation levels, as well carrying out a statistical analysis on the bones using measurements based on anatomical landmarks to help indicate what populations/geographic areas the individuals came from.  The fourth major aim is to ask in what way new technology can help and supplement the standard osteoarchaeological approaches used by bioarchaeologists.  At Rothwell this has involved laser scanning the remains to produce 3D images, which is helping to promote the non-movement of some very fragile bones (Garland et al. 1988: 246) and highlight the value of new technology in human osteology (Gonissen forthcoming).

The importance of understanding the post-depositional movement and composition of the skeletal remains at Rothwell is really important as the site itself is not environmentally stable for the long-term storage of the remains.  By investigating the physical remains at Rothwell and understanding the funerary context that they were used in, it is hoped that the project can initiate and produce a more stable environment for the remains to be stored in, whilst also documenting mortuary behaviour that has largely gone under-studied when historians and osteoarchaeologists have studied the skeletal remains of individuals in the English medieval period.

In a curious way the Rothwell project has been highlighted on this site a few times, in blog interviews and in a number of posts on conferences, so it will be great to finally visit the site myself to see the stacked remains of medieval individuals and also to talk to members of the public about the real value of understanding human remains.

Learn More

Bibliography:

Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). Unpublished MSc Thesis. The University of Sheffield.

Pain, Briefly

17 Jun

Just a quick note here.  I had the good luck of hearing historian Joanna Bourke on BBC Radio 4 program Start the Week yesterday morning who was on the show debating the topic of her latest publication titled, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers.  The book focuses on trying to understand and contextualise the feeling of bodily and physical pain from the 18th century AD to the modern period.  Bourke, who is a Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, presents a holistic history of understanding pain in which the topic is approached from numerous angles, including not just the medical but also the cultural, religious and political.  The book also deals with the personal experience of pain and the nature of suffering, both in the individual sense and within wider society from the family out.  It certainly looks like an interesting and enlightening read.

Having read a few reviews of the book itself, and of having heard Bourke herself discuss the differences in understanding the many types of pain, it reminded of sociologists Ann Oakley’s 2007 book Fracture , of which I discussed a little here.  Although Oakley’s book is a much more personal and reflective study with its focus on the modern health perspective, Bourke (2014) also discusses the role and changes that medicine has gone through in the past and present approaches and treatments when considering illnesses and patients themselves.  Of particular interest on the radio show this morning was Bourke’s assertion that different cultures experience pain in a myriad of ways.  This, of course, made me think of how bioarchaeologists approach the archaeological record and how we try to understand palaeopathology in relation to the individual osteobiographic context, within the population and society that the person lived in, together the original context of the landscape environment of the archaeology site (read more about osteobiographical examples here).

Bioarchaeology is, as a field, a burgeoning area of archaeological research, one that ably and actively straddles the humanities and science divide with ease.  Bioarchaeologists often complement their normal macro and micro assessment of the skeletal remains with the regular use of the latest scientific techniques and refinements, including but not limited to stable isotopic and ancient DNA analysis, to help understand the processes, implications and contexts of a pathology within a population.   This often includes trying to contextualise and understand traumatic or congenital pathologies that can be present in the skeletal remains of humans (White & Folkens 2005).  It must be remembered of course that only a small fraction of diseases known ever affect or actively present on bone itself (Waldron 2009).

Pain though is rarely considered when describing a pathology that is present on an archaeological bone.  This is partly due to the nature of the limitations of archaeology, but also partly due to the existing bioarchaeological literature.  Care to not exceed the evidence must take precedence, otherwise bioarchaeologists risk inflating the boundaries between the known and the unknown.  Pain itself is a uniquely personal feeling and it can be a difficult feeling to describe.  It can also be paradoxical as to know pain is to be reminded that you are alive, but to know that pain means it is also a warning that life is threatened.

