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A Brief Photo Essay: The Lithic Lab at the University of Bradford

4 Dec

As you can probably tell from a previous post I recently spent a day in Bradford catching up my good friend Natalie Atkinson, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.  Natalie is currently researching microwear on lithics, investigating new ways in which to quantify and record data as a part of the Fragmented Heritage project (more on that below).  Whilst I was there I managed to take a few brief photographs of the lithic lab with my trusted Pentax s1a camera loaded with black and white 35mm film, which will be the focus of this entry with Natalie kindly modelling.  Although this post won’t be focused on bioarchaeology, it is pertinent to briefly mention it here as Bradford has, and continues, to play a vital role in the research and teaching of bioarchaelogy in the UK.

Initially there was a course that ran every 2 years at UCL during the 1980s that covered the study of archaeological human remains, taught by Don Brothwell, and a course at the University of Sheffield, run by Dr Judson Chesterman (the former is now the MSc in Skeletal and Dental Bioarchaeology run by Professors Simon Hillson and Tony Waldron).  In 1990 the universities of Bradford and Sheffield started to run a joint course (MSc Osteology, Palaeopathology and Funerary Archaeology).  This was initiated and taught by Professor Keith Manchester, alongside Professor Charlotte Roberts, the latter now at Durham University and running an MSc in Palaeopathology.  The course ran from 1990-1999, with Bradford now running the MSc in Osteology and Palaeopathology, and Sheffield running a course in Osteology and Funerary Archaeology.  The joint course has formed the basis for the development of many UK university masters courses on archaeological human remains.

I should perhaps also admit to a twinge of osteology envy here as the technical facilities and osteological reference collections at Bradford is perhaps one of the best in the UK, ranging, as they do, from the ability to analyse stable light isotopes on-site in a dedicated lab, 3D scan using a FARO laser, stock an extensive traditional and digital radiography equipment and x-ray library, and have the facilities for the carrying out of microscopy research, histological sampling and analysis.  Alongside this the department also hosts a human skeletal reference collection spanning from the 19th century to the Neolithic period.  (For further information on the history of bioarchaeology in the UK see Roberts 2006 & Roberts 2012 below).

But I digress!  This post is not about bones, it is about stones, about the physical artefacts produced and crafted by Homo sapiens and our ancestral hominins over hundreds of thousands of years, indeed millions of years.  It is also about a department of archaeology that specialises in the scientific study of the archaeological record.  Indeed it was this department that first introduced me to the joys of archaeology as a post-college but pre-university archaeology student-to-be.  It was here on the many itinerant trips to visit friends from home that I became aware of the great breadth and depth of the archaeological world.  Returning to it again reminded me of the sheer size of the department and of the many specialisms, and specialists, within archaeological science that the department is home to.

But this is a brief introduction of the lithics laboratory at the university rather than the department or of lithics themselves (although see some of the core texts such as Andrefsky 2005 & Keeley 1980 for detailed introductions to studying lithics).  It is pertinent to point out here that physical objects can also be considered to have lifespans, where, with the increased age of an object, comes the increased possibility of a extrinsic mishap and intrinsic fragility, i.e. accidents and/or breakages due to the deteriotation of the material used to construct the object.  As Crews (2003) mentions in his book on human senescence objects do not age biologically as plants or animals do, but they do age with use and wear.  This is highlighted when Crews (2003: 34) discusses this in reference to the lifespan of glass test tubes as researched in Medawar’s 1946 wear-and-tear theory, where it is possible to understand likely lifespans of objects based on observation and material studies.  This is an important point as artefacts in the archaeological record likely had a finite life, much as objects do today, such as T.V’s which can become quickly out of date or obsolete as digital technology changes and improves.

Lithics, or stone chipped tools, are often produced using flint or chert material and are knapped from source material (such as naturally occuring flint nodules or mines) to produce a wide variety of tools.  Perhaps some of the most immediate visual tools that are recognisible include the mighty handaxes seen in the Upper and Lower Paloaelithic periods down to the specialised microlithics of the Mesolithic and beyond.  These can of course have a range of different applications depending on the context of their use.  Lithics can also be retouched and reused as necessary, can be the product of mass produce or can be singular one-off productions (Andrefsky Jr 2005).  Use-wear analysis is a major academic and commercial focus today in understanding the role that lithics have played over their lifespans, from original use to final deposition within the archaeological record.  As such this mini photo essay presents the lithic lab at Bradford, home to this literal cutting edge technology.

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Remains of the day. Archaeologists can largely be found at one of three places: excavating in the field, typing in front of a computer or analysing in the laboratory. This is the lithics laboratory at the Department of Archaeological Science at the University of Bradford. It is a place where time spans hundreds of thousands of years as Neolithic flints mix with Palaeolithic handaxes, where the debitage of modern reconstructions lay in buckets beneath the technical knapping manuals.  Lithic analysis involves being able to recognise, re-piece and understand the production of lithic flakes from flint or chert nodules. The material produced can be as varied as projectile points, scrapers, burins or handaxes, depending on the aim of the original knapper. Lithics, as in the above photograph, are often stored securely and safely in archives accessible to specialists , museums and researchers, sometimes heading out for public display. Lithics survive particularly well in the archaeological and palaeontological record due to the robust material and natural composition.

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Analysing the physical artefacts of the past. Natalie takes a look at the fracture patterns and use  wear on one of the many lithics that the lab at Bradford holds in its store. It is important that, as well as the original lithics spanning many different period sites, that the researchers can carry out experimental work by knapping their own flint examples to replicate the methods that our ancestors used.  As a researcher on the Fragmented Heritage project Natalie will be investigating the tool use, production and object manipulation using imaging and analysing techniques.  This will involve the use of  the latest technology such as Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), laser scanning, CT scanning and 3D microscopy to help quantify use-wear analysis amongst other aims.  The doctoral project is partly experimental, but will also possibly use existing lithic assemblages from Spain, England, Kenya and Jordan from the Palaeolithic periods to investigate new methodologies in identifying and quantifying use wear.

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Projecting the past.  Natalie’s part in the Fragmented Heritage project is just one facet in this international research project. A second doctoral position will be looking at the post-depositional movement of archaeological remains, helping to implement new and existing methodologies in understanding the lithic microwear involved in identifying post-depositional signatures.  The Fragmented Heritage project is looking to improve the recording the scale and nature of fragmented remains in archaeological contexts, involving the use of new landscape survey technology to help highlight new hominid sites.  The partners of the project also include the Home Office (for forensic applications), Citizen Science Alliance , the National Physical Laboratory (measurement and materials science laboratory), Science Museum Group, and Historic Scotland.  The core project staff, from the University of Bradford, are Dr Randolph Donahue (lithic microwear), Dr Adrian Evans (quantification in lithic functional studies), and Dr Andrew Wilson (digitisation technology).

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An important part of any scientific research is the ability to document, describe and understand the implications of your research.  However you also have to be able to defend your research and accept or challenge new interpretations as necessary.  Archaeology may be stuck in the past but revolutions, both in the methods and use of new technology, and in the actual archaeological, or palaeoanthropological, records are coming thick and fast.  Researchers will come and go, but the artefacts and contextual information will, if stored correctly and safely, always be available to analyse and interpret using innovative methods to maximize the information  that archaeological sites artefacts hold.

This has been a brief foray into the world of lithic research at the University of Bradford but it has been eye-opening journey for me.  As an osteoarchaeologist I admit that I can sometimes become too biased towards the skeletal remains found in the archaeologically record, that I wonder what that person saw, felt and did in their lifetimes, that I can forget we have such a vast catalogue of physical artefacts stored at universities, institutions, museums and units across the world.

It is these artefacts that document the technology of previous populations – of how the individuals and populations adapted, responded and lived in their environments during their lifetime.  The study of these artefacts clearly benefit from new technological approaches, but they also benefit from holistic approaches and multidisciplinary influenced projects.  Perhaps most of all they benefit from researchers coming and going, sitting silently in their storage boxes waiting for their chance to tell their story of their lives, both during active use and deposition into the archaeological record.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr Adrian Evans for the permission to post the photographs here that are of the Lithic Lab at the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.  Thanks also to Professor Charlotte Roberts for clarification on the history of bioarchaelogy in the UK.

Further Information

  • Further information on the Department for Archaeological Sciences, a part of the Faculty of Life Sciences, at the University of Bradford can be found here.  More detailed information on the two main core research strands (social and biological identities and archaeological sciences) can be found here.
  • Head over to lithic specialist Spencer Carter’s Blog at Microburin to learn about the identification and use of microlithics in the Mesolithic period (particularly in northern England).  Spencer has dedicated a few entries on the blog discussing his amalgamated methodology for processing lithics from archaeological sites and his set up for the photography of lithics to archaeological publication standard, which are very handy.
  • Check out Hazelnut Relations, a blog ran by archaeological researcher Marcel Cornelissen, to learn about studying lithics and use-wear analysis in a laboratory setting, and also to read about the author’s research into the European Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.  Marcel is also particularly keen on fieldwork so the blog entries are particularly interesting as they combine the joy of the field and the lab together.

