Archive for May, 2013

The go ahead has been given

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Things are coming into place now. My sample has been accepted and I can soon start the skeletal examinations and the sample taking. I will start my work with the skeletons on Monday 3rd June. I am relieved everything seems to be working out nicely and it should be nice to spend some time in Trondheim.

I’m looking forward to getting out of the office for a few weeks to do some practical work. After all, it is the examination of the skeletons and collection of data, as well as the collection of samples for the DNA and isotope analyses which form the basis for my research. It is the empirical data which distinguishes scientific research from storytelling, and being allowed to collect this data and later analyse and synthesise it, excites me.

The research sample is finally decided on

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013


After a¬†few weeks¬†off work with illness followed by two weeks leave in relation to the birth of our latest family member, Vincent, I have spent the first days of this week going through all the archaeological documentation again. Although it is somewhat delayed, I have compiled a detailed¬†list of skeletons I want to include in my final study sample. This was slightly more complicated than anticipated due to the¬†restrictions/requirements I had to abide by.¬†Firstly, due to the research design,¬†all the skeletons had to have both the first and the third molar preserved and there had to be some relatively well preserved bone material as well. This excluded quite a large portion of the material; slightly more than I expected actually. The sample selection was further complicated by instructions from the curating institution requiring that I sample,¬†as far as possible,¬†from the same skeletons which are currently being¬†used by another research project. The reason for this requirement¬†is purely preservational and¬†is perfectly acceptable. I have now finally¬†managed to collate a sample which I¬†believe will fulfil all requirements. The list of the specific skeletons¬†I want access to have been sent to the relevant people and I’m hoping for a¬†positive reply, otherwise it’s back to the drawing board.

Surgical masks in the field?

Monday, May 13th, 2013

There was program on Norwegian TV yesterday about archaeology and the topic was burials:¬†It was a fine program and I enjoyed it, but one thing made me wonder. They showed a clip from an excavation in Denmark where skeletons were being exhumed and the excavators wore surgical masks. It was stated that they wore the masks to protect the bones from DNA contamination; they didn’t want the excavators’ DNA to be left on the bones in case they wanted to extract DNA from the bones at a later stage. My first reaction was, does this really help? The bones will be handled by many people during and after the¬†excavation and will be transported, examined and stored. Unless people have become exceptionally disciplined, I find it hard to believe that every person coming in contact with the bones would wear gloves and a mask. Especially as we see in the next clip bones being handled by the osteoarchaeologist who was not wearing a mask or gloves.

DNA is also being extracted from deep within the bones or from inside the root of the teeth, so does breathing on the surface of the¬†bones really contaminate the material? DNA is also being successfully extracted¬†from bones excavated many decades ago which must have been handle by a great number of people. I am no DNA expert, so if anyone who reads this has any information or an opinion on the matter, please leave a comment. I am all in favour of taking all necessary precautionary measures, but there’s got to be a sound reasoning behind it. I struggle to see the real value of wearing surgical masks in the field but I would be pleased¬†to be convinced otherwise.

Research on human remains vs. preservation of skeletal collections

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

During the last couple of decades, human skeletal remains have become increasingly popular as research material in Norway. This has caused greater pressure on the skeletal Collections, and the importance of regulating access to material has become increasingly important. As a biological anthropologist and a researcher I would like to have access to every skeleton there is; imagine what questions could be investigated and which answers could be found. At the same time, I see that if everybody should have free access to every skeleton and be allowed to carry out any analyses they fancy, the material would deteriorate quickly and its value as research material would decrease. So, how do we find a balance between getting important research done and still preserving the material in the best possible way? This is no easy task, and a task which has become increasingly difficult with the introduction molecular methods with their destructive nature.

So, what¬†is being done to¬†solve this problem? A couple of measures have been implemented, the first of which was the establishment of the national ethics committee called “skjelettutvalget” (the skeleton committee). This committee has been operational since January 2008 and anyone who wants access to human skeletal material will have to have their research project assessed by this ethics committee.

The first thing you’ll have to consider is when you would like to have your project assessed by the committee. The committee wants projects to be assessed as early as possible, and preferably¬†during the development phase. This is, however, more complicated than it sounds. When developing a new research project there is always¬†uncertainty as to whether it will be funded or not. Without having any numbers to back this up, I am sure the majority of projects fall through due to lack of funding. Often the competition for funding is so fierce that it is hard to realistically believe that you will actually get the money. Should you¬†have your project assessed before funding is secured? I guess the answer must be yes. This means that the ethics committee will have to assess quite a few projects that may never materialise but, on the other hand, if the project is not assessed until ¬†funding has been received and is not approved, what happens then? Basically, you’ve got funding for a project which can’t be completed. I must admit that I haven’t always been the best at following this advice. When I applied for funding for this project I knew how tough the competition was and it was difficult to believe that I would actually get the funding. Because of this I didn’t have the project assessed when I should have. This meant that when I got the good news about the project being funded, I was in a slight pickle. There¬†were only two months until the¬†project should start and it was only two weeks until the next meeting in the ethics committee. It was basically too late to submit my research plan for that meeting but I was lucky and it was accepted despite the late submission. The next meeting was three months later and it would have caused me a lot of hassle if I had had to wait for that. I will try not to have this happen again. When I have a new project, I will have it assessed as early as possible, no matter what I think the chances are of getting it funded.

It should be said that whether you get your project approved or not, you will still have to enter discussions with the institution keeping the skeletal material. It is the curating institution which has the final say and the practicalities of getting access will have to be agreed with them. That said, with a positive review from the ethics committee this should not pose too much of a problem, but if your project is not approved by the ethics committee it will be close to impossible to get access to the material you want.

Another measure which has been implemented recently comes from the museums which are responsible for the skeletal collections. Although the ethics committee will weed out projects which are not sound, I think the new regulations implemented by the museums will prove even more effective in preserving the precious skeletons and I also think this will be very positive for the researchers as well. From now on, the museums demand that all raw data shall be handed over to the museum soon after the research is completed and all publications based on the material will also have to be submitted to the museum soon after publication. This means that data already collected can be reused by other researchers and new questions can be investigated without having to cause further damage to the collections. My sincere hope is that the museums will find a way to make the raw data freely and effectively available to researchers and that it will be easy to find any publications relevant for the different skeletal collections.

What’s happened so far?

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

The project has been going for a few months now but since the web site is just up, it seems appropriate that the first blog post should be a quick recapitulation of what has happened so far. As with any new research project, the first period has been spent sorting out a lot of different practical stuff, going through the research/progress plan and basically making the best possible preparations which will, hopefully, ensure that the project runs smoothly for the next three years.

The first thing that had to be done was to run the project plan through the national ethics committee. Every project which intends to make use of human material will have to have to be approved by the ethics committee. I will not go into detail about how this process works at this point. There are many issues regarding access to human remains as research material and I think I might discuss this in a separate post. To make a long story short, through the goodwill of the committee members,  I managed to have my application processed in their December meeting and they gave me a positive reply. I have lately been in discussions with NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet regarding the practicalities of getting access to the material (they are the curators of the skeletal collections I will be sampling from). They have also responded positively to the project and an agreement has been made. I am pleased to say that I have access to the material I need.

Another thing which had to be started as early as possibly was the collection of precipitation samples from Trondheim. Samples will be collectedPrecipitation collector monthly throughout the year to get proper background data for the oxygen isotope composition in Trondheim. In this respect, I am grateful to Bj√łrn Frengstad at NGU (Norges Geologiske Unders√łkelse) who managed to get hold of, and set up, a water collector. He will also be responsible for collecting and storing the samples. The water collector can be seen in the photo to the left.

In February, I travelled to Trondheim to collect the archaeological documentation for the different graveyards. This documentation is located in the Trondheim office of the Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Riksantikvaren). I spent three days there photocopying plan drawings, excavation recording forms and photographs from the excavations. This work was made easy by the help of the people working there and especially Ian Reed who always seems to know what information is available for the different sites and is also in perfect control  of where everything is located. It is always nice visiting the Riksantikvaren/NIKU office in Trondheim, although it was -16 degrees when I was there which is slightly less than I care for. The reason I collected all this information was to get a best possible picture of the different graveyards and the individual skeletons. Having gone through all this information I have developed a good picture of the material which has been important for deciding which individuals to include in my final sample.

These have been the major developments during the first few months of the year.

Immigration and mobility in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway
Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen

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