Bone Broke Year in Review 2017

In 2018 I will approach my goals with the predatory enthusiasm of a lion stalking its prey in Nairobi National Park, rather than the sluggish determination of a snail forced to engage in slow-motion acrobatics due to lack of foresight, which is the vibe that has characterized my approach in 2017.

The reason that my year has passed in a befuddled haze of airports and train rides is because so much of the academic year has been spent on the road. Though I moved to Pittsburgh in August 2016 for my position as the 2016-2017 Visiting Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, and technically lived in Pennsylvania through May 2017, I only spent 5.5 months in the city, and spent the other 3.5 months travelling. I travelled for fieldwork, conferences, job interviews, bioarchaeological research, and in order to see friends and visit family.

One of my goals for 2018 is thus to limit my travel and stay in one place for at least two months so that I can finally feel a bit settled, and possibly even get some academic work done. That said, I am writing this post from Zanzibar*, on a four-day New Year’s holiday after attending a friend’s wedding in Nairobi, planning to head back to the Cambridge for a week before going to Tübingen and Jena in Germany for six-days on a research trip to meet with collaborators. Even when I seek to avoid it, it seems that travel is determined to find me.

In spite of my hectic schedule, I still found time to get quite a bit done in 2017. My post count for this past year continues to pale in comparison to the 2014 and 2015 peak years of Bone Broke blogging, numbering only 22 posts including this annual recap. Even though post numbers are low, they still provide a good sense of what it is I have been up to academically.**

Academia

The 2017 accomplishment of which I am most proud was co-teaching my first graduate seminar with Liz Arkush, an undertaking that required an unanticipated immersion in Andean archaeology, much cajoling of recalcitrant students who did not want to respond to my thoughtful and stimulating prompts, and, of course, donuts.

In mid-winter, I also found out that I had made the grade for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Fellowship at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. Upon my arrival at the McDonald in October, I realized that I had landed in a wonderfully energetic and welcoming academic community which has 50+ post-docs in archaeology and biological anthropology alone. There are endless and fascinating lecture series that cover everything from contemporary debates in biological anthropology to isotopic analyses of mobility along the Roman-Hun frontier. Training and outreach are both components of my fellowship, so in late October I presented my research at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas with new friends and fellow MSCA post-docs Alexandra Ion and Laerke Recht, and in the first week of November I drank Yorkshire Tea for the first time while attending a workshop on entheseal changes at the University of Sheffield.

Oh, and as part of my new life in Cambridge, I also finally learned how to ride a bike.

Conferences

At least a fraction of my travel in 2017 was related to conference attendance, beginning with the SAA meetings in Vancouver in early April, where I ate some truly spectacular food, visited the breathtaking UBC Museum of Anthropology, and presented my Iberian research in an eclectic and stimulating mortuary archaeology session. After my brief stint in the Canadian west, I headed to the AAPA meetings in New Orleans in mid-April, where I sampled beignets for the first time and also presented a poster on aging methods for subadult teeth. I closed out the year with a trip back to the U.S. in late November in order to attend my first ever AAA meetings, catching up with a number of old friends while marvelling at the scale of the conference.

Osteology Everywhere and Bioarchaeology Vocabulary

 During all of my time on the road I indeed saw osteology everywhere, starting with some heliconia plants in Bangkok, Thailand. I spent a lot of time in New York State over the spring and summer, and in so doing documented iliac crests at both Storm King art center and in the Mohonk Preserve. During my second foray to my Romanian field site, I witnessed some excellent osteology art, in the midst of bouts of consumption of slanina and Jacobs coffee packets. After moving to the UK, I really did see osteology everywhere: on the London Tube, on Downing Street outside of my institute, and in the fiery coals of Thirsty Riverside’s Winter Garden. I also attempted to share my obsessive osteological attitude by writing Bioarchaeology Vocab posts on both Wolff’s Law and the Standard Anatomical Position.Visual puns mean that you will not forget his name

Fieldwork

2017 was an important year for getting my next archaeological project off of the ground. While I went to the field in October 2016 in order to map the site of Ramet, I only spent about 10 days in Transylvania. In July of 2017, I returned with the American component of the MARBAL team (Colin Quinn and Emilie Cobb) to rendezvous with Dr. Horia Ciugudean in Alba Iulia, and analyze a number of human skeletal remains from previously excavated Bronze Age sites in the region. Over the course of the summer we started a new blog, I outlined instructions for analyzing a prehistoric commingled burial, and I recounted a day in the life on the MARBAL project.

Expect more ridiculous-looking field ponytails next summer.

It has, all in all, been a busy year. I’m already looking forward to seeing where my archaeological peregrinations take me in 2018. In the mean time, a fellow guest at these bungalows wandered by and admonished me “I hope you do not do work!?”, so it seems like a sign from the universe telling me to take the rest of the year off (six hours and forty-five minutes in this time zone, at least). Wishing a happy and healthy new year to all readers!

* Zanzibar is beautiful, which is why I’m posting these photos, but because I’m first and foremost an anthropologist I also strongly encourage everyone to read the first section of Jamaica Kinkaid’s A Small Place when thinking about what it means to be a tourist in a colonial landscape.
** Besides eating Pop-Tarts.

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AAA 2017 – Washington D.C.

I moved to the UK at the beginning of October, so it no doubt seems strange that I scheduled a trip abroad less than two months later. However, the quick turnaround was for a worthwhile anthropological cause: in late November I headed back to the US to attend my first “triple As”.

The AAA meetings – the conference run by the American Anthropological Association – occur once a year in the late fall. They are the major US meetings for both sociocultural anthropologists and linguistic anthropologists, with attendance running to 6,000+. As such they’re much larger than the primary American conference for biological anthropology (the AAPA meetings), or the Society for American Archaeology meetings, which are larger but still not quite so overwhelming.


Because these meetings are traditionally attended by cultural and linguistic anthropologists, they have become a far more intimate scholastic setting for networking if you are an archaeologist or biological anthropologist. In 2017, I joined as a member of the Biological Anthropology Section upon the recommendation of friends and colleagues, since there are a number of highly active biological anthropologists who have been trying to make the conference more four-field friendly. One example of this is an excellent session I attended that was co-organized and co-chaired by my close friend Caroline VanSickle (NEPOTISM ALERT #1). The session was titled “Biological Anthropology and the Public”, and each of the presenters was invited to speak because they conduct their own unique form of public outreach. This session was particularly innovative because each of the 10-15 minute presentations were filmed in advance at the Smithsonian NMNH , and the videos were broadcast for the first time at the conference session itself a few days later.Sue Sheridan (@SusanGSheridan) discussed the perils and pitfalls of running popular Facebook group BioAnthropology News. Kate Clancy (@KateClancy) followed up by describing how her Period Podcast allows her to reach a much broader audience than her previous attempts at scientific blogging, while Julie Lesnik (@JulieLesnik) gave the audience a series of patented “Tips and Tricks” for making science lectures resonate with broader public audiences.

After Julie, Becca Peixoto (@Becca Peixoto) talked about what it felt like to livestream her work as an ‘underground astronaut’on the Homo naledi project into classrooms and lecture halls around the world. Natalia Reagan (@natalia13reagan), dressed in my favorite conference outfit to date, recounted her time spent debating and debunking popular cryptozoological myths (among others), from an anthropological perspective, and Briana Pobiner rounded out the session by describing how museums can incorporate and promote scientific outreach.

Agustín Fuentes (@Anthrofuentes) led the subsequent discussion, which touched upon important topics ranging from the undervaluation of outreach in tenure decisions to the unfortunate reality of being a woman on the internet in 2017, including death threats and rape threats. Andre Costopoulos, a mentor of mine when I was an undergraduate at McGill University (NEPOTISM ALERT #2), has written an excellent follow-up piece inspired by the session that delves into the historical backdrop to the shift in anthropological attitudes towards public outreach.

I was in the audience for the entire session, and have recapped it as a Twitter moment. Grudgingly, I have to admit that the talks themselves are even more engaging than my tweets, and they are all available to watch on the BOAS Network YouTube channel. These are worth a watch. This session ranks as one of the most innovative conference presentations I’ve seen in anthropology, up there with the “UpGoer Five” session at the 2017 AAPAs in New Orleans, and of course Alison Atkin’s most excellent conference poster “The Attritional Mortality Myth” (also known as #plagueposter).

The session in which I myself presented, titled “Bioarchaeology and the Biocultural Synthesis: Current Perspectives and Applications,” was organized by Michigan State University PhD student Lisa Bright and Idaho State University visiting assistant professor Amy Michael, and focused on biocultural approaches to bioarchaeology. The session abstract emphasized employing “biocultural models that blend social theory with cultural, environmental, and biological interactions,” and was aimed at “researchers whose work encompasses issues that were relevant in the past just as today (e.g. migration and immigration, gender and sexuality, race and ancestry, privilege, economics, and health).” There were some great talks in that vein, from discussions of how structural violence affected historic populations in the United States, to the impact of race and gender in the both the ancient past and in the present.

I presented a co-authored paper on the ways in which mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology provide complementary lines of cultural and biological evidence that can be used to more fully understand the emergence of inequality in human societies. We drew upon case studies from Copper Age Iberia, Early Bronze Age Romania, and Bronze Age Ireland to illustrate the ways that our approach can inform the emergence of inequality in different parts of the world in prehistory. That paper, co-authored with the esteemed Colin Quinn, was published in Open Archaeology in 2016 as a paper titled “Essential Tensions: A Framework for Exploring Inequality Through Mortuary Archaeology and Bioarchaeology.” One of our goals over the past two years has been to break the Top 5 most downloaded articles list for that journal, so go ahead and give it a read if you’re feeling generous.

Since I was able to participate in a thought-provoking series of bioarchaeology presentations and witness a stellar session on public outreach in biological anthropology, I’d say my first AAAs were a success. However, I still haven’t recounted the most important interaction of my conference experience: meeting the world’s most compelling graduate school recruiter (spotted at the booth for KSU).


More Washington DC conference shenanigans to unfold in 2018, as I’ll be back in the city in the spring to present a poster and a paper at the Society for American Archaeology meetings. Until then, Happy (almost) New Year!

 

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Osteology Everywhere: Winter Garten Edition

In the movies, southern England during the holiday season is always pictured as a bucolic landscape of quaint villages nestled in rolling hills that are blanketed with snow. The reality is something more like this:

Current view from outside my office, as of 3:19 PM on Sunday, December 17. Pretty grim.

The weather of late has been unpredictable– cold, or, rainy or, wait for it… cold AND rainy. I have begun to appreciate the British penchant for layered sweaters and a constant stream of tea. After four years in Quebec and seven years in Michigan I can handle the cold, but low temperatures combined with rain, rather than snow, simply add insult to injury.

In order to cope with the ever inclement weather, on Saturday night I organized a small gathering at a place called the Winter Garten, run by Thirsty Riverside.

The Winter Garten is a semi-outdoor beer garden that has massive tents with central fires, an outdoor beer stand, and rotating food trucks. Because of its location and clientele, it is also a great place for dog-watching.

His name is Peanut and he is dressed like a Christmas pudding.

I made some bad food decisions on Saturday afternoon (namely, not eating enough food), and so I was forced to grab a burger, which meant spending a fair amount of time shifting from foot to foot in the cold, wishing I’d brought a thicker pair of gloves. Upon returning to the tent, it was necessary to warm up by the fire.

Holding my hands as close to the fire as humanly possible made me notice the shapes of logs themselves. After a few seconds, the elongated and angular exteriors surrounding rounded hollow cavities seemed somewhat familiar. Don’t these look like tibial shafts?


A friendly winter reminder that even capuchin-themed beer cannot prevent me from seeing osteology everywhere!


Image Credits: Photo of tibia from the Science Museum Collection, here.

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Osteology Everywhere: Downing Street Edition

I’m currently in the US, visiting friends for about a week after attending the American Anthropological Society meetings in Washington DC. It’s been a difficult return trip, as I now find myself beset by sunlight until exceedingly late in the evening – 4:30, 5:00, sometimes even 5:30 PM – in contrast to the soothing, pitch-black darkness that descends on southern England like clockwork at 3:30 PM.


Each time I take a trans-Atlantic trip, the two-day period before departure is noteworthy for being a particular relaxed and well-organized time.


JUST KIDDING. Instead, it’s a two-day slog that finds me furiously packing, making to-do lists, and fretting about whatever important item I will realize that I have forgotten while boarding my first plane.

Last week, I was in the midst of a typically last-minute foray outside the McDonald Institute to shop for gifts when I noticed an unusual street cover on the pavement along Downing Street.


At first glance, the pattern reminded me strongly of subadult long bone diaphyses, the central shaft portion of the bone that fuses to the outerlying epiphyses as the skeleton grows and develops. Take a look at these tibial diaphyses photographed by Pieter Folkens,

these casts of long bone diaphyses from France Casting,
or the diaphyses visible in this articulated partial subadult skeleton from the Museum of London.

See it now? I think the main reason I found the pattern so visually evocative was because of the flaring proximal and distal ends of each piece.

A good reminder that even when I’m trying to focus on other things, there is osteology everywhere!

Image Credits: Fokens’ tibial series via allthingsAAFS, here. France Casting subadult bones found here. Subadult bones from Museum of London found here.

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Osteology Everywhere: London Tube Edition

My parents visited me last week (Hi Mom!). On Sunday we struck out for London, so that they could see West End shows, eat at fancy restaurants, and attend tennis tournaments. Apparently, the near constant threat of a cycle collision in central Cambridge was not enough drama to sustain them on their trip to the UK.

We also went to Ely, where we saw this spectacular rainbow.

After a somewhat convoluted journey into the city, which involved driving to Heathrow, returning a rental car, taking a shuttle to Terminal 2, taking the Picadilly line to King’s Cross, purchasing a return train ticket, then taking the train to the West End for lunch, we were finally ready to see some of the city. While my mother watched a show, my father and I spent two hours walking around Green Park (very little) and Hyde Park (very big) to take in the sights.


Though the weather was chilly, I was excited to observe some of the local urban fauna.

Real talk: when I stopped to take this photo of a goose a pigeon LANDED ON MY ARM! It did not poop on me, but it had poop on its claws, and I am never going near a bird feeding area in London ever again, let me tell you.

I was especially tickled by the confident strut of this Egyptian Goose (don’t worry, I too had to look up the species name).


As the light was fading* it was time to walk back through the Wellington Arch and catch the tube back to King’s Cross.

I was sad to leave my parents (mainly because they were staying at a fancy hotel that had a coffee room full of free pastries and cookies), but perked up once I noticed this map of the Picadilly Line while taking the tube back to King’s Cross.

Look at this cute little skeletal hand! Bonus points for the correct number of phalanges on the pollux, as well as the appropriate orientation and differentiation of the distal radius and ulna. 

However, after counting the visible carpals (6), I realized two were missing. The hand is shown in dorsal view, hence no pisiform, but it took me a few toggles back and forth between the image and some anatomical drawings and x-rays to realize that the trapezium is gone.

The illustration is by artist Rob Durkin, who provides a close-up of the image on his website. My assumption is that Durkin removed it to preserve the clean lines and blank spaces between all of the bones, make for a neater image. On his website he does specify that his aesthetic entails “achieving the perfect economy of line, angle and shape to convey the idea.”


The omission could pose a problem if you’re trying to learn hand anatomy, but if you’re trying to learn hand anatomy solely with reference to subway posters there are probably larger problems at play in your life than a missing carpal. Trapezium or no, the poster was a pretty adorable way for the universe to remind me to stop gallivanting around bird-watching and get back to work!

*WHICH HAPPENS AT 4PM NOW, WHY!?!

Image Credits: X-ray hand by Rob Durkin, taken from his “Discover London Above the Picadilly Line” poster.

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Workshop on Entheseal Changes at the University of Sheffield

The first week of November was rough. I came down with a virulent strain of English cold that involved sleeping poorly, mild fever, a runny nose, congestion, a hacking cough, and remarkably low energy levels.

Me trying to get myself to do work last week

Of course, the first week of November was also when I had elected to embark on my inaugural visit to “the north” and attend a workshop at the University of Sheffield. The workshop was focused on scoring entheseal changes. Entheses (singular: enthesis) are attachment sites of musculoskeletal soft tissue (i.e. tendons, ligaments, muscles, joint capsules, and nail beds). Entheseal changes, therefore, are any deviation from normal entheseal anatomy.

I was curious about learning a new scoring method because bioarchaeologists have used entheses to explore differences in activity between groups, between populations, and over time, though the correlations between activity and specific entheseal changes are still contentious. Katy Meyers Emery has a helpful run-down of this topic on Bones Don’t Lie if you’re looking for more detail about recent research and current debates.

Fortunately, I already knew someone at Sheffield, a PhD student named Resa Nelson who I’d met at Pitt while she was getting her master’s. She offered to put me up for two nights, though I did have to put up with her weird little roommates as part of the bargain:


Unfortunately, when I arrived I was too groggy, sleep deprived, and congested  to do any of the sight-seeing I’d been planning on. Instead, I had to content myself with viewing some awesome street murals on my way out of the train station,

and making a quick foray into Beer CentralMoor Market’s amazing beer stand.

After a mere thirty minutes outside of the apartment, I retired for an evening of Netflix, soup, and about eighteen cups of herbal tea. Fortunately, I had most of the morning to recuperate before heading to the workshop itself.


The workshop was run by Charlotte Henderson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Coimbra, who was trained at the University of Durham. She began by giving a general lecture on entheseal changes, followed by a lecture explicitly focused on the new Coimbra method for entheseal changes, a scoring system which she helped to develop.

Over the course of the lectures, Henderson emphasized that while entheses are often touted as being a method with which to study activity-related stress and to identity specific types of activity in the past (e.g. weaving, praying, grinding, archery, throwing), there are no definite links between entheseal changes and muscle use. There has been some recent research using anatomical cadavers to define the boundaries of specific entheseal sites, but the meaning of entheseal changes themselves is far more ambiguous. Entheses are affected by a slew of variables, including:

  • age
  • sexual dimorphism
  • trauma
  • normal anatomical variability

Unfortunately, entheseal changes also don’t correlate with the cross-sectional geometry of long bones, which is another method that bioarchaeologists use to understand activity patterns. Henderson underscored that one approach to mitigate some of these etiological issues is to examine intra-individual asymmetry in entheseal changes. She indicated that the utility of the method is in its ability to identity activity changes using big data, for example, comparing hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists over the course of the agricultural transition. Henderson highlighted the new Coimbra method as having been developed to understand (1) what’s causing these changes, and (2) have a standard system developed out of clinical literature.

Me in the throes of my disgusting cold, attempting to interact with the other workshop participants.

For the next part of the workshop, we broke into  small groups to practice scoring entheseal changes, focusing on the attachment site for the subcscapularis m. (proximal humerus), and biceps brachii m. (proximal radius). Each enthesis was divided into two zones. For Zone 1, we scored bone formation and erosion. For Zone 2, we scored textural change, bone formation, erosion, fine porosity, macro-porosity, and cavitation. We started out using trays of labelled bones that had already been scored previously, with an Excel spreadsheet containing each of the scores projected onto the screen so that we could check our assessments.


As with most other qualitative visual scoring systems (e.g. scoring the pubic symphsis or auricular surface), it took awhile to get the hang of the new Coimbra method. I wound up talking through many of my decisions with other people at my table, and Charlotte helpfully came by every so often to help us navigate the particulars of scoring a specific bone. What became clear is that in order to score these entheseal sites rigorously you need to deeply understand the parameters of the ‘normal’ morphology for each area to distinguish regular variation from true entheseal changes.

I doubt I’ll use the method myself, both because two hours was an insufficient amount of time for me to learn how to confidently score these kinds of changes, and because the material I work with is often so fragmentary that there’s no guarantee you will have a sufficient number of the same anatomical regions preserved to compare entheses across individuals or between burial populations. However, I’d never been taught any entheseal scoring method in the past, and now I feel confident to explain the gist of the method to students.

Charlotte mentioned that one of her aims for running these workshops was to teach the method more widely so that some of those “big data” analyses are possible. In that I think she succeeded, as one of the researchers at my table was a PhD student at UBC who had flown all the way from Vancouver just for the workshop.

Overall I found the trip highly informative. It illustrated some of the differences between the detailed methodological focus of many UK osteoarchaeologists relative to the broader and explicitly anthropological approach taken by US bioarchaeologists. I’ll be keeping my eye on the entheseal literature over the next few years in the hope that clinical soft tissue studies reveal more definitive etiological links between muscle use, activity, and entheseal changes. I’ll also be on the lookout for some of those ‘big data’ papers that Charlotte referenced. Until then, it’s time to celebrate my recovery with some of the local beverages I brought back from Moor Market!

Image Credits: Exhausted puppy from Bark Post, here. Photo of Slimer found at wired, here. New Coimbra method logo from CIAS: Research Centre for Anthropology and Health, here.

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Interview with Jess Beck: Cambridge postdoc life, applications & blogging

In which I am interviewed by the formidable Alexandra Ion for the new University of Cambridge archaeology postdocs blog (https://archaeologypostdocsucam.wordpress.com/):

Archaeology Postdocs at Cambridge University

  1. Hi Jess, you are new in Cambridge. What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge now and why?Cycling! I was never taught how to cycle as a child, and so was forced to learn two weeks before arriving in Cambridge. I live a few miles away from the McDonald Institute, and the efficiency of bike transit has given me an opportunity to see more of the city and to live in a neighbourhood outside of the student bubble. It also emphasizes the frantic, kinetic nature of this city. Like most Americans, I think I moved here with the expectation that Cambridge would be ancient and somber, full of exquisite architecture and pensive, solemn students immersed in their scholarship. Instead, I arrived to find a bustling town packed with students, tourists, buses, cars, and cyclists, with everyone in constant movement. Cycling thus…

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