Sense of Humerus

Emily Streetman: Anthropology Doctoral Student

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Value-added skills

Over the past twelve months, I participated in the Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Graduate Fellowship through MATRIX at Michigan State University. The goal of the program in to increase scholarship in the digital humanities and for each fellow to create a product or project by the end.  There were five fellows: three wanted to create digital repositories for their dissertation materials and the other a tool using Twitter’s API. I fell closer in with the former, wanting to digitize methods commonly applied in my discipline.

Among the scholars in this group (a historian, a medical anthropologist, an archaeologist, a digital rhetorician, and me, a forensic anthropologist), forensic anthropology is the “hardest” or most “applied” science, though it is still housed in the College of Social Sciences at MSU. The idea behind the methods of biological profiling is to eliminate most of the interpretation that is the foundation of some other social sciences. Biological profiling is the estimation of age, sex, ancestry, and stature from human skeletal remains, usually in an effort to narrow down the search for a match to unidentified remains.

My colleagues are a very pad-and-pencil group. Some particularly well-funded labs have begun to explore the scientific potential of 3-dimensional scanners and other high-tech tools. For those of us who use the algebraic calculations or morphoscopic (visible to the naked eye) traits developed 40+ years ago, there’s no reason not to go digital, too. The older methods have been tested and shown to be reliable and often revised to increase or quantify their accuracy. They are solid, accurate, federally-admissible-as-evidence methods, and I don’t want to leave them behind just because I think a smartphone can help guide data collection.

East Fee Hall, Michigan State University, photo courtesy of Flickr user John M. Quick

With this in mind, I wanted to make a product that brought together the meat of the articles and books favored by top-notch labs like the MSU Forensic Anthropology Lab and the Joint POW/MIA Command Central Identification Lab (JPAC/CIL). In addition to this exercise, which forced me to become more familiar with the body of literature referenced most often in my field, I had to learn how to fashion it into a public face. This meant learning the basics of html, CSS, and tools like JQuery mobile (a free JavaScript library) to string the pieces together and make this body of material navigable (see my post on new tools). It meant banging my head against the wall when I couldn’t understand the most basic concepts (“What is to FTP?!?”) and a real sense of accomplishment when I was finally able to make anything work.

For the first time, I was surrounded by people who were hooked in to podcasts, blogs, Twitter and who had personal websites. The immediate benefits of learning about programming and the interwebs are obvious to me. I feel more capable of learning new digital things, including Photoshop and R Statistical Package, which were both thrown at me this summer. I’m holding out hope for long-term (read: getting a job) benefits as well. Special thanks and shout-outs to @adventuresnarch, @zenparty, @galarzaalex, @fayanar, and @captain_primate for being comrades in arms through this enterprise.


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Ethics and human skeletal remains

All opinions are strictly those of the author and do not represent any institution or department discussed herein. This post is meant as an exercise in defining personal philosophy, not a definitive statement.

Image from Flick user llamnudds

In a seminar this week, a group of graduate students including myself were encouraged to create a personal statement on ethics, much as any new PhD writes up his or her philosophy of teaching. This is an intimidating assignment and possibly a risky one for me to put online. It will probably take a few sessions to boil down my many thoughts into a coherent statement; the conversation sent my thoughts in so many directions that an exercise in articulating my views on ethics will be just a start.

Here in the United States, discussions about ethics center around the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) and its implications for museum and university collections. In our post-colonial country, this Act attempts to right the wrongs of grave-robbing committed by such institutions in the name of science. For new excavations, state laws address how Native American remains need to be disinterred and reinterred in collaboration with Native representatives. These issues are complex in the extreme and involve any number of variables, but they still only address domestic issues.

Turner and Andrushko (2011) discuss how Americans working abroad need to consider the ethical implications of their bioarchaeological research. Using Peru as an example, they mention that although American researchers have communicated and shared their work with the mestizo/a majority, the marginalized Quechua- and Aymara-speaking public should also be integrated. It is these groups who consider themselves the cultural descendants of the prehistoric populations being studied, and they should be included as field assistants and researchers because of this relationship.

What does one do in a situation where no descendants claim relationship with the deceased?

Salvage archaeology was carried out along the 4th cataract of the Nile from 2006-2007 under the Merowe Dam Salvage Archaeology Project (link to publications by the International Society for Nubian Studies.) The Sudanese government eventually relocated residents once the dam reached a certain level of completion, but at the time of excavation, locals were included in the workforce and research team at sites such as Mis Island. As Muslims, these locals felt strong kinship with all burials in the Muslim part of the cemetery but none with the Christian (earlier, medieval) part of the cemetery. They were enthusiastic to help excavate what they considered to be “our” (Christian) cultural heritage, as long as the team respected their wishes to leave the other graves alone.

The Sudanese government asked a variety of international agencies to help with the salvage archaeology; the skeletal collection resulting from this excavation is being curated long-term by the British Museum and is on loan to Michigan State University for documentation and research.

Only about 5% of the population in Sudan is Christian. I wonder whether these communities are organized enough or have enough political power to request the reburial of these remains. Most of these individuals would fall on the other side of the monophysite-dyophysite schism that developed under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Their ancestors would likely have been culturally distinct from the Makurrian nationals disinterred at Mis Island. But this only confounds my question:

When there is no descendant population to defer to, what are our responsibilities to the deceased?

Should we rebury the collection once data collection is complete? On one hand, there’s nothing under-the-table about this archaeological excavation. It was sanctioned by the local government, aided by the local people, and no local descendants opposed to the work. The remains are treated respectfully and are being studied to elucidate the culture and lifeways of this medieval population. On the other hand, because the religious beliefs of the community are reasonably well-documented – and we can certainly see from the field notes that there was adherence to specific mortuary rituals – perhaps the desires of the deceased can be inferred and should be respected. When all the data is collected, should these individuals be reinterred? If so, where? Should someone in particular preside over such a ceremony?

Now, these questions are functionally moot. I, a lowly graduate student at an institution on the receiving end of a long-term collection loan, have no say at all about what the British Museum does or does not do with these remains. And, really, I’m more interested in posing the questions than trying to find the answers. Other issues seem fairly cut-and-dry; at least, current legislation in the U.S. makes domestic issues unambiguous. But doesn’t that make addressing other questions our responsibility?

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Writing Workshop

Image from Flickr user hummyhummy, Creative Commons licensed

I attended a writing workshop held at Michigan State University’s writing center last month. It got me thinking about the writing process generally and how daunting it can seem. (It is always terrifying to me at the beginning.) Here are a few themes we discussed, and my take on them.

Writing to different audiences and in different media:

This is where tone and level of discourse come into play. All of the following platforms or media require a different touch. I forget this often– since most of what I’m reading is peer-reviewed scholarly journals, I tend to produce complex sentences with high-level vocabulary, even in quick emails to colleagues. But it’s important to recognize that the audience changes with each new “thing” you write.

  • Conferences 
  • Dissertation
  • Emails
  • Blog posts: @Captain_primate describes academic blogging as “relaxed scholarly discourse.” Somehow, maybe because I was raised to write prim and proper thank you notes to my own relatives, “relaxed” and “scholarly” have never seemed to go together. I’m working on it, though.
  • Creative writing

Finding an Audience

Naturally, there was a pitch for the Writing Center embedded in the workshop, but the point is well taken. Anything academic, especially writing, suffers from being kept isolation. Try to find someone who is at your level (graduate instead of undergraduate, for example) to read or listen to your paper, even if it’s just a draft. I ask for advice when I know I need help, so someone who is critical and gives their honest opinion works best for me. Even if this Audience is not in your field, at least they will be a listening ear. Elements like overall structure and flow benefit from an Outsider’s perspective.

On the other hand, keep in mind the structure usually seen in your field’s articles. Know what you’re aiming for stylistically (is it all prose? do you need a materials and methods section?), and don’t be afraid to speak up if the Audience doesn’t understand a field-specific technical term.

Writing centers are a great resource for such feedback. Most offer repeating appointments to keep you accountable and working continuously. There are also writing groups led by students such as @adventuresnarch – this allows you the opportunity to be on both sides of the editing table. Turning a critical eye to someone else’s work can key you in to problems that might appear in your own writing.

Writing strategies

Almost no one can sit down at a blank screen and walk away at the end of the day with a complete document. There are a variety of long-term strategies for planning out your weekly schedule and writing multiple drafts, as well as short-term solutions for writer’s block or other difficulties throughout the day.

  • Learn new strategies: books such as  Writing Your Dissertation in15 Minutes a Day include a variety of ideas for different types of people to find solutions, even in short amounts of time each day.
  • Set a  routine: try to minimize distractions during the day, or at least during your writing time. E.g. Skype with parents over meals only.
  • Join a writing group to stay accountable and create urgent deadlines when your “real” deadlines are a long time off.
  • Use organizational tools that cross platforms or software like Endnote and Zotero
  • Use a voice recorder in the car, during your commute, to “jot down” ideas to work on later.
  • Put the work aside and come back. Frustration won’t get you far.
  • Work out, cook, garden: have a hobby that allows you to take your mind off your writing in order to reset and come back with a fresh attitude.

Workshops like these are useful. They allow you to gain perspective on the topic, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and reinvigorate your process.