Archive | Anatomy RSS feed for this section

Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations

3 Sep

There was something comforting about a strangers dog looking up at me with unadorned glee at my open car door, waiting to be either patted on the head or to be fed a treat (perhaps both if they are lucky) I thought, as the car seemed to drag me into the parking space at work.  Earlier in the day I had stopped at a nearby nature reserve to break the journey in half in order to get some fresh air before the back shift started at the office.  To see the leaves dancing in the wind, to feel the sun on my skin; to know that there is beauty in the scenes where we are not the main actors but merely the passive observers.  I took out my notebook and scratched a few words into its carefully kept pages.  Today was going to be a good day.

Once parked up at work, and upon opening the door a fraction, my eyes spotted a fragment of bone on the tarmac.  One, two, perhaps three pieces?  One solid chunk and two small slithers of bone, the physical remnant of a body dispersed.  The larger chunk grabbed my more immediate interest and I stood up, leaned over and picked it up and carefully turned it over in my hands.  As I expected it was not human, but it was definitely from a mammal.  I chuckled to myself thinking it was a gift from the osteological gods.

Based on a quick morphological assessment it seemed to be a left distal humerus fragment (or, more simply, the top part of the elbow), as I recognised both the posterior olecranon fossa and the anterior coronoid fossa with their familiar shapes.  I also noted the slight ridge of bone that would have led to the medial epicondyle where it not heavily abraded.  Most of the articular surface of the trochlea survived although there were fragments abraded or chipped off either side of this.  Some of these minor breaks were clearly recent, the largest break had exposed a brilliant white patch of the dense cortical and honeycomb-like trabecular bone in clear contrast to the grayer surface that surrounded the broken area.  Still clearly visible, but largely fused, was the posterior line between the metaphysis and distal epiphysis indicating that the animal had not quite reached full adult growth, or skeletal maturity.  There was also a distinct clear transverse saw cut through the full shaft of the distal metaphysis, which indicated that the animal had likely been butchered or processed in some way.

UCL mammal compare humerus taxon

The humerus bone of a horse (Equus), cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep/goat (Ovis/Capra) and dog (Canis) in comparison to one another. Scale bar in increments of 5cm. Image credit: Boneview via University College London.

Based on size alone it likely belonged to the Ovis or Capra genera, that is either a sheep or a goat.  There is the possibility that it could belong to the Sus genus, a pig perhaps, as they can be awfully similar in shape and size, particularly if they have not reached full skeletal maturity.  Zooarchaeologists, those who study the skeletal remains of animals from archaeological contexts, often pair sheep and goat together as it can be exceptionally tough to differentiate those two species from fragmented or isolated skeletal remains.  I could see immediately that the bone was not fresh, that the ashen tone indicated that it had likely spent time being bleached by the sun in the open air.

I knew that even though the industrial estate seemed nice enough, with the gleaming glass paneled Art Deco offices and funky design logos that adorn the signage boards, that behind the lush bushes and full trees that lined one side of the main avenue there was likely a rubbish tip of some description bordering it.  A dump that gathered all of the waste of modern life together to be compacted and squashed, to be buried beyond sight rather than to be dispersed invisibly into the sea or rivers as effluent is.  I had suspected this and wondered if this is where the bone had come from, carried perhaps in the beak of one of the numerous European herring gulls (Larus argentatus) that frequent the area.  They can be seen at all hours, chasing one another on the air currents or taking part in great aerial feats of imaginary bombardments over the great length of the industrial estate.

000035

Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film.

I’d come across bleached bone fragments before in such settings where gulls in particular rested and squawked at one another.  Still, it was interesting to see a few fragments of bone and to be able to identify and side which part of the skeleton they represented.  The material was clearly modern, even if sun bleached, and likely represented the fragments from waste sources, scattered by the combined action of animals and natural processes.  The bones had long ago lost their original context, had long ago lost even the rest of the body in which in life they were once a part of.  They could, though, still tells us something about the age of the individual that they represented, the likely size and the probable butchery of their body too.

Later on in the week, a few days after having discovered the bone fragment at work and when the weather had noticeably taken a turn for the better, I find myself happily sat outside in the back garden at home taking it in turns to read and to write.  But I am not alone out here.  I am joined by feathered friends that we keep in a coop towards the bottom of the garden, the three unnamed domesticated hens (Gallus gallus domesticus) that make their home here as we collect their eggs; they are a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) who range over Southeast Asia and from which each domesticated chicken can trace its origin from.  The chickens in this garden are of the Gingernut Ranger type, a friendly, inquisitive and distinctive breed which are well-noted to be friendly and are always keen to peck, dig and generally explore the garden in search of hidden insects.  They also react quite joyfully to owners bringing scraps of food as daily treats.  The chickens are only unnamed because they are so similar-looking to one another, however we can easily tell them apart by their distinct personalities and social identities.

For instance, one of the chickens is remarkably independent and unrelentingly curious about the garden and any unusual sights or sounds therein.  She will be one of the first to peck and prod each section if we allow them into the garden or into an enclosure that we sometimes extend onto the grass via the use of spare chicken wire.  Furthermore, if she has the chance to, she’ll be the first to crouch down and take a flying jump out of said enclosure to scurry around in the undergrowth that lies temptingly out of the reach of the makeshift pen.  (I can only imagine the terror the bugs must feel on seeing this incessant eater appear in their midst).

CNV00047

The three inquisitive ladies. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography colour film.

The other two often keep together, but invariably follow the more independent chicken once it has taken flight. As they push their heads repeatedly through the wire to see where their fellow hen has gone their soft fleshy combs ping back and forth, a harbinger of their impending flight for freedom.  Truly it is a joy to look after these beasts, to watch them rake into the freshly upturned soil with their tyrannosaur-like claws, methodically working the soil searching for sustenance and then move forward once they have cleaned the section of life.  I wonder, briefly, if this is perhaps a new approach to tackling trowelling back on archaeological digs.  Again I chuckle at this flight of fancy and gently my thoughts return back to the fragment of bone found at work, wondering where the animal had originated from.

It was in this environment, watching the chickens explore the delights that the garden had to offer and intermittently reading Philip Hoare’s delightful 2013 memoir The Sea Inside, that I remembered the odds and sods collection of non-human skeletal material that I kept from various random chance occurrences.  Within this small collection were the skeletal remains of a shoulder of mutton meal that my family had eaten one Sunday afternoon.  The remains, cleaned of any surviving muscles, ligaments and tendons by knife, were slowly boiled in water over the course of an afternoon to further remove any remaining soft tissue.  It isn’t a perfect bone cleaning method though, and I’d recommend you read the blogs mentioned below for better tips on animal skeletal preparation.  What remained after a number of hours though were gleaming white bones; the complete humerus, radius and ulna bones of a sheep which could perfectly articulate together.  Perfect and whole examples to use as comparative osteological material in order to compare the distal humerus fragment against for both size and morphological differences and similarities.

I also remembered that in one of these pots outside I had buried the skeletal remains of an ox tail, again the leftovers of a family meal that had taken place some time ago.  This was, I think, a number of years ago now and I really should go and dig them out at some point, to see the state of preservation of the caudal vertebrae and identify which bones remain intact.  But, to return to the present line of inquiry, I rummaged around the metal box which held the small collection of animal bones I had collected over the years and found a match for the distal humeral fragment, that I had found at work, with the cleaned bones parsed from the remains of the shoulder of mutton meal.  And so, through the analysis of the morphological features present, combined with my previous handling experience of animal remains and the use of comparative modern examples, my hunch at the species identification had proved correct in this instance.  I felt a sense of satisfaction in my positive and appropriate analysis of this random fragment.

Oh I patted that dog (Canis familiaris) in the car park on the head by the way, watched its chocolate coloured eyes lock briefly and keenly with my own before it decided to wander back over to its owner on the other side of the small car park, perhaps knowing I had no treats to give it that day.  Next time I return to the nature park I hope I shall see it again, and perhaps then will be able to give it a treat in return.

Sometimes it is the little things in life that make you realize that we do not share this world just with one another but with a wide variety of life forms, each within their own lives.

Further Information

  • Check out Zygoma, a regularly updated blog by Paolo Viscardi that highlights non-human skeletal remains and discusses the differences in skeletal morphology between species.  Paolo is a natural history curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London.  His Friday mystery objects series of entries are fantastic to note the differences in skeletal morphology between species, ages and sexes of non-human animals.
  • Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!) is a fantastic blog that focuses on ancient animal species, including dinosaurs, and their fossils and general anatomical variation.  Ran by palaeontologists Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor and Daren Naish, SV-POW! also covers a broad arrange of topics related to academia, research and scientific publishing, particularly in relation to copyright and public access to scientific literature.
  • Read Jake’s Bones for a fantastic resource on modern animal remains for comparative osteological purposes, ran by the eponymous Jake.  His site is child and family friendly and offers a wide range of comparative material from a whole range of animals and he also introduces the importance of natural history and conservation.  For a great guide on how to clean and process skeletal remains check out his guide here.
  • Bioarchaeologist and human osteologist Jess Beck has a fantastic site called Bone Broke, which introduces readers to the beauty of the human skeleton and the information which is encoded within bone, and to what archaeologists can learn about past individuals and populations in the archaeological record from the study of them and their context.  Check out her useful resources page here, where you can test yourself on the human bone quizzes, learn how to prepare animal skeletons or just to brush up on your anatomy!
Advertisements

Four of A Kind: Body Focused Books

7 Dec

There has been a recent spate of publications that will interest the wide variety of professions that study and work with the human body, and a few that will be of major interest to those in the bioarchaeological and anthropological fields who study both the physical remains of the body and the cultural context that these bodies lived, or live, in.  With the annual Christmas celebrations a matter of weeks away, I’d thought I’d highlight a few publications that could potentially be perfect presents for friends and family members who are interested in the human body, from anatomical inspection to the personal introspection of what my body, and yours, can inform us of ourselves and the world around us…

bodybooks

Cover shots of the four books discussed below.

Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum by Gavin Francis. London: Profile Books (in association with the Wellcome Collection). 

Having previously read Francis’s book on being a doctor in Antarctica and knowing that he has accrued a wealth of knowledge and experience of treating the body from a medical viewpoint in a wide variety of countries, I was intrigued to see this new publication by him, which focuses on different sections of the body as a jumping off point for the essays in this collection.  I’d recently read Tiffany Watt Smith’s The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia from Anger to Wanderlust (which, coincidentally, is also published by Profile Books and the Wellcome Collection), which introduces over 150 different human emotions in an exciting combination of psychological, anthropological, historical and etymological mini essays on the human condition.  It was a thoughtful book and made me wonder about how we approach the body in bioarchaeology, whether our lexical terminology isolates and intimidates, frustrates and alienates those who we seek to engage and educate.  The Book of Human Emotions succinctly highlighted what we think is the universal, the standard charge sheet of emotions (anger, fear, joy, love, etc.) that can be found in cultures across the world, is actually not quite the case or clear-cut, and that they can be expressed and felt in different ways.  Francis’s book, I think, will also offer something as equally as thought-provoking.  Known not just for his medical expertise but also for the humanity of his writing, Francis’s exploration of the body, as a story we can each call our own, delves into the medical, philosophical and literature worlds to uncover the inner workings of the human body, in good health, in illness and in death.

Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles and Practices of Nineteenth-Century Surgery by Richard Barnett. London: Thames & Hudson (in association with the Wellcome Collection).

I came across the above book purely by chance whilst out browsing bookstores in York recently and I have to say it is now on my festive wish list.  The medical historian Richard Barnett introduces a publication detailing the knowledge and variety of surgical practices available to the 19th century surgeon, focused largely on the presentation of the technical drawings produced in the era as a precise method for communicating the advancements made in a variety of treatments.  The publication introduces some of the earliest effective surgical techniques for dealing with devastating facial and limb injuries, either from disease processes, traumatic incidents or the outcomes of warfare, and documents the procedures used in re-configuring the body to alleviate the pain and the disfigurement suffered from such injuries and traumas.  It may not be for the faint of heart, but I could see that some modern-day surgeons may be interested to learn of past techniques, the tools and resources that they had, and the importance of always improving and building upon the innovations of the past.

Bioarchaeology: An integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Debra L. Martin, Ryan P. Harrod & Ventura R. Pérez. New York: Springer.

For any undergraduate or postgraduate student of archaeology that has a burgeoning interest in biarchaeology as a profession, I’d heavily encourage them (and the department) to get a copy of Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Martin, et al.  The volume concisely introduces the discipline and outlines the background to it, the theories and methodologies that have informed the theoretical and practical application of bioarchaeology, the current state of play with regards to legal and ethical frameworks, and, finally, the impact and the importance of bioarchaeology as a whole.  The volume also uses invigorating case studies to elucidate the methods of best practice and the impact of the points made throughout the volume.  It is an excellent guide to the discipline and well worth purchasing as a reference book.  Furthermore the volume is now out in paperback and it is very handy to have in your backpack, partly as a one stop reference for any theories or methodologies currently used in bioarchaeology but also as a pertinent remainder of the value of what we do as bioarchaeologists and why we do it.

Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care by Lorna Tilley. New York: Springer (Hardback only at the moment).

