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Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations

3 Sep

There was something comforting about a strangers dog looking up at me with unadorned glee at my open car door, waiting to be either patted on the head or to be fed a treat (perhaps both if they are lucky) I thought, as the car seemed to drag me into the parking space at work.  Earlier in the day I had stopped at a nearby nature reserve to break the journey in half in order to get some fresh air before the back shift started at the office.  To see the leaves dancing in the wind, to feel the sun on my skin; to know that there is beauty in the scenes where we are not the main actors but merely the passive observers.  I took out my notebook and scratched a few words into its carefully kept pages.  Today was going to be a good day.

Once parked up at work, and upon opening the door a fraction, my eyes spotted a fragment of bone on the tarmac.  One, two, perhaps three pieces?  One solid chunk and two small slithers of bone, the physical remnant of a body dispersed.  The larger chunk grabbed my more immediate interest and I stood up, leaned over and picked it up and carefully turned it over in my hands.  As I expected it was not human, but it was definitely from a mammal.  I chuckled to myself thinking it was a gift from the osteological gods.

Based on a quick morphological assessment it seemed to be a left distal humerus fragment (or, more simply, the top part of the elbow), as I recognised both the posterior olecranon fossa and the anterior coronoid fossa with their familiar shapes.  I also noted the slight ridge of bone that would have led to the medial epicondyle where it not heavily abraded.  Most of the articular surface of the trochlea survived although there were fragments abraded or chipped off either side of this.  Some of these minor breaks were clearly recent, the largest break had exposed a brilliant white patch of the dense cortical and honeycomb-like trabecular bone in clear contrast to the grayer surface that surrounded the broken area.  Still clearly visible, but largely fused, was the posterior line between the metaphysis and distal epiphysis indicating that the animal had not quite reached full adult growth, or skeletal maturity.  There was also a distinct clear transverse saw cut through the full shaft of the distal metaphysis, which indicated that the animal had likely been butchered or processed in some way.

UCL mammal compare humerus taxon

The humerus bone of a horse (Equus), cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep/goat (Ovis/Capra) and dog (Canis) in comparison to one another. Scale bar in increments of 5cm. Image credit: Boneview via University College London.

Based on size alone it likely belonged to the Ovis or Capra genera, that is either a sheep or a goat.  There is the possibility that it could belong to the Sus genus, a pig perhaps, as they can be awfully similar in shape and size, particularly if they have not reached full skeletal maturity.  Zooarchaeologists, those who study the skeletal remains of animals from archaeological contexts, often pair sheep and goat together as it can be exceptionally tough to differentiate those two species from fragmented or isolated skeletal remains.  I could see immediately that the bone was not fresh, that the ashen tone indicated that it had likely spent time being bleached by the sun in the open air.

I knew that even though the industrial estate seemed nice enough, with the gleaming glass paneled Art Deco offices and funky design logos that adorn the signage boards, that behind the lush bushes and full trees that lined one side of the main avenue there was likely a rubbish tip of some description bordering it.  A dump that gathered all of the waste of modern life together to be compacted and squashed, to be buried beyond sight rather than to be dispersed invisibly into the sea or rivers as effluent is.  I had suspected this and wondered if this is where the bone had come from, carried perhaps in the beak of one of the numerous European herring gulls (Larus argentatus) that frequent the area.  They can be seen at all hours, chasing one another on the air currents or taking part in great aerial feats of imaginary bombardments over the great length of the industrial estate.

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Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film.

I’d come across bleached bone fragments before in such settings where gulls in particular rested and squawked at one another.  Still, it was interesting to see a few fragments of bone and to be able to identify and side which part of the skeleton they represented.  The material was clearly modern, even if sun bleached, and likely represented the fragments from waste sources, scattered by the combined action of animals and natural processes.  The bones had long ago lost their original context, had long ago lost even the rest of the body in which in life they were once a part of.  They could, though, still tells us something about the age of the individual that they represented, the likely size and the probable butchery of their body too.

Later on in the week, a few days after having discovered the bone fragment at work and when the weather had noticeably taken a turn for the better, I find myself happily sat outside in the back garden at home taking it in turns to read and to write.  But I am not alone out here.  I am joined by feathered friends that we keep in a coop towards the bottom of the garden, the three unnamed domesticated hens (Gallus gallus domesticus) that make their home here as we collect their eggs; they are a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) who range over Southeast Asia and from which each domesticated chicken can trace its origin from.  The chickens in this garden are of the Gingernut Ranger type, a friendly, inquisitive and distinctive breed which are well-noted to be friendly and are always keen to peck, dig and generally explore the garden in search of hidden insects.  They also react quite joyfully to owners bringing scraps of food as daily treats.  The chickens are only unnamed because they are so similar-looking to one another, however we can easily tell them apart by their distinct personalities and social identities.

For instance, one of the chickens is remarkably independent and unrelentingly curious about the garden and any unusual sights or sounds therein.  She will be one of the first to peck and prod each section if we allow them into the garden or into an enclosure that we sometimes extend onto the grass via the use of spare chicken wire.  Furthermore, if she has the chance to, she’ll be the first to crouch down and take a flying jump out of said enclosure to scurry around in the undergrowth that lies temptingly out of the reach of the makeshift pen.  (I can only imagine the terror the bugs must feel on seeing this incessant eater appear in their midst).

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The three inquisitive ladies. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography colour film.

The other two often keep together, but invariably follow the more independent chicken once it has taken flight. As they push their heads repeatedly through the wire to see where their fellow hen has gone their soft fleshy combs ping back and forth, a harbinger of their impending flight for freedom.  Truly it is a joy to look after these beasts, to watch them rake into the freshly upturned soil with their tyrannosaur-like claws, methodically working the soil searching for sustenance and then move forward once they have cleaned the section of life.  I wonder, briefly, if this is perhaps a new approach to tackling trowelling back on archaeological digs.  Again I chuckle at this flight of fancy and gently my thoughts return back to the fragment of bone found at work, wondering where the animal had originated from.

It was in this environment, watching the chickens explore the delights that the garden had to offer and intermittently reading Philip Hoare’s delightful 2013 memoir The Sea Inside, that I remembered the odds and sods collection of non-human skeletal material that I kept from various random chance occurrences.  Within this small collection were the skeletal remains of a shoulder of mutton meal that my family had eaten one Sunday afternoon.  The remains, cleaned of any surviving muscles, ligaments and tendons by knife, were slowly boiled in water over the course of an afternoon to further remove any remaining soft tissue.  It isn’t a perfect bone cleaning method though, and I’d recommend you read the blogs mentioned below for better tips on animal skeletal preparation.  What remained after a number of hours though were gleaming white bones; the complete humerus, radius and ulna bones of a sheep which could perfectly articulate together.  Perfect and whole examples to use as comparative osteological material in order to compare the distal humerus fragment against for both size and morphological differences and similarities.

I also remembered that in one of these pots outside I had buried the skeletal remains of an ox tail, again the leftovers of a family meal that had taken place some time ago.  This was, I think, a number of years ago now and I really should go and dig them out at some point, to see the state of preservation of the caudal vertebrae and identify which bones remain intact.  But, to return to the present line of inquiry, I rummaged around the metal box which held the small collection of animal bones I had collected over the years and found a match for the distal humeral fragment, that I had found at work, with the cleaned bones parsed from the remains of the shoulder of mutton meal.  And so, through the analysis of the morphological features present, combined with my previous handling experience of animal remains and the use of comparative modern examples, my hunch at the species identification had proved correct in this instance.  I felt a sense of satisfaction in my positive and appropriate analysis of this random fragment.

Oh I patted that dog (Canis familiaris) in the car park on the head by the way, watched its chocolate coloured eyes lock briefly and keenly with my own before it decided to wander back over to its owner on the other side of the small car park, perhaps knowing I had no treats to give it that day.  Next time I return to the nature park I hope I shall see it again, and perhaps then will be able to give it a treat in return.

Sometimes it is the little things in life that make you realize that we do not share this world just with one another but with a wide variety of life forms, each within their own lives.

Further Information

  • Check out Zygoma, a regularly updated blog by Paolo Viscardi that highlights non-human skeletal remains and discusses the differences in skeletal morphology between species.  Paolo is a natural history curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London.  His Friday mystery objects series of entries are fantastic to note the differences in skeletal morphology between species, ages and sexes of non-human animals.
  • Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!) is a fantastic blog that focuses on ancient animal species, including dinosaurs, and their fossils and general anatomical variation.  Ran by palaeontologists Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor and Daren Naish, SV-POW! also covers a broad arrange of topics related to academia, research and scientific publishing, particularly in relation to copyright and public access to scientific literature.
  • Read Jake’s Bones for a fantastic resource on modern animal remains for comparative osteological purposes, ran by the eponymous Jake.  His site is child and family friendly and offers a wide range of comparative material from a whole range of animals and he also introduces the importance of natural history and conservation.  For a great guide on how to clean and process skeletal remains check out his guide here.
  • Bioarchaeologist and human osteologist Jess Beck has a fantastic site called Bone Broke, which introduces readers to the beauty of the human skeleton and the information which is encoded within bone, and to what archaeologists can learn about past individuals and populations in the archaeological record from the study of them and their context.  Check out her useful resources page here, where you can test yourself on the human bone quizzes, learn how to prepare animal skeletons or just to brush up on your anatomy!
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Blogging Archaeology: What Does It All Mean To Me?

15 Mar

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

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

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

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

What Does It All Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Witnesses

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

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

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

Digital Witness, by St. Vincent.

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

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

Personal Academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Bodies and Academia post by Ion highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

Is This Social?

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

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

Prince Johnny, by St. Vincent.

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

Future Steps?

15 Oct

I have recently had surgery on my lower right leg following the transverse fracture of the tibia and fibula a few months ago, so I haven’t posted for a while.  The surgery, in which osteotomies were performed on the tibia and fibula to re-align the bones and re-distribute the weight along with having the tibia internally fixated with a locking plate and screws, was quite successful thankfully (x-rays to come if I can get my hands on one, quite looking forward to seeing the new hardware for the first time!).  It also gave me some more time to ruminate on the meaning of this blog: of the blog’s form, function and interactivity.  The basic thinking behind the site remains, as per my established aim, for it to become a repository for both my own continual learning and to provide a place for a wide audience to learn about human osteology, specifically the role human osteology plays within archaeology.

knee-osteo

An example of a high tibial osteotomy near the knee to improve the angle of weigh-bearing and biomechanical properties of the leg: where (a) represents the presenting angle, (b) the surgery to access the joint and (C) highlights the wedge of bone removed in the osteotomy procedure and finally (d) the corrected angle post-surgery.  In my case the distal tibia and fibula were surgically fractured and osteotomies carried out on the medial aspect of both bones to improve the biomechanical loading of the lower limb with internal fixation applied to improve strength (Source: SOTRS).

Development Of A Medium

This blog has developed naturally over the two and a half years since its inception to include what I like to think of as a ‘three-pronged’ approach:

Firstly, the development of the Skeletal Series to introduce the individual aspects of a human skeletal to a general audience.  This is ongoing and has proved relatively successful I think, with some lovely feedback from both members of the academic and public spheres.

Secondly, the ongoing Guest Posts in which various organisations and individuals have agreed to write an informed blog entry on their specific area of knowledge or interest.  This has been a  particularly fruitful approach in widening the topics of discussion on this blog.  This has also led to the development of the first interview on the site, of which I am particularly happy as it has allowed the elucidation of a new methodology in a clear and straightforward manner.  I am hoping that these interviews will become a much a feature of the blog as the guest posts have, and it is something I shall try to develop on the site.

