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Interview with Alexandra Ion: Introducing DivMeanBody & The Post-Mortem Fate of Human Bodies

30 Oct

Alexandra Ion is an osteoarchaeologist and anthropologist who specialises in Neolithic deathways, theory of (osteo)archaeological practice, and the history of anatomical/anthropological body displays.  Alexandra can be found writing about her research and thoughts on her blog at Bodies and Academia, where topics include the anthropology of the body, with specific reference to the ethics and history of body research and the display of the body.  To keep up to date on the DivMeanBody project, and the latest research goings on, check out the project blog.  Alexandra’s research profile can be found here.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM): Hello Alexandra, thank you so much for joining me at These Bones of Mine! We’ve known each other for a while via our own respective blogging sites and I’m always interested to see what you post at Bodies and Academia. However, for those of us who do not know you or your bioarchaeological research, could you tell us a little bit about your background and main research interests?

Guest blog interviewee Alexandra Ion admiring a number of flints. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

Alexandra Ion (AI):  Hi David, thanks a lot for having me here!  I am trained both as an archaeologist and as an osteoarchaeologist, but along the way I came to be interested in the more reflexive approaches to the material record we encounter.  If I am to summarise, I would say that I am interested in the ethics and history of body research and display, from analyses of past Neolithic death-ways, to reflexive accounts focused on the way in which human remains are turned into an object of study and are enacted as part of the osteoarchaeological and anthropological disciplines (from contemporary excavations, to the history of anatomical/anthropological collections).

I am currently a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research located at the University of Cambridge, and I am also a researcher at the Cultural Anthropology Department of the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ of the Romanian Academy, so I can say that I am ‘butterflying’ at the cross-road of the two disciplines and perspectives.

TBOM:   It is clear that with the research positions you hold, you are able to produce an interesting perspective on both archaeology and anthropology as separate disciplines that can readily be fed from one into the other productively.

As such, and having myself come from a background where the practicalities of analyzing human skeletal remains was emphasized within an archaeological perspective, I have to ask where your interest in theorizing the human body came from within your academic and research background?

AI:  Not an easy question to answer for sure, but one which definitely goes directly at the heart of my research.  Like any exercise in self-reflection, trying to identify the ‘cause’ of something can sometimes be as accurate as the exercise of piecing back events from memory, but if I am to follow the threads back into my past I think I should start by saying that I have a BA in History.  Thus, from the beginning I have been thinking of archaeological materials as part of broader theoretical/historical processes and questions.

At the same time, I was lucky to meet and learn from a handful of archaeologists who were interested in exploring theoretical avenues, influenced by anthropological, sociological or philosophical works, and who made me question the established paradigm.  The first proper work I did where I combined the two interests was during my MSc in Sheffield, where under the supervision of Prof John Barrett I applied a sociology of scientific knowledge approach to osteoarchaeological practice – in other words, I took scientists dealing with bones as my subjects, and I tried to see what kind of interpretation they construct about past human beings through the questions and methods they follow (and the ethical implications of these practices).

Alexandra demonstrating a research poster with an study skeleton. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

TBOM:  I think that is a really interesting perspective on the research of the actual process of osteoarchaeology.  Almost, I can imagine, a meta review of humanity reviewing itself using a standardised methodology.  In that first piece of research for your Masters, what conclusions were you able to draw with regards to this, and how has it subsequently informed your following research?

AI:  I am not sure if I could draw a straightforward conclusion after that, rather it was my intention to highlight the networks in which human remains are integrated, and following sociologist Bruno Latour, the actors which take part in shaping our understanding of them – from instruments and methods, to spaces and world-views.  I think my main aim was to bring into view how our bones analysis are the product of a series of choices (what to study, why, how), and that maybe if we chose differently, then our reading of the past were different.  Liminal case studies are perhaps the best/easiest to use as illustrations of more reflexive points such as this, and I am thinking here of a piece which has recently came out in Archaeological Dialogues in which I was trying to see what happens when the standardised osteological understanding of an individual meets in the field a completely different take on humanity – in this case, that of a Church.

Namely, I’ve been looking at how the two ways of ‘decoding’ some human remains met on the territory of one body belonging to a Greek-Catholic Romanian Bishop killed during the 1950s in a communist prison.  While for the Church, the body was seen as a sign of martyrdom, a site of embodied experiences which tied it to the community of believers, past to the present, the scientific approach applied a universal and standard methodology, whose language did not leave room for an understanding of the particulars of his situation.  Once the scientist steps out of the ‘laboratory’ and goes into the field (regardless how we define that), their world-view is confronted and challenged by complex networks of actors, each with their own agendas and interpretation of what those bodies are/should be – and this can start some interesting points for reflection.

TBOM:  That particular case study that you’ve recently published is a great example of examining the cultural and social differences as documented in testimonies, texts and historical records, compared to the strict osteological interpretation of the Bishop’s body, and associated burial context, within a fraught historic period.  It is also a period that is very well documented compared to the archaeological record as a whole.  

As such I’m wondering how you can use your approach to the skeletal remains of individuals, or populations, from prehistoric contexts where documentation is either non-existent or enigmatic in nature, i.e. structural remains that are of unknown function or use?

AI:  I think this is the challenge indeed!  Recently I took part in the Cambridge Science Festival and I have received the same question from members of the public, under various guises: what do you do with these human remains?  Of course the first level of analysis involves sexing, ageing, identifying pathologies, traumas etc. on the human remains, with the goal of piecing together their (post-mortem) biography.  However, I think that we need to go beyond the data encoded in the materiality of bodies, and think of them in the wider context of their deposition/discovery.

Of course there is not a single/simple answer to how to go about this, but ultimately it is a question of scaling: finding the right (useful) balance between the singular case study and the wider population data, between the human remains and their context, between a site and the wider cultural patterns.  Anthropology, history and even philosophy of science might provide inspiration when reaching a dead-end, leading to new questions for old materials.  Ultimately, I think one also has to accept the limits of what we can do with certain kinds of discoveries, due to the fragmentary and heterogeneous nature of the material.

TBOM:  I’m really excited by the announcement recently of your latest project, DivMeanBody, based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, which will investigate the construction of the prehistoric body and identity from Neolithic settlements (7th-4th millennia BC), from around the Balkans area of southern Europe.

What is the focus area of the study, along with the bioarchaeological material, that you’ll be studying specifically?  As we’ve discussed above, I’m really keen to see how you fuse together the biological data from the human skeletal remains with the cultural material of ancient societies, in order to explore the meaning and use of the human body within funerary practices during the Neolithic period.

AI:  My research is designed as an exploration in the construction of the prehistoric body and identity, by studying the post-mortem fate of human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements in the Balkan area (between 7th-5th millennia BC).  These settlements have yielded collections of disarticulated/fragmentary/scattered human remains.  Traditionally such human remains have been either a focus of osteological studies, looking at them in a biological dimension, or subjected to cultural analysis.  My project aims at taking a multi-disciplinary comparative perspective, at the cross-road of archaeology and osteology, towards the re-interpretation of such deposits from a taphonomic perspective to answer the question of whether these are deliberate depositions or more complex, including non-cultural processes, might explain this fragmentation.

The DivMeanBody blogging page, check out the University of Cambridge project website page here. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

Given its broad time span, apparent uniformity on a large geographical area and across multiple prehistoric cultures (from southern Romania to northern Greece), studying this depositional practice is key to understanding the context which shaped the beginnings of settlements, agriculture and the Neolithic way of life in Europe.  Thus, I hope to better understand how these past people were performing and dealing with the dynamic processes of life and death in their communities and the relation of these practices to the formation of archaeological deposits.  At the same time, it will surpass the divide present in contemporary research between a biological body (studied by osteology) and a cultural body (by archaeology).

The materials I will be looking at are of three types: skeletal materials who have already been excavated, old archaeological reports/photographs, and archaeological/osteological publications.  Of course the access to all these kinds of data is not even, especially when it involves researches from three countries (Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania)- either some of the materials are not available any more (lost, or not available for study), or the initial documentation is not present, so the bones have no context.  Beyond an interaction with these past bodies, the project turns out to be also a trip down memory lane, an archaeological investigation into storage areas, publications and academic networks.

TBOM: I’m looking forward to reading some of the outcomes of your research, so I’ll be sure to keep an eye on the dedicated website that you have for the project.

The geographic and population focus of the majority of your research has largely been in eastern and southern Europe, covering anthropological topics and the curation of historic and prehistoric human osteological collections, such as the Bucharest-based Francisc. I Rainer Anthropological Research Center, Romania, which houses one of the largest human osteological collections in Europe.  With your experience of academic work and associated field experience across a number of countries, I’m intrigued as to your views on how anthropology and osteoarchaeology is taught and if you have experienced any differing approaches in their application?

AI:  This is an important question indeed, thank you, one which I think should be more often discussed!  I am not sure though if I am the best person to answer it, as I have no extensive experience with how osteoarchaeology is being formally taught throughout the world – besides my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I am mostly self-taught/ I’ve been taught the basis of osteology by my colleagues at the Institute.  In an indirect way, my answer speaks about the academic situation of the discipline in my country, and the absence of a formal qualification.  Even in the United Kingdom, there are not that many programmes offering osteology training, and even less a combined degree (with funerary archaeology)- I recall you made a list a while ago.

Furthermore, when it comes to the interest in the history of body collections and the ethics and politics of human remains research and display there does not seem to be a specific path for training either, and those interested, like myself, seem to come from various backgrounds (e.g. I have a PhD in History, Elizabeth Hallam in Social Anthropology, Tiffany Jenkins in sociology, while Liv Nilsson Stutz and Duncan Sayer have one in archaeology – and this is just to name a few; others come from the world of pathology, forensic anthropology or philosophy).  Due to this fluid nature of the discipline, each of these specialists brings their own questions and perspective on things, which in a way is just a reflection of the multi-faceted nature of the topics explored.

