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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.

MSc Abstractions

15 Sep

I am home and I am broke, but I’m thankful my dissertation has been handed in on time!  Whilst it is a sweet relief that it is over, I am not altogether happy with that particular body of work.  I probably shouldn’t, but it’s quite possible I’ll review it and apply a few new tests on the LBK dataset I used just to settle some nagging thoughts.

The abstract for my MSc dissertation is as follows:

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Local and non-local individuals have long been a source of interest in the consideration of the spread of Early Neolithic farming societies in Europe.  This study investigates the strontium isotope signatures of 422 individuals from 9 Linearbandkeramik sites spread across their chronological range, with a focus on SW Germany.  The sites used in this study include: Vedrovice, Neider-Morlen, Vaihingen, Aiterhofen, Schwetzingen, Kleinhadersdorf, Nitra, Talheim and Stuttgart-Mühlhausen.  A variety of sites are represented, including critically important early sites (Vedrovice, Neider-Morlen), sustained cemetery sites (Aiterhofen, Nitra) and a massacre site (Talheim).  Using a battery of statistical tests, this study investigates the differences in the strontium isotopic data (87Sr/86Sr) between males, females and juveniles.   This is carried out at broad levels of the data profile, period profile and site profile, coupled with other variables such as funerary artefacts and age categories, in the light of recent literature categorising the LBK society as patrilocal in nature.   The results indicate no statistical significance between the categories; however a review of the literature indicates that the most appropriate tests have not been applied.  A discussion of the recent literature indicates that the theory of the practice of patrilocality in the LBK culture can be upheld, whilst this study introduces some interesting variable behaviour in the LBK culture.

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Now that I’ve finished the dissertation,  my own blog posts should hopefully become more regular in number.  Whilst researching and thinking about my thesis topic, I have mulled over various osteological and archaeological thoughts.  In due course these should turn into posts, with future topics likely to include the role of disability and individuals in prehistory, and a brief discussion on the role and theory of pain in palaeopathological case studies.  And I will, of course, finish the Skeletal Series.

In the meantime enjoy some Leonard Cohen…

The Beginning of the MSc at Sheffield….

23 Sep

So I have finally landed in Sheffield, ready to start the Masters course in Human Osteology & Funerary Archaeology based in the Archaeology department.  I have had the introduction talks to both the University and to the course, and I am now filled with both trepidation & excitement!

The Sheffield program in Human Osteology offers several key things that made me sign up for their course above all others in the UK.  Firstly they offer the degree setting in a first class department with a wide variety of specialities, and numerous well-known archaeologists.  Secondly, the degree doesn’t just focus on the human skeleton in death but also on the soft tissues in life.  A core module this semester is Human Anatomy, in which I’ll be expected to learn the musculoskeletal system in detail through both lectures & dissection classes in the Biomedical department.  Thirdly, the course offers a more hands on approach to learning, by laying out the skeletons & getting the chance to study an individual in-depth.

The modules in the program include:-

1. Human Osteology

This lab and lecture based module will introduce the students to the core basics of the human skeleton.  Each week we we’ll be examining a part of the skeleton and studying its major muscle attachment features, ossification points and major landmarks.  We’ll be tested with a series of mini quizzes in both identifying fragments of bone & remarking on the major landmarks present.

2. Human Anatomy

A lecture & dissection based module in which all of the muscles of the musculoskeletal system will be studied in anatomical position, and how the origin and insertion points correspond with other muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves and bone.  I am feeling quite apprehensive regarding this module as it will be the first time I’ve dissected a human body (wonderfully donated to the biomedical services of the University by generous members of the public), and the first time I’ve had to learn anatomy in detail.

3. Biological Anthropology 1

The BioAnth 1 module will deal with the wider issues, uses and research of the human skeleton in biological anthropology.  This involves the discussion and methods used in the taphonomy of remains, how to age & sex the skeleton, metric and non-metric variations & traits, bone microstructure & chemistry, analysis of cremated material, and finally how the skeletal data is assessed and reported; all taught through lectures & labs.  This allows the core skills to be acquired and built upon in the next BioAnth module.

4. Biological Anthropology 2

The second module builds upon what is learnt from the first module, and deals with the broader issues regarding palaeodemography, growth and development, functional anatomy,  biological evolution, population affinities & dietary reconstruction amongst others.  Again, this module looks very interesting and I’m quite keen to get my teeth into some of the issues discussed.

5. Funerary Archaeology

A core module of the MSc, the module deals with the various ways in which human societies worldwide deal with issues relating to death.  The societies discussed include both past and present throughout the world, and includes the varying funerary rituals present and the human responses to death.  The module will include case studies and focus on interpretation of the material and funerary culture alongside symbolism used in funerary rituals.

6. Quantitative Methods in Anthropology

Perhaps the module I am most nervous about!  This module will introduce and discuss various computational methods used in osteology, physical anthropology and palaeanthropology.  Both lecture and computer lab based classes will discuss various statistical methods used in modern anthropological research; this includes the use of modern computer programs such as CranID amongst others.  The use of statistics in human osteology is really key as a lot of time is spent interpreting the data from metric measurements to discern morphological changes and population affinities in skeletal populations.

