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Present Day Skeletal Variation: What Are We Missing?

5 Nov

Over at his weblog John Hawks has a quick write-up on a news article by Vox journalist Joseph Stromberg on the Forensic Anthropology Centre at Texas State University that makes a very important point.  It is worth quoting John hawks comments on the article in full here:

The skeletal material from the University of Tennessee forensic research unit constitutes the single most important collection for understanding variation within the skeletons of living Americans. Most collections of human skeletal material in museums and universities were acquired early in the twentieth century, or represent archaeological remains. Those are important collections, but do not represent today’s biology — people today are much heavier, live longer, suffer fewer ill-health episodes early in their lives, and often survive surgeries and skeletal implants when they reach advanced ages. To understand how human biology affects bone today, and to understand the variation in bones of living people, new collections are incredibly important. They are literally priceless, because collections of this kind cannot be bought. They result only from the generosity and interest of donors who leave their remains for this purpose.

– taken from John Hawks (2014, emphasis mine).

This is an incredibly point as osteoarchaeologists and human osteologists often studied the remains of individuals from archaeological contexts or pre-21st century skeletal series that will not represent the current state of human biology and population variation.  As a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MSc program in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I had the honour and opportunity to dissect a human cadaver as a part of the human anatomy module.  This is a fairly rare opportunity for students of osteoarchaeology in the United Kingdom, with only a small selection of universities offering dissection within their musculoskeletal focused human anatomy modules.  As such I will remain forever grateful to both the university and to the individuals who have donated their bodies in order for students to learn about past and present human populations, and the natural variation therein.

There is also a worry that the UK lacks skeletal reference collections of modern individuals of known age, sex and ancestry, which could have a particular impact on understanding the physiology of modern skeletal samples that are being excavated as development and construction necessitate removal of early modern cemeteries (Sayer 2010).

Relevant to the above is the fact that Vazquez et al. (2005) & Wilkinson (2007) have also discussed the problems in teaching gross anatomy in medical schools across Europe, highlighting the long-term decline of gross anatomical dissection across the medical board and the largely unfamiliar anatomical terms which have influenced the effective learning of gross anatomy.  The dissection classes that I participated in at the University of Sheffield took part in the Medical Teaching Unit, where our small cluster of osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologists were vastly outnumbered by the medical students.

There is an important link here as the bones that osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologist study are the physical remains of once living individuals, but if we are to continue to study the natural and ongoing variation seen within the human species it is important that we have the resources available to understand not just the skeletal tissue but also the soft tissues as well.

Facilities such as the Forensic Anthropologist Research Centre, and the older University of Tennesse Anthropological Research Facility, are important examples of being able to study and research the effects of soft tissue decay in a relatively natural environment.  This is not just useful for forensic or archaeological studies but, again, also for understanding ongoing changes in human populations.  The article by Stromberg above ends on an important point that always bears consideration when studying human cadavers or skeletal tissue:

Still, there’s a danger to becoming too habituated to these bodies and forgetting what they represent. Ultimately, they’re a teaching tool, but they’re more than just a specimen. “You’ve got a job to do, but you’ve also got to remember that this body was once a living person,” Wescott says. “You’ve got to remember that there are family members and friends who love this person, and the body deserves your respect.” (Stromberg 2014, emphasis mine).

Further Information

  • Learn more about the important work being conducted at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University here.  If desired you can donate your body here.
  • Learn about the whole body donation program at the University of Sheffield here.

Bibliography

Hawks, J. 2014. A Visit to the World’s Largest Body Farm. John Hawks Weblog. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

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

Stromberg, J. 2014. The Science of Human Decay: Inside the World’s Largest Body Farm. Vox. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Vazquez, R., Riesco, J. M. & Carretero, J. 2005. Reflections and Challenges in the Teaching of Human Anatomy at the Beginning of the 21st Century. European Journal of Anatomy9 (2): 111-115. (Open Access).

Wilkinson, A. T. 2007. Considerations in Students’ Learning of Anatomical Terminology. European Journal of Anatomy. 11 (s1): 89-93. (Open Access).

Revisiting ‘Nazi War Diggers’: Editorial in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology

30 Sep

In the latest edition of the Journal of Conflict Archaeology there is an editorial that briefly discusses the professional response of archaeologists (via social media) to the proposed (and now cancelled) National Geographic Channel show Nazi War Diggers (Pollard & Banks 2014).  As readers of this blog, and other archaeological blogs, may be aware that a whole can of worms was opened when the National Geographic Channel started to advertise their Nazi War Diggers program online.  The clips that the station put up online showed almost zero respect to the uncovering and exhuming of the dead of WWII on the Eastern Front (the clips shown seemed to focus primarily on a battleground site in Latvia), and little (if any) attention paid to the archaeological context of the remains themselves.

Field archaeology is a largely destructive method of uncovering and documenting a unique and non-replenishing resource, hence why great care is taken in the contextual recording and analysis of archaeological sites in various mediums (in the use and application of excavation methodology, on-site recording, recording of site formation, specialist reports, conservation of artefacts, film photography, digital media, etc.).  So it was no surprise that, when the footage of Nazi War Diggers was promoted, archaeologists and other heritage specialists were horrified at the unprofessional and unethical treatment of both the human material recovered and of the associated artefacts, such as the Nazi memorabilia uncovered.  Perhaps what was/is even more worrying is the long-term deposition and custody (i.e whereabouts) of the remains and artefacts that were excavated, alongside the actual legality surrounding the actions of venture itself.  As osteoarchaeologist Alison Atkin succinctly highlighted at the time – ‘it  is every kind of wrong’.

As Pollard & Banks (2014: 51) remark it was not just social media that picked up on the outrage of the show but also mainstream media, such as newspapers, that highlighted the professional and personal distaste with the Nazi War Diggers program.  A very important point here is highlighted in the editorial, which bloggers such as Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities also noticed, was how the National Geographic Channel replied.  The company removed the questioned video from their site, edited the text and removed damaging quotes from the lead presenter (‘by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with‘, as quoted in Pollard & Banks 2014: 51).  As readers will no doubt be aware individuals who fell in the Second World War can still be identified, can still be returned to their families for burial, can still have living relatives who may have known them.  With these points in mind, even barring the unethical exhumation and nonsense comments, it becomes clear that the treatment of the remains on Nazi War Diggers was, at the least, potentially offensive.

Still the debacle helped to unite a range of heritage professionals in condemnation and, to their good and commendable credit, the National Geographic Channel have pulled the show and have started an inquiry.  This very fact highlights that the company have at least heard the views of the many professional individuals and members of the public that have contacted them (tough though that may have been).  As Sam Hardy further highlights the narrative isn’t that clear-cut either as there were a number of different organisations involved during the making and producing of Nazi War Diggers, including Legenda, the company used in the Latvian sequence of the show.  It is pertinent here to include a quote from hardy’s blog entry regarding the Legenda organisation, and those like it, who work in tough environments:

Since there are still war survivors and missing persons as well as mass graves and battlefields in Latvia, Latvians are still living in the aftermath of the conflict. Dealing with survivors’ and relatives’ loved ones as past, as archaeology, is a delicate, painful process.

Being respectfully scientific with fallen soldiers can be experienced by soldiers’ relatives as being disrespectfully clinical. And that pressure is felt by the volunteers who do the work as well as by the archaeologists who cannot secure professional standards of work.” (Hardy 2014, but see here also).

Yet there are still serious questions that remain in the commission of Nazi War Diggers and of the relationship between the television and archaeology in general.  Battles, and battlefields, have long been a staple for re-enactments on historical documentaries on television, yet not many have actively highlighted the excavation of human remains with such abandon as Nazi War Diggers.  Furthermore, there is the very real danger that this show has undermined the credibility of conflict archaeology as an emerging, but important, field in itself.  With the centenary of the First World War upon us, and important archaeological investigations into the sites where the horrors of the holocaust were carried out in the World War Two (see Sturdy Colls 2012 for non-invasive techniques used at the Treblinka camp), this can be seen as particularly insensitive and crass.  Archaeology is not the handmaiden of history, but walks alongside it hand in hand, helping to provide vital physical evidence to the documentary evidence.  A particular problem is further highlighted by Pollard & Banks, which is this:

How did we get to a situation where something like Nazi War Diggers is regarded as a desirable product by a major broadcaster such as National Geographic Television? This is not the place to attempt an answer to this question but we have clearly reached a point where some self-reflection is called for, especially by those of us who have benefitted from our involvement in television.

