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Spotted: Early Career Human Osteologist Job(s) in London

9 Aug

The core source of commercial archaeological jobs in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is BAJR, the British Archaeological Jobs & Resources website.  It is the golden door to finding a foot or a rung up the greasy ladder of employment (barring knowing folks!).  Ran by David Connolly, BAJR tirelessly fights for fair wages and good working conditions on top of this.  I highly recommend joining the Facebook group for entertaining talk and top advice.  But that isn’t what caught my attention earlier today, it was this:

The badge of the advert as seen on BAJR on 09/08/2018. Image credit: BAJR.

Seeing a Human Osteologist role advertised on BAJR can be quite rare indeed as these job roles are often only available within larger commercial units who have the facilities and expertise to analyse human skeletal remains from archaeological sites, or are contracted out to sole traders or university specialists.

So the opportunity to work in central London on a major urban infrastructure project with the excavation and analysis of some of the country’s largest cemeteries looks like a once in a career chance.  Even better, they want early career human osteologists!  The job itself is contracted to run until the end of March 2019 and the lucky employees will be contracted to either MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) or Headland Archaeology to work on the jointly ran project.

Please note the specific details, as quoted verbatim from the advert:

Working closely with a team of highly experienced archaeologists and human osteologists you will contribute to and develop understanding of the past through the excavation, identification, processing (washing and packaging) and recording of human skeletal remains.

Successful candidates will have a degree in Archaeology or a related subject and post-graduate qualification in Osteology or a related subject. Candidates with a demonstrable background in Osteology will also be considered. Proven ability in the identification of human remains and pathological bone conditions and knowledge of current legislation and guidelines are essential.

A good general knowledge of British archaeology and commercial archaeology, particularly in the excavation of post-medieval burial grounds would be an advantage.

Having looked through the application form I also noted that there would be an opportunity to pursue your own research interests – an invaluable opportunity for early career human osteologists with access to such a large collection of human skeletal remains.

The Deadline is Monday 20th August 2018 for applications, good luck to everyone applying!

If any other employment opportunities arise on BAJR specifically for human osteological or bioarchaeological positions I shall try to endeavor to mention them on These Bones of Mine.  Please do be aware that the jobs advertised from this site are generally for the United Kingdom and restrictions may apply for potential applicants from abroad.  As such I would advise would-be applicants to carefully consider the job and role specifications, alongside the essential and desired criteria, as outlined by each company individually.

Further Information

  • The job application and specification details can be viewed and downloaded from the BAJR website here.
  • The indefatigable David Connolly has previously and kindly produced an eye-opening and inspiring series of guest blog posts on These Bones of Mine detailing the rise of BAJR.  Check the entries out here.
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Casting A Wider Net: An Example of Care in a Prehistoric Context

27 Jul

Due to a number of factors I haven’t updated this blog for a while now, but that doesn’t mean that I am completely inactive.  A number of posts are upcoming, however they just may take a while to be published due to a number of other issues that mean this site takes a back seat (I have been blogging elsewhere though).  I do still keep an eye out on other osteologically and bioarchaeologically focused blogs (such as the fantastic triplet of sites that includes Bone Broke, Bodies and Academia and Powered By Osteons).  Occasionally I also scan the relevant journals for updates and news, printing articles of interest (and praying that they are open access when I click them!).

Today two such articles caught my eye on the always reliably diverse and interesting International Journal of Palaeopathology website.

The first, by Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer, discusses the possible differential diagnoses of a juvenile female whose skeletal remains display ‘pervasive bone wasting and fragile jaws’ (2018: 1).  The individual, known as Burial 2, was aged 16 years at death and located within a Late Archaic cultural context dating to roughly 3000 BP (Before Present). This cultural context at the Hind Site in Middlesex County, Ontario (Canada), represented a highly mobile society who practiced a seasonal and migratory foraging and hunting lifestyle.  Through careful anatomical study of the skeletal elements, including the patterns of bone wastage and growth, along with a thorough differential diagnoses investigation, the researchers conclude that the individual known as Burial 2 likely had Osteogenesis Imperfecta (type IV), a very variable type of the disease which predominately affects the skeletal system due to a lack of type I collagen in connective tissues.

