New Page – Identifying Molars

It’s been a while since my last post and I’ve been meaning to create a page for identifying and distinguishing molars a while now, but I’ve finally gotten round to it.

At university and during my time as an undergraduate I found it quite difficult to  distinguish between the different teeth – particularly the molars. As my PhD project focuses on these teeth I had to quickly gets to grips with identifying molar teeth correctly. I’ve therefore created a new page to help other osteologists out there who need some extra help!

This page only includes the upper and lower permanent molars as they are the teeth I am most familiar with. Also, some of the tips and features I have mentioned below are from my own observations although the majority come from Simon Hillson’s book ‘Dental Anthropology,’ (1996) which I highly recommend if you are going to spend any time looking at teeth.

Go and check it out here! Also, I’m always happy to receive feedback and comments🙂

SWWDTP Session: Connections with Collections

I recently attended a really interesting session called ‘Making Connections with Collections: Meet the Professionals,’ an opportunity to discuss, hear and learn about some of the aspects of working with museum collections. The aim of the session was to aid doctoral students to improve their understanding of effective collaborations with museums and their collections to locate resources, develop methodologies, and engage with different audiences and communicating research outcomes. It was also a great opportunity to meet of the professionals who are involved in museum work and collections. Before I go into too much detail or discussion about the day and how it has helped me I should say that this session organised by the South, West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWWDTP) and hosted by the University of Reading and the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). You can also see a program from the day here.

A range of topics were discussed, and there were plenty of opportunities to raise any points of interest or any issues that were project specific. Although I did not have any particular points to raise it has given me plenty to think about! I have come away thinking about my project and how to make it more accessible to the public, as well as some issues that could be dealt with regarding osteological collections. Before today I hadn’t given much thought to these issues, but they will now be unlikely to go from my mind!

My PhD project, as I’ve probably already mentioned, is to assess an existing method for estimating age of human skeletons from the amount of dental wear present. Until now I had faintly considered the use and implications of the method in relation to archaeologists, particularly in the commercial sector. This is because an aim of my project is to create something that is easy and simple to use, but is also accurate, as the method may need to be applied in an environment where time could be restricted. However, interacting with a wider, more amateur, audience was not really a consideration due to the assumption of basic osteological knowledge that would be needed in order to apply the method.  Yet the SWWDTP session has allowed me to consider a wider setting, in which my knowledge would be applicable to a more diverse set of people.

Some thoughts that have occurred to me, thanks to the session, include:

  1. A discussion of the ‘A History of Teeth.’ Linking teeth with diet through time.
  2. A conversation about why are some archaeological methods taken as verbatim: why is there a lack of accuracy tests for some ‘traditional’ archaeological methods?
  3. The production of a UK osteological collections database.

The first idea is extremely very large and ambitious as it would need to include a wide range of resources, materials and time. However, I intend discuss the relationship between dental wear and diet through my period of study (Neolithic – Medieval). It would be a great project, or exhibition, to view diet through time and how is this reflected in the dentition. Many people have said to me when I have told them about my project that would I be able to age them from their teeth? My answer is always ‘no, not from dental wear.’ This is because the modern diet is much softer and more processed than in the past so dental wear is not prevalent, and therefore cannot be applied as an aging method. It would be great to address this on a wider scale and educate people on their teeth. I am sure few know how useful teeth are, other than for eating!

The other two ideas are, I feel, important aspects of archaeology. My project is based on a method that was created in the 1960s and has not been altered since. During my literature review I have also found little evidence of accuracy or reliability tests to confirm the precision of the method – even though it is one of the most popular methods for age estimation of adult skeletons. This is a huge problem and one in which I cannot quite get my head around! In discussion with other archaeology students I have been informed that this is not a unique occurrence and other methods have been applied without question for many years. It would be really interesting to start a conversation about why this has happened and what would be the ways of tackling this. I am not sure how I would start going about this, but it is certainly something to think about!

It would also be of great use to produce a database that provided information about osteological collections within the UK. I have not found one that currently exists – please correct me if I am wrong! However, I do feel that it would be extremely useful if such a database existed and included information such as period and links or references to research papers that had been conducted on each collection. I do understand that are potential issues for creating such a database, however, it would allow greater accessibility – and a much more collaborative approach – for researchers. It would certainly provide a quicker and easier method of finding relevant resources, which leaves more time for new research!

I hope that one day I can come back to these ideas with answers or ways to tackle them, but for now they are some interesting topics to think about. All thanks to the great SWWFTP session ‘Making Connections with Collections: Meet the Professionals.’

First Presentation as a PhD Student

SEW PGRAS Logo black

Logo for PGRAS 2016. Designed by the wonderful Stephanie Evelyn-Wright. Follow her on Twitter @archaeowright

Sorry that it’s been a while since the last post, I’ve been busy collecting preliminary data, doing some stats and writing stuff up for the PhD. There’s nothing overwhelmingly exciting just yet as I’m laying the ground work for my future research but it’s going ahead nicely, which is the important thing!

In addition to the more practical side of my PhD I have been preparing for my first year presentation, which I had to complete as a ‘milestone.’ This was given yesterday (20th May 2016) as part of a departmental symposium. On the whole I felt that the presentation went well. I tried to explain my research clearly using simple definitions in order to suit an audience with little osteological knowledge. There was also a question asking if I would be sexing the skeletons to compare rates of dental wear, which I answered yes. I also intend to compare the wear rates of the left and right molars, and the molars from the upper (maxilla) and lower (mandibular) jaws. My aim with this is to test the assumptions that there is an equal an regular rate of wear across the mouth. So on the whole I think it was OK – but I’ll have a meeting with my supervisor soon to discuss how it went, so I will know for sure then!

So where was this presentation? At Southampton Uni as part of the PhD I have to give a first year presentation. I guess this is to make sure of all the students progress, but also to give us a chance to present, which may not be very often for some students. In some departments all of the first year students presents together on the same day. However, in Archaeology we have a two day conference like event where first years, plus many of the other PhD students, present to the rest of the department. This is a great chance to find out what other research is going on in the department and who’s doing what!

Now this conference, called the Post Graduate Research Archeology Symposium (PGRAS), has to be organised by the students themselves. This usually consists of first year PhD students who form a committee. The committee has to put out a call for abstracts, arranging the conference schedule, sending emails, promoting the conference via social media and hosting the symposium. This is a great way to get some experience of what ‘real’ academic conferences are like and what is involved when organising them. Therefore I signed up to help out.

It was a great experience and by volunteering to be on the PGRAS committee I got to meet some wonderful people within my department. I also got the chance to gain some valuable experience, which I am sure will help me out in the future. I didn’t have one specific role within the committee, but assisted where help was needed. This including arranging the schedule, which involved sorting the submitted abstracts into themes/sessions for the conference day, taking into account that some submissions had requests to present on a particular day or time. This was quite a difficult task, but after a couple of hours we as the committee were able to produce a schedule that was suitable for everyone.

I also helped out on some of the social media side for PGRAS. This included adding stuff to our Facebook account, updating the blog and scheduling tweets for Twitter. Of course I was there on the day as well to help man some cake and book stands (we were raising money for the charity Smile, based in Southampton). There were a lot of little things to sort out and organise but I think that we as a committee pulled together really well and were able to produce a successful symposium! It was definitely worth doing – even though as I write this I’m lain on my sofa, knackered from the past two days of the event!

So this week has been a good week and been able to add two new experiences as a PhD student: my first presentation and being part of a conference committee. This are some extremely valuable experiences, ones which I am sure I will build upon in the future!

P.s. If you want you can check out my abstract for the presentation, via the PGRAS blog here.

PGRAS poster

A Lecture by Prof. Sue Black

This post will give you a little update on my PhD work, but mostly I’m going to talk about a lecture that I attended yesterday presented by Professor Sue Black at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Since my last post I have been carrying out the first round of measurements and recordings to test my new method for recording dental wear. The next step to do complete some statistical analysis and to highlight and issues that need to be rectified. I think the plan is to do these tests, make some adjustments and additions to the method and then repeat the recordings. I should imagine that I will be doing this a few times to ensure a robust and accurate is produced.

To take a little break from my PhD work a couple of friends and I had a trip into London. A few weeks ago a friend of mine told me about the Royal Society of Medicine‘s Jephcott Lecture. This year’s lecture was by the esteemed Professor Sue Black, and entitled: the Real World of Forensic Anthropology

I had didn’t really have any expectations before going into the lecture, although I had heard that Sue Black was a wonderful speaker – which I can confirm! I thought that there might be a discussion of the differences between the public’s perception of forensic anthropology and the reality, and there was a bit, but the lecture was so much more than that. It started off pretty light hearted by highlighting some of the skills needed by a forensic anthropologist, e.g. the ability to distinguish between human and animal, but quickly moved onto some case examples.

The first example case was of a young man whose remains were found in some woods, it was later discovered that he had committed suicide. The following case was of a women, murdered by her husband. In both examples, Prof Black explained clearly how each case was solved, and expressed the importance of particular bits of evidence. For example, a shard of bone was discovered in the second case and instead of being destroyed, to provide DNA evidence, it was examined and identified as being part of the sphenoid bone, located within the cranial vault. This meant that the case could be increased to a murder or manslaughter charge because anyone who had that part of their skull damaged would not have survived. If the bone had been used for  DNA only it would have only revealed the individual’s identify, a fact that had already been confirmed from blood spatter. It was clear that Prof Black wanted to demonstrate the importance of forensics and the impact that it can have on a case’s direction and intent.

Following these cases the lecture focused on the forensic anthropologist’s role in the identification of sexual predators. When I first read about this lecture I had not realised that it would have taken this route, however, it was extremely interesting, although very sad. In some cases of sexual assault the abuser will take photographs that will include parts of their body, as well as the victims. Professor Black informed the audience that a recent approach in the identification of such abusers related to the pattern and visible variation in the veins, freckles, wrinkles and other physical characteristics. Over time Prof Black, and her department, have helped to compile a database to investigate this variation and have conducted research to identity whether it can prove useful in a court of law to convict an individual of a crime.

As I have said it was an extremely interesting lecture, and there was certainly food for thought afterwards! I do hope that more research and funding can go into the area of forensic anthropology.

In addition to the lecture content there were two other take home messages. The first was to not believe any of the science on CSI, or similar detective shows. It’s true that they are (extremely loosely) based on a type of forensic anthropology, but they are incredibly misleading. I have recently started watching Bones (a bit late on the band-wagaon I know!) and I must admit I do enjoy it, whilst ignoring some of the horrible inaccuracies! However, if I was a member of the public, with no or little real knowledge about forensic anthropology, I can see how damaging these shows are. They create an expectation of what could be achieved that the real world just can’t live up to. My personal recommendation would be if you enjoy watching these shows – great, but please read around the subject, read biographies of real forensic anthropologists, watch real (and creditable!) documentaries. It is a fascinating subject, but the public must be accurately informed. 

The second message that Professor Black gave was that if you want to work in the world of forensics study a hard science. Forensic anthropology is a huge field and taking a course to study the subject in general will not be enough. Study chemistry, biology, anatomy. These are just a few of the subjects that are a part of the forensic sciences. So to any aspiring forensic anthropologists – take Sue Black’s advice, she is the one to follow!

Into the New Year…A PhD Update

My last blog was at Christmas and I’ve been meaning to do another one for the last few weeks but never seemed to get around to it – so here it is finally!

Since the Christmas break (which was lovely and lazy!) and settling back into work I’ve really started to get going with my project. The first step of my project was to propose an adjusted method for recording dental wear in human molars, which was completed before Christmas. This also included identifying the aging method, using human dentition, that would most be the most accurate and easy to apply and came to the conclusion of using the AlQahtani et al (2010) London Dental Atlas. About 2 years ago I wrote another blog piece discussing the accuracy of three different dental age estimate charts, including the London Atlas. The article describes the AlQahtani et al (2010) method in brief but the atlas itself can be viewed here.

The next step was to test out the method that I had created to assess how it worked when practically applied to human skulls. In order to do this I needed a good skeletal collection of the correct time period for my project (neolithic to medieval) that included juvenile and adults skulls. Luckily for me there is such a collection at Southampton and so it was very easy for me to get started! You can find out a bit more about the teaching collection and courses that Southampton University at the following blog: BOS, curated by the wonderful Ellie!

So it’s now the beginning of February and I’ve managed to apply my method to the juvenile skulls twice and the adults once. My plan is to do this a few more times for each set of skulls and there are a few reasons for this. The first is that this will enable to tweek my method where necessary so that it is as easy and accurate to use as possible. The second reason is so that I can become comfortable with handling and identifying teeth, but also so that I get used to the process of recording the data. This will be particularly useful when I move on to different skeletal collections, where I will only have a short period of time with them.

Finally, and probably most importantly, recording the data from the same set of skulls, multiple times will allow me to test the repeatability of my method. In order for this method to be robust and accurate it must produce statistically similar results when applied to the same collection, this will ensure that any results obtained using this method can be comparable. When recording the data from the same collection of skulls I am making sure that there is a period of time in between each data collection. This ensures that I cannot remember any particular individual and all of the collected data is ‘new’ again.

So far, the data collection is going well and I am getting through the skulls in the time that I wanted. Another key aspect of my project is to produce a method that is quick and easy to apply, and at the moment that’s going to plan so fingers crossed it stays that way!

I probably won’t do another blog post on the progress of my PhD for a little while as I won’t have much new to say until I’ve finished my data collection. However, I do plan to do a new blog post on molar identification (seeing as I’m getting pretty good at it now!). Hopefully, I’ll sort that out soon and get it posted!

A Quick Update From Me…

Jess Skull card

As Christmas is nearly upon us I thought it was about time that I did a bit of an update of the PhD is going. As I’ve been saying to anyone who asks me this question ‘So far, so good!’ I’m enjoying the work and the people are great at Southampton University so I settled in almost straight away.

One of the reasons I haven’t written a blog piece for a while is that I didn’t think I had much to say regarding my PhD. Looking back over the past couple of months I realise that I have actually achieved a good amount of work. I’ve been reading a lot of articles surrounding dental wear, dental development and the methods to record these processes. I’ve used all of this information and have started writing and compiling my literature, and I have even written and very rough first draft. (Of which I am currently avoiding to edit and restructure by writing this post!).

From the literature review I have also been able to put together a methods section for the first part of my research. This was one of my, and my supervisor’s aim, so that it was ready to be tested after Christmas. At the moment I feel really happy with the method and I am really looking forward to testing it out, once I get back to Uni. The plan is to carry out a small sample study to see how my ideas work, and to make some observations and adjustments. Hopefully, once this is completed I will be able to apply the finished, and refined, method to a large sample of juvenile skulls. 

Between now and then I intend on enjoying the Christmas break by seeing family and eating too much! (And hopefully at some point kick myself into gear to start editing my literature review!)

Merry Christmas all and see you in the new year x

The PhD has Begun…

skull thermos
My amazing skull thermos my sister got me for my birthday!

I am now about a month into my PhD and so far it’s all going well. I’ve settled in quite quickly and it feels completely normal to be back at a computer reading articles and books about human dental development. The one thing I’m still getting used to is the routine and juggling my hockey, travel and the PhD, but I’m sure that will come soon enough. Since starting the PhD I have met many new and lovely people. At the university of Southampton there is quite a big group of PhD students, who are all at various points of their PhD, and a group of osteology girls. Everyone is so friendly that I never felt isolated or unwelcome, which is always nice!

Last week I went down to Portsmouth to meet my second supervisor, Simon Mays, who works for Historic England. It was really good meeting Simon properly as the only previous time I had met him was at my interview for the position! I also got to visit his place of work and where I will be collecting some of my data; Fort Cumberland. It is quite an odd place and it felt very strange driving up to a gate, where I was buzzed in, and then down a long drive into the middle of an old military fort. It was an incredible place and to be honest it’s very difficult to describe so I’ve added a aerial photo of the fort to give some idea of what it’s like.

Aerial Photograph of Fort Cumberland. Image taken from http://www.heritage-explorer.co.uk

Aerial Photograph of Fort Cumberland. Image taken from http://www.heritage-explorer.co.uk

During my visit I had a meeting with my two supervisors Dr Sonia Zakrzewski and Dr Simon Mays, which went really well. I was given some advice and guidance and so I now have a really good focus of what I need to do over the next couple of months – basically a lot of reading in order to create a methodology for age estimation that can be tested on skeletal specimens after Christmas! I was then taken for a tour of the fort which included the storage room that houses some of the collections that I will be using for my studies and the X-ray room. Hopefully I will be receiving training in this so I can take my own radiographs!

This week I also attended an induction day for AHRC CDP, which stands for Arts & Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Partnership. This might sound quite complicated but basically I have been granted a PhD through the CDP, which in turn is funded by the AHRC. For a bit more information please visit my about me page. This induction day was actually really useful, unlike other induction days that I have heard about, and I was able to understand a lot more about the CDP and what it meant for me. I now realise what an incredible opportunity I have with this PhD. Not only will I be able to carry out a project in a subject that I really enjoy and find interesting, but I will hopefully have quite a few amazing opportunities that will be open to me.

I am very much looking forward to the next few years that are ahead of me. I know that it’s going to be hard work and very stressful at times, but I know it will be worth it. After all I am being paid to carry out some work in a subject that I love and I will be working with some incredible people! Now after a long day reading quite a few articles about tooth development and various methods I’m off to the pub for a well deserved pint and socializing!