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 – details are in the flyer below, and a pdf is available here. Until then, it’s back to radio silence on the blog. Wish me luck, everybody!

Jess Beck Dissertation Defense Flyer



Posted in Anthropology, Dissertation, Grad School | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 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 | Leave a comment

AAPAs – Atlanta 2016

[TL;DR version of post: I’m presenting a poster on some of my collaborative Iberian research at the AAPAs tomorrow. Session 31 (Skeletal Biology: Bioarchaeology), docket 19, Atrium Ballroom A/B. I’ll be there from 4:00-4:45 – come say hi!]

Another day, another regional cuisine to sample. After a whirlwind week at the SAAs in Orlando, I headed to Atlanta on Sunday. The first order of business was visiting the southern staple of Waffle House.

Before and after...

Before and after…

I haven’t eaten again since. JUST KIDDING. Over the course of my time in Georgia I’ve also consumed pizza, mac n’cheese, fried avocado tacos, sushi, gyoza, and ribs. My third day here I was also able to sneak in a visit to the Georgia Aquarium, which is a magical, magical place. I watched some river otters snoozing, attended a sea lion show, goggled at the massive manta rays, and pet an epaulette shark (10/10 very friendly, would pet again):

Georgia Aquarium
However, I’ve occasionally been taking a break from my packed schedule of gluttony and sight-seeing to  do some anthropology. On Wednesday, I attended the annual Dental Anthropology Association workshop for the first time. During the first part of the morning, Jim Watson provided an introduction to macrowear, covering the factors that contribute to wear, the development of scoring systems in anthropology, and its utility in reconstructing prehistoric behavior. In turn, the participants provided data for a comparison of the Smith and Scott scoring systems:

Smith vs. Scott Scoring System Thrown Down

Smith vs. Scott Scoring System Throw Down

Later in the afternoon, Chris Schmidt led the workshop in a discussion of dental microwear. During this second workshop, we were able to test our ability to differentiate “good” and “bad” images:

Spoiler: Nope, it is not.

Spoiler: Nope, it is not.

This reads like some of the comments from my first year Archaeological Systematics papers...

This reads like some of the comments from my first year Archaeological Systematics papers…

We finished with a wonderful talk from the University of Michigan’s own Holly Smith, who described the academic trajectory that took her from an early interest in macrowear and diet to her continuing fascination with hominin dental development.

All in all it has been a full week, and it hasn’t ended yet! Tomorrow I will be presenting a poster co-authored with Marta Díaz-Zorita Bonilla in the session Skeletal Biology: Bioarchaeology. I’ll make sure to post a link to the poster on after the session. If you’re a blog reader, or an isotope person, or a bioarch person, or simply curious about how many typos a human can find on a poster in a five-minute period, feel free to swing by! Details below:

Session: 31 – Skeletal Biology: Bioarchaeology
Number: 19
Location: Atrium Ballroom A/B
Authors: J.Beck and M. Díaz-Zorita Bonilla
Title: Bodies in motion: Isotopic analyses of mobility and diet at Marroquíes Bajos, Spain.
Time: TECHNICALLY I am supposed to be there from 9:30-10:00am, but I will most likely be attending the R Stats workshop, supporting some of my graduate colleagues. I’ll definitely be there for the evening session, from 4:00-4:45pm.

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SAAs – Orlando 2016

Yesterday morning I got up early and blearily watched sheets of pouring rain turn into pellets of hail, steeling myself to make the ten-minute trudge to the bus stop. Burdened with heavy bags and swathed in a flattering Ikea rain poncho, I cut quite the dashing figure on my climb up the hill:

Baba Yaga
However, nine hours later I landed in sunny Orlando. Current local temperature is a balmy 25˚C, with no precipitation on the horizon all week. Success!

The venue this year is PRETTY ridiculous.

The venue this year is PRETTY ridiculous.

I’m in town for the SAA meetings, to give a talk in Katy Meyers Emery’s session, titled “Buried, Bundled and Broken: Approaches to Co-Occurence of Multiple Methods, Treatments and Styles of Burials within Past Societies”. My talk will focus on some of the results from my dissertation research in Spain. If you’re a reader of the blog, or interested in primary and secondary burial during the Copper Age, feel free to drop in. Details are below:

Session: 116, Buried, Bundled and Broken: Approaches to Co-Occurence of Multiple Methods, Treatments and Styles of Burials within Past Societies
Date: Friday, April 08
Session Time: 8:00am-10:00am
Location: North Hemisphere Salon E3
Talk Title: Mortuary multiplicity: Variability in mortuary treatment at a Late Prehistoric matrix village from Spain
Talk Time: 9:00am-9:15am

Image Credits: Baba Yaga found on Deviant Art, here. Photo of Swan and Dolphin from Sun Sentinel, here.

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Osteology Everywhere: Root Edition

This weekend I took a break from SAA presentation-prepping and plot-wrangling in R to take a hike with my friend Anna Antoniou. Anna received a National Geographic Young Explorer grant to walk around the entire island of Cyprus with her brother, cousin and godbrother this summer. Her goal is to document the experience of life on an island that is sociopolitically divided through photos, video, and interaction with locals. It’s a really exciting project, and a great demonstration of what four-field anthropology is all about.

However, in order to prepare for the ~500 mile journey, Anna has needed to break in her pack and hiking boots, so once or twice a week I’ve been tagging along with her on her perambulations.

Anna and I training in Dexter.

Anna and I training in Dexter.

This past weekend we took to Pinckney’s Crooked Lake trail, a five-mile amble up and down rolling hills and forests. Towards the end of our hike, I noticed an unusual root protruding from the muddy surface of the trail:

Remind you of anything?

Given the size and the gracility, I initially thought of an australopithecine femur. I called Lucy (top right), but my friend Caroline vehemently rejected this identification, claiming that the shaft was too thick. Her parallel was Swartkrans 82, a robust australopithecine femur.

Which of us is correct? Vote for your favorite fossil parallel below, or let me know what the Pinckney root reminds your of*:

* Honestly I think Caro is on point here but I would like to experiment with adding polls to blog posts, so bear with me.

Image Credits: First photograph taken by Z. Cofran. Image of SK 82 femur from class connection, here. Image of Lucy femur via Bone Clones, here.

Posted in Long Bones, Osteology Everywhere | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Bear Paw Saga: Volume II

It’s been a pretty typical week. On Monday I stopped at Target to stock up on some essentials,

Target Run

put together a To-Do list,
To-Do Listand caught up on emails.

Catching up on emails.

I’ve been so busy because it’s spring, that beautiful time of year when the birds sing, the flowers bloom, and we dig up decomposing bear paws out of our faculty members’ yards.

RemovalWhat you see me hunting for in the photograph above is a package  wrapped in chickenwire that I buried almost two years ago.  A series of most fortunate events in 2014 led to my friend Alice Wright happening upon an isolated bear paw. She generously offered to bring it up to Ann Arbor for me, and it sat in my freezer for several months, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, looking suspiciously like a burrito.  I was initially going to bring it to our local colony of dermestids at the Ruthven museum, but because the bear paw did not have an exact find location associated with it (“Provenience: Unknown location, foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains; Collector(s):Hound dogs, Ruby & Tucker), I was forced to make other plans two days before leaving for the field.

Fortunately, John Speth, one of our emeritus faculty, came to the rescue. I approached him and asked whether it would be possible to bury part of an animal appendage in his yard for about a year. This was not a random request, as I remembered tales of him skeletonizing bison in his yard several decades ago. He and his wife Lisa Young graciously acquiesced to my request to bury the paw in a corner of their backyard. I used a scalpel to remove most of the fur, and then at John’s recommendation wrapped the whole thing in chickenwire so that smaller bones would not get lost during the process of excavation and recovery.

I buried the foot on May 12, 2014, planning to dig it up the next spring. However, apparently my bear paw retrieval schedule is a lot like my publication schedule, since I was a full year off my original itinerary. Realizing that I will likely be leaving Ann Arbor soon, and that the bones might still require some maceration in order to skeletonize fully, I got my act together and asked John and Lisa if I could swing by some afternoon this week. I remembered exactly where I’d buried it, and within a few minutes of shovelling I could feel the tell-tale scraping noise that denoted a wire mesh.

Package retrieved!

At that point I slowed down and excavated the boundaries of the package with my trowel, and two minutes later, successfully recovered the whole kit and caboodle.


The chickenwire bundle was covered in  a thick layer of damp dirt. At this point, I still wasn’t sure that the foot had skeletonized, and I observed a few white spots of grease adhering to the mesh squares, giving me a sinking feeling. The only way to be sure was to hose down the entire package.


All was not lost! The hose immediately began to expose smooth, caramel-colored surfaces of bone, visible through the chickenwire. Unwrapping the package revealed a magical wonderland of skeletonized bone.

Bear paw revealed
The deep brown color means that these bones are still pretty greasy, so after rinsing the bones clean I transferred them to their tupperware container to macerate it in water for a week or two. My friend Bree has offered up her garden shed as a calm, cool place for them to ferment, so I wrapped the tupperware carefully in a plastic bag, and drove them to their next port of call.

Full video of the discovery available here. Caveat: The video contains both an egregious osteological misidentification (what are clearly tarsals are referred to erroneously as carpals, which we will chalk up to the osteologist’s considerable excitement), and there is one instance of profanity when an unfused distal tibia is discovered.

Many, many thanks are due to Lisa Young and John Speth for allowing me to bury a decomposing bear paw in their backyard for two years. Thanks also to Alice Wright for bringing me the bear paw, and Anna Antoniou for photographic and video documentation of this stage of the inspiring saga.

Posted in Fauna, Prepping Animal Skeletons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Osteology Everywhere: Lithic Edition

It’s been a relaxing few months in Ann Arbor – lots of lounging around, sipping hot beverages around a warm fireplace, and quietly contemplating life.


I’ve been firing on all cylinders recently, dividing my time between applying for jobs and post-docs, working as a Graduate Teaching Consultant for the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, participating in the Ruthven Museum Portal to the Public science communication program, developing presentations for three upcoming conferences, and, of course, working furiously on dissertation chapters.


I am this cat.

This hectic itinerary has kept me away from the blog, because while blog posts can be left on ice for a few months, postdoctoral applications and dissertations wait for no man. However, my busy schedule hasn’t prevented me from seeing osteology everywhere.

My desk space in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology is in the the Paleolithic Archaeology Range, a space populated almost entirely by people who are super into lithics.

"What's that guys? More debitage? A core of some sort? I know all about this stuff, I swear."

Osteologist in a lithics lab.

While lithic analysis is decidedly not my jam, it’s energizing to work in an environment where people are engaged in active research. Occasionally I’ll wander over to look at the tiny flakes and debitage when I grow frustrated by trying to analyze my recalcitrant dental data-set. On a recent visit to the lithics area, my lab-mate Kyra noted that she’d found a dead ringer for a human carpal – a fragment of chert that looked just like a lunate:

Angled shatter lunate
It’s  about the right size class too, making the parallel even more apt:

This little lithic is actually a fragment of angled shatter from the rock shelter of Melikane in the moutains of Lesotho, a site dated to around 80,000 years before present. The shatter is from an industry called the Howiesons Poort that dates to around 60,000 years before present – you know, only 12 times older than the bones that I’m studying for my dissertation.

One thing that I found particularly endearing about this lithic lunate is that it has a visible “articular facet” of smoother rock, meaning that you can side it!

Articular facet of lithic lunate
So, for all of my osteonerds out there, what side is this from? ABSOLUTELY NO CHEATING (but if you must cheat, here’s an old post on how to side the lunate ).

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due due to Kyra Pazan, for finding the shatter, giving me background info on the site, and tolerating my recurring inane commentary (“I think it’s a rock!”) every time she conducts lithic analyses in the lab. Thanks also to Dr. Brian Stewart, for letting me post about his field material, and graciously allowing a bone person to take up residence in his lab.

Image credits: Cat typing is from, here. Cat husky is from imgur, here.

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