Tag Archives: Bioarchaeology

Updated II: Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses in the United Kingdom

27 Mar

Please note: I originally wrote this post a few years ago in order to outline the available human osteology/bioarchaeology postgraduate courses in the United Kingdom as a guideline for the degree fees and availability.  However since then a number of substantial national and international changes have occurred.  These include, but are not limited to, the increase of undergraduate tuition fees to £9000.00 per academic year; the general increase of the price of Masters degrees; the new availability of student loans for Masters students; changes to Disabled Students Allowance from the 16/17 academic year onward; the transfer of some Student Finance grants to loans; the Government White paper released in May 2016 outlining challenges and changes needed in higher education, etc.  There is also ongoing discussion between the government and the educational sector regarding the pricing of courses according to economic worth and employability.

One of the more important changes was the outcome of the referendum in the United Kingdom whether it to remain or not a part of the European Union.  The resultant outcome led to the voting majority opting to leave the European Union.  This is due to happen in 2019, with a probable period of transition that has yet to be agreed in parliament, but the Government of the United Kingdom recently stated that it would guarantee European Union funding for projects signed before the Autumn Statement until 2020.

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Whilst I was doing some light research for another article I made a quick list of every course in the United Kingdom that offers human osteology as a taught masters (either as an MA, Masters of Arts, or as an MSc, Masters of Science) or offers a distinctive human osteology module or component within a taught masters degree.  Human osteology is the study of human skeletal material from archaeological sites.  Human osteologists study bones to identify age, biological sex, pathology and pre- and post-mortem trauma alongside other avenues of research in human behaviour and activity, such as investigating diet and mobility of post populations.  The subject is generally only taught at a Masters level within the United Kingdom, although some undergraduate courses in archaeology offer the opportunity to take individual modules during the third year of study.

Within the list England as a whole is well represented within the universities highlighted, Scotland only comes in with three entries, Wales has two courses coming online in 2019, and finally Northern Ireland, as far as I know, offer no distinctive osteological courses at the Masters level.  Further to this, the reader should be aware that some universities, such as the University of Leicester, offer commercial or research centers for human and animal osteology yet run no specific postgraduate courses that provide the training in the methods of osteoarchaeology.  Thus they are excluded from this list.

This information is correct as of March 2018, but please expect at least some of the information to change, especially in relation to course fees for United Kingdom, European Union, and international students.  It should be noted here that the higher education sector in the United Kingdom is internationally well-regarded and the educational institutions are often in the top 10% in world league tables; however it can be very expensive to study here, especially so in the consideration of prospective international students.  Please also take note of the cost of renting (especially in London and the south of the country generally) and the high cost of daily living compared to some countries.  The list is not an exhaustive attempt to collate all British post-graduate courses in human osteology and bioarchaeology and I am happy to add any further information or to correct any entries.

Other Sources & Prospective Student Advice

The British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) site, ran by David Connolly, also has a plethora of useful resources to check as well as an active Facebook group which is a great place to ask for advice.  The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO)  site contains a page with a useful link of current human osteology and bioarchaeology courses in the United Kingdom accessible in the Student Hub area, however it is only view-able for paid up members of BABAO.  If you are interested in human skeletal remains and are keen to learn more about the human osteology profession in the United Kingdom I heavily suggest joining BABAO for their support, annual conference and access to grants for students.

I’ve also written a second post to compliment this one which entails what you, as a prospective student, should keep in mind when looking at degree courses to pursue.  You can check out that post by clicking the title here: Questions to remember when considering a postgraduate course in human osteology.  Since the posting of this blog entry it has come to my attention that a number of universities now offer postgraduate courses as diplomas, which enable prospective students to undertake either practical modules or assignments or instead offer commercial certification in place of the typical formal requirement of the dissertation thesis.  This may be something to think on if you are seeking to work in commercial osteology for archaeological units or forensic companies, rather than heading into academic research or academia itself.

skull-saxon

An example of an archaeological skull. Image credit: source.

Please note that the fees stated are for full-time students only.  For part-time students the price is normally halved and the course carried out over two years, instead of the usual one year that is common for Masters within the United Kingdom.  Several universities also have stipulations that international students are barred from taking MSc/MA course part-time.

MA/MSc Degrees in England

Bournemouth University:

University of Bradford:

University of Cambridge:

  • MPhil Human Evolution (amazingly there are 18,000 skeletons in the Duckworth Collection!).

Cranfield University:

University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN):

University College London:

University of Durham:

University of Exeter:

  • MSc Bioarchaeology (Offers choice of one of three core pathway topics, including human osteology, zooarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology) (UK/EU £7995 and International £16,995).

Universities of Hull and York Medical School:

  • MSc Human Evolution (A very interesting course, combining dissection and evolutionary anatomy) (UK/EU £7940 and International £20,910).

University of Liverpool:

Liverpool John Moores University:

University of Manchester:

  • MSc Biomedical and Forensic Studies in Egyptology (course under review).

University of Oxford:

University of Sheffield:

University of Southampton:

University of Winchester:

University of York:

MA/MSc Degrees in Scotland

University of Aberdeen

University of Dundee:

University of Edinburgh:

MA/MSc Degrees in Wales

Wrexham Glyndwy University*:

  • MRes Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology (UK/EU £7000 and International £15,000).
  • MSc Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology (UK/EU £7000 and International £15,000).

*In conjunction with Cyprus Institute of Sciences and Humanities (CYPISH) and the Centre for Forensic Anthropology & Bioarchaeology (CeFAB), from 2019.  No current course pages exists, this post will be updated when there is a dedicated MRes and MSc web-pages.

The following universities offer short courses in human osteology, osteology, forensics or zooarchaeology

Short Courses in England

Cranfield University:

University of Bradford:

  • On occasion run a palaeopathology course, please check the university website for details.

University of Sheffield:

Note: I am still genuinely surprised there are not more short courses.  If you find any in the United Kingdom please feel free to drop a comment below.

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A University of Hull and Sheffield joint excavation at Brodsworth carried out in 2008 helped to uncover and define a Medieval cemetery. Image credit: University of Hull.

A Few Pieces of Advice

A piece of advice that I would give to prospective students is that I would strongly advise researching your degree by visiting the universities own webpages, finding out about the course specifics and the module content.  If possible I’d also visit the department and tour the facilities available and seek advice from the course leader with regards to potential research interests.  I would also always advise to try to contact a past student and to gain their views on the course that they have attended previously.  They will often offer frank advice and information, something that can be hard to find on a university webpage or from a course leader.  Also please do be aware of the high cost of the United Kingdom higher education as prices have been raised considerably in the past few years and are likely to rise again, especially so in comparison to cheaper courses on the European continent.

Finally, if you know of any other human osteology or bioarchaeology Masters or short courses in the United Kingdom please do comment below or send me an email and I will add it to the list here.

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Speaking to the Dead: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

3 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication, which was released in 2013.  It is 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 the present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book in a 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 sustained periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book 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 1985 volume The Unwomanly Face of War (У войны не женское лицо), recently translated into English and republished, which uncovers the role of USSR females in the Second World War and the subsequent silence of their contributions, alongside 1997’s Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва),  a volume 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.  That 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) was due to be published in 2017; the volume 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.  It is one I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends describing their experiences of encountering human skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and how it inspires them – into careers, into dreams, into labours of love and worry.

A two-part previous edition of this series focusing on the life and thoughts of archaeologists can be read here and here.


The author’s monologue

– Buried and cremated, dismembered and decapitated, axial and axis, perimortem and postmortem.  The language we use to describe the dead can seem cold and clinical, a hidden distance in our lexical choices to keep the emotive at bay.  If we think of the skeletonized dead as people, with their own lives, thoughts and memories, instead of objects taking up space on the finds shelves or boxed silently away, it is perhaps then we remember that the past is not so different, not so foreign to the present.

Fragments of crania, rolled across my open palm for tactile inspection, used to remind me of the intangible border of death.  Reminded me that I too would die.  Bone, that wonderous structure of both flesh and stone, reminded me so vividly of what it is to live.  Having broken many of the elements within my own skeleton, I could feel kindred to those naturally fractured fragments before me, couldn’t I?

That decisive snap, the innervation of electric pain that contorts to dull throbs . . .  What I thought I knew, I desired to know in more depth.  My own experiences of skeletal breakages and repeated surgical interventions, my own handling of the blade cutting into flesh to show bone the sordid light of the dissection room.  The smell of my anatomical guide – the paper protected by clear plastic wallets, but the pages of which had nevertheless become permeated by the chemical smells of preservation.  These were the experiences that pushed me on.

From excavation to analysis, pulled from birth to death anew.  A whole new context of meaning imbued by the discipline of archaeology . . .  These were my dreams, the dull and long-drawn out thoughts that lay behind daily concerns and speculations.

What do others think, how do others interact with the skeletal material that represents an individual, a population, a species?


The illusion of mortality and the fickle nature of finality

Gabriela H.  Late twenties.  Post-doctoral researcher.

– I don’t know what drew me into studying skeletons – it was not the morbid aspect for sure.  I have never been to a funeral, and I don’t feel a pang for skull-themed aromatic candles spread around the house.  I might be ‘in search for a stable ground to step on’, as a psychologist once told me . . .  I don’t know if that is true, it might be, but it might as well have something to do with people.  I like people, and have always been interested in watching them, in understanding their passions, actions and thoughts.  But I should probably bear in mind that these are dead people.  Most of the time I try to ignore this though . . .  The image of a crime movie in which body parts are stacked in jars on shelves comes vividly to mind, and the comparison is rather worrying to be frank.

However, aren’t we (those studying the dead) caught in this eternal (no pun intended) puzzle?  Between having to acknowledge that these are dead people – that on the lab table and on the museum shelf it is death and mortality looking back at us, confronting our own fear of death.  Or seeing them as mere bones, objects that are there waiting for us to turn them into ‘high-impact’ articles?  Boundaries, and absences are unsettling: someone has forever disappeared, though some part of them has been left behind.

‘It is the living who expect insights from the dead’ a friend once told me, and he couldn’t have been more right (as you see I am trying to avoid saying ‘dead right’).  As a ‘dead bodies’ practitioner I think this line cuts to the core of the whole challenge of writing narratives about them – what are we hoping to achieve?  I think most of the times we are unsure, but it is rather hard to be sure about something like death, isn’t it?


On the joy of working with the hands and the truth concealed

Abigail L.  Mid-twenties.  PhD candidate.

– I often miss working with my hands.  The hours spent staring at a screen or trawling through journals are necessary for research, but they make me realise that the physicality of handling human remains, the engagement that comes with examining the material myself, is what really helps me to understand my subject best.  Carefully sorting through someone’s bones removes the abstraction of talking about statistics, trends and probabilities, and brings it back to the individual level, the only one that we can really identify with.  I gain satisfaction from the ordered and methodical work; the rest of my time is spent chaotically moving between tasks and failing to cross anything off my cluttered stacks of physical and digital to-do lists.  With the bones, I arrive early and skip lunch to give myself more time to work slowly and carefully.  I don’t feel the need for the extended walks around the park that my ‘office work’ prompts.  Almost everyone else smokes.

With long periods where I am kept in the office, the growing anticipation of these sparsely distributed tangible interactions with my subject sometimes leads to frustration.  Missing limbs (misplaced in the last decade; “I’m sure they were on display once”); a severe case of mould spreading through the axial skeleton; another “sorry it was lost in the war;” a set of misidentified and mis-catalogued remains that belong to some other site (which one, though?).

My recent osteological work has been characterised by dismay . . .  I’m concerned by the mishandling of human remains in museum and university contexts, but I can’t talk about it as I’m still relying on the goodwill of these institutions.

I can discuss general access issues and curatorial ethics in my thesis, but I can’t refer to my personal disappointment over being prevented from doing something I enjoy.  Is it even okay for me to enjoy this work?  To enjoy sorting, measuring, and recording human remains?  We are supposed to be enthusiastic about our research: engagement, outreach, impact, et cetera.  But people don’t always want to hear the specifics.  I was recently asked (by a palaeoethnobotanist) what I do to ward off all the bad Juju I must be attracting . . .  Alongside my enjoyment, if that is allowed, I also feel a deep anxiety about getting something wrong that I don’t feel in relation to other areas of my work.  It doesn’t seem to go away with experience.  Another topic with no real home for discussion.

My main anxiety at the moment, though, is in relation to my future employment prospects.  While the practical work is what sustains my interest, I also know I need to develop other research interests, other skills, other areas of expertise, in order to compete for jobs.  Most of these keep me inside.  I am increasingly realising that I will soon have little choice in the matter.


The search for identity in a modern context

Richard Smith.  Late forties.  Recovering field archaeologist.

– I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that for many people outside of the profession, the chief occupation of an archaeologist is digging up skeletons (at least for those who don’t think we’re looking for dinosaurs).  To be honest, that aspect probably played into my own set of disjointed reasons for wanting to become an archaeologist . . .  There is something very reassuring about seeing archaeologists carefully excavating away soil from around a skeleton – you know you’re seeing some ‘proper’ archaeology!

And yet, I had worked for more than 20 years as a commercial field archaeologist before I got the opportunity to excavate a ‘classic’ laid out flat skeleton.  It’s not that I’d not been doing much, but every site I seemed to work on was composed of pits, ditches, post-holes, and the like . . .  It’s not like I didn’t encounter human death in those years, but it was invariably in the form of cremated remains, frequently having undergone heavy comminution.  Say what you like, but it’s hard to perceive the humanity in the occasional flecks of white in a black and grey soil.

All that changed for me when I ended up working on a 19th century urban graveyard that was being cleared to allow the church to rebuild, expand, and cater for its dwindling flock into the 21st century.  For someone only used to human remains in the form of gritty powder, coming face to face with a skeleton was nothing short of shocking.  After two decades in the profession, I thought I was well beyond romantic notions of imagining myself into the lives and situations of my ‘subjects’.

But here I was, carefully scraping around a rib, an eye socket, or a femur, wondering about who this person might have been or how they lived their lives.  Admittedly, this was rather short-lived as some of the burials contained their original coffin plates that had their names and dates . . .  Some we eventually were able to track down to published obituaries only to find that they were all wonderful people who were sorely missed by all who knew them.  I wonder where they buried the bad blighters that everyone was glad to see the back of?


The author rejoins

– An historical aside:  ‘Do not divide the dead!’  A Soviet saying dating from the Second World War.  The blurring of lines between the immensity of the Jewish loss of life, and the death wrought across nationalities and ethnicities, versus the continuing vulgarities of Soviet antisemitism post-war which culminated, but did not end, with the Doctor’s plot of 1952-53.

Dividing the dead into known and unknown, into memory and out of time.  The question we never really ask is how much do we need to know, what can we afford not to know?  The almost intangible nature of truth, hidden within the Haversian canals and housed in osteons, each containing a multitude of experiences.

Experiences for which the individual, partitioned by plastic context bags placed among kin, friend or foe, known or unknown, remain silent; they are ready instead to be analysed by the skeletal specialist.  The step by step motions of measurements and non-metric notes taken; occurrences of presence and absences discussed; the archaeological context pondered over.  Relationships are suggested and situations hypothesized, the motivations are almost always guessed at.

An archaeological aside:  ‘The dead do not bury themselves.’  The individual, either as a single outlier or as part of a larger assemblage, become detached from their lived context and are given over to the researcher with the status of temporary ownership.  The dead have already died and their active participation in life is now over, but still they speak to the living as arbiters of the present.

We are not just analysing ourselves when we look into the empty eye sockets of the dead, we are commenting on the past and the vast variations found therein.  There is no distance greater than between the living and the dead, yet there is no closer divide.  That is the juxtaposition lying in wait, entombed within the cortical and trabecular bone, trapped within the enamel and dentine, ready to surprise the unwary.

Introducing Polska Antropologia Fizyczna on FB

16 Nov

If you are anything like me, you will have a large pile a books by your bedside either waiting to be read or already partially digested.  And sometimes this dirty habit of reading too much will catch up with you.  At the moment I’ve somehow managed to buy, borrow or otherwise lend a mountain of books that will last me through a cold and dark winter.  I’m not particularly sure why I thought starting five (non-academic) books at once was a good idea!  I’ve recently added one more in the form of Knüsel & Smith’s excellent 2014 The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict, a volume I’ve long wanted to read but is frankly too expensive to buy.

A stellar volume of bioarchaeological research for the low, low price of £175.00 in hardback or £142.20 for an ebook version. Image courtesy of Routledge.

Where did I find this fine volume, I hear you ask? Whilst browsing the awesome Polska Antropologia Fizyczna (PAF) Facebook group (don’t tell the publishers though!).  PAF is a group set up by Oskar Nowak, who is an assistant professor at the Institute of Anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, dedicated to sharing anthropological research online and to fostering an active research community.  I love browsing this FB group as there are always links to open access articles on a wide variety of research topics, including bioarchaeology and related disciplines (osteoarchaeology, palaeopathology, etc.).  Like a number of FB groups, such as BAJR – UK Archaeology, Palaeopathology and Council for British Archaeology, the PAF are a pretty active community, so it is worth checking out.

But for now, if you need me, I’ll be buried under a pile of books on Scandinavian, Soviet and post-Soviet literature and history!

Bibliography

Knüsel, C.& Smith, M. J. (eds.) 2014. The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict. Oxon: Routledge.

Interview with Alexandra Ion: Introducing DivMeanBody & The Post-Mortem Fate of Human Bodies

30 Oct

Alexandra Ion is an osteoarchaeologist and anthropologist who specialises in Neolithic deathways, theory of (osteo)archaeological practice, and the history of anatomical/anthropological body displays.  Alexandra can be found writing about her research and thoughts on her blog at Bodies and Academia, where topics include the anthropology of the body, with specific reference to the ethics and history of body research and the display of the body.  To keep up to date on the DivMeanBody project, and the latest research goings on, check out the project blog.  Alexandra’s research profile can be found here.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM): Hello Alexandra, thank you so much for joining me at These Bones of Mine! We’ve known each other for a while via our own respective blogging sites and I’m always interested to see what you post at Bodies and Academia. However, for those of us who do not know you or your bioarchaeological research, could you tell us a little bit about your background and main research interests?

Guest blog interviewee Alexandra Ion admiring a number of flints. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

Alexandra Ion (AI):  Hi David, thanks a lot for having me here!  I am trained both as an archaeologist and as an osteoarchaeologist, but along the way I came to be interested in the more reflexive approaches to the material record we encounter.  If I am to summarise, I would say that I am interested in the ethics and history of body research and display, from analyses of past Neolithic death-ways, to reflexive accounts focused on the way in which human remains are turned into an object of study and are enacted as part of the osteoarchaeological and anthropological disciplines (from contemporary excavations, to the history of anatomical/anthropological collections).

I am currently a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research located at the University of Cambridge, and I am also a researcher at the Cultural Anthropology Department of the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ of the Romanian Academy, so I can say that I am ‘butterflying’ at the cross-road of the two disciplines and perspectives.

TBOM:   It is clear that with the research positions you hold, you are able to produce an interesting perspective on both archaeology and anthropology as separate disciplines that can readily be fed from one into the other productively.

As such, and having myself come from a background where the practicalities of analyzing human skeletal remains was emphasized within an archaeological perspective, I have to ask where your interest in theorizing the human body came from within your academic and research background?

AI:  Not an easy question to answer for sure, but one which definitely goes directly at the heart of my research.  Like any exercise in self-reflection, trying to identify the ‘cause’ of something can sometimes be as accurate as the exercise of piecing back events from memory, but if I am to follow the threads back into my past I think I should start by saying that I have a BA in History.  Thus, from the beginning I have been thinking of archaeological materials as part of broader theoretical/historical processes and questions.

At the same time, I was lucky to meet and learn from a handful of archaeologists who were interested in exploring theoretical avenues, influenced by anthropological, sociological or philosophical works, and who made me question the established paradigm.  The first proper work I did where I combined the two interests was during my MSc in Sheffield, where under the supervision of Prof John Barrett I applied a sociology of scientific knowledge approach to osteoarchaeological practice – in other words, I took scientists dealing with bones as my subjects, and I tried to see what kind of interpretation they construct about past human beings through the questions and methods they follow (and the ethical implications of these practices).

Alexandra demonstrating a research poster with an study skeleton. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

TBOM:  I think that is a really interesting perspective on the research of the actual process of osteoarchaeology.  Almost, I can imagine, a meta review of humanity reviewing itself using a standardised methodology.  In that first piece of research for your Masters, what conclusions were you able to draw with regards to this, and how has it subsequently informed your following research?

AI:  I am not sure if I could draw a straightforward conclusion after that, rather it was my intention to highlight the networks in which human remains are integrated, and following sociologist Bruno Latour, the actors which take part in shaping our understanding of them – from instruments and methods, to spaces and world-views.  I think my main aim was to bring into view how our bones analysis are the product of a series of choices (what to study, why, how), and that maybe if we chose differently, then our reading of the past were different.  Liminal case studies are perhaps the best/easiest to use as illustrations of more reflexive points such as this, and I am thinking here of a piece which has recently came out in Archaeological Dialogues in which I was trying to see what happens when the standardised osteological understanding of an individual meets in the field a completely different take on humanity – in this case, that of a Church.

Namely, I’ve been looking at how the two ways of ‘decoding’ some human remains met on the territory of one body belonging to a Greek-Catholic Romanian Bishop killed during the 1950s in a communist prison.  While for the Church, the body was seen as a sign of martyrdom, a site of embodied experiences which tied it to the community of believers, past to the present, the scientific approach applied a universal and standard methodology, whose language did not leave room for an understanding of the particulars of his situation.  Once the scientist steps out of the ‘laboratory’ and goes into the field (regardless how we define that), their world-view is confronted and challenged by complex networks of actors, each with their own agendas and interpretation of what those bodies are/should be – and this can start some interesting points for reflection.

TBOM:  That particular case study that you’ve recently published is a great example of examining the cultural and social differences as documented in testimonies, texts and historical records, compared to the strict osteological interpretation of the Bishop’s body, and associated burial context, within a fraught historic period.  It is also a period that is very well documented compared to the archaeological record as a whole.  

As such I’m wondering how you can use your approach to the skeletal remains of individuals, or populations, from prehistoric contexts where documentation is either non-existent or enigmatic in nature, i.e. structural remains that are of unknown function or use?

AI:  I think this is the challenge indeed!  Recently I took part in the Cambridge Science Festival and I have received the same question from members of the public, under various guises: what do you do with these human remains?  Of course the first level of analysis involves sexing, ageing, identifying pathologies, traumas etc. on the human remains, with the goal of piecing together their (post-mortem) biography.  However, I think that we need to go beyond the data encoded in the materiality of bodies, and think of them in the wider context of their deposition/discovery.

Of course there is not a single/simple answer to how to go about this, but ultimately it is a question of scaling: finding the right (useful) balance between the singular case study and the wider population data, between the human remains and their context, between a site and the wider cultural patterns.  Anthropology, history and even philosophy of science might provide inspiration when reaching a dead-end, leading to new questions for old materials.  Ultimately, I think one also has to accept the limits of what we can do with certain kinds of discoveries, due to the fragmentary and heterogeneous nature of the material.

TBOM:  I’m really excited by the announcement recently of your latest project, DivMeanBody, based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, which will investigate the construction of the prehistoric body and identity from Neolithic settlements (7th-4th millennia BC), from around the Balkans area of southern Europe.

What is the focus area of the study, along with the bioarchaeological material, that you’ll be studying specifically?  As we’ve discussed above, I’m really keen to see how you fuse together the biological data from the human skeletal remains with the cultural material of ancient societies, in order to explore the meaning and use of the human body within funerary practices during the Neolithic period.

AI:  My research is designed as an exploration in the construction of the prehistoric body and identity, by studying the post-mortem fate of human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements in the Balkan area (between 7th-5th millennia BC).  These settlements have yielded collections of disarticulated/fragmentary/scattered human remains.  Traditionally such human remains have been either a focus of osteological studies, looking at them in a biological dimension, or subjected to cultural analysis.  My project aims at taking a multi-disciplinary comparative perspective, at the cross-road of archaeology and osteology, towards the re-interpretation of such deposits from a taphonomic perspective to answer the question of whether these are deliberate depositions or more complex, including non-cultural processes, might explain this fragmentation.

The DivMeanBody blogging page, check out the University of Cambridge project website page here. Image credit: Alexandra Ion.

Given its broad time span, apparent uniformity on a large geographical area and across multiple prehistoric cultures (from southern Romania to northern Greece), studying this depositional practice is key to understanding the context which shaped the beginnings of settlements, agriculture and the Neolithic way of life in Europe.  Thus, I hope to better understand how these past people were performing and dealing with the dynamic processes of life and death in their communities and the relation of these practices to the formation of archaeological deposits.  At the same time, it will surpass the divide present in contemporary research between a biological body (studied by osteology) and a cultural body (by archaeology).

The materials I will be looking at are of three types: skeletal materials who have already been excavated, old archaeological reports/photographs, and archaeological/osteological publications.  Of course the access to all these kinds of data is not even, especially when it involves researches from three countries (Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania)- either some of the materials are not available any more (lost, or not available for study), or the initial documentation is not present, so the bones have no context.  Beyond an interaction with these past bodies, the project turns out to be also a trip down memory lane, an archaeological investigation into storage areas, publications and academic networks.

TBOM: I’m looking forward to reading some of the outcomes of your research, so I’ll be sure to keep an eye on the dedicated website that you have for the project.

The geographic and population focus of the majority of your research has largely been in eastern and southern Europe, covering anthropological topics and the curation of historic and prehistoric human osteological collections, such as the Bucharest-based Francisc. I Rainer Anthropological Research Center, Romania, which houses one of the largest human osteological collections in Europe.  With your experience of academic work and associated field experience across a number of countries, I’m intrigued as to your views on how anthropology and osteoarchaeology is taught and if you have experienced any differing approaches in their application?

AI:  This is an important question indeed, thank you, one which I think should be more often discussed!  I am not sure though if I am the best person to answer it, as I have no extensive experience with how osteoarchaeology is being formally taught throughout the world – besides my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I am mostly self-taught/ I’ve been taught the basis of osteology by my colleagues at the Institute.  In an indirect way, my answer speaks about the academic situation of the discipline in my country, and the absence of a formal qualification.  Even in the United Kingdom, there are not that many programmes offering osteology training, and even less a combined degree (with funerary archaeology)- I recall you made a list a while ago.

