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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.

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

27 Feb

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further topics we discussed included the aims of our society:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

Interview with Natalie Marr & David Ashley Pearson: Introducing the Short Film ‘Visitor’

21 Jun

Natalie Marr is an artist who works across video, sound and performance, and draws inspiration from science fiction, landscapes and different experiences of time.  She is currently completing a Masters in Filmmaking and Media Arts at the University of Glasgow.  After the release of ‘Visitor’ Natalie will be taking up a research position at the University of Glasgow in a multidisciplinary project to study the impact of the Galloway Forest Park, Scotland.  For current and previous multi-media projects please check out her website here, ‘Visitor’ will be released in Autumn.

David Ashley Pearson is a multimedia artist who focuses primarily on sound design.  He is particularly interested in exploring improvisation, acoustics and the physicality of sound.  His approach to sound is ever-changing but is underpinned by a curiosity for its substance and a passion for musical exploration.  His blog entitled Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, games and music, can be found here.


These Bones of Mine:  Hello Natalie, thank you for joining These Bones of Mine! In something of a first for this blog our main topic of discussion will be a short experimental film of which you are currently in the process of producing.  Visitor, your upcoming film focuses on people who stargaze and the entwined personal stories of the night sky.  It promises to be something special; however speaking as an archaeologist interested in the lives of others, I’m keen as to what led you onto the path of film making?

Natalie Marr:  Thank you for inviting me! I feel like film has always been there in my life as something that I just love, it is a form that transfixes me, surprises me, soothes me, challenges me.  One of my greatest pleasures is to go to the cinema alone and just sit in the dark with a great film!

I have a background in the arts and I would still struggle to call myself a filmmaker – it doesn’t even matter really – but I suppose what I’m getting at, is that film is just one form that I am drawn to working with, and the qualities of film that I particularly love are the immediacy of it, the way it moves me on a physical, emotional and sometimes spiritual level, and also the way it plays with my experience of time.  These are qualities that I also try to explore in sound and performance.  I am also interested in the experience of seeing a film, sitting in the dark, the way you give yourself to a film for a period of time.  But that’s obviously a very purist way of looking at it!

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A detail from ‘Visitor’. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

Visitor is very different to any films I have made before…  It has been a very social process. In the past I have tended to shoot abandoned buildings, landscapes, environments that I freely walk around and capture and onto which I project my own story. There is landscape (or skyscape!) in ‘Visitor’ too, but because of this social process of interviews, spending time with people under the stars, as well as the autobiographical aspect, my approach to filming environments has changed too: it is not something I just project onto, it is another element that I am interacting with and learning from.

TBOM:  The interaction of the social process, within the creative production of a piece of art, is an idea that grabs me.  It is much the same in archaeology where archaeologists are never quite just the bystander to the material remains of the past – they act as both the interpreter of the architectural features and artefacts uncovered, but also as a gatekeeper to unlocking the potential knowledge of the remains and disseminating it to a wider audience. We even, acting in an environmental context, landscape the past through the examination of archaeobotanical remains and populate it with species through zooarchaeological analysis.  

In this context the personal voices of the past are largely silenced by time, but I’m left wondering how have you found the effort of capturing the social process?  Have you felt a greater duty to represent those who you film, as oppose to the silent landscapes and skyscapes of your earlier short films and photographs, or is this a false distinction?

Natalie:  Yes! The process has really sharpened my sensitivity to observing and recording and the challenge of how to represent other people’s stories, other people’s lives.  What I’m trying to do is build the experience of that challenge into the film and make myself – as a narrator or guide – vulnerable, responsive and unfinished.  It is very subjectively led, and most documentary/non-fiction films are to some extent – they are personal theses – but what I like about the essay film format, is the emphasis on the personal and the impressionistic and that’s what I’m running with in this film.  ‘Visitor’ deals a lot with projection: how we project ourselves onto the night sky, how we make Space personal.  Constellations as one example: they enable us to navigate our way around the sky, and we give them names that have their own historic and cultural colourings.

But the film is also about being responsive and like you say, it is a mistake to think of the land as silent, though in terms of ‘duty’ or a relationship of care, there is a more obvious concern for me when thinking about representing people, and maybe that’s because the effects of my actions are much more immediate.  It is so so important to get out of that mindset though, and spending time under a dark sky helps!

When I look at the stars, I feel I am tuning in to them.  I’m interested in the experience of darkness and how the body changes in a dark environment.  I get a stronger sense of this out on location in a place like the Galloway Forest Park, in Scotland, maybe because I’m standing outside for hours and time seems to slow down, and maybe it is also because I slowly start to tune in to the sound of the forest and of the different creatures that live there.  A funny side note on that – the last time I stayed in Galloway, one of the best night-time sounds I heard was a cow somewhere off in a neighbouring field, softly mooing as it slept, lovely!

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A silent salute in space. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am a big fan of science fiction and in particular its commitment to ‘becoming other’.  There is a quote I carry around with me all the time, which is from Fredric Jameson in his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions; he’s talking about the challenge in science fiction of representing the other when it is beyond our comprehension or experience, how do you do it?!  And his answer is that the ‘other’ demands a new kind of perception, which demands in turn a new organ of perception, and ultimately a new kind of body (sorry – I am paraphrasing!).  So the problem sort of creates its own solution if you are happy to let it work its magic on you.  With ‘Visitor’ it is a kind of feeling around in the dark at times and not knowing exactly what I’m working with, but it is hugely rewarding to be open to that.

TBOM:  Having seen the two trailers for Visitor a number of times now I am struck by the two timescales represented – the human lifetime and memory contrasted to the great age of the universe and its celestial bodies.  There are also similarities to Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, particularly in the revealing scenes of drawing back the covers for the apparatus that are used to peer into the inky darkness.  

However, whereas Guzmán contrasted the interviews of the astronomy and archaeological researchers with the family members searching for the remains of Pinochet’s victims hidden in the Atacama desert, your film is of a more personal nature.  Indeed there is the sense of personal solace present in it, the calm movements noted in the preparation of the equipment to observe the stars.  Where have you drawn your influence for this project from?  How has it developed as you have moved along the length of producing Visitor? 

Natalie:  Yes, its been a while since I saw ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ but it’s definitely there.  I was so moved by it, there was a special kind of quiet power about it, it’s deeply political but also deeply personal.  You are right, there are definitely shared motifs between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’, personal projections, the unknown, darkness, light.  I see lots of correlations between looking up and looking down, and of course, looking into space is effectively always looking into the past.  I see these women, who are spending every waking moment searching for the remains of their loved ones, as located neither in the present, nor the past.  ‘Nostalgia for the light’…a longing for light cast from the past perhaps, but how long will they have to wait for it to reach them?  They are trapped in a time-scale that will likely outlive them and it’s intensely sad.

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A detail of one of the telescopes at the Galloway Astronomy Centre. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

The phrase ‘to be in the dark’ is about not knowing and not having answers or facts and this is definitely something shared between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’.  In ‘Visitor’ there is a reading of darkness in terms of being unanchored, in free fall.  This is how I felt when I lost our mutual friend Holly, like I lost my grip on reality for a while, and it felt very destructive.  In ‘Nostalgia…’ an interviewee comments that to be without memory is to be nowhere, and I think of a tiny body surrounded by total darkness, spinning like the astronaut Ryan in the film ‘Gravity‘, unmoored and alone.  This also makes me think of the Disappearance at Sea short film by artist Tacita Dean about Donald Crowhurst who died at sea, unable to locate himself geographically, because his chronometer was not giving him a correct reading on the local time.  Tacita Dean uses the image of a lighthouse in her film, another motif for searching.

But spending time under dark skies over the last 6 months is changing my relationship with darkness; my body and mind sense in a different way.  It’s like the lights go out and something else switches on, it is a bit like being in a car picking up a radio station that starts off as noise but as you travel into its field of transmission, it becomes clear.  Vision is obviously an important aspect of stargazing, but also the feeling of being outdoors at night, the very different qualities of sound that emerge, and a sense that your ‘time’ vibrates with so many other ‘times’.

When I looked through the telescope at Jupiter recently, I saw this incredibly distant planet and four of its moons, but pressing my face against the eye piece, the darkness of Jupiter’s ‘world’ encloses me and it feels like it’s right there and I can touch it, it is very intimate.  I was speaking to one of the Galloway Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers recently about stargazing as a very intimate activity that involves a lot of trust.  She mentioned that if she were to meet her workshop participants the next day in the sunlight, she may not be able to tell them by face!  So the experience of darkness and of stargazing is quite complex and also transformative for me, and I believe transformative for others too.

TBOM:  Yes, after losing our friend Holly I also felt an incredible sense of darkness and disarray.  Light eventually returned, particularly when I think of the time that we had spent together and also through getting to know one of her favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens

It seems to me then that memory and distance are recurring motifs within ‘Visitor’, from both your own viewpoint and from the people who you have interviewed for the film.  As an anchor to these themes, and as a comfort to the sheer size and depth of the universe, the bonds of family and friends also seem to play a pivotal part within the film.  Is this a fair assessment?

Natalie:  Yes, definitely.  I keep coming back to distance and proximity.  A lot of the people I have interviewed share their night sky experiences with loved ones or close friends.  It might be a phone call in the early hours of the morning between two people at different ends of the country looking at the same planet, or a certain constellation that makes you think of the person you first encountered it with.  Distance gets collapsed in those moments of remembering.  And I guess that’s what you mean when you have said to me that you feel close to Holly when listening to music she loved and in particular the musicians she introduced you to or that you listened to together.  Memory is a strange thing, as are dreams and sometimes they cross over.

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A walk in the wild as preparations for a night of stargazing take shape. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am definitely partial to the mystical qualities of the universe, as well as the hard science (!).  Astrophysics is fascinating to me and never stops surprising me; though it is extremely rigorous in its science, I think that it is also an area that allows space for speculation and wonder which, for me, is hugely creative and helpful for thinking about slippery things like memory and experience.  The language of astrophysics alone is incredibly rich and strange, and speaking it or listening to it transports me somewhere beyond my usual experience and I guess I’m trying to follow that and see where it leads!

TBOM:  Speaking of other languages I know we have spoken about music before this, with reference to our shared love of Fever Ray, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Vladislav Delay for example, and I feel I can almost hear their influences within the trailer for ‘Visitor’.  How did you approach the sound and music composition for this film though, and where did your influences for this come from?  

I know that you regularly collaborate with your partner David Ashley Pearson on your productions, such as on the 2013 short film Waiting for an Answer (Waiting for a Sign), and that he has helped produce the soundscape for ‘Visitor’, so this may also be a question for him as well.

Natalie:  It really does help that we’ve known each other for such a long time and also worked on projects together or been witness to each other’s projects.  I’m not great at describing sound, it is very slippery to me.  David has a more nuanced understanding of it and the physics behind it. We didn’t discuss much in the way of influences…  I think we both know what we like!  In terms of soundtracks that have really blown us away recently though…  Definitely Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin (2013) and we also loved the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto for The Revenant (2015).

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The preparation of a Bahtinov mask. A Bahtinov mask is a device utilizing focal grids and variations in angle diffraction to help achieve optimum focus when using small astronomical telescopes, or when conducting astrophotography, to view bright stars accurately. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

There are obviously a set of themes or motifs in ‘Visitor’ which you can sink your teeth into sonically and some of the main aesthetic approaches for this have been thinking about tuning in/tuning out, sounds that take us away from ourselves and yet have an uncanny familiarity and the idea of signalling or sending out a message, a beacon.  We both share an interest in experimental music, but I would say I’m more partial to looking for a beat that I can cling on to, whereas David is a bit more fearless when it comes to sound!  I think it makes sense here to let David talk more about his approach to the sound design…

David Ashley Pearson:  Hi there, thanks for showing such an interest in our film, it means a lot.  My relationship with music (and sound in general) has been incredibly intimate and personal my whole life, I find it embarrassing to listen to the music I love with others as it’s like revealing a part of myself, it makes me feel somewhat naked and exposed!  Even music that it is incredibly social such as Punk, Dance or Pop I find difficult to listen to with others.  I like to delve into sound and find a personal connection, typically when I find that connection I can become obsessed and mesmerised by the sound and feel I own it in some way.

Before moving to London in 2007 I was always looking out for new and interesting sounds, I’ve always listened out for something that struck me as unique and creative but it wasn’t until I got to London and got to listen to and attend some Free Improvisation concerts that I felt my ears truly open up.  I’ve always loved and strove for ambiguity and multiple meanings in my work and I find that in its purest form in Free Improvised music.

When I first moved to London I went to Mark Wastell’s – now sadly closed – Sound 323 record shop in Highgate; exposing myself to a whole new sound culture, it was a phenomenal experience just leafing through all the CDs and absorbing it all.  That first time I went there I bought Lawrence English’s For Varying Degrees of Winter (2007) which is an incredibly meticulous and icy ambient album, I love it but it was probably one of the music conventional CDs there!  At the time Mark had some music playing in the shop that was like nothing I’d heard before; it was an incredibly unusual, textural, hard to place sound… and very slow!  I didn’t know how to interact with it and what it meant, it was alien to me and I loved it because of that; it was Free Improvisation!

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A Scots Pine garden, Glasgow, Scotland. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

With Free Improvisation (and in particular the ‘New London Silence’ scene that I gravitated towards) all sounds come out of silence and the player’s environment.  Traditional ideas of instrumentation, musical notation and scales are chucked out the window in favour of a purer listening to sound as sound, the sound’s interaction with the space and the sound’s interaction with other sounds.  This idea of sound coming out of silence is incredibly important to me for this film and it’s also important that sounds come out of the imagery and montage that the film paints.  I have made sound concepts/sketches for the two trailers but I hesitate to truly start on the final soundtrack until more sections of the film are in place – as I want to interact with the imagery.  I also want to keep in mind the cinematic space and how my music interacts with the voices of those we’ve interviewed for the film.  I can’t wait to see and hear how it comes together!  The soundtrack will feature voices, textures, field recordings, synthesizers and other bits and bobs… whatever works in driving forward the story Natalie wants to tell!

TBOM:  The two trailers released so far certainly indicate the sound coming out of the silence, and I’m looking forward to seeing how your exposure to Free Improvisation influences the soundtrack David.  Natalie, the initial release date for ‘Visitor’ is September to coincide with the end of your Masters course and you are currently crowdfunding for the remaining production.  What are your hopes for ‘Visitor’ and do you have any plans after? 

Natalie:  Yes, very soon! The film is being produced as part of my degree and will be completed in September.  Once ‘Visitor’ is completed, we’ll be submitting it to festivals, so fingers crossed it gets some interest and circulation and it will be interesting to discuss it with a bit of distance.  In the meantime though, we are working on raising funds to finish the shooting and for some post-production work.  Any support is welcome and we are really pleased to offer some night sky-related perks including a stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre and an astrophotography workshop with Viridian Skies, also based in Dumfries & Galloway.

 

Beyond the film, there is so much still to be explored.  Recently I’ve been very lucky to be accepted for an incredible research project based at the University of Glasgow, with a focus on mapping the values of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, so that’s the next three and a half years of my life.  I’ve become really attached to the area (and to its skies!) so it is a dream to be encouraged to delve in deeper.

TBOM:  It certainly sounds like you have plenty to contend with and I wish you the best of luck with the release of ‘Visitor’.  I shall look forward to experiencing it when it comes out.  I’m sure readers of this blog will also be interested to hear how your research into the Galloway Forest Dark Sky park takes shape so please do keep in touch.  Thank you and David once again for joining These Bones of Mine.

Natalie:   Thank you also for your support of the film and for taking the time to discuss it in more detail, it really does help to unpick it a bit and reflect on it while it’s still being made.  It is also fantastic to be in such good company on These Bones of Mine!

Further Information

  • Visit Natalie Marr’s website for further information on her current and previous projects.  You can listen to David Ashley Pearson’s sound projects here, and visit his blog Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, music and games.
  • You can help fund and donate to the making of  the short film ‘Visitor’ on the IndiGoGo webpage by visiting here.  Dependent on the amount of money given the individual backer can receive a number of perks related the production of the film.  These include, but are not limited to, special riso print postcards, an invitation to the opening night of the film, as well as a night’s stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre for two.

‘Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks’ by Stuart Rathbone, Out Now

28 Jan

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve hosted a few guest posts and an interview with Stuart Rathbone, a friend and an archaeologist who has worked across the UK, Ireland, and the United States of America, and that his posts are always thought-provoking and informative.  I’m very happy to announce on this site that Stuart has now released a new book of essays digitally published by The Oculus Obscura Press (which is under the auspices of the awesome blogger and researcher Robert M Chapple) entitled Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks.

The publication is available from the LeanPub website, which offers the book for readers based on a sliding scale payment system which can range from zero to whatever sum the reader would like to give to Stuart for his hard work (the suggested price for this volume is US $18.99, but please feel free to pay as appropriate).

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Investigating a treasure trove of archaeological issues. The cover to the volume of articles by Stuart Rathbone, which cover a number of issues and investigations in modern archaeological practice and research.  The issues are split into three main topics that the book focuses on, and include i) professional archaeology, ii) experimental archaeology, iii) and proper archaeology.

I’m really excited by this publication as Stuart is a thoughtful and innovative thinker and, as demonstrated in this volume, he skillfully integrates the archaeological evidence within contexts and approaches that aren’t always particularly widely studied within the research or academic arms of archaeology.  Thankfully we have the man himself to ask him a few questions regarding the book…

These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hi Stuart, thank you so much for joining me!  So can you tell us a little about your new book?

Stuart:  Hi David, thanks for having me back on your blog.  I love that I can legitimately say things to you like “I haven’t seen you since that time with the jazz band on Haight Ashbury” as if we were part of some decadent international jet set!  Funnily enough I do briefly mention the time we met up in the introduction to the new book, but I think I forget to mention that the mundane reason why we were hanging out in San Francisco was because of an archaeology conference!

My book is a collection of essays, some of which have appeared before in various places, and some of which are brand new pieces.  I think a little over half of the material is entirely new, whilst the older stuff has been given a good polish, adding in proper reference sections if they were previously absent, re-inserting parts that might originally have been omitted because of space constraints, or adding in new information that has become available since a piece was first published, bringing everything right up to date.

There’s a video where I describe the different subjects covered in the book so I won’t repeat all of that here, suffice to say the book is a mixture of different areas I have worked in; different aspects of prehistoric settlement, the organisation of the archaeological profession and the social consequences this may have for practitioners, and my attempts to explore new and unusual theoretical approaches. The scope probably goes a bit beyond what you’d normally expect to find in an academic collection.  I suppose there’s an emphasis on more personal pieces and more experimental pieces, although there are a few more traditional inclusions, just to balance things out a bit.

Working with Robert Chapple was great because he’s so open to new ideas.  I don’t think we could have put this collection out with a normal publisher, but Robert just said go for it, write what you want and we’ll see what we can do with it.  In fairness to him he did have to spend quite a lot of time keeping me on target, as I am prone to wandering off a bit if left to my own devices. We both really like the finished product, I guess it’s the sort of book we would enjoy reading ourselves.  So now we have the problem of trying to convince other people to read it.  The leanpub platform is great because it’s very simple to use and with the price slider it’s possible for people to get a free copy, pay the suggested price, or pay anything in between.

Something you said to me recently really struck a chord, that people are now simply overwhelmed by the amount of information that is freely available to them, and it’s hard to get their attention.

So right now we are trying to figure out how to convince people that they should download the book and devote their free time to reading it.  That was a responsibility that Robert and I were very aware of when we put the book together.  Just because we were enjoying ourselves the book still had to meet a professional standard, even if some of the content was a bit unorthodox.  I think we’ve done that although obviously it will be up to the people that read it to judge how successful we actually were.  We certainly did try though.  There’s quite a variety of topics so hopefully a lot of different readers could find something of interest to them, or that might at least keep them amused for a little while.

Learn More

  • Archaeological Boundaries. Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks can be downloaded from Leanpub.com by following this link.

Further Information

  • Stuart has previously been interviewed for this blog (see View from the Trenches), where you can read about his archaeological life, from his experiences and views as a digger working in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger boom years, to excavating in northern Scotland and his adventures in writing about archaeological topics from a number of different perspectives.  Alternatively you can check out a previous guest post here, where Stuart marries the archaeological record with anarchist theory suggesting that a better understanding of the record can be achieved by taking elements from ideologies or theories little used in mainstream commercial and academic archaeology.
  • Check out Robert M Chapple’s blogging site for a treasure trove of insights into the archaeological record of Ireland.  Of particular interest is his database and catalogue of Irish radiocarbon determinations and dendrochronological dates from archaeological sites from throughout the island, which can be visualised and investigated here.  Please contact Robert for the latest up-to-date version as it really is a splendid piece of research and data mining.

Bibliography

Rathbone, S. 2016. Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks. Belfast: The Oculus Obscura Press. (Open Access).

2015: A Year in Preview

7 Jan

Instead of regaling you, my dear readers, with posts of the past let me instead introduce to you posts of the future from my mystical green crystal orb (i.e. my neglected draft folder).  Whilst 2014 has indeed been a busy period, it has also been a particularly downcast sort of year punctuated with moments of beauty and intense clarity.  As such I’d thought it be more interesting to delve into some upcoming posts, highlight a few interesting events in my 2015 archaeological calendar, and also show just where this osteology thing has taken me and where (I hope) it will take me in 2015.  (Remember you can see my haul of 2014 posts in all of their naked glory here, and a quick round-up of the 2014 stats at the end of this post).

