The osteometric board

In the mid-1990s, Glenn Sheehan, Greg Reinhardt and I got a grant to excavate a site in North Alaska, on Point Franklin, named Pingusugruk.  We had surveyed the site in 1986 for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who were managing the area at the time as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife refuge.  Since then,  the refuge has been reduced in size and the land turned over to BLM to manage.  It was an interesting site, and the people of Wainwright encouraged us to come back and do an excavation.  We got funding from NSF, and back we went.

We had a fairly big crew, lots of gear and a pretty complete field library, since the site is remote and we were going in via Twin Otter.  We had no interest in excavating graves, and had seen no sign of them during the survey.  The only human remains anyone knew of from the site was one skull that had been on the ocean beach for some years (far away from the houses we planned to excavate).  It acquired the reputation of whistling at passersby, and had been removed to Fairbanks by Fred Milan at the request of Wainwright people many years before.  I believe it has subsequently been repatriated and reburied.  As a result, we did not bring any osteometric equipment.

So there we were, happily excavating the tunnel of a semi-subterranean house, when someone encountered some long dark hair.  We decided we needed to be sure what we had before going to talk to the Wainwright Elders, so we excavated a little more and discovered it was a musk-ox skin.  Great relief.  Excavation proceeded.

A couple days later, a bit more long dark hair was exposed, but this time it was next to a human cranium.  We stopped work, and one of us headed down the coast on our only ATV 30+ miles to Wainwright.  After discussion with the people of Wainwright, it was decided that we should continue the excavation, since that part of the site was eroding quickly and the person could wind up in the ocean during the next big storm.  We were to record and document as much as we could, but the individual was not to be taken off site, and instead reburied on Point Franklin at a location which did not seem to be eroding.  So we continued the excavation.  The individual was lying wrapped in a musk-ox skin in the lower of two entrance tunnels to a house which had been rebuilt.  We recorded everything in minute detail.  It took my brother John (who is an excellent field archaeologist even if he is an MFA in Landscape Painting) and I nearly a day to shoot the human remains in, with John lying on frozen ground most of the time to hold the peanut prism.  Then we needed to document the individual.

Well, we all had taken human osteology, and I am a zooarchaeologist, so I’ve measured a lot of bone and so had Greg. We had copies of von den Driesch and Bass in the field library, and I had a pair of calipers (standard dial calipers I’d bought in Copenhagen), but they weren’t nearly big enough to do measurements on long bones.  What we needed was an osteometric board.  And we didn’t have one.

Fortunately Greg Reinhardt is a very handy guy, and we had hand tools, and fasteners.  Wood, not so much, but Point Franklin catches a lot of driftwood.  A bit of cruising the beach and Greg had several nice boards, including a 1×6.  He cut an end off, made a solid wall held at a right angle with two corners sawn from another board (to get the 90 degrees) and sacrificed one of our tapes.  It was attached and fastened down so we could measure up to about 55 cm, which seemed like enough.  He folded up the rest of the tape instead of cutting it off, just in case we needed to salvage it later.  He then made a second sliding board with right angle supports. Greg and I hauled out the books, and spent hours in the supply tent out of the wind, with Greg taking measurements and me recording them.  We were able to tell that the individual was a woman, based on the shape of the pelvis, her worn teeth (from chewing hides) and other features.  She was quite small.

After we were done, we had to arrange a reburial.  The first thing was a coffin, which we obviously didn’t have among our field gear either.  Greg had found enough boards to build a coffin for the small woman, but we had nothing to line it with.  John had a towel he had apparently been saving so he’d have a clean one for his first shower when he got out of the field, which he nobly donated to the cause.  We let the community know, and all three pastors came up by boat, along with about half of the other inhabitants, and a fine solemn funeral was held.  It might have been her first, because people were not buried in entrance tunnels.   We wondered if she had crawled into the tunnel of an abandoned house for shelter while traveling, or been left there by companions needing to press on or die themselves.  It is highly unlikely anyone knew she was there when the house was rebuilt, because sand had built up over the years, and the upper tunnel to the upper house never got that deep.   Traditionally people avoided dead bodies, and the idea that people were knowingly crawling over one every time they went in or out of the house seems pretty unlikely.

The board is still on the North Slope, and has even been used on a couple of other projects.  The sliding part has disappeared along the way, though.

The osteometric board today

I don’t use it anymore, though.  When we started the Nuvuk Archaeology Project, which involves excavating a large eroding ancient Thule cemetery (I am actually not interested in mortuary archaeology and would be quite happy if I never excavated another grave; I just keep working on eroding sites where one of the things that is eroding is graves, and people don’t want their ancestors falling in the ocean), we bought a good bit of very nice osteometric equipment, including all sorts of calipers, and a very nice folding osteometric board.  The old board from Pingusugruk is now an artifact itself, part of the history of archaeology on the North Slope.

The new board in town

DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology

Photo by Colleen Morgan

After digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. One of my graduate student instructors back at my beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, was able to eventually date unmarked 19th century graves to within a year by the style of safety pin that was used to dress the body. He was an expert on all kinds of grave fittings, and knew how much each piece (coffin handles, hinges, etc) had cost–they were all listed in the Sears catalog and minor changes in design were easy to detect. He was going to pick a year and kit himself out perfectly in 19th century burial clothes, correct down to the safety pins, then clutch a shiny new penny in one of his hands.

I’ve heard of archaeologists wanting to get excarnated, donate their bones to their department, and of course, the ever-popular viking boat burial. Antiquated Vagaries has a couple of good posts on the graves of archaeologists, which usually allude to the subject that the archaeologist was investigating.

Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this phenomenon in his chapter in Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death and Memory in Past Societies wherein he writes about a Neolithic passage tomb in Sweden and the memorial for Wilhelm Ekman a few meters away, who died while excavating the tomb. (While this was in 1915, sadly these things happen even today when proper precautions aren’t taken.)

My specific chosen commemoration style has changed from time to time, but my general interest in “green” burials was piqued back in 2005, in the New Yorker article The Shroud of Marin by Tad Friend. In this he details the growing phenomenon of people wanting to be buried without concrete vaults, coffins, embalming, or even a tombstone. If there was a coffin or a tombstone, enterprising DIYers wanted to make it themselves. I was interested in this expression of the environmental movement made material in burials, and it continues to come up from time to time on sites like Boingboing and the Make Magazine Blog.

These updates emphasize the distance that has grown between the (primarily white, Western) bereaved and their dead. Death is now fully legislated, and permits are required for most steps of the burial process, from moving the dead body to digging the hole and placing the body in the ground.

So it was with avid interest that I read the newest archaeology-themed issue of Mortality, an academic journal “promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.”

As widely-read as I attempt to be, I hadn’t heard of Mortality–I’ll have to rummage through their back-issues some point soon. In the introductory article, Howard Williams lays out the engagement that mortuary archaeologists have with contemporary death and what they can contribute to our understanding of modern death and death practices. One of the first points that Williams makes is that “the private, individualized and medicalized nature of death in Western modernity is extensively used by archaeologists as the antithesis of funerals in past, pre-industrial societies” (92). Beyond using modern practice as analogy, Williams also states that “Archaeologists are key stakeholders in current ethical, political and legal debates concerning death and the dead in contemporary society” (93), linking this status to issues of repatriation and reburial. I wonder if there is more to this linkage, this stakeholder status, than Williams allows.

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?