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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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Four of A Kind: Body Focused Books

7 Dec

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

bodybooks

Cover shots of the four books discussed below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

And Finally a Stocking Filler…

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

littlelivesdurham16

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

Further Information

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

Blogging Archaeology: What Does It All Mean To Me?

15 Mar

This is the fourth entry in a blogging carnival that Doug Rocks-Macqueen, of Doug’s Archaeology, started back in November last year.  Just another quick recap: the whole idea of this blog carnival was started by Doug after he saw that the Society for American Archaeology are having their 79th annual conference in Austin, Texas, next month (just shy of the SXSW festival).  Doug specifically noticed that they are including a session on the rise of blogging in archaeology and, since he cannot be there himself, he thought it was pertinent to start a blogging carnival online to get the archaeology blogosphere alive with monthly questions.  The questions are posted on his site in the first week of each month.

blogging-archaeology3333

Displaying the slightly softer anatomy of the human body with the skeletal tissue in this months blog banner. (Image credit, remixed with MS Paint).

Last month a total of over 50 amazing bloggers joined in answering the December topic of the Best and Worst of blogging archaeology.  This is an awesome number of people involved in spreading the word about the joys and sorrows of blogging about archaeology.  My entry for January can be read here.  Remember that if you are a blogger writing and posting about archaeology and you want to take part then go right ahead!  Feel free to join at any point, answering the past questions is very much encouraged.  The previous past few months questions can be found here, please do jump in and join us!

This month (although I realise it is already March and not quite February any more) Doug has decided to do something a little bit different.  This time it is up to us bloggers to choose our own topic to discuss.  As I have cunningly already missed the deadline for this entry you can also go ahead and read other peoples entries here.

What Does It All Mean?

Well first let me define that for you.  What does it all mean is a question I often find myself asking when I look at my blog, when I think about the hours I have spent researching and writing posts.  But let’s take a minute to think how we got here in the first place.

I am writing this now on a free service that is hosting words and images that I post, and you are now reading this for free.  I do not get paid in any way to produce this content (although I could in a small way I don’t think I will), and I do it of my own free volition.  You decide in roughly ten seconds or so whether you will stay and read any articles that I have produced, or if you will click off the site and go on to search for something else instead.  We often have multiple browsing windows open at once: currently I am watching an episode of the Flight of the Conchords as I type this post, while open in other windows I am logged into a social networking site, one of my email accounts and I also have open a few news articles ready to digest.  For good measure I further have a program lined up and ready to watch on the BBC Iplayer as well.

The world-wide web, as we know it, is a grand 25 years old this year.  There is a pretty astounding 2.3 billion pages on the surface web at the current time, although no one really knows how many pages or sites there are on the web as a whole, or are on the deep web in total (Naughton 2014).  The deep web is, largely, only accessible when using certain pieces of software to access it (Tor, for example) and it is full of sites that are not indexed by any search engine.  It is also often, but not always, used for nefarious practices.  By far the biggest engine browser is Google, a powerful broker in how the internet is interacted with, and how it is indexed and searched.  Every once in a while it re-configures its search algorithms to disrupt any sites that try to play the search engine optimisation game (by setting up dummy sites with links towards a selling site, for example).  This can sometimes permanently disrupt a normally regular flow of visitors to online businesses and entrepreneurs (and, dare I say it, blogs as well) (Naughton 2014).

The blogging platform that this site uses is called WordPress, a self hosting blogging site which was created in 2003.  Wordpress is a free open source blogging tool which supports and boasts some 60 million+ sites on the web today and is host to a very active community (read more here).  It is a peer supported and fully customize-able platform where help is often provided by other users.  Alongside this there is the wordpress.org site, which acts as a primary support network.  Wordpress can, if it feels it necessary, shut down your blog instantly with little to no warning (largely due to backlinks, so be careful of this).  This though, to the best of my knowledge, rarely happens although all users of WordPress or other such hosting sites should read carefully the terms and conditions of the service that they are signing up for.  (And also make copies of posts if you want to have them stored safely elsewhere).  It has been stated that WordPress is perhaps vulnerable to SQL injection attacks, though security is regularly updated .

