Archive | Free Thinking RSS feed for this section

Brief Updates: A Possible Publishing Rule of Thumb, Socio-Sexual Lives in Bioarchaeology & Memories of Fractures

8 Aug

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the power of the written word, and of the associations with both personal jottings and more wider ranging long form pieces such as academic text books or investigative journalism.  Partly this has been guided by the growing number of books on my bedside, but also by a personal milestone in the publication of a bioarchaeology chapter by yours truly.  I’ll try not to mention this too much but it has been, and it will be, the realisation of a dream of mine to become a published author and particularly so in a topic that is close to my professional and personal interests.  But more on that below.

blogggggggggggggggg

Two of the texts discussed in this entry below are Ann Oakley’s part memoir and part sociology study in Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body and Pamela Geller’s research into socio-sexual lives in the archaeological record, which investigates past human sexuality.

Publishing: The Invisible Researchers

The term Publish or perish is a popular and well-known academic phrase that highlights the fact that research that isn’t published appropriately, or in a relatively timely manner, can easily become lost to the archives and the relevancy of the researcher to their discipline to disappear.  Any academic employed at an educational institute and conducting research will likely regularly produce articles, chapters, and books as appropriate, and actively take part in conferences giving papers or leading workshops to disseminate and communicate knowledge.  This is a normal part of the workload (heavy though that can be) of a research position.

Whether that phrase is helpful or stressful depends on the context – rushed research can lead to false or doctored evidence and the increased pressure to publish, along with the normal duties of lecturing, likely being a course or module tutor, and the administration accompanying such positions, can indeed lead to a hefty work load.  My interest in this though is the invisible researchers who are not employed within academia but are located on the fringes, those such as myself who work full-time in other sectors and publish and research in our own free time.  This blog is a prime example of that, but also of the mixing of the boundaries between the personal and the academic which would not normally be found within journals or published volumes.  Rather this is space to inform, educate, and communicate the interests and experiences of the individual.  The published work, of which I have only a few examples currently with more emphasis currently on specialist reports, requires a change of tone and, often, of approach.

Publishing Date Rule of Thumb?

I’ve also recognised a relatively reliable rule of thumb for academic book publishing.  For instance, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of my own chapter within an edited volume titled New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Theory, to be published as a part of Springer’s Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series.  The edited volume builds upon Lorna Tilley’s 2015 Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care publication in identifying and interpreting cases of care provision in prehistory through osteological and contextual analysis, and by furthering the theoretical framework.  It is exciting to a part of such a volume as a result of the SAA session in 2015 and I’m keen to hold a copy of the finished work and to read the other authors contributions.  I’m also intrigued by the reception that the volume will hopefully receive and the criticism too, with the opportunity to learn from others in the field of bioarchaeology.

But the rule of thumb!  Springer obviously mentions their forthcoming volumes on their site as do other commercial online retailers, however I’ve noticed they tend not to add a specific date for publication whereas some retailers, such as Amazon, do under the title release date (1).  This is useful to know as the publishing date tends to change depending on when the individual chapter and volume editing and proof-reading tasks have been completed, and as to when the publishing production units can start to print.  In my case I’ve noticed the dates shift around a few times due to various factors but I’ve always known when roughly publication and release date should be, sometimes ahead of emails from the volume editors.  Of course this won’t really be a rule of thumb until the volume is published and collaborates my theory, but you can expect another blog post then!  If you have noticed the same trend please let me know below.

Socio-Sexual Lives In Bioarchaeology

Through serendipity I happened to come across Pamela Geller’s 2016 book The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, published in the same Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series by the above and due for release shortly.  I am very tempted to order a copy of this volume as it seems to challenge the binary orthodoxy of sexuality and identity so prevalent within bioarchaeological analysis of past individuals and populations.  That is an interrogation of the assumption of stability with regards to the values of hetero-normative relations within today’s Western world that is so often projected onto past populations and cultures.

The wide range of cultural case studies and the deep chronological scope of the volume also promises to make it be an invigorating and exciting read.  As with the Bioarchaeology of Care publication, this volume probes the archaeological record into areas of research that have rarely been investigated in-depth, thus potentially opening up the record to a far greater scrutiny of the lived experience of sexual identity and gender.  As such, it is very much on my bioarchaeological books to read next list (you know, after I’ve read this other pile of books by my bedside table!).  It isn’t very often that I purchase bioarchaeology volumes as they can be quite expensive if they are not available in paperback or second-hand (2), but I’ll think I’ll make a change for this volume.  If I do I’ll be sure to write-up an entry for the blog.

Memories of Fractures

And so to bring this post to a timely conclusion I return to my opening paragraph.  One of my favourite books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading within the past few years remains the sociologist Ann Oakley’s (2007) Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body, an essay on the impact of the author’s traumatically fractured humerus that covers much ground within a relatively slim volume.  I largely adore this book because it is so relatable and so readable, the descriptions of the personal and professional impact of her fracture is something that I can very much sympathize and empathize with.  However the strength is also the breadth of the book, through the historical, medical and sociological musings on the frailty, health and image of the human body and entwined identity.  This volume then represents a fine mix of the personal and the academic, never afraid to speak freely on the issues and challenges that face society in accepting the differences in human form and the obstacles.

The Great Questions of Bioarchaeological Research

To me then bioarchaeology and its associated disciplines offers the chance to investigate on a fundamental level one of the central facets of our existence; what does it mean to be human? How is this represented and approached in the archaeological record?  How were individuals treated within their respective populations, and what were the lived experiences of these populations and individuals like?  The ability to answer some of these questions, in part at least, endlessly fascinates me.  Some of the publications named above aim to answer these questions and may do just that.

Notes

(1).  I have just rechecked this and sadly my thumb of thumb can seemingly be thrown out of the window.  It appears that Amazon does seem to have a better rough date for volumes in preparation, but that by the final month or so within publishing and release date Springer also update their website.

(2).  Joining local or university libraries, where possible, can be great to order books in or to borrow books that are otherwise un-affordable or rare to find.  I generally only purchase bioarchaeology manuals that can be used in osteological analysis or are otherwise handy reference books, but otherwise some books can make great presents!

Bibliography

Geller, P. L. 2016. The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender and Sexuality. New York: Springer.

Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

Tilley, L. 2015. Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. New York: Springer.

Advertisements

A Personal Anthropology of Driving

12 Mar

As I shift the gear stick I can feel the muscles tensing and releasing in my left arm; I can also imagine the tendons moving smoothly under the flesh, like steel lift cables, as the contracting muscles react to the electric jolts shooting down the nervous pathways spread across the body.  Both of my legs work in tandem with my left arm to leverage the accelerator and clutch pedals in a fluid series of movements to change the engines gear, whilst the right arm keeps the steering wheel stable.  My eyes keep a steady lookout at the road ahead, alert to the changes around me and the weather before me as the grey clouds break and heavy raindrops start to splatter the windscreen.  A quick flick of my index finger switches the front wipers on.  My ears are primed to the sounds of passing engines or the screaming sirens of emergency vehicles.  Perceptibly, but just, I can feel my heart beat that much faster as my right foot presses down on the accelerator.  At a stretch I’d say it was beating in time to the song playing, but that may be poetic licence and an exaggeration…

~~~

Broken Bones: Convoluted as a Medical History

It has been just over  a year since I first started driving in a daily capacity after passing my driving test a few years ago.  It has been a long and somewhat patient journey to get to this stage.  I had passed the theory and practical tests almost two years beforehand, but a well-timed pathological fracture to the right tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg (as, when a tibia breaks, the fibula, acting as a supporting lateral strut to the larger and more robust tibia bone and connected to it by a tough fibrous tissue, also often fractures) kept me off the road for a good while after having just ordered a car for the first time.  After healing from this fracture, the third such transverse fracture for these two bones, I was again ready to hop in the car and onto the road but this time as a fully legit legal driver no longer in his training vehicle.  My body, however, had different ideas as I went on instead to fracture the right humerus bone of the upper arm in an accident shortly before receiving the said car, delaying once again my time to drive and the time on the tarmac.

As a direct result of these two separate fracture incidents I gained two new titanium plates as permanent (and palpable) bodily additions and welcomed, though somewhat initially delayed, doses of entinox and morphine to subdue the immediate pain from the fractures themselves.  After the initial throbbing pain of a fractured bone, which is enhanced by the muscle spasms and contractions that often accompany a break of a major limb bone, the pain starts to wear off to a gentle ache once the limb has been stabilized, protected and padded from any further movement or injury.  Where necessary the bone is reduced to the correct alignment.  The reduction of the bone can, without anesthetic, be as painful as initially fracturing the bone itself.  As indicated above my fractures were treated surgically to correct long-standing problems using metallic alloys fashioned into a sturdy plate screwed onto the bone, which help prevent stress shielding and allow the natural responsive dynamics of bone modelling to continue.  It should be stated here that fractures can also be treated conservatively with limb immobilization and pain relief given whilst the bone heals itself, if a good enough reduction and union can be carried out without the need for surgical intervention.

right humerus fracture 2014 july

Humerous triptych. Pre-surgical and post-surgical fixation with the use of a permanent titanium plate on the right humerus (upper arm) following the pathological fracture I sustained in an accident in July 2014. As a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome, and the associated Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia (PFD) disorder where bone tissue is replaced with a fibrous tissues, my skeletal system is weaker than normal with a higher bone cell turnover rate. Pathological lesions in the bone, which can already be naturally deformed in size and shape, can lead to fractures (so-called ‘ground glass’ visual which can be found on x-rays of PFD bone). If reproduced elsewhere please credit as appropriate and inform the author of this blog.

I said it was a long and patient journey because the majority of the time spent waiting to drive was spent silently healing, my head often buried in an article or a book whilst devouring coffee.  It took a long time for the two pieces of the bone shafts to become one again as the callus formed and bridged the fracture site, the woven bone that is initially laid down changing over time to lamellar, or mature, bone.  So much so that in some cases bone fracture sites can be completely remodeled with little noticeable sign of a historic break ever having taken place.  During this time I was shuttled from appointment to appointment as a passenger in my assigned vehicle, wondering what it was like to dictate the journey and the destination, what it was like to take control.

On Starting

You may think that I would be wary of driving due to the above described frailties that my body imposed on my life, but I was ready to go and ready to face the roads of my country.  I was, and remain, eager to explore the freedom of the road alongside the exploration of the idea that that freedom represents in itself .  Many of my friends had started driving at 17 or 18 years old, had passed their tests and then drove aimlessly to gain experience on the roads around the regional towns, only to abandon their cars as they themselves started undergraduate courses at universities in other towns and other cities across the country.  Running a car, and having the money to fund the fuel bill, insurance, road tax and other associated costs, was an expense that many didn’t have and didn’t need at that time in their lives.

I too had started to learn to drive at that age but I soon gave it up, frustrated at the confusing methods used by the teacher and wary of the upcoming femoral fixation surgeries that I faced at that time to limit what appeared to be regular interruptions of forced stillness in my life.  I was happy to ignore the need to drive for another decade or so, not needing to do it for my undergraduate and postgraduate university courses and happy to use the trains and other methods of public transport for work and pleasure.  Indeed I came to love the numerous hours spent commuting to volunteer placements, work, and journeys to see friends and old companions.  It was time to relax, to speak to other passengers, to sit and to read or simply to sit and to stare at the countyside unfolding before me.

As every driver informs every non-driver, the convenience of the car is the epitome of freedom over the strict timetable of public transport.  As an ardent user and lover of the train (the misery of the delay is trumped by the friends made in the carriage and by the regulars who recognize you in turn), I remained somewhat skeptical of this claim.  What I had not counted on, however, was how it actually felt to have that freedom when I drove myself, both for my own pleasure and as a matter of commuting to and from my workplace.  There have been times when I am driving down an empty flyover at 1am with the twinkle of the industrial north to my right and the disappearance of the work office behind me and, as the song I’m listening to reaches its crescendo, I feel somewhat at peace with the world around me.  This is of course the thrill of riding an empty road listening to your favorite music and soaking in every last note sounded and vocal moaned.  But driving with a crowd is different, but it is different for me in particular.

To Drive, To Think

The car, for me, and the act of driving the car, means that I can merge in with the public body at large in a seemingly innocuous manner.  When I walk I use crutches for short distances and, for longer distances, I need and use a manual wheelchair.  As such it is an obvious difference that is noticed immediately on sight, one which signifies that I am different in some significant way from the majority.  I have had, and continue to have, people treat me differently in ways that they would not my friends or family, say by speaking to someone other than to me even when it is I who have raised the question or query, or by treating me in such a way which invokes past experiences of relatives or loved ones in states of profound impairment, despite the fact that my experiences and needs are different; that is in such cases my personal agency as an actor, or individual, with my own views, worries and questions, is abated.  I am viewed as a representative, therefore I am not an individual.  There is no such differentiation between specialized, or adapted, vehicles for the physically impaired, or disabled, individuals on the road compared with ‘normal’ cars – we all flow into the same lane or road.  (The caveat here is, of course, parking bays where disabled bays, alongside mother and child bays, are given proximity priority but I am strictly talking of when the car is in motion).

As such I am intrigued by the possibility of me in the car being treated in a similar manner as to everyone else who is present on the road.  That our actions speak for themselves, rather than the prejudices present on seeing the physical self as a first judgement.

I’ve briefly touched on my own experiences here and a few ideas above, but I want to move forward to acknowledge a few thoughts that have swirled around my mind over the past year or so on the open road.  I have become somewhat intrigued by the notion of driving, and the path of the road, as a cultural symbol and as a personal experience.  As such the following are thoughts, somewhat vague in nature, of driving.

A Marker By The Side

During the first six months of my experience as a driver I passed a personal marker on the road to work, a curve in the dual carriageway where a silent, single fluttering jersey indicated a geographical spot where a young life had been cut short, the car skidding from the road late at night killing one of its two occupants.  The jersey by the side of the road aptly demonstrated both the family’s singular pain and the danger of driving without due regard for the road conditions, a memento of the often tumult path of life.  It acted as a constant reminder for me then, when I saw it throughout the different seasons of the year, and I remember it clearly now in my mind’s eye.  It is easy to be self-contained in a car if you are driving alone, thinking only of yourself and not of the actions that you yourself have on others and those around you.  That the road is open and easy to see.  Yet drivers, especially of cars, can be subdued too easily by the sheltering in the cage of metal and glass.  Too easy it is to shut out both the weather and the sound of the road, too easy to become disconnected from what is in front, to the side, and behind.  Death is the ultimate outcome of driving dangerously or incorrectly, each person who drives should understand that they are both responsible for themselves, any passengers, and for the safety of those of who the car comes near, be it other vehicle drivers or pedestrians.

A friend who rides a motorcycle near year-round has spoken of their wish that each person who learns to drive does so first on a motorbike, where every second must be concerned, and concentrated with, the movement of your bike and your body, where the dangers in the driving blind spot become that much more pronounced as there is no clear boundary or distinction between the body and the tarmac.  It is an interesting idea, I think, and it shows that although the majority of the road users in most countries are car and truck drivers there are different experiences of using the road out there.  That even though we may be all drivers, we do not each experience the same sense of driving or the same sense of security from the vehicles we choose to use to get from A to B.  It is my suggestion that this is the experience of the other in this environment, the one that car and truck drivers must take extra special care for motorcyclists (as well as cyclists) due to the physical differences in the size of the vehicle and the position of the body on top of the vehicle, rather than the notion of what it feels like to be on the inside of it.

Thoughts on Interior vs Exterior

However, within the confines of my personal anthropology of driving, there is also a need to define the personal space within the interior of the car and the exterior public face of the vehicle, i.e. the personalization of the interior as a representation of the identity versus the need to drive responsibly and react accordingly to the changes in weather, traffic density and normal, or exceptional, road hazards.

We have all, for instance, seen the personalized number plates or stickers attached to the exterior surface of cars, or the use of rosary beads dangling from the rear view mirror, possibly signifying a religious connection to Catholicism or perhaps simply a physical item in which to grab and to hold, to reassure and to connect.  These are markers of expressed individual and group identity through the modified material culture of the car, which could be symbolic of the beliefs of the individual and, possibly, an indicator of the nature of their personality, although there must also be a distinction between these leaps and not infer beyond the unreasonable.  These do of course differ dependent on the circumstances.  The cliché of a boy impressing a girl by driving fast is indicative of the use of the vehicle to express dominance or perceived masculinity and not the expression of the material culture of the individual within the car.  There are, as such, different signifiers at work when we consider the expression of identity with regards to vehicle ownership and use (see photograph below).

DSCN0123

‘Warning: if you value your life as much as I value this truck don’t mess with it!’. Seen in San Francisco in April 2015. Photograph, taken with a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

So what is in my car?  You can expect to find the odd physio stretching band, placed in the car from before I started to drive so I could exercise the muscles of the right arm on the way to and from work, to regain the majority of the extension of the antebrachium back.  (I have permanently lost the ability to fully extend my arm due to the somewhat intimidating and unnerving bend of the right humerus – it isn’t immediately noticeable, the bend, but when I point it out in person you may be surprised and somewhat horrified at what once was and now what is).  Look into the main storage box and you’ll find a whole heap of CD’s covering a fairly wide range of genres and musical styles, from the cut and thrust of Fugazi‘s 13 Songs to the emotional tape loops of Steve Reich‘s Different Trains and Guitar Counterpoint.  You could probably tell that the CD medium is the one in which I invest the most in for music listening just via the car haul of discs themselves.  I’m forever rotating my classic selection of favoured CD’s with new albums I’ve purchased more recently, such as Joanna Newsom‘s Divers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, or Sufjan Steven‘s hauntingly beautiful Carrie and Lowell album.  The car, now, has become one of my prime personal music venues, enhanced by the visuals on the road and the acuity of speaker-to-body distance.  The drive to and from work allows for the almost total immersion of sound to radiate around me, to envelope the body and invigorate the mind as I drive.

The expression of music is carried on in the material contents of the car by three or four worn drumsticks perched precariously in the front chair’s backseat pocket.  The drum sticks head and necks are pretty worn away, indicative of their active life beating the various tom toms, snares, and high hats of drum kits across the rehearsal and practice rooms of my home town.  If you dig a bit deeper it is quite possible you may find a roll of film (now I’m really harking back to pre-digital technology!), indicative of the ownership of my beloved cheap Pentax camera, which sometimes finds a temporary home in the car for when I am out and about; it is sometimes paired with my cheaper-still digital camera.  Nestled in the front passenger seat is a battered copy of Will Self’s experimental novel Shark, a copy of which I convince myself I will finish one day.  (Regardless of the growing stack of novels and non-fiction books that mount beside my bed.  Karl Ove Knausgård’s Min Kamp circle of books has taken my recent fancy as well as Janine Di Giovanni‘s more somber documentation of Syria’s ongoing destruction in her book The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria).  It is, I think, also an expression of the need to read in down times, where I find myself waiting for one reason or another.

So these are the two big things you may notice in my car – music and books, but what does the car and the road say about us from a non-individual status?  What laws do we follow and why, what are the roads laid out before us and why do we subscribe to a set of nationally, and internationally, prescribed laws?

State Expression

As such it could be highlighted here that the need to observe the rules of the road are, essentially, laid in law by whichever, or whoever, is in control of the land itself.  That is, the road, and the population who drive on that road, are obeying the rules in a manner prescribed by the ruling power and as such act in that way.  This could be a potentially reductionist approach to understanding how countries or cultures approach driving and the road network, however it is also an intriguing area of interest.  Allow me to expound briefly on the above point.  The expression of the state is manifested by the obligation of the driver to obey the rule of the law on the road, whilst the interior environment of the car allows for a personal reflection of the identity via its material culture.  Aligned to this are group identities expressed in this way – they can be cultural, religious, personal, or idiosyncratic in nature.  We’ll take a very quick global tour to explore some of this expressions of individuality within group expression.  I’ll also highlight some of the cultural restrictions placed on car drivers in different countries as it can be easy to think that each country’s laws are similar to one another, but cultural restrictions play an important part in this as a projection of the country’s laws and beliefs.

Road Changes & Cultural Restrictions

Road space rationing is the term used to describe the strategy to limit road users using particular methods of restriction.  These can include methods such as no-drive days, alternate day travel, and general restrictions on road access.  The strategies are used globally as temporary or permanent measures to decrease vehicle use and environmental impact, largely in major cities but also with increasing use in major industrial countries such as China and India.  A similar method to this is the use of car-sharing lanes where privileged road, or lane, access is given to cars containing more than one person as an incentive to cut single person travelling.

In London, England, the permanent Congestion Charge Zone was introduced in 2003 to combat the growing number of vehicles entering the center of the capital city, as a means of cutting down environmental damage and of limiting the sheer volume of traffic.  Bikes, and notorious Boris Bikes, have been particularly targeted as the green and safe way to travel within the city center alongside the extensive public transportation routes.  Transport for London (TfL) have stated that there has been a 10% reduction in vehicle traffic in the decade since the introduction of the congestion charge, which has found favor with a number of residents of the city.  In the capital of France, Paris, a temporary scheme whereby owners of cars with odd or even number plates were not allowed into the city on that particular day or days was in place during a particularly polluted period in 2014.  Temporary measures such as this are largely aimed at immediately cutting smog that threatens, or has, blanketed the city in question.

Other methods include closing down particular routes or roads during particular days.  In São Paulo, Brasil’s biggest city, a normally packed 3.5 km section of the Minhocão highway (nicknamed ‘the Big Worm’) is returned for the use of pedestrians and cyclists only each weekday evening, Saturday afternoons and full Sundays during the summer period.  Whilst Minhocão has been partially closed to vehicles for 26 years, there has been a new movement to close down Avenida Paulista in the city on Sundays as well.  The schemes in São Paulo is used as an urban reclamation of roads, or transportation routes, as a matter to regain urban walkways and increase the use of public transportation and finds similarities with a number of schemes across the globe.  For instance in New York City, USA, the reclamation of the 1.45 km long High Line, an old railroad renovated as an elevated walkway festooned with shrubbery, has seen it become a major attraction within the city itself in its own right.

DSCN0508

The car can become symbolic as in this case where it is the icon of a city forever on the move. The New York taxi is one such symbol and if encountered on its home turf is often accompanied by an incessant honking of the horn and the permanent background noise of a thousand ticking engines running over, forever stopping and starting. Photograph, on a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit the author as appropriate.

New York City is both famous and infamous for its classic yellow cabs that litter the city.  To any driver from Europe, the roads of American cities can present a challenge as American cities are often built on the grid pattern, much like the ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom.  In such a busy and compacted city as New York this invariably means that the traffic never truly gets a chance to flow due to the traffic lights at each and every corner dictating who goes where when.  On a visit to the city that I was lucky enough to have last year I couldn’t help but notice the truly gigantic sounding board that the multi-storied buildings of Manhattan presented as the taxi drivers and drivers throughout the city incessantly honked their horn.  It surprised me, but also moved me in a way I had not expected – I was in the city of the movies, arguably the heart of the country itself in all of its architectural splendor and Freudian intimidation alongside the metaphorical American Dream representations.

As I come to the conclusion of this post I have presented a quick introduction to some of my thoughts, rounding down to international approaches to do with the increase in the number of the drivers and the damage wrought by diesel and petrol hungry engines in city centers, not to mention the natural environment.  Yet there is much more that I feel I ought to write, I haven’t touched on the interesting subculture of young male drivers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in which steam is let off by drifting (or Tafheet) and other associated vehicular activities, not the mention the incredibly strict restrictions placed on females in the country (females are forbidden from driving, although this is not illegal per se, it is heavily policed with punishments handed out for females caught driving).  Nor have I mentioned the fascinating subculture of bōsōzoku in Japan, which centers around the customization of cars and motorcycles.

The post describing these subcultures can perhaps wait for another day as this post has reached a fairly substantial length already.

Disengaging the Engine

So those are my brief thoughts on a personal anthropology of driving with a few nods to international views and explorations.  Nothing substantial, just a brief overlay of ideas that percolate through my brain as I slip on my seat belt, engage the engine and accelerate away onto the tarmac before me and into the night ahead of me.

Influences & Further Reading

BBC & British Library Sound Archive. 2015. Noise: A Human History. An Ever Noisier World. Episode 29 of 30. BBC Radio 4.

Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P. & Pérez, V. R. 2014. Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains. New York: Springer.

Robb, P. 2005. A Death In Brazil: A Book of Omissions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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

1 Feb

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

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

grand challenges facing arch david mennear photography 2016 jan

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

Grand Challenges Facing My Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

Holding Your Head Up High

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward By Going Backwards

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

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

blog

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

Learn More

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

The Death of a King

25 Jan

In life he was the absolute monarch of a wealthy and highly conservative country, who wielded influence and power across the Arabic region and whose country (along with Kuwait) currently holds reserves of roughly 20% of the world’s conventional oil supply.  Following his death his body is buried in an unmarked and unnamed grave within 24 hours of his passing, that is in keeping with his religion, with the minimum of both official and public mourning.

It is, of course, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who passed away on Thursday 23rd of January 2015 after a short illness.  King Abdullah (full name Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud) was the third absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia following the formation of the modern country by his grandfather, King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, in 1932.  To put it simply the House of Saud rules Saudi Arabia completely: for instance the members of the Saud royal family now number into the thousands, although there had been speculation and contention regarding the succession following the initial news of King Abdullah’s ill-health in December 2014.

