Review of an Effective Presentation: “Bodies, Categories, and Ambivalence”

The conference presentation I have chosen to review is a talk given by a doctoral candidate from the University of Copenhagen, Trine Mygind Korsby, at a 2011 conference of the Society for Cultural Anthropology in Romania. The title of this talk was “Bodies, Categories, and Ambivalence: Fieldwork with Romanian Victims of Trafficking,” and it was given at a conference centering on material culture in anthropology. Korsby spoke about fieldwork she had completed with young women who had been trafficked from Romania to Italy, discussing various social relationships that shaped the lives of these women following their trafficking experiences. I found a recorded version of this presentation in a random online search, and was drawn in by the subject matter. The talk proved to be interesting, well delivered, and concise.

I enjoyed listening to this presentation, and found myself liking the presentation style although it is very different than the type of talk given at most of the conferences I have attended. The presenter uses no visual aids, forcing the audience to focus on her words. While it may have been possible to design visual materials to add to this presentation, I think they also may have ben distracting to the audience particularly during the relation of narrative episodes. While Korsby has quite a strong accent, she speaks clearly and at a good pace. Her voice is animated while remaining consistent. Since the talk is mainly read from a script, there is not much body movement apart from relatively frequent eye contact with the audience. While I think that the presenter could have engaged more with the audience, I do recognize that the incorporation of anecdotes from her field research that are so rich in detail would be very difficult to relay accurately if not previously written out.

The fieldwork that Korsby uses as the basis for her talk is preliminary work with contacts for her upcoming doctoral research. Examples of different types of social relations important to these young women, such as with their families and friends back home and with their traffickers, are used to illustrate the concepts of ambivalence, detachment, and distance. The presenter makes excellent use of anecdotes from her fieldwork, primarily focusing on the experiences of one young woman. Descriptions of interactions with “Amelia,” illustrating her relationships with her mother and childhood friends as well as her relationship with her traffickers throughout and after her ordeal, alternate with a discussion of how these types of relationships affect and are affected by the lives of the young women living in the shelter. Each anecdote is used to illustrate a concisely explained point about how these interactions shape and are shaped by the experiences of these women. In this way, anecdotal narrative and theoretical discussion are smoothly incorporated. The presentation progresses logically and flows well, and Ms. Korsby’s conclusions are introduced broadly at the beginning of the talk and then built more specifically throughout using well chosen examples to illustrate her points.

In this presentation, Korsby focuses on points of contrast within social relations: presence and absence, fear and trust, detachment and dependency. She argues, ultimately and very poignantly, that despite and perhaps because of absences both physical and emotional, family members and traffickers are extremely present in these young women’s lives and shape their experiences in terms of actions, possibilities, and agency. The presenter also focuses on contrast in terms of the established categories of victims and traffickers, which in the minds of most are well-defined in terms of which is good and which is evil. However, she also describes two of her contacts that are young women who were trafficked in the same way as the others, but who left the shelter and became traffickers themselves. In this way, Ms. Korsby questions the rigidity of these categories and the absolute contrast between them.

This work is presented as preliminary to Korsby’s doctoral research, and as such there are several questions that were mentioned only in terms of her future plans to expand her discussion on these points based on future fieldwork. Mentioning the direction in which she plans to take her research allowed the presenter to extend the implications of her research beyond this presentation alone. Having contacts on “both sides” of the story, those who are victims and/or perpetrators of trafficking, Korsby is uniquely positioned to examine the relationship between these categories. In this presentation, she clearly demonstrates the importance of social relationships characterized by both presence and absence in shaping the experiences of young women involved in human trafficking, and outlines the ways in which she hopes to contribute further to these dialogues with the research she will complete in her dissertation. The talk succeeded in drawing me in and getting me interested in the young women Korsby studies, and ultimately left me wondering what her further research will show.

For a Few Articles More

The two articles that I have chosen to discuss as examples of well written and not so well written articles are both related to paleopathology. The first, a recent article by Sabrina Agarwal (2012), is a piece that I came across earlier this semester in reading for another course. I think that this article provides an excellent example of a work that gently pushes the boundaries of the field in terms of the inclusion of gender-related theory in paleopathological analyses and the according alteration of methods, but in a way that fits easily within the existing and established “canonical” dialogues. The second, written by Debra Martin et al. (2010), is an article that I have loved to hate since I first encountered in at the beginning of my Master’s coursework. While I knew that something about this piece did not sit right with me, it took reading this article with a deeper focus on the way it was written to figure out exactly what that unsettling aspect was.

Agarwal SC. 2012. The past of sex, gender, and health: bioarchaeology of the aging skeleton. American Anthropologist 114: 322-335.

In this article, Agarwal (2012) examines how bioarchaeologists approach the evaluation of osteoporosis or bone loss in the past in relation to sex and age, and how standard approaches in paleopathology that focus on sex-based differences can obscure other sources of variation. This focus on biological sex as the major determining factor for variation in bone loss is related both to the limitations imposed by the current method of determining sex as the first step in standard bioarchaeological methodologies, as well as to the expectations suggested by a modern biomedical paradigm. Using a bioarchaeological case study of rural and urban samples from medieval Britain, the author explores the fluidity of categories like sex and gender in the past, considering them in the context of a lifecourse approach to aging.

The first aspect of the article that makes it a great example of social scientific writing is its structure. Agarwal (2012) lays out the fundamental conclusions of her study and the basic tenets of her argument in the first sentences of her introduction. The article is clearly organized and manages to preserve a consistent flow despite its comprehensive coverage of contextual information in terms of paleopathological methods and previous studies, theoretical developments within anthropology, and the background, methods, results, and interpretations based on her own case study as well. Agarwal (2012) succinctly outlines the way that bioarchaeologists have approached questions of sex and gender, aging, and bone loss in the past, as well as the points at which these and other factors influencing the maintenance and loss of bone intersect in analyses. She also outlines major methodological trends within paleopathology as well as important theoretical developments within this and other fields that have relevance to the conceptualization of aging, gendered identities, and health. She manages to engage in theoretical dialogues outside of paleopathology and physical anthropology. Bone loss in medieval Britain is presented early on as an ideal example of the theoretical issues the author wishes to explore, providing an immediate and obvious answer to the question of what this may be a case of. The “hourglass” format incorporating various levels of analysis is implemented extremely well in this article, with the discussion of major theoretical developments and paleopathological trends giving way to a discussion of the specifics of the author’s chosen case study, and then once again branching out to a discussion of how the case study is able to engage with theoretical issues and contribute to the conception of a “new paradigm” emphasizing cumulative life experiences in the creation of skeletal bodies (Agarwal 2012, 331).

The approach taken in this article truly is novel in paleopathology, for “although theoretical work has sought to critically address the dualities of biological sex and gender, there have been very few studies that have explicitly explored this theoretical ground in conjunction with the analyses of actual skeletal remains” (Agarwal 2012, 323). The article does an excellent job of highlighting the points of friction within the field, acknowledging the lack of correlation between theoretical developments and practical applications. The tendency to collapse the concepts of biological sex and gender, despite the engagement of bioarchaeologists with the concept of gender as socioculturally constructed, is identified as another point of friction.

In her case study, Agarwal (2012) demonstrates that the skeletal samples from rural medieval Britain did not follow a modern pattern of bone loss, and did not demonstrate significant differences based on biological sex. Based on historical, bioarchaeological, and biomedical evidence, the author considers the potential effects of nutrition, physical activity, and reproductive behavior as influencing factors on bone loss in the rural and urban skeletal samples. Agarwal (2012) mentions the resistance she faced from reviewers and editors in attempting to publish the data from these sites in a way that analyzed both biological sexes together rather than separately. This clearly demonstrates the “canonical” resistance to conceptualizing sex, gender, and the aging process in a different way than has been traditionally applied. This may be one of the factors leading the author to present her own modifications to traditional approaches as merely a “subtle change in analysis” (Agarwal 2012, 331) that pushes the boundaries without upsetting the established canons. In this article, the author does an excellent job of highlighting and verbalizing what to this point have been underlying and mainly unconscious assumptions inherent in bioarchaeological analyses of gender and aging. She calls attention to limitations and questions established methods, but in a way that still manages to remain acceptable (even if only barely, by her own admission) to more traditionally oriented researchers. I find this aspect of the article inspiring, and hope that I can manage to accomplish this type of criticism half so well.

There is one problem identified by the author that she does not manage to address in her own work. While Agarwal (2012) is able to identify the limitations imposed by the primacy of sex determination and the exclusion of individuals for whom biological sex cannot be securely established on bioarchaeological views of gender and consideration of gender differences in the past, her own analysis is also affected by this limitation. It is likely that further investigation is necessary to devise a solution to this complicated issue. It is also possible that the incorporation of this methodological step was a necessary inclusion by the author in order to compromise novelty with a more “canonical” way of doing things in order to engage with established dialogues.

Martin DL, Harrod RP, Fields M. 2010. Beaten down and worked to the bone: bioarchaeological investigations of women and violence in the ancient southwest. Landscapes of Violence 1 (Art 3): 1-19.

This paper by Martin et al. (2010) appears to me to represent an attempt on the part of the authors to accomplish the same goal as the article by Agarwal (2012), namely introducing a theoretical concept that is not commonly incorporated in paleopathological analyses and applying it to an osteological case study to demonstrate its utility in bioarchaeology. However, these authors do not manage to connect the theory and practical application strongly enough to demonstrate convincingly that this theoretical concept can be of direct relevance to paleopathologists or that their bioarchaeological sample provides an ideal case study. Martin et al. (2010) present an interesting discussion of various developments in the study of violence, such as the functional nature of violence, the involvement of women in violent practices as perpetrators rather than victims, and differences between direct and indirect violence, the implementation of which may vary by gender. They do a good job of outlining theoretical concepts relating to how women may have contributed to violent practices in past societies. However, as far as I can tell the case study they have chosen provides no specific evidence to suggest that this practice may actually have occurred at the site they discuss. Therefore, while the article raises some interesting possibilities and engages with dialogues that are occurring in other disciplines, the theoretical and practical sections of the article seem completely disparate with nothing strongly tying them together.

In terms of organization and structure, this article displays a tendency toward “mystery writing.” Martin et al. (2010) thoroughly introduce the theoretical concepts that they will be discussing in the first few introductory and contextual sections. However, there is no clear statement of the aims or accomplishments of the paper within the introduction, or in fact until several pages into the article. This is made more difficult by the fact that the structure of articles in this particular journal does not include an abstract, and so there is no concise statement of the authors’ conclusions until the final sections of the paper. The case study chosen by the authors as an illustration of their theoretical concepts is not even mentioned until the fourth page, and is not tied into the major conclusions until much further on in the paper. The authors do attempt to structure the scale of topics in their paper in an hourglass formation, but the various segments are not tied together well enough to create a truly logical flow.

There are also difficulties with this article in terms of the level of support within various bodies of literature for the concepts the authors attempt to apply to their skeletal case study. For example, Martin et al. (2010) state very clearly that survivable injuries impacting the cranial vault inevitably lead to brain damage. They provide no citation to a biomedical or clinical study that might support this claim, yet they go on to state fairly unequivocally that this brain damage would cause behavioral changes relevant to individuals experiencing further violent conflicts. I think that this represents an overextension of the evidence, as it is presented as an established fact rather than one possibility among many. Additionally, the ethnographic comparative example of the Turkana society used by Martin et al. (2010) as supporting evidence is from an extremely different context than that of the American southwest. The authors themselves state that there are many cultural differences between the two societies, and that while female-instigated violence occurs in the context of polygynous marriages among the Turkana, there is no ethnographic evidence for polygyny in the ancient southwest. Furthermore, the source cited for this ethnographic information is an unpublished conference presentation rather than published reference material; as such this information is inaccessible to other researchers who may wish to confirm the validity of the comparison. The only other source of comparison included in the article is data from non-human primates.

The ideas discussed in the article are very interesting, and it would definitely be of benefit for bioarchaeologists to consider these possibilities in their analyses of past violent behaviors; the authors also tap into some useful theoretical developments in terms of different culturally determined definitions of violence. However, I don’t think that this bioarchaeological sample is the best case study in which to examine or apply these theories. The skeletal and archaeological data do not contain any features that particularly suggest a situation in which women are the perpetrators of violence to be relevant, and the association seems therefore to be mainly conjecture. In my opinion, the major conclusions made by Martin et al. (2010) are not fully supported by reliable evidence. It appears as though the authors may be reaching for a case study to try to fit the theory, even though it doesn’t clearly or strongly demonstrate evidence of the type of circumstances they are implicating. As the authors themselves state in their conclusions, “the development of [this] new hypothesis related to the root causes of violence takes a more nuanced approach as well as, at times, an interpretive leap in teasing apart the potential effects of social factors on violent behaviors” (Martin et al. 2010, 14).

Research in Progress: Annotations of Three Articles

The three articles that I have selected to annotate all deal with various aspects of paleopathological trauma analysis. The first is a seminal article that represents the first of such analyses to consider, acknowledge, and attempt to address the potential confounding effects of fragmentation and differential preservation on quantitative analyses of traumatic lesions in archaeological skeletal samples. The second is more focused on methodology, providing a comparison of various quantitative methods and evaluating how method choice can affect quantitative and qualitative results. The third is an example of an analysis of traumatic lesions in a fragmentary, commingled skeletal sample similar in condition to the material comprising the Smith’s Knoll assemblage. These articles illustrate different issues, all of which are important considerations in the analysis of paleotrauma and all of which are explored in my own work.


Lovejoy, C. Owen, and Kingsbury G. Heiple

1981 The Analysis of Fractures in Skeletal Populations With an Example From the Libben Site, Ottowa County, Ohio. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 55: 529-541.

This article is often said to represent a pivotal point in the recording of trauma in archaeological collections; it is commonly cited as the first example of a paleopathological study to provide an epidemiological, population-based evaluation of paleotrauma that considered skeletal completeness as a factor that may affect quantitative analyses in archaeological collections. Lovejoy and Heiple’s (1981) article is therefore an extremely important publication to address in a paper that discusses quantitative analyses of archaeological traumatic lesions. Up to the point at which this article was written, the majority of fracture analyses had been primarily descriptive and had focused mainly on case studies. Lovejoy and Heiple (1981) instead aimed to evaluate the overall frequency of fracture lesions in the individuals of the Libben population, a sample from a Late Woodland site in Ohio. They heavily emphasize the fact that in order to extract meaningful information that can be used for population analyses, the standardization of methods is required; as such, they are extremely clear regarding the methods that they have used.

For the individuals in the Libben sample, the authors evaluate the frequency of antemortem or healed fracture lesions in only complete long bones, both by element and by individual. They then examine potential trends in the frequency data by age at death, sex, and element side, and go on to evaluate fracture frequency by years at risk, fracture etiology, and indications of patient care. The fracture data for this population are compared with data from non-human primates, and Lovejoy and Heiple (1981) assert that while comparisons with other aboriginal populations, both ethnographic and archaeological, would be ideal for the contextualization of the patterns observed in the Libben sample, suitable studies with well-defined methods had not yet been completed at that point. The authors provide minimal contextual information regarding the sample under study, and therefore the article is more osteological than bioarchaeological in nature. The authors provide raw data on the number of fractures by element at the beginning and the results of various rate calculations and statistical analyses following this and interspersed with discussion. This more concept-structured paper is therefore composed almost entirely of results and discussion, with little separation between the two. Methods are well described, and are presented along with the corresponding results and discussion rather than in a separate section. This paper is an extremely useful and important article for paleopathologists studying trauma in archaeological populations, but may have limited utility for other researchers. The most important contribution of this study is the authors’ demonstration of the fact that “the systematic observation and recording of fracture data can provide valuable information in the analysis of both human and non-human primate populations when properly adjusted for demographic variables” (Lovejoy and Heiple 1981, 541).

This paper was the first to engage with a question that is central to the paper I am writing, namely the issue of how differential completeness and preservation of archaeological skeletal material impacts the quantitative evaluation of traumatic lesions. Lovejoy and Heiple (1981) chose to deal with this issue by including only complete skeletal elements in their analysis. This is an effective solution, however it is not a viable option for the analysis of collections that are heavily fragmented and in which very few elements remain complete and undamaged, as is the case for the Smith’s Knoll collection. This article is representative of the direction in which paleopathological analyses of archaeological trauma have progressed since moving beyond the focus on individual case studies. The majority of more recent paleopathological analyses of trauma reference this study as a seminal article and important turning point, and many paleopathologists have utilized the methodology implemented by Lovejoy and Heiple (1981). While the approach taken by these authors has been extremely influential and has succeeded in beginning an anthropological discussion around the effect of differential preservation on the visibility of injuries in the skeleton, there are significant limitations in the application of these methods to fragmentary material. The analysis of fragmented, disarticulated, and commingled skeletal remains is the area of study for which this discussion proves most relevant, but it is also an area in which full discussion of how to approach methodological standardization has stalled. This paper therefore presents questions that can and should be reframed in terms of the analysis of fragmentary remains, and this is an issue I hope to explore in my own work. Lovejoy and Heiple (1981) serves as an excellent starting point for opening the discussion of how methods can be standardized to account for differences in preservation and completeness of the skeletal samples under investigation.


Judd, Margaret A.

2002 Comparison of Long Bone Trauma Recording Methods. Journal of Archaeological Science. 29: 1255-1265.

Judd’s (2002) article discusses various methods of quantitative analysis applied to the paleopathological investigation of traumatic lesions, and evaluates to what extent their results may be altered by including more fragmentary material in the calculations, using the example of an ancient Nubian skeletal sample. In this methodological paper, the author evaluates the preservation and location of lesions on long bones using a segmentation method that incorporates recommendations made by Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994) with a clinically-developed method of determining articular segments. She then applies two variations of each of five different methods of recording long bone trauma to her archaeological sample, and evaluates differences in the quantitative and qualitative results. Judd (2002) emphasizes the importance of standardization not only in the methods used to evaluate the frequency of trauma, but also in the methods used to assess completeness and to determine inclusion criteria. This standardization is most important to facilitate comparisons between the results of analyses completed on various archaeological samples as well as between archaeological and clinical studies. Judd’s (2002) article corresponds organizationally to a more typical “scientific” paper, with clearly differentiated sections for background information, methods, results, and discussion. She provides a comprehensive background of quantitative paleopathological analyses of traumatic lesions, highlighting the approaches that have previously been applied and how they have or have not taken issues of preservation and completeness into account. For the Nubian sample, Judd (2002) determines that quantitatively, few meaningful or statistically significant differences existed between methods at the population level. However, the exclusion of fragmentary elements that contain fractures may affect the patterns of fractures observed in the collection, and may therefore have an impact on the predominance of various lesion etiologies such as accidental or violence-related injuries. Judd (2002) therefore concludes that the interpretation of traumatic injuries in a population based on qualitative data may be affected by method choice; she stresses that significant quantitative differences may also exist if the collection under study is severely damaged, and therefore methods of recording and analysis should be selected primarily based upon the integrity and preservation of the skeletal material in a given sample.

This paper is very methods-focused rather than bioarchaeological, and the archaeological sample discussed is used primarily to illustrate the effects of altering methodologies rather than to evaluate and interpret the frequency and pattern of trauma in the population. It is therefore primarily useful for paleopathologists who will have occasion to use the methods discussed, as it has the potential to impact on research design but doesn’t provide much information that could be used in other capacities. The major contribution of this paper is the author’s evaluation of whether there are any significant and meaningful differences between various methods that are used to quantitatively analyze trauma in archaeological populations, and her conclusion that for the sample she has chosen to analyze there are no significant quantitative differences if more fragmentary skeletal material is included in the analysis. It is important to note, however, that the exclusion of injuries present in fragmented and incomplete elements can affect more than just the quantitative results, but could result in differential evaluation of comparisons between sex or age groups, the analysis of injury recidivism or multiple injuries present in the same individual, and the prevalence of injuries that can be attributed to accidental or violence-related etiologies.

This article provides a very important evaluation of how quantitative results can vary based on the inclusion of skeletal material of differing preservation and completeness. Previous researchers working with more fragmentary collections did acknowledge the potential confounding effect of the degree of completeness of skeletal remains, but there was little consistency in the manner of estimating and accounting for completeness in quantitative analyses. Judd’s (2002) analysis represents the first attempt to actually analyze how the inclusion of more fragmentary material might affect quantitative and qualitative representations of trauma frequency as well as how one might go about standardizing the estimation of element completeness.

Judd (2002) discusses several important issues related to the quantitative analysis of paleotrauma, namely the importance of methodological standardization to enable the comparison of results. Comparability is an extremely relevant issue, as the establishment of the context of a given sample in relation to other archaeological samples as well as relevant clinical studies is essential to the classification of an analysis as bioarchaeological. This article continues and elaborates on the discussion initiated by Lovejoy and Heiple (1981), a discussion that I hope to contribute to. Despite Judd’s (2002) contribution to this dialogue, however, quantitative analyses of trauma published since 2002 have not necessarily incorporated her recommendations for the standardization of not only quantitative methods but also the estimation of element completeness. I think that the concerns raised by Judd (2002) can be reframed in light of more recent attempts at quantifying trauma in fragmentary material, as well as of newer methods of recording fragmentary skeletal material that have come to light since this article was published, such as the zonation method that was applied in recording the Smith’s Knoll collection.


Cunha, Eugénia, and Ana Maria Silva

1997 War Lesions from the Famous Portuguese Medieval Battle of Aljubarrota. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 7: 595-599.

This article represents an example of a paleopathological analysis of traumatic lesions in a heavily damaged and severely fragmented skeletal collection. Similar to the individuals comprising the Smith’s Knoll assemblage, warriors killed during the medieval battle of Aljubarrota in Portugal were buried in an ossuary following the battle. Due to years of surface exposure prior to burial the remains display significant damage and fragmentation; the majority of the sample consists of long bone fragments. The paper is presented as a preliminary analysis of the traumatic lesions in the sample; Cunha and Silva (1997) specify that frequency data are not presented in this article due to the preliminary nature of the results. However, as a more detailed summary of the results was published only in a site report volume in Portuguese rather than a refereed journal, any quantitative results that were published remain inaccessible to many English-speaking researchers. The authors provide an overview of the types of injuries present in the collection, in conjunction with a detailed description of the types of weapons that were used during the battle based on historical documentary evidence. The violent injuries present at Aljubarrota are also considered in the context of other medieval European battle collections, of which there are relatively few, making this osteological war series particularly important evidence for battle conditions during the medieval period. This paper is clearly written as a preliminary report on injuries that the authors plan to review in more detail in further publications, and as such very little is said about the methodology used to assess skeletal lesions. The paper goes through historical background and a description of archaeological analyses and the sample itself, and then jumps into the results of their initial analyses, which are presented in conjunction with their discussion. Cunha and Silva (1997) use this article to explore the types of traumatic lesions they have observed in the sample from Aljubarrota, and how these injuries may be related back to the circumstances of the battle with which they are associated; this information is most relevant to paleopathologists but also to historians or archaeologists studying medieval warfare.

While this paper does not provide a quantitative analysis of the traumatic lesions observed by the authors, it does an excellent job of demonstrating some of the other issues associated with the bioarchaeological analysis of very fragmentary collections. Cunha and Silva (1997) illustrate some of the difficulties they encountered in terms of even basic skeletal recording procedures like age determination; basic recording must be undertaken before any more detailed analyses of traumatic lesions can proceed and therefore difficulties in the former have the potential to significantly affect the latter. This paper also demonstrates related limitations in processes more directly tied to trauma analysis, such as the difficulty of looking at the age distributions of injuries and the impossibility of viewing multiple injuries in a single individual. Cunha and Silva’s (1997) article therefore demonstrates very clearly many of the difficulties associated with the paleopathological analysis of skeletal collections that contain fragmentary and commingled remains. Their reluctance to present any quantitative results at this relatively early stage in their research also illustrates what I would consider to be a widely held view within paleopathology toward quantitative analyses in these types of collections. The calculation of trauma frequency in fragmentary skeletal material is seen by many paleopathologists to be a difficult and involved process, requiring serious consideration, which may or may not turn out to be valuable or even possible. Therefore, while this report is published far enough along in the research process to present results and interpretative conclusions regarding injury patterns and warrior behaviors in terms of weapon use, armor, and even some aspects of participant identity, it is considered too preliminary to discuss any quantitative conclusions.

Cunha and Silva’s (1997) article addresses many of the limitations and difficulties associated with the paleopathological analysis of poorly preserved skeletal collections. This study also illustrates the paucity of accessible quantitative data from these types of assemblages, and indirectly demonstrates how this may be related to underlying attitudes held by paleopathologists toward these types of analyses. It is these attitudes that I am hoping to address with my paper, in order to begin a productive dialogue about the limitations but also the potential value of quantitative analyses in these “difficult” skeletal assemblages.

Review of a Review: Bioarchaeological Perspectives on Violence in the Past

Walker’s (2001) article outlining a bioarchaeological view of violence in the past provides a good general overview of the work that had been completed prior to this point regarding bioarchaeological interpretations of skeletal evidence for interpersonal violence. Walker (2001) expresses the opinion that bioarchaeologists are in an ideal position to be able to examine potential causes for violent behavior in the past, given the strength of skeletal remains as a more “direct” source of evidence that is not subject to the authorial biases of historical and ethnographic sources. Despite this somewhat optimistic picture of the potential contributions of bioarchaeological evidence, however, the author does outline many of the limitations that affect and limit the observation and interpretation of traumatic injuries in ancient skeletal material. One of the strengths of this review is the cautious and population-based approach Walker (2001) advocates for recognizing interpersonal violent actions in the past, as well as for interpreting the ultimate causes of this behavior.

The review is organized in a way that first sets the scene by outlining the major methodological issues in defining violence and interpreting skeletal injuries. Walker (2001) provides an overview of clinical and forensic evidence for modern interpersonal violent behavior and patterns of modern assault injuries, and describes the major difficulties in applying this data to archaeological injuries. The author then tackles the major question underlying his review, namely the issue of what can be said regarding the prevalence of violence in past populations based on the available skeletal evidence, given the methodological issues outlined in the first sections of the paper. The review outlines the evidence available for traumatic skeletal injuries in the past, along with both the original interpretations of these lesions and those suggested by subsequent researchers who have re-examined many of the collections in question; this type of overview is provided for samples of early hominids, as well as for modern human populations in Africa, Europe, and North America. This is an excellent review of the literature that provides a comprehensive picture of trends within the field, although the regional foci are chosen based on the author’s work and could be more inclusive of areas outside of Europe and North America.

Walker’s (2001) presentation of the modern clinical comparative data on interpersonal violence and patterns of violent injury, as well as his discussion of the many limitations inherent in the recognition and interpretation of skeletal evidence for interpersonal violent behavior in the past is thorough and relatively straightforward. It is in the second half of the paper, which reviews the contributions made by paleopathologists to the understanding of violent behavior in the past, that the structural and organizational decisions made by the author become much more important. Walker’s (2001) presentation of the established evidence for violent injury in the past is structured both temporally and spatially. Data from Old World and New World sites are presented in two separate sections, and within each section the evidence for violent injury is organized chronologically beginning with the earliest available evidence from the region, this being early hominid remains in the Old World and the Kennewick material in the New. The development of patterns of interpersonal violence in the past therefore unfolds through time in a linear manner, following a narrative structure organized around Western conceptions of chronological progression. Walker (2001) does take care to avoid over-generalizing these patterns, and stresses that there is significant temporal and regional variation in patterns of violent injury, even between sites in relatively small geographic areas.

This literature review is organized in a comparative manner designed very much to highlight similarities and differences between categories that may be extremely relevant to predominantly Western bioarchaeologists. Distinctions are made between the patterns of violent injury likely to be experienced by different species of early hominid, individuals living in different regions of the world both between the Old and New Worlds and within them, and individuals living in different time periods. However, there is no discussion of whether or not the categories used would have been relevant in the past. This relates to a trend observed within the review more generally, in that it is oriented very much toward the perspective of a Western bioarchaeologist. Patterns of violent injury in the past are presented as progressing toward the patterns observed in modern Western societies, especially given the advancement of various technologies used to inflict violent injuries. There is also significant emphasis placed on questions of origins within the review; in several sections special mention is made of the first evidence for a particular type of injury or behavior in a given region. This focus on finding the earliest known incidence of a particular phenomenon has been relatively common in archaeology and in bioarchaeology, and reflects the importance of concepts such as linear chronology and the progression of ideas and practices to bioarchaeological thought and theory. The orientation of the review toward a Western social scientific perspective is not unexpected or debilitating, as this is the article’s primary audience. However, the potential relevance of the categories used in bioarchaeological analyses to the populations from which the individuals being analyzed derived is a relevant issue that should be discussed. Potential divergences in meaningful categories due to alternative understandings of concepts such as time, what constitutes violence or warfare, and the relations of “self” and “other” between sites within a region are worth mentioning in the context of discussing how differences between these categories illustrate the development of behavioral patterns.

The main conclusion of this review is the culmination of a thread of reasoning that runs throughout its discussion, this being the refutation of the “myth of our pacifistic past” (Walker 2001: 584) or the previously prevalent idea that interpersonal violent behaviors are the hallmark of a modern Western society. Walker (2001) uses evidence from paleopathological studies of violent injury to highlight that both kindness and cruelty have always existed in human societies, and that incidences of warfare and violence can be observed in all areas of the world during all time periods, from modern societies back to our early hominid ancestors. His most important message is that despite the many differences between modern and ancient patterns of violent skeletal injury, “there are no forms of social organization, modes of production, or environmental settings that remain free from interpersonal violence for long” (Walker 2001: 590).


Walker PL. 2001. A bioarchaeological perspective on the history of violence. Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 573-596.

Writing for real: a project outline

The piece of writing that I would like to complete during the course of this class is a conference paper that I am scheduled to present at the Paleopathology Association meeting in early April. The paper is entitled Quantitative analysis of perimortem trauma in a fragmented, disarticulated, and commingled skeletal sample: success and failure at Smith’s Knoll. It aims to outline the approach taken toward quantifying the traumatic skeletal lesions observed in the Smith’s Knoll collection, and to place this analysis within the context of previous attempts that have been made at quantitative analysis of trauma in other similar skeletal assemblages.

The Smith’s Knoll collection, which consists of the remains of soldiers killed during the battle of Stoney Creek in the War of 1812, is particularly challenging for paleopathological analysis because it contains severely fragmented, disarticulated, and commingled skeletal material. Currently accepted and widely used techniques for the quantitative representation of lesion prevalence in skeletal assemblages are unsuitable in many ways for application to collections like Smith’s Knoll; certain assumptions inherent to these techniques are incompatible with materials that differs from complete individuals excavated from clearly differentiated burials. Despite the fact that there are major difficulties in the application of standard quantitative analytical techniques to fragmented, disarticulated, and commingled skeletal material, these techniques are often applied to such samples with little or no acknowledgement of the ways in which these assemblages may not conform to the assumptions associated with the methods used. The small numbers of researchers who have published on such collections and who have attempted quantitative analyses of the traumatic lesions observed are often not specific in describing the methods that they have used, or about whether these methods have been adapted in any way to account for the condition and preservation of the skeletal remains. I would like for this paper to serve as a starting point for what I see as a much-needed discussion about both the possibilities and the limitations of applying quantitative techniques to the analysis of traumatic lesions in fragmented, disarticulated, and commingled skeletal remains.

The abstract, which has been accepted for the conference, runs as follows and provides a basic outline of what the paper sets out to accomplish:

Recent attention to perimortem trauma has increased its recognition and subsequent examination in archaeological human remains. Evaluation of potential perimortem lesions formed an important part of the analytical work completed for the Smith’s Knoll skeletal collection. Analysis of this War of 1812 assemblage from southern Ontario, Canada was particularly problematic as the collection was disarticulated and commingled, with the bone in a severely fragmented and damaged state. The postcranial elements of the collection were examined for evidence of perimortem traumatic injury, and fractures, sharp force, and musket lesions recorded were then both qualitatively and quantitatively analyzed. Prevalence values were calculated for each type of lesion by element and by individual when possible. These calculations utilized several different methods in order to attempt to account for variability in the completeness of fragments, both those that did and those that did not display lesions. The results of this analysis indicate that lesion prevalence in this sample does differ significantly if calculation methods are altered to account for potential variance in fragment completeness. Given this demonstrable effect of methodological choice and adjustment, specific discussion of the methods used in a given analysis is extremely valuable for allowing accurate and nuanced interpretation of the results obtained. Greater discussion of attempts to undertake difficult quantitative analyses on problematic skeletal samples, such as that completed for Smith’s Knoll, will greatly help in moving these developing areas in the study of perimortem trauma forward.

I will use this paper to outline the approach that was applied in the analysis of the Smith’s Knoll skeletal material, highlighting both the useful information that was gained through quantitative analysis and the substantive difficulties that we encountered in attempting to apply standard methods to an unusual sample. In my thesis, I explored several different ways of quantitatively representing the traumatic lesions observed in the Smith’s Knoll postcranial skeletal material, and found that the method used and the various ways in which methods could be adapted for fragmentary samples did significantly change the prevalence values obtained. This illustrates the importance of specificity in the description of quantitative methods used during analysis, which is not commonly provided in publications dealing with these types of skeletal samples. I would like to summarize what other researchers in this field have done, and to outline the ways in which discussion of both the successes and failures of any attempts at quantitative analysis is both useful and necessary to moving forward with the evaluation of trauma in analytically difficult skeletal collections.

This paper is based upon ideas that I began to explore in my Master’s thesis, but have not yet fully developed. As such, I have all of the data necessary to begin writing the paper, and the first aspect that I will explore, the quantitative analytical approach applied to the evaluation of traumatic lesions at Smith’s Knoll, has already been fully fleshed out in my thesis. The second aspect of this paper, concerning the strengths and limitations of the work that has previously been done in the field and the discussion of what direction quantitative analyses can and should move in, will form a major portion of the discussion; these are concepts that I touched upon in my thesis but have yet to explore in detail.

My paper will need to be presented in class a week earlier than scheduled, because I will be at another conference on April 3. The paper will be presented at the PPA meeting on April 9th. I would therefore like my drafts to be finished a little ahead of the schedule set for the class. I would like to have additional research for the second portion of the paper together by February 13th. I plan to start writing at this point whether research is complete or not, and to work on this paper in daily sessions for the next month. I will have a first draft of the paper and presentation materials completed by March 13th, and a second draft by March 20th. I can then present a nearly final version of the paper on March 27th.

The second part of this paper, as outlined above, will be somewhat critical of paleopathological analyses that have already been completed, potentially by some of the researchers in attendance at the meeting. I am therefore particularly concerned with how this discussion is worded so as to initiate a productive dialogue about how techniques may be improved without putting any of these more established researchers on the defensive. I will therefore need to find a way to insert myself into a “canonical” discussion in order to present my critical analysis in a way that suggests change from within the existing structure. How best to, and how well I am managing to, accomplish this is something that I would like other members of the class to give me some guidance on as I begin writing and as I work through this conference paper. As well, I am much more confident in my writing than in my presentation abilities; I would therefore also appreciate some directed suggestions regarding maximizing the effectiveness of the performance aspect of my paper and its associated presentation materials, which will be Powerpoint slides.

My Writing Process: A Big Box of Crazy or Just Fitting In?

My writing process encompasses a particularly strange set of rituals, and although I have acknowledged to myself many times over the years that aspects of it might benefit from ‘a bit of a spruce,’ nothing has changed. I blame this on the fact that so far, this set of practices has yielded consistent results. Maybe there is a certain element of superstition in this as well, a fear of compromising the end product by altering the magical routine. Throughout this course, my hope is that I can learn to more fully understand the process of writing in order to differentiate which parts of my routine actually yield positive results and which are nothing more than superstitious crutches that can stand to, or might even benefit from, change.

Let me introduce you to my routine. It all begins with research, and lots of it. Before I can write a word of my paper or chapter, I have to read everything that I can find that has been previously written on the subject, until when I scan the references of a paper I have just finished reading I don’t see anything relevant to my topic that I haven’t already glanced through. I make notes on each of these publications in a word document on my computer. When I have finished taking notes I cut and paste the sections devoted to each article, arranging them into groupings that are relevant to the structure and organization of the paper I am about to write. At this point I usually take a break for a day or two, and this is when the main arguments of the paper take shape in my head. I won’t look at my notes, but I will spend a lot of time thinking about the paper while doing other things: showering, walking, cooking dinner, occasionally even while falling asleep. After this hiatus, I print the notes out and read through them again, underlining key phrases (colour-coded, of course, and with a specific type of coloured pen) and writing notes in the margin that outline both the main themes and the specific arguments I plan to make and explore. At this point I will also write a separate project outline on a legal pad (the caveats being that the legal pad has to be three-hole-punched, and that pen type is crucial), laying out the major sections of the paper and specifying which arguments and data are to be discussed in each.

Finally, it’s time to write. I like to have a low level of distraction when I write, which usually means listening to classical music – my entire Master’s thesis was written to Swan Lake. I do my most productive writing in the later afternoon and at night, after I have had time to get everything else that I need to do that day out of the way. At the point that I am ready to begin writing, the paper is usually so well composed in my thoughts that I sit in front of my computer and the whole thing flows out either in one sitting or in a small series of sittings consisting of several hours each. I find Luker’s suggestion that thoughts may be different when put into writing very interesting, and it makes me wonder how my writing might change if the initial composition of my projects were on paper rather than in my head. Given all of the mental preparation I have done, the first draft is usually quite coherent. I leave this draft for at least a day before I go through and edit. Often I will have a colleague read over a subsequent draft to check that my ideas flow coherently, and that I haven’t left any gaps in my argument based on knowledge that is in my head rather than on the page.

Once I start writing, the whole process happens quite easily. As you may have guessed based on my almost painfully long pre-writing routine, however, my problem is in beginning to write. I relate very strongly to Susan Sontag’s description of her writing process (from a Paris Review interview, as quoted on Brain Pickings): “I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down.” Without that pressure, and without that confidence that my thoughts have already matured enough to put them out in the world where others might see them, I can’t write a word. I would very much like to work on this. I would like to explore how my writing may change and hopefully improve with more of the writing process expressed externally, on the page.