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Reflection During a Day of Skeletal Processing

8 Feb

I have a day off from my normal job and I find myself carefully wet sieving the cremated remains of a suspected Romano-British individual in the processing room at the local unit, but I’m not alone here.  Instead I’m surrounded by recently excavated Anglo-Saxon remains drying slowly on paper towels, organised in numerous plastic trays on various shelves to my side and up above me.  In each tray there is a plastic zip bag, the site code and context number inked on for identification purpose and later site reconstruction.  By taking the right femoral head and neck (upper thigh) as an identifier of the minimum number of individuals (MNI), I count at least six individuals represented in the new assemblage, although there are a few trays I cannot quite see and as I am not here to look at them I do not uncover them.  A quick look at the morphology (size and shape) of the individual skeletal elements is enough to see that, demographically speaking, adults and non-adults are represented in the assemblage.

Browsing the mandibles (lower jaw) that are present I can see a few without the 3rd molar fully erupted, one or two lying in crypts waiting to reach up for the shaft of light from the outside world that would never come.  Another mandible has the majority of the teeth present, including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd molars in each half, but it displays severe enamel wear of the crowns of the teeth (the occlusal or biting surface).  This is indicative of a rough diet and probable middle to advanced adult age.  The fact that most of the teeth are present suggest that the individual wasn’t too old though, as tooth loss is strongly correlated to increasing age for humans.

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A day in the archive stores analysing non-adult skeletal remains from an archaeological site. Photograph by the author use a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film, if used elsewhere please inform the author and credit as appropriate.

I turn my attention back to the cremated remains.  These are something of a mystery having looked at the context sheets dating from the excavation itself.  There is evidence for cremated non-human remains, likely to be bovine (cow to you and me) as there are a few distinctive teeth included in the bags in an associated context found near the cremated remains that I’m now processing, which itself has been bulk sampled at 100%.  A proper look through the sieved cremated material, which has been processed in accordance with the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology guidelines, will have to wait though as they need to dry over the next few days, ideally for another few days after too.  Once dry I can go through each fraction sieved (10mm, 6mm, 2mm) and sort as human and non-human, before identifying specific osteological features and assigning the fragments to either skull, limb, or trunk sections of the skeleton.

As I think about this I remember that I must complete this human osteology report soon.

For many people the thought of touching or analyzing human remains is too much, that in many minds remains are parceled off to the medical realm or are hurried to the cemetery to be removed out of sight.  In reality though we are often surrounded by human remains, though we may not always know it and may not always want to know it.  In archaeology the skeletal remains of humans are often the only direct biological matter to survive of individuals and past populations.  They can encode and preserve a lot of information on biological matters and past cultural practices.  This has been steadily recognized within the past century as osteological methodologies are refined for accuracy and new technology is applied in novel approaches to the remains unearthed.  One of the prime concerns for any bioarchaeologist or human osteologist is that ethical codes and guidelines are adhered to, with the relevant legal permits acquired as appropriate.  As I glance upon the presumed Anglo-Saxon remains I remember that these too were unexpected finds by the construction workers, I briefly wonder how they felt and what they thought on seeing them for the first time.

Anyhow, back to processing the cremation and to thinking about writing the report.

It is pretty interesting as although I’ve part-processed cremations within urns before, with careful micro-excavation spit by spit, I’ve never fully processed a cremation to completion.  Whether these cremated remains represent human skeletal material, as the field notes state, remains a different matter though and it is one I am eager to solve…

Further Learning

  • The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) promotes the study of understanding the ‘physical development of the human species from the past to the present’.  As an association they provide research grants for projects in which all members of BABAO are eligible, as well as offering prizes for presentations and posters in their annual conference, which is held in the United Kingdom.  I fully recommend attending and taking part if you are associated with any relevant field.
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Digging Up Time, Part 1: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

30 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book on a recent blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  The book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) is due for 2017, which looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

(Part 2 can be read here).


The author’s monologue

–  We’re exploring the past to divine the future, turning over the topsoil to see what lies below.  The borders are closing, the opportunities to traverse and learn are being cut across the globe, and I find myself at a crossroads in my own life.  Do I continue to pursue meaningful employment in the field that I so desire to join or do I keep my passion to one side, preserved with all the joy intact but with little difference made to my bank balance?

I find myself in a non-archaeology community that cares little for my achievements or my dreams that have been achieved.  Instead I archive them within my own personal vault of fulfillment and seek the next challenge, doggedly pursuing what I see as a higher form of personal learning – uncovering the voices of the past, to gather and collect the tendrils of evidence, to disseminate the dead among the living.  In my defense I am giving life back to the lost.

Life has assumed the standard pattern yet I yearn to break free, to feel the mud underfoot, the rising sun casting a glint off the blade of the metal tool in a field of crops.  There is no shame for me to admit that I find myself in neither commercial archaeology or academia, I am between camps and of no camp.  I am free to wander as my desires so take me and as my time so dictates.  My work, not associated with my archaeological passion in any meaningful way, gives me the money for food, fuel and rent, and in return I give it the sweat, hard work and integrity as I can muster.  My dreams are my own though, lying so tenderly outside the realm of reality.

So today, my dear readers, we shall instead dip into the minds of others…


The boundaries of history as an illusion of the future

The Galleon.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I started in archaeology a bit by chance.  I always wanted to be an archaeologist but I thought it was a secluded works, reserved for the best of the best.  When I met my ex-boyfriend he knew a guy that was supervising and I finally entered into this new magical world.  My surprise was that, once I started to meet people I realised that, unfortunately, they were not the best of the best but quite the contrary.  There’s good people, there’s bad people, and environment is everything if you have a shitty site.  I come from another country, I have more than 10 years of experience but I’ve been treated nearly everywhere as if I was a newbie.  If you don’t know the background of someone you should ask, that should be the rule.

Also, as everywhere, good workers are slighted and bad workers are promoted.  Even if this happens everywhere, this is quite hurtful when you see bad decisions being made which can affect our knowledge of the past.  The past is a limited resource.  But it is difficult and exhausting to fight against the ‘establishment’ because builders don’t give a shit about it, engineers don’t give a shit about it, and people in general don’t give a shit about it.  Yet everyone watches Time Team or laps up the burial of Richard III…

Well, people, the reality is different: it’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s not well paid…  But let me do my work!  In an era when nationalism seem to be rising let me tell you where you really come from.


On the sensation of discovering the new and the old – A personal turning point in a friend’s life

Charles L.  31 years old.  Former field archaeologist.

–  It’s a fairly long-winded story, but it goes back to an early realization as a kid that the world was not just self-evidently fascinating, but also a seemingly endless mine of stories, processes and worlds.  Delving into the past opened up incredible avenues for obsession.  Everything imaginable had a reason for being, and an intricate history woven through the chaos of time.

My dad, also a huge fan of history, always endeavored to take me to historical and archaeological sites around the country, and whenever we were abroad, he’d always have several similar visits planned.  The feeling of utter scintillation when I walked down roads that had seen sometimes hundreds of generations of wear, or standing in the remains of a hillfort created by cultures both alien and continuous to my own…  It never left me.  The feeling that, anywhere you go, you walk through the echoes of millions of other stories; it turned the world into a magical, vibrant place.  I wondered whose story my essence would be floating through thousands of years from now.  The door to my imagination was permanently kicked open, to let the world in.

Skip forward twenty or so years and life had occurred at me.  I’d left uni with an okay grade and an unhealthy attitude to work.  I fell into a retail job, then, after that, a fairly uninspiring administrative job.  That child in me sat sulking in a corner of my mind, looking out of my eyes at spreadsheets and emails and pint glasses and insomniac nights and sadly fell to sleep.

I nearly closed the door of imagination.  February of 2009, my dad, frustrated, asked me what are you doing with your life?  What do you want to do?  I replied that I did not know, but that wasn’t quite true.  I knew I wanted to learn and learn and learn.  I wanted to write and write and draw and see and live again.  But all of that seemed so…  Unrealistic.  Childish almost.  I vaguely said I’d thought of going back to university, which didn’t exactly elicit a positive response, but he was open to the idea if I had a goal.  Initially I thought about a History MA, but decided against it.  No; I wanted to see it and feel it.  I wanted the hands on interaction with the past.  Turns out, I wanted to be an archaeologist.

So, I got onto a Masters and, with a jolt, my life returned to me.  Happiness, fascination, wonderment, hope, drive, purpose; it all returned to me in a way I hadn’t felt since childhood.  It was difficult but brilliant.  I was surrounded by wildly intelligent, funny, ambitious people with whom I made quick friendships.  The literature, whilst sometimes dry, opened my eyes to whole past worlds and interpretations I had never considered, and I was getting to write about it all.  Naturally, my first few papers were total garbage, but I got there slowly, and after a while I was interacting with the work in a way I had a grasp on.  I felt I had something to give to the field.

And so went one of the most exciting years of my life.  After the depressing lack of consequence from my first degree, my Masters was like a turbo-boost for the soul.  At the end of the year, I volunteered on a couple of field-schools and after a stressful time of applying to all of the archaeology units in the entire known universe, I landed my first archaeological job through a personal recommendation.  After all those applications, it came down to a good word from a new friend dropped to the right people.  It was a godsend at the time, and remained largely representative of my winning method for getting archaeological work.  It comes down to a very short and simple piece of advice: know people.

So, as I’m sure anyone who has worked in commercial archaeology is now thinking: perhaps this guy entered the field with an overly rosy view of things.  You’re absolutely 110% correct.  If perhaps I’d listened to a few more archaeological misery gutses, I might have had a slightly smoother ride.  Alas, I didn’t and therefore I didn’t.

My first job was actually a total joy, however.  It was only after a year or so that mission fatigue set in.  I started off on a wonderfully academic site with an extremely ingratiating and friendly unit.  I made a new city home and in the space of a few short months, accrued years of happiness.  I had great friends, a great home and a great title, one I really enjoyed: archaeologist.  Technically I was an assistant archaeologist, but I didn’t tell people that.

Some time, several jobs, mountains of financial uncertainty and seemingly centuries trapped outside in the bitter rain later, the shine had somewhat worn off.  Travelling around the country is all well and good for a while, but when it becomes constant, it’s not so well and good.  I have seen enough B & B’s to last a lifetime.  I could draw a good, accurate map of England’s mobile dead spots.  I have mattocked through ice on supervisory demand, destroying archaeology, and I have hoed away mud in torrential rain. Worse than all that, however, were the endless months alone in the middle of nowhere, watching a work gang open up pipe trenches.  Sends you a bit funny, months alone in the middle of nowhere.  Not good for relationships.  Or, y’know…  Sanity.

My bank account was permanently empty on account of extremely low pay and extremely unreliable work.  More than once I found out that work for the following week had been cancelled so, due to being on a zero hours contract, I simply wasn’t going to get paid for that week.

It wasn’t all terrible.  I still had some amazing times with amazing people.  I still saw fantastic things and some of the sites I worked on, even late into my archaeological career, are treasured memories for me.  The people are almost universally brilliant company, with whom I often laughed until physical pain.  Some of my all-time favorite conversations were out on rain-soaked fens, in wind that was trying to blow us over.

But my life changed.  I got serious in a relationship and being poor, stressed and itinerant were no longer compatible with personal happiness.  I had reached the end of my archaeological journey, and with an extremely heavy heart, I laid my career to rest.  Admittedly, I strung that process out – I didn’t know what I was, post-archaeology.  That terrified and depressed me deeply, and the year or so after leaving was a tailspinning, roller-coastering, gut-punch, vertiginous freefall of a time, but I made it through.

I don’t for a single second regret my time in archaeology, and some days I still miss it.  I’m forever glad I took the plunge, leapt for that childhood dream; it’s given me courage to do the same in different areas and aspects of life.  In a big way, it laid the foundation for my adult life.

Would I go back into commercial archaeology now, given the opportunity?

Not a damn chance…

Would I change anything, for better or worse, about my time as an archaeologist?

I would change nothing at all…


The light at the end of the trench or the beginning of a career never dared dreamed of

Natalie F.  29.  PhD Researcher.

–  Academic archaeology is a route that I happened to fall into due to a sequence of quite unlikely events, a great deal of luck and sometimes astounding timing.  As someone who has always had an inclination to play happily in the mud, and who loves the thought of bringing objects and people from our ancient past out of their tomb in the ground and into the light of modern day, I would never have thought I’d end up where I am; a postgraduate student who you sometimes have to prise out of the lab…

Originally, I was encouraged by someone to apply for an MA at my alma mater, which I did with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to make the cut.  My 2:2 meant that academia was theoretically cut off from me, the minimum being a 2:1 in seemingly most institutions; in theory, the ivory tower of academia was locked…

But I wrote my statement, stressing how much I’d loved my time there and archaeology in general, and sent off the application.  I expected nothing, nothing at all, but what I got instead was a phone call from the postgraduate admissions director for Archaeology saying that he was more than happy to push my application through the board.  So off I went, with an appropriate amount of imposter syndrome.

From there, two chance run ins, one when I was hunting down an elusive lecturer and instead found someone who would later be a very dear friend, and one at a launch party after far too much wine with a man who would again become someone I would care for and admire a great deal, led me here.  The first person pointed me in the direction of a funded PhD advert and the second gave it to me, I suspect partially as a way to get me to stop following him around and asking to play with the 3D printer.

So that’s where I found myself, suddenly a full-time researcher with no real idea what to do.  I knew that, sooner or later, I would be uncovered as a fraud; surely all these lecturers who had suddenly become my colleagues would know that I had no idea what I was doing, that I was just a lucky idiot?  But no, they didn’t.  Because the vast majority felt, and still feel, the same way.  The stresses and strains of academic research, anything from your isotope data hasn’t been done yet so you’re 5 months behind to the fact that people keep taking the tea spoons in the staff room, have different sources but are felt by everyone.  The genius who worked for NASA still gets stage fright, the cool, collected expert in her field sometimes cries by the shrubbery outside the building.

Academic research can often be stressful and isolating.  Particularly archaeology, I think, as everything revolves around the long dead; who they were, what they did, ate and believed.  We spend so much time looking backwards that it can be difficult, when the microscope won’t co-operate and everything’s going wrong, to notice the people around you in the present…  No matter how alone you feel, grabbing a nap in the staff room at 8 at night when all the world seems quiet, you’re really not.  Everyone understands, and occasionally leaves a cup of tea for you when you wake up.  There’s always someone who “gets it”.

I would never have guessed that such a real, strong sense of camaraderie existed in academia, albeit alongside some minor competitiveness; I believed, as I said earlier, that the door to the ivory tower had long since closed for me.  It came as a surprise, then, to find out that all I had to do was knock and the door would slowly start to open…


The author rejoins

–  These are just a few of the voices I have managed to curate views for.  We’re still searching for individual stories, so a second entry will be posted in due course…

Lose Yourself (In Mud): An Annotated Guide to the Archaeologists Rap

9 Feb

The following post presents a hopefully humorous lyrical remix of Eminem’s hit Lose Yourself, a rap song released in 2002 on the soundtrack of the film 8 Mile.  8 Mile is an autobiographical film based on the early life of the rapper Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers III), who also plays the lead character in 8 Mile.  The film chronicles the early struggles he had to break into the world of rapping, alongside the growth and development of his unique style among the underground ‘rap battles’ where reputations are forged and broken.  A significant character in the film is the setting itself, the old economic powerhouse city of Detroit, in Michigan, USA, which, following the collapse of some of its major motor industry, helps forge the identity and background of the characters in the film.  The ‘8 Mile’ of the film title refers to the 8 Mile Road (part of the M-102 highway) in Detroit, which bisects different suburbs of Detroit and is home to the main character, and is used in this instance to typically refer to the split between the economic and racial divide on each side of the road.  The original song is linked via a Youtube video below, so please do familiarize yourself with the flow of the original rap and then take a read through my light-hearted lyrical remix.  Although an attempt at archaeological humour, this post none-the-less raises some pertinent issues facing the archaeological researcher and excavator.

Source Material

Eminem’s song Lose Yourself can be found on the soundtrack to his autobiographical film 8 Mile, both of which were released in 2002.  No copyright infringement is intended and the original lyrics remain the property and copyright of their owners.  The basis for the lyrics of the original song used below have been taken from the AZLyrics website, see the version I used here.  This remix is only intended for educational purposes on the life of the archaeologist.  The video to the song can be found below (please be aware that there is some strong language in the song):

Lose Yourself (In Mud): A Rap Remix

– Intro –

‘Look, if you had, one trowel and one context sheet,
To record everything you ever wanted in one excavation or stratigraphy (1),
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
Yo…’

Verse 1

‘His palms are sweaty, knees weak, diggers arms heavy (2),
There’s vomit on his hi-vis already (3): mom’s spaghetti,
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready,
To drop GPS points but he keeps on forgetting,
What he wrote down, the whole road crew goes so loud,
He opens his mouth but the words won’t come out,
He’s choking, how? Everybody’s joking now (4),
The digger’s getting closer, time’s up, over – diesel wow!
Snap back to reality, oh, there goes the ground,
Oh, there goes safety helmet, he choked, he’s so mad but he won’t,
Give up that easy nope, he won’t have it, he knows
His whole back’s to these trenches, it don’t matter, he’s gonna cope,
He knows that, but he’s bone broke (5), he’s so stagnant, he knows
When he goes back to this temporary site home, that’s when it’s
Back to the field again, yo, this whole rhapsody,
He better go record this context and hope it don’t pass him.’

Chorus/Hook

‘You better lose yourself in the field, the moment,
You dig it, you better never let it go (go)
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to record,
This context comes once in a lifetime (yo)
‘You better lose yourself in the field, the moment,
You dig it, you better never let it go (go),
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to sketch the trench,
This context comes once in a lifetime (yo).
(You better).’

Verse 2

‘The soil’s escaping, through this bucket that is gaping,
This Iron Age world is mine for the taking,
Make me a tribal king, as we move towards a Roman world order (6),
A field life is boring, but superstardom’s close to post-excavation (7),
It only grows harder, co-workers grow rowdier,
He drinks. It’s all over. These back-hoes is all on him,
Coast to coast shows, he’s known as the globetrotter (8),
Lonely digs, God only knows,
He’s grown farther from the department, he’s no researcher,
He goes home and barely knows his own publication record (9),
But hold your nose ’cause here goes the cold water,
His back-hoes (and other associated fieldwork tools) don’t want him no more, he’s ex-excavator
They moved on to the next fully-funded dig,
He nose dove and sold nothing of his previous book,
So the soap opera is told and unfolds,
I suppose it’s old partner, but the troweling goes on,
Da da dum da dum da da da da…’

(Back to Chorus/Hook)

Verse 3

‘No more minimum wage, I’m a change what you call pay raise,
Tear this mothertrucking tarp off like two dogs caged,
I was back-filling in the beginning (10), the mood all changed,
I’ve been chewed up and spit out and booed off site,
But I kept recording and stepped right into the next minivan,
Best believe somebody’s playing the repeat record,
All the pain inside amplified by the,
Fact that I can’t get by with my 7 to 5,
And I can’t provide the right type of life for my family,
‘Cause man, these muddy boots don’t provide no good loots (11),
And it’s no Indiana movie, there’s no Jane Buikstra (12), this is my life
And these times are so hard, and it’s getting even harder
Trying to feed and water my underfunded project, plus
Teeter totter caught up between being a teacher and a part-time researcher,
Baby, student’s drama screaming on at me,
Too much for me to wanna stay in one spot (13),
Another day of digging’s gotten me to the point,
I’m like an arthritic snail,
I’ve got to formulate a theory, a methodology or an application,
Single context recording is my only archaeological option, failure’s not,
Site leader, I love you, but this trailer’s got to go,
I cannot grow old in Parker Pearson’s lot (14),
So here I go it’s my shot.
Feet, fail me not,
This may be the only excavation that I got.’

(Back to Chorus/Hook)

Ending

‘You can do anything you set your mind to, archaeologist…’ *raises trowel in solidarity as camera pans away and music fades*

Archaeological Annotations

1.  Archaeological excavation is a fundamentally destructive process, therefore it is of the utmost imperative to record exactly what is uncovered, where and when.  Each stratigraphic horizon within an archaeological dig (the boundaries between different contexts, which can be either man-made or natural) are generally recorded to build up a site activity profile.  Features within the stratigraphic contexts, such as cuts or fills, are also recorded and excavated, with special notice given to structural or material remains found within the discrete horizons.

2.  Commercial field archaeology is not a physically easy job – it is also a demanding, time-consuming and pressurized job due to a number of variables.  These can be, but are not limited, the time allowed in which to excavate as set out by the conditions of construction, the weather, the travel involved to-and-from site, the temperament of the your co-workers, the physical and mental capabilities of your own body, the constant social re-scheduling due to upcoming site unpredictability, the long-term job insecurity, etc.  If you see an archaeologist in the pub, or out excavating, be sure to buy them a pint or a clap them at a job well done.  They’ll love it and remember that the public don’t think that archaeology is all about the gung-ho, ethics destroying, human remains violating, probable national law-breaking, relic selling, macho aggression exploits of Nazi War Diggers (or Battlefield Archaeology, for the UK readers), which shows the profession in a context-obliterating style.

3.  Safety is of paramount importance on-site.  Be aware of your escape routes.  Watch out for heavy machinery.  Wear a hard hat if needed.  Shore up that trench if you are going deep.  Get certified with the Construction Skills Certification Scheme White Card, or comparative scheme, which certifies the basic safety skills for archaeological field technicians.  See the incredibly helpful British Archaeological Jobs Resource guide on the White CSCS card here.

4.  Archaeologists often work side-by-side with the construction industry; it is why archaeology took such a hit both in the localised Celtic Tiger boom and bust in Ireland, for example, and in the global recession of 2008.  If there isn’t any construction going on, there aren’t going to be many excavations going on either.  (Though try telling that to the academic departments who excavate at will).

5.  Bone Broke, by bioarchaeologist PhD candidate Jess Beck, is one heck of a site to learn about the joys of human osteology.  Check it out now.

6.  The pesky rise of the Romans helped spell the end of many Iron Age cultures throughout Europe as the Roman republic (which later mutated into an Empire) battled, amalgamated or integrated their way of life with their barbarian neighbours.

7.  First you freeze in the field, then you freeze in the cold artefact storeroom.

8.  Archaeology, as a profession, offers many, many chances to travel the world and to dig at sites that span the length and breadth of human evolution.  If you are a student, or volunteer archaeologist, you too can check out the many options available to you.

9.  ‘Publish or be damned’ is a normal phrase in archaeology, despite the distinct lack of monetary incentive on behalf of the main academic publishers.  If an archaeological site is excavated, but not published at all, that can lead to the distinct loss of knowledge of that site from the archaeological record (!).  If you care about the archaeological record, get the findings of the dig written up, the specialist material unearthed and analysed properly, and then get it published for the whole world to know about and rejoice in.  You may regret the lack of money in your wallet, but that sense of satisfaction out-weights those empty pockets (hopefully).

10.  The back-filling of a trench is carried out once the archaeological site has been properly excavated and recorded as much as necessary, or is able to be.  Back-filling involves moving the soil from space to another, which is a fine description of archaeological excavation itself.  The tower of backfill is also a place where unlikely, but lucky, finds can be found stripped of their context.

11.  Contrary to the general public perception of archaeology excavations being full of characters in the mould of Dr Indiana Jones this is somewhat gladly not the case.  (Though you will, inevitability, find one or two first year archaeology students ‘ironically’ dressed up as Indiana in the first week or so of the course).  At best though Dr Jones is a looter and archaeologists never loot – we record like our lives depend on it, imagining that if we don’t record the archaeological sites we survey and excavate the giant rolling rock will (rightly) chase us down and flatten us where we stand.

12.  Prof. Jane Buikstra (Arizona State University) is one of the core founders of bioarchaeology (the study of the human skeleton and mummified tissue from archaeological contexts) as a discipline in its own right within the United States.  Buikstra, along with other early bioarchaeology researchers, has helped to set the gold standard for skeletal analysis and she continues to be a dynamic force within the discipline.

13.  Short term adjunct professor contracts in the United States and general short-term teaching contracts in the UK, alongside the general vagabond lifestyle of the field archaeologist, make being a professional archaeologist adept at moving completely at short notice.  Fieldwork is also notoriously underpaid considering how educated the workforce is in comparison to other skilled workforces.  The British Archaeological Jobs Resource is helping to try to curb that by launching the More Than Minima campaign in its advertising of job posts.  See the 15/16 Pay and Conditions document here, which set out a useful recommendation for the companies offering commercial archaeology jobs.

14.  Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) is a well-known prehistoric and funerary archaeologist, perhaps best known for researching and excavating the Wiltshire Neolithic and Bronze Age landscape in England, of which Stonehenge and Durrington Walls are one important part.  His 1999 Archaeology of Death and Burial book is a must for all budding bioarchaeologists.

Day of Archaeology 2015: Long Read – A Chat On Blogging With Robert M. Chapple

26 Jul

This is a late entry for the 2015 Day of Archaeology Festival, which was held on the 24th of July.  You can read some cracking entries here, and also read all about the purpose of the event as well!  For the Day of Archaeology 2014 I put together a post detailing views from a range of my friends who are involved with archaeology at all sorts of different levels (students, researchers, commercial, voluntary, academic, etc.) and this post can be read here.  This year I decided to do something a little bit different and a little bit more in-depth to helpfully discuss and highlight different views points on both a) archaeology as a commercial sector to work or volunteer in, and b) the experience of blogging about archaeology.  So I’ve roped in Robert M. Chapple, an archaeological friend based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a web-based discussion.  Happy readings, and I hope you too have had a good Day of Archaeology 2015!


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Robert, thank you for joining me here today to talk about all the great things that archaeology is and can be!  We are here to talk about the day of Archaeology, a day every year set aside for archaeologists to talk about what they normally get up to on an average day to celebrate the diverse topic archaeology is.  Firstly would you like to introduce yourself for the readers of These Bones of Mine?

Robert M. Chapple (RMC):  Hi there! Where to start?  I was born in England, grew up in the west of Ireland, I hold BA and MA degrees in archaeology from the National University of Ireland, Galway.  I moved to Belfast in Northern Ireland for one year … in 1997 … and I’m still here.  I worked in commercial field archaeology for about 20 years – most of it in Northern Ireland and the border counties.  I left the profession in 2011 and have since retrained in IT, but I remain active and connected to that world through blogging and my ongoing research interests.  What is your background and how did you get into archaeology?

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A digital conversation. David Mennear (L), of These Bones of Mine and Robert M Chapple (R) swapping thoughts over the web. For the record I’d like to say that I have now shaved and I had bed hair when I took this photograph. Image credit: Robert M Chapple.

TBOM:  Ah so you have always had a foot in the commercial sector in Ireland then?  Well as the youngest in the family I always remember holidays, or day visits, to historic or prehistoric places of interest, whether they were buildings or landscapes.  My dad has a bit of a background in the museum sector so they always figured quite highly on our list of places to visit as a family, but he and my mam are also interested in the countryside more generally as well (history of how it was used, etc.).  I first got into archaeology on a school work placement where I ended up washing the bones of animal remains from a medieval excavation.  I loved history at school (specifically the history of medicine module that I studied) then focused on history at college.  It wasn’t until University where I studied a BA in History & Archaeology at Hull that I became fascinated by the mixing of the humanities and sciences and how much they could tell us about past populations.  I decided to pursue a MSc at the University of Sheffield where I studied human osteology as although I love prehistory, I love the fact that with human osteology you can study human remains and activity in a variety of contexts.

How did you find the commercial sector?

RMC:  Your description of your early exposure to archaeology brings back so many memories of my own … my parents were very keen on ‘improving’ activities and pastimes.  So it wasn’t unusual to find ourselves on a day out to some form of ruin or historical site.  As a young child, I clearly remember going on a rather mad-cap tour organised by the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, led by the later Prof Etienne Rynne.  He brought us across a damp field to show us an example of a particularly poorly understood site type, very few of which had been excavated at that point.  It was a ‘burnt mound’ or fulacht fia – at that time so few had been excavated it was still valid to talk about them as being an Iron Age phenomena.  Since then (largely as a result of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ development boom), they’ve become the most commonly investigated site type in Ireland.  While their use spans a wide time-frame, they’re now understood as being a largely Bronze Age type. Etienne spoke with wild enthusiasm and managed to inject much interest into what can be seen as a relatively uninspiring site type.  On the same trip, he dragged a busload of us across several damp fields to look for a ring barrow he had once excavated, but now appeared to have vanished.

He conducted a spirited lecture on the approximate spot where he thought the site had lain, pointing to spots on the bare earth and saying ‘the cremated bone would have been about … there …’ etc.  Looking back, I feel that if I could be convinced to look at a blank patch of ground and imagine how a burial was once laid out, the archaeology bug had already bitten pretty deep.  The other big influence on my early interest in archaeology was volume two of Children’s Britannica.  My ‘improving’ parents had decided around the time I was born, to subscribe to an encyclopedia.  By the time they’d signed up they’d also decided to move to the west of Ireland and Britannica refused to spend the extra on postage.  To this day, we only have the first two volumes.  But in the second one (Aran to Bee) there’s the entry for ‘Archaeology’ … and as a child, it absolutely fascinated me.  In particular, there’s a drawing of an archaeologist photographing a vertical section that gives a clear explanation about stratigraphy and relative dating.  Apparently, as a rather precocious kid, I used to dig this out and annoy relatives and visitors with my explanations as to how cool and important it was. … some things don’t change … but I do think that the signs were there from an early age that archaeology would become a significant part of my adult life.  I find that I’m rather more keen to discuss other things than some aspects of commercial archaeology.

I’ve been out of that world for over three years now, and I still have so much residual anger and bitterness that I find it difficult to be reasonable on the topic.  I will say that, unlike many people, my entry into that world was relatively slow after university.  I had done one university research excavation in 1989 and after that, I’d drifted into various field survey programmes and related stuff before going back to study for a Masters.  There were occasional excavations along the way, but nothing significant until I got a job on the tail end of the Lisheen Mine excavations in Co. Tipperary  in 1998.  Up until then I’d found the atmosphere on many sites to be relatively stifling, with all minor increments in experience and ability very closely guarded.  The reasoning was simple – if I teach you to do ‘x’ that’s a skill you’ll have the next time we both go for the same job and nobody wanted or needed the competition.

By the time I arrived at Lisheen, times had moved on and the field of commercial archaeology was starting to blossom.  Here there was a huge generosity to teach and impart knowledge – based on the simple need to have as many skilled people available as possible.  Having not been involved in regular excavations for so long, I was something of an anachronism, but I loved the experience and it ignited my passion for excavation – the joy of being the first person in however many years to look at an artefact and know what it was for and how it was made, or the moment of realisation that this set of post-holes represents a structure … these moments became sustaining supports throughout much of my later career.  I often think that, had the financial crisis not occurred, I’d probably still be in commercial archaeology – I loved the work, I adored finding stuff, and was I was really committed to getting stuff published.  It was where I saw myself for the rest of my days.  As Abraham Lincoln said ‘… and then the war came’ … the global financial meltdown from 2008 onward had a huge effect on the commercial sector.

The company I was with at the time just started shedding jobs back to only retaining the ‘core’ staff.  They went from employing over 30 or 40 people down to less than 10 almost overnight.  We took pay-cut after pay-cut, and I took a drop in position (with a further pay-cut) … all to keep the company afloat and keep ourselves in the job we adored.  We went to rolling layoffs, sometimes for two or three weeks at a go.  I frequently didn’t know on a Friday if I had work to go to on the following Monday.  All of these things I endured, if not particularly cheerfully, then for the love of having a job in the field I loved.  What snapped for me was the quality.  I was used to trying to do a quality job under tough conditions – usually uncaring developers and inclement weather.  But what I saw during the recession was company management, who called themselves ‘archaeologists’ deliberately encouraging us to do poor quality work.  They’d sold their souls to the few developers who were left and felt that the only way of remaining in business was to prostrate themselves further and kowtow to anyone with the money to pay them.  If that meant abandoning much of the standards that were considered basic and minimal, too bad!  By that point we were – at best – merely relatively well-educated dirt shovellers.  I saw less and less of what would be considered actual archaeological practice on sites. Something had to give … and that was me!  Like I say, I’m pretty bitter about how it all worked out in the end.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though … I’ve regained much of the stuff that I actually loved about archaeology – the getting out and seeing sites, reading the books, and writing stuff for magazines and my blog.  Not being dependent on archaeology as the day job has allowed me to say and do stuff that I couldn’t have imagined if I was still in the Northern Irish commercial sector.

One thing I wanted to circle round to with you is the influence of your parents.  You say that your Dad was involved in the museum sector, so he must have had some knowledge of the precarious nature of a career in archaeology.  Did he try to dissuade you in any way and go for something ‘safer’ and more conventional?

TBOM:  The archaeology unit which he often had contact with was, and still is, a unit attached to the local council, so the experience that he’d had didn’t really relate as such to the purely commercial world of the field archaeologist and the trials and tribulations that they endure.  He, and the family really, had always been aware of how precarious the heritage and archaeological sectors are in general, what with often being one of the first areas for government and council cuts generally since the recession, but everyone knew each other and my town (Hartlepool) was in a blossoming period of the extension of the heritage sector more generally.

We have the fantastic Maritime Experience museum complex, helped built partly with the funds for regeneration, and dedicated plaques around town indicating the importance of the area during the industrial and medieval periods.  As a child I often remember visiting the truly awe-inspiring Royal navy frigate HMS Trincomalee, one of Britain’s oldest warship afloat dating from 1812, safely ensconced in a dock as a part of the Maritime Experience, where you can climb aboard and relive the life of sailors from the 19th century.

My town in general already has strong links to the past even without being the current home for the HMS Trincomalee, often physically in the landscape but also in the folk tales of the people and area.  To take a few instances: we have a surviving medieval town wall up on the headland; Hartlepool was the first place in the First World War where a British soldier was killed on active duty on British soil during the bombardment of the east coast in 1914 by the German navy.  We have a strong volunteer run museum where original and replica guns from that period, and modern, are stationed within their historic bunker and fortified coastal firing position; the headland was the location where Hilda, now St Hilda, founded a mixed-sex monastic community and abbey in the 7th century AD (rare for that period, although no surviving building from this period remains, a 12th century church, St Hilda’s, still remains on or near the location of the original), before Hilda moved on to Whitby to help found and take charge of the abbey; the Summerhill outdoor park in the town features an extensive Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British archaeology site, which has been the focus of several excavations in the past 60 years.

These are just a few of the main prehistoric and historic calling points of Hartlepool – there are of course many more, especially in the industrial period in the late 19th century where the town served as one of Britain’s busiest ports, helping to export coal from the Durham minefields across Europe and the world.

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A photograph capturing a view across the bay of Hartlepool, detailing the rocky coast of the historic Hartlepool headland and a morn ship dredging the channel to clear the silt. Author’s own photograph.

As I’ve said my father (as well as my mother) had both had the chance to study at university (first of their families) and my father’s background included the study of geography, geology and archaeology, and my mam had studied languages and literature, so we were always interested in the deeper story of the areas we visited.  My dad still to this day asks us what we think of the museums we visit and see on various trips across the country and the world at large.   It was when I did the work experience that I came to realize my own interest in the physical past, of how past populations lived and behaved within their physical and cultural landscape.  My dad had never dissuaded either me or my two older brothers in their chosen careers – they (both my mother and father) have always been positive and helpful (even after glancing at the cost of a Masters and realising how much it’d cost me!).  My two older brothers, though they do not work in the heritage sector now, both worked at the local museum from a young age for a number of years.  Even with my disability (see here), I was never persuaded to study or to pursue another career.

As it has worked out I currently work in administration to earn my wage, but I retain strong links to both the academic, voluntary and commercial worlds of archaeology.  For instance I have recently been working on a chapter for an edited volume, for a session in an international conference where I gave a talk, and I am currently in the middle of an analysis of the human skeletal remains from the above Iron Age/Romano-British site.  I do this, of course, in my spare time and my current job allows me the expenses of pursing these interests where they are not paid themselves (every academic writer will know this!).  It is safe to say that a large part of my current connections and experience has come via blogging on this very site.  I was wary at first of entering the blogging world but, after the degree at the University of Hull, I knew I wanted to keep up my own personal interest in archaeology and try to improve my own knowledge of human osteology by writing and providing information to others who wanted to learn more about why archaeologists study the past and past populations.

There is, of course, another major influencing factor here that I haven’t mentioned – my own skeleton as a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome.  My parents, and my family and friends, have seen me undergo many major surgeries to either rectify traumatic fractures or as a preventative measure (internal fixation of the femora using intramedullary rods, and the titanium plating of the right tibia and humerus) to decrease future fracture occurrences and stabilize the bone.  Necessarily I’ve always had to catch up on school work and social life, but I’ve become fairly determined as an individual to pursue my own interests, almost in spite of myself – of course it also made me interested in the skeletal system itself!  I was intrigued and wanted to hear what the consultant was doing and why, I got to see the numerous x-rays where transverse fractures were the norm or to see the newly implanted metal work.  It was fascinating and I was fascinated!  But before I become sidetracked, you have mentioned about your parents encouraging educational and ‘instructive’ visits and upbringing – how did that come about?  The field trip sounds utterly enthralling!

