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Interview with Natalie Marr & David Ashley Pearson: Introducing the Short Film ‘Visitor’

21 Jun

Natalie Marr is an artist who works across video, sound and performance, and draws inspiration from science fiction, landscapes and different experiences of time.  She is currently completing a Masters in Filmmaking and Media Arts at the University of Glasgow.  After the release of ‘Visitor’ Natalie will be taking up a research position at the University of Glasgow in a multidisciplinary project to study the impact of the Galloway Forest Park, Scotland.  For current and previous multi-media projects please check out her website here, ‘Visitor’ will be released in Autumn.

David Ashley Pearson is a multimedia artist who focuses primarily on sound design.  He is particularly interested in exploring improvisation, acoustics and the physicality of sound.  His approach to sound is ever-changing but is underpinned by a curiosity for its substance and a passion for musical exploration.  His blog entitled Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, games and music, can be found here.


These Bones of Mine:  Hello Natalie, thank you for joining These Bones of Mine! In something of a first for this blog our main topic of discussion will be a short experimental film of which you are currently in the process of producing.  Visitor, your upcoming film focuses on people who stargaze and the entwined personal stories of the night sky.  It promises to be something special; however speaking as an archaeologist interested in the lives of others, I’m keen as to what led you onto the path of film making?

Natalie Marr:  Thank you for inviting me! I feel like film has always been there in my life as something that I just love, it is a form that transfixes me, surprises me, soothes me, challenges me.  One of my greatest pleasures is to go to the cinema alone and just sit in the dark with a great film!

I have a background in the arts and I would still struggle to call myself a filmmaker – it doesn’t even matter really – but I suppose what I’m getting at, is that film is just one form that I am drawn to working with, and the qualities of film that I particularly love are the immediacy of it, the way it moves me on a physical, emotional and sometimes spiritual level, and also the way it plays with my experience of time.  These are qualities that I also try to explore in sound and performance.  I am also interested in the experience of seeing a film, sitting in the dark, the way you give yourself to a film for a period of time.  But that’s obviously a very purist way of looking at it!

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A detail from ‘Visitor’. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

Visitor is very different to any films I have made before…  It has been a very social process. In the past I have tended to shoot abandoned buildings, landscapes, environments that I freely walk around and capture and onto which I project my own story. There is landscape (or skyscape!) in ‘Visitor’ too, but because of this social process of interviews, spending time with people under the stars, as well as the autobiographical aspect, my approach to filming environments has changed too: it is not something I just project onto, it is another element that I am interacting with and learning from.

TBOM:  The interaction of the social process, within the creative production of a piece of art, is an idea that grabs me.  It is much the same in archaeology where archaeologists are never quite just the bystander to the material remains of the past – they act as both the interpreter of the architectural features and artefacts uncovered, but also as a gatekeeper to unlocking the potential knowledge of the remains and disseminating it to a wider audience. We even, acting in an environmental context, landscape the past through the examination of archaeobotanical remains and populate it with species through zooarchaeological analysis.  

In this context the personal voices of the past are largely silenced by time, but I’m left wondering how have you found the effort of capturing the social process?  Have you felt a greater duty to represent those who you film, as oppose to the silent landscapes and skyscapes of your earlier short films and photographs, or is this a false distinction?

Natalie:  Yes! The process has really sharpened my sensitivity to observing and recording and the challenge of how to represent other people’s stories, other people’s lives.  What I’m trying to do is build the experience of that challenge into the film and make myself – as a narrator or guide – vulnerable, responsive and unfinished.  It is very subjectively led, and most documentary/non-fiction films are to some extent – they are personal theses – but what I like about the essay film format, is the emphasis on the personal and the impressionistic and that’s what I’m running with in this film.  ‘Visitor’ deals a lot with projection: how we project ourselves onto the night sky, how we make Space personal.  Constellations as one example: they enable us to navigate our way around the sky, and we give them names that have their own historic and cultural colourings.

But the film is also about being responsive and like you say, it is a mistake to think of the land as silent, though in terms of ‘duty’ or a relationship of care, there is a more obvious concern for me when thinking about representing people, and maybe that’s because the effects of my actions are much more immediate.  It is so so important to get out of that mindset though, and spending time under a dark sky helps!