Furthermore, when it comes to the interest in the history of body collections and the ethics and politics of human remains research and display there does not seem to be a specific path for training either, and those interested, like myself, seem to come from various backgrounds (e.g. I have a PhD in History, Elizabeth Hallam in Social Anthropology, Tiffany Jenkins in sociology, while Liv Nilsson Stutz and Duncan Sayer have one in archaeology – and this is just to name a few; others come from the world of pathology, forensic anthropology or philosophy).  Due to this fluid nature of the discipline, each of these specialists brings their own questions and perspective on things, which in a way is just a reflection of the multi-faceted nature of the topics explored.

But if you ask me about the specific osteoarchaeological training, the only broad remarks I can make are that I have noticed that in France these studies are sometimes more closely connected to pathology and taphonomy than in other places, that there is a difference between seeing osteoarchaeology as part of a historical discipline (like in my academic background) versus seeing it as a biological science (as I’ve often encountered it in UK settings), or as part of cultural anthropological concerns (as is the case in the USA).  Of course these are very rough generalisations, but I think what is certain is that there is not just one osteoarchaeology, and would be interesting to talk more about how various traditions define the concept (even a quick glance at the names which are used in various places is indicative of the heterogeneity of practices- from bioarchaeology to archeothanatology or osteology).

TBOM:  Your observations seem to collate with my own experience of both osteoarchaeology and bioarchaeology, alongside their related fields, in other countries.  Particularly so as to where osteology fits within its confines in an archaeological or anthropological setting.  I sometimes wonder if this acts as an almost linguistic straight-jacket on respective researchers who are confined within their narrow field of study, as espoused by their department or traditional approach within their country of research.

Returning again to your new project, DivMeanBody, how did you come to focus on the Neolithic period of south-eastern Europe?

AI: Indeed, I share you concerns regarding ‘a linguistic straight-jacket’, though I would rather call it an epistemological straight-jacket.  In the same time, I think that what we witness – the cohabitation of multiple archaeologies (some taking very hard sciences approaches, while at the other end of the spectrum we have postmodern narratives and even performances – a colleague mentioned of a dance ‘presentation’ he witnessed in a conference panel) – should prompt some reflection and dialogue in respect to the kinds of basic principles that we share/should share.

But returning to your question, I think this was, like many other decisions in research, a serendipitous encounter.  Quite early in my undergrad (and even before that) I was fascinated by the Neolithic period, especially by the Vadastra pottery.  The black polished pots, decorated through deep incisions filled with white paste, and with helix or geometrical models are extremely elegant and special, and they definitely drew me in to deep time.  For a couple of years, I have also been to two different tells in southern Romania, and then it came the moment of choosing a topic for my BA thesis.  At first, I had been offered the opportunity of publishing the pottery from a late Neolithic site, but as I soon discovered I did not get too excited about drawing pot shards on millimetre paper.

An anthropomorphic vessel made of fired clay, Vădastra, Vădastra, 5500-5000 BC. National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest: 15908. Image credit: Marius Amarie, New York Times.

By this time, I was already working at the Institute of Anthropology, and one day when I was sitting at my desk by the skull shelves my colleague Andrei Soficaru popped in and said: ‘Why don’t you study the human remains from Neolithic settlements in Romania for your thesis?’.  That was to be my topic for my first Master thesis as well, and it stayed with me even when I moved more into the theoretical aspects.  Thus, when I had to choose a topic for this postdoc I went back to what I knew, and to what I have left ‘unresolved’ in a way, the interpretation of human remains discoveries from settlements from Southern Romania; then extending the area to the Balkans made sense, as in the Neolithic times this area would have shared many cultural commonalities.

TBOM: Thank you very much for joining me today Alexandra, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. and good luck with your DivMeanBody project!

At These Bones of Mine we’ll definitely be keeping a look out as to how the project develops.  I’m sure that my readers would be interested in hearing about the results as well.

AI:  Thank you David for a wonderful opportunity to talk about some of my work!

Further Information

  • You can check out Alexandra’s personal blog, entitled Bodies and Academia, which features a great range of thought-provoking and interesting posts on osteoarchaeology and anthropology.  Alternatively, for bite-sized chunks, check out Alexandra’s Bodies and Academia Twitter page here.
  • For all of the latest updates on the DivMeanBody project check out the website home page here.

Bibliography

Ion, A., Soficaru, A., & Miritoiu, N. 2009. Dismembered Human Remains from the ‘Neolithic’ Cârcea Site (Romania). Studii de Preistorie6: 47 – 79.

Dobos, C. & Ion, A. (eds.) 2015. Bodies/Matter: Narratives of Corporeality. Special Volume of Martor -The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review. 20. Bucharest: Martor. (Open Access).

Ion A. 2015. Breaking Down the Body and Putting it Back: Displaying Knowledge in the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ Anthropological Collection. Martor – The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review20: 25-50. (Open Access).

Ion, A. 2016. The Body of the Martyr. Between an Archival Exercise and the Recovery of his Suffering. The need for a Recovery of Humanity in OsteoarchaeologyArchaeological Dialogues. 23 (2): 158–174. doi: 10.1017/S1380203816000209.

Ion, A. 2017. And then they were Bodies: Medieval Royalties, from DNA Analysis to a Nation’s Identity, in Premodern Rulership and Contemporary Political Power. The King’s Body Never Dies, (eds.) Karolina Mroziewicz, Aleksander Sroczyński, 217-237. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Reflection During a Day of Skeletal Processing

8 Feb

I have a day off from my normal job and I find myself carefully wet sieving the cremated remains of a suspected Romano-British individual in the processing room at the local unit, but I’m not alone here.  Instead I’m surrounded by recently excavated Anglo-Saxon remains drying slowly on paper towels, organised in numerous plastic trays on various shelves to my side and up above me.  In each tray there is a plastic zip bag, the site code and context number inked on for identification purpose and later site reconstruction.  By taking the right femoral head and neck (upper thigh) as an identifier of the minimum number of individuals (MNI), I count at least six individuals represented in the new assemblage, although there are a few trays I cannot quite see and as I am not here to look at them I do not uncover them.  A quick look at the morphology (size and shape) of the individual skeletal elements is enough to see that, demographically speaking, adults and non-adults are represented in the assemblage.

Browsing the mandibles (lower jaw) that are present I can see a few without the 3rd molar fully erupted, one or two lying in crypts waiting to reach up for the shaft of light from the outside world that would never come.  Another mandible has the majority of the teeth present, including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd molars in each half, but it displays severe enamel wear of the crowns of the teeth (the occlusal or biting surface).  This is indicative of a rough diet and probable middle to advanced adult age.  The fact that most of the teeth are present suggest that the individual wasn’t too old though, as tooth loss is strongly correlated to increasing age for humans.

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A day in the archive stores analysing non-adult skeletal remains from an archaeological site. Photograph by the author use a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film, if used elsewhere please inform the author and credit as appropriate.

I turn my attention back to the cremated remains.  These are something of a mystery having looked at the context sheets dating from the excavation itself.  There is evidence for cremated non-human remains, likely to be bovine (cow to you and me) as there are a few distinctive teeth included in the bags in an associated context found near the cremated remains that I’m now processing, which itself has been bulk sampled at 100%.  A proper look through the sieved cremated material, which has been processed in accordance with the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology guidelines, will have to wait though as they need to dry over the next few days, ideally for another few days after too.  Once dry I can go through each fraction sieved (10mm, 6mm, 2mm) and sort as human and non-human, before identifying specific osteological features and assigning the fragments to either skull, limb, or trunk sections of the skeleton.

As I think about this I remember that I must complete this human osteology report soon.

For many people the thought of touching or analyzing human remains is too much, that in many minds remains are parceled off to the medical realm or are hurried to the cemetery to be removed out of sight.  In reality though we are often surrounded by human remains, though we may not always know it and may not always want to know it.  In archaeology the skeletal remains of humans are often the only direct biological matter to survive of individuals and past populations.  They can encode and preserve a lot of information on biological matters and past cultural practices.  This has been steadily recognized within the past century as osteological methodologies are refined for accuracy and new technology is applied in novel approaches to the remains unearthed.  One of the prime concerns for any bioarchaeologist or human osteologist is that ethical codes and guidelines are adhered to, with the relevant legal permits acquired as appropriate.  As I glance upon the presumed Anglo-Saxon remains I remember that these too were unexpected finds by the construction workers, I briefly wonder how they felt and what they thought on seeing them for the first time.

Anyhow, back to processing the cremation and to thinking about writing the report.

It is pretty interesting as although I’ve part-processed cremations within urns before, with careful micro-excavation spit by spit, I’ve never fully processed a cremation to completion.  Whether these cremated remains represent human skeletal material, as the field notes state, remains a different matter though and it is one I am eager to solve…

Further Learning

  • The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) promotes the study of understanding the ‘physical development of the human species from the past to the present’.  As an association they provide research grants for projects in which all members of BABAO are eligible, as well as offering prizes for presentations and posters in their annual conference, which is held in the United Kingdom.  I fully recommend attending and taking part if you are associated with any relevant field.

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!

day of the dead

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.