Thirdly, general posts by myself on a wide variety of topics that perk my interest.  Within this I have included posts on specific articles, brief book reviews and personal posts.  The personal posts often discuss the effects of a bone disease little mentioned in the public sphere helping I hope, in a small part, to raise the profile of McCune Albright Syndrome.  As a person with McCune Albright Syndrome, and its component bone disease Fibrous Dysplasia, I have found little online in the form of information from other individual’s with the same syndrome, as such I hope my efforts in describing what I have been through, and what I continue to go through, remains useful in providing information on the syndrome and in providing a personal perspective.

Further to this the site also has numerous links to many resources including links dedicated to researchers, journals and other blogs.  These links are located in the categories side bar (referring to categories discussed in my blog posts), and the blog roll (links to external sites) which can be found underneath the body of the posts.  I hope these provide further in-depth information for the dedicated learner and explorer.

Whilst I am deeply happy that this ‘three-pronged’ approach has developed organically, I cannot help but think of the future of the blog.  I do not post as often as a should, nor as often as I want, but I post because I want to, the pressure to actually post being purely self-contained so to speak.  As such there may be periods where this blog is silent, but that does not mean that it has ceased to function.  Indeed I often wonder how many hours of work have actually gone into producing this blog, as it can be quite time intensive to source, write and produce the blog posts themselves.

There are remarkably few dedicated and consistently updated bioarchaeology/human osteology related blogs on the internet (there is a whole delicious raft of archaeology blogs however) and, whilst my site is certainly one of them, the other two are fairly well-known and well-regarded blogs.  Kristina Killgrove, the bioarchaeologist behind Powered By Osteons, has stated that she sees her site as an open lab book where her own research is presented in detail to the public.  Her site is regularly features posts on popular presentations of human osteology in the public domain, as well as updates on themes and articles in bioarchaeology (particularly Roman bioarchaeology).  Katy Meyers, a doctoral researcher who blogs at Bones Don’t Lie, regularly writes about the main topics in bioarchaeology including posts on mortuary approaches and reviews of academic articles (articles often not available to the public).

In sum Katy’s blog helpfully introduces a wide audience to the many facets of what it is bioarchaeologists actually study and why.  Katy is also arguing that her site should be taken and perceived ‘as a scholarly publication’, which would be recognised and credited as a function of her research, in particular as a dedicated source and evidence of her public engagement.

What Does It Mean?

Having mulled over many a thought in relation to open access, public outreach and viewing blogs as scholarly publications, I have thought and developed several ideas in my relation to my own creation.  Could I argue that this site is a scholarly publication?  Whilst I try hard to reference scientific articles as and when possible, particularly open access articles, I am overtly aware that my site is purely written, edited and overseen by me alone.  There is no peer review process, no-one looking over my shoulder for factual mistakes, scientific faux-pas or grammar mishaps.  A blog is a fluid, dynamic interface which, by its very nature, can be changed, edited or deleted in an instant.  They are, essentially ephemeral in tone, having no physical basis in reality (the average blog lasts for just 3 years).  Not that this last point mitigates the content of a blog just it’s possible permanence.

As highlighted in a previous entry there are plenty of scrupulous ‘journals’ out there, willing to discredit real research and plagiarise hard-working researchers, but there are also blogs which are peer-reviewed and monitored for content.  A key counterpoint is to remember that blogs can have a real immediate impact on an audience’s  understanding of a topic.  The nature of a blog is that it is fast fast fast: posts can be produced rapidly and posted online extremely quickly, reaching an international audience within minutes.  This is their inherent value, that research that has been carried out can be produced rapidly to an interested or already developed audience, as well as reaching new people continually.  On a personal level I am astounded and honoured to be mentioned in a few academic articles as a resource for human osteology/bioarchaeology online and for the value of the content of this blog (see previous posts).  It is, of course, wonderful to be acknowledged and recognised in such a way, particularly by your peers and established academic researchers.

I try to edit older posts for content and spelling/grammar mistakes, update posts detailing ongoing research programs or news items and new scientific methods or evidence (I often cringe when re-reading the earlier blog entries!)*.  Of course I also maintain control over what is exhibited and shown on the site itself.  Friends have suggested that I move the site and place advertisements to gain a small stream of revenue from the internet traffic.  I have always resisted this line of thought as I want the blog to be educational and free, without any pressure to buy a book or click on adverts.  Wordpress, necessarily, add a single advert into posts when they are viewed alone but these are largely unobtrusive to the reader.  My view may change in the future, if I decide to host the site myself or pay WordPress to upgrade the site, but ethically it does not bode well for me to place adverts over a site such as this, especially if I am espousing the spread of free education.

On a personal level this blog is my main interaction with academia now that I have finished my Masters degree, as it allows me to engage with a wide and disparate international audience, to dream up collaborations, ideas and possible research projects.  So far however I have not mentioned any original research on this site conducted by myself (minus my MSc thesis abstract).  Although this is something I hope to change within a relatively short time, it can feel as if this blog could (and sometimes does) become an eternal feedback loop (co-incidentally there is a fantastic blog post here, by Benjamin Studebaker, that discusses echo chambers in journalism and blogs).  Interactivity on the site has been mostly conducted via personal email or over Facebook, and I admit I have been slow to advertise the site itself on any other social media platform.  It is only recently that I have installed the ‘social media’ advertisement buttons on the blog site itself; I have yet to make a personalised Twitter or Facebook handle for the blog (frankly this is something I am loath to do).  In a way I want the site to stand alone, on its own merits as such.  This may be foolhardy, especially in the sense that I want this blog to help educate a general and interested audience, but it is also perhaps just a factor in my own beliefs regarding the use of social media.

Future Steps

So what are the future steps for this blog?  The social buttons that are now an integral part of the posts, which also feature email and print buttons, are ready for the sharing.  I am pretty keen that information on this site should be shared if possible.  There are issues regarding the printing of separate blog entries from this site as it is likely that copyright issues, with regards to the images specifically, would be a problem (I would expect the use of Creative Commons attribution attribution share alike licence to apply for any use of the written material on this site).  Is there a way around the copyright image issue?  The image below highlights what the printed pages would hopefully look like in physical form.

spinespinespinetbom

What the option to print the skeletal series looks like, with the example of the human spine entry. Note that the hyperlinks in the body of the text present as full website addresses in the text itself when printing the entries on paper. The copyright of the image would also be a problem.

So what can I do to mitigate this problem?  I could make the posts unavailable to print, but that would make the rest of the post inaccessible to print.  I could remove the images from the posts themselves and produce my own diagrams, but at this current period in time I do not have the photographs or drawings necessary to illustrate the posts.  What I have thought of is to go through each of the skeletal posts again, edit and add to them and produce a cheap ebook to sell online, a kind of basic introduction to the human skeletal system and its range of applications in human osteology.  The writing would be somewhat clearer and more concise, and I have thought about the illustrations as well and where they could possibly originate from.  At the moment this is a possible pipe dream, but one in which I have been ruminating on as a natural extension of the skeletal series posts when they have been completed eventually.  The posts themselves will remain up and free, as this is one of the main aims of this site.  I am a firm believer in giving the audience options where possible on how they should invest or use social media, so would you, as a reader of this blog, be interested in such a product? (I’ll need to do market research beforehand of course!).

Returning back to the eternal feedback loop comment above, I have often wondered about the content on this blog, what to post and what not to post.  Where osteological articles or news are especially well covered in the national news or respected archaeological/osteological blogs (see Richard III for example), I do not think that this blog has much more to add to the in-depth coverage already written and produced.  What I hope this blog introduces is both my specialist interests and the little seen tidbits of information and useful resources.  I am particularly keen on open access sources for academic articles, especially since having finished university my own access to osteological and archaeological articles is somewhat limited.  I will also continue to post about tertiary education and how it is changing, as previously mentioned in articles on human osteology courses available in the UK and on MOOCs for example.

As stated above this blog has developed guest posts and interviews (more to come hopefully) alongside the typical posts, and I hope to further use the medium of blogging to explore different methods of communication.  Therefore there should be a photographic essay or two gracing this site within a few months, helping to show what exactly goes in archaeological departments at Universities.  From there I think many topics within our bone-obsessed realm could be opened up by photo-essays; sometimes the word can only hope to capture what a picture can capture (but we’ll see how the photographs develop first!).  Ultimately of course this blog is merely an expression of my passion and love for human osteology and archaeology, as such it remains a place where I document this.

