Pack your bags: equipment you’ll need for bioarchaeology data collection

This past Friday I finished my preliminary season of dissertation data collection here in Jaén. After staggering, zombie-like, out of the museum, devouring a bocadillo that was approximately the size of my head and staring blankly at the wall for a few hours, I began to revive. I have learned many things this season. For example:

1. When in southern Spain, verbal communication should be as telegraphic as possible. Andalusians have an ingrained aversion to pronouncing every syllable in a phrase as it is written. If you say “ha-sta lu-e-go” they look at you like you’re a dog walking on its hind legs. “Ta luego” will garner you a certain amount of credibility. If you want to earn true autochthonous bonus points simply say “luego”. Similarly, “buena tarde” should always be shortened to “buena”.

2. Always make sure you have all of the teeth pulled before analyzing commingled skeletal remains.  Spend an extra hour going through all of the bags if necessary – you’ll thank yourself later.

3. If you are from North America, you’ll need to reduce your walking speeds to about 40% of your customary pace in order to survive in Spain. This was easy for me to do in Jaén, because most of the city is built on a precipitous incline, and I am blessed with abundant amounts of natural sloth. Recurring highs of 38˚C were also helpful in convincing me to move at a fraction of my usual pace whenever outside.

4. When conjoining or pair-matching commingled long bones, it helps to clean the bones as much as possible beforehand. Coloration of bone is often indicative of exposure to a particular taphonomic environment, and provides helpful visual hints as to likely matches. Also helpful: music and/or frequent cursing, depending on how many fragments you have.

While this list could go on and on, one of the truly useful things I have learned this season is what equipment is necessary for conducting bioarchaeological research efficiently and responsibly. Given that my Andalusian research tips are likely only to be appreciated by my Iberianist colleagues (to whom I say “Much like Sagres and Super Bock, Alhambra has a dark varietal – try it if you get the chance!”), I figured I’d share my revamped equipment list for any interested  bioarchaeologists setting off to do their own data collection soon. Some of these are items are likely obvious choices to pack (calipers, toothbrushes), but others took me a little while to figure out (whiteboard, keyboard protector), and I figured that other people might benefit from my slow learning process…..

Equipment List:

  • “Yup, that’s wood alright”. This identification would doubtless have been impossible without the use of a loupe.

    “Yup, that’s wood alright”. This identification would doubtless have been impossible without the use of a loupe.

    Hand magnifying lens (loupe): These are particularly useful for examining LEH, the edges of caries or fractures, and potential cutmarks or taphonomic damage to bone.  I found the lens I currently use at a Sunday street market in northern Italy – if you don’t want to go that far afield you can find a bunch of them available for purchase on Amazon.

  • Good calipers: I brought less than stellar lab calipers with me this season, and when a friend came to visit with his new pair of new Mitutoyo digital calipers I was very jealous. Invest in a good pair before starting your fieldwork.
  • Fragment sorting circles: As I’ve noted before in this post, I found this to be an extremely efficient method for sorting fragments. If you spend $2.00 and get them laminated at a photocopy/office supply place, you can re-use them for multiple seasons.
  • Photo scales: I emailed our archaeology museum list-serv requesting photo-scales and got a number of different pdfs of typical 10cm and 5cm scales. I had these laminated like my fragment sorting circles, but next year I will likely invest in some real ones. I’ve found that laminated scales don’t always react well to being photographed, and occasionally show up on the edge of pictures as blinding flashes of light. A friend of mine recommended these ones as being a reliable and cost-effective choice.
  • Toothbrushes: not just for good dental hygiene.

    Toothbrushes: not just for good dental hygiene.

    Dental picks, toothbrushes and toothpicks: These are useful tools for getting dirt or chunks of sediment off of dirty bone. You can never have too many toothpicks. My lab curates a motely collection of dental picks free for the asking, but I know a number of archaeologists who have gotten them free from dentists after explaining their life choices (and consequent need for arcane equipment) to the fascinated medical professionals.

  • Keyboard Protector: These cost < 2 dollars online and are definitely worth it. I’ve used mine since Kampsville, and it has greatly prolonged the life of my laptop by preventing bone-dust and dirt from infiltrating the keyboard. It also means that you don’t have to clean your computer every single day if you enter data directly as you’re collecting it, the way I do.
  • Camera tripod: I wish I’d brought mine, especially for taking photos on macro settings that require more of a steady hand than I am capable of at 2:00 pm! I have a gorillapod that  I plan on bringing with me next year.
  • Small whiteboard with dry erase marker: This was key for taking photos quickly while also documenting specimen provenience. Whenever possible I tried to jot down any relevant provenience info before snapping a photo. Photos can always be cropped, and in the event that any sort of computer emergency occurs, this practice will allow me to retrace my steps and figure out what specific photos depict.
Item:  Provenience:

Item: Beleaguered grad student
Provenience: Michigan

  • Small cooking sieve: This was particularly useful for quickly dry-screening small bags of remains that had a lot of loose dirt in them.
  • Sharpies: As an archaeologist, I am of course addicted to Sharpies. You can never have too many of them. Be sure, however, to never confuse your sharpie with your dry-erase marker for your white-board. I waited with bated breath all season and I was fairly convinced I was going to do that at least once, but my whiteboard survived unscathed.
  • Sand: Though some of my paleo-buddies have apparently been using this trick for years, it took me awhile to figure out. If you want to take a high-quality photo of bone that requires orientation and support, just dump some sand in a box and use it to prop the element up. Some people use play-dough, but I find that has a tendency to stick to bones and create more of a mess than its worth. Sand is cheap, durable, and easy on the bones.
  • Human Bone Manual + Standards: These are my go-to reference manuals of choice for bioarchaeology. I scanned my copy of Standards so that I have a pdf as well. I’m surprised at how much I still rely on both volumes, and how versatile they continue to prove themselves. Whenever I have a question on metrics, scoring, or documentation, Standards is my first resource, and if I’m having trouble siding something, despite my considerable bag of osteo-tricks, Tim White’s tips are often indispensable.


  • Museum quality plastic bags, varying sizes: I was fortunate enough to work in a very well-equipped and generous museum, but if you need to rebag cleaned materials, leave notes in bags of bone (that need to be packaged in some form of plastic ere they molder and disintegrate) or separate out your dentition, you’ll want to bring some bags with you.
  • External Hard Drive: If you are writing a dissertation on any topic, BACK THINGS UP. This is not specific to bioarchs. It’s well worth the investment. My computer started staggering towards the end of my season, weighted down by the pernicious albatross of many, many high-definition photos of bone. External hard drives are useful for both backing your work up and providing you a storage place for extra material (scans of maps, site reports, etc) that you may need to take back home with you.
  • Music: Bring. a. lot. of. music. The one thing about bioarchaeology data collection that can be unexpectedly disconcerting for dirt archaeologists is the amount of time you spend alone. And also the amount of time you spend indoors – as I was telling one of my friends recently, this is the least amount of time I’ve spent outside in the past six or seven summers. Music or podcasts can help remedy both of those problems.

Alright. Time to go enjoy some post-dissertation travel on the eastern steppe. If anyone’s interested I can also post a list of essential equipment for field archaeology sometime in the future. Lemme know!

Photo Credits: Photo of “Identifying Wood” textbook found here: , Images of bioarch reference manuals found here  and here .

This entry was posted in Data Collection, Dissertation, Equipment and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Pack your bags: equipment you’ll need for bioarchaeology data collection

  1. sciencedummy says:

    Great list. Have you ever used rice instead of sand? I actually only use it when gluing fragmentary bones, letting them set in rice. And it doesn’t get stuck in trabeculae like sand sometimes does. Never thought to use it for photography, though. Rice is also pretty easy to find almost anywhere if you can’t bring it with you. Just another idea!


    • JB says:

      That’s a great idea! Thanks for the tip. I’m sure that someday I’ll wind up collecting data at an institution that isn’t quite as well-outfitted as the Museo de Jaén. So now I know to head to the grocery store for supplies!


  2. dreamspirals says:

    Thanks for the list, really helpful in certain elements of a research proposal I’m currently writing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.