It also pains me somewhat to realise at this point that the awesome Blogging Archaeology carnival’s first entry took place well over a year ago.  Ran by Doug Rocks-Macqueen, this online archaeology blogging carnival helped bring together archaeologists from around the world in producing reflective entries on the importance and wealth of blogging archaeology.  In my series of Blogging Archaeology entries I made some vague and, looking back, crazy predictions of what I wanted to do with this blog in 2014.  A lot of this (including a PDF of the ever-popular Skeletal Series entries) didn’t really happen (about do check out Bone Broke’s awesome collection of handy osteo tips for PDF perfection).  Adding to that, I actually barely added to the Skeletal Series at all in 2014 (may the gods of osteo forgive me!).  But I kept blogging, sometimes not as much as I hoped, but the fantastic guest entries kept coming in and the internationally flavoured interviews and mini-photo essay posts began in earnest as well.  I diverged and that is always good.

On a general note 2014 did provide some paid archaeological work, I also got to excavate a few skeletons with friends in the surroundings of the lovely Peak District and I got to take part in some fantastic education outreach in both Sheffield and Manchester.  I also had the great joy of attending excellent conferences in both Belfast and Durham.  Although I was out of action for around 3-4 months mid 2014 due to a broken arm, I did manage to cram a fair bit in alongside the normal non-archaeological day job.

So in this 2015 preview I want to introduce a few blog posts that have been sitting quietly in my draft folder, where I’ve regularly updated them and added in new references, but haven’t completely finished them to post them to the blog itself.  As such this is just a sneak peek of a few thoughts that have been rattling around my mind…

1) The Body as a Weapon: The Bioarchaeology of Terror and Thoughts on Suicide Attacks

Given the rise in the recognition and importance of conflict archaeology and the role of understanding the bioarchaeology of violence in past societies, I think it is probably time we took a look at a modern-day phenomena through a bioarchaeological approach.  For the past few decades terrorism has become a dominant feature of continuing international and transnational conflicts as asymmetric warfare has largely replaced conventional warfare.  I’ll be particularly focusing on suicide attacks, where an individual or group aim to kill both themselves and others in an explosive act of violence.  As such in this post I’ll explore some initial thoughts on suicide attacks from a futurist bioarchaeological perspective (the bioarchaeology of terror).  Primarily focusing on the body as a weapon (both actual body damage and perceived threat based on body type) this post will also highlight a range of suicide attacks carried out by terrorists from across the globe and analyse both the bioarchaeology implications of these, and the differing cultural/national considerations in response to them.

2) Disability at the Movies: Physical and Mental Impairment on the Big Screen

As a fan of film I have long been interested in the representation of physical and mental disabilities in the movies.  As a relatively new artistic medium film has risen over the past century or so to become a vital, and major, part of the world’s culture, helping to document changing attitudes and explore artistic expression.  In this meandering entry I’ll discuss a number of films from the past 100 years or so and highlight the use and representation of both physical and mental disabilities (or impairments).

3) Disability and Sexuality: Looking through the Lens

Sexuality is often taken to be an integral part of the nature of human expression and humanity.  Disability, as either a mental or physical impairment, can be present at birth or occur during the lifetime of an individual and can mean impairments in the cognitive, emotional, developmental, sensory and/or physical sense.  If sexuality is the expression and capacity for erotic experiences and responses, what does this mean for individuals with disabilities and, more specifically, what does this mean for us as a society in the representation of people with impairments as members of that society?  How does this differ culturally?  This post will look at the intersection of the two and discuss the considerations of what is meant by disability or impairment, and how this is approached and understood in the context of human sexuality.

4) Ageing: Puberty in the Osteoarchaeological Record

This is a quick post highlighting some recent articles and books that I’ve been reading lately in understanding the ageing of the human body (particularly focusing on the biology of human senescence).  Being able to age a human skeleton is one of the fundamental skills in bioarchaeology, used as a basic demographic attribute for understanding past population structures.

However, there are still two age stages that can be ‘invisible’ in the archaeological record – old age and being able to identify the advent and process of puberty in the osteoarchaeological record.  The older age categories, used when skeletal maturation has been achieved (when full adult growth has been attained), are largely based on the degradation and wear stage of certain skeletal elements (pubic symphysis, auricular surface of the ilium, cranial suture obliteration, tooth wear stage, etc).  After the fifth decade of life it can be hard to successfully pin a small age range on an individual, particularly if there is no reference population to serriate against to gauge expected differences in bone change at known, or documented, ages.  This will probably be a post by itself.

The focus of this ageing post though is on puberty, as the measure when the non-adult individual grows to become an adult (sometimes taken as juvenile to adolescent to adult).  As both males and females reach puberty at different ages (females normally start it a year or two before males), this has posed bioarchaeologists problems in understanding when past populations reached this.  Shapland & Lewis (2013) have a method for this though, and I’ll post about it shortly!

5) Review: Day of the Dead Conference, October 2014, Queen’s University Belfast

I had the great joy in attending this wonderful conference in Belfast at Queen’s back in October.  Focusing on both bioarchaeology and funerary archaeology, the Day of the Dead three-day conference confidently brought together a slew of new research from both Ireland and the wider world on prehistoric and historic sites and cultures (including an awesome presentation on cannonball damage in deer and a possible universal code for sexing skeletal remains).  The conference was ably hosted by Dr Catriona McKenzie with a keynote speech by Dr Barra O Donnabhain and help from the ever affable Prof. Chris Knüsel.  This post, which detail a few of the presentations in detail, should also be up shortly.

6) The Anatomical Position: A Short History of the Internationally Agreed Standard

One of the first posts where I have actively engaged and sought the views of others before commencing the writing of the post.  I have struggled so far to exactly find what I am looking for, but this has only spurned me on.  In this post I’ll take a quick look at how the anatomical position used in bioarchaeology, forensic science, medicine, and the anatomical sciences, has became so widespread as an internationally agreed standard and convention for the positioning and examining of the human body.  This is one of the posts that may take a while to appear, but it is there!

and finally…

7) Skeletal Series Part 13: How to Age a Human Skeleton

8) Skeletal Series Part 14: How to Sex a Human Skeleton

Two much delayed posts helping to highlight the next stage of the Skeletal Series posts.

This is really just a quick housekeeping post, making me more aware of what I need to do.  As highlighted towards the end of last month there will be a few posts on musical interludes, highlighting the evidence for music ability in the archaeological record.  My one big event for 2015 so far is the upcoming Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in April in San Francisco, USA.  I am particularly excited as there is a session on the Bioarchaeology of Care methodology by Lorna Tilley of Australia National University.  The methodology is an important step not just for understanding physical impairment in the past, but also for collating, using and distributing knowledge of the archaeological record via the Index of Care online tool.

All in all 2015 looks to be rather productive.

Notes

For die-hard stats fans this blog was viewed around 260,000 from 206 countries in 2014 (if I remember correctly this is down from 2013).  Averaged out this is around 5000 views a week, with the majority of the views taking place Monday to Friday rather than on the weekends.  The top 5 annual posts per views were (as it typical for each year that this blog has existed) the Skeletal Series posts.  Blog views, especially toward the last few months of 2014, tailed off noticeably.

Guest Blog Guidelines: General Advice and Thoughts

3 Jan

This blog has always sought to highlight a wide range of subjects of interest within the remit of archaeology and osteology (and often outside of these boundaries).  Having had the luck to have continued to bring a variety of guest blog entries to the readers of this blog, I’d thought I’d share a few guidelines that I’ve often sent to potential guest bloggers for their information and digestion.  This is, in effect, an open invitation to those who are willing to participate.  I also thought I’d be open about the advice I offer in the vague and somewhat distorted hope that someone out there may well be inspired to host guest blogs of their own!

blogblogblog guest post

The downside of offering guest blogs! Both Digital Sherpa and Spin Sucks have some good advice for blogs offering guest posts, as well as highlighting the spam bots of SEO (Search Engine Optimization, normally spam advertising a company or products). If you have evidence of the health benefits of a chocolate only diet, please contact me! Image credit: Spin Sucks.

A Slice of Advice

First of all, thank you for helping to contribute to the blog site – without you the blog would not be what it has become.  Please use the guest blog entry as a chance to highlight and advertise your archaeological project and research, as well as a chance to promote and educate readers on the value and importance of archaeology and osteoarchaeology, from wherever you are from or have experience of.  The blog is a mixture of informal and formal approaches to a variety of topics in the above subjects – aim to inform and engage the audience and not to alienate them.  Please see the below tips as general points, as you will approach the guest blog in your own way (which is great!).  Once again thank you for taking an interest in These Bones of Mine.  I personally always welcome updates on your ongoing projects, as do the wider readers of the blog.

Basic Bones

  • Please send the guest blog in a Word .doc format and attach any images as Jpeg file formats (this can include photographs, diagrams, and/or graphs).  If images used are not your own, please ensure that copy right or permission to use the image has been attained beforehand.  This will be edited in Word and sent back for your edits/comments.  Once both myself and yourself are happy with the entry it will be posted onto the blog with appropriate categories and tags.
  • Word limit is generally kept at around 1000 words to 2500 words for the guest post entries.  Remember though that sometimes less is more, but complex topics may need to be introduced and discussed in-depth.  Please also note that interview style posts are often longer than this as they cover more topics in a back and forth active conversation, albeit sometimes in briefer detail.  Dependent on the guest blog, or interview, I am open for posts of up to 4000 words.

Meat of the Matter: The Content

  •  The content is up to the individual person and depends on the project or topic of the guest post.  This blog primarily focuses on the topics of archaeology, human osteology, heritage and human evolution.  As such these are the subjects that guest posts are particularly welcome in.  However, I am also interested in the wider aspects of the above topics and related disciplines.  These include, but are not limited to, forensic anthropology, zooarchaeology, anthropology and ethnography, amongst others.  I am also particularly interested in public outreach and multidisciplinary projects.  For a full list of subjects that I am interested in please see the Guest Posts page.
  • As the guest blogger introduce the topic, state the overall general aims of either the project or the research, indicate the timescale and your personal involvement.  The last point is important as this can help engage the reader on a fundamental level: what are your experiences of archaeology, how could I get involved?
  • Write for an interested and informed audience, but be wary that an academic approach to writing on a blog can potentially bore or isolate the intended or general audience.  I will hyperlink to any specialist terms used in the post (such as to either Wikipedia for general terms and background knowledge, or to a dedicated archaeological site for specific information).  Remember the people who read These Bones of Mine are already interested in archaeology and osteology, so don’t worry about how specialized your topic is (though this can be a tricky wire to navigate).
  • Remember that as the guest blogger you yourself will be representing what you are writing about. If in doubt please contact either a project or academic supervisor if you are not sure that the information you are writing about is meant for public consumption (or is under commercial constraints, for example).  If you have conducted original research and are looking to publish your results, please remember that a blog post probably isn’t the ideal way to break a new methodology to the world, lest another researcher claim credit on your behalf.  Remember this is a fully public blog!  But please also see this as an opportunity to communicate on a big scale to an international audience (typically a ‘front page’ entry will get hits from people just looking at the site, and hopefully you may get an email or two if someone is interested in your research!).
  • At the conclusion of the post I will add a Further Information section, a set of links with a short introduction on where to go next to learn more about what the guest post content was on.  The post ends with a bibliography in the Harvard style that will be compiled by the guest blogger themselves, although I will edit this if necessary and add relevant hyperlinks.  Remember that Open Access articles are appreciated by the general audience as many who read the entries will not have access to specialist journal articles.

The Fantastic Format

  • As already mentioned above book and article references are welcomed (especially Open Access sources) and the referencing system used on this blog is the Harvard method, as is generally typical for archaeology as a discipline in the UK.  I will hyperlink the reference to an online source if there is an open access publication – otherwise I’ll link to the publisher’s website, google books, etc.  (Heck, even Amazon sometimes lets you read a few pages for free!).
  • There will be an introductory paragraph about the author of the guest post, citing their background in commercial, voluntary and/or academic archaeology and related experience.  Further to this general interests that the writer of the guest post has can also be included, if necessary.  I will likely write the introductory paragraph, so please do feel free to add any information on non-archaeological interests or links to personal and academic websites with the body of your guest blog entry.
  • I will do the final edit of any guest entry submitted for this site, but I will show you this before it goes on the blog to enable you to edit the guest blog entry again if necessary.  I will also highlight when the guest blog is published on the blog itself (but please be aware it will look different on the blog than on Word!).  Editing is available anytime and I am very happy to update old guest blogs to reflect new projects, publications or positions, etc.  (As much as I enjoy writing posts for this site I do find writing to be a slow process and editing myself a necessary, but painful, evil.  In contrast to this, however, I quite enjoy editing other guest blog entries and interviews).
  • Diagrams, pictures, and photographs are highly recommended as they help break up the blocks of text and are very useful to engage the audience; they are also great at communicating complex ideas simply.  Please be aware of copyright with any image and I will credit the image appropriately to either the author of the guest blog or to the recognised copyright holder.

Style: Keeping it Simple

  • Remember that there should be no pressure for writing the guest blog entry as there are no deadlines.  Please see this as an opportunity to highlight and promote the value of archaeology to an international audience, specifically breaking down the barriers between access and availability – of both the archaeological information and of access to that information.
  • As such, please feel free to stylise the post as to how you see fit to see how effective you think it may be.  Think about the audience you are wanting to reach and why –  it is the public, the academic, or the commercial spheres of the archaeology sector, or is it a mix of these audiences?

Who Can Contribute to These Bones of Mine via a Guest Blog?

Anyone!  I’ve had feedback from a few non-archaeological or non-osteological minded friends now about this blog and they say that sometimes it can be a bit too academic, a bit too dense and special interest in scope.  This has always been the risk in trying to combine both my personal and professional interests, alongside my experience of academia itself.  However, I do also try to vary both the tone and approach depending on the topic of the blog post.  I realize I am reaching out to an audience that can be tiny – osteoarchaeology is not of primary concern to many people, nor is it a vital subject that is widely taught (as much as it pains me to say that).  I’d argue though that it is diverse, that it is interesting and, finally, that it is relevant to the world at large for the very understanding of our species (hence this blog).

As such I am interested in hearing from potential guest bloggers from all walks of life, not just those from academia.  If you are a volunteer, a commercial archaeologist, an undergraduate or a early career academic, perhaps a member of the public with an interest in heritage and archaeology – if you have something to say then I will consider it.  I may not always accept, but I will be interested.  I am particularly interested in hearing from people who are on the margins of society (this includes those marginalized in the world of archaeology, be it in the commercial, academic and/or voluntary sectors).  I am particularly interested in hearing from early career archaeologists or osteoarchaeologists.  If you are struggling to get an archaeological PhD position, struggling to get onto a Masters course due to funding, struggling to get a position post-PhD and you have something to say about your research, your experience, your knowledge, then yes, I am interested in hearing from you.

Do not be afraid to contact me.  The archaeological record does not belong to one person, one nation or one ideology.  It belongs to humanity, as a gift from humanity.

Final notes….

A final point is to note that I cannot, nor will not, offer any monetary incentive for a guest blog.  Furthermore, a guest post entry will not be hosted here to advertise a commercial venture where profit is the only aim, nor will anonymous ghost authors be accepted (i.e. SEO spam).  This blog is pretty much free via the wonderful people of WordPress and I, for one, very much appreciate their hard work.  One final remark: in archaeology, especially in UK archaeology, your name is your currency and reputation.  Always be careful!

For previous guest blog entries and interviews please do take a minute and have a look at the growing collection here.  As always I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who have already contributed, many thanks!

P.S. I also do interview style blog entries where a conversation between myself and the interviewees is conducted via email.  If this interests you please feel free to contact me via a comment below or this blog’s email address on the About page.

P.P.S. It has been a while but I should (honestly!) have a few posts up soon.  Time seems to be passing quite regularly – a belated happy new year to the readers of this site!

Interview with Liz Eastlake: Dental Delights and Estonian Escapades

13 Dec

Liz Eastlake is an osteoarchaeologist from Yorkshire and a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology from the University of Sheffield.  With a strong background in fieldwork Liz also regularly engages in public outreach and education on the topics of archaeology practice and human osteology, both in museums and in colleges around Yorkshire.  Her research interests lie in dental bioarchaeology and understanding the implications for markers of occupation in the human skeleton.  In her free time Liz can often be found at the York branch of Dr Sketchy’s anti-art art school.


These Bones of Mine: Hello Liz and thank you very much for joining me here at These Bones of Mine. For those that do not have the pleasure of knowing you, please could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?

Liz:  Hi David, thanks for having me.  I am a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology program from the University of Sheffield and I am currently working for York Archaeological Trust at their archaeology museum DIG.  I also do the occasional spot of digging and skeleton box organisation with the Trust on a volunteer basis.  Further to this I teach human osteology workshops with the Workers’ Educational Association as part of their Digability Project.  To top it all off I also work providing disability support at the local university a few days a week!  Needless to say I have very little free time and run mostly on caffeine.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you are getting a full experience of living the archaeological life! What sparked the interest in studying human osteology and funerary archaeology, and what was the experience learning about skeletal anatomy like?

Liz:  I went on a rescue excavation in the grave yard of my village (Sheriff Hutton) church when I was 15 years old.  The church itself supposedly contains the remains of Richard III’s son, although I never really considered how blessed I was growing up in such a historic environment until much later, especially with recent events.  It was the discovery of the different elements of commingled human remains we were uncovering that fascinated me the most.

A number of skulls from the site still had small amounts of hair surviving due to the environment created by contact with copper shroud pins.  It really stuck with me that something so fragile could survive for so long beneath our feet.  Skeletal anatomy itself is a fascinating subject.  Most people are completely unaware of what goes on within their own bodies and so this aspect of archaeological study is pretty relevant and interesting to everyone.

TBOM: The rescue excavation must have been an informative introduction to the human skeleton in an archaeological context, especially considering the level of preservation present.  Your current job with York Archaeological Trust involves helping to present archaeology to the public, how have you found this and has it made you change the way you think about archaeology itself?

Liz:  Working with children in general is pretty hilarious, I love the way the mind works without any of the barriers that adults would normally put up.  In the context of archaeology a kid can really make you think about things in a different way with the answers they come up with, which is great as it is all so open to interpretation.  Often, I meet kids who are so excited to tell me all about what they have found in their own back garden or can’t wait to go home and dig up their parents flower beds after a visit (sorry parents!).  It’s so important to be inquisitive and that transfers to other aspects of life, including the process of growing up.

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‘I think it may be a bit late to help this person’. The chance to draw a in-situ skeleton is one of the many interactive exhibitions on offer at the DIG museum of archaeology in York. Image credit: Liz Eastlake.

What’s also great is that parents or grandparents come along thinking perhaps its a couple of hours to kill with the kids on a weekend or during the holidays, and they end up enjoying it more than the children do!  Few people realise they have an interest in something until you present the information and let it grow from there.  Archaeology is all about people – everyone has an interest in how we got to where we are today.  Most people I meet are at least amateur archaeologists in some way!

For me personally the job has given me a broader knowledge of archaeological periods, which is always beneficial when looking at specific burials.  Human osteology can be such a narrow field of study, for example when I look at teeth, which is such a tiny area, you even begin to ignore the rest of that same skeleton because there is so much to focus on when studying teeth alone.  Context is everything.  Before starting with the York Archaeological Trust I knew embarrassingly little about the archaeology of York itself.  It is easy to take things you have seen so often for granted, especially when you grow up with all this old stuff around you as you think nothing of it.  I definitely appreciate York more now than I ever have before and have the best time doing what I do.

TBOM: That is fascinating to hear about how interested children and adults become when presented with what archaeology actually is and how their experiences differ.  As previously mentioned you’ve also been working with the Workers’ Educational Association in South Yorkshire, helping to lead and present classes on human skeletal anatomy.  How have you found the audience’s reaction and participation in such activities?   

Liz:  The reactions are quite mixed.  Most participants are fascinated with how the body works.  Physical demonstrations of how bony articulations work and comparing them to the movements they can make in their own bodies helps bridge the gap between us and pile of bones.  It can be hard to think of a skeleton as a once living, fully fleshed person like ourselves.

A few participants have felt uneasy about the bones, despite the knowledge that the skeleton I bring is just an accurate plastic copy.  I think this mostly comes from the portrayal of bones and death in the media.  I saw a really interesting talk by Campbell Price at Manchester Museum a while ago that talked about how skeletons and mummies especially are portrayed alongside werewolves and vampires and it is not surprising that people, especially children (but not always), ask ‘is it real?’ when faced with a preserved Egyptian mummy in a museum.  A feeling of unease might also come from a fear of death itself and the uncertainty it brings.  This is a completely understandable feeling but I think it is important to try to break this fear down in an educational setting and challenge misconceptions about what happens to our bodies after we die.

TBOM: As well as helping to de-mystify the human skeleton for the public, you’ve also presented your MSc dissertation research on the study of the dentition of two 18th and 19th century populations from northern England at a recent Elmet Archaeology talk.  What was your research about and how did you come to focus on teeth specifically?

Liz:  I seem to have focused on teeth since I first became interested in human osteology.  I find them fascinating because they look pretty much the same in death as they do in life.  There is such a wealth of information you can gain about people’s lives in the past by studying dentition.  I have focused on what they can tell me about the general health of the population I’m studying and also whether they can give an indication of individual occupation.  At some point everyone has grasped something between their teeth, like house keys for example, when your hands are full.  Repeated use of the teeth as a third hand can leave tell-tale marks on the tooth surface, for example basketry weaving or even sewing; snapping a thread between the incisors.

My dissertation topic focused on identifying occupation from the teeth of two Victorian era cemetery populations, one of high status individuals from the St Bride’s assemblage in London and the other of low status people from Coronation Street assemblage in South Shields, northern England.  Social status for these two sites was known from written records, but the difference was also apparent from the teeth.  A number of individuals from the high status group had solid gold dentures and fillings, as well as other evidence for dental intervention and aid.  Those from the low status site had no clear evidence for dental work by a professional and would have likely extracted a troublesome tooth themselves or had a similarly untrained acquaintance do it for them.  These individuals also had some quite extreme dental wear patterns indicative of use of the teeth for grasping and pulling materials within their mouths. Unlike the high status site which had only one example of an older adult female with grooved patterns of wear in her anterior dentition, perhaps from snapping threads whilst sewing.