King Abdullah was something of a slow reformer within Saudi Arabia itself, helping to extend the right to vote in municipal elections to women in 2011 and allowing mild criticism of the government in the press in the later years of his rule.  A firm believer in pan-Arab unity, King Abdullah also helped negotiate and settle numerous contentions in the Middle East during his reign, including in both Palestinian disputes and the American-led actions in Iraq in 2003, amongst other conflicts.  As a predominantly Sunni sect of Islam the Saudi Royal family and the country have also been the focus of some Islamic extremist groups and sectarian violence, particularly during the late 1970’s and early 2000’s.  Tensions have, at times, also been tested with the largely Shia-led country of Iran and their combined vying influence within the Middle East (in, for example, the ongoing civil war in Syria which has divided the two power bases, where each country support different factions that are currently fighting in Syria and across the border in Iraq).  It is pertinent to mention here that Saudi Arabia adheres to the codified system of Islamic law, and that the influence of strict conservative form of Islam known as Wahabbism is still strongly felt in the kingdom to the present day, particularly in the social ethos of government responsibility for the country’s moral code.

Following the announcement of his death, his half-brother Salman was pronounced King of Saudi Arabia.  The country currently faces a turbulent period as oil prices have dropped significantly, Islamist extremists threaten both the North of the country (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and the South (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Pennisula in Yemen), and international condemnation of the harsh sentencing of the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi continues to mount (amongst other noted human rights abuses).  In an impressive study of current Saudi society the anthropologist Menoret (2014) has detailed the feeling of tufshan among the young and working class in Riyadh, where torpor sets in due to the rigidity of social and political life in the country.  Saudi Arabia is also the country that is inherently the focus of the world’s 1.6 billion strong Muslim population, who worship the Islamic faith, as the twin holy cities of Medina and Mecca are located within Arabia’s borders and the country itself acted as the religion’s cradle in the 7th century AD following Mohammad’s revelations.  It was Mohammad who helped unify Arabia into a single religious polity under the banner of Islam, who is himself considered a major prophet in Islam, alongside the recognition of established prophets (by the time of Islam’s foundation) such as Adam, Moses, Jonah and Jesus, etc.

However, this post isn’t about the socioeconomic status of Saudi Arabia, nor of its strategic importance and international standing (interesting though that may be in itself).  Rather, the news of the King’s passing and subsequent funeral interested me on an archaeological level.  Far too often we associate archaeology from an early age, particularly so the remains of individuals in the archaeology record, with the wealth, power and domination of society’s elite – the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs in their pyramids, perhaps Alexander the Great leading his forces across continents, or the various King’s and Queen’s from European history.  Rarely do the remains of individuals buried in simple graves make the headlines (unless of course they are discovered in unexpected places) or imprint on young minds in association with archaeology itself.  Human osteology and bioarchaeology, as specialist sub-disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, help give a voice to each and every individual excavated and analysed (regardless of their final deposition or storage).

In archaeology, though, context is king.  If a burial is an ‘obvious’ (relatively speaking) wealthy individual for their site, our perceptions can be changed.  The analysis of Richard the III’s skeleton included scientific analysis that would rarely be carried out for normally buried individuals from the same Tudor period.  Context, of course, hinted at the possibility of royalty lying undisturbed in that Leicester car park, palaeopathological and ancient DNA analysis helped confirm suspicions of the finding of the lost king.  In prehistoric archaeology, where no written documents were made or existed and where history was likely only passed down orally or coded in artefacts we cannot read, the archaeological remains of individuals and their burial context are the keys to help the archaeologist unlock their lives.

Therefore, when I read further into the death and burial of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, I was surprised at first to see the funerary procession and burial location as it was presented in various new articles.  Below is a photograph following the burial of the King’s body within 24 hours, as often stipulated within the Islamic faith as it is in the Jewish faith, highlighting a simple grave with a topping of small stones.  There are no obvious markers of the role that this individual played in life and no markers detailing the name or life of the occupant of the grave will be left in-situ.  This is in keeping with the Wahhabi Sunni view of curtailing idolatry and of recognizing Allah as the creator and giver of life, regardless of the social role the individual played in their lifetime.

kingabdullah

The grave site of the former King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with male mourners paying respects (females are banned from cemeteries in Saudi Arabia). His body was buried in a simple shroud within a day of his death, in an unnamed and unmarked grave in the El-Ud public cemetery. This religious observation is a strict interpretation of the Sunni Islamic faith which states that to name a grave would be tantamount to idolatry, which is forbidden in the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. Note the other stone covered grave plots in the background. Image credit: Faisal Al Nasser/REUTERS & the Daily Telegraph.

It is interesting to note that, in death, Abdullah has resumed the role of an individual once more reflected only by his biological identity that will not be defined by his status during life, and that King Salman has carried onward the House of Saud in the country of Saudi Arabia.

Further Information

  • I have previously written about the Bedu of Arabia after reading Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands book which detailed his time spent living and travelling with the Bedu in the mid and late 1940’s, the period just before the oil boom fundamentally helped change Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Read the post here.
  • The Economist and the BBC have particularly detailed articles on Saudi Arabia, and the differences between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam.  It is also worth browsing Wikipedia’s page on the history of Islam itself (a monotheistic religion founded in the 7th century in Saudi Arabia by the Prophet Mohammed).
  • Of archaeological and cultural heritage interest is the continued destruction of buildings, tombs and cemeteries associated with the early personalities and prophets of Islam, mainly centered around Mecca and Medina in the country, in an effort to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims who attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage; though it can also be seen as iconoclasm as an interpretation of conservative values.  Read more here.

Bibliography

Menoret, P. 2014. Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt. Cambridge Middle East Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thesiger, W. 2007. Arabian Sands. London: Penguin Classics.

Blogging Archaeology: What Does It All Mean To Me?

15 Mar

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

blogging-archaeology3333

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

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

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

What Does It All Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Witnesses

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

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

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

Digital Witness, by St. Vincent.

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

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

Personal Academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Bodies and Academia post by Ion highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

Is This Social?

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

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

Prince Johnny, by St. Vincent.

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Places and Ancient Lives

21 Dec

“What survives from the real Middle Ages is a range of, in practice, quite arbitrary objects based on luck and the durability of their materials.  Ivories of great age, generally showing scenes from the Bible, have endured because they have always been valued but also because they could not decay and could not be reused.  Very little decorative gold survives because centuries of embarrassing royal emergencies or changes in taste have taken advantage of its plasticity to remodel it or put it back into ingots or coins.  Clothing, even precious clothing, has rotted, tapestries have faded, paint has worn away.  Much of the texture and visual meaning of the Middle Ages is therefore lost- quite aside from the irreparable problem of our mental and spiritual equipment being so drastically altered by the intervening centuries that we can hardly engage with what we are looking at.”

From ‘Germania: A personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern’ by Simon Winder (2010: 45).

To slake my thirst for reading I have recently borrowed this delightful book on Germany from my brother.  The book is an often funny but always passionate and informative guide to the central European country, and although my aim was to read it before journeying to Magdeburg last year I never quite got around to it.  The quote instantly reminded me of what I had seen myself in Amiens in the summer, of the cathedral lit as it once was with its vibrant, even gaudy colours transplanted onto the bare and ashen stonework, and of the true sights and sounds that are now largely lost to the ages.  Archaeology is in the business of salvaging and conserving finds and sites from the past, and an integral part of this is the study of human remains as this blog has tried to highlight.  Whilst we can investigate many different aspects of past cultures, not just from the relics and the ruins that remain, but of the actual people who had once lived, it is still important that we realise we can only form an impression of what they had once seen and lived through themselves.  I often catch myself whilst handling a person from the past, imagining who they had loved, what they had seen and what they had done in their lifetimes.  Although the answers to some of our questions as researchers may now be lost, archaeology and its related disciplines can still help to shed a little light.  That light is improving as archaeology widens its scope via science breakthroughs and multidisciplinary projects.

Archaeological Unemployment

16 Nov

Unemployment is doubtless a thing that many archaeologists will experience during their careers.  This is especially the case for archaeologists hired for temporary fieldwork, where contracts can run out and expire or where work can become lean (during certain periods of the year or during economic instability).  There are factors outside of your control that can either work in your favour or work against you.  These include, amongst others, the current economic climate, your work experience and previous employment, your educational record, where you live, if (in Britain) you are CSCS card holder, and if you can drive.  Archaeology, as a whole, is generally a very well-educated sector, with many people having at least an undergraduate degree to their name, if not a Masters.  However, it is often said that once you have entered the fray and became a paid archaeologist it is much easier to gain employment once again at the same or other archaeological units.

Generalisations aside, the past two and a half months have led me in a fruitless search to gain employment, and I have recently signed onto Job Seekers Allowance, a financial safety net for those searching for work in the UK.  I was somewhat shocked, and impressed, that I was able to choose archaeology as a main option on my job seekers agreement form after hearing many horror stories from friends.  Although I hold out hope for carving out a career in the archaeology/heritage sector, I realise that now is a particularly tough time.  I also realise that as a physically disabled person (see previous posts), picking archaeology as a career choice was never going to be a straightforward career progression or job choice (but I’m not one for easy rides).

As a recent guest post from Charles Hay pointed out, a career in archaeology is not easy for anyone, and you will have to find work in other sectors to help pay your way whilst you search for that dream archaeology job.  Be open for anything, don’t be afraid to move, and always apply, even when you don’t think you stand a chance.  Whilst I may feel sorry for all the archaeological units that have received my CV in their email inbox’s, I do not for a moment regret not sending it.

As always there is hope.  Many of my friends who I have studied with, or have got to know at University, have gained jobs in the archaeological sector.  There has been another recent round of Institute for Archaeologists/Heritage Lottery Funded training placements released (8 in all), based in either Scotland, England or Wales.  (Be fast though, the closing date for some of the positions is the 19th of November, a few days away, whilst others are open until early December).  BAJR, the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources site, always presents new jobs as soon as they are available.  The IFA job sheet is also well worth signing up, as is the daily checking of the University of Leicester Museums Jobs Desk.

