The jaw-drop moment of the conference came for me when osteologist Lise Harvig off-handedly showed us pictures of what she is doing. She’s a PhD student with Niels Lynnerup at the Dept of Forensic Medicine at Copenhagen. Remember the crumbling Neolithic amber bead hoard that the Danes ran through a CT scanner instead of excavating and stabilising the thing? Now Lise is putting entire Bronze Age urn burials through that scanner. She knows where every piece of bone and bronze is in those urns before she even cuts open the plaster they’ve been encased in since being lifted out of the ground. She has perfect 3D digital models of urns that fall apart when you remove the plaster. And she has demonstrated that a lot of the bone fragmentation, that has commonly been assumed to be due to dedicated crushing and grinding by the mourners, is actually simply due to the brittleness of burnt bones whose organic component has leached away over the millennia. Big bones are sitting in the urns, each fragment in place, and fall apart when you try to lift them. As Lise put it, “The one who does the ritual crushing is me, when I empty the urns”.

So, how can a PhD student in archaeology afford to use this sort of hi-tech equipment? Turns out, the technology is developing so fast that the hospitals frequently swap their CT scanners for newer models. The used one at the Dept of Forensic Medicine makes one slice every three millimeters. Not good enough anymore for brain surgery. But perfectly useful for archaeology.

Other issues covered in today’s presentations were:

  • Correspondence analysis of Gotland’s stone ships.

  • The landscape situation of sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren area (me).
  • An Early Bronze Age magnate farm excavated recently near Halmstad.
  • Human sacrifice and corpse rituals in Lithuania.
  • The unusually late introduction of animal husbandry in Finland.
  • Bone pins in the Baltic states.
  • Copper in Fennoscandia before the Bronze Age.
  • Bronze ring casting sites on Saaremaa and elsewhere in the Baltic states.

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Comments

  1. #1 Mike Olson
    October 30, 2009

    One of the nice parts about tech is that it can be used to confirm or reject old ideas and theories. Thanks for posting this Martin it will certainly help all of us understand past cultures and their practices.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    October 30, 2009

    The unusually late introduction of animal husbandry in Finland.

    I assume the conclusion was that they had already invented distilling, and were too drunk to, um, errr…

    Cool news about the CT scans.

  3. #3 ArchAsa
    October 30, 2009

    I want it!
    It definitely goes on my x-mas list

  4. #4 ArchAsa
    October 30, 2009

    BTW – I’m really interested in that talk about Baltic bone pins. Will the conference proceedings be published?

  5. #5 Janne
    October 30, 2009

    “The used one at the Dept of Forensic Medicine makes one slice every three millimeters. Not good enough anymore for brain surgery. But perfectly useful for archaeology.”

    Of course, that just moves the goal posts. Imagine having a scanner with ten times the linear resolution; you could see carvings and toolmarks on the pieces without ever having to disturb them.

  6. #6 Martin R
    October 31, 2009

    Indeed, Janne. But let me explain where we come from: there are still colleagues alive who remember when cremated bones were re-buried on site because they were considered lacking in information potential.

  7. #7 Maulwurf
    October 31, 2009

    Some archaeology labs here in Germany have been using CT scanners for several years now, and got some astonishing results, especially on fragile grave goods from Early Middle Age burials.

    (Details and a short film can be seen on their website:
    http://www.denkmalpflege-bw.de/denkmale/projekte/archaeologische-denkmalpflege/dreidimensionale-computertomographie-roentgen-und-freilegung-fruehmittelalterlicher-grabfunde.html
    and
    http://www.denkmalpflege-bw.de/denkmale/filme/ziergehaenge-wmv.html

  8. #8 Bruno
    November 2, 2009

    woah, that is indeed a tantalizing evolution in archeology

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