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These Bones of Mine Round-Up Post for 2016

4 Jan

… Hmm I didn’t actually write that much in 2016 compared to previous years!  Regardless it is now 2017 (happy new year folks) and I think a little round-up post of the entries that I wrote, or helped to edit, for 2016 is in order.  This post is inspired by my reading of the round-up entries by Jess Beck, who blogs over at Bone Broke, and by Zachary Cofran, who blogs at Lawnchair Anthropology.  I recommend that you check out both their entries for haunting film posters and wonderful animal photographs (but stay for the fossils and osteology goodness!).  I digress, so let’s get this round-up rolling.  Firstly we’ll have a little look into the statistics for the year in order to see where the website stands in comparison to previous years on this site.

Site Statistics: Meaningful or Merely Visiting?

The total number of site views for 2016 was 227,920 compared to 2015’s 253,985, whilst the total number of site visits for 2016 totaled out at 167,317, comparable to 2015’s 182,605.  Not bad at all considering I use the site as a central focus (i.e. there is no associated Twitter or Facebook account for the blog, so the blog itself is the central output for posts, information, etc.).  The statistics are comparable for previous years until 2012, when WordPress implemented the distinction between views and visitor, in order to establish clicks per view I believe.  So, for example, the statistic for views in 2012 was 536,562 whilst visitors only totaled 20,955 as a result of the distinction in views/visits coming into effect towards the end of the year.

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A quick visual of the views and visitor statistics for 2016, by calendar month, for These Bones of Mine. We can see a confirmation of the pattern I’ve talked about before for previous years where the views start, and end, strong but take a downward trend in the summer months (as they do on weekends compared to week days). Likely due to the viewing of the blog by students, staff and interested individuals who may be at university, college or school during regular semesters and not visit the site during non-academic periods. Alternatively, or in conjunction to the above, it may all be due to archaeologists being in the field excavating in the summer and having no internet access!

The total number of entries produced for 2016 was 22, a blog low for the site since its inception (for example, 2014 saw 67 entries posted and 2013 54 entries posted, although it is a follow on trend from 2015 where only 25 posts were produced and posted).  A total of 12 posts remain in varying states of drafting, and honestly I doubt that at least two of them will be posted in any format.  The top posts for views last year were, as it always is, the home page/archives to the site.  The next nine top posts are related to the Skeletal Series of posts where each section of the human skeleton is introduced and discussed from a bioarchaeological perspective.  Again, there are no great surprises here; indeed this is actually the main aim of the blog itself and it helps support my intention behind it!  2016 however saw the production of no Skeletal Series entries (though check out the Skeletal Series Human Osteology Glossary from December 2015), this is something I hope to rectify in 2017 by focusing on how bioarchaeologists, or human osteologists, assess skeletal remains in order to assign the biological sex and age for individuals.

So, are statistics useful?

I believe so, generally speaking, as they give me a good indication of what the individuals who visit the site want to read, what they use the site for, and how they navigate the site more generally.  Of course I’ve largely circumnavigated these wants with posts on literary topics of interest or books mentions instead this year!

A Few of My Favourite Posts

The year started with a fairly personal post on A Personal Anthropology of Driving, wherein I discuss the impact that driving has had on my life and I present brief thoughts on socio-cultural issues surrounding the car itself and the environment in which it drives by taking a whistle-stop tour of the world.  The entry let me write loosely on my thoughts and demonstrate that anthropology really can be found all around us, that there is no strict division between the person and the social.  It is a post I very much enjoyed writing, going from the personal osteological endeavors expected when one has a bone disease that has led to multiple fractures and (planned and unplanned) surgical interventions to the great freedom that driving a car can bring, so much so that across much of the world today it is considered a coming-of-age rite – indeed, it is up there with the biological terror of becoming an awkward adolescent!

One of my most treasured posts was Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations, which had a lot of reflective and creative similarities with the Personal Anthropology of Driving post.  I was able to combine my love of poetic writing with the tangible grain of my film photography, as well as to talk about the adorable three chickens that make their home in the back garden.  I also managed to sneak some zooarchaeology into the post as a through-line technique that helped to anchor the post with regards to human-animal relationships.

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I mean look at this beautiful bird! The chicken, a Gingernut Ranger breed, is but one of three that currently terrorize the garden and step on the author’s books. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey black and white film, artfully manipulated in Media player.

For guest posts and interviews in 2016 I was lucky enough to be able to host a discussion between artists Natalie Marr, David Ashley Pearson and myself as we debated their short film Visitor, which has personal ramifications for each of us as we lost a close mutual friend of ours in 2015.  The interview discusses a number of topics, including the nature of grief, space and the influence of certain artists and film makers in the production of Visitor.  The film is pretty damn beautiful and is currently in a final edit, the trailer can be found on the link above and I recommend watching it.

