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The End of the MSc at the University of Sheffield…

17 Dec

Just over a year ago I wrote a blog entry on the beginnings of the MSc at the University of Sheffield, which detailed the modules that made up the course and the contents of each module.  I graduate next month, and I feel now is a pertinent time to reflect on both the modules and the department as a whole, one year on.  Perhaps first and foremost I should state that I enjoyed the course thoroughly, that it tested me in ways in which I had not been tested in academia before, and offered opportunities I’d never though I’d get to experience.  However, it is also wise to add that this is my own personal experience, and as such, the reader should be aware that this a subjective review.

As I stated in the original blog post I had chosen the University of Sheffield partly because it offered the opportunity to dissect human cadavers and to learn firsthand what the muscles and associated anatomy looked and felt like.  In fact, this is still the only University in the UK that offers a hands on anatomy and dissection class in an MSc in studying Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology.  A second important factor was the fact that many now practicing the profession in the UK undertook and passed this course or it’s sister course at The University of Bradford, as they were both devised and set up by Professor Charlotte Roberts in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  This course is widely respected as a benchmark in osteological Masters, both in the UK and abroad.

However there has also been important recent changes with regards to staff in the archaeology department at Sheffield since the conclusion of my time of study, and this has affected the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology.  Mike Parker Pearson, who taught the funerary archaeology module on the Masters course, has moved to UCL to teach and carry on research, whilst Dr Andrew Chamberlain, who taught Biological Anthropology I & II & Quantitative Methods in Anthropology, has moved to the University of Manchester (although no webpage is currently up displaying his profile).  Further to this a small number of prehistorians  have also left the department.  Perhaps most importantly is the advent of the new MSc in Osteoarchaeology offered at the University of Sheffield, which combines human and animal osteological modules.  This does however place further stress onto the human osteology lab and skeletal materials in the department.

As per the earlier blog entry a break down of the modules will now be presented.

1. Human Osteology-

A single lecture covered a certain part of the skeletal anatomy whilst a follow up lab session involved a detailed look at the typical osteological landmarks for each element, alongside how to side the element.  The practical was marked in a series of bi-monthly osteological tests in the 1st semester, whilst a essay accounts for the remaining 40% of the module mark.  This module, alongside the anatomy module below, accounted for many many hours spent in the laboratory studying variations and fragments of the skeletal elements.  It is heavily recommended you work both by yourself,  and with others testing you and each other.

2. Human Anatomy-

A single lecture covered a certain part of the musculoskeletal anatomy (anterior ante-brachium for instance) followed by a practical dissection class in the medical teaching unit at the university.  Perhaps one of the more intensive modules, which involved a thorough study and revision of the anatomy before and after the practical classes.  Two timed exams, one covering the upper body delivered half way through the 1st semester and the second covering the lower half of the body at the end of the 1st semester, is the way in which the module is marked.  The exams take the format of ten un-annotated diagrams with four parts each, and the questions asking to name the muscles and actions etc.

3. Biological Anthropology I-

A 1st semester lecture and lab based module, which followed on from the human osteology module.  Included varyingly successful methods of aging, sexing, and palaeopathological markers, alongside indicators of health, stature and overall height.  Competing methods for each of the above, on different elements and sections of the skeletons, were presented, which highlighted the vast range of discrepancies between some solid, and some not so solid methods.  The assessment for this module was a skeletal report on two individuals, one adult and one child, from the skeletal collections, and how well different methods were applied.

4. Biological Anthropology II-

A 2nd semester lecture and lab based module on the wider issues in biological anthropology, including human evolution, diet, health, mass disasters, forensics, recording and technology in osteology.  A single written assessment with preset titles was used to mark this module.

5. Funerary Archaeology-

A 1st semester lecture based module discussing a variety of topics throughout the main topic of funerary archaeology.  This included social and cultural reactions to death, and the dead body, how the body is treated to death, historical and prehistoric traditions from around the globe, and the science behind the decomposition of the human body.  A single essay was set on pre-assigned topics, although free range is given to the discussion and examples used.

6. Quantitative Methods in Anthropology-

Each week in the 2nd semester a different statistical method is used in a case study.  This module introduces the basics of statistical analysis using the SPSS19/20 program, and teaches which statistical tests should be used on both parametric and non-parametric data sets, and how to interpret the results.  A statistical report based on original questions applied to a compiled cemetery dataset is the way in which this module is marked.  I only truly learnt to understand the importance and value of statistical analysis whilst conducting research for my dissertation itself, during long hours of repeating a variety of tests against my own database.  By going through each of the weekly tests a few times a week a core bedrock of knowledge can be formed, but it can still be (and is!) mystifying at times.

7. Biomolecular Archaeology (module choice)-

A lecture based study of the breadth of biomolecular archaeology.  Topics included aDNA, infectious diseases, human evolution and stable light isotopes amongst others.  Although disappointing in the fact that there were no practical classes, the revolving door nature of the lecturers kept the talks interesting and vibrant, as the various researchers were clearly invigorated by their topics.

8. Research Design in Anthropology-

This module consisted of reading various themed articles each week and discussing them in front of the study group.  Ultimately, this was a hit and miss affair, with some articles covered in depth and others lightly skimmed over.  The marked component of this module was a critically assessed research design of the dissertation topic under consideration.

9 Dissertation Topic-

The dissertation consisted of original research, and naturally led on from the Research Design in Anthropology.  Ideally have a topic idea, or area, in your mind before the end of the 1st semester.  Although this is not necessary, it will help you work through any potential problems, and let you decide if a topic is feasible or not.  Depending if you are conducting physical examinations on human bones or carrying out practical tests, or if your topic is mainly statistical or literature based, always make sure you factor in enough laboratory and library time to conduct your tests and research.  In my experience, time with supervisors was severally limited during the summer months due to movement (both student/staff), and conflicting timetables.  I conducted statistical testing on Strontium isotope ratios from 422 individuals from the LBK period in Central Europe taken from the existing literature, with regards to mobility and migration.

Ultimately this course is what you yourself make of it.  The first semester is especially intense, focusing on the osteology and the anatomy, with almost weekly exams testing your new found knowledge.  The second semester is more relaxed, with a focus on research for essays and original research for dissertation projects.  Although this course is a taught Masters, it is heavily advised that you take every opportunity to study in the human osteological laboratory, and make full use of the skeletal elements, skeletal collections, and the muscle marked anatomical models.  Compared to courses abroad, the time spent teaching by the staff may seem limited, so it is heavily advised that personal study is conducted in conjunction, especially in familiarizing yourself with the anatomy and osteological landmarks.

With any future prospective student, I’d advise that you research the type of Masters program that you want, and compare and contrast the varying courses on offer in the UK and abroad.  The UK is currently experiencing a boom in the forensic sciences, and this is reflected by the introduction and rise of forensic archaeology, especially in conjunction with forensic osteology and biomolecular archaeology.  Remember to email and ask specific questions on the courses you are interested in, and ask to see the figures for past students regarding employment or research routes taken.