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Conference Review: Day of the Dead Conference at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, 17th-19th October 2014

31 Jul

As highlighted in an earlier blog post (alright, this post is quite late!) on this site Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), in Northern Ireland, recently played organizer and host to the Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology conference on the 17th to the 19th October 2014.  Yours truly went along on a propeller plane departing from Newcastle across the Irish Sea to Belfast to what turned out to be one of the best conferences that I have thus far had the pleasure of attending.  It was a conference that aptly and ably mixed funerary archaeology with human osteoarchaeology into a delicious few days that demonstrated the strength and wealth of ongoing research.  Of particular interest was the current human osteoarchaeological research on-going in Ireland itself, but we’ll come back to that shortly.  This brief post will cover a few of the research highlights of the event itself, and I hope it is a conference that will be repeated in the not-too-distant future.

QUB

The 19th century Lanyon building, at the centre of the Queen’s University Belfast campus in the south of the city, a fine host building for the conference. Home to some more than 17,000 students and 3500 staff, the university and it’s School of Archaeology, Geography and Palaeoecology boasts the facilities of a radiocarbon laboratory with AMS facilities. Photograph credit: QUB.

Spearheaded by Catriona McKenzie and her able assistants (the fantastic Deirdre Drain, Jeanna Loyer, and Roisin O’Reilly) from the Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology department (GAP) at Queen’s University Belfast, the Day of the Dead 3-day conference attracted delegates from around Ireland, Europe, and the wider world to present poster and podium papers on a smorgasbord of bioarchaeological topics.

Archaeothanatology Workshop

The conference kicked off with a workshop on the archaeothanatology methodology on the first day, which was spearheaded by Stéphane Rottier, Christopher Knüsel and Jeanna Loyer.  Archaeothanatology, or the similar anthropologie de terrain, is a method of recording the in-situ position of the body in the grave as proposed by the French archaeologist and anthropologist Henri Duday.  Unfortunately I did not get to attend the workshop itself as I arrived in the city mid-way through the first day, whilst the workshop itself was in mid-session.  However, I heard from friends that did manage to attend it that much was learnt regarding the importance of understanding the context of the body in-situ.  Of particular importance are the differences between coffin and non-coffin burials, where the position and rotational axis of certain skeletal elements, such as the humerus, radius and ulna, can indicate funerary and post-burial taphonomic body positions.

I managed to have a quick word with Chris Knüsel, who helps to advocate the use of the methodology, and he gave me a quick break down of what the methodology hopes to achieve. Archaeothanatology, Chris stated, ‘links bioarchaeology with funerary archaeology in a way that has never previously been considered.  It has the potential to distinguish natural phenomena from human agency and to reveal behavioural details of much more variable patterning of human remains than anticipated from burial types.  The methodology does require sound field recording of the archaeological and bioarchaeological contexts however for the full implementation and usefulness of the methodology to become apparent.

For further information and a good introduction to archaeothanatology, whose majority of publications have been written in French, I highly recommend Bradley’s 2010 open access article ‘Les Tomes Belle: The Use of ‘Anthropologie de Terrain in Prehistoric Archaeology‘, published in the University of York’s student journal The Post Hole.  I also recommend Katy Emery Meyer’s Bones Don’t Lie blog article on the inference of perishable grave goods in a prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age cemeteries in Ban Lum Khao and Ban Non Wat, Thailand, respectively, on Harris & Tayles 2012 research using archaeothanatology.  For a recent look at how archaothanatology, when used in conjunction with taphonomy, scanning electron microscopy, histological analysis, and Micro-CT scanning, is unraveling social practices in prehistory I highly recommend reading Smith’s et al. 2016 (paywalled) article on the British evidence for mummification and retention of the dead around a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age monument at Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

It should also be stated here that anthropologie de terrain underpins archaeothanatology, however there is some confusion on my part as to whether the methodologies are analogous due to translation intricacies or whether archaeothanatology is the natural progression of anthropologie de terrain.

Conference Sessions & Related Papers

The papers were presented over 8 sessions over the weekend of the 18th and 19th October, and dealt with a number of different themes relating to human osteoarchaeology in general.  I won’t go into detail regarding the papers presented but I will pick out a presentation or two to indicate the range of the topics.  I have to say I was quite impressed at the standard of the research presented and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the conference as a whole.

day of the dead

The really rather lovely logo for the Day of the Dead  conference. Image credit: QUB.

It was also a real credit to the organizers of the conference that such a wide number of European and international countries were represented.  Of course one of the best things for any conference attendee who has to pay their own fees is the realization that a conference that is affordable is also filled with some of the best researchers in the field.  But anyway, enough of my praise and let me introduce a talk or two…

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland

After a welcome talk by Catriona McKenzie and Eileen Murphy the first session got underway and focused on the topic at hand within Ireland.  The chronological period covered here largely focused on the medieval and post-medieval history of Ireland, but Catriona McKenzie did present recent research  on the health and disease status in adults from a population analysis of the Gaelic Irish cemetery site of Ballyhanna, County Donnegal.  The cemetery was in use from the 7th century AD to the 17th century AD and has so far revealed the skeletal remains of over 1300 adult and non-adult individuals, making it one of the largest native medieval collections in Ireland.

On the other end of the spectrum Jonny Geber introduced the bioarchaeology of childhood during the Great Irish famine (AD 1845-1852), with a particular focus on the ‘experienced realities and institutional care of children in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse‘.  This was a hard-hitting talk focusing on the origins, impacts and repercussions of the Great Famine through the non-adults of the workhouse and the remains uncovered within a number of mass graves at the site.  Importantly the talk presented ‘a “dialogue of evidence”, the story of the often invisible disenfranchised and socioeconomically marginalized populace of Ireland during a period of severe suffering’ (Gerber 2014, presentation abstract).  This is the human experience as recognized through osteological and documentary evidence, and stands as a testament to one of the most profound events in Irish history.

Grave Concerns

The next session focused on the graves of the dead and introduced a wider range of topics from prehistoric Europe, with a strong focus on Hungarian archaeology.  One of my favourite presentations in this session was the evidence for physical aggression and a possible putative leprosy case from a Copper Age mass grave at Abony, Hungary, dated to 3800-3600 BC belonging to the Proto boleráz phase, as presented by Kitti Köhler.  I was quite impressed by the inclusion of a 3D model which really highlighted the importance of visual understanding of archaeological contexts and palaeopathological features.  Also discussed in this session was a presentation by my good friend Jennifer Crangle on English medieval post-burial funerary practices, which should be no surprise to blog readers here due to my posts on the charnel chapel at the Rothwell Holy Trinity church which helped form a key part of Jennifer’s research and talk.

People & Places

This shorter session contained a talk given by Thomas Khador focused on Carrowkeel, a truly remarkable Neoltihic passage tomb complex located in County Sligo, where his team analysed 39 individuals found at the site.  Interestingly the remains of the individuals were excavated from the Carrowkeel complex in 1911 but subsequently disappeared for nearly a century before being rediscovered again.  Osteological and stable isotopic analysis indicated that the individuals may have had selective access to the passage tombs (certainly in death but possibly in life as well), which raises questions for the social mobility and social networks during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods for Ireland and Atlantic Europe.  There was also a keynote talk by Barra O’Donnabhain titled Anglo-Saxons and Celts: Race, Science and the Irish which was thoroughly thought-provoking, discussing as it did the legitimization of history, identity and selective narration.  This was tied in with the discipline of bioarchaeology and the resilience of some of the older narratives within it.

The Archaeology of Death

Another broad ranging session, from ancient Egyptian body manipulation to Far Eastern Neolithic shell middens in island archaeology.  Also introduced were two talks on the archaeothanatology methodology, with a talk by Emma Green on the application of the principles to identify funerary processes, in this case the use of coffins in burials.  Her research, presented in conjunction with Elizabeth Craig-Atkins at the University of Sheffield, focused on the middle to late Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sedgeford, in Norfolk, England.  She emphasized the important of accurately recording the archaeology in the field as it is uncovered, using not just context sheets and drawings, but also film and digital photography to ensure each details can be accurately recreated within the analysis and investigation of the research.

