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The Human Skeleton in Bio-Archaeology and Forensic Anthropology

Session A: July 13 – July 23, 2020
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Paul Wolf-Mitchell

This module introduces students to human osteology (the study of the human skeleton) and its application both in the archaeological study of past peoples and in forensic science. Students will learn how osteologists study and interpret markers of age, sex, health and trauma from bone and teeth, and how these skills are applied in real forensic and archaeological case studies. Students will listen to lectures, collect and interpret data, analyze cases independently and in groups, and use digital models of human anatomy to interpret forensic cases and the archaeological record.

Note that this course requires that students observe, for educational purposes, images of human remains, including bones, mummified remains, and decaying remains.

Learning Outcomes / Goals for the Class:

  • To introduce students to terms and concepts relevant to biology, archaeology, anthropology, and anatomy, and to basic skills necessary for understanding and interpreting the human skeleton
  • To connect the study of the human skeleton in bio-archaeological and forensic contexts to the broader study of human biology, as well as to a variety of disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, and medicine
  • To foster creative and critical thought as students contextually apply general principles to specific analytical problems in archaeological and forensic case studies
  • To encourage critical reflection on the difference between popular representations of archaeology and forensic science and the scientific methods and practices of these fields, as well as on the ethical and social responsibilities of those who work in these areas
  • To provide students experience with data collection, analysis, and interpretation, both individually and in groups
  • To familiarize students with basic concepts of statistical analysis relevant to the interpretation of these data
  • To expose students to areas of research, possible careers, and volunteer opportunities in anthropology, archaeology, biology, and medicine

Possible Assignments:

  • Students will practice simple anthropometric measurements of the human body as an introduction to concepts of human variation, and inter-observer and intra-observer measurement error in data collection and as an introduction to the kinds of data needed in forensic and bioarchaeological analysis.
  • Readings from forensic anthropologist authors (eg. Robert Mann, Kathy Reichs, William Bass) regarding analysis of age at death, sex, and trauma in human skeletal remains, which will complement topics discussed in lecture.
  • Students will be assigned to watch short video clips on forensic and archaeological analysis of human remains (eg. on Tennessee’s “Body Farm”) and to write short reflections
  • Group discussion and short written assignment on results of ancestry assessments for human remains based on craniometric data.

Human Skeleton in Bio-Archaeology and Forensic Anthropology Module Draft Syllabus

  • Introduction to the human skeleton, bio-archaeology and forensic anthropology
    • Student introductions and overview of module scope and aims
    • Lecture: osteology, odontology, bio-archaeology, forensic anthropology, connections between these areas of study and other fields in natural and social sciences and medicine, introduction to basic skeletal anatomy and basic bone biology
    • Discussion: on methods and ethics of virtual study of human remains
  • Human variation, anthropometrics lab and discussion
    • Lecture: human biological variation, with emphasis on external phenotype and the skeleton, introduction to concepts of continuous and categorical data
    • Lab: anthropometrics of living humans (at-home measurements), discussion on interpretation of these data, using anthropometric tools
    • Assignment: anthropometric data collection project
  • Decay and taphonomy: How bodies change after death, bone biology experiments
    • Lecture: interaction of body and environment after death, different agents and factors impacting preservation and decay, introduction to “Body Farm” at University of Tennessee, introduction to concepts of observational versus experimental data
    • Film and discussion: Body Farm documentary and mummification documentary and discussion
  • Determination of age at death from the skeleton, x-ray lab
    • Lecture: Human growth and senility, and its impacts on the skeleton and dentition
    • Lab: Effects of age and environment on tooth wear in different archaeological contexts, comparing with photos of tooth wear from students and siblings, parents, other relatives, etc. at home
  • Determination of sex from the skeleton, archeological case studies and discussion
    • Lecture: Determination of sex from pelvis and cranium, introduction to concepts of sexual dimorphism and bimodal distribution
    • Lab: sexual dimorphism in the skeleton using digital models
    • Case study and discussion: Archaeological case study of “Hasanlu Lovers,” discussion on using anthropological sex determination clues in archeological context
  • Trauma, pathology, and the skeleton
    • Lecture: How the skeleton responds to trauma and disease
    • Discussion: Interpreting past events from records of trauma on skeleton
    • “Virtual tour” of Mütter Museum collections
    • Film and discussion: bioarchaeological instances of trauma
  • Ancestry, genetics, and the skeleton
    • Lecture: Human population variation, phenotypic and genetic techniques for determining ancestry, discussion on differences and limitations of these methods
    • Lab: Craniometry and ancestry analysis using basic craniometric measurements at home
    • Discussion: Group discussion on the interpretation of these results
  • Mortuary Archaeology and Cultural Practices of Disposing of the Dead
    • Lecture: modes of burial and relation to taphonomy, grave goods and markers and social status, cross-cultural study of deposition of human remains
    • Film and discussion: documentaries on mortuary practices and discussion
  • Ethics of Human Remains and Repatriation
    • Lecture: repatriation, provenience, restorative practices, histories of social inequality in the treatment of the dead
    • Activity: search for human remains for sale online and what they cost
    • Discussion: when is it appropriate to study human remains, and how do archaeologists and anthropologists account for the histories of inequality to which their disciplines contributed?
    • Concluding discussion: On paths of study, careers, and opportunities in archaeology and forensic sciences, and group reflection on ethical aspects of working with human remains and on the social roles and responsibilities of archaeologists and forensic scientists