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.

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.

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!

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

I just realized that while I had posted about this over at the Dilmun (was Bahrain) Bioarchaeology project blog, I hadn’t linked it to my main blog. I wrote this for the UMAC (University Museums and Collections) conference that is being held here at UC Berkeley next week.  The paper itself has four authors, but I took the lead on it. Here’s the abstract:

A joint team of archaeologists from the University of California, Berkeley and Sonoma State University are examining a collection of artifacts and skeletal material excavated in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia in the 1940s and curated in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.  This collection has hereto remained un-investigated since the time of Cornwall’s Harvard dissertation.  Motivated by modern innovations in the examination of skeletal materials and a greater awareness of broader Near Eastern history, we are considering this collection from a contemporary bioarchaeological perspective as well as in terms of the personal history of Peter B. Cornwall and his team. During this process we have attempted to raise public interest in the project, while remaining sensitive to the issues regarding the depiction and documentation of the remains of past peoples.  In making our research methodology more transparent through this digital documentation and presentation, we hope to distribute awareness of the Cornwall collection across a number of online platforms in a non-traditional format.  In this paper we critically examine the tensions between access to museum collections and respectful digital remediation of assemblages involving human remains.

Pretty standard stuff, right? Well, I’ve had to address a few more issues that have come up since. The Phoebe A. Hearst museum was last in the news in late 2008 when the unit handling some of the Native American human remains was disbanded. There is continuing protest and interest in related matters being blogged about here. At the time, many of the graduate students did not really know what was going on (with a few exceptions) and we were told a few different stories.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, when the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story on Japanese war dead remains that were in the museum, in apparent contradiction to the Geneva conventions. And, indeed, article 17 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 states that the war dead must be honorably interred and their graves must be respected.

I did not expect that I’d be citing international humanitarian law when I wrote up my little abstract last year, and I’m still trying to sort out exactly how to contextualize our research on 4,000 year old human remains from Dilmun tumuli in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia within this dialogue on museum ethics.  The good people over at the Museum Anthropology blog have a great series of posts on the topic, (here, here, and here) and end with a very valid question: Why do people think so differently about Native American human remains?

I am certainly not the best equipped person to answer the question, but I feel like it’s an issue that anyone working in North America has to contend with. While I don’t work in the States for my dissertation, two summers ago I took some contract work with a local company that is part owned by a member of one of the local tribes and excavated prehistoric Native American remains in a rescue context. These remains were later buried. I don’t really have a problem with what I did, other than some of the methodology employed–I would have liked to excavate the site more generally and more fully, so we could understand the context of the burials a bit better. Some of my colleagues state that they’d never excavate human remains, in North America or anywhere else in the world.

So, like so many other things, it’s complicated. We’ve drafted an ethics statement for our research on the collection and it has made us ask some hard questions about the recovery of these bones and stakeholders who may be interested in our research. I’ll post the entire paper later if possible–it’s going to be published in the proceedings and some publishers are still hesitant to have pre-prints available on the web.

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