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A Personal Anthropology of Driving

12 Mar

As I shift the gear stick I can feel the muscles tensing and releasing in my left arm; I can also imagine the tendons moving smoothly under the flesh, like steel lift cables, as the contracting muscles react to the electric jolts shooting down the nervous pathways spread across the body.  Both of my legs work in tandem with my left arm to leverage the accelerator and clutch pedals in a fluid series of movements to change the engines gear, whilst the right arm keeps the steering wheel stable.  My eyes keep a steady lookout at the road ahead, alert to the changes around me and the weather before me as the grey clouds break and heavy raindrops start to splatter the windscreen.  A quick flick of my index finger switches the front wipers on.  My ears are primed to the sounds of passing engines or the screaming sirens of emergency vehicles.  Perceptibly, but just, I can feel my heart beat that much faster as my right foot presses down on the accelerator.  At a stretch I’d say it was beating in time to the song playing, but that may be poetic licence and an exaggeration…

~~~

Broken Bones: Convoluted as a Medical History

It has been just over  a year since I first started driving in a daily capacity after passing my driving test a few years ago.  It has been a long and somewhat patient journey to get to this stage.  I had passed the theory and practical tests almost two years beforehand, but a well-timed pathological fracture to the right tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg (as, when a tibia breaks, the fibula, acting as a supporting lateral strut to the larger and more robust tibia bone and connected to it by a tough fibrous tissue, also often fractures) kept me off the road for a good while after having just ordered a car for the first time.  After healing from this fracture, the third such transverse fracture for these two bones, I was again ready to hop in the car and onto the road but this time as a fully legit legal driver no longer in his training vehicle.  My body, however, had different ideas as I went on instead to fracture the right humerus bone of the upper arm in an accident shortly before receiving the said car, delaying once again my time to drive and the time on the tarmac.

As a direct result of these two separate fracture incidents I gained two new titanium plates as permanent (and palpable) bodily additions and welcomed, though somewhat initially delayed, doses of entinox and morphine to subdue the immediate pain from the fractures themselves.  After the initial throbbing pain of a fractured bone, which is enhanced by the muscle spasms and contractions that often accompany a break of a major limb bone, the pain starts to wear off to a gentle ache once the limb has been stabilized, protected and padded from any further movement or injury.  Where necessary the bone is reduced to the correct alignment.  The reduction of the bone can, without anesthetic, be as painful as initially fracturing the bone itself.  As indicated above my fractures were treated surgically to correct long-standing problems using metallic alloys fashioned into a sturdy plate screwed onto the bone, which help prevent stress shielding and allow the natural responsive dynamics of bone modelling to continue.  It should be stated here that fractures can also be treated conservatively with limb immobilization and pain relief given whilst the bone heals itself, if a good enough reduction and union can be carried out without the need for surgical intervention.

right humerus fracture 2014 july

Humerous triptych. Pre-surgical and post-surgical fixation with the use of a permanent titanium plate on the right humerus (upper arm) following the pathological fracture I sustained in an accident in July 2014. As a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome, and the associated Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia (PFD) disorder where bone tissue is replaced with a fibrous tissues, my skeletal system is weaker than normal with a higher bone cell turnover rate. Pathological lesions in the bone, which can already be naturally deformed in size and shape, can lead to fractures (so-called ‘ground glass’ visual which can be found on x-rays of PFD bone). If reproduced elsewhere please credit as appropriate and inform the author of this blog.

I said it was a long and patient journey because the majority of the time spent waiting to drive was spent silently healing, my head often buried in an article or a book whilst devouring coffee.  It took a long time for the two pieces of the bone shafts to become one again as the callus formed and bridged the fracture site, the woven bone that is initially laid down changing over time to lamellar, or mature, bone.  So much so that in some cases bone fracture sites can be completely remodeled with little noticeable sign of a historic break ever having taken place.  During this time I was shuttled from appointment to appointment as a passenger in my assigned vehicle, wondering what it was like to dictate the journey and the destination, what it was like to take control.

On Starting

You may think that I would be wary of driving due to the above described frailties that my body imposed on my life, but I was ready to go and ready to face the roads of my country.  I was, and remain, eager to explore the freedom of the road alongside the exploration of the idea that that freedom represents in itself .  Many of my friends had started driving at 17 or 18 years old, had passed their tests and then drove aimlessly to gain experience on the roads around the regional towns, only to abandon their cars as they themselves started undergraduate courses at universities in other towns and other cities across the country.  Running a car, and having the money to fund the fuel bill, insurance, road tax and other associated costs, was an expense that many didn’t have and didn’t need at that time in their lives.