Life Before Death

Osteoarchaeologists, dealing with the bones of individuals who may have died hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before analyze them, can sometimes forget that what we view is the culmination of a life lived and all that entails.  This session introduced the study of the individual and the population, with presentations on Roman York by Lauren McIntyre which provided evidence on the demographic composition of the city.  (For those interested in Lauren’s work, and the life of a human osteologist in general, can also read a previous interview with her on my site here).  Ylva Bäckström presented the osteological analysis of a 16th century cemetery from the Sala Silver Mine in central Sweden, highlighting the social composition and differing treatment given in funerary contexts.  The analysis indicated a prevalence of fractures among the burials in earthen graves compared to the burials of individuals within coffins, suggesting one special social category as discussed in written documents; those known as war prisoners.

Population Health

I was particularly intrigued by a few talks in this session, specifically the talk led by Abigail Ash and Ron Pinhasi entitled Difference in Uniformity: Health and Stress in Early Farming Communities, which focused on the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) and their geographic spread.  Their investigation into the geographic spread of the LBK and use of five representative skeletal populations (for a total of 516 individuals) highlighted palaeopathological changes (non-specific indicators of stress) indicative of differing behaviour between population stress levels within one cultural group.  You can read the open access 2016 article on the results here.  I should state here that my MSc research investigated mobility and social stratification (particularly evidence for the practice of patrilocality) within the LBK of central Europe, so I took a great deal of interest in this talk.

Open Session

This session introduced a number of really interesting talks ranging from analyzing markers of occupational stress by Roisin O’ Reilly, one of the conference organizers, to a multivariate approach to sex determination in ancient and modern pelvis by Samuel Rennie and James Ohman (pleasantly titled ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, which made me chuckle).  The multivariate approach bamboozled me a little at first as the module I did in statistics for my MSc was hard-won, but Samuel quickly demonstrated the importance of the research presented, both for palaeoanthropological and archaeological contexts but also for forensic contexts in the ability to determine the sex of an individual with a 95.65% without a priori knowledge of sex in some instances.  This is definitely one to watch and I am excited as to where this research is heading.

Ethics, Legislation & Reburial

The conference ended with a session on the ethics, legislation and reburial aspects of osteoarchaeology, with talks from Caroline Bennett on the changes of excavation human remains, from once living breathing individuals to archival objects and documents of a past long gone.  This was a thoughtful talk and I really enjoyed being able to think morally and ethically the value of human remains, especially in consideration of the previous talks of the conference as a whole.  In essence this was considered breathing space in order to understand what we do and why we do, the impacts of the job and the value of it.

Catching Up & Saying Goodbye

Whilst I was in Belfast I also made sure that I met up with a fellow (and prolific) blogger Robert M. Chapple, an Irish archaeologist (now retired and happily working in IT) of some repute.  It was with great pleasure that I got to chat to him about Ireland’s archaeology, history and the general state of academia over a delightful meal with the man himself.  (And I must say I owe a debt of gratitude for the free meal, and I aim to pay it forward to the younger generation of archaeologists at my next conference, if I can!).  If you have haven’t already I heartily recommend that you take a look at Robert’s own site, pull up a seat and have a good read – it really is an awesome place to become acquainted with the richness of Ireland’s archaeology and history, complete with personal touches and exciting first hand experiences.  Robert also keeps a downloadable database record of Irish Radiocarbon and Dendrochronological Dates (IRDD), click the link to the website to delve into more than 8000 radiocarbon determinations and more than 300 dendrochronological dates.

As well as catching up with old friends at the conference I also got to meet a host of new friends, including Laura van der Sluis, a doctoral candidate at GAP at QUB who is currently researching 6000 years of subsistence of human populations at Limfjord, Denmark, from the Mesolithic period to the Viking period utilizing stable isotope analysis.  Laura’s research will also analyse the evidence for palaeomobility and changes in palaeodiet in an effort to determine if the availability of marine resources helped to drive cultural changes as recorded in the coastal archaeological record.  I had the joy of talking about the above methods and the laboratory facilities at QUB with Laura whilst taking in the ambient cool October night around the campus and surrounding streets.  Of interest to readers of this site is Laura’s latest co-written research article presenting the results of a palaeodietary analysis of a multi-period (AD 9th to AD 18th centuries) churchyard in Stavanger, Norway, using carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur isotopic analysis which indicated a change in diet due to changing religious beliefs and related dietary restrictions.

So all in all I am very glad that I made the short hop across from England to Northern Ireland to attend this rather beautiful conference in Belfast, as I was struck by the very real wealth of Ireland’s history of bioarchaeological investigation and research.  I hope that certain sites and skeletal populations become wider known within British archaeology as a whole as I felt I was discovering it anew.

Interview with Jaime Ullinger: Bioarchaeological Outreach

31 Oct

Jaime M. Ullinger is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Quinnipiac University in the United States of America, where she currently teaches numerous courses in biological anthropology.  Jaime gained her PhD from the Ohio State University and her research interests include the bioarchaeology of the Levant and the Near East, particularly the Early Bronze Age, which has seen Jaime produce a number of publications from sites across the region.  She is also interested in palaeopathology, dental pathology and mortuary archaeology.  Recently Jaime has presented the case of an enslaved individual from 18th c. Connecticut at the 2014 Palaeopathology Association meeting in Calgary, Canada, as an important study in public outreach and interaction.


These Bones of Mine: Hello Jaime, thank you very much for taking the time to join These Bones of Mine! For those that do not know you could you please tell us about yourself and your background?

Jaime Ullinger: Thank you for inviting me to participate.  I am a bioarchaeologist who looks at questions about diet, health, and genetic relatedness in past groups.  My interest in bioarchaeology began as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, where I had the amazing opportunity to work with some very inspiring mentors.  I got my M.A. at Arizona State University and my Ph.D. at The Ohio State University.

Again, I was very lucky to work with great mentors at both of those schools, where there are lots of bioarchaeologists!  My research interests are primarily in the Middle East generally, and the Levant more specifically (modern-day Jordan, Israel, West Bank), although I have also worked in Egypt and the American Southwest.

TBOM: Lets talk a little about your past projects and where this has led you to today. How did you become interested in working and researching in the Middle East and the Levant?

Jaime: As an undergraduate, I eventually discovered anthropology, and bioarchaeology more specifically.  I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, but when I applied, I didn’t have an interest in a particular region.  I worked for Dr. Susan Sheridan during my senior year at Notre Dame.  Toward the end of my senior year, she asked if I would be able to go to the Middle East with her and two other undergraduates to work on a skeletal collection.

I immediately, without thought, said “Yes!” While there, I worked with a collection that eventually became part of my master’s thesis.  That sparked my interest in the archaeology of the region, and the rest is history.  My advice to every undergraduate is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along.  You never know how it may alter your life in a positive and permanent way!

TBOM: That is some great advice and a point that I would recommend for all archaeology undergraduates!  Since that first trip you have produced a non-stop corpus of bioarchaeological research based on sites throughout the Levant, from the Early Bronze Age to the Byzantine period.  Do you feel that your work will stay largely focused on this area or are you actively involved in pursuing other avenues of research?

Jaime: My current and future research plans include the continuation of work in the Levant — particularly from the Early Bronze Age sites of Bab adh-Dhra’ (in Jordan) and Jericho (in the West Bank).  But, I have worked recently on a number of projects through the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University (BRIQ) that are not in the Middle East.  Two projects grew out of BRIQ’s relationship with the state archaeologist in Connecticut and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — one involving the skeleton of an enslaved man that had been on display at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT, the other related to human remains that were used in a Santeria/Palo Mayombe ritual.  I have also recently examined 17th-19th century skeletons from St. Bride’s Lower Cemetery, housed at the Museum of London.

TBOM: As mentioned you recently presented the important case of the enslaved man at the recent 2014 Palaeopathology Association annual conference in Calgary, Alberta, and suggested that the case has a vital significance for public bioarchaeology.  Why is this the case?  Do you think it is important that the public have an understanding of the work of bioarchaeologists, and archaeology, in general?

Jaime: I feel incredibly privileged to have worked with Mr. Fortune – the man who was enslaved, and subsequently used as a teaching skeleton.  His story is important for a number of reasons.  It is not uncommon to hear people in the Northeast of the US saying that slavery was something that “only happened in the South”.  His skeleton was a visible and tangible reminder that slavery was a vital part of the economy in most of the United States in the 18th century.  He was afforded no greater freedom in death, as he was turned into a teaching skeleton and inherited by numerous ancestors of the bone surgeon that owned him before going on display as a curiosity at the Mattatuck Museum.

