Tag Archives: University of Sheffield

Guest Interview: Introducing the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS) with Marit Van Cant, & Co-Founders Davina Craps & Hélène Déom

27 Feb

Marit Van Cant is a PhD-fellow for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and in a joint PhD between the Free University of Brussels (VUB, Belgium) and the University of Sheffield (UK).  She completed her Master’s Degree in Archaeology at the VUB in 2012.  Since 2010 she has been specialising in human osteology by participating in several key courses at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Leiden University (The Netherlands), and also in the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield as a part of the European Union Erasmus exchange programme in 2011.  Approaching the final stage of her PhD thesis, Marit has been appointed as Student Representative of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in 2016-2017, for which she has organised its annual Student Colloquium in Brussels, the first time that the event took place outside the UK.

Dr. Davina Craps, finished her doctoral degree at Durham University in 2015 and specialises in palaeopathology (the study of disease in the past), with a research focus on rheumatology.  She completed her undergraduate studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and went on to get Master’s degrees specializing in osteology, anatomy, funerary archaeology, eastern Mediterranean archaeology and palaeopathology from the Catholic University Leuven (Belgium), the University of Sheffield (UK), and Durham University (UK).  She is currently applying for postdoctoral funding, and runs her own freelance osteology company called Osteoarc, which specialises in the analysis and assessment of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts for commercial units and museums.

Hélène Déom undertook a Master’s degree in Archaeology at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium) then another Master’s degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Practices at the University of Sheffield (UK).  During her studies, she specialised in prehistoric burials from Belgium and England.  After graduation in 2014, she started to work for archaeologists from the Public Service of Wallonia (SPW), examining skeletons excavated from medieval parish cemeteries.  She’s been working freelance since 2015 under the name of TIBIA, which specialises  in the analysis of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Marit, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I know you, of course, from my time at the University of Sheffield a few years ago but since then you have been working on your PhD, alternating between the University of Sheffield, in England, and Free University of Brussels, in Belgium.  How is your research going?  And how did you become involved in helping to set up Belgian Osteoarchaeology and Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS)?

Marit Van Cant (MCV):  Hi David!  Indeed a while ago – besides the several times we met at conferences, remember the Society of American Archaeology 2015 annual meeting in San Francisco where I had the privilege to listen to your nice talk on the public importance of communicating bioarchaeology of care research (and not to mention the famous Vesuvio Cafe we frequented afterwards!).  Time flies indeed since we both studied together at the University of Sheffield!

I am currently in the writing up stage of my PhD research, which is about the skeletal analysis of rural and small urban sites, mainly in Flanders, and one rural site from the United Kingdom.  Besides the general health status, I’ll look at entheseal changes on both inter- and intra-population level, and the impact of occupational activities and the environment on these populations, in conjunction with archaeological and historical sources.  But, enough said of this project – I would like to defend my PhD by the end of this year! – and this interview is all about BOAPAS, right?

So, this is how it all started: In October 2015, I was asked to give a presentation at the Dead Men Talking Symposium in Koksijde, Belgium, on the state of the art of osteological research in Flanders. 

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The meeting taking place on the 27th February 2016 at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

It was clear that, not only in Flanders, but also in Wallonia, (I will not dwell on details of the complex political situation in Belgium, but briefly: Flanders is the Dutch speaking part, and they speak mainly French in Wallonia), many young (and less young) researchers in bone studies are forced to study abroad, such as in the United Kingdom, in France, or in The Netherlands.  Although we do have many skeletal remains in Belgium, previously excavated or even to be uncovered in the (near) future, there is currently no clear overview of which skeletal collection is yet to be studied, or of the depository this bone material is stored at.

So, me and three other participants at the conference, Hélène Déom, Davina Craps and Marieke Gernay, decided to gather not only all osteologists (human bone specialists and archaeozoologists) in Belgium, but also employees working in heritage agencies, museums and archaeologists (both contractors, including commercial and academic researcher and lecturers) in order to provide a platform for everyone working with osteological material from archaeological contexts.

We started with an announcement and a mailing list at this conference, and collected the contact details of c. 30 people on that day.  We created a mail address, which was still called Belgian Osteological Research group as we hadn’t decided on the name of our society yet!  Our next step was to announce our first meeting.  This was organised on February 27th 2016 in the small auditorium of the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, with many thanks to Caroline Polet for providing us this location.

TBOM:  I certainly do remember the Versuvio Cafe, and I think if you had told 16-year-old me that he would be drinking where Kerouac and Ginsberg had drunk in San Francisco, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.  (Not to mention visiting the City Lights bookstore and watching an excellent band in a dive bar!).  I wish you good luck with your PhD defense, but I’d like to know more about the topics that were discussed in regards to setting up the society.

I’m impressed that your group managed to pull together and contact a full representation of the individuals who are involved with skeletal remains from archaeological contexts in Belgium, but how did you decide what topics to mention and how did you move forward?

MVC:  That bookstore was indeed amazing!  And the beatnik spirit still surviving in that bar . . .  Good memories will never fade away!

We welcomed 11 members at our first meeting, both from Flanders and Wallonia, and decided to communicate in English to facilitate international accessibility.  On the other hand, French and Dutch translations on our website will be available too.

Further topics we discussed included the aims of our society:

  • To provide information about professionals in the field within Belgium.
  • To improve communication in osteological matters, especially between people from the different regions of the country.
  • To produce a database of skeletal collections and the relevant institutions that hold the various skeletal collections.
  • The legalisation of our society, and whether to become a non-profit society or not, and which steps should be undertaken to achieve that goal.
  • Decide on the name and logo of the group itself.

To choose the latter one, an online poll was created, and finally, BOAPAS, or the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society, came out as the most favoured name for our new society.

Once the name and vision statement were created, we worked on managing and maintaining our visibility.  Online visibility comprehends a website with a forum as well as social media profiles such as on Facebook and Twitter.  But, there is always room for improvement of course, so we are still working on the design and content of the site itself and how we reach out to individuals and other like-minded societies and organisations.

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The delightful BOAPAS cards advertising the society, and the joy of using sliding calipers to measure skeletal elements and anatomical landmarks. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

The site gives an overview of our aims and vision statement (why we are doing it) and ways to contact the group (via email address, possibly via social networks).  At a later stage, we would like to include a forum and the database can be linked to it.  All details that will be added to the website can be discussed, tested, improved or removed as appropriate.  We also created a list of people who are currently available for short or long term assignments, or available in the future, with their photograph and biographical details demonstrating their background and skill sets.

TBOM:  I have to say I do adore those business cards, they manage to effectively communicate the message of the aim of the society and the methods used in physical anthropology and osteoarchaeology in a lovely way!  So, do you foresee any major areas where you may run into problems in setting up the society?

Aligned to this question, do you, by starting up BOAPAS, hope to bring into existence a firmer framework for osteological studies, within academic research and commercial work, in the Belgian archaeology and anthropology sector?

Hélène Déom (HD):  Thank you, those business cards are the result of effective teamwork to create them.  We are really proud of them.  There are, of course, major problems, as usual, when a society is being set up and they include time, money and legislation.  I’d say that is a long shot, but I’m dreaming of creating such a strong framework for osteology in Belgian archaeology…  What about you, ladies?

Davina Craps (DC):  Thank you for the nice compliment.  The business cards are one of the many examples of effective teamwork within BOAPAS.  We believe in involving our members as much as possible in the decisions and the running of the society.

We don’t really foresee any major problems, as there is a definite interest in BOAPAS both from the physical anthropologists who are active in Belgium and from the archaeological community itself.  One of the smaller issues that we have to deal with is the time it takes to set up a society.  All three of the founding members have other obligations aside from the society, thus it can be challenging to create enough free time to spend on the society’s needs.  Another issue that we are currently dealing with is how to create a more official platform for BOAPAS to operate from.  We are currently looking at legislation when it comes to societies and other options to allow BOAPAS to continue growing.

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A photograph of the founding members of BOAPAS, left to right: Marieke Gernay, Marit Van Cant, Davina Craps and Hélène Déom. Image credit: Hélène Déom.

We are indeed hoping to create a strong framework, where there currently isn’t really one in place.  The aim of BOAPAS is to facilitate stronger lines of communication between commercial archaeology, museums, and the physical anthropologists.

MVC:  Yes, thanks David for your comments on the cards.  I believe the major challenges we are facing right now is sorting out legal issues on non-profit organisations, and who we should contact for external advice regarding this.  Setting up a society requires after all a whole procedure we need to take into account.  This means in the near future, we have to elect board members such as a president, treasurer, and secretary, and to accomplish this, we hope we can find people with the right amount of time and dedication to work, especially on the further development of our website, FB-page, newsletters, communication on meetings, vacancies, conference calls, etc.

It is very supportive to notice the mainly positive feedback we have received so far, and it is also good to know that the Dutch Association of Physical Anthropologists (the NVFA) has offered to set up joint-events in the near future.  I believe it is important to maintain close relationships with our foreign partners, such as British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteology (BABAO) and the NVFA, as several members (like me) are a member of both societies.  Finally, our main goal is indeed to develop a strong and consistent framework in Belgium (this means both Flanders and Wallonia!) in osteology matters.  On a later stage, another motivation would be the development of offering osteology courses, for instance within the archaeological training at our universities, but that would be another challenge on the long run.

TBOM:  That sounds great about both the future collaboration between The Netherlands and Belgian organisations, and the possible development of offering osteology courses.  I always think that tailored osteology short courses can offer both the public and the practitioner alike opportunities to increase their knowledge base, and also remain up to date on the theories and methodologies that inform osteological research, especially so if some form of accreditation can take place.

So, I think I must ask that, having been a member of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) and the Palaeopathology Association, both of which have been around for some time, I’m curious as to why has it taken a while for Belgium to have a osteologically focused society?

MVC:  These short courses would be a good start indeed to show the basic principles of osteological research, both in- and ex-situ to principally archaeology students and archaeologists dealing with skeletal remains.  Outreach to the general public is currently undertaken through workshops to mainly high school students, or even to children from minority families living in ‘deprived areas’ in Brussels.

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Marit Van cant examining human skeletal material. Marit is currently the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s student representative, check out the society’s website for more information. Image credit: SMA/Marit Van Cant.

Although Belgium has a longstanding and internationally acclaimed tradition in palaeontological studies with the discovery of hominid remains in several caves in Wallonia in the 19th century, it was not until the 1950’s when the study of human bones from an archaeological context advanced here, and this is mainly due to pioneer research from scholars working in the field of medicine.  In Flanders, osteological research within an archaeological context have only really developed since the late 1990’s.

A shortage in human osteology studies was also noticed by Leguebe (1983: 28-29) who argued that the expansion of (physical) anthropology in Belgium, compared to other countries, was impeded by a lack in ‘organized teaching ratified by a legal diploma’.  In 1919, plans were initiated to found an institution for anthropology studies in Brussels, but, these attempts were unfortunately unsuccessful.  Other factors that might influence a deficit in an organised osteology framework are scarce funding and resources, alongside the complex political structure in our country.  Belgium has one society, the Royal Belgian Society for Anthropology and Prehistory (RBSAP), founded in 1882, and which co-operates closely with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

DC, HD and MVC:  Although the RBSAP publishes a yearly bulletin with articles, and organises an annual general meeting, their website (which is only accessible in French) has not been updated since 2010.  Further, we believe that the RBSAP is slightly more focused on prehistoric research, which we obviously support since the many findings of fossil remains in Wallonia (e.g. in 2010, the RBSAP organised an excursion to the Spy cave).

In addition, with BOAPAS, we would like to pay attention to osteology studies covering all historic periods from both Wallonia and Flanders, and to offer a vivid platform and discussion forum via social media and our (partially trilingual, but mainly English) website, on current and future research of skeletal remains.  We certainly believe in co-operation and the free flow of information, thus we have reached out to the RBSAP to hold a meeting with the organising committee in order to discuss joint possibilities.  Perhaps this collaboration between the established values of RBSAP and the fresh, motivated perspective of BOAPAS can truly invigorate the scene of osteology in Belgium.

TBOM:  In that case then, I can see why there is a need to set up BOAPAS in order to improve upon the knowledge and research base for osteological studies within Belgium.  Please do keep in touch as both myself and my readers would love to know about upcoming events and courses.

MVC:  Thank you very much for the discussion!  Just to let you and your readers know we do have a collaboration between BOAPAS and the Gallo-Roman Museum in Ath, Belgium, is currently undertaken for an exhibition on funerary traditions, and it is scheduled to open in 2018.  And keep an eye on our website at www.boapas.be for upcoming news and events!  We are also still looking for volunteers to help out with the design and layout of the site, so please do get in touch if any of your readers are interested and able to help us build the website.

TBOM: Thank you very much for talking with me today, and I wish you all the best of luck with BOAPAS!

Further Information

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

21 May

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

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

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

Animal Remains: An Introduction to Zooarchaeology

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

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

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

A Comparative Analysis: Human and Non-Human

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

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

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

Not Opposites, Complements

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

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

Further Information

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

Guest Post: Launch of the University of Sheffield Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project Website by Greer Dewdney & Jennifer Crangle

16 Apr

Greer Dewdney is a graduate intern on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project, which is run by the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology in conjunction with Holy Trinity Church.  A graduate of the department, Greer’s role is to help facilitate the project through its various stages.  Dr Jennifer Crangle, a University of Sheffield graduate and a Workers’ Educational Association tutor, is the project initiator whose doctoral research it is based upon.  Her research focuses on funerary archaeology and human osteology, with specific reference to medieval period England and Europe and a focus on the funerary treatment and the curation of the dead, both physically and ideologically.  Joe Priestly is an undergraduate student in history and archaeology at the department and also a freelance documentarian.  He acts as the project’s media designer and built the project website.

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The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project is a joint venture between the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology and Holy Trinity Church at Rothwell, in Northamptonshire, which aims to further understanding of the Medieval ossuary beneath the church.  The ‘bone crypt’ as it is known to local Rowellians, is one of only two sites in England with a Medieval charnel chapel where the structure remains intact and with human remains in situ (the other is at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent).  The Project was begun as a result of Dr. Jennifer Crangle’s PhD research, and since then has been continuously expanding to address the many and varied areas of interest that have arisen in the investigation of this almost unique archaeological site.

One of the main areas of focus for the project currently is the creation of a ‘digital ossuary’.  This is being produced through collaboration with the Computer Sciences department and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield.  By taking a 3D laser scanner into the crypt and strategically positioning it around the ossuary to take multiple scans, a point cloud has been generated which accurately records the ossuary in three dimensions.  This point cloud is what can then be processed and refined into a full 3D digital model, which can be viewed and explored by people through a computer, so that the fascinating and engaging experience of visiting the bone crypt is no longer restricted to people who can get to Rothwell and have good enough mobility to tackle the stairs.  This research was presented at this year’s CAA (Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology) conference in Oslo, Norway, by Jennifer Crangle and Peter Heywood.

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The new website introduces the background to the site and the aims of the project. All images courtesy of Joe Priestly.

Another of the current focuses is an attempt to secure some dates for the bones in the crypt, as obviously the question of when they date to is foremost in the minds of many of the researchers and local residents.  Recently, some surface samples were taken for CHRONO, the C14 radiocarbon dating service at Queen’s University Belfast, to test the nitrogen content of the material.  These have determined that the bones are well-preserved enough for radiocarbon dating to be feasible.  With kind permission of the Church Council, five full samples will be taken to be tested (again at Queen’s University), so hopefully there will soon be some more concrete ideas of when some of the remains are  from.

Although this won’t tell us when the bones were deposited in the charnel chapel, it will answer one of the most frequently asked and longstanding questions in the site’s history.  The dates could give us some further insights, however, into the use of the charnel chapel and how it was perceived by Rowellians; for example, if one or more of our samples date to the 1700s or later, then they had to have been brought in after the site’s rediscovery circa 1700.  This illustrates the continued belief, that the charnel room was a suitable place for depositing bones, even if it wasn’t being used as a charnel chapel in this time period.  As a part of this any and all results from the radiocarbon dating are going to reveal so much more about the charnel chapel than we currently know.

Recently the project was awarded funding from the University of Sheffield Engaged Curriculum, and this has enabled the hiring of 3rd year Archaeology & History undergraduate student Joe Priestley.  Joe designed and built the project website, as well as providing invaluable services in photography and documenting events.  This strand of the work has created a great relationship between the people of Rothwell and given them, and others from across the world, the ability to interact with, and further, the research happening at this fascinating and unique site.

Further Information

  • Find out more on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel project website, where the history of the site is discussed alongside the current research aims.  You can also take a video tour of the church and chapel itself with the researchers and members of the church involved with the project.  Keep an eye out on the site for open day tours of the site with the University of Sheffield researchers and the church representatives.  Typically these are held yearly but expect the project to pick up pace and introduce further open days as appropriate. 
  • Check out the Facebook group where we regularly post updates about our research and get involved with the project.  We also welcome feedback, so please do get in touch with questions or ideas.
  • Check out a previous These Bones of Mine photography essay on Rothwell from the 2014 open day.  The post delves into the background of the site and highlights what research has taken place over the years at Rothwell and the context for the current University of Sheffield research project.

Selection of Previous & Current Research on Rothwell

Crangle, J. N. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Published 03/08/2013.  Accessed 14/04/2016. (Open Access).

Crangle, J. N. 2016. A Study of Post-Depositional Funerary Practices In Medieval England. University of Sheffield. Unpublished PhD/Doctoral Thesis.

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). University of Sheffield. Unpublished MSc Thesis. (Open Access).

Parsons, F. G. 1910. Report on the Rothwell Crania. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 40: 483-504.

University of Sheffield Human Osteology Short Course 26th-28th August 2015

3 Jul

Interested in the human skeletal system but don’t know your lacrimal from your zygomatic, or your talus from your patella?  If not then the University of Sheffield is offering the chance for students, enthusiasts and members of the public a chance to get to grips with the skills and techniques used in human skeletal analysis with remains from archaeological contexts in an upcoming human osteology short course.

The mysterious left human talus, a paired skeletal bone. This talus is in the inferior view where anterior is up. Where is this bone found in the human body? Clue: if, as it goes in the idiom, you put your ‘best **** forward’ you are trying to make the best impression! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The course will run from the 26th to the 28th of August 2015 at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  The short course is led by Dr Diana Mahoney-Swales and Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, with support on hand from graduates from the human osteology program.  The course costs £120 for reduced rates (students and unwaged) and £180 for full rate (employed).  The osteology laboratory at the department is well equipped for the study and analysis of human remains and should provide an accurate picture of how bioarchaeology analysis is carried out within the British system today.

The content of the course will include an overview of the human skeleton, how to identity and side each element (including major anatomical skeletal landmarks), how to recognise and identify markers and techniques for the age and biological sex of individuals and the presence of any pathology present on the bones.  Further to this the course will cover archaeological aspects that affect the recovery and presentation of human remains (taphonomic changes and funerary/mortuary behaviours) and give an overview of the ethics involved in human osteology.  The Department of Archaeology at Sheffield have successfully ran this course for a number of years now, and have helped inform many of the importance of the scientific analysis of human skeletal remains.  The university is one of the major universities in the United Kingdom for the study of this topic, although the Universities of Bournemouth, Bradford, Durham, Edinburgh, Kent, and UCL all offer specialism in this topic at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.

More Bones…

As always if you are a member of an archaeology department, or alternatively an archaeological unit/community organisation, in the UK or Europe, who are running a short course focusing on the analysis of human remains, then please contact me and I’d be happy to mention the course on this site.  Regular readers will know I happily champion a range of courses and educational open days in the United Kingdom on this site.

This blog reaches hundreds of individuals a day and, if advertised on social media sites, can reach thousands of views for a single entry across a global context within a day or two.  If this short course above tickles your fancy and you are interested in studying human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts at a Masters level (known as bioarchaeology or human osteology) then please see this entry where I have cataloged available UK Masters course and prices (correct as of the 13/14 academic year, expect price increase since).

Further Information

  • Information for the August 2014 short course can be found here.  Please be aware that these courses are ran throughout the year so if you are unable to attend this session it is likely that there will be another in the not-too-distant-future.
  • The department also regularly run a palaeoenvironmental short course (10-11th September 2015) which focuses on geological and organic remains from archaeological sites, and zooarchaeology I (7th-11th September 2015), a short course focusing on the analysis of animal skeletal remains from archaeological contexts.  The zooarchaeology course covers a wide range of animal remains found on archaeological sites within Britain and Europe (including large mammals and avian species).  Information on these courses can be found here.  Price range is the same for the human osteology course above (£120-£180).
  • The University of Sheffield is also playing host to the 2015 British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology 17th annual conference from the Friday 18th to the Saturday 20th of September (costs from £150-180).  The association conference is one of the top places to meet and greet important British and European researchers discussing recent research in the fields of human osteology, bioarchaeology and physical anthropology.  More information and a booking form can be found here.

Bioarchaeology Updates: Upcoming Conferences, Books and Medieval Bones

12 Jun

There really hasn’t been a better time to be involved with the fantastic field of bioarchaeology.  The study of ancient and historic human remains is deeply rooted within the archaeological and osteological fields, but it is its own specialised niche that carefully combines the study of cultural and environmental variables in the scientific study of human skeletal and mummified remains.  It mixes the methodologies and approaches used in the hard sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, to help determine relevant interpretations and processes at play when studying past individuals and populations.  Even though my day job is currently in another field completely (I don’t think my work colleagues would take too kindly to me bringing in bones to study!), I am still an active researcher within the bioarchaeology discipline (as highlighted through my recent trip to San Francisco – expect a post relatively soon).

The discipline has really grown within the last two decades (both theoretical and scientific applications in biochemistry) and it is steady embracing and using new technologies (such as 3D printing and laser scanning) to help further the information that is present in the bioarchaeological record.  As such this post will briefly highlighted forthcoming conferences, some publications, and briefly highlight some of my own work in this discipline.

Upcoming Conferences

This small list of conferences highlights some of the larger conferences in archaeology and bioarchaeology in the UK and Europe.

21st Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, Glasgow, 2nd-5th September 2015

Hosted at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, the city will play host to the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) annual meeting this year, with an expected c.2500 delegates attending the multiple sessions on archaeology theory, method and history.  Registration for the conference costs from £145 down to £80 dependent on EAA member status (student, retiree, or Eastern European status) of the applicant and rise up to £212 for non-member status.  The conference is split into seven different themes, including the following:

1) Archaeology and Mobility – Using 21st century Europe as a jumping off point for the issues of mobility, this session seeks to see how archaeological research identifies mobility in the record.

2) Re-configuring Identities – The levels of identity are important, from state, group, familial and individual.  This session explores the archaeological representation of identity and how this is expressed.

3) Science and Archaeology – This sessions explores the use of hard science in archaeology, such as stable isotope analyses, lipid analyses and DNA explorations.

4) Communicating Archaeology – How do we communicate archaeology, why is this important and how can we improve it?  This sessions will highlight what we do well, how to improve and why.

5) Legacies and Visions –  This session will focus on the legacies of archaeological exploration and the use of vision within communities of archaeological projects.

6) Celtic Connections – Detailing the Celtic phenomenon and what it means.

7) Interpreting the Archaeological Record – How do we interpret and why?

Full details on the themes can be found here.  The 21st annual meeting promises to be an exciting opportunity to meet archaeological researchers from across Eurasia, and several of the themed sessions will be attractive to the bioarchaeologist.  These include the expression of identity in the archaeological record and the ability to identify mobility.  The full scientific and artistic program will be released shortly, whilst the key information can be found here.

British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology conference, Sheffield, 18th-20th September 2015

Hot on the heels of the EAA conference, which is conveniently held in the UK this year, is the more specialised British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) annual conference held at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Taking place over three days from the 18th to the 20th of September, the conference is the main event for bioarchaeologists in the UK covering the fields of biological anthropology, osteoarchaeology (both human and non-human), physical anthropology and aspects of forensic anthropology.  The registration fee for members is £150, non-members £185, and students prices varying from £125 to £150 for members or non members.  The fee does include a conference meal at a restaurant but not accommodation.

The poster for the BABAO 2015 conference held at the University of Sheffield.  It also features the fantastic artwork of Jennifer Crangle, a doctoral candidate at the Sheffield department of archaeology.

As highlighted above there are four main session themes for the BABAO 2015 conference, each allowing for significant room for research topics.  Alongside the poster and podium presentations are two exciting workshops.  The first is a particularly hot topic in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology – 3D scanning and printing of skeletal elements, whilst the 2nd is of similar importance – museum studies and curation methods.  Both workshops will be delivered by experts in the field.  The BABAO conference is a well-known event in the UK bioarchaeological calendar and as such is definitely of interest for both European and non-European researchers as it highlights upcoming and ongoing research of international importance.  Details of the conference outline can be found here, alongside the BABAO 2015 Facebook page.

Little Lives: New Perspective on Child Heath and the Life Course in Bioarchaeology, Durham, 30th January 2014

The Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham is playing host to a one day conference on the bioarchaeological importance of non-adults (neonates, children, juveniles, etc) in the archaeological record.  Non-adults in the bioarchaeological record were once accorded little status and study, however times have fundamentally changed and focus has shifted onto the importance of non-adult individuals in the archaeological record.  There are no details on the cost of the day long session as of yet, but I will update the post once information is available.

littlelivesdurham16

Little Lives conference post held at the University of Durham in early 2016.

The day-long conference is split into three separate sessions with keynote speakers in each.  The four sessions include:

1) Life before Birth – research into current maternal and infant health in bioarchaeology.

2) Growth, Health and Childhood – studies looking at the period of growth, general health and isotope studies.

3) Back to the Future! – effects of childhood stress on adult outcomes, stature, body proportion and longevity

Abstracts, of 250 words with institute affiliation, are being accepted until the 30th of September 2015.  Please send them to littlelivesdurham (at) gmail (dot) com.

Books, Briefly…

Alongside the upcoming conferences above that look particularly interesting, I have also been reading a few different books recently that may be of interest to bioarchaeologists.  I shall very quickly sum them up here.

A History of Disability by Henri-Jacques Stiker (1999), Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 240 pages

In a relatively new (okay, a few decades old) English translation provides the French historian Henri-Jacques Stiker’s attempt at a framework for analysing disability across the ages – starting in the biblical age and ending in the late 20th century at the introduction and use of legal frameworks in understanding the concept of disability in society.  This was one of the first books that detailed the changing nature and understanding of disability within society itself and across cultures.  In particular Stiker highlights the cultural assumption and ‘contemporary Western discourse’ principle that ‘equality/sameness/similarity is ideal’, which he states exposes society’s basic intolerance of individualism and diversity as a whole.  This is an interesting and thought-provoking publication that requires close reading, yet I should state here that this book has no basis in bioarchaeology.  Stiker takes the reader on a journey through the changing language and thought on disability, highlighting appropriate cultural trends or changes in the perception and reality of disability (in all of its various modes) throughout some three thousand or more years of historical and cultural change.

Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Debra L. Martin, Ryan P. Harrod & Ventura R. Pérez (2014), London, Springer, 262 pages

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on a paperback version of this manual as it looks (and indeed is) fantastic.  This book is largely aimed at the practicing bioarchaeologist (whether commercial, academic or student) and it is a book that profiles the bioarchaeology discipline as a whole.  This includes, but is not limited to, the bioarchaeological methods used in studying human remains and their archaeological context, the role and use of theory, general best practice guidelines, and the ethics and applications involved in the discipline.  As such this publication covers a lot of ground in a proficient and reader friendly way, whilst never losing its clarity or the rich depth of the subject itself.  I highly recommend you read a copy if you are interested in the objectives and importance of bioarchaeology as a whole.  Alongside Clark Spencer Larsen’s 1997 Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton (now in an updated 2nd edition!), which informs the reader on the past population behaviours that can be gleaned from human remains (both skeletal and mummified), and Tim D. White and Pieter Folkens esteemed Human Bone Manual, which is a key first text for the anatomical identification of skeletal elements in either the laboratory field environments, Martin et al.’s book highlights the discipline as a whole and acts as a fantastic reference book on any number of bioarchaeological issues that the practitioner or researcher faces.

Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives by Douglas E. Crews (2003), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 291 pages

I’ve mentioned this publication by Crews before on the blog but I think it is worth mentioning again as it highlights the importance of understanding the fundamental processes of biological processes at play within both the individual and population that can affect the archaeological record, and our perception of it.  Late life survival, and the way in which humans senesce slowly, is a particularly interesting area of human biology – it is the how and why we age as we do, what influences are behind this and what the cultural and social expectations, or impacts, this can lead to or can be predicated.  For the bioarchaeologist this is important to consider when examining an older individual as bone density decreases and osteoporosis rises as a risk, leading to both functional loss and loss of life (specifically in complications from fractures in osteoporosis cases).  The biocultural, and anthropological, implications of senescence are of primary importance in the world’s population today as developed countries (such as the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States) have a higher percentage of elderly individuals across the national population than ever before, and seems to be a developing pattern across economically developed and developing countries.

And Finally

I’ve put up a recent human osteological report that I have completed as a freelance specialist that analysed the partial remains of a Medieval adolescent (HCD 12), found by chance on the north-east coast of England, on my personal Academia page here.  Regular readers of the site may find the report interesting in the use and application of the methods applied in the bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains.  It is certainly an interesting individual due to the burial location of the body, however it is also frustrating due to the inability to recover the in-situ remains due to landscape instability.  I should state here that this is purely an osteological analysis of the skeletal remains themselves rather than an in-depth study of the archaeological context of the remains.  It is, as such, a specialist report.

Please feel free to take a look and let me know of any critique – I’d value this as this is one of my first osteological reports outside of academia itself.  If you anyone wants a copy of the report that doesn’t have the skeletal inventory and associated appendices somewhat horribly marred by Academia’s upload program, then please feel free to email me at thesebonesofmine (at) hotmail (dot) com!

The Coimbra Method: An Entheseal Scoring Workshop at the University of Sheffield, 28th January 2015

18 Jan

The University of Sheffield is playing host to a day-long workshop on the Coimbra method of scoring enthesophytes on the Wednesday 28th of January 2014.  It is a first come first served basis as attendance (at £10 and £5 concessions) is limited, though there are still some places available – you can find out more information and book here.  Dr Charlotte Henderson from the University of Coimbra, is one of the developers of the Coimbra method of recording enthesophytes in human skeletal remains and will be helping to lead the workshop.  The workshop welcomes anyone who works with the skeletal remains of past populations, although it would be particularly suitable for researchers and students involved in biological anthropology or osteoarchaeology.

Enthesophytes, also known as musculoskeletal markers (often abbreviated to MSM), are observable indicators of activity-induced stress on bone, often appearing as bony projections.  They are present on the origin and insertion of muscle on bone in the form of the ossification of the tendon and ligament attachments that help anchor the body of a muscle to the bone itself.  They are often the product of repetitive movements or of a demanding physical lifestyle and, when scored and recorded at a population level with the correct controls in place, can be used to infer as Markers of Occupational Stress (MOS).  This is partly why it is important to become familiar with musculoskeletal anatomy as a human osteologist because the two systems are so entwined in their action.

It should be mentioned here that enthesopathies are distinct from osteophyte formation on, or around, the joints (and not at muscle origins or insertions) which also look like bony projections.  There can also be a presumption in the palaeopathological literature to use the evidence of osteoarthritis alone in skeletal remains as an indicator of a physically demanding lifestyle; this should only be considered when used in conjunction with the observation and the recording of differences in the size of the left and right-side bones, size and location of any enthesophytes present, other pathological lesions, and certain non-metric traits in the individual (Roberts & Connell 2004: 38).

Although well-studied within the osteoarchaeological literature, there are still gaps in the knowledge of the cause of enthesopathies.  Further to this is the fact that rarely are musculoskeletal markers recorded in detail during the initial osteological analysis of archaeological remains. There is also, for instance, ongoing debate regarding the action of disease processes in the forming, or influencing, of both fibrous entheses and fibrocartilaginous entheses, as well as the difference in left and right side prevalence, and the effect of life course changes on enthesophytes (Hawkey 1998, Villotte & Knüsel 2013).  However, there has been a deepening of the understanding of the cause, development and implication of enthesophytes in the human body in the recent osteoarchaeological literature (Villotte et al. 2010).  Particularly regarding the likely multi-factorial influence in the aetiology, or cause, of these physical alterations (Villotte & Knüsel 2013).  New technology, such as 3D photogrammetry, is also helping to produce large databases of comparative material, as well as clearer macro and micro visual images of the anatomical changes present in enthesophytes.

The data scored and documented on individuals can, when analysed at the population level, lead to observations on the physical repetitive movements needed to produce the musculoskeletal markers.  The Coimbra method has started to become a standard within the recording of enthesophytes, although I personally will have to wait until the workshop to learn about this in detail.  Interpretations can thus be made, and hypotheses tested, on the ability in identifying past-activity patterns of archaeological populations.  They can also be used to hypothesize the actual range of active movement during the life of an individual.  Hawkey (1998), for instance, has demonstrated the ability to reproduce possible movement patterns available to a severely disabled individual in a Pre-Colombian context in New Mexico.  Hawkey & Merbs (2005) later used MSM’s to highlight subsistence change within the Hudson Bay Eskimos, noting that different activities could be differentiated via the skeletal anatomy and related changes to stress.

Although this entry is possible a tad late, I will be attending the 1 day long course and will endeavor to produce a blog entry detailing what I learnt during the workshop itself.  As always with this blog, if you or your department are hosting a workshop or a short course in human osteology, biological anthropology or osteoarchaeology, and want to let others know about it, then please feel free to contact me and I’ll help spread the word.

Further Information

  • Details of the 1 day long Coimbra method workshop at the University of Sheffield can be found here.  The university has a well-developed osteology laboratory and Masters program at the Department of Archaeology – you can learn more about the osteoarchaeological research carried out at the University of Sheffield here.
  • The University of Coimbra’s Department of Anthropology hosted an international workshop back in July 2009, titled Musculoskeletal Stress Markers (MSM): Limitations and Achievements in the Reconstruction of Past Activity Patterns, that has proved instrumental in rejuvenating the scientific study of MSM’s.  A full workshop abstract booklet can be found here and Prof. Charlotte Robert’s thought-provoking perspective on 25 years worth of study on MSM’s can be found here.
  • If you have either academic access or subscribe to the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology journal, it helpfully released a special edition in 2013 (Vol 23 (3): 127-251) titled Entheseal Changes and Occupation: Technical and Theoretical Advances and their Applications, which details and summaries the importance of the many recent approaches to MSM’s and OSM’s.  Read it here.

Bibliography

Hawkey, D. E. 1998. Disability, Compassion and the Skeletal Record: using Musculoskeletal Stress Markers (MSM) to Construct an Osteobiography from Early New Mexico. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 8 (5): 326-340.

Hawkey, D. E. & Merbs, C. F. 2005. Activity-induced Musculoskeletal Stress markers (MSM) and Subsistence Strategy Changes among Ancient Hudson Bay EskimosInternational Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 5 (4): 324-338.

Roberts, C. & Connell, B. 2004. Guidance on Recording Palaeopathology. In: Brickley, M & McKinley, J. I. (eds.). Guidelines to the Standards for Recording Human Remains. IFA Paper No. 7.  IFA & BABAO. pp 34-39. (Open Access).

Villotte, S., Castex, D., Couallier, V., Dutour, O., Knüsel, C. J. & Henry-Gambier, D. 2010. Enthesopathies as Occupational Stress Markers: Evidence from the Upper Limb. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 142 (2): 224-234.

Villote, S. & Knüsel, C. J. 2013. Understanding Entheseal Changes: Definition and Life Course Changes. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 23 (2): 135-146.

Interview with Lauren McIntyre: Handful of Bones

24 Mar

Dr Lauren McIntyre is an osteoarchaeologist based in Sheffield, England.  Having recently completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield on analysing the Romano-British human population of York, she is currently working as a project officer and osteoarchaeologist for Elmet Archaeology.  Volunteers for Elmet’s ongoing projects are welcome and Lauren can be contacted at l.mcintyre at elmetarchaeology.co.uk for further information.  As well as her fascination for all things archaeology and bone related, Lauren has a particular passion for horror films and can often be found at Sheffield’s own Celluloid Screams film festival.

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These Bones of Mine:  Hello Lauren, welcome and thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  For those that don’t have the pleasure of knowing you, please could tell us a little bit about yourself and your archaeological research?

Lauren McIntyre: Hi David, it’s nice to be asked!  OK, so I finished my undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield in 2004.  I returned there to do an MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology in 2005.  I started my PhD there in 2010, which I’ve just completed.  I’ve spent the time between completing degree courses working as a professional field archaeologist and osteoarchaeologist.  I’ve worked for a number of commercial field units such as ARCUS, Mike Griffiths and Associates and On-Site Archaeology, and I’ve also done a lot of work supervising and teaching on student fieldschools and community archaeological projects.

I got my osteological “big break” as it were with On-Site Archaeology in 2008.  I’d already worked as field staff of their excavation of the medieval All Saints Fishergate cemetery the previous year.  This was right at the beginning of all the economic problems in the UK, and there were problems with the developer who owned the site and trying to establish a budget for post-excavation analysis of the vast quantity of human skeletal remains that we’d already removed from the site.  I helped put together a funding bid to the AHRC for post-excavation osteological analysis with Andrew Chamberlain (then University of Sheffield, now University of Manchester).

Lauren at Rothwell.

Lauren analysing some of the crania of the  charnel material at the medieval Rothwell crypt in Northampton, England.

Fortunately we won it, so I spent a year analysing about 750 Roman, medieval and post-medieval skeletons.  We’d had a big surprise on the site in that as well as the medieval cemetery, we also found ten post-medieval mass graves that no-one knew existed.  Research showed that they might have been Parliamentarian soldiers killed by infectious disease during the 1644 siege of York.  So as well as the osteological report we did an article for Current Archaeology, a (rather ill-fated) TV programme for the BBC and a ton of other media output.

Since I finished writing up the Fishergate assemblage, I suppose my next big move was conducting and completing my PhD.  Again, I was funded by the AHRC to conduct a comprehensive analysis of all the Roman skeletal material from York.  My aim was to reconstruct the population in terms of size and composition, diet and health status.  I collected data for nearly 800 individuals, either by using data from modern osteological reports or analysing the bones myself.  It was a really tough job, but I’m pleased with the results!

I finally had my PhD signed off in February this year, and I’m now working for Elmet Archaeological Services, organising their conference and workshops series, and putting together funding proposals for new osteological projects.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you have studied a large number of individuals in some pretty interesting assemblages!  How important has it been that you have had both the academic experience and the professional field experience of excavating and studying human skeletal material?

Lauren:  I think it’s very important to get both.  There are plenty of researchers (and not just in osteology) who go straight through University from one degree to the next, and never go out in the field to get excavation experience.  I’ve even heard people saying that they don’t want to try excavation because they don’t think it’s relevant to their work!

The long and short of it is that yes, academic work and experience is important, and helps you learn to construct a sound research design, formulate research questions, learn the methodologies and so on.  But working in the field, even for just a few weeks, makes you learn about the process by which remains are dealt with before they get to the lab, and also helps you to understand how important the other site data is to any project you may be working on.

Researchers sometimes have a habit of getting stuck in their own tiny niche, and forget that much of the work they’re doing may be rendered completely pointless if they don’t consider other information from the site that will help both interpret and put their own work in context.  I think working in the field is highly beneficial to anyone who wants to work as an archaeological specialist, and also gives you a healthy appreciation and respect for the field archaeologists without whom specialists would have no material to work on!

TBOMIndeed, I have to agree with you on the benefit of working in the archaeological field if you can.  Just to take a quick step back to the basics – what was it that made you want to study human skeletal remains?  What were your inspirations, and has it been anything you thought it may have been like?

Lauren:  I’d never really thought about taking on an archaeological specialism – I always intended to stick with field archaeology.  I never even studied osteology during my undergraduate degree!  I had done some work on prehistoric funerary practices (my undergraduate dissertation was supervised by Mike Parker Pearson, investigating post-mortem treatment of the dead in Bronze Age Britain), but nothing directly involving human bones.

Then, when I was working for ARCUS (University of Sheffield’s commercial field unit), I got asked if I’d mind working on the Sheffield Cathedral cemetery excavation for a week because they were short staffed.  I said yes, and I’m so glad I did.  I totally fell in love with human skeletons!

I think the thing that gets me most is how amazing the human body is – how much we can learn from just the bones, how much stress the skeleton can put up with, and how it responds to different stimuli.  Some of the pathological specimens I’ve seen are absolutely incredible – in this age of sophisticated medicine, we don’t often encounter gross pathological cases, but looking at archaeological examples you can get an idea of just what the human body can cope with if it needs to.

laurenfieldarch

Lauren working on an archaeological site in England. The field archaeologist has to work in all weather conditions, often where wet mud is a perennial friend.

There are some really inspirational, hard working people in human osteology, who always work to a very high standard.  Charlotte Roberts in particular is a great researcher, who has conducted some invaluable work in this field.  Malin Holst is another researcher who works really hard and has produced some great work.  I think Jo Appleby has done exceptionally well with the Richard III study.  Work produced to such a high standard continually motivates me to improve myself and become a better researcher.

It can be very competitive working in human osteology, because there are so many talented osteologists and only a limited amount of new finds or jobs in osteology every year.  I didn’t really expect it to be such a competitive field when I first got into it – but you soon learn!  Having said that, I have been fortunate enough to work on some great material, so it just goes to show that if you continue to work hard, you can maintain a career in this subject.

TBOM: For readers who are interested, what happens to a human skeleton once you have found an individual on an archaeology site?  How is it processed? 

Lauren: Well, the skeleton will be cleaned, recorded and lifted from the excavation site. Once it is bagged up and labelled, it will be sent either to be cleaned and analysed by the osteologist, or it will be put into storage (in some cases bones will be stored until the excavation has finished so that all the bones can be sent to the osteologist at the same time).

Once the bones have arrived at the lab, they will be carefully cleaned by the osteologist – either dry brushed or washed in water over sieves so that any small fragments will be caught during the washing process. If the bones have been washed they will then be left to dry for a few days. It’s very important that bones are left to dry at room temperature – extreme temperatures (either very warm or very cold) are not good for the bones and can cause them damage. Room temperature should also be monitored if bones are being stored long term, for the same reason.

Once the skeleton had dried it will undergo osteological analysis. Once analysis is complete, it may either return to storage, if the bones are being curated for educational or research purposes. In some cases, the bones will be reburied instead of being stored.

TBOM:  It is well known within the archaeology sector that, at least in the UK, human osteology can be a very competitive field, but I think it is that core attraction of studying the skeletal remains our of past ancestors that draws so many to study the subject of archaeology as a whole.  Would you have any advice for someone starting out in archaeology who perhaps has an interest in pursuing human osteology or bioarchaeology?

Lauren: Absolutely, people are fascinated by the physical remain of our ancestors – despite occasional controversies, human skeletons and mummies and suchlike are usually the most frequently visited archaeological remains in museums.  So it’s unsurprising that it’s such a popular area of study.

I would say that if you’re wanting to pursue a career in human osteology or bioarchaeology, at first have a good think about it – as I said before, it is a very competitive field, and will require a lot of dedication and hard work.  There is a lot of competition for jobs, so you have to be good at what you do.

The next step would be to acquire suitable training   – usually a masters degree in the subject.  You can visit the BABAO (British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology) website to see a list of institutions that offer degrees in human osteology.  Joining BABAO is also a good step to take, as they set the professional working standards for human osteology in the UK.

As well as a degree, it’s necessary to get a lot of experience in handling and identifying human skeletal remains.  This is where a lot of people tend to fall down – they think that because they have a degree, or maybe attended a couple of courses, that they’re all set to go.  There is no substitute for practical experience.  I usually recommend to students that they start off getting handling experience with helping to do things like bone washing or cleaning.  When you’re processing hundreds of tiny fragments, you soon learn how to identify where in the skeleton they’re from.  You really start to notice the diversity in shape and size of bones in different individuals, as there’s a massive spectrum of normal variation (inexperienced osteologists sometimes tend to interpret features on bones as pathological, when often the features just have a slightly different appearance to what the person has observed before and are actually completely normal).  It also helps to get you used to distinguishing post-mortem and taphonomic damage from genuine osteological features.

Lastly, I’d recommend that you put yourself out there and talk to people!  As with any job, nobody is going to offer you work if you don’t put yourself out there.  So go to conferences, do talks for community, student and any other interested groups and get to know people.  Once people start to know your name you can build yourself a reputation, and hopefully this will lead to work.  Be positive and keep trying!

TBOM: Great answer, I thoroughly agree that you have to continually handle skeletal material to get a feel for natural variation in remains.  To add to your point I also took a short course in animal remains, as I think it is important to be able to identity different species as well.  Speaking of studying skeletal populations, as a part of your PhD research you studied the human skeletal remains of Roman period York  (71AD to 410AD), what was your main project aim and how did you achieve this?

Lauren:  Well, I wanted to see how far I could use skeletal material to reconstruct the population.  More specifically, I wanted to look at population size and composition, diet and health.  This came out of my frustration at the situation in archaeology whereby academic and commercial archaeologists rarely talk to each other.  So there is a lot of skeletal (and other archaeological material) that’s been excavated by commercial archaeologists, but is completely unknown to the academic sector.

At York, there was a load of Roman skeletal material that had come up on commercial excavations, and in particular, a lot of piecemeal burials all scattered around the city.  Nobody had put the information for all these burials together to make a bigger assemblage – instead, anyone examining the population of Roman York tends to rely on one or two larger assemblages (Trentholme Drive and the Railway cemetery).  I wanted to see how our perception of the population would change once I’d factored in the piecemeal burials.

Data collection was difficult, but I’m happy that I got a decent sample, even though I didn’t quite get hold of all the material I wanted.  I got hold of a couple of human skeletal databases from City of York Council, I bugged commercial units for reports, nagged every museum I could think of about their collections, spent a long time trawling online archaeological databases such as ADS and Heritage Gateway.  But it paid off!  I think persistence was the key.

massgravefishergate

An archaeologist (one Alex Sotheran, founder of Elmet Archaeology) and Lauren’s hand excavating the unexpected discovery of ten mass burials, which dated from the English Civil war period in the 17th century. A lack of trauma wounds on the mostly male individuals in the mass graves could have pointed to the effect of an infectious disease taking its toll on hard pushed soldiers. Read more here.

Once I had the data, it was just a matter of synthesising it in a way that made sense, quantifying everything, applying lots of statistics (I have so many SPSS and Excel documents now it’s not even funny), and then comparing the results to other known data ad evidence to come up with an interpretation.  Being methodical and systematic helps.

Although it’s a very broad study (I had problems with dating because a lot of the material has never been dated specifically, or even approximately – this meant I had to lump everything together instead of doing an earlier/later comparison and examination of change), I did get results that I’m very happy with.  I am the first person to systematically estimate the size of a Romano-British urban population, and it’s looking as though there were more people living there (on average) than we originally thought.  I’d like to have a go at re-estimating population size in a few other towns from the same period, to see how thy compare to York and also to other previous population size estimations.  The demographic composition part of the study pretty much confirmed what people thought anyway, about the military having a huge bearing on the composition of the population, but at least there is now some tangible evidence to base this on!

TBOM: The fact that you are the first person to study the whole Romano-British human population of York highlights, to me, the value that osteoarchaeology can bring to a wider archaeological perspective in understanding past populations, especially in historic periods that we think are already largely well known or studied.  For anyone that is interested in the results of your research, is there a publication being considered or any resources that you can recommend?

Lauren:  Well, I’ve not had much chance to publish anything yet, although that is something I’m thinking about doing.  I have been giving talks to local groups about my results over the last few months, and I’ll also be speaking at this years’s TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference) at the University of Reading at the end of March.  Hopefully I’ll do some more conferences over the coming year.  If anyone’s interested in the subject in general, I highly recommend Patrick Ottaway‘s book “Roman York“, which was a crucial text in terms of my background research.  Patrick has spent a lot of his career collating archaeological and historical data from Roman York.  Other than the work I’ve been doing, Patrick’s book is the main source that explores the town as a whole rather than focusing on one site or theme.

TBOM: As you noted at the beginning of this interview you are currently working for Elmet Archaeology, who are noted for having a strong community and educational outreach background.  How has this experience of working for them, helping to organise workshops and a conference for example, differed to the academic, and the purely commercial environments of archaeology, that you had worked in previously?  Do you see them as shades of one colour or as different facets of the same dice?

Lauren:  I think that commercial, academic and community archaeology are very much like different sides of a dice – part of the same whole but distinct from each other.  I love community engagement and outreach, as you get to work with very enthusiastic people who are very passionate about the subject, even if that subject is a minor part of a small scale project.  I think community archaeology (which is definitely on the rise – Elmet were one of the first – maybe even THE first – community archaeology units, being established in 2009) has the potential to combine the best parts of academic and commercial archaeology.  Community projects that are adequately funded enable us to conduct great quality research within a realistic time frame, and using experienced field staff who really know what they’re doing, with the added bonus that the local community can get involved.

Although academic fieldwork projects usually have the luxury of lots of time, they are not always funded well enough to be able to employ supervisors and teachers that can work to commercial field standards, and may have to rely on post-graduate students who themselves have little field experience.

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Students excavating an archaeological site in Yorkshire help to uncover an individual found near an Iron Age deposit. You can read the report of the osteological analysis of this individual (SK 1022) by Lauren here.

Commercial archaeology, on the other hand, has a wealth of amazing, talented field archaeologists who are excellent at their jobs, but tendering for contracts between companies often means undercutting each other in terms of time and cost.  The things that suffer as a result are job time frames – so the archaeology may not necessarily get the time, care and attention it deserves in order to met developer deadlines – and field staff wages, which are notoriously low.

I really think that community archaeology is only going to grow in popularity over the next few years – this has certainly been aided by an increase in public awareness and interest in archaeology, as a result of all the television and other media coverage it gets nowadays.  The public are starting to realise that archaeology doesn’t have to involve large scale excavations that dusty old academics do in far away places like Egypt and Greece!  Local archaeology groups and communities are increasingly starting to tell us what they want to know about the areas that they live in, and we as community archaeologists can help them find out.

As a cheeky aside to this, I should also say that if there are any community (or other) group out there that would like to get involved in archaeology in any way, or have archaeological projects that they would like to undertake but don’t know how, get in touch with us at Elmet and we’ll see what we can do for you!

TBOMI never knew that Elmet were possibly the first community archaeology group!  I have taken part in a few local community digs myself and know the value of engaging the local community.  I very much encourage readers to get involved with their local archaeology group.  Thank you very much for agreeing to be interview Lauren, and good luck with your osteological projects and keep up the good work with Elmet archaeology.

Learn More

  • Lauren, with Elmet Archaeology, will also be helping host the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014 on the 31st of May 2014.  The one day conference will feature a range of papers on a variety of topics in a friendly setting.
  • You can also learn more about the work that Elmet Archaeology conduct with local communities here.  They conduct a broad range of projects taking in everything from exploring WW2 prisoner camps to reminiscence groups, find out more here.

Select Bibliography

McIntyre, L. 2009. SK 1022, Bilham Farm, Brodsworth. Human Bone Assessment Report. Unpublished report. The  University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Bruce, G. 2010. Excavating All Saints: A Medieval Church RediscoveredCurrent Archaeology. 245: 30-37. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. 2011. Osteological Analysis of the Stanwick Skull. Unpublished report. The University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Harvey, L. 2012. Non-Comformist Chapel Crypt Survey, General Cemetery, Sheffield.  Report No. GCNC01. Unpublished report. The University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

Ottoway, P. 2004. Roman York. Stroud: The History Press.

Ottoway, P. 2013. Roman Yorkshire: People, Culture & Landscape. Stroud: The History Press.