Photograph taken from the original 1968 Late Archaic excavation in Middlesex County, Ontario. The site dates to roughly 3000 BP. Burial 2 (right) is a juvenile individual (aged at 16 years old at time of death), who has been sexed as a female, located next to the adult female Burial 3 (left) within the same grave. Both were in a flexed body position and facing each other. Image credit: Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer 2018: 3.

What really intrigued me about Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer’s study was the model of care discussion (2018: 6-7) which though exceptionally brief indicated the sociocultural background of modern individuals who live with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) in its many forms:

A medical anthropological study that interviewed people of diverse socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds who have OI describes such individuals as small (22-45kg), and having a particular behavioral phenotype of ‘resilience’.  This phenotype is characterized as being bright, accomplished and often adventurous (Ablon 2003). (Emphasis mine).

It is good to see this being highlighted within the (impressive) osteological analysis of the human remains, of the 16-year-old female now identified through the modern moniker of ‘Burial 2’.  This was an individual who likely needed care and assistance in daily ambulation, along with the preparation of a soft food diet, transportation, hygiene, and various activities regarding upper limb strength (Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer 2018: 7).  Whilst reading through the paper I thought that the individual would make an interesting Bioarchaeology of Care case study, particularly so as the archaeological context is well documented and a number of other individuals representative of Burial’s 2 immediate temporal population are available for comparative analysis.

On a personal level this also reminded me of what a former orthopaedic consultant had mentioned to me previously regarding the hardiness of children after extensive skeletal trauma and surgical interventions, the fact that juveniles are far more resilient than is often expected of them by adults.

The second article by Gresky et al. (2018: 90) focused on a palaeopathological case study of a male aged 22-25 years at death, skeletally complete and excavated from a mound at the burial ground of Budyonnovsk 10 in the Stavropol region of southern Russia. The site itself dates from the Middle Bronze Age to some partial use of the mounds up until the late Middle Ages, however the archaeological context of Burial 14 dates to the Late Catacomb Culture, approximately 2500-3000 BCE (Before Common Era).

The Catacomb burial of Burial 14 at Budyonnovsk 10 in Burial mound 7. The individual is buried in a crouched position, head orientated south. Image credit: Gresky et al. 2018: 92.

A discreet dysplastic lesion was discovered in the mandible of Burial 14, with the involvement of the right lower canine alveolus.  This was examined via macroscopic analysis, digital microscopy, plain and contrasting radiology, and by thin slicing sections of the mandible itself.  Again a thorough differential diagnoses analysis was carried out and helped rule out Fibrous Dysplasia (monostotic) and Ossifying Fibroma as likely culprits, as Osseous Dysplasia (periapical) suited the physical and microscopic presentation of the lesion.  The important point from this study is that researchers should be aware of the frequent presence of fibro-osseous lesions within archaeological material (Gresky 2018: 97).

The above study initially caught my attention as I have Fibrous Dysplasia (polyostotic), as a part of the rarer McCune Albright Syndrome, and I was keen to see if the osteological literature had identified another individual with Fibrous Dysplasia.  Although this was not the case, it was a particularly interesting read to help differentiate osseous lesions found in skeletal elements within archaeological contexts.

Bibliography

Ablon, J. 2003. Personality and Stereotype in Osteogenesis Imperfecta: Behavioral Phenotype or Response to Life’s Hard Challenges?. American Journal of Medical Genetics. 122A (3): 201-214.

Gresky, J., Kalmykov, A. & Berezina, N. 2018. Benign Fibro-Osseous Lesion of the Mandible in a Middle Bronze Age Skeleton from Southern Russia. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 20: 90-97. (Open Access).

Vairamuthu, T. & Pfeiffer, S. 2018. A Juvenile with Compromised Osteogenesis Provides Insights into Past Hunter-Gather Lives. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 20: 1-9. (Open Access).

