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Guest Interview: Putting Flesh on the Bones with James Neill

19 Dec

James Neill is a Project Archivist working on the Putting Flesh on the Bones project at the University of Bradford. Prior to this project James worked for a diverse range of arts, heritage and higher education organisations, including London Metropolitan Archives, the Mercers’ Company and the University of Arts London. As an archivist James has worked on a broad range of collections, from medieval manuscripts created by the Estate of Sir Richard Whittington to counter-cultural US comic books of the 1960s. His primary professional focus is working with archive collections with real historical, cultural or organisational value.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello James, thank you for joining me here at These Bones of Mine! I have to say I am pretty excited to talk about your new project, entitled ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’, which is based at the University of Bradford.  Could you tell us a little bit about the project and your role within it?

James Neill (JN):  Thanks David.  The ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ is an 18 month-long project which aims to catalogue, digitise and promote the archive collection of renowned palaeopathologist Calvin Wells (1908-1978).  The majority of the collection relates to Calvin’s distinguished palaeopathology career, but also reflects his many other intriguing professional and personal endeavours.  After his death Calvin’s archive of research papers, correspondence, photographs and transparencies, radiographs, and audio-visual material came to Bradford under the management of his friend and colleague Dr Keith Manchester.  This includes Calvin’s unique library of rare and antiquarian books on medicine, archaeology and anthropology.

The British palaeopathologist Calvin Wells examining a human crania. Image credit: University of Bradford.

When the collection arrived at Bradford it was divided between two different departments, with the palaeopathology material going to the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (B.A.R.C.), and his books and more personal ephemera being held by Special Collections at the J.B. Priestley Library.  This physical split as well as lack of comprehensive understanding about the contents of the collection limited its accessibility for potential users. Moreover many items, particularly the transparencies and audio-visual material, are vulnerable to deterioration and in need of professional conservation.

These factors motived B.A.R.C. Collections Manager Dr Jo Buckberry and Special Collections Librarian Alison Cullingford to bid in 2016 for a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Grant.  The purpose of the grant is to improve access to health-related library and archive collections, and is a substantial boon for archive projects across the U.K. Fortunately Jo and Alison were successful in their application and the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project was awarded a grant of almost £140,000.

We’re very fortunate because the grant has allowed us to afford a team of specialists, including a project archivist, osteologist, conservator and placement student.  As the project archivist my role is oversee each part of the cataloguing and digitisation process, as well as manage and organise all promotional aspects of the project through online and outreach activities.  Ultimately I am responsible for ensuring the collection’s potential for scientific and historical research is fulfilled by making it more accessible and known to relevant audiences as well the wider public.

TBOM:  Having been a longtime itinerant visitor to the University of Bradford, and its Department of Archaeological Sciences, I’ve always been intrigued by the fundamental role the department has played in establishing human osteology and palaeopathology as archaeological-based disciplines within Britain and internationally.  However, the university itself was the recipient of Calvin Wells physical archive rather than the base of his work. 

As such I’m intrigued by the relationship between the man and his archive.  How, and by what methods, are you making the numerous research articles, monographs, and review publications available to current researches?

JN:  Bradford’s role in developing palaeopathology teaching and research on an international level is central to the Calvin Wells Archive story.  It was Calvin’s wish that the collection be held in trust by the Wellcome Library with the intention of ultimate donation to a University offering a course in Palaeopathology to degree level.  With the introduction of the MSc Course in Osteology, Palaeopathology and Funerary Archaeology at Bradford, Calvin’s wife Freddie released the collection to the Department of Archaeological Sciences.

A collection of slides that were left behind in the archive, a very useful and durable form of documentation. Image credit: University of Bradford.

Whilst the collection is yet to be fully catalogued we’re confident that the archive holds the vast majority of Calvin’s published and unpublished skeletal research and reports.  This includes additional material, such as photographs, handwritten notes, annotated typescripts, and related correspondence.  For the first time, all of Calvin’s research will be available from one resource.  A central reason why the Wellcome Trust funded the project was our ability to demonstrate the continued interest and demand for Calvin’s work.  An analysis by Bradford’s Subject Librarian for Archaeology and Forensics Sarah George demonstrated that in the 40 years since his death, citations of his work have risen year on year.

The intention of the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project is to unlock the collection for potential researchers by producing a comprehensive catalogue of its contents. Our team Osteologist Michelle Williams-Ward is focused on parts of the collection which require specialist descriptions, such as Wells’ skeletal reports and associated photographic material. Michelle is uniquely placed for this role given that she has just completed a PhD thesis ‘Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk’ which analysed remains from many of the same archaeological sites Wells worked on.

Upon completion the catalogue will be publicly available via the Archives Hub, a national database of archives collections which covers several major UK Higher Education archives and special collections. Archives Hub is keyword searchable, so researchers will be able to search for material by site, date, persons, and, in some cases, pathology. The material can be viewed through the University of Bradford’s Special Collections at the J.B. Priestley Library.

Calvin and Freddie Wells with Vilheim Moller-Christensen, dated to 1962. Image credit: University of Bradford.

If researchers are unable to visit in person there are Reprographics and other services available upon request. Additionally any visual material on vulnerable formats, specifically Calvin’s large slide collection, will be digitised and made available via Special Collection’s digital repository which is currently in the development stage.

TBOM: ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ then sounds like it is doing a wonderful service to the work and life of Calvin Wells. Although I’ve been aware of his reputation as a palaeopathologist within the United Kingdom, and his importance in helping to establish the practice, I’m keen to learn of Calvin as an individual.

Having read Waldron’s 2014 review of his life and work in the Journal of Medical Biography, the reader is left with a strong impression of him as a somewhat intense, passionate researcher who, at times, read far too much into the skeletal remains of past individuals. Particularly so in his now notorious and problematic case of identifying rape from the remains of a skeleton identified as female and the graphic contextual details that he goes into, which is not supported by the archaeological or osteological evidence present.

Having worked with, and continuing to develop, the access and availability of both his professional and personal archive, what have your insights into his character been like?

JN:  It’s crucial for archive projects to be impartial in how they open up historical records for research and interpretation. Therefore the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ want to reveal all facets of Calvin’s character, both positive and negative.  Similarly it’s our responsibility to provide historical context alongside the material, in order to bring greater understanding about the time which Wells lived and worked.  As an archivist I can only speak to Calvin’s character as it comes across in the archive material.  There is great deal more to be understood about Calvin’s personality from reading biographies written by friends and colleagues.  In addition to Tony Waldron’s article, I recommend reading Glyn Daniel, Gerald D Hart, Cecil J Hackett, and Keith Manchester and Charlotte Roberts. Some of these articles aren’t readily accessible, and the project will change that.

A shot of Calvin working in the great outdoors, analysing skeletal remains at White Horse Cottage, Norwich. Image credit: University of Bradford.

With the exception of memoirs from his service in the Royal Army Medical Core in WWII, the archive material documents Calvin’s life from 1955 until his death at age 70 in 1978.  This was a particularly eventful time Calvin’s life when he produced the bulk of his research and established his legacy in palaeopathology.  Whilst he didn’t keep a diary as such, Calvin was meticulous in preserving his professional and personal correspondence.  We are fortunate because he often kept copies of his own letters, meaning we can read both parts of conversation.  These letters provide unique insight into Calvin’s character and his relationships with others.

An obvious aspect of Calvin’s personality is that he was a gregarious individual, eager to converse with anybody in his fields of expertise.  As a result of the popularity of ‘Bones, Bodies and Disease’ Calvin received considerable correspondence from academics, researchers and university students.  He was particularly generous with the last group, who wrote to him asking about degree courses, research areas or future career paths.  In these instances Calvin expressed earnest enthusiasm for new scientific and academic endeavours, and in many cases established enduring pen-friendship with young scholars and researchers.  It is interesting to now Google the names of these individuals and to discover that many became top doctors, scientists and even politicians.

Given his privileged background, it might be assumed that Calvin was particular about his correspondents.  However he was pleased to converse with the many strangers who wrote to him following an appearance on national radio or TV.  An ITV profile about Wells’, showing the doctor analyse ancient bones, swinging Anglo-Saxon swords and water-ski, promoted an influx of letters from as far afield as Australia.  This included an enquiry from a Norfolk sheep farmers relating to the location of large churches in rural areas with a low population.  In another letter Calvin politely declines the services of a Welsh dowser who believes he can locate bog bodies in Dersingham Bog.  There are also numerous letters from parents and teachers enquiring about how to get children involved in archaeology and osteology.  In all of these instances Calvin is polite to a fault and comes across as natural educator who cherishes the opportunity to share his intellectual passions with others.

A selection of the human skeletal remains that Calvin helped to document. Many of the skeletal remains that he studied came from sites within Norfolk and the east of England. Image credit: University of Bradford.

Concerning the more negative aspects of Calvin’s character, it’s a shame that a small number of ill-judged interpretations of human remains have come to define him as a person.  It is true that Calvin could be intense and bombastic in expressing his professional and personal opinion.  This is evident in his correspondence with Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, with whom he collaborated on the series of controversial reports on an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Kings Worthy, Hampshire.  Without hashing out the detail the Ancient Monuments Laboratory – who commissioned Sonia to produce the report on the site – resisted Calvin’s involvement on the project.  This was less to do with Calvin dramatic over-interpretations of remains, and more to with his vocal contempt for a fellow palaeopathologist on the team.  In their correspondence Hawkes pleaded with Calvin to tone his comments down, writing that they are “far too hot and strong for anyone’s but my sympathetic and sympathising eyes and ears”.

Clearly Calvin was at his most hostile when interacting with journal editors or publishers who edited his work without permission or published it with errors or inaccuracies.  In fact Calvin wrote about it in an unpublished article called ‘Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners’, where he lays into the ‘discourteous tempering’ of journal editors.  It appears that Calvin was extremely intellectually proud and felt he had seniority or ownership over palaeopathology at the time.  This is ironic because accepting some constructive criticism may have softened his language or persuaded him to omit some of the more graphic descriptions which have since left an indelible mark on his scientific bibliography.

Photograph of a slingshot wound on a crania, analysed by Calvin Wells, from ancient Cirencester. Image credit: University of Bradford.

However I think that Calvin’s archive material ultimately shows him to be a diligent and conscientious man, both at work and with friends and family.  I predict that the unlocking the collection will show a more thoughtful, progressive and accomplished Calvin than currently remembered.

TBOM: Calvin’s work has been fundamental in making the field of palaeopathology an integral discipline of study within archaeology itself. Indeed, the identification, diagnosis, and demographic attributes associated with studying both ancient diseases and evidence of trauma associated with archaeological remains allows, researchers to build up a detailed picture of human health over the ages. It also allows us to delve into ancient epidemiology within defined populations, allowing for patterns, observations and human behaviour to be identified and investigated.

However, as you have had prime access to his professional and private correspondence, I’m keen to learn what has become one of your favourite pieces of his research, whether it was his bone reports or articles on the value of human skeletal remains as portals into the past?

Related to this I’m keen to hear what you think drove Calvin Wells, the individual, to go from practising as a GP (general practitioner), from helping to heal and comfort the living, to working solely on the ancient dead, diagnosing signs of trauma and disease processes?

JN:  Being based in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Science alongside researchers and students has given me the opportunity to understand Calvin’s research in manner not immediately clear to an archivist such as myself.  Therefore I recognise the value of those parts of Calvin’s research which will be most useful and beneficial to the collection’s anticipated users – Palaeopathologists, Osteologists and Archaeologists.  In addition to his published reports on skeletal material, many of which are not currently available, the collection holds Calvin’s original research notes, graphs and tables, excavation maps, and photographs, slide and radiographs of skeletal remains.  This raw data will allow the researchers of today to reassess and reinterpret the human remains and archaeological sites initially reported on by Calvin and his colleagues.  With regard to Calvin’s bone work, I don’t have a specific favourite piece of research but rather appreciate the meticulously preserved empirical evidence which gives the archive material contemporary scientific value.

A collection shot of the archives that Calvin Wells left behind, including postcards, books, skeletal reports and photographs. Image credit: University of Bradford.

That being said I do personally enjoy the articles Calvin wrote for more popular publications, such as the Times Literary Supplements, the Reader and the US magazine Horizon.  Additionally Calvin wrote regular columns for the Eastern Daily Press under pseudonym ‘Calliphon’.  These articles show that Wells was just as enthusiastic about discussing current medical issues as he was waxing on about disease and injury in ancient history.  For example in an article from 1957 Calvin outlines the mounting evidence of direct links between tobacco smoking and cancer.  In another he provides medical and moral arguments for embracing the mass polio vaccinations in 1955, about which much of the British public were wary.  Wells also used the column to write biographies of Norwich’s great physicians or wax lyrical about primitive man in East Anglia.  It was a popular feature for which ‘Calliphon’ received a great a considerable amount of fan mail.  Adulation was something Calvin embraced, and it increased as he became more prominent in palaeopathology.

On a surface level it could be argued that Calvin devoted himself full-time to palaeopathology primarily as a means of supplementing his pension whilst pursing his interest in the ancient dead.  However, there is something in the fact that Calvin wanted recognition beyond his work as a regional GP.  It’s clear that the career change opened up a new world for both he and his wife Freddie.  From around the mid-1960s, Calvin started to forge relationships with leading scientists and academics, began lecturing for prominent organisations, and received more opportunities to appear on radio and television.  As a natural showman, Calvin fully embraced the attention and respect that being an international authority on palaeopathology brought him.  This is not to say Calvin was cynically pursuing fame, as he invested a great deal of time and research into every job and appearance.  It is clear that Calvin seemed to be gearing up for a third act in his life before cancer struck unexpectedly.

TBOM: Do you think Calvin Wells would be surprised today that his work and research (and dare I say reputation) still plays such a fundamental component in the British history of palaeopathology? Do you think he would be struck by the diverse and wide-ranging courses available, and by the active number of researchers within the field?

JN:  With regard to how Calvin would feel about the development of palaeopathology, I think he would be awestruck by the methodological and technological developments in the subject.  Most of all I think Calvin would be compelled to revise his belief that only individuals with medical qualifications can practise palaeopathology, particularly when confronted with the scale of advancements made by researchers with backgrounds in physical anthropology, archaeology, medicine, biology, and zoology.  While the discipline has significantly evolved and diversified, I think Calvin would recognise his own passion and dedication present in today’s palaeopathologists.

A shot of Calvin Wells in action, helping to teach schoolchildren in Toronto on the value in studying human skeletal remains. Image credit: University of Bradford.

I was recently speaking with Dr Keith Manchester who remarked on how proud Calvin would be that his work continues to have influence almost two generations later.  Clearly he was conscious about leaving a legacy in palaeopathology, and this is evident in the extent with which the archive collection has been cared for and maintained.  Concerning the more contentious aspects of his legacy I think Calvin would be philosophical, probably following Oscar Wilde’s famous line that ‘the only thing worse in life than being talked about is not being talked about’.

TBOM:  Indeed, I think he’d be glad that his fundamental role within British palaeopathology, and palaeopathology as a discipline within its own right, would continued to be recognised.  Thank you very much for joining me at These Bones of Mine James, and I wish you the best of luck archiving the Calvin Wells collection.

Further Information

  • Visit the Putting Flesh on the Bones project website for further information and frequent updates.  The site is a wealth of information on Calvin’s books, skeletal reports and other aspects of intriguing life and lifelong passion for palaeopathological topics.
  • To visit the Twitter page for the project please follow @PFOTB_project, for the project Instagram page please check it out at puttingfleshonthebones.

Bibliography

Daniel, Glyn. 1978. ‘Calvin Wells Obituary; A Man’s Place in Nature by Glyn Daniel’. From The Times, 5 August 1978. [Available from University of Bradford Special Collections].

Hart, G. 1983. ‘Disease in Ancient Man: An International Symposium’. Toronto, Canada (1983).

Roberts, C. 2012. Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978). In: The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects. Edited by Jane Buikstra. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 141-145.

Waldron, T. 2014. Crooked Timber: The Life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978). Journal of Medical Biography. 22 (2): 82-89. (Open Access).

Wells, C. 1961. Bones, Bodies and Disease. London: Thames & Hudson.

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The Guardian Seeks Archaeology & Anthropology Bloggers: Deadline 7th November 2016

15 Oct

Whilst I’ve been away gallivanting on the other side of the world on holiday, and subsequently musing over my next blog post, a friend has kindly informed me that The Guardian have recently advertised a position available for archaeology and anthropology bloggers to write for the Guardian science blog network on the specialism of their choice.  This is a fantastic chance to reach a broad audience, disseminate academic research, and to clarify and contextualize the importance of the aims of sub-disciplines within anthropology and archaeology, such as bioarchaeology, social anthropology and biological anthropology, to a wider acknowledgment within the public mind.  I remain unclear whether this is a paid role or not (1), but the opportunity seems quite interesting in and of itself.

It also makes me wonder if the Guardian have seen how great and wide-reaching anthropological and archaeological educational outreach can be, as example by Kristina Killgrove of Powered By Osteons fame who writes a regular blog for Forbes on bioarchaeological topics.  If you are an anthropology and/or an archaeology blogger, one of the growing many who now have an online presence, and are interested in going for the role then the short online application form asks for a provisional blog title, a breakdown of why you should be picked for the available role(s), and finally requires that you provide an example of your writing style.  The deadline closes at midday on Monday 7th November.  Good luck to any applicants!

Updated Notes

1). According to a source the blog role is paid!

Further Information

  • To read the current blog(s) focused on palaeontology on the Guardian website, which includes posts on ancient animals, vegetables, minerals, and the natural history museum sector, you can check out the Lost Worlds and Lost Worlds Revisited sites.

Guest Post: Launch of the University of Sheffield Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project Website by Greer Dewdney & Jennifer Crangle

16 Apr

Greer Dewdney is a graduate intern on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project, which is run by the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology in conjunction with Holy Trinity Church.  A graduate of the department, Greer’s role is to help facilitate the project through its various stages.  Dr Jennifer Crangle, a University of Sheffield graduate and a Workers’ Educational Association tutor, is the project initiator whose doctoral research it is based upon.  Her research focuses on funerary archaeology and human osteology, with specific reference to medieval period England and Europe and a focus on the funerary treatment and the curation of the dead, both physically and ideologically.  Joe Priestly is an undergraduate student in history and archaeology at the department and also a freelance documentarian.  He acts as the project’s media designer and built the project website.

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The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project is a joint venture between the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology and Holy Trinity Church at Rothwell, in Northamptonshire, which aims to further understanding of the Medieval ossuary beneath the church.  The ‘bone crypt’ as it is known to local Rowellians, is one of only two sites in England with a Medieval charnel chapel where the structure remains intact and with human remains in situ (the other is at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent).  The Project was begun as a result of Dr. Jennifer Crangle’s PhD research, and since then has been continuously expanding to address the many and varied areas of interest that have arisen in the investigation of this almost unique archaeological site.

One of the main areas of focus for the project currently is the creation of a ‘digital ossuary’.  This is being produced through collaboration with the Computer Sciences department and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield.  By taking a 3D laser scanner into the crypt and strategically positioning it around the ossuary to take multiple scans, a point cloud has been generated which accurately records the ossuary in three dimensions.  This point cloud is what can then be processed and refined into a full 3D digital model, which can be viewed and explored by people through a computer, so that the fascinating and engaging experience of visiting the bone crypt is no longer restricted to people who can get to Rothwell and have good enough mobility to tackle the stairs.  This research was presented at this year’s CAA (Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology) conference in Oslo, Norway, by Jennifer Crangle and Peter Heywood.

rothwell site

The new website introduces the background to the site and the aims of the project. All images courtesy of Joe Priestly.

Another of the current focuses is an attempt to secure some dates for the bones in the crypt, as obviously the question of when they date to is foremost in the minds of many of the researchers and local residents.  Recently, some surface samples were taken for CHRONO, the C14 radiocarbon dating service at Queen’s University Belfast, to test the nitrogen content of the material.  These have determined that the bones are well-preserved enough for radiocarbon dating to be feasible.  With kind permission of the Church Council, five full samples will be taken to be tested (again at Queen’s University), so hopefully there will soon be some more concrete ideas of when some of the remains are  from.

Although this won’t tell us when the bones were deposited in the charnel chapel, it will answer one of the most frequently asked and longstanding questions in the site’s history.  The dates could give us some further insights, however, into the use of the charnel chapel and how it was perceived by Rowellians; for example, if one or more of our samples date to the 1700s or later, then they had to have been brought in after the site’s rediscovery circa 1700.  This illustrates the continued belief, that the charnel room was a suitable place for depositing bones, even if it wasn’t being used as a charnel chapel in this time period.  As a part of this any and all results from the radiocarbon dating are going to reveal so much more about the charnel chapel than we currently know.

Recently the project was awarded funding from the University of Sheffield Engaged Curriculum, and this has enabled the hiring of 3rd year Archaeology & History undergraduate student Joe Priestley.  Joe designed and built the project website, as well as providing invaluable services in photography and documenting events.  This strand of the work has created a great relationship between the people of Rothwell and given them, and others from across the world, the ability to interact with, and further, the research happening at this fascinating and unique site.

Further Information

  • Find out more on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel project website, where the history of the site is discussed alongside the current research aims.  You can also take a video tour of the church and chapel itself with the researchers and members of the church involved with the project.  Keep an eye out on the site for open day tours of the site with the University of Sheffield researchers and the church representatives.  Typically these are held yearly but expect the project to pick up pace and introduce further open days as appropriate. 
  • Check out the Facebook group where we regularly post updates about our research and get involved with the project.  We also welcome feedback, so please do get in touch with questions or ideas.
  • Check out a previous These Bones of Mine photography essay on Rothwell from the 2014 open day.  The post delves into the background of the site and highlights what research has taken place over the years at Rothwell and the context for the current University of Sheffield research project.

Selection of Previous & Current Research on Rothwell

Crangle, J. N. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Published 03/08/2013.  Accessed 14/04/2016. (Open Access).

Crangle, J. N. 2016. A Study of Post-Depositional Funerary Practices In Medieval England. University of Sheffield. Unpublished PhD/Doctoral Thesis.

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). University of Sheffield. Unpublished MSc Thesis. (Open Access).

Parsons, F. G. 1910. Report on the Rothwell Crania. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 40: 483-504.

Doug’s Blogging Carnival: The Grand Challenges for Your Archaeology

1 Feb

Doug Rocks-Macqueen (of Doug’s Archaeology) is running another awesome blogging carnival following the success of his 2013-2014 Blogging Archaeology carnival.  Check out the Open Access volume that the original Blogging Archaeology carnival spawned, with the dedicated work of Doug and Chris Webster as the editors.  You can also read my review of it here, which was recently published in the AP Journal of Public Archaeology.  Both are available for free for your perusal.

This time around the theme is kept to one question: What are the grand challenges facing your archaeology? Anyone can take part, so please feel free to join in and write an entry (or draw, film and dance an entry in) about what your grand challenges are that you are facing in archaeology.  It is a one-off event for January, and Doug will post the replies to his call out by February 1st 2016 (but I’m hoping there will be further editions of the blogging carnival as it is so good to see the archaeology bloggers communicate with each other).  So without further ado, let me crack on with my entry for the carnival…

grand challenges facing arch david mennear photography 2016 jan

Probably one of my favorite memorial statues which can be found in a cemetery near to where I currently live. Check out Howard Williams Archaeodeath blog entry on the defense of photography in graveyards and cemeteries to learn more about the value of the recorded image. Image credit: A detail of one of my own photographs taken using a Pentax S1a camera on black and white Ilford film, if reproduced please credit as appropriate.

Grand Challenges Facing My Archaeology

Last night I drove up the coast to a nearby city to watch a Pearl Jam cover band with a few friends.  At the gig itself I was deeply moved by the band’s vitality, by the intense connection between a band the audience loved and a band the tribute act so clearly adored as well, but it was in the act itself, of how the cover band so carefully and energetically replicated Pearl Jam, that so impressed me (it isn’t easy capturing Vedder’s powerful voice, but kudos to the singer!).  The energy of a live act is hard to catch on tape, certainly a few live albums have managed to bottle this magic, but not the physical intimacy, the energy that re-bounds between the audience and the act when they give a great performance.

Having had the pleasure of seeing the real Pearl Jam play in a much larger venue in Manchester half a decade ago or so, watching this tribute act in a much smaller venue felt more raw, almost more real.  It was, or so I imagine, what it must have been like seeing Pearl Jam play live before they released Ten, the crowd of a few hundred bodies moving in time to invisible beat and roaring their appreciation between songs.  There is something about live music, when it is plucked from the air in front of you, that moves me so intensely.  It is also something that I have pursued much more actively in viewing since the loss of a beloved friend last year.

As I write this the song State of Love and Trust blares out of my CD player (I know, quaint in this streaming age) and I can feel my feet tapping and my fingers itching to blast something out on the guitar.  Scenes of last night are popping into my head – the rhythm guitarist bouncing around on stage, the singer clasping his hands around the microphone, the adoration of the crowd after Black is played and the personal joy of hearing The Fixer live.

It is this idea of distance, in a temporal-geographic sense, that I suppose is one of my grand challenges facing my own archaeology.  Writing in front of a screen offers precious little human connectivity as the tips of my fingers press into the plastic keys and dance across the keyboard.  I have thought more than once of stopping this blog, to focus perhaps on something more creative instead.  Although the blog post rate has slowed down remarkably after the first initial year, the content of the posts now dip into a more varied and eclectic range of topics and voices.  (Honestly readers, the Skeletal Series will eventually be complete one day!).  I feel that these posts help form the core of the identity of the blog, whilst the standard upcoming short courses or conference posts keep readers (and me) linked into the discipline itself.

One of the challenges, for me then, is knowing when to disconnect and when to reconnect.  There will always be an audience of some kind out there, but there is a need (at least for me) to take time off and to rejuvenate and to think about why I blog in the first place.  I want to help capture that feeling of vitality, of spotting the links between the everyday and the bioarchaeological (something that many bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology blogs do exceptionally well).  I first started blogging to consolidate my own information and to capture how I was slowly learning the nuts and bolts of human osteology as it applied to the archaeological record.  I also wanted to offer a framework of what it is that human osteologists and bioarchaeologists do and why.  As stated above, this has changed somewhat as I came to understand that I wouldn’t necessary ever have a career in this field and that it would (likely) remain a passion of mine.  (This could be another blog post entirely, but it is down to a few different reasons that are not insurmountable in-and-of themselves).

Holding Your Head Up High

The blog is however but one facet of my identity, but it is one I have fleshed out over the past few years.  To change direction suddenly or to not blog for a while can feel like I am, in some sense, betraying those who would most like me to write.  As such I feel a duty to sometimes produce content, without which I sometimes don’t have either the heart or the time (which is also why there are currently 12 posts lingering in draft hell…).  It is wise to clarify here that those are pressures solely forced on myself – I know I take a long time to produce a post, but bear with me.

This site has afforded me a multitude of adventures and opportunities I never would have had if I’d not taken the dive and started writing for the fun of it.  I’ve been asked to contribute a book chapter to a new and exciting volume, I’ve been asked to speak in a country on a different continent, and I’ve been asked to contribute reviews to new and upcoming journals.  However, as much as I’d love bioarchaeology to be my breadwinner it is not.  I work in a completely different sector to my passion (and it is my passion that has burned the coals for the ability to continue down this path).  The day job gives me that monetary security to pursue the writing of reviews or chapters, to take part in open days, to watch and learn at conferences, and to conduct my own osteological analyses and research.  There is, I hope, a positive takeaway point from this – you too can join in as I have.

There is one constant at These Bones of Mine and that is the trying to champion the voice of others on the site, either by guest posts, interviews or point-of-view style entries.  I see this site as one continuous conversation between my writings (and the various winding alleys that these thoughts slowly percolate into) and the readers who take the time and the effort to read the words.  But I also see it as an opportunity to give a platform to other researchers and part-time bioarchaeologists.  This shall hopefully continue and please do not hesitate to contact me, or to look over previous guest posts (and the guest post guidelines) for further information.

On a personal note I have noticed that, when I am able to fit the time in, I am much happier to be actually carrying out human osteological analysis, to collect the data and to produce the report, that I personally feel I am doing something constructive and worthwhile.  Perhaps it was a feeling I experienced recently precisely because I did not have the time to assign to it and when I did, it felt special and unique.

Moving Forward By Going Backwards

Before the Pearl Jam tribute act I had the pleasure of attending the Little Lives day-long conference at Durham University, catching up with friends and learning about the great new research in the study of human non-adults in bioarchaeology.  A great deal of thanks must really go to the organizing committee of the conference, PhD researchers Clare Hodson, Sophie Newman and Lauren Walther, for putting together a varied, vital and exciting program of speakers.  One of the most mentioned topics of research within the study of non-adults were the implications in bioarchaeology for the DOHaD concept (Developmental Origin of Health and Disease, as an outgrowth of Barker’s Hypothesis, based on work conducted 25 years ago which investigated fetal origins for adult diseases, particularly cardiac and metabolic disorders).  It gave me food for thought as I’m currently analysing a collection of Iron Age and Romano-British individuals which runs almost the full gamut of age-at-death, from likely neonates to old adults.

In a way the analysis has a lovely circular notion to it, as the individuals I’m analyzing are from one of the first archaeological sites that I had the pleasure of excavating at.  Perhaps my challenge isn’t so much geographic as temporal – I have stayed close to where I have lived a large portion of my life, but my mind flits with eager ease through the changes that this place has seen.  Sometimes that is enough.

blog

Seeing from the other side, live grows anew. Image credit: Photograph by the author using a Pentax S1a camera and Ilford black and white film. If reproduced please credit as appropriate.

Learn More

  • Check out Doug’s Archaeology, an awesome site that cuts through the sections of archaeology entry by entry.  Read the rather lovely 2014 Blogging Archaeology edited volume, for free, here.  Follow the links on Doug’s site to join in this blogging archaeology challenge.  Remember no entry is too short or too long, nor any entry too discursive in its topic or content.

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

28 Jan

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

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

stubook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More

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

Further Information

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

Bibliography

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

Views on Archaeology and Social Media Sought

10 Jul

Fleur Schinning, a graduate student in Heritage Management at Leiden University, is conducting research on how social media and blogs contribute to the accessibility of archaeology in the Netherlands and seeks readers of blogs to help fill in a quick questionnaire.  The research is focused on investigating how often, and why, readers access the social media range (with a strong focus on blogs) access and read about archaeological projects and news in order to ascertain their use as methods for education outreach and improving the accessibility of archaeology.

The readers questionnaire focuses on the motives and takes only a few minutes to fill in and can be accessed here.  It is well worth it as participants are automatically offered the chance to win 6 copies of the Archaeology magazine for free.  The questionnaire close at the end of July 2015 in order for Fleur to analyse the data and allow her to conclude her research.

As long time readers of this blog may know that I’m a keen advocate of blogging as a method of educational outreach, and as an interactive use of reaching a wide and diverse audience.  Blogging archaeology has never been more popular, both as a topic of academic research and as an actual activity.

A few quick highlights of this for me include Doug’s Archaeology blogging carnival from 2013-2014 (and the subsequent published Blogging Archaeology edited volume), where over 70 archaeology bloggers gathered every month over a 5 month period to discuss the questions that Doug posed.  This brought together a lively bunch of people and posts from all over the world, allowing for a range of fully fleshed out thoughts on a wide variety of blogging archaeology topics (you can see all of my replies here!).  Further to this is the ever expanding and growing Day of Archaeology project, held each July (I’m slowly cooking up an entry for this year), which brings together archaeological bloggers and social media users to show the diversity of a day in an archaeologists life.  This is a lovely event which really indicates just how wide a subject archaeology is and can be, with entries piling in each year from every aspect of the discipline you can think of.  Be sure to check out their website on the 24th July this year, or better yet join in.

On a quick bioarchaeology point I’m always impressed by Kristina Killgrove’s work over at Powered by Osteons and now as a bioarchaeology writer at the Forbes website (check out this interactive map of her coverage at the company).  Her work on the blogging site is really linking the academic research with public communication and engagement by making her teaching and research methods open to public access and engagement (and making it fun!).  One of the latest posts promotes the publication of her human osteology laboratory workbook for interested members of the public and specialists alike.  It is the product of the classes in human osteology that she has taught, and continues to teach, in her role as an associate professor.

Blogging archaeology and bioarchaeology has, for me, opened up so many new doors and has introduced to me wonderful people and fantastic opportunities that I could only of dreamed of before I started blogging back in 2011.  If you value reading about archaeology across social media and blogging sites, such as this one, that help a researcher and indicate how you interact with archaeology online.

Replies to Fleur Shinnings questionnaires are greatly received and, on behalf of this blog, I wish her the best of luck in her research!

Introducing Show Us Your Research! An Open Access Anthropological Project

17 Jun

One of the aims of this blog, especially more so since it has grown in the past few years, is to highlight the opportunities available to both bioarchaeology researchers and the public alike.  As a previous post highlighted, never has there been a better time to be involved with bioarchaeological research and never has it been so open before to members of the public to engage with it (for instance, try your hand here or check out some resources here!).  The communication of the aims, and the importance of the discipline, in the aid of understanding past populations and their lifestyles is of vital interest if we are to remain a dynamic and responsive field.  As such it gives me great pleasure to announce that, starting from now, I’ll be helping to disseminate the results of the Show Us Your Research! (SUYR!) project spearheaded by researchers at the University of Coimbra and the University of Algarve in Portugal.

suyr!

The SUYR! logo. Image credit courtesy of GEEvH  at the Universidade de Coimbra.

The SUYR! project aims to promote the projects that archaeologists and anthropologists have been involved in by diminishing the gap between the researchers and the public by regular concise publications aimed at the public (Campanacho et al. 2015).  The project is aimed at researchers from the anthropological and archaeological fields from around the globe and accepts entries on methodologies, artefacts, theories, site studies and pathological studies, amongst other topics.  To me this is a really exciting opportunity for early career archaeologists and anthropologists and one that I am thrilled to disseminate the results of.  It is hoped that the project expands into interviews with researchers as well!

SUYR! 2015 Entry No. 4: Carina Marques and a Palaeopathological Approach to Neoplasms

The latest entry in the series focuses on malignant tumours (or neoplasms) in the palaeopathology record.  The entry, submitted by researcher Carina Marques who is based at the Research Centre for Anthropology and Heath (CIAS) at the University of Coimbra, focuses on the skeletal evidence for malignant tumours in archaeological populations by investigating prevalence and typology of their presence.  Cancer, as the World Health Organisation figures testify, is a major cause of human mortality internationally; however their neoplastic natural history, physical manifestation and evolution remains something of a ‘challenging endeavor’ (Marques 2015).

As such Marques has studied and analysed Portuguese reference collections of numerous skeletal remains dating from the 19th to 20th centuries to try to identity and catalog neoplasms in the aim to ask how precise the pathological diagnosis of malignant tumours are in fairly modern skeletal remains.  The research highlighted that the skeletal manifestations of tumours can vary and that they can present similarly to other pathological processes which can be hard to identify down to a single process.  However, the research also documented that malignant tumours often left their mark on bone, particularly metastases (after the cancer had spread from one area of the body to another).  The research has helped produce a body of data that characterizes neoplastic prevalence in these populations, providing an important historical context for the evolution of neoplasms.  Furthermore Marques (2015) has also helped clinicians identify and characterize the early lesions that can often be missed on radiological examination.

How to Submit Your Research

There are a number of formats in which submissions to SUYR! can be made – these include either a 500 word abstract of your research project, a picture or photograph with a note of no more than 200 words, or via a video lasting 3 to 5 minutes detailing the research undertaken and its importance (the specifics of the video format and style can be found here).  Remember that you are writing for interested members of the public who want to hear and read about the interesting research topics that archaeologists and anthropologists are pursuing and why.  These necessarily precludes that the use of isolating jargon is limited and that the writing is clear to understand.  More importantly, this fantastic opportunity levers the researcher with a communication channel to both the academic and public spheres alike.  SUYR! has three major themes of interest (bioanthropology, archaeology, and social and cultural anthropology) for the submissions and three researchers to contact for each interest.  The following image highlights who to contact to send your research to:

suyrinfo

Subjects of interest in the SUYR! project and the contact details to send the research to. Image credit courtesy of the Universdade de Coimbra.

How to Get on Board

If you are a blogger, a microblogger (ie a Twitter user), or merely want to share your interest in the fields of archaeology and anthropology to your family and friends, then you too can join in spreading word about SUYR!  Simply copy and paste the website and share with your circle of family and friends.  The articles are freely available from the main SUYR! site.  If you are a college or university student who is interested in highlighting the various projects discussed via the project then perhaps you could even print out the pages and put them up on the community noticeboard in your department.  If you are an active researcher within the above fields then why not consider sending in your own past or current research?  This is a great opportunity to highlight the knowledge, breadth and depth, of archaeological research and the value of bioarchaeological research to the public.

Further Information

  • The archives of the SUYR! project can be found here for 2014 and here for 2015 years.  Both of the years papers detail some really interesting projects going on in the anthropology fields, particularly in bioarchaeology.  For example, Dr Charlotte Henderson kicks off the 2014 papers with an exciting and enlightening piece on the ability, and problems, of osteologists to infer occupation from skeletal remains.  Later on in the year Victoria Beauchamp and Nicola Thorpe investigate the work of The Workers’ Education Association (WEA) in England and assess the impact of using heritage as a teaching aid.  Both papers can be downloaded for free here.  In 2015 Dave Errickson (a friend and a previous guest blogger on this site) has an entry on his work digitizing forensic evidence using 3D scans and laser scanning.  The site itself is available to translate into a number of languages by simply clicking the scroll down box on the right hand side.
  • The Grupo de Estudos em Evolucao Humana (Group of Studies in Human Evolution), at the University of Coimbra, have a website highlighting the ongoing initiatives, activities and projects by the members of the group.  This includes hosting conferences, workshops and open days on any number of evolutionary topics.  You can find out more information here.

Bibliography

Campanacho, V., Pereira, T. & Nunes, M.J. 2015. Show Us Your Research! An Anthropological and Archaeological Publication for the Greater Public. Palaeopathology Newsletter. 170: 26.

Marques, C. 2015. A Palaeopathological Approach to Neoplasms: Skeletal Evidence from the Portuguese Identified Osteological Collections.  Show Us Your Research! 2015, No. 4. (Open Access).

Blogging Bioarchaeology: Advice on Best Practice, Engagement and Outreach

28 May

The latest issue of the peer-reviewed Internet Archaeology journal is titled Critical Blogging in Archaeology and features an article titled Bones, Bodies, and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology by two notable bloggers, Kristina Killgrove and Katy Meyers Emery (Emery & Killgrove 2015).  Killgrove runs the Powered by Osteons site focusing on Roman bioarchaeology, classical archaeology and bioanthropology, whilst Emery runs Bones Don’t Lie, a site focusing on mortuary archaeology, bioarchaeology and reviewing the pertinent literature.  I admit here to having an interest in the article as I am, amongst others, one of the bloggers discussed in the article who also helped to provide a quote for the article.

Regardless, I feel that it is important to raise the publishing of this article as it represents an excellent example of an overview of the pertinent issues in blogging bioarchaeology.  These include understanding the benefits, both personal and professional, of running a bioarchaeology blog, understanding the role and importance of authority in blogging archaeology (see also Richardson 2014) and advice on best practice for bioarchaeology bloggers themselves.  In a way this article specifically builds upon a small raft of recent archaeology and anthropology-blogging focused papers (de Konig 2013, Richardson 2014) by focusing only on bioarchaeology as a still nascent archaeology blogging specialism dominated by several main sites.

As Emery and Killgrove (2015) highlight, there is a remarkably small online presence of bioarchaeologists, even though there is a large public hunger for knowledge on the methods used in both the bioarchaeological and forensic sciences.  The authors also raise one of the interesting blogging demographic trends in bioarchaeology – the strong representation of females compared to males in skeletal-based specialisms, such as biological anthropology or palaeopathology. This is something that is replicated in the discipline itself across both the academic and commercial field.  I won’t go any further into the article here as it is wonderfully open access and deserve to be read in its entirety.  I particularly recommend any researchers interested in archaeological blogging to read the article as it offers sage advice that can apply to the whole field rather than just the specialism of bioarchaeology.

It’d be somewhat remiss of me if I did not mention here the other fantastic bioarchaeology bloggers and their sites also referenced in the post.  I’d highly recommend checking them out and seeing what they have to offer as each blogger bring their own unique view on bioarchaeology and tackle a wide variety of subjects within the discipline.  They are as follows:

  • Bone Broke, by Jess Beck – an excellent site to learn about the finer points of human osteology and then have the opportunity to test yourself on the bone quizzes.  Keep an eye out for the various mini series that Jess runs on the site, from anatomy vocabularies to the osteology everywhere series.  The occasional travelogue also highlights the travels that the author heads out on.
  • Powered By Osteons, by Kristina Killgrove – sick of the inaccuracies in the TV show Bones?  Head over to PbO to learn about the real methods used in the study of skeletal material in forensic circumstances.  The site includes fascinating research posts on Roman bioarchaeology, a remarkably little studied specialism on the classical world.  Furthermore you can entertain yourself by looking through Who Needs An Osteologist series to figure out which skeletal element has been misplaced.
  • Bones Don’t Lie, by Katy Meyers Emery – a regularly updated site which features a wide review of current and past academic articles focusing on mortuary and funerary archaeology.  Katy carefully dissects the context and content of the articles and highlights the most important and pertinent parts for the reader, an invaluable service in a world where many bioarchaeological articles are still locked behind a paywall, inaccessible to most.
  • Deathsplanation, by Alison Atkin – Black death research galore as Alison elucidates the finer points of bioarchaeological research as applied to historic populations devastated by this still captivating medieval epidemic.  Keep an eye out for her series on disability in archaeology and for the occasional entertaining and thought provoking art pieces.
  • Strange Remains, by Dolly Stolze – Dolly’s site focuses on the stranger side of death and human remains, whether this is the varying approach that humans have taken to body deposition or funerary treatment, or to the more somber forensic aspects of skeletal recovery and analysis.

Alternatively if you yourself are a bioarchaeologist, or have an interest in bioarchaeology, and want to build up your communication skills and outreach experience then I’d advise joining the crowd and get blogging!

Bibliography

de Koning, M. 2013. Hello World! Challenges for Blogging as Anthropological Outreach. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 19 (2): 394-397. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12040.

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

Richardson, L-J. 2014. Understanding Archaeological Authority in a Digital Context. Internet Archaeology. 38. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.38.1. (Open Access).

Dactyl & Skelly Pad: Apps for Digital Bone Identification and Inventorying

10 Mar

Updates have been somewhat sparse on this site as of late due to varying workloads, both archaeological and osteological in nature, that have thus far maintained the focus of my free time.  So this is just a quick post highlighting new digital applications that have recently been released that have a specific focus and use for bioarchaeologists, palaeopathologists and forensic anthropologists, and that may be of interest amongst other related disciplines.

The first of these is the Dactyl application that has been produced by forensic anthropologists at the University of Teesside, spearheaded by Professor Tim Thompson (with a bit of help from my friend and doctoral researcher David Errickson) through the Anthronomics business.  Dactyl is a 3D viewer with photo-realistic models of actual scanned human skeletal elements that aids in the identification, siding and pathological analysis of osteological material from archaeological sites or forensic contexts.  Further to this the app also provides information on the anatomical landmarks present on individuals bones, indicating both the origins and the growth of the bone under study.  The models themselves can be zoomed in and out off, markers can be placed on the bone, and the models are full view-able from a number of directions and viewpoints (including lighting aspect).  This makes the app particularly handy for the field bioarchaeologist, or osteologist, in the identifying of skeletal material on-site or in the site hut.

dactyl

A screen shot of the Dactyl application as it currently stands. In this view a right Os Coxa (i.e. the hip, consisting of the fused ilium, pubis and ischium skeletal elements) can be viewed and explored. Notice the blue and red pins identifying landmark features and their uses. Image credit: Apple iTunes store and Dactyl App (2015).

The basic app costs £16.99 from the Apple iTunes store, and there are currently three additional add-on packs available.  These are available for a further £1.99 and consist of a) basic trauma, b) basic pathologies, and the c) non-adult pack.  It should be noted here that each of these only include two skeletal models, with the basic trauma containing four individual bone models, rather than a full range of skeletal elements.  Further updates will include more examples, but I am currently unsure whether the app will be available on more than just the Apple range of devices.  Atkin (2015) has written a fairly comprehensive review which is a useful and interesting read on the benefits and limitations of the Dactyl app itself.  The app is currently under review of a second version of the program as an improvement on the first version, but this promises to be an extremely useful application for iPad wielding archaeologists regardless of further improvements on the current model (which, of course, will surely happen).

The second is the Skelly Pad application for tablets, initially a free to use app designed to aid in the digital inventory of human skeletal and dental elements in archaeological or forensic contexts (a professional version of the app may lead to a charge to download it).  The importance of maintaining a proper inventory of skeletal remains cannot be over estimated, as this is the basic task that first allows for identification and analysis of the remains under observation.  Although it is at the early stage of design and production, the Skelly Pad application is now available to download and use on tablets.  It works across a wide variety of different operating systems and devices, including iPads, Kindle Fire and Samsung Galaxy tablets.

The product is the outcome of Gill Hunt’s BSc project at the University of Reading, in an attempt to digitise and streamline the recording of skeletal remains rather than rely on a paper record.  Currently Skelly Pad is only able to inventory the remains of adult individuals in the latest version of the application, although this includes all of the normal inventory sections (including completeness, age-at-death, biological sex, stature, pathology, etc).  The full range of current features that the Skelly Pad incorporates can be found here, and it certainly looks useful for the bioarchaeologist or forensic archaeologist, particularly in a setting where paper recording may be unsatisfactory for rapid recording of a skeletal inventory.  The Skelly Pad is now available through the App store, Google Play and Amazon.

By highlighting the two above applications, I think it becomes clear that as technology advances and powerful computers are now available in the palm of your hand, that innovation in the archaeological world also continues to make use of it, helping to overcome the limitations of access to skeletal collections, dreary weather and taking the weight off your shoulders (literally, if you have ever tried to carry around an anatomical textbook or a collection of osteological reference manuals).  Together with online resources such as Digitised Diseases (where 3D models of the effects of disease and trauma on human skeletal material are available to view for free), we are really seeing barriers being broken down to the access of both knowledge and collections.

