SAA 2015: Reconstructing Iberian Copper Age Mortuary Practices

Golden Gate Bridge

During my recent trip to San Francisco for the Society for American Archaeology meetings, I was co-author on a poster detailing new research on the Bioarchaeology of Looting. While I devoted the remainder of my trip to sampling as much regional cuisine as possible (e.g. dim sum, churros, tacos al pastor, It’s-Its, spicy shrimp tacos, paletas, pho, crispy ahi tacos, secret breakfast ice cream), I also somehow found the time to present a talk that covers a sampling of my current Iberian bioarchaeological research.

For the uninitiated, an It's-It is an oatmeal cookie ice cream sandwich, made with either vanilla or mint ice cream, dipped in chocolate.

For the uninitiated, an It’s-It is an oatmeal cookie ice cream sandwich, made with either vanilla or mint ice cream, dipped in chocolate.

The fifteen-minute presentation was titled “Commingled, Communal and Complex: Reconstructing Iberian Copper Age Mortuary Practices”, and was part of the session “Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology in Europe”. The abstract is here:

SAA talk abstract 2015

In the event that for some reason you weren’t in Hilton conference room Golden Gate 6 this past Saturday at 1:00 pm, yet still want to hear my presentation, I’ve uploaded a video of it below*. It’s pretty much a verbatim copy of the actual presentation, including my signature cheesy jokes. It’s also worth noting that the values for my % of expected values and my dental MNIs have shifted slightly since my AAPA poster – I reconfigured my dental MNI calculation strategy (now using only the RuC1 for each mortuary area), which means the values produced by this study are different from my initial analysis. This is the sort of quantitative aspect of my research that I’ll be playing around with a considerable amount in the next few months as I conduct my exploratory data analysis, so bear with me.

*Recording the audio for this video was a rude awakening. Like most people I know, I’m consistently astonished when I hear my voice on tape. Though I’ve always been viscerally certain that my voice is deep, commanding and authoritative, falling somewhere between a more feminine Alan Rickman and a less musical Annie Lennox, in reality it’s irritatingly high-pitched, like the voice of a cartoon cat. Vocal issues aside, take a look at the video if you’re interested in the Copper Age or fragmentary remains.

Finally, if you’re ever in San Francisco and find yourself in need of a pick-me-up, I highly recommend a trip to the Presidio area underneath the Golden Gate bridge. I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier dogs, and there were so many of them! They made the last day of my trip to the West Coast pretty fabulous.

The Presidio - dog heaven

Image Credits: Image credits are listed on the last slide of the video. All photos of skeletal remains were taken at the Museo de Jaén in summer 2013 and 2014, and photos and scans from site reports were accessed at the Consejería de Cultura, Delegación Provincial en Jaén.

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SAA 2015: The Bioarchaeology of Looting

San Francisco

I’m typing this from the lobby of a hotel in downtown San Francisco, which has been one of the most unique cities I’ve ever visited – cars parallel parked sideways on the insanely steep streets, thick blankets of fog rolling down from the hills to envelop the city, and a jostling juxtaposition of immense wealth and entrenched poverty. However, I’ve been here for the past few days not to sight-see, but to present at the 80th annual Society for American Archaeology meetings. I both gave a talk and was co-author on a poster, so recounting my conference trajectory is going to be a two-part post.

Katie Kinkopf (L) and Jess Beck (R)

First, on Friday moring, Katie Kinkopf and I presented our poster titled “Bioarchaeological Approaches to Looting: A Case Study from the Sudan.” Katie is currently in her first year of the Berkeley PhD program, but received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan. I was her graduate mentor for her undergraduate honours thesis, and we’ve since been collaborating on analyzing the results. This research focuses on determining whether looted burials demonstrate patterns of anatomical preservation that are distinct from those of undisturbed burials.

Kinkopf and Beck 2015 Bioarchaeological Approaches to Looting - A Case Study from Sudan

We’ve uncovered some statistically significant differences in skeletal preservation between looted and undisturbed samples, focusing on the parts of the body (skull, cervical vertebrae, hands, and feet), that looters would most likely have disturbed when removing grave goods from an interment. Our results are particularly relevant given how many archaeological sites are looted, and we’re currently working on getting this work published. We had a lot of enthusiastic archaeologists visit the poster, and we’re eager for even more feedback, so if you’re interested in either bioarchaeology or strategies for detecting looting, take a look! The poster is below, and a link to a pdf is also included at the bottom of the post. In the next few days I’ll also be uploading a video of my talk – unfortunately this will just be my voice recorded over slides, so you miss out on all of the wild, theatrical gesturing that typically occurs whenever I describe something that I’m excited about.

Stay tuned!

Kinkopf and Beck 2015 Bioarchaeological Approaches to Looting – A Case Study from Sudan

Photo Credits: Photo of Katie and I standing in front of our poster is courtesty of Elizabeth Nelson – thanks Betsy!

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Osteology Everywhere – Mission Edition

During my recent trip to San Francisco for an academic conference, I took advantage of the fact that my roommate is a California native. The afternoon after my poster we struck out for to Chinatown in order to unwind:

Dim sum in Chinatown, San Francisco

and the the evening after my talk we headed to the Mission to relax:

Mission tacos, San Francisco

Clearly, in my vocabulary, “unwind” and “relax” are euphemisms for “assuage presentation jitters with mountains of delicious food”.

Fortuitously, while in the Mission, I noticed that the street grates providing protection for tree roots were decorated with jaunty, dancing skeletons:

Jaunty, dancing skeletons in the Mission, San Francisco

These were appropriate to my mood, since they perfectly capture the joy one feels when concluding all of one’s professional obligations for a conference and setting out to eat one’s own weight in tacos.

More jaunty, dancing skeletons in the Mission, San Francisco

Had I been wearing a skirt, I too would have hiked it up for a quick jig.

San Francisco has been a fantastic trip so far, and over the next few days I’ll provide some updates about what, exactly I’ve been up to (besides eating copious amounts of tacos) during my time here.

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Bone Quiz 19

The past two weeks have been full of typical graduate school shenanigans, including:

responding to negative feedback with a calm and professional demeanour;


attempting to collect signatures from faculty without scheduling an appointment;


critically unpacking my dental MNI calculation methods with my colleagues;


and agreeing to present a practice conference talk to a room full of friendly fellow graduate students before learning, at the last minute, that faculty would also be attending;

In short, the trek towards academic englightenment has been particularly complex and torturous of late. In the spirit of spreading the feeling around, I’m giving you the opportunity to share in my sorrows. This week’s bone quiz asks only one question, but requires a bit of thought:

Over the course of my dental analysis this past summer, I opened a bag that contained a few fragments of bone and teeth. I remember this bag relatively distinctly, as after about ten seconds I had formed a hypothesis about how many individuals were represented.  So my question is as follows:

Based on the information you can glean from the view below, what is your Minimum Number of Individuals estimate for this bag, and why?


Good luck! The answers are posted below the jump.


Image Credits: Grumpy cat gif found here; Ninja cat gif found here; Massive chalkboard full of equations gif found here; Astonished red panda gif found here. All photos were taken at the Museo de Jaén in summer 2014.











Bone Quiz 19 - Answers


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AAPAs 2015

St. Louis SkylineAfter a whirlwind trip to Madison, I’ve landed in St. Louis for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists’ meetings. If you’re interested in visiting my poster, or just taking a look at it, I’ve uploaded both a jpeg and a pdf below.  I’ll be presenting it at the conference tomorrow:

Date: Thursday, 26 March 2015
Session: 9. Bioarchaeology
Location: Archview Ballroom
Poster #: 40

It will go up at around 8am (which will be challenging as for some inexplicable reason all of the coffee in my hotel room is decaf), but I’ll actually be standing in front of it from 10-1030am and 4:45-5:30 pm. If you’re in town for the meetings, please swing by and help keep me company!

For those of you not at the meetings, the poster details some of my initial attempts at grappling with the problem of analyzing commingled remains. N4, one of the three necropolises*  that I examined over the past two years, contained such a massive volume of human bone that I decided to focus on conducting a dental analysis. However, because I conducted a full bioarchaeological analysis for the other two mortuary areas (N1 and N2), I have comparative data that includes both dentition and the rest of the skeleton. Since N1 contains a mixture of distinguishable primary and secondary burials, and N2 contains only secondary burials, I have dental signatures for these different forms of mortuary treatment. Accordingly, I’m trying to figure out ways to suss out what form, or forms, of burial people were likely practicing at N4 by comparing its dental signature to those at N1 and N2. It’s interesting stuff, and this preliminary analysis has produced some intriguing results that I’m hoping to delve into in more depth and run some stats on this summer.

The poster will, of course, be updated in the fullness of time after I correct the myriad grammatical and formatting errors that will surely spring up like the heads of Hydra after I spent five minutes in front of the poster. These generally become glaringly apparent 30 seconds before big name bioarch faculty stop by my poster.

If you want to download a pdf to look at the poster in a little bit more detail, there’s one here:

Jess Beck AAPA Poster 2015

*Yes, in contrast to the vehement argument made by one of my faculty members, “necropolises” is an appropriate plural for necropolis. To paraphrase a classic: I know these things [faculty member], I’ve looked them up!

Image Credits: Photo of St.Louis skyline found here.

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Osteology Everywhere: Madison Edition

I’ve spent the past week visiting Madison, Wisconsin, eating vast amounts of cheese curds, quaffing pints of New Glarus and Capital beer, and generally having a pretty outstanding time. However, despite the fact that I’ve been treating this trip as a vacation, osteology has still managed to creep into my travels on a daily basis. In typical osteo-nerd fashion, I’ve not been able to get away from bones, particularly skulls, over the course of my time here.

I saw this sculpture right as I got off the bus, which turned out to be a good omen for the entire visit. It’s a sculpture by artist Jim Dine titled Ancient Fishing, and it’s located in front of the Chazen Museum of Art, right on campus.

Skull outside of the art museum

Spoiler: I bought one of these shirts. How could I not? It combines both puns AND osteology – two of my favorite things besides cheese curds.

WiSKULLsin - get it?

I couldn’t even avoid osteology when out on the town sampling beer: one of my drinking buddies ordered a Left Hand Nitro Milk stout, which was served in this fanciful glass (admittedly, this skull is actually a cranium, and also looks like it may have been subject to a bit of artificial cranial deformation):

Left Hand Brewing GlassThe next day I found a display of animal skulls in the herpetarium at the Henry Vilas Zoo, which included a human skull for comparative purposes. I was pretty pumped.

What a big nerd
Finally, during my visit I was also able to head to Spring Green to visit the House on The Rock, a bizarre, capacious mansion that houses a massive variety of inexplicable collections of curiosities. If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, you’ll recognize it as the home of the giant carousel menagerie that acts as the backdrop for one of the book’s pivotal scenes. Gaiman’s description of the place references some of the morbid, coin-operated 19th century dioramas; however, he neglected to mention that these incorporate some pretty cute skeletons. For example, check out this happy cadaver peeking out from behind the bed:

 Mechanical Diorama from The House on the Rock

And this little buddy inside of the clock! These were both from a diorama titled The Death of the Drunkard.

Mechanical Diorama from The House on the Rock

Later on I stumbled upon another diorama, called Graveyard Scene, which was installed in a British R.R. Station during the 1800s, featuring a (presumably female) skeleton, complete with long, flowing locks, that popped up out of her grave when you inserted a token.

A second diorama from The House on the Rock

Finally, towards the end of the self-guided tour, we came upon this winged monstrosity, complete with skeletal horse:

A pale horse from The House on the Rock

All in all this has been a phenomenal trip, filled with osteology, beer, and cheese. I’m hoping to have just as much fun next week, when I head to the AAPA meetings in St. Louis to present a poster. I’ll put a post about that up in the next few days!

Image Credits: Photos 3-6 appear courtsey of Zachary Cofran. Incidentally, today is his birthday, so if you’re an avid reader of Lawnchair Anthropology you should head over to his blog and wish him happy birthday!

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Tibial Pursuit: How to identify and side the tibia

Trials and Tib-ulations. Shin Vogue. Ti-bia Determined. Tibia or not Tibia*. I have so many tibial puns on file that it was hard to pick just one for the title of this post.

And if you’re wondering, yes, you are correct, I am much sought after here at Michigan as a conversational partner and social companion due to my witty repartee. Just ask any of my friends. They definitely won’t turn away from you awkwardly with a facial expression that is equal parts exasperation and embarassment. Nope, definitely not.

Indeed, indeed it is.

Anyhow, I’m about to set off on a nearly two week odyssey through the Midwest that involves visiting friends and eating copious amounts of cheese before I eventually wind up at the AAPAs in St. Louis (which is the kind of thing you can do when you are writing up, because you can avoid working on your dissertation just about anywhere). However, I figured I would leave you with one last in-depth osteology post before my departure.

The tibia is a larger long bone that preserves fairly well in archaeological contexts because of its size and relative robusticity. However, I’ve found that the the proximal end tends to degrade rather rapidly, especially after the trabecular bone dries out and grows brittle over time. Accordingly, it’s important to be able to identify and side the bone even if you only have a fragment of the proximal or distal end, or if you only have a fragment of the shaft. The best way to do this is by familiarizing yourself with the features of the tibia that will help you to orient it. I’ve provided an introduction to some of the basic features of the tibia below, and also included a printable pdf (with blank drawings that you can jot down your own siding and feature notes on) at the end of the post.

Anterior Tibia Tibial_Pursuit_1Proximal Tibia Distal Tibia PDF available here: Bone Broke Guide to Identifying and Siding the Tibia

Alright. Shin conclusion, I’m really glad it’s Friday, and I hope that you are too!

(Couldn’t resist getting one last pun in. Ti-bia honest, I know these are terrible, but I really don’t care).

*Final pun courtesy of Katherine Kinkopf, up-and-coming osteological pun wunderkind. Second-to-last pun courtesty of someone who commented on the bio anthro Facebook group whose name I have forgotten.

Image Credits: Hawkward pun found here.

Image Credits for PDF: Sewing needle found here. Wave crest photo found here. Steps figure found here. Isolines figure found here.

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