To most people it can be quite unsettling to envisage the pain a large abscess or gross caries would have caused a living person hundreds of years ago.  However, the information that can be gained through the study of teeth is so extensive and informative about past populations, that it is a fascinating area of osteological analysis, which I hope to pick up again by completing a PhD in the future.

TBOM:  That sounds like a fascinating comparative study on Victorian populations.  So as well educating the public on the value of archaeology and human osteology and as well as conducting original research, you have also recently been excavating an Iron Age site in Estonia.  How did that come about and what were your experiences there like?

Liz:  A friend of mine from my masters course at Sheffield, Anu Kivirüüt, invited me along to the excavation she was running with her department at the University of Tartu.  It was a fantastic couple of weeks of perfect hot weather and digging in the shade.  I particularly enjoyed the excavation methods employed in Estonia which are so different to the strict regulations in the U, although I discuss this more at Anu’s site here.

The excavation was on the Aakre Kivivare tarand-grave site, which are Iron Age in date.  This type of grave sites are communal burial places with rectangular above-ground stone wall enclosures, which are often labelled and described as  tarands-graves.  When these graves first appeared on the landscape in the Pre-Roman Iron Age (around 500 BC – AD 50), they contained only inhumation burials and one rectangular enclosure was assigned for one body.  However, over time, cremation became a more frequently recorded way of disposing of the dead and the subsequent cremated bones and most of the artefacts were scattered in the tarand-area, mostly inside but also outside of the walls (see more information here on this ongoing project).

The entire site was recorded using digital photography, in a technique called photogrammetry, and converted into a 3D model after each layer of soil and stones was removed.  This was a great time-saving method and the 3D model really helped visualize the site layers.  Unfortunately, very little bone, cremated or otherwise was recovered from the site.  However, there were numerous beautifully preserved brooches of different typologies, a selection of which can be viewed here.

As well as a fantastic excavation there was also opportunities to explore other nearby archaeological and cultural sites, taste the great food, swim in the lakes and enjoy a sauna (including being whipped with birch bark – it is good for you!)

TBOM:  Swimming in the lake sounds quite beautiful, but if I ever head to Estonia I think I’ll avoid the birch whipping!  The use of technology to quickly record the site at Aakre Kivivare certainly sounds innovative and extremely useful, please do let me know how the excavations and research turn out.  In conclusion, though, it is clear you have managed to gain a lot of experience in the various aspects that archaeological life has to offer.  Do you have any advice to the next crop of archaeologists and, finally, what are your plans for the future?

Liz:  I would say volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!  Getting involved with excavations as well as post-ex stuff before starting at University, during your course and over summer holidays shows you are keen and can make you lots of useful connections for the future.  Then when you are qualified, especially in a specialised area of the profession, try to never work for free again (chuckle)!

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One happy skeleton. Drawing bones in-situ at YAT’s DIG museum helps children (and adults) understand the importance of context in archaeology. Image Credit: Liz Eastlake.

I would love to do a PhD in some aspect of dental anthropology at some point in the future, as well as getting more experience in the commercial side of archaeology.  I think it is important to see things from start to finish where possible, as context is everything and it can be easy to detach a single skeleton from its surroundings and consider it individually.  However, this does not benefit our view of the past.  Working in the field will also mean a chance to experience all aspects of archaeology and not just bones.

But before I get PhD crazed I am going travelling around the world, admiring old things and rock climbing (but mostly trying not to be an obnoxious cliche for the benefit of people who follow me on social media!).

TBOM: Thanks for the advice Liz and I hope you enjoy your travels!  

Further Information

  • Head to York Archaeological Trust’s portal to learn more about their museums and archaeological here.  If you are an interested member of the public, an archaeological student or simply want to learn about archaeological artefacts YAT always welcome volunteers.
  • Learn more about Elmet Archaeology’s upcoming lectures and annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day here.  Elmet participate in both commercial and community archaeological projects and are always active in education outreach.  Check out some of their courses for 2015 here.
  • The Workers’ Education Association’s are always actively promoting education outreach in a variety of locations and involving a wide range of subjects.  As a part of the ongoing Show Us Your Research! project by the universities of Coimbra and Algrave, Portugal,  Beauchamp and Thorpe (2014) have produced an assessment of WEA’s ongoing inclusive archaeology education project.  Read the PDF summing up their research on the benefits and outcomes so far of the inclusive archaeology project for free here.
  • Head over to the Aakre Kivivare blog site to learn more about the fascinating finds from this Estonian Iron Age site (site can be translated).  Liz has also produced a post on her experiences from the 2014 summer excavations which can be read here.

Interview with Jaime Ullinger: Bioarchaeological Outreach

31 Oct

Jaime M. Ullinger is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Quinnipiac University in the United States of America, where she currently teaches numerous courses in biological anthropology.  Jaime gained her PhD from the Ohio State University and her research interests include the bioarchaeology of the Levant and the Near East, particularly the Early Bronze Age, which has seen Jaime produce a number of publications from sites across the region.  She is also interested in palaeopathology, dental pathology and mortuary archaeology.  Recently Jaime has presented the case of an enslaved individual from 18th c. Connecticut at the 2014 Palaeopathology Association meeting in Calgary, Canada, as an important study in public outreach and interaction.


These Bones of Mine: Hello Jaime, thank you very much for taking the time to join These Bones of Mine! For those that do not know you could you please tell us about yourself and your background?

Jaime Ullinger: Thank you for inviting me to participate.  I am a bioarchaeologist who looks at questions about diet, health, and genetic relatedness in past groups.  My interest in bioarchaeology began as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, where I had the amazing opportunity to work with some very inspiring mentors.  I got my M.A. at Arizona State University and my Ph.D. at The Ohio State University.

Again, I was very lucky to work with great mentors at both of those schools, where there are lots of bioarchaeologists!  My research interests are primarily in the Middle East generally, and the Levant more specifically (modern-day Jordan, Israel, West Bank), although I have also worked in Egypt and the American Southwest.

TBOM: Lets talk a little about your past projects and where this has led you to today. How did you become interested in working and researching in the Middle East and the Levant?

Jaime: As an undergraduate, I eventually discovered anthropology, and bioarchaeology more specifically.  I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, but when I applied, I didn’t have an interest in a particular region.  I worked for Dr. Susan Sheridan during my senior year at Notre Dame.  Toward the end of my senior year, she asked if I would be able to go to the Middle East with her and two other undergraduates to work on a skeletal collection.

I immediately, without thought, said “Yes!” While there, I worked with a collection that eventually became part of my master’s thesis.  That sparked my interest in the archaeology of the region, and the rest is history.  My advice to every undergraduate is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along.  You never know how it may alter your life in a positive and permanent way!

TBOM: That is some great advice and a point that I would recommend for all archaeology undergraduates!  Since that first trip you have produced a non-stop corpus of bioarchaeological research based on sites throughout the Levant, from the Early Bronze Age to the Byzantine period.  Do you feel that your work will stay largely focused on this area or are you actively involved in pursuing other avenues of research?

Jaime: My current and future research plans include the continuation of work in the Levant — particularly from the Early Bronze Age sites of Bab adh-Dhra’ (in Jordan) and Jericho (in the West Bank).  But, I have worked recently on a number of projects through the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University (BRIQ) that are not in the Middle East.  Two projects grew out of BRIQ’s relationship with the state archaeologist in Connecticut and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — one involving the skeleton of an enslaved man that had been on display at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT, the other related to human remains that were used in a Santeria/Palo Mayombe ritual.  I have also recently examined 17th-19th century skeletons from St. Bride’s Lower Cemetery, housed at the Museum of London.

TBOM: As mentioned you recently presented the important case of the enslaved man at the recent 2014 Palaeopathology Association annual conference in Calgary, Alberta, and suggested that the case has a vital significance for public bioarchaeology.  Why is this the case?  Do you think it is important that the public have an understanding of the work of bioarchaeologists, and archaeology, in general?

Jaime: I feel incredibly privileged to have worked with Mr. Fortune – the man who was enslaved, and subsequently used as a teaching skeleton.  His story is important for a number of reasons.  It is not uncommon to hear people in the Northeast of the US saying that slavery was something that “only happened in the South”.  His skeleton was a visible and tangible reminder that slavery was a vital part of the economy in most of the United States in the 18th century.  He was afforded no greater freedom in death, as he was turned into a teaching skeleton and inherited by numerous ancestors of the bone surgeon that owned him before going on display as a curiosity at the Mattatuck Museum.

The museum removed Fortune from display following the Civil Rights Movement, and has worked tirelessly with the local Waterbury, CT community in order to arrive at a consensus regarding his final disposition.  The Mattatuck Museum’s African-American History Project Committee (AAHPC) has been involved in the discussion for decades, debating all sides of the issue.  The main questions were: Should he be buried? Should he be stored for future research?  Another powerful side to this story is the amount of thoughtful discussion that went into the ultimate decision that he should be buried.

From a bioarchaeologist’s perspective, I am grateful that we were able to examine his skeleton one last time before he was buried.  And, we were able to learn some things about his skeleton that hadn’t been identified in earlier examinations.  For me, this was important because it showed just how much information can be obtained from the skeleton.  I have participated in a number of group panels, and discussion with members of the AAHPC, and that has reaffirmed that people generally value the information that can be learned from a skeleton — it is an objective, scientific approach to learning about the past.  And, in some ways, it was the only way that Fortune could actually speak on his own.  That was a very powerful realization.

I think it is very important to discuss bioarchaeology in a public setting.  We can learn an incredible amount of information from the things that people leave behind (the archaeology part of bioarchaeology), and we can learn about the people themselves from their skeletons (the “bio” portion).  Giving a voice to skeletons that may not have had a voice in life is an incredibly powerful tool, and most people that I have met want to know more about Mr. Fortune and what we can determine about his life and death.

TBOM: That is great to hear that the outcome of working with Mr. Fortune benefited the community, but also (and perhaps most importantly) that it resulted in him being given a final and respectful resting place.  As bioarchaeologists we must always respect the fact that whilst we work with skeletons in our daily lives, we must also remember they are the physical remains of an individual person who had once lived.  Do you think that bioarchaeologists, or archaeologists in general, are doing enough to publicize their work?  Or is there an area that you think we could improve on?

Jaime: I think that there are a lot of great bioarchaeologists and archaeologists who are communicating their work to a much larger community than just academics.  There are a number of blogs that report on original research, as well as current news stories.  And, there are typically several sessions at annual meetings related to community archaeology and archaeological heritage/ethics.  We can always make improvements, but I think that this has become a much more visible and important part of academia.

