Volunteer Archaeology: Raiders of the Lost Archive

By Cardiff University students, Shannon and Yasmine, volunteering at MOLA.

Hello! Our names are Shannon and Yasmine, hailing from Cardiff University as Bsc Archaeology undergraduates. We bid MOLA farewell and offer a brief summary of all the things we’ve been able to get up to whilst we’ve been volunteering, and the things all you other Young ‘uns out there can get down and dirrrty with.

Over the 4 weeks we have spent here, we have been able to help out in a number of different departments including: Environmental Processing, Archiving, Osteoarchaeology, Zooarchaeology and Archaeobotany! And even got a few cheeky complimentary lectures along the way on cool stuff like Identifying different seeds, Invertebrae/ Vertebratae anatomy and health markers on Human bone!

Adios! Thank you one and all and we hope you see you again!

Lovely ladies in MOLA's processing team

Lovely ladies in MOLA’s processing team

Yasmine getting all the horrible concrete mud & peaty stuff haha

Yasmine getting all the horrible concrete mud & peaty stuff haha



Lauren McIntyre: A Day in the Life of Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South

My name is Lauren McIntyre and I’m a Project Officer at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South. Comprising a total of four full time staff, our department is responsible for dealing with archaeological human remains that are excavated by our company. This means everything from offering advice in the pre-planning stages of sites where human remains may be encountered, right through to writing up osteoarchaeological reports for publication (and everything inbetween!). We take every precaution to ensure that all human remains are treated with care and respect through the entire process. The work undertaken by our team can be extremely varied, and hopefully this post will show this as I describe what some of our staff are up to today.

Today started with a box run to our store. Human skeletons can take up a lot of space, so when we’re not analysing bones, quite often we’re transporting them between our laboratory and our store. The store currently contains several thousand skeletons from different sites! This is as well as all the other different types of finds (e.g. pottery) that are recovered from our archaeological sites. The skeletons in our warehouse might be waiting to be analysed, or in storage before they get archived at the relevant museum. The ones we’re returning today have been analysed, and we’ve also retrieved new material to start working on.

A lot of boxes on shelves in the Oxford Archaeology finds store

Part of the Oxford Archaeology Finds Store: Indiana Jones eat your heart out!

This is Mark, and today he’s simultaneously washing and conducting osteological analysis on a Roman skeletal assemblage. Most of the time, skeletons are washed by our Finds department before they come to Heritage Burial Services for analysis. However, this particular assemblage is in very poor condition – the bones quite often crumble into very small fragments as soon as they touch the water. Mark is recording age, sex, pathological information and anything else he can determine at this stage, in order to recover the maximum amount of information before the bones disintegrate. Although the bone condition is poor, tooth fragments are surviving quite well, as tooth enamel is quite a hardy material. The teeth may be sent for isotopic analysis to give us more information about the geographical origins of this population, which can help us figure out whether we’re looking at a local population or whether migrants are present.

An osteoarchaeologist sorting through small skeletal remains in a sieve over a bowl.

Osteoarchaeologist Mark Gibson, processing and assessing very fragmentary skeletal remains.

A finds tray lined with paper showing small fragments of human skeletal remains

The result of Mark’s hard work!

Alice, the third member of our team, is out on site today. As well as analysing skeletons in the laboratory, we often get called out to site to offer support to the field team. Today Alice is supervising the excavation and lifting of Anglo-Saxon skeletons at a site in Oxfordshire. The graves that these individuals are buried in are quite shallow, and a lot of the bones are in very poor condition. Alice is recording as much osteological information as she can for each of these skeletons prior to lifting, for the same reason as Mark is recording bones as he washes – we need to get as much information as possible before it is lost. This will help us to interpret and understand the population more thoroughly.

An osteoarchaeologist in a lab coat analysing an articulated skeleton and recording on a tablet

Osteoarchaeologist Alice Rose in her more usual laboratory habitat!

We also have a couple of visiting researchers working in our office. Henry Wu is a forensic odontologist who works for the Unrecovered War Casualties (UWC) investigative unit for the Australian Army and is visiting Heritage Burial Services in order to undertake research on archaeological material. Henry was introduced to us as a result of the work that Louise Loe, Head of Heritage Burials Services, has been doing for the Australian government on WWI mass graves at Fromelles, Northern France, excavated by OA in 2009. Today, Henry is researching the methods used to produce a dental prosthetic that was found with a post-medieval burial excavated by OAS. So far, he has found that the prosthetic is extremely sophisticated in terms of its construction, and would have been made specifically for the individual it was found with.

A researcher sat at his desk holding a book open and looking at the camera

Henry Wu, visiting researcher from UWC

Composite image, top, front and bottom views of a post-medieval dental prosthetic from Oxford

Composite image, top, front and bottom views of a post-medieval dental prosthetic from Oxford

Benedetta Mammi is an MSc student from Cranfield University, undertaking her dissertation research on a disarticulated post-medieval medical collection from Oxford. So far she’s examined over 2000 bone fragments! Her research questions include trying to establish the minimum number of people present in the assemblage, and also explore evidence of surgery and other medical intervention (e.g. dissection or autopsy) on the bones.

A researcher looking at disarticulated human bones at a desk

Benedetta Mammi, visiting researcher from Cranfield University

Surgical transfemoral amputation of the left thigh

Surgical transfemoral amputation of the left thigh

Finally, other than writing this post and transporting boxes to and from the store, I am writing a report for a watching brief that was conducted a few weeks ago in Buckinghamshire. I was called out to site because brick grave vaults were exposed during ground works that were being monitored by a member of the OAS field team. We needed to remove part of the brick grave structures to make way for new gas services to a local church. The necessary parts of the structures were recorded, and then carefully deconstructed by hand. Two of the brick graves were found to contain the individuals for which they were built, as well as various iron coffin fittings. The bones were left completely in situ, with limited osteological analysis being conducted via photography and visual observation of the bones. Examination of the coffin fitting designs, as well as the type of grave vaults present, strongly suggest that these are graves that were constructed in the early to mid-19th century. Once all the archaeological and osteological information was recorded, the graves were sealed back up. The individuals within these graves were disturbed as little as possible, and will now continue to rest in peace in their original burial location.

A post-medieval double burial inside a red brick grave vault

A post-medieval double burial inside a red brick grave vault

Inside a post-medieval brick grave vault

Inside a post-medieval brick grave vault

So, as you can see, the work that we undertake in Heritage Burial Services is very diverse! We all enjoy our work here (even sieving bone fragments out of mud…), and face interesting new challenges on a daily basis. It’s a great privilege to work with the physical remains of our ancestors, and use osteological data to try and further our understanding of how people lived in the past.

All photographs within this post are copyright of Oxford Archaeology.

Lauren McIntyre is a Project Officer at Oxford Archaeology’s South office in Oxford, in their Heritage Burial Services. For more information about Oxford Archaeology and our specialist burial services, visit our website: http://oxfordarchaeology.com/professional-services/specialist-services/7-top-level-pages/14-burials-archaeology

Dead bodies, texts and reviews: a day in the life of a theoretical archaeologist and a body person

I am a theoretical archaeologist -which always raises a few eyebrows if this is even a legitimate field of research in our field- and a body person (more pompously: an osteoarchaeologist with an interest in history of physical anthropology): I deal with dead bodies and follow scientists’ interactions with them, throughout history and contexts. The public’s perception of archaeology is usually the one associated with field research, or in the best case, laboratory analyses—and I would say this is pretty much shared inside our field as well—but the life of some of us is mostly spent in front of a computer, in archives and museums/collections. Being interested in the history of 2 intertwined disciplines, archaeology and physical anthropology, I spend most of my time deconstructing texts written by my colleagues -dead or alive- and placing them in the contexts of their creation. Why do we write/draw/measure as we do? How did we change perspectives over what a dead body stands for, how do we frame identity and human variability, and where do we want archaeology to go next? These are some of the questions that keep me tied to my laptop, when I am not browsing through musty papers and photographs from archives.

This year’s day of archaeology finds me resting between 2 such projects.

One is a freshly finished text on a ‘scientific ossuary‘, an early 20th c. skulls and archaeological skeletons anthropological collection in Romania (the collection housed at the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ in Bucharest). Writing is a tedious effort, which nowadays presuposes a complex (to be read: source of frustration) network of mostly online communication – between you, editors, reviewers, friends who are nice enough to read and comment on your texts etc. Bottom line—typing, reading, typing, and typing again. Bearing in mind the amazing and life changing slogan ‘publish or perish’, and with occasional intermezzos of browsing Academic Pain or similar ‘motivational’ procrastination devices.

The other one is a study on kings’ bodies, and archaeological narratives of identity and identification around such excavated corpses: a text on political anatomies and bodies (part of a great international and Polish-led project).

Between these 2, I also need to squizz in a book review, some applications- the life of young academics in archaeology, always in need of a job/project-, updating my blog (Bodies and Academia; @BodiesAcademia) getting ready a special journal’s issue on bodies/matter, and some procrastination, of course.

I am not sure if mine is the most glamorous way of spending The Day of Archaeology—writing, reading, copy-editing, sleeping, doing nothing, and then some more writing. But it shows another take on what an archaeologist might do.


Some of the books that frame my day, materials which wait to be consulted


“Mortui vivos docent”? A day in the life of an osteoarchaeologist

Are the dead really teaching the living, as this latin expression claims? And if so, what is it that they are teaching us? I am an osteoarchaeologist at the Institute of Anthropology “Francisc I. Rainer” (Bucharest, Romania), and I am surrounded by the dead. Hence, the way I am spending this glorious day of archaeology is looking at a 100 year old osteological collection and asking myself: what is is that this particular dead individuals tell us? As any osteoarchaeologist can say, there are numerous answers to this question- one can use the collection for perfecting age/sex determination methods, for studying pathologies, for various analyses (DNA, isotopes) etc. However, I am interested in a different story.

The Institute, which was founded in 1940 by the Romanian anatomist and anthropologist Francisc I. Rainer, houses an extensive osteological collection, part of which comprises a couple of thousand skulls gathered in the first half of the 20th century through the efforts of Francisc I. Rainer. It was designed  for understanding the variability of the Romanian population, teaching and researching pathological modifications or documenting the variability in sex and age dimorphism.

Thus, the bodies of several individuals who died in hospitals and morgues were dismembered and their skull were archived, neatly arranged on shelves in wooden cabinets. What can they say about the context which led to the creation of this human archive? What can they teach us about the beginnings of the physical anthropology and how can they help us understand how was the human body represented and viewed in these early studies?  Such human remains are a legacy of a period in the history of anatomy and physical anthropology when the body was a valuable commodity, sought for its value to generate knowledge” about a human being. One of the stories that is part of this epoch says that around 1930, the Faculty of Medicine in Bucharest’s porter displayed an interesting malformation of the skull and, being aware of the interest that arose from his brain, he sold it in advance to three different professors. When he eventually died, all 3 of them came to collect the brain for further studies, and to their surprise they found out that they all had proof of ownership.

Maceration room at the Institute of Anthropology. Source: L'oeuvre scientifique de Fr. J. Rainer, 4. 1947. Bucharest: Monitorul Oficial și Imprimeriile statului.

Maceration room at the Institute of Anthropology. Source: L’oeuvre scientifique de Fr. J. Rainer, 4. 1947. Bucharest.


So, my task is a fascinating and not at all easy one: browsing through the archives, documents, publications and images left to us from these early days of anthropology, I try and see how was the human body talked about or drawn, what aspects were brought into view and why? Why would Rainer choose to describe an individual through his/her sex/age/cause of death and pathology? Why was the space designed as it was and how was the human body broken down and accommodated in different rooms? How would a recording sheet of a living human subject have looked like and how was the data interpreted?

In short, mine is a journey through the traces of the past, in the realm of the dead- an archaeology of the methods and theories of osteoarchaeology and physical anthropology. The final goal of my day (and of the days to come) is to put the “Mortui vivos docent” question in an ethical perspective: are we happy with the implications of studying and archiving human remains the way we do? Should we do things differently?

Dead people, augmented reality, and other things of interest

Hiya. My name is Brenna, and I’m an archaeologist, with a PhD in dead people’s teeth. You can normally find me on the twitter at @brennawalks or in tl;dr format on my blog passim in passing .

So, what gives today?

So many shiny things! Turns out archaeology really suits people with rather wide and varied interests; on any given day you might find yourself with a synchrotron smashing particles or a mattock smashing soil. In my case, I had planned to go in and look at some of my research material in the scanning electron microscope over at UCL. In my ‘real’ academic life, I study teeth, and I study them very, very close up. You could call what I do ‘bioarchaeology’ or ‘dental anthropology’ … I’m not fussy. But I study the development of teeth from people who died in the past in order to look at the record of growth that is trapped in the structure of their dental enamel. Your teeth carry chemical and physical signatures of things that happened to you during childhood, while the the teeth were growing. What I look at in particular are signs that growth shut down briefly during childhood, a condition called ‘enamel hypoplasia’.  These are (ish) grooves on your teeth that can be evidence of a childhood fever or other unhappy event. By looking at different patterns of these markers in teeth, we can compare aspects of health across different groups. Did rich kids have a better time of it than poor kids? Did sedentery agriculturalists do better as kids than more nomadic groups?

To study stuff like that, you get to do some cool science with machines that go ‘ping’ and or ‘whop’. My favorite lab machine is the gold sputter coater; it turns my tooth casts into art:

gold coated tooth

the gold coated tooth of a child who died in 18th century London


You can see a big groove in the tooth above. That’s from some sort of growth disruption episode while the kid was still a toddler. Go on, check your own teeth now. You know you want to.

Of course, I haven’t ended up in the lab at all. One of my newer interests is something called augmented reality (for an example, check out the awesome new Museum of London roman app: The Only Way is Londinium). I’m really interested in applications for public outreach (particularly web-multimedia and smart-phone based stuff) and I’m totally enamoured of anything shiny and/or techie.  So instead of being good (hey, it’s Friday!) I went and made a 3d object hover over a piece of paper. It’s a poor screen capture, but hey, I should be working on publications and actual research, right?

Check out the easy, totally free-ware possibilities though. This is brought to you by Google Sketchup running the ARmedia plugin; it’s practically idiot proof and the results are pretty cool. Anything more involved and you’re looking at developing some serious modelling skills, but who needs sleep…?

sorry about the video quality 🙂

Untitled from Brenna Hassett on Vimeo.