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 | 3 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

Dirt & Words: A Video Journal of Public Scholarship of the Past

I’m taking a minute this week to plug a neat campaign that one of my friends is putting together. Archaeologist Dr. Emily Holt, currently at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, is crowdfunding a peer-reviewed video journal called Dirt & Words. Emily and I have spent some time talking about this at the SAAs and over email, and I think it’s a fabulous idea. In Emily’s own words:

“Although many archeologists are passionate about communicating with the public, we do it less than we’d like – and less than we should. Why? Because communicating with the public isn’t considered “real” scholarship, so we aren’t rewarded for doing it. But if public scholarship had to go through the same rigorous process of assessment that our professional articles go through – a process called peer review – scholars would know that our public outreach is good science – with real impact.

That’s why I want to produce Dirt and Words, a freely accessible online videojournal of public scholarship about the past. All Dirt and Words videos will  go through peer review, where professionals in the field assess the quality of the research and public consultants decide whether the video is compelling public scholarship. Whenever you watch a Dirt and Words video, you’ll know you’re getting the best and most current information we can give you.”

For those of you who are visual learners, here’s a video describing the project that touches upon some of Emily’s archaeological research.

I’m advertising this both because Emily is currently soliciting donations to get the video journal off of the ground, and because I want this to be on people’s radar, especially archaeologists interested in public outreach and scholarship. If you’re curious, take a look at the indiegogo page, where you can find more information about Dirt & Words. I definitely plan on submitting a video myself in the future!

Posted in Archaeology, Outreach | 1 Comment

Top Ten Dissertation Writing Tips (as illustrated by cats)

Ah, September. That time of the year when mornings become crisp, foliage is newly painted in scarlet and amber hues, and graduate students are gripped with a crippling sense of guilt in regards to all of the writing they did not do over the summer. Fear not! After having just finished navigating the writing process myself, I’m sharing my top ten dissertation writing tips, as illustrated by cats. For those of you who want to peruse this at your non-internet leisure, I also have a pdf of this post available here.


In many ways, writing your dissertation is akin to knowing that you have to move in the near future. There are many things that you can do to prepare in advance, such as taking bags of clothes to the thrift store, selling superfluous furniture on Craigslist, giving away hundreds of pounds of books, finding sublettors, and locating a new place to live. Every time you tick a task off your to do list, you feel a sense of accomplishment, patting yourself on the back for being so thoughtful and well-organized. As the move draws nearer, you increase the pace of your preparations, throwing things into boxes willy-nilly and assuring yourself that “I’ve put so much work into this already. I’m sure everything will be fine!”


In reality, no matter how well you prepare for your dissertation, the end game is always intensely stressful.

For me, the period of escalating anxiety peaked about two days before I submitted, when I was forced to remove myself from a noisy coffee shop and sit in my car to avoid bursting into tears. I didn’t have much leeway for emotional breakdowns at that point, so I wound up staccato typing part of my conclusions folded up like a human pretzel, with my legs crossed on my steering wheel and a baleful expression on my face. I have friends who cried every day the month leading up to their submission, or sleepwalked downtown, or relied pretty heavily on…alternative treatment methods… to deal with the stress, so I think I handled myself pretty well, all things considered.

I did, however, learn many useful things during my own writing period, which took about two years from start to finish, including time devoted to the last portion of data collection, analysis, publications, and conferences. I’m sharing my top ten tips here, in the hope that you will avoid making the same mistakes that I did. Instead, you’ll be free to make entirely new ones! 

1) Use Styles

I assume that every graduate student has a mild panic attack about formatting their dissertation three years before they are due to defend and stays up until two in the morning over winter break creating a dissertation template. No? Just me?

After that initial burst of insanity, the most helpful formatting strategy that I employed over the course of dissertating was to use Styles. Microsoft Word Styles allow you to categorize different types of text in order to (1) apply a standardized format to each category, and (2) automatically generate tables of contexts, figures, and tables.

Styles Organization

In essence, they remove a lot of the frenzied busywork out of formatting, because you know that your chapter titles, sections, and sub-sections will correspond to a standard format, and you don’t have to update your manually created table of contents every time you make a change to a minor portion of your document. If you’ve never used Styles before, my recommendation is to either (a) ask someone you know who excels* at Microsoft Office to show you the ropes, or (b) look up some guides online and play around with sections headers and formatting in a new low-stakes document that is not your dissertation until you feel comfortable.

*Please note unintentional Office pun.

2) Organize your chapters (especially your figures)

I write mindlessly and frantically, like an automaton assigned a low-level repetitive task. All that matters for me, at least initially, is getting words on the page.

I was pretty confident in my approach – “Look how many pages I have written,” I told myself, “I’m killing it!” Then I sent two of my chapters to the redoubtable B. Holly Smith and learned that my mechanical approach to writing leaves a lot to be desired. Figure captions, for example. Axis labels. Standardization in capitalization. Table alignment. Not to mention a host of other minor grammatical sins that make my first drafts read like a low-rate ransom note compiled from magazine clippings. When you have to go back and fix all of those pesky errors, it helps to have an organizational system in place that allows you to rapidly locate and replace elements of your dissertation. To cut down on formatting chaos, I wrote each chapter separately and maintained files containing drafts of the chapter, committee edits, and associated materials.

Chapter Organization

However, figure files were slightly more difficult to manage, and these often needed to be updated during the course of the writing and revisions process. Because I used hundreds of Excel spreadsheets per chapter, whenever I generated a figure in Excel I then copied the entire spreadsheet tab to a new Excel document that contained spreadsheets for all of the figures. This meant that if I decided to modify the font on Figure 7.10, for example, I didn’t need to hunt through twenty different tabs on five different spreadsheets to figure out exactly where it originated. Instead, I’d just open “Chapter 7 Figures.xlxs”, and edit it there.

Chapter 7 Figures

Figures generated in R were similarly vexing, because they also proliferated over the course of analysis. I used a similar filing system to take care of this issue, but if I wrote my dissertation all over again (the subject of nightmares), I would simply use a word document or text document that listed all of the figures generated from .r files, and link the figure name to the r. file name (e.g. Figure 7.2 = Subadult_Dentition_N1.r).

I did not start out with a system that was this organized, but after being forced to hunt for a particular figure file for about half an hour over the spring, I realized it was worth it to sink some time into some extra organizational wrangling. Now that I am working on publishing out of my dissertation I’m doubly glad, because an organized system makes it possible for me to find the original data and figures several months down the road.

3) Give yourself an extra few days to clean up your references

Unlike the rest of dissertation formatting, the reference section was the one place where Michigan allowed dissertators a high degree of freedom. The bibliography simply had to be “in the format preferred by the discipline,” and could be located at the end of each chapter, or at the end of the dissertation.

I decided to organize my references by chapter. That way, if I decided to remove a citation from a chapter, I didn’t need to hunt through the rest of the dissertation to make sure it could crop up somewhere else. I incorporated references into each chapter as I went, and when I submitted my first draft to my committee I felt fairly confident that everything was ship-shape. Then, one of my co-advisors sent me an irate email: “So I started on your references for inconsistencies. Not looking too awfully hard, I found my first one on the first page.” I reacted with the considerable aplomb for which I am known:

References Cat

I frantically assured my mentor that I would go over everything with a fine-toothed comb during revisions. I printed out all fifty-odd pages of references, and then read through each individual chapter, checking that every reference cited in text appeared in the bibliography. All told, the process took me 8 hours, and I found 37 missing references –-– items that were cited in the text but not the bibliography. The lesson here? Build a few extra days into your writing schedule to make sure your references have been double-checked.

4) Have a strategy for your figure and table captions

Just as Styles are key for organizing your entire dissertation document, you can also use them to great advantage when keeping track of your figures and tables. This is important for two reasons: (1) when you decide to add or a delete a figure, you don’t need to re-number everything by hand; (2) Styles allows you to automatically generate a “List of Figures” and a “List of Tables,” which is very useful when compiling the front matter of your dissertation. Word makes using figure and table captions a relatively easy process. Simply right-click on the figure or table and select “insert caption.” The resulting menu will also allow you to categorize the object as either a table or a figure, and the label will change to reflect the appropriate category (see below).


5) Incorporate feedback as you go

It’s generally a good idea to keep your committee involved in the process of writing your dissertation, though this ability is contingent on your chair’s approach to mentoring. I know that some advisors feel the need to see completed chapters, or even a complete draft of the dissertation, before they recommend dissemination to any other members of the committee. My chairs had no such policy, so my approach was to write the dissertation chapter by chapter, completing one chapter before beginning the next one. This checklist approach really helped me feel like I was making measurable progress while still being able to devote time to conference presentations, publications, and outreach.

Once I finished a chapter, I would send it to the committee member who could provide the most useful input (e.g. my background chapter went to the Iberianist on my committee, the isotopic results went to my outside member, who was a geologist, etc., etc). During the last few months of writing, however, I realized that I had put off incorporating a lot of that feedback until the very end of the process, and so the final stretch involved a lot of poring over comments and recommendations from the previous year. Were I to do things over again I would have built those initial revisions into my writing schedule, either working on them in between chapters or focusing on them on those days when writing simply was not going to happen.*

*Everyone has these. Do not fret.

6) Maintain a list of revisions

Finally, I strongly recommend keeping track of your intended revisions in a format that is easy to update. While committee members can give you hand-written suggestions, or track changes in a program like Word to pass along their digital feedback, you will also receive a number of verbal suggestions during meetings, and realize that there are changes you yourself want to make in the near future.

It’s tempting to believe that you can keep a running mental checklist of the changes that you want to make, but one or two minor points per day gets you in the double-digits within a week, and the chances of forgetting something important are astronomically high. For that reason, I recommend keeping a list of impending revisions and edits, whether physical or virtual. Any time I realized that I needed to make a change that I didn’t have time to handle immediately, it went on my list. Though I’m sure I still forgot some things, this strategy ensured that I wasn’t waking up every night in a cold sweat, wondering what I had forgotten.

7) Schedule writing during your most productive hours

One of the worst possible experiences when you’re writing your dissertation is setting aside a huge chunk of time in which to write, planting yourself firmly in front of your computer….and then hopelessly stalling for hours.

Producing a book takes a significant amount of time and energy, but it cannot, and should not, take up all of your time and energy. I learned this lesson after I spent two months last summer in the Sweetland Dissertation Writing Institute at the University of Michigan. In the Institute I was essentially given a stipend in exchange for being locked in a basement for eight weeks and devoting all of that time to working on my dissertation. Participants were required to be in our offices from 9am–3pm; only six hours of writing per day. However, it was impossible to spend six straight hours writing. I quickly learned to divide my time between writing, translating site reports, reading articles, and analyzing data.

With the exception of panicking undergraduates fueled by a mixture of desperation and Red Bull, most humans are incapable of writing productively for eight hours a day. If you try to do this, you will rapidly burn out, and the material that you do write will not be of the highest quality.

However, for some people, 10 o’clock at night is just when their creative juices start flowing. What worked was knowing when and where I could write productively, and building my schedule around that foundation. My most productive writing days involved spending from 8:00 to 11:00 ensconced on my couch, coffee mug in hand, tapping away at my keyboard. I would then move to campus and write until 2:30 or 3:00, which is when I normally started to fizzle out. In the evening, when I was near brain dead, I endeavored to work on less taxing elements of the dissertation – figures, formatting, references, emails, scheduling, etc.

Sadly, these hours will not always be conducive to leading a normal social life. As one of my friends yelped “I hate that I work so well at night! WHY?”

I was also fortunate in that I had write-up funding for the majority of the writing process, so I wasn’t always teaching while writing up. If you have other constraints on your time, deliberately block off productive time that is just for writing a few times a week

8) Trick yourself into believing that writing is fun

As I kicked into dissertation high gear during the last few months before defending I would take Saturdays off, but go back to working on  Sundays. I was able to handle this without dreading every weekend by using a combination of food bribery and psychological trickery.

DexterInstead of working at home or on campus, I drove to a nearby town called Dexter that’s about 20 minutes away from Ann Arbor. Recruiting one or two friends to join me, I would spend the morning in a coffee shop, take a mid-day break for an amble through the local woods, and then worked until 6 or 7 at the Dexter Beer Grotto.*

This would allow me to get five or six hours of focused work done, while still having an enjoyable day that felt like a break from my weekly schedule. If you live in a large city, or there isn’t anything comparable in your immediate environs, I’d still suggest changing your writing environment once a week. That could mean working from home when you normally have to be on campus, or switching up neighborhoods for the weekend. Even though I was getting work done, I found myself looking forward to Sundays because of the combination of movement, time outdoors, socializing, and food.

*When writing I recommend a two-beer maximum. I nurse the first beer for an hour or so as a means of encouraging myself to stay in one place, and then I use the second beer as a way to eke out another 45-minutes or hour of writing time. I’d also recommend looking for bars with large windows and a lot of decent natural light.

9) Maintain a degree of balance in your life

It is incredibly tempting to devote all of your waking hours to writing your dissertation, particularly in the final throes of the process. This is compounded by the social norms of academia, where all scholars are supposed to be maximizing their productivity at any given point time to keep up with the increasingly steep demands of the job market. As a result, every dissertating graduate student I’ve met is faced with a crippling sense of “writing guilt” whenever they aren’t actively working on their dissertation.

Writing Guilt

To be fair, there will be points in time when clocking in 12-hour days working on your project is vital and necessary. However, you can’t do this every day. No one writes a book overnight, or in a week, or even in a month. Remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and you don’t want to burn yourself out in an initial burst of furious labor.

That’s why it’s important to remember to devote time and energy to other aspects of your life. That could entail spending time with family, exercising, blogging, cooking, cleaning, or pursuing non-academic hobbies. People have different ways of mentally and physically recharging, so pick what works for you. While it seems counter-intuitive to invest time in other activities in order to write more of your dissertation, this harks back to point #7. Instead of working on your dissertation all the time and making little progress, try to maximize your productivity during shorter periods of time. As Ron Swanson so famously stated, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

Ron Swanson

What worked for me was deliberately setting aside time for workouts three or four times per week – a great motivator for exercising is knowing that the alternative is writing. I also tried to eat a few servings of fruits or vegetables every day (this was much harder, since chips and popcorn are my writing fuel). Being physically active allowed me to mentally regroup after a day of struggling to get words on the page, and also helped me maintain a normal sleep schedule. Eating healthy, at least occasionally, ensured that I didn’t feel sluggish all the time. Another small change that I made was downloading the “plant nanny” app onto my phone in order to remind myself to drink water. I require a significant volume of coffee to get going in the morning, and as the day wears on it seems that simply topping up the coffee might be a brilliant strategy. The water app ensured that I didn’t crash at 1pm in a fit of cranky dehydration.

10) Use the buddy system

I am one of those obnoxious people who is incorrigibly social. With the exception of the early mornings, I genuinely enjoy being around other people. In the past, I’ve commented on my “border collie-like” tendency to organize people into groups for events and outings. Unsurprisingly, during my last semester of writing, I began to actively seek out people to write with.

Border Collie

I recommend the use of the buddy system for dissertation writing with a few caveats. You need to carefully select the people you will be writing with to ensure that group writing is productive for everyone. The ideal balance entails an hour or two of quiet writing time broken up by occasional ten-minute conversations about sundry topics, or group outings to procure food or coffee. While you can write with anyone you want to, I also found it helpful and encouraging to work with other people who were at the same point in their academic career. I spent most of my time writing with two other final year archaeology students (and a primatologist who would step in when we needed a pinch-hitter). We called ourselves “write club,” and would meet in the seminar room of the museum to write for several hours several times a week. We also occasionally hosted “write club” parties at each other’s house, which provided that helpful location switching that I described in point #8. The host was responsible for providing food for the day, which was likely (a) the only time we were eating balanced lunches, and (b) gave the host an opportunity to focus on something besides the dissertation for a little while (see point #9).

The three of us spent the year navigating the same seemingly interminable steeplechase of job market applications, ticking departmental funding clocks, and thorny chapter sections. Academia is often incredibly isolating, and it can be near impossible to explain the particular stresses of dissertating to families or non-academic friends, or even to younger graduate students facing different sets of obstacles. Having two other people to commiserate with who were going through exactly what I was going through was a way to keep my spirits up. By the end of the summer two of us had defended, and all of us had jobs lined up for the next academic year. I am already excited for the first annual write club reunion at the Society for American Archaeology meetings.

So there you have it. My top ten dissertation writing tips. Feel free to include your own suggestions in the comments section, and GOOD LUCK WRITING.

Image Credits (Post):

  1. Terrified cat from, here:
  2. Writing guilt PhD comic found here:
  3. Ron Swanson motivational poster found here:
  4. Border collie found here:

Image Credits (Top Ten Dissertation Writing Tips as Illustrated by Cats):

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Posted in Dissertation, Grad School, Impending Doom | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments


In July I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed, which I bore with about as much stoicism as could be expected:

Makeshift frozen pea sling

Makeshift frozen pea sling

After the first terrible week of scrambled eggs, applesauce, and facial bruising, I regained some of my customary optimism when I realized that I had two new upper third molars to use for comparative specimens. The lower third molars sadly did not survive the process of extraction, as they had to be quartered before being removed from my mouth.

Fistful of molars

When I examined my upper molars more closely, I noticed something quite curious. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary when viewing the teeth from an occlusal and mesial perspective (though I found the lack of crown symmetry intriguing):

Occlusal surface

Mesial view

However, when I examined the teeth in distal view, it was evident that there was something distinct about the right upper molar – a dark raised line was clearly visible on the tooth crown.

Distal view
As soon as I saw that band I grew quite excited. This discovery was in equal parts gross and compelling. That dark strip is calculus, or hardened dental plaque, which I’ve seen in many of the prehistoric individuals I have analyzed bioarchaeologically. In one fell swoop I had both justified the removal of my upper molars (as obviously, I could not properly brush them), and connected my own dental experiences to those of the ancient people I study. Neat!

Calculus is a frequently employed marker of dental health in the skeletal record.  Ortner (2003) identifies it as a common precursor to periodontal disease, writing that ” bacterial plaque…consists of a sticky coating including protein, foor particles [sic], and living and dead microorganisms. When plaque mineralizes, it becomes calculus and in this form can be found on archaeological skeletal specimens as relatively hard concretions on the tooth surface”(593). In their volume on the archaeology of disease, Roberts and Manchester (2005) note that dental plaque “consists of micro-organisms which accumulate in the mouth, embedded in a matrix partly composed by the organisms themselves, and partly derived from proteins in the saliva,”(71) and describe how such plaque “can become mineralized into dental calculus where crystallites of mineral are deposited in the plaque”(72). Brothwell (1972) simply describes dental calculus, or “tartar” as “a concretion which forms on the teeth, usually at the margin of the gums. It consists mainly of a calcium deposit which, although fairly soft, nevertheless tends to persist on the teeth of earlier man”(155). In his glossary, White (2005:420) also uses the term tartar, which I have not heard used in bioarchaeological contexts before – I think it may be more common in dentistry.

Bioarchaeologists score calculus by visually assessing the amount of hardened plaque present on the tooth. In my experience, most scoring systems go something like this:


In reality, Brothwell’s (1972) scheme categorizes calculus as either “slight,” “medium,” or “considerable,” while Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994) use a variation that sorts the degrees of calculus into “small amount (1),” “moderate amount (2),” or “considerable amount (3).”


The etiology of calculus has been related to a number of different immunological causes, including “diet…systemic disorders, water fluoride content, improper tooth cleaning, type of food preparation, nutrition, and stress”(Arensburg 1996:140). Whatever the cause of calculus, archaeologists and bioarchaeologists have recently begun to use it in a series of groundbreaking new studies that explore what exactly  ancient people were eating.The most well-known instance of such research is found in Henry et al. (2010). Their paper throws a wrench in the works of those who claim that the “paleodiet” actually dates to the Paleolithic, as their study demonstrates that Neanderthals in Iraq and Belgium were eating grass seed starches like, and some of these grains showed signs of cooking. Hardy et al. (2016) have also recently demonstrated that Early Paleolithic hominins who lived in Israel 200,000 to 420,000 years ago were also eating starches, as well as seeds and nuts (see this post for a concise summary if you can’t access the article). Finally, Christina Warinner and her colleagues are conducting fascinating work on the origins of milk consumption and dairying in the Bronze Age (Warinner et al. 2014) using, you guessed it: dental calculus.

All told, calculus presents a disgusting and insightful window into what people in the past were eating. It also occurs frequently in prehistoric samples, which is why it was so exciting for me to see it on one of my own teeth. Even toothbrushes and trips to the dentist could not prevent me from accumulating plaque in a spot that was tricky to clean, which underscores why it was so common in past populations with poor dental hygiene. I won’t be sending my own molar off for analysis, however – no one else needs to know how much of my diet consists of Cheez-Its and Poptarts.

Literature Cited Arensburg, B. (1996). Ancient dental calculus and diet Human Evolution, 11 (2), 139-145 DOI: 10.1007/BF02437397

Brothwell, D. R. 1972. Digging up Bones. Second Edition. British Museum (Natural History): St. Albans.

ResearchBlogging.orgHardy, K., A. Radini, S. Buckley, R. Sarig, L. Copeland, A. Gopher, and R. Barkai. (2016). Dental calculus reveals potential respiratory irritants and ingestion of essential plant-based nutrients at Lower Palaeolithic Qesem Cave Israel. Quaternary International, 30, 129-135

ResearchBlogging.orgHenry, A. G., A.S. Brooks, and D.R. Piperno (2010). Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (2), 486-491

Ortner, D.J. 2003. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Second Edition. Academic Press: Amsterdam.

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

ResearchBlogging.orgWarinner C, Hendy J, Speller C, Cappellini E, Fischer R, Trachsel C, Arneborg J, Lynnerup N, Craig OE, Swallow DM, Fotakis A, Christensen RJ, Olsen JV, Liebert A, Montalva N, Fiddyment S, Charlton S, Mackie M, Canci A, Bouwman A, Rühli F, Gilbert MT, & Collins MJ (2014). Direct evidence of milk consumption from ancient human dental calculus. Scientific reports, 4 PMID: 25429530

White, Tim D. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. Academic Press: Amsterdam.

Posted in Bioarchaeology Vocab, Teeth | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Osteology Everywhere: Meteorite Edition

My external committee member was a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and the first time I went to visit him I was delighted with the departmental decor. Geologists know how to outfit a hallway – they had everything from brilliantly colored geological maps of the UK:

I need this map. Or a similar geological map of Spain.

to collections of meteorites:

Case o' meteorites

One in particular caught my eye. The chunky meteorite in the center goes by the name of “veined spherulitic chondrite.” According to Wikipedia, these are the most common type of metorite to fall to earth, and they are formed when “various types of dust and small grains that were present in the early solar system accreted to form primitive asteroids.

Veined Spherulitic Chondrite

Of course I was immediately interested in it because the process on top of it reminded me of the dens, or odontoid process of a human axis. I was excited, and shared the photos with  Dr. Zachary Cofran of Lawnchair Anthropology. “You can see it, right?” I asked. “For an osteology everywhere?” “Oh yeah,” he immediately exclaimed, “It’s a hamate!”

Osteology Everywhere – Meteorite Edition

It appears this one is something of a Rohrcshach test for osteologists. Or, better yet, one of those tricky illusions that shows two different images at once:

Rabbit duck

I must admit, I have a history of seeing C2s everywhere I look, so I don’t know that I can necessarily be trusted on this one. Cast your own vote below:

Image Credits: Image of odontoid process by Henry Vandyke Carter, from Wikipedia, here. Image of hamate by Henry Vandyke Carter, via Wikipedia, here. Duck-rabbit from the Independent, here.

Posted in Osteology Everywhere, Vertebrae | 2 Comments

Next Year: Visiting Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh

After defending my dissertation on June 03, I took a short trip to visit one of my close friends from university. I spent a week volunteering at the Hog Island Audubon Camp on the coast of Maine:

Hog Island Audubon Camp

On a day-to-day basis, this entailed washing pots, cleaning armloads of kale, sweeping cabins, watching my boss friend run a tight ship in the kitchen, and learning how to identify guillemots.


Guillemots are easy to identify because they have bright red feet and are shaped like footballs.

I should perhaps clarify that I did not retreat to Maine due to a disastrous defense experience. Defending went off without a hitch, though those few days were a blur of collecting Spanish committee members from airports, triple-checking the projector in the room I booked, scrambling to get signatures, and handling the logistics of Skyping in a professor from California. I don’t remember much of the talk itself, but a lot of my friends and colleagues attended and no one threw rotten vegetables, so I assume it went well.

After returning from Maine I spent two weeks knee-deep in revisions. None of them were substantive, but I dedicated many hours to dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s (e.g. carefully combing through my references), and on June 30 I finally, officially submitted my dissertation. Which means I am now officially Dr. Beck!

This also means that I can reveal what I will be up to next year – I’m excited to announce that I will be a visiting scholar at the Center for Comparative Archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh for 2016-2017.

Jess Beck – University of Pittsburgh

At Pittsburgh I’ll spend my time working on several publications borne out of my dissertation research. I’ll also have the opportunity to co-teach a graduate seminar on bioarchaeological approaches to inequality with Professor Elizabeth Arkush, which I’m very excited to put together soon – I’ll post the syllabus, or the first portion of it, once it’s finalized in the next few weeks.

For now, back to the arduous process of packing up seven years of my life, and asking the age-old academic question – “How on earth did I accumulate so many books?”

Image Credits: Guillemot photo from, here. Photograph of my title slide courtesy of Amy Pistone.

Posted in Dissertation, Research | 12 Comments

My Dissertation Defense

It’s been a quiet month on the blog. My absence has been due to the fact that I’ve been up to lots of different things, including:

Participating in the University of Michigan Preparing Future Faculty program (through which I was able to spend a fun morning at Eastern Michigan University being mentored by bioarchaeologist and forensic anthropologist Megan Moore):

Preparing Future Faculty

Becoming a Science Communication Fellow at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History:

New Science Communication Fellows

Baking bread:

Doesn't the first stage of the braiding make this look like a squid?

and hanging out with dog buddies:

Goliath sees a squirrel

I also finally checked a minor, pesky task off of my To Do List:

Dissertation Title Page

I submitted my dissertation to my committee last Friday. I will officially defend one week from today, on Friday, June 03. If you are in the Ann Arbor area and have any interest in attending, you are welcome to attend. Until then, it’s back to radio silence on the blog. Wish me luck, everybody!



Posted in Anthropology, Dissertation, Grad School | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Osteology Everywhere: Atlanta Edition

As you may have gathered by now, I’m always on the look out for osteology, especially when travelling. However, when I recently attended the AAPAs in Atlanta, I did not have to look very far. Rumours abounded that the conference hotel, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, had been used in the last two Hunger Games movies as backdrop for part of the capitol (and you can see the distinctive geometric floor plan rushing past in the background of scenes like this one). However, I heard pretty much everyone at the biological anthropology conference use the same simile: “this looks like a giant rib cage”

The Atlanta Marriott Marquis: A Giant Ribcage

You can probably see it too… The elevator core as the spinal column, the floors as the ribs, the chunky rectangular block of rooms at the front of the building as the sternum…

Elevator spine

Elevator spine





The other occasion upon which osteology unexpectedly appeared was while I was eating lunch at the Peachtree Center:

Lunch from Yami Yami
Do you see it yet? Look closer…

Sushi navicular!
It’s a sushi navicular! Alright. Osteonerd out – this one was ridiculous, even for me. Happy Tuesday everybody!

Image Credits: Navicular figure from Wikipedia, here.

Posted in Conferences, Osteology Everywhere, Travel | 1 Comment