Updated II: Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses in the United Kingdom

27 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

Other Sources & Prospective Student Advice

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

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

skull-saxon

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

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

MA/MSc Degrees in England

Bournemouth University:

University of Bradford:

University of Cambridge:

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

Cranfield University:

University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN):

University College London:

University of Durham:

University of Exeter:

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

Universities of Hull and York Medical School:

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

University of Liverpool:

Liverpool John Moores University:

University of Manchester:

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

University of Oxford:

University of Sheffield:

University of Southampton:

University of Winchester:

University of York:

MA/MSc Degrees in Scotland

University of Aberdeen

University of Dundee:

University of Edinburgh:

MA/MSc Degrees in Wales

Wrexham Glyndwy University*:

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

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

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

Short Courses in England

Cranfield University:

University of Bradford:

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

University of Sheffield:

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

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

A Few Pieces of Advice

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

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

British Undergraduate/Postgraduate Opportunity: Erasmus+ Grant Funded Placement to Alba Iulia, Romania, March-April 2018

2 Feb

As long-term readers of this site will know I had the great pleasure of attending a Leonardo Da Vinci European Union funded archaeology placement in Magdeburg, Germany, via Grampus Heritage, in 2011 for 6 glorious weeks.  If you’re interested in reading what I got up to over there please read my review here.  I now have the pleasure of highlighting a placement, courtesy of Joanne Stamper of Grampus Heritage, under the Erasmus+ banner (a successor of the Leonardo Da Vinci programme) that still has a small number of places for spring 2018.

This is the chance to join a fantastic placement in Romania, aimed at recruiting undergraduates and postgraduates in the United Kingdom and introducing them to a fascinating cultural exchange and introduction to Romanian Neolithic archaeology.  The exciting placement involves archaeological excavation of a Central European Neolithic site, human osteological analysis, and finds processing of the excavated material.  Read on to find out more and how to apply if you are eligible . . .

Student Erasmus + Grant Funded Placements Available for Alba Iulia, Romania

Date:  1st March – 29th April 2018.

Funding:  The grant will cover accommodation, so participants would need to get their own flights and budget for food (£50-70 per week depending on meals out) as well as the usual money for presents, toiletries, etc.  Participants also need to make sure they have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).

Placement Information:  The placement is hosted by Satul Verde with Universitatea „1 Decembrie 1918” in Alba Iulia.  The group will be assisting the team in analysing the human remains and pottery from the Neolithic excavation that has been run by the university for the past several years.

A snapshot of the work undertaken during the Romanian archaeology placement from previous years. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

The most intensive habitation period appears to have been around 4600-4500calBC when the Foeni group used the site, a group attributed to the funerary complex that has been the focus of the most recent excavations.  So far, the discovery of around 120 dis-articulated individuals mainly represented by skull caps has been very interesting as there are traces of burning on the caps, with no facial bones noted as being present.  This appears to indicate one of the unusual mortuary practices of the Lumea Noua community.  The demographic details of the site indicate that both adults and non-adults are represented, with male and female individuals present in the adult population.

It has been suggested that the human remains were not interred during an epidemic; moreover, collective death as a result of violence is unlikely since there at no traces of interpersonal violence, such as wounds inflicted by arrows or lithic weapons.  In addition, no arrow tips or axes have been found in connection with the human bone material.  One possible explanation of this funerary practice is that Alba Iulia was a ceremonial centre where Neolithic communities practiced organised burial rituals, including special treatment of human cranial remains.  Pottery has been found associated with the bone remains, of very good quality, made with clay with no impurities.  A large quantity of well burnished black topped fired vessels have been found at the site.  Pottery that has had painted decoration applied before being fired without any slip are also typical of this site.

A range of the tasks undertaken during the Romanian placement, including human skeletal excavation and analysis in the laboratory. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

The group will also be assisting in a rescue excavation, site details of which will be discussed with the group when the dates are confirmed during the placement.

Application:

Potential student applicants are advised to send in their application form as soon as possible via the Grampus Heritage website, where the form can be downloaded.  Please make note of the eligibility and conditions attached to each of the placements, including the above Romanian placement.  To contact Grampus Heritage regarding the above placement please email enquiries AT grampusheritage.co.uk or telephone on 01697 321 516.

Further Information

  • Read more about Grampus Heritage and the European Union funded Erasmus+ placements here.
  • Read my own reflection on the 6 week German archaeology placement in Magdeburg here, courtesy of Grampus Heritage and the European Union in 2011.
  • Read a guest post by Joanne Wilkinson, from 2012, on the joys of attending and taking part in a cultural heritage scheme as promoted by the Leonardo Da Vinci and Erasmus+ schemes here.
  • Try your luck guessing which anatomical landmarks I’ve highlighted on a bone from my Magdeburg placement in my human osteology quiz here.

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

3 Jan

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

The book offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1985 volume The Unwomanly Face of War (У войны не женское лицо), recently translated into English and republished, which uncovers the role of USSR females in the Second World War and the subsequent silence of their contributions, alongside 1997’s Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва),  a volume which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  That book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) was due to be published in 2017; the volume looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless, there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field.  It is one I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends describing their experiences of encountering human skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and how it inspires them – into careers, into dreams, into labours of love and worry.

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


The author’s monologue

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

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

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

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

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


The illusion of mortality and the fickle nature of finality

Gabriela H.  Late twenties.  Post-doctoral researcher.

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

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

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


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

Abigail L.  Mid-twenties.  PhD candidate.

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

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

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

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

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


The search for identity in a modern context

Richard Smith.  Late forties.  Recovering field archaeologist.

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

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

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

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


The author rejoins

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Polska Antropologia Fizyczna on FB

16 Nov

If you are anything like me, you will have a large pile a books by your bedside either waiting to be read or already partially digested.  And sometimes this dirty habit of reading too much will catch up with you.  At the moment I’ve somehow managed to buy, borrow or otherwise lend a mountain of books that will last me through a cold and dark winter.  I’m not particularly sure why I thought starting five (non-academic) books at once was a good idea!  I’ve recently added one more in the form of Knüsel & Smith’s excellent 2014 The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict, a volume I’ve long wanted to read but is frankly too expensive to buy.

A stellar volume of bioarchaeological research for the low, low price of £175.00 in hardback or £142.20 for an ebook version. Image courtesy of Routledge.

Where did I find this fine volume, I hear you ask? Whilst browsing the awesome Polska Antropologia Fizyczna (PAF) Facebook group (don’t tell the publishers though!).  PAF is a group set up by Oskar Nowak, who is an assistant professor at the Institute of Anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, dedicated to sharing anthropological research online and to fostering an active research community.  I love browsing this FB group as there are always links to open access articles on a wide variety of research topics, including bioarchaeology and related disciplines (osteoarchaeology, palaeopathology, etc.).  Like a number of FB groups, such as BAJR – UK Archaeology, Palaeopathology and Council for British Archaeology, the PAF are a pretty active community, so it is worth checking out.

But for now, if you need me, I’ll be buried under a pile of books on Scandinavian, Soviet and post-Soviet literature and history!

Bibliography

Knüsel, C.& Smith, M. J. (eds.) 2014. The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict. Oxon: Routledge.

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

30 Oct

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Best Practice Bioarchaeology Blogging

8 Sep

In something of a cannibalized post, and one that I have been meaning to write for a while now, I discuss here some general ideas that may be useful for bioarchaeology bloggers when writing and presenting blog entries for both the general public and the interested researcher.  Primarily the focus is on the Bioarchaeology of Care theory and methodology, one which considers the archaeological and osteological evidence for caregiving in prehistory on a case study basis (Tilley 2014, 2015i).  However, there may also be some use for the general bioarchaeological and osteological blogger.  The first part of this post (the context) is taken from one of my previous posts on the publication here.  The second part is taken directly from my own chapter.  Enjoy!

Bioarchaeology of Care Context

The volume is titled New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory (£82.00 hardback or £64.99 ebook) and it is edited by Lorna Tilley and Alecia A. Shrenk.  The volume presents new research regarding the bioarchaeological evidence for care-provision in the archaeological record.  Using the associated Index of Care online tool, bioarchaeological researchers can utilize the four-stage case study approach to analyze and evaluate the evidence for care-provision for individuals in the archaeological record who display severe physical impairment likely to result in a life-limiting disability, or to result in a sustained debilitating condition which limits involvement in normal, everyday activities.

The four main step of the index of Care tool used to evaluate the archaeological and osteological evidence for caregiving and receiving. Click to enlarge. Image credit: Index of Care site.

In short, my chapter investigates the public reception and engagement of the bioarchaeology of care theory and methodology as proposed by Lorna Tilley in a slew of recent publications (see bibliography below).  As an inherent part of this the chapter discusses the ethical dimensions within the approach used for analyzing physically impaired individuals in the archaeological record, and the potential evidence of care-provision as seen on the osteological remains of the individual and contextual archaeological information.  Proceeding this is a walk-through of traditional and digital media formats, presented to provide a contextual background for the communication of the theory and methodology which is subsequently followed by two bioarchaeology of care case studies, Man Bac 9 from Neolithic Vietnam and Romito 2 from Upper Palaeolithic Italy, which help to summarize the public perception and importance of the research conducted to date within this new area of investigation and analysis.  In the conclusion best practice advice is provided for researchers conducting education outreach with regards to publicizing the bioarchaeology of care research and its results via both traditional and digital media formats.

Best Practice Bioarchaeology Tips

The following work has been quoted from the section of my chapter discussing and promoting possible best practice for bioarchaeology bloggers:

‘It is evident that the skeletal remains of historic and prehistoric populations and individuals remain a potent symbol of a tangible link to humanity’s ancestors and of mortality more generally. Caregiving, and the evidence for compassion, is a subject that is close to the heart of humanity – one only needs to realise that rarely are any individuals untouched by immediate family members needing caregiving, be it social, daily and/or medical care; it is a topic which is inherently easy to relate to. As such it is recommended that researchers integrate the archaeological and bioarchaeological evidence between the prehistoric and historical worlds to the present. No discipline is better placed, or more uniquely positioned to do this, than bioarchaeology . . .

The 2016 Springer publication edited by Tilley & Shrenk. Image credit: Springer.

. . . Yet what are the suggestions for aspiring bioarchaeology bloggers, microbloggers, communicators and outreach workers with regards to best practice in public engagement and communication? How do we, as practitioners of bioarchaeological research, integrate good communication practices within the discipline?

These are challenging questions for a new and developing digital medium, one that is constantly changing and updating. Both Bertram and Katti (2013) and Meyers Emery and Killgrove (2015) indicate a number of gaps in the current social media representation of bioarchaeology, as well as suggesting a number of approaches that would develop best practices across the social media range. Some of their suggestions are particularly relevant in terms of how, and why, we should consider public engagement (using all media mediums) as a relevant, ethical and productive factor in bioarchaeological research, and these are discussed as follows.

Making Yourself, and Others, Visible

Bioarchaeologists are a tough breed to find online, due to the conflicting terminology used within bioarchaeology and related disciplines. Make your professional online presence visible by clearly defining the focus of your work and by indicating your interests in a clear and informed manner for visitors (Meyers Emery & Killgrove, 2015). It is also recommended that researchers citing digital and social media sites in academic articles, or on other social media applications, should properly reference the authors, title of post, address, and indicate the date accessed, as routine.

Exploit a Variety of Approaches

Vary the approach taken. Videos, for example, are particularly rare phenomena in bioarchaeological outreach, but have the potential to reach a vast audience – much more so than an academic article. It is well-known that serialisations (such as Kristina Killgrove’s Bones reviews or this author’s Skeletal Series posts) keep the reader interested, whilst providing structured content. Joint posts, interviews, guest posts and video entries can also help reach different and varied audiences online and in-print (Bertram & Katti, 2013).

Provide Information on Latest Research and New Techniques

Bioarchaeology uses a range of different techniques, and new methodologies and approaches are also developed every year to investigate the archaeological record. The use of these techniques and methodologies can, and should, be discussed and contextualised in terms of, or in relation to, their use and limitations within the discipline. The majority of bioarchaeological research is published in journals in which the article itself is locked online behind a subscription block, a so-called pay wall, thus preventing interested but non-academic based readers the opportunity to learn about the detail of the latest innovations. Blogs, such as Bones Don’t Lie by Katy Meyers Emery for example, offer the reader concise summaries of the latest published articles in a timely and free-to-access manner. Edited volumes such as this are out of the reach of the casual reader who lacks access to a specialist research or university-based library.

Three of the best bioarchaeology bloggers. Katy Meyer Emery’s Bones Don’t Lie, Kristina Killgrove’s Powered By Osteons, and Jess Beck’s Bone Broke. Image credit: respective sites as linked.

Try Bi, or Even Trilingual, Entries

The majority of online bioarchaeology social media content is in English. Using a second language (Spanish, Mandarin, Persian or French, for example) alongside an English translation would enable readers from different areas of the globe to gain access to the content. This could be achieved through transnational projects and international academic partnerships; for example, sponsored online content or conference workshops, spanning both national and language borders, might investigate ethics ‘case studies’ or develop ways of promoting research best practice. Benefits would include greater exposure of research to a wider audience, achieving an increased understanding of the importance of this research, alongside the building of ethical frameworks across cultural divides. It could also lead to a more integrated approach to the physical and cultural analysis of osteological material.

Discuss Your Pedagogy and the Dangers of Digital Media

The methods by which anthropology, archaeology and bioarchaeology are taught are rarely discussed on social media sites. A pedagogical approach, such as an introduction to the elements of the human skeleton and the importance of their study, would enable the public and researchers to understand how, and why, the topics are taught in a particular manner, and the expected outcomes of this. For instance, an introduction to the terminology used in osteology designed for the lay public can help to break down the ‘ivory tower’ view of academia (Buckberry, Ogden, Shearman, & McCleery, 2015). Furthermore, there should be open lectures and discussion at university level alongside engagement on the pros and cons of digital and social media use, including understanding the impacts and dangers of online sexism and trolling (Armstrong & McAdams, 2010). The ethics of public communication should be considered – what are the support frameworks for the digital advocacy of bioarchaeology online?

Define Disability and Highlight Differential Diagnoses

With reference to the bioarchaeology of care methodology, discussion must be focused on the available archaeological and osteological evidence and, where the material evidence is available, the cultural context for the understanding of what a disability would entail (Battles, 2011; Doat, 2013; Spikins, Rutherford, & Needham, 2010). Due to inherent limitations in osteological evidence, a specific disease diagnosis cannot always be determined (Brothwell, 2010). Therefore in bioarchaeology of care analysis differential diagnoses must be included when examining possible disease impacts on function and the need for caregiving. Each candidate diagnosis should be considered, as these may have different effects in different cultural, geographic and economic environments.

Factor Public, Social and Digital Media Engagement into Bioarchaeological Projects

Blogging, microblogging and engaging with newspaper reporters and television producers take time and effort. Factor this into the initial research as a plan of engagement from the beginning. Identify key communication aims and develop strategies for how to achieve these aims over the course of the research project. Do not be afraid to contact bioarchaeology bloggers or other social media users with details of the project that the research team wishes to make public at a given time (this will depend on client or other stakeholder agreement and timing for release of the research via academic journals and conference presentations). Engage with users and produce content that is in line with both professional and personal ethical standards, state possible conflicts of interest if necessary, and, when discussing original research, indicate the funding bodies that have supported the work.

Meyers Emery and Killgrove (2015) indicate a number of best practice suggestions that are pertinent to repeat here. They are: to write for an educated public, to write or produce content regularly, be sensitive to your own bias and the biases of others, and to repudiate the hysteria and hype of the media in a clear, productive and informative approach. There is a responsibility on a part of all bioarchaeologists who partake in public engagement to educate and inform on the standard approaches practiced in bioarchaeology and the ethical considerations that inform this, particularly to counter sensationalism and ethical misconduct. The above are all important aspects that each bioarchaeologist should use in their approach in disseminating and discussing bioarchaeological content and approaches to public audiences.’ (The above is taken from Mennear 2016: 356-359).

So there you go, a few general tips on bioarchaeology blogging best practices.

Funny-Coffee-Meme-27

This chapter would not have been possible without last-minute editing, endless nights and bottomless coffees. All mistakes are, of course, my own. Image credit: imgur.

