SAA 2017 – Manipulated Bodies: Investigating Postmortem Interactions with Human Remains

I’m currently in Vancouver, spending a few extra days in the city after attending the 2017 Society for American Archaeology meetings. At the moment I’ve been waylaid by a merciless head cold, but you don’t have to be at the top of your game to appreciate how beautiful this city is.

As if this view wasn’t enough, I snapped this photo on my way to dim sum. DIM SUM!

As is my wont, I’ve spent my free time in the city immersing myself in the local culture (eating), catching up with old friends (eating), making professional connections (eating), and taking a few moments to stop at the conference center overlook and ruminate upon the majestic mountains (while eating).

On the last day of the conference, I was also able to find the time to visit the UBC Museum of Anthropology, which has a reputation for being one of the best anthropological museums in the world. It did not disappoint.

However, despite all of my gallivanting about the city (eating), I was actually in town for professional reasons. I presented a paper on March 30, in a Thursday evening symposium titled “Manipulated Bodies: Investigating Postmortem Interactions with Human Remains.”  My paper focused on evidence for the postmortem manipulation of human remains in Late Prehistoric Iberia, touching upon the Late Neolithic–Copper Age sites of Bolores and Perdigões in Portugal, and the Copper Age site of Marroquíes Bajos in Spain.

The session was organized by Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Sheffield. The papers were geographically chronologically wide-ranging: we moved from the British Neolithic to the Iberian Copper Age, followed by the British Bronze Age, Roman Iron Age, early Anglo Saxon period and medieval period, and closed with discussions of historical Romania, contemporary Britain, and Hong Kong. It was nothing if not an eclectic mix of papers.

Despite the diversity represented within these case studies, a number of overarching themes tied the session together. Many of the Late Prehistoric through Medieval papers touched upon communities’ frequent interaction with the dead, the selection of specific elements or individuals for burial, the movement of bones across and between mortuary spaces, the blurring of initial ritual context over time, and the repeated use of mortuary spaces, even over periods separated by hundreds of years. The historical and contemporary presentations demonstrated radical shifts in mortuary practices over the course of even one or two generations, particularly in tandem with larger changes in global economies, migration patterns, or political regimes.

Being a prehistory snob, I was surprised at the degree to which some of the papers on more recent societies resonated with things I had been thinking about in the context of my own research. For example, Steven Gallagher, who is a law professor at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, gave a presentation on secondary burial practices among the Chinese diaspora. In Hong Kong, secondary burial practices continue to this day, even in the face of tightly controlled regulations, underscoring the continuing importance of forms of forms of mortuary practice we often unthinkingly relegate to the prehistoric sphere. Similarly, the “Continuing Bonds” project introduced by Lindsay Büster uses archaeological case studies to facilitate discussions of death, dying, and bereavement between health care professionals and patients. This kind of work makes it clear that a modern Anglo-American perspective, where death is a taboo that is tightly spatially and temporally constrained, is insufficient for understanding the complex web of interactions between the living and the dead in the past.

Our discussant was Anna Osterholtz of Mississippi State University. In her discussion, she emphasized a series of intertwined themes that were woven throughout the papers in this session, including materiality and immateriality, as well as space and place. I found the latter two a particularly compelling pair to think about.

Rothwell Church

Many of the presentations, diverse as they were, resonated because I’ve recently been reading a lot of literature emphasizing the re-use of mortuary spaces at points in time quite distant from their initial construction. Within our session, Elizabeth Craig-Atkins and Dawn Hadley‘s papers on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel emphasized that three out of five recent radiocarbon dates fell between 1250 and 1450 AD, when archaeologists had anticipated that the chapel would have been used. However, surprisingly, the remaining two dates were from the 18th and 19th centuries, several hundred years later. Similarly, Ian Armit, of the University of Bradford, described the mortuary assemblages in the Covesea Caves of Northeast Scotland, which contained both Early Bronze Age (c. 2500-1500 BC) and Roman Iron Age human remains, from nearly a millennium later.

Covesea Caves

In my own presentation, I referenced a Copper Age mortuary area at the site of Marroquíes Bajos that shows Early Bronze Age reuse, several hundred years after the initial funerary depositions were made. I also described the site of Bolores, a Late Neolithic – Early Copper Age artificial rock shelter where ten burials have been dated to 2800-2600 BC…but an eleventh interment was dated to 1800 BC, nearly one thousand years later. My collaborator Colin Quinn has noted a similar pattern in the radiocarbon dates at the Bronze Age Mound of the Hostages in Tara, Ireland, where a single burial was interred in the mound several hundred years after all other mortuary activity had ceased.

Probably a fair bit of mnemonic density kicking about here.

All of this suggests that we as archaeologists need to be particularly attuned to the potential of mortuary sites to experience multiple periods of use and re-use in prehistory. In my own presentation, I referenced a term that archaeologist Katina Lillios has used to describe mortuary spaces in Late Prehistoric Iberia. She refers to a quality called mnemonic density, “the potency of spaces or things resulting from their repeated use over long periods of time and their accumulated…memories, associations, and meanings” (2014: 8). Though at first glance quite eclectic, the papers in the “Manipulated Bodies” session underscored the extent to which the re-use of mortuary space was an important element of many different kinds of prehistoric mortuary rituals, and that this attention to the mnemonic density of burial spaces was likely a recurring feature of prehistoric mortuary rituals in Europe.

The session has certainly given me many things to consider in my research going forward, which I suppose is the point of conferences (besides eating).

Image Credits: Continuing Bonds header from Continuing Bonds project website, here. Photograph of Rothwell Church from University of Sheffield, here. Covesea Caves photo from Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, here. Photo of Stonehenge from English Heritage, here.

Lillios, Katina T. 2015. Practice, Process, and Social Change in Third Millennium BC Europe: A View from the Sizandro Valley, Portugal. European Journal of Archaeology 18(2): 245-258.

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Conferences, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Wolff’s Law

Ever heard the expression “use it or lose it”? That pithy phrase encapsulates Wolff’s law, an anatomical rule that describes how bone grows and changes over time. The law was developed by German surgeon Julius Wolff, whose name you will now always remember due to the clever visual pun embedded subtly in the portrait below.

Visual puns mean that you will not forget his nameIn essence, Wolff’s Law states that bone is added where there is a demand for it and removed where there is not. As White summarizes in his Human Osteology glossary, “bone is laid down where it is needed and resorbed where not needed” (2000: 53). Roberts and Manchester go into slightly more detail:

“Of particular relevance generally to occupationally induced changes in the skeleton was the law proposed in AD 1892 by a German anatomist Julius Wolff, known as ‘Wolff’s law of transformation’, which stated that bone will adapt to functional pressure or force by increasing or decreasing its mass to resist the stress (Kennedy, 1989: 134); formation of bone, for example, will sustain and distribute the load…This means that if the body is involved with a repeated activity, the skeleton will respond by becoming ‘larger'”(2005:144).

For example, in the entirely hypothetical scenario outlined below, Individual A is highly active, and his upper arm bones experience frequent bursts of dynamic loading (e.g. lifting mjolnir, pugilistic pursuits, etc.). In contrast, Individual B is far more sedentary, and rarely lifts anything heavier than a pencil.

Wolff's Law as demonstrated by Marvel superheroes

Using Wolff’s Law, we can predict that Individual A will have stronger humeri than Individual B, because both arm bones have responded and adapted to the differing loads that are placed upon them.

Wolff's Law as demonstrated by actual wolves

In case you were wondering, those are indeed miniature wolves. Visual puns for the win!

If I ever draft a post about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, we are all in trouble.

Image Credits
: Julius Wolff portrait from Greenhill Osteopath, here. Wolff’s delightful wolf cap found here. Thor wielding mjolnir found here. Wimpy Steve Rogers found here. Wolf images both found here. Humerus found here. Sapir backdrop from Wikipedia, here. Original Worf face found here.

Roberts, Charlotte and Keith Manchester. 2005. The Archaeology of Disease. Third Edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

White, Tim D. and Pieter A. Folkens. 2000. The Human Bone Manual. Elsevier, Academic Press: Amsterdam.

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Bioarchaeology Vocab, Osteology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bone Broke Year in Review 2016

Monitor Lizard in Lumpini Park 2016

As 2016 vanishes into the aether like a monitor lizard slipping into the waters of Lumpini Park, it is time to reflect on the last year at Bone Broke.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll just leave this here.

Bone Broke posts per year 2013-2016

When thinking back on on my past year of blogging, I realized that I haven’t published as many posts as I have in the past. This is largely due to the number of important professional transformations that have characterized this year: New degree! New job! Same unlimited capacity for Pop-tarts!

For me the most important achievement of 2016 is obvious: successfully making khachapuri.


No, actually it was getting my PhD, the culmination of 7 years of equal parts hard work, mentorship, repressed impostor syndrome, and Pop-tarts. The year started with a series of smaller milestones, beginning with the publication of my pre-doctoral research in American Antiquity in January – if you’re into Z-scores, skeletal representation, and groan-inducingly punny titles, it’s worth a read. In April I attended the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Orlando, giving a talk on my Spanish research in a session organized by Katy Meyers-Emery of Bones Don’t Lie fame. Probably the most memorable part of the conference was being publicly chastised by discussant Lynne Goldstein for making my graph bars too light – fortunately she liked the rest of the paper.

DAA pin 2016

I followed up my stint in Orlando with a direct flight to Atlanta to attend the 2016 American Association of Physical Anthropologists meetings, presenting a poster co-authored by Marta Díaz Zorita-Bonilla on the isotopic results of my dissertation research at Marroquíes Bajos. In Atlanta I also attended my first meeting of the Dental Anthropology Association, a fabulous opportunity to nerd out with fellow researchers interested in human teeth. By May, I had submitted my complete dissertation to my committee, and my defense took place on June 03, 2016. At around this point in time I announced my plans for the 2016/2017 academic year – acting as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, a position that allows me to to teach a graduate seminar while working on my own research.

Jess Beck dissertation defenseAbout a month after moving to Pittsburgh I sat down and thought about the strategies that had proved most useful when writing my dissertation, assessed my advice, realized there weren’t enough cats, and so produced my Top Ten Dissertation Writing Tips (as illustrated by cats). In late September, Katherine Kinkopf and I received word that our paper on bioarchaeological approaches to looting had been accepted in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. In the chaos surrounding my dissertation defense, I had also forgotten to publicize an article in Open Archaeology that came out in May. This first article was co-authored with Colin Quinn, and describes how mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology can be used to examine the emergence of inequality in past societies. Accordingly, to remedy my forgetfulness, I published a post in early November describing the topic of both papers and providing links to pdfs.

Cathedral of LearningOutreach
I didn’t post on the blog about outreach in 2016, but I was involved with a great NSF-funded program at the University of Michigan Ruthven Museum of Natural History called “Portal to the Public.” The program targeted graduate students who wanted to conduct science communication outreach, using two workshops – “How People Learn” and “Prototyping Your Activity” – which provided us with some background in how to engage museum visitors, particularly kids. I designed an activity called “Solving Puzzles Made of Bone,” that tasked participants with sorting and re-articulating various kinds of brightly colored animal bones. After presenting at two Museum Days – Time Discovery Day! in March, and the “Scientist Spotlight” in May – I received my official Science Communication Fellow certificate on May 22.

Preparing my activity station

Osteology and Anatomy
On July 19, I got all four of my wisdom teeth removed, a surgery I have been putting off for several years now. I was administered nitrous oxide and a a local anesthetic rather than going under. All told it was an interesting, albeit terrifying experience, in which I was able to hear the dentist drilling and snapping my lower third molars into quarters before forcibly tugging them out of my mandible.

If you ask, the dentist will give your extracted teeth to you post-surgery. When I eamined my teeth the necessity of removal was underscored by the fact that they had calculus on them, prompting a cascade of emotions in which my bioarchaeologist side vied with the side of me that hopes to be a reasonably hygenic person – “gross! cool! gross! neat! gross! fascinating!” Either way, the experience prompted a bioarchaeology vocab post on the phenomenon of calculus.

