West Cork Osteology

Notes on the business of living and dying

Category: General

Blog Bodies: Mortuary Archaeology and Blogging

Blog Bodies: Mortuary Archaeology and Blogging.


Check out this online book edited by Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Chris Webster.  I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to the paper from Katy Meyers and Howard Williams on blogging Mortuary Archaeology!



Nazi War Diggers

I am very bad at posting here, I get sucked into posting for two other blogs that I am managing at the moment Traces of the Past and IIRG, and all the social media for work. However, in the last few days I have been really concerned by the National Geographic Channel’s new output ‘Nazi War Diggers’ and I want to post my email to them here in case anyone comes across it. It’s not a great email, but a concern is a concern and must be voiced however ineloquently.

If you have not heard about it, you should start here.

“To whom it may concern,

I’m writing to express my and many other archaeologists’ concerns about the ‘Nazi War Diggers’ programme due to be broadcast in the UK in May 2014.  I watched the Human Bones Removal clip a few days ago and was astounded that such an event was a) recorded and b) thought worthy of broadcast.

I hold a Masters in Human Osteoarchaeology (removed as it refers to my place of work).  I daren’t imagine what other horrors your programme has in store.  I know that many other archaeologists will write to you so I’m not going to labour the points that will be made more eloquently by others:

  •  Those four men had neither the education nor the experience to dig out human remains (they were not excavated)
  • They could not even identify a femur, they drew conclusions as to that individual’s cause of death based simply on what ever came first into their heads
  • Those remains are of an individual, who may have died in the course of war. Neither that person nor their family was afforded a modicum of respect, either in the manner in which they were pulled out from the ground or the way in which it was filmed. You can promise and publish all the Q& A’s you want, but you cannot undo that footage.
  • Your actions are surely in contravention of Article 3. Go look it up. I have contacted the EU Contact Centre on this.
  • If you actually had had an archaeologist on staff as one of your “diggers” claims, they would not have allowed you to do this, unless of course they were drunk on the Fox Network Kool-Aid.
  • Metal-detecting is allowed in the UK, but is illegal in my country without licence because when accompanied by digging, such as shown on your programme, it is entirely destructive and renders the object or human remains recovered worthless in terms of information. How many individuals did you unearth who did not have dog-tags? If they have been forensically excavated, there would have stood a chance of reuniting their remains with their families, you robbed them of this.
  • As a network, you have a responsiblity to encourage ethical actions. All you have done with this is tell night-hawks and looters that what they do is okay. It is not. Grave-robbing in 2014 is not acceptable, because we know better. There is no excuse. Even some metal-detectorists are alarmed by this programme.

I sincerely hope you will bend to mounting pressure and cancel broadcasting of this programme. I doubt it of course, with all the free advance publicity, it would take real strength to do so. As a former National Geographic magazine subscriber, I am saddened by how the channel has let the foundation down so badly. I read somewhere that your ratings are at an all time high. But at what price?
Yours sincerely,

Philippa Barry”

Romeo and Juliet of Romania

Daily Mail image 11:34 GMT, 23 April 2013 Cluj-Napoca individuals

This is one of those articles I put away for development later.  It was supposed to be a quickie…

Much of our time in heritage-related work, that could be devoted to research, study, outreach etc. is currently devoted to finding money. This problem is not limited to Ireland, but in a country where we are closing A & E units, and increasing costs, taxes and the like, on what seems like a daily basis, neither the government nor the public are interested in diverting funds towards heritage.  Naturally, those of us in the heritage industry feel somewhat aggrieved, while at the same time hoping that monies which might have come our way in the past are being better directed towards health and education.  Part of our frustration however lies in the realisation that Ireland could supplement its income through tourism, which would benefit greatly from the nurturing of the heritage industry.

I digress.  This devotion to the pursuit of money, mostly in order to keep people in jobs, leaves us wondering: how do we entice people towards supporting their heritage?  While this may seem cynical, it has a practical benefit in terms of outreach – it is teaching us to communicate our research and people’s own heritage to them, which is what we should be doing, particularly if we work for organisations funded by the public purse.

So what makes heritage attractive to the public?  What draws in a person, that might otherwise have no interest in their local landscape, history or archaeology?  There is an assumption, for example, that Americans of Irish descent will have an interest in the communities from whence their ancestors came, and those ancestors themselves.  If the migration was during the famine, their interests might widen to the famine itself, and perhaps the workhouses and the related history.  If this is not the case, they may have an interest in the general history and archaeology of Ireland, but again, they may not.  From what I have seen, for many people, history and archaeology are interesting only if they can find a point within them, to which they can relate their own story.  Often, the interest lies more in genealogy than a wider, more general history.  So they tend to want to trace back their family tree, or find the homestead of the generations ago.

It is more difficult then, to draw a person’s attention to something where they might find no common ground. What is it that might grab the public’s attention?  The excavation of the supposed Richard III was illuminating in the public interest that it generated.  For me it seemed almost silly, this hype over discovering a body and using various methods to establish personhood, but I suppose we talk about these things so often, we almost assume that they are common knowledge.  And so while parts of me were sceptical about this study, and in particular the nature of the excavation, it brought the public deeper into our sometimes exclusive sphere, and that is a good thing.  It’s just a pity that it took a king to do it!

So when I saw this article on the Romeo and Juliet couple, it again made me think of how we present heritage to the public and how the interest that certain discoveries generates reflects back on us.

Romanian Insider seems to have been the first English language source to break the story online.  Probably because of its enigmatic title, “Romanian archeologists uncover Romeo & Juliet: medieval couple buried together with hands clasped”  it was not long before it was picked up by other sites and shared.  Let’s break down the title before moving on to the piece itself.  Here, for me are the “buzz words (sorry)” :


Romeo and Juliet


hands clasped

Ooooh!  Already I want to know what going on!  I’m picturing some Braveheart/Shakespeare melange fronted by that Blackadder man!  Interestingly, there is no image of the excavation or the remains with the original article, which given our ever-increasing reliance on visuals, shows how strong the title was, that the story still generated such interest.

To the article.  Allow me to emphasise the parts that stand out in bold:

“Archeologists investigating the site of a former Dominican monastery in Cluj have uncovered a remarkable tale of love, preserved in the bones of a medieval grave. Two skeletons, of a young man and a woman, were found clearly buried together with their hands clasped for eternity.

“Dubbed Romeo and Juliet by the archeological team,…

“The remains belonged to “a young couple of around 30 years of age, a man and a woman buried together, facing each other and holding hands. It’s a strange case, a sort of Romeo and Juliet. The man appears to have died in an accident, as the sternum was broken by a blow from a blunt object and the woman buried with him could have had a heart attack on hearing the news, there isn’t really any other explanation for her death,” said Adrian Rusu.”

Let’s start with how they drew us in and made it sexy.  ‘Love’ and ‘eternity’, they could have popped up a picture of the two holding hands and left it at that.   It would have probably gone viral.  But no, they tied them to a Shakespearean tragedy and while they were at it, decided that the female died of a broken heart.  “There isn’t really any other explanation for her death.”

Let me assure the recently dumped that there are myriad other ways for a person to die that won’t leave traces on the skeleton and death from a broken heart is a decidedly rare medical occurrence.  The last quoted sentence is a a bit of porky pie.  There may be translation issues of course, it has not been easy to trace original Romanian texts on the excavation (I may not have tried hard enough).  For example, the death of the male is attributed in one source to BFT to the sternum, while in another to the hip.  And the images that turned up on the Daily Mail, may be of the excavation, (similar pipes on show in a video from Huffpost) but the sources are not cited and they do not turn up elsewhere.  Furthermore, they don’t necessarily match the description of two skeletons facing one another, even with taphonomic changes taken into account – either the images or the description are wrong or misleading.

My aim here is not really to rip the representation of the excavation to shreds, but rather to examine what it means.  Firstly, I feel it is a good example of what it takes to grab the attention of the public when we are confronted every second by new information, new news, new images, new gossip.  Without the Romeo and Juliet moniker, the skeletons would probably have been attractive to the romantics among us because they appear to be holding hands and based on the archaeologist’s interpretation, it seems that one of them was wounded in an assault or accident and that the other simply gave up and died on the strength of it.  There were two other inhumations at the same site that only appeared as afterthoughts in each article, though scientifically, they are hardly less important.  Thousands of skeletons are excavated every year but go unnoticed, slipping silently into the archaeological record.  If we do a search on Huffpost, which would be monitoring the web for popular stories and then reporting on them, the tag “skeleton” reveals the following:

Crooked King Had Parasite Problem, New Study Suggests

King Richard

Mummies Reveal Ancient Egyptians Wore WHAT On Their Toes?

Mummies and toe-rings

Surprising Skull Discovery Has Historians Scratching Their Heads

Not-James Cook, first European to arrive in Australia

Cleopatra’s Murdered Kin Claim Stirs Controversy


What Rare Fossil Find Reveals About Early Humans

Pre-human fossil from around the time of Lucy

Unearthing the Truth About the Gay Caveman (VIDEO)

“The new hot media trend is “outing” 5,000-year-old skeletons from the apparent sexual confusion of their caves. But does the story of the so-called “Gay Caveman” hold up?”  Unfortunately, the video no longer seems available for this one.

5000 Year Old Warrior’s Skeleton Found Near Rome

Again, this title’s attraction is self-explanatory: Rome, warrior, skeleton, 5000…

The Joe Soaps of archaeology rarely, if ever, make the headlines.

Secondly, the Romanian Romeo & Juliet story displays how far an archaeological team is willing to go to draw the public’s attention, or at the very least, it shows that archaeologists are also susceptible to the odd sensationalist notion.  Turning around and sharing their Romeo and Juliet idea with the public, to me, is questionable.  Furthermore, suggesting that the female suffered a heart attack, and that there is no alternative explanation for her death is highly questionable.  But, archaeologists and perhaps historians (though I imagine they have less room for manoeuvre) are often guilty of this.  We don’t give the public the credit that they deserve; we assume that they will only be capable of processing one line of theory, and often we go on to present such theories as fact.  Most of our work is interpretation or supposition.  I understand completely how trying to convey the seven ideas that we may have on one event can be tongue-twistingly confusing and frustrating for both presenter and listener, but neglecting to mention that the favoured theory is theory only, is in my mind the equivalent of telling a lie.

It seems that we are unable to generate a sustained, long-term concern for our archaeology and history.  I feel that we are trapped by an ability to only create fireworks, to grab the attention short-term, to remind the public of the existence of our shared heritage temporarily, and hope that the more we do it, eventually something might stick.  Heritage is hidden in plain sight.  It is all around us, our museums are drowning under the weight of it, our country even is often held fast in bad ideology by it and yet to most people it is invisible.  Why? Is it somehow unrelatable?  Occasionally one sees celebrities on these genealogy shows crying because their great, great, great, great grand-uncle suffered some indignity and they are suddenly emotionally connected with a person to whom they might previously have never given a moment’s thought.  I suppose in  a way our struggle is similar to those of charities, to make the starving and suffering more human (as opposed to a 2D image), so that we will want to share our money (back to money) with them.  Perhaps this is why it is more difficult to make a martyr out of  hill than a skeleton.  We can’t really relate to fields. Unless of course it is The Field.  Or a field or landscape to which we can tie ourselves or our family.  Sometimes, if a site is lucky, it might find itself written into the origin myth of a people or find significance simply by being named in a tale.  Otherwise it is an inanimate object or place, something behind a ditch, that we vaguely register as we drive past.

Until we find a way to make heritage as emotive as something like soccer, we will remain reliant on Richards and Romeos to save our heritage and share it with the public.

The absence of choice

So recently, I had the dubious opportunity of visiting the Work Abroad Expo in Cork. This was perhaps not a place I could have seen myself visiting a few years ago.  But then, neither was a Fas course, or a dole queue.  A lot of things are happening around here that we did not foresee, or did not want to see.

My going there was more of an afterthought.  Canada was being sold hard on the news – they had jobs.  They wanted me.  When relatives asked how the job-hunt was going, I mentioned Canada, and suddenly was off to the expo.

I was so unconvinced, I bought the ticket only to force myself to go.  I was unaware they had to stop selling on Monday (the day I bought mine) until Tuesday, when I met someone without one.  My small enthusiasm was diminished.    I woke up on 07:00 on Wednesday, and couldn’t get out of bed.  At 09:00, Paschal Sheehy was interviewing people in the queue who had been there since the early hours of the morning, and by half past, I had learned not to bring the car to the hotel.  I was so vexed, that when I realised I didn’t have my headphones to keep an ear on the situation via radio, I resorted to twitter.

The expo was not that bad for ticket holders.  The queue was long, but we were prioritized over the ticketless unfortunates.  Once we got through the door, it was not as congested as Dublin, and I managed to talk to some people at the stands and sit in on two talks: one on Quebec, the other on Saskatchewan.  Saskatchewan was sold as just like home, but better.  Better governance, better decisions, less fantasy banking.  Quebec seems like a gleaming research planet on Star Trek, but in French.  Both were very attractive.

Anyhoo, I was fairly satisfied with my odyssey and while the crowds were underestimated, lessons had been learned at the Dublin expo.  Credit where credit is due, I was willing to share this when I came across a tweet by the really lovely journalist Pamela Duncan, looking for someone who had been to the expo.  I thought she was looking for comments on how it went.  Following an exchange of details, she explained what she actually had in mind.  I was a bit embarrassed, having misunderstood, so I endeavoured to answer her questions in an email, and expected that she would respond, politely declining my assistance.  As you can see, I have tendency to go on.   The email was a little long.  But she felt I was a suitable candidate, and took a few quotes from it.  Which was nice.

Then paralysed with embarrassment, I kept it to myself until it was published.   I showed it to my mother and it cheered her up, so it was worth that much.  My Dad also got a kick out of it, though he spent some time wondering how I had fabricated an article about myself.  Both were visibly disappointed it wouldn’t appear in Time magazine.

The Time.com article is here.

I have decided that I might as well share the waffley email.  If I had been writing it for something like this blog, it would have been heavily edited.  As it was going to someone I didn’t know, from whom I never expected to hear again, the filter was turned off and I was just typing.  It is just a rushed snapshot of a moment in one person’s life.  It is a moment where a decision is being made, but I don’t feel like I’m making it.

I always wanted to work and study abroad, I hoped to do it.  What has changed is the removal of choice.  We have lost many material things in this country and little by little, we are losing our choices.  I recently heard of a man, who when he went to pay his mortgage, was told by the bank that he should not be shopping in Tesco as an Aldi was nearby.  They had seen a transaction on his statement.  The bank is telling him where to get food. They are wading so far into people’s lives, that they dictate on their sources of sustenance.  Everyday we are taking more decisions in the absence of choice.  Need, obligation or fear decides us.  Losing the right and then the ability to choose surely feeds into the myriad other mental stressors our nation is enduring.  Even our government is denied this privilege of choice and it is as if we are in the control of absentee landlords once again.  At what cost to our psyche?

Final comment.  I was reading the other day about the INSPIRE programme, which aims at getting more women involved in politics.  I always had an interest, more so in my mid-teens before I was disillusioned (saw sense).  As the opportunity antenna are constantly extended at the moment, I thought about it briefly.  But who would I represent?  My demographic is gone.  I would have to run my campaign in Saskatchewan.

Here is the promised text, warts and all.  If you’re still reading, you’ve earned it.  I have only taken out one sentence about family members which they may have considered too personal, indicated by the ellipsis in brackets.

Hi Pamela,

Thanks for your email.  Just to give you an idea of where I am at the moment.  I have only started to consider emigration recently.  I have been working in commercial archaeology since I completed my masters in human osteology in October 2010.  I started in law, so by the time I reached archaeology, I had missed the boom.  There was a lot of talk about the ‘good old days’ on my first contract, which through the luck and skill of my director lasted 6 months longer than the proposed 8 weeks.  Since then I have been out of work for a period of 3 months, which was partly due to back injury, followed by 3 months work in the north.  At the end of January I had 6 days work, which generally, though I believe it depends on your dole office, the system is not designed to support.*  Commercial archaeology is tied into construction, and so has suffered as construction has declined.  There is something like over 80% unemployment in our sector.  I have specialized, so someone would have to emigrate or die before I get the job I want.  The surviving archaeology companies are downsizing, not recruiting.  I would like to do a PhD, but because I never met the thresholds for grants, I have too much debt to do so right now.

I can now either stay here on the dole, or in a job for which I am untrained, or which requires something like the leaving cert (which is a bit galling after 6 years of university); or I can move to find work in my chosen field. After the jobs expo, I am even considering taking a job in something else just to [get] going, until I find something I want.  Fas have told me to retrain in IT as I do have some experience in that line.  I could do that at the expense of the Irish government and then emigrate…  When I did law, we felt sorry for the computer science students, because everyone had been talking about the .com bubble, now we don’t have enough of them.  I also don’t want my parents worrying about me.  Most parents have enough of their own worries now without fretting over their adult children.

I don’t want to leave the country right now, even though I always envisaged getting my PhD abroad, and I am trying to find work, particularly in the heritage sector.  I did live in Germany for a year during my law degree and loved it.  Quebec seems similar to the ideal European city, shiny, with good transport infrastructure, free education, safe etc.  I live in West Cork and the towns are deserted of people my age.  Everyone talks about how depressed the small towns are here, and how it doesn’t seem as bad as when you go to the cities.  My sister works in London, and seemingly, you wouldn’t know there is a recession there.  The minister for advanced education** etc. in Saskatchewan gave a great talk during the expo, and though I am usually cynical, I thought how nice it would be to have a government made up of intelligent people like him.  Far away hills may be green, but anything would be better than what we have here.

I have a relative who has spent four years in Australia, working and going to college at night.  He loves it there, and was able to visit recently for the first time this year.  […]  People of my parents age keep telling me they would go if they could.  I find that nearly sadder that the youth leaving.  A good number of my friends started work just before the end of the boom, they would have finished college in 2006, 2007.  They tend to be employed.  A few of my law graduate friends have tried to stay in education to wait out the recession, but now are emigrating to the UK. There were unfortunately too many people encouraged into law.  Other friends are trying to find a way out.  One is in New York on a holiday.  He’ll probably come back to collect his clothes and leave.  The archaeology sector was supplemented by a lot of Polish and Swedish people in the boom.  They are now petering out of the country.

Anyway, sorry for the waffley email, I wanted to give you some details in case it didn’t suit your story.  I have an appointment with the dentist today, so I won’t be available from about half one till half three or so.  I’m not sure if I will be able to speak for a few hours afterwards!

Best of luck with the article.

*This was based on anecdotal evidence.  I have since learned that short-term work can be facilitated.  ***Honourable Rob Norris, seriously: look at this guy.  The spectacles have been updated.

I got a filling.  I was fine after a few hours.  Thanks for asking.


… to West Cork Osteology, a blog for all things osteo.  Most of the content will be the latest archaeological and bioarchaeological happenings, as I come across them, on the web.  This is mostly to keep me busy, help me keep track of interesting articles and sites, and to spread the osteo word.  Maybe sometime in the future, a discussion or two will be encouraged.  Enjoy.