Archive | February, 2017

Reflection During a Day of Skeletal Processing

8 Feb

I have a day off from my normal job and I find myself carefully wet sieving the cremated remains of a suspected Romano-British individual in the processing room at the local unit, but I’m not alone here.  Instead I’m surrounded by recently excavated Anglo-Saxon remains drying slowly on paper towels, organised in numerous plastic trays on various shelves to my side and up above me.  In each tray there is a plastic zip bag, the site code and context number inked on for identification purpose and later site reconstruction.  By taking the right femoral head and neck (upper thigh) as an identifier of the minimum number of individuals (MNI), I count at least six individuals represented in the new assemblage, although there are a few trays I cannot quite see and as I am not here to look at them I do not uncover them.  A quick look at the morphology (size and shape) of the individual skeletal elements is enough to see that, demographically speaking, adults and non-adults are represented in the assemblage.

Browsing the mandibles (lower jaw) that are present I can see a few without the 3rd molar fully erupted, one or two lying in crypts waiting to reach up for the shaft of light from the outside world that would never come.  Another mandible has the majority of the teeth present, including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd molars in each half, but displays severe enamel wear of the crowns of the teeth (the occlusal, or biting surface), indicative of a rough diet and probable middle to advanced adult age.  The fact that most of the teeth are present suggest that the individual wasn’t too old though, as tooth loss is strongly correlated to increasing age for humans.

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A day in the archive stores analysing non-adult skeletal remains from an archaeological site. Photograph by the author use a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film, if used elsewhere please inform the author and credit as appropriate.

I turn my attention back to the cremated remains.  These are something of a mystery having looked at the context sheets dating from the excavation itself.  There is evidence for cremated non-human remains, likely to be bovine (cow to you and me) as there are a few distinctive teeth included in the bags in an associated context found near the cremated remains that I’m now processing, which itself has been bulk sampled at 100%.  A proper look through the sieved cremated material, which has been processed in accordance with the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology guidelines, will have to wait though as they need to dry over the next few days, ideally for another few days after too.  Once dry I can go through each fraction sieved (10mm, 6mm, 2mm) and sort as human and non-human, before identifying specific osteological features and assigning the fragments to either skull, limb, or trunk sections of the skeleton.

As I think about this I remember that I must complete this human osteology report soon.

For many people the thought of touching or analyzing human remains is too much, that in many minds remains are parceled off to the medical realm or are hurried to the cemetery to be removed out of sight.  In reality though we are often surrounded by human remains, though we may not always know it and may not always want to know it.  In archaeology the skeletal remains of humans are often the only direct biological matter to survive of individuals and past populations.  They can encode and preserve a lot of information on biological matters and past cultural practices.  This has been steadily recognized within the past century as osteological methodologies are refined for accuracy and new technology is applied in novel approaches to the remains unearthed.  One of the prime concerns for any bioarchaeologist or human osteologist is that ethical codes and guidelines are adhered to, with the relevant legal permits acquired as appropriate.  As I glance upon the presumed Anglo-Saxon remains I remember that these too were unexpected finds by the construction workers, I briefly wonder how they felt and what they thought on seeing them for the first time.

Anyhow, back to processing the cremation and to thinking about writing the report.

It is pretty interesting as although I’ve part-processed cremations within urns before, with careful micro-excavation spit by spit, I’ve never fully processed a cremation to completion.  Whether these cremated remains represent human skeletal material, as the field notes state, remains a different matter though and it is one I am eager to solve…

Further Learning

  • The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) promotes the study of understanding the ‘physical development of the human species from the past to the present’.  As an association they provide research grants for projects in which all members of BABAO are eligible, as well as offering prizes for presentations and posters in their annual conference, which is held in the United Kingdom.  I fully recommend attending and taking part if you are associated with any relevant field.

Digging Up Time, Part 2: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

5 Feb

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book on a recent blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  The book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) is due for 2017, which looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

(Part 1 can be read here).