The museum removed Fortune from display following the Civil Rights Movement, and has worked tirelessly with the local Waterbury, CT community in order to arrive at a consensus regarding his final disposition.  The Mattatuck Museum’s African-American History Project Committee (AAHPC) has been involved in the discussion for decades, debating all sides of the issue.  The main questions were: Should he be buried? Should he be stored for future research?  Another powerful side to this story is the amount of thoughtful discussion that went into the ultimate decision that he should be buried.

From a bioarchaeologist’s perspective, I am grateful that we were able to examine his skeleton one last time before he was buried.  And, we were able to learn some things about his skeleton that hadn’t been identified in earlier examinations.  For me, this was important because it showed just how much information can be obtained from the skeleton.  I have participated in a number of group panels, and discussion with members of the AAHPC, and that has reaffirmed that people generally value the information that can be learned from a skeleton — it is an objective, scientific approach to learning about the past.  And, in some ways, it was the only way that Fortune could actually speak on his own.  That was a very powerful realization.

I think it is very important to discuss bioarchaeology in a public setting.  We can learn an incredible amount of information from the things that people leave behind (the archaeology part of bioarchaeology), and we can learn about the people themselves from their skeletons (the “bio” portion).  Giving a voice to skeletons that may not have had a voice in life is an incredibly powerful tool, and most people that I have met want to know more about Mr. Fortune and what we can determine about his life and death.

TBOM: That is great to hear that the outcome of working with Mr. Fortune benefited the community, but also (and perhaps most importantly) that it resulted in him being given a final and respectful resting place.  As bioarchaeologists we must always respect the fact that whilst we work with skeletons in our daily lives, we must also remember they are the physical remains of an individual person who had once lived.  Do you think that bioarchaeologists, or archaeologists in general, are doing enough to publicize their work?  Or is there an area that you think we could improve on?

Jaime: I think that there are a lot of great bioarchaeologists and archaeologists who are communicating their work to a much larger community than just academics.  There are a number of blogs that report on original research, as well as current news stories.  And, there are typically several sessions at annual meetings related to community archaeology and archaeological heritage/ethics.  We can always make improvements, but I think that this has become a much more visible and important part of academia.

TBOM:  I think that even since I started this blog there has been an incredible and diverse array of archaeological and bioarchaeological blogs appearing all the time.  It is a great indication of the initiative of individuals and organisations to spread the word about the value of archaeology.  You previously mentioned the Santeria Palo Mayombe ritual, could you give us a little insight into what this is and what your investigation and research consisted of?

The Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac was contacted about a ceramic vessel that had a human skull inside (visible with the naked eye), as well as other items: feathers, stone, sand, etc.  It had been recovered with a box of bones from an apartment in Connecticut.  The ceramic vessel was viewed with CT and x-ray in order to further determine its contents before “excavation” of the pot.  Most likely, all of the components were used in Santeria or Palo Mayombe rituals.  We digitally imaged the vessel (and its contents) as well as the accompanying skeleton, and tried to learn as much as possible about the skeletal remains, which we believe were historic.

In addition, I taught a forensic anthropology class last spring, where pairs of students worked together in order to address multiple questions about the vessel and remains, such as: Were marks on the bones from decomposition, or part of a ritual process? What parts of the skeleton were present, and did they have particular meaning? Can we match the excavated artifacts with particular images in the CT scans? What was written on the numerous sticks in the pot, and what did it mean?  We wanted to understand the event from a greater, biocultural perspective.

TBOM: That is a fascinating find, and one that I imagine could be fairly rare.  Finally Jaime, I wonder what advice you would give to the budding bioarchaeologists and human osteologists out there.  You have already highlighted the need to seize each and every opportunity, but do you have any other advice or guidance that you could give?

While I think it is important to seize every opportunity that comes along, it’s also important to remember that you can “make” many of those opportunities appear.  Talk with faculty and fellow graduate students about what they are working on.  Volunteer in a lab.  Ask a professor if they need assistance with research.  Attend conferences if possible.

Above all, remember that you love what you study.  At times, it can be difficult to pursue a career in academia, and you may meet naysayers along the way.  But, not many people can say that they are passionate about their work.  I feel lucky to be one of those people.

TBOM: Thank you very much for taking part and good luck with your continuing research!

Further Information

  • Jaime Ullinger’s research profile on academic.edu can be found here, which details some of her recent bioarchaeological publications.
  • Read about recent research by members of the Palaeopathology Association here in their41st annual North American Meeting in Calgary April 2014, including Jaime’s fascinating research abstract on the life and death of Mr Fortune.  Head to the Mattatuck Museum’s site on Mr Fortune to learn about his life.
  • Have a read about life and bioarchaeological study at Notre Dame University with this coffee interview with Dr Susan Sheridan here.

Select Bibliography

Ullinger, J. M. 2002. Early Christian Pilgrimage to a Byzantine Monastery in Jerusalem — A Dental Perspective. Dental Anthropology. 16 (1): 22-25. (Open Access).

Ullinger, J. M., Sheridan, S. G. & Ortner, D. J. 2012. Daily Activity and Lower Limb Modification at Early Bronze Age Bab edh-Dhra’, Jordan. In Perry, M. A. (ed). Bioarchaeology and Behaviour: The People of the Ancient Near East. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 180-201. (Open Access).

Ullinger, J. M., Sheridan, S.G. & Guatelli-Steinberg, D. 2013. Fruits of Their Labour: Urbanisation, Orchard Crops, and Dental Health in Early Bronze Age Jordan. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. DOI: 10.1002/oa.2342. (Open Access).

Book Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.

22 Jul

The British Museum in London is currently playing host to the Ancient Lives, New Discoveries exhibition, from the 22nd of May to the 30th of November 2014, which focuses on the innovative use of non-destructive CT scanning to digitally unwrap and investigate eight individual mummies who spread the span of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese history.  It is a unique opportunity to explore the individual bodies and mummy styles, from a naturally preserved desiccated corpse from 3500 BC, right up to the late richly decorated and individualised Roman period mummies of the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and the early Christian burials of Sudan from the 7th century AD.  Taylor & Antoine (2014) have produced a publication (priced at £19.99) in conjunction with the current British Museum exhibition and it is this that shall be reviewed here, rather than the exhibition itself.

But first we are going to quickly delve in the tantalising world of the mummy in archaeology.

britmus

The reader friendly yet relatively in-depth 192 page publication by Taylor and Antonio (2014) whets the appetite to learn more about Egyptian and Nile cultures. The front cover displays the painted case of  Tamut and the CT of her body, Tamut was a priestess from Thebes circa 900 BC.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Thinking About Mummies

The mummified remains of humans retain a unique position in the popular perception of past civilizations, offering as they do a face to face fleshed representation of the human past.   In the fleshed state the historic or prehistoric mummified individual helps to represent this version of the human past in an immediate biological projection, rather than through a secondary non-biological artefact, i.e. the individual is present.  This representation however works in a variety of ways.  The mummified person is, of course, the physical remains of an individual who had once lived, yet they also often actively represent the values of the culture that they came from (through the interpretation of the mortuary and funerary evidence and deposition contexts on a part of the archaeologist).  The modern person who views or interacts with the mummy also projects their own views and feelings onto the mummified person by, for instance, their thoughts of displaying the dead (Alberti et al. 2009).  Added to this is the fact that mummies are often seen as mysterious and filled with a silent potent dread, forever linked in the popular cultural mind with the supernatural wolf man or vampires of the Hammer horror films for instance, or remain linked with the so-called mythical curse of Tutankhamen.

In short, the mummified remains of human beings are often emotive physical remains.  Yet they remain popular with both members of the public in museums and with archaeologists and physical anthropologists in studying the remains of past individuals and populations.  The preservation of soft tissues (including skin) can often highlight cultural practices or pathological evidence that do not survive in the skeletal record or remain undocumented in the written record (Panzer et al. 2014, Taylor & Antoine 2014).

Mummification Briefly

It also must be noted here that there are generally two processes of mummification that take place with human remains which are (a) active mummification of remains as practiced by humans, where the body of the deceased is prepared and preserved before final funerary deposition, and (b) accidental mummification, when the body is preserved through the luck of the burial environment.  Examples of natural preservation include the fascinating Pazyryk kurgan burials in the Altai, who have some of the earliest physical evidence of tattoos, and the western European bog bodies of the Iron Age, whose soft tissues are preserved in acidic bog and marsh environments.

The word mummy is itself a broad term, encompassing not just the classically bandaged Egyptian mummies but also the high altitude mummy bundles of the Inca, the Altai burials, and Tarim mummies of China, amongst many other known examples across the world.  We think of these exotic locations when we think of mummies, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the mummification of composite bodies (elements of individuals pieced together to form one and left above ground) took place during the British Bronze Age at a variety of locations (Parker-Pearson et al. 2005), and it may possibly have been a widespread mortuary phenomenon.  The work by Parker-Pearson and others (2005) is throwing light onto a practice that has, so far, been relatively invisible in places that do not have a favorable climate or burial conditions to preserve mummified individuals intact.  The purposeful mummification of the body then was a widely practiced process in both prehistoric and prehistoric contexts, practiced for a variety of reasons but it is often linked with the values held of an afterlife, of keeping the body as whole, lifelike and as safe as possible from decomposition (Alberti et al. 2009).

Many mummies from ancient (and not so ancient) Egyptian contexts were often used in corpse medicine (and as paint) in the late European medieval period and many more were excavated, transported and unwrapped in the 17th and 18th centuries during the gradual development of scientific inquiry.  It was in the 19th century that, in Europe, the unwrappings of mummies in both public and private contexts took off, as archaeological expeditions uncovered further named individuals at various sites and recordings were made of the anatomical aspects of the individuals that were unwrapped and dissected (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 17).  It should be noted however that many surviving mummies in collections from this period often have little to no documented provenance or contextual information regarding their find location and often placed in sarcophagi that are not from the same period (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 155).

Two important milestones in Egyptology stand out from this period.  The first was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which allowed the decipherment of the hieroglyphic text and thus the history of Egypt, which sent the European public into a tailspin of ancient Egyptian frenzy allowing many museums to build up substantial collections which were not always legally acquired.  The second was the advancement of medical science and the discovery and invention of the X-ray in 1890.  Mummy unwrappings continued but have become rare in recent decades, carried out only when there is a real need to and often only by a multidisciplinary team.  It is the use of X-rays and the development of CT scanning in the 1970’s (or CAT scan, computerized axial tomography) that has allowed non-invasive exploration of fragile mummies to produce 3D models that has really taken off, alongside the development of non-invasive biogeochemical sampling of mummy wrapping materials and mortuary substances (Panzer et al. 2014, Parker-Pearson et al. 2005).

Regardless of this wealth of knowledge and investigation, the ancient Egyptians themselves never fully documented the process of mummification in any records that have survived.  New techniques and on-going investigations are pushing back the boundary in understanding the origin and context of mummification however, as Jones et al. (2014) highlight in recent research in which the advent of purposeful Egyptian period mummification has been pushed back to over a thousands years before previously thought through study of the linen wrappings and resins used during the preservation process.  As Fletcher & Buckley (in Vogels 2013) highlight the fact that mummies are often still misunderstood and little studied in the archaeological record and it is, they state, very possible that mummies thought to be naturally preserved may well have been embalmed or treated on purpose for the preservation of the body, particularly in South American contexts.

Ancient Lives

The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries publication aims to highlight just what can be found using the latest in digital imaging technology on a selection of 8 human mummies from along the River Nile area.  The British Museum archive holds a total of 120 mummified individuals altogether, collected stage by stage since the museums foundation in the 1750’s, whilst the majority of the mummies highlighted in this publication were collected in the 19th century (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 13).  The period of intentional mummification by the Ancient Egyptians probably took place around the 2nd to 4th dynasties (3000 BC) right up until the Roman period of the fourth century AD.  The individuals under consideration span the Predynastic period (5500-3100 BC) right up until the Medieval period of the 7th century AD, a clever chronological approach in understanding the longitudinal aspects of mummification in ancient Egypt and northern Sudan.  The publication mixes the naturally mummified and the purposefully mummified, with the naturally preserved bodies of Gebelein Man B (3500 BC) from the Predynastic period and the anonymous 7th century AD tattooed medieval christian woman from Sudan both book-ending the publication.

If you picture mummies you see Tutankhamen, his ornate golden mask adorning his young body.  It may be a tired paradigm of Egyptian archaeology but this publication makes it clear that there was much more going on with regards to mortuary behaviour and funerary styles than is normally appreciated along the banks of the River Nile (Meyers 2014).  Thus the cross-section of individuals studied here spans not just a wide chronological time but also includes male and female adults and juveniles of different ages.  Alongside this the individual all come from different social groups and communities from villages, great temples and cities along the spread of the River Nile.  What this publication highlights then is the both the great variety in mortuary behaviour within the practice of mummification, but also the individual stories of the persons under study (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 2).

The 8 individuals under study, in publication order, are:

1. Gebelein Man B (Male, adult, Gebelein, c.3500 BC).

2. Unknown Man from Thebes (Male, middle/older adult 35 years and above, Thebes, c.600 BC).

3. Tamut (Female, adult, Thebes, c.900 BC).

4. Padiamenet (Male, middle adult 35-50 years, Thebes, c.700 BC).

5. Tjayasetimu (Female, juvenile 7 ± 3 years, Thebes or Fayum area, c.800 BC).

6. Roman Period Male (Male, adult, Thebes, 1st to 3rd century AD).

7. Roman Period Juvenile (Male, 2 years ± 9 months, location unknown, c. AD 40-60).

8. Christian Woman from Sudan (Female, young adult 20-35, Fourth Cataract Sudan, c. AD 655-775).

Although I will not discuss each and every individual above as it really is worth reading the book or visiting the exhibition if you can, I will highlight the Roman Period Male and Gebelein Man B as these are two mummies that really caught my attention.  They also represent two different approaches in the mortuary and funerary treatment of the individual and the society that they came from.  The Roman period male, below, is a particularly unique individual, stylized heavily to capture what the person looked like during his lifetime.

roman

The painted face of an unusual Roman period mummy dating from the c.1st to 3rd century AD. The adult male individual has several interesting features such as individually wrapped toes and fingers, padded thighs and breast area. It is likely that this is to represent the man as he was during life, possibly obese. The black bands on his cheek are a standard stylistic representation of a beard. Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Before the mummy had been CT scanned it was assumed for many years that the individual was a female due to the nature of the packing of the thighs and breast area.  Analysis of the skeleton highlighted that he was in fact an adult male, who had a lot of unusual dental wear by the time he died.  His incisors, canines and premolars showed heavy wear yet the molars have hardly any, although many of his molars had been lost ante-mortem.  This is suggestive of a change in the way this individual ate, using his front teeth as molars to crush and grind his food (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 144).  The way that this individual has been represented as a living individual on the front of his wrappings is a standard of the Roman period mummification, although many mummies also have encaustic life-like portraits painted on wood, often incorporated onto the bandages and packing of the mummy (the examples such as the Fayum portraits are well-known).

New Discoveries

It becomes evident quite quickly when reading the publication just how important the use of non-invasive scanning and imaging techniques are in the study of mummified individuals.  Not only are the bodies themselves not disturbed but they can be digitally stripped back layer by layer, from the bandages to the bone to unveil the person underneath as last seen by the embalmers and mortuary workers who prepared the body and decorated it.  As such the method highlights not just the soft tissue and skeletal anatomy but also the fabrics, packing and artefacts used and located on and within the mummy.

It can also highlight ante-mortem and post-mortem damage to the mummified remains, as well as the mistakes of the embalmer.  Padiamenet’s body, an adult male temple door-keeper from the 25th dynasty (c.700 BC), displays evidence that his head had become detached from his body during mummification.  The scanning of his body highlighted two poles inserted into the chest are used to support the head, with evidence of the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae remaining slightly misaligned (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 105).  Alongside this his coffin had to be extended, with linen wrap covering his protruding feet.  Cartonnage cases and coffins were often mass manufactured, only personalised as and when the individual died.

One of my personal favourites of the mummies investigated here is the naturally mummified body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male who died around 3500 BC in the Predynastic period.  One of 6 natural mummies in the British Museum collection, Gebelein Man B  was buried in a cemetery in Upper Egypt dating to the middle Predynastic period and lived in an era before Egyptian unification when chiefdom’s ruled the area.  The area in which he was buried suggests that Gebelein was a relatively important local settlement who practiced mixed subsistence of agriculture (cattle, sheep, and goats) with the fishing, fowling and collecting of wild fruits and berries (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 36).  The burial site of Gebelein Man B have provided the only evidence, or expression, for religious belief as the body was placed in a formal grave, with evidence for the crouched body having been placed between mats and probable deposited with offerings which have subsequently been removed by grave robbers (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 38).

gebelein man b skelly

The skeleton and body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male and a natural mummification from c.3500 BC.  Notice the semi-circular unknown artefact towards the bottom of his torso and the fracture of the right femur and ribs, likely due to post-mortem movement or excavation.  Fractures tend to break in a characteristic way when the person is alive (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 31).  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Gebelein Man B lived during a period of change in which the introduction of writing was eventually introduced, but no name was recorded for any resident of Gebelein, thus this individual, unlike many in the book, remains nameless.  His body is remarkably preserved for a body that has survived for over 5500 years, with his beard, nails and hair still in evidence.  The teeth are lightly worn, the presence of fusion lines in the long bones and the pelvis (pubic symphysis) all highlight that he was in his early twenties when he died (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 33).

Although the majority of the soft tissues have been preserved, the major organs have shrunk due to the desiccation process which must have been rapid to allow for such extensive preserve ration of his body.  When mummification became intensely practiced in the Dynastic period of Egyptian and northern Sudanese history the organs were often removed, preserved and kept in canopic jars separate to the body, so the preservation in-situ of Gebelein Man B’s viscera may offer a rare chance to sample human health during this period.  Perhaps most  interestingly is the preservation of foodstuffs in both the stomach and the colon, which could allow analysis of the foods consumed during Gebelein Man B’s lifetime.

gebelein man b skelly belly

Gebelein Man B (c.3500 BC) stripped back from the above image to reveal the soft tissues (in blue) still present in his cranium and torso.  The tissue highlighted in his pelvis is likely to be remains of his last meal.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Importantly Taylor & Antoine (2014: 39) highlight that whilst Gebelein Man B was a natural mummification, it should not be noted as a precursor to the artificial mummification that was practiced later.  Although re-cutting into a graveyard and noticing the preserved burials may have influenced generations of the population, at all times during the prehistory and historical span of this book people of lower status were buried in simple pits.  The long mortuary and  funerary rites involved in depositing the dead alongside deeper graves to protect bodies from grave robbing may have been two processes that influence the uptake in artificial mummification of individuals from around 3000 BC onwards.

The book does a fantastic job at introducing the importance of mummification to the ancient Egyptian and north Sudan cultures.  Today it may seem unusual, and at odds with the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage of depositing a body in the ground as soon as possible mentality, that this was a period of time where it was important that the body was prepared properly, over long periods of time, to maintain the individual identity of the deceased (Vogels 2013: 11). Yet it is an endlessly fascinating period of time that has captured the heart of many archaeologists, Egyptologists, and the general public.  Ancient Lives, new Discoveries will, no doubt, do the same.

Conclusion

As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if there was some variation within the same period for at least some of these individuals highlighted here.  It was a question that went unanswered in this publication, but I did feel that the book highlighted that the archaeology of mummification had much more to offer, especially in the realm of non-invasive imaging.  As such the publication is an invigorating read, wrote in a straightforward and easy to read manner that doesn’t skip on explaining the techniques used in the approach to understand the individual mummies skeletal biology, artefacts found with the bodies, and burial or deposition context of the individual.

This contextualisation of the individual is a smart approach in being able to engage an audience to understand that these mummies are individuals with their own life history.  I did feel that perhaps a larger contextual approach on funerary and burials rites could perhaps elucidate further information on a general population scale, however this was a minor niggle.  I was impressed at the use of the clear and precise terminology and the overall style of the publication.  The images in particular are clearly and precisely presented, and it is a joy to study the cross sections throughout the book, offering as they do, an unparalleled view of the ancient mummies.

It is wrong, though, to think that the mummification of human remains is something that was done purely in the past.  Recent research led, in part, by Buckley & Fletcher (2013: 12) has led to the actual mummification of a recently deceased person to explore the actual embalming chemicals and methodology used by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the body.  Alan, who donated his body to archaeological science, has already provided a wealth of knowledge on the actual mortuary process of embalming a human body the ancient Egyptian way by highlighting that a natron salt bath was the most effective way to preserve a body during the act of mummification (Marchant 2011).  Yet there are still many mysteries sounding the actual step by step method and role of mummification in the cultures of ancient Egypt and northern Sudan but this publication, and the exhibition at the British Museum, go some way to (digitally) unwrap the secrets that they hold.

Acknowledgements

I thank Hattie Clarke of the British Museum Press for providing the images for this post and for quickly answering  any questions that I had.  I also thank Loretta Kilroe for providing helpful comments on the archaeology of Egypt and Sudan.

Disclaimer

A copy of the British Museum publication Ancient Lives, New Discoveries was provided for the author to review.  No monetary transaction took place.

Further Information

  • The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries British Museum exhibition in London, England, is now open to the public until the 30th November 2014 with ticket prices at £10.00 for adults, £8.00 for students and children going free (other discounts are available).  Learn more about the 8 individual mummies at the British Museum website here.
  • An enlightening interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen Buckley, who are both a part of the York Mummy Group, on mummification and the Mummifying Alan project can be found here at The Post Hole journal.
  • The journal Papers in Anthropology, issued under the European Anthropological Association, have a new open access special edition out (Vol. 23 (1) 2014) which focuses exclusively on mummy studies and mummification.  Click the title above to learn more.
  • Head over to Loretta Kilroe’s blog, Cake and Ceramics, here to learn more about the daily life of an Egyptologist and to learn about her other projects on the go.

Bibliography

Alberti, S. J. M.M., Bienkowski, P., Chapman, M. J. & Drew, R. 2009. Should We Display the Dead? Museum and Society. 7 (3): 133-149. (Open Access).

Jones, J., Higham, T. F. G., Oldfield, R., O’Connor, T. P. & Buckley, S.A. 2014. Evidence for Prehistoric Origins of Egyptian Mummification in Late Neolithic Burials. PLoS ONE(8): e103608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103608. (Open Access).

Marchant, J. 2011. Egyptian Mummification Method Resurrected in the UK. New Scientist. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Meyers, K. 2014. Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Fascinating Look Into the Life and Death of Eight Ancient Egyptians.  Bones Don’t lie. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Panzer,  S., Peschel, O., Haas-Gebhard, B., Bachmeier, B. E., Pusch, C. M. & Nerlich, A. G. 2014. Reconstructing the Life of an Unknown (ca. 500 Years-Old South American Inca) Mummy – Multidisciplinary Study of  a Peruvian Inca Mummy Suggests Severe Chagas Diseas and Ritual Homicide. PLoS One. (2): e89528. (Open Access).

Parker-Pearson, M., Chamberlain, A., Craig, O., Marshall, P., Mulville, J., Smith, H., Henery, C., Collins, M., Cook, G., Craig, G., Evans, J., Hiller, J., Montgomery, J., Schwenninger, J-L., Taylor, G. & Wess, T. 2005. Evidence for Mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity. 79 (305): 529-546.

Taylor, J. H. & Antoine, D. 2014. Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.  London: The British Museum Press.

Vogels, R. 2013. Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings – An Interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen BuckleyThe Post Hole. Special Edition. 1-16. (Open Access).

Pain, Briefly

17 Jun

Just a quick note here.  I had the good luck of hearing historian Joanna Bourke on BBC Radio 4 program Start the Week yesterday morning who was on the show debating the topic of her latest publication titled, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers.  The book focuses on trying to understand and contextualise the feeling of bodily and physical pain from the 18th century AD to the modern period.  Bourke, who is a Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, presents a holistic history of understanding pain in which the topic is approached from numerous angles, including not just the medical but also the cultural, religious and political.  The book also deals with the personal experience of pain and the nature of suffering, both in the individual sense and within wider society from the family out.  It certainly looks like an interesting and enlightening read.

Having read a few reviews of the book itself, and of having heard Bourke herself discuss the differences in understanding the many types of pain, it reminded of sociologists Ann Oakley’s 2007 book Fracture , of which I discussed a little here.  Although Oakley’s book is a much more personal and reflective study with its focus on the modern health perspective, Bourke (2014) also discusses the role and changes that medicine has gone through in the past and present approaches and treatments when considering illnesses and patients themselves.  Of particular interest on the radio show this morning was Bourke’s assertion that different cultures experience pain in a myriad of ways.  This, of course, made me think of how bioarchaeologists approach the archaeological record and how we try to understand palaeopathology in relation to the individual osteobiographic context, within the population and society that the person lived in, together the original context of the landscape environment of the archaeology site (read more about osteobiographical examples here).

Bioarchaeology is, as a field, a burgeoning area of archaeological research, one that ably and actively straddles the humanities and science divide with ease.  Bioarchaeologists often complement their normal macro and micro assessment of the skeletal remains with the regular use of the latest scientific techniques and refinements, including but not limited to stable isotopic and ancient DNA analysis, to help understand the processes, implications and contexts of a pathology within a population.   This often includes trying to contextualise and understand traumatic or congenital pathologies that can be present in the skeletal remains of humans (White & Folkens 2005).  It must be remembered of course that only a small fraction of diseases known ever affect or actively present on bone itself (Waldron 2009).

Pain though is rarely considered when describing a pathology that is present on an archaeological bone.  This is partly due to the nature of the limitations of archaeology, but also partly due to the existing bioarchaeological literature.  Care to not exceed the evidence must take precedence, otherwise bioarchaeologists risk inflating the boundaries between the known and the unknown.  Pain itself is a uniquely personal feeling and it can be a difficult feeling to describe.  It can also be paradoxical as to know pain is to be reminded that you are alive, but to know that pain means it is also a warning that life is threatened.

As a purely personal perspective I have recently found out something rather interesting about my own skeletal biology.  As readers of this blog may be aware that I have McCune-Albright Syndrome (MAS) and, as a part of this, polyostotic fibrous dysplasia.  MAS is, as far as it is currently possible to tell, a fairly rare bone disease that can lead to fractures and bowing of the bones (more information here and also Dumetriscu & Collins 2008) amongst other things.  Having broken a good number of the long bones of my body, I am now acutely aware of what a fracture feels like.  Recently however, and completely unbeknownst to myself beforehand, I learnt that I have been fracturing my ribs for a number of years, as both x-rays and a CT scan showed a fair amount of bone re-modelling and faint healed fracture lines on a number of ribs.

Why hadn’t I noticed?

Partly it was because the fractures themselves weren’t that painful (I am well aware that rib fractures are usually pretty painful).  In fact I have been aware for years that I occasionally pull the superficial or intercostal rib muscles on either side periodically, and that this had always led to a good few days of unease if I slept on the affected side, coughed or laughed too hard.  I had put this down to using the wheelchair more over an extended period of time starting from my mid adolescence, following on from several major surgeries on the femora.  I reasoned that due to repetitive nature of the motion of wheeling in a manual wheelchair the muscles were bound to get sore and fatigued at some points.

chestxray22222

A copy of the posterior to anterior x-ray of my own chest. Although the healed rib bruises and fractures cannot clearly be seen on it, the constriction of the chest wall is highlighted (black arrows).  This can have an effect on the air intake of the lung capacity.  Generally fractured ribs are left to heal naturally unless there has been puncturing of internal organs by the ribs themselves, in which cases surgery is needed.  (Read more here).

I was well aware that the ribs are one of the more common areas of the body to be affected by MAS, along with the femora and cranial bones, yet I paid little attention to what I thought was a pulled muscle  (Dumetriscu & Collins 2008, Waldron 2009).  I could still move relatively fine afterwards, and it certainly wasn’t that painful.  So, as you can imagine, I was somewhat surprised to hear that I had at least four previous rib fractures that had healed, which were clearly evident on the X-rays and the scans taken of my chest as I saw.  I should state though that it is likely to have been a mix of micro, hairline and full fractures on pathologically diseased bone, and not traumatically induced fractures which, I hear, can be extremely painful.

As such, and having heard Bourke talk about how individuals cope with pain, it should be taken into account by bioarchaeologists that skeletal pathology probably elicited different responses dependent on the social and cultural context of the individual.  This is of course important when considering the impact of a pathology present on the bones.  This, necessarily, becomes more problematic as we reach further into history and prehistory, where the lack of contextual and written evidence can be missing or non-existent.

However, as archaeologist and bioarchaeologists, we must also continually ask questions regardless and especially when skeletal material has already been analysed.  New techniques, theories or methodologies are only useful once they have been applied to the existing archaeological record and are repeatedly tested against what we think we know.

Alongside Bourke on the Radio 4 show was the current director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, who discussed his experiences as a medical doctor and the possible implications of the overuse antibiotics, and Norman Fowler, a conservative MP who oversaw the public health campaign against the spread and threat of HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s in Britain.  Each guest on the program was well worth a listen.

It is safe to say that Bourke’s work is another book that I shall be adding to my ever increasing pile.

Further Information

  • Listen to the Start the Week program, on which Professor Bourke appeared, on BBC Radio 4 here.
  • A review by The Guardian of the History of Pain: From Prayers to Painkillers book be found here.

Bibliography

Bourke, J. 2014. The History of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dumitrescu, C. E. & Collins, M. T.  2008.  Overview: McCune-Albright SyndromeOrphanet Journal of Rare Disease3 (12): 1-12. (Open Access).

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

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology (Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

A Stone to Throw II: Upcoming Archaeology Conferences

7 Apr

A few dates for the diary as this year sees some pretty exciting archaeology and bioarchaeology themed conferences rolling towards us in the next four months of 2014 or so.  Conferences are fantastic places to learn about new techniques or research approaches in archaeology.  It can also be a thrill watching famed archaeologists and professors speak in the flesh about topics which they are passionate about.  Conferences, depending on their target audience, can sometimes be open to the public and members of academia alike, but they can also vary widely in cost depending on their location, size and prestige.

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Without further ado here are a few conferences that have peaked my interest and some that I hope to attend myself (although Istanbul may have to be missed due to an unfortunate clash with BABAO):

Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014, Wath-Upon-Dearne

The community focused Elmet Archaeology group, who were recently mentioned here as a part of an interview with their osteoarchaeologist Lauren McIntyre, are hosting their annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day in Wath-Upon-Dearne, South Yorkshire, on Saturday the 31st of May.  Open to the members of the public and archaeologists alike, the day long conference costs £18 (£14 unwaged) to attend and boasts a host of speakers on a variety of topics.  The full list of speakers has yet to be announced but so far includes British archaeological stalwarts such as David Connolly of BAJR fame, Prof Joan Fletcher of the University of York and a range of speakers from archaeological units across the country.  There will also be a number of stalls on the day, including information booths on how to illustrate archaeology style by Kate Adelade, Dearne Valley Archaeology Group and a stall with Jenny Crangle detailing the medieval Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project (which has been previously discussed on this blog).   

Exploring Changing Human Beliefs About Death, Mortality and the Human Body, Invisible Dead Project Conference, Durham

The University of Durham is playing host to the Invisible Dead Project conference from Friday 6th of to the Sunday the 8th of June.  The conference has two lectures on the Friday and Saturday nights which are open to the public and two full days of talks for students and academics during the Saturday and Sunday daytime.  The conference is, quite wonderfully, completely free to attend.  The ongoing Invisible Dead Project is a large-scale international collaboration aimed at studying the prehistoric and historic attitudes to death and burial of Britain and the Levant areas.  Information and details of sites under study can be found here at the University of Durham webpage.

The conference welcomes anthropologists, archaeologists and members of the public interested in death and  human remains in prehistory and up contemporary society to attend.  The first public speaker is Prof. Peter Pfälzner, from the University of Tübingen, explaining work carried out on long-term royal funerary processes at Qatna, Syria, on Friday night (6.30pm), whilst Prof Mike Parker Pearson discusses problems and perspectives in funerary archaeology on the Saturday night (6.30pm).  If you are interested in attending the conference forms should be completed before the 30th of April.

