How to Analyze a Prehistoric Commingled Burial

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


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

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

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

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

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New Blog: Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmeț Bronze Age Landscape

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

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

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

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

The 2016 crew

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

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

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

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

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Osteology Art: Alba Iulia

Hello from Alba Iulia, Romania!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Osteology Everywhere: Mohonk Edition

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


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

and this iridescent Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle:


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

Mohonk Mountain House

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

Need a closer look?

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

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Osteology Everywhere: Storm King Edition

I’m spending part of this summer in southern New York, and have been doing my best to distract myself from various overdue manuscript drafts by exploring the area. To that end, a few friends and I went to an outdoor sculpture park at the beginning of June. I’d never heard of this place until it featured in a recent episode of Master of None:

After finding out that the art center was only a 45-minute drive away, we hit the road a few days later. Storm King in the flesh is about as bizarre and spectacular as you’d expect.  The undulating landscape spreads out across 500 acres, and is dotted with stands of trees, meandering dirt treks, and over one hundred enormous sculptures.

Storm King – View from between South Fields and Museum HillSome of the metallic behemoths seemed strangely familiar. It turns out that one of the artists responsible for many of these sculptures – Mark Di Suvero – also has a piece outside of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, one that I walked by on a near-daily basis for seven years.

Orion (2006). Mark Di Suvero.

The first sign that Storm King might provide fodder for an osteology everywhere post was that we found…osteology…everywhere. In the course of ambling about the park, my little group stumbled upon two different pieces of fragmentary animal bone. I’m no zooarchaeologist, but I’m pretty sure the bone on the left is a proximal bird humerus, while I would guess that the bone on the right is a deer tibia [any readers who are faunal experts are welcome to chime in to correct me here if I am in the wrong].

Faunal bones
Despite the preponderance of weathered iron sculptures, the most striking piece of art at Storm King isn’t made of metal. After exploring the South Fields our group walked just beyond the Storm King Wall (Andy Goldsworthy, 1997-1998, yes it is one of the art installations), to find a field that looked like it was plucked from a Lewis Carrol fever dream.

Storm King WavefieldThese waves of turf are another unexpected piece of art – Maya Lin’s “Storm King Wavefield.” Lin is also the architect responsible for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. The wavefield actually also featured in Master of None, in a scene where Dev piggybacks Francesa across a field:

Master of None at Storm King WavefieldActors Ansari and Mastronardi are being quite respectful of Lin’s work, since the appropriate way to traverse the wavefield is by walking between the crests. Some of the local youths gallivanting about the place ignored these directives, and it was while staring at the young people, brow furrowed disapprovingly, that I noticed that the wavefield is also an example of osteology everywhere.


From this perspective, don’t the waves look like stretched-out anterior superior and anterior inferior iliac spines?

ASIS and AIISWhatever the reason, to me the gently undulating terrain was strikingly reminiscent of the anterior illium.

BicycleIf you’re ever in the Hudson River Valley and have some time to kill, I strongly encourage you to check out Storm King for yourself!

Image Credits:
 Master of None screenshot from Netflix. Orion photo from University of Michigan, here. Master of None at the wavefield found at nypdecider, here. Hyperlinked angry cat from 9gag, here.

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Osteology Everywhere: Heliconia Edition

When I spent a week at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine last year to visit my friend Cleo, the experience made me realize how little I know about the natural world. The names of even basic north-eastern birds sounded like something out of a Lewis Carrol poem – grebes and eiders and auks and guillemots. It also became clear that I’m not a dab hand at naturalist descriptions. When asked to describe a bird I normally point to “that fat black one” or “that tiny one zipping around and being annoying.” Sadly, my ineptitude also extends to flora, as became evident when I first attempted to ask the internet about this peculiar plant I photographed in Bangkok:

“Yellow flower Thailand,” I googled fruitlessly. “Yellow flower triangular leaves,” “weird yellow flower Bangkok.” Fortunately, I remembered that Google has an image search function, rendering my ineffectual keywords moot.

It turns out that this is a flower called the Golden Torch (more formally named “Heliconia psittacorum x Heliconia spathocircinata cv. Golden Torch“). According to the all-knowing internet, the “x” in between the two species names indicates it’s a hybrid, while the “cv” means that it is a cultivar. Wikipedia describes 194 species in the Heliconia genus, most of which are tropical. Many are equal parts bizarre and beautiful, both in appearance and nomenclature. For example, we have Heliconia rostrata (also called “lobster claw”):

Heliconia rostrataand Heliconia psittacorum (aka “parrot’s beak” or “parakeet flower”).

Heliconia psittacorum
The collective Heliconia genus can also be referred to as “lobster claws,” “wild plantains,” or “false bird-of-paradise.”

Heliconia plant
While the diverse and descriptive names are certainly compelling, the reason I found these plants fascinating was because they reminded me forcibly of a horse mandible. To wit:

The seeds themselves look more like human premolars than horse teeth:

Either way, a bizarre and intriguing plant. Now to go find some osteology where it actually belongs – within in progress manuscripts!

Image Credits: Heliconia rostrata image from, here. Heliconia psittacorum photo from, here. Final Heliconia image (species unknown for now) found here.

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Syllabus: Inequality and the Body in Archaeology and Bioarchaeology

A Pittsburgh salad

As you may know, I spent this past year in Pittsburgh, figuring out when and where it is appropriate to say “yinz” and eating Pittsburgh salads.

However, I also had a position at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Comparative Archaeology. As the torch has just been passed to the 2017-2018 Visiting Scholar  Claire Ebert, it seems like a good time to discuss what I did besides inadvertently festooning my office with snack foods.

My primary professional responsibility was co-teaching a graduate seminar with another faculty member, in my case Liz Arkush. I pitched the course Inequality and the Body in Archaeology and Bioarchaeology:The first half of the seminar was focused on intersections between inequality and aspects of identity such as gender, age, disease, and disability. The second half of the course covered links between inequality and broad political or economic transitions– namely agriculture and colonialism – as well as different kinds of mortuary practices, focusing on sacrifice and post-mortem manipulation of human bones.

This was my ANIMATED agriculture slide. None of my students appreciated this as much as I did, making me feel like a Dad with his first selfie-stick.

A handful of the readings were inspired by mortuary seminars I’ve taken in the past – one called Social Life of Death with Nicole Couture at McGill University, and one called The Archaeology of Death and Burial with Rob “No Relation” Beck  at the University of Michigan. The heavy Andean bent of some of the meetings is a direct result of Liz introducing me to a new and fascinating regional record, and I included a number of readings from related fields, including social epidemiology, cultural anthropology, medical anthropology, and history. In future expanded iterations of the seminar I plan to break up disease and disability into two sessions, add a unit on “social deviancy,”and include warfare and slavery in the second half of the course.

On the last meeting of the seminar I had a terrible, debilitating cold, lending my voice a mellifluous Darth Vader-style huskiness. I offered students donuts and my most thematically appropriate earrings as compensation.

In the fall semester we had 14 students (12 archaeologists, 2 bioarchaeologists) and in the winter semester we had 8 (6 archaeologists, 2 bioarchaeologists), a drop-off rate that is fairly consistent with other years of the course due to heavier workloads in the winter semester. Faculty within anthropology always had an open invitation to attend, and older graduate students would drop in for particular topics that interested them. All told this created a wonderful environment for debate, with both bioarchaelogists and archaeologists at all career stages chiming in to discuss how best to discuss inequality in the archaeological record.

Many participants from the fall and winter semesters, celebrating the end of the year at a pizza place in Bloomfield.

I’m attaching the syllabus as a pdf here. Future versions of this seminar will likely run between 12-14 weeks, so I welcome suggestions for expansion for anyone working on similar topics. Happy summer everyone!

ANTH 2536:ANTH 2537 – Inequality and the Body in Archaeology and Bioarchaeology Syllabus

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