The post before this one has already detailed the aim and scope of this publication but I feel it is worth highlighting here again.  The bioarchaeology of care, and the associated online Index of Care application, aims to provide the bioarchaeologists with the tools for a case study framework for identifying the likelihood of care provision in the archaeological record by providing four stages of analysis in any individual skeleton exhibiting severe physical impairment, as a result of a disease process or acquired trauma.  The methodology takes in the importance of palaeopathology (the identification and diagnosis, where possible, of pathological disease processes in skeletal remains which has a firm basis in modern clinical data) but also the archaeological, cultural, geographic and economic contexts, to examine whether receipt of care is evidenced.  In the publication Tilley documents and investigates a number of prehistoric case studies, ranging from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Neolithic, and determines the likelihood of care and the type of care that was needed for the individuals under study to survive to their age at death.  The theoretical background and implications, alongside the ethical grounding of the methodology and the concerns in terminology, are also documented at length.  Perhaps most importantly, this is a methodology that is open to improvement and to the use within current and future research projects.  It is also a method that can be used first hand when examining skeletal remains or from the literature itself (where available to a good enough standard).

~~~

The above publications are, to me, some of the most interesting that I have seen recently, but I am always on the look out for more.  Please note that the average costs of the books above are within the £10.00-£20.00 range, but prices will vary significantly.  The hardback academic publications can be quite expensive (+ £70), however once the volume is out in paperback the price tends to fall steeply.  If you can recommend anything please let me know in the comments below.

And Finally a Stocking Filler…

The University of Durham is playing host to a one day conference entitled Little Lives, focusing on new perspectives on the bioarchaeology of children, both their life course and their health, for the very fair price of £10.00 on the 30th of January 2016.  The Facebook group for the conference can be found here.  Alternatively contact the conference organizers via the Durham University webpage here to secure a place (something I must do soon!).

littlelivesdurham16

Please note that the call for papers date has now passed and that the conference program has now been finalized.

Further Information

  • The Wellcome Trust, which helps operate the Wellcome Collection, is an independent global charity foundation dedicated to improving health by funding biomedical research and medical education.  The charity also has a keen focus on the medical humanities and social sciences, and it recognizes the importance of running educational workshops, programs and outreach events.  Find out more information on the charity here.

Bone Quiz: Revisiting Germany

14 Oct

Unfortunately I’m only visiting Germany in this blog entry and not personally!  Germany has recently been in both the education news and the osteo news though, so I’m always happy for a tenuous link to one of my favourite countries.

Free Education!

There has been a recent announcement that each of the 16 autonomous states in federal Germany have now abolished their tuition fees at their public universities, with both German and international students being allowed to take academic courses tuition fee free from 14/15 (as long as they are completed within a reasonable timescale).  Each state (Länder government) in Germany is responsible for its own education, higher education and cultural affairs, and higher education is a public system funded with public money.  This is a major step for Germany, although the decision can of course be overturned in the future as states weigh up various options ad political climates change.  Recent economic news has shown that whilst the UK and USA economies are growing (slightly), the Eurozone as a whole is still stagnating and economically contracting – still, Germany is certainly doing better than some of its economic partners in Europe.

Past Populations

Meanwhile, over at the University of West Florida Kristina Killgrove (of Powered by Osteons fame) and graduate research assistant Mariana Zechini have started a new project blog aimed at investigating and digitally documenting archaeological artefacts and biological remains.  One of their first projects was the 3D scanning and modelling of the teeth of individuals from the medieval population of the city of Cölln, in eastern Germany (see here).  Cölln was the sister city to Berlin, each probably founded around the 13th century on opposite sides of the river Spree, which today snakes through modern-day Berlin which now engulfs both sides of the river.

Taking place at the Virtebra lab (Virtual Bones and Artefacts lab) at the university, the aims are to digitally preserve and produce 3D models of the teeth to help kick-start a teaching collection.  The remains, from archaeological deposits identified as the city of Cölln, were recovered from the German excavations of a large medieval cemetery that took place at Petriplatz, Berlin, from 2007-2010, which uncovered the remains of 3718 individuals.  Back in 2013 Dr Killgrove also took the teeth to be tested for strontium isotopes (geographic) at UNC Chapel Hill (read more here) and the latest Virtebra blog post discusses the results of some of these tests (here).  I don’t want to spoil the results, so check out the blog entry and read up on the interesting archaeology of Cölln and Berlin!  The teeth that have been scanned are available and accessible as models at the GitHub site here.

Bones, Bones, Bones…

So this German (osteo and education) news reminded me of the 6 happy weeks I spent in the wonderful city of Magdeburg, on the EU-funded Grampus Heritage organised Leonardo Da Vinci scheme back in 2011.  I worked with a bunch of awesome UK students with a wonderful German team and, rarely for archaeology, it was a fully funded project.  It was on this archaeology trip that I got to excavate human remains in a medieval cemetery, which was a real honour.  But I wonder if anybody who reads this blog wants to test their own osteo skills and identify the bone and its osteological landmarks below….

1. a) Identify the largest skeletal element inside the yellow rectangle.

—-b) Adult/non- adult, and why?  Side the bone.

2. a)  Identify the structures in the red circle.

—-b) Name 2-3 muscles that have tendons that insert on either of the structures.

Memories of Magdeburg, Deutschland. A few of the skeletal elements part way being sorted for cleaning before the specialist documents them. Photograph by author.

I’ll put the answer up in a week or so – in the meantime please feel free to comment away.

LBK Almost Got Away

I almost forgot to mention that I’ve also conducted previous archaeological research into mobility of the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture for my MSc dissertation back in 2012.  The focus was on the statistical testing of the results of a literature review of strontium isotope results from 422 individuals across 9 LBK sites in Central Europe, with the main cluster of sites located in southern Germany.  You can read my research here!

Previous Bone Quiz

Further Information

  • Learn more about the Virtebra Project at the University of West Florida blog site here.
  • Read about how the German state funded universities managed to become tuition-free for both German and International students here at the New Statesman magazine.  Read more here for what the costs involved can be to live and study in Germany, including the costs of attending the private institutions which are not publicly funded.
  • Learn more about Grampus Heritage & Training Limited here.  Opportunities for both undergraduate and postgraduate UK students to take part in field archaeology in Europe can be found here (undergrads) and here (postgrads).  A previous guest post by Grampus Heritage on this blog highlighting the spectacular range of projects that have been available previously can be found here.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

Bone Quiz Answer

Bonequiz2answers

muscles galore.

Bone Quiz: Osteology From Outer Space

23 Sep

I saw this pop up earlier on my friend Charles Hay’s social feed and it immediately clicked as I saw osteology in space.  It’s actually the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (bit of a mouthful) rather than a skeletal element lost in space, but can the readers of this blog identify what I think I see below?  If you can, let me know what you think it is in the comment section below and, for bonus points, tell me how these generally differ from others found in the body.  You may have to squint a bit and remember that the distal parts of this element can vary somewhat in shape…

