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A Personal Anthropology of Driving

12 Mar

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


Broken Bones: Convoluted as a Medical History

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

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

right humerus fracture 2014 july

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

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

On Starting

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

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

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

To Drive, To Think

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

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

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

A Marker By The Side

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

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

Thoughts on Interior vs Exterior

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

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


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

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

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

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

State Expression

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

Road Changes & Cultural Restrictions

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Disengaging the Engine

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

Influences & Further Reading

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

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

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

Skeletal Series: The Basic Human Osteology Glossary

19 Dec

Introducing the Human Osteology Glossary

It is important for the budding human osteology student that they understand and correctly apply the basic terms used in the discipline to help identify and describe the skeletal anatomy under study.  Since human osteologists study the skeletal remains of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) the terminology used, specifically the anatomical terminology, has to be precise and correct as befitting the medical use of such terms.

Human osteology remains the foundation on which the disciplines of forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology are built upon, although it is noted that the disciplines can be misleading across international divides.  For example, in the United Kingdom bioarchaeology is still used to refer to the study of both human and non-human skeleton remains from archaeological sites, whilst bioarchaeology in the United States normally refers to human remains only.  It should also be noted here that the other related disciplines, such as palaeoanthropology and biological anthropology, study not just the modern human skeleton but also the skeletal and fossilized remains of extant (genera such as Pan, Pongo and Gorilla) and extinct hominins.  Nevertheless the terminology remains the same when describing the skeletal anatomy of both human and non-human individuals.

Glossary Arrangement

This short glossary is intended to provide a basic introduction to the terminology used in the disciplines that utilizes human osteology as a core focus for the research undertaken.  The terminology documented here also includes a brief description of the word and, where possible, an example of its use.  Primarily the glossary acts as a reference post in order to be used in conjunction with the Skeletal Series posts on this site, which help outline and introduce each skeletal element of the human body section by section and as appropriate.  However please note that the glossary is also arranged in a manner in which it befits the student who needs to quickly scan the list in order to find a specific and relevant word.

Therefore the glossary is arranged in a thematic presentation as follows:

1. Discipline Definitions
2. The Human Body:
– a) Macro
– b) Micro
– c) Growth
– d) Disease and Trauma
3. Anatomical Foundations:
– a) Anatomical Planes of Reference
– b) Directional Terminology
– c) Movement Terminology
4. Postmortem Skeletal Change
– a) Postmortem Skeletal Change

The glossary ends with an introduction to the terminology used to describe the postmortem aspects of body deposition.  This is because it is an important aspect and consideration of any skeletal analysis undertaken.  The terminology used in this section leads away from the strictly anatomical terminology of the sections above it and introduces some terms that are used in archaeology and associated disciplines.

Reference Note

Please note that the bibliography provided indicates a number of important texts from which this glossary was compiled.  The key text books highlighted also introduce the study of the human skeleton, from a number of different perspectives, including the gross anatomical, bioarchaeological and human evolutionary perspectives.  Find a copy of the books at your library or order a copy and become engrossed in the beauty of the bones and the evidence of life histories that they can hold.

The Glossary:

1) – Discipline Definitions

Bioanthropology:  A scientific discipline concerned with the biological and behavioral aspects of human beings, their related non-human primates, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, and their extinct hominin ancestors.  (Related Physical Anthropology).

Bioarchaeology:  The study of human and non-human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.  In the United States of America this term is used solely for the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.

Forensic Anthropology:  An applied anthropological approach dealing with human remains in legal contexts.  Forensic anthropologists often work with coroners and others, such as disaster victim identification teams, in analysing and identifying human remains (both soft and hard tissues) from a variety of contexts including but not limited ID’ing remains from natural disasters, police contexts, war zones, genocides, human rights violations, etc.

Human Osteology:  The study of human skeletal material.  Focuses on the scientific interpretation of skeletal remains from archaeological sites, including the study of the skeletal anatomy, bone physiology, and the growth and development of the skeleton itself.   

Palaeoanthropology:  The interdisciplinary study of earlier hominins.  This includes the study of their chronology, physical structure and skeletal anatomy, archaeological remains, geographic spans, etc. (Jurmain et al. 2011).

Physical Anthropology:  Concerned with the biological skeletal remains of both humans and extant and extinct hominins, anatomy, and evidence of behaviour.  The discipline is often considered congruent with the term bioanthropology, or biological anthropology.  (Related Bioanthropology).

2) a. – The Human Body: Macro

Appendicular Skeleton:  The skeletal bones of the limbs.  Includes the shoulder and pelvic girdles, however it does not include the sacrum.  Skeleton SK423 largely consisted of the non-fragmented disarticulated appendicular elements.

Axial Skeleton:  The skeletal elements of the trunk of the body.  Includes the ribs, vertebrae and sternum.  The body of SK424 was particularly fragmented in-situ, with little sign of excavation or post-excavation damage evidenced on the axial skeleton suggesting fragmentation post-burial.

Cortical (Compact) Bone:  The solid and dense bone found in the bone shafts and on the external surfaces of bone itself.  The cortical bone of the mid-shaft of the right humerus of the tennis player displayed increased thickening.  This is, in this individuals case whose physical history is known, due to the predominance of the right arm during intense and long-term use in physical exercise (see Wolff’s Law). 

Dentin (Dentine):  Calcified but slightly resilient dental connective tissue.  In human growth primary dentin appears during growth whereas secondary dentin forms after the root formation of the tooth is complete (White & Folkens 2005: 421).

Diaphysis:  The shaft portion of a long bone.  The diaphysis of the femur is one of the longest shafts found in the human skeleton, as the femur is the longest bone.

Dry Bone:  Refers to archaeological bone where no soft, or wet, tissue survives, hence the bone is dry.  It should be noted that, when subject to x-rays for investigation, archaeological dry bone radiological images are improved due to a lack of soft tissues obscuring the bone condition.

Elements (Skeletal):  Used to refer to each individual bone.  The human adult body has, on average, 206 individual skeletal elements.

Enamel:  Enamel is an extremely hard brittle material which covers the crown of a tooth.

Endosteum:  A largely cellular membrane that lines the inner surface of bones which is ill-defined (White & Folkens 2005: 421).

Epiphysis:  The epiphysis refers to the often proximal and distal ‘caps’ of long bones that develop from a secondary ossification centre.  The epiphysis of the long bones can, when used in conjunction with other skeletal markers of aging, particularly dentition, provide a highly accurate  age-at-death in non-adult human skeletal remains.

Medullary Cavity:  The cavity found inside the shaft of a long bone.  The medullary cavity of the femur is the site of the longest medullary cavity found in the human body.  The medullary cavity is the location where red and yellow bone marrow is stored and where the red and white blood cells are produced. 

Metaphyses:  The metaphyses refer to the expanded and flared ends of the shaft (or diaphysis) of long bones.  Both the femoral and humeral diaphyses display flared distal metaphyses which are indicative of their anatomical positioning.

Morphology:  The form and structure of an object.  The morphology of the femora is dictated by a variety of factors, not least the size, age, sex and weight of the individual.

Musculoskeletal System:  The musculoskeletal system provides the bony framework of the body in which the muscles attach onto and are able to leverage bones to induce movement.  The musculoskeletal system is responsible for a number of core bodily functions, including blood production and nourishment, alongside providing a stable and safe environment for vital organs.

Osteology:  The scientific study of bone.  Bones form the basis of the skeletal system of vertebrate animals, including humans.  In the United States of America bioarchaeology refers to the study of human bones within an archaeological context.

Periosteum:  The thin dense vascular connective tissue that covers the outer surfaces of bone during life, except on areas of articulation.  The periosteum tissue plays an important part in the maintenance of healthy bone, helping to also provide the body with blood via the bone marrow and associated vessels.  The periosteum provides an important area of osteogensis following a bone fracture.

Postcranial Skeleton:  All bones but the mandible and cranium.  The postcranial skeleton of SK543 was exceptionally well-preserved within the grave context but due to grave cutting the cranium and mandible were completely disturbed and not present within the context recorded.

Trabecular (Spongy) Bone:  Refers to the honeycomb like structure of bone found within the cavity of bones themselves.

2) b. – The Human Body: Micro

Cartilage:  Cartilage is a flexible connective tissue which consists of cells embedded in a matrix.  In the human skeletal system cartilage is found between joints, such as the knee and in forms such as the intervertebral disk in the spine and in the ribcage.  There are three types of cartilage: hyaline, fibrocartilage and elastic cartilage in the human skeletal system, although 28 different types of cartilage have now been identified in the human body as a whole (Gosling et al. 2008:9).

Collagen:  Collagen is a fibrous structural tissue in the skeleton which constitutes up to 90% of bone’s organic content (White & Folkens 2005: 42).

Haversian Canal (Secondary Osteons):  Microscopic canals found in compact, or cortical, bone that contain blood, nerve and lymph vessels, alongside marrow.

Hydroxyapatite:  A dense, inorganic, mineral matrix which helps form the second component of bone.  Together with collagen hydroxyapatite gives bone the unique ability to withstand and respond to physical stresses.

Lamellar (Mature) Bone:  Bone in which the ‘microscopic structure is characterized by collagen fibres arranged in layers or sheets around Haversian canals’ (White & Folkens 2005: 423).  Lamellar bone is mechanically strong.  Related woven (immature) bone.

Osteoblast:  Osteoblasts are the ‘bone-forming cells which are responsible for synthesizing and depositing bone material’ (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Osteoclast:  Osteoclasts are the cells responsible for the resorption of bone tissue.

Osteocyte:  Osteocytes are the living bone cell which is developed from an osteoblast (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Osteon:  The osteon is a Haversian system, ‘a structural unit of compact bone composed of a central vascular (Haversian) canal and the concentric lamellae surrounding it; a Primary Osteon is composed of a vascular canal without a cement line, whereas the cement line and lamellar bone organized around the central canal characterize a Secondary Osteon‘ (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Remodeling:  Remodeling is the cyclical process of bone resorption and bone deposition at one site.  The human skeleton continually remodels itself throughout life, and after full growth has been achieved towards the end of puberty.  Further to this bone is a tissue that responds to physical stress and remodels as appropriate. 

Woven (Immature) Bone:  characterized by the haphazard organisation of collagen fibres.  Primarily laid down following a fracture and later replaced by lamellar bone.  Woven bone is mechanically weak.  Related lamellar (mature) bone.

2) c. – The Human Body: Growth

Appositional Growth:  The process by which old bone that lines the medullary cavity is reabsorbed and new bone tissue is grown beneath the periosteum, which increases the bone diameter.

Endochondral Ossification:  One of two main processes of bone development in which cartilage precursors (called cartilage models) are gradually replaced by bone tissue (White & Folkens 2005: 421).

Epiphyseal (Growth) Plate:  The hyaline cartilage plate found at the metaphyses of the long bones during growth of the individual (i.e. non-adults), where bone growth is focused until full growth cycle has been completed.

Idiosyncratic:  Referring to the individual.  The normal morphology of the human skeleton, and its individual elements, is influenced by three main factors of variation: biological sex (sexual dimorphism), ontogenetic (age), and idiosyncratic (individual) factors.

Intramembranous Ossification:  One of two main processes of ‘bone development in which bones ossify by apposition on tissue within an embryonic connective tissue membrane’ (White & Folkens 2005: 422).

Ontogeny:  The growth, or development, of an individual.  Ontogeny can be a major factor in the morphological presentation of the human skeleton.

Osteogenesis:  The formation and development of bone.  Embryologically the development of bone ossification occurs during two main processes: intramembranous and endochondral ossification.

Wolff’s Law:  Theory developed by German anatomist and surgeon Julius Wolff (1836-1902) which stated that human and non-human bone responded to the loads, or stresses, under to which it is placed and remodels appropriately within a healthy individual.

Sexual Dimorphism:  The differences between males and females.  The human skeleton has, compared to some animal species, discrete differences in sexual dimorphism; however there are distinct functional differences in the morphology of certain elements which can be used to determine biological sex of the individual post-puberty.

2) d. – The Human Body: Disease and Trauma

Atrophy:  The wastage of an organ or body tissue due to non-use.  Atrophy can be an outcome of disease processes in which the nerves are damaged, leading to the extended, or permanent, non-use of a limb which can lead to muscle wastage and bone resorption.

Blastic Lesion: Expansive bone lesion in which bone is abnormally expanded upon as part of part of a disease process.  The opposite of lytic lesion.

Calculus: Tartar; a deposit of calcified dental plaque on the surface of teeth.  The calculus found on the teeth of the archaeological skeleton can contain a wealth of information on the diet and extramasticatory activities of the individual.

Callus:  The hard tissue which is formed in the osteogenic (bone cell producing) layer of the periosteum as a fracture repair tissue.  This tissue is normally replaced by woven bone, which is in turn replaced by lamellar (or mature) bone as the bone continues to remodel during the healing process.

Caries:  Caries are ‘a disease characterized by the ‘progressive decalcification of enamel or dentine; the hole or cavity left by such decay’ (White & Folkens 2005: 420).  The extensive caries present on the 2nd right mandibular molar of Sk344 nearly obliterates the occlusal (chewing) surface of the tooth.

Compound Fracture:  A fracture in which the broken ends of the bone perforate the skin.  A compound fracture can be more damaging psychologically to the individual, due to the sight of the fracture itself and soft tissue damage to the skin and muscle.  Compound fractures also lead to an increased risk of fat embolism (or clots) entering the circulatory system via marrow leakage, which can be potentially fatal.

Dysplasia:  The abnormal development of bone tissue.  The bone lesions of fibrous dysplasia display as opaque and translucent patches compared to normal healthy bone on X-ray radiographic images.

Eburnation: Presents as polished bone on surface joints where subchondral bone has been exposed and worn.  Osteoarthritis often presents at the hip and knee joints where eburnation is present on the proximal femoral head and distal femoral condyle surfaces, alongside the adjacent tibia and iliac joint surfaces.

Hyperostosis:  An abnormal growth of the bone tissue.  Paget’s disease of bone is partly characterized by the hyperostosis of the cranial plates, with particularly dense parietal and frontal bones.

Hyperplasia:  An excessive growth of bone, or other, tissues.

Hypertrothy:  An increase in the volume of a tissue or organ.

Hypoplasia:  An insufficient growth of bone or other tissue.  Harris lines are dense transverse lines found in the shafts of long bones, which are indicative of arrested growth periods, as non-specific stress events, in the life of the individual.  Harris lines can often only be identified via X-ray radiography or through visual inspection of internal bone structure.

Lytic Lesion:  Destructive bone lesion as part of a disease process.  The opposite of a blastic lesion.  Syphilitic lytic bone lesions often pit and scar the frontal, parietal and associated facial bones of the skull.

Osteoarthritis:  Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, which is characterized by the destruction of the articular cartilage in a joint.  This often leads to eburnation on the bone surface.  Bony lipping and spur formation often also occur adjacent to the joint.  This is also commonly called Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Osteophytes:  Typically small abnormal outgrowths of bone which are found at the articular surface of the bone as a feature of osteoarthritis.  Extensive osteophytic lipping was noted on the anterior portion of the vertebrae bodies of T2-L3 which, along with the evidence of eburnation, bony lipping and spurs presenting bilaterally on the femora and tibiae, present as evidence of osteoarthritis in SK469.

Pathognomonic:  A pathological feature that is characteristic for a particular disease as it is a marked intensification for a diagnostic sign or symptom.  A sequestrum (a piece of dead bone that has become separated from normal, or healthy, bone during necrosis) is normally considered a pathgonomic sign of osteomyelitis. 

Pathological Fracture:  A bone fracture that occurs due to the result of bones already being weakened by other pathological or metabolic conditions, such as osteoporosis (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Palaeopathology:  The study of ancient disease and trauma processes in human skeletal (or mummified) remains from archaeological sites.  Includes the diagnosis of disease, where possible.  A palaeopathological analysis of the skeletal remains of individuals from the archaeological record is an important aspect of recording and contextualising health in the past.

Periodontitis:  Inflammation around the tissues of a tooth, which can involve the hard tissues of the mandibular and maxilla bone or the soft tissues themselves.  Extensive evidence of periodontitis on both the mandible and maxilla suggests a high level of chronic infection.

Periostitis: The inflammation of the periosteum which is caused by either trauma or infection, this can be either acute or chronic.  The anterior proximal third of the right tibia displayed extensive periostitis suggesting an a persistent, or long term, incidence of infection.

Radiograph:  Image produced on photographic film when exposed to x-rays passing through an object (White & Folkens 2005: 425).  The radiographic image of the femora produced evidence of Harris lines which were not visible on the visual inspection of the bones.

3) a. – Anatomical Planes of Reference

Anatomical Position (Standard):  This is defined as ‘standing with the feet together and pointing forward, looking forward, with none of the leg bones crossed from a viewer’s perspective and palms facing forward’ (White & Folkens 2005: 426).  The standard anatomical position is used when referring to the planes of reference, and for orientation and laying out of the skeletal remains of an individual for osteological examination, inventory, and/or analysis.

Coronal (frontal/Median):  The coronal plane is a vertical plane that divides the body into an equal forward and backward (or anterior and posterior) section.  The coronal plane is used along with the sagittal and transverse planes in order to describe the location of the body parts in relation to one another.

Frankfurt Horizontal:  A plane used to systematically view the skull which is defined by three osteometric points:  the right and left porion points (near the ear canal, or exterior auditory meatus) and left orbitale.

Oblique Plane:  A plane that is not parallel to the coronal, sagittal or transverse planes.  The fracture to the mid shaft of the left tibia and fibula was not a transverse or spiral break, it is an oblique fracture as evidenced by the angle of the break. 

Sagittal:  A vertical plane that divides the body into symmetrical right and left halves.

Transverse:  Situated or extending across a horizontal plane.  A transverse fracture was noted on the midshaft of the right femur.  The fracture was indicative of a great force having caused it, likely in a traumatic incident.

3) b. – Anatomical Directional Terminology

Superior:  Superior refers towards the head end of the human body, with the most superior point of the human body the parietal bone at the sagittal suture (White & Folkens 2005: 68).

Inferior:  Inferior refers towards the foot, or the heel, which is the calcaneus bone.  Generally this is towards the ground.  The tibia is inferior to the femur.

Anterior:  Towards the front of the body.  The sternum is anterior to the vertebral column.

Posterior:  Towards the back of the body.  The occipital bone is posterior to the frontal bone of the cranium.

Proximal:  Near the axial skeletonThe term is normally used for the limb bones, where for instance the proximal end of the femur is towards the os coxa.

Medial:  Towards the midline of the body.  The right side of the tongue is medial to the right side of the mandible.

Lateral:  The opposite of medial, away from the midline of the body.  In the standard anatomical position the left radius is lateral to the left ulna.

Distal:  furthest away from the axial skeleton; away from the body.  The distal aspect of the humerus articulates with the proximal head of the radius and the trochlear notch of the ulna.

Internal:  Inside.  The internal surface of the frontal bone has the frontal crest, which is located in the sagittal plane.

External: Outside.  The cranial vault is the external surface of the brain.

Endocranial:  The inner surface of the cranial vault.  The brain fills the endocranial cavity where it sits within a sack.

Ectocranial:  The outer surface of the cranial vault.  The frontal bosses (or eminences) are located on the ectocranial surface of the frontal bone.

Superficial:  Close to the surface of the body, i.e. towards the skin.  The bones of the cranium are superficial to the brain.

Deep:  Opposite of superficial, i.e. deep inside the body and far from the surface.  The lungs are deep to the ribs, but the heart is deep to the lungs.

Palmar:  Palm side of the hand.  The palm side of the hand is where the fingers bear fingerprints.

Plantar:  The plantar side of the foot is the sole.  The plantar side of the foot is in contact with the ground during normal ambulation.

Dorsal:  Either the top of the foot or the back of the hand.  The ‘dorsal surface often bears hair whilst the palmar or plantar surfaces do not’ (White & Folkens 2005: 69).

3) c. – Anatomical Movement Terminology

Abduction:  Abduction is a laterally directed movement in the coronal plane away from the sagittal, or median, plane.  It is the opposite of adduction.  Standing straight, with the palm of the left hand anterior, raise the left arm sideways until it is horizontal with the shoulder: this is the action of abducting the left arm.

Adduction:  Adduction is the medially directed movement in the coronal plane towards the sagittal, or median, plane.  It is the opposite of abductionStanding straight, with the palm of the right hand anterior, and the right arm raised sideways until it is horizontal with the shoulder, move the arm down towards the body.  This is adduction.

Circumduction:  Circumduction is a ‘circular movement created by the sequential combination of abduction, flexion, adduction, and extension’ (Schwartz 2007: 373).  The guitarist who performs the action of windmilling during playing is circumducting their plectrum holding limb.

Extension:  Extension is a movement in the sagittal plane around a transverse axis that separates two structures.  It is the opposite of flexionThe extension of the forearm involves movement at the elbow joint.

Flexion:  A bending movement in the saggital plane and around a transverse axis that draws two structures toward each other (Schwartz 2007: 374).  It is the opposite of extensionThe flexion of the forearm involves movement at the elbow joint.

Lateral Rotation:  The movement of a structure around its longitudinal axis which causes the anterior surface to face laterally.  It is the opposite of medial rotation.

Medial Rotation:  The movement of a structure around its longitudinal axis that causes the anterior surface to face medially.  It is the opposite of lateral rotation (Schwartz 2007: 376).

Opposition: The movement of the ‘thumb across the palm such that its “pad” contracts the “pad” of another digit; this movement involves abduction with flexion and medial rotation’ (Schwartz 2007: 377).

4) a. – Postmortem Skeletal Change

Antemortem:  Before the time of death.  The evidence for the active bone healing on both the distal radius and ulna diaphyses, with a clean fracture indicating use of a bladed instrumented, suggests that amputation of the right hand occurred antemortem. 

Bioturbation:  The reworking of soils and associated sediments by non-human agents, such as plants and animals.  Bioturbation can lead to the displacement of archaeological artefacts and structural features and displace deposited human skeletal bone.  Evidence of bioturbation in the cemetery was noted, as irregular tunnels were located across a number of different grave contexts suggesting the action of a burrowing or nesting mammal.  This led to the disarticulation of skeletal material within the grave contexts themselves which, on first investigation, may have led to an incorrect analysis of the sequence of events following the primary deposition of the body within the grave.

Commingled:  An assemblage of bone containing the remains of multiple individuals, which are often incomplete and heavily fragmented.  The commingled mass grave found at the Neolithic site of Talheim, in modern southern Germany, suggest that, along with the noted traumatic injuries prevalent on the individuals analysed, rapid and careless burial in a so-called ‘death pit’ took place by the individuals who carried out the massacre.  The site is a famous Linearbandkeramik (LBK) location which dates to around 5000 BC, or the Early European Neolithic.  Similar period mass burials include those at Herxheim, also in Germany, and Schletz-Asparn in nearby Austria.

Diagenesis:  The chemical, physical, and biological changes undergone by a bone through time.  This is a particularly important area of study as the conservation of bones must deal with bacteria and fungal infection of conserved bone if the skeletal material is to be preserved properly.  Analysis of the diagenesis of skeletal material can also inform the bioarchaeologist of the peri and postmortem burial conditions of the individual by comparing the environmental contexts that the bone had been introduced to.

Perimortem: At, or around, the time of death.  The decapitation of SK246 occurred perimortem as evidenced by the sharp bladed unhealed trauma to the associated body,  pedicles, lamina and spinal arches of the C3 and C4 vertebrae.

Postmortem: Refers to the period after the death of the individual.  It is likely that the body had been moved postmortem as indicated by position of the body in the bedroom and by the extensive markers on the skin, suggesting physical manipulation and accidental contusions.  Further to this the pooling of the blood within the first few hours postmortem was not indicative of where the body was located at the time of discovery.

Postmortem Modification:  Modifications, or alterations, that occur to the skeletal remains after the death of the individual.  No postmortem modification of the skeletal elements of SK543 was noted, however extensive evidence of bioturbation in the form of root action was noted on across the majority (> 80%) of the surface of the surviving skeletal elements recovered.

Taphonomy:  The study of processes that can affect the skeletal remains between the death of the individual and the curation, or analysis, of the individual.  There are a variety of natural and non-natural taphonomic processes that must be considered in the analysing of human skeletal material from archaeological, modern and forensic contexts.  This can include natural disturbances, such as bioturbation, or non-natural, such as purposeful secondary internment of the body or skeletal remains.

Note on the Terminology Used & Feedback

The terminology used above, and their definitions, are taken in part from the below sources.  Direct quotations are referenced to the source and page.  They, the sources in the bibliography, are a small handful of some of the exceptional books available which help to introduce the human skeletal system and the importance of being able to identify, study and analyse the bones in a scientific manner.  The human skeletal glossary present here is subject to revision, amendments and updates, so please do check back to see what has been included.  Finally, I heartily advise readers to leave a comment if revisions, or clarifications, are needed on any of the terms or definitions used in the glossary.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Gosling, J. A., Harris, P. F., Humpherson, J. R., Whitmore, I., Willan, P. L. T., Bentley, A. L., Davies, J. T. & Hargreaves, J. L. 2008. Human Anatomy: Colour Atlas and Texbook (5th Edition). London: Mosby Elsevier.

Jurmain, R., Kilgrore, L. & Trevathan, W. 2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Larsen, C. S. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. E. 2007. The Bioarchaeology of Children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease (3rd Edition). Stroud: The History Press.

Schwartz, J. H. 2007. Skeleton Keys: An Introduction Human Skeletal Morphology, Development, and Analysis (2nd Edition). New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Aging: ldentifying Puberty in the Osteoarchaeological Record

15 Feb

Aside from some recent technological mishaps (now resolved!), which has resulted in a lack of posts recently, I’ve also been doing some preliminary research into human skeletal aging and human biological aging in general.  Partly this has been out of general interest, but it was also background reading for a small project that I was working on over the past few months.

Knowledge of the aging of the skeletal system is of vital importance to the bioarchaeologist as it allows age estimates to be made of both individuals and of populations (and thus estimates of lifespans between generations, populations and periods) in the archaeological record.  The aging of human remains, along with the identification of male or female biological sex (not gender, which is socially constructed) and stature in adults, when possible, provides one of the main cornerstones of being able to carry out a basic demographic analysis of past populations – estimates of age, sex, stature at death, the construction of life tables and the construction of mortality profiles of populations, etc.  At a basic level inferences on the funerary treatment on individuals of different ages, and between different periods, can also be made.  For example, in identifying the possible differential treatment of non-adults and adults in funerary customs or of treatment during their lifetime as revealed by their burial context according to their age-at-death.

Growing Pains

However, aging is not quite straight forward as merely understanding and documenting the chronological age of a person – it is also about understanding the biological age of the body, where the body undergoes physiological and structural changes according to the biological growth stage (release of hormones influencing growth, maturation, etc).  Also of importance for the bioarchaeologist and human osteologist to consider is the understanding of the impact and the implications that the environment (physical, nutritional and cultural) can also have on the development and maturation of the skeletal system itself.  Taken as such aging itself is a dynamic process that can depend on a number of co-existing internal and external factors.

For instance, environmental stresses (i.e. nutritional access) can leave skeletal evidence in the form of non-specific markers of stress that can indicate episodes of stunted growth, such as Harris lines on the long bones (identifiable via x-rays), or episodic stress periods via the dentition (the presence of linear or pitted enamel hypoplasias on the teeth) (Lewis 2007).  Knowing what these indications look like on the skeleton means that the bioarchaeologist can factor in episodes of stress which may have led to a temporary cessation of bone growth during childhood or puberty, a period where the bones haven’t achieved their full adult length, due to a lack of adequate nutrition and/or physical stresses (White & Folkens 2005: 329).

It is recognised that humans have a relatively long adolescence and that Homo sapiens, as a species, senescence rather slowly.  Senescence is the process of gradual deterioration of function that increases the mortality of the organism after maturation has been completed (Crews 2003).  Maturation simply being the completion of growth of an individual themselves.  In an osteological context maturation is complete when the skeleton has stopped growing – the permanent dentition, or 2nd set of teeth, have fully erupted, and the growth of the individual skeletal elements has been completed and the bones are fully fused into their adult forms.

This last point refers to epiphyseal growth and fusion, where, in the example below, a long bone has ossified from several centres (either during intramembranous or endochondral ossification during initial growth) and the epiphyses in long bones fuses to the main shaft of the bone, the diaphysis, via the metaphysis after the growth plate has completed full growth following puberty (usually between 10-19 years of age, with females entering puberty earlier than males) (Lewis 2007: 64).  Bioarchaeologists, when studying the remains of non-adults, rely primarily on the development stage of the dental remains, diaphysis length of the long bones (primarily the femora) and the epiphyseal fusion stage of the available elements in estimating the age-at-death of the individual (White & Folkens 2005: 373).

bone growth

A basic diagram showing the ossification and growth of a long bone until full skeletal maturation has been achieved  Notice the fusion points of the long bones, where the epiphysis attaches to the diaphysis (shaft of the bone) via the metaphysis. Image credit: Midlands Technical College. (Click to enlarge).

After an individual has attained full skeletal maturation, the aging of the skeleton itself is often reliant on wear analysis (such as the wearing of the teeth), or on the rugosity of certain features, such as the auricular surface of the ilium and/or of the pubic symphysis, for instance, dependent on the surviving skeletal elements of the individual.  More general biological post-maturation changes also include the loss of teeth (where there is a positive correlation between tooth loss and age), the bend (or kyphosis) of the spinal column, and a general decrease in bone density (which can lead to osteoporosis) after peak bone mass has been achieved at around 25-30 years old, amongst other more visible physical and mental features (wrinkling of the skin, greying of the hair, slower movement and reaction times) (Crews 2003).

Gaps in the Record

There are two big gaps in the science of aging of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts: a) ascertaining the age at which individuals undergo puberty (where the secondary growth spurt is initiated and when females enter the menarche indicating potential fertility, which is an important aspect of understanding past population demographics) and b) estimating the precise, rather than relative, age-at-death of post-maturation individuals.  The second point is important because it is likely that osteoarchaeologists are under-aging middle to old age individuals in the archaeological record as bioarchaeologists tend to be conservative in their estimate aging of older individuals, which in turn influences population lifespan on a larger scale.  These two issues are compounded by the variety of features that are prevalent in archaeological-sourced skeletal material, such as the effects of taphonomy, the nature of the actual discovery and excavation of remains, and the subsequent access to material that has been excavated and stored, amongst a myriad of other processes.

So in this short post I’ll focus on highlighting a proposed method for estimating puberty in human skeletal remains that was published by Shapland & Lewis in 2013 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Identifying Puberty in Human Skeletal Remains

In their brief communication Shapland and Lewis (2013: 302) focus on the modern clinical literature in isolating particular developmental markers of pubertal stage in children and apply it to the archaeological record.  Concentrating on the physical growth (ossification and stage of development) of the mandibular canine and the iliac crest of the ilium (hip), along with several markers in the wrist (including the ossification of the hook of the hamate bone, alongside the fusion stages of the hand phalanges and the distal epiphysis of the radius) Shapland and Lewis applied the clinical method to the well-preserved adolescent portion (N=78 individuals, between 10 to 19 years old at death) of the cemetery population of St. Peter’s Church in Barton-Upon-Humber, England.  The use of which spanned the medieval to early post-medieval periods (AD 950 to the early 1700) (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

All of the individuals used in this study had their age-at-death estimated on the basis of dental development only – this is due to the strong correlation with chronological age and the limited influence of the environment and nutrition has in dental development.  Of the 78 individuals under study 30 were classed as probable males, 27 as probable females and 21 classed as indeterminate sex – those classed as a probable male or female sex were carefully analysed as the authors highlight that assigning sex in adolescent remains is notoriously problematic (the ‘holy grail’ of bioarchaeology – see Lewis 2007: 47), therefore only those individuals which displayed strong pelvic traits and were assigned an age under the 16 years old at the age-at-death were assigned probable male and female status.  Those individuals aged 16 and above at age-at-death were assigned as probable male and female using both pelvic traits and cranial traits, due to the cranial landmarks being classed as secondary sexual characteristics (i.e. not functional differences, unlike pelvic morphology which is of primary importance) which arise during puberty itself and shortly afterwards (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304-306).

The method involves observing and noting the stage of each of the five indicators (grouped into 4 areas of linear progression) listed above.  It is worth mentioning them here in the sequence that they should be observed in, together in conjunction with the ascertained age at death via the dental analysis of the individual, which is indicative of their pubertal stage:

1) Mineralization of the Mandibular Canine Root

As noted above dental development aligns closer with chronological age than hormonal changes, however ‘the mineralization root of the mandibular canine may be an exception to this rule’ (Shapland & Lewis: 303). This tooth is the most variable and least accurate for aging, aside from the 3rd molar, and seems to be correlated strongly with the pubertal growth spurt (where skeletal growth accelerates during puberty until the Peak Height Velocity, or PHV, is reached) than any of the other teeth.  In this methodology the stage of the canine root is matched to Demirjian et al’s (1985) stages, where ‘Stage F’ indicates onset of the growth spurt and ‘Stage G’ is achieved during the acceleration phase of the growth spurt before PHV (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 303).

3) Ossification of the Wrist and the Hand

The ossification of the hook of the hamate bone and of the phalangeal epiphyses are widely used indicators in medicine of the pubertal stage, however in an archaeological context they can be difficult to recover from an excavation due to their small and discrete nature.  The hook (hammulus) of the hamate bone (which itself can be palpated if the left hand is held palm up and the bottom right of the hand itself is pinched slightly as a bony protrusion should be felt, or vice versa if you are left handed!) ossifies during the acceleration phase of the growth spurt in both boys and girls before HPV is attained.  The appearance, development and fusion of the phalangeal epiphyses are also used to indicate pubertal stage, where the fusion has been correlated with PHV in medical research.  With careful excavation the epiphyses of the hand can be recovered if present.

4) Ossification of the Iliac Crest Epiphysis

As this article notes that within orthopaedics it is noted that the ‘Risser sign‘ of the crest calcification is commonly used as an indicator of the pubertal growth spurt.  The presence of an ossified iliac crest, or where subsequent fusion has begun, can be taken as evidence that the PHV has passed and that menarche in girls has likely started, although exact age cannot be clarified.  The unfused iliac crest epiphyses are rarely excavated and recorded due to their fragile nature within the archaeological context, but their absence should never be taken as evidence that this developmental stage has not been reached (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

5) Ossification and Epiphsyeal Fusion of the Distal Radius

The distal radius epiphysis provides a robust skeletal element that is usually recovered from archaeological contexts if present and unfused.  The beginning of the fusion is known to occur during the deceleration phase of puberty at around roughly 14 years of age in females and 15 years of age in males, with fusion completing around 16 years old in females and 18 years old in males (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

Results and Importance

Intriguingly although only 25 (32%) of the 78 individual skeletons analysed in this study had all five of the indicators present, none of those presented with the sequence out of step (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 306).  The initial results indicate that it is quite possible to identify pubertal growth stage for adolescent individuals in the archaeological record based on the preservation, ossification and maturation stage of the above skeletal elements.  Interestingly, the research highlighted that for all adolescents examined in this study from Barton-Upon-Humber indicated that the pubertal growth spurt had started before 12 years of age (similar to modern adolescents), but that is extended for a longer time than their modern counterparts (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 308).  This was likely due to both genetic and environmental factors that affected the individuals in this well-preserved medieval population.

Further to this there is the remarkable insight into the possible indication of the age of the females entering and experiencing menarche, which had ramifications for the consideration of the individual as an adult in their community, thereby attaining a probable new status within their community (as is common in many parts of the world, where initiation ceremonies are often held to mark this important stage of sexual fertility in a woman’s life).  This is the first time that this has been possible to identify from skeletal remains alone and marks a landmark (in my view) in the osteological analysis of adolescent remains.

As the authors conclude in the paper the method may best be suited to large cemetery samples where it may help provide a ‘broader picture of pubertal development at a population level’ (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 309).  Thus this paper helps bridge an important gap between childhood and adulthood by highlighting the physiological changes that individuals go through during the adolescent phase of human growth, and the ability to parse out the intricate details our individual lives from the skeletal remains themselves.


Crews, D. E. 2003. Human Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. E. 2007. The Bioarchaeology of Children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shapland, F. & Lewis, M. E. 2013. Brief Communication: A Proposed Osteological Method for the Estimation of Pubertal Stage in Human Skeletal Remains. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 151: 302-310.

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

Interview with Liz Eastlake: Dental Delights and Estonian Escapades

13 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Further Information

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

Present Day Skeletal Variation: What Are We Missing?

5 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Ages: MOSI on Down to the Manchester Science Festival, Sunday 2nd Nov 2014

3 Oct

A date for the diary for all bone and science lovers!  Skeletal researchers from the University of Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan University will be at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) on Sunday 2nd of November 2014 (from 10.30 am to 4 pm) helping to present an event called The Bone Ages to the public.  The Bone Ages will bring together the social sciences and lab based research in helping to present the wonders of studying the human skeleton, detailing how bones can teach us about the history, health and society of past populations and individuals using live demonstrations.  The event will include interactive showcases and activities for children and adults of all ages, from learning about how to age and sex the skeleton to understanding what DNA testing of skeletal material can reveal.

The Bone Ages event is being run at MOSI as a part of the Manchester Science Festival (which runs from 23rd October to 2nd November), which is aimed at engaging the whole family in understanding the wonders of cutting edge science and ground shaking research.  The Manchester Science Festival is free to attend and will be running a whole host of events to do with innovative scientific topics in a variety of locations across Manchester.


A flyer from the website advertising the Bone Ages open day. Image credit: MOSI.

So what is actually happening at the Bone Ages event?

Well there will be a host of hands on demonstrations and live shows by the researchers of the Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Sheffield staff.  There will be four staff from MMU who each specialise in different areas of skeletal research including:

  • Dr Craig Young (human geography), who will be discussing the importance of human remains as a part of the socio-political processes linked to cultural identity.
  •  Dr Seren Griffiths (archaeology), who will provide a live demonstration of 3D laser scanning and talk about the importance of the technique to accurately digitally record excavated specimens.
  • Dr Kirsty Shaw (molecular biology), who will be demonstrating the application of miniaturized technology that allows the DNA sampling of remains in the field.
  • Dr Alex Ireland (health science), who’ll be demonstrating how scanning bones can reveal the permanent record of previous activity, to help prevent health risks in the present day population.

On top of this researchers from the University of Sheffield, including doctoral candidate Jennifer Crangle, will be discussing and highlighting the value of analysing the human skeleton, from how to age and sex remains (using casts and examples) to talking about the nature of archaeological bone, from complete to fragmented remains.  I will also be there, helping to engage the public how and why osteoarchaeologists analyse bones and generally helping out.  Alongside this I’ll also be assisting with the exciting ‘exploding skeleton’, a fun and interactive way to learn about the skeletal anatomy of the body by having members of the pubic trying to figure out what piece goes where in the human body.

The demonstrations for The Bone Ages will be taking place at the new purpose built PI: Platform for Investigation arena at the museum, which is part of a new monthly contemporary science program aimed at the bold, innovative presentation and engagement of science with the public.  I, for one, am thoroughly looking forward to this, so I hope to see you there!

Learn More

  • Look out for the #boneages hashtag on twitter for further information and updates.  There will also be a number of guest blogs produced for the Manchester Science Festival, which will also appear on the Institute of Humanities & Social Sciences Research, run by Manchester Metropolitan University.
  • The Manchester Science Festival runs from 23rd October to the 2nd of November, with events being ran all day, and for free, during these dates.  The festival will fuse art and science together in an intoxicating mix for all of the family, with topics ranging from industrial archaeology to 3D printing, from film showings to computer coding.  Find out more here.

Osteological and Forensic Books of Interest

23 Sep

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

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

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

tbom booksss 2

Books covers of the below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tbom booksss

Book covers of the above.


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

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

Learn From One Another

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


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

The Trials and Tribulations of Homo floresiensis: A Quick Introduction

1 Sep

I haven’t wrote about palaeoanthropology much recently, but I have been meaning to write about Homo floresiensis for a while now.  The diminutive hominin, most likely a new Homo species although this is still debated, was discovered by chance on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 during the excavation of the Liang Bua cave site, which was led by the now sadly deceased New Zealand archaeologist Mike Morwood (Brown et al. 2004).  The team that excavated at Liang Bua cave found the remains for a probable 12 separate H. floresiensis individuals dating from around 95,000 years ago to around 13,000 years ago (1), making H. floresiensis one of the last hominin species to live in conjunction with our species, H. sapiens (Brown et al. 2004: 1055).  One of the most complete individuals found at the site is LB1, an adult female aged around 30 who has almost both lower limbs, upper right arm, pelvis and cranium surviving (see image below).  It is this individual that has become the holotype, or type species, for H. floresiensis and on who most of the current research has, and continues, to focuses on (Brown et al. 2004, Brown 2012, Falk et al. 2005, Henneburg et al. 2014).

The majority of this research has been focused on the skeletal remains themselves and archaeological context as attempts to extract ancient DNA (aDNA) from the remains has not been successful, likely due to the cave environment that the skeletons were excavated from and the fragmentary nature of the surviving aDNA.  Morwood’s team formally announced the details of the skeletal remains in 2004 and stated that the remains included primitive and derived features resulting from long term isolation and endemic dwarfing (Brown et al. 2004: 1055-56).  It is important to note here that up until the excavation of H. floresiensis in 2003 it was thought that only H. erectus and H. sapiens were the only Homo hominins present in Late Pleistocene Asia (Brown et al. 2004: 1056).  Later hominin finds, such as at the Denisova Cave excavations in Siberia in 2010 and the announcement of the Denisovan species, have highlighted that other unknown hominins were present in Late Pleistocene Asian contexts helping to fundamental change, and challenge, the way that we think of the evolution of our species H. sapiens (Reich et al. 2010: 1053).


The species holotype is LB1, found in 2003 in the Liang Bua cave site on Flores, Indonesia. The adult female individual dates to 18,000 years old, stood 3.5 ft tall and represents one of the most complete H. floresiensis individuals found. Notice the large dentition relative to the overall cranium size. Image is not to scale. Image credit: Jennifer Clark (Human Origins Program) and Chip Clark (Smithsonian Institution).

There are many issues surrounding the remains of the H. floresiensis hominins that serve to obstruct and help obfuscate the research that has taken place into understanding the origin and anatomy of the floresiensis hominin.  Inevitability this is ongoing as McVie (2014) highlights in a recent Guardian newspaper article.  Thus it is pertinent to highlight them here to help understand where we are at with understanding the remains of the Flores hominin.  Indeed the H. floresiensis case has all the unfortunate tropes of a spectacular palaeoanthropological find (2) (the unexpectedness of the finds, the bickering academics, mishandling of remains etc.) and continues to show no sign of abating.

As is indicative above, H. floresiensis is a unique and interesting recent hominin ancestor, even more so as the only physical remains of the species are the 12 individuals found and excavated at the Liang Bua cave site in Indonesia.  It is the opposite to our modern notion of the (much maligned) Neandertal, being gracile, petite and small in statue and body.  Perhaps inevitably it was labelled a ‘hobbit’ species (although this word has led to problems with the Tolkein estate).  The type specimen LB1 was quickly repudiated as a H. sapiens individual with a pathology by several researchers and others who have, at various times, stated that all the H. floresiensis individuals, and in particular LB1 and partial skeleton LB6, display attributes varying from myxoedematous endemic cretinism (Oxnard et al. 2010, Brown 2012), Laron Syndrome (Falk et al. 2009, see Hawks 2007), or Down Syndrome (Benton 2014, Henneburg et al. 2014).  There have also comparisons even being made of the singularity of the Late Pleistocene epoch species being compared to the K/T impact boundary event 65 million years ago (Eckhardt et al. 2014), which frankly is a little mystifying.

McVie (2014) has highlighted a potential conflict of interest with regards to both the Eckhardt et al. (2014) and Henneburg et al. (2014) publications, as there is a suggestion that Henneburg (who helped author both articles) picked his reviewers to help favour his research team’s hypothesis and investigation.  The journal that both of the articles were recently published in, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (or PNAS), does not operate a peer review policy in the recognised sense, as most of the other respected journals use, but uses its own specific and trusted system (see here).  Perhaps most surprising is the fact that this team have now published 3 separate papers each focusing on different pathological conditions each time in their continued belief that the H. floresiensis remains are probable members of H. sapiens and represent pathological processes (Henneburg et al. 2014).

Regardless of the ongoing new-species-or-not debate there must be further investigation of the context of the remains.  As Hawks (2007) highlights it is the exact nature of where H. floresiensis fits in both the evolutionary tree and the archaeological context of Asia that remains to be thoroughly demonstrated.  This can only be determined by further finds with consolidated archaeological contexts over an extensive period of time and, with luck, further specimens of this hopeful new species.  The specimens of this population found on Flores, Indonesia, are both tantalising for the human evolution implications and frustrating for their apparent uniqueness in location and time.  As such the Flores H. floresiensis remains are surely one of the most interesting and divisive points of interest in the palaeoanthropological world today.


(1). A new analysis of the chosen radiocarbon samples and the stratigraphy of the cave site by Sutikna et al. (2016) has led to a serious revision in the chronology of the Homo floresiensis fossils.  It seems that all fossil evidence of H. floresiensis is older than 60,000 years, which is a major revision and leaves a lot of questions regarding the contextual material culture and faunal remains and their association with the fossil hominins.  John Hawks has covered the implications that this new article by Sutikna et al. has in a detailed and interesting read, check it out here.

(2). An excellent counter example of this is the University of the Witwatersrand and National Geographic funded Rising Star project currently underway in South Africa, where the remains of a spectacular palaeoanthropological site (with the evidence of numerous hominin individuals of some importance) has been well and truly open to researchers and members of the public to take part in and to learn about.  This has included an extensive and on-going social media presence and an open call for researchers to join collaborative workshops to study the remains.

Lean More

  • The Smithsonian Institute has a handy guide in introducing the hominins of human evolution at the Human Origins website and, as a part of this, there is a nice guide to H. floresiensis.
  •  For a full round of the issues involved in the research of H. floresiensis and the LB1 type fossil, I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on the species which covers all pertinent academic articles published.


Benton, A. 2014. Was the “Hobbit” a Human with Downs Syndrome? Probably Not. EvoAnth. Accessed 19/08/14. (Open Access).

Brown, P. 2012. LB1 and LB6 Homo floresiensis are Not Modern Human (Homo sapiens) Cretins. Journal of Human Evolution. 62 (2): 201-224.

Brown, P., Sutikna, T., Morwood, M. J., Soejono, R. P., Jatmiko, Wayhu Saptomo, E. & Rokus Awe Due. 2004. A New Small-Bodied Hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, IndonesiaNature. 431 (7012): 1055–1061.

Eckhardt, R. B., Henneburg, M., Weller, A. S. & Hsu, K. J. 2014. Rare Events in Earth History Include the LB1 Human Skeleton from Flores, Indonesia, as a Developmental Singularity, not a Unique Taxon. PNAS. 111 (33): 11961-11966. (Open Access).

Falk, D., Hildebot, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M. J., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., Jatmiko, E. W. S., Brunsden, B. & Prior, F. 2005. The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. Science. 308 (5719): 242-245.

Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Jungers, W., Larson, S., Morwood, M., Sutikna, T., Jatmiko, E. W. S. & Prior, S. 2009. The Type Specimen (LB1) of Homo floresiensis Did Hot Have Laron Syndrome. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 140 (1): 52-63.

Hawks, J. 2007. Another Diagnosis for a Hobbit. John Hawk’s Weblog. Accessed 24/08/14. (Open Access).

Henneberg, M., Eckhardt, R. B., Chavanaves, S. & Hsu, K. J. 2014. Evolved Developmental Homeostasis Disturbed in LB1 from Flores, Indonesia, Denotes Down Syndrome and Not Diagnostic Traits of the Invalid Species Homo floresiensis. PNAS. Early View: 1-6. (Open Access).

McKie, R. 2014. Homo floresiensis: Scientists Clash Over Claims ‘Hobbit Man’ was Modern Human with Downs Syndrome. The Guardian. Accessed 19/08/14.

Oxnard, C., Obendorf, P. J. & Kefford, B. J. 2010. Post-Cranial Skeletons of Hypothyroid Cretins Show a Similar Anatomical Mosaic as Homo floresiensis. PLoS ONE. 5 (9): 1-11. (Open Access).

Reich, D., Green, R. E., Kircher, M., Krause, J. Patterson, N., Durand, E. Y., Viola, B., Briggs, A. W. & Stenzel, U. et al. 2010. Genetic History of an Archaic Hominin Group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature. 468 (7327): 1053–1060. (Open Access).

Sutikna, T., Tocheri, M. W., Morwood, M. J., Saptomo, E. W., Awe, R. D., Wasisto, S. … & Storey, M. 2016. Revised Stratigraphy and Chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature. In Press. doi:10.1038/nature17179.

Body Worlds Vital Exhibition Comes To Life

11 May

Just a quick post here to highlight an exhibition that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

The International Centre for Life, located in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, is playing host to the Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds Vital exhibition from the 17th of May to the 2nd of November 2014.  This  promises to be an interesting opportunity for the public to see first hand the exhibition of human bodies and associated prosected organs and tissues, and a chance to learn about the value of human anatomy and physiology.  As well as the main exhibition there will also be numerous special events taking place throughout the seven month showing.  This includes the opportunity to attend public lectures on the ethics of displaying dead individuals, the relationship between art and the dead (featuring one Paul Koudounaris) and the chance to learn how to draw the human body, amongst other topics as yet to be disclosed.


Exhibition at the Centre for Life in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. The display has a number of human bodies and prosected organs and tissues on show, often promoting a healthy lifestyle message. A number of the bodies are placed into classical poses from the Renascence era.  Image credit: Centre for Life.

The Body Worlds organisation has been around for a while now and is currently running a number of exhibitions around the world, although it has not been without its criticisms (see below).  The International Centre for Life itself is a pretty unique complex of buildings (a science village) which plays a major focus in funding and researching the life sciences in the heart of Newcastle, as well providing a family friendly interactive museum at the Centre for Life itself.


The bioarchaeology researcher Jess Beck, over at Bone Broke, has a particularly good blog entry detailing the varied views on the ethics of displaying human remains for the public and her post mentions specific criticisms of a previous incarnation of Body Worlds.  This has focused, in the past, on the actual providence of the bodies of the individuals on display and of the actual feasibility of the anatomical positions of the bodies themselves (Moore & Brown 2004, see this 2006 NPR article for further details).  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition has made explicit announcements stating that each and every body or organ on display has been donated specifically for the Body Worlds Vital exhibition with the blessing of the person when they were alive.  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition, housed at the Life Science Centre, has been thoroughly vetted by the Human Tissue Authority and the exhibition approved (the report can be read here).