As a purely personal perspective I have recently found out something rather interesting about my own skeletal biology.  As readers of this blog may be aware that I have McCune-Albright Syndrome (MAS) and, as a part of this, polyostotic fibrous dysplasia.  MAS is, as far as it is currently possible to tell, a fairly rare bone disease that can lead to fractures and bowing of the bones (more information here and also Dumetriscu & Collins 2008) amongst other things.  Having broken a good number of the long bones of my body, I am now acutely aware of what a fracture feels like.  Recently however, and completely unbeknownst to myself beforehand, I learnt that I have been fracturing my ribs for a number of years, as both x-rays and a CT scan showed a fair amount of bone re-modelling and faint healed fracture lines on a number of ribs.

Why hadn’t I noticed?

Partly it was because the fractures themselves weren’t that painful (I am well aware that rib fractures are usually pretty painful).  In fact I have been aware for years that I occasionally pull the superficial or intercostal rib muscles on either side periodically, and that this had always led to a good few days of unease if I slept on the affected side, coughed or laughed too hard.  I had put this down to using the wheelchair more over an extended period of time starting from my mid adolescence, following on from several major surgeries on the femora.  I reasoned that due to repetitive nature of the motion of wheeling in a manual wheelchair the muscles were bound to get sore and fatigued at some points.

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A copy of the posterior to anterior x-ray of my own chest. Although the healed rib bruises and fractures cannot clearly be seen on it, the constriction of the chest wall is highlighted (black arrows).  This can have an effect on the air intake of the lung capacity.  Generally fractured ribs are left to heal naturally unless there has been puncturing of internal organs by the ribs themselves, in which cases surgery is needed.  (Read more here).

I was well aware that the ribs are one of the more common areas of the body to be affected by MAS, along with the femora and cranial bones, yet I paid little attention to what I thought was a pulled muscle  (Dumetriscu & Collins 2008, Waldron 2009).  I could still move relatively fine afterwards, and it certainly wasn’t that painful.  So, as you can imagine, I was somewhat surprised to hear that I had at least four previous rib fractures that had healed, which were clearly evident on the X-rays and the scans taken of my chest as I saw.  I should state though that it is likely to have been a mix of micro, hairline and full fractures on pathologically diseased bone, and not traumatically induced fractures which, I hear, can be extremely painful.

As such, and having heard Bourke talk about how individuals cope with pain, it should be taken into account by bioarchaeologists that skeletal pathology probably elicited different responses dependent on the social and cultural context of the individual.  This is of course important when considering the impact of a pathology present on the bones.  This, necessarily, becomes more problematic as we reach further into history and prehistory, where the lack of contextual and written evidence can be missing or non-existent.

However, as archaeologist and bioarchaeologists, we must also continually ask questions regardless and especially when skeletal material has already been analysed.  New techniques, theories or methodologies are only useful once they have been applied to the existing archaeological record and are repeatedly tested against what we think we know.

Alongside Bourke on the Radio 4 show was the current director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, who discussed his experiences as a medical doctor and the possible implications of the overuse antibiotics, and Norman Fowler, a conservative MP who oversaw the public health campaign against the spread and threat of HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s in Britain.  Each guest on the program was well worth a listen.

It is safe to say that Bourke’s work is another book that I shall be adding to my ever increasing pile.

Further Information

  • Listen to the Start the Week program, on which Professor Bourke appeared, on BBC Radio 4 here.
  • A review by The Guardian of the History of Pain: From Prayers to Painkillers book be found here.

Bibliography

Bourke, J. 2014. The History of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dumitrescu, C. E. & Collins, M. T.  2008.  Overview: McCune-Albright SyndromeOrphanet Journal of Rare Disease3 (12): 1-12. (Open Access).

Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures Of A Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

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

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

Dearne Archaeology Valley Day 2014

7 Jun

I recently had the great pleasure of attending the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day (DVAD) 2014 conference, which was organised by Elmet Archaeology and the Dearne Valley Archaeology Group, in Wath upon Dearne, South Yorkshire.  As readers of this blog may be aware that I recently posted my own abstract for the talk (here), which focused on the value of blogging archaeology and introduced this blog to members of the public as well as to archaeologists and historians.  It was certainly a first for me to talk at a conference, and I had never thought that I’d actually be talking to an audience about blogging and my own site, but it just goes to show you never quite know where blogging will take you.

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Kate Adelade‘s archaeological illustration stall.  Kate has previously wrote about cannibalism for this blog here.

The event was well attended and included a great range of speakers who covered a variety of topics in the archaeology and heritage areas.  As well as the speakers (a full list can be viewed here), there were also stalls on a number of projects from around the local area.  Jennifer Crangle, a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, was present as well with her stall on the medieval Rothwell Charnel Chapel project (of which I’ve previously discussed here) and Kate Adelade had her modern presentation displaying her fantastic archaeological illustration skills on show.  In fact I was quite impressed by each and every speaker at the day long conference, especially by the different styles and approaches that they all took.  I also learnt a great deal about various projects around the UK and further abroad.  Humour, as I discovered, really can help a talk a great deal too.  David Connolly, of BAJR and Past Horizons fame, really proved this during his animated talk about the Scottish hillforts (or rather ramped and ditched enclosures of unknown date and function) in the Lothians, as part of the on-going Rampart Scotland project.  David’s talk focused on the Iron age site of Sheriffside for his talk, and the great work that him and his team of volunteers underwent to target viable radiocarbon samples to help phase the site.

There were some great talks on community projects too, such as Mercian Archaeological Services CIC on-going Sherwood Forest Archaeological Project and a nice little round up of the great work that Elmet Archaeology have so far conducted in South Yorkshire.  Elmet further whetted the audience’s appetites by highlighting some future projects as well,  including the investigation of a WW2 POW camp at Hickleton Hall, near Doncaster, which promises to be pretty interesting in unearthing the physical remains of a legacy of war.

There were also talks that really grabbed my imagination in the size and scale of their ambitions and detail.  The first was by Victoria Donnelly, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, that focused on her research on the grey literature of the archaeological record.  This is a part of the fascinating EngLaId project, which aims to characterise and explore the extent of the archaeological landscape in England by studying English archaeology from 1500BC to AD1086.  Victoria focused her talk on her own research into the grey literature and, with the use of GIS magic (Geographical Information Systems), provided some great examples highlighting the focus of commercial archaeological investigations.  Who, for instance, knew that, in England, Suffolk County Council are one of the bigger archaeological researchers in England?  I certainly didn’t and it was an eye opening presenting into the mystery of the oft maligned grey literature that all archaeological investigations produce.

Of a particular interest to me, due in part as of having studied in Sheffield itself, was Andrew Whitham’s talk on the Sheffield General Cemetery, which was opened in 1836 to accommodate a range of burials in the burgeoning industrial city (Sayer 2010: 29).  I had known about the site thanks to reading Elmet Archaeology’s own osteoarchaeologist Lauren McIntyre and University of Sheffield researcher Linzi Harvey’s 2012 survey report of the non-conformist crypt, but I had not realised the sheer size and subterranean magnificence of the site, nor of the effort in the construction of the site itself.  Andrew’s magnificent talk highlighted the fact that the General Cemetery was, unfortunately, a failure of Sheffield with many residents of the burgeoning city of Sheffield not wanting to be interred in the numerous space saving crypts, and instead wanting to be interred individually in graves.  The General cemetery today is a place that is well loved and respected by the city as a key piece of the history of Sheffield, and a place of recognition for understanding the changes in burial law for non-conformist burials.

As it happens I am currently reading archaeologist Duncan Sayer‘s Ethics and Burial Archaeology (2010), a fantastic Duckworth Debates in Archaeology book that focuses on contextualising the understanding how we approach buried human remains, both from a historical point of view and of an archaeology wide industry perspective.  Sayer, currently a researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, has worked extensively as a field archaeologist on many of the recent post-medieval cemetery excavations in Sheffield.  Indeed the Sheffield cemeteries make up a large portion of the case studies used in Ethics and Burial Archaeology and are used as examples of the troubles of trying to both understand the construction of graveyards and of understanding the now-outdated burial laws of the 19th century in a modern context.  It is a must read for any archaeologist or interested member of the public to understand the unique and difficult position that the UK currently finds itself in regarding the law of excavation and retention of human remains.