We can only hope that National Geographic Television’s decision to pull the series means that a change of commissioning policy will be considered, with a return to more responsible programming, which does both television and the practice of archaeology credit.” (Pollard & Banks 2014: 52).

The editorial is an interesting piece and I’d recommend taking the time to read it.  In the meantime myself and other archaeology bloggers will be keen to see what the National Geographic Channel get up to with the footage already shot for the Nazi War Diggers program and whether it comes back, or not, in any shape or form.  The response of many of the bloggers to the show (including myself) has been a reactive reaction to it, decrying it for the lack of care and thought put into the show’s presentation and approach.  However it has undoubtedly raised knowledge of what is a very tangible and emotional remainder of the actual human cost of conflict and war – the survival, exhumation and recovery of the remains of individuals killed in action, whether participating as active soldiers or as civilians.

As Pollard & Banks (2014: 52) highlight we, as active bloggers and specialists in this area, must also engage, educate and help inform both the general public and organisations (including National Geographic Channel) as to what is the appropriate approach when it comes to excavating, analysing, and presenting the remains of humans excavated from both archaeological and historic contexts.  If we don’t more programs, such as Nazi War Diggers, will be produced, which will lead to the decay of contextual information and, ultimately, the loss of knowledge.

Learn More:

Bibliography

Hardy, S. 2014. A Note on the Volunteer Human Rights Exhumers Legenda. Conflict Antiquities. Accessed 30th September 2014.

Pollard, T. & Banks, I. 2014. Editorial. Journal of Conflict Archaeology9 (2): 49-52. (Open Access).

Sturdy Colls, C. 2012. Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution. Journal of Conflict Archaeology.  7 (2): 70-104.

Archaeology and The Damage Done

8 Sep

Following on from the previous posts on Free Archaeology and the excellent guest post on Commercial Archaeology by Charles Hay on my site, I recently spotted this informative, evocative and important article by Stuart Rathbone on Robert M Chapple’s site entitled The Four and a Half Inch Pointing Trowel…And the Damage Done.  The post discusses life as a field archaeologist, not just the routine hardships of a lifestyle constantly on the move but one of the stresses of the job that are not often mentioned or discussed in mainstream archaeological outlets.  This includes the physical hardships of the job on the body and the emotional hardships on maintaining relationships with the constant stresses and strains of moving for work, whilst also putting up with low pay and often sub-par working conditions (especially in comparison with other skilled workers).

It is important that these aspects of the job are talked about, are mentioned and are discussed within the profession.  It is an important post and one worth a read for everyone involved with, or interested in, archaeology as it is carried out by field workers.  Ultimately Stuart writes that “what I desperately hope is that we can begin to resolve the situation and that the next generation of aspiring archaeologists will not have to put up with the same bullshit that we have already had to put up with for far too long.

If you want to help contribute please comment or message Stuart Rathbone or Robert Chapple on the above blog post link and let them know of your experiences as a field archaeologist.

Skeletal Series Part 2: Ethics In Human Osteology

18 Apr

Ethics, as defined by White & Folkens (2005), is the study of standards of conduct and of moral judgement. In this case various institutions and organisations that deal with human skeletal material from archaeological sites often have their own well-defined conditions and standards when dealing with skeletal material.  There are many applications for human remains in archaeological contexts.  They are used for teaching, research, in the application of new scientific techniques, demonstration purposes, alongside the long-term storage of such remains for future studies.  The multidisciplinary use of human bone use in archaeology is discussed below).  It is key to the user of such sensitive material that there are guidelines to be followed with respects to the remains.  As with all biological material, human bone is fragile and should be carefully handled, stored and sensitively managed.  It must be always bore in mind that they are the physical remains of a person who had once lived, and a key aspect is to always treat the remains with dignity and respect (BABAO guidelines).

