What Distance Taught Me in Bioarchaeology

When the topic of distance was proposed for blog posts in archaeology, my first thought was not distance as a spatial measure in ancient cultures, or distance in time between the archaeologist and the material under investigation. I thought of the distance of both theory and space between the various academic programs I have attended. The biological side of Bioarchaeology has been treated in a manner similar to that of anatomy, a hard science with a focus on hands-on lab work and the determination of fact. The archaeology component of bioarchaeology, like all things in anthropology, requires interpretation. How we make this interpretation and how to determine the demographic characteristics of the people we study is highly dependent upon the methods we employ and the theories that guide us.

Over my academic career I have taken a multitude of courses in archaeology and human osteology in three different countries. Not only has this variation expanded my background in the field, it has also shown me the diversity within it. What I have learned from the diversity of bioarchaeology classes I have taken is that it is not a discipline built on fact… unless truth varies by country. From my initial training in New York, to my fieldwork in Poland, then my masters in the United Kingdom, and now back to working on my PhD in Michigan I have learned a valuable lesson about the distance between theories and methods.

US - UK blended flasg
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/ commons/9/9a/US-UK-blend.png

My primary osteological training came from SUNY Geneseo, a small state school in Upstate New York, and my first fieldwork in bioarchaeology was in Poland (although it was taught by US graduate students). In bioarchaeology, analysis is conducted through the use of standards. These standards have been well defined, and any student who’s taken bioarchaeology knows that when you want to know something about a skeleton you check your Buikstra and Ubelaker’s Standards (1994) or Bass’s  Human Osteology (1995) or White’s Bone Manual (2005). These were my sacred books, they were my guide to reconstructing populations in the past, and they were the only way I knew how.

Then, in 2009, I moved to Scotland and enrolled in the University of Edinburgh to obtain my MSc in Human Osteoarchaeology. Given my prior experience, I wasn’t too worried about the coursework. The overall skeletal identification was the same, excluding the slight shifts in pronunciation. It was when we began learning about the methods for determining demographic characteristics that I began to see that what I had assumed were universal standards were actually a selection of methods from a wide range of possibilities. It was as if I had been wearing blinders for the past five years. I learned new methods for aging, since the emphasis was on dentition rather than other indicators, and a different way of cataloging remains. The most salient moment was when I was working on an independent volunteer project for the city of Edinburgh. I needed to classify the preservation. Instead of using my Buikstra and Ubelaker Standards (1994), whose method for classifying preservation relies on a study and method done on animal bone, I used the method in the UK standards by Brickley and McKinley (2004). The UK standards for classifying taphonomy were based on human remains and were easier to apply than the US standards. I had never considered preservation to be important to bioarchaeological reports, because the method for classifying it seemed too clumsy to be applicable, but with this new method for preservation analysis I now found it an important part of my assessment.

The archaeological world is one of interpretation. This applies to all aspects of archaeology, including bioarchaeology. As archaeologists, we can benefit from recognizing the diversity of approaches that are out there, as well as understanding their advantages and disadvantages. With the introduction of new technology and new perspectives we need to be open to them.

Had I not gone to the UK for school I wouldn’t have had this lesson so strongly demonstrated. Now, my methodological tool kit includes a combination of methods from a variety of countries. I think its important that we grow beyond the theories and methods we are first taught. I don’t think everyone needs to travel across a great distance to make this realization. With the rise of the digital resources (and blogs such as this one) there is increased communication between countries.

Through increased international collaboration we can bridge this distance. With an increasingly digital world, we can directly connect to other nations, we can share new methods and techniques, and we don’t have to be limited by distance.