TBOM:  I think that even since I started this blog there has been an incredible and diverse array of archaeological and bioarchaeological blogs appearing all the time.  It is a great indication of the initiative of individuals and organisations to spread the word about the value of archaeology.  You previously mentioned the Santeria Palo Mayombe ritual, could you give us a little insight into what this is and what your investigation and research consisted of?

The Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac was contacted about a ceramic vessel that had a human skull inside (visible with the naked eye), as well as other items: feathers, stone, sand, etc.  It had been recovered with a box of bones from an apartment in Connecticut.  The ceramic vessel was viewed with CT and x-ray in order to further determine its contents before “excavation” of the pot.  Most likely, all of the components were used in Santeria or Palo Mayombe rituals.  We digitally imaged the vessel (and its contents) as well as the accompanying skeleton, and tried to learn as much as possible about the skeletal remains, which we believe were historic.

In addition, I taught a forensic anthropology class last spring, where pairs of students worked together in order to address multiple questions about the vessel and remains, such as: Were marks on the bones from decomposition, or part of a ritual process? What parts of the skeleton were present, and did they have particular meaning? Can we match the excavated artifacts with particular images in the CT scans? What was written on the numerous sticks in the pot, and what did it mean?  We wanted to understand the event from a greater, biocultural perspective.

TBOM: That is a fascinating find, and one that I imagine could be fairly rare.  Finally Jaime, I wonder what advice you would give to the budding bioarchaeologists and human osteologists out there.  You have already highlighted the need to seize each and every opportunity, but do you have any other advice or guidance that you could give?

While I think it is important to seize every opportunity that comes along, it’s also important to remember that you can “make” many of those opportunities appear.  Talk with faculty and fellow graduate students about what they are working on.  Volunteer in a lab.  Ask a professor if they need assistance with research.  Attend conferences if possible.

Above all, remember that you love what you study.  At times, it can be difficult to pursue a career in academia, and you may meet naysayers along the way.  But, not many people can say that they are passionate about their work.  I feel lucky to be one of those people.

TBOM: Thank you very much for taking part and good luck with your continuing research!

Further Information

  • Jaime Ullinger’s research profile on academic.edu can be found here, which details some of her recent bioarchaeological publications.
  • Read about recent research by members of the Palaeopathology Association here in their41st annual North American Meeting in Calgary April 2014, including Jaime’s fascinating research abstract on the life and death of Mr Fortune.  Head to the Mattatuck Museum’s site on Mr Fortune to learn about his life.
  • Have a read about life and bioarchaeological study at Notre Dame University with this coffee interview with Dr Susan Sheridan here.

Select Bibliography

Ullinger, J. M. 2002. Early Christian Pilgrimage to a Byzantine Monastery in Jerusalem — A Dental Perspective. Dental Anthropology. 16 (1): 22-25. (Open Access).

Ullinger, J. M., Sheridan, S. G. & Ortner, D. J. 2012. Daily Activity and Lower Limb Modification at Early Bronze Age Bab edh-Dhra’, Jordan. In Perry, M. A. (ed). Bioarchaeology and Behaviour: The People of the Ancient Near East. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 180-201. (Open Access).

Ullinger, J. M., Sheridan, S.G. & Guatelli-Steinberg, D. 2013. Fruits of Their Labour: Urbanisation, Orchard Crops, and Dental Health in Early Bronze Age Jordan. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. DOI: 10.1002/oa.2342. (Open Access).

Interview with Lauren McIntyre: Handful of Bones

24 Mar

Dr Lauren McIntyre is an osteoarchaeologist based in Sheffield, England.  Having recently completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield on analysing the Romano-British human population of York, she is currently working as a project officer and osteoarchaeologist for Elmet Archaeology.  Volunteers for Elmet’s ongoing projects are welcome and Lauren can be contacted at l.mcintyre at elmetarchaeology.co.uk for further information.  As well as her fascination for all things archaeology and bone related, Lauren has a particular passion for horror films and can often be found at Sheffield’s own Celluloid Screams film festival.

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These Bones of Mine:  Hello Lauren, welcome and thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  For those that don’t have the pleasure of knowing you, please could tell us a little bit about yourself and your archaeological research?

Lauren McIntyre: Hi David, it’s nice to be asked!  OK, so I finished my undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield in 2004.  I returned there to do an MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology in 2005.  I started my PhD there in 2010, which I’ve just completed.  I’ve spent the time between completing degree courses working as a professional field archaeologist and osteoarchaeologist.  I’ve worked for a number of commercial field units such as ARCUS, Mike Griffiths and Associates and On-Site Archaeology, and I’ve also done a lot of work supervising and teaching on student fieldschools and community archaeological projects.

I got my osteological “big break” as it were with On-Site Archaeology in 2008.  I’d already worked as field staff of their excavation of the medieval All Saints Fishergate cemetery the previous year.  This was right at the beginning of all the economic problems in the UK, and there were problems with the developer who owned the site and trying to establish a budget for post-excavation analysis of the vast quantity of human skeletal remains that we’d already removed from the site.  I helped put together a funding bid to the AHRC for post-excavation osteological analysis with Andrew Chamberlain (then University of Sheffield, now University of Manchester).

Lauren at Rothwell.

Lauren analysing some of the crania of the  charnel material at the medieval Rothwell crypt in Northampton, England.

Fortunately we won it, so I spent a year analysing about 750 Roman, medieval and post-medieval skeletons.  We’d had a big surprise on the site in that as well as the medieval cemetery, we also found ten post-medieval mass graves that no-one knew existed.  Research showed that they might have been Parliamentarian soldiers killed by infectious disease during the 1644 siege of York.  So as well as the osteological report we did an article for Current Archaeology, a (rather ill-fated) TV programme for the BBC and a ton of other media output.

Since I finished writing up the Fishergate assemblage, I suppose my next big move was conducting and completing my PhD.  Again, I was funded by the AHRC to conduct a comprehensive analysis of all the Roman skeletal material from York.  My aim was to reconstruct the population in terms of size and composition, diet and health status.  I collected data for nearly 800 individuals, either by using data from modern osteological reports or analysing the bones myself.  It was a really tough job, but I’m pleased with the results!

I finally had my PhD signed off in February this year, and I’m now working for Elmet Archaeological Services, organising their conference and workshops series, and putting together funding proposals for new osteological projects.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you have studied a large number of individuals in some pretty interesting assemblages!  How important has it been that you have had both the academic experience and the professional field experience of excavating and studying human skeletal material?

Lauren:  I think it’s very important to get both.  There are plenty of researchers (and not just in osteology) who go straight through University from one degree to the next, and never go out in the field to get excavation experience.  I’ve even heard people saying that they don’t want to try excavation because they don’t think it’s relevant to their work!

The long and short of it is that yes, academic work and experience is important, and helps you learn to construct a sound research design, formulate research questions, learn the methodologies and so on.  But working in the field, even for just a few weeks, makes you learn about the process by which remains are dealt with before they get to the lab, and also helps you to understand how important the other site data is to any project you may be working on.

Researchers sometimes have a habit of getting stuck in their own tiny niche, and forget that much of the work they’re doing may be rendered completely pointless if they don’t consider other information from the site that will help both interpret and put their own work in context.  I think working in the field is highly beneficial to anyone who wants to work as an archaeological specialist, and also gives you a healthy appreciation and respect for the field archaeologists without whom specialists would have no material to work on!

TBOMIndeed, I have to agree with you on the benefit of working in the archaeological field if you can.  Just to take a quick step back to the basics – what was it that made you want to study human skeletal remains?  What were your inspirations, and has it been anything you thought it may have been like?

Lauren:  I’d never really thought about taking on an archaeological specialism – I always intended to stick with field archaeology.  I never even studied osteology during my undergraduate degree!  I had done some work on prehistoric funerary practices (my undergraduate dissertation was supervised by Mike Parker Pearson, investigating post-mortem treatment of the dead in Bronze Age Britain), but nothing directly involving human bones.

Then, when I was working for ARCUS (University of Sheffield’s commercial field unit), I got asked if I’d mind working on the Sheffield Cathedral cemetery excavation for a week because they were short staffed.  I said yes, and I’m so glad I did.  I totally fell in love with human skeletons!

I think the thing that gets me most is how amazing the human body is – how much we can learn from just the bones, how much stress the skeleton can put up with, and how it responds to different stimuli.  Some of the pathological specimens I’ve seen are absolutely incredible – in this age of sophisticated medicine, we don’t often encounter gross pathological cases, but looking at archaeological examples you can get an idea of just what the human body can cope with if it needs to.

laurenfieldarch

Lauren working on an archaeological site in England. The field archaeologist has to work in all weather conditions, often where wet mud is a perennial friend.

There are some really inspirational, hard working people in human osteology, who always work to a very high standard.  Charlotte Roberts in particular is a great researcher, who has conducted some invaluable work in this field.  Malin Holst is another researcher who works really hard and has produced some great work.  I think Jo Appleby has done exceptionally well with the Richard III study.  Work produced to such a high standard continually motivates me to improve myself and become a better researcher.

It can be very competitive working in human osteology, because there are so many talented osteologists and only a limited amount of new finds or jobs in osteology every year.  I didn’t really expect it to be such a competitive field when I first got into it – but you soon learn!  Having said that, I have been fortunate enough to work on some great material, so it just goes to show that if you continue to work hard, you can maintain a career in this subject.

TBOM: For readers who are interested, what happens to a human skeleton once you have found an individual on an archaeology site?  How is it processed? 

Lauren: Well, the skeleton will be cleaned, recorded and lifted from the excavation site. Once it is bagged up and labelled, it will be sent either to be cleaned and analysed by the osteologist, or it will be put into storage (in some cases bones will be stored until the excavation has finished so that all the bones can be sent to the osteologist at the same time).

Once the bones have arrived at the lab, they will be carefully cleaned by the osteologist – either dry brushed or washed in water over sieves so that any small fragments will be caught during the washing process. If the bones have been washed they will then be left to dry for a few days. It’s very important that bones are left to dry at room temperature – extreme temperatures (either very warm or very cold) are not good for the bones and can cause them damage. Room temperature should also be monitored if bones are being stored long term, for the same reason.

Once the skeleton had dried it will undergo osteological analysis. Once analysis is complete, it may either return to storage, if the bones are being curated for educational or research purposes. In some cases, the bones will be reburied instead of being stored.

TBOM:  It is well known within the archaeology sector that, at least in the UK, human osteology can be a very competitive field, but I think it is that core attraction of studying the skeletal remains our of past ancestors that draws so many to study the subject of archaeology as a whole.  Would you have any advice for someone starting out in archaeology who perhaps has an interest in pursuing human osteology or bioarchaeology?

Lauren: Absolutely, people are fascinated by the physical remain of our ancestors – despite occasional controversies, human skeletons and mummies and suchlike are usually the most frequently visited archaeological remains in museums.  So it’s unsurprising that it’s such a popular area of study.

I would say that if you’re wanting to pursue a career in human osteology or bioarchaeology, at first have a good think about it – as I said before, it is a very competitive field, and will require a lot of dedication and hard work.  There is a lot of competition for jobs, so you have to be good at what you do.

The next step would be to acquire suitable training   – usually a masters degree in the subject.  You can visit the BABAO (British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology) website to see a list of institutions that offer degrees in human osteology.  Joining BABAO is also a good step to take, as they set the professional working standards for human osteology in the UK.

As well as a degree, it’s necessary to get a lot of experience in handling and identifying human skeletal remains.  This is where a lot of people tend to fall down – they think that because they have a degree, or maybe attended a couple of courses, that they’re all set to go.  There is no substitute for practical experience.  I usually recommend to students that they start off getting handling experience with helping to do things like bone washing or cleaning.  When you’re processing hundreds of tiny fragments, you soon learn how to identify where in the skeleton they’re from.  You really start to notice the diversity in shape and size of bones in different individuals, as there’s a massive spectrum of normal variation (inexperienced osteologists sometimes tend to interpret features on bones as pathological, when often the features just have a slightly different appearance to what the person has observed before and are actually completely normal).  It also helps to get you used to distinguishing post-mortem and taphonomic damage from genuine osteological features.

Lastly, I’d recommend that you put yourself out there and talk to people!  As with any job, nobody is going to offer you work if you don’t put yourself out there.  So go to conferences, do talks for community, student and any other interested groups and get to know people.  Once people start to know your name you can build yourself a reputation, and hopefully this will lead to work.  Be positive and keep trying!

TBOM: Great answer, I thoroughly agree that you have to continually handle skeletal material to get a feel for natural variation in remains.  To add to your point I also took a short course in animal remains, as I think it is important to be able to identity different species as well.  Speaking of studying skeletal populations, as a part of your PhD research you studied the human skeletal remains of Roman period York  (71AD to 410AD), what was your main project aim and how did you achieve this?

Lauren:  Well, I wanted to see how far I could use skeletal material to reconstruct the population.  More specifically, I wanted to look at population size and composition, diet and health.  This came out of my frustration at the situation in archaeology whereby academic and commercial archaeologists rarely talk to each other.  So there is a lot of skeletal (and other archaeological material) that’s been excavated by commercial archaeologists, but is completely unknown to the academic sector.

At York, there was a load of Roman skeletal material that had come up on commercial excavations, and in particular, a lot of piecemeal burials all scattered around the city.  Nobody had put the information for all these burials together to make a bigger assemblage – instead, anyone examining the population of Roman York tends to rely on one or two larger assemblages (Trentholme Drive and the Railway cemetery).  I wanted to see how our perception of the population would change once I’d factored in the piecemeal burials.

Data collection was difficult, but I’m happy that I got a decent sample, even though I didn’t quite get hold of all the material I wanted.  I got hold of a couple of human skeletal databases from City of York Council, I bugged commercial units for reports, nagged every museum I could think of about their collections, spent a long time trawling online archaeological databases such as ADS and Heritage Gateway.  But it paid off!  I think persistence was the key.

massgravefishergate

An archaeologist (one Alex Sotheran, founder of Elmet Archaeology) and Lauren’s hand excavating the unexpected discovery of ten mass burials, which dated from the English Civil war period in the 17th century. A lack of trauma wounds on the mostly male individuals in the mass graves could have pointed to the effect of an infectious disease taking its toll on hard pushed soldiers. Read more here.

Once I had the data, it was just a matter of synthesising it in a way that made sense, quantifying everything, applying lots of statistics (I have so many SPSS and Excel documents now it’s not even funny), and then comparing the results to other known data ad evidence to come up with an interpretation.  Being methodical and systematic helps.

Although it’s a very broad study (I had problems with dating because a lot of the material has never been dated specifically, or even approximately – this meant I had to lump everything together instead of doing an earlier/later comparison and examination of change), I did get results that I’m very happy with.  I am the first person to systematically estimate the size of a Romano-British urban population, and it’s looking as though there were more people living there (on average) than we originally thought.  I’d like to have a go at re-estimating population size in a few other towns from the same period, to see how thy compare to York and also to other previous population size estimations.  The demographic composition part of the study pretty much confirmed what people thought anyway, about the military having a huge bearing on the composition of the population, but at least there is now some tangible evidence to base this on!

TBOM: The fact that you are the first person to study the whole Romano-British human population of York highlights, to me, the value that osteoarchaeology can bring to a wider archaeological perspective in understanding past populations, especially in historic periods that we think are already largely well known or studied.  For anyone that is interested in the results of your research, is there a publication being considered or any resources that you can recommend?

Lauren:  Well, I’ve not had much chance to publish anything yet, although that is something I’m thinking about doing.  I have been giving talks to local groups about my results over the last few months, and I’ll also be speaking at this years’s TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference) at the University of Reading at the end of March.  Hopefully I’ll do some more conferences over the coming year.  If anyone’s interested in the subject in general, I highly recommend Patrick Ottaway‘s book “Roman York“, which was a crucial text in terms of my background research.  Patrick has spent a lot of his career collating archaeological and historical data from Roman York.  Other than the work I’ve been doing, Patrick’s book is the main source that explores the town as a whole rather than focusing on one site or theme.

TBOM: As you noted at the beginning of this interview you are currently working for Elmet Archaeology, who are noted for having a strong community and educational outreach background.  How has this experience of working for them, helping to organise workshops and a conference for example, differed to the academic, and the purely commercial environments of archaeology, that you had worked in previously?  Do you see them as shades of one colour or as different facets of the same dice?

Lauren:  I think that commercial, academic and community archaeology are very much like different sides of a dice – part of the same whole but distinct from each other.  I love community engagement and outreach, as you get to work with very enthusiastic people who are very passionate about the subject, even if that subject is a minor part of a small scale project.  I think community archaeology (which is definitely on the rise – Elmet were one of the first – maybe even THE first – community archaeology units, being established in 2009) has the potential to combine the best parts of academic and commercial archaeology.  Community projects that are adequately funded enable us to conduct great quality research within a realistic time frame, and using experienced field staff who really know what they’re doing, with the added bonus that the local community can get involved.

Although academic fieldwork projects usually have the luxury of lots of time, they are not always funded well enough to be able to employ supervisors and teachers that can work to commercial field standards, and may have to rely on post-graduate students who themselves have little field experience.

bilhamkatironageskellie

Students excavating an archaeological site in Yorkshire help to uncover an individual found near an Iron Age deposit. You can read the report of the osteological analysis of this individual (SK 1022) by Lauren here.

Commercial archaeology, on the other hand, has a wealth of amazing, talented field archaeologists who are excellent at their jobs, but tendering for contracts between companies often means undercutting each other in terms of time and cost.  The things that suffer as a result are job time frames – so the archaeology may not necessarily get the time, care and attention it deserves in order to met developer deadlines – and field staff wages, which are notoriously low.

I really think that community archaeology is only going to grow in popularity over the next few years – this has certainly been aided by an increase in public awareness and interest in archaeology, as a result of all the television and other media coverage it gets nowadays.  The public are starting to realise that archaeology doesn’t have to involve large scale excavations that dusty old academics do in far away places like Egypt and Greece!  Local archaeology groups and communities are increasingly starting to tell us what they want to know about the areas that they live in, and we as community archaeologists can help them find out.

As a cheeky aside to this, I should also say that if there are any community (or other) group out there that would like to get involved in archaeology in any way, or have archaeological projects that they would like to undertake but don’t know how, get in touch with us at Elmet and we’ll see what we can do for you!

TBOMI never knew that Elmet were possibly the first community archaeology group!  I have taken part in a few local community digs myself and know the value of engaging the local community.  I very much encourage readers to get involved with their local archaeology group.  Thank you very much for agreeing to be interview Lauren, and good luck with your osteological projects and keep up the good work with Elmet archaeology.

Learn More

  • Lauren, with Elmet Archaeology, will also be helping host the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014 on the 31st of May 2014.  The one day conference will feature a range of papers on a variety of topics in a friendly setting.
  • You can also learn more about the work that Elmet Archaeology conduct with local communities here.  They conduct a broad range of projects taking in everything from exploring WW2 prisoner camps to reminiscence groups, find out more here.

Select Bibliography

McIntyre, L. 2009. SK 1022, Bilham Farm, Brodsworth. Human Bone Assessment Report. Unpublished report. The  University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Bruce, G. 2010. Excavating All Saints: A Medieval Church RediscoveredCurrent Archaeology. 245: 30-37. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. 2011. Osteological Analysis of the Stanwick Skull. Unpublished report. The University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Harvey, L. 2012. Non-Comformist Chapel Crypt Survey, General Cemetery, Sheffield.  Report No. GCNC01. Unpublished report. The University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

Ottoway, P. 2004. Roman York. Stroud: The History Press.

Ottoway, P. 2013. Roman Yorkshire: People, Culture & Landscape. Stroud: The History Press.

Interview with Paul Koudounaris: Behind the Lens

5 Feb

Paul Koudounaris is an art historian based in California, USA, who specializes in the documenting and photographing the use of human remains in sacred contexts, especially in ossuary and charnel houses.  Perhaps best known for his two books, Empire of Death (2011) and Heavenly Bodies (2013), Paul gained his PhD in art history from the University of California Los Angeles in 2004.  Paul’s personal website can be found at Empire de la Mort, which contains a whole host of information on upcoming talks, books and an extensive selection of his stunning photography.


These Bones of Mine: Hi Paul, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I recently had the great pleasure of watching you speak at the University of Sheffield on the topic of your latest project ‘Heavenly Bodies’, the so-called saints from the catacombs, but for those that don’t know of your research interests how would you best describe your previous and ongoing work?

Paul Koudounaris: I basically study the use of human remains in sacred contexts. Heavenly Bodies was my second book with Thames and Hudson, and it was a study of the skeletons of supposed martyrs taken from the Roman Catacombs starting in the late sixteenth century, and magnificently decorated with jewels. The book that preceded it was the Empire of Death, which was a study of ossuaries. By training I’m an Art Historian, not an archaeologist or anthropologist, and it’s important to note that because my primary interest has always been in documenting how what I am studying fits into the visual culture of its period. I’m not trying to come up with a provenance for these bones, that’s outside of my skill set and usually not terribly relevant to what I want to probe, which is what people saw in them at the time, how and why they decorated them, or decorated with them, and what that meant.

rothwellkouddou

A beautiful photograph of the stacked crania and long bones from the medieval Rothwell crypt at Holy Trinity Church in Northampton, England.  Rothwell is only one of a few surviving English charnel houses and is currently being assessed by a team from the University of Sheffield for best conservation methods and examination of the skeletal remains.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

If by training I’m an Art Historian, I have to also fess up that by nature I am something else–by nature I’m kind of a dilettante. I came into Art History through the visual arts, before I went and got the PhD I used to do assemblage sculpture and installation work, and while the rigor of studying the material for the two books was important to giving the subject matter meaning, it also left me kind of cold. It’s for that reason that the next book will turn out to be radically different. Both of the previous books are very photo heavy–they need to be, the images themselves are an important part of the story–and I do all my own photos. There was an interesting personal transition for me in completing those books: when I started, I thought of myself as an Art Historian who did photography, now I think of myself more as a photographer who does Art History.

