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Grave Matters: Archaeology & Politics

2 Aug

Archaeology and politics are often uncomfortable bedfellows, perhaps more so than many archaeologists like to admit.  This, it is fair to say, is especially the case when dealing with the issue of human remains in either prehistoric or historical instances.  However archaeological sites are never ‘static’ shots of one particular time, but rather often act as an accumulation of an extended period of time, compacted into the earth for the archaeologist to decipher.  They neither belong fully to the past, nor fully to the present.  Further to this we (the archaeologists) don’t just view and interpret an archaeological site from a historical (or prehistorical) vantage point, we necessarily (and often subconsciously) filter the evidence present through our own life experiences, professional knowledge and socio-cultural factors.  Whilst this post could go off on a theoretical tangent here, I will keep it cogent to this point alone: human bodily and skeletal remains are an emotive subject, especially when archaeology and politics mix.  So bearing this in mind, here are several examples where politics meets the trowels edge, often resulting in friction between the two.

The Spitalfields cemetery (possible one of the largest excavated in the world with just under 11,000 burials excavated) will long be remembered in the human osteological circles of Britain as an exceptional excavation.  It is site of such osteoarchaeological and social historical wealth that it has to be one of the most documented cemetery excavations carried out in Britain, if not the world for its richness of remains and evidence for the social context that the individuals inhabited (Pethen 2010).  A report on the archaeological and historical background of the area can be read here, detailing the wealth of Roman, Medieval and Early Modern archaeological finds and cemetery sites (Elders et al. 2010).  The Spitalfields area itself is a site of beauty, a breath of fresh air in a crowded city, with the beautiful baroque Christ Church dominating the area near its centre.

In a letter in the recent edition of Private Eye (Issue 1345)  a reader has wrote of the proposed school extension of the Christ Church primary school onto the Spitalfields graveyard.  This is due to a severe over-crowding of the school in an area where local council authorities have been banned from opening new state schools, unless they are to be built as an academy.  Academies are another feature of the unpopular UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s educational reforms, which operate from central government funds and dictate their own curriculum, although they (and Gove’s other reform ideas) have come under sustained attack from numerous teaching unions and local authorities for distorting choice, spoiling funds and promoting the teaching of creationism.  A campaign to stop the school development can be found here, but I would caution that the school may have little choice in the matter.

Spitalfields

A section of the Medieval cemetery excavated at St Mary Spital burial ground highlighting the closeness of the buried individuals. In particular note the overlaying of the bodies, highlighting the fact that they had not been buried in coffins. This is not the Spitalfields site but reminiscent of similar burial traditions within medieval London (Source: Current Archaeology 2012).

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, the ruling party Zanu-PF have likely won again following recent 2013 elections (1).  The incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, has remained in power following 30 years of rule despite continued disputed election results in recent years and statistically dubious polls, with a large number of deceased individuals being named as voters on the recent polling lists.  Zanu-PF have often used underhand methods to maintain power before in the country, which is still currently edging out of a deep recession which had seen currency hyperinflation, including voter intimidation, forced removal and sustained campaigns of violence.  Yet in 2008 a power brokerage deal was agreed with the opposition party, the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, who has joined the government as Zimbabwe’s prime minister.

Grisly news articles broke in early 2011 when it was reported that over 600 human bodies (possibly thousands) in various states of decay had been found in various mine shafts at Chimbondo, near Mount Darwin, in northern Zimbabwe.  A large portion of the bodies found have been removed from context and buried elsewhere, but others remain in-situ.  Claims abound from sources inside Zimbabwe that they represent victims of the colonial period (from Zimbabwe’s War of Independence), whilst other governments and opposition parties have questioned whether they are instead the victims of Zanu-PF’s sustained campaigns of intimidation and violence.  Various news reports have suggested that the bodies have been known about for a number of years, and that individuals still had bodily fluids or soft flesh attached, or leaking from, their bodies.  Amnesty International have called for forensic experts to have access to the mass graves to carry out detailed forensic investigative tests to assess the demography of the mass graves, age and sex the bodies and positively ID individuals, by carrying out DNA studies, if possible (Jurmain et al. 2011: 22).

Yet despite repeated calls for access from Amnesty International and other organisations and governments from around the world, none is forthcoming or has been granted from the Zanu-PF led government of Zimbabwe (Amnesty International 2011).  The victims remain potent symbols of political propaganda, whilst their individual identities themselves are being disregarded.  By refusing to identify individuals and profile the dead, the authorities in Zimbabwe are helping to undermine the individuals themselves and the families who have lost loved ones, regardless of whether they died in the independence war or as a result of the discord and violence post-independence.  This makes the political parties implicit with guilt.

zimbabwe 2011massgrave

Unidentified individuals found in the 2011 mass graves in northern Zimbabwe. The conditions of the clothes and of the bodies, from this site and others, indicate the possibility that the victims were killed post-War of Independence. (Source: Daily Mail 2011).

In Florida, in the USA, there has been recent upset and outrage over the refusal (still as of early August 2013) for permission to be granted to a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida to excavate and help identify suspected abuse victims from a 1930’s onwards reform school in Mariana, northern Florida.  This is despite the results of ground penetrating radar surveys conducted on a suspected cemetery site at the Mariana campus of the Dozier School For Boys, which reportedly found evidence for 50 suspected graves, a far larger percentage then previously thought or suspected (Hennig 2012).  Rick Scott, the current Florida Governor, has disagreed with the forensic anthropologists over the exhumation of the graves, citing that the University team do not have the legal requirements to excavate the remains.  This has been met with outrage from families and survivors of the reform school, with one predominant group nicknamed the White House Boys who urgently want answers on how many people died at the school through abuse.  Outrage has also been picked up on a larger scale across the US, with Senator Bill Nelson decrying the ridiculous stance the state of Florida has taken on the issue.

The US has fairly tough laws on the excavation of human remains, be they historical or prehistoric, with tough guidelines and stringent checks enforced through the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) laws.  However, even allowing for the complexities of US legal requirements for the exhumation of human remains, the reform school investigation and associated problems in excavating possible abuse victims seems especially convoluted, with state departments blaming each other for the confusion.  Rick Scott does has form for his distaste for all things anthropological, stating that anthropology is not needed in Florida.  Somewhat of an oversight when the state is home to many important archaeological sites and osteological collections (Windover, for instance).  News is to follow as to whether Rick Scott will give in to the families and researchers demands to let the forensic anthropologists to exhume the remains, with a vote set for Tuesday (13th August 2013) (2) (3) (4) (5).  Since the original writing of this post the decision was taken for anthropologists to investigate and exhume the bodies.  This continues currently, and has fruitfully positively identified a number of the young individuals who were tortured and buried at the location of the reform school.  Graves have also been found outside of the regular cemetery, suggesting that ad-hoc burials took place.

braziers school

The Doziers school for Boys were the abuse was alleged to have taken place. (Source: Daily Mail 2012).

Upon reading this entry you may think that politics and archaeology are at best awkward partners paired up only when necessary, but the great thing about archaeology and anthropology is that they implicitly depend on inter-disciplinary research projects across national borders, continents and cultures.  There are success stories of how well archaeology has been implemented in national and political guidelines (the UK for instance has a strict and often well observed set of heritage and archaeological guidelines for developers) but, for this post at least, it is necessary to highlight how government obstructions and human remains are often used as political weapons in modern contexts.

(1) 04/08/13 update: Latest news reveal Mugabe and Zanu-PF have indeed won the election.

(2) 07/08/13 update: According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida Cabinet has agreed to let USF researchers exhume the individuals at the Dozier reform school.  This will mean that living families and relatives of individuals who died at the school could finally get some answers and evidence on individuals who were buried at the school.  Excavations will start later this month.

(3) 01/09/13 update: The Guardian and other news sources have reported the first details of the excavation at the Dozier reform school, with finds already including funerary artefacts such as coffin fittings and human skeletal material.

(4) 07/08/14 update: Positive identification of some of the victims of the Dozier reform school in Florida has now been announced.  Strange Remains has an update detailing the use of DNA from victims families in the positive identification of skeletons that have been excavated from clandestine burials dating to the 1940’s.  Distressingly there may be further burials located within the Dozier reform school grounds.

(5) 04/10/14 update: The positive identification of two further victims of the Dozier reform school, in the panhandle of Florida, have been announced.  Strange Remains has an update on the identification of two of the boys found in graves at school by anthropologists at the University of South Florida, highlighting the abuse and neglect that was unchecked at the reform school.

(6) 01/012/15 updated: I have mistakenly referred to the incorrect burial ground for Spitalfields, please see the informed comments from CH below.  The post will be updated shortly to reflect the correct London post-medieval burial ground discussed.

Bibliography:

Amnesty International. 2011. Zimbabwe: Mass Graves Must Be Exhumed by Forensic Experts. Amnesty International Press Release.

Elders, J. et al. 2010. Archaeology and Burial Vaults: Guidance Notes for Churches. Council for British Archaeology: York.

Hennig, K. 2012. Searching For Answers. University of Southern Florida: Tampa.

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Pethen, H. 2010. Christchurch Spitalfields CE Primary School, Commercial Street, London E1: Historic Environment Assessment. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

Anatomy of Human Dissection: An Introspection

27 Sep

It was to be the last time that we saw his body on the table.  In the intervening weeks we had come to know his features with intimacy and respect.   Outside the wind had turned fierce, whilst the clouds, a deep shade of grey and pregnant with snow, streamed across the sky as winter proper closed in.  The Medical Teaching Unit had largely emptied over the past week, the last teaching week before the Christmas break.  Only the aspiring human osteologists and palaeoanthropologists now remained and filled the cavernous light blue coloured room.  With glistening scalpels and silver probes, the last examination of our beloved participant took place.  Pairs of nervous eyes and trembling hands ran through what we had been taught.   We touched and felt the cold body as we reeled off the list drilled into us by the 12 weeks of dissection classes.  Each muscle,  its attachment; insertion; action; nerve; blood supply; ligaments and tendons, were ticked off, one by one.  Each major actor in the human musculoskeletal system was to be identified and admired.  Just as in field archaeology, as in the body.  There are layers, superficial and deep, to be uncovered and appreciated, and then to be reflected back as we investigated further.

It had taken some getting used to at first, the chemical smell and the sights of the MTU.  The individuals who had donated their bodies were to be found wrapped up on their metallic trays, waiting with eternal patience in the centre of the room.  I couldn’t help but notice the sad fact of the bodies different lengths, from adult to child.  It was a hive of activity, bristling with groups of medical students crowding around different individuals on their cold slabs.  The medical students commandeered the central space every week, as they deconstructed the body to heal it.  Tucked away in the side of the main room, we learnt about the intricacies of the fleshed body; how movement is dictated by flexion and extension of passive and active striated skeletal muscle groups.  Each week we would start with a new aspect on our adopted individual and help uncover that week’s muscle group.

The first exam had been taken some 5 weeks before, and we now stared at the second, a mere day or two away.  Our focus this time was the lower half of the body, from the pelvis down to the toes.  The almost fan-like gluteal muscles provided a staunch launching pad from which to run down the thighs, past tensor fascia latae and the iliotibial band on the lateral aspect, to curve with the sartorius on the anterior aspect, as we reached and admired the complexity of the knee joint.  As we uncovered and cleaned each section free of adipose fat, we unveiled the vastus, adductors and hamstring muscle groups.  Whilst running a discussion on what constituted the delicate femoral triangle, I couldn’t help but think of my own numerous surgeries.  Of the many times I have had a scalpel part my skin on the lateral aspect of my thighs.  That scar tissue, on my body as a permanent fixation, serves as a reminder that I too have been laid on a table, ready to be examined and explored; that ultimately, there is no difference between the living and the dead- it is just a different state of being, of matter in the universe.

We had already uncovered the startlingly array and complexicity of the upper body in previous dissection sessions.  The human body, like any living creature, is a marvelous machine developed over millions of years of evolution.  Nothing is perfect however.  Homologies from a common ancestor, ‘the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function’, are to be found throughout the animal kingdom, and the human as a part of this, has many.  They are well documented, and I shan’t digress here.  However, it is important to note the expected variation within species and between species.  The detailed analysis of fossil hominids depends on this fundamental approach, even as new batteries of investigations are used.

And now, the week before Christmas, the main hall stood empty.  No bodies lay on their metallic tables, and there was no crowd of bustling medical students hunched over, investigating and desiccating the minutiae of life.  It was as if even the bodies had gone home for the bleak mid-winter break.  As we finished testing each other on the soleus or the gastrocnemius, we carefully de-bladed the scalpels, washed all of the tools, and placed them back inside our student dissection kits for the last time.  We silently thanked the individual’s generous bodily donation, and placed the plain cloth over the body and carefully tucked it in.  As I made my way to a nearby exit, my fellow colleagues were already outside breathing the fresh cold winter air.  As I opened the exit door I was accompanied by a lonely radio playing a mournful 1950s song.  Knowing that I would not be back in this place again, I closed it and bid the room a fond farewell.

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The University of Sheffield MSc Human Osteology program is the only UK based University that offers the teaching and education of human musculoskeletal anatomy by first hand dissection.  Other UK Universities offering Osteological Masters degrees only teach musculoskeletal anatomy in the lecture theatre.  I firmly believe that my education was enhanced by this opportunity.  At all times the people who donated their bodies to the Medical Teaching Unit were respected and treated with dignity.  The staff displayed professionalism and esteem, and encouraged us all to smile and to learn about the wonders of the human body.

Related and Further Information:

  • The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has an interesting article on vivisection in Early Modern England, and the medical advances and reactions to this method of dissection.
  •  An article in the Lancet by Lindsey Fitzharris (2012: 108-109), author of the above blog, discusses the effects of human dissection on early modern doctors and today’s medical practitioners .  
  • Guardian article citing the difficulties of obtaining skeletons for academic study, and the difficult process of donating bodies for medical and clinical science, with quotes from Dr Tim Thompson and Dr Piers D. Mitchell
  • At the Museum of London, there is a current exhibition on ‘Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men‘ (until April 2013) detailing the excavation of 262 burials from Royal London Hospital with extensive evidence of dissection, along with faunal remains.  The exhibition “reveals the intimate relationship between surgeons pushing forward anatomical study and the bodysnatchers who supplied them; and the shadowy practices prompted by a growing demand for corpses” (MoL 2013).

 

Museum of London’s Online Database Archive for Bioarchaeology

16 Mar

As research will shortly commence on my chosen topic for the dissertation component of the MSc here at Sheffield, I realise I will need standards and comparisons to compare skeletal remains, and in particular the expressions of pathological disease processes.  Communications with my previous lecturer at the University of Hull has highlighted the collections based at the Museum of London, which have a broad range of skeletons from a range of historical time periods with all relevant data available online.

The Museum of London’s Centre for Bioarchaeology provides numerous on-line resources for its own London based skeletal collections alongside detailed and valuable comparative data sets for researchers.  Via a quick registration, and a read through of their human osteology method statement, the user can have access to cemetery records dating from the Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval skeletal collections from London, housed at the museum itself.  It is a veritable wealth of information including demographic, age and sex distributions in each of the cemeteries recorded and pathological/disease processes identified and photographed from the skeletal material.

Particularly useful for myself are the photographs depicting various pathologies on the the skeletal elements as they depict comparison points for individuals I hope to use in my own study.

As numerous known and unknown skeletal collections are gathering dust, hidden in museums or departments long forgotten, it’s important to remember that there are collections out there that are working hard to digitise their information and make it freely available to researchers.  In the future at some-point, I intend to make a little list of skeletal collections here in the UK.

A Poorly Reduced Fracture of Right Femur, Anterior View, From The Lower St Brides Cemetery, London, Dating From The 17th – 19th centuries. Site Code: FA090 Context: 1200 Frame Number: 1.

The above is a example of a pathology found in an individual, in this case the context of 1200, who was found in the Lower St Brides churchyard.  The Lower St Brides churchyard was founded because the original, linked to St Brides near Fleet Street, had became overcrowded during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is thought that the population buried at Lower St brides came from a low socio-economic background (Kausmally 2008).  A breakdown of the 544 individuals analysed (out of of an excavated 606) can be found here, alongside a breakdown of the demography of the population uncovered and the age and sex estimates.  Interestingly, around 4.2% of the individuals uncovered had evidence for surgical procedures including craniotomies, alongside blade marks on ribs and vertebrae, which is highly suggestive of autopsies carried out on the individuals (Kausmally 2008).

With the rise of the internet as a valuable tool in archaeology, both enabling widespread discussion and swapping of data sets and information, it is worth reminding ourselves of the inherent wealth of the nature of skeletal populations.  As long as they are recorded, photographed and stored properly, skeletal populations can reach vast audiences by being digitized.  Valuable comparisons can be made in and between collections, and as Kausmally (2008) states that collections, such as the Lower St Brides, are crying out to be analysed in detail with other similar populations.

Online Sources:

Kausmally, T. 2008. Farringdon: St Brides Lower Churchyard.

Museum of London Centre for Bioarchaeology & Database