But finally at DVAD we had the day double-ended by talks on the Egyptian dead by both Dr Campbell Price, of Manchester Museum, who discussed the appeal of mummies in museums and by Prof. Joann Fletcher, of the University of York, who highlighted the value of working with the non-cadaver material of mummies in both Egypt and the wider world.  Both talks were eye opening regarding the practice of how the archaeology and heritage sector study and displays human remains.  It was great and inspiring to see such passion and invigoration with which the results of studies carried out by Fletcher et al. were conveyed to a largely public audience.

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The beginning of my own talk on blogging archaeology.

But coming back to my own talk, which was held at the beginning of the day, I have to admit that I was quite nervous before and during the start of my own talk, but you live and learn.  As the talk went on I did become to feel more comfortable about the topic and of my own knowledge.  However I have taken away a few points on how to improve my own public speaking, and I aim to use these to help address the issues that I faced during my own presentation at DVAD.  In fact I think this would probably be a pretty good topic for a future blog post, as presenting and communicating at conferences, and at public talks, is a pretty good skill to have and a must if archaeologists are to present the importance of their research to a wider audience.  There was one point in the talk that I had hoped to make but had unfortunately forgot to include it.  That is that the blogging format is an evolving body of text, one that needs constant revision and refinement but is, nonetheless, one of the strengths and one of the weaknesses of the blogging format.  Content, not format, is the important part of any communication, especially in the blogging world where the audience faces so many distractions at the touch of a button.

My own talk was actually influenced by the fantastic blogging carnival that Doug, of Doug’s Archaeology, carried out ahead of the SAA conference in April of this year.  My own five blog entries for the carnival forced me look again at why I blog archaeology, the effect it has had for myself and for understanding the benefit of discussing the importance of the human skeletal remains in archaeology generally.  I should also state here that I am extremely grateful to Kristina Killgrove (of Powered By Osteons), Doug Rocks Macqueen (of Doug’s Archaeology), Sam Hardy (of (Un)free Archaeology) and Katy Meyers (of Bones Don’t Lie) for providing quotes on why they blog, which I used in my presentation as examples of the reasons.  It is these bloggers, and many others, that provide me with the inspiration to carry on blogging.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my day at DVAD.  I met some great people, I learnt a lot and I had a wonderful time whilst doing so.  I owe a big thank you to Chris, Alex and Lauren at Elmet Archaeology for all of their hard work for putting on a great conference, and here is to next years conference!

It seems that we have also entered the season of the (bio)archaeology conference.  This weekend will see me attending the University of Durham Engaging with the Dead conference, and it is an event that I am particularly looking forward to.  It will be two packed days of exploring changing human beliefs about the body, death and mortality over 8000 years.  The event will have a particular focus on the archaeological remains of human bodies and of traces of mortuary culture in Britain and the Levant, as a part of the on-going Invisible Dead project, which is itself based at the University of Durham.

Note

The photographs here appear with the courtesy of Alex Sotheran.

Learn More

  • The Elmet Archaeology blog has a nice little summary of the day’s speakers along with some great photographs, read more here.
  • The University of York Mummy Research Group Home Page has detailed information on the analysis of the many mummies that the group has looked at and continues to study.
  • The Rampart Scotland homepage can be found here, with information on the range of hillfort sites in Scotland and the importance of these longstanding monuments in the landscape.
  • The EngLaID home page, the project to analyse change and continuity in the English landscape from the early Bronze Age to the Domesday survey, can be found here.   The site blog also have a review of DVAD here.

Bibliography

McIntyre, L. & Harvey, L. 2012. Non-Conformist Crypt Survey, General Cemetery, Sheffield. Report No. GCN01. University of Sheffield. Unpublished report.

Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd.