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Modes Of Transport

13 Jun

I have to agree with the writer Paul Theroux and his love of the train as the medium for travelling.  Although I have done nothing on his scale (read his books The Great Railway Bazaar or The Old Patagonian Express for a taste of his epic journeys) I, too, feel that the journey matters more then the destination.  I believe it to be a fine metaphor for life itself as well.

I found myself, as every Monday and Tuesday morning, pounding down the rail tracks on the way to York.  Half way through the journey I was joined by a bulky man sitting opposite me with a large camouflaged backpack,  bulging at the sides with this and that.  He flew at midnight tonight he said, six and a half hours to a land of camel spiders and the ever present threat of IEDs.  It was his second tour, six months long.  I wished him luck as he jumped out of the train doors at York station.

Replica Viking skates (credit: Hurstwic).

After a fast and thunderous wheel through the streets, I found myself at the archaeology base ready to start the day properly.  As normal the talk flowed easy and well through a variety of topics.  The big talking point of the day was the fact that Alice Roberts was on site to film for her Digging For Britain TV series.  The topic was Viking age York, and is due to be shown sometime around mid to late Summer on the BBC.  Although we didn’t really get to talk to her it was interesting to see archaeology being filmed for the masses.  Archaeological education and entertainment outreach helping to invigorate the youth of tomorrow, just as the summer season of excavations begin across the country.

After this brief interlude of celebrity archaeological intrusion, we carried on cleaning finds.  One of the more interesting finds today was the finding of a single Viking animal metatarsal skate.  As described on this interesting site, the skates (likely 10th Century AD) were used as a form of transport across ice during winter, and were tied on using leather thongs whilst the user pushed themselves across the ice with the probable help of two wooden poles.

On the example I helped clean, it was clear that the skate probably hadn’t been worn much as the underside was little worn.  Nevertheless it was interesting to see such an artefact in the flesh having only heard of them from other Scandinavian sites, both historic and prehistoric.

Viking skates made from bovine metatarsals in York (Image credit: YAT).

On my journey back to the railway station I passed the modern population of York and thought of those that had gone before.  The current site at Hungate criss crosses many different historic slices; from 3rd to 4th century AD Roman Eboracum, Viking Jorvik, to the later Medieval and Post Medieval city of York.  It is easy to think of past populations as pieces of pottery, discarded brick or tile but this not always the case.  As the quite frankly massive Lloyd Bank Coprolite shows, sometimes even the shit survives the journey through time!

The journey home was as pleasant a train ride as I’ve had.  I was thankful that the train slowed several times during the trip, as I had chance to look at and admire the Medieval agricultural technique of the ridge and furrows.  They are found throughout the North East, the landscape relics of a bygone age.  Today only the cows were happily lying down on them and chewing the grass.

Cows on the ridge and furrows, a feature of the medieval landscape and agricultural practices.

Flesh On The Bones

29 Mar

I apologise for not updating in a while.  I have been busy volunteering in York for YAT, whilst also starting to volunteer for a local council in the Cultural Services department (covering museums, collections, art galleries & education outreach).  Over the past few weeks at YAT I have had the chance to get my hands on a few of the skeletal remains, recently dug up from the ongoing Hungate site.  This included the cleaning of two Roman era skulls, of various mixed in femora (thighs) and humerii (upper arm bones), and studying a number of cleaned skulls alongside getting the chance to lay out a human skeleton.

Differences between femur & humerus elements

I am always struck by how gracile the human skeleton is, especially compared the faunal remains often found on archaeological sites.  In the first instance of seeing actual human bones, I’ll never forget remembering how small they seemed.  Of course, as osteoarchaeologists, we have to put the flesh back on the bones so to speak, to help tease out the information contained within the skeleton.  Yet, first we must know what we are dealing with.  The two elements above are quite distinctive in their size and robusticity.

As I cleaned the various bits and bobs of the skulls and bones, it was hard to remember that they came from a society and culture very different to the one I am living in now.  From the northern fringes of the late Roman Empire in the city of Eboracum, these bones had lain mostly undisturbed (apart from some Viking & Medieval action).  They had survived due to good soil preservation whilst the Empire they knew crumbled.  Everything they had once known has since become lost or amalgamated as invaders and settlers, cultures and societies, came and went.   As I cleaned each bone in isolation, in my white laboratory shirt and blue gloved hands, the archaeologists outside where digging through the layers and contexts, unearthing and freeing the remains.  This was a part of the process of archaeology- planning, researching, excavating, finding, documenting, cleaning, labelling, storing then onto investigating and researching.  Each step is vital and may uncover new things. 

When you are holding a persons earthly remains in your hands, its hard not to think what that person may have seen, heard and felt during their lifetime.  How different was this city to them?  Who had they loved?  What conditions did they live in?  What job did they have?  What relationship did they have to the other people found nearby? How and why did they die?

By holding a mandible (lower jawbone) in my hand, seeing the teeth in their sockets, and observing any tooth wear or loss, you can help to start to visualise the person before you.  If you are lucky and you have most of the skeletal elements preserved, you can start to observe sex and age characteristics of the person.  Studying the entire skeleton can highlight the height as well as the rough size of the human before you.  By observing any abnormalities or pathologies present you can start to get a feel for the person in front of the bones.  If you are truly lucky, you may get to study the skeleton within a population, and pick up on familiar traits within a selection.  Indeed, you can start to put flesh back on these bones. 

Lateral Mandible, Note The Muscle Attachment Points

It is the inquisitive nature of the archaeologist in the study of human material remains that they keep asking questions.  This is a very exciting time to be involved with, and interested in, thee study of human remains from archaeological sites.  Sites such as the Towton battle ground, from the War of the Roses in 1461 in England, are being excavated once again to see if there are any further remains of the estimated 28,000 victims of that Palm Sunday battle.  A osteological report on a clutch of the skeletons discovered in 1996 can be found here (carried out by Malin Holst, of York Osteoarchaeology).  The analysis of the remains show the male combatants to be from a wide age range, and a wide social range.  A further selection of the skeletons also show just how vicious and violent some of the wounds were. 

In a later post I will include some of my own research into how human osteology can help answer some of the questions regarding the Mesolithic-Neolithic agricultural change by studying European cultures.

Alongside general posts expect some posts detailing the vertebrae, skull, ribs, pelvic, arm, leg, foot and hand elements.  Specific areas in human osteology such as the use of chemical analysis (radiocarbon dating & stable isotope dietary data), metric and non-metric traits, lab procedures, ethics and palaeopathologies will also be discussed later on.

To end this post, have a beautiful song.