The Beautiful Bones: Skeletons as Visual Shorthand for Archaeology

3D Printed Skull on Wikimedia.

3D Printed (anonymous?) Skull on Wikimedia.

WARNING, THIS POST FEATURES HUMAN SKELETAL REMAINS
though you probably won’t mind!

Bones lead. Skeletons attract headlines, and have been displayed prominently in many, if not most Western (and some Eastern, Southern, and Northern) institutions, both religious and secular, for a very long time. The material remains of people have been used as icons, as reminders of past family members, for offerings, for decoration, for medicinal purposes, and shunned entirely, to never be seen by the living again. Pretty much any way you can think of, and many ways I’m sure you can’t, human skeletons have played a part in the lives of the living.

Yet this was before the internet. You see, the way human remains were treated before was contextual, was defined within the limits of a locality or culture. This started to go to pieces with, well, colonialism, archaeology and museums and has been wildly exacerbated with the widespread availability of images on the internet. Archaeologists have only just started to come to terms with when and where and why it may be appropriate to share images of skeletal remains on the internet.

While dealing with some human remains housed in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley in 2009, Alexis Boutin and I crafted an ethics statement on the display and remediation of artifacts and human remains in association with the project. As we drafted it, I cast around for similar such statements, and found that not even the International Visual Studies Association had an ethics statement on visual media. I was happy that my queries were cited as a motivating force for the IVSA to come up with their own statement.

I’m delighted to see that this has been picked up in more recent years by Howard Williams and Alison Atkin in their publication in Internet Archaeology, by an excellent session at WAC organized by Brenna Hassett and her colleagues: Digital Bioarchaeology: New Dimensions, New Methods, New Ethics and there have been some great discussions on the DigitalOsteo mailing list organized by Alison Atkin. The bioarchaeologists are bringing it!

It still comes up frequently though. A couple of weeks ago, I was extremely pleased to be an author on a joint publication, Genomic signals of migration and continuity in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons, in Nature Communications. Skeletal remains were not used to illustrate the article in Nat Comms, but were used in the roll-out to the press. This photo ran in the Daily Mail, BBC, the International Business Times, and IFScience, among others:

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This is not my photo, but I’ve set up such shots before. I’ve told scientists to “lean in, get really close” to the object of their study. A young female researcher leans close to a skeleton of a young male “gladiator.” Her position as a boundary-crossing bioarchaeologist, one who can translate for the dead to the living is secure. (Zoe Crossland has a lot of great things to say about these boundary transgressions in her analyses of forensic literature.) The photo itself doesn’t really tell you anything about the research–it is not obvious that the skeleton was decapitated, or really much of anything except that there were scientists looking at bones.

Another one of the photos that ran:

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This one was in Phys.org and National Geographic, but wasn’t quite as popular. This is the more interesting photograph to archaeologists, as it shows the skeleton as the excavator fully revealed it, decapitation obvious, skeleton on its side. You can see that the grave cut has been excavated properly, and the grave is not cut by any other later graves. It is, in the words of one of my excavator friends who saw these photos, “beautifully excavated.”

It is fully revealed, the bones look mostly present (though some of the ribs and an arm are unaccounted for–possible truncation?) and the position of the skeleton is obvious. This photo, to a trained eye, conveys a certain kind of respect–the archaeologist took care in excavating this burial. The archaeologist who did so is well-trained and reflects well on the heritage entity in charge, York Archaeological Trust, who made sure that this excavation was undertaken with expertise. This photo makes the resulting analyses appear more legitimate.

While there is a certain amount of theater to setting up a truly lovely excavation shot, publications with photographs that show messy excavations, improperly excavated remains (like skeletons or artifacts on pedestals of dirt), or horrible health & safety conditions undermine the resulting data, making the entire enterprise suspect.

Still, that does not fully address the ethics of having these bones used in the popular media to illustrate a scientific article that was about ancient DNA. I wondered though, what would be better? An analysis of these skeletons has revealed how monumentally beat up they were during their lives. They had lots of healed injuries, some old, some more recent, a pair of manacles so tight that they would have caused horrible pain to the man before he died. Any illustrations of these men right before their decapitations would have been fairly gruesome.

I brought this up on DigitalOsteo, asked about “fleshed” reconstructions vs. showing skeletal remains, and Sharon Clough pointed me toward this illustration by Mark Gridley:

Mark Gridley's Reconstruction of a Viking Burial Pit.

Mark Gridley’s Reconstruction of a Viking Burial Pit.

Would showing the violence of their last moments alive through a “fleshed” reconstruction of events instill more empathy, a better understanding of the lives of these men?

Finally, I think about the context of these skeletons. There are many communities who object to the display and depiction of the dead, who would give a full-throated denunciation of the remains of their ancestors being subjected to DNA sampling and extensive scientific study. But who cares about the Romans?

You can do pretty much anything to Romans. You can make them into cartoons, use them to sell anything from condoms to van insurance, anything goes.

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Trust this guy with your van!

Is it because the Romans are known as conquerers and colonizers? I’m far from a classical archaeologist or an art historian, but it isn’t too hard to find the Romans themselves depicting such brutality, such as this example from Trajan’s column:

Warrior holding the head of a decapitated Dacian by the hair. Charming!

Roman soldier holding the head of a decapitated Dacian by the hair. Charming!

Am I using the Roman depiction of conquered Dacian decapitation to justify using skeletons to illustrate archaeological research? Of course not. The complexities of using depictions of human remains in popular media is an unsolved and unsolvable problem. Bones lead. But selecting images for actual content and showing the research context of the burials while being sensitive to the past and present cultural implications is a worthy goal.

2015: Postdocs, New Jobs, Publications, and a Whole Lot of Travel

I’ve come to think that it’s mostly graduate students & professors who have time and headspace to blog. Postdocs? We mostly just hustle. Words erupt from my fingers, thousands, thousands of words all over the keyboard and into papers and grants and emails and I don’t really feel like I own any of the words anymore. They’re all words for other people. I posted on Savage Minds the other day and I remembered the luxury of my own words, arranged in a way that pleases me. I’d like to do that more often.

Scotland was real purty.

Scotland was real purty.

So what does a postdoc hustle entail, if there is no time for blogging? In 2015 I travelled to Seattle, Colorado, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Qatar, Oman, San Francisco, Greece, Australia, New York, Scotland, and Germany.  I gave one keynote, three invited lectures, organized a conference, organized two sessions, chaired other two sessions, and presented eight papers. I published four articles and have five more in press. I got three postdocs and turned down two of them. Oh and we moved house with two days notice.

After my dream-like EUROTAST Marie Curie came to a close, I started up a slightly strange dual position at the University of York, a Centre for Digital Heritage postdoc and teaching, and that’s where I am now.

So what has all that gotten me? It’s hard to tell. My CV is hell on wheels, I feel pretty good about that. I’m tied down with teaching these days, but that’s okay. The students at York are great, the classes are small, and you feel like you can make a significant impact with teaching. I’d like to cultivate a bit more quality with my academic writing, aim higher with more polished publications. After attending all of the conferences last year (SAA, CAA, EAA, SHA, TAG-NYC, I get tired just thinking about it) I’m attending none this year. I’m spending one day a week getting together a Pretty Big Grant for my avatars project, saying “no” to a lot of stuff (sorry, I feel bad) and trying to keep my original goal for archaeology in mind: doing great research with people I like and respect. That, and learning how to use Unity. dammit.

But no lectureship/professorship. Yet. I’ve been assured that I don’t want one, but I’m stubborn. We’ll see what 2016 brings. #lifegoals, right?

English Water Rites

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I am a child of drought. Growing up in the Great American West, I was taught to turn off the water when you brush your teeth. If it’s yellow, let it mellow/if it’s brown flush it down. Only turn your sprinklers on at night. Plug the bathtub when you take a shower and re-use the water for plants. The desert was normal, the desert was home, and the drought only got worse over the years.

The conservation of water was inculcated as a moral good. Bad people had golf courses in Arizona, built water parks in Las Vegas, and planted watermelon in the Valley. That guy who washes his car in July? The worst.

This has been reflected in most places I’ve done archaeology. I’ve worked in Jordan, where we showered with two litres of water, where the mighty River Jordan is a waller. I’ve worked in Turkey, where intensive agriculture is lowering the water table and threatening the deeply buried archaeological remains. I work in Qatar, where the little groundwater available is saline.

I had no idea how normal this was for me until, of course, I moved to England. I’ve been mystified over the usual things–weather talk, how to order rounds at the pub, the two different goddamn taps for hot and cold water, but the water culture (?) habits (?) ethic (?) mores (?) is probably the most altogether foreign.

Run your tap for a few minutes before getting a drink. Why? Lots of pipes in England are still made out of lead. Have a bath. Why not have two? The water to your house isn’t metered, after all. Low-flush toilets? Are you joking? Most of the infrastructure in England is made to get rid of water! There are bogs on top of hillsides! That last one was a particular surprise, as my hiking boots and socks disappeared into the sludge. Not to mention the recent floods here in York. There is constantly, urgently, too much water.

It is easy to start seeing the endless water in all aspects of life. England’s early control of the seas. The criss-crossed canals, striping the countryside. Towns perched across the Ouse, Thames, Cam, Avon, Irwell. Not to mention the endless social reshuffling of water in the form of tea and beer. Hot water runs through our radiators and I’m currently cradling a hot water bottle in my lap as I type away in this Victorian terraced house. Most of the terraced houses suffer from damp problems, so you have to leave the windows open in the wintertime, even with your heat on. It’s nearly impossible to dry clothes, and hardly anyone has tumble dryers. There are special cupboards for drying towels.

Waterfat, like in Herbert’s Dune. Water as a taken-for-granted. Water as thoughtless power. It’s tempting to think about it that way until the Ouse & the Foss take out half of your favorite medieval city. Water as uncontested force. Water as relentless difficulty.

Yet what is sitting outside of all of the flower shops, in this country where you can grow almost anything besides tomatoes? Rows and rows of cactus. They’re popular here, and nobody even seems to have a sense of humor about it.

Punk (Archaeology) Part Two

Where were you
Where the hell were you
Not around for punk part two

You know punk is really dead when archaeologists write about it, right?

I published my paper from Christopher Matthews’ 2015 SHA session on Punk Archaeology, which, for me, grew out of my earlier piece for Bill Caraher, The Young Lions of Archaeology. I was able to expand on my earlier thoughts to lay out a program for punk archaeology, and explore its DIY and anarchist roots. It was a fun paper to write, thanks to AP: Online Journal in Public Archaeology for publishing it, and, in particular, Jaime Almansa Sánchez for enduring my endless harassment.

You can read the full paper here:

Morgan, C. 2015. Punk, DIY, and Anarchy in Archaeological Thought and Practice, AP: Online Journal in Public Archaeology, 5, 123-146.

The abstract:

Recent developments in archaeological thought and practice involve a seemingly disparate selection of ideas that can be collected and organized as contributing to an anti-authoritarian, “punk” archaeology. This includes the contemporary archaeology of punk rock, the DIY and punk ethos of archaeological labor practices and community involvement, and a growing interest in anarchist theory as a productive way to understand communities in the past. In this article I provide a greater context to contemporary punk, DIY, and anarchist thought in academia, unpack these elements in regard to punk archaeology, and propose a practice of punk archaeology as a provocative and productive counter to fast capitalism and structural violence.

Here’s a bonus Ghoulies track, covering Billy Bragg’s A New England. Bless the Groovie Ghoulies for their goofy, bouncy, monster-infused pop punk. Sadly the studio versions don’t really convey the speed & snarl of the Ghoulies live show, but isn’t that always the case?

Teaching Ai Wei Wei & the 9/11 Cheeseboard

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This term I’ve been teaching Visual Media & Archaeology, a class conceived by Sara Perry–I’m covering her teaching while she is on research leave in Egypt. It has been tough, as I did not have time to prep the class beforehand and I’ve been writing the lectures from scratch. But it has also been great to revisit a lot of my thesis material though, and gather my thoughts regarding topics such as Art & Archaeology in a more formal way.

I am happy to get back to teaching though, as have been primarily focussed on research for the last several years. The students have been fantastic–very smart, engaged and disturbingly keen.

I’ve enjoyed bringing up all the weird, interesting, fun and downright disturbing things that I have found over the years in visual representations in archaeology and have the students discuss them. Ai Wei Wei and his ill-treatment of Han pottery caused a fairly passionate discussion, particularly when I mentioned that it was worth more (in terms of money) after he broke the vases. I let that debate die down a bit, then (trying my hardest not to cackle or rub my hands together in a sinister way) brought up Maximo Caminero’s subsequent “vandalism” of an Ai Wei Wei exhibition.

During the Museums lecture, I brought this image up in a slide:

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Yes, we debated the 9/11 Cheese Board. What is the appropriate commodification of memory? The cries of dismay were fabulous.

So while it has been hard work, I’ve been having a lot of fun. For their final projects, the students have been getting together blog/portfolios featuring their work. Please check them out! They are really chuffed by page clicks and feedback:

How the Past Met the Present: A Story of Augmented Reality and Heritage:
https://pastmeetspresentblog.wordpress.com/

Archaeology TV:
http://archaeologyteevee.tumblr.com/

Drawn into the Past:
https://drawnintothepast.wordpress.com/

Art & Religion in Prehistory:
https://aysilneeson.wordpress.com/

Feeding Venice/Get Sidetracked:
https://zack-ferritto-goodall.squarespace.com/

Awesome Archaeology Women:
http://awesomearchwomen.tumblr.com

Plants and Animals “of the Home”:
https://plantandanimaldomestication.wordpress.com/

The Heritage Sight:
https://theheritagesight.wordpress.com/

DOHA: The Doha Online Historical Atlas

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I’m very happy to announce that DOHA: Doha Online Historical Atlas has been launched, just in time for CHNT: Cultural Heritage and New Technologies. DOHA brings together several years of research including archaeological excavations, historic documentation, and a whole lot of fancy GIS-based georeferencing work.

We are also looking for contributions from people living in Doha. We don’t have a seamless citizen science solution quite yet (involving tedious server complications, etc), but for now we are taking georeferenced media here:

https://originsofdoha.crowdmap.com/

It is difficult to visualize research that is spread out over an entire metropolis, so I am quite pleased that it has all come together. We also have a quick video showing how to use it:

It is in beta, so we would love any feedback on it:

http://www.spatialheritage.org/doha/

Manifest Destiny: Colonialism, Archaeology, and…Video Games?

You are the monster.

In her brilliant Story Collider podcast, Uzma Rizvi perfectly captures the rupture of graduate school, when, as she states, it becomes obvious that archaeology is “a colonial, racist, epistemically unjust system of knowledge production” and you ask yourself “how did I get here?” It is a question that archaeologists should be asking themselves every day. How did I get here? And how do I proceed?

It’s a bit of a wobbly path–unstable, uncertain, PROCEED WITH CAUTION black & yellow tape dangling in the wind. And yet, as cautious and de-centering and as sensitive as you can be, you are, often, still the monster. You are investigating the remains of the past, sometimes in another country, sometimes in your back yard, and you are navigating through your own cultural perceptions and the colonialist, racist foundations of your discipline to tell a story that might or might not be “true” or even important. This instability, I think, makes a lot of archaeologists & heritage scholars actually hate archaeology. It is actually not an entirely irrational decision, but I can’t agree. It’s too important.

It’s important that there are archaeologists who carry around the millstones of our own discipline’s past, that we have critical self-awareness and continue to engage anyway. It is our challenge to confront these disciplinary monsters and come away humbled yet still persistent. Because we need to continue to intervene in grandiose narratives, to rub dirt and stone and rubbish into histories that exclude women, indigenous people, people of color, the poor, the “othered” and to remove the props that hold up the crap politicians and power structures who use the past to justify present oppression.

And…guess what? The magical thing is that we can do this through traditional & alternative venues of publication, teaching, public outreach and…video games!

Manifest Destiny is an entry into Ludum Dare, a regular online video game jam wherein participants take on a challenge to create a game alone or with a team in 72 hours. Go ahead, fire it up and have a play and then come back.

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This entry was made by Tara Copplestone and Matt Sanders and is described as “a ‘hack n slash’ with a twist.” The name, Manifest Destiny, is an expansionist impulse to conquer, to colonize, one that is associated with the spread of white settlers across the continental United States in the 19th century.

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You are a towering figure with a cape, crushing tiny people and structures in your path, getting more points for your efficient destruction. And you have a trail of blood behind you. Sounds pretty accurate, right?

The game goes through four levels with different reconstructed cartoon landscapes, each corresponding to a season. You gain points and you gain dominion, partly represented by the devil horns that point out of your head. You also destroy structures and people with death spikes that come out of the ground. It’s not terribly subtle, but neither was Columbus.

Manifest Destiny is an incredibly detailed game for a 72 hour game jam. The music, upbeat but still slightly sinister, turns dire when you find out the truth of it all.

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I tried to play the game a few different ways. Yes, first I blew up all of the structures and people, then I tried just exploring without destruction. Finally I just stood there, and waited through the levels. The result was the same. In this last play-through where I stood and didn’t do anything, I noticed that the small people were at first running toward you, then milling around, then finally would run away from you.

The result is the same in each case–perhaps the only way to win is not to play at all. Though this message might have been reinforced by a different result if the character just choose to do nothing.

A “Learn More” button on the final screen points toward the EUROTAST webpage, which is a slightly unwieldy match, though appreciated. It did make me think that we need more in-depth online resources that are easy to point to that are arranged around current issues. What does archaeology have to teach us about state oppression? What does anthropological study have to say about forms of marriage?

Manifest Destiny is a creative, appreciated intervention that explores game conventions to highlight historic injustices.