For that reason, I wanted to do a book that would allow the images to break free of the need to conform to the text. The text was crucial to the two books, but it was also tyrannical when it came to the images, the text dictated how the images needed to be used, where they could appear and in what context. But the next book, which will be much more global (including copious material related to the veneration of human remains I have shot in Asia, South America, Africa), will be formatted in a very different way. The images themselves will construct the story–they will be arranged based upon their aesthetic qualities, and the text will be made to conform to them. This will allow different, maybe more romantic and imaginative connections. There is no reason why, say, a decorated skull from Nepal cannot sit alongside a painted skull from Austria, other than the fact that the previous texts wouldn’t allow that. But this time the images will be laid in first, and I have instructed the designer to simply leave me blank text boxes within the layout, and it will be my job to go back in and construct texts that will link these images together. In essence, we’re working in a way that’s exactly opposite of how we had worked before.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read any of your books, or has come across your photography work before, will recognise the fact that you have a real passion and skill for capturing the innate character of your subject.  Do you ever feel a personal connection to what, or who, you are photographing, or is the act of photographing itself a sort of personal veneration of the object or individual?

Paul: That’s a great and complex question. I find the term “innate character” a bit tricky, but what I try to capture is whatever I feel is most expressive about a site or skeleton, based on my own innate, intuitive reaction. With the charnel houses, I figured out very quickly how to take great looking pictures of them–if you have the right equipment, it’s not that hard, there are just a handful of technical things that are important. But shooting that way, just to make things look good, gets rhetorical. When I was shooting Empire of Death, it was important to me not just to shoot to make things look good, but to walk into a place and try to assess my own reaction to it–or rather, what my reaction would have been had I not already visited scores and scores of other charnel houses. That’s not easy to do, to try to erase your own callousness towards the subject matter and look at things with fresh eyes. But that was the goal, to try to retain some freshness of vision to shoot each site so that it expressed whatever impact it might have had on me, had I walked in totally naive.

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A photograph from the 2013 Heavenly Bodies book, reported to be the Saint Munditia, the patron saint of Spinsters, in Germany (termed the Katakombenheilige).  Notice the fine silk screen, exquisite metal work and re-made eyes.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

When I was shooting Heavenly Bodies, each time I would come to a new skeleton, I would try to come up with a single word that best distilled what I felt it expressed. So some conjured for me the idea of pride, others loneliness or abandonment, others humility. Of course, the skeletons express none of these things, these are my own reactions to them, but it was important to me to get a simple and clear sense of what I was receiving from them, and then try to capture that single expression. It was a terribly hard task–if shooting charnel houses is, as I said, relatively easy if you have the right equipment, shooting those skeletons was torturous at almost every turn. They are awkward items, the angles are invariably difficult, the lighting is horrendous, and worst of all the vast majority are encased in glass shrines that cannot be opened without breaking them–so not only are you dealing with issues of reflection and glare on the glass, the glass itself could be upwards of 400 years old, so not only dirty, but filled with defects and divets I would have to somehow avoid. You’re not asking about the photography on a technical level so I won’t go into detail on what I had to do, but as I said, it was very, very difficult to even get a shot in many cases, and even more so to try to get any kind of expressive effect.

To me, though, that is where artistry lies–not just reproducing the object, but responding to it. That approach has puzzled a lot of people, frankly. People at the sites were expecting someone who was simply interested in studying them as historical objects, and in such a mindset, pretty much any picture will do, and the optimal quality to be striven for is clarity. But I was doing something else, trying to find some expressive quality–as I said, it was often puzzling to people. Many thought I was just nuts, because I might be walking around a site or staring at a skeleton for long periods of time not doing anything, just staring, or spending long amounts of time making tiny adjustments with the camera or lenses or filters. Is it a form of veneration? I don’t know. Maybe. I think it’s a form of respect. I think it’s also a form of bonding. I don’t know about veneration. The thing to remember, though, is that all those pictures are my own reactions to the objects or sites, so there is a level on which they also serve in an inverse way as portraits of myself. Anyway, long answer, but as I said, it’s a complex question.

TBOM: I very much like the idea that it is a form of bonding with the subject, especially in the case of the saints in Heavenly Bodies.  It has been noted that you are also keen to study the burial places of animals, especially pet cemeteries.  Are you fascinated by the human-animal relationship through time and do you regard the burial places as outpourings of human grief for animals or as examples of demonstrative wealth?

Paul: That’s another complex question, more complex than I would have thought before I had started looking into pet cemeteries–and yes, I have become rather fixated on them lately. You mention the “human-animal relationship through time,” but we need to be aware of how that relationship has evolved, and how it varies historically and cross-culturally. It’s a very hard evolution to trace, since it is not something that was typically documented in texts. In short, what we call “pets” were basically an invention of the nineteenth century, particularly in France and the UK. OK, sure, people had always had domestic animals, apparently dating back to prehistoric times–I say this because graves have been found containing people and animals buried together, so presumably in such cases there was some domestic relationship between them.

But what we call a pet–the way we conceive it, the way we treat it, the way we feed and groom it–is as I said something that really starts in the nineteenth century. I wouldn’t even use the term “pet” for animals before then, because to me that term has a cultural specificity. Well, it’s a long story, obviously. But when it comes to pet cemeteries, not surprisingly they also start in the nineteenth century, and not surprisingly then they also start in the UK and France. They start with the modern conception of pets. Animals were buried before then in their own graveyards, this dates back again to ancient times–but a place like Bubastis, where cats were mummified in Egypt, was not a “pet” cemetery, because of course these were sacred animals.

Anyway, regarding the burial places, they likewise have a different meaning depending on the culture and era and the way the animals were conceived, but one interesting thing I have noticed about the modern pet cemeteries is that they really aren’t examples of demonstrative wealth, which seems counter intuitive. To some extent they are I suppose, because the very poor are excluded due to cost, and the very wealthy have greater means to memorialize their animals, but by and large wealth has nothing to do with it–it’s more a question of the attachment to the animal, and whatever ritual its owner feels is necessary to gain closure.

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Unknown individuals at a Ruamkatanyu skull shrine in Bangok, Thailand. As part of a charitable foundation that provide coffins to low-income families, the skulls are the patrons of dead paupers and unidentified individuals that symbolises the value of the work that the foundation carries out. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

I have been talking to a lot of people who work at and have animals at pet cemeteries, and even gone to some vigils at one here in LA (they have a monthly candlelight vigil). I have yet to come across anyone I would consider in the top-tier economically, but have found many people whom I would consider no better than middle class. They have no interest in demonstrating wealth or status. Like I said, the decision to memorialize in a cemetery is due almost exclusively to attachment to the animal and the need for closure. It’s love in very pure form. Sometimes in a frightening form because it can be obsessive, but it’s based in love, and, with the filters we use for grieving humans removed, the emotion is often raw and poignant to the point of pain.

TBOM: Could you tell me more about the monthly candle lit vigils for animals in LA?  Also have you noticed any obvious differences between modern countries for pet cemeteries?

Paul: Sure. They hold these candlelight vigils at night, once a month. Anyone is invited to come, it is a chance to speak about their departed animal–to help the person who lost the pet find some measure of solace and resolution in the company of others who are struggling with the same grief. After a person speaks their candle is then placed in a box with those of the others who have previously spoken, it’s obviously a symbol of solidarity. Pet cemeteries are odd places, because as I have said the normal conventions and formalities we have with other people are removed when it comes to animals–think about it, no matter how giddy I might be feeling, I simply can’t walk up to another person on the street and pat them on the head, pinch their cheeks, and start saying, “oh you look so cute”–but I can do that to a dog, so you can encounter pretty much anything when it comes to people grieving an animal. When it comes to these vigils, mostly it’s pretty straight forward and dull, but sometimes it can get very odd–the last one I went to, there was an elderly woman in a wheelchair singing “My Darling Clementine” to her dead dog in an operatic voice, it was like something from a David Lynch movie.

As for differences between cultures when it comes to the pet cemeteries, they’re really a very American thing–the vast majority of pet cemeteries are in the USA. I mentioned that they started in the UK and France, but the place they caught on is here in the USA. I am still not entirely sure of what that says about us as a culture, but my intuition is that there are two ways it could be interpreted. One is that we are simply more devoted to our pets, and thus willing to publicly memorialize them. I would have to somehow to find statistics on per capita expenditures on animal toys, accessories, and other related items to confirm if that might be true. The other way to interpret it is simply that, hey, it’s the USA, and we can create a commodity out of absolutely anything, we can even find a way commodify your dead dog. I have a hunch the answer will turn out to be the latter, sadly.

TBOM: As a part of the ‘Encountering Corpses’ art exhibition at the Manchester Metropolitan University in March, you are displaying some of your original photography from the Heavenly Bodies and Empire of Death books and presenting a talk about your work.  What for you is the driving force to document these bodies and the pet cemeteries?

Paul: Hmmmm. Well. What is the driving force that compels me to do this kind of stuff . . . to answer that properly would require deep introspection. On a more superficial level, I tend to be interested in things that have a profound, emotional meaning, but have fallen through the cracks of history. Of course, I have chosen *these* topics in particular, which I suspect appeal to me because in addition to their historical and emotional value, they also often have a surreal weirdness associated with them.

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A still from the Fiesta de las Natitas in La Paz, Bolivia. The festival, held every November, is little known outside of Bolivia where the living commemorate the dead and especially venerate the skulls of the ancestors. Paul has written an informative article for the Fortean Times here on the festival and it is well worth a read. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

To pry a little deeper, they all obviously involve death and remembrance, which is a topic I was obsessed with ever since I was a child. I used to try to talk to my mother about exactly what I wanted written on my tombstone (yes, she thought I was odd, and no, she did not particularly want to talk about that topic as it seemed to unnerve her). But it’s hard for me to come up with an answer beyond that. Obviously, we are talking about topics that are part of the great mystery that binds us all as living creatures–but there was no specific incident I can recall that would have made me any more macabre than anyone else.

TBOM: Thank you Paul for that response, I think a lot of archaeologists and human osteologists will agree that in a large part, the study of history, our interactions and thoughts about death and remembrance, all drive our passion for pursuing our chosen fields.  A final thank you for joining These Bones of Mine and for enlightening us to the worlds of Saints, pet cemeteries and your inner thoughts!  I look forward to the culmination of your next project.

Further Information

  • Paul will be appearing for a talk and exhibiting a number of his photographs at the Manchester Metropolitan University Encountering Corpses exhibition on the 28th of March 2014 (exhibition on from 28/02/14 to the 10/04/13).

Select Bibliography

Koudounaris, P. 2010. Skulls Cops and the Cult of the Natitas. Fortean Times. Accessed 05/2/14.

Koudounaris, P. 2011. The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. London: Thames and Hudson.

Koudounaris, P. 2013. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.