Tag Archives: Human Osteology

Archaeology at the University of Sheffield Under Threat

20 May

There is much to say and much too little time to say it all in, so let me cut to the quick – the world-class archaeology department at the University of Sheffield is at risk of closure and the staff at risk of redundancy. The results of a recent departmental review by the University of Sheffield is due Tuesday 25th May, along with a vote by the University Executive Board on the future of the department.

I found this out last night as a friend alerted me to the following screenshot:

I was guided also to the Save Sheffield Archaeology, which has further details on the departmental review and the importance of the archaeology department to the city and the academic community internationally. Most importantly it is the jobs that are at risk – the academic, postdocs, researchers and administrative staff, who all potentially face the risk of redundancy. As far as I currently understand the department itself is still fragmented physically as both lectures and staff are based across the University of Sheffield departments as the archaeology building itself is (or has been) undergoing much-needed structural repairs. Despite this, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, teaching and research have still continued and student support has still been given.

You can help by reading the links below, searching out what other people and saying and what Saving Sheffield Archaeology are advising. If you are an archaeologist or know the department in any way – used to work there, studied there, are affiliated with it in any way, etc. – and are concerned for its future as I am, then please do sign the Change.org petition, email the VC and the University Executive Board, and make your voice known.

The decision on the future of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield will be made on Tuesday 25th May. Stay tuned.

Bigger Issues

Readers of my blog will know that I attended the University of Sheffield in 2011-12 to study for my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology and reveled in the teaching, research and personal development opportunities that the course offered. I have friends who have studied there since and remain affiliated with the department. I am worried, I am concerned, and I will be writing to the VC and the University Executive Board with my concerns at their reviews and the three stated options available to it. I am deeply concerned at what appears to be an unforced and perhaps manufactured issue in staffing (not replacing retiring staff, which has seen current teaching staff drop from 29 to 11) and the longer-term trends of higher education being pulled in two different directions – between the demands of the market and the demands of providing, and supplying, quality education for all and the benefits of this for society and the economy. A third pressure has also made itself know in recent years at the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland wrestles control with its own myriad of identities.

HM Government have recently announced that it is considering cutting high-cost teaching supplement for undergraduate arts and archaeology courses by up to 50% in favour of more funding for STEM subjects, this along with the Government’s stated aim of simplifying planning permissions to encourage house building and infrastructure projects, puts archaeology and the archaeological record at possible risk as statutory consents are sidelined. Conversely the archaeology jobs sector has rarely been busier, with many major projects ongoing utilizing a range of archaeological specialisms, from drone operators to archaeological geomatics, from field staff to human osteologists, etc. One only needs to think of HS2 or Crossrail or road infrastructures projects in eastern England to think of how many archaeologists are currently employed in varying roles and positions. In fact archaeologists are on the Skilled Worker visa: shortage occupations for April 2021, the only social and humanities scientists category to make it.

It is a worrying time for ease of access to archaeological courses in higher education, as tuition fees remain high and are climbing for postgraduate study and research. One effect of Brexit is the annulment of EU fees category remaining the same as home fees for students and instead becoming aligned with international fees. This has a severe impact for those nearest and dearest European neighbours. For instance the 2021 MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology tuition fee at the University of Sheffield is now priced at £11,000 for home students and £23,250 for overseas students. This is a staggering sum for higher education and one well out of the reach for many. I raise this point as archaeology in particular has a strong pull for bringing together international students and researchers, and Sheffield’s department is well known for its ties across Europe and the wider world. Fees such as this are just one more barrier to cross.

Archaeology as a topic unto itself is broad, welcoming and diverse – whoever and wherever you are, you too came from somewhere and within that is the story of ultimately both your past and mine. Archaeology is the investigation into the great human story and the department at Sheffield is one such place where we can view it. How sad it would be to see a portal on the past close.

How to Help

Housekeeping Notes: Blog Address

11 May

It has been nearly a year since I last updated the blog with a post and it has been quiet on the site generally for the past two years.  Partly this has been a choice as I have become more involved with my current role and due to other personal reasons.  One of the main reasons though was the feeling of disenchantment I felt with the outcome of a blog change that I had made – if you would pardon me an indulgent housekeeping blog, I’ll explain below. 

A Note on the Blog Address

Back in March 2019 I decided to update the blog’s address by upgrading my WordPress website package and moving the site to a .com address and to also allow advertising that could be monetised.  I’d been blogging for 8 years by that point (since March 2011 in fact) and I was confident that the daily number of views/hits and subscribers could lead to some minor earning potential.  As noted previously, writing a blog can take a significant chunk of time out of your week when having to research potential topics, produce posts, edit posts, and contacting guest bloggers to develop ideas and future posts together.  Editing and blog organisation are also ongoing background tasks undertaken to ensure that certain style (grammar/layout) or standards (bibliographic, etc.) are met, and previous entries cleaned up and re-edited as necessary.  So I thought using the automated ads feature provided in the upgrade package could be a good way to recuperate that cost, as represented by my time investment and labour.

I was quite prepared for it to be a meager sum having researched online for what to expect as there was little information on the WordPress/Ad company site as to how much exactly the company pay and how the algorithm decided how much they pay (whether by ad impressions/views/interactivity, etc.).  What I was not quite prepared for though was the dramatic daily drop in the number of daily blog visitors/views, despite carrying out every precaution to ensure a smooth transition between the WordPress.com address to a .com one as advised.

The weekly figures for weekly views clearly shows the impact of upgrading the site from March 2019 and how suppressed the views have been since then. The latest full month is for December 2020, with a total of 2,816 views and 1,969 visitors. By comparison the highest blue bar on the left represents October 2018 with 25,057 views (and a lower number of visitors in darker blue). The pattern continues today since changing it back, but should change with regular blogging. Click to enlarge the image.

I took a few looks over the initial months following the change in blog address and saw no obvious reason as to why the sustained drop in views/visitors should be happening and I contacted the company.  Despite going on to contact WordPress a number of times regarding the sustained drop, and being reassured it would recover within a few weeks each time I contacted them (and that gap lengthening each time I asked), I never quite received a clear answer as to why my site was receiving substantially less views.  This frustrated me and after the eighth attempt at explaining the drop and trying to elicit a clear answer I stopped as it was clear no answer would be forthcoming.

Of course the income from the ads monetisation was non-existent and I never met the bar set to have any money ever transferred (you have to ‘earn’ $100 before any money is transferred – I am/was currently at less than 10% of that).  After a number of months I turned off the ads from the site in minor disgust at both the adverts themselves and the pitiful sum raised (and which I couldn’t access anyway).  I hate to admit it but over the past year and a half I have become less enamoured of logging onto the site as I became demotivated from seeing that the views had dropped by up to 80% of previous years.  Ultimately I largely stopped producing posts as other issues became more important in my life.  And the world fundamentally changed with the advent of Covid-19.

An evergreen favourite cartoon – the perils of a blog as a time sink and the clash of real life. On a side note I highly recommend helping to crowdfund Mr Lovenstein’s new book. Image source: Mr Lovenstein.

However, there is a plus side to this – I think it reinforced in my own mind the reasons for starting the blog in the first place.  It wasn’t as a place to earn money (though frankly that would be quite nice, it isn’t essential thankfully), and really I get out of it what I put into the site itself.  Thinking long term, I would rather this site remained accessible and readable rather than it disappear following a missed payment for a .com address.  As such I recently changed my blog address back to thesebonesofmine.wordpress.com and hopefully it should stay that way as I am not renewing the upgraded package.

Granted, this has been a bit of a boring entry but I thought it was best to let readers know that I am still active and that I still will be producing posts for this site at some point in the very near future.  I’m still passionate about human osteology and the intricate details kept within our skeletal system, and the value of archaeology as humanity’s combined story.  In fact there are over 12 draft blogging entries in varying states of readiness, but as an old joke goes I could never quite match how productive one Robert M Chapple is, despite his protestations to the opposite!  So if you need an archaeology fix before These Bones of Mine’s next update, why not head over to Robert’s site and discover a great archaeological blogger? 

Spotted: Introduction to Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology Short Course @ University of Lincoln, 27-31 July 2020 – *Postponed to 2021*

3 Mar

*** Please note that this short course has now been postponed until 2021 due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Further information will be provided once it is available. In the meantime please keep an eye on the University of Lincoln website for updates ***

 

On the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources Facebook page recently I came across an intriguing advert for a brand new human osteology short course, which not only looks at the skeletal anatomy but also the excavation and recording methods used in forensics and archaeology to recover human remains.

Taking place over five days (27-31 July 2020), the Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology short course takes place at the University of Lincoln and is aimed at the beginner and enthusiast level with no experience needed, though forensic and archaeology professionals will find the course useful. The hands on lecture and laboratory short course is taught by bioarchaeologist Samantha Tipper and biological anthropologist, radiographer and medical researcher Charlie Primeau.

Courses such as these are a fantastic place to learn about the skeletal anatomy and variation found within the human skeleton.  They are also a great opportunity to further your knowledge, extend your skills, or to use as a springboard into pursuing a career.  Before I undertook my own MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, I participated in two short courses in human osteology and zooarchaeology (study of non-human animals within archaeology) and they helped my experience and understanding of osteological material within archaeological contexts immensely.

Check out the full Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology University of Lincoln short course details below for more information.

Laying out a human skeletal in the anatomical position. Image credit: University of Lincoln.

Course Dates: 27 – 31 July 2020 (five days inclusive).

Fees: £400 per person (£300 for students).

Application Deadline: 20 May 2020.

How to apply: If you want to book a place, or require further information on the short course, you are advised to contact organiser Samantha Tipper via stipper@lincoln.ac.uk.

Accommodation: Not included but available on University of Lincoln campus (additional fees apply).

Please Note: Payment is due by 1 June 2020, any cancellations must be requested before 1 July 2020. Attendees must be aged over 18 years.

Poster advertising the human osteology short course taking part at the Anthropology laboratory at the University of Lincoln. Image credit: University of Lincoln.

The following information is provided by the short course website:

This five-day beginner-level introduction to human osteology is aimed at students, professionals working in archaeology, heritage or museum sectors, as well as anyone with an interest in learning about human osteology. The course will provide an introduction to human osteology and will be delivered through lectures and hands-on practical sessions.

Topics covered include:

  • The application of human osteology in an archaeological and forensic context
  • Ethical issues surrounding human remains
  • Excavation and recording methods
  • The human skeleton and basic anatomy
  • Human verses non-human skeletal remains
  • Estimation of sex and age at death
  • Determination of stature
  • Human Dentition.

A Shout Out for Other Short Courses

As ever, if you know of any other bioarchaeology, forensic anthropology, or human osteology-orientated short courses taking place in the United Kingdom, then please do feel free to leave a comment below to let me know.  Alternatively please email me at thesebonesofmine at protonmail.ch – I am always happy to highlight your course here on this blog.

Further Information

  • The University of Lincoln offer both an undergraduate BSc (Hons) and a taught postgraduate MSc in Forensic Science. Check out the University of Lincoln’s past and present forensic anthropological research, news and activities here.
  • Read Dr Charlie Primeau’s fascinating blog on her website here and Samantha Tipper’s research here.
  • The University of Sheffield also offer a three-day human osteology short course (6-8 April 2020), costing £180 full price and £120 for concessions.

Game of Thrones Osteology: A Mormont Skull-Cup

19 Oct

Ever since the recent finale of series seven of the television series Game of Thrones (1), I’ve been revisiting the earlier episodes in order to remind myself of its intricate and myriad story-lines, alongside its cast of thousands of characters.  Sometimes this can be a bit of a headache and a puzzle watching an episode, trying to tease out the relationships, experiences and personal histories of the characters before the scene ends and you are whizzed off elsewhere around Westeros (or the Dothraki Plain).  This blog post may be about to do the same topic-wise, so prepare yourself!

New Lands, Old Fears

But Game of Thrones also offers a huge scope to visit different scenarios, locations and approaches, many of which are inspired from historical examples, such as the political intrigue of the War of the Roses (2.) in late medieval England and those of Imperial Rome.  One of more important settings is the The Wall, a huge ice wall construction built thousands of years before the present setting of the series to separate the wild north from the kingdoms of the south.  This structure is reminiscent of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, which separated Roman-ruled Britannia to the more northern lands ruled by associated tribes of the Ancient Britons and Picts.  In the television series though the northern lands are where ‘Wildings’ roam freely, loose tribes who live lifestyles akin to hunter-gatherers.  It is also a place where rumours of the return of ‘White Walkers’ abound, human-like creatures said to be able to bring back the dead as animated revenants to haunt and slaughter the living.

Illustration of the Jewish mythological malicious spirit known as Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925) in his Book of Job as it appeared in Die Bucher Der Bibel. The dybbuk is the dislocated soul of a dead person which goes on to possess another individual until it has accomplished its goal. Image from Wikipedia.

Before I get ahead of myself, the use of revenants in the Game of Thrones universe taps into a reoccurring and general unease in human cultures of the dead ‘coming’ back to life.  Obvious parallels can be found and cited in the historical record from medieval Europe, particularly from Norway and England, but other cultural and religious examples include Chinese Jiangshi (‘hopping zombie’), the Jewish Dybbuk (a malicious possessing spirit), and the Malaysian and Indonesian Pocong (ghost of the soul of the deceased individual).  The idea of the vampire, made famous by Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel of 1897 but present in many European traditions in one form or another in previous centuries, also fits this category.  It would be fair to say that a fundamental feature of these concepts is the unease surrounding the death in general and the transition undertaken by the body as it undergoes the processes of decomposition.

The Old Bear

During one of the recent episode re-watches I came across the breakdown of the Night’s Watch, the politically unaffiliated band of brothers who guard the Wall against northern incursions and attacks.  Safe from the internal politics of the Seven Kingdoms that make up Westeros, the Night’s Watch relies on volunteers or prisoners to help man the crumbling watch forts and man the walkways high atop the Wall.  Unfortunately the members can prove to be a traitorous lot at times, particularly in times of hardship, de-funding and general building dilapidation as the kingdoms to south war among themselves.

The character I want to focus on briefly here is the Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (the Old Bear), an elderly individual who holds top spot in the Night’s Watch and tries to provide steady leadership during trying times.  In series three, after an incursion into the frozen north ends badly following a somewhat terrifying encounter with the white walkers, the remaining men try to muster at a barely-defended longhouse (Craster’s Keep) before making for the safety of the Wall.  Before this happens though trouble breaks out and ends in outright treason among a portion of the broken and bloodied men.  The Lord Commander himself meets a bloody end at the hand of one of the mutineer’s blades and series three draws to a dramatic close.

The Lord Commander, though dead, still manages to make an appearance in series four. . .

Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, of the Night’s Watch, in better days at the Wall in Game of Thrones. Image credit: Game of Thrones Wiki.

. . . Alas not as a revenant, but as an inverted skull-cup!

In one of the early episodes to series four (it’s been too long since I saw it but I presume either episode one or two), we cut to one of the mutineers drinking wine out of the now defleshed skull of the former Lord Commander Mormont.  I have to say, the skull-cup must have been well-plugged of any canals and foramen, let alone the magnum foramen!

If you are an adult check out the video below and see if you can tell, from an osteological standpoint, what the mutineer did incorrectly whilst handling a human skull (minus the drinking of a cold vintage from it)?  Please note that the video below contains strong language, sexual violence and nudity (and yes, you have to click through to YouTube to view it).

If you had said grabbing the skull by the orbits (eye sockets), you would be quite correct!

Never grab a skull by the orbits or any other hole presented as you run the risk of damaging and breaking the delicate facial bones by doing so.  Particularly at risk are the bones that help form the orbits and nasal aperture (nose hole), such as the lacrimals, nasals, zygomatics and sphenoid skeletal elements.  There is also a bit of a give away that this is either a plastic model or cast, as in the first shot of the skull you can clearly see the shallow depth of the anterior nasal aperture.  Apart from that though the model/cast looks quite good, relatively speaking.

A Mormont Skullduggery 

There is of course another oddity here – why go to the hard effort of cutting off the calotte (skull cap) and use the base of the neurocranium (brain case part of the skull) and splanchocranium (facial part of the skull) as the drinking vessel, instead of using the calvaria (the skull without the facial bones or lower jaw)?  Not only do you have the huge foramen magnum to plug, but also all of the intricate canals and foramen of the sphenoid bone, alongside the nasal aperture and orbits to prevent leakage.

It is, of course, for the shock factor and not for the practicality of drinking wine out of a skull.  This is Game of Thrones after all.  Still, it is impressive to see and one can imagine the (theoretical) hard work that has gone into plugging the anatomical gaps to make the butchered skull into a drinking vessel!

From Lord Commander to cup, the sorry fate of Jeor Mormont. Image courtesy of Youtube and HBO.

This thrilling north of the Wall strand in series three and four also reminded me of a few real-life archaeological parallels; from the Upper Palaeolithic post-mortem skull modification at Gough’s Cave, to the medieval treatment and disposal of the dead at Wharram Percy.  So without further ado, let us take a look at the archaeological evidence and see what the individuals at Gough’s Cave did differently to the mutineers at Craster’s Keep.

Upper Palaeolithic Head Scratcher: Gough’s Cave

At the Upper Palaeolithic location of Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England, evidence for the post-mortem butchery and processing of human remains is present in the skeletal material recorded and excavated from the archaeolological site.  The Magdalenian-period site dates to around 14,700 cal Before Present and is one of the few British Upper Palaeolithic archaeological sites to feature human skeletal remains at all.  It is also the only site in the British Isles to feature the presence of directly-dated skull-cups (N=3), as documented in the two images below for location of butchery marks and the skull-cups themselves (Bello et al. 2017: 1).

Though Gough’s Cave is not the only Magdalenian culture to feature human skull-cups, as the French sites of Le Placard and Isturitz also have evidence for the post-mortem production of skull-cups, it is unique to feature both the production of skull-cups and the evidence for cannibalism together at one site.  I’ve previously wrote a blog entry regarding the osteological and archaeological evidence for post-mortem manipulation of the bones, but it is worth just briefly going through it again here.

A selection of the skull elements from at least three individuals found at Gough’s Cave. Note the processed remains. Image credit: Natural History Museum.

The first hint that the skeletal remains were likely butchered was the find location and treatment of the skeletal elements.  The remains of at least five individuals, including children, adolescents and adults, were co-mingled with butchered animal remains.  The remains showed distinctive evidence for cut-marks and chopping, but more commonly for slicing and scraping (Stringer, et al 2011: 19).  In total three skull-cups were identified from individuals of differing ages and all butchery marks were identified as ectocranial (outside of skull) in nature.

The archaeologists were able to identify the five-step method for producing the skull-cups as the following:

  1. The head was detached from the body shortly after death, cuts at the base of the skull and cervical vertebrae indicate this.
  2. The mandible (lower jawbone) was then removed, with evidence of percussion fractures on the teeth of both the mandible and maxilla (lower and upper jaws), where present.
  3. The major muscles of the skull were carefully removed, along with the soft facial tissues and organs.
  4. Cut marks then indicate scalping took place.
  5. Finally the facial and base of the cranium were carefully struck off and the edges chipped to provide smoother surfaces (Bello et al. 2011).

The main locations of reshaping of the human crania from Gough’s Cave IMage credit: Figure 8 in Bello et al. 2011.

Once created it appears that the skull-cups were used as liquid vessels rather than for anything else, although the reason for their production remains unknown.  This function is similar to the fate of Lord Commander’s skull in the Game of Thrones television series, though we cannot know the reasons that drove the individuals who created the Gough’s Cave skull-cups in the first place.  The possibility of funerary ritual could be floated, but this would be speculation.  What is clear is that these skull-cups demanded careful preparation and processing to minimise damage.  The 2011 PLoS ONE article by Bello et al., referenced in the bibliography below, is well worth a read for the full archaeological and osteological context.

Medieval Wonders: Wharram Percy

In more recent research on a skeletal assemblage from the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire, dating to the 11th to 13th century AD, indicate a number of peri-mortem and post-mortem practices being carried out in distinct phases (Mays et al. 2017).

A study on the disarticulated assemblage of human skeletal remains (N=10), located within a pit-complex at the village, has uncovered evidence for peri-mortem breakage, burning and knife and chop marks.  The archaeological context of the remains of the individuals indicated that this was a not discrete one-off episode but a part of a number of episodes within the residua of more than one event (Mays et al. 2017).  A minimum of at least ten individuals are represented by the skeletal material within the study, ranging in age from 2-4 years old to >50 years at death.

The osteological analysis of the nature of the peri-mortem and post-mortem treatment of the remains indicated that there could have been motivating factors of starvation cannibalism or fear of revenant corpses driving the behaviour.

The modern view of the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy. Photograph by Paul Allison, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The examination of peri-mortem marks, largely sharp-force marks such as knife-marks, are largely confined to the upper body, along with evidence of long-bone peri-mortem breakage and low-temperature burning of a number of the bodies.  The image below highlights a number of the knife-marks present on rib elements, but it was noted that cut marks could be found on various clavicles, humeri, mandibles, vertabrae and crania bases present, indicating there was a concentration on the head and neck area in order to separate the head from the vertebral column and inflict injuries upon a severed head.  Meanwhile clavicular and upper rib cuts could be associated with dismemberment of corpses post-mortem.  Unlike the cut marks and low-temperature burning, the evidence for long-bone peri-mortem breaking involved both the upper and lower limbs to a similar extent, although the presence of breaking was limited among the assemblage (Mays et al. 2017: 450).

The sequence of events, from the osteological material and archaeological contexts, suggests that the bodily mutilation preceded the burning, where both where in evidence (Mays et al. 2011: 449).

Evidence of parallel cut marks on the external surface of one rib fragment (a) from Wharram Percy, with (b) showing further cut marks on another rib fragment indicative of peri- and post-mortem funerary processing. Image credit Mays et al. (2011: 441).

Further strontium isotopic analysis of the dental enamel of sixteen molars, to test the range for geographic origin via local geology, were selected from the medieval cemetery population and the pit-complex assemblage.  The testing revealed that nearly all individuals investigated all had local strontium values.  Only one pit-complex individual, ‘mandible D’, had a non-local value which may have been from further afield (but only just, possibly).  This analysis helped disprove the hypothesis that the pit-complex individuals, those with the knife-marks, and evidence for burning etc. came from a different geographic region than from the local area as compared to the control population of the cemetery group (Mays et al. 2017: 446).

In a 2017 University of Southampton press release for the article Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist at Historic England known for his bioarchaeological research (such as Mays 1999), stated that:

The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best.  If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice. It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own.

As the above and the Mays et al. 2017 research article below make clear, there is good evidence within the Wharram Percy pit-complex assemblage for the argument of starvation cannibalism and/or for treatment to combat the revenant dead, that is in order to stop a corpse from re-animating as per traditional mythology.

And yet there are arguments against both interpretations – the fact that there are barely any cut or knife-marks below the chest on the osteological material analysed, that there is a lack of pot-polish from boiling of the remains, or the fact that the revenant dead are usually male whereas the Wharram Percy pit-complex individuals include well represented females and non-adults.

Instead the investigators are careful with their interpretation and note the likelihood that the assemblage at this location, time and evidence point towards revenant activity rather than starvation cannibalism.

A Worthy End?

So there we have it, a very quick tour through the ages to see that although the Lord Commander Mormont suffered an inglorious end as a skull-cup, he was by no means the only one and he could not come back as a revenant.  Although I picked fault with the method of his skull processing, we can see in the osteological and archaeological examples above that there are no set ways to process bodies during the peri- and post-mortem phases, therefore as bioarchaeologists or archaeologists it pays to investigate each avenue of evidence and see where it fits best within our current knowledge base.

Notes

(1.)  Okay, I admit it – I started to write this post a while ago and I never quite finished it or got round to writing out a full draft.  Game of Thrones, the HBO television series, has now finished with the somewhat rushed conclusion to series 8 airing in 2019.  As of this blog post I am currently four volumes into the book series on which the television series is based, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  It’s intriguing so far and I’m keen to see how it diverges from the television series.

(2.)  The Wikipedia page on the War of the Roses has a fantastic family tree diagram with the affiliation of the kings, families and nobles of the various English civil wars that make up the 15th century conflict.  It is well worth having a look and then trying to take it in the full page – it is not something I am particularly familiar with!

Further Information

Bibliography

Bello, S. M. Parfitt, S. A. & Stringer, C. B. 2011. Earliest Directly Dated Skull-CupsPLoS ONE. 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017026. (Open Access).

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Mays, S., Fryer, R., Pike, A. W. G., Cooper, M. J. & Marshall, P. 2017. A Multidisciplinary Study of a Burnt and Mutilated Assemblage of Human Remains from a Deserted Mediaeval Village in EnglandJournal of Archaeological Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2017.02.023. (Open Access).

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Handy Field Hint: Palpate Your Own Skeleton

2 Sep

My somewhat battered and muddied version of The Human Bone Manual, by White & Folkens (2005), has sadly sat unloved and unused atop of a chest of drawers over the past half year or so.  Instead my focus has been on my current employment situation working for a delightful heritage and natural environment project, which also partly explains my absence from this blog for a short while.  So if you have been a keen reader when I was a more proficient blogger, I do apologise.

As I flicked through the volume I was again reminded why it is the manual for the anatomical identification and siding of human skeletal elements in archaeological, anthropological or forensic contexts, combining as it does clear and precise descriptions with excellent photographs of each element in a largely 1:1 format.  It is built for the field but it is also incredibly useful in the lab too, fitting snugly in the hand in either situation and quite ready to sit in a rucksack as much as the shelve (or in my case atop the chest of draws).  I’ve written previously about this book throughout this blog and it has formed the basis for many of my Skeletal Series posts as well because it is so damn handy as a reference volume.

The compact Human Bone Manual by White & Folkens (2005) provides one of the bedrock identification textbooks for the fields of bioarchaeology, forensics, and human osteology. Great for the field and lab alike. Image credit: Elsevier Academic Press.

I picked up my copy earlier tonight to have a glance through it, and also to remind myself of the bony anatomical landmarks of various elements – in particular the tibia, which had been tickling my brain with the terms for the intercondylar eminence and associated anatomical landmarks!  It is all too easy to forget the intricacies of the human skeletal if you are not working with material regularly or, as in my case, are elsewhere distracted on other projects.

I came across this very useful hint early on in the manual on rereading sections of it:

In bone identification it pays to remember that the osteologist always has an intact comparative skeleton close at hand, even in remote field locations. . . that skeleton is embedded in his or her own body.

Which goes on to give the advice that it is:

Useful to visualize and even palpate (feel your own bones through the skin) the way in which an isolated skeletal element might “plug into” your own body. (White & Folkens 2005: 5).

It is an easy point to miss, especially if the osteologist wants to compare teeth (the only directly exposed-to-the-environment element in the human skeleton) in the field as this can be readily done with a willing volunteer or by using your own jaws to visualize and orient said teeth, or to compare other skeletal elements against your own body.

Check out the example below for how useful this can be when using it in conjunction with your own osteological knowledge, experience and palpation skills in helping to identify and orient fragmented skeletal elements in the field:

Palpating another person’s hand to locate and identify the carpal bones, in this case the scaphoid and trapizeum tubercles. This can be easily down on your own hand. Image credit: Musculoskeletal Key.

It may also be a useful and quick ‘rough and ready’ guide to identifying any expressions of bone affected by palaeopathological disease processes or trauma, such as misaligned healed or healing fractures, where the bone appears abnormal to the normal element expression of expected angle or length.  I’m thinking here particularly of long bones, such as the humerus, ulna, radius, femur, tibia or fibula, rather than smaller elements which could be different to contrast again palpated bones within your own skeletal system.

Bearing this in mind then, it may be best to practice palpation on yourself or a friend before heading into the field in order to familiarize yourself with skeletal palpation.  This way you can quickly identify the main skeletal elements and the major skeletal landmarks that are palpable through the skin and muscle, whilst also having a ready-made comparative skeleton on hand at all times!

Bibliography

White, T. D. & Folkens, P. A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Housekeeping Notes: A Change in Address & Ads

10 Mar

Regular readers of this blog may notice that the site has recently undergone a few changes regarding the URL and advertising on the blog.  I originally started this blog as a bit of an experiment back in 2011 (!) to document my growing interest in human osteology and bioarchaeology using the free WordPress.com blogging platform and as my site grew and became more uniform with the introduction of the Skeletal Series, guest posts and interviews, it also became much more time-consuming to produce and edit content.  Still I was quite happy to do this and thoroughly believed that academic, or at least academic-leaning, blogs should try to avoid being commercialised if possible and I resisted the siren call of monetising the site.

Long-term readers will note that the blog post output rate has slowed somewhat dramatically in the past few years due to time constraints (such as employment, volunteer work, or other such activities).  I still maintain this site as an active one as I continue producing posts, helping to advertise opportunities for students and for MSc/MA courses in human osteology in  the United Kingdom  (1), and by answering emails and comments, etc.  Everyone now and again I also edit old entries.  However, my thoughts on upgrading the blog also changed as I thought a bit more about the future of the blog, of how I want it to be accessed and what would be good for its long-term future.

The perils of a blog as a time sink. Reproduced with permission from Mr. Lovenstein. Image source: Mr Lovenstein.

I’ve been quite loathe to change the appearance of the blog since settling on a style that I found workable and that highlighted the various aims and topics discussed within the blog (as seen by the triptych of images that forms the blog banner).  It isn’t aging too well and I think a change is probably due in that direction, perhaps with a neater, more simplistic and easier-to-read design.  The blog itself is highly searchable with numerous categories and tags produced for each post, however there are some features that could do with an upgrade or a change-around at least.  The RSS sub-page could do with deleting as it hasn’t worked for years and the WordPress blog menu has so far baffled me as to how to remove it (2).  Apologies for all of those readers who have clicked on it to only find scrambled code instead!

As well as the change in the domain name, readers may also notice a number of advertisements on the blog itself.  WordPress.com had initially inserted ads into the blog as per their funding model to generate income, like most media and social media companies on the web.  Since the plan upgrade I have decided to try to monetise the blog in order to raise pocket-money revenue from the operating of this site.  This is partly in recompense for the amount of time maintaining the site – time spent either researching, writing, or editing the blog entries, or for the administration side of the blog replying to emails and building relationships with other bloggers.  (Don’t laugh at the editing part!).

For a long time I was against the idea of monetisation in principle on a generally academic and educational blog, since most of my peers (such as Jess Beck’s Bone Broke, Kristina Killgrove’s Powered By Osteons and Alexandra Ion’s Bodies and Academia) do not advertise on their sites, as far as I am aware.  In fact that trio of sites look remarkably clean, easy to navigate and remain a pleasure to read.  Do I feel bad about putting a trio of adverts on my blog, which may affect the reader’s attention?  Yes I do.  Do I also need to pay rent, need to eat and drink, and have to pay for fuel so enable me to get to my current job?  Yes I do.  Could I also be working the time I spend updating, editing and working on this blog?  Again, yes I could be.

Hidden from the world: the secret panel on the above comic. Reproduced with permission from Mr. Lovenstein. Image source: Mr Lovenstein.

So am I now rolling in the money since I started to monetise the site?  No I am not.  In fact it is bringing in less than I had hoped it would and due to WordPress not paying out until you reach $100, I may not receive a single cent for a good while yet.  If any readers have any questions regarding the changes in the blog, I’d be happy to answer them either below in the comments box or via email (see the About the Author tab for the address).

Fundamentally I am hoping that this series of blog changes for These Bones of Mine invigorates me to write more.

Looking for Guest Posts and Interviewees

Whilst I’m quickly updating the blog and taking a look through previous posts and blog statistics, I notice I have not had a guest post or an interview entry on the blog in quite some time.  I’m hoping to rectify this within the next few months by reaching out to friends and colleagues, and likely also on the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources  Facebook page.  I do have a guest post set of guidelines for prospective guest post bloggers to read in order to match the ‘house style’ of this blog and I am selective of what I consider suitable for this site, though there is a wide range of topics I’d consider and that I am actively looking for.  I am always interested in hearing from commercial field archaeologists and osteoarchaeologists, as well as early career researchers and specialists in palaeopathology, funerary archaeology, osteoarchaeology and bioarchaeology.  I’m particularly keen on another set of interviews as I find that interviews allow for a deeper and personal reflection on what it is actually like working within this sector and how individuals have gotten into this area in the first place and what continues drives them or drive them out of it.

So if you have an ongoing project, a unique perspective, or a new bioarchaeological methodology or theory that needs a helping hand please do get in touch and let me know!  To all of my previous interviewees and guest bloggers, you are very much welcome back as updates on projects, careers, and perspectives are always welcome.

We are living through an interesting period in which our understanding of the Western world post-Second World War is fundamentally changing and the great game of diplomatic and trade agreements, alongside our economic ties, are being reshaped for the 21st century.  Is this filtering through to the sector?  Are the commercial conditions changing and are our perceptions of how we interpret the past changing?  This is an area I am keen to delve into and to hear your views, from the ground up.

Notes

(1).  The latest entry in the available postgraduate MSc/MA courses in human osteology in the United Kingdom dates from March 2018 and could do with a 2019 update.  Expect to see that within the next month or so.  The expansion of such courses in the UK continue, with a professional accreditation/commercial experience module now added in.  This is a step in the right direction, but the glut of human osteology postgraduates often find meager commercial opportunities for employment in current market conditions in the country.

(2).  Update 10/03/2019 – It took me 5 seconds of looking at a menu to find the click button.  It has now been removed.

British Student Opportunity: Erasmus+ Grant Funded Placement to Alba Iulia, Romania, April-May 2019

7 Feb

For the second time I have the pleasure of advertising available European Union-funded archaeological placements for British students, courtesy of the British heritage organisation Grampus Heritage.  As long time readers of this site may remember I had the great pleasure of attending a Leonardo Da Vinci European Union archaeology placement in Magdeburg, Germany, via Grampus Heritage in 2011 for six glorious weeks.  (If you’re interested in reading what I got up to over there you read my review here).  Now, courtesy of the Erasmus+, a successor of the Leonardo Da Vinci programme, there are a small number of Romanian placement places still available for summer 2019).  You can snap one up if you meet the criteria.

Memories of Magdeburg. One of the photographs that I took visiting the remains of a deserted medieval village near the city in eastern Germany, as Claire and Emma walk towards me and Loretta heads off to explore the inside of what remains of the church.

This is the chance to join a fantastic placement in Romania, aimed at recruiting students in the United Kingdom and introducing them to a fascinating Romanian cultural exchange.  It is also a great introduction to Romanian Neolithic rescue archaeology and an opportunity to experience working in laboratory conditions analysing prehistoric human skeletal remains. Read on to find out more and how to apply if you are eligible . . .

Student Erasmus + Grant Funded Placements Available for Alba Iulia, Romania

Date: April-May 2019 (1), or soon as possible but returning to the UK by 31 May 2019.

Places & Experience: 2-3 places available, experience in human osteological analysis preferred.

Eligibility & Applying: This placement in the European Archaeology Skills Exchange (EASE) is offered through Grampus Heritage, based in the United Kingdom, as a part of the European Union funded Erasmus + scheme with a vast range of European partners. This placement is open to British students studying in the United Kingdom who wish to gain human osteological and archaeological excavation experience abroad. Full eligibility and application details can be found here. Please note there is only a few spaces remaining.

Funding: Funding information is available on contact.

The following placement information (in italics) has been used with permission from Grampus Heritage:

Placement Information: Ideally for forensic anthropology students, this is an 8 week practical placement that will see you working and contributing towards the work of the university. There will also be the chance of working on a rescue excavation during the 8 weeks, details still to be confirmed, so there will be a mix of excavation and post excavation work.

Site Background: The placement will be once again take place at Lumea Noua where the group will work alongside a team on a Neolithic site in the Transylvania historical region that has been going since 2002. The Neolithic settlement of Lumea Noua is located in the north-eastern part of the city of Alba Iulia, on the second terrace of the Mures River. In charge of the dig is Mihai Gligor, PhD, Head of the History, Archaeology and Museology department within “1 Decembrie 1918” University in Alba Iulia.

Discovered in 1942, there have been archaeological campaigns on the site right up until 2011. Rescue excavations focusing on recording the site have been the most recent activity, starting in 2002 and continuing in 2017. During the excavations, a site of some 40ha has been discovered, though it is estimated to be larger than this.

A range of the tasks undertaken during the Romanian placement, including human skeletal excavation and analysis in the laboratory. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

The most intensive habitation period appears to have been around 4600-4500calBC when the Foeni group used the site, a group attributed to the funerary complex that has been the focus of the most recent excavations. So far, the discovery of around 120 disarticulated individuals mainly represented by skull caps has been very interesting as there are traces of burning on the caps and no facial bones are present. This appears to indicate one of the unusual mortuary practices of the Lumea Noua community. Males, females and children are all present.

It has been suggested that the human remains were not interred during an epidemic; moreover, collective death as a result of violence is unlikely since there at no traces of interpersonal violence, such as wounds inflicted by arrows or lithic weapons. In addition, no arrow tips or axes have been found in connection with human bone material. One possible explanation of this funerary practice is that Alba Iulia was a ceremonial centre where Neolithic communities practiced organised burial rituals, including special treatment of human cranial remains.

Pottery has been found associated with the bone remains, of very good quality, made with clay with no impurities. A large quantity of well burnished black topped fired vessels have been found at the site. Pottery that has had painted decoration applied before being fired without any slip are also typical of this site.

A snapshot of the work undertaken during the Romanian archaeology placement from previous years. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

Several ditches have also been identified at the site of different shapes and sizes. At the time of the Foeni habitation of the site, the ditches appear to represent a circular concentric plan to the settlement for that time period.

Work Schedule: The group will be working with the team, continuing the excavation of this interesting site and labeling finds. Some days will be based in the labs, washing and analysing human remains and pottery. The working week is Monday – Friday. They will also do some experimental archaeology and assist with setting up an exhibition.

Conditions: For fieldwork please bear in mind that. . . as with most archaeological sites, expect a degree of physical work. As with all our placements, participants are joining partner excavations. These are not UK led excavations. The group will be learning different methods and techniques that are used for this particular site, so must expect differences in how the site is run.

Updated Notes

(1). I was mistaken in my original post as to which placement this applied to and it is the EASE not PEATS placement offered by Grampus Heritage through the Erasmus+ programme. This site was updated on 8 February 2019 to reflect the change and opportunities available.

Further Information

  • Read more about Grampus Heritage and the other opportunities which are European Union funded Erasmus+ Placements in Environment, Archaeology, and Traditional Skills (PEATS) here.
  • Read my own reflection on the 6 week German archaeology placement in Magdeburg here, courtesy of Grampus Heritage and the European Union back in summer 2011.
  • Read a guest post by Joanne Wilkinson, from 2012, on the joys of attending and taking part in a cultural heritage scheme as promoted by the Leonardo Da Vinci and Erasmus+ schemes here.
  • Try your luck guessing which anatomical landmarks I’ve highlighted on a bone from my Magdeburg placement in my human osteology quiz here.
  • If you are curious about the Magdeburg placement, check out the 2019 information here.

Spotted: Early Career Human Osteologist Job(s) in London

9 Aug

The core source of commercial archaeological jobs in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is BAJR, the British Archaeological Jobs & Resources website.  It is the golden door to finding a foot or a rung up the greasy ladder of employment (barring knowing folks!).  Ran by David Connolly, BAJR tirelessly fights for fair wages and good working conditions on top of this.  I highly recommend joining the Facebook group for entertaining talk and top advice.  But that isn’t what caught my attention earlier today, it was this:

The badge of the advert as seen on BAJR on 09/08/2018. Image credit: BAJR.

Seeing a Human Osteologist role advertised on BAJR can be quite rare indeed as these job roles are often only available within larger commercial units who have the facilities and expertise to analyse human skeletal remains from archaeological sites, or are contracted out to sole traders or university specialists.

So the opportunity to work in central London on a major urban infrastructure project with the excavation and analysis of some of the country’s largest cemeteries looks like a once in a career chance.  Even better, they want early career human osteologists!  The job itself is contracted to run until the end of March 2019 and the lucky employees will be contracted to either MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) or Headland Archaeology to work on the jointly ran project.

Please note the specific details, as quoted verbatim from the advert:

Working closely with a team of highly experienced archaeologists and human osteologists you will contribute to and develop understanding of the past through the excavation, identification, processing (washing and packaging) and recording of human skeletal remains.

Successful candidates will have a degree in Archaeology or a related subject and post-graduate qualification in Osteology or a related subject. Candidates with a demonstrable background in Osteology will also be considered. Proven ability in the identification of human remains and pathological bone conditions and knowledge of current legislation and guidelines are essential.

A good general knowledge of British archaeology and commercial archaeology, particularly in the excavation of post-medieval burial grounds would be an advantage.

Having looked through the application form I also noted that there would be an opportunity to pursue your own research interests – an invaluable opportunity for early career human osteologists with access to such a large collection of human skeletal remains.

The Deadline is Monday 20th August 2018 for applications, good luck to everyone applying!

If any other employment opportunities arise on BAJR specifically for human osteological or bioarchaeological positions I shall try to endeavor to mention them on These Bones of Mine.  Please do be aware that the jobs advertised from this site are generally for the United Kingdom and restrictions may apply for potential applicants from abroad.  As such I would advise would-be applicants to carefully consider the job and role specifications, alongside the essential and desired criteria, as outlined by each company individually.

Further Information

  • The job application and specification details can be viewed and downloaded from the BAJR website here.
  • The indefatigable David Connolly has previously and kindly produced an eye-opening and inspiring series of guest blog posts on These Bones of Mine detailing the rise of BAJR.  Check the entries out here.

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.

Guest Interview: Putting Flesh on the Bones with James Neill

19 Dec

James Neill is a Project Archivist working on the Putting Flesh on the Bones project at the University of Bradford. Prior to this project James worked for a diverse range of arts, heritage and higher education organisations, including London Metropolitan Archives, the Mercers’ Company and the University of Arts London. As an archivist James has worked on a broad range of collections, from medieval manuscripts created by the Estate of Sir Richard Whittington to counter-cultural US comic books of the 1960s. His primary professional focus is working with archive collections with real historical, cultural or organisational value.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello James, thank you for joining me here at These Bones of Mine! I have to say I am pretty excited to talk about your new project, entitled ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’, which is based at the University of Bradford.  Could you tell us a little bit about the project and your role within it?

James Neill (JN):  Thanks David.  The ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ is an 18 month-long project which aims to catalogue, digitise and promote the archive collection of renowned palaeopathologist Calvin Wells (1908-1978).  The majority of the collection relates to Calvin’s distinguished palaeopathology career, but also reflects his many other intriguing professional and personal endeavours.  After his death Calvin’s archive of research papers, correspondence, photographs and transparencies, radiographs, and audio-visual material came to Bradford under the management of his friend and colleague Dr Keith Manchester.  This includes Calvin’s unique library of rare and antiquarian books on medicine, archaeology and anthropology.

The British palaeopathologist Calvin Wells examining a human crania. Image credit: University of Bradford.

When the collection arrived at Bradford it was divided between two different departments, with the palaeopathology material going to the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (B.A.R.C.), and his books and more personal ephemera being held by Special Collections at the J.B. Priestley Library.  This physical split as well as lack of comprehensive understanding about the contents of the collection limited its accessibility for potential users. Moreover many items, particularly the transparencies and audio-visual material, are vulnerable to deterioration and in need of professional conservation.

These factors motived B.A.R.C. Collections Manager Dr Jo Buckberry and Special Collections Librarian Alison Cullingford to bid in 2016 for a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Grant.  The purpose of the grant is to improve access to health-related library and archive collections, and is a substantial boon for archive projects across the U.K. Fortunately Jo and Alison were successful in their application and the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project was awarded a grant of almost £140,000.

We’re very fortunate because the grant has allowed us to afford a team of specialists, including a project archivist, osteologist, conservator and placement student.  As the project archivist my role is oversee each part of the cataloguing and digitisation process, as well as manage and organise all promotional aspects of the project through online and outreach activities.  Ultimately I am responsible for ensuring the collection’s potential for scientific and historical research is fulfilled by making it more accessible and known to relevant audiences as well the wider public.

TBOM:  Having been a longtime itinerant visitor to the University of Bradford, and its Department of Archaeological Sciences, I’ve always been intrigued by the fundamental role the department has played in establishing human osteology and palaeopathology as archaeological-based disciplines within Britain and internationally.  However, the university itself was the recipient of Calvin Wells physical archive rather than the base of his work. 

As such I’m intrigued by the relationship between the man and his archive.  How, and by what methods, are you making the numerous research articles, monographs, and review publications available to current researches?

JN:  Bradford’s role in developing palaeopathology teaching and research on an international level is central to the Calvin Wells Archive story.  It was Calvin’s wish that the collection be held in trust by the Wellcome Library with the intention of ultimate donation to a University offering a course in Palaeopathology to degree level.  With the introduction of the MSc Course in Osteology, Palaeopathology and Funerary Archaeology at Bradford, Calvin’s wife Freddie released the collection to the Department of Archaeological Sciences.

A collection of slides that were left behind in the archive, a very useful and durable form of documentation. Image credit: University of Bradford.

Whilst the collection is yet to be fully catalogued we’re confident that the archive holds the vast majority of Calvin’s published and unpublished skeletal research and reports.  This includes additional material, such as photographs, handwritten notes, annotated typescripts, and related correspondence.  For the first time, all of Calvin’s research will be available from one resource.  A central reason why the Wellcome Trust funded the project was our ability to demonstrate the continued interest and demand for Calvin’s work.  An analysis by Bradford’s Subject Librarian for Archaeology and Forensics Sarah George demonstrated that in the 40 years since his death, citations of his work have risen year on year.

The intention of the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project is to unlock the collection for potential researchers by producing a comprehensive catalogue of its contents. Our team Osteologist Michelle Williams-Ward is focused on parts of the collection which require specialist descriptions, such as Wells’ skeletal reports and associated photographic material. Michelle is uniquely placed for this role given that she has just completed a PhD thesis ‘Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk’ which analysed remains from many of the same archaeological sites Wells worked on.

Upon completion the catalogue will be publicly available via the Archives Hub, a national database of archives collections which covers several major UK Higher Education archives and special collections. Archives Hub is keyword searchable, so researchers will be able to search for material by site, date, persons, and, in some cases, pathology. The material can be viewed through the University of Bradford’s Special Collections at the J.B. Priestley Library.

Calvin and Freddie Wells with Vilheim Moller-Christensen, dated to 1962. Image credit: University of Bradford.

If researchers are unable to visit in person there are Reprographics and other services available upon request. Additionally any visual material on vulnerable formats, specifically Calvin’s large slide collection, will be digitised and made available via Special Collection’s digital repository which is currently in the development stage.

TBOM: ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ then sounds like it is doing a wonderful service to the work and life of Calvin Wells. Although I’ve been aware of his reputation as a palaeopathologist within the United Kingdom, and his importance in helping to establish the practice, I’m keen to learn of Calvin as an individual.

Having read Waldron’s 2014 review of his life and work in the Journal of Medical Biography, the reader is left with a strong impression of him as a somewhat intense, passionate researcher who, at times, read far too much into the skeletal remains of past individuals. Particularly so in his now notorious and problematic case of identifying rape from the remains of a skeleton identified as female and the graphic contextual details that he goes into, which is not supported by the archaeological or osteological evidence present.

Having worked with, and continuing to develop, the access and availability of both his professional and personal archive, what have your insights into his character been like?

JN:  It’s crucial for archive projects to be impartial in how they open up historical records for research and interpretation. Therefore the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ want to reveal all facets of Calvin’s character, both positive and negative.  Similarly it’s our responsibility to provide historical context alongside the material, in order to bring greater understanding about the time which Wells lived and worked.  As an archivist I can only speak to Calvin’s character as it comes across in the archive material.  There is great deal more to be understood about Calvin’s personality from reading biographies written by friends and colleagues.  In addition to Tony Waldron’s article, I recommend reading Glyn Daniel, Gerald D Hart, Cecil J Hackett, and Keith Manchester and Charlotte Roberts. Some of these articles aren’t readily accessible, and the project will change that.

A shot of Calvin working in the great outdoors, analysing skeletal remains at White Horse Cottage, Norwich. Image credit: University of Bradford.

With the exception of memoirs from his service in the Royal Army Medical Core in WWII, the archive material documents Calvin’s life from 1955 until his death at age 70 in 1978.  This was a particularly eventful time Calvin’s life when he produced the bulk of his research and established his legacy in palaeopathology.  Whilst he didn’t keep a diary as such, Calvin was meticulous in preserving his professional and personal correspondence.  We are fortunate because he often kept copies of his own letters, meaning we can read both parts of conversation.  These letters provide unique insight into Calvin’s character and his relationships with others.

An obvious aspect of Calvin’s personality is that he was a gregarious individual, eager to converse with anybody in his fields of expertise.  As a result of the popularity of ‘Bones, Bodies and Disease’ Calvin received considerable correspondence from academics, researchers and university students.  He was particularly generous with the last group, who wrote to him asking about degree courses, research areas or future career paths.  In these instances Calvin expressed earnest enthusiasm for new scientific and academic endeavours, and in many cases established enduring pen-friendship with young scholars and researchers.  It is interesting to now Google the names of these individuals and to discover that many became top doctors, scientists and even politicians.

Given his privileged background, it might be assumed that Calvin was particular about his correspondents.  However he was pleased to converse with the many strangers who wrote to him following an appearance on national radio or TV.  An ITV profile about Wells’, showing the doctor analyse ancient bones, swinging Anglo-Saxon swords and water-ski, promoted an influx of letters from as far afield as Australia.  This included an enquiry from a Norfolk sheep farmers relating to the location of large churches in rural areas with a low population.  In another letter Calvin politely declines the services of a Welsh dowser who believes he can locate bog bodies in Dersingham Bog.  There are also numerous letters from parents and teachers enquiring about how to get children involved in archaeology and osteology.  In all of these instances Calvin is polite to a fault and comes across as natural educator who cherishes the opportunity to share his intellectual passions with others.

A selection of the human skeletal remains that Calvin helped to document. Many of the skeletal remains that he studied came from sites within Norfolk and the east of England. Image credit: University of Bradford.

Concerning the more negative aspects of Calvin’s character, it’s a shame that a small number of ill-judged interpretations of human remains have come to define him as a person.  It is true that Calvin could be intense and bombastic in expressing his professional and personal opinion.  This is evident in his correspondence with Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, with whom he collaborated on the series of controversial reports on an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Kings Worthy, Hampshire.  Without hashing out the detail the Ancient Monuments Laboratory – who commissioned Sonia to produce the report on the site – resisted Calvin’s involvement on the project.  This was less to do with Calvin dramatic over-interpretations of remains, and more to with his vocal contempt for a fellow palaeopathologist on the team.  In their correspondence Hawkes pleaded with Calvin to tone his comments down, writing that they are “far too hot and strong for anyone’s but my sympathetic and sympathising eyes and ears”.

Clearly Calvin was at his most hostile when interacting with journal editors or publishers who edited his work without permission or published it with errors or inaccuracies.  In fact Calvin wrote about it in an unpublished article called ‘Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners’, where he lays into the ‘discourteous tempering’ of journal editors.  It appears that Calvin was extremely intellectually proud and felt he had seniority or ownership over palaeopathology at the time.  This is ironic because accepting some constructive criticism may have softened his language or persuaded him to omit some of the more graphic descriptions which have since left an indelible mark on his scientific bibliography.

Photograph of a slingshot wound on a crania, analysed by Calvin Wells, from ancient Cirencester. Image credit: University of Bradford.

However I think that Calvin’s archive material ultimately shows him to be a diligent and conscientious man, both at work and with friends and family.  I predict that the unlocking the collection will show a more thoughtful, progressive and accomplished Calvin than currently remembered.

TBOM: Calvin’s work has been fundamental in making the field of palaeopathology an integral discipline of study within archaeology itself. Indeed, the identification, diagnosis, and demographic attributes associated with studying both ancient diseases and evidence of trauma associated with archaeological remains allows, researchers to build up a detailed picture of human health over the ages. It also allows us to delve into ancient epidemiology within defined populations, allowing for patterns, observations and human behaviour to be identified and investigated.

However, as you have had prime access to his professional and private correspondence, I’m keen to learn what has become one of your favourite pieces of his research, whether it was his bone reports or articles on the value of human skeletal remains as portals into the past?

Related to this I’m keen to hear what you think drove Calvin Wells, the individual, to go from practising as a GP (general practitioner), from helping to heal and comfort the living, to working solely on the ancient dead, diagnosing signs of trauma and disease processes?

JN:  Being based in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Science alongside researchers and students has given me the opportunity to understand Calvin’s research in manner not immediately clear to an archivist such as myself.  Therefore I recognise the value of those parts of Calvin’s research which will be most useful and beneficial to the collection’s anticipated users – Palaeopathologists, Osteologists and Archaeologists.  In addition to his published reports on skeletal material, many of which are not currently available, the collection holds Calvin’s original research notes, graphs and tables, excavation maps, and photographs, slide and radiographs of skeletal remains.  This raw data will allow the researchers of today to reassess and reinterpret the human remains and archaeological sites initially reported on by Calvin and his colleagues.  With regard to Calvin’s bone work, I don’t have a specific favourite piece of research but rather appreciate the meticulously preserved empirical evidence which gives the archive material contemporary scientific value.

A collection shot of the archives that Calvin Wells left behind, including postcards, books, skeletal reports and photographs. Image credit: University of Bradford.

That being said I do personally enjoy the articles Calvin wrote for more popular publications, such as the Times Literary Supplements, the Reader and the US magazine Horizon.  Additionally Calvin wrote regular columns for the Eastern Daily Press under pseudonym ‘Calliphon’.  These articles show that Wells was just as enthusiastic about discussing current medical issues as he was waxing on about disease and injury in ancient history.  For example in an article from 1957 Calvin outlines the mounting evidence of direct links between tobacco smoking and cancer.  In another he provides medical and moral arguments for embracing the mass polio vaccinations in 1955, about which much of the British public were wary.  Wells also used the column to write biographies of Norwich’s great physicians or wax lyrical about primitive man in East Anglia.  It was a popular feature for which ‘Calliphon’ received a great a considerable amount of fan mail.  Adulation was something Calvin embraced, and it increased as he became more prominent in palaeopathology.

On a surface level it could be argued that Calvin devoted himself full-time to palaeopathology primarily as a means of supplementing his pension whilst pursing his interest in the ancient dead.  However, there is something in the fact that Calvin wanted recognition beyond his work as a regional GP.  It’s clear that the career change opened up a new world for both he and his wife Freddie.  From around the mid-1960s, Calvin started to forge relationships with leading scientists and academics, began lecturing for prominent organisations, and received more opportunities to appear on radio and television.  As a natural showman, Calvin fully embraced the attention and respect that being an international authority on palaeopathology brought him.  This is not to say Calvin was cynically pursuing fame, as he invested a great deal of time and research into every job and appearance.  It is clear that Calvin seemed to be gearing up for a third act in his life before cancer struck unexpectedly.

TBOM: Do you think Calvin Wells would be surprised today that his work and research (and dare I say reputation) still plays such a fundamental component in the British history of palaeopathology? Do you think he would be struck by the diverse and wide-ranging courses available, and by the active number of researchers within the field?

JN:  With regard to how Calvin would feel about the development of palaeopathology, I think he would be awestruck by the methodological and technological developments in the subject.  Most of all I think Calvin would be compelled to revise his belief that only individuals with medical qualifications can practise palaeopathology, particularly when confronted with the scale of advancements made by researchers with backgrounds in physical anthropology, archaeology, medicine, biology, and zoology.  While the discipline has significantly evolved and diversified, I think Calvin would recognise his own passion and dedication present in today’s palaeopathologists.

A shot of Calvin Wells in action, helping to teach schoolchildren in Toronto on the value in studying human skeletal remains. Image credit: University of Bradford.

I was recently speaking with Dr Keith Manchester who remarked on how proud Calvin would be that his work continues to have influence almost two generations later.  Clearly he was conscious about leaving a legacy in palaeopathology, and this is evident in the extent with which the archive collection has been cared for and maintained.  Concerning the more contentious aspects of his legacy I think Calvin would be philosophical, probably following Oscar Wilde’s famous line that ‘the only thing worse in life than being talked about is not being talked about’.

TBOM:  Indeed, I think he’d be glad that his fundamental role within British palaeopathology, and palaeopathology as a discipline within its own right, would continued to be recognised.  Thank you very much for joining me at These Bones of Mine James, and I wish you the best of luck archiving the Calvin Wells collection.

Further Information

  • Visit the Putting Flesh on the Bones project website for further information and frequent updates.  The site is a wealth of information on Calvin’s books, skeletal reports and other aspects of intriguing life and lifelong passion for palaeopathological topics.
  • To visit the Twitter page for the project please follow @PFOTB_project, for the project Instagram page please check it out at puttingfleshonthebones.

Bibliography

Daniel, Glyn. 1978. ‘Calvin Wells Obituary; A Man’s Place in Nature by Glyn Daniel’. From The Times, 5 August 1978. [Available from University of Bradford Special Collections].

Hart, G. 1983. ‘Disease in Ancient Man: An International Symposium’. Toronto, Canada (1983).

Roberts, C. 2012. Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978). In: The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects. Edited by Jane Buikstra. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 141-145.

Waldron, T. 2014. Crooked Timber: The Life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978). Journal of Medical Biography. 22 (2): 82-89. (Open Access).

Wells, C. 1961. Bones, Bodies and Disease. London: Thames & Hudson.