TAL + SM: The Stories Bones Tell

This Anthro Life – Savage Minds Crossover Series, part 4
by Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins

This Anthro Life has teamed up with Savage Minds to bring you a special 5-part podcast and blog crossover series. While thinking together as two anthropological productions that exist for multiple kinds of audiences and publics, we became inspired to have a series of conversations about why anthropology matters today. We’re sitting down with some of the folks behind Savage Minds, SAPIENS, the American Anthropological Association and the Society for American Archaeology to bring you conversations on anthropological thinking and its relevance through an innovative blend of audio and text.

In our fourth episode of the TAL + SM collaboration Ryan and Adam chat with Dr. Kristina Killgrove about her strategies for engaging popular, interdisciplinary audiences through writing.  We also explore Kristina’s strategies for choosing content to cover in her blog, Powered by Osteons, and end by considering some ways research has been changing in terms of crowdfunding and open access data.

Be sure to check out the first three episodes of the TAL + SM collaboration: Writing “in my Culture.”, “Anthropology has Always been Out There”, and “Anthropology + Science Journalism = A New Genre?”

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In our interview with Kristina Killgrove, she was quick to clarify her work as an archaeologist. As Kristina puts it,“I am people not pots,” meaning that she uses bioarchaeology to explore the the daily lives of ancient Romans. Kristina describes bioarchaeology as “storytelling with bones.” You are able to learn about the daily lives (i.e. diet, health, trauma, etc.) of people through their skeletons. Speaking to her fascination with ancient bones, Kristina says, “I always say that it [a skeleton] is a time capsule. You don’t just get information about the point of death, but you can get information back five years, or twenty years, or from their birth with their teeth.”

As Kristina revealed, her fascination for bones and archaeology began at an early age. As she explained, “If I were a superhero, then my origin story would start with x-rays and that is because when I was seven years old I broke my arm,” after racing around the street with a friend. She was taken to a doctor and shown an x-ray of her broken arm. Her doctor then asked if she wanted to know how tall she would be as an adult, which blew her mind and started her down the path of bioarchaeology.

For many anthropologists, archaeology is the first gateway encountered into the worlds explored by the discipline. Like Kristina’s origin story, the material and sense of mystery that permeates archaeology often enchants from an early age. It isn’t difficult to see why, archaeology (or at least subjects that are somewhat archaeological) are spread throughout popular media: blockbuster movie franchises like The Mummy, magazines like National Geographic, Lego sets, museum collections, and much more. Exposure is everywhere.

As Kristina points out, there is almost no shortage of material to dig up with Archaeology. The question of writing a good story though, really becomes one of how to focus. How does one frame a compelling narrative around an object, several objects, or a fragment of an object? Information is abundant online with thoughts detailing the ideal word count of a blog post, or any online publication. Capturing the attention of a casual passerby for 3-7 minutes is difficult. This is one reason why Kristina keeps her posts on Powered by Osteons to about 800 words per post. Enough space to capture a reader’s imagination (and their focus) and the thrill of discovery.

Writing about people, not pottery, means speaking to much of the material realities that different archaeological researchers encounter and specialize in. As a biological anthropologist, Kristina focuses on human remains and the information they reveal about an individual, how they lived, how they died, if they recovered from illnesses, what they ate, their sex, age, social standing, and much more. In other words, the stories bones tell.

While bones are amazing sources of information, for many other archaeologists pottery, or ceramics, is often thought of as one’s bread and butter. Nearly every ancient civilization fired ceramics, with the earliest dating between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago in east Asia. This early date makes pottery fragments among the earliest preserved material indicators of modern human activity. Still, the process of cataloguing, testing, and analyzing broken pottery is about as captivating for a non-expert audience as watching water boil (no offense to our fellow ceramic loving archaeologist colleagues). Despite being a staple material archaeologists use to assess chronology, understand human activity, and diets, pottery in and of itself doesn’t (often) make for a compelling narrative (at least to non-specialists). But, what about the discovery of the world’s oldest known palatial wine cellar? That’s exactly what Andrew Koh, an Associate Professor in Classical Studies at Brandeis University, and his team discovered in 2013: a palace cellar from 3,700 years ago that once contained over 2,000 liters of wine. Even more compelling, is that Koh’s team has sought to recreate the recipes from the chemical residue of the ceramics. Soon, perhaps you too may enjoy wine as it was served in 1700 BC.

Selling a story in archaeology requires what David Freidel, a Professor at the Washington University at St. Louis, calls “scientifically disciplined imagination.” It’s a spark that captures the attention of many, whether practicing archaeologists or interested publics. This is exactly what Kristina captures in sharing her origin story, the curiosity of a child enchanted by the information that can be learned about an individual or a culture from human bones.

Finally, in addition to crafting a compelling story, one needs a medium through which to publish it. In turn, the question of audience becomes important once again. Channeling part 2 of our series, if anthropology has always been out there, who’s tuning in? Towards the end of our conversation we asked Kristina, if academic journals were to become all open access, would that change how people interact with social science research? Her response is telling. “I don’t think so”, she says, “openly accessible data is always more important than open access journals.” This has to do with writing style and interpretation. That anthropological journals are jargon filled is so well known as this point it is almost “needless to say”. Almost. When reflecting further on Kristina’s point, a less obvious takeaway is that interpretation may perhaps play just as important a role as writing style in how and why people access data. This may be particularly true for archaeological or biological anthropological data such as measurements, coordinates, proximate locations and other quantitative data. The same could be true for sociocultural data including survey questions and responses, demographics and other statistical data. Ethnographic observations get somewhat trickier (not to mention idiosyncratic) when they begin to mix between “I was there” notes, observations and reflections and recorded interviews. One of the prime directives of protecting informant identities creates problems for openly accessible ethnographic data.

So one question is, at least in academic spheres, does archaeological and physical data have an advantage of being able to be more easily openly accessible than cultural data? Of course, Kristina makes sure to point out that she released her data only after she felt she had sufficient publications and use of it to secure her tenure. And yet, she further said that there are still unpublished pieces of her data, meaning someone else could indeed dive in and find new connections and interpretations. This too is an important part of the equation of what openly accessible data means.

Kristina Killgrove is an Assistant Professor in the University of West Florida’s Anthropology Department. She is known for her blog, Powered by Osteons, and her publications in Forbes and Mental Floss and work with the Society for American Archaeology. You can hear more about Kristina’s upcoming field season in a recent interview, here.

This Anthro Life

Adam Gamwell is a Design Anthropologist, co-founder of TAL and a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University. He co-hosts the show, and serves as Creative Director and Executive Producer. He is also a Research Fellow and Consultant for Bioversity International. His expertise lies in design, food research, science and technology studies, and audio and media production. Find Adam on Twitter or adam AT thisanthrolife dot com. Ryan Collins is an Archaeological Anthropologist, co-founder of TAL and a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University. He co-hosts the show, and serves as Education Designer. He is also an active member of el Proyecto de Interacción Política del Centro de Yucatán (PIPCY), in Yaxunah, Yucatán, México. His expertise lies in the comparative development of complex society, urbanization, and Mesoamerican studies. Find Ryan on Academia.edu and Twitter or ryan AT thisanthrolife dot com.