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A Brief Photo Essay: Sheffield General Cemetery

26 Jul

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Sheffield to take part in an archaeological excavation in the nearby Peak District but, after hearing about the beauty of the Sheffield General Cemetery at the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014 conference, I thought it was time to give the cemetery a visit whilst I was down.  With a good friend and my trusty old Pentax S1a camera loaded with black and white film, I set off to take a look.

The fully landscaped Sheffield General Cemetery was opened by the Cemetery Company in 1836, a year before Queen Victoria took the throne of Great Britain, in the south-west part of the city on a patch of steeply rising land.  It was closed for burial by Sheffield City Council in 1978.  It was constructed in response to the overcrowding and poor conditions that haunted many of Sheffield churchyards in this period of rapid economic and population growth of the city during the industrial revolution, and subsequently extended on the east side in 1846 at the request of the Anglicans (Hartwell 2009).  It is a cemetery that is noted for its unique history and architecture – being home to (the unfortunately unpopular) two terraced catacombs, a Gothic-style Anglican chapel, a two-storey Non-conformist chapel with subterranean burial vaults (which was built in the classical style with Egyptian features), and a prominent gatehouse alongside other interesting features (McIntyre & Harvey 2012).  It remains an overgrown and poignant home to around 87,000 or so Anglican (Church of England) and Non-conformist inhumations.  Individuals were buried throughout the span of the cemetery lifespan, with the majority being buried after the 1855 Burial Grounds Act was passed (Sayer 2012: 29).  Today the cemetery is open to all to explore the interesting architecture, beautiful grounds and the famous individuals from Sheffield’s past.

Although this is just a brief post I highly recommend taking the time to read the sources below and to give the cemetery a visit if you are in the area.  It is really is beautiful and serene – perfect for a summer stroll if you are not on an excavation!

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A moment to pray.  A particularly elegant statue on the top of a grave plot commemorating a family.  During the Victorian period it was the vogue for memorial sculptures to hark back to classical antiquity and the Sheffield General Cemetery has many monuments with obvious architectural motifs and influences from the Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures.  Unlike modern cemeteries, and indeed some of the more recent 20th century gravestones at the General Cemetery, Victorians tended to elect for elaborate memorials that commemorated family ties, christian values and the remembrance of the individual; essentially mourning was not hidden from the actual burial or commemoration site (Sayer 2010).

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A moment to commemorate.  This now crumbling monument was installed in the cemetery to honour George Bennet (1773-1841), who was sent around the globe by The London Missionary Society to report and discover the state of ‘Godliness’ around the globe.  He spent 8 years (1821-1829) covering the far reaches of the globe, making a total journey of around 90,000 miles before returning home.  Although the monument is a dedication to him he was not buried in the cemetery itself (SGCT website).  The majority of the monuments at the cemetery can be found in the western Non-conformist area, where many notable citizens of 19th century Sheffield can be found.  This includes the grave of Mark Firth (1819-1880) who was a steel industrialist, philanthropist, and the founder of Firth College in 1870 (which later became the basis for The University of Sheffield).  Many of the monument’s fencing in the cemetery is made of Sheffield steel and remain fairly intact to this day, although larger monuments themselves and the Non-conformist chapel have suffered damage and neglect (McIntyre & Harvey 2012: 2).

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The fenced off plots of Non-conformist graves awaiting restoration and conservation.  In this particular area  many of the gravestones and monuments have been crowded together and are slowly being covered by vegetation.  Although closed for burial in 1978 Sheffield City Council still own the site and it became run down in the 80’s and 90’s, however it is now managed by the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust (formerly known as the Friends of the General Cemetery).  The Trust is a charity organisation which was formed in 1989 and its aim is to help conserve the cemetery, run educational tours and workshops, and help in the historical research of the cemetery’s architecture and occupants.  The cemetery and the landscape is listed as a Grade II* building environment by English heritage, and it is also home to a designated Local Nature Reserve.

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A different view of the above, showing an uphill shot of crowded monuments and gravestones that mark burials.  A portion of the Anglican area of the cemetery was leveled of gravestones and markers in 1980, which cleared some 800 markers, to make a playing field (Hartwell 2009).  A number of these, and some of the older gravestones that had fallen or become rubble, were used in the construction of rain clearways or pathways.  The cemetery is also home to individuals who have died during pivotal points in the city’s history.  This includes victims from the great Sheffield flood of 1864 when 270 people were killed when a reservoir dam breached uphill, soldiers from the First World War (a war which helped influence a change in style towards simpler memorials in the western world), and people killed during the blitz from the Second World War where a total of 700 people died in Sheffield, some of whom were buried in the General Cemetery (SGCT).

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Silently guarding his home.  This bear doesn’t belong in the Sheffield General Cemetery but comes from the nearby Sheffield Botanical Gardens, which was founded in 1836, the same year as Sheffield General Cemetery.  The Anglican side of the Sheffield general Cemetery (designed and extended in 1846) was designed by Robert Marnock, who also designed the Sheffield Botanical Gardens (Hartwell 2009).  The botanical gardens hosts a wide range of flora from each corner of the globe and covers a grand total of 19 acres.  The bear pit in the botanical gardens was home to a duo of brown bears that entertained the public from 1836 until the 1870’s when a tragic accident involving a boy falling into the pit and being killed resulted in their removal from it (source). The pit itself was particularly small and I can only imagine the stress that the bears themselves must have felt.  Today the botanical gardens remain open and free to the public and are a popular attraction on a summer day.

It is worth mentioning here that during the Victorian and post-Victorian periods there were many different Burial Act Laws initiated and implemented, which have subsequently heavily influenced the approach and actual access that archaeologists have during planning processes and exhumation of human remains in many of the UK’s urban areas.  This is an ongoing source of contention and conflict between heritage bodies, contractors, the public and the government, and it remains likely to continue to be so in the future (Parker-Pearson et al. 2011: 819, but also see here with regards to exhumation and burial law).

Unfortunately I only had one roll of black and white film and I wanted to save some film for something else which, tantalizingly, will follow this post!

Learn More

  • The Sheffield General Cemetery Trust website can be found here, where a record of both the history of the site and of the individuals buried at the cemetery can be accessed.
  • The Urban Ghosts website has a fantastic selection of photographs, including of the Non-conformist chapel and views of the terraced catacombs, and information on the cemetery here.
  • A list of common symbols on Victorian graves and their meanings can be found here.
  • Read about just why the cemetery and park is listed as a Grade II* building by English Heritage here.
  • Delve into the delights of the Sheffield Botanical Gardens, where the bear pit and curvilinear Glass Pavilions are also Grade II and II* listed buildings, here.
  • Over at Spoilheap Sue Anderson has a very considered and enlightening range of issues that should be taken into account regarding the legal aspects of burial archaeology.

Bibliography

Hartwell, C. 2009. Sheffield General Cemetery (List Number 1001391), English Heritage List Entry Summary.  Accessed 25th July 2014. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Harvey, L. 2012. Non-Conformist Crypt Survey, General Cemetery, Sheffield. Report No. GCN01. The University of Sheffield. Unpublished report. (Open Access).

Pearson, M.P., Schadla-Hall, T. & Moshenska, G. 2011. Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. 21: 5-9. (Open Access).

Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd.

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.

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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.

A Silent Angel

28 Sep

I’ve recently acquired a Pentax S1a camera so I took it for a try out with some black and white film and took some photographs of local landmarks.  Although a good few of the photographs on the roll didn’t develop (due to me being a novice with such things), I’ve managed to get a few good snaps I think, including this one below of a local cemetery.

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The Stranton Grange cemetery, in Hartlepool, England, opened in 1912 and houses the town’s main crematorium, which opened in 1954.  The cemetery is still a working cemetery and accepts the majority of the town’s deceased.  The grounds accept inhumation of human remains as well as the burying of cremated remains, although markers and memorial stones are also accepted in remembrance of the dead.  The graves are orientated on the east to west axis, as standard practice in christian burial grounds, although the rows are often back to back.  Although the number of those buried at the cemetery are unknown (numbering at least into the thousands), there is still plenty of land available for future burials. Photograph by author.

Archaeologists often work with the dead, whether it is excavating the remains of individuals in long forgotten cemeteries or discovering king’s under car-parks, and are recognisably in a privileged position when doing so.  Not many professions can claim to work directly with the deceased or with the artefacts of populations long since vanished.  Although I have not worked with the osteological remains of individuals for a few months now, it takes only a second to remember that modern cemeteries are often beautiful places to reconnect with our loved ones, and for a place to sit and reflect on our own mortality.

Human Osteology Courses in the UK

22 Jan

This is something I should have done a while ago.  Regardless, whilst I was doing some light research for another article I made a quick list of every course in the UK that offers human osteology as a taught masters (either as an MA – a Masters of Arts or as an MSc – Masters of Science) or offer a distinctive human osteology module or component within a taught masters degree.  England is well represented within the universities highlighted, Scotland only comes in with two entries whilst Wales and Northern Ireland, as far as I know, offer no distinctive osteological courses at the Masters level.  Further to this the reader should be aware that some universities, such as the University of Leicester, offer commercial or research centers for human and animal osteology yet run no postgraduate courses that provide the training in the methods of osteoarchaeology.  Thus they are excluded from this list.

This information is correct as of the 8 January 2014, but please expect at least some of the information to change.  I think we could likely see a raise in the tuition fees for MSc and MA courses within the next few years, as a direct knock on effect of the upping of undergraduate fees.  It should be noted here that the education system in the UK is well-regarded, and it’s educational institutions are often in the top 10% in world league tables; however it can be very expensive to study here, especially so in the consideration of prospective international students.  Please also take note of the cost of renting (especially in the south east of the country) and the high cost of daily living.  The list is not an exhaustive attempt and I am happy to add any further information or to correct any entries.

As well as the list below, the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology also have links to human osteology and bioarchaeology courses in the UK – check it out here.

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

MA/MSC Degrees in England

Bournemouth University:

University of Bradford:

University of Cambridge:

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

Cranfield University:

Liverpool John Moores University:

UCLAN:

University College London:

University of Durham:

  • MSc Palaeopathology (Fees available on request, expect UK/EU £5000 and International £14,000).
  • MSc Evolutionary Anthropology (Fees available on request, expect UK/EU £5000 and International £14,000).

University of Exeter:

Universities of Hull and York Medical School:

  • MSc Human Evolution (A very interesting course, combining dissection and evolutionary anatomy) (UK/EU £4620 and International £16,540).

University of Liverpool:

University of Manchester:

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

University of Oxford:

University of Sheffield:

University of Southampton:

University of York:

MA/MSc Degrees in Scotland

University of Dundee:

University of Edinburgh:

Please be aware of changing program fees, as some of the above information has come from the 2012/2013 course fees, and these can, and are likely, to change during the next academic year.  In conjunction with the above, a number of universities also run short courses.

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

Short Courses in England

Bournemouth University:

Cranfield University:

Luton Museum

Oxford Brookes University:

University of Bradford:

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

University of Sheffield:

I am surprised there are not more short courses in the UK.  If you find any in the UK please feel free to drop a comment below!

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

Note: A final note to prospective students, I would strongly advise researching your degree by visiting the universities own webpages, finding out about the course specifics and the module content.  I would also always advise to try and contact a past student and to gain their views on the course they have attended.  They will often offer frank advice and information, something that can be hard to find on a university webpage.  Also be aware of the high cost of UK tertiary education as prices have been raised considerably in the past few years and are likely to rise again.

Furthermore if you know of any other human osteology Masters or short courses in the UK please comment below or send me an email and I will add it to the list here.

Further Information

‘The Bioarchaeology of Care’: A Case Study From Neolithic Vietnam (Tilley & Oxenham 2011)

29 Jan

A recent article in the International Journal of Palaeopathology, ‘survival against the odds: modelling the social implications of care provision to seriously disabled individuals’ by Tilley & Oxenham (2011), has proposed a new methodology (the ‘bioarchaeology of care’) highlighting the functional impacts of pathologies, possible and probable health challenges encountered, and the nature of support required to sustain life for disabled individuals in the archaeological record.  Make no mistake- this is a bold, interesting and arresting improvement in the field of palaeopathological studies.

Man Bac Burial 9 (Tilley & Oxenham 2011: 37)

The focus of the investigation is the individual called Man Bac burial 9 (hereafter referred to as M9), from a Neolithic cemetery site (1700-2000BC) located in Ninh Binh province of northern Vietnam, 100km north of Hanoi (Tilley & Oxenham 2011: 36).  Excavations between 1999 & 2007 uncovered 95 individuals, with the site occupying a mouth of an estuary of the Red River Delta.  The archaeological evidence suggests a ‘hunter gather economy’, with a focus on aquatic and terrestrial vertebrate fauna (Tilley & Oxenham 2011: 36).

The individual under study was a  male between 20-30 years old, buried in a north to south flexed position on his right side, in contrast to the normal mortuary practice of extended supine east-west orientation.  The skeleton of M9 exhibits extreme disuse atrophy of the lower and upper limbs (as evidenced by the gracile bones), alongside full ankylosis of all cervical and first three thoracic vertebrae, permanent torticollis, and bilateral temporomandibular joint degeneration; a ‘diagnosis of Klippel Feil Syndrome type III has been proposed’ (Tilley & Oxenham 2011: 36).   It is thought that M9 survived for approximately 10 years with disabilities (minimally paraplegia/maximally quadriplegia) so severe that he relied on assistance for nearly ever aspect of his life.

The methodology identified the context of care for M9, (as above), included reviewing the socio-cultural context, general health, and the Man Bac physical environment.  Next, Tilley & Oxenham (2011: 37) reviewed current clinical literature and split the care needed by M9 into a) basic and b) advanced care.  Basic care consists of the daily necessities of life- dressing, food, water, transport & dressing, whilst advanced care includes maintenance of personal hygiene, managing long term environmental and physical concerns, general health maintenance, dedicated nursing, medical intervention as needed and continued well-being.

Tilley & Oxenham (2011: 40) are right in assessing that it can never be known how the Man Bac society identified and understood illness, but assume that the same basic  physiological responses were the same.  The methodology is still under development, and I look forward to it being applied to further archaeological individuals and cultures (Larsen 1997, Roberts & Manchester 2010).

Ninh Binh (Wikipedia 2012)

My only reservation regarding the methodology and approach of the researchers & archaeologists are the dangers inherent in applying a care scheme (or ‘retrospective attribution of motive’) onto a culture from which we are substantially removed from, both in space and time.  Regarding what is, and what can be classed as a disability, together with differing cultural and world views, means that disability can never be classed easily (Roberts & Manchester 2010).  The ever resourceful IFA have produced a recent paper on employing disabled people, and it helps to  highlight how Britain’s own views on disabilities have, and continue, to change (see this post for the social, medical and charitable models of disability).

Regardless, this is an interesting and much-needed review of how disabled individuals are examined in a cultural context.  The use of modern clinical data alongside the environmental, archaeological and palaeopathological evidence is well presented, and produces interesting results whilst making the best use out of available evidence.  On the last note, it is noted that the cultural values exhibited & recorded are key in giving a partial insight into the life and care of M9; hopefully this methodology will be developed further and used again, however it should not be used carte blanche without the full context of evidence available.

Bibliography

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease Third Edition. Stroud: The History Press.

Tilley, L. & Oxenham, M. F. 2011. Survival Against the Odds: Modelling the Social Implications of Care Provision to Seriously Disabled Individuals. International Journal of Palaeopathology. Vol 1 (2) pp.35-42. (Access required).

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology: Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whittington, K. 2011. Employing People with Disabilities- IFA Practise Paper. Reading: IFA.

Guest Blog: ‘Cannibalism In Archaeology Part 2: Mancos Canyon And Herxheim Case Studies’ by Kate Brown.

3 Apr

Kate Brown is a current archaeological undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research interests include Osteology, Zooarchaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, and Scandinavian archaeology alongside the general study of funerary rituals in human culture.

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Following my previous post on cannibalism in archaeology, I would like to discuss a few archaeological case studies in more detail.

Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 (White 1992)

The Mancos site, of the Anasazi or Ancient Peublo Peoples culture,  is located is located on Ute Mountain in Montezuma County, Colorado. The bone assemblage consisting of 2106 bone fragments was excavated in 1973 by Larry Nordby. Although the site is based on high ground, it is only 75m North East of the Mancos river, giving it access to both security and a reliable water source. Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 is held as a site of significant importance when referring to cannibalism, due to its excellent levels of preservation, owing to the lack of evidence for either pre or post depositional disturbance of the assemblage. This is imperative to reach such conclusions as it reduces the possibility of confusion in interpretations.

Location of the Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 site (White 1992).

In the 1973 excavations, a multi-room habitation was found, which had been built over the remains of an earlier dwelling. Primary interments (burials 1, 2, 4 and 12) were fairly typical, and were mostly contained within the rooms of the earliest structure. The rest of the skeletal remains were found in the room fill as well as on the floor surface, and because of this they were originally interpreted as either secondary or disturbed burials. The fragments in these ‘bone beds’ at the site could not be found to have any association or articulation, and individuals appear to be mixed together indiscriminately across the assemblage.

There are many indications of possible cannibalistic consumption happening at the site.

Thin long bones, most notably fibula, were found mainly intact, however, larger more robust bones, such as tibias and femurs were found highly fragmented; this points to impact being inflicted on the bones in order to reach the bone marrow, known as percussion. Percussion marks can be seen on many of the skeletal remains recovered.

Breaks and fracture with subsequent polishing marks on the humerii (White 1992).

Scratches on some skull fragments are likely indicative of scalping rather than attempts to crack open the skull as in other cases, due to the thickness of the skull in this case as a result of osteoporosis.

The bones themselves were bleached quite light, and this is seen frequently in cases of cannibalism, as a result of being interred without any flesh adhering to the bones. Evidence of burning is evident on a large amount of remains, and because the pattern of burning on the bones is so varied it is possible to assume that they were heated whilst some flesh was still attached. Pattern fracturing and fragmentation of long bone shafts in the assemblage are strongly evident of marrow extraction, which is common across cannibalism sites.

Crushing evident on anterior alveolar region of the mandible (White 1992).

The evidence for cannibalism at the site of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 is extensive, and includes high frequencies of most of the standardised factors for recognising such activity- the polishing of the ends of long bones as a result of cooking in coarse pottery, splintering and shaft breakage of long bones to facilitate marrow extraction; clear percussion scars, hammerstone abrasion, fracturing and crushing of bones; cutmarks indicating skin peeling and butchery; crushed skulls, chopmarks and peeling on lumbar vertebrae as well as a high frequency of rib breakage.

Peeling marks on thoracic vertebrae (White 1992).

In terms of the pathology of the Mancos Canyon assemblages, it is quite typical of an Anasazi population. At Mancos MTUMR-2346 there are at least seven individuals with cranial deformation, and this is found to be present in all skeletal assemblages from Mancos Canyon. Cases of caries and abscessing are identifiable on two mandibles, and dental enamel hypoplasiawould appear to be quite prevalent throughout the population. This is also typical of Anasazi populations, who often suffered significant nutritional stress.

Overall, the high number of young adult individuals far outweighs the instances of older individuals, which is unusual for a cemetery population.

Nordby (1974) interpreted that the site of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 was either attacked, with its inhabitants being killed, dismembered and consumed at the kill site, or that the inhabitants of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 attacked a larger site elsewhere and brought dismembered bodies back to their own site for consumption.

Herxheim (Boulestin et al. 2009)

Located in the South of the German Federal State of Rhineland-Palinate, above a loess soil plateau, Herxheim is an early Neolithic Linearbandkeramic (LBK) site with compelling evidence for cannibalistic activity. Excavations have found evidence of a village that was inhabited between 5300 and 4950 BC. At the site there is a non-continuous (pseudo) ditch, which is rare in the Neolithic period, and is thought to have served as a symbolic boundary rather than as a physical defence. This is evidence of the sites importance, and demonstrative of a central position at a regional level. This could also serve as an explanation of the sites importance through to the final linear pottery period despite the change in function it underwent at this time.

Location of Herxheim site (Boulestin et al. 2009).

During the final linear pottery period, no new pits were dug, instead previously existing ones were re used to allow for the deposition of human remains, along with some fauna, ceramics, and tools made of both stone and bone. Scatters of bone fragments, some numbering up to 2000 fragments, have been recovered from these pits, and are representative of a minimum number of 500 individuals. However, with only half of the enclosure having being excavated at this point, it is hypothesised that there could be up to 1000 individuals within the entire area. In the assemblage, there is a notably high proportion of both skull fragments and leg bones compared to fragments from elsewhere in the skeletal system. Deposition occurred over a maximum of 50 years, but was probably a lot less than this.

Deposit 9 at Herxheim (Boulestin et al. 2009).

Deposit 9 was excavated in 2007, and contained a much higher density of human remains than anywhere else on site. In the assemblage recovered from deposit 9, breakage was common, especially that of long limb bones. Short shallow cut marks are typically indicative of defleshing, which is common in cases of cannibalism. There is also evidence of butchery and skinning on fragments, shown by deeper varied cutmarks. Across the skull fragments found in the deposit, cracks and fracturing occurred often. Spongy bones were also often found to have been crushed, and peeling marks were frequently seen on both vertebrae and ribs, showing a butchery technique similar to that used in the butchery of animals to separate the ribs from the vertebral column.

Rib breakage and peeling marks on vertebrae (Boulestin et al. 2009).

As I have previously discussed in my last post, this is one of the standard indicators of cannibalism. Defleshing of long bones and marrow extraction are visible through scrape marks on the bones, and marrow cavities, and is another common manifestation of cannibalistic activity. Differential breakage of long bones can be observed, with bones housing larger volumes of marrow being far more likely to have been broken or fractured. This could be a result of the relative nutritional value to be gained from the differing bones. Finger bones were also preferentially broken, although foot bones seem to have been left more often intact.

Example of differential breakage (Boulestin et al. 2009).

Green bone breakage is another requisite for proof of cannibalism, and there is strong evidence of this taking place at Herxheim from the form of fragments as well as fracture outlines on bones.

Skulls seem to have been the subject of particular attention, with many showing evidence of skinning following a repetitive method. In many cases, the tongue was removed, which is evident by cut and scrape marks on the lingual surface of the mandible. In some instances, the mandible was also removed from the skull following this.

A distinct distribution of chew marks support the interpretation of cannibalism occurring at Herxheim; if the result of carnivore activity it would tend to have a much more random distribution across the remains than what is evident. However, because the cause of death is, at this point, undetermined, it is difficult to say whether this instance of cannibalism was a result of war, ritual activity, or a response to nutritional stress or starvation. Current interpretations view it to most likely be either a result of sacrificial ritual or revenge related to warfare, perhaps as an element of possible crisis at the end of the LBK period. This would also be supported by the evidence of increased violence at this time.

Instances of cannibalism in the Neolithic is often underestimated, largely because of the difficulties in recognising it following the current set of criteria, and in defending such interpretations, which are the subject of high amounts of controversy. However, these two sites, along with many more, have provided at least the possibility of cannibalism happening within past societies for varying reasons, and hopefully with more research, more stable interpretations can be reached and agreed upon.

Bibliography

Boulestin, B., Zeeb-Lanz, A., Jeunesse, C., Haack, F., Arbogast, R., Denaire, A. 2009. Mass Cannibalism in the Linear Pottery Culture at Herxheim. Antiquity 83 (German langauge).

Nordby, L.V. 1974. The excavation of sites 5MTUMR-2343, -2345 AND -2346, Mancos Canyon, Ute Mountain, Ute Homelands, Colorado. Bereau Indian Affairs, Contract MOOC14201337 Report.

White, T.D. 1992. Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTUMR-2346. Princeton: University Press.

‘Removing Bodies From Display Is Nonsense’ New Scientist Article By Søren Holm 16/04/11.

19 Mar

Here is the link to the article in the New Scientist magazine regarding the display of human remains in museums, and as used for scientific study.  I discussed the matter from a British archaeological perspective in an earlier blog , but as this is the first article outside of a dedicated archaeological magazine that I have come across, I copy and paste the article in full below:

Removing Bodies From Display is Nonsense’ By Søren Holm

The removal of long-dead human bodies from view in museums for reburial is based on a warped notion of respect

WHEN I was 10 years old I saw the mummified body of the 4th Earl of Bothwell, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, on display in a church in Fårevejle, Denmark, during a school trip. I still have a clear memory of that day as it kick-started my interest in Scottish history. Some years later the body was removed from public display at the request of Bothwell’s descendants, and recently there have been calls for its repatriation to Scotland.

The Earl of Bothwell’s body isn’t the only troublesome human body around. There is increasing pressure in many countries to remove bodies from public displays in museums or from archaeological laboratories in order to repatriate them to their place of origin for reburial.

In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) gave tribes extensive rights to demand repatriation of human remains that were culturally affiliated to their group. A 2010 amendment to the NAGPRA regulations extended these rights to culturally unaffiliated remains as long as these were found on tribal lands or areas of aboriginal occupation. US museums will now have to relinquish control of many more scientifically important human remains to tribal groups.

In the UK, the Ministry of Justice issued a statement in 2008 stating that human remains exhumed during archaeological excavations must be reburied within two years. Archaeologists can apply for the time limit to be extended, but nevertheless there is an expectation that all human remains found by archaeologists will eventually be reburied, thus ending any scientific use.

Does all of this official concern for long-dead bodies make ethical sense?

No one disputes that the bodies of the dead should be treated with respect and in a dignified manner. And no one disputes that bodies of indigenous people have often been removed from their place of burial in ways that resemble theft.

If a body is identified, like that of the Earl of Bothwell, there is no question of whether it should be treated with respect and dignity. What we do to Bothwell’s body can affect his reputation, and if we treat it in an undignified manner it may also harm his living descendants.

But most bodies of interest to archaeology are anonymous. If they become identified it is only through the hard work of archaeologists. This means that there is no reputation to affect and no descendants to harm. Issues of respect and dignity do not disappear, but they take on a different meaning.

For a body that was not stolen from an indigenous group the relevant question becomes: “Are any of the things we are doing to this body showing a lack of respect?” We can only answer this question based on our own understanding of respect. It is easy to come up with examples of actions that show a lack of respect, such as playing football with a skull. But none of these examples relate even remotely to the kinds of scientific exploration archaeologists perform, or to what goes on in modern museums.

It is not in any obvious sense disrespectful to display a skeleton of someone long dead, if the display has a valid purpose. After all, in Catholic countries the display of relics, often said to be bones of the saints, is still commonplace.

In this context it is important to note that the issue of consent is largely irrelevant. The long dead cannot consent to be excavated, studied and displayed, but neither can they consent to be removed from their graves to make room for roads and houses. If we relied on their consent we would be living in a static society.

What, then, about a stolen indigenous body? Here we again need to distinguish between identified and anonymous bodies. Descendants may have a strong claim to have their “grandmother” repatriated, but it is much less obvious that a culturally affiliated group’s claim for repatriation of an anonymous body is of the same strength.

What’s more, the anonymous body is part of many histories, not just the history of the group it originally belonged to. In 2009, the decapitated skeletons of 51 young Viking men were discovered in a mass grave near Weymouth, UK, during road works. They are part of both British and Scandinavian history. Even if we could determine exactly where in Scandinavia they came from 1000 years ago, a claim to have them repatriated seems without foundation.

The ethical argument becomes even more problematic when we are discussing the removal of a body from scientific exploration, whether for reburial or otherwise. The production of scientific knowledge is a very significant social good and our understanding of the past relies on the ability to analyse and re-analyse a number of different archaeological remains. The range of techniques for analysis change continually and re-analysis of old remains can often lead to significant changes in the way we understand history.

Removing the possibility of re-analysis by reburial or other means therefore has very significant and real costs. Unless it can be shown that reburial is necessary in order to prevent even greater harm or loss, or perhaps to rectify some great historical wrong, reburial cannot be justified. This means that reburial is only very rarely justified, and that it is undoubtedly unjustified in cases where archaeologists excavate long-dead, anonymous bodies.

Just as our forebears drew religious comfort from the bones of the saints, without these saints ever having consented to this use of their bones, we can legitimately draw scientific knowledge from the bones of our forebears.

Søren Holm is a professor of bioethics and director of the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, UK. He is also a part-time professor of medical ethics at the Centre for Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Norway.

The comments section is quite revealing towards modern attitudes to views about the modern body.  A recent book detailing recent changes and reviews towards human displays in public is also enlightening (Short review here).  The book, from Dr Tiffany Jenkins from the LSE, is very revealing regarding the current state of human remains in British museums:

“Dr Jenkins commented: ‘The profession is over-reacting to the claims of small minority groups – such as the Pagan organization Honoring the Ancient Dead. Curiously, the profession do not take into account the feelings of other Pagan groups who advocate the use of human remains in research and display, such as Pagans for Archaeology. This reflects the unease within the sector with researching and displaying human remains.

‘Most remarkable of all is that human remains of all ages, and which are not the subject of claims-making by any community group, have become subject to concerns about their handling, display and storage, expressed by influential members of the museum profession.

‘This is not driven by public demand, but professional insecurity. Unfortunately it will penalise the millions of people who enjoy learning from the display of human remains. It will also impact detrimentally on the research environment, making it more difficult to study this important material.”

What are your thoughts about the displays of human archaeological material being displayed to the public?  Is there much difference between that and the display of the ‘plastinated’ bodies of Body Worlds so championed by Gunther Von Hagens?  Shouldn’t there be a place in the world for education about human anatomy and biology which can engage with the public?  This is an emotional debate, one which has had many legal rammifcations throughout various countries in the dealing with and public viewing of the dead; both from archaeological samples and mummified remains (the most famous example being Vladimir Lenin).  The French historian Philippe Arés (a summary of his work is written here), in particular, invigorated the study of death from an historical viewpoint.  His book, Western Attitudes Towards Death, has highlighted trends in attitudes towards death from the early mediveal period.  It is a good starting point in trying to understand how we have arrived at where we are today.

I shall leave it here for now, but a later post will deal with anthropological investigations and changing cultural viewpoints of the dying and the dead.  I will also dicuss viewpoints from various cultures about how a body is used after death.

I reiterate that the above article, copied in full, is from the current New Scientist magazine, and as such the author (Søren Holm) should be recognised as the writer of the piece, and quoted as such.

Sources:

Professor Søren Holm’s article is located here: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928030.100-removing-bodies-from-display-is-nonsense.html?full=true

The review about Dr Tiffany Jenkins’ book is here: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/news/archives/2010/10/mummies.aspx