How do archaeologists find sites?

A few years ago I was a graduate student instructor for an introductory biological anthropology class. At the end of an exam review session, I asked my students if they had any questions about the course material. At this point one of my students exclaimed, apropos of nothing, “About archaeology, sometimes I just don’t understand how archaeologists know anything about ANYTHING.”  While my initial response can essentially be boiled down to:

Clearly Indy had not previously considered archaeological epistemology before

upon further reflection I realized that the link between digging a square hole in the ground and, say, reconstructing the origins of agriculture, isn’t always inherently clear. For those of you who share his concerns, I’m starting a new series of posts called  HDAKA3 (or “How do Archaeologists Know Anything About Anything“). And as an archaeologist, one of the recurring questions I get asked is how archaeologists find sites.

It’s a reasonable concern. If you associate archaeology with the process of excavation, it’s not immediately apperant how we discover areas of human activity buried by hundreds to thousands of years of sediment. In order to solve this problem, archaeologists rely upon a variety of overlapping strategies. I’ll break these down one by one.

1. Survey
In simplest terms, survey entails walking across a landscape and looking for artifacts.  Generally, survey works best in areas without abundant vegetation, like deserts and ploughed fields. If you’re on a survey project, you spend most of your time walking with your head down, and there’s a high probability that the back of your neck will get sunburned. The general rule of thumb is that areas with a large number of artifacts are good targets for future excavation, while areas with a small number of artifacts are thought to reflect a lack of past human activity.

Showing elevation change by standing on a possible feature during a survey in Northern Quebec

Showing elevation change by standing on a possible feature during a McGill survey in Northern Quebec – Summer 2009.

Survey can also involve digging small test pits, especially in areas where surface survey is impossible due to vegetation. Test pits are small-scale excavations designed to get a sense of the number of artifacts below the ground surface. I’ve dug small 50×50 test pits the simple way in northern Michigan: you hop on the head of a shovel, pull out the blade and place it perpendicular to the first cut, and then repeat the process until you’ve chunked out a square. All of this dirt is dumped into a bucket and screened for artifacts. A whole line of these small test pits can tell you a lot about where concentrations of artifacts are located.

Fierce and productive archaeologist Ashley Schubert screens a bucket, hunting for artifacts in northern Michigan.

Fiercely productive archaeologist Ashley Schubert screens a bucket, while hunting for artifacts in northern Michigan – Summer 2010.

There are a number of different strategies for conducting surveys – you can sample randomly within a given area of land, you can sample along transects like an ecologist, or you can conduct a targeted survey of the places you’d most expect to find sites given the regional record. Archaeologists generally taken into account the amount of work done in the area before, and what sorts of questions they want to answer over the course of their project when making these decisions.

Survey, Azraq Jordan – Summer 2008.

Survey is also useful because it can tell you where people were living at different points in the past. The photo above shows a line of stone ducks that I built when I worked on a survey project in Jordan in 2008. We were using the rocks as a way to keep a straight line when mapping the surface of the ground and spacing ourselves out to collect artifacts. One of the key goals of this survey was to collect stone tools from different periods, in order to figure out how people used the landscape differently over time. For example, were people clustered near lakes during the early Palaeolithic, but dispersed farther afield in the middle Palaeolithic? In addition to helping you find sites, survey can also shed light on the answers to these kinds of questions.
2. Reading Books
Because it isn’t the most lucrative career, I’m always surprised that people have been doing archaeology for a really long time. However, every generation has its cohort of obsessive antiquarians with a penchant for shovels and a high tolerance for dirt. An Englishman named William Stukeley began investigating and mapping henge sites like Avebury and Stonehenge as early as the 18th century. Though their surnames make it sound like they founded a prestigious law firm, Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis are actually famous for mapping hundreds of prehistoric monuments in North America. Antiquarians have been ferreting their way around Greece and Rome for ages, with Heinrich Schliemann discovering Troy and Arthur Evans excavating Knossos. And who can forget the early 20th-century discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, when Howard Carter strode through the entrance and famously inquired:

“Is this where I left my keys? I could have sworn I had them here just a second ago.”

No, no, he actually famously called out to his compatriots that he could see “wonderful things”, and waxed poetic about the event in his journals:

At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold

Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim during excavations at Ur, 1928-1929.

Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim during excavations at Ur, 1928-1929.

Now if you’ve noticed that early archaeology fails the Bechdel test, points for perceptiveness. However, while females have been largely excluded from foundational archaeological narratives, the team at Trowelblazers is working to uncover the often significant contributions that women made to the discipline that have been left out of popular narratives. If you’re interested in the history of archaeology as a discipline, their site is well worth a visit.

Gendered narratives aside, there are two important things about the antiquarians who explored the prehistoric record before archaeology coalesced as a discipline: (1) they were obsessive enough that they tended to dig at more than one site, and (2) many of them left behind detailed records and maps of their findings.

Squier and Davis map of Junction Mound group…from 1848.

Squier and Davis map of Junction Mound group…from 1848.

The important thing about this history is that their archived maps and records can often provide a jumping off point for further exploration and excavation. Archaeologists never simply parachute into a region, shovel in hand, and start digging willy-nilly. There’s a significant amount of research ground work that goes into selecting a site, and much of it involves familiarizing yourself with the history of archaeological work that has been conducted in the area before.
3. SCIENCE with a capital S
Remember the opening Badlands scene in Jurassic Park, where the nerdy, beleaguered techie (who I’m assuming was a grad student) shoots radar into the ground and produces a picture-perfect TV image of a velociraptor skeleton? If for some inexplicable reason you’ve forgotten this cinematic gem, here it is in all its glory:

The cool thing is that we have that technology now! Well, kind of. Geophysics is a branch of survey becoming more and more popular in archaeology, because it uses different types of instruments to investigate features below the ground surface. However, it rarely produces picture-perfect TV images like that of the velociraptor skeleton. And the line about how “in a few years we won’t even have to dig anymore” doesn’t really ring true for archaeology, because most geophysical data are a little ambiguous, to the extent that they need to be “ground-truthed” through further survey and targeted excavation before rigorous conclusions are drawn about the layout of a site.

Two of the most common types of geophysical survey are magneometry and ground penetrating radar. Magnetometry measures patterns of magnetism in the soil by using an instrument called a magnetometer. The instrument is moved along the survey area following an organized grid, and the resulting data are used to produce maps of what the terrain looks like up to two meters below the surface. Human activity like burning or digging alters the magnetic reading of the soil, producing higher or lower signals that show up clearly against the natural backdrop.


A magnetometry map of the Junction Mound group. If you compare it to Squier and Davis’ map from 1848, you’ll notice that the mag data reveal details of the earthworks that weren’t spotted by initial surveys.

Another popular technique is ground penetrating radar. This technology emits bursts of…radar….that….penetrate the ground. Clearly geophysical specialists are just as creative as anatomists when it comes to developing new names. Despite its lacklustre title, ground penetrating radar is extremely useful for archaeologists because it is another type of non-invasive technology that can map out differences in soil composition and identify features, without touching a soil to the dirt. Its basic operating principle is grounded upon the fact that different types of materials – archaeological features, stratigraphy, bedrock – have distinct physical and chemical properties that produce quantitative differences in energy transmission and reflection measured by the radar.

Not all sites are great candidates for magnetometry – in particular, areas with high amounts of modern activity (e.g. metal fences), or sites where past activity doesn’t produce a marked pattern of magnetic contrast – are scenarios where magnetometry surveys don’t produce clear results. Accordingly, archaeologists often conduct preliminary magnetic susceptibility surveys before committing to such techniques. During my brief forays into southeastern archaeology, I’ve spent time working magnetic susceptibility surveys in North Carolina. It’s a lot easier than dealing with a real magnetometer. Instead of carrying or pushing a machine along the ground surface,, you basically just walk along a grid poking a stick into the ground, jotting down the readings as you go. Despite my distractible nature and propensity to veer off course to pet visiting dogs, even I can do that.

Resistivity survey is an additional geophysical technique that can be informative about areas of past activity, as it measures  – you guessed it – soil resistance to electrical current. This particular technique can identify potential areas of past human activity – both less compact soil (as in the case of ditches or pits) and more compact soil (as in the case of structure floors) have distinct signatures that can give archaeologists an idea of where they are most likely to find features.

Ashley Schubert conducting resistivity survey in North Carolina (with some curious onlookers) - Winter 2013

Ashley Schubert conducting magnetic susceptibility survey in North Carolina (with some curious onlookers) – Winter 2013

If you want to SOUND like an archaeologist, use the terms “geophys”, “mag” and “GPR”to describe these technologies.

Finally, archaeologists have also begun using remote sensing to locate potential sites. While geophys allows archaeologists to do archaeology without digging, remote sensing takes things a step further: it allows archaeologists to do archaeology without even leaving the house! The basic principle underlying remote sensing is that certain features that aren’t visible from the ground surface are visible from the air.  Examining aerial photographs, for instance, is one way that archaeologists identify potential sites, as features that aren’t appreciable when you’re walking around a landscape are often clearly apparent when viewed from the air (think about, for example, the Nazca Lines in Peru). Higher tech strategies like Light Detection And Ranging (or LIDAR) use airborne lasers fired at the ground surface in order to build three dimensional maps of the landscape. Importantly, LIDAR can also penetrate vegetation (though some of the beams will bounce off tree tops or branches, so the resultant data require some calibration), making it possible to map sites in thickly wooded areas, like the dense jungle landscapes that are home to many Maya centres.
4. Making Maps
At this point, you’ve no doubt gleaned that archaeologists have a range of clever strategies for figuring out where sites are most likely to be found. Another way to locate sites efficiently is to take some of that data – be it from survey, archival research, geophys or remote sensing – and plug it into GIS. GIS stands for Geographical Information Systems, and is basically a fancy term for maps that contain both locational information and other additional data. If you have census information and GIS software, you can make maps showing the geographical patterning of variables like income, language, and even access to supermarkets.  While GIS has a famously steep learning curve, it’s still a tool that many archaeologists rely upon heavily. So if you’re looking for Copper Age villages in Spain, and previous archaeological research has shown that people tend to live within 20 kilometers of other villages, favouring locations along waterways or high on hilltops, you can plug all of that information into GIS. Adding data on elevation, streams, previously discovered sites from the same time period and setting some parameters (e.g. highlight all areas ≤ 20km from known sites either (i) <0.2 kilometres from water or (ii) at an elevation > 1000 meters), can produce a very handy map of the best places to explore when you’re conducting survey.

This is not actually from Copper Age Spain, but you get the general idea.

This is not actually from Copper Age Spain, but you get the general idea.

5. Talking to people
Some of the greatest contributions to our knowledge of prehistoric France have been made by children wandering into caves while chasing dogs. Metal detector enthusiasts occasionally stumble onto massive Anglo-Saxon hoards. A pair of German hikers discovered Ötzi, the famous 5,000 year old mummy, while traipsing along mountain peaks in Italy. Farmers have a habit of noting strange artifacts that erode out of their fields – or, you know, using them as doorstops .

Dr. Alice Wright, talks to locals in  Haywood County NC, while I play in the dirt below - summer 2011.

Dr. Alice Wright talks to locals in Haywood County NC, while I play in the dirt – Summer 2011.

The point of all of this is that locals often curate a significant amount of information about archaeology, sometimes without even realizing it. For example, Bolores, a site I’ve worked on in Portugal, was discovered when a farmer noticed concentrations of artifacts and bones eroding out of a ridgeline that ran along the border of his fields. It has since been the focus of multiple seasons of excavations that have taught us a significant amount about Late Prehistoric mortuary rituals. Accordingly, actually talking to people about what they know about their local landscapes can be an extremely productive strategy. I’ve met archaeologists who advise making a deliberate stop at the local watering hole whenever starting a new project, so as to cultivate good will by buying a few rounds and asking people whether they’ve seen any funny-looking pottery sherds lately. Public archaeology days, like the one pictured above at Alice Wright’s site of Garden Greek in 2011, are also a great way to mingle with local folk.

In which I talk to locals at Garden Creek. The small children behind me were arguing about how we got our trench walls so straight - their conclusion was "machines".

In which I talk to locals at Garden Creek. The small children behind me were arguing about how we got our trench walls so straight – their eventual conclusion was “machines”.

And there you have it – a set of five different strategies that archaeologists use to locate sites. Have a great weekend, and please, if you do find a beautifully preserved Bronze Age dagger, resist the urge to use it as a door stop.

UPDATE: I hunch over my computer corrected. The ever astute Professor Alice Wright pointed out that I initially identified the technique being used in the North Carolina horse paddock as resistivity, when it was in fact magnetic susceptibility. This error has since been corrected. One thousand profound apologies to any geophys nerds who saw the uncorrected version.

Image Credits: Photo from northern Quebec survey courtesy of Jennifer Bracewell (McGill). Photos from Garden Creek site courtesy of Alice Wright (App State). Harrison Ford gif found here.  Squier & Davis map of Junction Mound group found at Earthworks Conservancy, here. Junction Mound mag map also found at Earthworks Conservancy (it’s like they’re obsessed with earthworks, or something), here. Sample predictive model map from Lieskovský et al. 2013, here.

Quotation Credits: Carter’s journal quote found at Eyewitness to History website, here.

Posted in Anthropology, Archaeology, HDAKA3 | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Bone Quiz 18

It is only Monday and I’m already having one of those weeks where making any progress is a Sisyphean slog – none of my data meet test assumptions, I can’t figure out how to do my taxes, and I’ve thrown in the towel and committed to eating Poptarts for the next several weeks because I know that healthy, adult breakfasts will simply molder unconsumed in my lunch bag.

On the other hand, I’ve finally learned what to “actualize” means; actualization occurs when “material things are taken to focus and specify immaterial things that are often unfocused and unspecific”. So I got that going for me, which is nice.

Meetings with my advisor(s)

Meetings with my advisor(s)

For anyone mired in a similarly uphill battle, I’m kicking the week off with a super easy bone quiz. You get two views, and all I want is:

(1) Human/non-human;
(2) Adult/subadult;
(3) Element;
(4) Side;
(5) The features you used to side the bone;

For ONE MILLION BONUS OSTEOLOGY POINTS*, tell me why this is a particularly appropriate bone quiz given the polar weather we’re having.

*You really need to be a particularly nerdy/dedicated reader of this particular blog to get these points.

Answers will be posted in one week. Good luck! My very dirty hand can be used for scale.

View 1
View 2

Image Credits: Image of Sisyphus by Kanin, from Scholar Blogs, here. All others taken at the Museo de Jaén.

Answers below the jump.


Posted in Bone Quiz, Osteology | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Identifying the Metacarpals in Three Easy Steps

This week I have come to three important realizations.

1. I am terrible at drawing the bones of the hand. I can spend ages working feverishly on intricate drawings of articular surfaces, and the finished product still basically comes out looking like this:

Turkey_Handprint2. If you are, hypothetically, rushing around your apartment in a panic because the professional development workshop you signed up for is on February 4th, not at 4 PM as you initially gathered from the email, it is always best to double-check that the lid of your coffee thermos is screwed tightly onto its body, otherwise the last-minute, high-speed grab to transfer your caffeinated beverage to your bag might result in the majestic and unanticipated release of a breathtaking cascade of coffee all over your kitchen table;


3. Soaking white paper in coffee can really lend it an antiquated, old-timey finish that seems deliberate.

Without further ado, on to learning how to identify the metacarpals. Metacarpals are only likely to be confused with metatarsals, but their shafts are stout, rather than slim and straight like metacarpal shafts. Metacarpals also have rounder heads than metatarsals. Metacarpals are basically the corgis to the metatarsals’ greyhounds (and if anyone expresses any interest, I can write another post that’s more explicit about differentiating between the two).

Once you know you have a metacarpal (MC), the process for identifying which one you’ve got is fairly straightforward. The reason it’s possible to ID an MC in only three steps is because they can be divided into three distinct groups: Lateral (MC1), Middle( MC2-3), and Medial (MC4-5). Once you’ve got the group right, all you need to do is figure out which of the pair you have (and if you’ve got the lateral group, you’re golden). The names of the groups refer to the positions of the metacarpals when the hand is in Standard Anatomical Position (SAP). All images shown are sketches of right metacarpals, and directions refer to the hand in SAP.

STEP 1: Familiarize yourself with the features of the metacarpals
Unfortunately, the first step is most complicated. To be able to side a metacarpal quickly, you need to have a good understanding of the form of the shafts, as well as the proximal and distal ends.

Step 1a Step 1b

Step 1c

STEP 2. Identify whether your bone is from the lateral, middle or medial group
Use your enhanced understanding of the features of each different portion of the metacarpal to make a decision about which group your bone should go in.

Step 2

STEP 3. Identify which member of the group you have.
The easiest way to do this is to examine the proximal and distal ends. In my experience, the distal ends of the metacarpals tend to be more variable in their appearance and harder to differentiate, though I do have some tips if that is the only portion of the bone you’re working with. I find the distal articular surfaces of the bones to be most diagnostic, as each of the MCs has a fairly unique distal end.

Step 3

As always, I’ve compiled a pdf of my tips below. It includes an extra blank page with my coffee-dyed sketches unlabelled, so you can jot down any more tricks you come up with when working with the metacarpals on your own.

Bone Broke Guide to Identifying the Metacarpals

White, T.D. 2000. Human Osteology. 2nd Edition. Academic Press, San Diego.
Credit is also due to my Bone Clones magnetic hand, which I spent several hours manipulating (and several minutes cleaning coffee off of) in order to produce this post.

Image Credits: Turkey handprint found here. Coffee spilling image found here. Old-timey photo found here. Corgi running found here, greyhound running found here. Coconut Octopus found here. Face of the moon found here, Everest peak found here, human high five here, ursine high five here, sad,repellent blobfish found here.

Posted in Hand, Osteology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Osteology Everywhere: Vitamin C Edition

Check out the meningeal grooves on this orange!

Mengingeal grooves!They’re going a little bit haywire, but still pretty clearly visible.

And who said packing your lunch was boring!? Oh right, the Onion.

I need more hobbies.

Image Credits: Photo of parietal bone taken at the Museo de Jaén. Photo of orange taken in my kitchen while emitting excited yet incomprehensible exclamations that slightly perplex my roommate.

Posted in Cranium, Osteology Everywhere | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

That’s so rad: Identifying and siding the radius

[Update: Just noticed that when describing the radial features I initially swapped the locations for the styloid process (lateral) and the interosseous crest (medial) for the anterior view of the radius. This is why you don’t assemble your powerpoint slides late at night. If you downloaded the pdf before Feb 2, I’ve since updated, so you can get the corrected version below!]

The radius is a double-edged sword.

I love taking things literally.

No, no, that’s not what I meant. The radius is a double-edged sword because it’s one of the easiest bones to identify and side when it is complete, and one of the trickiest long bones to deal with when it is fragmentary. However, after a few years of dealing with fragmentary radii, I have some tips and tricks to help you with identification and siding, even if you’re not working with a complete bone.

First off, the radius is one of the smaller long bones in the human body; when fragmentary it’s only likely to be confused with the ulna or portions of the fibula. If you’re having trouble wading through the bones of the forearm and leg, I have a handy flow chart that you can use to determine which of the smaller long bones your fragment likely comes from:

Small long bones flow chart

If you’re dealing with a very small portion of the shaft, examining the cross-sectional shape of the bone can often provide some insight:

Cross-sections of the smaller long bones

The radius also has a suite of distinct features that are easily recognizable with a little practice:


3. Radius Features

Finally, If you’re having trouble orienting a relatively complete bone, the easiest way to do it is to use your own hand and forearm. To wit:

Orienting the radius using your own forearm

I’ve condensed these three sheets into a pdf guide to siding the radius that’s easy to print out and bring along to the lab or field.

Bone Broke Guide to Identifying and Siding the Radius

Thanks to Kyle Waller (Mizzou) for originally teaching me the forearm siding trick!

References: As always, I relied heavily on White & Folkens (2005) Human Bone Manual to double-check my terminology when composing this post.

Image Credits: The unedited images of the radius, ulna and fibula were originally found here and here, and the image of a double-edged sword found here. Distressed pug was found here, while teardrop icon was found at this site. Guernica replica found here, crazy concave loaf pans found here. Johnny Bravo cartoon here, guitar pick here, and red cylinder here. The unedited image of the radius and ulna and SAP found here.

Posted in Forearm, Long Bones, Osteology | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Palpable Anatomy: The Palmaris longus tendon

Happy January, everybody! I’ve been absent from the blog for a few weeks due to the arduous process of travelling from Thailand to Kazakshtan, and then back to the U.S. after a quick stop in Madrid – a journey of seven flights spaced out over 8,800 miles. The trip was logistically challenging, but I was able to make my way back to balmy 1˚C Ann Arbor this past Thursday, luggage in tow.

Clouds over Michigan

On my longest Trans-Atlantic flight my TV wasn’t working, so after finishing my book and intently perusing the in-flight magazine (Did you know that Louisville is a happening hipster town, and that bartenders in NY are putting tobacco in fancy cocktails?) I was at a loss for what to do. I watched half of a sitcom without sound to practice my lip-reading skills (I am now able to determine when people are saying “OK” sarcastically, particularly if they hold up one of their palms for emphasis), drifted in and out of fitful sleep while cradling my elbow to protect it from the aggressive overtures of the beverage cart, and spent a lot of time staring at anything that crossed my range of vision, including the back of the tray table, my neighbour’s TV screen, and my hands. While examining my hands and flexing them back and forth, I was reminded of another point of palpable anatomy, besides the anatomical snuffbox, that can be found in this region – the Palmaris longus tendon.

Palmaris longus is an unusual muscle. It originates on the medial epicondyle of the humerus and inserts into the anterior aspect of the flexor retinaculum (the fibrous sheath that forms the top of the carpal tunnel) and into the palmar aponeurosis. It functions as a superficial flexor of the hand at the wrist and tightens the palmar aponeurosis. To find your own Palmaris longus tendon, follow these two simple steps:

Step 1: Extend your hand flat out in front of you, so that your entire wrist is visible.

Hand extended

Step 2: Curl your hand into a fist and examine the topography of your wrist.

Hand flexed

The tendon of Palmaris longus will appear as a raised ridge running along the middle of the anterior aspect of your wrist. A slightly more involved strategy is to use Schaeffer’s test, in which you touch your thumb to your little finger before flexing your wrist.

Palmaris longus tendon

If you’re finding this complicated (which it very well may be, as I’m currently operating under a mild haze of jetlag), there’s a useful video explaining the technique:

If the surface of your wrist remains smooth and flat even when your hand is flexed, then there is something dreadfully wrong with you and you should consult a medical professional immediately. It’s entirely possible that you represent a novel species of X-Men style mutant, capable of flexing your wrist using only the awesome force of your heretofore undiscovered telekentic powers!

JUST KIDDING. Palmaris longus is an interesting muscle because it’s actually vestigial in humans. It’s absent in about 10-15% of the population, so if you don’t see that raised tendinous ridge, you’re probable not a mutant. Interestingly enough, my Netter flashcards also tell me that in other species this muscle is used to retract the claws, which is no doubt why you can see what looks to be a pretty boss Palmaris longus tendon on Wolverine’s left wrist in the photo above.

If you’re curious about the evolutionary history of this aspect of anatomy, my friend Dr. Zach Throckmorton and some of his colleagues are conducting some new research on this muscle, focusing on the global patterning and evolutionary causality of unilateral and bilateral agenesis of the Palmaris longus muscle in humans. The jpeg of the poster is below, and I’ve uploaded a pdf in the references section at the end of the post.

Throckmorton et al., 2014So if you find that you’re missing one or both of your Palmaris longus muscles, my advice is to try to palpate it with a group of friends who are not anatomy nerds, and then explode into a frenzied and terrified panic when you “discover” that one of your muscles is missing. If they’re super gullible, you can even tell them you’re some kind of a mutant.

(As a caveat, I would advise against claiming to be a Wolverine-style mutant since you’d have a devil of a time retracting your claws).

Palmaris Longus. Netter’s Anatomy Flashcards, 3rd Edition. 6-29. Saunders.

Ali M. Soltani, Mirna Peric, Cameron S. Francis, et al., “The Variation in the Absence of the Palmaris Longus in a Multiethnic Population of the United States: An Epidemiological Study,” Plastic Surgery International, vol. 2012. (Full Text available online, here)

Throckmorton, Z., N. Forth, A.Schandi, and N.Thomas. 2014. Palmaris Longus Agenesis Variation and Evolution: Adventures at the anthropology-anatomy interface. Poster at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists Meetings, Calgary, AB. (Pdf available here: Throckmorton et al., 2014)

Image Credits
Image of Wolverine from Empire Online, here.


Posted in Anatomy, Palpable Anatomy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bone Broke Year in Review

2014 was a big year for me, both professionally and personally. I applied for grants, finished my dissertation data collection, attended two conferences, had an article published, and spent seven and a half months living outside of the U.S. while traveling through nine different countries. Taking a page out of the Lawnchair Anthropology playbook, I’m recapping this year’s worth of posts to summarize what I’ve been up to.

At work in the Museo de Jaén

At work in the Museo de Jaén

This past summer I finished my dissertation data collection at the Museo de Jaén in Andalucía. The tail end of my dissertation research was a dental analysis of over 3,800 teeth, which explains the dental motif running through my posts from late summer and early fall. I stored my new cache of dentition knowledge online, describing how bioarchaeologists use dental attrition in order to estimate age, updating and uploading my human dentition cheat sheet, and teaching you how to identify the premolars. To give you a look at a typical work day during the eight months I spent collecting dissertation data, I photodocumented the microexcavation of a Copper Age cranium. After leaving the field, I provided guidelines for how to organize and photograph loose dentition and articulated dentition, and also posted the spreadsheets I used for dental data collection.

Museo de Jaén

Museo de Jaén

I spent 2014 in nine different countries, moving between the U.K., U.S., Canada, Spain, Macedonia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Thailand and Cambodia in order to visit my family, present at conferences, attend weddings and eat pizza. I traversed the cobbled streets of Córdoba and thought up bone quizzes inspired by the architecture of the ancient city. I found the world’s most appropriate travel agency for bioarchaeologists in Eastern Europe, and sampled salty kiflochki in Skopje. I took the train west to Seville to gape at the wonders of the Alcázar, and then north to Barcelona to quaff delicious beer and view the urban panorama from the heights of Montjuïc Castle. My friend Rocío kindly shepherded me around her mountain village in the Segura region of northeastern Andalucía, where I ate homemade jamón serrano, wandered the hills searching for vanished waterfalls, and battled with flocks of local sheep for access to fountains.On my birthday, I hiked the ruggedly beautiful hills of Los Morteros, just outside of Jaén, and found a small cache of ovicaprid bones. I explored Kazakhstan’s space-age capital of Astana, documenting its abundant New Year’s decorations as a thematic backdrop for yet another bone quiz. In the frigid mid-December temperatures, I boarded a sleeper train out of the capital, and 13 hours later found myself in the bustling, cosmopolitan former capital of Almaty. I spent the New Year proper in Bangkok – a post for 2015.

View of the valley from Los Teatinos

La Segura

After publicizing the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s Forensic Anthropology short course (which I took myself back in 2012), I reviewed the curious phenomenon of younger archaeologists demonstrating markedly low response rates to a large American Antiquity survey covering the “Grand Challenges” in archaeology, and wrapped up the 2o13-2014 Blogging Archaeology Carnival with a review of my best and worst posts on the blog, and a discussion of where I want my blog to go in the future.

In Ann Arbor, I documented some of the Evolution and Human Adaptation lectures that I attended at the University of Michigan. The fantastic 2014 series “What does it mean to be a modern human?” was organized by Professor Maureen Devlin, and included Herman Pontzer’s work on human and primate energetics, and Tom Schoenemann’s research on primate brain evolution. I updated you with my progress on forensic research, including the University of Michigan’s Undocumented Migration Project forensic taphonomy study in the Sonoran Desert, work which was later published in the Journal of Forensic Science. I travelled to Alberta in April to present a poster on my work on the treatment of subadults in the Iberian Copper Age at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meetings in Calgary. In September I submitted an entry to Brown’s Archaeology for the People competition; while I didn’t win, the contest gave me the opportunity to put into writing some of my ideas about the importance of bioarchaeology as a discipline. In November, I received the welcome news that I will be able to teach my own course, The Science of Skeletons: Introduction to Bioarchaeology, this coming summer at the University of Michigan.

Course flyer

In 2014 I continued the ‘osteomenagerie’ series by teaching you how to identify different categories of vertebrae by comparing the vertebral transverse and spinous processes to giraffe, moose and fish faces. I also pointed out that distal phalanges look like platypus bills in my post on differentiating manual and pedal phalanges. I outlined a series of arm positions that you can use to help you identify fragmentary zygomatic processes found in archaeological contexts, and taught you how to identify and side parietal bones by pretending to comb your hair. Finally, I gave osteology students the opportunity to test their skills at parietal identifying and siding by uploading a parietal-specific bone quiz.

I saw osteology everywhere, from examples of artificial cranial deformation on Michigan sidewalks, to vertebrae in Spanish train stations, linear enamel hypoplasias on pints of beer, upper molars in pebbles, and parietal mengingeal grooves on Andalucían hiking paths, and shared my extremely nerdy hobby of baking osteology-themed cakes for my friends, complete with photos.

I made use of excerpts from my predoctoral research paper by uploading a lengthy literature review of the etiology of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia. I also detailed what it’s like to be one of the few osteologists in your department by describing a photographic analysis of a Shabe Yoruba burial that I conducted on behalf of one of my colleagues, using the exercise as an opportunity to explain how bioarchaeologists use non-metrical cranial traits in order to estimate the sex of individuals. I ended the osteological year on a lighter note, in a post that provided my top ten Christmas gifts for osteologists, which has been my most popular post to date.

Lumbar Vertebra and Moose Face

Bone Quizzes
2014 may well be known as the year of the Bone Quiz. The first post of the year asked you to identify specific cranial fragments (Bone Quiz 5). I then moved on to pathologies related to the beginnings of agriculture (Bone Quiz 6), asked you to identify soft-tissue features of the foot (Anatomy Quiz 1), and to name a small bone that is rarely preserved in prehistoric archaeological contexts (Bone Quiz 7). In the late spring, you were tasked with identifying more pathologies (Bone Quiz 8), as well as features of the vertebrae (Bone Quiz 9), and identifying a incomplete element that had been refit from three different fragments of bone (Bone Quiz 10). I recounted an anecdote about young visitors to my museum lab before asking you to identify a recurring osteological feature that preserves particularly well archaeologically (Bone Quiz 12). Subsequent bone quizzes reflected the fact that July and August were dentition heavy months for me – you were tasked with identifying a fragmentary human tooth (Bone Quiz 13), low frequency dental abnormalities (Bone Quiz 14), estimating the sex of a cranium and identifying associated dental anomalies (Bone Quiz 15.1 and 15.2), and estimating the age of an individual using only the dentition (Bone Quiz 16).

Buccal/Labial View

Bone Quiz 14

Bones and Culture
I started the year off by covering skeletal versions of the intricately carved hobo nickels from the early 20th century, before moving on to osteology in popular television shows. Over the summer I became addicted to the ridiculous plot twists of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, which inspired posts about the taphonomy of mythological lakes, the zooarchaeology of giant fictional birds, and a case study of synostosis in the arm bones of an alleged giant-killer. Lest you think I am a shallow and frivolous person, I also spent time watching the equally ridiculous NBC show The Blacklist, and composed a thoughtful post that asked whether a pivotal prison shiv prop was actually carved from a human tibia or from a faunal tibia. I ended the year by interrogating some of my own poor eating habits, delving into the sometimes sordid and always fascinating history of Huesitos (English translation “little bones”) chocolate in Spain.

Instructive diagram

Instructive Once Upon a Time diagram

Oh and finally, I buried a bear foot in a professor’s backyard.

Thanks to the kindness of faculty, all systems were go for bear paw burial.

Thanks to the kindness of faculty, all systems were go for bear paw burial.

2014 has been a pretty interesting year, all told. As one more milestone, this marks my 100th post on Bone Broke. Thanks to everyone who reads the blog for giving me reason to continue this thoroughly enjoyable form of productive procrastination, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Image Credits: All photographs of bones taken at the Museo de Jaén (¡Feliz Año Nuevo a todos en el museo)!

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