Yesterday, as you may or may not know, shortly before heading off to our field trip, we began to find what we believed to be human bone.
Today, thanks to the help of an amazing osteoarchaeologist, Rachel Scott, from Arizona we got to definitively identify them.
An osteoarchaeologist, or known in the States as a bioarchaeologist, does exactly what the name implies-studies archaeological human remains. While Rachel’s instruction was brief, it was nonetheless invaluably informative. She happily discussed with us the bones recovered from the burials in cutting three, as well as those found in cuttings one and two, which we learned to be a mixture of adult, juvenile, and sub-adult. We also covered a wide variety of bones ranging from the phalanges of the feet, all the way up to the parietal on the top of the head.
Rachel’s first lesson was to help us differentiate human and non-human bone, which is done by observing texture, torsion, size, thickness, purpose, and muscle attachments, in addition to others. For example, human ribs are significantly smaller than those of cattle, even in adults. We also learned about teeth, in which she demonstrated the differences in root development. While permanent teeth may be fully erupted, the root may not be fully developed, allowing us to differentiate between the permanent teeth in adults and sub-adults. There are also subtle differences in deciduous (baby) and permanent teeth, the deciduous teeth being more rounded than their older counterparts. Rachel even showed us one of her tricks to tell the difference between phalanges of the hand and those of the feet based on the feel of the bone when you twist it, though as we saw it can vary greatly in individuals, and in some people, the hands and the feet can feel very similar. She also addressed how to determine the side from which certain paired bones originated, a skill that is often not mastered until later study in osteology. One of the best ways, as Rachel pointed out, is to orient the bone in question with the bones in your own body. Another possibility is to simply observe the areas for articulation, which is particularly straightforward for bones such as the pelvis where the articulation point for the femoral head is very clear. The phalanges of the hands and feet, as well as the metacarpals and metatarsals, however, can be much more difficult. While it was hard to tell with the bones of the hand, Rachel was able to describe to us the different features of the metatarsals that aid in deciding if they are right or left. These differences, she explained, are because the metatarsals are weight-bearing bones, as they are the foundation for the arch of the foot. As a result, their structure is largely a result of pronation, through which right and left are clearly visible.
As far as Rachel’s visit is concerned, it was excellent to have such a hands-on learning experience, something than many students are not able to enjoy. By seeing and touching the bones, as well as listening to Rachel’s explanations, the material is far more likely to stick with us than a mere lecture or textbook assignment. After all, what good is memorizing vocabulary if you can’t apply it in the field? Just because we’re grown doesn’t mean we don’t retain the most basic learning mechanisms!
In other news, we are beginning the preparation for cutting number four, while at the same time working feverishly on cutting number three. We all thought we knew what was going to happen as far as uncovering the structure of the building, but it is starting to look as if we were wrong! We have walls, rock tumbles, animal bones, burials, and roof slate all over the place, and it is becoming difficult to make sense of all of it. It is certainly a learning experience, since we have all kinds of people doing all sorts of jobs, and often there are people doing jobs which they have never done before. There are students planning, mapping, taking elevations, photographing, and digging, all seemingly simultaneously.
Well, I know this is a bit short, but Fin’s computer battery is going low, and it would be really unfortunate if it died, so I am going to have to stop for today!
Melissa Clarke, Ohio State University
21st July, 2011