But if you ask me about the specific osteoarchaeological training, the only broad remarks I can make are that I have noticed that in France these studies are sometimes more closely connected to pathology and taphonomy than in other places, that there is a difference between seeing osteoarchaeology as part of a historical discipline (like in my academic background) versus seeing it as a biological science (as I’ve often encountered it in UK settings), or as part of cultural anthropological concerns (as is the case in the USA).  Of course these are very rough generalisations, but I think what is certain is that there is not just one osteoarchaeology, and would be interesting to talk more about how various traditions define the concept (even a quick glance at the names which are used in various places is indicative of the heterogeneity of practices- from bioarchaeology to archeothanatology or osteology).

TBOM:  Your observations seem to collate with my own experience of both osteoarchaeology and bioarchaeology, alongside their related fields, in other countries.  Particularly so as to where osteology fits within its confines in an archaeological or anthropological setting.  I sometimes wonder if this acts as an almost linguistic straight-jacket on respective researchers who are confined within their narrow field of study, as espoused by their department or traditional approach within their country of research.

Returning again to your new project, DivMeanBody, how did you come to focus on the Neolithic period of south-eastern Europe?

AI: Indeed, I share you concerns regarding ‘a linguistic straight-jacket’, though I would rather call it an epistemological straight-jacket.  In the same time, I think that what we witness – the cohabitation of multiple archaeologies (some taking very hard sciences approaches, while at the other end of the spectrum we have postmodern narratives and even performances – a colleague mentioned of a dance ‘presentation’ he witnessed in a conference panel) – should prompt some reflection and dialogue in respect to the kinds of basic principles that we share/should share.

But returning to your question, I think this was, like many other decisions in research, a serendipitous encounter.  Quite early in my undergrad (and even before that) I was fascinated by the Neolithic period, especially by the Vadastra pottery.  The black polished pots, decorated through deep incisions filled with white paste, and with helix or geometrical models are extremely elegant and special, and they definitely drew me in to deep time.  For a couple of years, I have also been to two different tells in southern Romania, and then it came the moment of choosing a topic for my BA thesis.  At first, I had been offered the opportunity of publishing the pottery from a late Neolithic site, but as I soon discovered I did not get too excited about drawing pot shards on millimetre paper.

An anthropomorphic vessel made of fired clay, Vădastra, Vădastra, 5500-5000 BC. National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest: 15908. Image credit: Marius Amarie, New York Times.

By this time, I was already working at the Institute of Anthropology, and one day when I was sitting at my desk by the skull shelves my colleague Andrei Soficaru popped in and said: ‘Why don’t you study the human remains from Neolithic settlements in Romania for your thesis?’.  That was to be my topic for my first Master thesis as well, and it stayed with me even when I moved more into the theoretical aspects.  Thus, when I had to choose a topic for this postdoc I went back to what I knew, and to what I have left ‘unresolved’ in a way, the interpretation of human remains discoveries from settlements from Southern Romania; then extending the area to the Balkans made sense, as in the Neolithic times this area would have shared many cultural commonalities.

TBOM: Thank you very much for joining me today Alexandra, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. and good luck with your DivMeanBody project!

At These Bones of Mine we’ll definitely be keeping a look out as to how the project develops.  I’m sure that my readers would be interested in hearing about the results as well.

AI:  Thank you David for a wonderful opportunity to talk about some of my work!

Further Information

  • You can check out Alexandra’s personal blog, entitled Bodies and Academia, which features a great range of thought-provoking and interesting posts on osteoarchaeology and anthropology.  Alternatively, for bite-sized chunks, check out Alexandra’s Bodies and Academia Twitter page here.
  • For all of the latest updates on the DivMeanBody project check out the website home page here.

Bibliography

Ion, A., Soficaru, A., & Miritoiu, N. 2009. Dismembered Human Remains from the ‘Neolithic’ Cârcea Site (Romania). Studii de Preistorie6: 47 – 79.

Dobos, C. & Ion, A. (eds.) 2015. Bodies/Matter: Narratives of Corporeality. Special Volume of Martor -The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review. 20. Bucharest: Martor. (Open Access).

Ion A. 2015. Breaking Down the Body and Putting it Back: Displaying Knowledge in the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ Anthropological Collection. Martor – The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review20: 25-50. (Open Access).

Ion, A. 2016. The Body of the Martyr. Between an Archival Exercise and the Recovery of his Suffering. The need for a Recovery of Humanity in OsteoarchaeologyArchaeological Dialogues. 23 (2): 158–174. doi: 10.1017/S1380203816000209.

Ion, A. 2017. And then they were Bodies: Medieval Royalties, from DNA Analysis to a Nation’s Identity, in Premodern Rulership and Contemporary Political Power. The King’s Body Never Dies, (eds.) Karolina Mroziewicz, Aleksander Sroczyński, 217-237. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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Guest Interview: Introducing the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS) with Marit Van Cant, & Co-Founders Davina Craps & Hélène Déom

27 Feb

Marit Van Cant is a PhD-fellow for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and in a joint PhD between the Free University of Brussels (VUB, Belgium) and the University of Sheffield (UK).  She completed her Master’s Degree in Archaeology at the VUB in 2012.  Since 2010 she has been specialising in human osteology by participating in several key courses at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Leiden University (The Netherlands), and also in the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield as a part of the European Union Erasmus exchange programme in 2011.  Approaching the final stage of her PhD thesis, Marit has been appointed as Student Representative of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in 2016-2017, for which she has organised its annual Student Colloquium in Brussels, the first time that the event took place outside the UK.

Dr. Davina Craps, finished her doctoral degree at Durham University in 2015 and specialises in palaeopathology (the study of disease in the past), with a research focus on rheumatology.  She completed her undergraduate studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and went on to get Master’s degrees specializing in osteology, anatomy, funerary archaeology, eastern Mediterranean archaeology and palaeopathology from the Catholic University Leuven (Belgium), the University of Sheffield (UK), and Durham University (UK).  She is currently applying for postdoctoral funding, and runs her own freelance osteology company called Osteoarc, which specialises in the analysis and assessment of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts for commercial units and museums.

Hélène Déom undertook a Master’s degree in Archaeology at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium) then another Master’s degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Practices at the University of Sheffield (UK).  During her studies, she specialised in prehistoric burials from Belgium and England.  After graduation in 2014, she started to work for archaeologists from the Public Service of Wallonia (SPW), examining skeletons excavated from medieval parish cemeteries.  She’s been working freelance since 2015 under the name of TIBIA, which specialises  in the analysis of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Marit, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I know you, of course, from my time at the University of Sheffield a few years ago but since then you have been working on your PhD, alternating between the University of Sheffield, in England, and Free University of Brussels, in Belgium.  How is your research going?  And how did you become involved in helping to set up Belgian Osteoarchaeology and Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS)?

Marit Van Cant (MCV):  Hi David!  Indeed a while ago – besides the several times we met at conferences, remember the Society of American Archaeology 2015 annual meeting in San Francisco where I had the privilege to listen to your nice talk on the public importance of communicating bioarchaeology of care research (and not to mention the famous Vesuvio Cafe we frequented afterwards!).  Time flies indeed since we both studied together at the University of Sheffield!

I am currently in the writing up stage of my PhD research, which is about the skeletal analysis of rural and small urban sites, mainly in Flanders, and one rural site from the United Kingdom.  Besides the general health status, I’ll look at entheseal changes on both inter- and intra-population level, and the impact of occupational activities and the environment on these populations, in conjunction with archaeological and historical sources.  But, enough said of this project – I would like to defend my PhD by the end of this year! – and this interview is all about BOAPAS, right?

So, this is how it all started: In October 2015, I was asked to give a presentation at the Dead Men Talking Symposium in Koksijde, Belgium, on the state of the art of osteological research in Flanders. 

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The meeting taking place on the 27th February 2016 at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

It was clear that, not only in Flanders, but also in Wallonia, (I will not dwell on details of the complex political situation in Belgium, but briefly: Flanders is the Dutch speaking part, and they speak mainly French in Wallonia), many young (and less young) researchers in bone studies are forced to study abroad, such as in the United Kingdom, in France, or in The Netherlands.  Although we do have many skeletal remains in Belgium, previously excavated or even to be uncovered in the (near) future, there is currently no clear overview of which skeletal collection is yet to be studied, or of the depository this bone material is stored at.

So, me and three other participants at the conference, Hélène Déom, Davina Craps and Marieke Gernay, decided to gather not only all osteologists (human bone specialists and archaeozoologists) in Belgium, but also employees working in heritage agencies, museums and archaeologists (both contractors, including commercial and academic researcher and lecturers) in order to provide a platform for everyone working with osteological material from archaeological contexts.

We started with an announcement and a mailing list at this conference, and collected the contact details of c. 30 people on that day.  We created a mail address, which was still called Belgian Osteological Research group as we hadn’t decided on the name of our society yet!  Our next step was to announce our first meeting.  This was organised on February 27th 2016 in the small auditorium of the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, with many thanks to Caroline Polet for providing us this location.

TBOM:  I certainly do remember the Versuvio Cafe, and I think if you had told 16-year-old me that he would be drinking where Kerouac and Ginsberg had drunk in San Francisco, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.  (Not to mention visiting the City Lights bookstore and watching an excellent band in a dive bar!).  I wish you good luck with your PhD defense, but I’d like to know more about the topics that were discussed in regards to setting up the society.

I’m impressed that your group managed to pull together and contact a full representation of the individuals who are involved with skeletal remains from archaeological contexts in Belgium, but how did you decide what topics to mention and how did you move forward?

MVC:  That bookstore was indeed amazing!  And the beatnik spirit still surviving in that bar . . .  Good memories will never fade away!

We welcomed 11 members at our first meeting, both from Flanders and Wallonia, and decided to communicate in English to facilitate international accessibility.  On the other hand, French and Dutch translations on our website will be available too.

Further topics we discussed included the aims of our society:

  • To provide information about professionals in the field within Belgium.
  • To improve communication in osteological matters, especially between people from the different regions of the country.
  • To produce a database of skeletal collections and the relevant institutions that hold the various skeletal collections.
  • The legalisation of our society, and whether to become a non-profit society or not, and which steps should be undertaken to achieve that goal.
  • Decide on the name and logo of the group itself.

To choose the latter one, an online poll was created, and finally, BOAPAS, or the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society, came out as the most favoured name for our new society.

Once the name and vision statement were created, we worked on managing and maintaining our visibility.  Online visibility comprehends a website with a forum as well as social media profiles such as on Facebook and Twitter.  But, there is always room for improvement of course, so we are still working on the design and content of the site itself and how we reach out to individuals and other like-minded societies and organisations.

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The delightful BOAPAS cards advertising the society, and the joy of using sliding calipers to measure skeletal elements and anatomical landmarks. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

The site gives an overview of our aims and vision statement (why we are doing it) and ways to contact the group (via email address, possibly via social networks).  At a later stage, we would like to include a forum and the database can be linked to it.  All details that will be added to the website can be discussed, tested, improved or removed as appropriate.  We also created a list of people who are currently available for short or long term assignments, or available in the future, with their photograph and biographical details demonstrating their background and skill sets.

TBOM:  I have to say I do adore those business cards, they manage to effectively communicate the message of the aim of the society and the methods used in physical anthropology and osteoarchaeology in a lovely way!  So, do you foresee any major areas where you may run into problems in setting up the society?

Aligned to this question, do you, by starting up BOAPAS, hope to bring into existence a firmer framework for osteological studies, within academic research and commercial work, in the Belgian archaeology and anthropology sector?

Hélène Déom (HD):  Thank you, those business cards are the result of effective teamwork to create them.  We are really proud of them.  There are, of course, major problems, as usual, when a society is being set up and they include time, money and legislation.  I’d say that is a long shot, but I’m dreaming of creating such a strong framework for osteology in Belgian archaeology…  What about you, ladies?

Davina Craps (DC):  Thank you for the nice compliment.  The business cards are one of the many examples of effective teamwork within BOAPAS.  We believe in involving our members as much as possible in the decisions and the running of the society.

We don’t really foresee any major problems, as there is a definite interest in BOAPAS both from the physical anthropologists who are active in Belgium and from the archaeological community itself.  One of the smaller issues that we have to deal with is the time it takes to set up a society.  All three of the founding members have other obligations aside from the society, thus it can be challenging to create enough free time to spend on the society’s needs.  Another issue that we are currently dealing with is how to create a more official platform for BOAPAS to operate from.  We are currently looking at legislation when it comes to societies and other options to allow BOAPAS to continue growing.

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A photograph of the founding members of BOAPAS, left to right: Marieke Gernay, Marit Van Cant, Davina Craps and Hélène Déom. Image credit: Hélène Déom.

We are indeed hoping to create a strong framework, where there currently isn’t really one in place.  The aim of BOAPAS is to facilitate stronger lines of communication between commercial archaeology, museums, and the physical anthropologists.

MVC:  Yes, thanks David for your comments on the cards.  I believe the major challenges we are facing right now is sorting out legal issues on non-profit organisations, and who we should contact for external advice regarding this.  Setting up a society requires after all a whole procedure we need to take into account.  This means in the near future, we have to elect board members such as a president, treasurer, and secretary, and to accomplish this, we hope we can find people with the right amount of time and dedication to work, especially on the further development of our website, FB-page, newsletters, communication on meetings, vacancies, conference calls, etc.

It is very supportive to notice the mainly positive feedback we have received so far, and it is also good to know that the Dutch Association of Physical Anthropologists (the NVFA) has offered to set up joint-events in the near future.  I believe it is important to maintain close relationships with our foreign partners, such as British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteology (BABAO) and the NVFA, as several members (like me) are a member of both societies.  Finally, our main goal is indeed to develop a strong and consistent framework in Belgium (this means both Flanders and Wallonia!) in osteology matters.  On a later stage, another motivation would be the development of offering osteology courses, for instance within the archaeological training at our universities, but that would be another challenge on the long run.

TBOM:  That sounds great about both the future collaboration between The Netherlands and Belgian organisations, and the possible development of offering osteology courses.  I always think that tailored osteology short courses can offer both the public and the practitioner alike opportunities to increase their knowledge base, and also remain up to date on the theories and methodologies that inform osteological research, especially so if some form of accreditation can take place.

So, I think I must ask that, having been a member of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) and the Palaeopathology Association, both of which have been around for some time, I’m curious as to why has it taken a while for Belgium to have a osteologically focused society?

MVC:  These short courses would be a good start indeed to show the basic principles of osteological research, both in- and ex-situ to principally archaeology students and archaeologists dealing with skeletal remains.  Outreach to the general public is currently undertaken through workshops to mainly high school students, or even to children from minority families living in ‘deprived areas’ in Brussels.

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Marit Van cant examining human skeletal material. Marit is currently the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s student representative, check out the society’s website for more information. Image credit: SMA/Marit Van Cant.

Although Belgium has a longstanding and internationally acclaimed tradition in palaeontological studies with the discovery of hominid remains in several caves in Wallonia in the 19th century, it was not until the 1950’s when the study of human bones from an archaeological context advanced here, and this is mainly due to pioneer research from scholars working in the field of medicine.  In Flanders, osteological research within an archaeological context have only really developed since the late 1990’s.

A shortage in human osteology studies was also noticed by Leguebe (1983: 28-29) who argued that the expansion of (physical) anthropology in Belgium, compared to other countries, was impeded by a lack in ‘organized teaching ratified by a legal diploma’.  In 1919, plans were initiated to found an institution for anthropology studies in Brussels, but, these attempts were unfortunately unsuccessful.  Other factors that might influence a deficit in an organised osteology framework are scarce funding and resources, alongside the complex political structure in our country.  Belgium has one society, the Royal Belgian Society for Anthropology and Prehistory (RBSAP), founded in 1882, and which co-operates closely with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

DC, HD and MVC:  Although the RBSAP publishes a yearly bulletin with articles, and organises an annual general meeting, their website (which is only accessible in French) has not been updated since 2010.  Further, we believe that the RBSAP is slightly more focused on prehistoric research, which we obviously support since the many findings of fossil remains in Wallonia (e.g. in 2010, the RBSAP organised an excursion to the Spy cave).

In addition, with BOAPAS, we would like to pay attention to osteology studies covering all historic periods from both Wallonia and Flanders, and to offer a vivid platform and discussion forum via social media and our (partially trilingual, but mainly English) website, on current and future research of skeletal remains.  We certainly believe in co-operation and the free flow of information, thus we have reached out to the RBSAP to hold a meeting with the organising committee in order to discuss joint possibilities.  Perhaps this collaboration between the established values of RBSAP and the fresh, motivated perspective of BOAPAS can truly invigorate the scene of osteology in Belgium.

TBOM:  In that case then, I can see why there is a need to set up BOAPAS in order to improve upon the knowledge and research base for osteological studies within Belgium.  Please do keep in touch as both myself and my readers would love to know about upcoming events and courses.

MVC:  Thank you very much for the discussion!  Just to let you and your readers know we do have a collaboration between BOAPAS and the Gallo-Roman Museum in Ath, Belgium, is currently undertaken for an exhibition on funerary traditions, and it is scheduled to open in 2018.  And keep an eye on our website at www.boapas.be for upcoming news and events!  We are also still looking for volunteers to help out with the design and layout of the site, so please do get in touch if any of your readers are interested and able to help us build the website.

TBOM: Thank you very much for talking with me today, and I wish you all the best of luck with BOAPAS!

Further Information

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…

Guest Post: An Introduction to Artificial Cranial Deformation from the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević

17 Oct

Maja Miljević is currently an undergraduate student studying archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Serbia.  Her main interest is in physical anthropology, with a research interest in prehistoric archaeology.  Maja has had previous experience of analysing human skeletal remains as a part of a faculty module in the Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, at the University of Belgrade, where she took part in the osteological analysis of a number of individuals dating from numerous Mesolithic and Neolithic archaeological sites located in Eastern and Central Serbia.


Introduction

Intentional or artificial cranial deformation has been long known through human history, even though many articles have been published during recent years which have been focused on more earlier periods of prehistory.  In order to highlight historic cases that I present this short article on intentional cranial deformations from the European Great Migration period (3rd to 8th centuries AD), with a particular focus on the 5th to 6th centuries AD in modern-day Serbia and modern-day Hungary, which highlights the practices of cultural identification in these cultures in this turbulent period.

Intentional Cranial Modifications

Intentional cranial modification has been documented throughout world prehistory and history across a number of distinct geographic areas and cultural groups.  They date back to the Late Paleolithic period (1) at the earliest example so far recovered (Molnar et al. 2014).  The most well-known cranial deformations are those from the Maya culture in modern-day Mexico in the first half of the 2nd millennium AD, various South American prehistoric cultures, and from Ancient Egyptian populations of the 18th dynasty.

Cranial bones can be modified easily in the younger population, since their cranial bones are soft and elastic.  Artificial cranial modification is largely achieved through the binding of the head, using boards, straps, cords or pads (Hakenbeck 2009).  The deforming apparatus is used for a few days up to six months, or sometimes even longer ranging from 3 to 5 years of use.  Cranial deformities of this kind are done as the results of cultural practice and religious beliefs.  The main goal of this practice is to be distinguished from others within the population and to indicate special social status (White et al. 2012; Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

Intentional Cranial Deformation Types

There are five basic types and areas of artificial cranial deformation (abbreviated to ACD where appropriate) and they often involve the use of boards and pads to achieve their distinctive styles:

a) Lambdoid
b) Occipital
c) Fronto- vertico occipital
d) Parallelo-fronto occipital
e) Annular deformation

As seen above artificial cranial deformations includes various or individual regions of the skull where pressure can be applied, such as the occipital, frontal regions, or both together, the mastoid region, and finally the region just above the insertion of the nuchal ligament on the occipital bone.  These are largely referred to as tabular deformations.  As well as this there is another type practiced that included bandaging, with wrapping materials, called annular deformation, around the full circumference of the skull, which is also performed in early childhood (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012; Molnar et al. 2014; Ortner, Putschar 1981).

Origin in Barbarian World

Origin of this practice among the barbarian world probably started with Sarmatians, Huns and continued with the Germanic tribes (Alan, Goths, Gepids), as the practice was spread across Europe in the mid to late 1st millennium AD.  The practice of skull modification had probably originated in the central Eurasian steppes in the first century AD and then may have been brought to central Europe with nomadic people and various tribal units (Mrkobrad 1980; Hakenbeck 2009).

1-acd-from-museum-in-kikinda-germanic-tribe-grave-photo-taken-by-me

An example of ACD in an individual from a Germanic tribe, from the National Museum in Kikinda. Photograph by the author.

Thanks to this culturally mediated osteological difference in the skeletal remains in the Great Migration period, it is a key indicator for understanding the process of said migration during the Middle Ages in the archaeological record in this locality.  Not only did they just bury their dead in either settlements or necropolises, it is also likely proof that they had intentions to stay and live there, as demonstrated by the term from anthropology – acculturation (2); they lived in the same houses, used the same tools, and probably dressed like, or as similar to, the Romans themselves.  As it is seen in an example from the Gradina na Jelici site where three juveniles were buried in two basilicas, all with clear intentional deformations and grave goods that are attributed to Germanic tribes, either the Gepids or Langobards  (also known as the Lombards)(Mилинковић 2010).

In Southeast Serbia there is a necropolis site called Viminacium-Više Groblja, where a total of 94 buried individuals have been excavated and in which 31 individuals exhibit artificial cranial deformation attributed to the Gepids.  The Gepids were closely associated to the Goths due to their cultural similarity.  The reconstruction of a Gepid woman was produced and helped to highlight how her cranium was viewed in life and how her hair was tied with organic material, which probably mimicked the wrappings used to shape her head during infancy (Mилинковић 1998; Микић 1993).

2-viminacium-reconstruction-of-gepid-woman-after-%d0%bc%d0%b8%d0%ba%d0%b8%d1%9b-1993-picture-2

Reconstruction of a Gepid woman demonstrating ACD. The reconstruction is based on an individual from the site of Viminacium, a Roman fort dating from the 1st century AD, located in Serbia which was overran by the Huns in the 5th century AD.  The site was rebuilt by Justinian but destroyed completely by the Slavs in the 6th century AD. Image credit: Mикић 1993.

According to Mikić (1985), two female skulls have also been discovered with artificial cranial deformations dating from the Great Migration period in Pančevo.  Modification was probably already visible in the second decade of life and was produced by using tight wrapping materials around the frontal, parietal and occipital bones of the cranium.  There was not only one wrapping material used that produced an annular deformation to the skull, but it was one used long enough in order to produce a high pressure effect to the skull as seen in the x-ray below.

3-skull-1-rendgen-after-mikic-picture-3

The first skull, as viewed using an x-ray from a lateral aspect, highlighting the distinctive pressurized cranial deformation. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

As for second skull, modification was carried out a little bit differently in this instance.  Wrapping material was also used, but with a heavy burden, which gave the female individual a distinctive saddle recess as demonstrated on the parietal bones, as seen on the x-ray below.

4-skull-2-parietal-deformation-after-mikic-picture-4

The second skull ,viewed in a lateral aspect on an x-ray, showing the parietal deformation and the distinctive ‘saddle’ shape of the cranium. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

Besides those sites, another interesting archaeological site where there is evidence of this artificial deformation is in Sirmium, a major Roman and barbarian site in Serbia, where there is one male-assigned skull described with a deformation.  It may be possible that there are more buried individuals that belong to Germanic tribes exhibiting ACD.

5-projection-of-acd-from-sirmiumafter-miladinovic-radmilovic-picture-5

The Sirmium individual with the skull indicating that ACD had taken place during their infancy. Each plane shown here highlights the effect the cranial modification had on this individual. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

So, it is obvious that they were a probable leader or someone who wanted to be distinguished from others as chosen by the individuals who carried out the artificial deformation on the infant (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

6-reconstruction-of-skull-in-sirmium-after-miladinovic-radmilovic-picture-6

Reconstruction of a skull from Sirmium, Serbia, described above which highlights the method used to bind the cranial bones in this manner. Sirmium was a populous settlement first founded by Illyrians and Celts and subsequently become a Roman city. In the 5th century AD the city was taken by the Huns and then by the Goths and Gepids. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

In Hungary itself we have a good example of a number of artificial cranial deformations, 9 individuals exactly who display this feature, from the Hun-Germanic period, which can help us to see that there is no difference in sex as both males and females were a part of this practice or at least subjected to it (Molnar et al. 2014).

From an anthropological point of view we need to ask how bad can the physical effects on the individual be?

We know that brain is a complex organ and that any modification or alternation to either it or the cranium may cause physical and behavioral changes in normal cerebral function.  If there is a high degree of deformation it may have influence in vision, worsening hearing ability or even cause epilepsy, depending on what type of artificial cranial deformation is used (O’Brien et al. 2013; Mrkobrad 1980).  Intentional cranial deformation may disrupt the normal closure time of the cranial sutures or produce minor effects like the increase of wormian bones in the lambdoid suture, which in life would be asymptomatic (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

Conclusion

As we have seen in few historic examples from Serbia and Hungary above, this cultural practice did not stop with prehistoric people and cultures as it was carried out across the globe, including during periods of great migrations.  It is interesting that it had a great influence on the barbarian people and their leaders of this period, and that it continued to be practiced after they had conquered their enemy tribes or warring nations.  It may be hypothesized that they still wanted to be seen differently or to be seen as superior both within and outside their own cultural group.  Unfortunately intentional cranial deformations probably stopped in the Balkans with arrival of Avarians, around the 6th century AD, although the practice still continues today within a modern medical environment.

Notes

1. Late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period goes back from some 40,000 to 10,000 years before present.

2. Acculturation is cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adopting to or borrowing traits from another culture.

Bibliography

Hakenbeck, S. 2009. ‘Hunnic’ Modified Skulls: Physical Appearance, Identity and the Transformative Nature of Migrations. In Sayer, D. & Williams, H. (eds). Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. 64-80. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. (Open Access).

Mikić, Ž. 1985. Prilog Morfologiji Veštačkih Deformisanih Lobanja iz Perioda Velike Seobe Naroda. Godišnjak centra za Balkanološka ispitivanja. ANUBiH 23, 21. (Open Access).

Mикић, Ж. 1993. Виминацијум-антрополошки преглед групних гробова римског периода (I) и приказ некропола из периода велике сеобе народа (II). Saopštenja XXV. (Open Access).

Miladinović-Radmilović, N. 2012. Artificial Cranial Deformation. Journal of Serbian Archaeological Society. 28: 301-312. (Open Access).

Милинковић, М. 1998. Германска племена на Балкану. Археолошки налази из времена сеобе народа. PhD Thesis. Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade.

Милинковић, М. 2010. Градина на Јелици-рановизантијски град и средњовековно насеље. Београд.

Molnar, M., Janos, I., Szucs, L., Szathmary, L. 2014. Artificially Deformed Crania from the Hun-Germanic Period (5th- 6th century AD ) in Northeastern Hungary: Historical and Morphological Analysis. Neurosurg Focus. 36 (4).

Mrkobrad, D. 1980. Arheološki nalazi seobe naroda u Jugoslaviji. Belgrade: Muzej grada Beograda.

O’Brien, G. T., Peters, R. L., Hines, E. M. 2013. Artificial Cranial Deformation: Potential Implications of Affected Brain Function. Anthropology. 1 (3): 2-6. (Open Access).

Ortner, D. J. & Putschar, W. G. J. 1981. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

White, T. D., Black, M. T. & Folkens, P. A. 2012. Human Osteology (3rd edition). San Diego: Academic Press.

Interview with Natalie Marr & David Ashley Pearson: Introducing the Short Film ‘Visitor’

21 Jun

Natalie Marr is an artist who works across video, sound and performance, and draws inspiration from science fiction, landscapes and different experiences of time.  She is currently completing a Masters in Filmmaking and Media Arts at the University of Glasgow.  After the release of ‘Visitor’ Natalie will be taking up a research position at the University of Glasgow in a multidisciplinary project to study the impact of the Galloway Forest Park, Scotland.  For current and previous multi-media projects please check out her website here, ‘Visitor’ will be released in Autumn.

David Ashley Pearson is a multimedia artist who focuses primarily on sound design.  He is particularly interested in exploring improvisation, acoustics and the physicality of sound.  His approach to sound is ever-changing but is underpinned by a curiosity for its substance and a passion for musical exploration.  His blog entitled Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, games and music, can be found here.


These Bones of Mine:  Hello Natalie, thank you for joining These Bones of Mine! In something of a first for this blog our main topic of discussion will be a short experimental film of which you are currently in the process of producing.  Visitor, your upcoming film focuses on people who stargaze and the entwined personal stories of the night sky.  It promises to be something special; however speaking as an archaeologist interested in the lives of others, I’m keen as to what led you onto the path of film making?

Natalie Marr:  Thank you for inviting me! I feel like film has always been there in my life as something that I just love, it is a form that transfixes me, surprises me, soothes me, challenges me.  One of my greatest pleasures is to go to the cinema alone and just sit in the dark with a great film!

I have a background in the arts and I would still struggle to call myself a filmmaker – it doesn’t even matter really – but I suppose what I’m getting at, is that film is just one form that I am drawn to working with, and the qualities of film that I particularly love are the immediacy of it, the way it moves me on a physical, emotional and sometimes spiritual level, and also the way it plays with my experience of time.  These are qualities that I also try to explore in sound and performance.  I am also interested in the experience of seeing a film, sitting in the dark, the way you give yourself to a film for a period of time.  But that’s obviously a very purist way of looking at it!

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A detail from ‘Visitor’. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

Visitor is very different to any films I have made before…  It has been a very social process. In the past I have tended to shoot abandoned buildings, landscapes, environments that I freely walk around and capture and onto which I project my own story. There is landscape (or skyscape!) in ‘Visitor’ too, but because of this social process of interviews, spending time with people under the stars, as well as the autobiographical aspect, my approach to filming environments has changed too: it is not something I just project onto, it is another element that I am interacting with and learning from.

TBOM:  The interaction of the social process, within the creative production of a piece of art, is an idea that grabs me.  It is much the same in archaeology where archaeologists are never quite just the bystander to the material remains of the past – they act as both the interpreter of the architectural features and artefacts uncovered, but also as a gatekeeper to unlocking the potential knowledge of the remains and disseminating it to a wider audience. We even, acting in an environmental context, landscape the past through the examination of archaeobotanical remains and populate it with species through zooarchaeological analysis.  

In this context the personal voices of the past are largely silenced by time, but I’m left wondering how have you found the effort of capturing the social process?  Have you felt a greater duty to represent those who you film, as oppose to the silent landscapes and skyscapes of your earlier short films and photographs, or is this a false distinction?

Natalie:  Yes! The process has really sharpened my sensitivity to observing and recording and the challenge of how to represent other people’s stories, other people’s lives.  What I’m trying to do is build the experience of that challenge into the film and make myself – as a narrator or guide – vulnerable, responsive and unfinished.  It is very subjectively led, and most documentary/non-fiction films are to some extent – they are personal theses – but what I like about the essay film format, is the emphasis on the personal and the impressionistic and that’s what I’m running with in this film.  ‘Visitor’ deals a lot with projection: how we project ourselves onto the night sky, how we make Space personal.  Constellations as one example: they enable us to navigate our way around the sky, and we give them names that have their own historic and cultural colourings.

But the film is also about being responsive and like you say, it is a mistake to think of the land as silent, though in terms of ‘duty’ or a relationship of care, there is a more obvious concern for me when thinking about representing people, and maybe that’s because the effects of my actions are much more immediate.  It is so so important to get out of that mindset though, and spending time under a dark sky helps!

When I look at the stars, I feel I am tuning in to them.  I’m interested in the experience of darkness and how the body changes in a dark environment.  I get a stronger sense of this out on location in a place like the Galloway Forest Park, in Scotland, maybe because I’m standing outside for hours and time seems to slow down, and maybe it is also because I slowly start to tune in to the sound of the forest and of the different creatures that live there.  A funny side note on that – the last time I stayed in Galloway, one of the best night-time sounds I heard was a cow somewhere off in a neighbouring field, softly mooing as it slept, lovely!

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A silent salute in space. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am a big fan of science fiction and in particular its commitment to ‘becoming other’.  There is a quote I carry around with me all the time, which is from Fredric Jameson in his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions; he’s talking about the challenge in science fiction of representing the other when it is beyond our comprehension or experience, how do you do it?!  And his answer is that the ‘other’ demands a new kind of perception, which demands in turn a new organ of perception, and ultimately a new kind of body (sorry – I am paraphrasing!).  So the problem sort of creates its own solution if you are happy to let it work its magic on you.  With ‘Visitor’ it is a kind of feeling around in the dark at times and not knowing exactly what I’m working with, but it is hugely rewarding to be open to that.

TBOM:  Having seen the two trailers for Visitor a number of times now I am struck by the two timescales represented – the human lifetime and memory contrasted to the great age of the universe and its celestial bodies.  There are also similarities to Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, particularly in the revealing scenes of drawing back the covers for the apparatus that are used to peer into the inky darkness.  

However, whereas Guzmán contrasted the interviews of the astronomy and archaeological researchers with the family members searching for the remains of Pinochet’s victims hidden in the Atacama desert, your film is of a more personal nature.  Indeed there is the sense of personal solace present in it, the calm movements noted in the preparation of the equipment to observe the stars.  Where have you drawn your influence for this project from?  How has it developed as you have moved along the length of producing Visitor? 

Natalie:  Yes, its been a while since I saw ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ but it’s definitely there.  I was so moved by it, there was a special kind of quiet power about it, it’s deeply political but also deeply personal.  You are right, there are definitely shared motifs between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’, personal projections, the unknown, darkness, light.  I see lots of correlations between looking up and looking down, and of course, looking into space is effectively always looking into the past.  I see these women, who are spending every waking moment searching for the remains of their loved ones, as located neither in the present, nor the past.  ‘Nostalgia for the light’…a longing for light cast from the past perhaps, but how long will they have to wait for it to reach them?  They are trapped in a time-scale that will likely outlive them and it’s intensely sad.

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A detail of one of the telescopes at the Galloway Astronomy Centre. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

The phrase ‘to be in the dark’ is about not knowing and not having answers or facts and this is definitely something shared between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’.  In ‘Visitor’ there is a reading of darkness in terms of being unanchored, in free fall.  This is how I felt when I lost our mutual friend Holly, like I lost my grip on reality for a while, and it felt very destructive.  In ‘Nostalgia…’ an interviewee comments that to be without memory is to be nowhere, and I think of a tiny body surrounded by total darkness, spinning like the astronaut Ryan in the film ‘Gravity‘, unmoored and alone.  This also makes me think of the Disappearance at Sea short film by artist Tacita Dean about Donald Crowhurst who died at sea, unable to locate himself geographically, because his chronometer was not giving him a correct reading on the local time.  Tacita Dean uses the image of a lighthouse in her film, another motif for searching.

But spending time under dark skies over the last 6 months is changing my relationship with darkness; my body and mind sense in a different way.  It’s like the lights go out and something else switches on, it is a bit like being in a car picking up a radio station that starts off as noise but as you travel into its field of transmission, it becomes clear.  Vision is obviously an important aspect of stargazing, but also the feeling of being outdoors at night, the very different qualities of sound that emerge, and a sense that your ‘time’ vibrates with so many other ‘times’.

When I looked through the telescope at Jupiter recently, I saw this incredibly distant planet and four of its moons, but pressing my face against the eye piece, the darkness of Jupiter’s ‘world’ encloses me and it feels like it’s right there and I can touch it, it is very intimate.  I was speaking to one of the Galloway Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers recently about stargazing as a very intimate activity that involves a lot of trust.  She mentioned that if she were to meet her workshop participants the next day in the sunlight, she may not be able to tell them by face!  So the experience of darkness and of stargazing is quite complex and also transformative for me, and I believe transformative for others too.

TBOM:  Yes, after losing our friend Holly I also felt an incredible sense of darkness and disarray.  Light eventually returned, particularly when I think of the time that we had spent together and also through getting to know one of her favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens

It seems to me then that memory and distance are recurring motifs within ‘Visitor’, from both your own viewpoint and from the people who you have interviewed for the film.  As an anchor to these themes, and as a comfort to the sheer size and depth of the universe, the bonds of family and friends also seem to play a pivotal part within the film.  Is this a fair assessment?

Natalie:  Yes, definitely.  I keep coming back to distance and proximity.  A lot of the people I have interviewed share their night sky experiences with loved ones or close friends.  It might be a phone call in the early hours of the morning between two people at different ends of the country looking at the same planet, or a certain constellation that makes you think of the person you first encountered it with.  Distance gets collapsed in those moments of remembering.  And I guess that’s what you mean when you have said to me that you feel close to Holly when listening to music she loved and in particular the musicians she introduced you to or that you listened to together.  Memory is a strange thing, as are dreams and sometimes they cross over.

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A walk in the wild as preparations for a night of stargazing take shape. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am definitely partial to the mystical qualities of the universe, as well as the hard science (!).  Astrophysics is fascinating to me and never stops surprising me; though it is extremely rigorous in its science, I think that it is also an area that allows space for speculation and wonder which, for me, is hugely creative and helpful for thinking about slippery things like memory and experience.  The language of astrophysics alone is incredibly rich and strange, and speaking it or listening to it transports me somewhere beyond my usual experience and I guess I’m trying to follow that and see where it leads!

TBOM:  Speaking of other languages I know we have spoken about music before this, with reference to our shared love of Fever Ray, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Vladislav Delay for example, and I feel I can almost hear their influences within the trailer for ‘Visitor’.  How did you approach the sound and music composition for this film though, and where did your influences for this come from?  

I know that you regularly collaborate with your partner David Ashley Pearson on your productions, such as on the 2013 short film Waiting for an Answer (Waiting for a Sign), and that he has helped produce the soundscape for ‘Visitor’, so this may also be a question for him as well.

Natalie:  It really does help that we’ve known each other for such a long time and also worked on projects together or been witness to each other’s projects.  I’m not great at describing sound, it is very slippery to me.  David has a more nuanced understanding of it and the physics behind it. We didn’t discuss much in the way of influences…  I think we both know what we like!  In terms of soundtracks that have really blown us away recently though…  Definitely Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin (2013) and we also loved the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto for The Revenant (2015).

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The preparation of a Bahtinov mask. A Bahtinov mask is a device utilizing focal grids and variations in angle diffraction to help achieve optimum focus when using small astronomical telescopes, or when conducting astrophotography, to view bright stars accurately. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

There are obviously a set of themes or motifs in ‘Visitor’ which you can sink your teeth into sonically and some of the main aesthetic approaches for this have been thinking about tuning in/tuning out, sounds that take us away from ourselves and yet have an uncanny familiarity and the idea of signalling or sending out a message, a beacon.  We both share an interest in experimental music, but I would say I’m more partial to looking for a beat that I can cling on to, whereas David is a bit more fearless when it comes to sound!  I think it makes sense here to let David talk more about his approach to the sound design…

David Ashley Pearson:  Hi there, thanks for showing such an interest in our film, it means a lot.  My relationship with music (and sound in general) has been incredibly intimate and personal my whole life, I find it embarrassing to listen to the music I love with others as it’s like revealing a part of myself, it makes me feel somewhat naked and exposed!  Even music that it is incredibly social such as Punk, Dance or Pop I find difficult to listen to with others.  I like to delve into sound and find a personal connection, typically when I find that connection I can become obsessed and mesmerised by the sound and feel I own it in some way.

Before moving to London in 2007 I was always looking out for new and interesting sounds, I’ve always listened out for something that struck me as unique and creative but it wasn’t until I got to London and got to listen to and attend some Free Improvisation concerts that I felt my ears truly open up.  I’ve always loved and strove for ambiguity and multiple meanings in my work and I find that in its purest form in Free Improvised music.

When I first moved to London I went to Mark Wastell’s – now sadly closed – Sound 323 record shop in Highgate; exposing myself to a whole new sound culture, it was a phenomenal experience just leafing through all the CDs and absorbing it all.  That first time I went there I bought Lawrence English’s For Varying Degrees of Winter (2007) which is an incredibly meticulous and icy ambient album, I love it but it was probably one of the music conventional CDs there!  At the time Mark had some music playing in the shop that was like nothing I’d heard before; it was an incredibly unusual, textural, hard to place sound… and very slow!  I didn’t know how to interact with it and what it meant, it was alien to me and I loved it because of that; it was Free Improvisation!

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A Scots Pine garden, Glasgow, Scotland. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

With Free Improvisation (and in particular the ‘New London Silence’ scene that I gravitated towards) all sounds come out of silence and the player’s environment.  Traditional ideas of instrumentation, musical notation and scales are chucked out the window in favour of a purer listening to sound as sound, the sound’s interaction with the space and the sound’s interaction with other sounds.  This idea of sound coming out of silence is incredibly important to me for this film and it’s also important that sounds come out of the imagery and montage that the film paints.  I have made sound concepts/sketches for the two trailers but I hesitate to truly start on the final soundtrack until more sections of the film are in place – as I want to interact with the imagery.  I also want to keep in mind the cinematic space and how my music interacts with the voices of those we’ve interviewed for the film.  I can’t wait to see and hear how it comes together!  The soundtrack will feature voices, textures, field recordings, synthesizers and other bits and bobs… whatever works in driving forward the story Natalie wants to tell!

TBOM:  The two trailers released so far certainly indicate the sound coming out of the silence, and I’m looking forward to seeing how your exposure to Free Improvisation influences the soundtrack David.  Natalie, the initial release date for ‘Visitor’ is September to coincide with the end of your Masters course and you are currently crowdfunding for the remaining production.  What are your hopes for ‘Visitor’ and do you have any plans after? 

Natalie:  Yes, very soon! The film is being produced as part of my degree and will be completed in September.  Once ‘Visitor’ is completed, we’ll be submitting it to festivals, so fingers crossed it gets some interest and circulation and it will be interesting to discuss it with a bit of distance.  In the meantime though, we are working on raising funds to finish the shooting and for some post-production work.  Any support is welcome and we are really pleased to offer some night sky-related perks including a stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre and an astrophotography workshop with Viridian Skies, also based in Dumfries & Galloway.

 

Beyond the film, there is so much still to be explored.  Recently I’ve been very lucky to be accepted for an incredible research project based at the University of Glasgow, with a focus on mapping the values of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, so that’s the next three and a half years of my life.  I’ve become really attached to the area (and to its skies!) so it is a dream to be encouraged to delve in deeper.

TBOM:  It certainly sounds like you have plenty to contend with and I wish you the best of luck with the release of ‘Visitor’.  I shall look forward to experiencing it when it comes out.  I’m sure readers of this blog will also be interested to hear how your research into the Galloway Forest Dark Sky park takes shape so please do keep in touch.  Thank you and David once again for joining These Bones of Mine.

Natalie:   Thank you also for your support of the film and for taking the time to discuss it in more detail, it really does help to unpick it a bit and reflect on it while it’s still being made.  It is also fantastic to be in such good company on These Bones of Mine!

Further Information

  • Visit Natalie Marr’s website for further information on her current and previous projects.  You can listen to David Ashley Pearson’s sound projects here, and visit his blog Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, music and games.
  • You can help fund and donate to the making of  the short film ‘Visitor’ on the IndiGoGo webpage by visiting here.  Dependent on the amount of money given the individual backer can receive a number of perks related the production of the film.  These include, but are not limited to, special riso print postcards, an invitation to the opening night of the film, as well as a night’s stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre for two.

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

16 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

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

Selection of Previous & Current Research on Rothwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More

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

Further Information

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

Bibliography

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

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

Guest Post: Telling Stories about the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project by Alexis Boutin

26 Jun

Alexis T. Boutin is associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of the cultural resources M.A. program at Sonoma State University.  In addition to co-directing the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project, she is starting a new community-based field project that studies the casualties and legacy of California’s Bear Flag Revolt of 1846.  Read more at her Academia.edu page or faculty webpage.  When not working or chasing after her children, Alexis spends her free time…actually, she doesn’t have any free time. 


Like most good stories, this one starts in an unassuming way: a lone researcher, flipping through yellowed index cards in the wooden drawer of a museum registrar’s card catalog, stumbles across one for human remains from “Saudi Arabia; Bahrein Island”.  Casually mentioning the find over lunch with her colleague, who happens to be a curator at the museum, he expresses interest in helping her dig deeper into the collections and archives to find out how these bones came to be in the museum.  Thus was born the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project in late 2008 (Porter and Boutin 2012).  The researchers in question are Alexis Boutin, now of Sonoma State University, and Benjamin Porter, of University of California Berkeley.  The museum is the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  The bones, and associated artifacts, belong to the only substantial assemblage from ancient Dilmun in a North American museum. And they have many stories to tell.

Peter Cornwall’s search for Dilmun

We must begin with Peter Bruce Cornwall, the scion of a distinguished family with deep roots in northern California.  He found privilege in his education at Andover, Toronto, and Oxford, but was challenged by the deafness that afflicted him late in childhood.  As a doctoral student in Anthropology at Harvard, Cornwall’s objective – which his advisor would call a “mania” – was to locate the place named in ancient Near Eastern texts as Dilmun.

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1. Peter Cornwall’s 1932 yearbook photo from Phillips Academy Andover.

Dilmun served as a setting for Mesopotamian creation myths and fantastical events.  For instance, the hero Gilgamesh found Utnapishtum there, a former king who was granted immortality after a great flood in a story that mirrors that of the biblical Noah.  Dilmun also was well-known as a trading emporium in commercial networks extending to the Ur III societies of Mesopotamia, Magan in Oman, and Meluhha, the Harappan societies of the Indus River Valley.  But modern scholars had never agreed upon Dilmun’s actual location or extent.

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2. Map of the Arabian peninsula, with ancient locales identified. Image by Benjamin W. Porter.

After overcoming the doubt of his academic advisors at Harvard and eventually winning limited backing from the Hearst Museum, Cornwall sailed for Bahrain in Fall 1940.  His journey was made no easier by its route across the Pacific and Indian oceans in the midst of World War II.  Cornwall excavated human remains and artifacts from at least 24 tumuli, or burial mounds, on Bahrain, followed by survey and surface collection at 16 or more archaeological sites in eastern Saudi Arabia.

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3. Cornwall’s team excavating a tumulus in Bahrain. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

The cost of shipping the finds to his northern California home was covered by the Hearst Museum, in return for their eventual accession there.  Cornwall’s analyses allowed him to conclude that Dilmun was a political entity that ran along the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula from Kuwait to Qatar and was centered on Bahrain.  After publishing his PhD dissertation and several journal articles, Cornwall donated the assemblage to the Hearst Museum as promised in 1945, but provided minimal assistance with its accession.  He then began to withdraw from the academic world, moving to Rome and reportedly spending the rest of his days travelling and collecting art and antiquities, before dying in his late 50s of cirrhosis of the liver.  Although Cornwall’s contribution to Gulf archaeology has lived on in the works of many others (e.g., Bibby 1970, Crawford 1998, Højlund 2007, Potts 1990), the location of the materials that helped him make this discovery was not known outside of the Hearst Museum.

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project

Some 4000 years after these people died and 65 years after their remains were brought to California, Porter and I identified this assemblage (referred to hereafter as the “Cornwall collection”) as a rich source of information about life and death in ancient Dilmun.  Although the materials donated by Cornwall had been inventoried during their accession to the Hearst, they had undergone no further systematic analysis since that time.  Working with students from Sonoma State and UC Berkeley, we have determined that the Cornwall collection includes over 3,700 objects made from materials including metal, bone, ivory, pearl, shell, and alabaster, although stone and ceramic objects dominate.  The datable objects derive mostly from the Early Dilmun period, ca. 2050-1800 BCE.  This was a period of unprecedented political and economic prosperity in Dilmun, as suggested by fortified settlements, temple complexes, administrative seals, and imported goods.

When people died in Early Dilmun, their bodies were laid to rest in distinct mortuary monuments that are still visible across the island today.  These mounded tumuli usually consist of a stone lined burial chamber covered by a cone of sediments and gravels.  In most tombs, one or sometimes two individuals were interred, often in a relaxed fetal position.  Surrounding them were ceramic vessels, jewelry, metal weapons, and very rarely alabaster vessels or ivory objects.  A sheep or goat might also be included, likely an offering for the deceased to carry into the afterlife.  Not all tumuli had the same level of elaborate commemoration.  Differences in the size of monuments and the amount and quality of objects indicate that the privileged and wealthy were granted the most elaborate burial conditions.

The human remains in the Cornwall collection represent a minimum of 34 people.  Twenty-four adults, as well as one adolescent, were sufficiently well-preserved to permit sex estimation.  Nineteen are males/probable males, while six are females/probable females.  Of the skeletons for whom an age category could be estimated, the vast majority are adults, with middle adults (35-50 years) being the best represented.  However, adolescents, children, infants and one fetus are also present in smaller numbers.

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4. The author at work in the Hearst Museum collections. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

Unfortunately, the notes that Cornwall deposited in the Museum’s accession files are very limited.  They contain very few associated field notes, such as photographs of the burials, the position of bodies, and even the geographic coordinates for specific tumuli around the island.  We are not sure if Cornwall produced this documentation in the first place, or perhaps he never gave it to the Hearst Museum.  We are hopeful that someone will come forward with missing information about Cornwall’s research from a family archive.  Nevertheless, important insights can be gained from the Cornwall collection when its contents are analyzed in the context of better-documented research in Bahrain and surrounding regions.

