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Upcoming Conference: Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology 17th-19 October 2014

3 Aug

Somehow this conference nearly slipped me by.  Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, are hosting an upcoming international workshop and conference entitled Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology on the 17th to the 19th of October 2014.  Registration is now open, but please note that this closes the 30th of September.  The workshop, to held on Friday the 17th of October, includes a taught and practical session and will focus on the growing use of the archaeothanatology methodology in osteoarchaeology and forensic anthropology (further information here).

Essentially archaeothanatology is the studying of human remains in situ, which combines the use of the knowledge of human anatomy, the recording of the burial context and an understanding of taphonomic processes to recognise what processes the body has undergone from burial to excavation.  The workshop will be led by Dr Stéphane Rottier and Professor Chris Knüsel from the University of Bordeaux.  Booking early for the opportunity is a must however as there are only 40 places for the workshop.

The conference has 8 sessions spread over 2 days covering a wide variety of topics in human osteoarchaeology.  The sessions titles are:

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland: Kick-starting the conference on the Saturday is this session focusing on the study of human osteoarchaeology in Ireland.  This session will focus on health and disease in the medieval population, the archaeology of childhood in the medieval period, and workhouse conditions post-medieval Ireland.

Grave Concerns: This session will discuss funerary archaeology and the deposition of human remains with examples from around the world, including leprosy mass graves in Copper Age Hungry, the use of storage pits in Iron Age France, and medieval post-burial funerary practices in England courtesy of Jennifer Crangle (see Rothwell post below).

Death and Identity: This session will focus on the use of stable isotopes in archaeology and their ability in helping to understand geographic and dietary signatures in human and animal populations, amongst other uses.  This session covers both prehistoric and historic contexts.

Tales from the Grave: This session will detail case studies making explicit use of the archaeothanatology methodology.  The Neolithic shell mounds and island archaeology, body manipulation in Ancient Egypt in the Early Dynastic and Predynastic periods, and coffin burials from the Anglo-Saxon period in England will be topics discussed in this session.

Life before Death: Kick-starting the Sunday will be this session on reconstructing past social structures, populations and traumas.  Another wide-ranging session, with talks on the Roman York population courtesy of Dr Lauren McIntyre mixing with a talk on understanding cranial trauma in medieval Ireland.

In Sickness and in Health: Perhaps not surprisingly health, trauma and palaeopathology will be discussed in this session, which will have a particular focus on the population of medieval Ireland.

Open Session: The open part of the conference will focus on new techniques in human osteoarchaeology, including multivariate analysis of the hip, bone histology from a medieval collection, and an experimental examination of cranial trauma caused by archaic artillery.  One not to miss!

The Remains of the Day: The final session will focus on ethical issues, legislation and reburial of human remains in the context of working in the archaeological sector.

The conference cost varies depending on which day you would like to attend, with the conference days costing £20 each and the workshop priced at £25, with discount rates are available at £20 and £15 (a conference dinner is also available for a price).  Alternatively you can pay in one go for the whole event at £60 (includes dinner) and £50 for discounted tickets.  The wide range of research topics on display at this Day of the Dead conference make it one not to miss, so check it out.

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What Not To Do In A Morgue: A Lesson For The Archaeologist?

4 Feb

The fantastic Chirurgeon’s  Apprentice Facebook page has highlighted this rather dark but entertaining article by Simon Winchester on his experience of working in a morgue for a summer in the early 1960’s.  In it Simon explains the many lessons he learned when dealing first hand with cadavers of the recently dead, but he also highlights one big mistake he made with a particular gentleman.

Winchester explains:

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled into the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery, and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through Mr. Utton’s desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. It offered me a single line of advice on leukemia: “Remove femur,” it said, “and send it for examination by the laboratory.” (Winchester 2014).

Duly having removed one of the gentleman’s femora for testing and then prepared and dressed the cadaver, Winchester waited for the undertaker to come and take the man away.  However the undertaker was not impressed by the rather floppy state of one of the man’s thighs and told Winchester to put something inside it to stabilize it whilst he went away for dinner.  Unfortunately Winchester chose a zinc metal rod to replace the removed femur, unaware that the individual in question was due to be cremated, not buried, the next day.

Morgue1

A familiar scene from morgues across the land. Tags were often kept on the toes of bodies to identify them and highlight any pathology in the body (Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS, from here).

Fortunately a good dose of black humour from the family saved any law suits appearing, but the article did make me think about the implications for this in archaeological record.  For example for a person to practice a trade they must first learn and train, often undergoing an apprenticeship under a master or a tradesman.  Mistakes are bound to made in any field of trade, particularly where high technical skill is needed to carry out a procedure.  I wonder if sometimes, especially in the field of prehistoric mortuary archaeology, some things are held up as examples of ritual activities where there has perhaps been a simple mistake that has been covered up or not uncovered, or a result of the taphonomy processes at play.

It also reminded me of a particularly fine biography by Joel F. Harrington of a 16th century Nuremberg executioner that I read late last year.  Meister Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a remarkable man, known principally as a highly skilled executioner who attained a particularly high rank in the famous city.  Contrary to his official position Schmidt also became a well-respected healer in his later life.  He carried out his job, indeed his life, with the up-most respect for the sanctity of the position that his father passed down to him, even though he was largely excluded from society because of his job during the majority of his life.  Amazingly the intimate details (names, crimes and last moments) of the many individuals that he dispatched, and the execution methods that were used, were all kept in a personally sparse diary that Schmidt himself wrote.

Schmidt executing

The only reliable picture of Franz Schmidt in action, seen here executing Hans Froschel on the 18th of May in 1591. A brutal but quick death by the sword, a method that required a quick and a steady arm stroke to dispatch the victim. It could easily go wrong if the stroke was not powerful enough to slice and separate the head from the body. (Image credit: Staatsarchiv Nürnberg here).

Harrington makes the point that the young executioner, during the process of learning his trade from his father, likely used butchered animals and stray dogs to practice the various execution methods that were used during this period.  Whilst the book is full of grisly details (being broken on the wheel must have been hell for one), Harrington (2013) puts Schmidt, his life and work, into a broader German and European political framework that effectively illuminates the value that the executioner played in the keeping of law and order in the 16th century.

Being an executioner also often took a physical and mental strain as it was a demanding office to hold, having to both torture and execute criminals but also having to take part in the often elaborate processions of walking the criminal (Harrington 2013).  Further to this there was always the constant reminder that executioners who were accused of a botched torture session or execution could find themselves being penalized or outcast, or even executed, much like the doctors of the day who were accused of failing a patient (Harrington 2013).  I also recommend Winder’s (2011) informal free for all journey around Germany, which also wonderfully places the country in a historical context and is well worth a read alone for some pretty interesting historical hangouts.

Further Information

  • The article, by Simon Winchester, can be found here.
  • An extract of Meister Franz Schmidt’s diary and of a talk by Harrington can be read here.
  • Head to medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s enthralling site The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice to learn all about surgery in the early modern period.
  • For all your mortuary archaeology needs head to Bones Don’t Lie, a regularly updated blog by Katy Meyers who is a PhD candidate in mortuary anthropology at Michigan State University.

Bibliography

Harrington, J. F. 2013. The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent 16th Century. London: Picador.

Winder, S. 2011. Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. London: Picador.