What I’m Up to this Year: Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoc at Cambridge

The beginning of the academic year has no doubt brought with it many questions, such as “Why are there no new osteological posts on Bone Broke?”, “What has Jess been up to?”, “Why on earth is it so hot in October?”

What's Jess been up to?

A generally accurate depiction of the answer to the second question, regardless of season or institutional affiliation.

I can help you with answers to the first two questions. For the third one, you’ll have to look further afield.

There’s been radio silence on the blog for the last month and a half because I was grappling with a trans-Atlantic move that left little time or energy for light-hearted posts about the cuboid. For some reason, applying for a visa, attending a biometric appointment, finding a place to live while still in the US, booking my travel, figuring out how to transport bone samples to the UK, and packing for two years, ate up all of my time. However, in the end it was worth it, because I now get to spend two years at the University of Cambridge as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Fellow.

I took this picture myself. ON A BOAT!

The fellowship gives me two years to explore all of Cambridge’s pubs focus entirely on my research. What that means in practice is that I have the time and institutional support to get our MARBAL project in Romania off the ground, while also publishing, attending conferences, conducting outreach, and interacting with one of the largest communities of archaeological scholars in Europe.

Expect more ridiculous-looking field ponytails next summer, courtesy of the European Commission.

Expect more ridiculous-looking field ponytails next summer, courtesy of the European Commission.

I have now been here for exactly three weeks, and I’m already floored by the archaeological social networks in place at Cambridge. My postdoctoral advisor/mentor/collaborator/insert appropriate role here is John Robb, a fellow bioarchaeologist and European prehistorian. My incoming postdoctoral cohort includes MSCA postdoc Laerke Recht, who is working on human and equid (horse, donkeys, etc.) relationships in the ancient Near East, and Renfrew postdoc Erik Gjesfjeld, who explores big data approaches to investigating material culture and resilience in past societies. This is also the first time I’ve been at an institution with this many bioarchaeologists*, including scholars such as Sarah Inskip, who is analyzing a large sample of medieval skeletons as part of the After the Plague project, and Alexandra Ion, who is also a bioarchaeologist working in Eastern Europe. We’re already talking about starting a bioarchaeology reading group, an endeavour I’m very excited about. My current pitch is that we call ourselves BONES – “Bioarchaeology & Osteology: Novel ExchangeS –  but we’ll see what else the other participants come up with.

After several people recommending that I affiliate myself with a college in order to fully immerse myself in the the “Cambridge”experience, I applied for postdoctoral research associate positions at a number of colleges. Happily, I was offered a by-fellowship at Churchill. Dating to 1960, Churchill is one of the younger and, rumour has it, more relaxed colleges at the university.

What this really means is that I get to eat at the fancy high table dinners in Harry Potter robes**.

Emulating a not-very-confident bat in a borrowed robe right before my first High Table

Unwisely, Churchill has agreed to provide me free food three times a week in exchange for my sparkling wit(?) and cheery personality(?). I don’t think they’ve realized how just how much I can eat.

The college that will serve miniature bacon-wrapped hotdogs is undoubtedly the right college for me.

Because Cambridge is such a unique, strange, and wonderful environment, I plan to write few posts this year describing some of my experiences, focusing on what it’s like to integrate into the city, the university, and the college-system as an American archaeologist. If any readers have specific questions, let me know!

* Here they are called “osteoarchaeologists”, a terminological shift I am struggling with because I am ever a creature of habit.

**These are technically called “gowns.” I have already been corrected about my sartorial taxonomy. And what fork to use. And when to pass the butter. It’s going to be a steep learning curve.

Image Credits: Photo of a kindred spirit asleep on the couch found here. I would give credit to the photographer but I am struggling to read the copyright text. Old school post-card of Churchill found on flickr, here.

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Standard Anatomical Position

Abbott & Costello – Who's on First

Bioarchaeological labs can be confusing places. Witness the following interaction, which takes place at least once a season:

Bioarch 1: “This fragment’s a humerus, right?”
Bioarch 2: [Examines bone] “No, it’s a left.”
Bioarch 1: “But it’s humerus?”
Bioarch 2: “Right.”
Bioarch 1: “I thought you said it was from the left!?”
Bioarch 2: “Right!”

[Repeat ad nauseam until both scientists tear out their hair in frustration]

In order to avoid this Who’s on First? level of slapstick, I have instituted a policy of saying “correct” instead of “right” when in agreement about something involving human bones. Another helpful tactic that bioarchaeologists and anatomists use to avoid confusion is to ensure that bones are always oriented in Standard Anatomical Position.

In The Human Bone Manual, White describes Standard Anatomical Position (SAP) as “Standing with feet together and pointing forward, looking forward, with none of the long bones crossed from viewer’s perspective and palms facing forward” (426: 2005). The first page of Anderson’s The Human Skeleton: A Manual for Archaeologists, notes that “In describing the human body, all references are related to what is known as the ANATOMICAL POSITION. That is, we consider the individual to be standing erect, with feet together, eyes facing straight ahead, and hands at the side with palms facing forward” (1: 1962).

An Introduction to Human Evolutionary Anatomy specifies that “Anatomical descriptions are always made with the body positioned in the anatomical position…sometimes this has to be imagined, because the bone or specimen under consideration is actually lying on a table or is still half buried in the ground. The anatomical position is that assumed by a standing person with the upper limbs at the side and with the face, palms of the hands and feet pointing forwards”(2002: 16). Finally, Baker et al. describe how “… the adult human skeleton is typically oriented in a standing posture with no bone crossing over another. Thus, the legs are together with the toes pointing forward and the arms are at the sides with the palms facing forward…While standard anatomical position is based on the adult skeleton, it pertains to any child who has begun to walk. For fetuses and infants who have not yet begun to walk, the body can be envisioned in a supine position (on the back), with the toes pointing up and the palms facing up along the sides of the body” (2005:7).

I struggled with these kinds of technical definitions when I was an osteology student, and found visual or hands-on demonstrations far more effective. If, for example, you’re into yoga, you’re already familiar with SAP as “mountain pose.”

You can also think of it as the standing version of one of my favorite* yoga poses, corpse pose:

*Because I am lazy.

If, however, you are not a yoga practitioner, another helpful test of your understanding of SAP is the examination of the sleeping positions of our canine companions. I have noticed that sleeping puppies will often default to the human Standard Anatomical Position, though they always accidentally pronate their front paws . Let’s take a look, shall we?


Addendum
: I must confess that  when I analyze the bones of the hands, particularly the metacarpals, I analyze them as if they are pronated, and not in SAP. This is because I am a poor osteologist – do as I say, and not as I do!

References
Aiello, L., and C. Dean. 2002. An Introduction to Human Evolutionary Anatomy. Elsevier, London.

Anderson, J.E. 1962. The Human Skeleton: A Manual for Archaeologists. The National Museum of Canada. Roger Duhamel F.R.S.C.: Ottawa.

Baker, B.J., T.L. Dupras, and M.W. Tocheri. 2005. The Osteology of Infants and Children. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

White, T. D., and P.A. Folkens. (2005) The Human Bone Manual. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Image Credits: Abbot and Costello image from Aurora’s gin joint, found here.  Skeleton in SAP found at auriea.org, here. Mountain pose in anterior view from North Shore University, here, and in lateral view from Greatist, here. Corpse pose from fitfluential, found here. SAP Puppy 1 from the Daily Puppy, found here; SAP Puppy 2 from found here; SAP Puppy 3 from Barkpost, found here; SAP puppy 4 found here; SAP Puppy 5 from Patti Brehler on blogspot, found here.

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A Day of Archaeology on the MARBAL 2017 Project

Disclaimer: This post is a time-stamped “day in the life” of MARBAL co-director Jess Beck, and is brought to you by approximately 17 cups of coffee. It was written as part of the “Day of Archaeology” project on July 28, and was originally posted here. The Day of Archaeology project “aims to provide a window into […]

via A Day of Archaeology on the MARBAL 2017 Project — MARBAL

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How to Analyze a Prehistoric Commingled Burial

My first attempt at this newfangled move called “reblogging”. Here’s my post on analyzing prehistoric commingled burials from the MARBAL project blog.

MARBAL

Most of the human skeletal remains that Emilie and I have been analyzing for the past two weeks are either primary burials, or secondary burials of bits of a single individual.

Two humeri, two radii, two ulnae = 1 person. Would I that all bioarchaeology was this simple.

We’ve recently been examining material from an Early Bronze Age site located just east of us, across the Mureș river. This archaeological site has five distinct graves documented, and after reviewing the maps, I did what I do best: decided to save what looked like the worst work for Future Jess.

For all of last week, I analyzed about a burial every day or two, and things were moving along at a rapid clip until on Saturday night I realized that the only provenience left from the site was from the commingled grave. With growing trepidation, I decided to re-examine that particular map. I…

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New Blog: Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmeț Bronze Age Landscape

In my last post, I promised an update regarding my latest bioarchaeological endeavours. The twist is that the update won’t come on this blog.

As you may recall, I spent about ten days in October gallivanting about the Apuseni mountains, with local fauna and recalcitrant equipment aplenty.


In addition to teaching me about the wonders of Romanian cuisine,


that trip also represented the start of a new bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology project. My collaborator, Dr. Colin “Creator of Inspiringly Ridiculous Acronyms” Quinn, first suggested we dub the undertaking MARBAL, or “Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmeț Bronze Age Landscape.” Colin conducted his doctoral dissertation research in Romania, and our third collaborator, Dr. Horia Ciugudean, is an expert on the Romanian Bronze Age, with years of experience excavating all over the region.

The 2016 crew

With our powers combined, we bring together a unique set of skills – including human osteology, mortuary analysis, and an understanding of regional settlement patterns – that can help us to answer questions about what life was like in this area in the ancient past. We’re particularly excited to be working here because the Apuseni Mountains house some of the richest copper and gold resources in the world, meaning that this area will help us to learn about mobility, exchange, and the emergence of inequality in Late Prehistory.

In day-today practice, however, the brevity of our research trip means that I have reverted to the level of data collection obsessiveness that so characterized my dissertation research.

If you’re interested in learning more about my research in Romania, we’ve just started a collaborative project blog at www.marbalarchaeology.wordpress.com. We’re in Alba for another week, so you can expect several updates about Romanian biaorchaeology, the museum scene in Alba Iulia, and how I feel about dealing with bags of commingled human remains on a Saturday morning (hint: it looks something like this):

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I’ll cross-post relevant bioarchaeology or osteology posts here on Bone Broke, but for more on fieldwork in Romania, the Bronze Age, and the larger MARBAL project, make sure to follow the new blog!

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Osteology Art: Alba Iulia

Hello from Alba Iulia, Romania!

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After a mere 42 hours of travel, I arrived back in Transylvania on Thursday, July 13, to continue working on the collaborative project I began back in October.

BUD

Who doesn’t love waiting outside the beautiful Budapest airport at 1 am to catch an 8 hour van to south-western Transylvania?

After arriving, and fortifying myself with my favorite local fare with undue haste, I have launched into bioarchaeological data collection.

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The American contingent of our team – consisting of myself, Dr. Colin Quinn (Hamilton College), and recent Appalachian State graduate Emilie Cobb – is here for three weeks doing some collections research with human remains from three Early Bronze Age sites that were excavated by our collaborator Dr. Horia Ciugudean. We’ve burrowed into the Muzeul Național al Unirii (National Museum of the Union), where we are greeted every day with an honest-to-goodness parade past our laboratory window:

I’ll post more soon about what we’re up to, as we’re on the cusp of launching a project blog.

However, in the meantime I feel the need to point out one of the endearing things about the Zona Tolstoi, the northern neighborhood we currently call home. Every morning, we have a 20-minute walk in to the museum, and when passing through a narrow alleyway to the side of a local café-bar, we are greeted with this wonderful street art:


I find it particularly appropriate given the nature of our research here. More soon – stay posted!

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Osteology Everywhere: Mohonk Edition

As part of my summer campaign to explore the Hudson Valley region (read: to avoid working on manuscripts/cursing at R), I recently bought an annual membership to Mohonk Preserve. The preserve is just outside of the town of New Paltz, only about 45 minutes away from Poughkeepsie, and has miles of hiking trails with some amazing views of the surrounding landscape.

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Trips to Mohonk and the nearby Minnewaska State Park also provide me with the opportunity to meet some of my New York neighbors, like this slightly suspicious Eastern Red-Spotted Newt:

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and this iridescent Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle:

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I particularly enjoy Mohonk because, unlike Shenandoah National Park or the Vassar College Farm, I have never gotten any ticks there. On a recent visit, I also hiked around Mohonk Mountain House, a gorgeous hotel perched atop a mountain lake that is, unfortunately, only accessible to the ultra-wealthy guests who sojourn there.

Mohonk Mountain House

It was on the way back down that I saw another instance of landscape osteology everywhere, akin to the sighting at Storm King (though this time not anthropogenic): superior and inferior iliac spines masquerading as hilltops:


Need a closer look?


I hope that you’re able to spot some orogenic osteology of your own this summer!

Posted in Osteology Everywhere, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments