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.

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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.

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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, 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.

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A Day of Archaeology on the MARBAL 2017 Project

Disclaimer: This post is a time-stamped “day in the life” of MARBAL co-director Jess Beck, and is brought to you by approximately 17 cups of coffee. It was written as part of the “Day of Archaeology” project on July 28, and was originally posted here. The Day of Archaeology project “aims to provide a window into […]

via A Day of Archaeology on the MARBAL 2017 Project — MARBAL

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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):

FullSizeRender 5
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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