When I look at the stars, I feel I am tuning in to them.  I’m interested in the experience of darkness and how the body changes in a dark environment.  I get a stronger sense of this out on location in a place like the Galloway Forest Park, in Scotland, maybe because I’m standing outside for hours and time seems to slow down, and maybe it is also because I slowly start to tune in to the sound of the forest and of the different creatures that live there.  A funny side note on that – the last time I stayed in Galloway, one of the best night-time sounds I heard was a cow somewhere off in a neighbouring field, softly mooing as it slept, lovely!

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A silent salute in space. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am a big fan of science fiction and in particular its commitment to ‘becoming other’.  There is a quote I carry around with me all the time, which is from Fredric Jameson in his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions; he’s talking about the challenge in science fiction of representing the other when it is beyond our comprehension or experience, how do you do it?!  And his answer is that the ‘other’ demands a new kind of perception, which demands in turn a new organ of perception, and ultimately a new kind of body (sorry – I am paraphrasing!).  So the problem sort of creates its own solution if you are happy to let it work its magic on you.  With ‘Visitor’ it is a kind of feeling around in the dark at times and not knowing exactly what I’m working with, but it is hugely rewarding to be open to that.

TBOM:  Having seen the two trailers for Visitor a number of times now I am struck by the two timescales represented – the human lifetime and memory contrasted to the great age of the universe and its celestial bodies.  There are also similarities to Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, particularly in the revealing scenes of drawing back the covers for the apparatus that are used to peer into the inky darkness.  

However, whereas Guzmán contrasted the interviews of the astronomy and archaeological researchers with the family members searching for the remains of Pinochet’s victims hidden in the Atacama desert, your film is of a more personal nature.  Indeed there is the sense of personal solace present in it, the calm movements noted in the preparation of the equipment to observe the stars.  Where have you drawn your influence for this project from?  How has it developed as you have moved along the length of producing Visitor? 

Natalie:  Yes, its been a while since I saw ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ but it’s definitely there.  I was so moved by it, there was a special kind of quiet power about it, it’s deeply political but also deeply personal.  You are right, there are definitely shared motifs between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’, personal projections, the unknown, darkness, light.  I see lots of correlations between looking up and looking down, and of course, looking into space is effectively always looking into the past.  I see these women, who are spending every waking moment searching for the remains of their loved ones, as located neither in the present, nor the past.  ‘Nostalgia for the light’…a longing for light cast from the past perhaps, but how long will they have to wait for it to reach them?  They are trapped in a time-scale that will likely outlive them and it’s intensely sad.

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A detail of one of the telescopes at the Galloway Astronomy Centre. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

The phrase ‘to be in the dark’ is about not knowing and not having answers or facts and this is definitely something shared between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’.  In ‘Visitor’ there is a reading of darkness in terms of being unanchored, in free fall.  This is how I felt when I lost our mutual friend Holly, like I lost my grip on reality for a while, and it felt very destructive.  In ‘Nostalgia…’ an interviewee comments that to be without memory is to be nowhere, and I think of a tiny body surrounded by total darkness, spinning like the astronaut Ryan in the film ‘Gravity‘, unmoored and alone.  This also makes me think of the Disappearance at Sea short film by artist Tacita Dean about Donald Crowhurst who died at sea, unable to locate himself geographically, because his chronometer was not giving him a correct reading on the local time.  Tacita Dean uses the image of a lighthouse in her film, another motif for searching.

But spending time under dark skies over the last 6 months is changing my relationship with darkness; my body and mind sense in a different way.  It’s like the lights go out and something else switches on, it is a bit like being in a car picking up a radio station that starts off as noise but as you travel into its field of transmission, it becomes clear.  Vision is obviously an important aspect of stargazing, but also the feeling of being outdoors at night, the very different qualities of sound that emerge, and a sense that your ‘time’ vibrates with so many other ‘times’.

When I looked through the telescope at Jupiter recently, I saw this incredibly distant planet and four of its moons, but pressing my face against the eye piece, the darkness of Jupiter’s ‘world’ encloses me and it feels like it’s right there and I can touch it, it is very intimate.  I was speaking to one of the Galloway Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers recently about stargazing as a very intimate activity that involves a lot of trust.  She mentioned that if she were to meet her workshop participants the next day in the sunlight, she may not be able to tell them by face!  So the experience of darkness and of stargazing is quite complex and also transformative for me, and I believe transformative for others too.

TBOM:  Yes, after losing our friend Holly I also felt an incredible sense of darkness and disarray.  Light eventually returned, particularly when I think of the time that we had spent together and also through getting to know one of her favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens

It seems to me then that memory and distance are recurring motifs within ‘Visitor’, from both your own viewpoint and from the people who you have interviewed for the film.  As an anchor to these themes, and as a comfort to the sheer size and depth of the universe, the bonds of family and friends also seem to play a pivotal part within the film.  Is this a fair assessment?

Natalie:  Yes, definitely.  I keep coming back to distance and proximity.  A lot of the people I have interviewed share their night sky experiences with loved ones or close friends.  It might be a phone call in the early hours of the morning between two people at different ends of the country looking at the same planet, or a certain constellation that makes you think of the person you first encountered it with.  Distance gets collapsed in those moments of remembering.  And I guess that’s what you mean when you have said to me that you feel close to Holly when listening to music she loved and in particular the musicians she introduced you to or that you listened to together.  Memory is a strange thing, as are dreams and sometimes they cross over.

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A walk in the wild as preparations for a night of stargazing take shape. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am definitely partial to the mystical qualities of the universe, as well as the hard science (!).  Astrophysics is fascinating to me and never stops surprising me; though it is extremely rigorous in its science, I think that it is also an area that allows space for speculation and wonder which, for me, is hugely creative and helpful for thinking about slippery things like memory and experience.  The language of astrophysics alone is incredibly rich and strange, and speaking it or listening to it transports me somewhere beyond my usual experience and I guess I’m trying to follow that and see where it leads!

TBOM:  Speaking of other languages I know we have spoken about music before this, with reference to our shared love of Fever Ray, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Vladislav Delay for example, and I feel I can almost hear their influences within the trailer for ‘Visitor’.  How did you approach the sound and music composition for this film though, and where did your influences for this come from?  

I know that you regularly collaborate with your partner David Ashley Pearson on your productions, such as on the 2013 short film Waiting for an Answer (Waiting for a Sign), and that he has helped produce the soundscape for ‘Visitor’, so this may also be a question for him as well.

Natalie:  It really does help that we’ve known each other for such a long time and also worked on projects together or been witness to each other’s projects.  I’m not great at describing sound, it is very slippery to me.  David has a more nuanced understanding of it and the physics behind it. We didn’t discuss much in the way of influences…  I think we both know what we like!  In terms of soundtracks that have really blown us away recently though…  Definitely Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin (2013) and we also loved the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto for The Revenant (2015).

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The preparation of a Bahtinov mask. A Bahtinov mask is a device utilizing focal grids and variations in angle diffraction to help achieve optimum focus when using small astronomical telescopes, or when conducting astrophotography, to view bright stars accurately. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

There are obviously a set of themes or motifs in ‘Visitor’ which you can sink your teeth into sonically and some of the main aesthetic approaches for this have been thinking about tuning in/tuning out, sounds that take us away from ourselves and yet have an uncanny familiarity and the idea of signalling or sending out a message, a beacon.  We both share an interest in experimental music, but I would say I’m more partial to looking for a beat that I can cling on to, whereas David is a bit more fearless when it comes to sound!  I think it makes sense here to let David talk more about his approach to the sound design…

David Ashley Pearson:  Hi there, thanks for showing such an interest in our film, it means a lot.  My relationship with music (and sound in general) has been incredibly intimate and personal my whole life, I find it embarrassing to listen to the music I love with others as it’s like revealing a part of myself, it makes me feel somewhat naked and exposed!  Even music that it is incredibly social such as Punk, Dance or Pop I find difficult to listen to with others.  I like to delve into sound and find a personal connection, typically when I find that connection I can become obsessed and mesmerised by the sound and feel I own it in some way.

Before moving to London in 2007 I was always looking out for new and interesting sounds, I’ve always listened out for something that struck me as unique and creative but it wasn’t until I got to London and got to listen to and attend some Free Improvisation concerts that I felt my ears truly open up.  I’ve always loved and strove for ambiguity and multiple meanings in my work and I find that in its purest form in Free Improvised music.

When I first moved to London I went to Mark Wastell’s – now sadly closed – Sound 323 record shop in Highgate; exposing myself to a whole new sound culture, it was a phenomenal experience just leafing through all the CDs and absorbing it all.  That first time I went there I bought Lawrence English’s For Varying Degrees of Winter (2007) which is an incredibly meticulous and icy ambient album, I love it but it was probably one of the music conventional CDs there!  At the time Mark had some music playing in the shop that was like nothing I’d heard before; it was an incredibly unusual, textural, hard to place sound… and very slow!  I didn’t know how to interact with it and what it meant, it was alien to me and I loved it because of that; it was Free Improvisation!

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A Scots Pine garden, Glasgow, Scotland. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

With Free Improvisation (and in particular the ‘New London Silence’ scene that I gravitated towards) all sounds come out of silence and the player’s environment.  Traditional ideas of instrumentation, musical notation and scales are chucked out the window in favour of a purer listening to sound as sound, the sound’s interaction with the space and the sound’s interaction with other sounds.  This idea of sound coming out of silence is incredibly important to me for this film and it’s also important that sounds come out of the imagery and montage that the film paints.  I have made sound concepts/sketches for the two trailers but I hesitate to truly start on the final soundtrack until more sections of the film are in place – as I want to interact with the imagery.  I also want to keep in mind the cinematic space and how my music interacts with the voices of those we’ve interviewed for the film.  I can’t wait to see and hear how it comes together!  The soundtrack will feature voices, textures, field recordings, synthesizers and other bits and bobs… whatever works in driving forward the story Natalie wants to tell!

TBOM:  The two trailers released so far certainly indicate the sound coming out of the silence, and I’m looking forward to seeing how your exposure to Free Improvisation influences the soundtrack David.  Natalie, the initial release date for ‘Visitor’ is September to coincide with the end of your Masters course and you are currently crowdfunding for the remaining production.  What are your hopes for ‘Visitor’ and do you have any plans after? 

Natalie:  Yes, very soon! The film is being produced as part of my degree and will be completed in September.  Once ‘Visitor’ is completed, we’ll be submitting it to festivals, so fingers crossed it gets some interest and circulation and it will be interesting to discuss it with a bit of distance.  In the meantime though, we are working on raising funds to finish the shooting and for some post-production work.  Any support is welcome and we are really pleased to offer some night sky-related perks including a stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre and an astrophotography workshop with Viridian Skies, also based in Dumfries & Galloway.

 

Beyond the film, there is so much still to be explored.  Recently I’ve been very lucky to be accepted for an incredible research project based at the University of Glasgow, with a focus on mapping the values of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, so that’s the next three and a half years of my life.  I’ve become really attached to the area (and to its skies!) so it is a dream to be encouraged to delve in deeper.

TBOM:  It certainly sounds like you have plenty to contend with and I wish you the best of luck with the release of ‘Visitor’.  I shall look forward to experiencing it when it comes out.  I’m sure readers of this blog will also be interested to hear how your research into the Galloway Forest Dark Sky park takes shape so please do keep in touch.  Thank you and David once again for joining These Bones of Mine.

Natalie:   Thank you also for your support of the film and for taking the time to discuss it in more detail, it really does help to unpick it a bit and reflect on it while it’s still being made.  It is also fantastic to be in such good company on These Bones of Mine!

Further Information

  • Visit Natalie Marr’s website for further information on her current and previous projects.  You can listen to David Ashley Pearson’s sound projects here, and visit his blog Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, music and games.
  • You can help fund and donate to the making of  the short film ‘Visitor’ on the IndiGoGo webpage by visiting here.  Dependent on the amount of money given the individual backer can receive a number of perks related the production of the film.  These include, but are not limited to, special riso print postcards, an invitation to the opening night of the film, as well as a night’s stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre for two.
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Bioarchaeology Updates: Upcoming Conferences, Books and Medieval Bones

12 Jun

There really hasn’t been a better time to be involved with the fantastic field of bioarchaeology.  The study of ancient and historic human remains is deeply rooted within the archaeological and osteological fields, but it is its own specialised niche that carefully combines the study of cultural and environmental variables in the scientific study of human skeletal and mummified remains.  It mixes the methodologies and approaches used in the hard sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, to help determine relevant interpretations and processes at play when studying past individuals and populations.  Even though my day job is currently in another field completely (I don’t think my work colleagues would take too kindly to me bringing in bones to study!), I am still an active researcher within the bioarchaeology discipline (as highlighted through my recent trip to San Francisco – expect a post relatively soon).

The discipline has really grown within the last two decades (both theoretical and scientific applications in biochemistry) and it is steady embracing and using new technologies (such as 3D printing and laser scanning) to help further the information that is present in the bioarchaeological record.  As such this post will briefly highlighted forthcoming conferences, some publications, and briefly highlight some of my own work in this discipline.

Upcoming Conferences

This small list of conferences highlights some of the larger conferences in archaeology and bioarchaeology in the UK and Europe.

21st Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, Glasgow, 2nd-5th September 2015

Hosted at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, the city will play host to the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) annual meeting this year, with an expected c.2500 delegates attending the multiple sessions on archaeology theory, method and history.  Registration for the conference costs from £145 down to £80 dependent on EAA member status (student, retiree, or Eastern European status) of the applicant and rise up to £212 for non-member status.  The conference is split into seven different themes, including the following:

1) Archaeology and Mobility – Using 21st century Europe as a jumping off point for the issues of mobility, this session seeks to see how archaeological research identifies mobility in the record.

2) Re-configuring Identities – The levels of identity are important, from state, group, familial and individual.  This session explores the archaeological representation of identity and how this is expressed.

3) Science and Archaeology – This sessions explores the use of hard science in archaeology, such as stable isotope analyses, lipid analyses and DNA explorations.

4) Communicating Archaeology – How do we communicate archaeology, why is this important and how can we improve it?  This sessions will highlight what we do well, how to improve and why.

5) Legacies and Visions –  This session will focus on the legacies of archaeological exploration and the use of vision within communities of archaeological projects.

6) Celtic Connections – Detailing the Celtic phenomenon and what it means.

7) Interpreting the Archaeological Record – How do we interpret and why?

Full details on the themes can be found here.  The 21st annual meeting promises to be an exciting opportunity to meet archaeological researchers from across Eurasia, and several of the themed sessions will be attractive to the bioarchaeologist.  These include the expression of identity in the archaeological record and the ability to identify mobility.  The full scientific and artistic program will be released shortly, whilst the key information can be found here.

British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology conference, Sheffield, 18th-20th September 2015

Hot on the heels of the EAA conference, which is conveniently held in the UK this year, is the more specialised British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) annual conference held at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Taking place over three days from the 18th to the 20th of September, the conference is the main event for bioarchaeologists in the UK covering the fields of biological anthropology, osteoarchaeology (both human and non-human), physical anthropology and aspects of forensic anthropology.  The registration fee for members is £150, non-members £185, and students prices varying from £125 to £150 for members or non members.  The fee does include a conference meal at a restaurant but not accommodation.

The poster for the BABAO 2015 conference held at the University of Sheffield.  It also features the fantastic artwork of Jennifer Crangle, a doctoral candidate at the Sheffield department of archaeology.

As highlighted above there are four main session themes for the BABAO 2015 conference, each allowing for significant room for research topics.  Alongside the poster and podium presentations are two exciting workshops.  The first is a particularly hot topic in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology – 3D scanning and printing of skeletal elements, whilst the 2nd is of similar importance – museum studies and curation methods.  Both workshops will be delivered by experts in the field.  The BABAO conference is a well-known event in the UK bioarchaeological calendar and as such is definitely of interest for both European and non-European researchers as it highlights upcoming and ongoing research of international importance.  Details of the conference outline can be found here, alongside the BABAO 2015 Facebook page.

Little Lives: New Perspective on Child Heath and the Life Course in Bioarchaeology, Durham, 30th January 2014

The Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham is playing host to a one day conference on the bioarchaeological importance of non-adults (neonates, children, juveniles, etc) in the archaeological record.  Non-adults in the bioarchaeological record were once accorded little status and study, however times have fundamentally changed and focus has shifted onto the importance of non-adult individuals in the archaeological record.  There are no details on the cost of the day long session as of yet, but I will update the post once information is available.

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Little Lives conference post held at the University of Durham in early 2016.

The day-long conference is split into three separate sessions with keynote speakers in each.  The four sessions include:

1) Life before Birth – research into current maternal and infant health in bioarchaeology.

2) Growth, Health and Childhood – studies looking at the period of growth, general health and isotope studies.

3) Back to the Future! – effects of childhood stress on adult outcomes, stature, body proportion and longevity

Abstracts, of 250 words with institute affiliation, are being accepted until the 30th of September 2015.  Please send them to littlelivesdurham (at) gmail (dot) com.

Books, Briefly…

Alongside the upcoming conferences above that look particularly interesting, I have also been reading a few different books recently that may be of interest to bioarchaeologists.  I shall very quickly sum them up here.

A History of Disability by Henri-Jacques Stiker (1999), Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 240 pages

In a relatively new (okay, a few decades old) English translation provides the French historian Henri-Jacques Stiker’s attempt at a framework for analysing disability across the ages – starting in the biblical age and ending in the late 20th century at the introduction and use of legal frameworks in understanding the concept of disability in society.  This was one of the first books that detailed the changing nature and understanding of disability within society itself and across cultures.  In particular Stiker highlights the cultural assumption and ‘contemporary Western discourse’ principle that ‘equality/sameness/similarity is ideal’, which he states exposes society’s basic intolerance of individualism and diversity as a whole.  This is an interesting and thought-provoking publication that requires close reading, yet I should state here that this book has no basis in bioarchaeology.  Stiker takes the reader on a journey through the changing language and thought on disability, highlighting appropriate cultural trends or changes in the perception and reality of disability (in all of its various modes) throughout some three thousand or more years of historical and cultural change.

Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Debra L. Martin, Ryan P. Harrod & Ventura R. Pérez (2014), London, Springer, 262 pages

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on a paperback version of this manual as it looks (and indeed is) fantastic.  This book is largely aimed at the practicing bioarchaeologist (whether commercial, academic or student) and it is a book that profiles the bioarchaeology discipline as a whole.  This includes, but is not limited to, the bioarchaeological methods used in studying human remains and their archaeological context, the role and use of theory, general best practice guidelines, and the ethics and applications involved in the discipline.  As such this publication covers a lot of ground in a proficient and reader friendly way, whilst never losing its clarity or the rich depth of the subject itself.  I highly recommend you read a copy if you are interested in the objectives and importance of bioarchaeology as a whole.  Alongside Clark Spencer Larsen’s 1997 Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton (now in an updated 2nd edition!), which informs the reader on the past population behaviours that can be gleaned from human remains (both skeletal and mummified), and Tim D. White and Pieter Folkens esteemed Human Bone Manual, which is a key first text for the anatomical identification of skeletal elements in either the laboratory field environments, Martin et al.’s book highlights the discipline as a whole and acts as a fantastic reference book on any number of bioarchaeological issues that the practitioner or researcher faces.

Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives by Douglas E. Crews (2003), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 291 pages

I’ve mentioned this publication by Crews before on the blog but I think it is worth mentioning again as it highlights the importance of understanding the fundamental processes of biological processes at play within both the individual and population that can affect the archaeological record, and our perception of it.  Late life survival, and the way in which humans senesce slowly, is a particularly interesting area of human biology – it is the how and why we age as we do, what influences are behind this and what the cultural and social expectations, or impacts, this can lead to or can be predicated.  For the bioarchaeologist this is important to consider when examining an older individual as bone density decreases and osteoporosis rises as a risk, leading to both functional loss and loss of life (specifically in complications from fractures in osteoporosis cases).  The biocultural, and anthropological, implications of senescence are of primary importance in the world’s population today as developed countries (such as the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States) have a higher percentage of elderly individuals across the national population than ever before, and seems to be a developing pattern across economically developed and developing countries.

And Finally

I’ve put up a recent human osteological report that I have completed as a freelance specialist that analysed the partial remains of a Medieval adolescent (HCD 12), found by chance on the north-east coast of England, on my personal Academia page here.  Regular readers of the site may find the report interesting in the use and application of the methods applied in the bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains.  It is certainly an interesting individual due to the burial location of the body, however it is also frustrating due to the inability to recover the in-situ remains due to landscape instability.  I should state here that this is purely an osteological analysis of the skeletal remains themselves rather than an in-depth study of the archaeological context of the remains.  It is, as such, a specialist report.

Please feel free to take a look and let me know of any critique – I’d value this as this is one of my first osteological reports outside of academia itself.  If you anyone wants a copy of the report that doesn’t have the skeletal inventory and associated appendices somewhat horribly marred by Academia’s upload program, then please feel free to email me at thesebonesofmine (at) hotmail (dot) com!

Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’

5 Apr

I still remember seeing the vivid woodcuts of the human body looming out of the school history textbook for the first time, as clear as the sunlight that entered that dark room.  The course title was ‘Medicine through Time’, a fascinating ramble through man’s attempts at healing the body that started at the Upper Palaeolithic and ended at the beginning of the NHS and modern medicine.

The figures that loomed out were of course from Andreas Vesalius’s (1514-1564) anatomical book, ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libre Septem‘ (1543), an illustrated manual of the human body in 7 books.  Produced at a time of great learning, during the flourishing of the Renaissance, the books depicted the human body in vivid anatomical detail.  Remarkably Vesalius published the first edition of the book at the age of 30, taking great pains to present the illustrations as accurately as possible.  By using woodcuts throughout the text, with the odd use of intaglio (engraved copper plates), Vesalius cultivated great artists to help detail his anatomical and dissection findings.  He had the text printed by Joannis Oporini  in Basel, Switzerland, who was a printer of foremost talent in 16th century Europe.

But where did Vesalius, as a anatomist and dissector, fit into anatomical history?  Vesalius was born in Brussels, Belgium (then the Hapsburg Netherlands), in 1514 to a family of physicians and, under the directions of Jacques Dubois and Jean Fernel, studied anatomy and the theories of Galen at the University of Paris in 1533.  He was forced to move his anatomical studies to Leuven, Netherlands, at the outbreak of war between the Holy Roman Empire and France in 1536,  However he shortly moved to Padua, Italy, to complete his doctorate and took up the chair of surgery and anatomy after its completion.  It is during this time that he conducted dissections on cadavers as a regular part of his student lessons as a primary learning tool, and promoted the use of directly observed descriptions during the dissections.

This was a challenge to the established orthodoxy of Galen‘s (AD 126- 200) anatomical legacy.  Galen studied the Hippocratic theory of pathology, and heavily promoted the theory of the 4 bodily humors and the idea of human temperaments.  In particular Galen advanced the knowledge of human anatomy in many areas, including describing muscle tones and the functions of agonists and antagonists in the musculo-skeletal system, alongside major progressions in the understanding of circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems.  Although Galen’s medical corpus was accepted as largely fact, his anatomical dissections were carried out on Barbary apes and pigs, as Imperial Rome in the 2nd century AD prohibited human cadaver dissection.

One of the 'muscle men', displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (source).

One of the ‘muscle men’, displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (Source: University of Glasgow).

This led to several major inaccuracies in the work of Galen and in the understanding of the biology of the human body, and it wasn’t until Vesalius that certain views were corrected and amalgamated into Galen’s legacy.  This included a number of corrections from Galen’s original works, such as recognising that the human jawbone (mandible) is one bone and not two, that women do not lack a rib compared to males (taken from the biblical idea), and that the interventricular septum of the heart is not porous as Galen advocated, alongside a plethora of other insights.

This largely occurred because Vesalius advocated active learning during dissection of human cadavers (themselves often executed prisoners).  Importantly it should be noted that Vesalius work built upon work throughout the intervening centuries, particularly in the view of contemporary Renaissance artists and anatomists.  His was not the first body of work focusing on the intricacies of the human body during this period, but it was one of the most detailed and finely executed, leading it to become an instant classic in his own lifetime.  Although he improved Galen’s theory of circulation, it wasn’t until the English doctor William Harvey (1578-1657) accurately described the systematic circulation and properties of blood (1628).

The University of Toronto has recently acquired a previously unknown and privately held 2nd edition copy of ‘De Human Corporis Fabrica’, and it is making the book accessible for researchers to study the text itself at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.  Remarkably the unknown edition includes annotations likely made by Vesalius himself, notes where he has corrected the printed text or made notes regarding what to include in the next printed edition of the book, which unfortunately was never printed.  This typifies the character and nature of Vesalius as a dissector and researcher, but it also helps highlight the nature of science itself, how through the investigation of previous studies can inform future work and rectify mistakes or misunderstandings.  In particular is also raises the subject and value of comparative anatomy between species, of homology, of the similarities and differences between mammals.

Perhaps gruesomely, a human skin bound edition of the book survives and currently resides at Brown University.  The practice of human skin binding is known as ‘Anthropodermic Bibliopegy’ and, as Wikipedia points out, dates back till at least the 17th century.