I too had started to learn to drive at that age but I soon gave it up, frustrated at the confusing methods used by the teacher and wary of the upcoming femoral fixation surgeries that I faced at that time to limit what appeared to be regular interruptions of forced stillness in my life.  I was happy to ignore the need to drive for another decade or so, not needing to do it for my undergraduate and postgraduate university courses and happy to use the trains and other methods of public transport for work and pleasure.  Indeed I came to love the numerous hours spent commuting to volunteer placements, work, and journeys to see friends and old companions.  It was time to relax, to speak to other passengers, to sit and to read or simply to sit and to stare at the countyside unfolding before me.

As every driver informs every non-driver, the convenience of the car is the epitome of freedom over the strict timetable of public transport.  As an ardent user and lover of the train (the misery of the delay is trumped by the friends made in the carriage and by the regulars who recognize you in turn), I remained somewhat skeptical of this claim.  What I had not counted on, however, was how it actually felt to have that freedom when I drove myself, both for my own pleasure and as a matter of commuting to and from my workplace.  There have been times when I am driving down an empty flyover at 1am with the twinkle of the industrial north to my right and the disappearance of the work office behind me and, as the song I’m listening to reaches its crescendo, I feel somewhat at peace with the world around me.  This is of course the thrill of riding an empty road listening to your favorite music and soaking in every last note sounded and vocal moaned.  But driving with a crowd is different, but it is different for me in particular.

To Drive, To Think

The car, for me, and the act of driving the car, means that I can merge in with the public body at large in a seemingly innocuous manner.  When I walk I use crutches for short distances and, for longer distances, I need and use a manual wheelchair.  As such it is an obvious difference that is noticed immediately on sight, one which signifies that I am different in some significant way from the majority.  I have had, and continue to have, people treat me differently in ways that they would not my friends or family, say by speaking to someone other than to me even when it is I who have raised the question or query, or by treating me in such a way which invokes past experiences of relatives or loved ones in states of profound impairment, despite the fact that my experiences and needs are different; that is in such cases my personal agency as an actor, or individual, with my own views, worries and questions, is abated.  I am viewed as a representative, therefore I am not an individual.  There is no such differentiation between specialized, or adapted, vehicles for the physically impaired, or disabled, individuals on the road compared with ‘normal’ cars – we all flow into the same lane or road.  (The caveat here is, of course, parking bays where disabled bays, alongside mother and child bays, are given proximity priority but I am strictly talking of when the car is in motion).

As such I am intrigued by the possibility of me in the car being treated in a similar manner as to everyone else who is present on the road.  That our actions speak for themselves, rather than the prejudices present on seeing the physical self as a first judgement.

I’ve briefly touched on my own experiences here and a few ideas above, but I want to move forward to acknowledge a few thoughts that have swirled around my mind over the past year or so on the open road.  I have become somewhat intrigued by the notion of driving, and the path of the road, as a cultural symbol and as a personal experience.  As such the following are thoughts, somewhat vague in nature, of driving.

A Marker By The Side

During the first six months of my experience as a driver I passed a personal marker on the road to work, a curve in the dual carriageway where a silent, single fluttering jersey indicated a geographical spot where a young life had been cut short, the car skidding from the road late at night killing one of its two occupants.  The jersey by the side of the road aptly demonstrated both the family’s singular pain and the danger of driving without due regard for the road conditions, a memento of the often tumult path of life.  It acted as a constant reminder for me then, when I saw it throughout the different seasons of the year, and I remember it clearly now in my mind’s eye.  It is easy to be self-contained in a car if you are driving alone, thinking only of yourself and not of the actions that you yourself have on others and those around you.  That the road is open and easy to see.  Yet drivers, especially of cars, can be subdued too easily by the sheltering in the cage of metal and glass.  Too easy it is to shut out both the weather and the sound of the road, too easy to become disconnected from what is in front, to the side, and behind.  Death is the ultimate outcome of driving dangerously or incorrectly, each person who drives should understand that they are both responsible for themselves, any passengers, and for the safety of those of who the car comes near, be it other vehicle drivers or pedestrians.

A friend who rides a motorcycle near year-round has spoken of their wish that each person who learns to drive does so first on a motorbike, where every second must be concerned, and concentrated with, the movement of your bike and your body, where the dangers in the driving blind spot become that much more pronounced as there is no clear boundary or distinction between the body and the tarmac.  It is an interesting idea, I think, and it shows that although the majority of the road users in most countries are car and truck drivers there are different experiences of using the road out there.  That even though we may be all drivers, we do not each experience the same sense of driving or the same sense of security from the vehicles we choose to use to get from A to B.  It is my suggestion that this is the experience of the other in this environment, the one that car and truck drivers must take extra special care for motorcyclists (as well as cyclists) due to the physical differences in the size of the vehicle and the position of the body on top of the vehicle, rather than the notion of what it feels like to be on the inside of it.

Thoughts on Interior vs Exterior

However, within the confines of my personal anthropology of driving, there is also a need to define the personal space within the interior of the car and the exterior public face of the vehicle, i.e. the personalization of the interior as a representation of the identity versus the need to drive responsibly and react accordingly to the changes in weather, traffic density and normal, or exceptional, road hazards.

We have all, for instance, seen the personalized number plates or stickers attached to the exterior surface of cars, or the use of rosary beads dangling from the rear view mirror, possibly signifying a religious connection to Catholicism or perhaps simply a physical item in which to grab and to hold, to reassure and to connect.  These are markers of expressed individual and group identity through the modified material culture of the car, which could be symbolic of the beliefs of the individual and, possibly, an indicator of the nature of their personality, although there must also be a distinction between these leaps and not infer beyond the unreasonable.  These do of course differ dependent on the circumstances.  The cliché of a boy impressing a girl by driving fast is indicative of the use of the vehicle to express dominance or perceived masculinity and not the expression of the material culture of the individual within the car.  There are, as such, different signifiers at work when we consider the expression of identity with regards to vehicle ownership and use (see photograph below).

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‘Warning: if you value your life as much as I value this truck don’t mess with it!’. Seen in San Francisco in April 2015. Photograph, taken with a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

So what is in my car?  You can expect to find the odd physio stretching band, placed in the car from before I started to drive so I could exercise the muscles of the right arm on the way to and from work, to regain the majority of the extension of the antebrachium back.  (I have permanently lost the ability to fully extend my arm due to the somewhat intimidating and unnerving bend of the right humerus – it isn’t immediately noticeable, the bend, but when I point it out in person you may be surprised and somewhat horrified at what once was and now what is).  Look into the main storage box and you’ll find a whole heap of CD’s covering a fairly wide range of genres and musical styles, from the cut and thrust of Fugazi‘s 13 Songs to the emotional tape loops of Steve Reich‘s Different Trains and Guitar Counterpoint.  You could probably tell that the CD medium is the one in which I invest the most in for music listening just via the car haul of discs themselves.  I’m forever rotating my classic selection of favoured CD’s with new albums I’ve purchased more recently, such as Joanna Newsom‘s Divers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, or Sufjan Steven‘s hauntingly beautiful Carrie and Lowell album.  The car, now, has become one of my prime personal music venues, enhanced by the visuals on the road and the acuity of speaker-to-body distance.  The drive to and from work allows for the almost total immersion of sound to radiate around me, to envelope the body and invigorate the mind as I drive.

The expression of music is carried on in the material contents of the car by three or four worn drumsticks perched precariously in the front chair’s backseat pocket.  The drum sticks head and necks are pretty worn away, indicative of their active life beating the various tom toms, snares, and high hats of drum kits across the rehearsal and practice rooms of my home town.  If you dig a bit deeper it is quite possible you may find a roll of film (now I’m really harking back to pre-digital technology!), indicative of the ownership of my beloved cheap Pentax camera, which sometimes finds a temporary home in the car for when I am out and about; it is sometimes paired with my cheaper-still digital camera.  Nestled in the front passenger seat is a battered copy of Will Self’s experimental novel Shark, a copy of which I convince myself I will finish one day.  (Regardless of the growing stack of novels and non-fiction books that mount beside my bed.  Karl Ove Knausgård’s Min Kamp circle of books has taken my recent fancy as well as Janine Di Giovanni‘s more somber documentation of Syria’s ongoing destruction in her book The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria).  It is, I think, also an expression of the need to read in down times, where I find myself waiting for one reason or another.

So these are the two big things you may notice in my car – music and books, but what does the car and the road say about us from a non-individual status?  What laws do we follow and why, what are the roads laid out before us and why do we subscribe to a set of nationally, and internationally, prescribed laws?

State Expression

As such it could be highlighted here that the need to observe the rules of the road are, essentially, laid in law by whichever, or whoever, is in control of the land itself.  That is, the road, and the population who drive on that road, are obeying the rules in a manner prescribed by the ruling power and as such act in that way.  This could be a potentially reductionist approach to understanding how countries or cultures approach driving and the road network, however it is also an intriguing area of interest.  Allow me to expound briefly on the above point.  The expression of the state is manifested by the obligation of the driver to obey the rule of the law on the road, whilst the interior environment of the car allows for a personal reflection of the identity via its material culture.  Aligned to this are group identities expressed in this way – they can be cultural, religious, personal, or idiosyncratic in nature.  We’ll take a very quick global tour to explore some of this expressions of individuality within group expression.  I’ll also highlight some of the cultural restrictions placed on car drivers in different countries as it can be easy to think that each country’s laws are similar to one another, but cultural restrictions play an important part in this as a projection of the country’s laws and beliefs.

Road Changes & Cultural Restrictions

Road space rationing is the term used to describe the strategy to limit road users using particular methods of restriction.  These can include methods such as no-drive days, alternate day travel, and general restrictions on road access.  The strategies are used globally as temporary or permanent measures to decrease vehicle use and environmental impact, largely in major cities but also with increasing use in major industrial countries such as China and India.  A similar method to this is the use of car-sharing lanes where privileged road, or lane, access is given to cars containing more than one person as an incentive to cut single person travelling.

In London, England, the permanent Congestion Charge Zone was introduced in 2003 to combat the growing number of vehicles entering the center of the capital city, as a means of cutting down environmental damage and of limiting the sheer volume of traffic.  Bikes, and notorious Boris Bikes, have been particularly targeted as the green and safe way to travel within the city center alongside the extensive public transportation routes.  Transport for London (TfL) have stated that there has been a 10% reduction in vehicle traffic in the decade since the introduction of the congestion charge, which has found favor with a number of residents of the city.  In the capital of France, Paris, a temporary scheme whereby owners of cars with odd or even number plates were not allowed into the city on that particular day or days was in place during a particularly polluted period in 2014.  Temporary measures such as this are largely aimed at immediately cutting smog that threatens, or has, blanketed the city in question.

Other methods include closing down particular routes or roads during particular days.  In São Paulo, Brasil’s biggest city, a normally packed 3.5 km section of the Minhocão highway (nicknamed ‘the Big Worm’) is returned for the use of pedestrians and cyclists only each weekday evening, Saturday afternoons and full Sundays during the summer period.  Whilst Minhocão has been partially closed to vehicles for 26 years, there has been a new movement to close down Avenida Paulista in the city on Sundays as well.  The schemes in São Paulo is used as an urban reclamation of roads, or transportation routes, as a matter to regain urban walkways and increase the use of public transportation and finds similarities with a number of schemes across the globe.  For instance in New York City, USA, the reclamation of the 1.45 km long High Line, an old railroad renovated as an elevated walkway festooned with shrubbery, has seen it become a major attraction within the city itself in its own right.

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The car can become symbolic as in this case where it is the icon of a city forever on the move. The New York taxi is one such symbol and if encountered on its home turf is often accompanied by an incessant honking of the horn and the permanent background noise of a thousand ticking engines running over, forever stopping and starting. Photograph, on a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit the author as appropriate.

New York City is both famous and infamous for its classic yellow cabs that litter the city.  To any driver from Europe, the roads of American cities can present a challenge as American cities are often built on the grid pattern, much like the ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom.  In such a busy and compacted city as New York this invariably means that the traffic never truly gets a chance to flow due to the traffic lights at each and every corner dictating who goes where when.  On a visit to the city that I was lucky enough to have last year I couldn’t help but notice the truly gigantic sounding board that the multi-storied buildings of Manhattan presented as the taxi drivers and drivers throughout the city incessantly honked their horn.  It surprised me, but also moved me in a way I had not expected – I was in the city of the movies, arguably the heart of the country itself in all of its architectural splendor and Freudian intimidation alongside the metaphorical American Dream representations.

As I come to the conclusion of this post I have presented a quick introduction to some of my thoughts, rounding down to international approaches to do with the increase in the number of the drivers and the damage wrought by diesel and petrol hungry engines in city centers, not to mention the natural environment.  Yet there is much more that I feel I ought to write, I haven’t touched on the interesting subculture of young male drivers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in which steam is let off by drifting (or Tafheet) and other associated vehicular activities, not the mention the incredibly strict restrictions placed on females in the country (females are forbidden from driving, although this is not illegal per se, it is heavily policed with punishments handed out for females caught driving).  Nor have I mentioned the fascinating subculture of bōsōzoku in Japan, which centers around the customization of cars and motorcycles.

The post describing these subcultures can perhaps wait for another day as this post has reached a fairly substantial length already.

Disengaging the Engine

So those are my brief thoughts on a personal anthropology of driving with a few nods to international views and explorations.  Nothing substantial, just a brief overlay of ideas that percolate through my brain as I slip on my seat belt, engage the engine and accelerate away onto the tarmac before me and into the night ahead of me.

Influences & Further Reading

BBC & British Library Sound Archive. 2015. Noise: A Human History. An Ever Noisier World. Episode 29 of 30. BBC Radio 4.

Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P. & Pérez, V. R. 2014. Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains. New York: Springer.

Robb, P. 2005. A Death In Brazil: A Book of Omissions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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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.

‘A Field In England’: A Trip Into The Psychotropic 17th Century

16 Jan

“I’d give anything for a good stew and a belly full of beer” announces one character shortly into the 2013 feature film A Field In England.  So may the audience at the closing credits of this delightfully dark, thoughtful and surreal film, having endured a turbulent 91 minutes in mid 17th century England wracked by an off-screen civil war.

Directed by Ben Wheatley, with a script by Amy Jump, A Field in England depicts the short journey of a ramshackle group of four men (Whitehead, Friend, Cutler and Jacob) who, having been traumatized and disillusioned by blood shed in civil war riven England (1642-1651 AD), desert the battlefield and seek solace searching for a fabled ale-house instead.  Only to their displeasure do they find that, during their desperate ramble, they come under the somewhat demonic spell of O’Neil, a man hellbent on finding treasure in a field who subsequently forces the four deserters to prospect and dig for suspected gold.  This is a necessarily brief synopsis because the film simply has to be seen to be understood although repeated viewings are recommended, if not required, for this slab of a historical film that potently mixes psychedelia and surrealism.

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A poster for the film, which was released in 2013. The feature draws obvious creative parallels with the Hammer Horror productions, although influences can also be detected from such classic films as the Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) (Image credit: Mr&MrsWheatly).

Somewhat uniquely in British movie history the film was released simultaneously to the general audience at theaters, screened on Film 4, and made available both on video-on-demand and to purchase on DVD, all on the same day.  A Field In England was filmed entirely in monochrome and relies heavily on the dialogue to help drive the momentum of the action forward.

Having said that it is the film’s kaleidoscopic use of visual and sound effects that propel it into the surreal genre, with effective use of disorienting shots of the main characters helping to enforce the viewer to become uncomfortably close to all of them, whatever the audiences feelings on the characters motivations.  As the Guardian review of the film points out, it is the distinctive use of the films tableaux shots, long shots and often unexplained scenes that help to highlight and intensify the rare violent viscosity of the characters actions in the film itself (Bradshaw 2013).

Throughout the film there is a great earthly humour present in the dialogue throughout the film, which is richly veined with flashes of Shakespearean wit and character exposition.  Though it must be noted that the audience is never entirely sure on which side of the civil war that the characters each sit on.  Allusions to the fracturing of the fabric of society are noted throughout the film, both through the dialogue and through the monochrome visual effects used.  This is perhaps most notable during the breakdown of one the characters who has been indulging in magic mushrooms.  It has to be said that monochrome psychedelic images can be quite unsettling, but they are also extremely mesmerizing and effective, perhaps non more so than during Whitefield’s mushroom influenced experience.

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A still from A Field in England depicting the disturbing use of the magic O’Neil uses on one of the main characters.  In particular it is the use of sound during this tableaux scene that really lifts it as a whole, making it both distinctly uncomfortable but also unnervingly rather watchable.

As stated above the film does contain rare instances of fairly graphic violence, but it is largely in the form of interpersonal violence conducted between the small group of relative strangers that form the core of the characters in the film (minus the introductory scene).  Interestingly, for me at least, there were occurrences of firearm injuries that demonstrated the rather horrible effect of neat entry wounds and the large exit wounds that projectiles can inflict if they exit the body (Aufderheide & Martin-Rodriquez 2006: 28).  I’ve tried not to give any spoilers in this quick review but, archaeologically speaking, the skeletal remains and funerary context of the individuals who perish in this film would certainly give the archaeologists some interesting theories to debate.  Although it would not be the first time that human burials from the English civil war have intrigued archaeologists as the mass grave site found at All Saints church in York demonstrates (McIntyre & Bruce 2010: 36).

A Field in England also combines the characters doubts of the existence of God with discussions of the occult as O’Neil displays a distinct attachment to magic and charms, professing himself to be almost a necromancer.  In one particularly entrancing scene he manages to wrap ropes around Whitehead and use him as a human divining tool to locate his buried treasure.  In another scene he is seen clasping a black ceramic dish that has a significant and deep meaning for him and he implies it can see into the past, present and future.  Merrifield (1987) and Brück (1999) have highlighted the significant wealth in the material archaeological record that can, on occasion, lead to valid interpretations of the importance of ritual functionality and the role of magic in historic and prehistoric societies.  This is worth keeping in mind, particularly with A Field In England, as the film demonstrates the intermingling of the Christian faith with pagan practices, a probably common feature of medieval and late medieval England (Gilchrist 2008: 153).

In a variety of ways the film also reminded me vividly of Andrey Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit.  This was particularly evident during the last third of the movie where the nature of the treasure is revealed for, as in both Wheatley’s film and Platonov’s book, the pit is never simply just a hole in the ground but a striking metaphor for society, in this case one that seemingly subsumes the bodies of those that question it (Platonov 2010: 224).  The Foundation Pit also dealt deftly with the symbolism of the vying individual and the collectivist state and the struggle between the two, similar in tone to the backdrop role that the civil war plays in this film that so sparks the characters to openly question society, death and the absence of God throughout the feature.    

Although I thoroughly enjoyed watching A Field In England, it is clearly not a film for everyone.  There is no doubt that the non-linear nature of the film will confuse many (and leave unanswered questions proposed by the viewer), but the film openly welcomes repeated viewings.  Regardless of this, I would recommend the film highly as it challenges the convention that historical films have to abide by strict cinematic convention.  Indeed this film actively calls for open interpretation and reflective thinking.  This is a playful and subversive film, one that is not afraid to stray into experimental territory to expose the flaws of the characters and to highlight the fundamental changes in the English civil war era.

Bibliography

Aufderheide, A. C. & Rodriquez-Martin, C. 2006. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A Field In England. 2013. Film. Directed by Ben Wheatley. United Kingdom: Rook Films.

Bradshaw, P. 2013. A Field In England – Review. The Guardian. 4th July 2013. Accessed 16/01/13.

Brück, J. 1999. Archaeology Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology2: 313-343. (Abstract).

Gilchrist, R. 2008. Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Later Medieval BurialsMedieval Archaeology. 52: 119-159. (Full article).

McIntyre, L. & Bruce, G. 2010. Excavating All Saints: A Medieval Church Rediscovered. Current Archaeology. 245: 30-37. (Full article).

Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. London: B.T. Batsford.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

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.

A Right To Bear Arms: A Traumatically Introduced Ursus Phalanx

31 May

Whilst browsing a recent edition of the International Journal of Palaeopathology I came across this article by Richards et al. (2013) titled ‘Bear Phalanx Traumatically Introduced Into A Living Human: Prehistoric Evidence‘; it is an eye-catching title I am sure you will agree!  Although it is common for skeletal remains to display traumatically introduced pathologies (see Roberts & Manchester 2010 and Waldron 2009), it is rare for palaeopathological case studies to document traumatically inserted foreign objects into a human skeleton, much less so to find a bear claw crushed into a human arm.  Yet this is exactly the case that Richards et al. (2013) document in a female skeleton dating from a Middle Period (500BC-300AD) Prehistoric Californian shellmound site called Ellis Island.

The individual, PHMA 12-2387, was found during archaeological excavations conducted in1906-1907 of the shellmounds that formerly lined the San Francisco Bay area, and the excavation recovered a total of 160 burials from the highly stratified shellmound middens (Richards et al. 2013: 48).  The shellmounds along the San Francisco Bay were inhabited by hunter-gatherers during the Middle Period, who focused their efforts on the near shore marine rich resources.  Interestingly the habitation period of the area at and around Ellis Island reflects occupation, abandonment and re-occupation over a 2000 year long span.  Following the osteological analysis of the nearly complete skeletal remains of PHMA 12-2387, it was concluded that the skeleton likely represented an adult female (biological sex based on pelvic features) aged between 30-40 years old (based on dental eruption and wear stage, epiphyseal and sutural closure, pubic symphysis and joint  surface morphology) at the time of death, who was buried supine with both her upper and lower limbs flexed (Richards et al. 2013: 49).

Now here is the interesting part.  Following the qualitative analysis of the normal ranges of joint and bone surface morphology of other shellmound individuals (N=159) and the comparison of the careful analysis of CT scans taken of the arms of PHMA 12-2387, it was concluded that the upper limbs bones of PHMA 12-2387 were large and strongly muscled, which were representative of a middle aged female who had suffered ‘traumatic injury that involved the left cubital fossa region, both forearms, and the right shoulder girdle’ (Richards et al. 2013: 50).  The right upper limb displays a bending fracture in the mid shaft of the ulna, which was complicated by the non-union of the break during the healing process.  Found within the left humerus cubital fossa was a Ursus (bear) phalanx, which had been driven in by a likely crushing trauma to a depth of 5 to 7mm into the dense cortex of the humeral shaft (See Figure 1).

Beartraumarichardsetal20133333

The CT scans of the upper limbs of PHMA 12-2387, where A represents varying views of both remaining limbs, and B shows the traumatically fractured right ulna and crushing injury of left cubital fossa of the humerus (See Richards et al. 2013: 50 for further information).

The injuries to this individual undoubtedly affected her movement.  The right upper limb would have suffered from problems with restricted range of the elbow joint, and restricted pronation and supination of the forearm due to the non-union fracture, whilst the trauma of the phalanx fractured through olecranon process and likely severed the m. triceps brachii, a major forearm extensor.  This likely resulted ‘in unopposed forearm flexion’, although pronation and supination of the forearm was ‘less affected’, with the bone material adapting to, and reflecting, the changes (Richards et al. 2013: 51).  The Ursus phalanx became fused within the injury of PHMA 12-2387’s left arm, and remained there until her death.

Although hypothetical situations are documented by Richards et al. in a  trauma reconstruction, it is likely thought that the upper limb injuries occurred at the same time as each other, and that the Ursus phalanx represented a part of a decoration (possibly a necklace) worn by the individual in question.  The mechanism of the introduction of the phalanx is likely to have been a devastating crushing injury which rammed the phalanx into the bone, as documented by the surrounding tissue damage.  Richards et al. 2013 (52-53) suggest that the individual was wearing a possible necklace of ‘claws’, with the phalanx having a shamanic connotation or reflecting a high status within the Middle Period horizon cultures.  Ethnographic accounts of Central Californian tribes indicate that shamans were ‘an integral part of the political, economic and legal institutions’ (Richards et al. 2013: 52).  A number of scenarios regarding her possible role within a society are postulated, and although no firm conclusion can be made, the case calls for a unique perspective for a personal osteobiography during the Californian prehistoric period.

Importantly this case study of this unfortunate individual highlights the coming together of the historical, the ethnographic, the osteological and the anatomical.  Whilst the hypothetical situation of the cause of the trauma can be discussed and postulated, it nevertheless stimulates a worthwhile discussion on the role of shamanistic behaviour in prehistoric California and it adds to the importance of understanding the injuries on the living individual, a living osteobiography.  It is an important article and well worth the full read.

Bibliography:

Richards, G., Ojeda, H., Jabbour, R., Ibarra, C., & Horton, C. (2013). Bear phalanx traumatically introduced into a living human: Prehistoric evidence International Journal of Paleopathology, 3 (1), 48-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2013.01.001

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010.  The Archaeology of Disease. Stroud: The History Press.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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