Archive | November, 2014

Diggin’ Dinos: Jurassic World

26 Nov

First things first I’m a realist – archaeologists (and bioarchaeologists) do not dig dinosaur bones, that job alone is for palaeontologists.  Palaeontology is the study of life largely prior to the Holocene period, and largely the study of fossils within a geologic context, which mixes the boundaries of geology and biology to inform on the evolution and variety of life.  The study of dinosauria, or dinosaurs as they are largely commonly known as, who became the dominant land clade throughout most of the Triassic to Cretaceous periods (within the Mesozoic geologic era), is but one part of this.

But I would be lying if I did not state that my interest in bones started early and, specifically, that it started with the dinosaurs.  More specifically still it started with Jurassic Park, a film released in 1993 by one Steven Spielberg that saw my 5-year-old self keenly watching in the local cinema.  I was fascinated by the creatures on the screen, these primordial beasts tearing to shreds the Homo sapiens who thought they could control what they had resurrected.  I was intrigued by their form, the variations in the anatomy and the differences in the (admittedly on-screen) behaviour.  Here was a film that didn’t just make the audience scared and excited, it also gave the creatures a semblance of intelligence.  Who were these long extinct creatures?  What was Dr Grant doing in the desert scaring kids with a raptor claw, whilst also overseeing someone shooting shotgun shells into the earth?  Wait, is that is a job? I thought to myself.

I was hooked.  I want to dig in the desert!  That looks great I thought.  Those creatures looks awesome!  Clearly I had to learn more.  Safe to say that the following Christmas was taken up with Jurassic Park toys – the triceratops that had a gouged bit of flesh that could come off, and the helicopter that, if I remember correctly, barely appeared in the film.  But I wanted to learn more than just play with the toys and watch the film again and again (could those raptors really open doors!).  I wanted to learn about the creatures that the film was based on, I wanted to know more about their life contexts, their habitats and their geographic span.  Just when did they live and how did they come to die out?  In a word I was curious, and I remain curious to this day about the natural world around me.

It started out with the toys, dinosaur Top Trump cards and other bits and bobs.  I collected the glow in the dark model skeletons that always seemed to flash up on the television, bit by bit I pieced together a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that looked somewhat badly proportioned.  My father subscribed me to a dedicated dinosaur magazine that explored the fossil remains a bit more in-depth, and I collected a few cast fossils of various parts of various creatures from the past.  At the major museums I would clamour around the cases that showed the fossils of dinosaurs and more recent mammals, always thinking about what these creatures must have seen during their own lifetimes, how very different our two worlds were.  In time Jurassic Park: The Lost World was released and I became enraptured all over again.  An early precursor to this blog was created during my primary school days where I put together a mini-book of drawings of Protoceratops, Triceratops, Brachiosaurus, Iguanodon, Ankylosaurus and co. with information boxes supplying the basic data of when and where they lived and what they ate.  I was thrilled when Baryonyx was found and described, a highly specialised fish eater in southern England of all places (though of course plate tectonics have substantially moved the earth’s surface around since the Late Cretaceous days).

I hate to say but this lust for dinosaur knowledge faded somewhat during my late primary school years where I was given to drawing what I thought the inside of my leg may have looked like with the-then new temporary titanium plate that was holding my left femur together (that very plate now rests in one of my draws!).  It was a natural progression from the distant past into an immediate and visceral present, one that gripped me as I learnt that bone is living, changing and dynamic material that responds to the pressures that we place it through.  But still the love for dinosauria flares up from time to time, perhaps no more so than when the BBC released the Walking with Dinosaurs television show in 1999, a real marker in the sand for the intelligent presentation and discussion of the biology and life experience of dinosaurs.  After each episode aired I would spend the next day at school talking with my friends about the episode, excitedly huddled around before the drudgery of school started.  But I did not go on to study palaeontology at any point, although I still maintain a relative interest in the latest discoveries and theories on the biology of dinosaurs and ancient life.

For me there is a certain inherent sadness when looking at the remains of species that have fossilised and have been described and documented.  The question of what lifeforms are we missing from deep geological time periods that did not survive the taphonomic processes, and luck of the draw that has preserved so many skeletons as fossils, often abounds in my head when I view specimens and casts displayed in natural history museums or spread across the pages of books.  In a way, by studying the skeletons of the more recent human past, it perhaps negates in some small way the limited archaeological remains that may, in time, become fossils themselves.  Arguably, of course, we may be destroying that record ourselves.

So no I am not a palaeontologist and I do not dig or study dinosaurs, I am a human osteologist who studies the skeletal remains of humans from archaeological contexts.  It was a close contest, but in the end I adapted to a subject that was close to my heart, that gave me a tangible connection to the past human population instead of the past animal population.  It is a distinction, but it is worth bearing in mind that the Homo sapiens species are just natural animals as well, even though life itself is a wonder.

