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 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.

Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (Part 2)

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With summertime coming around again, it is time for archaeologists to post photos of breathtakingly dangerous practice. I wonder sometimes if the digital age will eventually help improve practice at archaeological excavations through public censure and raised awareness. I’m not sure–my first Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (part 1) was posted in 2011 when I was shocked and outraged at stunning disregard for the wellbeing of workers displayed in photographs in the New York Times. But have things changed? Apparently not.

I was alerted to this particular instance from BAJR’s Facebook page, and there are nearly 100 similarly outraged comments below the link. The university backing the project has been notified by members of BAJR, but can we all agree to stop this now? This is not something that we should be teaching students. Projects that post photos like this should not be funded and should come under serious censure.

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We need to do better. We need to teach proper health & safety to the next generation of archaeologists. We need to require project directors and supervisors receive rigorous training.

This 2x1 was excavated to a depth of 3 meters.
This 2×1 was excavated to a depth of 3 meters.

Curious about health & safety on archaeological sites? A good start is the CIfA’s Risk Assessment documents:

Lest you think this is UK-only, you can garner a very handsome fine from OSHA:

OSHA guide for trenches & excavation:

OSHA Trench Excavation Fact Sheet:

* All trenches over 1.5 meters require a protective system.
* All trenches require safe means of egress at all times.

As I said in my previous post:

Never work over your head. Never let anyone tell you that it is a good idea or that you aren’t being tough enough. Never work alone.

Why Archaeologists Should Use Creative Commons…for everything.*

Photo of Jason Quinlan, early advocate of Creative Commons photography in archaeology. Photo by Scott Haddow.

Your powerpoint slides are probably okay, especially if you forbid anyone from taking photographs of your talk. The video of your excavations, that hilarious one that your intrepid students made that uses the popular song that you all sang while shoveling? Probably okay, as long as you never share it on YouTube. But to be able to publicize your efforts, and to share online with others, you must be cognizant of this great (and often unspoken) rule:

With great public archaeology, comes great responsibility…to copyright law.

“But I’m an educator! I’m not doing it for profit! I have only the very best of intentions!”

Sorry, folks. There are very strict laws about copyright in the US and the UK, even for the most angelic of researchers, teachers, and students. Did you know that in the UK you have to wait 70 years after the principal director, author of the screenplay, author of the dialogue, and composer of the music ALL DIE until you can use a movie without restrictions?** 70 freakin’ years. I know my artful multimedia museum display won’t wait that long. Are these laws sane, just, and better for innovation & society? No. But until the day that Lawrence Lessig rules the world, we are probably stuck with navigating copyright. Sure, you can fly the pirate flag, copy and distribute everything, but at least be aware you are doing it.

We could get into a horribly complex dissection of the disgusting entrails of copyright, but I’m going to assume that: 1) you don’t care about copyright law 2) BUT you’d like to keep your nose clean and 3) that you may actually care about contributing to the wider media discourse about archaeology. So let’s talk basic best practices.

1) USE – media with clear copyright. That photo that you scraped from the pdf? The photo posted online with no attribution? Not okay. Everything is under copyright, whether you see the © or not. The key is to use media that has been pre-cleared for use. This is Creative Commons (CC). For my projects, I try to use music, images, and fonts (yes, fonts!) that are available under Creative Commons.

There are a few varieties of CC licenses, and you can read about them in detail here, but I’ll quickly go over them:

88x31 Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) This means that you are free to use, share, remix, as long as you attribute the original work. My favorite license, as it asks (okay, tells) you to attribute my work, but please use it as you like.

88x31 (1) Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike (CC-BY-SA) This means that you have to attribute the work, and that you have to share the work under the same Creative Commons license. Many people (including myself in the past) thought that this was a good idea so as to spread the CC around, but ultimately it limits the ways that your work can be used. Screw it, just use (CC – BY).

88x31 (2) Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives (CC-BY-ND) This means that others can distribute the work but others can’t change it. This is a stupid license, don’t use it.

88x31 (3) Creative Commons Attribution, Non Commercial (CC-BY-NC) This means that you must attribute the work, but you can’t use it commercially. A lot of educators use this one, but I try to avoid it. What about the professional archaeologists among us? They need media too.

88x31 (4) Public Domain – Jackpot! This media has no known copyright restrictions. Most of the media labeled with this comes from our most worshipful friends, the enlightened librarians and archivists who have identified works that are in the public domain and then twisted the arm of their institution to digitize them and host them, for free. I love these people. With that in mind, it is kind to thank the institution. And buy your activist librarian/archivist friend a drink.

(added 30 July 2014)

CC0 No Rights Reserved (CC0) – As was rightly pointed out, I forgot CC0! Unlike the Public Domain license above, this is for folks who have made something recently and want to opt out of copyright protection altogether. It’s an amazing, gutsy license–I still like to keep my attribution attached. It’s probably one part wanting to respect intellectual lineage and one part ego-based.

2) CREATE – Once you know what the different licenses mean, you can start using CC media to create all your finest scholarly outreach. But where do I find such a thing?

We started a slightly shonky wiki that lists some of our favorite resources for free/CC media and tutorials, please feel free to add to it:

Better yet, Creative Commons hosts a handy search page for you to find images, music, and video here:

You can also tweak your settings in Google Image Search to look for CC content.

I try to credit all of the photos actually in or near the photos, but if they’re in a movie, a list of credits at the end will suffice. I nearly fall out of my seat when I see an academic presentation that properly credits the authors of the media. It shows a commitment to authorship and multivocality as well as professionalism. Love your media makers. They make you.

3) SHARE – To me, using Creative Commons for sharing is at the very heart of public archaeology. You are explicitly sharing your academic or professional labor and giving permission to others to use it to build upon. Simple, but beautiful.

Flickr, Soundcloud, and Youtube all allow you to share your media under Creative Commons in a relatively easy fashion. The benefit to using “free” social media-based corporate hosting is that more people will see/use your content, and that it is better distributed to protect against catastrophic data loss. If you host it yourself, you can just put a CC license on the media webpage and share that way. Better yet, put the CC license in the object’s metadata and it will more likely stay intact. But don’t worry if that sounds too complicated.

Also, keywording your content makes it much easier for people to find and use. Happily, there is a pretty good guide on how to do this HERE. Sharing your excavation images online with good keywording can also save your bacon if you have massive data loss at 3AM on the way to your conference. whew.

Stu Eve and I talk briefly about some of the issues around Creative Commons and Open Access in our 2012 article HERE, but to be brief, archaeologists should use CC media by default, and adopt CC licensing whenever and wherever possible.

Do it because you want to stay within copyright laws. Do it because you want to show respect for fellow archaeologists and media makers. Do it because you want to make photos of archaeology available to everyone. Do it because you fear for the longevity of the archive. Do it because you had the worst time last week finding an example of a grave register to reuse in a short film. Do it because you hate stock photos of archaeologists with clean clothes and plastic whips.

Do it to put the past into the future.

* I realize that there is some complexity here with indigenous knowledge, and with sharing precise archaeological locations, but for simplicity, we’re going to side-step it for the moment.

** The UK law is changing as of October 2014. Hopefully for the better, but it’s generally for the worse.


Two of the research fellows in the EUROTAST project, looking at samples in the lab at the University of Bristol.

Last December I had the immense good fortune to join the Archaeology Department at the University of York as a EUROTAST Marie Curie Research Postdoctoral Fellow. I’ve been finding my legs in my new job for the last few months, getting the required equipment, and generally settling in. In practical terms, the position is familiar territory for me—digital media and public outreach—but the subject matter is a radical shift: new scientific methods of investigating the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While my first excavation investigated the home of formerly enslaved Dallas residents, with Dr. Maria Franklin at the University of Texas, and I have worked on historically disadvantaged and enslaved populations since that time, it was not my major research focus. Also, I understood (to a certain extent) the developments in archaeometry of the last decade, but the specifics were a gloss: I put the sample in a bag and sent it to a specialist who dealt with it.

It has been incredibly eye-opening both in terms of the vast wealth of information that DNA and isotopic analyses has to offer in archaeological research and the emotional toll of studying what can only be described as one of the most tragic chapters in history: the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

(After I finished that last sentence, I sat and looked at it for ten minutes. The TAST takes all the words away.)

So. While my postdoc is incredibly amazing—I heard that it was called the “unicorns and rainbows job”—there is…this. How do I digitally remediate difficult heritage? What considerations do I take when I disseminate research on this incredibly sensitive topic, heritage that hurts? There’s also contending with the rather large new body of literature. I find this a benefit, as it provides an outside perspective that is valuable in outreach in demonstrating the interest and vitality of a subject that feels tedious to a long-term expert in the subject. Anyway, I’ve taken to calling my new job digital heritage on hard mode.

Finally, it is fantastic being at the University of York. There’s great momentum in the Archaeology department and beyond, with the Centre for Digital Heritage, the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, and the presence of top researchers who are willing to try new things. And we do have some delights in store.

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Ethics Statement

Photograph of a Dilmun pot, from the Peter Bruce Cornwall collection at the Pheobe A. Hearst Museum.
Photograph of a Dilmun pot, from the Peter Bruce Cornwall collection at the Pheobe A. Hearst Museum.

After a rather invigorating research fellow interview with a dizzying array of questions, I was reminded of a research statement Alexis Boutin and I crafted in 2009 regarding the analysis and visual documentation of human remains and artifacts in the Phoebe A. Hearst museum at UC Berkeley. When I checked the old blog link the statement had disappeared, so I thought I’d repost it here, as I feel like it is an extremely worthwhile exercise and actually was a motivating force for the International Visual Studies Association’s more general ethics statement.

I would encourage all those who deal with human remains (and archaeology in general) to consider crafting this kind of statement before beginning a project, as it makes your position absolutely clear to your team and forces you to consider any stakeholders for your research.

Regarding the display and remediation of artifacts and human remains

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project is working with human remains excavated in the 1940s by Peter Bruce Cornwall. Although Cornwall obtained permissions both from local governing authorities and Standard Oil, who had oil exploration rights to some of these territories , we feel that we must be explicit in our methodology and goals in depicting the excavated materials curated in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum. In this digital age it is easy for members of western academic institutions to share both visual and textual information regarding our research and while it is often desirable to keep an open dialogue with fellow colleagues and an interested public, this same openness can be seen as disrespectful when the display of human remains and associated artifacts runs contrary to the desires and beliefs of stakeholders associated with the site. We believe that it is important to clarify this relationship and our stance regarding the data we are gathering as part of the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project (DBP).

Data Collection

During the course of our interpretation of the artifacts and human remains excavated by Peter Bruce Cornwall, we find it necessary to fully document the collection with digital photographs and digital video. The digital photography has been performed in accordance with the wishes of the Phoebe A. Hearst museum, on a photography stand, in raw format, with neutral colored backgrounds and scales. During this photography the artifacts were handled as little as possible, by team members wearing gloves in order to preserve their structural integrity. In the case of skeletal photography, only the dedicated bioarchaeologist, Alexis Boutin, Ph.D., handled the remains. These photographs and videos were then downloaded to the laptop of Colleen Morgan, the team’s digital documentarian. The photographs were then entered into a spreadsheet and given a UUID, a universally-unique ID commonly used by digital archivists, and a selection of these photographs were then cropped, photoshopped, and shared with the team in protected online folders. These photographs are also backed up to an external hard drive to protect against data loss. After the collection has been completely photographed we will make the photographs available to the Phoebe A. Hearst museum in a format of their choosing. The video will be cut into short videos to share online and will also be given to the Phoebe A. Hearst museum in the format of their choosing.


While all depictions of the artifacts and the human remains have been shared in protected folders online to team members, a selection of the photographs and videos also will be made available to the broader online public. Most of the artifacts in the Peter Bruce Cornwall collection were excavated from tumuli, specifically from human burials of the protohistoric inhabitants of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (i.e., the Dilmun culture). Images of these artifacts are in broad circulation and are printed in many volumes, and our contributions in this respect will not be unusual. We intend to contact the archaeological authorities in Bahrain to reaffirm this process. In this case it is difficult to identify interested indigenous parties, as the excavations were performed 60 years ago and the landscape of Bahrain has changed radically since that time. It is not our intention to reify the assumption that primarily Islamic populations only care about Islamic artifacts and remains. Instead we hope that digital dissemination of our data will heighten awareness of the tumuli in Bahrain. However, if our discussions with community leaders and other interested parties indicate dissatisfaction with these depictions, then we will remove offending materials from public access. In addition to presenting traditional representations of these artifacts, we also intend to remediate the data for better understanding and interest of the online public. Remediation, defined by Bolter and Grusin (1999) as “the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms” can be used to resituate artifacts in new, meaningful, and interesting ways. Given this, we intend that our remediations will be respectful of the past and present cultural context of the artifacts.

This above set of standards does not apply for depictions of the human remains. We recognize, in accordance with the 1989 Vermillion Accord on Human Remains and the 2005 Tamaki Makau-rau Accord on the Display of Human Remains and Sacred Objects promoted by the World Archaeological Congress that “respect for the mortal remains of the dead shall be accorded to all irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom and tradition” and recognize that the depiction of these remains is a sensitive subject. Until the permission of the potentially affected community is obtained, we will not display human remains unless it is absolutely necessary for explanation, and even so, we do so with extreme forbearance.

Human Remains

In answering the question, “Why study human remains?,” Patricia M. Landau and D. Gentry Steele point to human remains as a unique source of direct information about ancient peoples’ biology and behavior: that is, what they looked like, how they acted as members of a society, and how they responded to their environments. Issues such as these form part of the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project’s research agenda, although we are also particularly interested in understanding these human remains within their mortuary contexts. How were these peoples’ identities related to the ways they were treated in death? Under what circumstances were people buried together, and with what types of objects? Who was “allowed” to be buried in a tumulus? But this research agenda aside, the DBP is studying this particular set of human remains because they had never been studied before. Since Cornwall collected the skeletons in Bahrain in the early 1940s and shipped them to the U.S., they have been stored in the collections of the Hearst museum, curated carefully but never subjected to osteological analysis due to lack of funding. Cornwall doubtless had the best of scholarly intentions when he unearthed the skeletons and their funerary accoutrements: his writings reflect an interest in mortuary practices as an indicator of cultural affiliation. Nevertheless, the removal of human remains from what had been intended as their final resting place might be interpreted by some as culturally insensitive and disrespectful. The fact that these remains were never analyzed by an osteologist- presumably the purpose of their excavation – gives that interpretation more credence. Thus, the BBP aims to carry out Cornwall’s presumed research goals with the human remains from the Bahraini tumuli and, in the process, redress any oversights – however unintentional they may have been – committed against these ancient peoples and their descendants.

The following ethical guidelines are based on chapters in Cassman et al. (2007). All contact with the human remains is undertaken by the person of, or under the direct supervision of, Alexis Boutin, Ph.D., a qualified osteologist. Gloves are always worn to avoid contaminating the human remains or violating their personal integrity. The skeletal remains were marked in permanent ink with a museum “object” number at some point prior to our research; we do not employ any permanent systems of reconstruction or stabilization. Those temporary systems that we have employed (in limited instances, water-soluble glue) will be removed at the request of affected descendant populations. So far, our analyses have been non-destructive (i.e., strictly morphological and metric). Should we decide that invasive or destructive analyses (e.g., DNA or biochemical sampling) are essential to our research goals, we will request permission from the appropriate Bahraini authorities and, if possible, descendant communities. We approach our tasks with a sense of reverence and of the privilege we have been granted to interact with, and learn from, these earthly remains. Above all, we recognize that these skeletal remains are not “objects of study,” but persons who deserve the same dignity and respect, and have the same rights as, the persons who walk the earth today.

2000 Landau, P. M. and D. G. Steele Why Anthropologists Study Human Remains. Pp. 74-94 in Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? Ed. Devon A. Mihesuah. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. V. Cassman, N. Odegaard, and J. Powell, eds.

2007 Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. Lanham, Md.: Altamira Press.

Contextualized Digital Archaeology – Dissertation Chapter

Crowdsourcing criticism? Okay, so probably not. I have been working in the field in Qatar (today I removed a surface and two postholes! The glamour of it all is overwhelming!) while trying to write my dissertation, with mixed results. I have a couple of chapters that are pretty ready, but I thought I’d start posting them  online for comment. Merry Christmas (?)

The chapter that I’m posting first is my methodology chapter, which is also decidedly political. This is pretty scary folks. Be nice.


Open Source, Software Piracy and Archaeology: a dissertation bit

Hello from sunny Qatar! Most of my spare words and thoughts have been going toward dissertating, so I thought I’d post some of my textual thrashing. (breaks in the text added so it won’t set off the tl;dr alarm)

“While some archaeologists are marginally aware of Creative Commons licensing, many archaeologists, myself included, exclusively use proprietary software. The software often is the industry standard and there are not necessarily good alternatives to use. In 2011, common proprietary software includes ArcGIS, the extremely popular global information system software suite, costs USD 1500 for a single-user license and Microsoft Access, an overwhelmingly popular database software costs USD 99 per license. More specialized software such as Autodesk costs USD 4000 for a single license. Increasingly interpretive projects and publications call for visualizations that require the detail and complexity that expensive proprietary software can provide.

Whether they are students or professionals, archaeologists generally do not have the money to purchase the sophisticated software with expensive licensing, so the copies are often illegitimate, and can stop working at any time. While it would be imprudent to identify specific individuals, archaeologists generally have thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars of illegally downloaded software to perform everyday tasks and do not hesitate to publish results and visualizations gained from using this illegal software.  Whether or not the archaeologist has a philosophical commitment to Open Source and Creative Commons, it is in their interest to prevent the catastrophic data loss that is possible with proprietary formats and illegitimate software. To this end, LP Archaeology has developed their own database software called ARK, which is open source and available for archaeologists to download.

Sadly, much of the proprietary software that archaeologists use has not been replaced by similar open source software. Even in cases where there are free alternatives such as Open Office, archaeologists do not feel like they have the time to learn something different and worry that the results will suffer. Obviously a more formal study of software use among archaeologists would be required to make steps towards correcting the issues surrounding Open Source software, data formats, and preservation standards. Still, there are many places for archaeologists to fit into the Open Source and sharing spectrum, whether it involves Creative Commons licensing for photographs or developing specialized software — supporting these efforts would benefit our collections, our connection to our stakeholders and the longevity of the archive.”

Is it ethical to use pirated software for archaeological work? Why or why not?

Pseudoscience, Archaeology, and the Public

There’s a minor tussle going on over at Aardvarchaeology and Archaeological Haecceities over a public lecture at Linnaeus University in Sweden. The lecture is by Semir Osmanagich, a fringe “archaeologist” who claims to have found pyramids in Bosnia. I actually posted about this back in 2008 with photos of some of the nice geological sections that have been gouged into the hill:

When I saw the invite to the lecture “The Bosnian Valley of the Pyramids in Context,” I have to admit that I cringed–surely a university wouldn’t lend any credibility to this obvious hoax. In the comments over at Aardvarchaeology, Cornelius Holtorf explains, courtesy of Google Translate:

We invite him, not because we are his interpretations of scientific seriousness, but because we think we have to discuss his work and its effects. The Bosnian pyramids have affected not only tourism and the perception of cultural heritagein Bosnia, but is also how we look at the cultural heritage of the wider community. Can fictional heritage have the same (or greater) power than genuine cultural heritage? What is it that the tourists are really looking for when they visit cultural heritage sites and how they present archeology and heritage to the world media so that it has an impact? What is Osmanagich himself at his critics within the scientific archeology and the archaeologists who work in Bosnia?”

This should be an interesting talk–I’d very much like to see the lecture and the discussion afterwards. Osmanagich’s work is fascinating in this respect; how did he get so far with such an obvious hoax? Why is the idea of pyramids in Bosnia so compelling to so many people? I admire Dr. Holtorf’s work and would like to be as high-minded, inclusive and controversial as he is–I mean, why not discuss the implications of imaginary heritage when compared to actual cultural heritage? Sadly I think I would have a problem getting past Osmanagich’s wanton destruction of actual archaeological sites while bulldozering for imaginary architecture, and I hope someone at Linnaeus University takes him to task for that. A full rundown of the situation is available on wikipedia:

Oddly enough, an interesting parallel popped up on the Catalhoyuk facebook page–a handful of posts by Artūras Jazavita, projecting a “proportional grid” on many of the photographs of artifacts and architecture:

His proposition is that the Catalhoyuk “proportional grid” is the same as Gobekli Tepe, a claim that oddly echos some of the recent academic literature about Gobekli. By posting his photos on my blog, am I giving him undue credence? Or am I putting it into context, much like the invited lecture above? Should the Catalhoyuk Facebook page owner delete the posts? I actually find the inscribed photographs strangely beautiful, though completely imaginary in their claims:

By offering high-quality digital images to the public, there is a risk of our photographs being co-opted by pseudoscientists who use them to advance these specious claims. We could restrict access to the photographs, or not invite controversial speakers to our universities, but perhaps this would rob us of the chance to counter the claims, or even for us to draw inspiration from their imaginations. As I understand the situation, Dr. Holtorf wants to know why Osmanagich’s work is so compelling, and perhaps then try to refocus this public interest back to actual cultural heritage. Artūras’ images made me want to take out my drawing tablet and sketch on some archaeological photographs. Can we co-opt the co-opters? Can we steal back the imaginations of the public from the psuedoscientists?

Old Bones Paper Published

In September 2009, I gave a presentation at the UMAC conference when it was at Berkeley of a paper I wrote with three other authors. Sadly, the original paper was gutted and published in a much modified form. It was a good but painful lesson in academic politics, sharing, and open access. Most of the advances in digital outreach cited in the paper have been modified and a lot of the content had to be taken down.

If you are looking for peer-reviewed academic papers that cite blogs and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, and Youtube for outreach in archaeology and disseminating museum collections, there you go. One of the most interesting parts of the paper, the ethics statement for the digital dissemination of human remains was cut, but it remains on the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project blog here. My query to the IVSA about ethics and visuality in regard to this project was quoted in the Visual Studies article about their new ethics statement, so it was a sort of end-around publication.

Anyway, I had big plans for the project, but ended up pretty much walking away from it. Not everyone thinks that museum collections that the public pay for should be shared with that public. Mind-boggling, but true. The rest of the team is still doing good work with the collection of Dilmun artifacts and human remains in the museum.

So, here’s the paper:

Old Bones, Digital Narratives: Re-investigating the Cornwall Collection in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.

It should go without saying as this is a single-author archaeology blog, but:

These views are my own and are probably not shared by my co-authors and should not reflect on them in any way.

Human Subjects Review and Digital Archaeology

On Wednesday I’m spending part of the class time giving a lecture on media licensing (heavy on the Creative Commons) and Human Subjects Review/IRB/ethics issues within digital media and archaeology. While the former has been a regular feature of the class, the latter will be a new feature. The University of California, Berkeley is a tier one research institution and integrating methodological procedures into lectures is an important aspect of our teaching mission. While archaeology generally avoids many of the issues raised by Human Subjects Boards (one of the few times it’s actually helpful to have dead informants), our projects do effect living humans and digital documentation of archaeological research sometimes features descendant communities or stakeholders who are potentially at risk.

The history of Human Subjects Review stems from revelations during the Nuremburg Trials of the medical experimentation performed by Nazi doctors during World War II. This biomedical research code was expanded several times during the 1960s, finally leading to firmer legislation in the 1970s, this time fueled not by war crimes in foreign lands, but our own government’s 30-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study, during which rural black men diagnosed with syphilis went untreated even after effective treatments became available.  The Belmont Report, created in 1979, outlined these three general principles for biomedical and behavioral research:

Beneficence: To maximize benefits for science, humanity, and research participants and to avoid or minimize risk or harm.

Respect: To protect the autonomy and privacy rights of participants

Justice: To ensure the fair distribution among persons and groups of the costs and benefits of research.

So what implications does this have for archaeological research?  Jeffrey Bendremer and Kenneth Richman discuss their research with Native American communities and note that while archaeology “does not satisfy the Common Rule definition of human subject” (Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator conducting research obtains either data or identifiable private information), applying the codes employed by the Human Subjects Review or forming other independent research advisory counsels would be beneficial to ethical archaeological research. While I am not convinced that such counsels are necessary, archaeology has taken on an increasingly ethnographic bent, and for those of us who are interested in digital documentation, representation, and public outreach, an explicit ethics statement can be very useful in conducting our research.

For example, at Catalhoyuk in 2008 I shot a very short film about one of the kitchen staff (whom we rarely see outside of the context of the dig house) coming up to the tell to see one of the major finds of that season, a bench with intact bull buchrania in a burned building. Then she jumped in the trench that I was working in and started digging with us. I grabbed my video camera and captured some footage, which I later turned into a short film that we showed on community day. She was very happy with the film and I made her a DVD that she could show at home. This was a perfect example for my dissertation of digital documentation being performed in the trench, by excavators, and I asked her permission to put it online so that I could show it to larger audiences. She said no. Her reason? She didn’t want her husband to see her acting in a way that he might feel as inappropriate.

As Bendremer and Richman cite in their paper, the AAA professional code of conduct states: “Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities.” The World Archaeological Congress is more specific in their application of ethics to the visual medium, stating in the Tamaki Makau-rau Accord that the display of human remains and sacred objects is “recognized as a sensitive issue” and that “display means the presentation in any media or form of human remains and sacred objects, whether on a single occasion or on an ongoing basis, including conference presentations or publications.”

So how do we surmount these ethical concerns and get on with our research? Helpfully, the Tamaki Makau-rau expands:

1)    Permission should be obtained from the affected community or communities.

2)    Should permission be refused that decision is final and should be respected.

3)    Should permission be granted, any conditions to which that permission is subject should be complied with in full.

4)    All display should be culturally appropriate.

5)    Permission can be withdrawn or amended at any stage and such decisions should be respected.

6)    Regular consultation with the affected community should ensure that the display remains culturally appropriate.

The upswing to all of this is that the long arm of Human Subjects Review is getting longer, and if we are actually interested in incorporating live people into our research, we should take these points into consideration. I’ve made a boiler-plate media permissions release for use on site, and we are in the process of getting it translated into Arabic for the coming field season.

Here is the boilerplate_media_release, I would appreciate feedback, if you have some to offer!

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