Evolving humanity, emerging worlds
Manchester, UK; 5th-10th August 2013
Identified skeletal collections: the testing ground of anthropology?
Location Roscoe 2.10
Date and Start Time 07 Aug, 2013 at 14:30
Francisca Alves Cardoso (CRIA - Centre for Research in Anthropology) email
Sónia Vespeira de Almeida (CRIA - FCSH - Universidade Nova de Lisboa) email
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Identified skeletal collections are widely used to test methods to assess demographic profiles, patterns of health, activity and behaviour. The aim of this session is to discuss their history and social significance, curatorial and ethical issues and use across social and biological disciplines.
Identified skeletal collections, i.e. collections composed of named individuals (whether complete or partial remains), exist in many countries. Their histories vary from recent cemetery clearances, donations, private collections, to archaeologically excavated skeletons with name plates, and even skeletons excavated in the context of war crimes, dictatorships, and politically repressive regimes. These skeletons are being increasingly transformed into means for developing methods to assess age-at-death, sex, diseases and migration patterns, and themes in human evolution. These methods are then applied within social and cultural sciences as well as medical and forensic disciplines. This session aims to bring together the variety of disciplines that use identified skeletal collections as subjects/objects in their research, and to promote discussion surrounding all aspects of their existence including:
• Testing ethnographical and osteological methods: their use and limitations
• History: how does their history affect their use and does it raise specific social, curatorial or ethical issues?
• Society: their importance for health, well-being and society
• Curation: do identified skeletal collections raise specific curatorial issues?
• Ethics: how can identified skeletal collections be justified in an era of repatriation and reburial?
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Bioarchaeology and Identified Skeletal Collections: Problems and Potential Solutions
Identified skeletal collections are used to develop age and sex determination methods, which are essential to bioarchaeological research. However, problems with documentation, collection composition and bias can affect studies using such collections; we will discuss these and possible solutions.
Accurate and precise assessments of sex and age at death of human skeletal remains are the essential first steps in the bioarchaeological reconstruction of past human populations, including patterns of morbidity and mortality, demographic reconstruction, diet and health, mobility and social status. Identified skeletal collections have been indispensable for developing and testing the methods used to estimate age and sex.
The value of these collections is entirely based on the quality of the documentary information for any one individual and for a collection as a whole. However, there are limitations and pitfalls involved in research using identified collections. How does a researcher know if 'known ages' are indeed correct? If a collection has been curated over the course of many decades, does it constitute a population, or simply an assembly of individuals unrelated in time and space? How should such a collection be sampled? Further problems and limitations associated with each collection are context-specific; for instance, the politico-economic context of the collection process can have an enormous impact on the structure and composition of the collection. Why were some skeletons included in the collection and have the retained documentary data been assessed for accuracy? Drawing on our experience conducting research using various identified collections from around the world (Coimbra, Dart, Forensic Anthropology Databank, Grant, Huntington, Lisbon, Pretoria, Spitalfields and Terry), in this paper we present some practical suggestions for overcoming the possible problems with reference collections and maximizing their research potential.
Normative analytical frameworks and studies of identified skeletal collections: some considerations
This paper examines some normative temporal, spatial and ethnoracial frameworks to which identified skeletal populations are subjected. We argue that these normative frameworks undermine critical, humanistic approaches to studying human biology that, for instance, consider repatriation and reburial a standard part of the research process.
Critical approaches to the study of human biology are built upon the premise that science is inextricably tied to social practice and should therefore be a vehicle for social and intellectual change. Social theory now plays an important role in the growth of the discipline into a more critical and humanistic science. Studies of identified human skeletal collections are playing an increasingly prominent role in the integration of social theory into skeletal biology studies.
The recognition of science as a social practice has guided the interrogation of researchers' subject positions more so than examining the research methodologies and questions used in skeletal biology studies as social constructs. As such, this paper examines normative temporal, spatial and ethnoracial frameworks to which identified skeletal populations are subjected.
Drawing upon our ongoing research on the W. Montague Cobb human skeletal collection, we demonstrate how these normativities undermine critical and humanistic approaches to studying human biology. For instance, we address how the continued privileging of normal population distributions obscure the social, political and historical moments reflected in non-random distributions within and between identified skeletal collections. We also consider how these frameworks impact the standard integration of repatriation and reburial into research designs.
Getting to know you: human remains in UK collections
A variety of human remains are held in collections (e.g., archaeological, ethnographic, and medical) across United Kingdom. This paper will discuss what is known about current UK human remains collections, and then discuss improved access and use of collections among potential stakeholders.
A variety of human remains are held in collections (e.g., archaeological, ethnographic, and medical) across United Kingdom, but collection details are often limited. Fortunately, a semblance of organisation in collections is growing, although the process is slow. For example, some successful effort has been made to summarise collections in direct response to the 2005 publication Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (i.e., applicable in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) and the 2011 publication Guidelines for the Care of Human Remains in Scottish Museum Collections. This paper will discuss what is known about current UK human remains collections, and then discuss improved access and use of collections among potential stakeholders.
Lives Not Written in Bones: Discussing Biographical Data From Identified Skeletal Collections.
Identified Skeletal Collections (ISC) use biographical data as a proxy for an individual's life history, neglecting a persons' life beyond that record. This paper highlights the importance of an ethnographic approach to better understand the life of women classified as "domésticas" in Portuguese ISC
Portuguese identiﬁed skeletal collections (ISC), i.e. the Lisbon Luis Lopes Collection and the Coimbra Identified Skeletal Collection, have long been used to test, and develop methods on the reconstruction of past health and behaviour since they contain biographical data from the death certificates associated with the skeletons, e.g. age at death, sex, occupation and cause of death are known . Known occupation has been significant in studies that use entheseal changes and osteoarthritis as indicators of activity related stress, in which skeletons are grouped according to "occupational categories", and inferences are drawn and used to interpret past behaviour. Amongst these we find discussion of the sexual division of labour. However, in these Portuguese collections biographical data classifies most women as "domésticas" (normally translated as housekeepers). This is an abstract term that provides no concrete data as to how classify women in relation to tasks performed, and life lived. Using an ethnographic approach of semi-structured and open interviews several women were interviewed. The interviews relied on questions related to health and occupational tasks, e.g. tasks performed, age at which work commenced, changing and seasonality of occupations, as well as descriptions of any hobbies. These data were used to flesh out the lives of women classified as "domésticas" in Portuguese society to better contextualize skeletal remains, and it highlights the important point that biographical data at death is not representative of a life history, and therefore should be use with caution.
What Are We Measuring? Levels of Historical Bias in Reference Collections and Implications for Research in the 21st Century.
Identified skeletal collection can be used effectively for forensic research. The key to success is to assess the levels of bias and their influence on the research question addressed. Possible problems and the research potential of these collections are illustrated with specific examples.
Identified skeletal reference collections have been and can continue to be an invaluable source of data for developing and testing forensic methods (age at death, stature, sex). However, all reference collections, regardless of the source (anatomical, autopsy or cemetery), the age (late 19th, early 20th or late 20th century) or the format (skeletal or database), have various levels of bias that are derived from the historical context of the collector(s), the paradigm of the discipline at the time of collecting and the greater society within which the collecting has occurred. These three levels of bias have had an influence on which skeletons were included in the collection, and what documentary data were collected, cross-referenced and curated with the skeletal remains. Despite these biases, and in some cases because of these biases, identified skeletal collection can be used effectively in rigorous research that is forensically relevant in the 21st century. The key to the success of any research involving these collections is to assess the possible levels of bias and their influence (both positive and negative) on the research question that is addressed. Some of the possible problems and the research potential of reference collections are illustrated with examples using data from the Terry Collection (Smithsonian Institution, U.S.A.), Coimbra Collection (University of Coimbra, Portugal), Lisbon Collection (Bocage Museum, Portugal) and the Grant Collection (University of Toronto, Canada).
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.