And if worst comes to worst, you can always volunteer!  If you have a day free and there is a local dig coming up, why not join in and gain experience, get to know some new people and have fun.  I have volunteered for quite a few units now, both during my undergraduate degree and during my ‘gap  year’ (i.e. surgery year), and I’ve managed to get to Germany for free as a volunteer, managing to work on an excellent site.

Anatomy of Human Dissection: An Introspection

27 Sep

It was to be the last time that we saw his body on the table.  In the intervening weeks we had come to know his features with intimacy and respect.   Outside the wind had turned fierce, whilst the clouds, a deep shade of grey and pregnant with snow, streamed across the sky as winter proper closed in.  The Medical Teaching Unit had largely emptied over the past week, the last teaching week before the Christmas break.  Only the aspiring human osteologists and palaeoanthropologists now remained and filled the cavernous light blue coloured room.  With glistening scalpels and silver probes, the last examination of our beloved participant took place.  Pairs of nervous eyes and trembling hands ran through what we had been taught.   We touched and felt the cold body as we reeled off the list drilled into us by the 12 weeks of dissection classes.  Each muscle,  its attachment; insertion; action; nerve; blood supply; ligaments and tendons, were ticked off, one by one.  Each major actor in the human musculoskeletal system was to be identified and admired.  Just as in field archaeology, as in the body.  There are layers, superficial and deep, to be uncovered and appreciated, and then to be reflected back as we investigated further.

It had taken some getting used to at first, the chemical smell and the sights of the MTU.  The individuals who had donated their bodies were to be found wrapped up on their metallic trays, waiting with eternal patience in the centre of the room.  I couldn’t help but notice the sad fact of the bodies different lengths, from adult to child.  It was a hive of activity, bristling with groups of medical students crowding around different individuals on their cold slabs.  The medical students commandeered the central space every week, as they deconstructed the body to heal it.  Tucked away in the side of the main room, we learnt about the intricacies of the fleshed body; how movement is dictated by flexion and extension of passive and active striated skeletal muscle groups.  Each week we would start with a new aspect on our adopted individual and help uncover that week’s muscle group.

The first exam had been taken some 5 weeks before, and we now stared at the second, a mere day or two away.  Our focus this time was the lower half of the body, from the pelvis down to the toes.  The almost fan-like gluteal muscles provided a staunch launching pad from which to run down the thighs, past tensor fascia latae and the iliotibial band on the lateral aspect, to curve with the sartorius on the anterior aspect, as we reached and admired the complexity of the knee joint.  As we uncovered and cleaned each section free of adipose fat, we unveiled the vastus, adductors and hamstring muscle groups.  Whilst running a discussion on what constituted the delicate femoral triangle, I couldn’t help but think of my own numerous surgeries.  Of the many times I have had a scalpel part my skin on the lateral aspect of my thighs.  That scar tissue, on my body as a permanent fixation, serves as a reminder that I too have been laid on a table, ready to be examined and explored; that ultimately, there is no difference between the living and the dead- it is just a different state of being, of matter in the universe.

We had already uncovered the startlingly array and complexicity of the upper body in previous dissection sessions.  The human body, like any living creature, is a marvelous machine developed over millions of years of evolution.  Nothing is perfect however.  Homologies from a common ancestor, ‘the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function’, are to be found throughout the animal kingdom, and the human as a part of this, has many.  They are well documented, and I shan’t digress here.  However, it is important to note the expected variation within species and between species.  The detailed analysis of fossil hominids depends on this fundamental approach, even as new batteries of investigations are used.

And now, the week before Christmas, the main hall stood empty.  No bodies lay on their metallic tables, and there was no crowd of bustling medical students hunched over, investigating and desiccating the minutiae of life.  It was as if even the bodies had gone home for the bleak mid-winter break.  As we finished testing each other on the soleus or the gastrocnemius, we carefully de-bladed the scalpels, washed all of the tools, and placed them back inside our student dissection kits for the last time.  We silently thanked the individual’s generous bodily donation, and placed the plain cloth over the body and carefully tucked it in.  As I made my way to a nearby exit, my fellow colleagues were already outside breathing the fresh cold winter air.  As I opened the exit door I was accompanied by a lonely radio playing a mournful 1950s song.  Knowing that I would not be back in this place again, I closed it and bid the room a fond farewell.

———————————————————————————————————————————–

The University of Sheffield MSc Human Osteology program is the only UK based University that offers the teaching and education of human musculoskeletal anatomy by first hand dissection.  Other UK Universities offering Osteological Masters degrees only teach musculoskeletal anatomy in the lecture theatre.  I firmly believe that my education was enhanced by this opportunity.  At all times the people who donated their bodies to the Medical Teaching Unit were respected and treated with dignity.  The staff displayed professionalism and esteem, and encouraged us all to smile and to learn about the wonders of the human body.

Related and Further Information:

  • The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has an interesting article on vivisection in Early Modern England, and the medical advances and reactions to this method of dissection.
  •  An article in the Lancet by Lindsey Fitzharris (2012: 108-109), author of the above blog, discusses the effects of human dissection on early modern doctors and today’s medical practitioners .  
  • Guardian article citing the difficulties of obtaining skeletons for academic study, and the difficult process of donating bodies for medical and clinical science, with quotes from Dr Tim Thompson and Dr Piers D. Mitchell
  • At the Museum of London, there is a current exhibition on ‘Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men‘ (until April 2013) detailing the excavation of 262 burials from Royal London Hospital with extensive evidence of dissection, along with faunal remains.  The exhibition “reveals the intimate relationship between surgeons pushing forward anatomical study and the bodysnatchers who supplied them; and the shadowy practices prompted by a growing demand for corpses” (MoL 2013).