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 academia.edu 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.

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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 giphy.com, here. Cat husky is from imgur, here.

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The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival


A few years ago I participated in a Blogging Archaeology Carnival organized by Doug Rocks-Macqueen, a man whose surname manages to combine aspects of both lithic analysis and 1970s British rock. The carnival tasked participants with answering one question per month, beginning in November 2013 and culminating with a “Blogging Archaeology” session at the 2014 SAAs. It also launched an associated edited volume, which is open access and available here. The questions posed in 2013/2014 were as follows (with my own answers linked):

  1. Why blogging? – Why did you start a blog? Why are you still blogging?
  2.  What do you consider to be the good, the bad and the ugly of blogging?
  3. What are your best and worst post(s), and why? 
  4.  Where are you going with blogging, or where would you it like to go?


This year Doug decided kickstart a more focused one-month blogging carnival, revolving around the theme of “Grand Challenges for Archaeology”. The idea stems from a forum in the January 2014 issue of American Antiquity. The forum tasked fifteen archaeologists with refining crowd-sourced survey data to determine the 25 “grand challenges” of archaeology as a discipline. Importantly, the project was intended to “to inform decisions on infrastructure investments for archaeology. Our premise is that the highest priority investments should enable us to address the most important questions.”

The American Antiquity survey sparked some debate online due to the low response rate it garnered from younger archaeologists (see SEAC Underground for the most holistic coverage of the issue, and my own ” The Grand Challenge of Archaeology: Getting young people to respond to a survey, apparently” for a snarkier perspective). Doug is now taking the carnival opportunity to solicit feedback from a wider range of voices. This month, he posed the question: What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?going on to specify that “it is up to you to define what ‘your archaeology’ is. It can be highly specific to time and place. It can be the grand challenges for the archaeology of Aberdeen-shire between 1723-1746. Or it can be as broad as you want i.e. the looting of archaeology around the world. It can be about the profession i.e. pay, job prospects, etc. It can be as many or as few grand challenges as you want. It is all up to you.”

There have been some great posts of late that have been focused on contemporary archaeological problems, from Jake Lulewicz’s piece on the ethics of social media and archaeology, to Sian Halcrow’s descriptions of the obstacles specific to women in archaeology (particularly mothers), and Andy White’s persistent tenacity in combatting pseudoarchaeology and pseudoscience in a very public fashion.

However, what first leapt to my mind when thinking about the challenges facing archaeology was diversity. Even the word itself is divisive; some scholars reject it outright because of its ability to gloss over deeply entrenched structural racism in favor of a feel-good mentality propped up with buzz-words like “inclusivity” and vague promises of “celebrating cultural difference”. In using it here, I am referring to the fact that in North America and the UK, archaeology is an incredibly homogenous field, and archaeologists have remarkably homogeneous identities when it comes to their race, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

Salon – Diversity is for white people

Ellen Berrey,  the sociology professor who penned the aforementioned “Diversity is for white people” for Salon.com, dislikes the term diversity because “it’s how we talk when we can’t talk about race.” Archaeology in the U.S. does have a widespread and undeniable race problem –as Doug Rocks-Macqueen has pointed out “archaeology [is] disproportionately white.” He notes that “our audiences are not very diverse either, they tend to be middle class, older, and white.

This pattern was made abundantly clear in the results of the 1994 Society for American Archaeology census, now over 20 years old. Melinda Zeder, who analyzed the results of the survey, writes “for a discipline dedicated to the study of human diversity over the ages, American archaeology is starkly homogeneous in its own ethnic makeup (Figure 2.7). Of the 1,644 individuals who responded to this part of the Census, 1,470 (89 percent) reported that they were of European ancestry, two were African American, 4 were of Asian heritage, 15 were Hispanic (with 5 coming from Latin American countries) and 10 people classified themselves as Native Americans. One hundred and forty-two individuals (9 percent) classified their ethnic heritage as “Other,” and most of these were Canadians who objected, reasonably, to being classified as “European American,” … Eliminating this “Other” group from our sample, we see then that a full 98% of the respondents claim European heritage“(Zeder 1997:13).

Figure 2.7 from Zeder 1997

Aside from the amusingly offended Canadians, the census painted a troubling picture of a discipline that is almost entirely white. The SAA has yet to conduct another census on the 1994 level, but its 2010 Needs Assessment Survey suggested that the number of minority archaeologists is slowly growing, with respondents identifying as members of groups  other than “non-Hispanic white” having increased to sixteen percent. However, Diane Gifford-Gonzalez and Anna Agbe-Davies underscore that “absent significant new recruitment, 10 years from now, the membership of the society will probably still be predominantly white, with even higher proportions of this ethnic group among its senior leadership. Viewed in the context of the 2010 demographic profile for U.S. K-12 students, the disparity between SAA membership and societal composition may become more pronounced in two decades“(Gifford-Gonzalez and Agbe-Davies 2012:12).

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.56.17 PM

Writing about his experience as an African-American archaeologist working in the U.S., Bill White notes that the number of black archaeologists has increased since 1994, but only slightly – “Today…I personally know at least nine African American archaeologists – five of whom are PhD students…There were at least 13 black archaeologists in attendance at [the Society for Black Archaeologists meeting] in Baltimore, so I guess our numbers are so large I don’t personally know all of us anymore.” That White expected that he would personally know all of the black archaeologists in America is jarring, particularly for anyone who has witnessed the hordes of practitioners (84% of whom are “non-Hispanic white” archaeologists) congregating at the SAAs every year.

To bring my discussion back to Berrey’s point about diversity, I’m not using the term here to deny differential access to professional archaeology that is clearly based on race. Unfortunately, I feel the need to use the term “diversity” because there are also other identities, and often overlapping identities, that are poorly represented in professional archaeology including women, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities. This is not an archaeological iteration of “all lives matter” – academics who are people of color face a slew of unique and terrible obstacles within the academy. For eloquent and eye-opening descriptions of these sorts of battles, I recommend following Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on twitter (@IBJIYONGI), reading  Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK“, and Ta Nehisi Coates’ “Acting French” (and really reading anything that Coates has ever written). My point is that archaeology still needs to do better at incorporating a number of identities that differ from the “middle class, older and white” disciplinary norm.


I’ll touch upon some of these here. Women have been consistently underrepresented in archaeology since its beginnings (see Mike Pitts’ defensive post describing publishing statistics in British Archaeology in 2008/2009, and the results of the AAA survey in 1998). Recent anthropological research has underscored that this may be partially related to the dangers of sexual harassment, particularly in field-based contexts (see the famous SAFE survey, or the SEAC sexual harassment survey, both published in the last two years). In his 2014 series of posts on disability in archaeology, Doug Rocks-Macqueen covers the low number of professional archaeologists with disabilities (2%), and the many reasons archaeologists may be reluctant to disclose such disabilities, touching upon his own experience with speech issues and dyslexia.  Alison Atkin has written four thought-provoking posts titled “Silence in the Cemetery” (Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV) that center on her experiences navigating academic archaeology with hearing loss.

I was unable to find any statistics on LGBTQ representation in American archaeology, though the SAA has recently developed QAIG, the Queer Archaeology Interest Group, and Chelsea Blackmore and Dawn Rutecki cite a need to “[bring] together individuals interested in sexuality studies and other forms of queer research, [highlight] the problems experienced by members of our community, and [address] pedagogical issues important to LGBTQI students” (2014:18). In this vein it’s worth mentioning that Sarah Bess has a great recent post on her first experience of attending an archaeological conference as an out trans womanlgbtq_ally
So, several hundred words later, my answer to Doug’s question is that diversity, or perhaps more appropriately homogeneity, is one of the grand challenges currently facing archaeology. As anthropologists, understanding what it means to be human from a variety of perspectives is part and parcel to our disciplinary mission statement. It’s hard to see how we can achieve an informed understanding of human behavior without scholars representing the scope of human variability. This is not a problem with quick, simple, or cheap solutions. However, a key first step is being aware that the challenge exists and working to develop strategies to overcome it. Recent SAA initiatives like the Historically Underrepresented Groups Scholarship Fund and QAIG suggest that it is a challenge that archaeologists are at least beginning  to address.

I want to conclude with the words of the far more eloquent Bess, who writes:

Those of us with the power to speak out and the privilege to be heard need to speak out, but we also need to listen. As much as the academy has conditioned us to love the sounds of our own voices, as hard as it may be for an anthropologist to shut up, we need to listen. We need to amplify those voices that might not be heard on their own. We need to make sure that this dialogue resounds at all levels: at field sites and in labs, in the classroom, in barrooms, at SEAC, at SAA, at AAA”.

Image Credits: Blogging Archaeology header found here. Cat on computer found here. Figure 2.7 is a screenshot from Zeder 1997. Banner from the Society of Black Archaeologists from their website, here. Banner from TrowelBlazers from their website, here.

Blackmore, C., and D. Rutecki. (2014). Introducing the Queer Archaeology Interest Group: Who We Are and Why We Need Your Support. The SAA Archaeological Record 14(5):18-19. — full issue available online here. LGBTQ ally banner found here.

Gifford-Gonzalez, D., and A. S. Agbe-Davies (with assistance from T. Tung). (2012). The SAA’s Historically Underrepresented Groups Scholarship Fund. The SAA Archaeological Record. 12 (5):11-16). — full issue available online here.

Zeder, M. (1997). The American Archaeologist: A Profile. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.

Posted in Archaeology, Blogging | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments