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Updated II: Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses in the United Kingdom

27 Mar

Please note: I originally wrote this post a few years ago in order to outline the available human osteology/bioarchaeology postgraduate courses in the United Kingdom as a guideline for the degree fees and availability.  However since then a number of substantial national and international changes have occurred.  These include, but are not limited to, the increase of undergraduate tuition fees to £9000.00 per academic year; the general increase of the price of Masters degrees; the new availability of student loans for Masters students; changes to Disabled Students Allowance from the 16/17 academic year onward; the transfer of some Student Finance grants to loans; the Government White paper released in May 2016 outlining challenges and changes needed in higher education, etc.  There is also ongoing discussion between the government and the educational sector regarding the pricing of courses according to economic worth and employability.

One of the more important changes was the outcome of the referendum in the United Kingdom whether it to remain or not a part of the European Union.  The resultant outcome led to the voting majority opting to leave the European Union.  This is due to happen in 2019, with a probable period of transition that has yet to be agreed in parliament, but the Government of the United Kingdom recently stated that it would guarantee European Union funding for projects signed before the Autumn Statement until 2020.

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Whilst I was doing some light research for another article I made a quick list of every course in the United Kingdom that offers human osteology as a taught masters (either as an MA, Masters of Arts, or as an MSc, Masters of Science) or offers a distinctive human osteology module or component within a taught masters degree.  Human osteology is the study of human skeletal material from archaeological sites.  Human osteologists study bones to identify age, biological sex, pathology and pre- and post-mortem trauma alongside other avenues of research in human behaviour and activity, such as investigating diet and mobility of post populations.  The subject is generally only taught at a Masters level within the United Kingdom, although some undergraduate courses in archaeology offer the opportunity to take individual modules during the third year of study.

Within the list England as a whole is well represented within the universities highlighted, Scotland only comes in with three entries, Wales has two courses coming online in 2019, and finally Northern Ireland, as far as I know, offer no distinctive osteological courses at the Masters level.  Further to this, the reader should be aware that some universities, such as the University of Leicester, offer commercial or research centers for human and animal osteology yet run no specific postgraduate courses that provide the training in the methods of osteoarchaeology.  Thus they are excluded from this list.

This information is correct as of March 2018, but please expect at least some of the information to change, especially in relation to course fees for United Kingdom, European Union, and international students.  It should be noted here that the higher education sector in the United Kingdom is internationally well-regarded and the educational institutions are often in the top 10% in world league tables; however it can be very expensive to study here, especially so in the consideration of prospective international students.  Please also take note of the cost of renting (especially in London and the south of the country generally) and the high cost of daily living compared to some countries.  The list is not an exhaustive attempt to collate all British post-graduate courses in human osteology and bioarchaeology and I am happy to add any further information or to correct any entries.

Other Sources & Prospective Student Advice

The British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) site, ran by David Connolly, also has a plethora of useful resources to check as well as an active Facebook group which is a great place to ask for advice.  The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO)  site contains a page with a useful link of current human osteology and bioarchaeology courses in the United Kingdom accessible in the Student Hub area, however it is only view-able for paid up members of BABAO.  If you are interested in human skeletal remains and are keen to learn more about the human osteology profession in the United Kingdom I heavily suggest joining BABAO for their support, annual conference and access to grants for students.

I’ve also written a second post to compliment this one which entails what you, as a prospective student, should keep in mind when looking at degree courses to pursue.  You can check out that post by clicking the title here: Questions to remember when considering a postgraduate course in human osteology.  Since the posting of this blog entry it has come to my attention that a number of universities now offer postgraduate courses as diplomas, which enable prospective students to undertake either practical modules or assignments or instead offer commercial certification in place of the typical formal requirement of the dissertation thesis.  This may be something to think on if you are seeking to work in commercial osteology for archaeological units or forensic companies, rather than heading into academic research or academia itself.

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An example of an archaeological skull. Image credit: source.

Please note that the fees stated are for full-time students only.  For part-time students the price is normally halved and the course carried out over two years, instead of the usual one year that is common for Masters within the United Kingdom.  Several universities also have stipulations that international students are barred from taking MSc/MA course part-time.

MA/MSc Degrees in England

Bournemouth University:

University of Bradford:

University of Cambridge:

  • MPhil Human Evolution (amazingly there are 18,000 skeletons in the Duckworth Collection!).

Cranfield University:

University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN):

University College London:

University of Durham:

University of Exeter:

  • MSc Bioarchaeology (Offers choice of one of three core pathway topics, including human osteology, zooarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology) (UK/EU £7995 and International £16,995).

Universities of Hull and York Medical School:

  • MSc Human Evolution (A very interesting course, combining dissection and evolutionary anatomy) (UK/EU £7940 and International £20,910).

University of Liverpool:

Liverpool John Moores University:

University of Manchester:

  • MSc Biomedical and Forensic Studies in Egyptology (course under review).

University of Oxford:

University of Sheffield:

University of Southampton:

University of Winchester:

University of York:

MA/MSc Degrees in Scotland

University of Aberdeen

University of Dundee:

University of Edinburgh:

MA/MSc Degrees in Wales

Wrexham Glyndwy University*:

  • MRes Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology (UK/EU £7000 and International £15,000).
  • MSc Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology (UK/EU £7000 and International £15,000).

*In conjunction with Cyprus Institute of Sciences and Humanities (CYPISH) and the Centre for Forensic Anthropology & Bioarchaeology (CeFAB), from 2019.  No current course pages exists, this post will be updated when there is a dedicated MRes and MSc web-pages.

The following universities offer short courses in human osteology, osteology, forensics or zooarchaeology

Short Courses in England

Cranfield University:

University of Bradford:

  • On occasion run a palaeopathology course, please check the university website for details.

University of Sheffield:

Note: I am still genuinely surprised there are not more short courses.  If you find any in the United Kingdom please feel free to drop a comment below.

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A University of Hull and Sheffield joint excavation at Brodsworth carried out in 2008 helped to uncover and define a Medieval cemetery. Image credit: University of Hull.

A Few Pieces of Advice

A piece of advice that I would give to prospective students is that I would strongly advise researching your degree by visiting the universities own webpages, finding out about the course specifics and the module content.  If possible I’d also visit the department and tour the facilities available and seek advice from the course leader with regards to potential research interests.  I would also always advise to try to contact a past student and to gain their views on the course that they have attended previously.  They will often offer frank advice and information, something that can be hard to find on a university webpage or from a course leader.  Also please do be aware of the high cost of the United Kingdom higher education as prices have been raised considerably in the past few years and are likely to rise again, especially so in comparison to cheaper courses on the European continent.

Finally, if you know of any other human osteology or bioarchaeology Masters or short courses in the United Kingdom please do comment below or send me an email and I will add it to the list here.

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Speaking to the Dead: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

3 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication, which was released in 2013.  It is 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 the present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book in a 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 sustained periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book 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 1985 volume The Unwomanly Face of War (У войны не женское лицо), recently translated into English and republished, which uncovers the role of USSR females in the Second World War and the subsequent silence of their contributions, alongside 1997’s Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва),  a volume 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.  That 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) was due to be published in 2017; the volume 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.  It is one I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends describing their experiences of encountering human skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and how it inspires them – into careers, into dreams, into labours of love and worry.

A two-part previous edition of this series focusing on the life and thoughts of archaeologists can be read here and here.


The author’s monologue

– Buried and cremated, dismembered and decapitated, axial and axis, perimortem and postmortem.  The language we use to describe the dead can seem cold and clinical, a hidden distance in our lexical choices to keep the emotive at bay.  If we think of the skeletonized dead as people, with their own lives, thoughts and memories, instead of objects taking up space on the finds shelves or boxed silently away, it is perhaps then we remember that the past is not so different, not so foreign to the present.

Fragments of crania, rolled across my open palm for tactile inspection, used to remind me of the intangible border of death.  Reminded me that I too would die.  Bone, that wonderous structure of both flesh and stone, reminded me so vividly of what it is to live.  Having broken many of the elements within my own skeleton, I could feel kindred to those naturally fractured fragments before me, couldn’t I?

That decisive snap, the innervation of electric pain that contorts to dull throbs . . .  What I thought I knew, I desired to know in more depth.  My own experiences of skeletal breakages and repeated surgical interventions, my own handling of the blade cutting into flesh to show bone the sordid light of the dissection room.  The smell of my anatomical guide – the paper protected by clear plastic wallets, but the pages of which had nevertheless become permeated by the chemical smells of preservation.  These were the experiences that pushed me on.

From excavation to analysis, pulled from birth to death anew.  A whole new context of meaning imbued by the discipline of archaeology . . .  These were my dreams, the dull and long-drawn out thoughts that lay behind daily concerns and speculations.

What do others think, how do others interact with the skeletal material that represents an individual, a population, a species?


The illusion of mortality and the fickle nature of finality

Gabriela H.  Late twenties.  Post-doctoral researcher.

– I don’t know what drew me into studying skeletons – it was not the morbid aspect for sure.  I have never been to a funeral, and I don’t feel a pang for skull-themed aromatic candles spread around the house.  I might be ‘in search for a stable ground to step on’, as a psychologist once told me . . .  I don’t know if that is true, it might be, but it might as well have something to do with people.  I like people, and have always been interested in watching them, in understanding their passions, actions and thoughts.  But I should probably bear in mind that these are dead people.  Most of the time I try to ignore this though . . .  The image of a crime movie in which body parts are stacked in jars on shelves comes vividly to mind, and the comparison is rather worrying to be frank.

However, aren’t we (those studying the dead) caught in this eternal (no pun intended) puzzle?  Between having to acknowledge that these are dead people – that on the lab table and on the museum shelf it is death and mortality looking back at us, confronting our own fear of death.  Or seeing them as mere bones, objects that are there waiting for us to turn them into ‘high-impact’ articles?  Boundaries, and absences are unsettling: someone has forever disappeared, though some part of them has been left behind.

‘It is the living who expect insights from the dead’ a friend once told me, and he couldn’t have been more right (as you see I am trying to avoid saying ‘dead right’).  As a ‘dead bodies’ practitioner I think this line cuts to the core of the whole challenge of writing narratives about them – what are we hoping to achieve?  I think most of the times we are unsure, but it is rather hard to be sure about something like death, isn’t it?


On the joy of working with the hands and the truth concealed

Abigail L.  Mid-twenties.  PhD candidate.

– I often miss working with my hands.  The hours spent staring at a screen or trawling through journals are necessary for research, but they make me realise that the physicality of handling human remains, the engagement that comes with examining the material myself, is what really helps me to understand my subject best.  Carefully sorting through someone’s bones removes the abstraction of talking about statistics, trends and probabilities, and brings it back to the individual level, the only one that we can really identify with.  I gain satisfaction from the ordered and methodical work; the rest of my time is spent chaotically moving between tasks and failing to cross anything off my cluttered stacks of physical and digital to-do lists.  With the bones, I arrive early and skip lunch to give myself more time to work slowly and carefully.  I don’t feel the need for the extended walks around the park that my ‘office work’ prompts.  Almost everyone else smokes.

With long periods where I am kept in the office, the growing anticipation of these sparsely distributed tangible interactions with my subject sometimes leads to frustration.  Missing limbs (misplaced in the last decade; “I’m sure they were on display once”); a severe case of mould spreading through the axial skeleton; another “sorry it was lost in the war;” a set of misidentified and mis-catalogued remains that belong to some other site (which one, though?).

My recent osteological work has been characterised by dismay . . .  I’m concerned by the mishandling of human remains in museum and university contexts, but I can’t talk about it as I’m still relying on the goodwill of these institutions.

I can discuss general access issues and curatorial ethics in my thesis, but I can’t refer to my personal disappointment over being prevented from doing something I enjoy.  Is it even okay for me to enjoy this work?  To enjoy sorting, measuring, and recording human remains?  We are supposed to be enthusiastic about our research: engagement, outreach, impact, et cetera.  But people don’t always want to hear the specifics.  I was recently asked (by a palaeoethnobotanist) what I do to ward off all the bad Juju I must be attracting . . .  Alongside my enjoyment, if that is allowed, I also feel a deep anxiety about getting something wrong that I don’t feel in relation to other areas of my work.  It doesn’t seem to go away with experience.  Another topic with no real home for discussion.

My main anxiety at the moment, though, is in relation to my future employment prospects.  While the practical work is what sustains my interest, I also know I need to develop other research interests, other skills, other areas of expertise, in order to compete for jobs.  Most of these keep me inside.  I am increasingly realising that I will soon have little choice in the matter.


The search for identity in a modern context

Richard Smith.  Late forties.  Recovering field archaeologist.

– I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that for many people outside of the profession, the chief occupation of an archaeologist is digging up skeletons (at least for those who don’t think we’re looking for dinosaurs).  To be honest, that aspect probably played into my own set of disjointed reasons for wanting to become an archaeologist . . .  There is something very reassuring about seeing archaeologists carefully excavating away soil from around a skeleton – you know you’re seeing some ‘proper’ archaeology!

And yet, I had worked for more than 20 years as a commercial field archaeologist before I got the opportunity to excavate a ‘classic’ laid out flat skeleton.  It’s not that I’d not been doing much, but every site I seemed to work on was composed of pits, ditches, post-holes, and the like . . .  It’s not like I didn’t encounter human death in those years, but it was invariably in the form of cremated remains, frequently having undergone heavy comminution.  Say what you like, but it’s hard to perceive the humanity in the occasional flecks of white in a black and grey soil.

All that changed for me when I ended up working on a 19th century urban graveyard that was being cleared to allow the church to rebuild, expand, and cater for its dwindling flock into the 21st century.  For someone only used to human remains in the form of gritty powder, coming face to face with a skeleton was nothing short of shocking.  After two decades in the profession, I thought I was well beyond romantic notions of imagining myself into the lives and situations of my ‘subjects’.

But here I was, carefully scraping around a rib, an eye socket, or a femur, wondering about who this person might have been or how they lived their lives.  Admittedly, this was rather short-lived as some of the burials contained their original coffin plates that had their names and dates . . .  Some we eventually were able to track down to published obituaries only to find that they were all wonderful people who were sorely missed by all who knew them.  I wonder where they buried the bad blighters that everyone was glad to see the back of?


The author rejoins

– An historical aside:  ‘Do not divide the dead!’  A Soviet saying dating from the Second World War.  The blurring of lines between the immensity of the Jewish loss of life, and the death wrought across nationalities and ethnicities, versus the continuing vulgarities of Soviet antisemitism post-war which culminated, but did not end, with the Doctor’s plot of 1952-53.

Dividing the dead into known and unknown, into memory and out of time.  The question we never really ask is how much do we need to know, what can we afford not to know?  The almost intangible nature of truth, hidden within the Haversian canals and housed in osteons, each containing a multitude of experiences.

Experiences for which the individual, partitioned by plastic context bags placed among kin, friend or foe, known or unknown, remain silent; they are ready instead to be analysed by the skeletal specialist.  The step by step motions of measurements and non-metric notes taken; occurrences of presence and absences discussed; the archaeological context pondered over.  Relationships are suggested and situations hypothesized, the motivations are almost always guessed at.

An archaeological aside:  ‘The dead do not bury themselves.’  The individual, either as a single outlier or as part of a larger assemblage, become detached from their lived context and are given over to the researcher with the status of temporary ownership.  The dead have already died and their active participation in life is now over, but still they speak to the living as arbiters of the present.

We are not just analysing ourselves when we look into the empty eye sockets of the dead, we are commenting on the past and the vast variations found therein.  There is no distance greater than between the living and the dead, yet there is no closer divide.  That is the juxtaposition lying in wait, entombed within the cortical and trabecular bone, trapped within the enamel and dentine, ready to surprise the unwary.

Guest Interview: Putting Flesh on the Bones with James Neill

19 Dec

James Neill is a Project Archivist working on the Putting Flesh on the Bones project at the University of Bradford. Prior to this project James worked for a diverse range of arts, heritage and higher education organisations, including London Metropolitan Archives, the Mercers’ Company and the University of Arts London. As an archivist James has worked on a broad range of collections, from medieval manuscripts created by the Estate of Sir Richard Whittington to counter-cultural US comic books of the 1960s. His primary professional focus is working with archive collections with real historical, cultural or organisational value.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello James, thank you for joining me here at These Bones of Mine! I have to say I am pretty excited to talk about your new project, entitled ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’, which is based at the University of Bradford.  Could you tell us a little bit about the project and your role within it?

James Neill (JN):  Thanks David.  The ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ is an 18 month-long project which aims to catalogue, digitise and promote the archive collection of renowned palaeopathologist Calvin Wells (1908-1978).  The majority of the collection relates to Calvin’s distinguished palaeopathology career, but also reflects his many other intriguing professional and personal endeavours.  After his death Calvin’s archive of research papers, correspondence, photographs and transparencies, radiographs, and audio-visual material came to Bradford under the management of his friend and colleague Dr Keith Manchester.  This includes Calvin’s unique library of rare and antiquarian books on medicine, archaeology and anthropology.

The British palaeopathologist Calvin Wells examining a human crania. Image credit: University of Bradford.

When the collection arrived at Bradford it was divided between two different departments, with the palaeopathology material going to the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (B.A.R.C.), and his books and more personal ephemera being held by Special Collections at the J.B. Priestley Library.  This physical split as well as lack of comprehensive understanding about the contents of the collection limited its accessibility for potential users. Moreover many items, particularly the transparencies and audio-visual material, are vulnerable to deterioration and in need of professional conservation.

These factors motived B.A.R.C. Collections Manager Dr Jo Buckberry and Special Collections Librarian Alison Cullingford to bid in 2016 for a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Grant.  The purpose of the grant is to improve access to health-related library and archive collections, and is a substantial boon for archive projects across the U.K. Fortunately Jo and Alison were successful in their application and the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project was awarded a grant of almost £140,000.

We’re very fortunate because the grant has allowed us to afford a team of specialists, including a project archivist, osteologist, conservator and placement student.  As the project archivist my role is oversee each part of the cataloguing and digitisation process, as well as manage and organise all promotional aspects of the project through online and outreach activities.  Ultimately I am responsible for ensuring the collection’s potential for scientific and historical research is fulfilled by making it more accessible and known to relevant audiences as well the wider public.

TBOM:  Having been a longtime itinerant visitor to the University of Bradford, and its Department of Archaeological Sciences, I’ve always been intrigued by the fundamental role the department has played in establishing human osteology and palaeopathology as archaeological-based disciplines within Britain and internationally.  However, the university itself was the recipient of Calvin Wells physical archive rather than the base of his work. 

As such I’m intrigued by the relationship between the man and his archive.  How, and by what methods, are you making the numerous research articles, monographs, and review publications available to current researches?

JN:  Bradford’s role in developing palaeopathology teaching and research on an international level is central to the Calvin Wells Archive story.  It was Calvin’s wish that the collection be held in trust by the Wellcome Library with the intention of ultimate donation to a University offering a course in Palaeopathology to degree level.  With the introduction of the MSc Course in Osteology, Palaeopathology and Funerary Archaeology at Bradford, Calvin’s wife Freddie released the collection to the Department of Archaeological Sciences.

A collection of slides that were left behind in the archive, a very useful and durable form of documentation. Image credit: University of Bradford.

Whilst the collection is yet to be fully catalogued we’re confident that the archive holds the vast majority of Calvin’s published and unpublished skeletal research and reports.  This includes additional material, such as photographs, handwritten notes, annotated typescripts, and related correspondence.  For the first time, all of Calvin’s research will be available from one resource.  A central reason why the Wellcome Trust funded the project was our ability to demonstrate the continued interest and demand for Calvin’s work.  An analysis by Bradford’s Subject Librarian for Archaeology and Forensics Sarah George demonstrated that in the 40 years since his death, citations of his work have risen year on year.

The intention of the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project is to unlock the collection for potential researchers by producing a comprehensive catalogue of its contents. Our team Osteologist Michelle Williams-Ward is focused on parts of the collection which require specialist descriptions, such as Wells’ skeletal reports and associated photographic material. Michelle is uniquely placed for this role given that she has just completed a PhD thesis ‘Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk’ which analysed remains from many of the same archaeological sites Wells worked on.

Upon completion the catalogue will be publicly available via the Archives Hub, a national database of archives collections which covers several major UK Higher Education archives and special collections. Archives Hub is keyword searchable, so researchers will be able to search for material by site, date, persons, and, in some cases, pathology. The material can be viewed through the University of Bradford’s Special Collections at the J.B. Priestley Library.

Calvin and Freddie Wells with Vilheim Moller-Christensen, dated to 1962. Image credit: University of Bradford.

If researchers are unable to visit in person there are Reprographics and other services available upon request. Additionally any visual material on vulnerable formats, specifically Calvin’s large slide collection, will be digitised and made available via Special Collection’s digital repository which is currently in the development stage.

TBOM: ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ then sounds like it is doing a wonderful service to the work and life of Calvin Wells. Although I’ve been aware of his reputation as a palaeopathologist within the United Kingdom, and his importance in helping to establish the practice, I’m keen to learn of Calvin as an individual.

Having read Waldron’s 2014 review of his life and work in the Journal of Medical Biography, the reader is left with a strong impression of him as a somewhat intense, passionate researcher who, at times, read far too much into the skeletal remains of past individuals. Particularly so in his now notorious and problematic case of identifying rape from the remains of a skeleton identified as female and the graphic contextual details that he goes into, which is not supported by the archaeological or osteological evidence present.

Having worked with, and continuing to develop, the access and availability of both his professional and personal archive, what have your insights into his character been like?

JN:  It’s crucial for archive projects to be impartial in how they open up historical records for research and interpretation. Therefore the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ want to reveal all facets of Calvin’s character, both positive and negative.  Similarly it’s our responsibility to provide historical context alongside the material, in order to bring greater understanding about the time which Wells lived and worked.  As an archivist I can only speak to Calvin’s character as it comes across in the archive material.  There is great deal more to be understood about Calvin’s personality from reading biographies written by friends and colleagues.  In addition to Tony Waldron’s article, I recommend reading Glyn Daniel, Gerald D Hart, Cecil J Hackett, and Keith Manchester and Charlotte Roberts. Some of these articles aren’t readily accessible, and the project will change that.

A shot of Calvin working in the great outdoors, analysing skeletal remains at White Horse Cottage, Norwich. Image credit: University of Bradford.

With the exception of memoirs from his service in the Royal Army Medical Core in WWII, the archive material documents Calvin’s life from 1955 until his death at age 70 in 1978.  This was a particularly eventful time Calvin’s life when he produced the bulk of his research and established his legacy in palaeopathology.  Whilst he didn’t keep a diary as such, Calvin was meticulous in preserving his professional and personal correspondence.  We are fortunate because he often kept copies of his own letters, meaning we can read both parts of conversation.  These letters provide unique insight into Calvin’s character and his relationships with others.

An obvious aspect of Calvin’s personality is that he was a gregarious individual, eager to converse with anybody in his fields of expertise.  As a result of the popularity of ‘Bones, Bodies and Disease’ Calvin received considerable correspondence from academics, researchers and university students.  He was particularly generous with the last group, who wrote to him asking about degree courses, research areas or future career paths.  In these instances Calvin expressed earnest enthusiasm for new scientific and academic endeavours, and in many cases established enduring pen-friendship with young scholars and researchers.  It is interesting to now Google the names of these individuals and to discover that many became top doctors, scientists and even politicians.

Given his privileged background, it might be assumed that Calvin was particular about his correspondents.  However he was pleased to converse with the many strangers who wrote to him following an appearance on national radio or TV.  An ITV profile about Wells’, showing the doctor analyse ancient bones, swinging Anglo-Saxon swords and water-ski, promoted an influx of letters from as far afield as Australia.  This included an enquiry from a Norfolk sheep farmers relating to the location of large churches in rural areas with a low population.  In another letter Calvin politely declines the services of a Welsh dowser who believes he can locate bog bodies in Dersingham Bog.  There are also numerous letters from parents and teachers enquiring about how to get children involved in archaeology and osteology.  In all of these instances Calvin is polite to a fault and comes across as natural educator who cherishes the opportunity to share his intellectual passions with others.

A selection of the human skeletal remains that Calvin helped to document. Many of the skeletal remains that he studied came from sites within Norfolk and the east of England. Image credit: University of Bradford.

Concerning the more negative aspects of Calvin’s character, it’s a shame that a small number of ill-judged interpretations of human remains have come to define him as a person.  It is true that Calvin could be intense and bombastic in expressing his professional and personal opinion.  This is evident in his correspondence with Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, with whom he collaborated on the series of controversial reports on an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Kings Worthy, Hampshire.  Without hashing out the detail the Ancient Monuments Laboratory – who commissioned Sonia to produce the report on the site – resisted Calvin’s involvement on the project.  This was less to do with Calvin dramatic over-interpretations of remains, and more to with his vocal contempt for a fellow palaeopathologist on the team.  In their correspondence Hawkes pleaded with Calvin to tone his comments down, writing that they are “far too hot and strong for anyone’s but my sympathetic and sympathising eyes and ears”.

Clearly Calvin was at his most hostile when interacting with journal editors or publishers who edited his work without permission or published it with errors or inaccuracies.  In fact Calvin wrote about it in an unpublished article called ‘Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners’, where he lays into the ‘discourteous tempering’ of journal editors.  It appears that Calvin was extremely intellectually proud and felt he had seniority or ownership over palaeopathology at the time.  This is ironic because accepting some constructive criticism may have softened his language or persuaded him to omit some of the more graphic descriptions which have since left an indelible mark on his scientific bibliography.

Photograph of a slingshot wound on a crania, analysed by Calvin Wells, from ancient Cirencester. Image credit: University of Bradford.

However I think that Calvin’s archive material ultimately shows him to be a diligent and conscientious man, both at work and with friends and family.  I predict that the unlocking the collection will show a more thoughtful, progressive and accomplished Calvin than currently remembered.

TBOM: Calvin’s work has been fundamental in making the field of palaeopathology an integral discipline of study within archaeology itself. Indeed, the identification, diagnosis, and demographic attributes associated with studying both ancient diseases and evidence of trauma associated with archaeological remains allows, researchers to build up a detailed picture of human health over the ages. It also allows us to delve into ancient epidemiology within defined populations, allowing for patterns, observations and human behaviour to be identified and investigated.

However, as you have had prime access to his professional and private correspondence, I’m keen to learn what has become one of your favourite pieces of his research, whether it was his bone reports or articles on the value of human skeletal remains as portals into the past?

Related to this I’m keen to hear what you think drove Calvin Wells, the individual, to go from practising as a GP (general practitioner), from helping to heal and comfort the living, to working solely on the ancient dead, diagnosing signs of trauma and disease processes?

JN:  Being based in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Science alongside researchers and students has given me the opportunity to understand Calvin’s research in manner not immediately clear to an archivist such as myself.  Therefore I recognise the value of those parts of Calvin’s research which will be most useful and beneficial to the collection’s anticipated users – Palaeopathologists, Osteologists and Archaeologists.  In addition to his published reports on skeletal material, many of which are not currently available, the collection holds Calvin’s original research notes, graphs and tables, excavation maps, and photographs, slide and radiographs of skeletal remains.  This raw data will allow the researchers of today to reassess and reinterpret the human remains and archaeological sites initially reported on by Calvin and his colleagues.  With regard to Calvin’s bone work, I don’t have a specific favourite piece of research but rather appreciate the meticulously preserved empirical evidence which gives the archive material contemporary scientific value.

A collection shot of the archives that Calvin Wells left behind, including postcards, books, skeletal reports and photographs. Image credit: University of Bradford.

That being said I do personally enjoy the articles Calvin wrote for more popular publications, such as the Times Literary Supplements, the Reader and the US magazine Horizon.  Additionally Calvin wrote regular columns for the Eastern Daily Press under pseudonym ‘Calliphon’.  These articles show that Wells was just as enthusiastic about discussing current medical issues as he was waxing on about disease and injury in ancient history.  For example in an article from 1957 Calvin outlines the mounting evidence of direct links between tobacco smoking and cancer.  In another he provides medical and moral arguments for embracing the mass polio vaccinations in 1955, about which much of the British public were wary.  Wells also used the column to write biographies of Norwich’s great physicians or wax lyrical about primitive man in East Anglia.  It was a popular feature for which ‘Calliphon’ received a great a considerable amount of fan mail.  Adulation was something Calvin embraced, and it increased as he became more prominent in palaeopathology.

On a surface level it could be argued that Calvin devoted himself full-time to palaeopathology primarily as a means of supplementing his pension whilst pursing his interest in the ancient dead.  However, there is something in the fact that Calvin wanted recognition beyond his work as a regional GP.  It’s clear that the career change opened up a new world for both he and his wife Freddie.  From around the mid-1960s, Calvin started to forge relationships with leading scientists and academics, began lecturing for prominent organisations, and received more opportunities to appear on radio and television.  As a natural showman, Calvin fully embraced the attention and respect that being an international authority on palaeopathology brought him.  This is not to say Calvin was cynically pursuing fame, as he invested a great deal of time and research into every job and appearance.  It is clear that Calvin seemed to be gearing up for a third act in his life before cancer struck unexpectedly.

TBOM: Do you think Calvin Wells would be surprised today that his work and research (and dare I say reputation) still plays such a fundamental component in the British history of palaeopathology? Do you think he would be struck by the diverse and wide-ranging courses available, and by the active number of researchers within the field?

JN:  With regard to how Calvin would feel about the development of palaeopathology, I think he would be awestruck by the methodological and technological developments in the subject.  Most of all I think Calvin would be compelled to revise his belief that only individuals with medical qualifications can practise palaeopathology, particularly when confronted with the scale of advancements made by researchers with backgrounds in physical anthropology, archaeology, medicine, biology, and zoology.  While the discipline has significantly evolved and diversified, I think Calvin would recognise his own passion and dedication present in today’s palaeopathologists.

A shot of Calvin Wells in action, helping to teach schoolchildren in Toronto on the value in studying human skeletal remains. Image credit: University of Bradford.

I was recently speaking with Dr Keith Manchester who remarked on how proud Calvin would be that his work continues to have influence almost two generations later.  Clearly he was conscious about leaving a legacy in palaeopathology, and this is evident in the extent with which the archive collection has been cared for and maintained.  Concerning the more contentious aspects of his legacy I think Calvin would be philosophical, probably following Oscar Wilde’s famous line that ‘the only thing worse in life than being talked about is not being talked about’.

TBOM:  Indeed, I think he’d be glad that his fundamental role within British palaeopathology, and palaeopathology as a discipline within its own right, would continued to be recognised.  Thank you very much for joining me at These Bones of Mine James, and I wish you the best of luck archiving the Calvin Wells collection.

Further Information

  • Visit the Putting Flesh on the Bones project website for further information and frequent updates.  The site is a wealth of information on Calvin’s books, skeletal reports and other aspects of intriguing life and lifelong passion for palaeopathological topics.
  • To visit the Twitter page for the project please follow @PFOTB_project, for the project Instagram page please check it out at puttingfleshonthebones.

Bibliography

Daniel, Glyn. 1978. ‘Calvin Wells Obituary; A Man’s Place in Nature by Glyn Daniel’. From The Times, 5 August 1978. [Available from University of Bradford Special Collections].

Hart, G. 1983. ‘Disease in Ancient Man: An International Symposium’. Toronto, Canada (1983).

Roberts, C. 2012. Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978). In: The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects. Edited by Jane Buikstra. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 141-145.

Waldron, T. 2014. Crooked Timber: The Life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978). Journal of Medical Biography. 22 (2): 82-89. (Open Access).

Wells, C. 1961. Bones, Bodies and Disease. London: Thames & Hudson.

Interview with Alexandra Ion: Introducing DivMeanBody & The Post-Mortem Fate of Human Bodies

30 Oct

Alexandra Ion is an osteoarchaeologist and anthropologist who specialises in Neolithic deathways, theory of (osteo)archaeological practice, and the history of anatomical/anthropological body displays.  Alexandra can be found writing about her research and thoughts on her blog at Bodies and Academia, where topics include the anthropology of the body, with specific reference to the ethics and history of body research and the display of the body.  To keep up to date on the DivMeanBody project, and the latest research goings on, check out the project blog.  Alexandra’s research profile can be found here.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM): Hello Alexandra, thank you so much for joining me at These Bones of Mine! We’ve known each other for a while via our own respective blogging sites and I’m always interested to see what you post at Bodies and Academia. However, for those of us who do not know you or your bioarchaeological research, could you tell us a little bit about your background and main research interests?

Guest blog interviewee Alexandra Ion admiring a number of flints. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

Alexandra Ion (AI):  Hi David, thanks a lot for having me here!  I am trained both as an archaeologist and as an osteoarchaeologist, but along the way I came to be interested in the more reflexive approaches to the material record we encounter.  If I am to summarise, I would say that I am interested in the ethics and history of body research and display, from analyses of past Neolithic death-ways, to reflexive accounts focused on the way in which human remains are turned into an object of study and are enacted as part of the osteoarchaeological and anthropological disciplines (from contemporary excavations, to the history of anatomical/anthropological collections).

I am currently a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research located at the University of Cambridge, and I am also a researcher at the Cultural Anthropology Department of the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ of the Romanian Academy, so I can say that I am ‘butterflying’ at the cross-road of the two disciplines and perspectives.

TBOM:   It is clear that with the research positions you hold, you are able to produce an interesting perspective on both archaeology and anthropology as separate disciplines that can readily be fed from one into the other productively.

As such, and having myself come from a background where the practicalities of analyzing human skeletal remains was emphasized within an archaeological perspective, I have to ask where your interest in theorizing the human body came from within your academic and research background?

AI:  Not an easy question to answer for sure, but one which definitely goes directly at the heart of my research.  Like any exercise in self-reflection, trying to identify the ‘cause’ of something can sometimes be as accurate as the exercise of piecing back events from memory, but if I am to follow the threads back into my past I think I should start by saying that I have a BA in History.  Thus, from the beginning I have been thinking of archaeological materials as part of broader theoretical/historical processes and questions.

At the same time, I was lucky to meet and learn from a handful of archaeologists who were interested in exploring theoretical avenues, influenced by anthropological, sociological or philosophical works, and who made me question the established paradigm.  The first proper work I did where I combined the two interests was during my MSc in Sheffield, where under the supervision of Prof John Barrett I applied a sociology of scientific knowledge approach to osteoarchaeological practice – in other words, I took scientists dealing with bones as my subjects, and I tried to see what kind of interpretation they construct about past human beings through the questions and methods they follow (and the ethical implications of these practices).

Alexandra demonstrating a research poster with an study skeleton. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

TBOM:  I think that is a really interesting perspective on the research of the actual process of osteoarchaeology.  Almost, I can imagine, a meta review of humanity reviewing itself using a standardised methodology.  In that first piece of research for your Masters, what conclusions were you able to draw with regards to this, and how has it subsequently informed your following research?

AI:  I am not sure if I could draw a straightforward conclusion after that, rather it was my intention to highlight the networks in which human remains are integrated, and following sociologist Bruno Latour, the actors which take part in shaping our understanding of them – from instruments and methods, to spaces and world-views.  I think my main aim was to bring into view how our bones analysis are the product of a series of choices (what to study, why, how), and that maybe if we chose differently, then our reading of the past were different.  Liminal case studies are perhaps the best/easiest to use as illustrations of more reflexive points such as this, and I am thinking here of a piece which has recently came out in Archaeological Dialogues in which I was trying to see what happens when the standardised osteological understanding of an individual meets in the field a completely different take on humanity – in this case, that of a Church.

Namely, I’ve been looking at how the two ways of ‘decoding’ some human remains met on the territory of one body belonging to a Greek-Catholic Romanian Bishop killed during the 1950s in a communist prison.  While for the Church, the body was seen as a sign of martyrdom, a site of embodied experiences which tied it to the community of believers, past to the present, the scientific approach applied a universal and standard methodology, whose language did not leave room for an understanding of the particulars of his situation.  Once the scientist steps out of the ‘laboratory’ and goes into the field (regardless how we define that), their world-view is confronted and challenged by complex networks of actors, each with their own agendas and interpretation of what those bodies are/should be – and this can start some interesting points for reflection.

TBOM:  That particular case study that you’ve recently published is a great example of examining the cultural and social differences as documented in testimonies, texts and historical records, compared to the strict osteological interpretation of the Bishop’s body, and associated burial context, within a fraught historic period.  It is also a period that is very well documented compared to the archaeological record as a whole.  

As such I’m wondering how you can use your approach to the skeletal remains of individuals, or populations, from prehistoric contexts where documentation is either non-existent or enigmatic in nature, i.e. structural remains that are of unknown function or use?

AI:  I think this is the challenge indeed!  Recently I took part in the Cambridge Science Festival and I have received the same question from members of the public, under various guises: what do you do with these human remains?  Of course the first level of analysis involves sexing, ageing, identifying pathologies, traumas etc. on the human remains, with the goal of piecing together their (post-mortem) biography.  However, I think that we need to go beyond the data encoded in the materiality of bodies, and think of them in the wider context of their deposition/discovery.

Of course there is not a single/simple answer to how to go about this, but ultimately it is a question of scaling: finding the right (useful) balance between the singular case study and the wider population data, between the human remains and their context, between a site and the wider cultural patterns.  Anthropology, history and even philosophy of science might provide inspiration when reaching a dead-end, leading to new questions for old materials.  Ultimately, I think one also has to accept the limits of what we can do with certain kinds of discoveries, due to the fragmentary and heterogeneous nature of the material.

TBOM:  I’m really excited by the announcement recently of your latest project, DivMeanBody, based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, which will investigate the construction of the prehistoric body and identity from Neolithic settlements (7th-4th millennia BC), from around the Balkans area of southern Europe.

What is the focus area of the study, along with the bioarchaeological material, that you’ll be studying specifically?  As we’ve discussed above, I’m really keen to see how you fuse together the biological data from the human skeletal remains with the cultural material of ancient societies, in order to explore the meaning and use of the human body within funerary practices during the Neolithic period.

AI:  My research is designed as an exploration in the construction of the prehistoric body and identity, by studying the post-mortem fate of human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements in the Balkan area (between 7th-5th millennia BC).  These settlements have yielded collections of disarticulated/fragmentary/scattered human remains.  Traditionally such human remains have been either a focus of osteological studies, looking at them in a biological dimension, or subjected to cultural analysis.  My project aims at taking a multi-disciplinary comparative perspective, at the cross-road of archaeology and osteology, towards the re-interpretation of such deposits from a taphonomic perspective to answer the question of whether these are deliberate depositions or more complex, including non-cultural processes, might explain this fragmentation.

The DivMeanBody blogging page, check out the University of Cambridge project website page here. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

Given its broad time span, apparent uniformity on a large geographical area and across multiple prehistoric cultures (from southern Romania to northern Greece), studying this depositional practice is key to understanding the context which shaped the beginnings of settlements, agriculture and the Neolithic way of life in Europe.  Thus, I hope to better understand how these past people were performing and dealing with the dynamic processes of life and death in their communities and the relation of these practices to the formation of archaeological deposits.  At the same time, it will surpass the divide present in contemporary research between a biological body (studied by osteology) and a cultural body (by archaeology).

The materials I will be looking at are of three types: skeletal materials who have already been excavated, old archaeological reports/photographs, and archaeological/osteological publications.  Of course the access to all these kinds of data is not even, especially when it involves researches from three countries (Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania)- either some of the materials are not available any more (lost, or not available for study), or the initial documentation is not present, so the bones have no context.  Beyond an interaction with these past bodies, the project turns out to be also a trip down memory lane, an archaeological investigation into storage areas, publications and academic networks.

TBOM: I’m looking forward to reading some of the outcomes of your research, so I’ll be sure to keep an eye on the dedicated website that you have for the project.

The geographic and population focus of the majority of your research has largely been in eastern and southern Europe, covering anthropological topics and the curation of historic and prehistoric human osteological collections, such as the Bucharest-based Francisc. I Rainer Anthropological Research Center, Romania, which houses one of the largest human osteological collections in Europe.  With your experience of academic work and associated field experience across a number of countries, I’m intrigued as to your views on how anthropology and osteoarchaeology is taught and if you have experienced any differing approaches in their application?

AI:  This is an important question indeed, thank you, one which I think should be more often discussed!  I am not sure though if I am the best person to answer it, as I have no extensive experience with how osteoarchaeology is being formally taught throughout the world – besides my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I am mostly self-taught/ I’ve been taught the basis of osteology by my colleagues at the Institute.  In an indirect way, my answer speaks about the academic situation of the discipline in my country, and the absence of a formal qualification.  Even in the United Kingdom, there are not that many programmes offering osteology training, and even less a combined degree (with funerary archaeology)- I recall you made a list a while ago.

Furthermore, when it comes to the interest in the history of body collections and the ethics and politics of human remains research and display there does not seem to be a specific path for training either, and those interested, like myself, seem to come from various backgrounds (e.g. I have a PhD in History, Elizabeth Hallam in Social Anthropology, Tiffany Jenkins in sociology, while Liv Nilsson Stutz and Duncan Sayer have one in archaeology – and this is just to name a few; others come from the world of pathology, forensic anthropology or philosophy).  Due to this fluid nature of the discipline, each of these specialists brings their own questions and perspective on things, which in a way is just a reflection of the multi-faceted nature of the topics explored.

But if you ask me about the specific osteoarchaeological training, the only broad remarks I can make are that I have noticed that in France these studies are sometimes more closely connected to pathology and taphonomy than in other places, that there is a difference between seeing osteoarchaeology as part of a historical discipline (like in my academic background) versus seeing it as a biological science (as I’ve often encountered it in UK settings), or as part of cultural anthropological concerns (as is the case in the USA).  Of course these are very rough generalisations, but I think what is certain is that there is not just one osteoarchaeology, and would be interesting to talk more about how various traditions define the concept (even a quick glance at the names which are used in various places is indicative of the heterogeneity of practices- from bioarchaeology to archeothanatology or osteology).

TBOM:  Your observations seem to collate with my own experience of both osteoarchaeology and bioarchaeology, alongside their related fields, in other countries.  Particularly so as to where osteology fits within its confines in an archaeological or anthropological setting.  I sometimes wonder if this acts as an almost linguistic straight-jacket on respective researchers who are confined within their narrow field of study, as espoused by their department or traditional approach within their country of research.

Returning again to your new project, DivMeanBody, how did you come to focus on the Neolithic period of south-eastern Europe?

AI: Indeed, I share you concerns regarding ‘a linguistic straight-jacket’, though I would rather call it an epistemological straight-jacket.  In the same time, I think that what we witness – the cohabitation of multiple archaeologies (some taking very hard sciences approaches, while at the other end of the spectrum we have postmodern narratives and even performances – a colleague mentioned of a dance ‘presentation’ he witnessed in a conference panel) – should prompt some reflection and dialogue in respect to the kinds of basic principles that we share/should share.

But returning to your question, I think this was, like many other decisions in research, a serendipitous encounter.  Quite early in my undergrad (and even before that) I was fascinated by the Neolithic period, especially by the Vadastra pottery.  The black polished pots, decorated through deep incisions filled with white paste, and with helix or geometrical models are extremely elegant and special, and they definitely drew me in to deep time.  For a couple of years, I have also been to two different tells in southern Romania, and then it came the moment of choosing a topic for my BA thesis.  At first, I had been offered the opportunity of publishing the pottery from a late Neolithic site, but as I soon discovered I did not get too excited about drawing pot shards on millimetre paper.

An anthropomorphic vessel made of fired clay, Vădastra, Vădastra, 5500-5000 BC. National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest: 15908. Image credit: Marius Amarie, New York Times.

By this time, I was already working at the Institute of Anthropology, and one day when I was sitting at my desk by the skull shelves my colleague Andrei Soficaru popped in and said: ‘Why don’t you study the human remains from Neolithic settlements in Romania for your thesis?’.  That was to be my topic for my first Master thesis as well, and it stayed with me even when I moved more into the theoretical aspects.  Thus, when I had to choose a topic for this postdoc I went back to what I knew, and to what I have left ‘unresolved’ in a way, the interpretation of human remains discoveries from settlements from Southern Romania; then extending the area to the Balkans made sense, as in the Neolithic times this area would have shared many cultural commonalities.

TBOM: Thank you very much for joining me today Alexandra, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. and good luck with your DivMeanBody project!

At These Bones of Mine we’ll definitely be keeping a look out as to how the project develops.  I’m sure that my readers would be interested in hearing about the results as well.

AI:  Thank you David for a wonderful opportunity to talk about some of my work!

Further Information

  • You can check out Alexandra’s personal blog, entitled Bodies and Academia, which features a great range of thought-provoking and interesting posts on osteoarchaeology and anthropology.  Alternatively, for bite-sized chunks, check out Alexandra’s Bodies and Academia Twitter page here.
  • For all of the latest updates on the DivMeanBody project check out the website home page here.

Bibliography

Ion, A., Soficaru, A., & Miritoiu, N. 2009. Dismembered Human Remains from the ‘Neolithic’ Cârcea Site (Romania). Studii de Preistorie6: 47 – 79.

Dobos, C. & Ion, A. (eds.) 2015. Bodies/Matter: Narratives of Corporeality. Special Volume of Martor -The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review. 20. Bucharest: Martor. (Open Access).

Ion A. 2015. Breaking Down the Body and Putting it Back: Displaying Knowledge in the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ Anthropological Collection. Martor – The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review20: 25-50. (Open Access).

Ion, A. 2016. The Body of the Martyr. Between an Archival Exercise and the Recovery of his Suffering. The need for a Recovery of Humanity in OsteoarchaeologyArchaeological Dialogues. 23 (2): 158–174. doi: 10.1017/S1380203816000209.

Ion, A. 2017. And then they were Bodies: Medieval Royalties, from DNA Analysis to a Nation’s Identity, in Premodern Rulership and Contemporary Political Power. The King’s Body Never Dies, (eds.) Karolina Mroziewicz, Aleksander Sroczyński, 217-237. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Guest Interview: Introducing the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS) with Marit Van Cant, & Co-Founders Davina Craps & Hélène Déom

27 Feb

Marit Van Cant is a PhD-fellow for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and in a joint PhD between the Free University of Brussels (VUB, Belgium) and the University of Sheffield (UK).  She completed her Master’s Degree in Archaeology at the VUB in 2012.  Since 2010 she has been specialising in human osteology by participating in several key courses at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Leiden University (The Netherlands), and also in the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield as a part of the European Union Erasmus exchange programme in 2011.  Approaching the final stage of her PhD thesis, Marit has been appointed as Student Representative of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in 2016-2017, for which she has organised its annual Student Colloquium in Brussels, the first time that the event took place outside the UK.

Dr. Davina Craps, finished her doctoral degree at Durham University in 2015 and specialises in palaeopathology (the study of disease in the past), with a research focus on rheumatology.  She completed her undergraduate studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and went on to get Master’s degrees specializing in osteology, anatomy, funerary archaeology, eastern Mediterranean archaeology and palaeopathology from the Catholic University Leuven (Belgium), the University of Sheffield (UK), and Durham University (UK).  She is currently applying for postdoctoral funding, and runs her own freelance osteology company called Osteoarc, which specialises in the analysis and assessment of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts for commercial units and museums.

Hélène Déom undertook a Master’s degree in Archaeology at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium) then another Master’s degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Practices at the University of Sheffield (UK).  During her studies, she specialised in prehistoric burials from Belgium and England.  After graduation in 2014, she started to work for archaeologists from the Public Service of Wallonia (SPW), examining skeletons excavated from medieval parish cemeteries.  She’s been working freelance since 2015 under the name of TIBIA, which specialises  in the analysis of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Marit, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I know you, of course, from my time at the University of Sheffield a few years ago but since then you have been working on your PhD, alternating between the University of Sheffield, in England, and Free University of Brussels, in Belgium.  How is your research going?  And how did you become involved in helping to set up Belgian Osteoarchaeology and Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS)?

Marit Van Cant (MCV):  Hi David!  Indeed a while ago – besides the several times we met at conferences, remember the Society of American Archaeology 2015 annual meeting in San Francisco where I had the privilege to listen to your nice talk on the public importance of communicating bioarchaeology of care research (and not to mention the famous Vesuvio Cafe we frequented afterwards!).  Time flies indeed since we both studied together at the University of Sheffield!

I am currently in the writing up stage of my PhD research, which is about the skeletal analysis of rural and small urban sites, mainly in Flanders, and one rural site from the United Kingdom.  Besides the general health status, I’ll look at entheseal changes on both inter- and intra-population level, and the impact of occupational activities and the environment on these populations, in conjunction with archaeological and historical sources.  But, enough said of this project – I would like to defend my PhD by the end of this year! – and this interview is all about BOAPAS, right?

So, this is how it all started: In October 2015, I was asked to give a presentation at the Dead Men Talking Symposium in Koksijde, Belgium, on the state of the art of osteological research in Flanders. 

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The meeting taking place on the 27th February 2016 at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

It was clear that, not only in Flanders, but also in Wallonia, (I will not dwell on details of the complex political situation in Belgium, but briefly: Flanders is the Dutch speaking part, and they speak mainly French in Wallonia), many young (and less young) researchers in bone studies are forced to study abroad, such as in the United Kingdom, in France, or in The Netherlands.  Although we do have many skeletal remains in Belgium, previously excavated or even to be uncovered in the (near) future, there is currently no clear overview of which skeletal collection is yet to be studied, or of the depository this bone material is stored at.

So, me and three other participants at the conference, Hélène Déom, Davina Craps and Marieke Gernay, decided to gather not only all osteologists (human bone specialists and archaeozoologists) in Belgium, but also employees working in heritage agencies, museums and archaeologists (both contractors, including commercial and academic researcher and lecturers) in order to provide a platform for everyone working with osteological material from archaeological contexts.

We started with an announcement and a mailing list at this conference, and collected the contact details of c. 30 people on that day.  We created a mail address, which was still called Belgian Osteological Research group as we hadn’t decided on the name of our society yet!  Our next step was to announce our first meeting.  This was organised on February 27th 2016 in the small auditorium of the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, with many thanks to Caroline Polet for providing us this location.

TBOM:  I certainly do remember the Versuvio Cafe, and I think if you had told 16-year-old me that he would be drinking where Kerouac and Ginsberg had drunk in San Francisco, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.  (Not to mention visiting the City Lights bookstore and watching an excellent band in a dive bar!).  I wish you good luck with your PhD defense, but I’d like to know more about the topics that were discussed in regards to setting up the society.

I’m impressed that your group managed to pull together and contact a full representation of the individuals who are involved with skeletal remains from archaeological contexts in Belgium, but how did you decide what topics to mention and how did you move forward?

MVC:  That bookstore was indeed amazing!  And the beatnik spirit still surviving in that bar . . .  Good memories will never fade away!

We welcomed 11 members at our first meeting, both from Flanders and Wallonia, and decided to communicate in English to facilitate international accessibility.  On the other hand, French and Dutch translations on our website will be available too.

Further topics we discussed included the aims of our society:

  • To provide information about professionals in the field within Belgium.
  • To improve communication in osteological matters, especially between people from the different regions of the country.
  • To produce a database of skeletal collections and the relevant institutions that hold the various skeletal collections.
  • The legalisation of our society, and whether to become a non-profit society or not, and which steps should be undertaken to achieve that goal.
  • Decide on the name and logo of the group itself.

To choose the latter one, an online poll was created, and finally, BOAPAS, or the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society, came out as the most favoured name for our new society.

Once the name and vision statement were created, we worked on managing and maintaining our visibility.  Online visibility comprehends a website with a forum as well as social media profiles such as on Facebook and Twitter.  But, there is always room for improvement of course, so we are still working on the design and content of the site itself and how we reach out to individuals and other like-minded societies and organisations.

card

The delightful BOAPAS cards advertising the society, and the joy of using sliding calipers to measure skeletal elements and anatomical landmarks. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

The site gives an overview of our aims and vision statement (why we are doing it) and ways to contact the group (via email address, possibly via social networks).  At a later stage, we would like to include a forum and the database can be linked to it.  All details that will be added to the website can be discussed, tested, improved or removed as appropriate.  We also created a list of people who are currently available for short or long term assignments, or available in the future, with their photograph and biographical details demonstrating their background and skill sets.

TBOM:  I have to say I do adore those business cards, they manage to effectively communicate the message of the aim of the society and the methods used in physical anthropology and osteoarchaeology in a lovely way!  So, do you foresee any major areas where you may run into problems in setting up the society?

Aligned to this question, do you, by starting up BOAPAS, hope to bring into existence a firmer framework for osteological studies, within academic research and commercial work, in the Belgian archaeology and anthropology sector?

Hélène Déom (HD):  Thank you, those business cards are the result of effective teamwork to create them.  We are really proud of them.  There are, of course, major problems, as usual, when a society is being set up and they include time, money and legislation.  I’d say that is a long shot, but I’m dreaming of creating such a strong framework for osteology in Belgian archaeology…  What about you, ladies?

Davina Craps (DC):  Thank you for the nice compliment.  The business cards are one of the many examples of effective teamwork within BOAPAS.  We believe in involving our members as much as possible in the decisions and the running of the society.

We don’t really foresee any major problems, as there is a definite interest in BOAPAS both from the physical anthropologists who are active in Belgium and from the archaeological community itself.  One of the smaller issues that we have to deal with is the time it takes to set up a society.  All three of the founding members have other obligations aside from the society, thus it can be challenging to create enough free time to spend on the society’s needs.  Another issue that we are currently dealing with is how to create a more official platform for BOAPAS to operate from.  We are currently looking at legislation when it comes to societies and other options to allow BOAPAS to continue growing.

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A photograph of the founding members of BOAPAS, left to right: Marieke Gernay, Marit Van Cant, Davina Craps and Hélène Déom. Image credit: Hélène Déom.

We are indeed hoping to create a strong framework, where there currently isn’t really one in place.  The aim of BOAPAS is to facilitate stronger lines of communication between commercial archaeology, museums, and the physical anthropologists.

MVC:  Yes, thanks David for your comments on the cards.  I believe the major challenges we are facing right now is sorting out legal issues on non-profit organisations, and who we should contact for external advice regarding this.  Setting up a society requires after all a whole procedure we need to take into account.  This means in the near future, we have to elect board members such as a president, treasurer, and secretary, and to accomplish this, we hope we can find people with the right amount of time and dedication to work, especially on the further development of our website, FB-page, newsletters, communication on meetings, vacancies, conference calls, etc.

It is very supportive to notice the mainly positive feedback we have received so far, and it is also good to know that the Dutch Association of Physical Anthropologists (the NVFA) has offered to set up joint-events in the near future.  I believe it is important to maintain close relationships with our foreign partners, such as British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteology (BABAO) and the NVFA, as several members (like me) are a member of both societies.  Finally, our main goal is indeed to develop a strong and consistent framework in Belgium (this means both Flanders and Wallonia!) in osteology matters.  On a later stage, another motivation would be the development of offering osteology courses, for instance within the archaeological training at our universities, but that would be another challenge on the long run.

TBOM:  That sounds great about both the future collaboration between The Netherlands and Belgian organisations, and the possible development of offering osteology courses.  I always think that tailored osteology short courses can offer both the public and the practitioner alike opportunities to increase their knowledge base, and also remain up to date on the theories and methodologies that inform osteological research, especially so if some form of accreditation can take place.

So, I think I must ask that, having been a member of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) and the Palaeopathology Association, both of which have been around for some time, I’m curious as to why has it taken a while for Belgium to have a osteologically focused society?

MVC:  These short courses would be a good start indeed to show the basic principles of osteological research, both in- and ex-situ to principally archaeology students and archaeologists dealing with skeletal remains.  Outreach to the general public is currently undertaken through workshops to mainly high school students, or even to children from minority families living in ‘deprived areas’ in Brussels.

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Marit Van cant examining human skeletal material. Marit is currently the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s student representative, check out the society’s website for more information. Image credit: SMA/Marit Van Cant.

Although Belgium has a longstanding and internationally acclaimed tradition in palaeontological studies with the discovery of hominid remains in several caves in Wallonia in the 19th century, it was not until the 1950’s when the study of human bones from an archaeological context advanced here, and this is mainly due to pioneer research from scholars working in the field of medicine.  In Flanders, osteological research within an archaeological context have only really developed since the late 1990’s.

A shortage in human osteology studies was also noticed by Leguebe (1983: 28-29) who argued that the expansion of (physical) anthropology in Belgium, compared to other countries, was impeded by a lack in ‘organized teaching ratified by a legal diploma’.  In 1919, plans were initiated to found an institution for anthropology studies in Brussels, but, these attempts were unfortunately unsuccessful.  Other factors that might influence a deficit in an organised osteology framework are scarce funding and resources, alongside the complex political structure in our country.  Belgium has one society, the Royal Belgian Society for Anthropology and Prehistory (RBSAP), founded in 1882, and which co-operates closely with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

DC, HD and MVC:  Although the RBSAP publishes a yearly bulletin with articles, and organises an annual general meeting, their website (which is only accessible in French) has not been updated since 2010.  Further, we believe that the RBSAP is slightly more focused on prehistoric research, which we obviously support since the many findings of fossil remains in Wallonia (e.g. in 2010, the RBSAP organised an excursion to the Spy cave).

In addition, with BOAPAS, we would like to pay attention to osteology studies covering all historic periods from both Wallonia and Flanders, and to offer a vivid platform and discussion forum via social media and our (partially trilingual, but mainly English) website, on current and future research of skeletal remains.  We certainly believe in co-operation and the free flow of information, thus we have reached out to the RBSAP to hold a meeting with the organising committee in order to discuss joint possibilities.  Perhaps this collaboration between the established values of RBSAP and the fresh, motivated perspective of BOAPAS can truly invigorate the scene of osteology in Belgium.

TBOM:  In that case then, I can see why there is a need to set up BOAPAS in order to improve upon the knowledge and research base for osteological studies within Belgium.  Please do keep in touch as both myself and my readers would love to know about upcoming events and courses.

MVC:  Thank you very much for the discussion!  Just to let you and your readers know we do have a collaboration between BOAPAS and the Gallo-Roman Museum in Ath, Belgium, is currently undertaken for an exhibition on funerary traditions, and it is scheduled to open in 2018.  And keep an eye on our website at www.boapas.be for upcoming news and events!  We are also still looking for volunteers to help out with the design and layout of the site, so please do get in touch if any of your readers are interested and able to help us build the website.

TBOM: Thank you very much for talking with me today, and I wish you all the best of luck with BOAPAS!

Further Information

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 in 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 led 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 continually 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.  As do the voices of the archaeologists themselves, their views so often buried as the final layer of the spoil that is laid 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, we each have our own time to dig.

These Bones of Mine Round-Up Post for 2016

4 Jan

… Hmm I didn’t actually write that much in 2016 compared to previous years!  Regardless it is now 2017 (happy new year folks) and I think a little round-up post of the entries that I wrote, or helped to edit, for 2016 is in order.  This post is inspired by my reading of the round-up entries by Jess Beck, who blogs over at Bone Broke, and by Zachary Cofran, who blogs at Lawnchair Anthropology.  I recommend that you check out both their entries for haunting film posters and wonderful animal photographs (but stay for the fossils and osteology goodness!).  I digress, so let’s get this round-up rolling.  Firstly we’ll have a little look into the statistics for the year in order to see where the website stands in comparison to previous years on this site.

Site Statistics: Meaningful or Merely Visiting?

The total number of site views for 2016 was 227,920 compared to 2015’s 253,985, whilst the total number of site visits for 2016 totaled out at 167,317, comparable to 2015’s 182,605.  Not bad at all considering I use the site as a central focus (i.e. there is no associated Twitter or Facebook account for the blog, so the blog itself is the central output for posts, information, etc.).  The statistics are comparable for previous years until 2012, when WordPress implemented the distinction between views and visitor, in order to establish clicks per view I believe.  So, for example, the statistic for views in 2012 was 536,562 whilst visitors only totaled 20,955 as a result of the distinction in views/visits coming into effect towards the end of the year.

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A quick visual of the views and visitor statistics for 2016, by calendar month, for These Bones of Mine. We can see a confirmation of the pattern I’ve talked about before for previous years where the views start, and end, strong but take a downward trend in the summer months (as they do on weekends compared to week days). Likely due to the viewing of the blog by students, staff and interested individuals who may be at university, college or school during regular semesters and not visit the site during non-academic periods. Alternatively, or in conjunction to the above, it may all be due to archaeologists being in the field excavating in the summer and having no internet access!

The total number of entries produced for 2016 was 22, a blog low for the site since its inception (for example, 2014 saw 67 entries posted and 2013 54 entries posted, although it is a follow on trend from 2015 where only 25 posts were produced and posted).  A total of 12 posts remain in varying states of drafting, and honestly I doubt that at least two of them will be posted in any format.  The top posts for views last year were, as it always is, the home page/archives to the site.  The next nine top posts are related to the Skeletal Series of posts where each section of the human skeleton is introduced and discussed from a bioarchaeological perspective.  Again, there are no great surprises here; indeed this is actually the main aim of the blog itself and it helps support my intention behind it!  2016 however saw the production of no Skeletal Series entries (though check out the Skeletal Series Human Osteology Glossary from December 2015), this is something I hope to rectify in 2017 by focusing on how bioarchaeologists, or human osteologists, assess skeletal remains in order to assign the biological sex and age for individuals.

So, are statistics useful?

I believe so, generally speaking, as they give me a good indication of what the individuals who visit the site want to read, what they use the site for, and how they navigate the site more generally.  Of course I’ve largely circumnavigated these wants with posts on literary topics of interest or books mentions instead this year!

A Few of My Favourite Posts

The year started with a fairly personal post on A Personal Anthropology of Driving, wherein I discuss the impact that driving has had on my life and I present brief thoughts on socio-cultural issues surrounding the car itself and the environment in which it drives by taking a whistle-stop tour of the world.  The entry let me write loosely on my thoughts and demonstrate that anthropology really can be found all around us, that there is no strict division between the person and the social.  It is a post I very much enjoyed writing, going from the personal osteological endeavors expected when one has a bone disease that has led to multiple fractures and (planned and unplanned) surgical interventions to the great freedom that driving a car can bring, so much so that across much of the world today it is considered a coming-of-age rite – indeed, it is up there with the biological terror of becoming an awkward adolescent!

One of my most treasured posts was Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations, which had a lot of reflective and creative similarities with the Personal Anthropology of Driving post.  I was able to combine my love of poetic writing with the tangible grain of my film photography, as well as to talk about the adorable three chickens that make their home in the back garden.  I also managed to sneak some zooarchaeology into the post as a through-line technique that helped to anchor the post with regards to human-animal relationships.

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I mean look at this beautiful bird! The chicken, a Gingernut Ranger breed, is but one of three that currently terrorize the garden and step on the author’s books. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey black and white film, artfully manipulated in Media player.

For guest posts and interviews in 2016 I was lucky enough to be able to host a discussion between artists Natalie Marr, David Ashley Pearson and myself as we debated their short film Visitor, which has personal ramifications for each of us as we lost a close mutual friend of ours in 2015.  The interview discusses a number of topics, including the nature of grief, space and the influence of certain artists and film makers in the production of Visitor.  The film is pretty damn beautiful and is currently in a final edit, the trailer can be found on the link above and I recommend watching it.

The site also played host to a tantalizing guest post on artificial cranial deformation in the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević.  In it Maja introduces the theory behind the aims of artificial cranial deformation, the methods and types of cranial deformation, and the context for the migration within Central Europe, presenting illuminating case studies on an area I had not read about or researched before.  In the third, and final, guest post of the year Jennifer Crangle and Greer Dewdney presented the launch of the Rothwell Charnel Chapel project website, backed by the University of Sheffield.  I’ve written about the Rothwell Charnel Chapple a number of times now for this blog, helping to promote the research carried out by my friend Jennifer Crangle as she promotes the importance of this rare English medieval site and involves the local community and members of the public.  I’ve been down to Rothwell to help participate in an open day, as well as helping to promote the project on this site and I recommend you give the site a visit and check it out!

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A selection of crania at the medieval charnel chapel at Holy Trinity Church, Rothwell. A photographic essay by the author on this site can be found here with a background history on the charnel chapel itself. Photograph by the author using a Pentax S1a camera and Ilford black & white film.

As always, I heartily welcome guest post entries from around the world on a whole range of subjects related to bioarchaeology, human osteology, and archaeology more generally.  I also welcome discussion posts and interviews, where I act as the interviewer helping to ask questions and guide the discussion as necessary.  If you feel that this may be of interest please do read my Guest Post page for previous entries, see the areas that I am interested in and read through the advice post.  Most importantly, please feel free to get in touch either by dropping a comment below or by emailing me using the address on the About Me page.

An important update to one previous post was to highlight the sheer range of postgraduate masters degrees (either taught or research-based) available in bioarchaeology or human osteology related topics on offer in the United Kingdom, alongside the rising cost of the courses themselves.  The post also raised the spectre of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the recent changes made in a government White Paper for the direction of higher education within the country.  Expect a lot of change within the education sector over the next five to ten years, and to the economy of the United Kingdom more generally.  As always I console any students, or interested individuals, who want to pursue a masters focused on the analysis of human skeletal remains, from archaeological contexts, to think of what they want from the course; what research you hope to conduct; what research is conducted at the department itself; what resources are available to the student; what projects do the department carry out and, finally, who the course leaders are and their interests.  I always recommend a visit to the department, if you can, to get a feel for the course and for the location of the university itself.  Furthermore, always try to think of the next step after the masters itself: where do you want this degree to get you to and how will it help on the way?

I finally wrote up a conference review from 2014!  The Day of the Dead, a three-day conference held at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, in October 2014, was a truly fantastic event which mixed human osteology and funerary archaeology to provide an engaging, informative and vital series of presentations on a wide range of topics.  In the review I also managed to grab a quick few words from famed bioarchaeological researcher Christopher Knüsel, who helped lead a workshop on the archaeothanatology method of interpreting the burial position of the body in-situ.  I also blogged about the upcoming conference entitled Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies that is to be held at the University of Southampton in March 2017.  Registration for that conference is still open at the normal rates, so book your tickets now!

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A really quite wonderful conference. let’s hope it makes a comeback in some form. Image credit: Queen’s University Belfast.

Last year also continued a strong trend on this blog – I love reading and I am not afraid to tell you the readers just what I’ve been reading.  From non-fiction that covers the impact of momentous 20th century events in Russia and the USSR to the Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives and Fractures and Spanish novelists, I’ve covered a lot of ground sparingly!  Reading is fundamental to understanding the world around you, but also to escape the world around you.  It can give you a much deeper understand of the history of the various countries and regions of the world, as well as offering profound socio-political background knowledge.  I love it and I’d love to hear what bioarchaeological or archaeological textbooks you have been reading and where you have drawn your influences from.

Alongside my recommendations of books to read, I also discussed the pros and cons of academic publishing, the Open Access movement and the horrors of trying to access articles and book reviews, with a particular focus on the Sci-Hub, Academia and ResearchGate websites.  The post itself didn’t get any love from the Sci-Hub founder, or associate perhaps, but I was trying to present a balanced viewpoint of the options available to the student, researcher and layman of accessing academic research.  Clearly I did not succeed!  The year also saw a post by perennial blog favourite Stuart Rathbone’s new collection of archaeological work, entitled Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments, and Unprovoked Attacks.  The post contains a first for this blog – a video review of the volume produced by Stuart himself for publicizing the volume, along with a few questions asked by yours truly.  The volume is published by another These Bones of Mine favourite Robert M. Chapple, whose excellent blog on Irish archaeology can be found here.

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The cover of the volume with the chapter in by yours truly. The chapter marks the first publication in a book. Image credit: Springer international publishing.

Even better I became a published bioarchaeological author in 2016!  The publication of New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory, edited by Lorna Tilley and Alecia Shrenk and published by Springer in September 2016, saw my chapter published in a volume which itself was the outcome of a session on Bioarchaeology of Care theory and methodology at the 2015 Society for American Archaeology annual conference, which took place in San Francisco, USA.  My chapter takes a look at the public response, both online and in the traditional and digital media, to the case studies produced by Lorna Tilley as a part of her PhD research on identifying instances of care-provision given to disabled individuals in prehistoric contexts.  My chapter also presents a few best practice suggestions for engaging and communicating to the public the importance of bioarchaeological research.  I cannot tell you what it means to have a bioarchaeological book with my name in it, what a thrill!  You can read my chapter from the volume here. 

…And Finally

I re-wrote the 2002 song Lose Yourself, which is by the rapper Eminem for the 8 Mile soundtrack, and re-titled it Lose Yourself (In Mud) to include observations from an archaeological viewpoint.  It is also lovingly annotated with a few choice remarks.  Enjoy!

Upcoming Conference: ‘Skeletons, Stories & Social Bodies’ at the University of Southampton, March 2017

25 Nov

An upcoming interdisciplinary conference entitled Skeletons, Stories, and Social Bodies (SSSB) aims to cover a wide range of topics relating to human anatomy and death.  Taking place at the University of Southampton from Friday 24th March to Sunday 26th March 2017, the conference organizers are keen for students, early career researchers and commercial archaeologists and bioarchaeologists to contribute as appropriate.  The keynote speakers for the conference have recently been confirmed as Dr Heather Bonney, the collections manager of anthropology and a practicing forensic anthropologist at the Natural History Museum, London, and Professor Caroline Wilkinson, a forensic anthropologist from FaceLab at the Liverpool John Moores University who specializes in the forensic reconstruction of faces from both forensic and historical contexts.

Alongside the usual presentations and a conference dinner on the Saturday evening, there is also the opportunity to take part in a number of workshops by the Centre for Learning Anatomical Sciences and art exhibitions on the Sunday.  The five optional workshops include the chance to learn about bioarchaeology, or to attend workshops investigation the scent of death, grief demystified and or an introduction to the Anatomical Sciences laboratory among other topics.  Please note that conference delegates will only have the option to sign up for two of the five workshops due to limited places.

The price for the conference has now been confirmed – please see the conference homepage for the range of prices available.  For the full event attendance the price is set at £65 (student) to £85 (waged), costing a total of £115 if registration is late, but individual day rates are also available.  As such it is advised that anybody interested book before Tuesday 31st January 2017 for early bird registration, whilst late registration is available from the 1st February until the 20th February 2017, which is likely to cost more.  Furthermore there are student bursaries are available for undergraduate and postgraduate students.  Please see here for further details and the conditions stipulated.

sssb

The logo for the conference based at the University of Southampton. Image credit: SSSB 2017.

Topics for Consideration

As this is a very wide-ranging conference the topic of the talks submitted can fit into several categories.  I’d imagine it would depend on the number of the topics received as to how the sessions themselves are organized over the three-day length of the conference.  These topics include, but are certainly not limited to, the following subjects:

1) History of anatomy & dissection
2) Dissections, prosections and technology: replacing cadavers?
3) Death in the modern age
4) Ethics of display of human remains
5) Funerary practices through the ages
6) Disability and disease: archaeological and medical
7) Forensic investigation and approaches
8) Death on the big screen: television and film
9) Lifecourse and osteobiographies
10) Morphology and evolutionary anatomy
11) The body social

Please note that this information was taken from the SSSB 2017 website directly.  From this quick overview it certainly looks like the conference will be a great mix of topics from both historic (and hopefully prehistoric) and modern vantage points, where the humanities meets the sciences in discussing the body, death and the funerary and social treatment of the dead.  Personally, having had the opportunity to dissect the musculoskeletal anatomy of a donated cadaver during my Masters degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, I very much appreciate the importance of understanding anatomy within a osteoarchaeological context.  The archaeological and cultural context are of considerable and prime importance, but the body too must be understood if we are to make sense of both past individuals and populations and their lifestyle.

Presentation Style: Select your Poison

The call for papers deadline is Friday 16th December (now passed), so there is not much time left to submit an abstract for any of the topics above.  Submissions are sought for podium, poster and Pecha Kucha presentations with abstracts of no more than 300 words accepted which outline the topic and the aim of the presentation.  As this is an interdisciplinary conference there is a great opportunity to engage with researchers and students who may not normally come into contact with your area of interest and thus may provide stimulating and thought-provoking comments, or new research connections and avenues of exploration.

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The conference gears up for March 2017. Image credit: SSSB 2017 website.

This is also the first time I have seen the mention, or use of, the Pecha Kucha 20×20 method within a conference setting and I have to say I am pretty excited to learn more about it and to see it in action.  The method involves the use of 20 slides with a 20 second exposure for each slide, therefore limiting the presentation to a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds ideally.  The express aim of it is for the information presented to be precise, concise and short.  This is often achieved by limiting word use on-screen and instead relying on graphs, diagrams and images to convey the vocal component of the talk.  Variations are known where feedback is given immediately after the talk, which increase audience participation, knowledge sink and activity for all involved.

Further Information

  • One of the individuals on the organizing committee for this conference, PhD candidate Sammy Field, has her own blog at Beauty in the Bones.  Check it out for comprehensive posts on a variety of osteological interests.  There is also a great resource page which lists current British human osteological collections and the chronological span of the populations under curation at each institution.  Osteological collections are a vital resource for bioarchaeologists, who analyse human remains in order to understand past lifeways and populations.
  • Readers remember, if you know of any major international or United Kingdom based bioarchaeology, funerary archaeology, or osteological conferences coming up in 2017, then please do drop me a message to either include them in this post or for me to mention them in a brand new post at a later date!

Brief Updates: A Possible Publishing Rule of Thumb, Socio-Sexual Lives in Bioarchaeology & Memories of Fractures

8 Aug

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the power of the written word, and of the associations with both personal jottings and more wider ranging long form pieces such as academic text books or investigative journalism.  Partly this has been guided by the growing number of books on my bedside, but also by a personal milestone in the publication of a bioarchaeology chapter by yours truly.  I’ll try not to mention this too much but it has been, and it will be, the realisation of a dream of mine to become a published author and particularly so in a topic that is close to my professional and personal interests.  But more on that below.

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Two of the texts discussed in this entry below are Ann Oakley’s part memoir and part sociology study in Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body and Pamela Geller’s research into socio-sexual lives in the archaeological record, which investigates past human sexuality.

Publishing: The Invisible Researchers

The term Publish or perish is a popular and well-known academic phrase that highlights the fact that research that isn’t published appropriately, or in a relatively timely manner, can easily become lost to the archives and the relevancy of the researcher to their discipline to disappear.  Any academic employed at an educational institute and conducting research will likely regularly produce articles, chapters, and books as appropriate, and actively take part in conferences giving papers or leading workshops to disseminate and communicate knowledge.  This is a normal part of the workload (heavy though that can be) of a research position.

Whether that phrase is helpful or stressful depends on the context – rushed research can lead to false or doctored evidence and the increased pressure to publish, along with the normal duties of lecturing, likely being a course or module tutor, and the administration accompanying such positions, can indeed lead to a hefty work load.  My interest in this though is the invisible researchers who are not employed within academia but are located on the fringes, those such as myself who work full-time in other sectors and publish and research in our own free time.  This blog is a prime example of that, but also of the mixing of the boundaries between the personal and the academic which would not normally be found within journals or published volumes.  Rather this is space to inform, educate, and communicate the interests and experiences of the individual.  The published work, of which I have only a few examples currently with more emphasis currently on specialist reports, requires a change of tone and, often, of approach.

Publishing Date Rule of Thumb?

I’ve also recognised a relatively reliable rule of thumb for academic book publishing.  For instance, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of my own chapter within an edited volume titled New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Theory, to be published as a part of Springer’s Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series.  The edited volume builds upon Lorna Tilley’s 2015 Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care publication in identifying and interpreting cases of care provision in prehistory through osteological and contextual analysis, and by furthering the theoretical framework.  It is exciting to a part of such a volume as a result of the SAA session in 2015 and I’m keen to hold a copy of the finished work and to read the other authors contributions.  I’m also intrigued by the reception that the volume will hopefully receive and the criticism too, with the opportunity to learn from others in the field of bioarchaeology.

But the rule of thumb!  Springer obviously mentions their forthcoming volumes on their site as do other commercial online retailers, however I’ve noticed they tend not to add a specific date for publication whereas some retailers, such as Amazon, do under the title release date (1).  This is useful to know as the publishing date tends to change depending on when the individual chapter and volume editing and proof-reading tasks have been completed, and as to when the publishing production units can start to print.  In my case I’ve noticed the dates shift around a few times due to various factors but I’ve always known when roughly publication and release date should be, sometimes ahead of emails from the volume editors.  Of course this won’t really be a rule of thumb until the volume is published and collaborates my theory, but you can expect another blog post then!  If you have noticed the same trend please let me know below.

Socio-Sexual Lives In Bioarchaeology

Through serendipity I happened to come across Pamela Geller’s 2016 book The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, published in the same Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series by the above and due for release shortly.  I am very tempted to order a copy of this volume as it seems to challenge the binary orthodoxy of sexuality and identity so prevalent within bioarchaeological analysis of past individuals and populations.  That is an interrogation of the assumption of stability with regards to the values of hetero-normative relations within today’s Western world that is so often projected onto past populations and cultures.

The wide range of cultural case studies and the deep chronological scope of the volume also promises to make it be an invigorating and exciting read.  As with the Bioarchaeology of Care publication, this volume probes the archaeological record into areas of research that have rarely been investigated in-depth, thus potentially opening up the record to a far greater scrutiny of the lived experience of sexual identity and gender.  As such, it is very much on my bioarchaeological books to read next list (you know, after I’ve read this other pile of books by my bedside table!).  It isn’t very often that I purchase bioarchaeology volumes as they can be quite expensive if they are not available in paperback or second-hand (2), but I’ll think I’ll make a change for this volume.  If I do I’ll be sure to write-up an entry for the blog.

Memories of Fractures

And so to bring this post to a timely conclusion I return to my opening paragraph.  One of my favourite books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading within the past few years remains the sociologist Ann Oakley’s (2007) Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body, an essay on the impact of the author’s traumatically fractured humerus that covers much ground within a relatively slim volume.  I largely adore this book because it is so relatable and so readable, the descriptions of the personal and professional impact of her fracture is something that I can very much sympathize and empathize with.  However the strength is also the breadth of the book, through the historical, medical and sociological musings on the frailty, health and image of the human body and entwined identity.  This volume then represents a fine mix of the personal and the academic, never afraid to speak freely on the issues and challenges that face society in accepting the differences in human form and the obstacles.

The Great Questions of Bioarchaeological Research

To me then bioarchaeology and its associated disciplines offers the chance to investigate on a fundamental level one of the central facets of our existence; what does it mean to be human? How is this represented and approached in the archaeological record?  How were individuals treated within their respective populations, and what were the lived experiences of these populations and individuals like?  The ability to answer some of these questions, in part at least, endlessly fascinates me.  Some of the publications named above aim to answer these questions and may do just that.

Notes

(1).  I have just rechecked this and sadly my thumb of thumb can seemingly be thrown out of the window.  It appears that Amazon does seem to have a better rough date for volumes in preparation, but that by the final month or so within publishing and release date Springer also update their website.

(2).  Joining local or university libraries, where possible, can be great to order books in or to borrow books that are otherwise un-affordable or rare to find.  I generally only purchase bioarchaeology manuals that can be used in osteological analysis or are otherwise handy reference books, but otherwise some books can make great presents!

Bibliography

Geller, P. L. 2016. The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender and Sexuality. New York: Springer.

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

Tilley, L. 2015. Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. New York: Springer.

Conference Review: Day of the Dead Conference at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, 17th-19th October 2014

31 Jul

As highlighted in an earlier blog post (alright, this post is quite late!) on this site Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), in Northern Ireland, recently played organizer and host to the Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology conference on the 17th to the 19th October 2014.  Yours truly went along on a propeller plane departing from Newcastle across the Irish Sea to Belfast to what turned out to be one of the best conferences that I have thus far had the pleasure of attending.  It was a conference that aptly and ably mixed funerary archaeology with human osteoarchaeology into a delicious few days that demonstrated the strength and wealth of ongoing research.  Of particular interest was the current human osteoarchaeological research on-going in Ireland itself, but we’ll come back to that shortly.  This brief post will cover a few of the research highlights of the event itself, and I hope it is a conference that will be repeated in the not-too-distant future.

QUB

The 19th century Lanyon building, at the centre of the Queen’s University Belfast campus in the south of the city, a fine host building for the conference. Home to some more than 17,000 students and 3500 staff, the university and it’s School of Archaeology, Geography and Palaeoecology boasts the facilities of a radiocarbon laboratory with AMS facilities. Photograph credit: QUB.

Spearheaded by Catriona McKenzie and her able assistants (the fantastic Deirdre Drain, Jeanna Loyer, and Roisin O’Reilly) from the Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology department (GAP) at Queen’s University Belfast, the Day of the Dead 3-day conference attracted delegates from around Ireland, Europe, and the wider world to present poster and podium papers on a smorgasbord of bioarchaeological topics.

Archaeothanatology Workshop

The conference kicked off with a workshop on the archaeothanatology methodology on the first day, which was spearheaded by Stéphane Rottier, Christopher Knüsel and Jeanna Loyer.  Archaeothanatology, or the similar anthropologie de terrain, is a method of recording the in-situ position of the body in the grave as proposed by the French archaeologist and anthropologist Henri Duday.  Unfortunately I did not get to attend the workshop itself as I arrived in the city mid-way through the first day, whilst the workshop itself was in mid-session.  However, I heard from friends that did manage to attend it that much was learnt regarding the importance of understanding the context of the body in-situ.  Of particular importance are the differences between coffin and non-coffin burials, where the position and rotational axis of certain skeletal elements, such as the humerus, radius and ulna, can indicate funerary and post-burial taphonomic body positions.

I managed to have a quick word with Chris Knüsel, who helps to advocate the use of the methodology, and he gave me a quick break down of what the methodology hopes to achieve. Archaeothanatology, Chris stated, ‘links bioarchaeology with funerary archaeology in a way that has never previously been considered.  It has the potential to distinguish natural phenomena from human agency and to reveal behavioural details of much more variable patterning of human remains than anticipated from burial types.  The methodology does require sound field recording of the archaeological and bioarchaeological contexts however for the full implementation and usefulness of the methodology to become apparent.

For further information and a good introduction to archaeothanatology, whose majority of publications have been written in French, I highly recommend Bradley’s 2010 open access article ‘Les Tomes Belle: The Use of ‘Anthropologie de Terrain in Prehistoric Archaeology‘, published in the University of York’s student journal The Post Hole.  I also recommend Katy Emery Meyer’s Bones Don’t Lie blog article on the inference of perishable grave goods in a prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age cemeteries in Ban Lum Khao and Ban Non Wat, Thailand, respectively, on Harris & Tayles 2012 research using archaeothanatology.  For a recent look at how archaothanatology, when used in conjunction with taphonomy, scanning electron microscopy, histological analysis, and Micro-CT scanning, is unraveling social practices in prehistory I highly recommend reading Smith’s et al. 2016 (paywalled) article on the British evidence for mummification and retention of the dead around a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age monument at Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

It should also be stated here that anthropologie de terrain underpins archaeothanatology, however there is some confusion on my part as to whether the methodologies are analogous due to translation intricacies or whether archaeothanatology is the natural progression of anthropologie de terrain.

Conference Sessions & Related Papers

The papers were presented over 8 sessions over the weekend of the 18th and 19th October, and dealt with a number of different themes relating to human osteoarchaeology in general.  I won’t go into detail regarding the papers presented but I will pick out a presentation or two to indicate the range of the topics.  I have to say I was quite impressed at the standard of the research presented and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the conference as a whole.

day of the dead

The really rather lovely logo for the Day of the Dead  conference. Image credit: QUB.

It was also a real credit to the organizers of the conference that such a wide number of European and international countries were represented.  Of course one of the best things for any conference attendee who has to pay their own fees is the realization that a conference that is affordable is also filled with some of the best researchers in the field.  But anyway, enough of my praise and let me introduce a talk or two…

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland

After a welcome talk by Catriona McKenzie and Eileen Murphy the first session got underway and focused on the topic at hand within Ireland.  The chronological period covered here largely focused on the medieval and post-medieval history of Ireland, but Catriona McKenzie did present recent research  on the health and disease status in adults from a population analysis of the Gaelic Irish cemetery site of Ballyhanna, County Donnegal.  The cemetery was in use from the 7th century AD to the 17th century AD and has so far revealed the skeletal remains of over 1300 adult and non-adult individuals, making it one of the largest native medieval collections in Ireland.

On the other end of the spectrum Jonny Geber introduced the bioarchaeology of childhood during the Great Irish famine (AD 1845-1852), with a particular focus on the ‘experienced realities and institutional care of children in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse‘.  This was a hard-hitting talk focusing on the origins, impacts and repercussions of the Great Famine through the non-adults of the workhouse and the remains uncovered within a number of mass graves at the site.  Importantly the talk presented ‘a “dialogue of evidence”, the story of the often invisible disenfranchised and socioeconomically marginalized populace of Ireland during a period of severe suffering’ (Gerber 2014, presentation abstract).  This is the human experience as recognized through osteological and documentary evidence, and stands as a testament to one of the most profound events in Irish history.

Grave Concerns

The next session focused on the graves of the dead and introduced a wider range of topics from prehistoric Europe, with a strong focus on Hungarian archaeology.  One of my favourite presentations in this session was the evidence for physical aggression and a possible putative leprosy case from a Copper Age mass grave at Abony, Hungary, dated to 3800-3600 BC belonging to the Proto boleráz phase, as presented by Kitti Köhler.  I was quite impressed by the inclusion of a 3D model which really highlighted the importance of visual understanding of archaeological contexts and palaeopathological features.  Also discussed in this session was a presentation by my good friend Jennifer Crangle on English medieval post-burial funerary practices, which should be no surprise to blog readers here due to my posts on the charnel chapel at the Rothwell Holy Trinity church which helped form a key part of Jennifer’s research and talk.

People & Places

This shorter session contained a talk given by Thomas Khador focused on Carrowkeel, a truly remarkable Neoltihic passage tomb complex located in County Sligo, where his team analysed 39 individuals found at the site.  Interestingly the remains of the individuals were excavated from the Carrowkeel complex in 1911 but subsequently disappeared for nearly a century before being rediscovered again.  Osteological and stable isotopic analysis indicated that the individuals may have had selective access to the passage tombs (certainly in death but possibly in life as well), which raises questions for the social mobility and social networks during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods for Ireland and Atlantic Europe.  There was also a keynote talk by Barra O’Donnabhain titled Anglo-Saxons and Celts: Race, Science and the Irish which was thoroughly thought-provoking, discussing as it did the legitimization of history, identity and selective narration.  This was tied in with the discipline of bioarchaeology and the resilience of some of the older narratives within it.

The Archaeology of Death

Another broad ranging session, from ancient Egyptian body manipulation to Far Eastern Neolithic shell middens in island archaeology.  Also introduced were two talks on the archaeothanatology methodology, with a talk by Emma Green on the application of the principles to identify funerary processes, in this case the use of coffins in burials.  Her research, presented in conjunction with Elizabeth Craig-Atkins at the University of Sheffield, focused on the middle to late Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sedgeford, in Norfolk, England.  She emphasized the important of accurately recording the archaeology in the field as it is uncovered, using not just context sheets and drawings, but also film and digital photography to ensure each details can be accurately recreated within the analysis and investigation of the research.

Life Before Death

Osteoarchaeologists, dealing with the bones of individuals who may have died hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before analyze them, can sometimes forget that what we view is the culmination of a life lived and all that entails.  This session introduced the study of the individual and the population, with presentations on Roman York by Lauren McIntyre which provided evidence on the demographic composition of the city.  (For those interested in Lauren’s work, and the life of a human osteologist in general, can also read a previous interview with her on my site here).  Ylva Bäckström presented the osteological analysis of a 16th century cemetery from the Sala Silver Mine in central Sweden, highlighting the social composition and differing treatment given in funerary contexts.  The analysis indicated a prevalence of fractures among the burials in earthen graves compared to the burials of individuals within coffins, suggesting one special social category as discussed in written documents; those known as war prisoners.

Population Health

I was particularly intrigued by a few talks in this session, specifically the talk led by Abigail Ash and Ron Pinhasi entitled Difference in Uniformity: Health and Stress in Early Farming Communities, which focused on the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) and their geographic spread.  Their investigation into the geographic spread of the LBK and use of five representative skeletal populations (for a total of 516 individuals) highlighted palaeopathological changes (non-specific indicators of stress) indicative of differing behaviour between population stress levels within one cultural group.  You can read the open access 2016 article on the results here.  I should state here that my MSc research investigated mobility and social stratification (particularly evidence for the practice of patrilocality) within the LBK of central Europe, so I took a great deal of interest in this talk.

Open Session

This session introduced a number of really interesting talks ranging from analyzing markers of occupational stress by Roisin O’ Reilly, one of the conference organizers, to a multivariate approach to sex determination in ancient and modern pelvis by Samuel Rennie and James Ohman (pleasantly titled ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, which made me chuckle).  The multivariate approach bamboozled me a little at first as the module I did in statistics for my MSc was hard-won, but Samuel quickly demonstrated the importance of the research presented, both for palaeoanthropological and archaeological contexts but also for forensic contexts in the ability to determine the sex of an individual with a 95.65% without a priori knowledge of sex in some instances.  This is definitely one to watch and I am excited as to where this research is heading.

Ethics, Legislation & Reburial

The conference ended with a session on the ethics, legislation and reburial aspects of osteoarchaeology, with talks from Caroline Bennett on the changes of excavation human remains, from once living breathing individuals to archival objects and documents of a past long gone.  This was a thoughtful talk and I really enjoyed being able to think morally and ethically the value of human remains, especially in consideration of the previous talks of the conference as a whole.  In essence this was considered breathing space in order to understand what we do and why we do, the impacts of the job and the value of it.

Catching Up & Saying Goodbye

Whilst I was in Belfast I also made sure that I met up with a fellow (and prolific) blogger Robert M. Chapple, an Irish archaeologist (now retired and happily working in IT) of some repute.  It was with great pleasure that I got to chat to him about Ireland’s archaeology, history and the general state of academia over a delightful meal with the man himself.  (And I must say I owe a debt of gratitude for the free meal, and I aim to pay it forward to the younger generation of archaeologists at my next conference, if I can!).  If you have haven’t already I heartily recommend that you take a look at Robert’s own site, pull up a seat and have a good read – it really is an awesome place to become acquainted with the richness of Ireland’s archaeology and history, complete with personal touches and exciting first hand experiences.  Robert also keeps a downloadable database record of Irish Radiocarbon and Dendrochronological Dates (IRDD), click the link to the website to delve into more than 8000 radiocarbon determinations and more than 300 dendrochronological dates.

As well as catching up with old friends at the conference I also got to meet a host of new friends, including Laura van der Sluis, a doctoral candidate at GAP at QUB who is currently researching 6000 years of subsistence of human populations at Limfjord, Denmark, from the Mesolithic period to the Viking period utilizing stable isotope analysis.  Laura’s research will also analyse the evidence for palaeomobility and changes in palaeodiet in an effort to determine if the availability of marine resources helped to drive cultural changes as recorded in the coastal archaeological record.  I had the joy of talking about the above methods and the laboratory facilities at QUB with Laura whilst taking in the ambient cool October night around the campus and surrounding streets.  Of interest to readers of this site is Laura’s latest co-written research article presenting the results of a palaeodietary analysis of a multi-period (AD 9th to AD 18th centuries) churchyard in Stavanger, Norway, using carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur isotopic analysis which indicated a change in diet due to changing religious beliefs and related dietary restrictions.

So all in all I am very glad that I made the short hop across from England to Northern Ireland to attend this rather beautiful conference in Belfast, as I was struck by the very real wealth of Ireland’s history of bioarchaeological investigation and research.  I hope that certain sites and skeletal populations become wider known within British archaeology as a whole as I felt I was discovering it anew.