7. Research Design in Anthropology

This module is primarily concerned with the dissertation aspect of the Masters so will include discussions such as feasibility studies depending on topic to be researched. (I’d better get thinking!).  Essentially it will prepare the student with critical skills in thinking of original and worthwhile topics to pursue an original program of research for the dissertation aspect of the degree.

8. Biomolecular Archaeology (My one free choice module!)-

This is a lecture based approach to methods & issues used and discussed in the field of biomolecular archaeology.  I’m particularly looking forward to learning more about aDNA & the use of stable light isotopes, both of which are helping to change and improve the knowledge of human evolution & diversity as we know it.  This module also discusses biomolecular techniques on both archaeobotanical and archaeozoological material, something that I’m also looking forward too.  The subjects that will be discussed include isotopes, lipids, proteins, and aDNA, which will be applied to key aspects of the human past such as dispersal, the rise of agriculture & investigation of disease.

The first semester will lay the groundwork for the modules and dissertation research in the 2nd semester and Summer dissertation research period.  The first semester topics include Human Osteology, Human Anatomy, Funerary Archaeology & Biological Anthropology 1.

And Thus

I started this blog to help introduce the field of Human Osteology from a student who is just starting to study the subject.  I also use this blog to update on various new finds or reports in the wider archaeological fields.  I will continue to do this as my program proceeds, however I may be slower in posting as the course is very intensive.  I also want to take this opportunity to thank readers, both past and present, for providing positive feedback thus far into the journey.

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It is hereby noted that the information is taken from the Archaeology Departments information freely available over the internet and from my own personal notes & module information booklets.

My Readings…

13 Sep

Soon I’ll be moving down to Sheffield to study anew.  At the moment, this is my current core collection of books but I feel it will soon be expanded upon…

All the classics… just missing an anatomy book!

Before I left for Sheffield I picked up a DK guide to the complete human body today, alongside a copy of the Concise Book of Muscles; so I have plenty of hard reading and memorising ahead.  Now that I have recently arrived in Sheffield and had the introduction talk for the MSc in Human Osteology today (21st Sept),  I also gained the Human Anatomy Colour Atlas & Textbook by Gosling et al for the Human Anatomy module.  Now I have too much reading!

Any recommendations?  Please comment below!

Updates…

8 Sep

Apologies for the lack of updates; please bear with me.  I’ve had a busy past few weeks & the future doesn’t look any less busy! Preparation for moving down to start the Msc Human Osteology & Funerary Archaeology program at the University Sheffield have begun, but I’m still on the look out for a lab coat!  I move to the city shortly, but I’m still enjoying the time I have left in my hometown.  This year has flown by a bit too quickly!

The next Skeletal Series update will concern the human hip bones, and their form and function.  They are particularly key in both age and sex diagnosis of the individual.  I’ll also shortly start a brief write-up of the German Grampus placement & the activities we got up to, since I’ve finally just got round to finishing their report for the program online.

I did manage to read my way through Waldron’s (2009) ‘Palaeopathology’  manual whilst I was in Germany, and what a delight it was too! I’d highly recommend reading it, especially if you are going to be working with human bones from archaeological sites.  I have a feeling that this book, and the Human Bone Manual, will not be far from my side in the next few months.  ‘Palaeopathlogy’ offers ‘Operational Definitions’ which help to improve the diagnosis of disease in ancient human remains via clinical definitions and backgrounds. I would say this is a must have, especially since a lot of the palaeopathogical literature cannot be cross examined due to the differences in rational & criteria used.

A quick scan of BBC’s online news website reveals that a late stone age skull discovered from Iwo Eleru in Nigeria has some interesting ‘primative’ features associated with human evolution.  The online article can be found here at PLoS online.  The article deals with the chronology and morphology of the Iwo Eleru calvaria.  This is a very interesting article as it deals with a skull that shows similar morphological features present in archaic homo sapiens humans around 100,000 years ago but its found in a  context that is dated to around 15,000BP.  It is also rare that human remains are found during this date in West Africa.  The article states that this cranium fragment represents ‘evidence of deep population substructure in Africa and complex evolutionary processes for the origin of modern humans’, that the archaic homo sapiens didn’t just cut off after Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) appeared.  Frankly, I think this also highlights what is often forgotten in the prehistoric & palaeolithic archaeological record.  It is not just migration out of Africa and the dispersal of AMH that is fascinating and interesting, but also to still keep looking and researching inside Africa to see the evolutionary and populational changes still concurrent with human expansion elsewhere.

I also noticed the other that over at John Hawks’s weblog he has announced the Malapa Soft Tissue project.  This project aims to discover if soft tissues from an ancient hominid has been preserved from the Malapa site cave site, just outside Johannesburg in South Africa.  Recently discussed in the National Geographic magazine, the hominids discovered at this site are believe do to be Australopithecus Sediba, a possible intermediate form between the Australopithecus & Homo genus.  Much information remains to be gleamed from these exciting and relatively complete finds.  Up to date information on the MST project can be found on the John Hawks link.  Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this project is that is it open access science; you are encouraged to take a part and offer your expertise!  Keep an eye on it and see where it leads…

I’ll be back shortly.

Further news on A. Sediba