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:
- A discussion of the ‘A History of Teeth.’ Linking teeth with diet through time.
- A conversation about why are some archaeological methods taken as verbatim: why is there a lack of accuracy tests for some ‘traditional’ archaeological methods?
- 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.’