Tag Archives: anthropology

Turkey Basters and Infanticide Part III

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We Catholics are an odd lot of people.

For one, we sing songs in a language we can’t understand. A renegade priest could declare that Pater noster qui es in coelis actually means “Nancy Pelosi fisted a donkey” and the only reason some of us would know that it doesn’t is because Nancy and Pater, for the most part, have different letters.

Every Sunday loads of us get together for an hour-long celebration of magic cannibalism. Of course, it’s only proper to participate if you’ve confessed to a mysterious figure behind a screen that you masturbated to your daughter’s One Direction calendar while she was at school, and no Father, you won’t do it again, can you go to the magic cannibalism festival now? Finally, we think that the only way to get a baby into Heaven is to hand it over to an old man so that he can dip its head into a pool of water and fecal matter. Presumably this is okay because infants spend much of their time covered in fecal matter anyway, though usually not on their heads.

In fact, it was only recently that Catholic babies were allowed into Heaven at all. If they died in infancy, many of them were sentenced to Purgatory, because they were tainted with both Original Sin, and the sin of their very conception. After all, you need to have sex to make a baby, and sex is dirty. That’s why all those Catholic husbands are in the confessionals on Saturdays explaining what really happened to that One Direction calendar. Why do you think they have to sell so many of them?

For much of Irish history, Irish children who died in infancy were not able to be buried in the same cemeteries as those who had lived to be baptized. That’s not to say they weren’t cared for though, because they clearly were. Many of these children were buried in cemeteries, or on the outskirts of cemeteries, that had gone into official disuse. Technically it wasn’t a church cemetery, but the ground had still been consecrated, possibly providing the infants at least with an easier time in Purgatory. There are loads of examples of these sites all over Ireland, and the Blackfriary is one such example. Buried at various locations around the cemetery, but largely above the pre-existing monastic context, are dozens of infants. It seems that these children were too young to be baptized when they died, and by burying them on sacred ground, their parents or caregivers were doing their best to ensure them a fulfilling afterlife. Interestingly, even while caregivers were burying their children in sacred spaces, infanticide was not uncommon, and the two were not mutually exclusive. That is, you could kill your child and still bury it in consecrated ground.

During the 2013 field season at the Blackfriary, a group of students excavated the skeletal remains of a newborn baby. It’s always a time-consuming processing to excavate a burial, and it’s particularly difficult when it’s an infant. The bones are tiny and difficult to identify, and they can only be excavated properly under ideal weather conditions. But eventually, the form of the baby began to appear from the soil as they exposed its tiny arms and legs, and finally, its little head. The skeleton was almost completely intact, but the side of the cranium was completely shattered. Nested inside its little head was a small lead sphere about two centimeters in diameter, perfectly situated in the center of the mass of shattered bone. The baby who had been buried with monks had been shot in the head.

Honest Anatomy Lesson 2

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God invented carpals just to make anthropologists sad, and this is true even if you don’t believe in God.

Luckily for the one single person who actually enjoyed reading the first Honest Anatomy lesson and then requested a second, I have a convoluted way of understanding the carpals that I’m going to share with you. Unfortunately for that person, I haven’t yet entirely mastered the muscles of the hand, so this is going to be mostly a lesson in osteology. After all, does anyone really know the muscles? The carpal tunnel is for anthropologists what the tunnel of light is for dying hospital patients, only instead of a choir of angels greeting us at the end, we are welcomed only by darkness and an overwhelming sense of despair.

Let’s begin. It is crucial that you start with the lunate for this lesson, or else nothing will make sense. Notice that the lunate has a crescent shape, much like a crescent moon. In fact, that’s where the lunate gets its name. The lunate has to articulate with the radius because the sun radiates light toward the moon. It articulates laterally.

The scaphoid also articulates with the radius. This makes sense. Think of the scaphoid as a magnifying glass. The radius is the sun. What do you use to incinerate ants in sunlight? A magnifying glass. Thus, the scaphoid has to articulate with the radius. The scaphoid also articulates with the lunate because in this story, Galileo’s telescope is broken, so he has to use a stupid ass magnifying glass. The magnifying glass isn’t working, so he keeps trying to get closer and closer to the moon (lunate) to see it better, until he is finally touching it. Thus, the lunate articulates with the scaphoid.

