Monthly Archives: July 2016

Maura Griffith — Adventures in Archaeology, Part 4

Transylvania Diaries: Week 4: Parietal, Temporal, and Frontal, Oh My!

So, a fun fact about children is that they grow. This means their bones display an incredible, frustrating, fascinating amount of morphological diversity. That diversity poses an additional challenge for identifying bones and any associated pathology.

Our first week in the lab has already settled into a solid routine. We have one to two lectures each day, with a coffee break around 10 AM, lunch at noon-ish, and bone washing for one to two hours before end of day at 4PM. A distinct benefit over the field is the opportunity to walk into town for coffee or lunch. Outside of lecture and bone washing, we have time to study the structures we covered during lecture. On Monday, we were surprised with an assessment bone quiz. I solidly failed it, although not so terrible for someone who has never taken an osteology course before. I am choosing to view it as room for improvement.

In our first week, we covered the bones of the pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis), the cranial vault (occipital: pars squama, pars lateralis, pars basilaris; temporal: pars sqauma, pars tympani, pars petrosal; frontal, parietal, and sphynoid), the splanchocranium or facial bones, (maxilla, mandible, zygomatic, ethmoid, inferior nasal concha, lacrimoles, palatines, and vomer), teeth, the vertebral column, and bone development. In addition to learning the bones, we are also learning different features of each bone, such as different articular surfaces, foramen, and fossa. Suffice to say, my brain is a little fried. Teeth and vertebrae are evil and I hate them. At least for now.

I’ve found that being able to handle the bones in various developmental stages to be hugely helpful in learning the bones. Certain bones, such as the ilium and parietal, are easier to side be feel rather than by sight. Jessica and Sam, who worked on the other dig last session, have been incredibly helpful and patient in helping me learn on the bones. I’d be utterly and entirely lost without them. Their tutelage definitely paid off – on our bone quizzes at the end of the week, I vastly improved compared our pre-test. There may be hope for me yet.

We also received our first two homework assignments. The first is an annotated bibliography that will develop into our culminating research project at the end of the session. Though I haven’t quiet settled on a topic, I think I will be looking at taphonomic changes wrought by natural phenomena. The second was all about teeth. We aged individuals based on casts and radiographs, and identified which arcade the tooth came from, the type of tooth, and if it was permanent or deciduous. Once all of that was figured out, we scored the development of the teeth based on various standards.


Maura Griffith — Adventures in Archaeology, Part 2

Excavators Clustered Around the Dig

Excavators Clustered Around the Dig

Transylvania Diaries: Week 2- Is this a bone?

Top Five Things That Look Like Bones But Are Not:

  1. Calcium deposits
  2. Small rocks
  3. Roots
  4. Old sticks
  5. Clumps of clay

Being a novice to burial excavation, approximately 90% of the questions I ask are along the lines of “Is this a bone? If yes, what is it?” And most of the time, it is not a bone. A quick and dirty field method for distinguishing between rocks and bones is to lick the object in question. Bones stick to your tongue because they’re porous. I may or may not have licked a lot of rocks already.

We started the week with a lesson in soil tests. Soil tests, to a non-geologist, are really just glorified playing in the dirt. They involve testing the texture of the soil matrix by rubbing it against your palm, and water retention by rolling a teaspoon of dirt into a ball. Because I am a mature adult, I totally did not make pet rocks out of the clay matrix when I was done with my practice or formal soil tests.

Eleanor and I finished up excavating our neonate burial on Monday. However, with Zsolt split between two dig sites, we were not able to finish our burial with mapping and taking elevations until Wednesday. Mapping at a 1:10 scale for a burial that is only 46 cm total is no easy task, especially when the distance between points was less than the thickness of our pencil lead. Eleanor is a drawing champ, however, so we were able to produce a representative map of our burial. We finished up by taking elevations relative to our site datum point and measuring the location of the burial relative to the corners of the trench. We were able to pull the neonate on the same day we mapped. It was really a relief to finally get it out of the ground, especially since we’ve been having some rain in the evenings. The bones now rest, safe and sound, at the lab for processing.

A Page from Maura's Notebook

A Page from Maura’s Notebook

For the rest of the week, I worked on excavating a different burial. Before I had started working on it, Zsolt had pointed it out to Katie Z. and said, “There are legs there.” Zsolt has yet to be wrong, so I was set upon the supposed location of the legs. Lo and behold, I found just feet in that location. As with the neonate before it, this burial was in direct sunlight all day. Excavating baked out clay is rapidly becoming my least favorite part of excavation, especially when you know that the bones underneath are delicate. Thankfully, the feet are very well articulated, which somewhat eased the excavation process. Other than the distal phalanges, all of the bones in the right foot are present and the left foot has all the bones through the proximal phalanges, including sesamoid bones. By Friday, this burial was ready for a photo and elevations, though I had missed the key Zsolt window of opportunity on Friday. I’ll have to wait until next week to finish up paper work and mapping.

A very cool feature of Patakfalva is that we are surrounded by hills. Therefore, we have the distinct pleasure of watching the storm clouds role into our site from quite a distance. We had just about two minutes of rain catch us while we were waiting for the bus on Thursday. Friday, however, was an entirely different story.

Rain in RomaniaWe could see the clouds over the northwest hills at our noon lunch break. Other members of the crew had the foresight to check the weather. I had ignored my raincoat on my bedroom floor and set out on Friday morning none the wiser that we were headed for a torrential downpour. By our 3:00PM break, the clouds had darkened and the wind was picking up. Before the end of our break, Katie Z. instructed us in the rain procedure. She asked that we keep our tools close, and be ready to tiny tarp our individual and big tarp the rest of the trench if she shouted “rain.” Burials first, then gear. In the back of everyone’s mind, however, was the fact that we don’t have a structure at Patakfalva. If rains, we get wet.

As the day went on, the wind steadily picked up and the clouds darkened. By 3:45PM, we had the “rain” call, and the mad scramble started. I cannot adequately describe the chaos that ensued. We had three trenches to tarp, which is incredibly difficult with high-speed winds. We were forced to sacrifice entire sides of trenches 12 and 11 in order to preserve the more fragile burials. There was lots of shouting, and falling on wet clay, and general mayhem. After the fact, a fellow participant described the experience as “feeling like I was on a sinking ship in a terrible storm, doing everything we could do to stay alive.” With the thunder, lightning, and rain like needles, I don’t disagree. The best part was after the trenches were as under control as we could get them, we had to wait for the bus in the pouring rain for another half hour. Go team.

Maura Griffith — Adventures in Archaeology, Part 3

Maura and Team in Romnaia

Transylvania Diaries – Week 3: Rain, Rain, Go Away

The Patakfalva Grounds for Trench Divorce:

  1. Attempted murder (bees, trowel, large rocks, etc)
  2. Singing
  3. Excessive bureaucracy
  4. Not enough room
  5. Found a cooler skeleton
  6. Hasn’t showered in 12 days
  7. Not having a great time
  8. Bad puns
  9. Had to go home

Throughout this week, the end of the field session was a looming presence that everyone tried to pretend wasn’t there. Starting on Wednesday, we slowly lost people as they went off on other adventures – to home, to other digs, to vacations.

This whole week was plagued with rainstorms. There was the apocalyptic storm on Friday, Tuesday was a complete wash, and Wednesday we had only half a day on-site due to rain. After each rainstorm, I spent the following day re-cleaning the burial I just finished getting photo ready (just feet) and uncovering them from small-scale mudslides. In other words: photo-ready, rain, clean, repeat. The rain made some of the walls in Trench 12, where I was working, unstable, which lead to some creative positions for excavating. We could no longer stand in one section of the trench, nicknamed “the Mines of Moria,” due to the flooding it experienced. This posed a particular problem for me, as I had been standing in them for the past two weeks. So all this week, I lay down above the grave, hoping not to collapse the walls around it, and try to determine how long I could be upside down without passing out. The answer is about 45 minutes, though the head rush is killer.

Since we were approaching the end of our session, the focus was on finishing all of the burials we had opened, rather than opening new ones. During this week in particular, everyone was jumping around working on various burials. After my feet were cleaned and photo ready, I finished prepping an adult burial for its photo; later in the week, I worked on mapping that same burial. In total, I worked on mapping three different burials; the feet were mapped on Wednesday after they had been cleaned for the third time. On Friday, when we were hurriedly trying to finish out as many burials as possible, I worked with Mary Catherine on mapping both a juvenile and an adult burials. Mary Catherine and I are part of the rare breed of people who actually enjoy mapping burials.

With all of the cleaning, and re-cleaning, and re-cleaning, I was so looking forward to finally pulling the feet. As the end of day on Friday approached, however, it became more and more clear that I would not be able to do that. When Zsolt arrived on site, there was a mad flurry to get all of the burials photo’d, have depths taken, and mapped. Mary Catherine and I were working on mapping the adult skeleton (which was particularly thorny – almost completely articulated except for the cranium and mandible being on top of the pelvis, several fragments, and a crushed scapula; it was definitely a mapping challenge) when Zsolt arrived. The Katie’s took depths on my grave, with the hope that Mary Catherine and I would be able to finish the map in time for me to pull the burial I had worked on for so many hours. Though it pained me, I knew it was more important to get the map finished, so I asked Katie Z. to pull the feet in the hopes that we could finish the map. To add insult to injury in that soul crushing moment, we weren’t able to finish the map before the bus came. In fact, we were so rushed at the end of the day that I ended up on the bus without shoes on my feet. The sacrifices we make for science.

Our final lectures were all about taphonomy, mortuary practices, and “deviant” or atypical burials. The taphonomy lecture was fantastic. It focused on all of the processes that leave post mortem marks on bones. This can range from marks from burial practices, root etching, watermarks, staining, or excavator damage. The mortuary practices lecture highlighted different practices and beliefs surrounding death from various cultures. One aspect of this is thinking about how excavated burials are a tiny fraction of all individuals who have died – it is limited by the people who died in a place, then those who were buried in a recognizable way, then those who were preserved, found, and analyzed. Each of those categories gets progressively smaller, leaving archaeologists with only a fraction of the population to study. Our lecture on a-typical burials highlighted the three factors for determining if a burial is atypical: it must significantly deviate from the burial norms of the area with respect to the people buried there (age, sex, etc), the burial processing, and method of disposal. Additionally, we talked about what factors may be the driving force behind an atypical burial. That individual may have experience a particular cause or manner of death, had specialized skills, or a particular cultural affiliation or status. Any one of these factors could influence an atypical burial. In some cases, it cannot be determined if a burial is atypical, if there is no baseline for a “normal” burial in the region.

I’m definitely sad to be leaving Patakfalva, though I am excited to be leaving behind the trench spiders. On Monday, I’ll start working in the Juvenile Osteology Lab under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Bethard and Donovan Adams.