RMC:  Ah, man! My youth (or at least my memory of it) was one field trip after another.  Sometimes we teamed up with the Galway Archaeological & Historical Society, but more often than not we just went off to find stuff on our own.  As a kid you didn’t realise that the person guiding the tour was a university lecturer or published author or some other august individual, and I remember being in such awe at the amount of knowledge that they just seemed to have at their instant recall.  Having since been in the position of giving various tours, I’m now all too aware of the amount of work and preparation that goes into it. Despite all this, my favourite trips were always the family-only ones … just us turning up at a ruined abbey somewhere off in the countryside.

There was no pressure of having to stay politely quiet while an eminent Prof wheeled out his personal theory on the place and then quickly back on the coach to see the next spot.  Instead, my dad would often insist on reading out the contents of the information board and then it was down to the serious business of exploring.  These expeditions may not have been academically rigorous, but they were filled with wonder and a frisson of excitement.  I’ve wonderful memories of listening to people like the late Etienne Rynne explain the sequence of construction of a monastery over several centuries, but they’re really rivaled by experiences with my family crowded round a headstone, puzzling out the inscription and the meanings of the symbolism.  The other thing I found about getting to see so many places when I was so young was not particularly associating the sites with any degree of importance … sure, they were interesting and great to visit, but I didn’t think of them as having a larger significance … they were just places where we stopped on a Sunday trip into the countryside, or on a holiday day out.  It was only when I got to university and found that they were illustrated and discussed in the text books and you were now expected to research quite a bit more about them (and remember it!) that I realised the broader importance of these places.  It was certainly valuable to be able to go back to personal memories of visiting such sites – in many ways it made the academic research much easier and more enjoyable.

Years later, in discussing this with my parents, we agreed that it wasn’t too surprising that I ended up in archaeology, having been exposed to so much of it as a child.  Now that I think of it, I’m surprised how my brother and two sisters didn’t end up in archaeology!  I suppose this is the thing … to my parents, theses were just day trips – somewhere nice to see on holiday, or just get the family out of the house for the afternoon, but to me these were deeply formative experiences that shaped my entire life … I’m lucky my siblings even talk to me!  I used always say that the best advice my Dad ever gave me was to find the job you enjoy and you’ll never feel that you’re working.  He’d left school and wanted to join the RAF, but it didn’t work out for him.  He ended up drifting through a number of jobs until he found that accountancy not only interested him, but he had a huge aptitude for it.

I now realise that my mother only wanted the best for me, but when I was a kid I only ever felt that I was being pushed into joining my Dad’s accountancy firm.  I think that she had a pretty good idea as to how difficult life might be as an archaeologist and felt that I should head for something safer and more secure.  When we finally talked it out that I didn’t fancy a life as an accountant, she instead suggested that I become a teacher … again, something considered safe and secure. When even that failed to convince me, I remember that she suggested that I entered the priesthood … a nice safe livelihood that would allow me to bring up a family in financially secure environment … it would even come with a house and car, and I could still pursue archaeology as a hobby.  I pointed out that I lacked sufficient levels of belief for this to be a viable proposition and the idea was quietly dropped.  All the while, my dad was very supportive … he’d worked on an archaeological excavation when he was a schoolboy and, had things been different, would loved to have gone on to study archaeology himself.

But here’s the thing … twenty-odd years later, I see things rather differently.  I’ve relatively few regrets about my time in field archaeology, other than the poor pay and conditions and the wreck it made of my knees and major joints.  If I’d not ended up with a non-archaeologist wife, I’d never have had sufficient financial security to afford a house and raise a family.  It’s one thing to ponder the advice you’d give to young people in general about whether or not they should consider archaeology as a career, but when it comes to what I may yet have to discuss with my sons (The Chapples Minor), I really struggle to find any good reasons to do it.  I went into archaeology knowing that it would require ‘sacrifices’.  I thought that they would be about long hours, hard work, and travelling miles to excavations and not being particularly appreciated for what you do when you get there, but I never realised the true implications of it all.  The lack of financial security, the lack of simple job security, the absence of any real career progression to speak of … all these things … and still enough of the excitement remains that I feel unable to condemn it completely.

As I said before, being out of the business of archaeology, has allowed me huge freedoms to concentrate on the bits that I still love doing. I’ve gotten back to visiting sites – and bringing my kids along – and I still write and research for my own hobby projects.  I suppose that brings us back – in part – to blogging.  For my part, I started in August 2011 when I was looking to find ways of raising my public profile.  The company I was with looked likely to go under and I wanted to have something – anything – to differentiate me from the rest of the gang out looking for work.  I considered various strategies, including getting some rather nice business cards made up and, for want of anything better to do, I reckoned I’d set up a blog.  My primary concerns were that I’d not find enough to write about and that no one would be interested in what I had to say.  You mention that you were ‘wary’ of embarking on your own blog.  What gave you cause for concern and how did you decide to move ahead with the idea anyway?

TBOM:  You know, I have yet to get business cards but they are on my list!  That is something I shall have to look in to… So yes, I started this site back in January or February 2011, on roughly the same grounds as yours – I had finished my undergraduate degree, I was hunting for a job and I knew that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree to specialise in human osteology.  Yet I felt that I needed to do something else, that I wanted to continue to write about archaeology and bioarchaeology for the sheer fun of it partly.  I had quickly surveyed the online blogging bioarchaeology world and could not find much out there in break downs of the skeletal system, as it is studied in human osteology for bioarchaeology, so I had my unique selling point (the half-finished Skeletal Series posts).  Further to this is was also a personal occupation – I wanted to write, and I wanted to improve at it at the same time.

But yes, I also had reservations about the enterprise.  I was worried that I’d trash my name if I wrote freely online; I was worried that whatever I wrote could potentially impact on someone’s career or personal reputation;  I was worried that I’d write and frankly that it would not lead anywhere.  At this point I still envisioned a full and lasting career in bioarchaeology (it has not been deflated since, but I am in a position where I must work to fund my hobbies but the work impedes on my progress).  Blogging at the academic level, I thought, was only pursued by those who are focusing on the discipline themselves, researchers who devoted themselves full-time to their passions.  This was, of course, a naive assumption on my part.

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Where blogging archaeology can take you, part 1. Yerba Buena area in San Francisco, April 2015. I was here as a part of the Society for American Archaeologists annual 80th conference, taking part in a session on the theory and method of the bioarchaeology of care methodology. Author’s own photograph.

But I thought in the end, nothing ventured nothing gained, and why not?  In the end blogging has kept me distinctly in the loop as it were – it is how I remain informed on field schools, specific new technologies and methodologies.  It has also had a great impact on the ability to meet people with the same interest and not just online (thank you once again for the meal and the drinks in Belfast following the Day of the Dead conference in 2014 at Queen’s University!).  I have to say I am very glad I joined the blogging world – I would suggest to anyone to get involved but I’d make sure you have your own morals and ethics to posting, to be aware of the information that you are putting out and why.  Also, try to be consistent in some way or form.  Nothing says half-arsed like a barely wrote blog that still exists!

What are your feelings on blogging?

RMC:  First thing I’d say is not to underestimate the importance of shelling out a few quid on business cards – I don’t think they’ve ever gotten me work, but there have been some dark times when seeing the words “Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist” written down on a piece of paper has brought some much-needed reassurance!

With regard to my motivations in embarking on a blogging adventure, I see that you thought the whole thing through with more depth and clarity than I did.  I never really thought of the downsides, other than the entire archaeological world having irrefutable proof that I’m pretty shallow and without much capacity for original thought.  I do say that it was started as a semi-cynical attempt at self-promotion, but that is not completely true.  There remains the simple fact that I’ve always loved to write and I wanted to try my hand at something looser than the very formal ‘academic tone’ I’d become so used to.  As anyone can see from my early posts, this was a steep learning curve and it took me quite a while to find my place and speak with an authentic voice.

I suppose another difference from your approach is that I didn’t particularly feel that there was a niche that particularly needed me in it.  There were already a decent crop of skilled communicators out there writing for and about Irish archaeology.  If I’d been a deeper thinker, I reckon I’d have left the blogging scene in the capable hands it was already in … but where’s the fun in that?

I really want to talk about your comment ‘Nothing says half-arsed like a barely wrote blog that still exists!’  That was my only real fear in starting blogging … that I’d not find the stuff to write about, or the time to do it.  I’ve written before that an article on Cracked.com about ‘The 8 Worst Types of Blog on the Internet‘ was very influential on my thinking.  One of the offences they identify is ‘The “Let’s Start a Blog” Blog’ … a blog with only one post where the author got caught up in the idea of having a blog, but not in actually providing content.  I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I knew that I was going to have to make an effort – it might be badly written and boring, but there would be more than one post!

One way or another, I had envisioned my blogging as something I would be doing within the context of remaining as a professional field archaeologist.  I had intended that it would be a place where I could write about the things that interested me, but I wasn’t particularly convinced that anyone would read any of it.  The first ‘breakthrough’ piece I wrote that seemed to make people sit up and notice was in response to a another blog post that claimed the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ years had been detrimental to Irish archaeology.  I disagreed and wrote: was the Building Boom so Bad for Irish Archaeology? A reply to Fin Dwyer.  It was a pretty big hit for me … when most of my posts struggled to hit 100 readers in a week, this shot to over 1000 reads in just a couple of days.  Up until that, I couldn’t have begged or bribed people to engage with me in comments, but suddenly I was in the midst of a (to me, at least) significant little media storm, with multiple simultaneous conversations going on across the comments section of the post and in various corners of social media.  I’m not sure if I was writing it today, I’d be so fully committed to the arguments I present in that post, but I think its an interesting artefact of where my thinking lay at that time.

Although I’ve not discussed it publicly before, probably the biggest lesson I learned at that time was my vulnerability in speaking my mind and still being employed with an archaeological consultancy.  At that time, as a ‘senior’ staff member with the lot I worked with, I had administrator access to the company Facebook Page and could post as the company.  I’d emailed the office manager and if it could be put on the page … I even cautioned that it might be deemed ‘controversial’ and was told to go ahead and do it myself, it’ll be fine!  Although one of the company directors had seen the post elsewhere and loved it, the office manager decided that it was more controversial than she’d imagined.

I got a strongly worded email saying that the company could not allow itself to be associate in any way with the post and that it had been deleted.  I also found that I, and the rest of the senior staff, no longer had administrative privileges for the Facebook page.  It was, really, only a minor altercation, but it made me very aware of how precarious the right to freedom of speech is when attempting to balance a number of variables … especially when you run the risk of offending the sensibilities of some little martinet.  After that I, consciously or not, seem to have played it safe for a while as I appear to have concentrated on book reviews and similarly non-confrontational pieces, but the lure of jumping in with all guns blazing was too tempting to make me stay out of trouble for long …

As things have worked out I left archaeology as my day job.  I’m now rather happily employed in the world of IT.  It had many advantages, including decent pay, regular hours, adherence to legal requirements for health and safety, and I’m not made to regularly give thanks for the pleasure of being treated like dung for the privilege of having a job etc. … all stuff I sum up as ‘it’s indoors & there’s no heavy lifting!’.  For all that, back in December 2011 I was still in the position of being 40 and unemployed … I’d walked out of my supposedly ‘permanent’ job in the profession I adored and now had no idea where I’d go and what I’d do.  While I was receiving notifications that I wasn’t qualified for basic entry-level positions in various places, I kept writing for my blog.

At that stage, I just needed something to keep me sane and stop me from despairing at my lack of success and direction in life.  By the time I got the post where I am currently, I just continued writing … it seemed therapeutic and it has allowed me to transition from one realm of employment to another with much greater ease than (I imagine) it would have been if I’d just made a clean break of it.  As I’ve alluded to before, the fact that I’m independent of the archaeological world has allowed me to be much freer in what I write about, knowing that I’m not beholden to anyone in the field for work and, most especially, that I don’t have to face an angry employer, or their office minions, after I post something controversial.

I very much agree with you on what you say about blogging allowing you to feel connected to the wider archaeological world.  I remember, years ago, going to a conference on the burgeoning field of archaeological perspectives on gravestones and feeling overwhelmed that there were other people out there that shared my interests and were thinking along the same lines as myself.  Even trying to keep in touch with the published literature, you never got the same sense that there were other people out there working away in universities and in spare bedrooms to hone their ideas and publish their findings.  With social media, all that has now changed … you can be anywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and (once you have an internet connection) you can tap into what the latest research, though, and discussion is in your preferred field.  Blogging is, to bloggers at least, a vital part in that great effort of communication and, yes, I really do feel connected to the wider archaeological world through it.

I’ve joked before (and with only slight bitterness) that I’ve become more influential and respected in the time since I left professional archaeology than I ever was in the twenty years previously.  Since emerging as a blogger, I’ve had numerous requests to produce papers for collected volumes, been offered noticeably more speaking engagements, I’ve been asked to act as session chair for a conference, later on this summer I’m participating in a summer school discussion panel.  I even get invited to discussion/interviews like this.  Frankly, it’s brilliant!  I feel like some forgotten painter that’s died and suddenly there’s significant interest in his work … thankfully, without the requisite of having passed away!

I think I’ve yammered on for long enough and it’s time to turn some questions over to you.  We’ve both spoken at a bit of length about how we got into blogging, but how do you find it as an ongoing experience?  How do you decide what to write and what to prioritize?  … and, by extension, what won’t you write about or what do you shy away from addressing?

More broadly, I wonder how you feel about your initial fears now … from an outsider’s perspective, you’ve very much emerged as an engaging and authoritative voice and public face to human osteology for bioarchaeology in social media.  I would certainly rate you among the top handful of bloggers in your area.  I’ll admit that I don’t read everything you post, but what I do see is really well written and informative – even if much of it is clearly aimed at a more specialist reader than myself.  It’s an unfair question, but I’ll ask it anyway, how do you see yourself and what do you feel the successes of your blogging experience have been?

TBOM:  I shall look into those business cards!

Ah quite a few questions there but ones that are pertinent to our general discussion today so I’ll answer them one by one.  As an ongoing experience blogging is endlessly fun, interesting, frustrating and time-consuming!  I often think of ideas for future blog posts and quickly jot down a skeletal entry, only for them to get bogged down in the detail when I come to think of writing them out more fully.  I’ve never particularly been a fast writer who can type out paragraph after paragraph without a break.  Editing takes the longest time and still mistakes get through!  I think, after a while, you become blind to your own mistakes, although this may also be an effect of the fact that I tend to write the majority of the posts around 1am or 2am after a shift at work!

As an ongoing experience I do love it, I hope it is evident that I do.  Recently I’ve found myself wanting to explore different issues on the blog, as well as the more ‘daily’ posts of short course updates, book or conference mentions and basic human osteology, or bioarchaeology, centered posts.  The further that time, and the life of the blog, goes on the more cautious I become in quickly writing posts.  I try to vary the output, including things often not talked about in other bioarchaeology blogs (the social and academic aspects and costs of bioarchaeology, and archaeology more generally, open access to journal articles, personal views of bone disease and fractures etc).

As the blog has gone on I feel that, in order not to mislead readers and subscribers, that hard subjects should not be avoided or fobbed off.  I’ve been working on a draft of a post on the bioarchaeology of suicide attacks (tentatively titled ‘the body as a weapon’, but each time I add to the disjointed post I can’t help but feel what other people may think of it – however it will be posted, I just need to find more time to sit and work on it, or on the modern case studies and the implications for this as-yet theoretical model.  Same too for the embryonic posts focusing on disability & sexuality and disability & film, two posts focusing on the intersection of their subjects that sit half-finished in the draft folder.  I feel a greater responsibility to the authors of the research that I cite, or of the short courses or conferences that I attend, in order not to mislead readers on their research.  This has often led to fruitful collaboration on editing posts, especially so when bioarchaeologists are excited about the impact and reach of social media.  I’ve been lucky in another area of the blog – the willingness to extend invites to guest blog entries and interviews (and now discussions!).  The interviews are something in particular that I want to develop and extend.

I should prioritize posts really! I have a write-up of the Belfast conference I attended last October and the San Francisco conference from April that need to be finished up and posted.  I always feel a greater debt to editing and giving feedback to guest bloggers first and foremost.  The ideas for posts generally come fairly randomly, if they are ton already sitting in the draft folder or ones that I aim to write within a series.  For instance, the Skeletal Series next two posts will focus on the aging and sexing techniques used in bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains.  There is something that I do shy away from writing about: famous skeletons, i.e. the Medieval English king Richard III or the new research on Phillip II from ancient Greece.

I feel that other blogs often cover these more expertly then I and that the remit of famous skeletons does not fit this blog, even as broad as this is (which reminds me I need to cover some human evolution research!).  Personally, I feel that the great and growing battery of bioarchaeological analyses is brought down on these individuals to the detriment of the anonymous skeletal remains of past individuals.  It reminds me of material wealth as the great social indicator of power, or at least our view of it (think of any headline from an archaeological site that made it into the public domain and it will largely focus on any extravagant burial).  Aside from that there isn’t much I would not discuss on the blog.  I am sometimes dismayed that employment within bioarchaeology isn’t discussed on other blogs, or the stress of the lifestyle and the sheer tenacity needed to succeed, or even just survive, in this field.  Which conveniently leads onto the next point…

Meyers-Emery and Killgrove (2015, open access) recently succinctly highlighted the dearth of consistently updated bioarchaeology blogs out there.  Mine was one of 6 that was discussed and quoted in the article, although one of those is now not regularly updated.  I feel a greater responsibility but understand the very privileged position that this blog has attained throughout the past 4 years.  I should say that I do no speak for any organisation, institution or discipline directly, or have any direct affiliation, through employment, with a company, that I speak only as myself.  I do wonder, though, whether this blog has cost jobs before or whether my physical disability has already helped in that area (the combination of the two may just be a dastardly mix!).  Still, and this is an area that I am keen to write about more, I am proud to write about my own bone disease on the blog, and of disability more generally, as in both as a feature of the bioarchaeological record and of those who work, study or just have a passion in archaeology more generally.  I hope I can be held up as a positive example that disability does not hold you back, no matter what.

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Where blogging archaeology can take you, part 2. Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, April 2015. This was a pretty busy area of the city, but also one that harked back a bit further to its maritime history. Author’s own photograph.

I guess I am uncomfortably comfortable in my blogging position of bioarchaeological authority.  I’ve put time and effort into maintaining this site for the benefit of the readers and subscribers, and of my own ongoing education.  There is something that I’m keen to highlight though, and I’d be interested if any other bioarchaeology bloggers heard the same, that some of my friends (which includes a broad range of specialists and non-specialists) have fed back that sometimes they don’t understand the posts.  Whether this is a failure of my own communication and/or the extent of the specialised lexis used within bioarchaeological research I am not quite sure.  But it reminds me that not everything is as open as you’d think.  How do I see myself?  That is a good question.

I am more intrigued how others see me, and that they may not realise but that I largely do the bioarchaeology blog on the side when I have the spare time and inclination to research and write.  But how do I see myself… I guess I see that I have succeeded in one childhood dream – that I am a writer of sorts (watch this space for a forthcoming book review and a chapter in an edited volume!).  I am slightly afraid that people will see this blog as the total sum of my being, which sounds pretentiously philosophical.  Curiously, for blogs dedicated to the study of the dead, whether through skeletonized or mummified remains, there is little discussion of the personal memento mori, of thy own death. Specifically of the blog online, and its life, after the death of the author(s).  This is a relatively new digital horizon, but the majority of archaeological blogs in both the UK and the US (where many of the English language archaeology blogs and bloggers are from, are single authored and, more often than not, not affiliated with any academic institution or company.  In essence, the blogger will die twice.  Once physically and once digitally, once the log is no longer updated and the SEO indexing of the site goes south.  There may be a field that is forever England, but the digital landscape, and the companies online, quickly change or are forgotten in time.

The personal success has been connecting and meeting people with the same bone disease as me.  Up until I started this blog I had never physically known, or communicated with, any individual who had the same syndrome and associated bone disease (McCune Albright Syndrome, though the bone disease specifically is Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia).  It is all about the human connection, not the views or visitors (though I feel an obligation to be open about those – on a side note does the figure of the views grant a greater authority despite, or because of, the position held in real life?).  Apart from that, the ability to spend time and effort in a didactic exercise that has seemingly also helped others, is a value of which I hold as a success.

How about yourself Robert?  What do you hope to achieve and why?

RMC:  As I’ve said before, if I’d been a deep enough thinker, I’d probably never have taken on writing a blog. My initial aim was to ‘raise my profile’ in the hope of bettering my chances of getting archaeological work.  From that initial standpoint, I’ve failed miserably … I don’t work in archaeology as the day job anymore and I doubt I ever will again.  It’s not that I don’t love archaeology, it’s simply that other professions are much better paid, more secure, have better prospects, and don’t expect me to appear on the side of a hill in Tyrone at 07:30 for a day of rain and not much above the minimum wage.  So … why am I still doing it?  I think that, whatever bitterness I still feel about my former career, the lure of archaeology is immense and blogging gives me a prefect platform to remain involved.  With modern digital technology all you need is the will to communicate … after that, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a highly-respected member of staff at a prestigious university or – like the pair of us – doing this in your spare time after getting home from work.  It just comes down to that will to communicate and whether or not anyone is interested in reading what you have to say.  As an ongoing activity, I really do see my blogging as some weird form of therapy – it has really made my transition to a life in IT much easier and less traumatic than it might other have been.

If I’m honest, I don’t really have a long-term plan as to what I want to achieve with the blog.  I had read that most blogs – if they ever get off the ground at all – last, on average, only three years.  For a long time I was obsessed with surpassing that limit, as though it was some curse-laden prophesy … as the blog is now happily scooting along towards the four-year mark, that’s less of a problem.  I suppose I’ll keep writing as long as I’m able to balance it with work and family commitments and so long as it feels good to write and – most importantly – so long as there are people out there interested in reading what I’ve got to say.  I’m afraid I’m still obsessed with the numbers.  I suppose it’s all tied up in the need for acceptance that’s inherent in any public performance … I still remember my first few months blogging and getting even 20 visits/reads a day was an amazing feeling.  These days it’s a bit more than that, though it’s hardly the Huffington Post, but seeing a popular post surge in reads still brings a huge thrill. I’ve learned from my involvement with the ‘Cherrymount Crannog Crisis‘ group that, used wisely and judiciously, I do have some small amount of power to influence situations and events.

So, for as long as that lasts, I’m happy to ‘use my powers for good’ and try to bring about positive change in Irish and Northern Irish archaeology.  Obviously, this is very much tied into my lack of affiliation with any archaeological company, or institution … the lack of formal ‘respectability’ remains freeing and it allows me to tackle topics that might frighten off others/the sane.  Thankfully, those controversial pieces are pretty rare and I’m more interested in using the audience I’ve built up to help where I can, in particular the next generation of archaeologists.  Where I can, I try to offer my blog as a platform to help researchers gain information, support, or (most importantly) giving them a means of getting their research out to a wide audience of professional and public.  In the cutthroat world of modern academia, it’s no longer enough to write interesting and important papers for worthy journals, you have to get your message out there too.  I don’t seek to overthrow the formal peer-reviewed publication route, but I see that blogging has an important place in the grand scheme of things and I’m proud to be part of that world.

I will admit to a hearty laugh of recognition in reading your description of jotting down ideas for posts and the need for editing!  I used to keep a list of ‘things I’d like to write about’ … unfortunately, I didn’t add enough detail to some of the list items and when I looked at it recently I was unable to decipher what I meant by several entries.  If I ever find out what I meant by the line ‘post on the thing about the circle’, I’ll let you know!  Editing, of course, remains a terrible bugbear … I do my best to ensure that all the errors are excised, and that it reads like I do actually speak English, but looking back on some stuff, I’m simply shocked by the apparently obvious errors that I should have picked up on before I hit ‘publish’.  I do like your idea of the blogger dying twice … a physical and a digital death.  It’s very evocative of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The valiant never taste of death but once, bloggers do it twice’ … which I’m sure is the actual quote (translated from the original Latin!) but I disagree – I think that digital archives are much longer lasting and robust than we give them credit for.  It may be one thing if you’re a government minister who had an affair or expired in a particularly unedifying manner … that stuff will be around to haunt their great-grandchildren, but less flamboyant material, like blog posts, will probably stick around too.

For example, I made an abortive attempt to start an on-line archaeological journal nearly 20 years ago. When it finally all fell through and the rental of the server space expired, I though it was gone for good, deleted, and never to be seen again.  As it turned out, it wasn’t gone … just hard to get.  I think that as digital storage gets cheaper and more commonplace, the volume of saved data will simply explode.  Even more so, with developments in the analysis of ‘big data’, apparently mundane material will gain greater and greater value.  I don’t think that our blogs will necessarily survive in the way they’ve been presented.  They may become harder to find – accessible only to dedicated Data Archaeologists … but they will be there.  As far as immortality goes, it’s not a bad digital afterlife to look forward to!

