Archaeological Clues in Human Remains

Does the skeletal structure of humans interest you? Are you a sucker for a good murder mystery novel? Do you find yourself watching TV shows that analyze forensics? Then this might just be for you!

Today, us field schoolers dove into the world of forensic anthropology (which may also be referred to as bioarchaeology or biological anthropology) with a lecture and workshop run by Dr Trudi Buck. One of the coolest parts about this workshop was when we were given two sets of partial skeletons (plastic cast versions based off of genuine skeletal remains) and were given the tools and knowledge required to make some scientific observations. While I’m sure you’ve read about this lecture in previous years, I thought I would change it up and share some of the specific skills I learned today.

The mixture of (plastic) bones spread out across the table before being sorted and organized. 

We were able to work in small groups with this activity, which allowed us to really get hands-on. Aline and I worked together to separate the two skeletons based on size. We were told in advance that some of the bones belonged to an adult and others belonged to a child.

A view of the spine from the child’s skeleton. 

Once we differentiated the child-size bones from the adult-sized bones, our next step was to organize the bones from the adult’s skeleton to recreate the natural skeletal structure. My background knowledge on biological anthropology is minimal, so I found that this was one of the harder parts of the day but it was a fun challenge. It was especially interesting to see where the bones meet up with each other and how they function based on the shapes at joints.

Avery comparing the interior structure of a human hand to its outward appearance. 

The Age of the Deceased

The lecture taught us how to determine an age range based on certain characteristics of the bones, and how certain aspects change over time. For instance, when trying to put an age range on the skeletal remains of a child, the teeth and jaw are the most accurate method to determine this. When trying to determine the age range of a skeleton that has already undergone puberty, things such as bone fusion and the general ‘wear and tear’ of bones can be used.


Avery examining the fully fused coccyx bone from the skeleton of an adult. 

The sex of the Deceased

In biological anthropology there are various methods that have been used to determine whether a skeleton belongs to a male or female, but the most effective method examines the pelvis. Based on the overall shape of the bones, biological anthropologists can determine sex. Although this is the most reliable way, it is not the only one.

When the pelvic bone is not present, the structure of the skull can be looked at, with general differences between the sexes. If DNA is available from the remains, scientific testing can determine the sex.

A chart and image depicting the general differences between male and female skulls, with the male skull on the top and the female skull on the bottom. 

Other variations between the sexes can be used in situations where neither the skull nor the pelvis has been found, but these rely on general traits and can vary depending on geographical location.

The Origin of the Deceased

Now for those who have followed the blog and are familiar with what I have already written, you’ll know that I am not very science-oriented. But to tell the origin of a human from their remains, scientists do an isotope analysis from the enamel on the teeth. Basically, depending on where someone grows up, the water they drink and the general oxygen levels in their teeth can differ. The oxygen levels can be determined through the isotope analysis, which will provide a general geographical range of where someone grew up.

Dr. Buck explaining the oxygen levels in isotopes. 

Theory versus Practice

In a perfect world, when archaeologists stumble upon human remains, they would be complete skeletons accompanied by some sort of inscription to tell the name, sex, origin, and age of the person to leave out any need for guessing. Short of that, a full skeleton without an inscription would still be ideal. This way the bones might be able to tell a full story and provide at least as close as possible ranges for this information. But often this is far from the truth. Sometimes there are a handful of bones that include the jaw and pelvic bone to give the important information biological anthropologists are looking for. Other times there is only a skull to work from. And even when bones are found, depending on the ancestry of the individual, statistics and averages may point to one sex while DNA points to another. Sometimes there is no DNA to test. But it seems to me that three things that are very important in the field of biological anthropology are background knowledge,  practice, and a hands-on approach. Thanks to Dr. Buck, we got a taste of what goes into this field of study, and what we can tell from human remains.

This activity involved a bit of speculation, a fair amount of hard work, and ended up being a lot of fun!

The plastic skull. 

Bye for now,

Anna

A Rare Artifact found at Vindolanda

Here at Vindolanda, there have been many rare finds, the most well-know being the writing tablets that are preserved in the anaerobic soil. But among the objects displayed within the museum, there is one thing that seems unique within the archaeological record. This is the Vindolanda Calendar fragment.

Bird’s eye view of the calendar fragment. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Phang-Lyn. 

Of all the artifacts recovered throughout the entire Roman Empire, there are only three calendar fragments. One is from Salzburg, France one from Grand, France, and the other from Vindolanda. Each of these three fragments seem to have few similarities between them, and this is the only one found within Roman Britain.

Frontal view of the calendar fragment. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Phang-Lyn. 
The Vindolanda Calendar fragment is made of copper alloy and is a curved band, that would have been part of a ring estimated to measure 350mm in diameter. Based on this estimated size, it is likely that the calendar was intended for private rather than public use.
The surface is pierced with 15 holes that would have likely been used to hold a peg marking the days. Based on the estimated size of the complete calendar and assuming the holes would have had similar even spacing around its entire surface to what survives of the fragment, each of these holes would have represented a span of two days. Although this might seem weird to us, we have to remember that our time-keeping methods are of our own creation, and that we are separated from the Romans by thousands of years. Because of this, we have to take care not to apply our cultural practices and thoughts about time to such an artifact. Having a calendar that had each peg space representative of two days may have been the norm in the Roman world.

Close-up of the calendar fragment. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Phang-Lyn. 
On the surface of the artifact, the word SEPTEMBER can be seen inscribed in punch-style lettering. The fragment is also inscribed with the letter K, short for kalendae, and marks September 1st; the letter N, short for nonae, and marks September 5th; the letter I, short for idus, and marks September 13; and the letters AE that are oriented differently than the rest of the lettering, and is short for aequinoctum, refering to the autumnal equinox.

The only inscriptions on this fragment are found on the one side, with evidence of soldering on the opposite side. It is likely that the metal disc this fragment came from was meant to be stationary, and it is possible that whatever it was once attached to might have moved to help keep track of the date or to predict future dates.

Close-up of the calendar fragment. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Phang-Lyn. 

The fragment was found in 2008 and was located next to the principia and the granary, although in an unstratified layer. It dates to the third or fourth century CE. It is thought that the main function of this calendar was to predict future calendar dates in relation to agricultural and pastoral cycles. This would make sense in relation to where it was found, as we know by the tablets found at Vindolanda, that barley, rye, and sheep were important parts of the local food system. To ensure that the crops were planted at the appropriate time it would have been important to keep track of the dates and plan for upcoming events accordingly, which may have been one of the things that this calendar was used for.

However, because the fragment is so small,  because there is no literary source that clearly references a device such as this, and because it is the only one of its kind found, the exact purpose of this calendar fragment remains uncertain. Whatever this fragment was once part of, it is definitely something you do not want to miss if you visit the Roman Vindolanda Fort & Museum. 

Trench Tour!

Hello all!

Today I have decided to do a video tour of the trench that Dr. Meyer, Aline, Avery, Victoria, and I have been working in throughout the week. The sun was out, making for beautiful imagery but it was quite blustery, so you’ll have to bear with me through the windy sounds.

​Hopefully you’ve all enjoyed getting a better sense of what one of the current excavations at Vindolanda looks like!

Bye for now,

Anna

Insight on Cremation Remains

For the group’s first night back from our separate trips to Durham, Edinburgh, and Dublin, we’ve managed to pack a lot into one evening. Not only have we caught up with each other, detailing the highlights of our weekends, watched the series premier of Love Island, and opened more Lego card packs, but most importantly, we have attended a fantastic lecture at the Hedley Centre.

Priscilla Ulguim, who is working towards her PhD at the University of Teesside, gave a lecture entitled The Importance of the Archaeology of Cremation. During her lecture, she explained some of the science behind what happens to a body as it goes through the cremation process and how the remains can reflect what conditions the corpse was exposed to.

Doctor Meyer and Priscilla Ulguim talking before the lecture began. 

Before I dive into anything else, I want to debunk some common myths about studying cremated remains. Also, please excuse my photo angles and quality, I didn’t want to disrupt the lecture to take photos.

 One of the slides in the lecture addressing common myths concerning the study of cremation in archaeology. 

1. The cranium explodes during cremation.

This is FALSE. As the cranium heats and dries out, the bones will crack, but it does not explode.

2. The only thing to study from cremation is ash.

This is also FALSE. Often bone fragments can be found depending on the intensity of the heat, as well as funerary and pyre goods.

Another thing that people often wonder about is the contorted positions of cremated remains where the bones are still intact. You can get an idea of what this might look like in the following image.  Priscilla explained in her lecture that this is a result of the drying and shrinking of muscles and ligaments in the body as it is exposed to high temperatures. This can also cause bone deformation and cracking.

In the past, people have often thought of cremation burials as destructive, with little available insight and evidence, but this lecture explained why this is untrue. In some cases, cremated remains are the only evidence that remains from burials and with new scientific methods, social, ritual, and technological aspects of various cultures can be better understood.

We can learn about cultural and ritual practices through the funerary pyres at which bodies would have been cremated, where they were located, what type of wood was used, and various other aspects. The ritualistic behaviours of those who cremate their dead in Brazil (one of Priscilla’s specific areas of study) connects a fear of the power of the dead and following a certain pattern of actions to ensure that the spirit of the deceased leaves the mortal world.
A slide from the lecture explaining the result of soft tissue being exposed to high heat. 

There is a lot of scientific research that goes into examining these remains in order to uncover the evidence held within cremated remains. While Priscilla explained many different scientific methods used to analyze remains and how they work, I am not confident enough in my understanding to relay the information to the blogosphere. Importantly however, I know that there are macroscopic (colour, fractures, etc..) and microscopic (elements, crystals, microscopic structure, etc…) details that can provide evidence concerning the intensity of the heat that the body was burned in. While the macroscopic angle has been used in the past, scientific developments have allowed us to look at the microscopic changes which can provide a greater accuracy and detail in our analysis.

(Side note from Prem: If anyone does have questions about the scientific side, comment below and I can try my best to answer them to the extent of what I understood from the talk.)

This lecture was absolutely fantastic and fascinating. I’ve always been interested in burial practices but now I have a better understanding of why some cultures choose to cremate their dead and what we can learn from the remains. In my opinion, this lecture was the perfect jump start to the week after my weekend in Edinburgh.

If you want to learn more about the lecture, you can find the description of it here, and you can read more about Priscilla and her research here, or you can check out her twitter account.

Bye for now,

Anna

Feeling out Footwear

When hiking through historical sites and along Hadrian’s wall, wearing appropriate footwear is essential. With this in mind, I picked the brains of my fellow field-schoolers along with our TA and our profs to see why they chose the shoes they wear.

Because the right shoe can make or break an experience, I’ve taken this opportunity to take a look at the hiking footwear chosen by current field schoolers.

As far as basic necessity in any good shoe for field school, I have developed the following list:

  • Sturdy and well built – you’ll want something that will hold up to all the kilometres you trek
  • Ankle support – always a good idea for uneven terrain
  • Waterproof – a MUST with all the rain seen in Northern England
  • Comfortable – if you’re spending all day in one pair of shoes, you’ll want them to feel good while you’re wearing them
  • A sole with a good tread – you’ll want them to hold up along the rainy/rocky/uneven terrain you’ll come across
  • A proper fit – none of these things are going to be very handy if your toes are jammed into a size too small or if your feet are sliding around in a pair of shoes that are too big

There are some things that are definitely not required, but can be achieved depending on what you’re looking for in your footwear. This includes

  • Impeccable style – such as Aline’s shoes
  • Colour co-ordination – such as my shoe/backpack coordination

For all those who might be considering a hiking boot purchase, I’m going to briefly break down a few of the boots brought by field schoolers and what they like about them.

Victoria Boerner’s BootsThese Columbia shoes meet all the basic necessities in a heavy-duty hiking boot with a classic and stylish workboot look. With the bright red laces these shoes have a pop of colour in addition to comfort, and durability.

Holly Gojmerac’s Runners For those (rare) sunny days with no worries about heavy rain, a lightweight runner such as this offers comfort and quality but is less heavy than a hiking boot.

Cassandra Phang-Lyn’s Runners

These Columbia runners are a favourite of Cassandra, and have held up to a previous trip through the terrain of Greece. For a light weight, durable, and waterproof option, these runners check all the boxes.

Prem Sai Ramani’s HikersAccording to Prem, these are his absolute favourite hiking shoes. They are stylish, strong, waterproof, and with the higher top they also offer extra ankle support.

Aline McQueen’s BootsThe boots with the highest top and also most stylish (in my opinion) among the group. With the height and quality, these boots offer fantastic ankle support, durability, and these are also waterproof. These ones here are by Palladium and were originally designed for the French Foreign Legion and use military-grade waterproof canvas.

My Hiking Boots

I searched high and low for these bad boys. Luckily Mountain Warehouse offers a great selection of youth shoes, for anyone who, like me, has teeny tiny feet. Not only are the colours nice, but the tops are high enough to offer good ankle support in addition to a durable design that utilizes waterproof material. If anyone else out there has small feet, do not be afraid to check out the youth section of an outdoor store to see what’s there. It’s better to get a little adventurous while shopping than to buy a pair that doesn’t fit right.

Of course there are many shoes out there and there are multiple options to fit various needs, but I wanted to give insight into what us field schoolers have brought with us. My hopes is that as this program continues, future field schoolers and other travellers and hikers can look to this blog to get an idea of what works for us here.

Keep in mind that this blog entry has focused on hiking footwear. Those who follow the blog will already know that when we are digging in trenches, there is a whole second set of footwear. There we are all outfitted with our wonderful wellies! These are waterproof, durable, provide good traction, and are fitted with steel toes to protect against accidents. If you haven’t heard about our Wellington’s, check out a previous blog post.

Bye for now,

Anna

Behind the Scenes at the Corbridge Museum

After learning about the archaeological history of Corbridge today, our group was lucky enough to have Graeme Stobbs, the Assistant Curator at Corbridge, give us an inside look at the artifacts in the basement of the museum.  Here many of us got our first opportunity ever to hold ancient artifacts in our hands (with gloves on, of course).


A view of the table containing artefacts, with storage in the background. 



Upon entering the basement, we were brought to two tables that had various artefacts laid out around them. After a brief introduction to the space and information on how to safely handle artefacts, a box of gloves was passed around and we all prepared to take a closer look.

Learning more about the intricate details of one of the artefacts from David, who also works at the Corbridge Museum). This piece is a carved leg that includes the toes and sandals, that would have required great care to carve. 

We split into two groups with one heading back into the storage to learn more about how it works, while the rest of us marvelled at the artefacts in front of us. The objects on the table for us to inspect included pieces of face-shaped pots, pins, intaglio, iron chains, and a number of pins. One of the most interesting things of all was a dodecahedron for which scholars have yet to figure out the exact purpose.

The dodecahedron, in my hand to give an idea of scale (although I do have relatively small hands). 

Standing in front of a series of carved pins, I delicately picked up a bag and brought the hairpin closer so that I could inspect the intricately carved details of what I think looks a bit like a pine cone at the end of it. While gazing at this ancient artefact I couldn’t help but wonder about how careful it’s creator must have been to produce such an outcome.

A detail of one of the pins in the collection. 

As I moved around the table I was battling between wanting to spend as much time as possible with each object, but also wanting to see each of the objects that were set around the table. Parting from the assortment of pins, I moved onto the pottery. An especially amazing detail that I noticed on the interior of one of the pieces of pottery was that you could still see the fingerprints of the person who had made it. Seeing this aspect in the details of the pottery sherd made me feel like I could make a more personal connection to the pot’s creator. The inside of a pottery sherd. Two finger prints have been circled, with an arrow pointing to one of the easiest areas to see the detail of the creator’s fingerprint. 

One of the more fragile but still very cool items that was on the table was a set of shackles with some chain links that were found in the river near Corbridge. These were set out for us to view, but were too fragile to allow us to handle them. The naming of these shackles was controversial because some called them “slave’s shackles.” This naming is no longer favoured because not all slaves were shackled.

The shackles carefully stored inside their container. The silica gel packets absorb excess moisture to ensure that the artefacts are stored at appropriate humidity levels for optimal preservation.

After a while the two groups switched areas and I got to see the organization of the storage and some more artefacts stored on shelves. Graeme was kind enough to explain to us some of the challenges that have presented themselves over time to the Corbridge Museum, and how they have overcome them.

Graeme showing us a detail of one of the storage boxes on a shelf in the museum’s storage. 

A detail of some of the storage boxes with the humidity indicators displayed within the front of the box for easy monitoring. 

Because we got so much information about the site itself and the collection of the museum that includes artefacts from various sites, getting to also see the storage, learn about some off-display artefacts, and handle some really cool things was an especially amazing experience. From a Museum Studies perspective, I enjoyed seeing the storage methods and being able to spot many similarities between the storage and organization system at Corbridge and the handful that I have seen in North America.

Although our time behind the scenes of the Corbridge Museum was relatively short, it was interesting and engaging, and helped give us a better idea of how museums work beyond the glass cabinets and gift shops.

Bye for now,

Anna

Hello Friends! Introducing Anna Furfaro 

Hey all!

My name is Anna and I am going into my fourth year at Western. My dual degree is between Classical Studies and Art History with an emphasis in Museum Studies.

I first heard about Vindolanda Field School in my first year and instantly wanted to enroll. Now that I have the opportunity to take part in it, I am eager to be able to apply what knowledge I can to the various sites we visit from both a Classics and a museum perspective.

I am really excited for all this trip has in store for me, but I am especially looking forward to getting into the trenches, getting my hands dirty, and visiting new museums.

Bye for now!

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