An interesting side feature of this is the ethical edge of digitising and replicating the skeletal remains of individuals.  As we model their remains, replicate them on hundreds, if not thousands of machines, or create isolated 3D models of isolated elements, do we dis-embody and de-individualise the person themselves that they (the skeletal elements) once belonged to?  Does the educational need to correctly identify, record, and ultimately protect uncovered remains trump the loss of physical context of the bones that are used for digitisation as we transport them into the digital realm?  Are we distancing the feel and handling of bone itself, by relegating it to a flat screen?  These are broad-based questions with no straight forward answers.

It is clear, I hope, that I heartily approve of the magnificent steps forward that digital technology is allowing researchers to make in the understanding and recording of human remains using innovative techniques, particularly so given the fragile nature of the material (see Errickson et al. 2015 for good practice guidelines regarding scanning of osteological material).  The above are only two such examples of what I am sure is a thriving, independent and growing market.  A balance is always needed between access to physical reference collections, 3D models and osteological manuals, when assessing and analyzing assemblages from archaeological or forensic contexts.  One method cannot replace another.

As satisfying as having a handbook of osteology on your phone or tablet may be, nothing beats the heavy thud of a good reference textbook going into a rucksack or the boot of a car, ready for a days work.

Further Information

  • The Dactyl application for Apple products can be found either on the Apple app website or on Google Play.  The company behind the product, Anthronomics, can be found here.  It is an interesting company started by Professor Thompson himself which aims to invent useful programs, applications or devices to help aid in the recording, identifying and analysing of human skeletal material.  One to watch!
  • The Skelly Pad application for tablets (for use with Android, Amazon and Apple devices) can be found here and is available at each of the device makers stores to download for free.  The Skelly Pad blog can be found here also, which details the current version, and will host regular blog updates as the app as it proceeds to include further sections.
  • Digitised Diseases, a project spearheaded by the University of Bradford with a range of partners, depicts a number of 3D models of scanned human skeletal elements from archaeological sites with evidence of trauma or disease processes.  The models have been recorded and scanned using radiography, CT scanning and laser scanning techniques to produce highly accurate models showing the effects of disease or trauma on human skeletal elements.  These models can be viewed on the website itself or can be downloaded onto a computer, tablet or smart phone for future offline use.  I have previously discussed the open access site here.  You can also have a look to see how useful the site is for bloggers, as I helped illuminate one of my previous arm fractures with an example from the site, see here.

Bibliography

Atkin, A. 2015. Review of Dactyl: An Interactive 3D Osteology App [iPad]Internet Archaeology. 38. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.38.5. (Open Access).

Errickson, D. Thompson, T. & Rankin, B. 2015. An Optimum Guide for the Reduction of Noise using a Surface Scanner for Digitising Human Osteological Remains. Archaeology Data Service. Guides to Good Practice. (Open Access).

Becoming Human: Archaeological Perspectives on Humanity, University of Bradford, 22nd November 2014

11 Nov

The University of Bradford is holding a free archaeology open day on the 22nd of November 2014 from 10am to 3pm as a part of the UK nation wide Becoming Human festival.  The University of Bradford’s day long event will feature a myriad of archaeologically-themed interactive showcases.   This will include stalls focusing on broad topics such as human evolution, past and present attitudes towards death, the role and function of pottery in prehistoric societies, and will also include a look at the fascinating Digitised Diseases project which highlights the value of 3D printing and digital visualisation in archaeology, among many other topics.  The event is free to attend, family friendly and does not need to be booked in advance.

becoming human 2

Poster for the open day. Image credit: Bradford University.

But what is the Becoming Human festival about?

Boiled down to its basic parts the festival hopes to challenge and inspire members of the public to think about just what it means to be considered human and what that means for us as a species today, how we interact with each other and why we do the things that we do.  The festival is all about the public engagement on a national-wide scale of current research in humanities that is being conducted in the country.  Throughout November 2014 (15th to the 23rd) there will be more than 150 individual events at a range of geographic locations helping to promote the value and wealth of humanities topics.  Poets and writers such as Will Self and Simon Armitage will be taking part as will the comedian Al Murray, in an effort to engage both your intellect and your imagination.  The other aims of the festival are to foster knowledge that is vital and accessible for all (something we bloggers can fully agree with!), and to help us understand ourselves and recognize the challenges that we face today.

In partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy, the Becoming Human festival is led by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.  The aim of the 2014 festival is to gauge the appetite for an annual nation-wide festival celebrating the humanities subjects in all of their diversity.  As such archaeology will play a small but determined part within the 2014 festival, and the event at the University of Bradford highlights just why archaeology is so fundamentally important in understanding what it means to be human, both where have come from and understanding the implications for where we could be heading as a species.

I recently had the chance to visit the archaeology department at the University of Bradford to see my good friend Natalie Atkinson, a doctoral candidate who is focusing on quantifying use wear in lithic tool assemblages as a part of the Fragmented Heritage project.  As well as highlighting the great breadth and depth of ongoing research at the department she also informed me about Bradford’s participation in the nation wide Becoming Human humanities festival.  Natalie had this to say about the upcoming Bradford showcase:

“The interactive stalls will be headed by prominent researchers such as Professor Ian Armit and Dr. Lindsey Buster, showcasing their work on Scupltor’s Cave.  Also contributing is the Jisc supported project Digitised Diseases, led by Dr. Andrew Wilson; a digital database for the viewing of fragile human skeletal remains with diagnostic attributes.  Dr. Adrian Evans will be demonstrating the key technologies and ideas that make up the multi million pound Fragmented Heritage Project, along with Dr Randolph Donahue who will be showing off the evolutionary family tree and Dr. Karina Croucher, who will be discussing attitudes towards life and death.  PhD researchers Rebecca Nicholls, Mike Copper and Emily Fioccoprile have also kindly contributed activities based on their PhD projects”.

becoming human

The program for Becoming Human at the department of archaeological sciences, Bradford. Image credit: Bradford University.

So if you are around in Yorkshire or near Bradford on the 22nd of November pop over to the archaeology department and learn about the human past in a fun and interactive environment!

Further Information

  • Learn more about the enticing Becoming Human festival here and browse the events by date and geographic location here.
  • Learn more about the University of Bradford archaeology themed Becoming Human day here.  Visited the open day and keen to learn more about the department of archaeology at Bradford?  Visit here!
  • Keep up to date with the rich variety of archaeological projects at Bradford via Dr. Karina Croucher’s twitter feed or visit her awesome blog focusing on both gender & identity and death & dying in the past and present.