Maybe it’s too far off to imagine the long-term future of our respective blogs, well I certainly hope it is!  Right now, the furthest I’m willing to look forward to is the Day of Archaeology … I’ll be doing my IT day job, and covertly cruising various blogs and social media and maybe even planning to get a bit of writing done in the evening.  How about you?  What are your plans for the day?

TBOM:  Oh I definitely agree with your comments on the fact that the blogs themselves will likely last a long time in the digital world, I just wonder about the effects that the death of the blogger would have on the site itself – how they would be curated, maintained or stored.  A digital data archaeologist sounds like a fascinating job!

On the Day of Archaeology (which I heartily invite readers of this blog to take part and join in at here) I’ll also be at work in my administration job and then, thankfully, I’ll have an early finish where I’ll go and join friends around a BBQ and have a few drinks to welcome in the weekend.  A part of me will be wishing that I was finishing the day on site, having helped to excavate a prehistoric site, or a medieval burial ground perhaps, and that I could be one of those dirty diggers who get to apply their academic knowledge with the physical hard work of excavation.  I, for one, am just glad that I an involved in archaeology in some way.  For instance, I’m currently waiting for feedback on a draft publication and I’ve got a few skeletons to continue inventorying and analysing for a report.  So as I sip on a beer, I shall also think of the work that lies ahead and the opportunities to become more involved with archaeology as whole!

Thank you for joining Robert, and good luck continuing writing at your excellent blog.  As I said in Belfast, I am always amazed at the quantity and quality of your writing, keep it up!

RMC:  Well, I think that about wraps it up for this conversation!  Thanks very much for having me and for coming up with the idea for this two-way discussion.  We’re having this conversation in the virtual world, but next time you’re back in Belfast we’ll have to meet up for pizza and pints gain!  All the best until our next encounter – virtual or ILR!

Further Information

Fieldwork: The Langtang Survivors Fund, The Ruins of Palmyra, and the Role of the Archaeologist in the Present

31 May

As a subscriber of the University of York’s round-up of Mesolithic archaeological news, in the form of the Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter, it was with surprise and sadness that I came across a first hand account of the earthquake that hit Nepal in late April of this year.  University of York researchers Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton were a part of an archaeological field team conducting work in Nepal, based at the Himalayan village of Langtang, which is north of the Kathmandu valley, when the main 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country on Saturday 25th of April.

The field team had left their base at village of Langtang a mere two hours before the quake struck and managed to survive the initial event and the aftershocks with the help of their guides.  Unfortunately, after an arduous and nerve-wracking trek to an evacuation point, they heard the news that the village of Langtang had been destroyed by the avalanches and subsequent landslides as a result of the initial quake and the aftershocks. The small population had been almost entirely killed, with almost every building standing having been flattened from the force of the landslide (see BBC, Reuters & Nepali Times).

Langtang_village

Before the earthquake and landslide. The Langtang village in the Langtang National Park, located in northern Nepal close to the border with Tibet. The village was popular with travellers and winter sport enthusiasts. Image credit: Yosarian via Wikipedia.

Hayley and Emma are helping to raise funds via their Just Giving webpage for the Langtang Survivors Fund, which will go directly towards those who survived the quake and helped guide Hayley, Emma and others on the trek to safety, to help re-build their lives after losing family, friends, their homes and their way of life.  The Nepal earthquake, called Gorkha, that rocked the country and surrounding areas at the end of April of this year, have devastated the Himalayan country.  The main quake and its after shocks, which have continued into May, have killed many in the country (current estimates are at over 7,000 individuals, with many more injured) and has left both the population and its many villages, towns and cities in dire straits and in need of medical aid, food and shelter.

Langtang and Himalayan Culture

The small village of Langtang, in the Bagmati zone in northern Nepal, sits within a national park of some splendour, acting as a starting point for tourists to explore the Himalayan mountain range in the north of Nepal.  Home to around 540 people, the village was a popular destination for tourists visiting the country and hoping to get a glance of the Himalayan mountain range and the Nepalese way of life.  The village catered for the tourists by having almost 55 places to stay, with many of these hotels being  family ran business which catered for the guests.  The Himalayan mountain range is home to a delicate ecosystem and the range has managed to shape the cultures in the countries that share them profoundly, both in their religious worldview (the peaks being sacred to Buddhism and Hinduism) and in their adaptive lifestyle to a harsh environment.

Home to the highest peak on earth, Mount Everest, the Himalayans have also been an area of intense interest to explorers from around the world for decades.  An area of outstanding beauty, it is also an area of tense international pressure with both the countries bordering the Peoples Republic of China’s eastern border and the abuse of the mountain guides (normally the Sherpa people drawn from the upper Himalayan range) causing international ire.  For instance, Tibet, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, is host to many Buddhist monasteries which have seen a relatively severe clampdown on by Chinese authorities following the 1959 Tibetan uprising starting in the capital of Lhasa.  As such the value of cultural heritage is richly viewed as having an important part to play in the formation of identity for the countries that share the Himalayan mountain range.

Since the earthquake, landslides and the subsequent and enormous damage done to villages like Langtang and cities such as Kathmandu, there have been reports of artefact and heritage looting in Nepal.  The Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) organisation have highlighted the effect that the selling of artefacts after the earthquake helps to further strip the identity and national heritage of the country and urges individuals and organisations not to buy these artefacts.  Nepal has suffered greatly from the natural disaster, as it is a country that relies heavily on tourism and it has been hit hard by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.  It is hoped that the sale of its richly historical artefacts, although for reasons understandable, slowly trickles to an end in order to help rebuild the parts of the country affected.  As SAFE highlight, the cultural heritage of a country is a non-renewable resource.  Nepal relies on both its natural beauty and its rich history and culture for its economy.  To destroy that would be to wound it twice.

Palmyra: Blood on the Land

In other news the extremist group Islamic State (otherwise known as Da’ish, Da’eesh ISIS, ISIL) have recently taken the city of Palmyra in Syria from the hands of Syria’s ruler Bashar Al-Assad’s army, taking both the infamous Tadmor prison and the ancient city of Palmyra itself in the bargain.  The modern town of Palmyra lies on a strategically important location between the capital of Damascus and the eastern city of Deir al-Zeir (BBC), and represents an important symbolic gain in a country where Palmyra is held up as a UNESCO world heritage site of international importance.  Furthermore it is close to oil and gas fields which help supply the western cities still under control by Al-Assad.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has consistently reported on the conflict in Syria, both on the appallingly violence employed by each of the factions fighting in the country.

BenPalmyra

The massive Roman tetrapylon at the historic site of Palmyra, which acted as a monument generally built near crossroads. The ancient city of Palmyra has a particularly rich and diverse history, of which it’s Roman side was but just one. The ruins of the site are mostly architectural in nature, but do include exquisite examples of a distinct city culture, unique in the Middle East. Image credit: courtesy of Ben Wheatley.

Born out of the 2010-2011 Arabic Spring demonstrations across north Africa and the Middle East, the ongoing Syrian Civil War has led to a fragmentation of both Syria and Iraq, where numerous factions fight a bloody, tense long game of attrition.  Since the start of the civil war there is now currently a total of 7.6 million people who have been displaced within Syria, 220,000 killed since the start of the violence, and a further 3.9 million Syrians living as refugees in neighbouring countries (source).

The so-called Islamic State, a self-styled Islamic caliphate, has become one of the prime contenders for power in the region.  Controlling almost 50% of the land mass of Syria (but not some of major eastern cities) and large chunks of Iraq, the group has thrived on its propaganda to spread its message of intolerance and violence.  Chief among these are the both the show and summary executions carried out in the provinces it controls and, secondly, its wanton destruction of the heritage.  This destruction and the selling of looted artefacts, largely of pre-Islamic art and architecture (particularly any images of the body which the group claims is idolatry) and Shia mosques (the Shrine of Jonah/Mosque of Yunis in Nineveh, for example), is justified by their strict adherence to their view of Sunni Islam.

It is this destruction of heritage that has many worried in the world as the group currently controls Palmyra.  Already news has filtered in of the possible destruction of the 1st century lion (Al-Assad name, the incumbent leader of Syria, means Lion in arabic) and of a bloody retribution in the form of executions of police and army forces and civilians throughout the modern and ancient city.  This follows IS’s form from previous takeovers of cultural heritage sites, such as the unique archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra, where they have actively destroyed large parts of the above-ground sites.

There has also been recent news regarding the destruction of a vitally important Mosul Central Library in the Iraq, following the desecration of the main museum.  There is a stark difficulty in attaining reliable sources within IS controlled territory however, as the group fiercely control what and how they show their effect on both the population and territories under their control.  What is clear however is that Islamic State profit hugely by the selling of stolen antiquities on the black market, which helps fund their campaign of terror and slaughter.

It is worth pointing out here the difficulties in finding reliable sources within Syria on the cultural heritage destruction currently taking place throughout the country.  Nor is it just IS who are carrying out the looting and destruction on heritage sites and museums in Syria, but also parts of the Syrian army and other factions fighting in the country.  I advise readers who want to keep informed and up to date to check out Sam Hardy’s blog Conflict Heritage, where many of his posts explicitly detail what is known and what is unknown about the situation in both Palmyra and Syria at large. This post is a good start.

Yet it is not just heritage that faces the wrath of the numerous factions fighting in Syria and Iraq.  Medécins Sans Frontiéres (MSF, otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders), an impartial independent organisation that helps medical aid where it is most needed, have repeatedly warned of the violence that medical staff in the country face, both from the government and from the opposition forces.  This is partly targeted attacks against medical staff and civilians.  Operating in clandestine situations, the organisation and it’s staff have also faced sustained violence and intimidation, even whilst trying to give aid to individuals who need it.

Fieldwork Thoughts

The role of the archaeologist in the field, either during commercial (or CRM) work or during research fieldwork is primarily to collect data, often through a combination of surveying, excavation and/or collating samples for analysis.  The role of academic fieldwork where the pace can, at times, be more relaxed, also allows for a greater integration into the everyday life of the people who you may be based with or around.  Although there is a caveat to this in the fact that some fieldwork takes place in remote, inaccessible locations, a good many field work projects could only take place with the help, aid and friendship of various organisations and individuals.

As Hayley and Emma attest in their vivid recollection of quake, this was the case at Langtang.  It was with the help and dedication of their hosts in Nepal that they have had many succesful seasons of fieldwork at Langtang and that they, and their co-workers, had become deeply involved with life at Langtang.  This has involved getting to know the guides personally and meeting their extended family members, alongside taking an active interest within the daily life at Langtang.

Palmyra represents the possible (until there is firm evidence of destruction this website will not indulge in becoming a mouthpiece of propaganda) destruction of heritage that plays a vitally important part in the identity and self of sense in Syria.  As a BBC article highlights  that:

it must be remembered that there are rarely mutually exclusive choices here. The loss of Syria’s cultural heritage represents the loss of far more than some tourist attractions – it is the loss of connection between multiple generations” (source).

Further to this the repercussions of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the lack of any in-depth will by international partners to aid and stabilize the countries, could have serious geopolitical consequences on the world stage amongst the international community.

As archaeologists we know that the past and the present are intimately linked by cultural bonds and values that help transcend history, and help inform identity and actions today.  As such, and as a discipline, we would be remiss to conduct our fieldwork without knowledge of the environment in which we work.  Finally, we must ask ourselves what is heritage without the people?

Further Information

  • The Just Giving page for the Langtang Survivors Fund, and the first hand account of the devastation, can be found here.  Donations are still welcome.  The funds raised by Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton are to be given to the Community Action Nepal charity, who are based in Kathmandu, in memory of the many friends that both Hayley and Emma made at the village of Langtang during their fieldwork seasons.  The UK-based Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), who bring together 13 charities, has also launched an appeal.  You find out more and donate here.
  • Medicéns Sans Frontiéres help distribute and organise medical aid around the world, particularly in hard to reach areas.  They often operate in situations deemed too dangerous by many aid organisations.  The organisation is impartial, neutral and independent, and helps respond to both natural and man-made disasters.  They regularly operate in dangerous climates where other aid organisations will not work in and have been instrumental in helping to contain the recent Ebola outbreak in parts of western Africa.  You can help support their important work here.
  • The Mesolithic Miscellany site started out as a journal although this has somewhat petered out within recent years – back editions of the journal are available on their website however.  The Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter is very active though and advertises recently published articles, edited volumes or books on Mesolithic archaeology.  You can subscribe for free here.
  • The Saving Antiquities for Everyone organisation homepage can be found here.  The non-profit organisation helps highlight cultural destruction from around the globe and carry out both research and fieldwork.  The wide range of the campaigns that it carries out, in places such as Haiti and Kashgar alongside general advocacy, can be found here.
  • Conflict Antiquities, a blog ran by Dr Sam Hardy, regularly provides accurate information on the destruction carried out by IS and the various factions fighting in Syria and Iraq.  The site also thoroughly documents examples of conflict antiquities and cultural destruction from around the world.

Interview with Liz Eastlake: Dental Delights and Estonian Escapades

13 Dec

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

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

Diggin’ Dinos: Jurassic World

26 Nov

First things first I’m a realist – archaeologists (and bioarchaeologists) do not dig dinosaur bones, that job alone is for palaeontologists.  Palaeontology is the study of life largely prior to the Holocene period, and largely the study of fossils within a geologic context, which mixes the boundaries of geology and biology to inform on the evolution and variety of life.  The study of dinosauria, or dinosaurs as they are largely commonly known as, who became the dominant land clade throughout most of the Triassic to Cretaceous periods (within the Mesozoic geologic era), is but one part of this.

But I would be lying if I did not state that my interest in bones started early and, specifically, that it started with the dinosaurs.  More specifically still it started with Jurassic Park, a film released in 1993 by one Steven Spielberg that saw my 5-year-old self keenly watching in the local cinema.  I was fascinated by the creatures on the screen, these primordial beasts tearing to shreds the Homo sapiens who thought they could control what they had resurrected.  I was intrigued by their form, the variations in the anatomy and the differences in the (admittedly on-screen) behaviour.  Here was a film that didn’t just make the audience scared and excited, it also gave the creatures a semblance of intelligence.  Who were these long extinct creatures?  What was Dr Grant doing in the desert scaring kids with a raptor claw, whilst also overseeing someone shooting shotgun shells into the earth?  Wait, is that is a job? I thought to myself.

I was hooked.  I want to dig in the desert!  That looks great I thought.  Those creatures looks awesome!  Clearly I had to learn more.  Safe to say that the following Christmas was taken up with Jurassic Park toys – the triceratops that had a gouged bit of flesh that could come off, and the helicopter that, if I remember correctly, barely appeared in the film.  But I wanted to learn more than just play with the toys and watch the film again and again (could those raptors really open doors!).  I wanted to learn about the creatures that the film was based on, I wanted to know more about their life contexts, their habitats and their geographic span.  Just when did they live and how did they come to die out?  In a word I was curious, and I remain curious to this day about the natural world around me.

It started out with the toys, dinosaur Top Trump cards and other bits and bobs.  I collected the glow in the dark model skeletons that always seemed to flash up on the television, bit by bit I pieced together a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that looked somewhat badly proportioned.  My father subscribed me to a dedicated dinosaur magazine that explored the fossil remains a bit more in-depth, and I collected a few cast fossils of various parts of various creatures from the past.  At the major museums I would clamour around the cases that showed the fossils of dinosaurs and more recent mammals, always thinking about what these creatures must have seen during their own lifetimes, how very different our two worlds were.  In time Jurassic Park: The Lost World was released and I became enraptured all over again.  An early precursor to this blog was created during my primary school days where I put together a mini-book of drawings of Protoceratops, Triceratops, Brachiosaurus, Iguanodon, Ankylosaurus and co. with information boxes supplying the basic data of when and where they lived and what they ate.  I was thrilled when Baryonyx was found and described, a highly specialised fish eater in southern England of all places (though of course plate tectonics have substantially moved the earth’s surface around since the Late Cretaceous days).

I hate to say but this lust for dinosaur knowledge faded somewhat during my late primary school years where I was given to drawing what I thought the inside of my leg may have looked like with the-then new temporary titanium plate that was holding my left femur together (that very plate now rests in one of my draws!).  It was a natural progression from the distant past into an immediate and visceral present, one that gripped me as I learnt that bone is living, changing and dynamic material that responds to the pressures that we place it through.  But still the love for dinosauria flares up from time to time, perhaps no more so than when the BBC released the Walking with Dinosaurs television show in 1999, a real marker in the sand for the intelligent presentation and discussion of the biology and life experience of dinosaurs.  After each episode aired I would spend the next day at school talking with my friends about the episode, excitedly huddled around before the drudgery of school started.  But I did not go on to study palaeontology at any point, although I still maintain a relative interest in the latest discoveries and theories on the biology of dinosaurs and ancient life.

For me there is a certain inherent sadness when looking at the remains of species that have fossilised and have been described and documented.  The question of what lifeforms are we missing from deep geological time periods that did not survive the taphonomic processes, and luck of the draw that has preserved so many skeletons as fossils, often abounds in my head when I view specimens and casts displayed in natural history museums or spread across the pages of books.  In a way, by studying the skeletons of the more recent human past, it perhaps negates in some small way the limited archaeological remains that may, in time, become fossils themselves.  Arguably, of course, we may be destroying that record ourselves.

So no I am not a palaeontologist and I do not dig or study dinosaurs, I am a human osteologist who studies the skeletal remains of humans from archaeological contexts.  It was a close contest, but in the end I adapted to a subject that was close to my heart, that gave me a tangible connection to the past human population instead of the past animal population.  It is a distinction, but it is worth bearing in mind that the Homo sapiens species are just natural animals as well, even though life itself is a wonder.

But let me post what the blog title promises.  My interest has been piqued and, finally, the 3rd much talked about sequel is happening.  (I almost conveniently forgot about the 3rd film whilst writing this, although Spinosaurus still rocks).  Here is the just released trailer for the new 2015 movie Jurassic World*:

* I’m crossing my fingers that this is a beast of a film…

Further Information

  • Check out the palaeontologist Jon Tennant’s fantastic and informative blog Green Tea and Velociraptors for some of the latest updates in palaeontology.
  • Take a read of Neil Shubin’s fascinating book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into a 3.5 Billion year History of the Human Body.  I managed to get a copy a few years ago and it is an invigorating read on the hardships of palaeontological fieldwork that also gives an interesting account of the lab work that goes hand in hand with field explorations.  More importantly this book highlights the evolution of the human body via various parts of both extinct and extant life forms.
  • With fantastic timing a new paper by Hone et al. (2014) discusses a case study of a mass mortality event of juvenile Proterceratops discovered in Mongolia and size-segregated aggregated behaviour in this specimen of dinosaur.  There is the suggestion of sociality but the authors are rightly conservative in their observations.  There is an intriguing remark on the estimation on the age of ceratopisan dinosaurs – “Furthermore, at least some non-avian dinosaurs apparently reached sexual maturity long before reaching terminal body size or somatic maturity [36][38]. The result is a quagmire of varying definitions for ontogenetic stages and ontogenetic assignments across different publications even for single specimens” (Hone et al. 2014).  The taphonomic interpretations of this mass mortality sample is also particularly interesting and I’d recommend reading the accessible paper.

Bibliography

Hone, D. W. E., Farke, A. A., Watabe, M., Shigeru, S. & Tsogtbaatar. 2014. A New Mass Mortality of Juvenile Protoceratops and Size-Segregated Aggregation Behaviour in Juvenile Non-Avian Dinosaurs. PLoS. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113306. (Open Access).

Ungulates Gnawing: Osteophagia & Bone Modifications

24 Oct

Osteophagia: Osteophagia is the act of ungulates (including giraffes, camels, cattle, etc.) chewing on another species skeletal remains to gain nutrition (particularly minerals such as phosphorus and calcium) that may be lacking in other parts of their largely vegetarian diets.  This includes the chewing of antlers, horns and ivory, as well as skeletal elements.  It is a relatively well documented animal behaviour that occurs across numerous taxa and across continents.

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I’ve been meaning to highlight this article by Hutson et al. (2013) for a while as it nicely illustrates the actions of animals in the archaeological record that can sometimes be interpreted, or mistaken, for a human or taphonomic origin.  Hutson et al. (2013) discusses the impact that ostephagia can have on archaeological contexts and carefully identifies the differences between large and small ungulate osteophagia-based actions.  Taking 12 individual and observed case studies of osteophagia examples recovered from modern field contexts in Australia, North America and Africa, the study highlights the different styles of bone modifications made by each species to help identify the often distinct bone modifications that they leave in their wake.  The case studies include examples of wildebeest (C. taurinus) bones having been gnawed by giraffes, elephant (Loxodonta africana) ivory gnawed by kudu or sable antelope, and a camel (C. dromedarius) radius fragment having been gnawed by a camel.

Hutson et al. (2013: 4140) notes that ‘previous studies have shown that ungulates gnaw both cortical and cancellous bone and elements in almost any state, from fresh to completely bleached, desiccated, and weathered”.  The favoured bones to gnaw during scavenging among ungulates are elements of the long bones, vertebrae, scapulae, skulls and ribs, and, if munching on long bones, the larger ungulates often position the axis of the bone ‘like a cigar held in a human mouth’ (Hutson 2013: 4140).

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This diagram shows porcupine gnawed B. taurus limb elements, where a) is the right tibia and b) is the left femur. Notice the what look like long striations, which are in fact gnawing lines (click to enlarge). Image credit: Fig 8 from Hutson et al. 2013: 4147.

Importantly, the authors differentiate the classes of ostephagia-based bone damage caused by large ungulates and compare it to the typical bone damage caused by carnivores and other primarily meat-eating scavengers, such as lions, panthers and tigers.  This comparative approach takes into account 10 separate features of bone damage often found on gnawed skeletal remains (including evidence of prey selection, bone selection, bone state, bone transport, tooth mark type and general morphology amongst others) and highlights the varied differences between the two behaviours of ungulates and carnivores (Hutson et al. 2013: 4148).  Perhaps of primary importance in this article is that fact that tooth morphology varies according to species and purpose, as such the authors explicitly highlight that, alongside this, the age of the individual animal, and thus the state of its teeth, gnawing the bone can affect the patterning expected (Hutson et al. 2013: 4147).

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This rib was found at the fringe of a scatter of skeletal elements from one individual. Showing the distinctive forking and crushing of ungulate gnawing, this B. taurus rib was likely gnawed by cattle whilst still relatively fresh. Image credit: Fig 6. in Hutson et al. 2013: 4145.

Of course care should always be taken in the recording of gnawing evidence, as teeth in both humans and non-humans can wear down and gouging styles can vary.  However, the distinguishing marks made between ungulates during the act of osteophagia and the selectivity of active carnivores and scavengers is vital for the archaeologist as it can infer on the context of the gnawed skeletal remains.  This can help identify the fauna previously present on-site and the actions that took place based on replicating the known evidence.  The analysis of faunal bones at archaeological and palaeoanthropological sites should, of course, be used in conjunction with other taphonomy techniques to fully understand site formation.

All in all, this is an interesting paper that adds real depth to the taphonomic literature and should be of note to both archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists in interpreting the actions of both humans and non-humans during site formation.

Update 26/10/14

Osteophagia is just one method that mammals use to gain extra nutrients in their diet, another method is mineral lick.  As with osteophagia it has long been noted that animals will exploit their environments by eating or otherwise digesting natural soils, clays and rocks to gain elements (particularly salt) that may be missing in nutrient poor ecosystems (Lundquist & Varnedoe Jr 2006).  Mineral lick is particularly prevalent among giraffes, elephants, moose, cattle and tapirs (and other mammals) as a way to increase the amounts of minerals, such as potassium, calcium, sulfur, phosphorus, and sodium, in their diets.  Although the knowledge of so-called salt caves and their origin with animal behaviour is well know, it is thought that they are under-estimated in current estimates of their prevalence (Lundquist & Varnedoe Jr 2006: 18).  As such these natural landscape features should also be taken into account when understanding the formation and duration of palaeoanthropological and archaeological sites.

Bibliography

Hutson, J. M., Burke, C. C. & Haynes, G. 2013. Osteophagia and Bone Modifications by Giraffe and Other Large Ungulates. Journal of Archaeological Science. 40 (12): 4139-4149.

Lundquist, C. A. & Varnedoe Jr, W. W. 2006. Salt Ingestion Caves. International Journal of Speleology. 35 (1): 13-18. (Open Access).

Guest Post: The Rise of BAJR Part III by David Connolly

15 Oct

David Connolly is the founder of the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) website and runs, along with archaeologist Maggie Struckmeier, the Past Horizons website, a web portal specializing in the reporting of archaeological news and projects from around the globe.  Formerly a guitarist and key member of punk band Oi Polloi, David left to pursue a career in archaeology and subsequently worked the British field circuit for a number of years.  He has also excavated and surveyed sites in far-flung places such as Croatia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Jordan.  His experiences at York helped him form a keystone in his belief of the use of methodologies in archaeological practice.  Currently residing in Scotland, David specializes in archaeological surveys and regularly partakes in community archaeology projects.

Part 1 in this series, detailing David’s background and the inception of BAJR, can be found here.  Part 2 in this series, detailing the rise of BAJR and it became what it is today, can be found here.  This is the third and final part in this series.

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BAJR III

As previously reported, BAJR was founded in 1999 on the same campaigning principles as the radical Digger newsletter, and BAJR has grown into one of the most recognizable and trusted sources of archaeological employment opportunities and advice in the United Kingdom.

However, to remain fixed in the past is to ignore the ever-changing environment that surrounds us all, and so BAJR is evolving in 2015 in an effort to embrace this.

Employment at the heart of BAJR

One aspect that remains core to the website is the provision of advertising.  BAJR will continue to protect the lowest grades of workers within the industry, while providing a new platform to encourage trainees and internships, within a strictly formalised system to prevent misuse of less skilled staff as a means to cut costs.  Discussions are now being held to consider the implementation of a single minima system, which relates to (mainly) the G2 fieldworker or PIfA.  Here the only minima that a contractor must abide by will be this figure – currently £17,094.  Any payment over £250 more than this rate would be presented with a More than Minima badge.

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Jump on board and help the archaeology sector gain the credit it deserves!

The grading system will still remain in order to provide a background to the level of responsibility expected, but no minima will be attached.  This at first sounds like an invitation to pay less, but tied to the following innovation on the BAJR website – the regional pay map – it is designed to have exactly the opposite effect, by providing a constantly updated average pay rate for various ‘standard’ grades such as supervisor, project officer and managerial posts, matched to geographic areas of the UK.  Knowing the base rate, both the prospective employee can see who is paying the best rate, and employers can judge if they will be able to attract staff based on their current wage level.  It is hoped that securing the basic minima, and allowing the market to dictate the levels beyond this, it will effectively cause rates to rise in order to gain the best staff.

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Copies of the Archaeology Skills Passports ready to be sent out. It is all about the record keeping of your achievements and hard work in the archaeology sector so that it is recognised professionally.

Beyond this it is imperative that the companies are allowed the opportunity to display the range of benefits that they provide, over and above the blunt instrument of the weekly pay packet.  The new BANR (British Archaeological News Resource) and the original BAJR website will include a section that allows ‘like for like’ contractor comparison.  This page will include a range of benefits from overnight subsistence payment to travel time remuneration; research opportunities available from the company and even a list of recent flagship projects to show the potential a new employee can expect.

Archaeology Skills Passport

Currently, there are also a number of companies who are considering the Archaeology Skills Passport as a means to broach the issue of standardized and transferable skill/training documentation.  They have advised they could all save time/money by pooling resources by mapping their own individual needs (on introductory training in particular) across to the passport.

Utilization of the Archaeology Skills Passport and it’s adoption as a basic training record across the profession that allows for progression – fits well with recognising the requirements for the lowest level pay rate.  If you have completed the Primary Skills section in the passport, you have shown yourself worth the G2/PIfA minima rate.  Otherwise you are still in training.

This creates a singular goal for people because it is made clear what is required.  Better than a CV and also fairer than the start at the bottom every time situation that has been so prevalent for fieldwork jobs, and we all know so well.

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The Archaeology Skills Passport is a handy book designed to help build up your skill base by getting a supervisor, site director or lecturer to sign off on the skills that you have completed on-site. Designated into Core Skills (Section drawing, troweling etc.), Secondary Skills (finds processing, geophysics etc.), and Tertiary skills (report writing, outreach etc.) sections this booklet acts as a record to your achievement. Get yours here.

BAJR will always be there for anyone who needs advice on any level along with access to good quality information.  The forum has been strengthened with a Facebook and Twitter presence, so discussion has become even more interesting and far-reaching.

What is still black and white and read all over?  Why BAJR of course… and one thing is for sure, it is you who make it so.

Further Information

  • You can read more about the project concept of the Archaeology Skills Passport here.
  • Hang out with some diggers at the BAJR Federation Forum.
  • Want a job in British archaeology?  Start here!
  • The new and revamped Past Horizons website has been launched for all of your archaeological news needs.

Osteological and Forensic Books of Interest

23 Sep

I’ve been reading Doug’s latest blog series on archaeological publishing with increasing interest.  I’ve recently ordered a copy of Mary E. Lewis’s 2007 publication The Bioarchaeology of Childhood: Perspectives  from Biological and Forensic Anthropology, and I am very much looking forward to reading it as I am keen to improve my own knowledge of human non-adults, i.e. of juvenile remains.  It has also sadly been a while since I have ordered a new osteology reference book.  This isn’t from a lack of bioarchaeology books that I would like to read, far from it, but it is partially due the cost of buying such copies.  There have been a few recently released books (such as the 2014 Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict by Knüsel et al. and the 2013 Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Martin et al.) that I’d love to own for my own collection, but I’m waiting until they come out in paperback as they are rather expensive otherwise.

On this blog I have often mentioned discussed and highlighted the wonders of the fantastic Human Bone Manual (2005) by White & Folkens, of Larsen’s (1997) Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton reference book, and of Gosling et al.’s (2008) Human Anatomy: Colour  Atlas and Text Book, amongst a few others.  But I haven’t really mentioned other texts that have been especially helpful in piecing together the value of studying and understanding the context of human osteology for me, personally.  The following publications are a collection of reference books and technical manuals that have proved helpful in understanding human and non-human skeletal material, adult and non-adult remains, and on various aspects of forensic science.  I have dipped into some, read others completely – regardless they are of importance and of some use to the human osteologist and osteoarchaeologist.

So without further ado here are a few osteological and forensic themed books that have proved especially helpful to me over the past few years (and hopefully for many more years to come!):

tbom booksss 2

Books covers of the below.

I. Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification: A Colour Atlas. Diane L. France. 2009. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Aimed at the forensic anthropologist, this concise comparative osteology guide on how to identify human skeletal remains compares and highlights anatomical differences between numerous (largely North American) mammal species (such as seal, cow, mountain sheep, domestic sheep, moose etc.).  This book highlights well the challenges faced in recognising skeletal material in the field, and trying to distinguish whether the remains are human or not.  Organised largely by element from superior to inferior (crania to pedal phalanges) into three sections, each detailing a different theme – 1. General Osteology (which includes gross/anatomy/growth/development), 2. major Bones of Different Animals (which are grouped by bone) and 3. Skeletal Elements of Human and Nonhuman Animals (which includes bones from each species shown together).  This is a great immediate reference to recognising the osteological landmarks of various species.  This book should be of particular importance to forensic anthropologists, osteoarchaeologists and zooarchaeologists.

II. Developmental Juvenile Osteology. Louise Scheuer & Sue Black (illustrations by Angela Christie). 2000. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

At the time of publication this volume was one of the few human osteological books focusing purely on the developmental osteology of juveniles.  Arranged into eleven chapters, the book details an introduction to skeletal development and aging, bone development and ossification, and embryological development before focusing chapters to specific areas of the human body (vertebral column, pectoral girdle, lower limb etc.).  The book is really quite important in understanding the juvenile skeletal, as to the untrained eye juvenile material can look nonhuman.  For any forensic anthropologist, human osteologists, or osteoarchaeologist examining juvenile skeletal material this volume is one of the best publications available in order to recognise and understand the skeletal anatomy that can be present at forensic or archaeological sites.  It is also recommended for field archaeologists who may come across juvenile skeletal material and be unaware of what it exactly is.

III. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology. Arthur C. Aufdeheide & Conrado Rodríguez-Martín (including a dental chapter by Odin Langsjoen). 1998. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A standard reference book in the fields of archaeology, palaeopathology and human osteology, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology presents concise yet detailed descriptions and photographs documenting the variety of diseases and trauma that can affect the human skeleton.  This is a standard reference book that is heavily used in the osteoarchaeological field.  Split into chapters that detail each kind of skeletal lesion, and its recognition, within a type (endocrine disorders, skeletal dysplasia, metabolic disease, trauma, infectious diseases, etc.), the volume describes contextualises each entry with its known history, etiology, epidemiology, geography and antiquity.  Soft tissues diseases that can be found on mummies, or otherwise fleshed bodies from archaeological contexts, are also highlighted and discussed.

IV. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains: Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 28Donald J. Ortner & Walter G. J. Putschar. 1981. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

As above, this publication is another standard reference book for identifying pathological conditions in the human skeletal.  The 1981 edition is now slightly out of date regarding the etiology of some of the diseases discussed in this work, but the photographic images depicting the gross osteological change are still reliable.  Regardless this is still a vital book in understanding the development and sheer breadth of palaeopathology as a field in itself.

V. Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. Edited by William D. Haglund & Marcella H. Sorg. 1997. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Forensic taphonomy,  the study of the processes that affect decomposition, burial and erosion of  bodies, is the focus of this publication.  This edited volume contains chapters discussing a wide range of different aspects of forensic taphonomy.  Split into five sections (1. taphonomy in the forensic context, 2. Modifications of soft tissue, bone, and associated materials, 3. Scavenged remains, 4. Buried and protected remains, 5. Remains in water) the book provides an overall perspective on important issues with pertinent case studies and techniques referenced throughout.

VI. Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory and Archaeological Perspectives. Edited by William D. Haglund & Marcella H. Sorg. 2001. Boca Raton: CRC Press. 

The second volume of the Forensic Taphonomy publication, this updated edition deals more widely with the issues that surround the bioarchaeological perspectives of forensic taphonomy, and how it relates to forensic anthropology.  This version includes chapters focusing on mass graves and their connection to war crimes (archaeological and forensic approaches), understanding the microenvironment surrounding human remains, interpretation of burned remains, updates in geochemical and entomological analysis,  and also highlights the updated field techniques and laboratory analysis.  Again this is another hefty publication and one that I have only dipped in and out of, but it is well worth a read as it can bring new insights into the archaeological contexts of human remains.

VII. Skeletal Trauma: Identification of Injuries Resulting from Human Rights Abuse and Armed Conflict. Edited by Erin H. Kimmerle & José Pablo Baraybar. 2008. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

This publication focuses on human rights violations in conflicts where forensic evidence is to be used in international tribunals.  It highlights a variety of case studies throughout each of the eight chapters from the numerous contributors (including the late Clyde Snow), describing both the protocols for forensic examination in human rights abuse and violations to the specifics of different classes of trauma (blast, blunt force trauma, skeletal evidence of torture, gunfire etc.).  Importantly the first two chapters focus on an epidemiological approach to forensic investigations of abuse and to the differential diagnoses of skeletal injuries that forensic anthropologists should be aware of (congenital or pathological conditions, peri- vs postmortem injuries, normal skeletal variation etc.).

VIII. The Colour Atlas of the Autopsy. Scott A. Wagner. 2004. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

A slight deviation from the curve above perhaps, but this is an informative read on why and how autopsies are carried out.  It also introduces the purpose and philosophy of the autopsy, and then the importance of circumstantial and medical history of the individual.  The book is, after the first chapter, set out in a step by step style of the procedure with numerous images, helping to detail the aim of the autopsy in medical and forensic contexts.  The book also details the different types of trauma that can be inflicted on the human body (blunt force, sharp, projectile, ballistic, etc.) and their telltale signs on flesh.  It is certainly not a book for the faint of heart, but it is informative of modern medical practice, of a procedure that has had a long and somewhat troubled history of acceptance but still remains a decisive procedure in forensic contexts.

tbom booksss

Book covers of the above.

Readings

Although this is just a short selection of publications in the fields of osteology, biological anthropology and forensic anthropology, I hope it gives a quick taste of the many different branches that can make up studying and practicing human osteology.  A few of the publications highlighted above are reference books with chapters by various authors, or are technical manuals, highlighting the step by step techniques and why those methods are used.  A number of the publications above remain standard reference books, while others will of course date somewhat as new techniques and scientific advances come into play (perhaps most evidently in the forensic contexts).  However the core value of the publication will remain as evidence of the advancements in the above fields.

Writing this post has also reminded me that I must join the nearest university library as soon as I can…

Learn From One Another

This is just a snapshot of my own readings and a few of the publications have since been revised.  I’d be happy to hear what readers of this blog, and others like it, have read and recommend in the above fields.  Please feel free to leave a comment below!

Note

The reason that CRC Press appear often in this selection is because the organisation is a recognised publisher of technical manuals in the science fields.