This comet is currently the focus of attention of the space probe Rosetta’s lander, Philae, as the European Space Agency hopes to soon land on and investigate this intriguing piece of rock.  The comet is currently (in the words of Col. Chris Hadfield, or at least his FB profile) spewing out water, methane, methanol, CO2 and ammonia, a mix that is the stuff of life (but probably quite smelly).  Keep up to date here as the ESA attempts to land Philae on the comet in early November.

spacethumb

A recent image sent back by the ESA Rosetta probe of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam/Emily Lakdawalla.

I’ll put the answer up in a few days or so, so please leave a comment if you think you know what this is!

Bone quizzes are part of a staple diet that anybody learning human osteology at university takes part in regularly.  They are often timed tests (normally a minute or so) where you can be asked to identify a fragment of bone, side it and name any anatomical landmarks that are highlighted on the element.  It is a great way to learn your skeletal anatomy, especially before heading into an archaeological excavation where bones can often be found in unexpected places and isolated from other elements.

Further Information

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

Bone Quiz Answer

This quiz was probably picked bit too arcane an object for a bone quiz, but the answer can be found below.  Note in the comment’s section JB and Keneiloe’s answers for different views!

Image credit: source.

Body Worlds Vital Exhibition Comes To Life

11 May

Just a quick post here to highlight an exhibition that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

The International Centre for Life, located in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, is playing host to the Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds Vital exhibition from the 17th of May to the 2nd of November 2014.  This  promises to be an interesting opportunity for the public to see first hand the exhibition of human bodies and associated prosected organs and tissues, and a chance to learn about the value of human anatomy and physiology.  As well as the main exhibition there will also be numerous special events taking place throughout the seven month showing.  This includes the opportunity to attend public lectures on the ethics of displaying dead individuals, the relationship between art and the dead (featuring one Paul Koudounaris) and the chance to learn how to draw the human body, amongst other topics as yet to be disclosed.

body-worlds-vital---the-exhibition-of-real-human-bodies-body-worlds-vital-life-science-centre-800x360

Exhibition at the Centre for Life in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. The display has a number of human bodies and prosected organs and tissues on show, often promoting a healthy lifestyle message. A number of the bodies are placed into classical poses from the Renascence era.  Image credit: Centre for Life.

The Body Worlds organisation has been around for a while now and is currently running a number of exhibitions around the world, although it has not been without its criticisms (see below).  The International Centre for Life itself is a pretty unique complex of buildings (a science village) which plays a major focus in funding and researching the life sciences in the heart of Newcastle, as well providing a family friendly interactive museum at the Centre for Life itself.

Ethics

The bioarchaeology researcher Jess Beck, over at Bone Broke, has a particularly good blog entry detailing the varied views on the ethics of displaying human remains for the public and her post mentions specific criticisms of a previous incarnation of Body Worlds.  This has focused, in the past, on the actual providence of the bodies of the individuals on display and of the actual feasibility of the anatomical positions of the bodies themselves (Moore & Brown 2004, see this 2006 NPR article for further details).  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition has made explicit announcements stating that each and every body or organ on display has been donated specifically for the Body Worlds Vital exhibition with the blessing of the person when they were alive.  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition, housed at the Life Science Centre, has been thoroughly vetted by the Human Tissue Authority and the exhibition approved (the report can be read here).

The Exhibition

I have been twice now to view the exhibition, and I really think that it pays to visit these types of exhibitions a few times.  The first time I visited by myself, allowing plenty of time to become acquainted with the outlay and display of the human bodies.  The second time I went with a few friends of mine and experienced a different kind of interaction with the displays.  Each time I went I saw a mixed age audience with both women and men of all stripes taking in the show.  Most importantly I saw enthused children looking at the bodies, asking their parents what each part of the body does and why, sometimes asking pretty tough and interesting questions (‘how many red blood cells are there in the body?’).  This was fantastic to see and especially parents taking their time to explain the human body, the differences as the body ages and the anatomical differences between the sexes, to their children.

The exhibition layout seemed a bit all  over, with no main overarching theme, I had expected a lifespan approach with the bodies displayed in various approaches as you went along but instead they were placed along the edge of the exhibition length punctuated by prosected tissues.  Each little area often a health point (obesity, cancer, dementia and over-drinking to name but a few) highlighted with a diseased and non-diseased specimen on show.  Personally it was a bit too black and white moral wise, no care giving was mentioned.  The terminology sometimes changed from the common name (collar bone) to the medical (sub-clavian  artery), which may confuse visitors as to the medical terms used- it would have made more sense to stick to one approach and to explain it to the viewer what precise terms used meant.

The bodies themselves were spell-binding although all lacked adipose fat, which had been removed as a part of the plastination process.  This made me curious as it highlighted ‘perfect’ bodies, whereas in real life most people have, and need, an amount of body fat for survival.  Furthermore the individuals are not named, as a matter of course, as the individuals had only died within the past few decades.  But it did bring up an interesting discussion point with my friend Will in the pub afterwards.  Archaeology often deals with the nameless dead, whereas this actively made the bodies anonymous, to represent a human ‘individual’ and not a person with a family or a social package.  A part of me still can’t help but wonder what their lives were like, who did they love and what did they do with their lives.  The posing of the fleshed bodies was certainly unique and allowed for an in-depth look into the musculature and nervous systems of several individuals.

Overall I really felt that the public had the opportunity and chance to look at the human body in all of its wonder.  The body was not hiding in morgues, research rooms or funeral homes, it was on display for all to admire and learn from.  Visit, you will not be disappointed.

Preserving Bodies

Whilst this is just a quick post, I would like to highlight that the plastination technique that Gunther von Hagens uses is but one method of preservation for cadaveric material.

The Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, at the University of Dundee in Scotland, currently uses a fascinating technique called the Thiel Cadaver Facility to preserve human cadavers for use in anatomical and forensic laboratory sessions.  This soft-fix method preserves the body’s tissues and ensures a life-like quality of flexibility which enables tissues such as muscles and the skin to be flexed fully during teaching and dissections sessions.  The Thiel process, although long, also helps to retain the original hues of the body as opposed to the usual formaldehyde method, which usually leaves bodies and tissues looking pale and anaemic.

Further Information

  • A detailed Centre for Life FAQ on the Body Worlds Vital exhibition can be found here.
  • Learn about the history and the aims of the science village The International Centre for Life here.
  • Jess Beck’s Bone Broke entry on the ethics of displaying human remains can be found here.  Particularly of interest is the double standard of criticism that exists in the ethics between museum and academic institutions displaying of human remains compared to the ‘overtly commercial nature’ of the Body Worlds style of exhibition of human remains.  It is a thoughtful point that Beck raises in her blog entry.
  • Visit Empire de la Mort, the website of artist, historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris.
  • Learn about Gunther von Hagens intriguing method of plastination that he uses on both human and animal cadavers.
  • Learn about the Thiel cadaver technique here or here, which is currently being pioneered in the UK at the University of Dundee.

Bibliography

Moore, M. C. & Brown, C. M. 2004. Gunther Von Hagens and Body Worlds Part 1: The Anatomist as Prosektor and Proplastiker. The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist. 267B (1): 8-14. (Open Access).

Thoughts on Academic Archaeology

5 Jan

There have been many excellent blog lists highlighting the incredible archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds from 2013.  Off the top of my head here are four blogs (and one site) that are fantastic at summing up the advances that 2013 have brought:

  • John Hawks reviews his year in Human Evolution, and may I just say what a year it has been in the study of human evolution (for some reason very hard to link to the specific blog entry, just scroll two down or so or look at the whole amazing site!).
  • Katie Wong looks at the fantastic list of human evolutionary finds and studies at Scientific American, with links to the articles for your further perusal.
  • Katy looks at the year’s most interesting and important mortuary archaeological finds at Bones Don’t Lie.
  • Paige, at Imponderabilia, highlights some remarkable archaeological finds from the past 12 months.
  • …and of course Past Horizons is the site where you can keep up to date on all manner of archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds throughout the upcoming year and previous years!

So in highlighting the finds of 2013 I think it would be dreary of me to create my own list because so many great bloggers got there ahead of me (and I wouldn’t know when to stop).  Instead I am going to do something slightly different.

I am going to highlight what I would like to see change in academia regarding my own past experiences  of academia itself and those that I have heard from friends.  Now hear me out – I am aware that this will be a quite personal list relating to human osteology and funerary archaeology but I also think some of the categories stretch over the whole subject of how archaeology is taught at the university level education, where there could be improvements and what I believe could enhance the under-taking of an archaeological degree.  In a way it is also wish list for what I (looking back on my undergraduate and masters education) wish I had been taught.

So without further ado I introduce to you my thoughts on what could improve the academic experience for the bioarchaeologists and archaeologists at university level education:

1) Human Evolution

I highlight human evolution first because there is often a human origins module in most undergraduate archaeology programs.  The past few years have seen tremendous change in how much our knowledge has grown and it continues to grow with the application of new techniques and discovering new remains.  My main worry is that many universities may teach outdated theories or not teach human evolution at all.  For me human evolution contains the best combination of archaeology: science, anatomy and fieldwork.  Granted not every student who takes archaeology may be interested in human evolution or palaeolithic archaeology (and very rarely have the chance to dig at a palaeoanthropological site), but just to give that basic bedrock knowledge of who we are would be one worth keeping as a core module.  In my eyes it is a vital basic module, one that can be hard to keep on top of agreed but surely one fundamental to archaeology and the study of our origins as we are today.   Further to this it helps to contextualise archaeology as a subject itself, the importance of evolutionary biology and the continuing role of the historical context of science.

2) Genetics

Genetics is mentioned primarily due my background because when I was studying for my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology degree, I felt that having a basic introductory module in genetics would have been fundamentally beneficial to understanding the scientific literature.  Of course a student of archaeology at the university level may have already attained a college level knowledge of biology (how I wish I had chosen it now!), but a tailored course on the importance of genetics and the understanding of molecular biology would reap benefits for the modern zooarchaeologists, palaeobotanists and human osteologists.  My view is based on the belief that although macro study and recognition of skeletal material is fundamental to the bioarchaeological sciences (and to the maintenance of a job), a paradigm shift is possibly underway (1) in the way in the fact that genetic studies have fundamentally opened up a new and developing understanding of human evolution and the continued evolutionary adaption of organisms to their environment (see Hawks et al. 2011).  Although there will always be a need for human osteologists etc in the archaeological and academic sector, an understanding of genetics and an ability to study the results of such studies and original examinations would provide the bioarchaeologist with a much more informed toolkit to assess archaeological remains and their context, either in a commercial environment or in a research post.

3) Media Relations

Kristina Killgrove has an illuminating short series on her blog entitled Presenting Anthropology.  This is invigorating, dynamic teaching of archaeology as a social media outreach.  It also makes the students think of how they are presenting archaeology to the public.  We all know of the repeated failures of presenting the skeletal system properly in shows such as Bones etc (definitely check out Kristina’s Powered By Osteons if you haven’t!).  Blogging is fantastic and I’d heartily recommend any student of archaeology to give it a go, but I also realise it is not the be all and end all of outreach and media relations.  Sometimes you have to actively engage with the very people who misrepresent you.  I’d quite like to see the extension of the teaching of social media and active outreach to the majority of archaeology courses if it was possible, especially to highlight the value of those avenues of outreach.  Archaeology is easily cast aside by the people that lead us but that need only be the case if we let them.  Therefore I would actively encourage each and every person who identifies as an archaeologist to promote the value and worth of heritage to as wide of an audience as you can!  Again, at a university level, I think a simple guest lecture on this topic would hopefully sum up the current state of play whilst lecturers and course leaders could actively encourage their students to get out there, both in person and online.

4) Reviewing Each Other In Class, Writing Articles & How to Apply for Funding

Reviewing each other in class is not an especially new idea as many academic modules across all distinctions include active seminars and student participation.  However I believe that, as an marked component of a module, individual and group marking of a student’s paper could encourage active and valuable feedback that reflects the peer-review process and academic publishing.  I asked a few of my friends whether they think they would value such an idea, of scoring an essay a student in the class has wrote individually and then discussing it in a group, and many said they would feel uncomfortable with the idea.  I can understand that but I also think it could be a valuable exercise in understanding the different approaches and viewpoints that a university level class facilitates.  There is a variation of this when, often in seminar setting, a published article is handed out and the individual students have to discuss it and then the group discuss the article’s merits together, but it is my belief that comments on your own writing would be more helpful or the approach could be combined to provide a comparison of the literature and approaches used.

This naturally leads into another facet of this idea that under-graduate and master level students are, in my experience, not given advice on how to write an article for a journal.  I do not just mean content alone but style, diagram placing and referencing as well.  Many academic journals have strict guidelines on what particular format or program the article should have been wrote in before acceptance or the peer review process takes place (if you get that far!).  A class or two could help inform the students of such basic knowledge.  As a part of this idea I also think it would helpful be to be told on what to look out for in an academic journal.  We all know there are predatory journals out there in the academic publishing world, waiting to snap up an article to boost the publishing houses qualifications or ‘seriousness’.  (Two fantastic sites to check out are Retraction Watch and Scholarly Open Access).  Another natural extension of this is (for those who are either looking at MA or MSc courses, PhD or post-doc funding) for students to be given advice on how to apply for funding, to be informed on what bodies fund what research depending on the applicants research area, and how to write a funding form or grant efficiently and effectively.  I am aware that this already happens for PhD students but this is normally at an individual level, wouldn’t a concise one off lecture be helpful to all?

5) Guest Speakers

A relatively simple wish, for archaeology departments to regularly hold guest speaker events either at the department or at the Student Union.  The University of Sheffield’s archaeology department is very active in bringing in a wide range of guest speakers for the weekly Tuesday Lunchtime Lecture and I was grateful for seeing some invigorating and inspiring guest speakers.  This may be a wish that is already largely fulfilled but it is one worth highlighting anyway.  Guest lectures can be relatively easy to organize, with social media definitely making it easier to make contact with a variety of archaeologists both in the commercial sector or in the academic sector.  Guest speakers are also a great way to introduce the great variety of strands in archaeology to an already dedicated and largely interested audience.  I think there could be great scope in grading the guest speakers for a variety of audiences, from introductory talks to the various aspects that make up archaeology a a whole right up to the cutting edge specialist researchers whose knowledge would be beneficial to a select audience.

6) Active Science

Sometimes in academia it can be difficult to think that you are actually contributing anything to the great font of knowledge, especially at the masters level were you are not entirely sure your work will have any impact.  It should be stated here that the majority of universities that offer archaeology also have an active on-going field archaeology project with the undergraduate courses especially stating that fieldwork must be completed before beginning the 2nd year of study.  However I think that there is the opportunity for university students to participate at a deeper level, particularly if the university department runs specialist and technical equipment.  In my own experience there was limited opportunity, outside of the normal fieldwork sessions, to join in with scientific research opportunities.  This may have been a consequence due to the nature of the archaeology departments of where I studied (and the lack of technical equipment) but I cannot help but feel that a greater integration of student and lecturer would provide numerous benefits to both, including gaining all important technical and research experience.

7) Improve Field/Commercial Skills

From informal chats with David Connolly (BAJR leader), reading Doug’s Archaeology and carefully reading the Institute For Archaeology‘s quarterly magazine a common gripe from commercial archaeological units is the fact that many students require training for commercial fieldwork after they have joined an archaeological unit.  As stated above many universities that offer archaeology as an undergraduate degree course state that 2-3 weeks (sometimes more) of fieldwork during the 1st year must be completed before the student can proceed onto the 2nd year of the course.  However this is generally conducted at a research excavation which is quite unlike a commercial excavation.  After the 1st year many students will take modules that they are particularly interested in, thus the opportunity to excavate may not be taken up again before job seeking starts.

I would argue that commercial excavation is very different from university led research excavation and that time and monetary constraints are major factors involved in the excavation ahead of building work (as if so often the case at commercial sites).  Further to this the skills needed often need to be quickly learnt and applied to help record the archaeology effectively and efficiently.  You only ever get the chance to dig and excavate once.  It is also well known that the environment of commercial digging is fundamentally different to research led excavations.  Therefore I propose that, at some stage and preferably at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, guest talks or lectures are given on the differences between excavation types.  Ideally the skills needed to excavate on commercial sites should also be taught and maintained (I do realise not everyone wants to dig though!).

8) Contact Time

It has been noted that many non-EU students who come to study archaeology at the post-graduate level can be put off at first by the lack of contact time, either in scheduled tuition meetings, lectures, practical/lab classes and/or seminars.  This is generally the way with British academia, it is normally standard that the student must allocate his or her time carefully to allow the full maximum use of the university’s resources for their needs.  Modules often have a stated hour learning limit (ie 50hrs reading time, 24hrs lecture time) in the modular handbooks over the semester or year, given out at the start of each term.  However some students have started to question the amount of active contact time in consideration of, and relation to, the hike in university fees in the UK.  This is a tricky situation as students should receive quality education but also accept that the lecturer has other research needs and a whole raft of students and colleagues to work with and projects to proceed on with.  Archaeology, as a discipline, places varying pressures across the department and as such there is no easy answer to this one.  I wish I had more contact time but I also wish I had made slightly better use of the time I was given to access the human osteology lab.

Notes

(1) This may be hyperbole!  The importance of genetics in understanding the relationships between hominin species in the Homo genus however is helping to suggest relationships and interbreeding that could not be conclusively evidenced from the fossil anatomical record alone.  The picture is far from clear but recent DNA studies of the Altai Neandertal suggest that genetic drift and interbreeding are distinctly important mechanism in understanding the evolution of of the Homo species (if indeed they are different species or sub-species).
 
Bibliography

Hawks, J., Wang, E. T., Cochran, G. M., Harpending, H. C. & Moyzis, R. K. 2007. Recent Acceleration of Human Adaptive EvolutionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences104 (52): 20753-20758.

Quick Mention: ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’ By Ann Oakley

1 Oct

I had an hour or so to wait for a friend in York recently so I dived into the main council library to while away the time.  The library, located just up the road from the train station and near the leafy surroundings of the Yorkshire museum, houses a fine selection of books for the bibliophile.  Little did I know, however, that as I meandered over to the social sciences section and perused the shelves I would come across this gem of a book on broken bones and the body by sociologist Ann Oakley.  After reading a page or two I realised I had to get this book out and devour it, perhaps knowing that this was the kind of book that I had hoped to one day write myself.

Any regular reader will know that I love bones, how they are used and studied in the archaeological record to how bone disease has affected and shaped my own life: the skeletal system, in short, is simply fascinating.  Thus the book, with a cover displaying an x-ray of the author’s own comminuted fracture of her right humerus, bade me to borrow it and take it away from the confines of York for a few weeks (it has now been safety returned and I’ve bought a copy myself).

fracturefracture

Oakley, a distinguished Professor of sociology and social policy at the Institute of Education at the University of London and a prolific author, has produced a fine slim volume in ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’.  The book’s focal point is the fracture she sustained whilst at a conference in America, how her broken right humerus and subsequent ulnar nerve injury led her to reassess the vitality and human essence of the body/mind connection in modern Western society.  This numbness, an effect of surgery carried out to mend her badly comminuted fracture, led to her dominant right hand losing the sensations of touch and feeling for a sustained period.  As such this fundamentally altered Oakley’s ability to carry out daily tasks, indeed it alters and shifts her perception of her body and her self.  The right hand, so often dominantly figurative and symbolic in society, is, after her accident, now a shadow of its former self for Oakley.

This is further re-enforced by the treatment of her body (but not her experiences or thoughts) by the medical experts, and at the hands of the greedy and extended process of the litigation culture in America.  The persuasive and intrusive nature of surveillance in the medico-legal profession in particular comes under some pretty damning criticism.  The impact of the fall has ramifications beyond the personal and the physical however, as Oakley states that ‘the problem of bodies is that they’re both material objects and the site of human experiences’ (Oakley 2007: 15).

The book’s central tenet is to explore ‘the relationship that exists between the body and consciousness, between the experience of living in a body and being a person with knowledge and understanding, and a distinct individual and social identity’ (Oakley 2007: 32).  The societal view of the body is a particularly stark point in this book, and can make for uncomfortable reading, especially when the attitudes of modern society towards elderly females are explored and highlighted.  Oakley is a well known feminist sociologist and it is when broaching the societal impacts of the perception of the body, particularly when it focuses on the female form and hormone replacement therapy, that this book is on it’s strongest form (Reid 2008).  Oakley repeatably makes clear and succinct use of a variety of sources to counter long held views in the medical profession, especially what the doctor could learn from talking to the patient, and whilst it could be criticised that Oakley overdramatises at times, the book remains highly readable (Watson 2007: 7606).

For me personally, it was wonderful to read a book that ran alongside (and sometimes counter) to some of my own views and experiences of hospital life, especially regarding post-hospital life after a traumatic event.  It is good to agree with views, it is even better to be handed a new paradigm in which to view aspects of life, and it is perhaps this that is one of the book’s many gifts.

This book then is a combination of autobiography, neurology, social theory and literary fiction, detailed with a tremendous range of subjects linked together by the chains of the commonality of the human body; what it experiences and lives through, and how it changes.  By using her own experiences as a defining exposure of the frailty of the human frame, Oakley broadens the theme outwards to engage the audience to think deeply on what it means to be a body and a person in modern Western society, both how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others.

Bibliography:

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

Reid, M. O. 2008. A Feminist Sociological Imagination? Reading Ann Oakley. Sociology of Health & Illness5 (1): 83-94.

Watson, J. 2007. Fractured: Picking Up The Pieces. British Medical Journal. 334 (7606): 1275.

A Quick Trip To The Deep

25 Sep

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

Skeletal Series 11: The Human Foot

4 Sep

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

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

Foooooot

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

Excavation

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

bones brodsworth 07pic3 - Copy

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

Basic Musculature and Skeletal Anatomy

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

footbones

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

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

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

Skeletal Elements: Tarsals

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

tarsals_labeled

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

The Talus

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

The Calcaneus

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

The Cuboid

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

The Naviculuar

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

The Cuneiforms:

Medial

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

Intermediate

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

Lateral

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

Metatarsals

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

metatarsal-phalangeal-joint

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

Phalanges

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

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

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

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

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

Further Online Sources

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marsland, D. & Kapoor, S. 2008. Rheumatology and Orthopaedics. London: Mosby Elsevier.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

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

Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’

5 Apr

I still remember seeing the vivid woodcuts of the human body looming out of the school history textbook for the first time, as clear as the sunlight that entered that dark room.  The course title was ‘Medicine through Time’, a fascinating ramble through man’s attempts at healing the body that started at the Upper Palaeolithic and ended at the beginning of the NHS and modern medicine.

The figures that loomed out were of course from Andreas Vesalius’s (1514-1564) anatomical book, ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libre Septem‘ (1543), an illustrated manual of the human body in 7 books.  Produced at a time of great learning, during the flourishing of the Renaissance, the books depicted the human body in vivid anatomical detail.  Remarkably Vesalius published the first edition of the book at the age of 30, taking great pains to present the illustrations as accurately as possible.  By using woodcuts throughout the text, with the odd use of intaglio (engraved copper plates), Vesalius cultivated great artists to help detail his anatomical and dissection findings.  He had the text printed by Joannis Oporini  in Basel, Switzerland, who was a printer of foremost talent in 16th century Europe.

But where did Vesalius, as a anatomist and dissector, fit into anatomical history?  Vesalius was born in Brussels, Belgium (then the Hapsburg Netherlands), in 1514 to a family of physicians and, under the directions of Jacques Dubois and Jean Fernel, studied anatomy and the theories of Galen at the University of Paris in 1533.  He was forced to move his anatomical studies to Leuven, Netherlands, at the outbreak of war between the Holy Roman Empire and France in 1536,  However he shortly moved to Padua, Italy, to complete his doctorate and took up the chair of surgery and anatomy after its completion.  It is during this time that he conducted dissections on cadavers as a regular part of his student lessons as a primary learning tool, and promoted the use of directly observed descriptions during the dissections.

This was a challenge to the established orthodoxy of Galen‘s (AD 126- 200) anatomical legacy.  Galen studied the Hippocratic theory of pathology, and heavily promoted the theory of the 4 bodily humors and the idea of human temperaments.  In particular Galen advanced the knowledge of human anatomy in many areas, including describing muscle tones and the functions of agonists and antagonists in the musculo-skeletal system, alongside major progressions in the understanding of circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems.  Although Galen’s medical corpus was accepted as largely fact, his anatomical dissections were carried out on Barbary apes and pigs, as Imperial Rome in the 2nd century AD prohibited human cadaver dissection.

One of the 'muscle men', displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (source).

One of the ‘muscle men’, displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (Source: University of Glasgow).

This led to several major inaccuracies in the work of Galen and in the understanding of the biology of the human body, and it wasn’t until Vesalius that certain views were corrected and amalgamated into Galen’s legacy.  This included a number of corrections from Galen’s original works, such as recognising that the human jawbone (mandible) is one bone and not two, that women do not lack a rib compared to males (taken from the biblical idea), and that the interventricular septum of the heart is not porous as Galen advocated, alongside a plethora of other insights.

This largely occurred because Vesalius advocated active learning during dissection of human cadavers (themselves often executed prisoners).  Importantly it should be noted that Vesalius work built upon work throughout the intervening centuries, particularly in the view of contemporary Renaissance artists and anatomists.  His was not the first body of work focusing on the intricacies of the human body during this period, but it was one of the most detailed and finely executed, leading it to become an instant classic in his own lifetime.  Although he improved Galen’s theory of circulation, it wasn’t until the English doctor William Harvey (1578-1657) accurately described the systematic circulation and properties of blood (1628).

The University of Toronto has recently acquired a previously unknown and privately held 2nd edition copy of ‘De Human Corporis Fabrica’, and it is making the book accessible for researchers to study the text itself at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.  Remarkably the unknown edition includes annotations likely made by Vesalius himself, notes where he has corrected the printed text or made notes regarding what to include in the next printed edition of the book, which unfortunately was never printed.  This typifies the character and nature of Vesalius as a dissector and researcher, but it also helps highlight the nature of science itself, how through the investigation of previous studies can inform future work and rectify mistakes or misunderstandings.  In particular is also raises the subject and value of comparative anatomy between species, of homology, of the similarities and differences between mammals.

Perhaps gruesomely, a human skin bound edition of the book survives and currently resides at Brown University.  The practice of human skin binding is known as ‘Anthropodermic Bibliopegy’ and, as Wikipedia points out, dates back till at least the 17th century.