British association of Biological Anthropologists and Osteoarchaeologists, Durham

The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology are holding their annual conference at the University of Durham in September, from Friday 12th to the Sunday 14th.  The three-day conference will feature a broad range of presentations, talks and posters on the great range and wealth of  osteoarchaeology in Britain and beyond.  The call for papers has just been announced and is open until the 9th of June.  Last year’s conference program can be found here.  Although details have not been released just yet of the costs of attending the conference, it is likely that it will upwards of £140 to attend (based on 2013 BABAO member rates).  The information concerning the 4 sessions has just been released and are based around the following clusters:

1) The body and society: past perspectives on the present

2) Biological anthropology and infectious disease: new developments in understanding from bioarchaeology, palaeoanthropology, primatology, and archaeozoology

3) New developments in biomolecular methods

4) Open session

Details on the key-note speakers for each session can be found here, as can further information on conference guidelines for following abstract guidelines and submission dates.  The BABAO conference is the foundation stone of conferences in the UK osteology calendar as it really does represent the best in current research in the UK and beyond.  Although I have yet to attend one (due to costs), I have high hopes of attending this year’s event in the lovely historic (and local to me) city of Durham.

European Association of Archaeologists, Istanbul

The European Association for Archaeologists host their conference in September, from the Wednesday the 10th to the Sunday the 14th, in Istanbul, Turkey.  The call for papers and posters has now closed, but they did receive a very healthy 2400 submissions in total.  The broad topics of discussion for the 2014 session are categorised into 6 different focus areas including:

1) Connecting seas: across the borders

2) Managing archaeological heritage: past and present

3) Ancient technologies in social context

4) Environment and subsistence: the geosphere, ecosphere and human interaction

5) Times of change: collapse and transformative impulses

6) Retrieving and interpreting the archaeology record

The fees for attending the EAA conference ranges in price from €40 to €180 dependent on category of the applicant (see here for the full extensive list, you are enrolled as a member of the EAA on purchase of conference tickets), but all are welcome to join the conference.  It promises to be an interesting conference with the attendance of some of the most important archaeologists in Europe discussing a wide variety of topics, including a number of speakers discussing human osteology related topics.  Istanbul is also a fantastic place to host a conference positioned as it is between the crossing of the West into the East and vice versa, and boasting a city full of heritage, archaeology and art.

Is Gender Still Relevant? University of Bradford

The British Academy and the University of Bradford are holding a two day event on the question of whether gender is still relevant.  The mini conference runs from Wednesday the 17th to the Thursday the 18th of September and it is free to attend.  Guest speakers include Professor Rosemary Joyce from the University of California and Dr Roberta Gilchrist from the University of Reading, who will discussing sex and gender dichotomies in archaeology.  You can find out more information here and, as far as I am aware, there is still time to submit abstracts for the conference.

No doubt there will be more archaeology and osteology based conferences going on so please feel free to leave a comment below.

Excavating the War Dead of WW2: The Eastern Front

31 Mar

It is a grim tally.  By the end of the Second World War in 1945, an estimated total of around 70 million people had been killed world-wide as a result of the conflict.  On the Eastern Front alone an estimated 26 million individuals perished, and a further 4 million individuals were listed as missing in action after the devastation and ferocity of the battles between the Nazi and Soviet armies and assorted armed factions (Applebaum 2013, Merridale 2013).

Unlike the war in Western Europe, the war in the East was total.  A large percentage of the Eastern Front dead were the civilians of various countries caught, as they so often were, between the invasions or incursions of Nazi or Soviet forces.  Whole landscapes were decimated of any economic functionality (as a part of the scorched earth policy), populations were wiped out or moved en-mass, and the savagery of the conduct of the armies poised against each other was truly horrifying.  Further to this the bulk of the Nazi extermination camps used in the Holocaust were located in Eastern Europe, and the majority of the camps were often used after the destruction of the Nazi regime by the Soviets for imprisoning political and war prisoners for many years (Applebaum 2013).  It was not simply a war of clashing ideologies but a conflict that was deeply fractured along racial, ethnic, national and international tensions.

For anyone seeking an overview and understanding of the final years of the conflict in Eastern Europe, and the subsequent communist takeover, I highly recommend historian Anne Applebaum’s (2013) Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe book.  It is a highly researched and detailed account of the differing methods used by the Soviet Union throughout the 1940s, in Eastern Europe, to subjugate populations and countries to the communist political and moral system.

The excavation and retrieval of the many fallen civilians and soldiers that still lie in the soil of various Eastern European countries is a subject that one should treat with caution and the utmost respect, as one should with excavating any victims of human rights violations or any archaeological skeletal remains.  The Second World War is also still within living memory, as many individuals who fought and lived throughout the war are still alive themselves.

Therefore it is with some consternation, sadness and anger that I learnt about National Geographic Channel’s latest archaeology based program Nazi War Diggers, a particularly damaging show that promotes dubious ethical standards in the digging up and removal of human remains and WW2 era artefacts.  Many archaeology, metal detectorists and bioarchaeology bloggers have already helped highlight the fury that many feel on reading the preview information for the show, for the supposed ‘experts’ used in the show and for the footage that highlights the disrespectful removal and handling of human remains from a WW2 context.  A number of researchers have also highlighted the possible infringement of European legal standards and the likely illegal exportation and selling of WW2 artefacts by one of the show’s main presenters.  Further to this a number of institutions that should have been contacted and informed of the work beforehand (National Museums in Latvia and Poland, for example) have not been contacted or have been ignored when they tried to intervene.

Further to the above, as Dr Sam Hardy of Conflict Archaeology is currently documenting, in detail, an enlightening and frankly horrifying series of posts of the whole sorry charade.  National Geographic themselves have backtracked, removed public comments from their social media websites and have removed suspect and dubious video footage of the show from their online website (including the use of Neo-Nazi language during the unearthing of human remains).  This is frankly very disappointing behaviour.  National Geographic is a large organisation, one where the magazine, TV show, research foundation and online forms are all independent from each other but retain the National Geographic brand.  The Nazi War Diggers program is deeply disappointing and infuriating, as are the National Geographic responses to queries by specialists and non-specialists alike.

The companies involved in the making of this program include the following: the National Geographic television channel, Legenda (the specialist company used in the Latvia based digging), production company ClearStory and the Fox Entertainment Group.

The three presenters involved are not trained archaeological excavators or trained field anthropologists in the recording and removal of human remains, yet video footage explicitly shows the removal of human skeletal material from a war grave with the use of inappropriate and damaging tools, no recording of the context of the remains nor any respect or care taken in identifying the bone elements post immediate removal.  The principal three presenters of the show (Kris Rodgers, Stephen Taylor and Craig Gottlieb, alongside Adrian Kostromski) are curious choices to front such a show.  In particular Craig Gottlieb has a record for selling WW2 artefacts for profit and has stated in online websites that he has no problems getting artefacts past customs or finding artefacts to sell.  This raises all sorts of ethical problems and probable clashes of interest during his involvement with Nazi War Diggers.

Indeed Gottlieb had been quoted as saying: “(I) feel that by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with”.  A quote which was quickly retracted by the National Geographic Channel on their website.

The company behind the so-called excavation of human remains in WW2 contexts in Latvia, Legenda, have numerous Youtube videos up of their work – please be aware this is strictly not how trained archaeologists or anthropologists excavate and record human remains, especially those that likely still have living relatives.  As can be evidence in the videos no care or attention is paid to the remains uncovered, no ethics are abided by and no respect is paid to the fallen that have been uncovered.  It is some of the most upsetting scenes of desecration  of war graves that I have seen.  There must have been an awful lot of contextual information lost purely because of the approach used by Legenda.  Bear in mind that individuals from WW2 graves can often still be identified and returned to places of rest.  This will not be the case when desecration and destruction of evidence happens on a scale that is the outcome of the approach Legenda use (1).

For National Geographic to actively work with such companies and individuals is a shock, it disastrously promotes the profane practice of war grave robbing.  It is extremely disappointing and disturbing.  There are no other words to describe it.  Personally I having trouble articulating my thoughts on this subject because I am so surprised and disheartened that such a program could be made for entertainment purposes.  Furthermore it gives archaeology, bioarchaeology and human osteology a bad name when in fact these fields of study and inquiry are vital to understanding the people, the cultures and the landscapes of the past.  Quite proactively it seems that this is not the case with the Nazi War Diggers show.  I am also worried that this show will produce a monochrome view of the Eastern Front.  I am deeply worried that the individuals exhumed during the production of the show may be misidentified or cast aside.  I, for one, await evidence from National Geographic on the osteological reports and deposition of the skeletal remains excavated (excavation generally implies recording of the archaeological context, something that this show lacks) during the course of the show.

The website for the program (linked above) states that ‘misinformation’ has already been spread about the show, and that the show will explicitly state the difference in the work that it supposedly conducts and the work of ‘black digging’, i.e. grave robbing for the selling of artefacts.  Yet the damage has surely already been done by the way in which National Geographic has conducted the work already.  By associating with known sellers of WW2 relics, for profit, and by using companies that have a documented and explicit history of desecrating war graves, the National Geographic Channel has itself already condemned its own show from the start.  For me there is no argument – Nazi War Diggers is an abhorrent show, both morally and ethically.

A part of me cannot help but wonder what news the National Geographic Channel is holding back before the airing of Nazi War Diggers – will the show include the respectful identifying or re-burial of the individuals who have been dug up on the show, are the artefacts associated with WW2 contexts preserved, documented and stored in museums?  So far the news from the channel, the production company and the companies associated with the show do not provide hope in the methods that they been shown to have used.

I want to highlight something else though, something positive from an article that appeared in the BBC online magazine a few months ago, something that provides a different perspective on excavating and exhuming the individuals who died on the Eastern Front in WW2.

In a recent article Ash (2014) highlighted the work of the volunteers throughout the Russian Federation that have dedicated their time and efforts to locating and excavating the missing soldiers of the Red Army on the Eastern Front.  Documenting one such group, Exploration, which is one of a suspected 600 groups or so, the article details the work that they do in excavating, identifying and re-burying the Soviet war dead of WW2.  In contrast to the above show by the National Geographic Channel, the Exploration group have had some success in carefully excavating, recording and identifying the individuals that they have uncovered where they fell, during the German offensive code named Operation Barbarossa, in the forests around St Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad).

Intriguingly there is evidence of the cover up of the graves in this area during the 1950s and 1960s by the communist regime, by planting trees to help cover the physical remains of battle and thus prohibit any chance discovery.  The priority was instead to re-build a shattered country.  The largely independent volunteer groups described in the BBC article receive no initial help in recovering the bodies of the fallen, but do seem to be able to help fund an honourable reburial once documenting, recording and removal of the bodies have taken place, although it is unclear to me if the Russian Federation provides funding or materials for this.  Importantly it is by giving back the unknown soldiers their identifies (if they can be identified by their ID tags or personal belongings) that the volunteer groups are able to bring closure to some families today by helping to return and re-unite long lost loved individuals.

In a quick last mention, I recently received a copy of Clea Koff’s book The Bone Woman in the post, a book detailing the forensic anthropologist’s work with the United Nations in helping to exhume and identify modern victims of genocide.  The book has a particular focus on her work in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia, detailing the information that her team helped to collect and recover and how it was used in trials against the people who helped order or carry out the killings in these countries in the 1990s.  It was on reading Osteoadventures post on the National Geographic debacle that I came across Koff’s book, and I highly recommend giving it a read.  There are many many people, both individuals and organisations worldwide, that conduct thorough investigations into human rights violations (such as recovering evidence and human remains from genocide contexts or discovering and investigating clandestine graves) that deserve our support and acknowledgement.  The National Geographic Channel’s Nazi War Diggers program is not among these.  The damage that the show has already caused, in part evidenced above, should be protested against.  Human remains deserve better treatment.

Update 01/04/14

According to the New York Times (via Dr Sam Hardy) the National Geographic Channel has pulled the Nazi War Diggers program indefinitely.

Notes

(1). Once again Dr Sam Hardy has updated his excellent blog with some salient remarks regarding Legenda and their techniques.  In particular he highlights the fact that the people behind the company want to help and that, at times, they cannot do as much of a professional job as one would hope.  This does not excuse all of their actions in the videos linked to above, but it does explain some to a degree.  I heartily recommend readers to check Dr Hardy’s blog for regular updates on the situation and for further information.

Further Reading

  • Dr Sam Hardy regularly investigates and updates his blog, Conflict Antiquities, on this matter and many others.
  • Sign a Change.org petition here to stop the airing of the show.
  • Bodies and Academia has highlighted a range of responses from the archaeology blogging world.

Bibliography

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Ash, L. 2014. Digging For Their Lives: Russia’s Volunteer Body Hunters. BBC Online Magazine.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fiesta_de_las_Natitas_La_Paz_Bolivia-19a

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.

What Not To Do In A Morgue: A Lesson For The Archaeologist?

4 Feb

The fantastic Chirurgeon’s  Apprentice Facebook page has highlighted this rather dark but entertaining article by Simon Winchester on his experience of working in a morgue for a summer in the early 1960’s.  In it Simon explains the many lessons he learned when dealing first hand with cadavers of the recently dead, but he also highlights one big mistake he made with a particular gentleman.

Winchester explains:

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled into the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery, and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through Mr. Utton’s desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. It offered me a single line of advice on leukemia: “Remove femur,” it said, “and send it for examination by the laboratory.” (Winchester 2014).

Duly having removed one of the gentleman’s femora for testing and then prepared and dressed the cadaver, Winchester waited for the undertaker to come and take the man away.  However the undertaker was not impressed by the rather floppy state of one of the man’s thighs and told Winchester to put something inside it to stabilize it whilst he went away for dinner.  Unfortunately Winchester chose a zinc metal rod to replace the removed femur, unaware that the individual in question was due to be cremated, not buried, the next day.

Morgue1

A familiar scene from morgues across the land. Tags were often kept on the toes of bodies to identify them and highlight any pathology in the body (Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS, from here).

Fortunately a good dose of black humour from the family saved any law suits appearing, but the article did make me think about the implications for this in archaeological record.  For example for a person to practice a trade they must first learn and train, often undergoing an apprenticeship under a master or a tradesman.  Mistakes are bound to made in any field of trade, particularly where high technical skill is needed to carry out a procedure.  I wonder if sometimes, especially in the field of prehistoric mortuary archaeology, some things are held up as examples of ritual activities where there has perhaps been a simple mistake that has been covered up or not uncovered, or a result of the taphonomy processes at play.

It also reminded me of a particularly fine biography by Joel F. Harrington of a 16th century Nuremberg executioner that I read late last year.  Meister Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a remarkable man, known principally as a highly skilled executioner who attained a particularly high rank in the famous city.  Contrary to his official position Schmidt also became a well-respected healer in his later life.  He carried out his job, indeed his life, with the up-most respect for the sanctity of the position that his father passed down to him, even though he was largely excluded from society because of his job during the majority of his life.  Amazingly the intimate details (names, crimes and last moments) of the many individuals that he dispatched, and the execution methods that were used, were all kept in a personally sparse diary that Schmidt himself wrote.

Schmidt executing

The only reliable picture of Franz Schmidt in action, seen here executing Hans Froschel on the 18th of May in 1591. A brutal but quick death by the sword, a method that required a quick and a steady arm stroke to dispatch the victim. It could easily go wrong if the stroke was not powerful enough to slice and separate the head from the body. (Image credit: Staatsarchiv Nürnberg here).

Harrington makes the point that the young executioner, during the process of learning his trade from his father, likely used butchered animals and stray dogs to practice the various execution methods that were used during this period.  Whilst the book is full of grisly details (being broken on the wheel must have been hell for one), Harrington (2013) puts Schmidt, his life and work, into a broader German and European political framework that effectively illuminates the value that the executioner played in the keeping of law and order in the 16th century.

Being an executioner also often took a physical and mental strain as it was a demanding office to hold, having to both torture and execute criminals but also having to take part in the often elaborate processions of walking the criminal (Harrington 2013).  Further to this there was always the constant reminder that executioners who were accused of a botched torture session or execution could find themselves being penalized or outcast, or even executed, much like the doctors of the day who were accused of failing a patient (Harrington 2013).  I also recommend Winder’s (2011) informal free for all journey around Germany, which also wonderfully places the country in a historical context and is well worth a read alone for some pretty interesting historical hangouts.

Further Information

  • The article, by Simon Winchester, can be found here.
  • An extract of Meister Franz Schmidt’s diary and of a talk by Harrington can be read here.
  • Head to medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s enthralling site The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice to learn all about surgery in the early modern period.
  • For all your mortuary archaeology needs head to Bones Don’t Lie, a regularly updated blog by Katy Meyers who is a PhD candidate in mortuary anthropology at Michigan State University.

Bibliography

Harrington, J. F. 2013. The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent 16th Century. London: Picador.

Winder, S. 2011. Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. London: Picador.