Bibliography

Andrefsky Jr, W. 2005. Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crews, D. E. 2003. Human Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keeley, L. H. 1980. Experimental Determination of Stone Tool Uses: A Microwear Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, C.A. 2006. A View from Afar: Bioarchaeology in Britain. In: Buikstra, J. & Beck, L. A. (eds) Bioarchaeology: Contextual Analysis of Human Remains.  London: Elsevier. pp. 417-439. (Open Access).

Roberts, C. 2012. History of the Development of Palaeopathology in the United Kingdom (UK). In: Buikstra, J. & Roberts, C. (eds.) The Global History of Palaeopathology: Pioneers and Prospects. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 568-579. (Open Access).

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Guest Post: ‘Bones in the Backyard: Bringing Forensic Anthropology into the Science Classroom’ by Shivani Lamba.

18 Jun

Shivani Lamba is the Company Director of Forensic Outreach, based in London, which she initially joined as Programme Coordinator in 2009. She spearheaded the organisation’s initiative to create public engagement experiences online. The organisation was established in 2001, and has long been a dynamic and active part of the science curriculum in classrooms throughout the UK and EU. It was conceived to introduce forensic science as an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to science education, and has delivered programmes to over one-hundred academic institutions and charities.


The Stories They Tell

There are, to put it mildly, some rather surreal moments in my time as a Forensic Outreach instructor.  I’ve cataloged medieval skeletal remains on the wooden office floor, sifting through them next to a newly-qualified doctor with an almost preternatural ability to instantly recognise bone types on sight. These specimens had been selected for shipping to the fabled Bone Room in Albany, California – and the task of wrapping and labelling led us late into the evening.  There were the innumerable times a small portion of our collection had been carefully packaged into a rolling suitcase, transported along with our instructors on the London underground, ready to be handled by keen children and adults across the country (and later the continent). And finally, there was the rather macabre experience of opening a new shipment to encounter a beautiful rib cage specimen – without any prior warning, of course.

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Bodies and Bones, read more at Forensic Outreach.

When I’m pressed by my students to tell these stories, it’s with mixed feelings: concern that this is all too bizarre an existence (for two years, the office housed another medieval skeleton affectionately named Horace) and strangely, gratitude.  Reassuringly, it’s in part because of our small collection that Forensic Outreach has engaged children and adults alike – where possible, we allow our audiences to handle them, to turn them about, to draw themselves close to these bits and pieces.  There’s no better way to inspire an interest in forensic anthropology than to ensure that our students come to grips with it – quite literally – and understand the experiences real field anthropologists have everyday.  In actuality, the forensic anthropology component of our workshops is usually just that: part of a larger day which includes other “forensic” exercises, or a component of a class series.

Still, for years, we’ve found that forensic anthropology – and the bones – are perhaps the most compelling sessions we offer.  It begs the question: just what is it about this field that has everyone intrigued?

Looking Closely at Bonefied Amazement

On a serious note, I’d venture to say it has a bit to do with audiences actually examining their own mortality. Our older audiences, for some reason, seem particularly engrossed. They are eager to ask who these individuals were, and where in time their lives were situated. Our specimens were initially supplied by a company located in the charming old-world Bloomsbury, London, which specialised in models and skeletons for use in medical school lecture theaters. We didn’t know much about their persona lives, other than the fact that their remains had been dated to the High Middle Age (which began after AD 1000). There’s a certain fascination in facing the inevitability of it all — the fact that this is an individual who existed centuries ago, and that perhaps we all face a similar fate as history relegates us to our true position. Of course, this isn’t the case in forensic anthropology, which of course involves the recently-deceased.

Another aspect (also speculative) may be that this is the closest our audiences will come to analysing the “most valuable piece of evidence” or the body itself.  There are no dissection rooms open to the public – for good reason – and a gap therefore exists in their practical understanding of why the body is so significant in criminal investigations. Forensic anthropology usually follows an introductory workshop on death and decomposition when delivered as part of a masterclass; or at the very least, some indication of what normally precedes the “drying out” of the corpse.  Afterwards, our students are told they will have an opportunity to get up-close and personal with real skeletal remains, and examine them for clues that betray the gender, age and health of the individuals in question.  Out they come, then, the plastic containers with pieces of our collection laid neatly inside, surprisingly hardy and prepared for anything.

STEM, Public Engagement and Why We Do It

The aim of our lectures, workshops and other programmes is to encourage an interest in STEM, as well as to improve public understanding of what forensic science entails and what the discipline truly entails. Our organisation originally began as a Widening Participation initiative, and was designed to inspire children from socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds to embrace new career paths in the sciences.  Eventually, the responsibilities became too great for a University department to manage single-handedly, and Forensic Outreach spun off in its own direction – with links to UCL (and now the Jill Dando Institute of  Security and Crime Science) intact.  We’re fortunate to have the autonomy to continue developing our own innovative programmes without institutional limitations, but close ties to ensure that joint-activities are still possible.

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Careers and Classroom, read more about science education at Forensic Outreach.

Without waxing lyrical about CSI syndrome, there is also a legitimate concern that for the layman, forensic science is entirely informed by popular media: Bones, Dexter and even more unfortunately, CSI.  There’s therefore a focus on ensuring accurate information is disseminated – and where possible (especially in our online activities) we integrate the recommendations and suggestions of forensic scientists who watch us to improve our outreach.

Further Information:

If you’re interested in finding more about Forensic Outreach, please visit our website. We also run a Twitter feed (@forensicfix), where we provide a seemingly endless drip of forensic trivia. Considering booking an event with us? Write to hello@forensicoutreach.com.

Museum of London’s Online Database Archive for Bioarchaeology

16 Mar

As research will shortly commence on my chosen topic for the dissertation component of the MSc here at Sheffield, I realise I will need standards and comparisons to compare skeletal remains, and in particular the expressions of pathological disease processes.  Communications with my previous lecturer at the University of Hull has highlighted the collections based at the Museum of London, which have a broad range of skeletons from a range of historical time periods with all relevant data available online.

The Museum of London’s Centre for Bioarchaeology provides numerous on-line resources for its own London based skeletal collections alongside detailed and valuable comparative data sets for researchers.  Via a quick registration, and a read through of their human osteology method statement, the user can have access to cemetery records dating from the Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval skeletal collections from London, housed at the museum itself.  It is a veritable wealth of information including demographic, age and sex distributions in each of the cemeteries recorded and pathological/disease processes identified and photographed from the skeletal material.

Particularly useful for myself are the photographs depicting various pathologies on the the skeletal elements as they depict comparison points for individuals I hope to use in my own study.

As numerous known and unknown skeletal collections are gathering dust, hidden in museums or departments long forgotten, it’s important to remember that there are collections out there that are working hard to digitise their information and make it freely available to researchers.  In the future at some-point, I intend to make a little list of skeletal collections here in the UK.

A Poorly Reduced Fracture of Right Femur, Anterior View, From The Lower St Brides Cemetery, London, Dating From The 17th – 19th centuries. Site Code: FA090 Context: 1200 Frame Number: 1.

The above is a example of a pathology found in an individual, in this case the context of 1200, who was found in the Lower St Brides churchyard.  The Lower St Brides churchyard was founded because the original, linked to St Brides near Fleet Street, had became overcrowded during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is thought that the population buried at Lower St brides came from a low socio-economic background (Kausmally 2008).  A breakdown of the 544 individuals analysed (out of of an excavated 606) can be found here, alongside a breakdown of the demography of the population uncovered and the age and sex estimates.  Interestingly, around 4.2% of the individuals uncovered had evidence for surgical procedures including craniotomies, alongside blade marks on ribs and vertebrae, which is highly suggestive of autopsies carried out on the individuals (Kausmally 2008).

With the rise of the internet as a valuable tool in archaeology, both enabling widespread discussion and swapping of data sets and information, it is worth reminding ourselves of the inherent wealth of the nature of skeletal populations.  As long as they are recorded, photographed and stored properly, skeletal populations can reach vast audiences by being digitized.  Valuable comparisons can be made in and between collections, and as Kausmally (2008) states that collections, such as the Lower St Brides, are crying out to be analysed in detail with other similar populations.

Online Sources:

Kausmally, T. 2008. Farringdon: St Brides Lower Churchyard.

Museum of London Centre for Bioarchaeology & Database