While we’ve talked a little about what TOMB is going to look like and how it is going to function, we haven’t really shared our motivation behind the project. There is currently no good general online or analog guide to bioarchaeology. The books that exist on the market today tend to either be too general or too specific, and they rarely cover a diverse range of sites and topics. Another issue is that there are no easy searchable databases for people to quickly see the wide variation that exists in our field. But beyond this, we each had some more personal reasons for wanting this resource: Lisa wanted a teaching resource that she could use in her classroom, and Katy wanted a public resource that she could use when talking with different community groups about bioarchaeology.
TOMB as a teaching resource by Lisa Bright
I’ve been teaching some form of physical anthropology course, either as a TA or the primary instructor, on and off since 2008. These have mainly been introductory lower level courses aimed at non-anthropology majors to complete their general education science credits. Since 2013 I’ve also created and taught an online based introduction to biological class for a community college. Although introductory courses cover a wide range of topics, when I teach there is always a section on Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology. For these GE classes, assigning most journal articles isn’t appropriate for the level and purpose of the course. So I’m left with the challenge of sufficiently introducing lower classmen to mortuary topics, but with a lack of easy to use (or assign!) resources, especially in my online class.
I want TOMB as a teaching resource for myself, and other instructors. I envision using TOMB in several ways in my classes. The entire site can be assigned, with instructions for students to explore different categories, locations or time periods. It is also possible to assign just portion of the site in an upper division class. Geographically or topically themed upper division courses can use even more specific categories, such as trauma or pathology to have students explore a wide array of sites. I anticipate that the bibliography/resources section of each sites individual page will be most helpful to these upper division students. Speaking with other instructors, I know that I’m not the only whose courses will benefit from a resource like TOMB.
TOMB as a public resource by Katy Meyers Emery
For the last five and a half years, I’ve been blogging as Bones Don’t Lie. While this pursuit began as a way for me to keep up to date with a range of journal articles in my field, it has evolved into a broader project to connect with the public and share the awesomeness of bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology. The general public has an interest in human remains, as evidenced by the rise in tv shows like CSI and Bones, and many popular news sites share the amazing bioarchaeological discoveries that are being made around the world. The problem with this, it that we as bioarchaeologists are allowing our research to be translated for public consumption by journalists instead of making our own work accessible from the start. This leads to miscommunication and the spread of misconceptions. For example, over the last few years there have been a number of discoveries of deviant burials in Poland that may be evidence for a belief in the dead rising from their graves to suck energy from the living. It is these folk beliefs in revenants that actually led to the vampire myths. There are many possible reasons that a historic population would believe that the dead were causing harm to the living, and different responses to how this should be handled, and it isn’t limited to beliefs in vampires- more likely the spirit of the deceased was the issue and the physical body wasn’t actually rising. However, when these scholarly articles are being translated from their complex jargon into popular media, it becomes focused on vampires in their modern perception. One of the biggest issues I find with the popular media is a focus on absolutes- scholars don’t usually give a single conclusion, but rather a range of possibilities- and the focus on the exotic rather than the local.
I want TOMB to be a public resource so that people can learn about the amazing range of bioarchaeological studies that are occurring both near them and abroad, and about the actual process of studying human remains so that these misconceptions brought on by popular news, CSI and Bones can be dispelled. I want for individuals to be able to easily learn about new finds from individuals who actually know the content material. I want them to be able to find the original research so that they can view the source material (if it isn’t behind a paywall… another issue for another post). A great example is cannibalism. In the modern Western world, we see cannibalism as a disgraceful act that desecrates the dead- but this is not true. When we look at the broad range of examples of cannibalism in bioarchaeology, we can see that this is practiced in many societies due to a respect for the deceased and desire to keep their spirit among the living, or is due to starvation and is a question of survival of the living. We also find evidence of cannibalism among modern western groups- for medicinal and survival purposes. This is why TOMB is important- it can help broaden the worldview of the public, show them diversity throughout the world and locally in their own history, and it can help dispel misconceptions.