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5. Cylindrical wheel-thrown ceramic jar (9-4680) typical of Early Dilmun burial assemblages. Photo by Colleen Morgan. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Bioarchaeological analysis of skeleton 12-10152 provides a powerful example of one ancient Dilmunite’s experiences in life and death.  Cornwall excavated the remains of this person—a male who was at least 60 years old when he died—from a tumulus in the Dar Kulayb mound cemetery near Bahrain’s western coast.  No durable objects were buried with him, although multiple bones (including the skull) from a sheep (Ovis aries) or goat (Capra hircus) suggest that he did receive a large portion of a recently butchered animal.  The three stories that follow illustrate how bioarchaeological data from one skeleton (here, 12-10152) can be assembled and interpreted in various ways, to tell multiple stories through multiple media.

The Osteological Version

Analysis of 12-10152’s skeleton reveals a long lifetime of physical activity based on degenerative joint disease (DJD) throughout his skeleton.  Degenerative joint disease occurs when chronic stress on joints progressively damages articular cartilage and, eventually, underlying bone surfaces.  Bone formation and destruction characterize DJD, including the breakdown of articular cartilage, formation of osteophytes at joint margins and entheses, degeneration and consequent porosity of the articular surface, sclerosis, and eburnation caused by direct bone-on-bone contact (Larsen 2015; Ortner 2003).  This male’s DJD is more severe in the right shoulder, facet joints of three cervical vertebrae, lower lumbar vertebral bodies, hips, and knees.  The degeneration of the right shoulder joint is particularly marked, with significant osteophyte growth on the articular margins of the right humeral head, and extensive eburnation here and on the glenoid fossa of the scapula.  Osteophyte formation on the distal femora, more extensive on the left side, indicates degeneration of both knee joints.  The articular surface of the left patella (the only one extant) exhibits macroporosity and destruction of the subchondral bone.

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6. Severe degenerative joint disease affecting 12-10152’s right humerus. 6a) eburnation of humeral head (superior view); 6ab) osteophyte growth on margins of humeral head (posterior view); 6c) eburnation of posterior face of glenoid fossa (right scapula, medial view). Photos by the author. (Click to enlarge).

As was common for the elderly of Early Dilmun, this male experienced extensive antemortem tooth loss.  His mandible is edentulous, and all but five of his maxillary teeth had fallen out by the time of his death.  Moderate DJD of the right temporomandibular joint is evident.  The left side is unaffected.  Atrophy of the right half of the mandible is also apparent, perhaps caused by a preference for the non-arthritic left side when chewing.  In a forthcoming publication, we compare his skeleton with those of two other elderly males in the Cornwall collection to explore how masculinity was embodied in Early Dilmun (Porter and Boutin forthcoming).

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7. Extant cranial skeleton of 12-10152. Note antemortem loss of all teeth in mandible. Photo by the author. (Click to enlarge).

The Visual Version

The comparatively good preservation of 12-10152’s cranial and post-cranial skeleton provided an excellent opportunity to tell his story visually, through a forensic facial reconstruction.  This method had already been employed by the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project on a teenage boy from Early Dilmun with excellent results (Boutin et al. 2012), and we hoped that a facial reconstruction of this older man could provide unique insights about embodied experiences toward the end of life.

Creating a replica of the skull is the first step in facial reconstruction.  For 12-10152, whose remains are very delicate and brittle, stereolithography—scanning the skull with lasers to create a digital file—was the best option.  Dr. Sabrina Sholts (now of the Smithsonian Institution) obtained multiple scans of each portion of the fragmented skull with a NextEngine 3D laser scanner. After she processed the data on a laptop, the resulting digital files were sent to GoEngineer in Santa Clara, CA, where they were “printed” three-dimensionally in plastic.  I brought these plastic cranial bones to the studio of forensic artist Gloria Nusse (San Francisco State University), where she and I worked together to rearticulate them into a model on which the face could be reconstructed.

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8. Printed components of 12-10152’s skull, before and after re-articulation in Ms. Nusse’s studio. Photos by the author. (Click to enlarge).

When the plastic skull replica was ready, Nusse attached tissue depth markers at standard cranial landmarks.  Next, she used oil-based modeling clay to simulate the cranio-facial muscles, with “skin” of the same material eventually added to meet the height of the markers.  Once the basic form of the face had been completed, Nusse made small adjustments to the shapes of certain features, such as the eyelids and lips, and used a sponge to texturize the facial skin.  She carefully incorporated skeletal features distinct to 12-10152 into his visage: for example, the atrophied and edentulous nature of his mandible gave his lower face a sunken and asymmetrical appearance.  Nusse collaborated with Porter and me to create the hair and eye color, hair style, and dress for 12-10152’s reconstruction.  Our decisions were informed by texts and iconography from ancient Mesopotamia (which are lacking from early Dilmun), as well as a survey of publicly available photographs of modern Arabian Gulf citizens.  The resulting reconstruction has been displayed with that of the teenage boy in an exhibit entitled “From Death to Life in Ancient Bahrain,” which has traveled to several university museums in California.

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9. Facial reconstruction of 12-10152 by Gloria Nusse, on display at Sonoma State University. Photograph courtesy of Alexis Boutin. (Click to enlarge).

The Narrative Version

The final way that I tell 12-10152’s story is in fictive narrative format, which is informed by the Bioarchaeology of Care and Bioarchaeology of Personhood models.  Having described the Bioarchaeology of Personhood in print before (Boutin 2011, 2012), I provide just a few highlights here.  Essentially, I have taken Clark and Wilkie’s (2006) concept of an Archaeology of Personhood and adapted it to focus on the relationship between human skeletal remains and embodied experience.  These models feature a less ethno- and temperocentric emphasis on individuality than other (bio)archaeological approaches to identity.  One of the only constants is the passage of time, which is marked bodily by aging.  Although age should not be privileged over other axes of personhood (e.g., gender, class, ethnicity, etc.), it is age that undergirds their fluidity over the life course.  So the Bioarchaeology of Personhood attends to the stories that skeletons tell us about how their personhoods were embodied across the life course.

In addition to telling these stories in traditional academic language and scholarly venues, I also write fictive narratives about the skeletons I study.  This allows me to draw together socio-historic contextual data, clinical research on health and illness, and bioarchaeological analysis in a way that provides a more humanizing view of past personhoods.  But no matter how well-substantiated, these narratives are always the products of my imagination.  They could be told in different ways by different authors, depending on which lines of evidence s/he chooses to prioritize.  For this reason, the qualifying term “fictive” (after Wilkie 2003) is essential.  I have also found the Bioarchaeology of Care (Tilley 2015) to be an extremely useful heuristic tool in creating fictive narratives based on the Cornwall collection.  I particularly appreciate how its focus on the provision of health care and support foregrounds the notion of community: each and every life course plays out in concert with those of others to which it is inextricably linked – mothers, husbands, children, neighbors, dynasts, etc.  What follows is an excerpt of a fictive narrative about 12-10152’s life course, focusing on the care and support that he may have required during old age.

The heat and dust rose in waves from the road as the young men padded by, their arms full of recently harvested dates.  I envied them in more ways than one.  “Grandfather, your stew is ready.”  It’s been many years since I was able to shimmy up the date palms, let alone chew my favorite date nut treat.  But even the few teeth left in my head are enough to enjoy my granddaughter’s fish-and-vegetable stew (as long as she cooks it long enough and I remember to chew on the left side).  Finding my walking stick with my left hand and heaving myself up with a grunt, I make my way into the house.  A wince and a groan as I raise my right arm to take the bowl from my granddaughter.  Ah well – if you live long enough to see your great-grandchildren, some aches and pains are to be expected.

The End

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project aims to maximize the interpretive possibilities of the human remains that we have the privilege to study.  Telling 12-10152’s story in various ways reminds us that identities are always multi-faceted and that there is no one “right answer” to how bioarchaeological evidence can be interpreted.  Another example of this approach can be seen in the multiple stories that we have told about a young woman with disabilities (12-10146) from the Cornwall collection.  These include an osteological analysis of her skeletal pathologies (Boutin and Porter 2014), a narrative telling of her embodied experiences in the recent Bioarchaeology of Care session at the 2015 SAAs (with a manuscript in preparation for International Journal of Paleopathology), and a full-body reconstruction by Ms. Nusse planned for 2015-2016.  Documentation and analysis of the Cornwall collection will conclude over the next couple of years, with the results to be published in a book entitled Embodying Dilmun: The Peter B. Cornwall Expedition to Eastern Arabia and Bahrain.  Will this be the final word on life and death in ancient Dilmun? As the saying goes, the best stories never end.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Boutin, A.T. 2012. Crafting a Bioarchaeology of Personhood: Osteobiographical Narratives from Alalakh. In A. Baadsgaard, A. T. Boutin and J. E. Buikstra (eds.), Breathing New Life Into the Evidence of Death: Contemporary Approaches to Bioarchaeology. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 109-133. (Open Access).

Boutin, A.T. 2011. Written in Stone, Written in Bone: The Osteobiography of a Bronze Age Craftsman from Alalakh. In A.L.W. Stodder and A. M. Palkovich (eds.), The Bioarchaeology of Individuals. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 193-214. (Open Access).

Boutin, A.T. & and Porter, B.W. 2014. Commemorating Disability in Early Dilmun: Ancient and Contemporary Tales from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection. In B.W. Porter and A.T. Boutin (eds.), Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 97-132.

Boutin, A.T., Nusse, G.L. Nusse, Sholts, S.B. & Porter, B.W. 2012. Face to Face With the Past: Reconstructing a Teenage Boy from Early Dilmun. Near Eastern Archaeology. 75(2): 68-79.

Bibby, G. 1970. Looking for Dilmun. London: Collins.

Clark, B. & Wilkie, L.A. 2006. The Prism of Self: Gender and Personhood. In S. M. Nelson (ed.), Handbook of Gender Archaeology. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 333-364.

Cornwall, P.B. 1943. The tumuli of Bahrain. Asia and the Americas. 42: 230–234.

Cornwall, P.B. 1944. Dilmun: The history of Bahrein Island before Cyrus. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Harvard University.

Cornwall, P.B. 1946. On the location of Dilmun. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 102: 3–11.

Crawford, H.E.W. 1998. Dilmun and its Gulf Neighbours. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Højlund, F. 2007. The Burial Mounds of Bahrain: Social Complexity in Early Dilmun. Moesgaard: Jutland Archaeological Society Publications.

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Skeleton. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Littleton, J. & Frohlich, B. 1993. Fish-eaters and Farmers: Dental Pathology in the Arabian Gulf. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 92:427-447. (Open Access).

MacLean, R. & Insoll, T. 2011. An Archaeological Guide to Bahrain. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Ortner, Donald J. 2003. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. 2nd edition. San Diego: Academic Press.

Porter, B.W. & Boutin, A.T. 2012. The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project:  A first look at the Peter B. Cornwall Collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. 23: 35-49.

Porter, B.W. & Boutin, A.T. Forthcoming. The Elders of Dilmun: A Bioarchaeological Analysis of Masculinity from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection. In L. Gregoricka and K. Williams (eds.), Life and Death in Ancient Arabia: Mortuary and Bioarchaeological Perspectives. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Potts, D.T. 1990. The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity, Vols. 1 & 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tilley, L. 2015. Accommodating Difference in the Prehistoric Past: Revisiting the Case of Romito 2 from a Bioarchaeology of Care Perspective. International Journal of Paleopathology. 8: 64-74. (Open Access).

Wilkie, L.A. 2003. The Archaeology of Mothering: An African-American Midwife’s Tale. New York: Routledge.

Guest Post: Review of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Beckenham, Kent, by Jessica Sajovie

4 Jun

Jessica Sajovie is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but is currently a London-based writer responsible for Diverting Journeys, a blog dedicated to irreverent reviews of museums and other curious destinations around the world, particularly (due to a limited travel budget) those in London and Southeast England.  In addition, she volunteers with a local history project, researching the First World War and its impact on Merton.  Jessica holds an MA in Early Modern History from King’s College London, with a focus on 18th century Britain and the history of medicine.  Her other interests include collecting vintage cookbooks and Pez dispensers shaped like American Presidents, a never-ending quest to find blueberry cake doughnuts in London, and reading books on ill-fated maritime expeditions and lurid titles picked from the historical “True Crime” section at the library.  She also enjoys classic rock.


Though I’m keen on almost all museums (the possible exceptions being particularly dreary local affairs, or anything sport-related), medical museums are a particular favourite of mine.  Over the past few years, I’ve blogged about a number of them around Britain (the Gordon Museum of Pathology, the Royal London Hospital Museum, Dr. Jenner’s House , the Royal Berkshire Medical Museum, and many others, if you feel like digging around my blog), and elsewhere in the world (even in places as far-flung as Thailand) but being a homebody at heart, I was excited to discover that a new medical museum had opened right on the outskirts of London – the former Bethlem Hospital Museum, which was recently revamped and re-opened as the Museum of the Mind.

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The entrance of the Bethlem Hospital museum in London.

Bethlem Royal Hospital has been around in one form or another since AD 1247, making it the oldest mental hospital in Britain (although it started strictly as an almshouse, and only began to be used for mentally ill patients in the early 14th century).  It was initially located in Bishopsgate, just beyond the old City of London, but was moved to Moorfields in the late 17th century, which is around the time it began to acquire its tumultuous “bedlam” reputation (the name of the hospital had been shortened to “Bedlam” for centuries, but it was only in the 1600s that the word began to be used as a synonym for chaos), as the hospital encouraged paying visitors, and gawking at the “lunatics” became a popular day out for the wealthy.  In 1815, the hospital moved again, this time to Southwark (what is now the Imperial War Museum), and due to a damning report about conditions in the hospital, Bethlem gradually developed more humane treatments for its patients, and put an end to the sight-seeing. Finally, in 1930, Bethlem moved out to its current location, in Kent, where the museum is located today.

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A detail of one of the entrance statues by Caius Gabriel Cibber in the museum highlighting the representation of mental illness via the shackles.  This is a continuing theme at Bethlem Hospital as shackles and chains were often previously used to subdue patients.

Firstly, some practicalities.  The Museum of the Mind is not too far from Croydon, so most Londoners should be able to make their way out there using a combination of trains and buses (or the tram from Wimbledon…if you don’t hate it as much as I do; ugh, it’s so slow, and the unfortunately named “Therapia Lane” creeps me out).  I chose to travel by car, which in retrospect may have been a mistake as it took about an hour to get there from Southwest London, but at least there was ample parking in the visitor lot at the hospital, which is a short walk away from the museum (and I had the freedom to sing along (poorly) to all my favourite classic rock songs in the car, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in the tram without getting weird looks).  The museum is normally open Wednesday-Friday, and the first and last Saturday of the month, and admission is free.

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A patient’s creative representation of mental illness.

My first impression was that it was like a small-scale Dr. Guislain Museum (a fabulous museum in Belgium that is located in a working mental hospital and provides a comprehensive history of psychiatric medicine, in addition to art galleries featuring works by people suffering from various mental illnesses), as it incorporated both museum space and art galleries with works by some of its service users.  I started with the gallery space on the ground floor, which was compromised of two rooms: a display area and a workshop whose walls were also lined with pictures.  A two or three paragraph description was provided for each piece; I particularly liked an artist with a penchant for photographing crows.  The workshop seems to be frequently used for various classes, as there was one starting up when I was in there viewing the art (and purchasing a Dan Duggan print), and since I was asked if I wanted to join the class (which I awkwardly declined, as I didn’t have time and totally lack artistic talent anyway), I assume at least some of them are offered free of charge.

The stairwell leading up to the first floor is flanked by the famous statues Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness (by Caius Gabriel Cibber, father of the much-maligned Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, though I have to say Alexander Pope’s constant mockery of the younger Colley livened up the 18th Century Literature classes I took in my undergrad days) which stood atop the gates of the late 17th century hospital, and truly demonstrate Restoration-era conceptions of madness, as the faces of the figures are so contorted that they scarcely look human.

Statues flanking the entrance stairs.

Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness by the artist Caius Gabriel Cibber at the 1st floor stairs in the museum.

There’s also an old donation box where visitors back in the sight-seeing era of Bethlem’s history were encouraged to leave money (although the treatments at the hospital have radically changed, the box is still in use for its original purpose, and they gladly welcome any donations).

The first floor is divided into a museum and another art gallery, which hosts temporary exhibitions.  The one I saw, which ran through May, featured the paintings of Bryan Charnley, who had schizophrenia, and “use[d] visual metaphor and symbolism to vividly illustrate the physical experience [of schizophrenia]” (taken from Bethlem’s website).  Many of his paintings featured his girlfriend, who struggled with depression herself and attempted suicide multiple times, eventually resulting in her paralysis, and thus the overwhelming impression I had of his art was one of poignancy.

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A Bethlem Museum of the Mind poster set in the historic hospital grounds.

The actual museum is fairly small, and is split up into several sections.  Unlike the Dr. Guislain Museum, this was far from a comprehensive history – being more a brief overview of changing attitudes towards mental illness over the years, and the ever-evolving treatments at Bethlem, as well as providing some perspectives from some of its service users.  The museum does make an effort to draw in the visitor by including lots of eye-catching displays (like a wall full of apothecary bottles) and a few interactives (some videos, and a computer where you could learn more about various diagnoses), but it wasn’t as interactive as one might expect from a brand-new museum, and the displays weren’t quite enough to distract me from the lack of content.

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A detail of the various concoctions and medicines used in the course of treatment for the individuals who stayed at Bethlem Hospital.

That said, I found the small collection of restraint devices used in the past fascinating, albeit disturbing, and I was also captivated by the before-and-after photographs of Victorian patients at Bethlem (the historical signifier of insanity apparently being unkempt hair, if these pictures were anything to go by).  I believe the hospital had something like a 47% recovery rate in the Victorian era, though with the lack of effective medication, you have to wonder how many of those “recovered” people should have even been placed in Bethlem in the first place (given the Victorian zeal for labelling anyone who didn’t quite adopt society’s mores as “insane,” I would imagine it was a fair few).

This section also contained even more art from former patients, and although many pieces were quite gloomy in nature (perhaps understandably reflecting the mental states of the artists), I was charmed by the many cat paintings of Louis Wain, who was briefly a patient at the hospital (his diagnosis is widely disputed, and is listed as anything from schizophrenia to Asperger’s…all that is really known is that he suffered from mood swings and was occasionally violent, although you really wouldn’t know it from his cheerful pictures).  Fortunately, postcards of his pieces are available at the gift shop (because everybody loves cats these days, right?), so you can take a little piece of Wain’s art home with you.

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A small selection of Louis Wain’s cat pictures.

Although I could tell that a lot of effort had been put into making the museum visually appealing, I do think it just needed to have more content.  The historical objects were my absolute favourite part, and I think the museum could be vastly improved by including more history, and more artefacts, because even though many historical psychiatric treatments are hard to stomach nowadays, they are a vital part of our past, and I think it’s really important that people learn about them just to see the strides medicine has made within the last century or two.

Although they offer classes and lectures, and the art displays do change from time to time, for me, one visit here was enough, as it just wasn’t extensive enough for my tastes, and didn’t really add anything to my understanding of psychiatric medicine (even the history of Bethlem itself was lacking, with more detail provided in a timeline at the top of the stairs than in the museum itself).  I really think the focus here was on the art, so if that interests you, you may enjoy the Museum of the Mind (and some of the artists were very talented, so their art was well worth seeing), but if, like me, you’re looking for something that skillfully combines history with some art, then I’d urge you to go to Ghent (if you can) to see the Dr. Guislain Museum, as it goes into so much more detail.

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A selection of the vials and bottles that the hospital used to store and use in the medicine collection.

In conclusion my score for the Museum of the Mind is 2.5/5 (and if anyone knows of a better mental health museum in Britain, please do let me know in the comments!).

Please Note

All photographs in this guest entry are by Jessica Sajovie, if used elsewhere please contact Jessica on her personal blog for permission.

Further Information

  • The Bethlem Museum of the Mind details the story behind the museum and the role that the hospital played in its own history.  The site also highlights upcoming exhibitions and the collections that it holds (including the wonderful artwork produced by some of the patients and its archive).  The museum blog, with regular updates on both the exhibitions at the museum and issues that affect the museum, can be read here.