Further Information

  • The online non-prescriptive tool entitled the Index of Care, produced by Tony Cameron and Lorna Tilley, can be found at its own dedicated website.  The four stage walk-through is designed to prompt the user to document and contextualize the appropriate archaeological and bioarchaeological data and evidence in producing the construction of a ‘bioarchaeology of care’ model.
  • Kristina Killgrove has, in her Forbes bioarchaeology reportage, recently discussed one of the chapter case studies of a Polish Medieval female individual whose remains indicate that she had gigantism, or acromegaly.  Check out the post here.
  • My 2013 These Bones of Mine interview with Lorna Tilley, of the Australian National University, can be found here.  The interview discusses the origin of the bioarchaeology of care and the accompanying Index of Care tool and the surrounding issues regarding the identification of care-provision in the archaeological record.  Previous Bioarchaeology of Care focused posts can be found here.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Armstrong, C. L., & McAdams, M. J. 2010. Believing Blogs: Does a Blogger’s Gender Influence Credibility? In: R. Lind, ed. Race/Gender/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audience, Content and Producers. Boston: Pearson. 30–38.

Battles, H. T. 2011. Toward Engagement: Exploring the Prospects for an Integrated Anthropology of Disability. Explorations in Anthropology. 11 (1): 107–124. (Open Access).

Bertram, S. M., & Katti, M. 2013. The Social Biology Professor: Effective Strategies for Social Media Engagement. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution6: 22–31. (Open Access).

Brothwell, D. 2010. On Problems of Differential Diagnosis in Palaeopathology, as Illustrated by a Case from Prehistoric Indiana. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 20: 621–622.

Buckberry, J., Ogden, A., Shearman, V., & McCleery, I. 2015. You Are What You Ate: Using Bioarchaeology to Promote Healthy Eating. In K. Gerdau-Radonić & K. McSweeney, eds. Trends in Biological Anthropology. Proceedings of the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology. 1. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 100–111.

Doat, D. 2013. Evolution and Human Uniqueness: Prehistory, Disability, and the Unexpected Anthropology of Charles Darwin. In: D. Bolt, ed. Changing Social Attitudes Towards the Disabled. London: Routledge. 15–25.

Killgrove, K. 2016. Skeleton Of Medieval Giantess Unearthed From Polish Cemetery. Forbes. Published online 19th October 2016. Available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/10/19/skeleton-of-medieval-giantess-unearthed-from-polish-cemetery/#476236b6413b. [Accessed 28th October 2016]. (Open Access).

Mennear, D. J. 2016. Highlighting the Importance of the Past: Public Engagement and Bioarchaeology of Care Research. In: L. Tilley & A. A. Shrenk, eds. New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory. Zurich: Springer International Publishing. 343-364. (Open Access).

Meyers Emery, K., & Killgrove, K. 2015. Bones, Bodies, and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology. Internet Archaeology. 39. doi:10.11141/ia.39.5. (Open Access).

Spikins, P. A., Rutherford, H. E., & Needham, A. P. 2010. From Hominity to Humanity: Compassion from the Earliest Archaics to Modern Humans. Time and Mind(3): 303–325. (Open Access).

Tilley, L. & Oxenham, M. F. 2011. Survival Against the Odds: Modelling the Social Implications of Care Provision to the Seriously Disabled. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 1 (1): 35-42.

Tilley, L. & Cameron, T. 2014. Introducing the Index of Care: A Web-Based Application Supporting Archaeological Research into Health-Related Care. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 6: 5-9.

Tilley, L. 2015i. Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Zurich: Springer International Publishing.

Tilley, L. 2015ii. Accommodating Difference in the Prehistoric Past: Revisiting the Case of Romito 2 from a Bioarchaeology of Care PerspectiveInternational Journal of Palaeopathology. 8: 64-74.

Tilley, L. & Shrenk, A. A., eds. 2016. New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory. Zurich: Springer International Publishing.

Reflection During a Day of Skeletal Processing

8 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Learning

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

These Bones of Mine Round-Up Post for 2016

4 Jan

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

Site Statistics: Meaningful or Merely Visiting?

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

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

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

So, are statistics useful?

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

A Few of My Favourite Posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…And Finally

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