The quick figures above are a snapshot of the current time and a very short chronology of how young this technology is.  Although I have raised my concerns about the long-term staying power of blogs before, there are plenty of efforts ongoing that are helping to actively archive the websites that litter the internet.  The maxim ‘blog often’ also seems to hold weight for long term bloggers.  The utterly beguiling Wayback Machine has managed to archive an incredible 398 billion web pages over the current period of the webs life.  Quite wonderfully this has included 20 ‘snapshots’ of this blog.  Much like WordPress itself with its active community, the internet archive site mentioned above works with a large volunteer community to help store and archive digital cultural artefacts from across the web in a repository of knowledge.

At this point all of this somewhat randomly asserted bits of information may seem trivial, but I hope to show that the internet is, largely, a community of like-minded people who seek to strive to learn from each other.  As such the interface between the internet, knowledge and academia (particularly archaeology blogging) is something that I think about fairly often.  Also as a blogger I know that we (that is, in this instance, archaeology bloggers) are all vying for the attention of an audience that has the broadest possible range of distractions at their fingertips.  A key thing to remember here of course is the fact that the majority of bloggers write because they want to write.

Digital Witnesses

But the question remains: what does it all mean to me?  I have partly answered this question on a personal level before (here), but I think this question can be approached again from a different angle with help from a few friends.

This blog first took digital form in 2011 and has since been regularly updated with short and some not so short posts (to a degree).  What was the urge to start publicly writing (for it is deeply public, no matter if you get 1 view or 1 million)?  In part, and at large still, it was to improve my own knowledge.  To make myself sit down and take stock of what I know, what I thought I knew and what I definitely didn’t know but thought I maybe knew (to paraphrase Rumsfeld).  Of course it soon became more than that, primarily because I became part of an active online community.  This, I believe, is vital as a part of blogging generally, a dynamic that can vitalise the blogger to change, adapt and evolve during the course of their own work.  Related to this is Tim Berners-Lee’s original and sustained idea that to have a great open online expanse where it is not who shouts the loudest that counts but having the freedom to shout at all that really matters, to have that utter online freedom to take part in something.

“What’s the point of even sleeping, if  I can’t show it if you can’t see me, What’s the point of doing anything?”

Digital Witness, by St. Vincent.

As such shouldn’t we take this opportunity to present our own voices, our own knowledge and our own experiences of who we are, what we do and why we do it?  Could we, in effect, ignore the call of public interaction when it could offer so much?

In my own view now is the time that will test for future generations what direction the world-wide web will ultimately head in and in what direction.  Will it retain its original liberty, freedom and privacy?  Or will it be slowly squeezed of its freedom of use?  Yet this is perhaps too simple a view of a very complex and amorphous question, after all you can have different webs, different connections and different servers (or you know, send a letter).  There are always ways and there are always means to communicate.  The web just happens to be able to reach a lot of people awfully fast.

Personal Academia

By personal academia I mean an ongoing independent interaction with education and interaction in a field of study, specifically in this case in the realms of archaeology, human osteology and human evolution.  Because at the end of the day that is what this is, for both you and me.  However I think it is also pertinent to take a brief look at the context of this blog, because context in archaeology plays a decidedly vital part of our interpretation of the material evidence.  (As a side note it is always worth remembering that although a blog isn’t a physical object that one can handle it does rely on servers, which eat up both physical space and energy).

So lets take a quick case study to highlight just how blogging and academia can fit together.

Recently my blog was mentioned by name in an article by Stojanowski & Duncan (2014) who examined public engagement in bioarchaeology in the American Journal of Human Biology.  The authors briefly examined the rise and history of bioarchaeology as a field, and then moved onto discussing popular topics discussed in the public outreach of bioarchaeology.  Importantly they highlight that bioarchaeology is, like blogging, a young and developing field.  However blogging itself came in from some criticism as the authors believed that bioarchaeology bloggers represented the “perspectives of insiders writing largely (we would argue) for other specialists and students”  (Stojanowski & Duncan 2014: 5).  Stojanowski & Duncan also asserted that “despite this professional vibrancy, it is clear that bioarchaeologists are (to some degree) marginalizing themselves from public discourse because popular presentations of their work are not representative of the field as a whole” (2014: 6).

The first instance that I had heard that my blog had been mentioned in the article was through a message from Alison Atken, of Deathsplanation, on a social media site.  There was a second when I logged onto Kristina Killgrove’s site, Powered By Osteons, and read her article on the value in response to Stojanowski & Duncan.  This discussed detailed examples that her blog had on the public’s perception of bioarchaeology and examples of her own outreach, whilst lambasting the article authors about their negation of the effects of blogging archaeology.  At this point you could consider me intrigued and amazed that my blog had been mentioned by name in an academic article (although annoyed it was negatively framed).

I couldn’t personally access the article at the time though, which was published in the American Journal of Human Biology, because it is pay-walled as the majority of academic journal articles tend to be.  (Although the list of open access publishers in archaeology is growing).  So I emailed Kristina Killgrove to see if I could get a copy of the article.  Wonderfully she duly replied and I managed to read an article referencing my own site, but which failed to actually name the people behind the blogging sites despite being a fairly prolific.

At this point I wrote my own quick reply (here).  At this junction the wonderful Bodies and Academia blog highlighted to me in the comment section that the second author, Duncan, had made the article publicly available on academia.  I also became aware of the recently released Meyers & Killgrove’s (2014) article in the Society for Archaeological Sciences Bulletin on bioarchaeology outreach.  Although not directly in response to Stojanowski & Duncan’s article, Meyers & Killgrove (2014) highlighted the value of blogging and possible future directions, which included the greater use of video and audio resources.  The article was similar to Rakita’s (2011) article in the same publication, espousing the use of social media and blogging as an educational force of outreach for good.

Alexandra Ion, over at Bodies and Academia, in response to Doug’s question of the month for February discussed the gap between academic and blog writing in regards to the above mentioned Human Biology article and the various blogging responses to it.  

As the Bodies and Academia post by Ion highlights:

This also highlighted the gap that exists, in most cases, between those involved in ‘real academic’ work and the ones doing the popular science stuff, often through blogging. More precisely,’real’ science is still associated with the classic means of communication journal articles, intended for one’s peers, while ‘popular’ science is associated with the more modern means of communication, like blogging, media etc” (from here).

This is an interesting comment and one that has riled the academic community for some time.  Many academic bloggers used either hide their blogs or do not mention to their supervisors or departments their blogs.  It has been well documented that some bloggers in the commercial archaeological sector have even lost their job over blogging exploits.  The tide though, I feel at least with academic blogging (if we must label ourselves as such), is turning.

Kristina Killgrove will be arguing in her tenure case that her expansive blog provides an important means of education outreach, as will Katy Meyers, of the ever popular Bones Don’t Lie, during the course of her PhD studies.  Scott Haddow, of A Bone to Pick, has some fantastic posts on what it is like to work in the (bioarch) field, and highlights some very interesting burials at the legendary prehistoric site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey.  Scott is also a great photographer and his shots of field life make me itch to get back in a trench (though I’ve no idea when that will be).  Jess Beck, over at Bone Broke, has an excellent blog discussing various anatomical and physiological aspects involved in bioarchaeology research.  In particular I enjoy reading her summaries of the Evolution and Human Adaptation lectures that she has attended, and her posts on human physiological adaptation.

Jamie Kendrick, a recent graduate of the MSc in Palaeoanthropology at the University of Sheffield, has a blog called The Human Story which discusses various aspects of human evolution.  He asks some of the bigger questions that archaeology and palaeoanthropology can offer such as who are we?  Where did we come from?  What changes happened along the way?  We round off this part with two other Sheffield bloggers, namely Alison Atkin of Deathsplanation and Alexandra Ion of Bodies and Academia, who share a similar focus in discussing the attitudes to the human body, archaeology and death.  Both tackle subjects that surround the periphery of academia and mainstream topics.

If the above examples are not examples of public digital outreach, then I am not entirely sure what is.

Is This Social?

Navigating my post post-graduate life (before a fabled PhD, if that is the path I am to tread) I quite often feel like a ship without a rudder, nor destination in mind.  Simply put I am my own and online I am this, in this guise (this is an important caveat).  Through this blog then I am anchored to a greater whole, partly though my own choosing and partly through lumping.  I’ve positioned this blog as a starter, a prompt into the world of human osteology and bioarchaeology.  It is still a journey I am travelling and I am happy to have you along for the ride if you care to join.  Could this, then, be considered social anthropology as well?  Possibly a social anthropology of me, a reflection of the self?  Before we get to metaphysical here let me just say that if this is a blog detailing my own dalliance in bioarchaeology, the core underpinning must always be how I position myself to those around me and how I interact with them.  I recognise that I manage to get a fair few views (although not every blog is open to discussing statistics) as such I feel that I should highlight other blogs of note.  This is just a personal view.

“Cause we’re all sons of someone’s, we’re all sons of someone’s, I wanna mean more than I mean to you”

Prince Johnny, by St. Vincent.

 Another aspect should probably be mentioned here.  Blogging, or any social media interaction, is profoundly personal yet it is also a two-way mirror.  What you think you may get out of it, the reader may get something else out of it.  Generally the blogger is in control of the personal information that they write and distribute online.  It is up to the writer themselves then how much, or to what scale, that they do this.  It can be easy to get carried away.  Many of my blog entries mention the fact that I have a bone disease, I do this because the disease is little known outside of the medical world or of people who are diagnosed with it.  Thus my blog, as well as the more academia archaeology/osteology, has a profoundly personal aspect to it yet I am inherently aware of the danger of exposing myself too much online.  For a long time I did not have my name displayed on the blog and it is only recently that I added it again to assert ownership of the content of this blog (via Creative Commons).  As for contact it is again only recently that I set up a dedicated email contact.  The blog isn’t linked to a social media account in any way nor it is linked to an academic profile.  Far too many social media sites are advertisements, I do not want to become an advert.

The drawbacks of this are the fact that the blog may, or may not, have been overlooked by researchers looking to critically assess the ‘health’ of academic archaeology blogging.  The flipside of this is that this may mean it appeals to a broader audience, an audience which is not immediately intimidated by the academic overtone on first view.  This is an assumption however and should be treated as such.  I also hope that it invigorates a person to email me and think about what they are going to say (1) – there isn’t the instant backlash of social media.

In effect then the site becomes my own personal academic environment, the above blogs often highlighting to me new research, studies and popular pieces.  The refrain that bounces around my head becomes not ‘what does it all mean?’ but ‘this is what it means’, that I belong to an online community where I know that my work (or at least some bits of it) are appreciated by both my peers and by a lay audience, especially in an arena where (for now) I know I lack a voice.  To become a part of the vanguard of the online bioarchaeological world.  To make others appreciate the great, good and real value of archaeology and the stories that are oft hidden in bone.  To know the value of your own body.

The final blogging carnival question is already up at Doug’s Archaeology for April 2014 and it is about the future of blogging, so please do jump aboard and join in!  The summary of this month’s questions are available at Doug’s site together with links to all the wonderful bloggers who took part.

Notes

(1).  Please note that although I am not active on certain social media sites I always happy to answer any and all questions, and I am happy to take part in questionnaires, interviews or offer views on archaeology and human osteology.  Contact thesebonesofmine at hotmail.com.

P.S. If you have made it this far, congratulations!

Bibliography

Meyers, K. & Killgrove, K. 2014. Bioarchaeology. Society for Archaeological Sciences Bulletin37 (1):  23-25. (Open access).

Naughton, J. 2014. 25 things you might not know about the web on its 25th birthday.  The Guardian. Accessed 09/03/14.

Rakita, G. 2011. Bioarchaeology. Society for Archaeological Sciences Bulletin. 34 (4): 27-28. (Open Access).

Stojanowski, C. & Duncan, W. 2014. Engaging Bodies in the Public Imagination: Bioarchaeology as Social Science, Science, and HumanitiesAmerican Journal of Human Biology. In Press. (Open access on Academia.edu).

St. Vincent. 2014. Produced by John Congleton.  St. Vincent. Republic Records. [Music CD].