But let me post what the blog title promises.  My interest has been piqued and, finally, the 3rd much talked about sequel is happening.  (I almost conveniently forgot about the 3rd film whilst writing this, although Spinosaurus still rocks).  Here is the just released trailer for the new 2015 movie Jurassic World*:

* I’m crossing my fingers that this is a beast of a film…

Further Information

  • Check out the palaeontologist Jon Tennant’s fantastic and informative blog Green Tea and Velociraptors for some of the latest updates in palaeontology.
  • Take a read of Neil Shubin’s fascinating book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into a 3.5 Billion year History of the Human Body.  I managed to get a copy a few years ago and it is an invigorating read on the hardships of palaeontological fieldwork that also gives an interesting account of the lab work that goes hand in hand with field explorations.  More importantly this book highlights the evolution of the human body via various parts of both extinct and extant life forms.
  • With fantastic timing a new paper by Hone et al. (2014) discusses a case study of a mass mortality event of juvenile Proterceratops discovered in Mongolia and size-segregated aggregated behaviour in this specimen of dinosaur.  There is the suggestion of sociality but the authors are rightly conservative in their observations.  There is an intriguing remark on the estimation on the age of ceratopisan dinosaurs – “Furthermore, at least some non-avian dinosaurs apparently reached sexual maturity long before reaching terminal body size or somatic maturity [36][38]. The result is a quagmire of varying definitions for ontogenetic stages and ontogenetic assignments across different publications even for single specimens” (Hone et al. 2014).  The taphonomic interpretations of this mass mortality sample is also particularly interesting and I’d recommend reading the accessible paper.

Bibliography

Hone, D. W. E., Farke, A. A., Watabe, M., Shigeru, S. & Tsogtbaatar. 2014. A New Mass Mortality of Juvenile Protoceratops and Size-Segregated Aggregation Behaviour in Juvenile Non-Avian Dinosaurs. PLoS. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113306. (Open Access).

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Becoming Human: Archaeological Perspectives on Humanity, University of Bradford, 22nd November 2014

11 Nov

The University of Bradford is holding a free archaeology open day on the 22nd of November 2014 from 10am to 3pm as a part of the UK nation wide Becoming Human festival.  The University of Bradford’s day long event will feature a myriad of archaeologically-themed interactive showcases.   This will include stalls focusing on broad topics such as human evolution, past and present attitudes towards death, the role and function of pottery in prehistoric societies, and will also include a look at the fascinating Digitised Diseases project which highlights the value of 3D printing and digital visualisation in archaeology, among many other topics.  The event is free to attend, family friendly and does not need to be booked in advance.

becoming human 2

Poster for the open day. Image credit: Bradford University.

But what is the Becoming Human festival about?

Boiled down to its basic parts the festival hopes to challenge and inspire members of the public to think about just what it means to be considered human and what that means for us as a species today, how we interact with each other and why we do the things that we do.  The festival is all about the public engagement on a national-wide scale of current research in humanities that is being conducted in the country.  Throughout November 2014 (15th to the 23rd) there will be more than 150 individual events at a range of geographic locations helping to promote the value and wealth of humanities topics.  Poets and writers such as Will Self and Simon Armitage will be taking part as will the comedian Al Murray, in an effort to engage both your intellect and your imagination.  The other aims of the festival are to foster knowledge that is vital and accessible for all (something we bloggers can fully agree with!), and to help us understand ourselves and recognize the challenges that we face today.

In partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy, the Becoming Human festival is led by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.  The aim of the 2014 festival is to gauge the appetite for an annual nation-wide festival celebrating the humanities subjects in all of their diversity.  As such archaeology will play a small but determined part within the 2014 festival, and the event at the University of Bradford highlights just why archaeology is so fundamentally important in understanding what it means to be human, both where have come from and understanding the implications for where we could be heading as a species.

I recently had the chance to visit the archaeology department at the University of Bradford to see my good friend Natalie Atkinson, a doctoral candidate who is focusing on quantifying use wear in lithic tool assemblages as a part of the Fragmented Heritage project.  As well as highlighting the great breadth and depth of ongoing research at the department she also informed me about Bradford’s participation in the nation wide Becoming Human humanities festival.  Natalie had this to say about the upcoming Bradford showcase:

“The interactive stalls will be headed by prominent researchers such as Professor Ian Armit and Dr. Lindsey Buster, showcasing their work on Scupltor’s Cave.  Also contributing is the Jisc supported project Digitised Diseases, led by Dr. Andrew Wilson; a digital database for the viewing of fragile human skeletal remains with diagnostic attributes.  Dr. Adrian Evans will be demonstrating the key technologies and ideas that make up the multi million pound Fragmented Heritage Project, along with Dr Randolph Donahue who will be showing off the evolutionary family tree and Dr. Karina Croucher, who will be discussing attitudes towards life and death.  PhD researchers Rebecca Nicholls, Mike Copper and Emily Fioccoprile have also kindly contributed activities based on their PhD projects”.

becoming human

The program for Becoming Human at the department of archaeological sciences, Bradford. Image credit: Bradford University.

