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!


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.

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Travel | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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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MARBAL Outreach at Cambridge Festival of Ideas

A recap of some recent outreach that I did as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas!


Last week I participated in a public outreach session titled “Unravelling the Stories of the Dead: Rethinking Truth and Evidence Through an Archaeologist’s Lens“, which took place at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

I presented with two other archaeologists, and as our flyer on the gates to the Downing Site indicated,  we all took different approaches to the themes of truth and story-telling in archaeology.

Laerke Recht, who kicked off the event, focused on vertical versus horizontal story-telling, using the biography of author Agatha Christie as a framework within which to discuss object biographies and life histories. Just as biographers find different ways to explore Christie’s life – ranging from  situating her career within  the the broad perspective of the first half of the 20th century, to narrowing their focus to her personal relationships – archaeologists can use the same kinds of multi-scalar strategies to assess our…

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Huns, Romans, and lecture series at Cambridge

McDonald Institute for Archaeological ResearchOne of the things that I miss most about my time at the University of Michigan is the sheer number of talks that I was able to attend, from Department of Anthropology colloquia, to archaeology brown bags, to the Evolution and Human Adaptation lecture series (the year that Maureen Devlin ran it was particularly stellar), to four field grad talks, as well as a bevy of events in other departments.

Imagine my delight to find upon my arrival at Cambridge that there are EVEN. MORE. TALKS. here than there were at Michigan! It has been, frankly, difficult to limit my attendance to two to three lectures per week.

Since arriving I’ve been to presentations on climate change in the Indus Valley (Cameron Petrie), big data approaches to risk and resilience in the archaeological record (Erik Gjesfjeld), and today I even gave one myself, a public talk on how and why archaeologists collect data from human skeletal remains as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas – more on that later.

One series that I’ve found particularly intriguing is run by the Human Evolutionary Studies Group Discussion Group (who have shortened their title to “HESDG,” an acronym I’m still not sure how to pronounce). HESDG is currently exploring “Concepts in Human Evolutionary Studies: a Room 101 Approach,” a reference to the novel 1984, where Room 101 is the torture chamber where people are confronted with their worst nightmares (it’s also apparently the name of a British tv series). Each speaker who presents is tasked with specifying one concept in anthropology that they wish to put INTO Room 101, and one concept that they would like to take OUT of Room 101 and intellectually resuscitate.

Rob Foley kicked things off on October 17 with a discussion of “symbolic thought” (-) and “finite space models” (+). This past week they invited Mark Thomas (UCL), a provocateur who instigated a particularly spirited discussion the intellectual constraints inherent in our reliance on species concepts (sample quote: “I think Linneaus stopped biology from being a science. Until Darwin came along, it was just description and bean counting”). From an archaeological perspective, however, it was his selection of a concept to pull out of Room 101 that was the most interesting component of the seminar, because he picked migration.

Much of the resulting debate involved push-back from the archaeologists in the room concerning the cultural-historical baggage associated with the terms “migration” and “diffusion.” I found the discussion particularly ironic given that less than a week before, the biological anthropology department had invited Susanne Hakenback to discuss her research on Hunnic incursions along the Roman frontier, exemplifying just the sort of intensive archaeological interest in migration that Thomas seemed to find lacking. To his credit, archaeologists now term this research on “mobility,” rather than “migration,” so his exasperation may have been rooted in the vagaries of shifting terminology more than anything else.

Hakenbeck opened her talk by emphasizing the abundance of textual narratives that decry the “well-attested violence” of the Hunnic incursions into Europe.

However, she underscored that archaeologists have not found the kind of material evidence of a sweeping and violent migration that you would anticipate, with the exception of a smattering of “Hunnic” material culture and some artificial cranial deformation that has at best amorphous links to the Huns. Accordingly, Hakenbeck and her collaborators decided to examine subsistence practices in order to elucidate the relationships between nomadic-pastoralists (Huns) and sedentary agriculturalists (Romans) along the frontier.

To examine these relationships, they conducted isotopic analysis of diet (δ13C, δ15N) and mobility (87Sr/86Sr, δ18O), taking samples of teeth and bone collagen from five sites in the frontier region of Hungary,. They compared individuals from these Hungarian sites to a sample of roughly contemporaneous settlements from central Germany (full-blown agriculturalists) and central Asia (dyed-in-the-wool pastoralists). The figures below are taken from their 2017 paper in PLoS ONE, and show the central German sample in red, the central Asian sample in blue, and the Hungarian sample in green. Hakenbeck et al. 2017 – Fig. 2

What Hakenbeck et al. found in the δ13C comparison (Fig. 2)  was that the Hungarian sites fell in between the two end-points of agriculture and pastoralism, showing more dietary variability than evidenced in the agricultural population. A similar pattern  occurs for the δ15N values, where none of the Hungarian sites have values in the upper ranges that you see for central Asia (Hakenbeck et al. 2017, Fig. 3).Hakenbeck et al. 2017 – Fig. 3In regards to mobility, Hakenbeck found that about 1/3 of the individuals from the Hungarian sample fell outside of the local range (Hakenbeck et al. 2017, Fig.6)m and emphasized that this is a very large range of variation in comparison to other published material.
Hakenbeck et al. 2017 – Fig. 6

Combining the results of the analyses of diet and mobility shows carbon and nitrogen evidence for mixing of pastoral and agricultural diets, and the strontium isotope ratios suggest quite high levels of mobility for individuals living along the Roman frontier.

Accordingly, despite historical depictions of sweeping waves of violent incursions, the archaeological evidence paints a different picture, in which geographically intermediate communities began experimenting with new, more flexible subsistence strategies that incorporated both agriculture and animal herding. As the authors conclude, “The influx of nomadic populations into east-central Europe in the fifth century AD may have caused enormous political upheaval and documented episodes of violence, but isotopic evidence shows people finding strategies to mitigate and perhaps even to benefit from these changes by modifying their subsistence economies” (Hakenbeck et al. 2017: 19).

The talk provided a great demonstration of how archaeologists use material evidence and isotopic methods to address migration in the ancient past. It also underscored that even though we have replaced the term “migration” with a new emphasis on mobility, as a discipline we are still very much concerned with how and why people and ideas move from place to place.

Hakenbeck SE, Evans J, Chapman H, Fóthi E (2017) Practising pastoralism in an agricultural environment: An isotopic analysis of the impact of the Hunnic incursions on Pannonian populations. PLoS ONE 12(3): e0173079. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173079

Image Credits: Old 1984 cover found on flavorwire, here. Bell Beaker migrations image found on Pinterest, here. Figures 2, 3, and 6 taken from PLoS ONE article referenced above. In final image, sheep found here, goat found here, cow found here, and barley found here.

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Biological Anthropology, Cambridge, Talks | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Cambridge, Research | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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?

: 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!

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.

Posted in Anatomy, Bioarchaeology Vocab | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments