marshtide: (Mårran)
[personal profile] marshtide
AND the other one! Back on schedule. *g*

Prompt: Archaeologists study dead people and animals, among other things. Do you need to know a lot of anatomy to put everything back into place (humerus =/= shinbone and so on)? And how does it feel to touch/watch/discover things that have been dead and hidden for ages?

There are a whole bunch of different things going on here, so I'll try to break this down a bit.


Do you need to know a lot of anatomy?

The short answer is "yes". But there are actually several things even in this bit: the kind of knowledge needed for dealing with human and animal remains is pretty different, for a start (and it's not everyone who works with both, by any stretch - they're separate disciplines). The information you want from the material is different, and so is the condition & context you usually find the bones in. In either case, though, you do need to be able to identify pretty much any bone that gets presented to you, at least if it's a reasonably complete bone. Beyond that...


a. Human remains

With human remains archaeology the chances are pretty good that you'll be dealing with an articulated skeleton, i.e. a body that was put in the ground whole - you may not be, as many other forms of disposal exist, but particularly in the periods I've worked with (British archaeology, early medieval and medieval), single burials of intact bodies are the norm. My other experience has been cremated remains, placed in the ground in an urn; in these cases you won't expect to find as much, but identifiable bones often exist, and it's also often possible to tell if you're dealing with one person in one urn or several (both turn up regularly). In either the case of a single burial or a single cremation, and any other human remains find where you have a set of bones which seem to belong to a single person, you're to some degree expected to put a jigsaw puzzle back together.

If you don't have something which seems to be a single individual, then you're trying to work out how many people there could be (minimum number of individuals, or MNI). This is done by counting bones. You have a pile of bits of skull; how many skulls could these bones possibly have come from? You're looking for how many times you can identify any given feature. The highest number of times you manage to identify any one feature is the lowest number of individuals you could possibly be dealing with. This in and of itself needs a good knowledge of anatomy.


You need to be able to identify every bone in the human body in complete form, and as many bones as possible when they're broken or damaged. This includes the all the small bones in the hands and feet. You should also be able to, for example, place the vertebrae in order to look at the spinal column, and one can spend what feels like an eternity putting a skull back together, though how benefit one really gets from doing it sometimes is arguable; it can just be a timesink, but sometimes it turns up something unexpected.

You learn the anatomy of each bone in a lot of detail; this is partly because different bits of bones can be used for different sorts of analysis, but also because the more you know, the greater chance you have of identifying an incomplete piece of bone (and because of the above-mentioned MNI). Particularly if you have a lot of very small fragments, you kind of need all the help you can get.


Once we get past putting all the bones in the right order one needs even more anatomy, as well as pathology, because you need to see if anything looks strange: identifying diseases which leave marks on the bones (like syphilis, which leaves distinctive pit-marks), seeing old breaks, or anything congenital. Congenital traits can be disease or it can be something which is considered non-standard but isn't actually harmful in any way - for example, there are various extra bones that can form part of the skull sometimes and which don't really do anything. Then there's working out age, and sex, general health during their lives (i.e. diseases aside, how were they doing?).


That said, however much anatomy and pathology one learns in theory, actually handling human remains and figuring out what's what is another thing, and the learning curve is pretty steep. Bones do not actually look like diagrams of bones, so there's two sets of learning.

And to be honest, I'm fairly convinced that one keeps learning little things about bones the entire time one works with them!



b. Animal bones

So with animal bones, in contrast, you don't expect to find burials of whole animals most of the time. There are exceptions: burials of pets/highly valued working animals and burials of sacrifices, for example. The only whole burials I've worked with were of horses and cats. Otherwise, you're basically rooting through someone's rubbish bin and seeing what you find there.


Here is what's complicated about animal bones from waste deposits: OK, no-one is expecting you to put them back together to try and make a whole animal skeleton, but you're definitely expected to work out what sort of animal it came from. This means you don't just need to know what a tibia looks like, you need to see if you can figure out whether it's a tibia from a sheep or a goat. My dissertation, by the way, was the cataloguing and analysis of all bone material from a medium-size Mesopotamian city, and of this experience I have to say: goddamn sheep and goats. Yes, you can tell them apart, but it ain't easy. You really are looking at very small details; the shape of a particular bone in the foot, the form of the horns (if any), etc.


Beyond this, you need to be able to distinguish things like: is it a domestic or a wild animal? Was it well-fed and cared for or hungry and bashed about? And then things like: was the animal butchered, how, and where?

This isn't strictly anatomy, but it ties back into anatomy. To judge if an animal was butchered for food/skin and how you are looking for a selection of marks: cuts across the surface of the bone near joints,scrapes along the length of the bone, and the systematic breaking of bones rich in marrow. Since there is more than one method for butchery, you want to see which of the bones have marks on and where. Anatomy!

Then there's where an animal was butchered. There are basically two options for this: here (the place where we are excavating) or Somewhere Else. People can be doing this in a settlement on a small scale, in which case you expect to find a broad range of bones - pretty much all the bits, allowing for fragile ones being completely destroyed and some bits being eaten by dogs. In other words, you shouldn't just find the bones that have joints of meat on. If there's some kind of processing going on outside of the settlement it's more likely that only specific bones - limb bones for example - will find their way in. It can be important to look at exactly what bones you're finding, how many of them there are, and what animals they're from, basically.

From all this you learn a lot about how people were feeding themselves: hunting vs herding vs static farming, kinds of animals they ate, how much, and how thorough they were in processing the body for every scrap of usable stuff, etc. You also learn some stuff about their relationship to their animals from the condition the animals were in.

If you're finding wild animals that've been hunted then you can sometimes get an idea of exactly how far they were travelling to hunt, too, since there are distribution maps for different kinds of animals going back in time which one can use.


One more thing to learn about from animal bones can be trade; this is particularly true of horn and antler, which can turn up in really weird places where the relevant animal has basically never been, and definitely indicate some kind of movement of people and goods.

I know we've drifted kind of off topic now, so I'll stop, but hopefully there were some bits of interest in there anyway.



And how does it feel to touch/watch/discover things that have been dead and hidden for ages?


Handling bones, in and of itself, isn't something I react strongly to on any kind of visceral level. I don't find it disgusting or frightening. Old bones can feel a bit sad sometimes (and I'm not sure how to elaborate beyond that; it's just a vague impression), but it doesn't feel like there's anything really horrible there. The most modern bones Ḯ've worked with were about 1,200 years old, though, and we're not talking about mass graves, war cemeteries or anything of the sort. A friend of mine specialises in early modern war cemeteries and has dug at a concentration camp; it is Not The Same Thing. At all. But my old bones have been a pretty peaceful lot, relatively speaking.


Morality is another thing, and I think this is something people kind of have to make their own peace with; I guess it hasn't been as big a process for me as for some others - but even though I don't really personally believe a body means much to the person who owned it after they've died I do have strong feelings about treating bones with more respect than whichever other archaeological find. I think (hope) this is pretty common.

I also feel more comfortable with digging up people who are essentially my own ancestors, I should note; I'm probably less than half anglo-saxon, but strongly coupled to the UK, so it feels rather less problematic. I am not overly keen on the idea of going and digging up other people's bones, particularly as there are terrible bits of colonial history associated in many cases; I can think what I like about the importance of bones to the person who owned them, but digging up other people's ancestors can have strong significance for the modern populations of those places - especially if one a) didn't ask first and b) then runs home to the UK with them and puts them in a museum. This is not what I say to everyone who asks why I didn't go an dig somewhere "amazing and exotic", but possibly I should.

I don't I think it's impossible to ever do human remains archaeology overseas in an ethical way, but I do think it's really complicated and that it should be thought carefully about. Really carefully.


But to get back to how it feels, for me it feels intellectually fascinating more than anything. Discovering something unexpected can be really exciting. I tend not to mysticise things that much, but at the same time, one does react to things in ways which can be quite sudden and unexpected. And that reaction can be in pretty much any direction. One definitely builds stories about burials in one's own head, and then one can react emotionally to that narrative; it kind of happens automatically. This happens for entire burial places as well, which is why I note the distinction above between older and newer burial sites, and the kind of burials in them.

In closing: cat skeletons can make a bunch of archaeologists go "aaaaaaaaaaaaw" pretty much just as well as a living cat could.

Date: 2011-04-30 05:58 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] lilmoka
This is utterly fascinating. You're great at explaining your work, you would be a wonderful teacher <3

Date: 2011-05-01 06:37 pm (UTC)
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
From: [personal profile] ossamenta
Good explanation!

Just to add: you really really need to know anatomy if you're working with animal bones. Not only are there lots of species to choose from, but the bones are often very fragmented, so it's not just telling apart a sheep/goat, pig or dog humerus, but a tiny part of this humerus. Thankfully, some areas on bones are more easily identified than others.

If you plan to exclusively work with animal bones, it's really helpful to learn human anatomy too. You do occasionally get the odd human bone in waste pits and ditches, probably from disturbed (much) older burials. And infant burials, either if infants were not considered full members of society and therefore not buried in the normal burial ground, or if they were unwanted and disposed of quickly. I sometimes come across bags of infant bones among the animal bones, and it's clear that the archaeologist on site wasn't able to tell he/she was dealing with human bones.

Date: 2011-05-01 08:53 pm (UTC)
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
From: [personal profile] ossamenta
When I did my MA in the UK, the human lecturer had a weekly quiz on human bones, using fragmented bones, and usually throwing in the odd animal bone there too. I learned a lot on that unit. Studied like hell, though.

The animal bone unit focussed on a typical UK assemblage, i.e. domestic animals and deer. I kept going "But, what about all those other species? We must learn those animals too." A bit different from my Swedish studies, where we had lots of mesolithic sites, so lots of wild animals as well as the domestic ones. Most intense studies I've done during my uni years. Some in our class had dreams about bones. I saw bones in front of my eyes when I went to sleep.

Date: 2011-05-01 10:21 pm (UTC)
forthwritten: (tattoo; ribcage)
From: [personal profile] forthwritten
You're fantastic at explaining this - you're so clear and thoughtful. Thank you for posting.

Date: 2011-05-02 03:45 pm (UTC)
striped: (rottakurk)
From: [personal profile] striped
Thanks for this post, it was a fascinating read!

Almost related: I once had to take a rat to be x-rayed, and the image of the tiny skeleton still makes me go "awwwww" when I think of it.

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