The capitate also articulates with the lunate. Many people like to think of the capitate as Darth Vader because the articular surface for the third metacarpal looks like the base of his helmet. For the purposes of this story, Darth Vader has a vacation home on the moon, which is why the capitate articulates with the lunate. The capitate also articulates with the third metacarpal, which is the only one of the metacarpals to have a styloid process. Metacarpal is abbreviated as “MC,” which brings to mind “MC Hammer.” Now, Darth Vader wasn’t allowed to be openly gay on the Death Star, but when he’s on the moon (lunate), he resumes a casual sexual relationship with MC Hammer (MC III). To spell it out, you know that the styloid process of the third metacarpal articulates with the distal portion of the capitate because it’s MC Hammer sticking his, erm, styloid process in Darth Vader’s undercarriage.

When Darth Vader (capitate) goes to his vacation home on the moon (lunate) he sometimes likes to wear cowboy boots. Which carpal looks like a boot? The trapezoid! That’s why the trapezoid and capitate articulate. The trapezoid also articulates with the trapezium because the trapezium is saddle-shaped, and obviously you need cowboy boots to ride anything with a saddle. The saddle-shaped articular facet on the trapezium articulates with the saddle-shaped facet on the first metacarpal.

Then we have the triquetral and pisiform. This one is a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. Triquetral has the letters “que” in it, which happen to be the first three letters in the word “queso.” Queso is made from milk and cheese, which come from cows. Cows pee A LOT. Like, gallons. That’s why the triquetral and pisiform articulate. The triquetral also articulates with the lunate because in the nursery rhyme, the cow jumped over the moon.

Finally, we have the hamate. The hamate is a pig, first because it has the word ham in it, and second because it has a little pig ear. Or a butcher hook, whatever comes to mind. The hamate articulates with the lunate because when the cow (triquetral) jumped over the moon, she got lonely and called up the pig (hamate). The hamate also articulates with the fifth metacarpal because the fifth metacarpal is a tiny bitch and needs to eat more animal protein.

Honest Anatomy Lesson 1

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(I’m taking a break from infanticide because school).

The quadriceps femoris muscle group is made up of the rectus femoris, vastus medialis, intermedialius, and lateralis. Rectus femoris comes from the anterior inferior iliac spine, and the others come from the femur. All of them come together in a polygamous hippie marriage via the patellar ligament and attach on the tibial tuberosity. These polygamous hippies are extensors. They are useful for when you need to extend your knee to kick a real hippie.

The hamstrings are made up of biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendonosus, all of which begin at the ischial tuberosity, except for the short head of biceps femoris because he’s a fucking asshole. Come on, biceps femoris. Are you two muscles or are you one? Or are you some sort of freaky two-headed Forbidden Forest guard? Figure yourself out. Anyway, semimembranosus attaches at the posterior-proximal medial tibia, in an area aptly named “groove for the semimembranosus.” The semitendonosus attaches at some vague point on the posterior proximal tibia just south of the tibial plateau. If you can find where it attaches, you win science.

At their attachments points, both heads of the biceps femoris finally reconcile their freaky half-twin dual-head issues and come together on the fibular head. The hamstrings are antagonists to the quads. They can extend, but their main function is flexion. This is useful when running away after kicking the aforementioned hippie.

The Sartorius is a really long muscle that runs from the anterior superior iliac spine down to the medial side of the tibial anterior crest. It flexes the leg, but more importantly, when you sit cross-legged, it’s the muscle that shows on the inside of your thighs and can make you feel in shape when you haven’t been on a proper run in months.

Gastrocnemius is the muscle that shapes the femoral condyles. The lateral head attaches at the lateral femoral condyle and lateral epicondyle just above the insertion for popliteus, and the medial head attaches at the medial femoral condyle. The two heads come together in holy matrimony via the Achilles tendon. The job of gastrocnemius is to flex the foot and also to sound like some disgusting stomach aliment.

Turkey Basters and Infanticide (Part II)

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(Sorry this is going to be in several small parts because time management isn’t a thing anymore.)

Like the six-month-old whose head had been glued back together, the sub-adult I have been assigned for the semester’s skeletal report has a habit of messing with my mothering instincts.

The remains are from a Medieval English cemetery and are largely intact, save for the cranium, which, quite frankly, looks like it was shattered in some sort of Acme-style explosion. Disarticulated and sorted neatly into their labeled plastic bags, the remains look like any other skeleton. But when I lay out all the tiny unfused bones, the skeleton became a child, estimated to be about five-years-old at time of death. It still had all of its baby teeth. As I completed the skeletal inventory, my lonely uterus and its instincts started talking over the logic of my aspiring-scientist brain. The lab is dark at night; were medieval children afraid of the dark? Where are its mother and father? Were they excavated too? Shouldn’t the child at least be in a box with its mother?

Suddenly I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to scoop the child up in my arms and take it away from its plastic bags and cardboard box and bubble wrap. I wanted to hold the child and let it know I cared for it, but I could only hold it one bone at a time.

How brave you must have been, to face death at only five-years-old. People more than ten times your age are terrified to die, but here you are.

When I finished the skeletal inventory, I gently placed the bones back into the plastic bags, the bags into the cardboard box, and the box back onto the shelf.

The benefit of working alone in the lab is that you can apologize to the skeletons when you leave, and nobody will judge you for it, unless of course you confess to this bizarre habit on a blog, which fortunately is only read by about twenty people. When I placed the box back on its shelf, I whispered an apology to the child because, after all, I had just spent the last hour poking and prodding at its remains, and now I was going to leave it in an unlit lab in a box without its mother without even knowing if medieval children were afraid of the dark.

Turkey Basters and Infanticide (Part I)

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One of the defining characteristics of my generation is that on average, the age of reproduction is increasing. Many of us are waiting to have children, if we intend on having them at all. Now there are a number of reasons for this, other than questioning if it’s really safe to push something the size of a spaghetti squash out of your vagina. For one, millennials make up the most educated generation in American history. We’re spending more time earning college and graduate degrees than any generation before us. That shit takes time. The average age of a college graduate in the U.S. is twenty-four. If you go for a doctorate, you can expect to finish when you’re about thirty-years-old.

Second, children are expensive. They need to eat, wear clothes, and go to school. How can I think of saving for another person’s college fund when I’m still can’t fathom how I’m going to pay back my student loans?

Finally, who is supposed to help you make the child? It’s hard enough for you to finish school and achieve something resembling financial stability, but then to find a second person that’s done the same? That’s like scratching off two winning lottery cards while bumping into Miley Cyrus in a 7/11 during a tornado in January.

For some women, this isn’t a problem. They don’t want children, and that’s fine. What you do or don’t do with your body is nobody’s business, and the ability to procreate shouldn’t define you if you aren’t into that.

But I am not one of those women.

My uterus is a lonely place. It is not now, nor has it ever been, a member of the Pregnancy Party.

Logically, this is fine. I’m only twenty-four.

BUT IT’S SO LONELY.

There are a lot of things about being a woman that suck. People cat call you, throw things at your head, and touch you in airport terminals. But the one part about being a woman that I like is that I am biologically equipped with everything I need to produce, carry, and feed a child. I let this, in part, define my womanhood because the ability to lactate is pretty fucking cool.

The problem with allowing my gender identity to be partly defined by procreation is that it’s unachievable, at least for the foreseeable future. Like many millennials, I haven’t finished school, I don’t have any money, I don’t know where I’m going to live, and the only people who have offered to help me make babies are creepy toothless men in airports. To cope, I’ve started coming up with alternative plans. How hard can it be to stuff some junk in a turkey baster and shove it up there?

As a student in an osteology program of millennials, I rarely get to interact with children. In fact, to be brutally honest, all of my interaction is with dead children.

There are certain rules for holding skulls in our lab. You must hold them with two hands, away from your body, over a bubble-wrapped table.

I am a terrible anthropologist. Last week when examining infant crania, I found this skull-holding procedure to be torture for my empty uterus.

The offending cranium was from a six-month-old child. Most of its cranial vault was unfused and had been glued together. The orbits, or the space for the eyes, were disproportionately large, like in a living baby. The parietals, or the bones at the top-sides of the head were rounded, again like in a living baby. None of the teeth had erupted.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I gently brought the cranium to my chest and cradled the head in my elbow, my left hand securing it in place. I looked around to make sure my advisor wasn’t around, and once I had made sure she was across the room, I stroked the baby’s face.

Because that’s how a baby should be held, even a dead one.

White Walker the Horse and the Gates of Hell

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White Walker the Horse and the Gates of Hell

Nothing interesting ever happens in Trim.

The proof of this is the entertainment value placed on archaeologists. I’m sure that if you stuck a bunch of us on a stage with microphones and a couple trowels, together we’d equal the value of one iTunes purchase.

I feel about Trim how I imagine a mother might feel after having just given birth to a child that looks like a root vegetable. Other people might not understand the overwhelming joy that I experience when I return to Trim; most of them just see an ugly baby. For me, however, Trim olds a special place on my heart-globe. It’s where I first learned how to excavate, and it’s where I get to work with some of my favorite people in the whole world.

Trim, or Baile Átha Troim in Irish, is located on the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland, about half an hour northwest of Dublin. Its largest landmark is Trim Castle, which was founded by the Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath Hugh de Lacy in 1173 under England’s King Henry II (Encyclopedia Brittanica). The town itself, though, is thought to have been occupied since 500 AD (Meath County Council). Hugh de Lacy’s son Walter eventually inherited the castle, then passed it down to his granddaughter, Mathilda, who was married to a French lord named Geoffrey de Geneville. Mathilda died in 1304, de Geneville became a monk. Since monks can’t have castles, it went to his daughter Joan, who was married to Roger Mortimer. His family had the castle until 1425, by which time everybody had died. It then went to Richard of York, and then to his son Edward IV when Richard died in 1460 (Potterton 2003). The castle was left to deteriorate by 1599 (Meath County Council).

During the 15th century, Trim was relatively prosperous, bringing in more revenue for the English government than the surrounding towns. By 1541, however, it had decreased fairly substantially (Potterton 2003). In 1541 it was decided that Meath would be divided into two counties, Meath and Westmeath (Potterton 2003).

In 1204 Walter de Lacy was granted permission to hold an annual fair in Trim. Items traded included wheat, corn, cereal, wine, wool, cloth, hide, iron, flour, salt, butter, cheese, garlic, oats, onion, meat, honey, fish, livestock, wood, cauldrons, millstones, charcoal, and metals (Potterton 2003), among a thousand other things that would take me all night to list and cite. If these had all been local items, that would have been one thing. But a lot of these things were brought into Trim from other areas including Kilkenny, Waterford, Dublin, and Drogheda, meaning that Trim was a sort of hotspot for Medieval consumerism, or at the very least, a good trade location.

In addition to the yearly fair, weekly markets were also held in Medieval Trim on Market Street, which still stands today (Potterton 2003). Individual shops were open even more frequently (Potterton 2003). Items traded in markets and shops included fish, meat, corn, flour, shoes, cloth, leather, and wine (Potterton 2003).

Total economic devastation throughout Ireland resulted from the Cromwellian Wars in 1641-1652 (O’Carroll 2011). Because Trim had been militarily significant, it was particularly affected (O’Carroll 2011). In the time since, Trim has not been able to become again the commercial powerhouse it was in the middle ages.

Consequently, as I said before, nothing interesting ever happens in Trim. Unless, of course, you are really into Medieval history. There are none of those things that developmentally normal social youths use for entertainment (shopping malls? clubs? I missed some milestones and genuinely don’t know). Secondly, while Trim does have a promising tourism industry, it is largely a rural farming community, and as such, it has a lot to teach us about the versatility of empty fields.

Empty fields, like the one located behind the local SuperValu, can be archaeology sites such as the Blackfriary. They can be playgrounds. They can be build-it-yourself private landfills. They can be gardens, places to drink underage, light shit on fire, and graze your horses, and they can be most of these things at one time.

There is one exception; an empty field cannot be both an archaeology site and a horse pasture at the same time because horses are jerks.

If you don’t mind working in a giant bovid-toilet, keeping a bunch of herbivores on site is a wonderfully cheap and eco-friendly alternative to regular lawn care, and if you’ve ever waded through a forest of nettles, you know how important it is to control vegetation on an archaeology site. So, after what I presume were a long series of clandestine meetings between local farmers and Blackfriary site directors and staff, the Blackfriary found itself with three oversized Satanic lawnmowers.

The largest horse, whom the students called White Walker, was the leader of the Evil Equus posse. He was a white and brown horse with pale blue eyes, and he was an asshole. He kept the other two members at his beck and call, the smaller of which appeared to be some sort of fat horse-pony hybrid, or possibly even two men in a horse costume. White Walker was the instigator, and Medium Horse and Fat Horse Pony followed.

I am not a particularly large woman, and White Walker knew this. I’m five-foot three on a good day, and I haven’t been to a gym in six years. White Walker is fucking huge because he’s a horse.

Every day the routine was the same- and White Walker studied it. The site director would pull the van up to the gate, we would open the gate, she would drive into site, and we would close the gate.

On the morning in question, for reasons I still do not understand, I could not close the gate. It is heavy and awkward, yes, but I have closed that gate more times than I close my bathroom door to pee.

In my moment of weakness, White Walker acted. He bolted through the opening, and his spineless horse minions followed.

First, if you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t chase the horses. It doesn’t work.

I approached White Walker. He stared, daring me with his soulless blue eyes. I drew closer. He stared harder. Then he ran.

Second, as an archaeologist, there are few moments more terrifying than the one where you have to tell the site director that you just released three devil-worshipping quadrupeds into the public. And unless you’re an orphan who’s never watched television and you’ve never been exposed to any sort of parental figure at all, you know that a few words are worse than a lot of words. I was dismissed with an, “Oh,” as the director calmly ventured out on foot to track down the escapees. Ten minutes into the workday, and I had already resigned myself to death, either from the site director herself, or from the health and safety director whom I was convinced would come all the way from Dublin to murder me because you don’t just let a bunch of horses escape from site.

White Walker and his posse, however, had a much more pleasant experience, as did the locals, who all emerged from their homes in their bathrobes, cups of tea in hand, to see the fugitive horses gallivanting through town and pooping in people’s gardens.

Because the people of Trim never leave their homes unprepared, the site director, while in pursuit of the horses, came across a man who happened to carry a horse lead in his pocket, and White Walker and his posse were led back to site one at a time.

To that man I say, you sir, deserve a medal.

References

Meath County Council. 2010. Trim Development Plan 2008-2014 Progress Report.

O’Carroll F. 2011. Interim Report: Archaeological Research Excavations at the Blackfriary, Trim, Co. Meath. Irish Archaeology Field School

Potterton M. 2003. The Archaeology and History of Trim, County Meath. Dissertation. National University of Ireland, Maynooth

How Big is Your Trowel (Part IV)

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I am by no means a cultural anthropologist. I study bones, I play in dirt, and I offend people all the time, usually without meaning to. I am therefore completely professionally unqualified to argue that middle-aged Croatian men fetishize women with shovels. I have, however, met enough middle-aged Croatian men to feel comfortable making this assertion. How big was my sample size, you ask? First of all, you don’t need a sample size for anecdotal evidence. And it was five, which was plenty big enough.

To be fair, I have to give them credit for being so boldly confident in their sexuality at a point in their lives when most of their peers and their peckers are falling to erectile dysfunction, and a lot of credit is due to the forest workers in particular. Slaving away in a forest of enormous, erect phallic objects while your own wanker slowly withers away like an overdone noodle must be most disheartening.

So when a group of young foreign women appeared in the Phallic Forest, it must have seemed as though we had been beamed down from the heavens, our shovels our mighty staffs that could open a portal to a world of vaginas and manual labor.

The Men of the Phallic Forest did not hesitate to make their feelings known.

“You see that man there?” asked Mirko in his thickly accented English. It should be said that Mirko, in addition to sharing a name with a close friend’s beloved cat, Mirko is a wonderfully honorable man whose pores leak integrity when he sweats. He, like the other Croatian archeologists on our team, does not fetishize women with shovels. This could be because they see vagina-wielding-shovel-holders all the time, but I suspect it has more to do with their upstanding character.

“Yes,” I answered, glancing at the individual in question. He stood at the edge of a trench with another one of our team members, gesturing madly and chatting away in what sounded like a mix of distinguished authority and a Balkan speech impediment.

“He wants to marry you,” said Mirko.

“That’s disgusting.”

“Yes. But do not worry. I told him you are vegetarian, and now he does not want to marry you. He is worried that if you are his wife, he will have to go into the fields every morning and cut down grass to feed you.” Mirko paused, then added, “He would not be a good husband. He has only one hand and a big tongue. He would not be able to please you, and he would talk too much.”

First of all, Eastern Europe, I don’t know what you’ve heard about American vaginas, but they’re not the fucking Mammoth Caves. One hand is more than enough. Second, vegetarians don’t eat grass. Those are cows you’re thinking of.

It turns out that my long time vegetarianism did not deter my middle-aged, one-handed, garrulous Croatian suitor. Throughout the next several weeks, he and his posse of forest workers brought countless gifts including chocolates, cookies, pretzels, mosquito repellant, and apples they stole from someone’s yard, and I only had to get my butt touched twice.

Why accept gifts from men if I didn’t want attention, some of you might be wondering. For one, I’m a grad student, so almost by definition, I can’t afford to feed myself. Seventy-five percent of my diet is comprised of the Easy Mac my grandma sends me in the mail and the food professors use to bribe us to go to department events. For another, not accepting food from Croatian people is not something that one does. It’s a lot like littering in the States. You just don’t do it. If you litter in the U.S., everyone will think you also butcher baby whales for fun and hang their carcasses in your living room, and you won’t have any friends. Similarly, if you don’t accept food from a Croatian person, you won’t have any friends, and you probably also butcher baby whales. You might even also butcher Croatian children; you’re just that bad of a person.

On the last working day on site, my one-handed suitor showed up with three huge boxes of burek, rakija, coffee, and two liters of goats’ milk. The burek, rakija, and coffee were for us all to share, but he handed me the goats’ milk and said that it was for me, because that “is what vegetarians drink.”

If you’ve ever had goats’ milk and apple burek, you know it’s definitely worth any subsequent butt-touching. This was a fair trade. Balanced reciprocity or whatever.

After what felt like the millionth meal break of the day, however, I started to wonder if these men also had a thing for feeding women, like in that weird episode of CSI. Maybe they all shared a peculiar and highly specific fetish for foreign women with shovels backfilling trenches while eating.

“Zašto puno ti radiš i ne jediš?” asked one of the Forest Posse members, inquiring why I worked all the time and didn’t eat. I didn’t have the vocabulary or audacity to tell him that this was the third meal break of the day, and it was only two in the afternoon, or that I was so full that I was chewing my precious anti-nausea ginger gum normally reserved for motion sickness so that I wouldn’t throw up all the burek I had already eaten.

“Jela sam,” I answered. I did eat.

“Ni si.” No you didn’t.

“Da, jesam.” Yes, I did.

“Kad?” When?

“Jebi ga.” Fuck. I told him I ate burek at the dig house for breakfast. Then I came to site and had more burek for second breakfast. Then we had grilled vegetables for lunch. Now he was offering me bread and cheese.

He held up his hand and said that I am like a pinky finger. A woman should be like a thumb.

The Forest Posse spent the rest of the afternoon using their cell phones to take pictures of us backfilling a trench.

I still can’t decide if I’m satisfied that I’m a pinky finger, or disturbed to have been involved what seems to have been a bizarre plot to reenact the story of Hansel and Grettle, but I have some great new ideas for a calendar fundraiser.