MARBAL Outreach at Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Last week I participated in a public outreach session titled “Unravelling the Stories of the Dead: Rethinking Truth and Evidence Through an Archaeologist’s Lens“, which took place at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.


I presented with two other archaeologists, and as our flyer on the gates to the Downing Site indicated,  we all took different approaches to the themes of truth and story-telling in archaeology.

Laerke Recht, who kicked off the event, focused on vertical versus horizontal story-telling, using the biography of author Agatha Christie as a framework within which to discuss object biographies and life histories. Just as biographers find different ways to explore Christie’s life – ranging from  situating her career within  the the broad perspective of the first half of the 20th century, to narrowing their focus to her personal relationships – archaeologists can use the same kinds of multi-scalar strategies to assess our evidence. The parallel was neatly drawn, and Laerke concluded by emphasizing problems of truth and story-telling in her own research on equid domestication, where some archaeologists argue that tooth wear is incontrovertible evidence of bit-wearing, and hence domestication of horses, and others argue that those patterns can be attributed to age-associated wear.

I was up next, and talked about some of the methods I use to extract data from commingled and fragmentary human remains.


I divided my talk into three separate questions: (1) When did archaeologists begin to study human bones? (2) Why do archaeologists collect information from human remains, and (3) How do archaeologists handle skeletons that are fragmentary or commingled?


When answering the third question, I drew upon my experience working at the Muzeul Național al Unirii in Alba Iulia as part of the MARBAL project this past summer, describing the complex process of analyzing collections of human skeletal remains – as you can see below, project members Emilie Cobb and Colin Quinn were heavily  involved in this process as well!

Finally, Alexandra Ion, who organized the event, focused on osteoarchaeologists’ growing reliance on ancient DNA (aDNA), as a “smoking gun” when assessing claims about past familial relationships or population movements. Alexandra underscored that rather than being inherently more scientific or objective, aDNA is fraught with the same kinds of problems as any other line of archaeological evidence. No matter what methods we rely on to answer archaeological questions, as a discipline we must always be cautious about appropriately framing our research questions, assessing the  limitations of our evidence, and making sure that our resulting interpretations are not overstated.


Afterwards we had a question and answer session with our audience of about 35-40 people,* who asked us about the impact of new technologies, Ötzi (as always), and the ethical considerations involved in studying human skeletal remains. For me, the most informative component of this session was the fact my posture is TERRIBLE. Below, I have included the only photo where I appear relatively normal. Despite discovering my tendency to slouch, it was gratifying to see that the audience was clearly engaged with the material and interested in archaeology, so we will chalk up this particular event as a win for outreach.

*Only two of whom fell asleep


All of us are on twitter and have our own blogs, so if you’d like to hear more about any of these lines of research please follow us!

Image Credits: Duck with bad posture found on deviantart, here. Breakfast Club fist punch gif found here. Most images of the presenters are from our unofficial event photographer Vanessa Forte.

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MARBAL Season 1: July 2017

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The MARBAL team has just arrived in Alba Iulia to spend three weeks conduct ing preliminary collections research at the Muzeul Național al Unirii din Alba Iulia.  So far project activities have included: recovering from jet lag,


eating the finest spicy pizza Alba Iulia has to offer,


admiring the skeletally-themed local street art,

and gawking out of the window to our museum lab.

However, we’re here to do more than just sightsee and eat pizza. Emilie Cobb and I are conducting a bioarchaeological analysis of Early Bronze Age human remains from three local Bronze Age sites.

Dr. Ciugudean is spending most of his time in the field, taking part in several archaeological excavations along the Mures valley. The site inBărăbanț, near Alba, has just delivered some well-preserved Early Bronze Age skeletons, which have just been transported to our lab for analysis.

Copyright MARBAL Project 2017.

Project member Colin Quinn is busy finishing up some ceramic analysis from his Bronze Age Transylvania Survey project, and is also helping to unpack the mortuary archaeology of the Meteș and Hapria sites by analyzing maps and site reports.

Our days so far have been spent in Dr. Ciugudean’s lab at the museum, inventorying skeletal remains, sorting out the pesky non-humans, and realizing how much equipment we forgot to buy the previous day. In the center photo below, I’m also sketching in the different shapes of upper and lower molars for Emilie, in case the shoddy geometry was confusing to any readers.

Which reminds me – I need to go buy my Nescafe, lest I collapse, decaffeinated, over a tray of bones tomorrow. Look for our next update from Emilie Cobb, coming soon!