As it has already been noted in previous posts, with relation to possible reburial of human remains in Britain and the removal of bodies from display in museums, alongside the American act of repatriation (NAGPRA); ethics in archaeological conditions and the use of human remains have become ‘complex, fluid, ambiguous, politicised and confusing’ (White & Folkens 2005: 24).

As Mays (1999: xii) remarks that ‘archaeology is about people and how they lived in the past (that) the study of physical remains of those people should therefore be a central component of archaeological enquiry’.  It is important we keep in mind the often vast temporal, cultural and sometimes geographic distances between ourselves, the investigators, and to those we uncover.  Human skeletal remains from archaeological sites are a finite resource.  it is only through the continued study, and application of scientific investigations of remains, that we can find out about how we came to be the way we are today.

Skeletal remains offer an important resource on human variation; both genetically and from there differing geographic locations (Larsen 1997).  More and more skeletal remains are used in historical studies, in economics, in the study of disease, and in nutritional studies.  It is the science behind human evolution as whole that helps to understand the modern-day population of Homo sapiens.  An interesting case, for instance, is the prevalence of sickle-cell anemia and the relationship to malarial infection in Western and Central Africa as an evolutionary effect from genetic drift (Jurmain et al 2010: 87-88).  It is from a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, our comparative and hominid evolutionary history, alongside the studies of bioculture that we can being to understand ourselves.  From afflictions that affect us today such as understanding osteoarthritis, osteomalacia, and rickets (Marshland & Kapoor 2008) to understanding the society and burial rituals of  Iron Age Arras Culture in East Yorkshire (Hope in Jupp & Gittings 1999:43).

As White & Folkens (2005) point out, we must also learn to re-evaluate ourselves, our own methods and practices.  Rampart development in various parts of the world (such as America and Australia) have led to many sites being poorly excavated without proper guidelines and frameworks for research and future study.  It is by combination of scientific community and native groups, that the ‘need to redirect their energies in a concerted effort to save and protect the heritage of the past before it disappears’ is valued and promoted more than ever (White & Folkens 2005: 29).

However, before we become carried away it is vitally important that an ethical and standards framework is insinuated into the very heart of archaeological practice.  As such, I shall end this post here with a selection of key points from the BABAO Code of Ethics and Code of Standards have been reproduced below:

  • ‘Facilities that hold biological remains should maintain archival quality copies of all records (e.g., written records, maps, raw data, results of analyses, all type of illustration ( i.e. pictures or drawings), film, tape records, or digital images).
  • Recognise that human remains can be viewed differently in other countries at local, regional or national levels.
  •  Biological remains, particularly human remains, of any age or provenance must be treated with care and dignity.
  • Biological remains should only be studied or viewed for legitimate purposes, e.g. the production of human bone reports by commercial units, analysis and research in institutions.
  • Biological remains should not be considered as private property.
  • All applicable laws and regulations within institutions and countries regarding biological remains should be followed, and relevant guidance considered.
  • All results of scientific value should be published, ideally in peer-reviewed publications as well as publicly accessible media (e.g., museum exhibits, non-specialized publications, and/or internet) within a reasonable time. In sensitive cases, where biological material can be demonstrated to be connected to genealogical descendants or affiliated cultural communities, these groups should be informed of the results prior to publication, if feasible.

Finally, another last quote from White & Folkens which perfectly highlights what the osteologist must also do:

It is essential for osteologists interested in conducting laboratory and field research in foreign countries to make early and open contact with the governmental administrators and local scholars in any country in which they intend to work.  Research must go hand-in-hand with development in these situations, ensuring meaningful, uninterrupted progress and productive science‘ (2005: 30).

Bibliography

BABAO Codes of Ethics and Standards in Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (see download for full document).

Jupp, P. C. & Gittings, C. 1999. Death in England: An Illustrated History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

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

Marshland, D. & Kapoor, S. 2008. Rheumatology and Orthopaedics. London: Mosby Elsevier.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.