Introductory monologue – handed to a friend for a thought or two

Amy S.  Mid twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I would love to say archaeology spiked my interest from a young age in some fantastical way but the truth is I really enjoyed that classic Saturday morning show of the 90’s – ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’…  I was never that concerned with the more realistic version of what archaeology was, such as portrayed in shows like Time Team, yet when given the opportunity to volunteer on an excavation, aged 15, it was luckily that the reality did actually fascinate me.  From then on in I was hooked and I knew from that first experience that I wanted to work more with human remains and figure out that jigsaw puzzle of materials that I had helped lift from the ground.

After completing my Masters degree in human osteology, I did some work in post-excavation analyses, worked in a museum and went on an extended period of travelling.  Upon my return home I looked for work as a field archaeologist and have only been working as such for the past 4 months or so…  as a fresh-faced, bright-eyed newbie I have to say I love my job, but realise I am not nearly weathered enough to provide a well-rounded comment on the subject of life in commercial archaeology.

Therefore, asking around the site cabin on a rainy day I have managed to get the histories and opinions of my more experienced and (for the most part) much less upbeat colleagues.  A vlog might be a better way of truly capturing some of the characters in this hut but it is not possible to do this just yet.  The question and answers are interrupted sporadically with Star Wars quotes, bickering and bantering about the traits of units some have worked for previously, and discussing whether or not to play undead dice…


Deciding on a career, the trowel leads the way

Phillip O.  Late twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I chose archaeology because it starts with an ‘A’ and was on the first page of a careers website I was searching.  I’ve now been in archaeology for nearly two years, so pretty fresh into it…  You don’t need to do well at university to be an archaeologist, it matters more that you can actually talk to people and not be completely insufferable, and that you can actually dig.

Engineering and construction companies pretend to care but really don’t.  Their profit is the bottom line and if the archaeology cuts too far into it they aren’t cool with it; you get the odd guy on the ground who cares about and is interested in the things that we are doing, but it’s definitely outside the norm.

Probably the best thing for someone in my situation is getting to move around and live in a few different places around the country, and meeting some really amazing people with a few proper weirdos sprinkled in for colour.


Snapshot of the frustrations of the digger

John D.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I’ve been in field archaeology for almost 10 years, which is longer than average, though I attempted to leave and re-train as a teacher.  That didn’t work out so I came back to archaeology after a three year break.  As for most people, it started off as a big adventure, travelling around the country feeling rather intrepid working in all weather conditions.  The awful mud, rain and snow created a sense of achievement and comradery.  However, by my late twenties, I was growing tired of not being able to live in my own home (because of working away so much), the short contracts and the lack of loyalty (of companies towards their staff), and the low wages (largely caused by competitive tendering).

I felt that if one of these three factors could be changed then I could put up with the other two.  Unfortunately, this didn’t seem possible and at the same time the recession started in earnest and the work dried up entirely.  I spent three years trying to be a teacher, which of course has its own raft of problems, but returned to archaeology simply because I needed a job I could do.

Since I returned, I have worked on some incredible archaeology and a lot of incredibly boring archaeology.  Ditches, drains, the usual sites that lead nowhere but are necessary.  The people I work with make it enjoyable, but the work makes me too tired to be able to pursue other interests and develop skills to eventually leave archaeology for good.  It’s a trap really as the work stops me learning a new job, but doesn’t pay me enough to be able to save up to take time off to learn something new.


On the tensions in the sector and the paths found to survive

Stepan S.  25 years old.  PhD researcher.

 –  Becoming an archaeologist was never something I thought about.  As a kid I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, to study economics and to work in business…  in fact almost everything out there apart from archaeology.  But I must say that I have never regretted choosing this field.

What has left the biggest impression was, and is, the passion.  I have not met a single person working in archaeology who does not have the highest level of enthusiasm.  I suppose one has to, considering the less than adequate pay.  As a colleague once said “we are the most qualified and the least paid profession”.  Although a generalisation, I tend to agree with the sentiment.

The enthusiasm of the field archaeologist though is poorly reflected in the desire to improve conditions and pay by such bodies as the CIfA (the British Chartered Institute of Archaeologists).  Sadly even unions seem to be more of a career ladder for the more politically minded archaeologists than a real body which reflects the need of the workers.  This inadequacy has led me to believe that academia is the only viable path for a career.  Combined with my passion for early medieval archaeology, it led me to pursue a PhD.

However even here financial difficulties let us down.  With grants being few and far between, I opted for the option of studying abroad in France.  Although I am delighted with my current situation, I do hope that there will be a change in the pay, benefits, and opportunities for archaeologists of the United Kingdom.

Looking back at fieldwork opportunities as an undergraduate I remembered a difficulty in finding excavations which I could attend for free.  This has lead me to start a little side project called digarchaeology.  Still in its infancy, it will act as an advertisement board for digs around the world so all those interested may find a place to excavate.  After all, this is how passion for archaeology is forged.


Knowing the right people and joining the circuit

Fire breather.  Field archaeologist.

–  I got into archaeology through a university clearing option after missing BBB-ABC.  However I was disappointed in my university course for not putting more emphasis on field work.  I only got into field archaeology through a well known regional training dig which I did out of university.  It was through the contacts there that I got onto a field job in the first place.  Getting into the field seems to be more through “who you know” than “what you know”, or by how much academic instruction you receive.

I have been lucky in not getting much sexism, but when it happens it can be an awkward situation for all to be in…  I have been ‘in’ for 4 years, but with significant breaks, due to either contract differences or lack of a stable base due to having to move on the circuit.


The attention never looked for, never sought

Amber D.  29 years old.  Post-excavation supervisor.

–  I was a naive girl in my early 20’s when I entered the world of archaeology, I had no idea I had actually entered the world of harassment that was heading my way…  Honestly, in each archaeological job I have had or for each archaeological company I have worked with, I have had more than one harassment experience to go along with it.

Whether it was anonymous text messages talking about my underwear, having my bum grabbed by fellow field team members or even by the managers, disgusting sexual (or downright disturbing) comments made by either field team members, clients visiting the site, the ubiquitous construction workers or my managers, to full-on being kissed and felt up without prompting.

Most of these times I had been too scared or shocked to say or do anything, and the couple of times I did speak up to supervisors or line managers it came to nothing and nothing in turn was done.  Looking back I wish I had spoken up more, it was a different time to now where there were fewer women working in field archaeology.  Often I’d be the only woman on site or in the field team…  I hope now it is not like this but I am not holding my breath in all honesty.


Life in the field and looking for pastures new

Felicity P.  Late twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  My experience in commercial archaeology has been fairly mixed, I have worked for a few different companies.  The job can be amazing but it can also be awful depending on the site, the management, and the people you’re working with.

Most of the time it’s the people you’re working with that make the job enjoyable, like most jobs I guess.  On the other hand there are limited opportunities for advancement and specialisation.  I also feel that we as field archaeologists can’t always discuss problems with management in most cases and this is a big hindrance within the sector, towards either proper pay conditions or towards true career progression.

For these reasons I have been looking to leave commercial archaeology and retrain elsewhere.  Overall I do think some aspects of the job have improved – organisations such as the CIFA and BAJR have been working on improving pay and working conditions, but there are still problems like sexism.  Other contractors on infrastructure projects or building sites are generally better treated than archaeologists and are much better paid too.


 For a final time the author rejoins

  We’ve sifting through the spoil heap as the site winds down to a close.  We’ve been lucky and managed to hear from a small selection of the archaeologists who, day in and day out, uncover the past and document it for all.  They have aired their dreams and hopes, grumbles and disappointments, yet theirs is a job fired by passion itself.  I remain awed by the range of characters within the sector and a tad worried by a tumultuous present and its impact on the future.  Perhaps now we know what it means to live through, and to be a part of, historic times even if our stories remain unable to change the larger narrative unfolding.

Yet there is something more here, as I turn over the crumbs of soil in my hands, searching for the invisible links to a tangible history.  The material remains can only say so much, the individual voices within an archaeological context normally remain silent, skirted briefly as shadows chased along the trench lines.  So too do the voices of the archaeologists themselves, their views so often buried as the final layer of the spoil that is lain as a final deposit over the excavated remains.  Yet to do so is to ignore the function of archaeology itself; it is not to crown long dead kings or to marvel at the invisible boundaries of long forgotten empires, it is instead to hold the story of humanity in your hand, whether the bones that are uncovered are from an individual long-thought lost or whether that hand is an archaeologist in the process of uncovering our shared history…  We each have stories to tell, our own time to dig.