AAFS 2013 Wrap-up

Presenting my poster

Presenting my poster

It is amazing the difference a year makes.  At the 2012 annual meeting, I was worrying about finishing my thesis, getting into a doctoral program, and presenting a poster for the first time.  This year, I am happily ensconced at the University of Arkansas; I finished my thesis and am almost ready to submit my first manuscript from it; and I have not presented the research in my thesis numerous times.  All of these differences changed the way I approached the meeting.  This year, I focused more on what was happening within the soon to be Anthropology section (as opposed to Physical Anthropology section).  Interestingly, the presentations I attended started by focusing on the past.

One of the first presentations I attended was a retrospective on Dr. Richard Jantz’s contributions to the Forensic Databank.  Kate Spradley presentation was at times humorous, at times serious, but overall brought home the importance of the forensic databank to the discipline of forensic anthropology, and the work that Richard Jantz put into the databank was paramount to its success.  Additionally, Spradley included a number of pictures from the “old days” and short anecdotes about the humble beginnings of the forensic databank.

After Spradley’s presentation, I attended a presentation of FOROST, a free database for skeletal trauma.  FOROST seeks to create a database of high resolution imagery that is accessible and searchable throughout the world.  However, the creators recognized that researchers can be quite possessive of their images, so they established a way to give credit to the researchers rather than the database itself. Instead of citing the database, if someone uses the image, they cite the original contributor first.  This has encouraged additional universities to contribute their images to the database.  The creators hope to provide a way for forensic anthropologists to compare trauma and pathologies across the globe.

Next on my list of presentations was wood chipper trauma.  Wood chippers have been used in a number of cases as a body disposal method.  Since they are relatively inexpensive to rent and easy to use, it is necessary to investigate what kind of trauma will be present on the bones if a wood chipper is used.  The presenter, Domenick, found that 55% of the bone fragments were of the larger size, although these were still smaller than 12 mm.  Also, the wood chipper left unique striations on the bones that can then be matched back to the machine.  Finally, although the bones were smaller than 12 mm when the body was put through the wood chipper, the soft tissue was relatively intact.  The presenter hypothesized that frozen bodies may be dismembered more thoroughly than unfrozen since the wood chipper cuts harder surfaces more thoroughly than softer ones.

On Friday, I focused on my own research.  I was presenting my master’s research during the Physical Anthropology Poster Session.  I love poster sessions because it gives me a chance to actually discuss research instead of just presenting it.  I love the dialogues posters frequently start.  For example, I had a fascinating discussion with another graduate student researching decomposition underwater, and I was lucky enough to meet several prominent people in my field, including one who used to be a TA for one of my current professors.  It is amazing how small the world can be!  If you would like to see a copy of the poster I presented, I have it posted here.

These four presentations demonstrate the breadth of the section as a whole.  By removing the ‘Physical’ part from the section name, the section can begin to encompass the many facets of the discipline itself.  As someone whose research usually fell on the outskirts of physical anthropology, such as forensic archaeology and geophysical methods, it is nice that future presenters will not have to finagle a way to equate the research to physical anthropology specifically.

Overall, AAFS 2013 was a successful conference!  I hope I will be able to continue to attend in the upcoming years!


Live Blogging Update

We discovered that live blogging when there is not internet access in the conference area is significantly more difficult.  Therefore, we will have a comprehensive post on all the presentations we attended coming out next week.  However, follow us on twitter for more frequent updates!

[ Brittany & Carrie]

AAFS logo

This week Carrie and I will be attending the 65th Annual Scientific Meeting got the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Washington, DC.  AAFS is the organization for professionals in involved in forensics.  Workshops and meetings of the Academy are already underway.  We will be arriving on Wednesday when the poster session and podium presentations begin.  Carrie and I have been members of the Physical Anthropology section of AAFS for years and have attended and presented at the annual conference.  This year Carrie will be presenting in the Friday poster session of the Physical Anthropology section from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm in spot H101.

We have decided to live blog the conference here at SkeletonWalks. We plan to post a mid-day and end-of-day post on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday on presentations, posters, meetings, and any other relevant information that goes on at the meeting.  We will supplement this by live-tweeting as well. We plan to use the AAFS hashtag (#AAFS2013) and a hashtag specifically for SkeletonWalks (#SWAAFS). Our focus will be mostly on the Physical Anthropology section of AAFS, but will also include research from other sections.

                    Official AAFS hashtag: #AAFS2013

                    Skeleton Walks AAFS hashtag: #SWAAFS

You can also follow us on Twitter:

                   Brittany: @SkeletonWalks

                   Carrie: @CHealy21

Carrie and I are using this as an opportunity to find what works best for conference blogging before the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference in April, so we encourage suggestions from fellow bloggers and followers on what seems to be efficient.  Also please let us know if you’d like us to check out anything at the conference for you or if you’ll be attending the conference!

The program for the conference can be found HERE.

[Brittany S. Walter]

19th century dinner party

Fig. 1: 19th century dinner party
This image is in the public domain

Graduate school can leave you feeling incredibly alone along with many other graduate students. Between research, classes, and teaching responsibilities, it seems there is little time to let loose and have a little fun. However, socializing with other graduate students should be included as part of your education. There are many benefits for socializing with other graduate students including learning about other research in your discipline, discussing your own research, and networking with your future colleagues. Moreover, fellow graduate students are more likely to understand the trials and tribulations of graduate school than those who have not experienced it and provide valuable advice.

While it may not seem like a necessary part of obtaining a graduate degree, one of the best ways to learn about other research in your discipline is often from your fellow students. I have learned about a number of topics in anthropology from my fellow graduate students including primate locomotion, the differential diagnosis for malaria, stable isotope analysis, the use of GPS in forensics, and the effects of tourism in South America. By discussing research interests with fellow graduate students, I learned about a variety of topics I would not have been exposed to otherwise.

Gardner and Barnes (2007) investigated this aspect of the graduate school experience through interviews with graduate students in the field of higher education. The graduate students they interviewed viewed involvement as a form of professional development. Professional socialization prepares the graduate student for a career in academia. Moreover, Gardner and Barnes differentiate between involvement on the national level versus the local level. At the national level, graduate students view professional organizations as a mentoring relationship, whereas at the local level, student involvement was more peer based and often resulted in friendships. Campus involvement also allows students to create change within their immediate community and leave a legacy behind, while the national organizations provide means to leave a mark on the student’s discipline as a whole. Continue Reading »


Figure 1: Otter Trail, South Africa

Early paleoanthropologists worked in isolated groups with an archaeological or medical background. Fossil sites were usually located accidentally by mining companies or geologists. Since these early stages, the field of paleoanthropology has expanded to include many disciplines including biology, botany, ecology, functional morphology, and even genetics. Members of each of these fields now work together, employing interdisciplinary methods to reconstruct the past. Anemone et al. (2011) breaks the history of African fieldwork in paleoanthropology into three stages: the single-investigator, the interdisciplinary approach, and the return to the laboratory. Each stage led to the next, starting from the single-investigator, such as Broom, Dart, and the early work of the Leakey’s. The Leakey’s paved the way for the second stage: the interdisciplinary approach. F. Clark Howell, took the Leakey’s approach one step further by bringing together scientists from a variety of disciplines including geology, botany, and paleontology. Anemone et al. define the last stage as a progression beyond collaboration and a return to the laboratory with the advances in technology. Instead of plaster casts, technology allows for 3-D reconstructions, imaging, and scanning. In the field, fossil sites are no longer identified through accidental discovery or haphazard searching. Instead, remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) are being used to identify potential sites. Continue Reading »

The Body as a Symbol

Martinez image 1

Image by Flickr user Sarah Blizzard (CC Licensed)

Like body ornamentations, the body itself is a symbol for beliefs, hierarchies, values, and social identity, and is therefore an important piece in the puzzle of the past. Funerary practices involve not only burying the body with symbolic and ritual objects, but also the manipulation of the corpse for burial and the preparation of the grave site.  In bioarchaeology, the corporeality, or material nature, of the body is gradually being appreciated as a canvas on which physical and social inscription can be interpreted after long spans of time. Traditionally, archaeologists considered the body as a public display, allowing them to make direct interpretations concerning body ornamentations, ignoring the body itself. It was not until 2005 with Rosemary Joyce’s well-known paper regarding the body as a symbol that the first formal writing compiling a comprehensive review of research that recognized the body as a symbol of the past. Since then, several bioarchaeologists and archaeologists have offered research regarding the importance in interpreting the symbolic value of the body in understanding the society, including a recent article by anthropologists at the INCUAPA in Argentina.

Martinez and colleagues (2012) look at the corporeal body and symbolic patterns that could be determined from human remains in their research of Late Holocene hunter-gatherers in Argentina.  The authors examined funerary patterns and the corporeal modification conducted by the society on the deceased, focusing on the disarticulation, burial, reburial, and intentional coloring of the remains.  By incorporating symbolic trends found among the human remains of two separate sites, the authors were able to conclude that these groups belonged to the same socio-cultural system and shared similar worldviews.  Moreover, the authors used the body as a means of interpreting the societal changes that occurred during a significant transition change, concluding that the corporeal body was used as a medium to maintain group identity.

Corpse manipulation and modification by living individuals can be influenced by social, environmental, and historical factors.  The authors explain that the changes evident on the recovered remains coincide with the changing social organization of the people in the Colorado River Basin at the time.  During the Late Holocene, the population was considerably smaller with higher mobility and short-term settlements, practicing burials that were traditionally primary.  However, as population density increased, this lessened the residential mobility.  Interactions between neighboring communities occurred, resulting in the establishment of formal disposal areas and the incorporation of secondary burials into funerary ritual.  By the Final Late Holocene, burial practices become more complex, with more anatomical units per bundle, patterns in bone arrangement and inclusion, and painting of the bones with pigment. The authors explain that the change to more formal and complex funerary rituals required a large amount of work investment and must have included the entire community. Moreover, they show how these changes in mortuary practices coincided with changes in longer inhabitance of times, a reduction in the residential component of mobility, diversification and intensification of subsistence patterns, and innovations in lithic technology.

Though I would have liked the authors to have offered more interpretations on the actual modification of the body itself, rather than the intense focus of the consistencies between mortuary patterns and societal changes, the article is a good example of  integrating bioarchaeological research into archaeological analysis from other fields to corroborate and support hypotheses concerning past societal processes.  The authors consider possible environmental changes, landscape use and reuse, and the role of identity in the past as a response to drastic societal changes.

Martinez and colleagues contribute to the perspective of the social aspects of corporealities, recognizing the body within the archaeological record as a material body.  Like other materialities, the body is not static and goes through changes.  Fahlander’s view (2008) of the materiality of death recognizes that death is both a social and theological practice, rooted in materiality.  Since mortuary rituals define and develop identities and retain social relationships and collective memory, understanding the management of the body is crucial for elucidating the past society’s ability to maintain and strengthen group identities.  Martinez et al. recognize this necessity and provide an article that appreciates the material body and its efficacy in being interpreted a symbol to understand larger processes of the past.

[Brittany S. Walter]


Fahlander F, Oestigaard T. 2008.  The materiality of death: Bodies, burials, beliefs. In: Fahlander F, Oestogard T, editors. The materiality of death. Oxford: Archaeopress. Pp. 1-16.

Joyce, RA. 2005. Archaeology of the body. Ann Rev Anthropol 34:139-158.

Martinez G, Flensborg G, Bayala PD. 2012.  Human corpse manipulation and the body as a symbol: A case study from the eastern Pampa-Patagonia transition (Argentina) during the final late Holocene. J Anthropol Arch 31:215-226.

Welcome to SkeletonWalks, a collaborative bioarchaeological blog by two PhD students looking to discuss current research topics in bioarchaeology and address matters concerning graduate student life.

SkeletonWalks is maintained by Brittany Walter, a doctoral student at University of South Carolina, and Carrie Healy, a doctoral student at University of Arkansas. While, completing our Master’s degrees at University of Central Florida we discovered that we worked well together and wished to continue that collaboration despite moving on to different schools for our PhDs.  Though we come from backgrounds focused mostly in forensic anthropology, our research interests have somewhat diverged since starting our doctoral degrees to dental anthropology (Carrie) and paleodemography (Brittany).

We decided to create this blog because we both turn to academic blogs as a means of keeping us up to date on current topics in biological anthropology and inform on new, interesting articles that might have otherwise slipped our attention. Rather than sitting back and watching the discussion, we want to contribute to the ever growing online community of biological anthropology.  Because of our differing research interests, we hope to offer a well-rounded blog that is beneficial to colleagues in the field, in addition to providing a learning experience for us at the same time.

The plan is to share one post every week or two concerning recently published articles, topics, or issues that are being discussed within biological anthropology.  Also, we plan to incorporate topics concerning graduate student life.  Because we are new in our contributions to the academic internet, we welcome constructive critiques and insights into the comments section of this blog- this will not only ensure our understanding of bioarchaeological work, but will also help us build on our roles as contributors and reviewers in the field.

Please feel free to contact us concerning anything that you feel may be relevant to include in SkeletonWalks because we are always up for suggestions and guest posts.

Happy reading!

Brittany and Carrie


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