So if you are around in Yorkshire or near Bradford on the 22nd of November pop over to the archaeology department and learn about the human past in a fun and interactive environment!

Further Information

  • Learn more about the enticing Becoming Human festival here and browse the events by date and geographic location here.
  • Learn more about the University of Bradford archaeology themed Becoming Human day here.  Visited the open day and keen to learn more about the department of archaeology at Bradford?  Visit here!
  • Keep up to date with the rich variety of archaeological projects at Bradford via Dr. Karina Croucher’s twitter feed or visit her awesome blog focusing on both gender & identity and death & dying in the past and present.

Present Day Skeletal Variation: What Are We Missing?

5 Nov

Over at his weblog John Hawks has a quick write-up on a news article by Vox journalist Joseph Stromberg on the Forensic Anthropology Centre at Texas State University that makes a very important point.  It is worth quoting John hawks comments on the article in full here:

The skeletal material from the University of Tennessee forensic research unit constitutes the single most important collection for understanding variation within the skeletons of living Americans. Most collections of human skeletal material in museums and universities were acquired early in the twentieth century, or represent archaeological remains. Those are important collections, but do not represent today’s biology — people today are much heavier, live longer, suffer fewer ill-health episodes early in their lives, and often survive surgeries and skeletal implants when they reach advanced ages. To understand how human biology affects bone today, and to understand the variation in bones of living people, new collections are incredibly important. They are literally priceless, because collections of this kind cannot be bought. They result only from the generosity and interest of donors who leave their remains for this purpose.

– taken from John Hawks (2014, emphasis mine).

This is an incredibly point as osteoarchaeologists and human osteologists often studied the remains of individuals from archaeological contexts or pre-21st century skeletal series that will not represent the current state of human biology and population variation.  As a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MSc program in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I had the honour and opportunity to dissect a human cadaver as a part of the human anatomy module.  This is a fairly rare opportunity for students of osteoarchaeology in the United Kingdom, with only a small selection of universities offering dissection within their musculoskeletal focused human anatomy modules.  As such I will remain forever grateful to both the university and to the individuals who have donated their bodies in order for students to learn about past and present human populations, and the natural variation therein.

There is also a worry that the UK lacks skeletal reference collections of modern individuals of known age, sex and ancestry, which could have a particular impact on understanding the physiology of modern skeletal samples that are being excavated as development and construction necessitate removal of early modern cemeteries (Sayer 2010).

Relevant to the above is the fact that Vazquez et al. (2005) & Wilkinson (2007) have also discussed the problems in teaching gross anatomy in medical schools across Europe, highlighting the long-term decline of gross anatomical dissection across the medical board and the largely unfamiliar anatomical terms which have influenced the effective learning of gross anatomy.  The dissection classes that I participated in at the University of Sheffield took part in the Medical Teaching Unit, where our small cluster of osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologists were vastly outnumbered by the medical students.

There is an important link here as the bones that osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologist study are the physical remains of once living individuals, but if we are to continue to study the natural and ongoing variation seen within the human species it is important that we have the resources available to understand not just the skeletal tissue but also the soft tissues as well.

Facilities such as the Forensic Anthropologist Research Centre, and the older University of Tennesse Anthropological Research Facility, are important examples of being able to study and research the effects of soft tissue decay in a relatively natural environment.  This is not just useful for forensic or archaeological studies but, again, also for understanding ongoing changes in human populations.  The article by Stromberg above ends on an important point that always bears consideration when studying human cadavers or skeletal tissue:

Still, there’s a danger to becoming too habituated to these bodies and forgetting what they represent. Ultimately, they’re a teaching tool, but they’re more than just a specimen. “You’ve got a job to do, but you’ve also got to remember that this body was once a living person,” Wescott says. “You’ve got to remember that there are family members and friends who love this person, and the body deserves your respect.” (Stromberg 2014, emphasis mine).

Further Information

  • Learn more about the important work being conducted at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University here.  If desired you can donate your body here.
  • Learn about the whole body donation program at the University of Sheffield here.

Bibliography

Hawks, J. 2014. A Visit to the World’s Largest Body Farm. John Hawks Weblog. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

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

Stromberg, J. 2014. The Science of Human Decay: Inside the World’s Largest Body Farm. Vox. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Vazquez, R., Riesco, J. M. & Carretero, J. 2005. Reflections and Challenges in the Teaching of Human Anatomy at the Beginning of the 21st Century. European Journal of Anatomy9 (2): 111-115. (Open Access).

Wilkinson, A. T. 2007. Considerations in Students’ Learning of Anatomical Terminology. European Journal of Anatomy. 11 (s1): 89-93. (Open Access).