Tag Archives: Putting Flesh on the Bones

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.

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