Digging Up Time, Part 1: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

30 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book on a recent blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  The book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) is due for 2017, which looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

(Part 2 can be read here).


The author’s monologue

–  We’re exploring the past to divine the future, turning over the topsoil to see what lies below.  The borders are closing, the opportunities to traverse and learn are being cut across the globe, and I find myself at a crossroads in my own life.  Do I continue to pursue meaningful employment in the field that I so desire to join or do I keep my passion to one side, preserved with all the joy intact but with little difference made to my bank balance?

I find myself in a non-archaeology community that cares little for my achievements or my dreams that have been achieved.  Instead I archive them within my own personal vault of fulfillment and seek the next challenge, doggedly pursuing what I see as a higher form of personal learning – uncovering the voices of the past, to gather and collect the tendrils of evidence, to disseminate the dead among the living.  In my defense I am giving life back to the lost.

Life has assumed the standard pattern yet I yearn to break free, to feel the mud underfoot, the rising sun casting a glint off the blade of the metal tool in a field of crops.  There is no shame for me to admit that I find myself in neither commercial archaeology or academia, I am between camps and of no camp.  I am free to wander as my desires so take me and as my time so dictates.  My work, not associated with my archaeological passion in any meaningful way, gives me the money for food, fuel and rent, and in return I give it the sweat, hard work and integrity as I can muster.  My dreams are my own though, lying so tenderly outside the realm of reality.

So today, my dear readers, we shall instead dip into the minds of others…


The boundaries of history as an illusion of the future

The Galleon.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I started in archaeology a bit by chance.  I always wanted to be an archaeologist but I thought it was a secluded works, reserved for the best of the best.  When I met my ex-boyfriend he knew a guy that was supervising and I finally entered into this new magical world.  My surprise was that, once I started to meet people I realised that, unfortunately, they were not the best of the best but quite the contrary.  There’s good people, there’s bad people, and environment is everything if you have a shitty site.  I come from another country, I have more than 10 years of experience but I’ve been treated nearly everywhere as if I was a newbie.  If you don’t know the background of someone you should ask, that should be the rule.

Also, as everywhere, good workers are slighted and bad workers are promoted.  Even if this happens everywhere, this is quite hurtful when you see bad decisions being made which can affect our knowledge of the past.  The past is a limited resource.  But it is difficult and exhausting to fight against the ‘establishment’ because builders don’t give a shit about it, engineers don’t give a shit about it, and people in general don’t give a shit about it.  Yet everyone watches Time Team or laps up the burial of Richard III…

Well, people, the reality is different: it’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s not well paid…  But let me do my work!  In an era when nationalism seem to be rising let me tell you where you really come from.


On the sensation of discovering the new and the old – A personal turning point in a friend’s life

Charles L.  31 years old.  Former field archaeologist.

–  It’s a fairly long-winded story, but it goes back to an early realization as a kid that the world was not just self-evidently fascinating, but also a seemingly endless mine of stories, processes and worlds.  Delving into the past opened up incredible avenues for obsession.  Everything imaginable had a reason for being, and an intricate history woven through the chaos of time.

My dad, also a huge fan of history, always endeavored to take me to historical and archaeological sites around the country, and whenever we were abroad, he’d always have several similar visits planned.  The feeling of utter scintillation when I walked down roads that had seen sometimes hundreds of generations of wear, or standing in the remains of a hillfort created by cultures both alien and continuous to my own…  It never left me.  The feeling that, anywhere you go, you walk through the echoes of millions of other stories; it turned the world into a magical, vibrant place.  I wondered whose story my essence would be floating through thousands of years from now.  The door to my imagination was permanently kicked open, to let the world in.

Skip forward twenty or so years and life had occurred at me.  I’d left uni with an okay grade and an unhealthy attitude to work.  I fell into a retail job, then, after that, a fairly uninspiring administrative job.  That child in me sat sulking in a corner of my mind, looking out of my eyes at spreadsheets and emails and pint glasses and insomniac nights and sadly fell to sleep.

I nearly closed the door of imagination.  February of 2009, my dad, frustrated, asked me what are you doing with your life?  What do you want to do?  I replied that I did not know, but that wasn’t quite true.  I knew I wanted to learn and learn and learn.  I wanted to write and write and draw and see and live again.  But all of that seemed so…  Unrealistic.  Childish almost.  I vaguely said I’d thought of going back to university, which didn’t exactly elicit a positive response, but he was open to the idea if I had a goal.  Initially I thought about a History MA, but decided against it.  No; I wanted to see it and feel it.  I wanted the hands on interaction with the past.  Turns out, I wanted to be an archaeologist.

So, I got onto a Masters and, with a jolt, my life returned to me.  Happiness, fascination, wonderment, hope, drive, purpose; it all returned to me in a way I hadn’t felt since childhood.  It was difficult but brilliant.  I was surrounded by wildly intelligent, funny, ambitious people with whom I made quick friendships.  The literature, whilst sometimes dry, opened my eyes to whole past worlds and interpretations I had never considered, and I was getting to write about it all.  Naturally, my first few papers were total garbage, but I got there slowly, and after a while I was interacting with the work in a way I had a grasp on.  I felt I had something to give to the field.

And so went one of the most exciting years of my life.  After the depressing lack of consequence from my first degree, my Masters was like a turbo-boost for the soul.  At the end of the year, I volunteered on a couple of field-schools and after a stressful time of applying to all of the archaeology units in the entire known universe, I landed my first archaeological job through a personal recommendation.  After all those applications, it came down to a good word from a new friend dropped to the right people.  It was a godsend at the time, and remained largely representative of my winning method for getting archaeological work.  It comes down to a very short and simple piece of advice: know people.

So, as I’m sure anyone who has worked in commercial archaeology is now thinking: perhaps this guy entered the field with an overly rosy view of things.  You’re absolutely 110% correct.  If perhaps I’d listened to a few more archaeological misery gutses, I might have had a slightly smoother ride.  Alas, I didn’t and therefore I didn’t.

My first job was actually a total joy, however.  It was only after a year or so that mission fatigue set in.  I started off on a wonderfully academic site with an extremely ingratiating and friendly unit.  I made a new city home and in the space of a few short months, accrued years of happiness.  I had great friends, a great home and a great title, one I really enjoyed: archaeologist.  Technically I was an assistant archaeologist, but I didn’t tell people that.

Some time, several jobs, mountains of financial uncertainty and seemingly centuries trapped outside in the bitter rain later, the shine had somewhat worn off.  Travelling around the country is all well and good for a while, but when it becomes constant, it’s not so well and good.  I have seen enough B & B’s to last a lifetime.  I could draw a good, accurate map of England’s mobile dead spots.  I have mattocked through ice on supervisory demand, destroying archaeology, and I have hoed away mud in torrential rain. Worse than all that, however, were the endless months alone in the middle of nowhere, watching a work gang open up pipe trenches.  Sends you a bit funny, months alone in the middle of nowhere.  Not good for relationships.  Or, y’know…  Sanity.

My bank account was permanently empty on account of extremely low pay and extremely unreliable work.  More than once I found out that work for the following week had been cancelled so, due to being on a zero hours contract, I simply wasn’t going to get paid for that week.

It wasn’t all terrible.  I still had some amazing times with amazing people.  I still saw fantastic things and some of the sites I worked on, even late into my archaeological career, are treasured memories for me.  The people are almost universally brilliant company, with whom I often laughed until physical pain.  Some of my all-time favorite conversations were out on rain-soaked fens, in wind that was trying to blow us over.

But my life changed.  I got serious in a relationship and being poor, stressed and itinerant were no longer compatible with personal happiness.  I had reached the end of my archaeological journey, and with an extremely heavy heart, I laid my career to rest.  Admittedly, I strung that process out – I didn’t know what I was, post-archaeology.  That terrified and depressed me deeply, and the year or so after leaving was a tailspinning, roller-coastering, gut-punch, vertiginous freefall of a time, but I made it through.

I don’t for a single second regret my time in archaeology, and some days I still miss it.  I’m forever glad I took the plunge, leapt for that childhood dream; it’s given me courage to do the same in different areas and aspects of life.  In a big way, it laid the foundation for my adult life.

Would I go back into commercial archaeology now, given the opportunity?

Not a damn chance…

Would I change anything, for better or worse, about my time as an archaeologist?

I would change nothing at all…


The light at the end of the trench or the beginning of a career never dared dreamed of

Natalie F.  29.  PhD Researcher.

–  Academic archaeology is a route that I happened to fall into due to a sequence of quite unlikely events, a great deal of luck and sometimes astounding timing.  As someone who has always had an inclination to play happily in the mud, and who loves the thought of bringing objects and people from our ancient past out of their tomb in the ground and into the light of modern day, I would never have thought I’d end up where I am; a postgraduate student who you sometimes have to prise out of the lab…

Originally, I was encouraged by someone to apply for an MA at my alma mater, which I did with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to make the cut.  My 2:2 meant that academia was theoretically cut off from me, the minimum being a 2:1 in seemingly most institutions; in theory, the ivory tower of academia was locked…

But I wrote my statement, stressing how much I’d loved my time there and archaeology in general, and sent off the application.  I expected nothing, nothing at all, but what I got instead was a phone call from the postgraduate admissions director for Archaeology saying that he was more than happy to push my application through the board.  So off I went, with an appropriate amount of imposter syndrome.

From there, two chance run ins, one when I was hunting down an elusive lecturer and instead found someone who would later be a very dear friend, and one at a launch party after far too much wine with a man who would again become someone I would care for and admire a great deal, led me here.  The first person pointed me in the direction of a funded PhD advert and the second gave it to me, I suspect partially as a way to get me to stop following him around and asking to play with the 3D printer.

So that’s where I found myself, suddenly a full-time researcher with no real idea what to do.  I knew that, sooner or later, I would be uncovered as a fraud; surely all these lecturers who had suddenly become my colleagues would know that I had no idea what I was doing, that I was just a lucky idiot?  But no, they didn’t.  Because the vast majority felt, and still feel, the same way.  The stresses and strains of academic research, anything from your isotope data hasn’t been done yet so you’re 5 months behind to the fact that people keep taking the tea spoons in the staff room, have different sources but are felt by everyone.  The genius who worked for NASA still gets stage fright, the cool, collected expert in her field sometimes cries by the shrubbery outside the building.

Academic research can often be stressful and isolating.  Particularly archaeology, I think, as everything revolves around the long dead; who they were, what they did, ate and believed.  We spend so much time looking backwards that it can be difficult, when the microscope won’t co-operate and everything’s going wrong, to notice the people around you in the present…  No matter how alone you feel, grabbing a nap in the staff room at 8 at night when all the world seems quiet, you’re really not.  Everyone understands, and occasionally leaves a cup of tea for you when you wake up.  There’s always someone who “gets it”.

I would never have guessed that such a real, strong sense of camaraderie existed in academia, albeit alongside some minor competitiveness; I believed, as I said earlier, that the door to the ivory tower had long since closed for me.  It came as a surprise, then, to find out that all I had to do was knock and the door would slowly start to open…


The author rejoins

–  These are just a few of the voices I have managed to curate views for.  We’re still searching for individual stories, so a second entry will be posted in due course…

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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!

Introducing ‘Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets’ by Svetlana Alexievich

24 Dec

As longtime readers of this blog may know I have an interest in both the literature and history of Russia over the past two centuries.  For example, in a day or two it is my hope that I may be gifted a copy of the dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which was published in English in 1924 and is a novel which was a precursor and prime influence on George Orwell who went on to write the arguably more famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, itself published in 1949.  I think it would be fair to state that not many countries have such a strong entwining of literature, outspoken authors and profound political changes as Russia has had, particularly so throughout the turbulent 20th century.  Recent geopolitical events throughout 2016 have again seen a rise in Russia as a dominating global player, but it is important to note that it is China, who early on implemented its own flexible version of the political philosophy of Marxism-Leninism under the umbrella of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which is seen in the ascendant as a major world economic and potential geopolitical player in the 21st century.

International politics has, of course, become both profoundly depressing (for some, not all) and seemingly impossible to avoid with the upcoming inauguration of the 45th American president.  World politics aside (and having read a few pages of Wikipedia I am rather stumped at how little modern Chinese history I know), I’ve started reading a recent English translation of Belarusian non-fiction prose-writer Svetlana Alexievich’s latest publication, Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets.  In a kaleidoscopic approach that crisscrosses a population to reproduce the individual testimonies of witnesses, Alexievich presents numerous viewpoints on the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its transition from a socialist union into a country (the Russian Federation) that embraced capitalism through rapid cultural and economic change.  This separation of the population from the communist ideology, which had provided immense belief in the Soviet republic, and it had a profound social and economic effect.  The implementation of perestroika (reformation and restructuring within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and the policy of glasnost (openness, or transparency) under Mikhail Gorbachev during the 1980’s, foregrounded the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR itself in late 1991 (Applebaum 2013, Merridale 2013).

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Front cover of the Penguin edition of the Second-Hand Time publication, the subject of this entry. Image credit: Penguin Random House.

Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 and it is not hard to see why upon my initial forays into her latest publication.  Second-Hand Time follows on from her previous investigations into Russia’s past and exposes the soul of the country.  Chapters are divided and sub-divided throughout the work, each taking on their own aspect as to who the author was speaking to and the setting of the conversations themselves.  The volume works as an oral history, with Alexievich dedicating her time and resources to note conversation between friends, family and individuals scattered across the former USSR, allowing extended monologues to unfurl and discussions to bubble up from personal perspectives.  The volume intricately and expertly develops the emotional wrenching that took place, the confusion, anger and hope intertwined as events developed day by uncertain day.

In one such example Elena Y, in conversation with her friend and the author, remembers and describes the general confusion during the Mikhail Gorbachev years during protests and riots in the latter years of the USSR:

We were preparing for world war to break out … Our greatest fear  was nuclear war – we never saw our own nation’s demise coming.  We didn’t expect it… not in the slightest… We’d gotten used to the May and October parades, the posters, ‘Lenin’s Work Will Live On For Centuries’, ‘The Party Is Our Helmsman’.  Then suddenly, instead of a procession, it was a primordial mob.  These weren’t the Soviet people any more, they were some other people we didn’t know.  Their posters were totally different: ‘Put the Communist Scum on Trial!’, ‘We’ll Crush the Communist Scum!’.  I immediately thought of Novocherkassk… The information was classified, but we all knew what happened there…  How during Khrushchev’s time, hungry workers had protested and were shot.  Those who didn’t die were sent off to labour camps; their relatives still don’t know where they went… And here… it’s perestroika.

Elena’s friend Anna I recalls a slightly different viewpoint during the late 1980’s protests:

Our faith was sincere… naive… We thought that any minute now… there were buses idling outside waiting to take us away to democracy.  We’d finally leave behind these run-down Khrushchyovkas and move into beautiful houses, build autobahns to replace these broken-down roads, and we’d all turn into respectable people.  No one searched for rational proof that any of this would really happen.  There was none.

– The above quotations are taken from Alexievich (2016: 96-102).

In another example N., an individual who presents a rare Kremlin insider view at the time, spoke to the author after much persuasion and delivers his thoughts on the 1991 version of events.  He highlights the fickle nature of truth:

I’ll tell you something else: witnesses can be manipulated, too.  They’re not robots.  They are manipulated by television, newspapers, friends, corporate interests… Who has the real truth?  As far as I understand, the truth is something that’s sought out by specially trained experts: judges, scholars, priests.  Everyone else is ruled by their ambition and their emotions.  [A pause].  I’ve read your books…  You shouldn’t put so much stock in what people say, in human truth.  History records the lives of ideas.  People don’t write it, time does.  Human truth is just a nail that everybody hangs their hats on.

– The above quotation is taken from Alexievich (2016: 190-191).

In chronicling the demise of the Soviet Republics, Alexievich presents what it was like to live in the decade that came after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991; with both the rise of the oligarchs that dominated the economic and political scene, following the rise of Boris Yeltsin taking on the role of the first President of the Russian Federation in the 1990’s, and the associated rise of so-called crony capitalism.  This is discussed alongside the profound impact that the stripping away of a social-political identity had on the population at large, and on a deeply personal level, as indicated above.  I’m currently only a part of the way through this 600+ page tome but it has made for enlightening and fascinating reading on what it was like to live in the USSR, to live through such historic periods as the late 1980’s and 1990’s and to watch your country completely change, or to invest your time and energy into thinking that your country will completely change only for it to not appear as expected or as hoped.

The parallels with today could be made but… well reader do I need to tell you?  This would be incredibly lazy of me however as the topic of Second-Hand Time is not comparable, at least directly, to the modern machinations of politics in the United States of America or of the United Kingdom.  Although the shock presidential election and its outcome has led to much soul-searching within the United States of America, the political process and social fabric has not changed currently – it is still firmly a democratically ran country.  The outcome of the United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum mid-way through 2016 was, again, another shock political result and although, as with the result of the American election, the political, social and economic ties may be re-assessed, in the short-term it remains the status quo.  It is instead distinctly Russian and although the ideology that guides the country as it is known today is firmly different from the ideology that underpinned the USSR, the history of Russia and its people must be taken in the long view.

This blog entry started by my open enthusiasm of Russian literature and history, and the related bibliography that bookends this post represents some of the volumes I have read within the past few years.  You’ll notice however that they are largely not Russian or Slavic authors (bar the classic novels or accounts that I’ve read by Bulgakov (1), Gogol, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn, Teffi, Tolstoy, etc.), that the research has largely been either primarily written in English or translated from the Russian sources.  This is largely due to the availability of such volumes, my inability to read in any other language, and my knowledge of such volumes.  As such I’d ask that if you have any recommendations of history books, or collections of the testimonies of the populations that lived in the USSR, translated into English then please do let me know in the comments below.

Notes

(1). Bonus osteology points: writer, physician and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), author of the sublime novel The Master & Margarita (finally published in 1966), described the pathological effect and characteristic morphology that the sexually transmitted disease syphilis had in its later stages on human bone, particularly in the thinning of the anterior aspect of the tibia (saber shin in congenital syphilis) and in the general appearance of abnormal osteophytes.  In the Soviet republics this was called Bulgakov’s Sign, which is also lovingly known as bandy legs sign in the West.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Alexievich, S. 2016. Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Translated from Russian by Bela Shayevich. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Exposing the Dead: Javier Marías in The Art of Fiction No. 190, The Paris Review

15 Dec

Earlier today I came across the Paris Review after stumbling online looking for something to read.  The Paris Review is a well-known literary magazine that is published quarterly and a publication that I have read online on occasion, most often for the insightful and in-depth author interviews.  After glancing through it earlier I spotted one such feature that I had not read before – an enlightening interview with the Spanish novelist and translator Javier Marías.  He is an author who I had come across by chance in a bookstore in Newcastle upon Tyne a few years ago and one that I have come to love after reading his novels A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, alongside his short story collection When I Was Mortal which I became intrigued by as it offered stylistic snapshots of his writing and intense introspective vignettes.

In a section of the interview Marías discusses his relatives and his personal family history in the tumultuous 20th century, his father’s imprisonment under Franco’s regime in Spain (1939-1975) and the times the family spent in other countries in effective exile during Franco’s rule.  In particular he recalls an instance of the personal face of death within the family…

Interviewer:

‘You sometimes use actual photographs in your novels.’

Javier Marías:

‘Yes, because when I read about an image I like to see it at the same time, be it a painting or a photograph.  But you must be very careful with putting actual things in a novel.  In the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, there is a moment when the narrator recalls the story of his uncle, who was killed during the war, and how his mother had to look for him because he didn’t come home, and she eventually found a photograph of her brother dead.  That is a real story—it happened to my uncle.  He was killed in the war when he was seventeen.  I did reproduce one photograph, but I knew I could not put in the other one of him dead.  Just as it is told in the book, the photograph was inside this box, wrapped in red cloth.  It is quite a terrible photograph.  I did not dare make it part of a fiction.  You can’t expose the dead too much.’

(Quoted from Fay’s interview in 2009).

I was struck by the last sentence, of how the preservation of the image within the box carefully wrapped contrasted sharply with the limited exposure that it would receive stored in this way.  In this case the photographic image displayed not the living, breathing individual that the family remembered but the final portrait of his uncle’s body, frozen in time.  The context is unclear but the photograph does not need to be seen, at least by the audience, or to be presented in a fictional piece of writing as Marías attests.  The imagined brutality of his death is enough; the truth remaining as memory shared by the family.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Fay, S. 2009. Javier Marías: The Art of Fiction No. 190. The Paris Review. Winter Edition. 179. (Open Access).

Marías, J. 2012. A Heart So White. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. London: Penguin Classics.

Marías, J. 2013. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. New York: Vintage International.

Upcoming Conference: ‘Skeletons, Stories & Social Bodies’ at the University of Southampton, March 2017

25 Nov

An upcoming interdisciplinary conference entitled Skeletons, Stories, and Social Bodies (SSSB) aims to cover a wide range of topics relating to human anatomy and death.  Taking place at the University of Southampton from Friday 24th March to Sunday 26th March 2017, the conference organizers are keen for students, early career researchers and commercial archaeologists and bioarchaeologists to contribute as appropriate.  The keynote speakers for the conference have recently been confirmed as Dr Heather Bonney, the collections manager of anthropology and a practicing forensic anthropologist at the Natural History Museum, London, and Professor Caroline Wilkinson, a forensic anthropologist from FaceLab at the Liverpool John Moores University who specializes in the forensic reconstruction of faces from both forensic and historical contexts.

Alongside the usual presentations and a conference dinner on the Saturday evening, there is also the opportunity to take part in a number of workshops by the Centre for Learning Anatomical Sciences and art exhibitions on the Sunday.  The five optional workshops include the chance to learn about bioarchaeology, or to attend workshops investigation the scent of death, grief demystified and or an introduction to the Anatomical Sciences laboratory among other topics.  Please note that conference delegates will only have the option to sign up for two of the five workshops due to limited places.

The price for the conference has now been confirmed – please see the conference homepage for the range of prices available.  For the full event attendance the price is set at £65 (student) to £85 (waged), costing a total of £115 if registration is late, but individual day rates are also available.  As such it is advised that anybody interested book before Tuesday 31st January 2017 for early bird registration, whilst late registration is available from the 1st February until the 20th February 2017, which is likely to cost more.  Furthermore there are student bursaries are available for undergraduate and postgraduate students.  Please see here for further details and the conditions stipulated.

sssb

The logo for the conference based at the University of Southampton. Image credit: SSSB 2017.

Topics for Consideration

As this is a very wide-ranging conference the topic of the talks submitted can fit into several categories.  I’d imagine it would depend on the number of the topics received as to how the sessions themselves are organized over the three-day length of the conference.  These topics include, but are certainly not limited to, the following subjects:

1) History of anatomy & dissection
2) Dissections, prosections and technology: replacing cadavers?
3) Death in the modern age
4) Ethics of display of human remains
5) Funerary practices through the ages
6) Disability and disease: archaeological and medical
7) Forensic investigation and approaches
8) Death on the big screen: television and film
9) Lifecourse and osteobiographies
10) Morphology and evolutionary anatomy
11) The body social

Please note that this information was taken from the SSSB 2017 website directly.  From this quick overview it certainly looks like the conference will be a great mix of topics from both historic (and hopefully prehistoric) and modern vantage points, where the humanities meets the sciences in discussing the body, death and the funerary and social treatment of the dead.  Personally, having had the opportunity to dissect the musculoskeletal anatomy of a donated cadaver during my Masters degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, I very much appreciate the importance of understanding anatomy within a osteoarchaeological context.  The archaeological and cultural context are of considerable and prime importance, but the body too must be understood if we are to make sense of both past individuals and populations and their lifestyle.

Presentation Style: Select your Poison

The call for papers deadline is Friday 16th December (now passed), so there is not much time left to submit an abstract for any of the topics above.  Submissions are sought for podium, poster and Pecha Kucha presentations with abstracts of no more than 300 words accepted which outline the topic and the aim of the presentation.  As this is an interdisciplinary conference there is a great opportunity to engage with researchers and students who may not normally come into contact with your area of interest and thus may provide stimulating and thought-provoking comments, or new research connections and avenues of exploration.

sssb2

The conference gears up for March 2017. Image credit: SSSB 2017 website.

This is also the first time I have seen the mention, or use of, the Pecha Kucha 20×20 method within a conference setting and I have to say I am pretty excited to learn more about it and to see it in action.  The method involves the use of 20 slides with a 20 second exposure for each slide, therefore limiting the presentation to a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds ideally.  The express aim of it is for the information presented to be precise, concise and short.  This is often achieved by limiting word use on-screen and instead relying on graphs, diagrams and images to convey the vocal component of the talk.  Variations are known where feedback is given immediately after the talk, which increase audience participation, knowledge sink and activity for all involved.

Further Information

  • One of the individuals on the organizing committee for this conference, PhD candidate Sammy Field, has her own blog at Beauty in the Bones.  Check it out for comprehensive posts on a variety of osteological interests.  There is also a great resource page which lists current British human osteological collections and the chronological span of the populations under curation at each institution.  Osteological collections are a vital resource for bioarchaeologists, who analyse human remains in order to understand past lifeways and populations.
  • Readers remember, if you know of any major international or United Kingdom based bioarchaeology, funerary archaeology, or osteological conferences coming up in 2017, then please do drop me a message to either include them in this post or for me to mention them in a brand new post at a later date!

Publication of New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory

28 Oct

As I have recently discussed on a blog post about recently published or forthcoming bioarchaeology books, I too have had a book chapter published in a new edited volume for the Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series, as produced by Springer.  The volume is titled New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory (£82.00 hardback or £64.99 ebook) and it is edited by Lorna Tilley and Alecia A. Shrenk.  The volume presents new research regarding the bioarchaeological evidence for care-provision in the archaeological record.  Using the associated Index of Care online tool, bioarchaeological researchers can utilize the four-stage case study approach to analyze and evaluate the evidence for care-provision for individuals in the archaeological record who display severe physical impairment likely to result in a life-limiting disability, or to result in a sustained debilitating condition which limits involvement in normal, everyday activities.  (For further information see a full book description below).

In short, my chapter investigates the public reception and engagement of the bioarchaeology of care theory and methodology as proposed by Lorna Tilley in a slew of recent publications (see bibliography).  As an inherent part of this the chapter discusses the ethical dimensions within the approach used for analyzing physically impaired individuals in the archaeological record, and the potential evidence of care-provision as seen on the osteological remains of the individual and contextual archaeological information.  Proceeding this is a walk-through of traditional and digital media formats, presented to provide a contextual background for the communication of the theory and methodology which is subsequently followed by two bioarchaeology of care case studies, Man Bac 9 from Neolithic Vietnam and Romito 2 from Upper Palaeolithic Italy, which help to summarize the public perception and importance of the research conducted to date within this new area of investigation and analysis.  In the conclusion best practice advice is provided for researchers conducting education outreach with regards to publicizing the bioarchaeology of care research and its results via both traditional and digital media formats.

The following information is taken from the Springer press release (and is used with the permission of Lorna Tilley) regarding the volume, both its aims and its content:

Book Overview

Only in the last five years has the topic of health-related care found acceptance as legitimate subject matter for archaeology.  In 2011, a case study-based ‘bioarchaeology of care’, designed to provide a framework for identifying, analysing and interpreting evidence for likely disability and associated care response, was proposed; the approach generated academic and wider public interest, and from this time on it has continued to evolve as bioarchaeologists apply it to cases of likely caregiving and broader theoretical questions of care provision within their areas of specialisation.’

New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Extended Theory 

The volume ‘marks an important milestone in this evolutionary process.  Its origins lie in a symposium entitled ‘Building a Bioarchaeology of Care’, held during the Society for American Archaeology 2015 annual meeting, which brought together an international, cross-disciplinary group of scholars to explore this theme.  This book contains 19 chapters, most based on symposium presentations, the first substantive chapter providing an overview of the bioarchaeology of care methodology and last situating the bioarchaeology of care approach, and the chapters in this book in particular, within the discipline of bioarchaeology more generally.  The 16 chapters that comprise the core of this volume offer content which is always original, often methodologically innovative, and frequently challenging, and are organised under three headings.

In the first section, Case studies: applying and adapting the bioarchaeology of care methodology, Chapters 2-9 focus primarily on the care given to one or more individuals who experienced (variously) a congenital disorder, acquired disease, accidental or intentional injury and who date to prehistory (Bronze Age, United Arab Emirates), through later Pre-Columbian (southern United Sates and Peru) and Mediaeval periods (United Kingdom and Poland), to relatively modern times (late 18th century London).  These chapters also contribute to bioarchaeology of care theory, however, because each one, in some way, has implications for how we conceptualise past caregiving or for how we might improve current research methods.

springer

The volume cover piece, published as a part of the Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series by Springer. The paperback version will be released at some point in the near future, but it is available now as a hardback and as an ebook. Image credit: Lorna Tilley/Springer.

In the second section, New directions for bioarchaeology of care research, Chapters 10-16 explore alternative perspectives for illuminating past health related care behaviours.  Respectively, they address the scope for applying the bioarchaeology of care methodology to mummified remains; the potential for research into past caregiving to focus on demographic sectors of the population which are often overlooked – specifically children and the aged; the prospects for acknowledging psychological, spiritual and/or emotional forms of support in bioarchaeology of care studies; the modification of the bioarchaeology of care model to allow an assessment of institutional healthcare efficacy at both an individual and a population level; the development of a biocultural model for examining the origins of health-related caregiving; and the potential relevance for bioarchaeology of care studies of an online application supporting research into clinical and social implications of living with disease.

In the third section, Ethics and accountability in the bioarchaeology of care, Chapter 17 interrogates the principles, assumptions, values and beliefs that are likely to influence carriage of bioarchaeology of care research, and Chapter 18 considers ethical responsibilities involved in communicating bioarchaeology of care research findings in the public domain, and discusses some practical ideas for information-sharing.’

The volume isn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination, so if you are a student or a researcher interested in this topic I highly recommend that you advise your university or institution library to order a copy.  If you are a member of the public I recommend again that you use your local library and order a copy in or use the inter-library loan system in order to source a copy of the volume.  Alternatively individual authors of the chapters may upload their sections of the volume to their own respective academic social media websites, such as on ResearchGate or Academia.edu, if they have a profile.  For instance you can read my chapter here.  It also always worth emailing the researcher in question if you are interested in accessing their work and are unable to locate the writing online.  From a quick internet search it seems Google Books also has the book scanned and it is partially available here.

Further Information

  • The online non-prescriptive tool entitled the Index of Care, produced by Tony Cameron and Lorna Tilley, can be found at its own dedicated website.  The four stage walk-through is designed to prompt the user to document and contextualize the appropriate archaeological and bioarchaeological data and evidence in producing the construction of a ‘bioarchaeology of care’ model.
  • Kristina Killgrove has, in her Forbes bioarchaeology reportage, recently discussed one of the chapter case studies of a Polish Medieval female individual whose remains indicate that she had gigantism, or acromegaly.  Check out the post here.
  • My 2013 These Bones of Mine interview with Lorna Tilley, of the Australian National University, can be found here.  The interview discusses the origin of the bioarchaeology of care and the accompanying Index of Care tool and the surrounding issues regarding the identification of care-provision in the archaeological record.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Killgrove, K. 2016. Skeleton Of Medieval Giantess Unearthed From Polish Cemetery. Forbes. Published online 19th October 2016. Available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/10/19/skeleton-of-medieval-giantess-unearthed-from-polish-cemetery/#476236b6413b. [Accessed 28th October 2016]. (Open Access).

Mennear, D. J. 2016. Highlighting the Importance of the Past: Public Engagement and Bioarchaeology of Care Research. In: L. Tilley & A. A. Shrenk, eds. New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory. Zurich: Springer International Publishing. 343-364. (Open Access).

Tilley, L. & Oxenham, M. F. 2011. Survival against the Odds: Modelling the Social Implications of Care Provision to the Seriously Disabled. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 1 (1): 35-42.

Tilley, L. & Cameron, T. 2014. Introducing the Index of Care: A Web-Based Application Supporting Archaeological Research into Health-Related Care. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 6: 5-9.

Tilley, L. 2015. Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Zurich: Springer International Publishing.

Tilley, L. 2015. Accommodating Difference in the Prehistoric Past: Revisiting the Case of Romito 2 from a Bioarchaeology of Care PerspectiveInternational Journal of Palaeopathology. 8: 64-74.

Tilley, L. & Shrenk, A. A., eds. 2016. New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Expanded Theory. Zurich: Springer International Publishing.

Guest Post: An Introduction to Artificial Cranial Deformation from the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević

17 Oct

Maja Miljević is currently an undergraduate student studying archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Serbia.  Her main interest is in physical anthropology, with a research interest in prehistoric archaeology.  Maja has had previous experience of analysing human skeletal remains as a part of a faculty module in the Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, at the University of Belgrade, where she took part in the osteological analysis of a number of individuals dating from numerous Mesolithic and Neolithic archaeological sites located in Eastern and Central Serbia.


Introduction

Intentional or artificial cranial deformation has been long known through human history, even though many articles have been published during recent years which have been focused on more earlier periods of prehistory.  In order to highlight historic cases that I present this short article on intentional cranial deformations from the European Great Migration period (3rd to 8th centuries AD), with a particular focus on the 5th to 6th centuries AD in modern-day Serbia and modern-day Hungary, which highlights the practices of cultural identification in these cultures in this turbulent period.

Intentional Cranial Modifications

Intentional cranial modification has been documented throughout world prehistory and history across a number of distinct geographic areas and cultural groups.  They date back to the Late Paleolithic period (1) at the earliest example so far recovered (Molnar et al. 2014).  The most well-known cranial deformations are those from the Maya culture in modern-day Mexico in the first half of the 2nd millennium AD, various South American prehistoric cultures, and from Ancient Egyptian populations of the 18th dynasty.

Cranial bones can be modified easily in the younger population, since their cranial bones are soft and elastic.  Artificial cranial modification is largely achieved through the binding of the head, using boards, straps, cords or pads (Hakenbeck 2009).  The deforming apparatus is used for a few days up to six months, or sometimes even longer ranging from 3 to 5 years of use.  Cranial deformities of this kind are done as the results of cultural practice and religious beliefs.  The main goal of this practice is to be distinguished from others within the population and to indicate special social status (White et al. 2012; Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

Intentional Cranial Deformation Types

There are five basic types and areas of artificial cranial deformation (abbreviated to ACD where appropriate) and they often involve the use of boards and pads to achieve their distinctive styles:

a) Lambdoid
b) Occipital
c) Fronto- vertico occipital
d) Parallelo-fronto occipital
e) Annular deformation

As seen above artificial cranial deformations includes various or individual regions of the skull where pressure can be applied, such as the occipital, frontal regions, or both together, the mastoid region, and finally the region just above the insertion of the nuchal ligament on the occipital bone.  These are largely referred to as tabular deformations.  As well as this there is another type practiced that included bandaging, with wrapping materials, called annular deformation, around the full circumference of the skull, which is also performed in early childhood (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012; Molnar et al. 2014; Ortner, Putschar 1981).

Origin in Barbarian World

Origin of this practice among the barbarian world probably started with Sarmatians, Huns and continued with the Germanic tribes (Alan, Goths, Gepids), as the practice was spread across Europe in the mid to late 1st millennium AD.  The practice of skull modification had probably originated in the central Eurasian steppes in the first century AD and then may have been brought to central Europe with nomadic people and various tribal units (Mrkobrad 1980; Hakenbeck 2009).

1-acd-from-museum-in-kikinda-germanic-tribe-grave-photo-taken-by-me

An example of ACD in an individual from a Germanic tribe, from the National Museum in Kikinda. Photograph by the author.

Thanks to this culturally mediated osteological difference in the skeletal remains in the Great Migration period, it is a key indicator for understanding the process of said migration during the Middle Ages in the archaeological record in this locality.  Not only did they just bury their dead in either settlements or necropolises, it is also likely proof that they had intentions to stay and live there, as demonstrated by the term from anthropology – acculturation (2); they lived in the same houses, used the same tools, and probably dressed like, or as similar to, the Romans themselves.  As it is seen in an example from the Gradina na Jelici site where three juveniles were buried in two basilicas, all with clear intentional deformations and grave goods that are attributed to Germanic tribes, either the Gepids or Langobards  (also known as the Lombards)(Mилинковић 2010).

In Southeast Serbia there is a necropolis site called Viminacium-Više Groblja, where a total of 94 buried individuals have been excavated and in which 31 individuals exhibit artificial cranial deformation attributed to the Gepids.  The Gepids were closely associated to the Goths due to their cultural similarity.  The reconstruction of a Gepid woman was produced and helped to highlight how her cranium was viewed in life and how her hair was tied with organic material, which probably mimicked the wrappings used to shape her head during infancy (Mилинковић 1998; Микић 1993).

2-viminacium-reconstruction-of-gepid-woman-after-%d0%bc%d0%b8%d0%ba%d0%b8%d1%9b-1993-picture-2

Reconstruction of a Gepid woman demonstrating ACD. The reconstruction is based on an individual from the site of Viminacium, a Roman fort dating from the 1st century AD, located in Serbia which was overran by the Huns in the 5th century AD.  The site was rebuilt by Justinian but destroyed completely by the Slavs in the 6th century AD. Image credit: Mикић 1993.

According to Mikić (1985), two female skulls have also been discovered with artificial cranial deformations dating from the Great Migration period in Pančevo.  Modification was probably already visible in the second decade of life and was produced by using tight wrapping materials around the frontal, parietal and occipital bones of the cranium.  There was not only one wrapping material used that produced an annular deformation to the skull, but it was one used long enough in order to produce a high pressure effect to the skull as seen in the x-ray below.

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The first skull, as viewed using an x-ray from a lateral aspect, highlighting the distinctive pressurized cranial deformation. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

As for second skull, modification was carried out a little bit differently in this instance.  Wrapping material was also used, but with a heavy burden, which gave the female individual a distinctive saddle recess as demonstrated on the parietal bones, as seen on the x-ray below.

4-skull-2-parietal-deformation-after-mikic-picture-4

The second skull ,viewed in a lateral aspect on an x-ray, showing the parietal deformation and the distinctive ‘saddle’ shape of the cranium. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

Besides those sites, another interesting archaeological site where there is evidence of this artificial deformation is in Sirmium, a major Roman and barbarian site in Serbia, where there is one male-assigned skull described with a deformation.  It may be possible that there are more buried individuals that belong to Germanic tribes exhibiting ACD.

5-projection-of-acd-from-sirmiumafter-miladinovic-radmilovic-picture-5

The Sirmium individual with the skull indicating that ACD had taken place during their infancy. Each plane shown here highlights the effect the cranial modification had on this individual. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

So, it is obvious that they were a probable leader or someone who wanted to be distinguished from others as chosen by the individuals who carried out the artificial deformation on the infant (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

6-reconstruction-of-skull-in-sirmium-after-miladinovic-radmilovic-picture-6

Reconstruction of a skull from Sirmium, Serbia, described above which highlights the method used to bind the cranial bones in this manner. Sirmium was a populous settlement first founded by Illyrians and Celts and subsequently become a Roman city. In the 5th century AD the city was taken by the Huns and then by the Goths and Gepids. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

In Hungary itself we have a good example of a number of artificial cranial deformations, 9 individuals exactly who display this feature, from the Hun-Germanic period, which can help us to see that there is no difference in sex as both males and females were a part of this practice or at least subjected to it (Molnar et al. 2014).

From an anthropological point of view we need to ask how bad can the physical effects on the individual be?

We know that brain is a complex organ and that any modification or alternation to either it or the cranium may cause physical and behavioral changes in normal cerebral function.  If there is a high degree of deformation it may have influence in vision, worsening hearing ability or even cause epilepsy, depending on what type of artificial cranial deformation is used (O’Brien et al. 2013; Mrkobrad 1980).  Intentional cranial deformation may disrupt the normal closure time of the cranial sutures or produce minor effects like the increase of wormian bones in the lambdoid suture, which in life would be asymptomatic (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

Conclusion

As we have seen in few historic examples from Serbia and Hungary above, this cultural practice did not stop with prehistoric people and cultures as it was carried out across the globe, including during periods of great migrations.  It is interesting that it had a great influence on the barbarian people and their leaders of this period, and that it continued to be practiced after they had conquered their enemy tribes or warring nations.  It may be hypothesized that they still wanted to be seen differently or to be seen as superior both within and outside their own cultural group.  Unfortunately intentional cranial deformations probably stopped in the Balkans with arrival of Avarians, around the 6th century AD, although the practice still continues today within a modern medical environment.

Notes

1. Late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period goes back from some 40,000 to 10,000 years before present.

2. Acculturation is cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adopting to or borrowing traits from another culture.

Bibliography

Hakenbeck, S. 2009. ‘Hunnic’ Modified Skulls: Physical Appearance, Identity and the Transformative Nature of Migrations. In Sayer, D. & Williams, H. (eds). Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. 64-80. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. (Open Access).

Mikić, Ž. 1985. Prilog Morfologiji Veštačkih Deformisanih Lobanja iz Perioda Velike Seobe Naroda. Godišnjak centra za Balkanološka ispitivanja. ANUBiH 23, 21. (Open Access).

Mикић, Ж. 1993. Виминацијум-антрополошки преглед групних гробова римског периода (I) и приказ некропола из периода велике сеобе народа (II). Saopštenja XXV. (Open Access).

Miladinović-Radmilović, N. 2012. Artificial Cranial Deformation. Journal of Serbian Archaeological Society. 28: 301-312. (Open Access).

Милинковић, М. 1998. Германска племена на Балкану. Археолошки налази из времена сеобе народа. PhD Thesis. Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade.

Милинковић, М. 2010. Градина на Јелици-рановизантијски град и средњовековно насеље. Београд.

Molnar, M., Janos, I., Szucs, L., Szathmary, L. 2014. Artificially Deformed Crania from the Hun-Germanic Period (5th- 6th century AD ) in Northeastern Hungary: Historical and Morphological Analysis. Neurosurg Focus. 36 (4).

Mrkobrad, D. 1980. Arheološki nalazi seobe naroda u Jugoslaviji. Belgrade: Muzej grada Beograda.

O’Brien, G. T., Peters, R. L., Hines, E. M. 2013. Artificial Cranial Deformation: Potential Implications of Affected Brain Function. Anthropology. 1 (3): 2-6. (Open Access).

Ortner, D. J. & Putschar, W. G. J. 1981. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

White, T. D., Black, M. T. & Folkens, P. A. 2012. Human Osteology (3rd edition). San Diego: Academic Press.

The Guardian Seeks Archaeology & Anthropology Bloggers: Deadline 7th November 2016

15 Oct

Whilst I’ve been away gallivanting on the other side of the world on holiday, and subsequently musing over my next blog post, a friend has kindly informed me that The Guardian have recently advertised a position available for archaeology and anthropology bloggers to write for the Guardian science blog network on the specialism of their choice.  This is a fantastic chance to reach a broad audience, disseminate academic research, and to clarify and contextualize the importance of the aims of sub-disciplines within anthropology and archaeology, such as bioarchaeology, social anthropology and biological anthropology, to a wider acknowledgment within the public mind.  I remain unclear whether this is a paid role or not (1), but the opportunity seems quite interesting in and of itself.

It also makes me wonder if the Guardian have seen how great and wide-reaching anthropological and archaeological educational outreach can be, as example by Kristina Killgrove of Powered By Osteons fame who writes a regular blog for Forbes on bioarchaeological topics.  If you are an anthropology and/or an archaeology blogger, one of the growing many who now have an online presence, and are interested in going for the role then the short online application form asks for a provisional blog title, a breakdown of why you should be picked for the available role(s), and finally requires that you provide an example of your writing style.  The deadline closes at midday on Monday 7th November.  Good luck to any applicants!

Updated Notes

1). According to a source the blog role is paid!

Further Information

  • To read the current blog(s) focused on palaeontology on the Guardian website, which includes posts on ancient animals, vegetables, minerals, and the natural history museum sector, you can check out the Lost Worlds and Lost Worlds Revisited sites.

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.

UCL mammal compare humerus taxon

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!

Listen to Christopher Knüsel’s Talk on ‘Bioarchaeology: Achievements & Future Potentials’ (29th August 2016)

2 Sep

The Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) have recently uploaded a talk to their Soundcloud account by Christopher Knüsel on the subject of bioarchaeology and its aims as a multidisciplinary area of research.  The talk, titled Bioarchaeology: Achievements and Future Potentials, was presented on the 29th August 2016 and discusses just what bioarchaeology is and why it is so important.  Importantly Knüsel, a Professor of biological anthropology at the Université de Bordeaux, France, emphasizes the deep importance of interrogating the data collected from human and hominin skeletal material to investigate the context of the remains.  I’ll quote the CBRL Sound homepage here for a brief breakdown of what the talk is about:

‘Bioarchaeology is a sub-discipline at the crossroads between biological anthropology and archaeology. It developed as a result of a desire to draw on and apply techniques developed in the natural sciences, while addressing issues of general concern in the social sciences and humanities. Its inspiration, then, comes not only from biological theory, but also from those developed in subjects such as history, sociology, political science, economics, and sociocultural anthropology. It is intended to cement the bonds with these disciplines to address questions of broad interest. This presentation highlights some of the long-term themes in bioarchaeology, while also addressing some of its current concerns, and charting its future developments.’  

Listen to the invigorating hour-long talk by clicking here.

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A few of my favourite bioarchaeology, archaeology and history publications. Photo credit: author.

If you are interested in learning more about the history, theory and methods used within bioarchaeology, and the disciplines importance in a number of fields, then I highly recommend any of the above books.  In particular I’d say both The Archaeology of Human Bones by Simon Mays and Clark Spencer Larsen’s Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton are great starting points.