So these are my thoughts on where this blog has come from and where it hopes to go and to develop.  We shall see what the future holds.  But dear reader, what are your thoughts, what do you want to see on the blog?

* I’ve edited this entry more times than I care to remember!

Influence:

Chapple, R. 2013.  What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been!  Reflections on Two Years of Blogging. Robert M. Chapple, Archaeologist.  (A delightful entry on the journey of blogging for the author, an Irish archaeologist, on what it has been like and what he has done.  It is certainly worth a read).

The Worrying Times of Internet Freedom

15 Apr

Whilst I haven’t broached this topic before on this blog, I have mentally chewed through the subject for some time.  How much information do I give out via the internet?  How much is safe and secure?  I had an amazon account, deleted it out of disgust, then reactivated it as I realised it was one of the few places I could buy certain books or music cd’s.  I joined http://www.academia.edu only to realise there doesn’t seem to be a way to privatise your information on the site.  This very blog itself has information on myself and my activities.  Facebook seems to be selling my information left, right and centre, and, as of recent, my own Government seems to be happy to snoop on every aspect of my technological life if certain laws are passed.  How far is too far?  How much should social networking sites pander to governments in general?

Yet the counter point would be to say that this is my choice; largely, that I have decided to spread myself across the internet, that vast domain of the free that is not owned by any singular entity.  I write because I want to write, and yes, sometimes this blog deviates from its meanderings in the study of human remains.

Yet, I still can’t shake that hypocritical shaggy dog off my shoulder- why is my own government trying to enact laws to intercept my every call, text, email and internet browse that I do?  When there is such a clusterfuck of abuse of Britain’s libel laws that dominate in comparison to other European countries- should I trust the government with my own information?  Indeed, they might as well sell my information like the social networks do, and gain some monetary value from its citizens- perhaps that will pay of the enormous amount of debt the country is in, and perhaps stop some of the ‘austerity measures’ that, so far, seem to target the poor, old and infirm.

There are of course questions unasked and answers not given in this post; I am merely chewing through some ideas about my own identity that I myself have put out into the world.  Britain is far from alone in seeking to curtail the freedoms (both real and ‘on-line’) of its population.

As of this and last year (2011/2012), there seems to be a sustained attack on internet freedom, largely conducted by the UK, USA and the EU trying to pass various bills (SOPA, CISPA etc) to enact and engage with excessive and unneccessary spying of online data, often in real time.  Part of this is likely as a reaction to the extraordinary ‘Arab Spring’, London Riots etc, and partly carried out under the guise of national and international ‘security’.

Although we are a democratic country, we should not be idle in our own introspection and development.  We should be active participants in the way we shape and engage with our own country, and the world at large.

Indeed, as I am not a technological junkie (far from it), I shall continue to hand write letters to my friends across the world.  As far as I know, these are some of the few private messages I send out!

Some news, opinion and vital sites for internet freedom:

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120302/05420517946/uk-government-pressuring-search-engines-to-censor-results-favor-copyright-industries.shtml  (UK Government Crackdown On Search Engine Information).

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/04/201241373429356249.html  (UK Censorship).

http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/laurie-penny/2012/03/police-protest-meadows-public  (Public Protest Crackdown).

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/apr/15/web-freedom-threat-google-brin  (Internet Threat From All Sides).

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/apr/17/walled-gardens-facebook-apple-censors (Internet Walled Gardens).

http://www.wikileaks.org/  Wikileaks provide perhaps one of the most important functions on the internet- accountability for most governments on an international scale.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/audio/2012/apr/24/tech-weekly-podcast-tor-anonymity Article on Tor, the program that allows you to remain anonymous online.

http://www.avaaz.org/en/stop_cispa_corporate_global/?tta  Sign the Avaaz petition to urge the USA to drop the CISPA bill which will give the US excessive and unnecessary Internet surveillance powers.