The Exhibition

I have been twice now to view the exhibition, and I really think that it pays to visit these types of exhibitions a few times.  The first time I visited by myself, allowing plenty of time to become acquainted with the outlay and display of the human bodies.  The second time I went with a few friends of mine and experienced a different kind of interaction with the displays.  Each time I went I saw a mixed age audience with both women and men of all stripes taking in the show.  Most importantly I saw enthused children looking at the bodies, asking their parents what each part of the body does and why, sometimes asking pretty tough and interesting questions (‘how many red blood cells are there in the body?’).  This was fantastic to see and especially parents taking their time to explain the human body, the differences as the body ages and the anatomical differences between the sexes, to their children.

The exhibition layout seemed a bit all  over, with no main overarching theme, I had expected a lifespan approach with the bodies displayed in various approaches as you went along but instead they were placed along the edge of the exhibition length punctuated by prosected tissues.  Each little area often a health point (obesity, cancer, dementia and over-drinking to name but a few) highlighted with a diseased and non-diseased specimen on show.  Personally it was a bit too black and white moral wise, no care giving was mentioned.  The terminology sometimes changed from the common name (collar bone) to the medical (sub-clavian  artery), which may confuse visitors as to the medical terms used- it would have made more sense to stick to one approach and to explain it to the viewer what precise terms used meant.

The bodies themselves were spell-binding although all lacked adipose fat, which had been removed as a part of the plastination process.  This made me curious as it highlighted ‘perfect’ bodies, whereas in real life most people have, and need, an amount of body fat for survival.  Furthermore the individuals are not named, as a matter of course, as the individuals had only died within the past few decades.  But it did bring up an interesting discussion point with my friend Will in the pub afterwards.  Archaeology often deals with the nameless dead, whereas this actively made the bodies anonymous, to represent a human ‘individual’ and not a person with a family or a social package.  A part of me still can’t help but wonder what their lives were like, who did they love and what did they do with their lives.  The posing of the fleshed bodies was certainly unique and allowed for an in-depth look into the musculature and nervous systems of several individuals.

Overall I really felt that the public had the opportunity and chance to look at the human body in all of its wonder.  The body was not hiding in morgues, research rooms or funeral homes, it was on display for all to admire and learn from.  Visit, you will not be disappointed.

Preserving Bodies

Whilst this is just a quick post, I would like to highlight that the plastination technique that Gunther von Hagens uses is but one method of preservation for cadaveric material.

The Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, at the University of Dundee in Scotland, currently uses a fascinating technique called the Thiel Cadaver Facility to preserve human cadavers for use in anatomical and forensic laboratory sessions.  This soft-fix method preserves the body’s tissues and ensures a life-like quality of flexibility which enables tissues such as muscles and the skin to be flexed fully during teaching and dissections sessions.  The Thiel process, although long, also helps to retain the original hues of the body as opposed to the usual formaldehyde method, which usually leaves bodies and tissues looking pale and anaemic.

Further Information

  • A detailed Centre for Life FAQ on the Body Worlds Vital exhibition can be found here.
  • Learn about the history and the aims of the science village The International Centre for Life here.
  • Jess Beck’s Bone Broke entry on the ethics of displaying human remains can be found here.  Particularly of interest is the double standard of criticism that exists in the ethics between museum and academic institutions displaying of human remains compared to the ‘overtly commercial nature’ of the Body Worlds style of exhibition of human remains.  It is a thoughtful point that Beck raises in her blog entry.
  • Visit Empire de la Mort, the website of artist, historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris.
  • Learn about Gunther von Hagens intriguing method of plastination that he uses on both human and animal cadavers.
  • Learn about the Thiel cadaver technique here or here, which is currently being pioneered in the UK at the University of Dundee.


Moore, M. C. & Brown, C. M. 2004. Gunther Von Hagens and Body Worlds Part 1: The Anatomist as Prosektor and Proplastiker. The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist. 267B (1): 8-14. (Open Access).

Interview with Paul Koudounaris: Behind the Lens

5 Feb

Paul Koudounaris is an art historian based in California, USA, who specializes in the documenting and photographing the use of human remains in sacred contexts, especially in ossuary and charnel houses.  Perhaps best known for his two books, Empire of Death (2011) and Heavenly Bodies (2013), Paul gained his PhD in art history from the University of California Los Angeles in 2004.  Paul’s personal website can be found at Empire de la Mort, which contains a whole host of information on upcoming talks, books and an extensive selection of his stunning photography.

These Bones of Mine: Hi Paul, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I recently had the great pleasure of watching you speak at the University of Sheffield on the topic of your latest project ‘Heavenly Bodies’, the so-called saints from the catacombs, but for those that don’t know of your research interests how would you best describe your previous and ongoing work?

Paul Koudounaris: I basically study the use of human remains in sacred contexts. Heavenly Bodies was my second book with Thames and Hudson, and it was a study of the skeletons of supposed martyrs taken from the Roman Catacombs starting in the late sixteenth century, and magnificently decorated with jewels. The book that preceded it was the Empire of Death, which was a study of ossuaries. By training I’m an Art Historian, not an archaeologist or anthropologist, and it’s important to note that because my primary interest has always been in documenting how what I am studying fits into the visual culture of its period. I’m not trying to come up with a provenance for these bones, that’s outside of my skill set and usually not terribly relevant to what I want to probe, which is what people saw in them at the time, how and why they decorated them, or decorated with them, and what that meant.


A beautiful photograph of the stacked crania and long bones from the medieval Rothwell crypt at Holy Trinity Church in Northampton, England.  Rothwell is only one of a few surviving English charnel houses and is currently being assessed by a team from the University of Sheffield for best conservation methods and examination of the skeletal remains.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

If by training I’m an Art Historian, I have to also fess up that by nature I am something else–by nature I’m kind of a dilettante. I came into Art History through the visual arts, before I went and got the PhD I used to do assemblage sculpture and installation work, and while the rigor of studying the material for the two books was important to giving the subject matter meaning, it also left me kind of cold. It’s for that reason that the next book will turn out to be radically different. Both of the previous books are very photo heavy–they need to be, the images themselves are an important part of the story–and I do all my own photos. There was an interesting personal transition for me in completing those books: when I started, I thought of myself as an Art Historian who did photography, now I think of myself more as a photographer who does Art History.

For that reason, I wanted to do a book that would allow the images to break free of the need to conform to the text. The text was crucial to the two books, but it was also tyrannical when it came to the images, the text dictated how the images needed to be used, where they could appear and in what context. But the next book, which will be much more global (including copious material related to the veneration of human remains I have shot in Asia, South America, Africa), will be formatted in a very different way. The images themselves will construct the story–they will be arranged based upon their aesthetic qualities, and the text will be made to conform to them. This will allow different, maybe more romantic and imaginative connections. There is no reason why, say, a decorated skull from Nepal cannot sit alongside a painted skull from Austria, other than the fact that the previous texts wouldn’t allow that. But this time the images will be laid in first, and I have instructed the designer to simply leave me blank text boxes within the layout, and it will be my job to go back in and construct texts that will link these images together. In essence, we’re working in a way that’s exactly opposite of how we had worked before.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read any of your books, or has come across your photography work before, will recognise the fact that you have a real passion and skill for capturing the innate character of your subject.  Do you ever feel a personal connection to what, or who, you are photographing, or is the act of photographing itself a sort of personal veneration of the object or individual?

Paul: That’s a great and complex question. I find the term “innate character” a bit tricky, but what I try to capture is whatever I feel is most expressive about a site or skeleton, based on my own innate, intuitive reaction. With the charnel houses, I figured out very quickly how to take great looking pictures of them–if you have the right equipment, it’s not that hard, there are just a handful of technical things that are important. But shooting that way, just to make things look good, gets rhetorical. When I was shooting Empire of Death, it was important to me not just to shoot to make things look good, but to walk into a place and try to assess my own reaction to it–or rather, what my reaction would have been had I not already visited scores and scores of other charnel houses. That’s not easy to do, to try to erase your own callousness towards the subject matter and look at things with fresh eyes. But that was the goal, to try to retain some freshness of vision to shoot each site so that it expressed whatever impact it might have had on me, had I walked in totally naive.


A photograph from the 2013 Heavenly Bodies book, reported to be the Saint Munditia, the patron saint of Spinsters, in Germany (termed the Katakombenheilige).  Notice the fine silk screen, exquisite metal work and re-made eyes.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

When I was shooting Heavenly Bodies, each time I would come to a new skeleton, I would try to come up with a single word that best distilled what I felt it expressed. So some conjured for me the idea of pride, others loneliness or abandonment, others humility. Of course, the skeletons express none of these things, these are my own reactions to them, but it was important to me to get a simple and clear sense of what I was receiving from them, and then try to capture that single expression. It was a terribly hard task–if shooting charnel houses is, as I said, relatively easy if you have the right equipment, shooting those skeletons was torturous at almost every turn. They are awkward items, the angles are invariably difficult, the lighting is horrendous, and worst of all the vast majority are encased in glass shrines that cannot be opened without breaking them–so not only are you dealing with issues of reflection and glare on the glass, the glass itself could be upwards of 400 years old, so not only dirty, but filled with defects and divets I would have to somehow avoid. You’re not asking about the photography on a technical level so I won’t go into detail on what I had to do, but as I said, it was very, very difficult to even get a shot in many cases, and even more so to try to get any kind of expressive effect.

To me, though, that is where artistry lies–not just reproducing the object, but responding to it. That approach has puzzled a lot of people, frankly. People at the sites were expecting someone who was simply interested in studying them as historical objects, and in such a mindset, pretty much any picture will do, and the optimal quality to be striven for is clarity. But I was doing something else, trying to find some expressive quality–as I said, it was often puzzling to people. Many thought I was just nuts, because I might be walking around a site or staring at a skeleton for long periods of time not doing anything, just staring, or spending long amounts of time making tiny adjustments with the camera or lenses or filters. Is it a form of veneration? I don’t know. Maybe. I think it’s a form of respect. I think it’s also a form of bonding. I don’t know about veneration. The thing to remember, though, is that all those pictures are my own reactions to the objects or sites, so there is a level on which they also serve in an inverse way as portraits of myself. Anyway, long answer, but as I said, it’s a complex question.

TBOM: I very much like the idea that it is a form of bonding with the subject, especially in the case of the saints in Heavenly Bodies.  It has been noted that you are also keen to study the burial places of animals, especially pet cemeteries.  Are you fascinated by the human-animal relationship through time and do you regard the burial places as outpourings of human grief for animals or as examples of demonstrative wealth?

Paul: That’s another complex question, more complex than I would have thought before I had started looking into pet cemeteries–and yes, I have become rather fixated on them lately. You mention the “human-animal relationship through time,” but we need to be aware of how that relationship has evolved, and how it varies historically and cross-culturally. It’s a very hard evolution to trace, since it is not something that was typically documented in texts. In short, what we call “pets” were basically an invention of the nineteenth century, particularly in France and the UK. OK, sure, people had always had domestic animals, apparently dating back to prehistoric times–I say this because graves have been found containing people and animals buried together, so presumably in such cases there was some domestic relationship between them.

But what we call a pet–the way we conceive it, the way we treat it, the way we feed and groom it–is as I said something that really starts in the nineteenth century. I wouldn’t even use the term “pet” for animals before then, because to me that term has a cultural specificity. Well, it’s a long story, obviously. But when it comes to pet cemeteries, not surprisingly they also start in the nineteenth century, and not surprisingly then they also start in the UK and France. They start with the modern conception of pets. Animals were buried before then in their own graveyards, this dates back again to ancient times–but a place like Bubastis, where cats were mummified in Egypt, was not a “pet” cemetery, because of course these were sacred animals.

Anyway, regarding the burial places, they likewise have a different meaning depending on the culture and era and the way the animals were conceived, but one interesting thing I have noticed about the modern pet cemeteries is that they really aren’t examples of demonstrative wealth, which seems counter intuitive. To some extent they are I suppose, because the very poor are excluded due to cost, and the very wealthy have greater means to memorialize their animals, but by and large wealth has nothing to do with it–it’s more a question of the attachment to the animal, and whatever ritual its owner feels is necessary to gain closure.


Unknown individuals at a Ruamkatanyu skull shrine in Bangok, Thailand. As part of a charitable foundation that provide coffins to low-income families, the skulls are the patrons of dead paupers and unidentified individuals that symbolises the value of the work that the foundation carries out. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

I have been talking to a lot of people who work at and have animals at pet cemeteries, and even gone to some vigils at one here in LA (they have a monthly candlelight vigil). I have yet to come across anyone I would consider in the top-tier economically, but have found many people whom I would consider no better than middle class. They have no interest in demonstrating wealth or status. Like I said, the decision to memorialize in a cemetery is due almost exclusively to attachment to the animal and the need for closure. It’s love in very pure form. Sometimes in a frightening form because it can be obsessive, but it’s based in love, and, with the filters we use for grieving humans removed, the emotion is often raw and poignant to the point of pain.

TBOM: Could you tell me more about the monthly candle lit vigils for animals in LA?  Also have you noticed any obvious differences between modern countries for pet cemeteries?

Paul: Sure. They hold these candlelight vigils at night, once a month. Anyone is invited to come, it is a chance to speak about their departed animal–to help the person who lost the pet find some measure of solace and resolution in the company of others who are struggling with the same grief. After a person speaks their candle is then placed in a box with those of the others who have previously spoken, it’s obviously a symbol of solidarity. Pet cemeteries are odd places, because as I have said the normal conventions and formalities we have with other people are removed when it comes to animals–think about it, no matter how giddy I might be feeling, I simply can’t walk up to another person on the street and pat them on the head, pinch their cheeks, and start saying, “oh you look so cute”–but I can do that to a dog, so you can encounter pretty much anything when it comes to people grieving an animal. When it comes to these vigils, mostly it’s pretty straight forward and dull, but sometimes it can get very odd–the last one I went to, there was an elderly woman in a wheelchair singing “My Darling Clementine” to her dead dog in an operatic voice, it was like something from a David Lynch movie.

As for differences between cultures when it comes to the pet cemeteries, they’re really a very American thing–the vast majority of pet cemeteries are in the USA. I mentioned that they started in the UK and France, but the place they caught on is here in the USA. I am still not entirely sure of what that says about us as a culture, but my intuition is that there are two ways it could be interpreted. One is that we are simply more devoted to our pets, and thus willing to publicly memorialize them. I would have to somehow to find statistics on per capita expenditures on animal toys, accessories, and other related items to confirm if that might be true. The other way to interpret it is simply that, hey, it’s the USA, and we can create a commodity out of absolutely anything, we can even find a way commodify your dead dog. I have a hunch the answer will turn out to be the latter, sadly.

TBOM: As a part of the ‘Encountering Corpses’ art exhibition at the Manchester Metropolitan University in March, you are displaying some of your original photography from the Heavenly Bodies and Empire of Death books and presenting a talk about your work.  What for you is the driving force to document these bodies and the pet cemeteries?

Paul: Hmmmm. Well. What is the driving force that compels me to do this kind of stuff . . . to answer that properly would require deep introspection. On a more superficial level, I tend to be interested in things that have a profound, emotional meaning, but have fallen through the cracks of history. Of course, I have chosen *these* topics in particular, which I suspect appeal to me because in addition to their historical and emotional value, they also often have a surreal weirdness associated with them.


A still from the Fiesta de las Natitas in La Paz, Bolivia. The festival, held every November, is little known outside of Bolivia where the living commemorate the dead and especially venerate the skulls of the ancestors. Paul has written an informative article for the Fortean Times here on the festival and it is well worth a read. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

To pry a little deeper, they all obviously involve death and remembrance, which is a topic I was obsessed with ever since I was a child. I used to try to talk to my mother about exactly what I wanted written on my tombstone (yes, she thought I was odd, and no, she did not particularly want to talk about that topic as it seemed to unnerve her). But it’s hard for me to come up with an answer beyond that. Obviously, we are talking about topics that are part of the great mystery that binds us all as living creatures–but there was no specific incident I can recall that would have made me any more macabre than anyone else.

TBOM: Thank you Paul for that response, I think a lot of archaeologists and human osteologists will agree that in a large part, the study of history, our interactions and thoughts about death and remembrance, all drive our passion for pursuing our chosen fields.  A final thank you for joining These Bones of Mine and for enlightening us to the worlds of Saints, pet cemeteries and your inner thoughts!  I look forward to the culmination of your next project.

Further Information

  • Paul will be appearing for a talk and exhibiting a number of his photographs at the Manchester Metropolitan University Encountering Corpses exhibition on the 28th of March 2014 (exhibition on from 28/02/14 to the 10/04/13).

Select Bibliography

Koudounaris, P. 2010. Skulls Cops and the Cult of the Natitas. Fortean Times. Accessed 05/2/14.

Koudounaris, P. 2011. The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. London: Thames and Hudson.

Koudounaris, P. 2013. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.