physical anthropology

Kimberlee Sue Moran – A Day of Archaeology, 2014

Kimberlee Sue Moran – A Day of Archaeology, 2014
The attached picture is myself (far right) and high school teachers attending the Forensic Science Educational Conference, a program of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, hosted by Arcadia University (Philadelphia, Pennsylavnia) and the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education. Yesterday, these teachers learned about forensic archaeology, human remains recovery, and crime scene investigation and interpretation.


Kimberlee Sue Moran, MSc, RPA
Director, Center for Forensic Science Research & Education
2300 Stratford Ave
Willow Grove, PA 19090

“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?

Live dispatches from the Tooth Fairy

So, now you know. The Tooth Fairy is an archaeologist.

Archaeologists get everywhere. Like sand. This also applies to  jobs, so it’s not totally impossible that someone who specialises in the minute structures of teeth (see my previous post from DayofArch 2011) would end up in the overwhelmingly awesome Human Origins Research Group at the Natural History Museum, London.

Natural History Museum

For starters, this is an awesome place to work. Yesterday I found out that during WWII, the collections were evacuated to stately homes across the country to escape the Blitz… complete with associated researchers. And there’s a basement here that’s really a bomb shelter which was used by Churchill as a telephone exchange – part of the secret tunnels which run all under this area up to the Palace and War Rooms. Herman Hess apparently even spent a few nights in the Anthro Stores before his trial.

And today, on the Day of Archaeology, this particular Tooth Fairy is gearing up for more research than you can shake a stick at. In relation to the main project I work on at the NHM I’ve:

uwrapped my new camera toy;

eaten cake and discussed human origins/Euro2012; and

discovered a disturbing image mode setting on the new camera.

I’m also getting ready to go out to the field to look at the teeth of children who died in central Anatolia (Turkey) sometime between 10,500-8,500 years ago.  These are the remains of subadults from the amazing site of Aşıklı Höyük, the earliest settlement of the Anatolian Plateau.

I’ll be looking at the microscopic records of growth captured on every tooth–perikymata–to see how these children lived and grew. Like tree-rings, the lines on the outside of our teeth give a lot of information on how we grew (here‘s a more in-depth explanation). It’s a way to find out about health and development in early childhood at the very beginning of human settlement. Were there lots of growth disruptions? Can we see records of illness that might suggest seasonal diseases related to shifting subsistence patterns? That tell us about birth spacing?

I’m excited to find out. Even if I will totally get green dental impression material all over my nice new lab coat. It’s the price you pay for science!

Anyway, my days are pretty varied, but you can certainly keep up with me @brennawalks, or follow @ah_arkeoloji for more on Aşıklı Höyük.


N.B. All opinions etc. are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my benevolent employer. Images under creative commons fair use.