The site also played host to a tantalizing guest post on artificial cranial deformation in the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević.  In it Maja introduces the theory behind the aims of artificial cranial deformation, the methods and types of cranial deformation, and the context for the migration within Central Europe, presenting illuminating case studies on an area I had not read about or researched before.  In the third, and final, guest post of the year Jennifer Crangle and Greer Dewdney presented the launch of the Rothwell Charnel Chapel project website, backed by the University of Sheffield.  I’ve written about the Rothwell Charnel Chapple a number of times now for this blog, helping to promote the research carried out by my friend Jennifer Crangle as she promotes the importance of this rare English medieval site and involves the local community and members of the public.  I’ve been down to Rothwell to help participate in an open day, as well as helping to promote the project on this site and I recommend you give the site a visit and check it out!

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A selection of crania at the medieval charnel chapel at Holy Trinity Church, Rothwell. A photographic essay by the author on this site can be found here with a background history on the charnel chapel itself. Photograph by the author using a Pentax S1a camera and Ilford black & white film.

As always, I heartily welcome guest post entries from around the world on a whole range of subjects related to bioarchaeology, human osteology, and archaeology more generally.  I also welcome discussion posts and interviews, where I act as the interviewer helping to ask questions and guide the discussion as necessary.  If you feel that this may be of interest please do read my Guest Post page for previous entries, see the areas that I am interested in and read through the advice post.  Most importantly, please feel free to get in touch either by dropping a comment below or by emailing me using the address on the About Me page.

An important update to one previous post was to highlight the sheer range of postgraduate masters degrees (either taught or research-based) available in bioarchaeology or human osteology related topics on offer in the United Kingdom, alongside the rising cost of the courses themselves.  The post also raised the spectre of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the recent changes made in a government White Paper for the direction of higher education within the country.  Expect a lot of change within the education sector over the next five to ten years, and to the economy of the United Kingdom more generally.  As always I console any students, or interested individuals, who want to pursue a masters focused on the analysis of human skeletal remains, from archaeological contexts, to think of what they want from the course; what research you hope to conduct; what research is conducted at the department itself; what resources are available to the student; what projects do the department carry out and, finally, who the course leaders are and their interests.  I always recommend a visit to the department, if you can, to get a feel for the course and for the location of the university itself.  Furthermore, always try to think of the next step after the masters itself: where do you want this degree to get you to and how will it help on the way?

I finally wrote up a conference review from 2014!  The Day of the Dead, a three-day conference held at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, in October 2014, was a truly fantastic event which mixed human osteology and funerary archaeology to provide an engaging, informative and vital series of presentations on a wide range of topics.  In the review I also managed to grab a quick few words from famed bioarchaeological researcher Christopher Knüsel, who helped lead a workshop on the archaeothanatology method of interpreting the burial position of the body in-situ.  I also blogged about the upcoming conference entitled Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies that is to be held at the University of Southampton in March 2017.  Registration for that conference is still open at the normal rates, so book your tickets now!

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A really quite wonderful conference. let’s hope it makes a comeback in some form. Image credit: Queen’s University Belfast.

Last year also continued a strong trend on this blog – I love reading and I am not afraid to tell you the readers just what I’ve been reading.  From non-fiction that covers the impact of momentous 20th century events in Russia and the USSR to the Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives and Fractures and Spanish novelists, I’ve covered a lot of ground sparingly!  Reading is fundamental to understanding the world around you, but also to escape the world around you.  It can give you a much deeper understand of the history of the various countries and regions of the world, as well as offering profound socio-political background knowledge.  I love it and I’d love to hear what bioarchaeological or archaeological textbooks you have been reading and where you have drawn your influences from.

Alongside my recommendations of books to read, I also discussed the pros and cons of academic publishing, the Open Access movement and the horrors of trying to access articles and book reviews, with a particular focus on the Sci-Hub, Academia and ResearchGate websites.  The post itself didn’t get any love from the Sci-Hub founder, or associate perhaps, but I was trying to present a balanced viewpoint of the options available to the student, researcher and layman of accessing academic research.  Clearly I did not succeed!  The year also saw a post by perennial blog favourite Stuart Rathbone’s new collection of archaeological work, entitled Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments, and Unprovoked Attacks.  The post contains a first for this blog – a video review of the volume produced by Stuart himself for publicizing the volume, along with a few questions asked by yours truly.  The volume is published by another These Bones of Mine favourite Robert M. Chapple, whose excellent blog on Irish archaeology can be found here.

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The cover of the volume with the chapter in by yours truly. The chapter marks the first publication in a book. Image credit: Springer international publishing.

Even better I became a published bioarchaeological author in 2016!  The publication of New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory, edited by Lorna Tilley and Alecia Shrenk and published by Springer in September 2016, saw my chapter published in a volume which itself was the outcome of a session on Bioarchaeology of Care theory and methodology at the 2015 Society for American Archaeology annual conference, which took place in San Francisco, USA.  My chapter takes a look at the public response, both online and in the traditional and digital media, to the case studies produced by Lorna Tilley as a part of her PhD research on identifying instances of care-provision given to disabled individuals in prehistoric contexts.  My chapter also presents a few best practice suggestions for engaging and communicating to the public the importance of bioarchaeological research.  I cannot tell you what it means to have a bioarchaeological book with my name in it, what a thrill!  You can read my chapter from the volume here. 

…And Finally

I re-wrote the 2002 song Lose Yourself, which is by the rapper Eminem for the 8 Mile soundtrack, and re-titled it Lose Yourself (In Mud) to include observations from an archaeological viewpoint.  It is also lovingly annotated with a few choice remarks.  Enjoy!

Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations

3 Sep

There was something comforting about a strangers dog looking up at me with unadorned glee at my open car door, waiting to be either patted on the head or to be fed a treat (perhaps both if they are lucky) I thought, as the car seemed to drag me into the parking space at work.  Earlier in the day I had stopped at a nearby nature reserve to break the journey in half in order to get some fresh air before the back shift started at the office.  To see the leaves dancing in the wind, to feel the sun on my skin; to know that there is beauty in the scenes where we are not the main actors but merely the passive observers.  I took out my notebook and scratched a few words into its carefully kept pages.  Today was going to be a good day.

Once parked up at work, and upon opening the door a fraction, my eyes spotted a fragment of bone on the tarmac.  One, two, perhaps three pieces?  One solid chunk and two small slithers of bone, the physical remnant of a body dispersed.  The larger chunk grabbed my more immediate interest and I stood up, leaned over and picked it up and carefully turned it over in my hands.  As I expected it was not human, but it was definitely from a mammal.  I chuckled to myself thinking it was a gift from the osteological gods.

Based on a quick morphological assessment it seemed to be a left distal humerus fragment (or, more simply, the top part of the elbow), as I recognised both the posterior olecranon fossa and the anterior coronoid fossa with their familiar shapes.  I also noted the slight ridge of bone that would have led to the medial epicondyle where it not heavily abraded.  Most of the articular surface of the trochlea survived although there were fragments abraded or chipped off either side of this.  Some of these minor breaks were clearly recent, the largest break had exposed a brilliant white patch of the dense cortical and honeycomb-like trabecular bone in clear contrast to the grayer surface that surrounded the broken area.  Still clearly visible, but largely fused, was the posterior line between the metaphysis and distal epiphysis indicating that the animal had not quite reached full adult growth, or skeletal maturity.  There was also a distinct clear transverse saw cut through the full shaft of the distal metaphysis, which indicated that the animal had likely been butchered or processed in some way.

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The humerus bone of a horse (Equus), cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep/goat (Ovis/Capra) and dog (Canis) in comparison to one another. Scale bar in increments of 5cm. Image credit: Boneview via University College London.

Based on size alone it likely belonged to the Ovis or Capra genera, that is either a sheep or a goat.  There is the possibility that it could belong to the Sus genus, a pig perhaps, as they can be awfully similar in shape and size, particularly if they have not reached full skeletal maturity.  Zooarchaeologists, those who study the skeletal remains of animals from archaeological contexts, often pair sheep and goat together as it can be exceptionally tough to differentiate those two species from fragmented or isolated skeletal remains.  I could see immediately that the bone was not fresh, that the ashen tone indicated that it had likely spent time being bleached by the sun in the open air.

I knew that even though the industrial estate seemed nice enough, with the gleaming glass paneled Art Deco offices and funky design logos that adorn the signage boards, that behind the lush bushes and full trees that lined one side of the main avenue there was likely a rubbish tip of some description bordering it.  A dump that gathered all of the waste of modern life together to be compacted and squashed, to be buried beyond sight rather than to be dispersed invisibly into the sea or rivers as effluent is.  I had suspected this and wondered if this is where the bone had come from, carried perhaps in the beak of one of the numerous European herring gulls (Larus argentatus) that frequent the area.  They can be seen at all hours, chasing one another on the air currents or taking part in great aerial feats of imaginary bombardments over the great length of the industrial estate.

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Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film.

I’d come across bleached bone fragments before in such settings where gulls in particular rested and squawked at one another.  Still, it was interesting to see a few fragments of bone and to be able to identify and side which part of the skeleton they represented.  The material was clearly modern, even if sun bleached, and likely represented the fragments from waste sources, scattered by the combined action of animals and natural processes.  The bones had long ago lost their original context, had long ago lost even the rest of the body in which in life they were once a part of.  They could, though, still tells us something about the age of the individual that they represented, the likely size and the probable butchery of their body too.

Later on in the week, a few days after having discovered the bone fragment at work and when the weather had noticeably taken a turn for the better, I find myself happily sat outside in the back garden at home taking it in turns to read and to write.  But I am not alone out here.  I am joined by feathered friends that we keep in a coop towards the bottom of the garden, the three unnamed domesticated hens (Gallus gallus domesticus) that make their home here as we collect their eggs; they are a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) who range over Southeast Asia and from which each domesticated chicken can trace its origin from.  The chickens in this garden are of the Gingernut Ranger type, a friendly, inquisitive and distinctive breed which are well-noted to be friendly and are always keen to peck, dig and generally explore the garden in search of hidden insects.  They also react quite joyfully to owners bringing scraps of food as daily treats.  The chickens are only unnamed because they are so similar-looking to one another, however we can easily tell them apart by their distinct personalities and social identities.

For instance, one of the chickens is remarkably independent and unrelentingly curious about the garden and any unusual sights or sounds therein.  She will be one of the first to peck and prod each section if we allow them into the garden or into an enclosure that we sometimes extend onto the grass via the use of spare chicken wire.  Furthermore, if she has the chance to, she’ll be the first to crouch down and take a flying jump out of said enclosure to scurry around in the undergrowth that lies temptingly out of the reach of the makeshift pen.  (I can only imagine the terror the bugs must feel on seeing this incessant eater appear in their midst).

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The three inquisitive ladies. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography colour film.

The other two often keep together, but invariably follow the more independent chicken once it has taken flight. As they push their heads repeatedly through the wire to see where their fellow hen has gone their soft fleshy combs ping back and forth, a harbinger of their impending flight for freedom.  Truly it is a joy to look after these beasts, to watch them rake into the freshly upturned soil with their tyrannosaur-like claws, methodically working the soil searching for sustenance and then move forward once they have cleaned the section of life.  I wonder, briefly, if this is perhaps a new approach to tackling trowelling back on archaeological digs.  Again I chuckle at this flight of fancy and gently my thoughts return back to the fragment of bone found at work, wondering where the animal had originated from.

It was in this environment, watching the chickens explore the delights that the garden had to offer and intermittently reading Philip Hoare’s delightful 2013 memoir The Sea Inside, that I remembered the odds and sods collection of non-human skeletal material that I kept from various random chance occurrences.  Within this small collection were the skeletal remains of a shoulder of mutton meal that my family had eaten one Sunday afternoon.  The remains, cleaned of any surviving muscles, ligaments and tendons by knife, were slowly boiled in water over the course of an afternoon to further remove any remaining soft tissue.  It isn’t a perfect bone cleaning method though, and I’d recommend you read the blogs mentioned below for better tips on animal skeletal preparation.  What remained after a number of hours though were gleaming white bones; the complete humerus, radius and ulna bones of a sheep which could perfectly articulate together.  Perfect and whole examples to use as comparative osteological material in order to compare the distal humerus fragment against for both size and morphological differences and similarities.

I also remembered that in one of these pots outside I had buried the skeletal remains of an ox tail, again the leftovers of a family meal that had taken place some time ago.  This was, I think, a number of years ago now and I really should go and dig them out at some point, to see the state of preservation of the caudal vertebrae and identify which bones remain intact.  But, to return to the present line of inquiry, I rummaged around the metal box which held the small collection of animal bones I had collected over the years and found a match for the distal humeral fragment, that I had found at work, with the cleaned bones parsed from the remains of the shoulder of mutton meal.  And so, through the analysis of the morphological features present, combined with my previous handling experience of animal remains and the use of comparative modern examples, my hunch at the species identification had proved correct in this instance.  I felt a sense of satisfaction in my positive and appropriate analysis of this random fragment.

Oh I patted that dog (Canis familiaris) in the car park on the head by the way, watched its chocolate coloured eyes lock briefly and keenly with my own before it decided to wander back over to its owner on the other side of the small car park, perhaps knowing I had no treats to give it that day.  Next time I return to the nature park I hope I shall see it again, and perhaps then will be able to give it a treat in return.

Sometimes it is the little things in life that make you realize that we do not share this world just with one another but with a wide variety of life forms, each within their own lives.

Further Information

  • Check out Zygoma, a regularly updated blog by Paolo Viscardi that highlights non-human skeletal remains and discusses the differences in skeletal morphology between species.  Paolo is a natural history curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London.  His Friday mystery objects series of entries are fantastic to note the differences in skeletal morphology between species, ages and sexes of non-human animals.
  • Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!) is a fantastic blog that focuses on ancient animal species, including dinosaurs, and their fossils and general anatomical variation.  Ran by palaeontologists Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor and Daren Naish, SV-POW! also covers a broad arrange of topics related to academia, research and scientific publishing, particularly in relation to copyright and public access to scientific literature.
  • Read Jake’s Bones for a fantastic resource on modern animal remains for comparative osteological purposes, ran by the eponymous Jake.  His site is child and family friendly and offers a wide range of comparative material from a whole range of animals and he also introduces the importance of natural history and conservation.  For a great guide on how to clean and process skeletal remains check out his guide here.
  • Bioarchaeologist and human osteologist Jess Beck has a fantastic site called Bone Broke, which introduces readers to the beauty of the human skeleton and the information which is encoded within bone, and to what archaeologists can learn about past individuals and populations in the archaeological record from the study of them and their context.  Check out her useful resources page here, where you can test yourself on the human bone quizzes, learn how to prepare animal skeletons or just to brush up on your anatomy!

Upcoming: Zooarchaeology and Human & Non-Human Comparative Osteology Short Courses at the University of Sheffield, September 2016

21 May

I recently had the great joy of once again visiting Sheffield to catch up with old friends and to see the Steel City anew.  It was strange, as it always is, to visit the city where I was once a student, where during the year I was a resident and cramming to complete the Masters in human osteology I was now just a tourist on holiday.  I was able to relax and browse record stores and bookstores without the guilt of an upcoming Bone Quiz hanging in the back of my mind.  One thing I hadn’t quite missed though was the hills of the city, but my love for the trams was rekindled and I managed to avoid the steepest of slopes with relative ease.

Whilst there I also managed to catch the thought-provoking film Anomalisa, direct by Charlie Kaufman, at the University of Sheffield Student Union in a night ran by the film society.  The society do fantastic work screening relatively recently released films on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at affordable prices for the general public and student body alike.  It is definitely worth checking out.  I also shared pints with friends who had stayed or moved to Sheffield to pursue the great archaeological career.

It was great to catch up on the latest news from the commercial and academic spheres, to hear of the sites that my friends had dug at or to hear of the community projects they were involved in.  Over a black coffee in the sweltering sun I was reminded by my good friend Lenny Salvagno that the Department of Archaeology, at the University of Sheffield, is organizing a number of new osteology short courses.  The short courses are taking place in September 2016 and will be of interest to readers of this blog.  So without further ado let us get to it…

Animal Remains: An Introduction to Zooarchaeology

The Understanding Zooarchaeology I short course will run for the eleventh time on the 12th to 14th September 2016, for the price of £180 or £120 (student/unwaged).  Animal bones and teeth are among the most common remains found on archaeological sites, and this three-day course will provide participants with an understanding of the basic methods that zooarchaeologists use to understand animal bone evidence.  The course will introduce the principles and basic topics behind the zooarchaeological analysis of skeletal animals in the archaeological record, including specific focuses on avian, amphibian, reptilian and mammalian skeletal remains.

This includes not just the recognition of these animal groups and their basic skeletal anatomy but also how the zooarchaeological analyses the remains (such as age at death indicators and the recognition of skeletal pathologies) and the methodologies used in assessing the role of animals in the past.  It’ll also introduce factors that affect the remains post-burial and best practice strategies for the long-term storage of remains uncovered.  The three-day course will end with sessions on skeletal metric analysis, biomolecular techniques used in zooarchaeology (such as stable isotopic analysis), quantification of the material, and finally the role of bone modification in the study of animal remains.

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Beasts of a future past. Utilizing the extensive collection of animal skeletal remains from the osteology laboratory, the zooarchaeology short course attendees will get to know the basic anatomical teminology, recognition and differences between species. Image credit: University of Sheffield, Department of Archaeology.

A Comparative Analysis: Human and Non-Human

This introductory course will be followed by a new course, entitled Human and Animal Remains: A Comparative Approach, the first time that such a course has been ran at the department.  This short course runs from the 15th to 16th September 2016 for the price of £180 or £120 (student/unwaged) and will focus on a comparison of the skeletal anatomy between human and non-human animal species commonly found from archaeological contexts in northern Europe.  By using both macroscopic and microscopic analyses, along with an insight into biomolecular investigations, the course will illustrate some basic tools used in distinguishing human remains from those of other animals.  Different methodologies and research approaches that characterize the different disciplines of human osteoarchaeology, zooarchaeology and forensic science will be discussed and evaulated.

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Bridging the comparative osteology divide. The comparative human and non-human short course brings together the knowledge of human and animal skeletal specialists to compare and contrast methods of analysis from archaeological populations. Image credit: University of Sheffield, Department of Archaeology.

Both the three-day long Understanding Zooarchaeology I and two-day long Human and Animal Remains: A Comparative Approach short courses are aimed at students, professionals in the archaeological sector and general enthusiasts.  The courses do not require any previous knowledge of the discipline and the general public are thoroughly welcome to attend.  The teaching in both courses will be delivered through short lectures, hands-on practical activities and case studies.  You can also attend both of the courses from the 12th to 16th September 2016 for the price of £220/£330 (student/unwaged), which means that you are able to save if you are interested in both.

Not Opposites, Complements

To study the skeletal remains of human or of animals, human or non-human, that is the choice that prospective students are often faced with in the realm of higher study in order to specialize in osteoarchaeology.  Yet it is widely known that human osteology is, on a commercial archaeological level, a saturated place.  The story in academia is the same.  Competition is fierce for both funding and for places in programs.

But human osteology and zooarchaeology are not polar opposites and never should be.  The human osteologist, bioarchaeologist, or forensic anthropologist, needs a good and solid grounding in the morphological differences and variations present in both human and non-human skeletal remains.  As does the zooarchaeologist, especially when faced with commingled and multi-species contexts that can be, and often are, found within archaeological sites.  It is to the advantage of the individual to be either be multi-skilled in the analysis of human and non-human skeletal remains, or to at least be au fait with what to expect with osseous material from archaeological contexts.  Therefore short courses, such as those that are mentioned above, are advantageous to each participant and to the archaeological sector as a whole.

Further Information

  • As always I am more than happy to advertise any upcoming human osteological and zooarchaeological short courses in the United Kingdom on this blog.  Please do leave a comment on email me (see my email address in the About page) and let me know the details of the upcoming course and I’ll add a post about it.

Ungulates Gnawing: Osteophagia & Bone Modifications

24 Oct

Osteophagia: Osteophagia is the act of ungulates (including giraffes, camels, cattle, etc.) chewing on another species skeletal remains to gain nutrition (particularly minerals such as phosphorus and calcium) that may be lacking in other parts of their largely vegetarian diets.  This includes the chewing of antlers, horns and ivory, as well as skeletal elements.  It is a relatively well documented animal behaviour that occurs across numerous taxa and across continents.

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I’ve been meaning to highlight this article by Hutson et al. (2013) for a while as it nicely illustrates the actions of animals in the archaeological record that can sometimes be interpreted, or mistaken, for a human or taphonomic origin.  Hutson et al. (2013) discusses the impact that ostephagia can have on archaeological contexts and carefully identifies the differences between large and small ungulate osteophagia-based actions.  Taking 12 individual and observed case studies of osteophagia examples recovered from modern field contexts in Australia, North America and Africa, the study highlights the different styles of bone modifications made by each species to help identify the often distinct bone modifications that they leave in their wake.  The case studies include examples of wildebeest (C. taurinus) bones having been gnawed by giraffes, elephant (Loxodonta africana) ivory gnawed by kudu or sable antelope, and a camel (C. dromedarius) radius fragment having been gnawed by a camel.

Hutson et al. (2013: 4140) notes that ‘previous studies have shown that ungulates gnaw both cortical and cancellous bone and elements in almost any state, from fresh to completely bleached, desiccated, and weathered”.  The favoured bones to gnaw during scavenging among ungulates are elements of the long bones, vertebrae, scapulae, skulls and ribs, and, if munching on long bones, the larger ungulates often position the axis of the bone ‘like a cigar held in a human mouth’ (Hutson 2013: 4140).

ostephagia 111 hutson etal13

This diagram shows porcupine gnawed B. taurus limb elements, where a) is the right tibia and b) is the left femur. Notice the what look like long striations, which are in fact gnawing lines (click to enlarge). Image credit: Fig 8 from Hutson et al. 2013: 4147.

Importantly, the authors differentiate the classes of ostephagia-based bone damage caused by large ungulates and compare it to the typical bone damage caused by carnivores and other primarily meat-eating scavengers, such as lions, panthers and tigers.  This comparative approach takes into account 10 separate features of bone damage often found on gnawed skeletal remains (including evidence of prey selection, bone selection, bone state, bone transport, tooth mark type and general morphology amongst others) and highlights the varied differences between the two behaviours of ungulates and carnivores (Hutson et al. 2013: 4148).  Perhaps of primary importance in this article is that fact that tooth morphology varies according to species and purpose, as such the authors explicitly highlight that, alongside this, the age of the individual animal, and thus the state of its teeth, gnawing the bone can affect the patterning expected (Hutson et al. 2013: 4147).

ostephagia hutson etal13

This rib was found at the fringe of a scatter of skeletal elements from one individual. Showing the distinctive forking and crushing of ungulate gnawing, this B. taurus rib was likely gnawed by cattle whilst still relatively fresh. Image credit: Fig 6. in Hutson et al. 2013: 4145.

Of course care should always be taken in the recording of gnawing evidence, as teeth in both humans and non-humans can wear down and gouging styles can vary.  However, the distinguishing marks made between ungulates during the act of osteophagia and the selectivity of active carnivores and scavengers is vital for the archaeologist as it can infer on the context of the gnawed skeletal remains.  This can help identify the fauna previously present on-site and the actions that took place based on replicating the known evidence.  The analysis of faunal bones at archaeological and palaeoanthropological sites should, of course, be used in conjunction with other taphonomy techniques to fully understand site formation.

All in all, this is an interesting paper that adds real depth to the taphonomic literature and should be of note to both archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists in interpreting the actions of both humans and non-humans during site formation.

Update 26/10/14

Osteophagia is just one method that mammals use to gain extra nutrients in their diet, another method is mineral lick.  As with osteophagia it has long been noted that animals will exploit their environments by eating or otherwise digesting natural soils, clays and rocks to gain elements (particularly salt) that may be missing in nutrient poor ecosystems (Lundquist & Varnedoe Jr 2006).  Mineral lick is particularly prevalent among giraffes, elephants, moose, cattle and tapirs (and other mammals) as a way to increase the amounts of minerals, such as potassium, calcium, sulfur, phosphorus, and sodium, in their diets.  Although the knowledge of so-called salt caves and their origin with animal behaviour is well know, it is thought that they are under-estimated in current estimates of their prevalence (Lundquist & Varnedoe Jr 2006: 18).  As such these natural landscape features should also be taken into account when understanding the formation and duration of palaeoanthropological and archaeological sites.

Bibliography

Hutson, J. M., Burke, C. C. & Haynes, G. 2013. Osteophagia and Bone Modifications by Giraffe and Other Large Ungulates. Journal of Archaeological Science. 40 (12): 4139-4149.

Lundquist, C. A. & Varnedoe Jr, W. W. 2006. Salt Ingestion Caves. International Journal of Speleology. 35 (1): 13-18. (Open Access).

Disability in Primates: Social Consequences

5 Mar

I am afraid I have been rather busy lately, so I have not had the time to produce posts (although a fair few are in the early daft stage).  This should be rectified with a few forthcoming posts on various topics of interest but for now I just wanted to highlight this article of note.

The article, by Turner et al (2014), highlights the lack of studies in the social treatment of disabled individuals in extant nonhuman primate populations.  Turner et al (2013) help rectify the situation and discuss a detailed case study of a population of Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), from the Awajishima Monkey Center, in their social interactions in a population which includes a number of physically disabled individuals.

A paraphrased highlight of the abstract:

“Debates about the likelihood of conspecific care for disabled individuals in ancestral hominins rely on evidence from extant primates, yet little is known about social treatment (positive, neutral or negative) of physically disabled individuals in nonhuman primates….Overall, there was little evidence either for conspecific care or for social selection against disability. In general, there was a socially neutral response to disability, and while neutral social context allows for the possibility of care behaviors, our findings emphasize the self-reliant abilities of these disabled primates and suggest caution when inferring conspecific care for even very disabled ancestral humans.”

From Turner et al (2014:1), with the added italic emphasis mine.

I am intrigued what effect this study could have on the study of physical impairment in the archaeological record.  There are a number of techniques now available to the researcher to enable to detect social responses to physical impairment in the human record (burial position, age at death estimations, care provisioning, biogeochemical approaches), but they require great care in the interpretation of results.  Turner et al (2014) study highlights the real value of being able to observe the behaviour of nonhuman primates in a simulated wild environment, something that whilst not directly able to provide answers to hominin evolution does provide an important parallel.

I will update this post further when I get chance to discuss the results of the article in more depth.

On a related note I noticed this post on John Hawks weblog recently, ‘Chimpanzee communities are hundreds of years old‘, tantalizing to think of the implications for the understanding of behaviour and attitudes in great ape groups and how they may differ in regards to physical impairment or long term disablement (Langergraber et al. 2014).

Bibliography

Langergraber, K. E., Rowney, C., Schubert, G., Crockford, C, Hobaiter, C., Wittig, R., Wrangham, R. W., Zuberuhler, K. & Vigilant, L. 2014. How Old are Chimpanzee Communities? Time to the Most Recent Common Ancestor of the Y-Chromosome in Highly Patrilocal Societies. Journal of Human Evolution. (In Press).

Turner, S. E., Fedigan, L. M., Matthews, H. D. & Nakamichi, M. 2014. Social Consequences of Disability in a Nonhuman Primate. Journal of Human Evolution. In Press. (Behind a pay wall).

Killer Whales: A BBC Natural World Documentary

26 Oct

The BBC strand of a wildlife documentary series, entitled Natural World, have a new episode up on the BBC Iplayer focusing on recent scientific research on the globally distributed killer whale (Orcinus orca).  It is available to view here, although readers outside of the UK may have trouble watching it online (If you have any links please leave a comment!).

It was whilst watching the program, and its discussion on whether there are different species of killer whale (likely 3-5, with various sub-species), that it reminded of the Dmanisi Homo erectus fossils (Lordkipanidze et al. 2013) which were subject of the previous post.  Lordkipanidze et al. (2013: 330) postulated that the morphology of the 5 Homo erectus crania present at Dmanisi, Georgia, represent, when examined against comparable material, the evidence for wide morphological differences within and among early Homo, possibly indicating rather less individual species than is currently documented and described.

The Natural World episode highlighted the differences between killer whale ‘cultural’ groups and species with niché but distinct differences in external anatomy (body size, eye and saddle markings, shape and size of dorsal fins), vocalisation and the different hunting methods used when groups targeted varying prey groups.  This is important as it will help to inform on how humans try to conserve killer whale populations around the globe as an understanding of the distinct species could have an important ecological impact on what groups of killer whales are under threat the most.  Of course the big difference between the above comparison was the use of DNA testing and active observational fieldwork, if only we could test the early Homo fossils in such a way!

Further into the program we came across evidence of an individual killer whale who had likely been maimed as a juvenile and who had been adopted, at different times, by no less than 4 different pods of killer whales. There was also footage of said killer whale shadowing and receiving food from one member of her current pod who could successfully hunt (whether this was deliberate is another question).  This reminded me of a nice little paper by Fashing & Nguyen (2011) of the relevance of behaviour towards disabled, injured or dying individuals among animal groups and it’s relevance towards palaeopathology.

Palaeoanthropologists should take into account the wider aspect of how animals treat members of their own species when they are disabled, injured or dying, as Fashing & Nguyen (2011: 129) note that ‘recent evidence from paleoanthropology indicates that inferences into the evolution of human behavior based solely on a chimpanzee model are less informative than previously believed’.  Lordkipanidze et al. (2013), in their study, compare the Dmanisi individuals against modern Homo sapiens and chimpanzees, amongst others, but it could be said that these two groups in particular do not reflect good study comparative groups as their anatomical plasticity is generally quite homogeneous.  As ever, of course, further research is needed and I for one look forward to it.

The program also debated the troubling nature of the capture of killer whales for the purposes of entertainment for large sea life centers across the world, a practice that has now been largely banned in the Western World.  There is a haunting passage in the Natural World episode showing archive footage of the frenzy of killer whale captures during the 60’s and 70’s, with an appropriately sinister (and awesome) Pink Floyd track playing in the background.  Killer whales are, by their nature, large social predators – they need the security of their family pods and the sea environment in which to live and to hunt.

At SeaWorld, in the United States of America, there have been a recorded 100 separate episodes of aggression towards humans from captive killer whales since 1988, and there have been 4 recorded fatalities of trainers involving captive killer whales across the globe.  Let me re-iterate here that killer whales pose little threat to humans in the wild, that there has been no recorded human death by killer whale in the wild but there have been incidents (see list).  Clearly captivity leads to abnormal behaviour amongst these amazing creatures, as it can be said for many animal species (worth a watch is the 2013 documentary Blackfish).

All in all, this was an enlightening program on the advances made in studying the killer whale, highlighting the distinct hunting differences, group structure and vocalisation of an apex predator who has both inspired and caused fear in humanity throughout the ages.  It is well worth watching the episode, if not the series, for insights into the natural world.  Previous episodes worth a watch also deal with the remarkable walrus and the delightful orangutan.

Watch the BBC documentary here (United Kingdom residents only).

Bibliography

Fashing, P. J. & Nguyen. 2011. Behavior Towards the Dying, Diseased, or Disabled Among Animals and its Relevance to Paleopathology. International Journal of Paleopathology. 1 (2-3): 128-129.

Lordkipanidze, D., Ponce de León, M. S., Margvelashvili, A., Rak, Y., Rightmire, G. P., Vekua, A. and Zollikofer, C. P. E. 2013. A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early HomoScience.  342 (6156): 326-331. (Full article here, email if this doesn’t work).

A Quick Trip To The Deep

25 Sep

Browsing around online I happened to find this interesting article over at the Nature site based on a study of the observed osteological changes and the long-term effects of deep-sea diving on a selection of sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) skeletal remains.   The article, by Moore and Early (2004), highlights the value of conducting osteological work on animal remains, especially in consideration of furthering the knowledge of oceanic mammals and how their bodies react to their deep water lifestyle.  The study examined 16 partial or complete modern sperm whale carcasses from both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, with the results finding the effects of osteonecrosis affecting the chevron and rib articular surfaces and nasal bones, which increased in severity with age of the individuals studied in the sample (Moore & Early 2004: 2215).

Osteonecrosis itself is a recognised chronic pathology in humans, albeit one with numerous aetiologies which can include irradiation, dysbaric stress, thermal injuries, and hemopoietic disorders among others, but Moore & Early (2004: 2215) highlight the fact that “nitrogen emboli induced the observed (dysbaric) osteonecrosis” in the studied sperm whale skeletons.  This indicates that the whales suffered the progressive cumulative effects of the bends during disturbed dives which led to the destructive bone changes during the course of the whales life.  Importantly this study indicates that it “appears that sperm whales may be neither anatomically nor physiologically immune to the effects of deep diving” (Moore & Early 2004: 2215), insofar as much as previously thought.

Bibliography

Hopkin, M. 2004. Sperm Whales Suffer the Bends. Nature. Online Article. doi:10.1038/news041220-13.

Moore, M. J. & Early, G. A. 2004. Cumulative Sperm Whale Bone Damage and the Bends. Science. 306 (5705): 2215.