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:

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 1.40.12 PM

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.

3 responses to “The Beautiful Bones: Skeletons as Visual Shorthand for Archaeology

  1. “But who cares about the Romans”? Actually, I do.

  2. Hey Paolo! I was just thinking about you and Kari the other day. The point is more, do you care that Roman bones are show in photographs?

  3. Of course not. I like that “my own” past is studied, argued, and continually added on. Photos (including burial photos) help “my” heritage from falling into just myths and legends. A mythical past doesn’t do much good to the present and the future.

    (ps: are you coming back?)

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