Osteology Everywhere and Bone Quizzes
2016 was a year filled with constant movement, beginning in Thailand in January, returning to Michigan, then visiting Orlando, Atlanta, Maine, Iceland, Pennsylvania, New York, Hungary, Romania, and Laos over the course of the year, before ending, once again, in Thailand. As is my wont, I’ve seen osteology everywhere over the course of my travels, beginning with an elephant statue at Asiatique in Bangkok, where, I’ll admit, the osteology angle was pretty obvious.

Sushi navicular!
After my return to Ann Arbor, I found a hamate in my beer at Good Time Charley’s, an establishment which I now miss due in part, I suspect, to the happy haze of nostalgia that surrounds much of my time in grad school. I also spotted a lunate in a little lithic in the Africa range in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, and a fossil femur in a tree root while hiking in Dexter. I arrived at the conference hotel at the AAPAs in Atlanta in April to find that the entire building had a highly anatomical architecture, and also spotted a sushi navicular at a nearby food court. In June, when visiting my external committe member in the Department of Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, I discovered a dens in a recovered meteorite (though it turns out that most people see a hamate). Finally, when visiting Maine just after defending my dissertation, I stumbled upon a set of intriguing faunal remains that I asked you all to identify when assigning my first zooarchaeological bone quiz – Bone Quiz 21.

Anthropological Miscellanea
As part of the ongoing saga first documented in 2014, this past year I also retrieved a (now skeletonized) bear paw from its resting place in a kindly faculty member’s backyard. After a stint macerating in a friend’s shed, it is currently ensconced in my freezer, waiting for me to finish prepping it. One of my goals for 2017 is to move on to the next stage of the process.

Bear paw revealed

Archaeological posts of 2016 fall into a miscellaneous grab-bag of categories. In January, I participated in a blogging carnival focused on outlining the “grand challenges for archaeology,” in which I highlighted the staggering lack of diversity in our discipline. In September, I promoted my friend and colleague Emily Holt’s fundraising campaign to start a video journal of archaeology called Dirt & Words – an endeavour that I am happy to report was successfully crowdfunded! In mid-December, I described some of the pilot fieldwork I conducted in Romania back in October, laying the groundwork for a bioarchaeology and mortuary research project that begins this summer. Finally, I ended the year true to form, by snarkily evaluating the the accuracy of the archaeology portrayed in the movie Suicide Squad

All in all 2016 has been an eventful year, full of challenges, changes, and exciting new developments. Here’s hoping for more of the same in 2017.

So Happy New Year everyone! May you greet the new year with all of the enthusiasm and optimism of a white-lipped pit viper balancing on the end of a small stick.

White-lipped pit viper

Posted in Blogging, Year in Review | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Pop Culture Archaeology: Suicide Squad

This past weekend I found myself on the world’s longest flight – 15 hours and 10 minutes from New York to Taipei. It’s a staggering amount of time to sit in one place, and for me it was part of a longer 32 hour journey (taxi –> train –> shuttle –> plane –> plane –> car) from upstate New York to Bangkok. As a result of the lengthy voyage, I desperately needed to distract myself from the bar at the bottom of the flight map showing the amount of time remaining on my trip. It was also imperative for me to try to forget how long it had been since I’d had a shower.

Me after 32 hours of travel

Me after 32 hours of travel

Mysteriously my seat mates were both able to focus on work for extended periods of time, but the many charms of Iberian Copper Age enclosure sites were unable to hold my attention in my sleep-deprived and travel-weary state. So, as is my wont on such ventures when I have given up all hope of being productive, I watched movies.

Suicide Squad posterSuicide Squad, the latest attempt by DC Comics to challenge the Marvel Universe’s iron grip on the American comic book box office, was released this past summer to commercial success and excoriating critical reviews. I was not particularly hopeful that this would be a ground-breaking cinematic experience, but the cast contained a few standouts, particularly Viola Davis (who I know from her tour-de-force performances in the Shonda Rhimes oeuvre) and Joel “Yo Linden” Kinnaman (who was excellent in The Killing). I decided to give it a shot.

The plot, a word that should be used very loosely when describing this film, centers around a rag-tag band of criminals and “meta-humans,” who are called up by the U.S. government to defend the country against supernatural threats. Intelligence officer Amanda Waller preferentially recruits her task force from the dregs of Belle Reve Penitentiary, which includes former assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), unstable psychiatrist Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), pyrokinetic former gang leader El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and archaeologist turned possessed witch Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevignne).

A few thoughts about the field of archaeology, as represented in this film.

1. Cara Delevingne plays Dr. June Moone. The constant emphasis on title (see below) underscores that Moone is not only an archaeologist, but a woman with a doctorate in the field (Trowel Blazers, take note). Delevingne was 23 when Suicide Squad was filmed, her youth emphasized by her massively neotenous eyes and delicate facial structure. If we allow for an accelerated 3-year progress through an undergraduate degree, and if we are remarkably generous about time-to-PhD in American anthropology programs, it would still have taken her at least eight years to get a bachelor’s and a PhD. All told, this  means that June Moone would have started her college career at the ripe old age of 15. Precocious much?

Dr. June MooneTo be fair, Suicide Squad is not the only fictional enterprise guilty of such accelerated educational trajectories. I’m looking at you, Michael Crichton.

We have established that Ellie Sattler is twenty-four.

In the early pages of Jurassic Park, we establish that Ellie Sattler is twenty-four…

And already has a doctorate. However, Crichton also correctly identifies the sexist assumptions that affect many women in STEM fields, so bonus points.

…and already has her doctorate. However, Crichton also correctly identifies the sexist assumptions that plague women in STEM fields, so bonus points.

2. We are first introduced to Dr. Moone as she is tromping through thick jungle, peering out through a break in the vegetation to witness a ruined temple rising up through the thick foliage.

TempleI was immediately curious about the circumstances surrounding Dr. Moone’s visit to this particular archaeological site. This is what we colloquially refer to in archaeology as a “big ass temple.” The building is clearly visible and not covered by vegetation, so it should be a well-known feature of the local landscape. Archaeologists don’t operate in a social vacuum, and frequently hire locals from the region they’re investigating to work on their projects. Anyone living in this area would have known that there was a massive temple sitting out in the midst of the forest. Even if it was covered by the jungle, it’s still possible for archaeologists to use techniques like LIDAR to uncover archaeological sites that have been swallowed up by dense forest (though I suppose you’d have to know where to start surveying in order to identify the sites). I am perplexed by why Dr. Moone is surveying on foot, alone, if the location of this architectural monstrosity was likely known in advance.

3. Speaking of Dr. Moone’s curiously isolationist fieldwork, in the next scene she is shown rappelling down into the cave. Alone. Presumably without telling anyone where she is, since this purportedly marks the discovery of this heretofore hidden archaeological site.

Girl where is your crew? This is dangerous.
Dr. Moone’s spelunking skills are emphasized in Suicide Squad promotional photos like this one, where we see her decked out in a climbing harness and head lamp.

Now, I’m not contesting that archaeologists sometimes need to rappel into sites. In 2008 I worked on a field project in Jordan in which we rappeled into a sinkhole  in order to conduct taphonomic research on the local palaeoenvironment. However, in that instance there were always at least 3-4 people on site. Which prompts me to ask Dr. Moone:

What are you doing rappeling into an unexplored archaeological site alone? GIRL, WHERE IS YOUR FIELD CREW?!? What are you going to do if you break your ankle?

4.  Once Dr. Moone lands in the depths of the cavernous temple, she discovers a massive ossuary with some sort of associated ritual shrine.

The shrine contains all sorts of fascinating anthropomorphic artifacts, which she investigates…

…by picking them up and immediately breaking them. I understand that accidents happen, but archaeologists are generally pretty careful around artifacts, especially unique and beautifully crafted anthropomorphic idols that would likely warrant a full publication in Latin American Antiquity. If you’re going to be that cavalier about keeping your artifacts in situ, then maybe you deserve supernatural possession.

5. At an early point in the movie, Dr. Moone arrives at a White House conference room to participate in a high-level intelligence briefing. This is one of the aspects of academic archaeology that Suicide Squad absolutely nailed. Uncomfortable, ill-fitting suit? Check. Awkward yet professional hairstyle? Check. Business glasses? Check. Dr. Moone is clearly wearing her conference outfit to visit the White House.

Conference outfits are the worst
6. There are a number of scenes in which we see the Enchantress gallivanting about, acting creepy as all get out in all manner of locations, including a hotel bedroom:

Someone was clearly not wearing gloves on siteand an old-timey bathtub.

What gross bath-water
The level of filth represented here is 100%  accurate, archaeologically speaking. The Enchantress’ hands look like she’s spent a lot of time screening on a muddy day, while the darkened bath water is a familiar sight to any archaeologist who has attempted to dislodge some of their protective dirt exoskeleton after a day in the field.

I myself have definitely had this reaction to attempting to shower post-field.

That feeling when you realize that no matter how long your shower, you’ll never remove all of the dirt.

7. Finally, yes, archaeologists do use scales when we take pictures of things. Well done, Suicide Squad.

Image Credits: All images shown (except the disgruntled cat) are screen shots from the movie, and are property of DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures. Disgruntled cat post-bath found here. Suicide Squad poster found here. Dr. Moone decked out in climbing gear found here.Dr. Moone exploring the cave found here. First Enchantress bath photo found here. Second Enchantress bath gif found here. Enchantress’ dirty fingers found here. White House report found here.


Posted in Archaeology, Pop Archaeology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Archaeological fieldwork in Romania

In mid-October I had one of those hellish trans-Atlantic journeys that are the stuff of nightmares. I left for the Pittsburgh airport at 230 am, flew to Chicago, spent 9 hours in O’Hare, flew to Dublin, booked it through the terminal during my one hour connection, landed in Budapest at 1000 am the next morning, spent 12 hours at an airport hotel, returned to the airport to catch a shuttle bus at 100 am, and arrived at my final destination 9 hours later. By the end of my trip I felt like a human pinball. It didn’t help that over the course of my solo journey I was tasked with the care and keeping of this behemoth instrument:

travel buddy

So why the crazy travel schedule and hefty equipment? Archaeological fieldwork, of course.

Anca and I mapping between Tombs 1 and 2.

I’m embarking on a new project in the Apuseni mountain region of Romania, bringing together bioarchaeological research on unstudied skeletal collections with the excavation of an Early Bronze Age cemetery. The Early Bronze Age in this part of Romania dates to 2700-2000 BC, and so the new project overlaps with my bioarchaeological research in Spain.

The Apuseni mountains are part of the Western Carpathian range.

The Apuseni mountains are part of the Western Carpathian range.

I journeyed to the field in October in order to (a) meet project collaborator Dr. Horia Ciugudean and get a feel for the Transylvanian archaeological landscape, and (b) work with Colin Quinn, my other collaborator, in order to make a map of the site, which we need in order to apply for an archaeological permit for summer 2017.

The Ramet Monastery

The Ramet Monastery, down in the valley.

Old school barn and haystack down the road from the Ramet Monastery.

Old school barn and haystack down the road from the Ramet Monastery.

The Early Bronze Age cemetery we’re working at is called Râmeț. The site extends along a ridge top just off of the road to the town of Râmeț, identifiable today only as a series of earthen lumps on the surface of the mountain. It has never been excavated before, though portions of some of the tombs have been disturbed as a result of a country trek that also runs along the mountaintop. Because Râmeț is located deep in the mountains, we were only able to head to the field when the weather permitted, and so our hours on site were precious.

On the days when it was sunny, however, the view was absolutely glorious. I spent most of my time looking out over this landscape:

View from the siteI was on total station duty, which means that I was tasked with setting up and levelling a delicate, expensive piece of machinery which is notorious for not wanting to be levelled.


Once the total station was up and running, I would hunker down behind it like a cold and irate gargoyle,

Focusing on the ever patient Anca.

What a fearsome scowl

Witness my fearsome scowl.

as Colin and Anca would stride majestically across the landscape to take topo points.


Stalwart Colin keeping the prism level.

Colin and Horia, as seen through the total station

Colin and Horia, as seen through the total station.

The landscape was beautiful but beset by all kinds of hazards, of the bovine,



Colin grapples with the local landscape

and canine variety.

He lingered, just inches away from the total station legs, wagging his tail...

Fortunately this vicious beast did not knock over the total station.

Colin subdues the vicious beast
He did, however, cause something of a commotion when we realized he was disturbing the pin flags we used to mark our transects.

Me: "Colin, what's the hold-up? Why have you stopped?" Colin: "He's eating the pin flags!"

Me: “Colin, what’s the hold-up? Why have you stopped?”
Colin: “He’s eating the pin flags!”

In the end we spent about five days in the mountains, and mapped in over 2,000 points.

dsc01265Colin has now started to put these together into a topo map in ArcGIS, which we will use to apply for an archaeological permit in the early winter.

Tomb 1Although short, I had a great pilot season, and I’m already looking forward to going back to the Apuseni mountains this summer.

The 2016 crew

The 2016 crew.

Image Credits: Map of Romania found here. Colin Quinn and Anca Dumitru are responsible for at least some of these photos, though I can’t fully remember which ones right now. Thanks are also due to the University of Pittsburgh Center for Comparative Archaeology Research Award for funding my participation in this venture.

Posted in Archaeology, Fieldwork, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Recent Publications

As an academic, one of my favorite moments is when I receive proofs for a new article – it’s a feeling up there with freshly laundered sheets, cookies warm from the oven, and waking up to the smell of frying bacon. That’s why I was very happy when my co-author Katherine Kinkopf and I received word that our paper on the bioarchaeology of looting was accepted to the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports at the end of September. We received our proofs a few days later and I kept opening the pdf to look at them, because  nothing compares to seeing your interpretations and analyses properly formatted. It’s like that teen movie trope of the already clearly attractive young woman who takes off her glasses to reveal that she has SECRETLY BEEN STRIKINGLY BEAUTIFUL ALL ALONG.

Original manuscript vs. proofs.

Original manuscript vs. proofs.

In addition to getting my proofs, I realized recently that in all of the hubub of finishing my PhD and moving to a new city, I forgot to describe another recent publication, this one in the open-access journal Open Archaeology. My friend Colin Quinn and I were invited to submit a manuscript to their special issue on Bioarchaeology, so we sat down over a few beers, talked about theory, and decided what we wanted to write.

Case studies from the Open Archaeology paperThe article in Open Archaeology is titled “Essential Tensions: A Framework for Exploring Inequality Through Mortuary Archaeology and Bioarchaeology.” We used the paper as a forum to discuss the ways in which bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology provide complementary lines of evidence about the emergence of inequality in past societies. In many analyses, bioarchaeological information about individuals’ lived experiences (like health, diet, labor, and experience of violence) are treated as “real,” and prioritized in discussions of inequality, while the identities and institutions represented in mortuary practices are viewed as “performed.” Instead of imbuing one line of evidence with greater importance or “truthiness,” we argue that coherence or dissonance between the funerary and bioarchaeological evidence reveals important information about past social organization. In order to explain our point using real world examples, we drew upon three case-studies from Late Prehistoric Europe: The Hill of Tara (Ireland), Southwest Transylvania (Romania), and Marroquíes Bajos (Jaén).

Table 1 from Open Archaeology

The most recent paper in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports is titled “Bioarchaeological Approaches to Looting: A Case Study from Sudan.” This paper was born out of Katherine Kinkopf’s undergraduate honors thesis at the University of Michigan. At the time, I was her “graduate mentor,” which meant that we talked through her central question, research design, and data collection strategies while she was developing her thesis. Katie is interested in looting from both an archaeological and anthropological perspective, and so we designed a project that investigated whether it was possible to discern whether a burial had been looted based on the patterning in thepreserved skeletal remains. She analyzed a sample of burials of known condition (e.g. excavators had determined that they were either “looted” or “unlooted”) from the Kerma-period site of Al-Widay in Sudan. We then identified  “Culturally Significant Anatomical Regions,” or areas of the body most likely to have been targeted by looters due to the presence of jewellery or grave goods – in this case, the skull, upper neck, hands, and feet. Katie used fragmentation-zonation methods to record the preservation and condition of those regions for a sample of remains of known condition, as well as a sample of burials of unknown condition, for which excavators did not make a determination about whether burials were looted or unlooted.
Figure 4 JASREPFigure 5 JASREPThe data showed a stark difference between the preservation of CSAR elements in looted versus unlooted burials (see Figures 4 and 5 above). I then worked with the Center for Statistical Consulting and Research at the University of Michigan to develop a leave-one-out logistic regression model that used the preservation and condition of known burials to predict whether the burials of unknown condition had also been looted.

Overall, we showed that looted and unlooted burials from this period in Sudan had different signatures of skeletal preservation, meaning it was possible to make inferences about whether or not a burial had been looted based on the condition of therecovered bones. This research is particularly useful in instances where skeletons were excavated before modern archaeological recording standards were in place, or in situations where provenience information like site reports or excavation notes may be inaccessible due to political unrest or curation issues.

Accordingly, if you’re interested in inequality or looting, both papers are available on my page, and I’ve posted links to the pdfs in the references below as well. Now, to get back to writing so that I can generate more proofs!

open_archaeologyQuinn, Colin and Jess Beck. 2016. Essential tensions in mortuary contexts: Exploring inequality through bioarchaeology. Open Archaeology, Topical Issue in Bioarchaeology. 2:18-41.


Kinkopf, Katherine and Jess Beck. 2016. Bioarchaeological approaches to looting: A case study from Sudan. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 10: 263-271.



Image Credits: Shocking She’s All That transformation from Drinking Cinema, here.

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Publications | 2 Comments

Bone Quiz 21

Every human osteologist reaches a point in their life when they are forced to make a foray into zooarchaeology. My most recent brush with the world of skeletal fauna took place over the summer, when I spent a week visiting one of my friends at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine. My friend Cleo is head chef at the camp, so I spent most of my days volunteering under her watchful eye, slicing bread, washing dishes, preparing enormous trays of bacon, baking challah, and (admittedly unwillingly), rinsing enormous sinkfuls of kale.

You haven't lived until you've seen an entire speed rack full of bacon.

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen an entire speed rack full of bacon.

This, however, is my idea of hell.

This, however, is my idea of hell.

In our downtime, after the bacon had cooled  and the kale was rinsed, Cleo and I would head out to explore our rustic surroundings. Hog Island was brimming with coastal Maine charm: flora and fauna aplenty, majestic maritime vistas, and paint-by-numbers sunsets. The most memorable thing on the island, however, was a series of eerie tented wooden structures that cropped up on the paths traversing the local woods. Apparently a former staff member had spent several summers building these bizarre sylvan edifices.

Thing 1

Thing 1

Thing 2, with Cleo for scale

Thing 2, with Cleo for scale

These reminded me strongly of the creepy tripod totems from the first ultra-unsettling season of True Detective, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise that one of them was filled with bones:

I, of course, reacted to the situation with my customary thoughtfulness and gravitas:

I look so delighted because even though the bones weren’t human, I could make a pretty good guess as to what they were based on a fairly rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and some context clues. Here’s what they looked like when I arranged them in a roughly articulated fashion (though I have a sneaking suspicion that the pelvis orientation may be out of whack):
Rough anatomical position

Here are a few alternate views of the elements, to help with your foray into fauna, with a quarter for scale.

Cranial and postcranial


One thing to keep in mind when making your identification is that the entire anterior half of the available cranium is missing. So, to successfully answer this non-human bone quiz, you need to be able to answer the following questions:

1. What type of animal is this?
(You can aim for a species-level ID, but my species identification is still only a guess at this point…)

2. Adult or sub-adult?

3. What elements are represented?

Good luck! Add your identifications as a comment to this post, and I’ll upload an answer one week from today. [Update: I completely forgot that I needed to post an answer key, so it actually went up on January 01 2017. Thanks to Ubi Dubium for the reminder!]

Image Credits:
The photos of me gleefully examining the mystery bones are courtesy of Cleo Bell.





Posted in Bone Quiz, Fauna, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments