Tag Archives: genetics

The Beautiful Bones: Skeletons as Visual Shorthand for Archaeology

3D Printed Skull on Wikimedia.

3D Printed (anonymous?) Skull on Wikimedia.

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.


As part of my postdoc, I’ve been making short videos highlighting the research of the PhD fellows associated with EUROTAST. These are mixtures of footage that was shot previously, my own footage, and Creative Commons found footage.

They have been a challenge to make. Finding the proper visuals and music to accompany the incredibly sensitive research on genetics, identity and the difficult heritage of the Transatlantic Slave Trade has made the creative process much slower and considered than usual.

Still, I’m relatively pleased with how they’ve come out, considering they’re such a mixture of visual and audio resources.

The several I’ve made so far feature an anthropologist, an historical archaeologist, a molecular archaeologist, and an archaeologist-turned-historian. I went for the most visual research first. We’ll see how I handle the more conceptual PhD research of the mathematicians, geneticists, and computer scientists!

Digging for DNA on Medium.com

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I’m very pleased with this long-form, popular article that I wrote: Digging for DNA: Archaeology, Genetics & the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I wasn’t sure where to put it at first, as it’s long for many journals, and a lot of places do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Journalistic writing is surprisingly difficult to break into! It was also one of the more difficult things that I’ve written, as it details very contentious issues in research on ethnicity and genetics.

While my name is on the byline, it received quite a few edits from the researchers involved–precise language is important in discussions of scientific research, and I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t misrepresenting perspectives of the researchers and fellows involved.

It was also interesting to write something for Medium.com, as there does not seem to be much of an archaeological presence there. Additionally, they give you stats on how many people get to the bottom of the article–so far, less than 1/3 of readers muscled their way through the nearly 5,000 words.

Overall, it has been a revelation working with the EUROTAST network, and has considerably shaped my future research projects. I hope you enjoy this discussion of their research! Here’s the first paragraph of the article:

Marcela Sandoval gave me a wry grin, then covered her face with a mask. Next, a covering for her hair, goggles, booties over her shoes, and a crisp, white suit that crinkled when she moved. Finally, a pair of turgid purple latex gloves snapped into place. She put her hands on her hips and impatiently motioned for me to get on with it. I awkwardly pulled on my own clean suit and followed her into the laboratory, where a faint glow outlined test tubes and complex machines.

Here, in this quiet room, was the beginning of a complex, captivating story about genetics, ethnicity, and the archaeological past.

For more, go to:

The Curious Case of Mr. Hans Jonatan: Iceland, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Genetics in Archaeology

"Islanda", a map of Iceland by Benedetto Bordone in 1547, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Islanda”, a map of Iceland by Benedetto Bordone in 1547, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Recent research into genetics and the complicated history of the Transatlantic slave trade has revealed an unlikely but important ancestor of nearly 500 Icelandic people: Hans Jonatan. EUROTAST, a Marie Curie-funded research initiative from a consortium of international universities into “The History, Archaeology and New Genetics of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” has shed light onto the mass forced migrations of people from Africa to the colonies in the west as a whole, but also expressed as the fascinating experiences of a formerly enslaved man.

Hans Jonatan was born into slavery in 1784 on a sugar plantation in St. Croix, a Danish colony in the Caribbean, transferred to Copenhagen, sentenced to go back to St. Croix after the abolition of slavery in Denmark, then escaped to Iceland, where he raised a family. His illegal retention in Copenhagen by his former Mistress, Henriette Catharine Schimmelmann, was at the center of an historic court case that tested the legality of new abolition legislation—did Jonatan’s stay in Denmark set him free, or did his birth in the Danish West Indies make him a slave regardless? The judge determined that slavery was still illegal in Denmark, but that Jonatan was to go back to St. Croix as Schimmelmann’s property.

After this unfortunate sentence, Jonatan escaped immediately, and turned up in a tiny port in East Iceland several years later. Two centuries would pass before authorities in Copenhagen would learn Jonatan’s whereabouts. He settled down, married Katrín Antoníusdóttir, and lived until 1827. It is not known how he was received or perceived by the community of Icelanders, many of whom had never seen a “Negro.” Two of his three children survived and became respected citizens of the community, perhaps indicating a wider acceptance of Jonatan.

The life and eventual ancestors of Hans Jonatan highlights the complicated genetic legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade, and changes the collective perception of historic ethnic “purity.” EUROTAST fellow Anuradha Jagadeesan at the University of Iceland is reconstructing the genome of Hans Jonatan from genetic data available through his descendants. Jagadeesan is using an innovative technique based on the detection of shared identical chromosome segments to determine parental origin. From this gathered information, scientists will reconstruct Hans Jonatan’s genome to make inferences about his phenotype and biogeographical ancestry, setting the standard for the use of genetics to understand the legacy of long dead individuals as well as to better understand the temporal fragmentation of the genome.

Hans Jonatan’s compelling story shows the unique interplay of historical research and genetics in a surprising venue—the seemingly remote and homogenous population of Iceland, as well as the potential for monumental shifts in our understanding of ethnic origins.


Kristín Loftsdóttir, & Gísli Pálsson (2013). Black on White: Danish Colonialism, Iceland and the Caribbean Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-6202-6_3