Archive for the ‘Project related’ Category

Milestone: the DNA sampling started today

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Everybody listening with interest. From left to right: Walther Parson, Jon Anders Risvaag, Leena Airola, J√łrgen Fastner and Charles Utvik.

Dr Walther Parson from the GMI (Institut f√ľr Gerichtliche Medizin der Medizinischen Universit√§t Innsbruck) came to Trondheim today. He had been invited to discuss the practicalities surrounding the DNA sampling, and also to explain the procedures his laboratory follows when doing DNA analyses. The day started with Parson talking about his laboratory, previous projects they have been involved in, the procedures they follow and the security measures they have in place. I think it became clear to everyone present that the GMI operate to the highest possible standard and will satisfy any requirements posed by NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet.

Later we started discussing the actual sampling procedure and how we should document the process. It was decided on the following (see photos below).

Firstly, the bone should be photographed in its original state together with information identifying which individual the bone came from. The bone in the photo is a right femur (thigh bone).

Then a piece of approximately 3cm by 2cm was cut from the shaft of the bone. Charles Utvik did most of the cutting today.

Then the sample was weighed.

At last the bone was photographed again and the sample was put in the little container seen in the photo.

The container with the piece of bone will be sent to the laboratory in Innsbruck and whatever is left when the analyses have been done will be sent back to Trondheim and can be used for different analyses for another project later. For the next couple of days we will continue the DNA sampling.

Me and Walther Parson.

At the end of the day we posed for the camera before Parson left to go back to Austria. I am looking forward to the continued cooperation with Parson and his team at GMI.









A funny discovery

Friday, June 7th, 2013

An involuntary participant in the campaign against the EEC

The first week in Trondheim is over and everything has been going to plan, or possibly better. We have got a lot of work done. We have gone through more than a hundred boxes with skeletal remains and I’ve picked the ones I want to sample from and after that we went through the boxes again to examine the skeletons in the sample. Although I’ve examined quite a few, and determined sex and estimated age at death, there is¬†still work for another couple of days doing this. Some interesting pathologies and other features have also come to light. I will tell you about one of these finds. It is not a skeletal feature as such but rather evidence of what can be a problem when excavating human skeletons. For some reason, some people like to steal skulls from excavation sites. There are many stories about this but this is the first time I’ve seen evidence of this in a skeletal collection. The pictures show a cranium from the S√łndregate site which was excavated in 1971. This was the year before Norway’s first referendum to join the EEC and people were mobilising for and against Norwegian membership. As evident from the photos, this was stolen by someone in the against camp. Written on the cranium are the words “mot EEC” (against the EEC), together with the words “love” and “peace”. It is, of course, unacceptable to remove skulls or any other object from archaeological sites, but at least it was decent of them to return this fine cranium. Or maybe they got caught. At least it’s back where it belongs. Now, 42 years later, it is an amusing find and a funny story.


The skeletal examinations have begun

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

I am just opening one of the many boxes containing skeletal remains.

I got to Trondheim this morning and I have started the skeletal examinations. To my pleasant surprise I had been appointed an assistant who will work with me during my stay here. This will be very helpful and should make the work go smoother and faster. This first day was spent going through the boxes with skeletal remains to check if the condition of the individual skeletons were as I had deduced from the photos and excavation documents. This is actually the first time I look at the material and there is always a chance there is a slight discrepancy between¬†my information¬†and the actual material. We managed go through quite a lot of boxes today but this work will continue for the rest of the week. In addition to this basic work, every skeleton which will be included in the final sample will also be subjected to a morphological and metric examination. I will note features used for sex determination and signs which will provide information regarding the individual’s age at death. Pathological changes will be described and cranial and post-cranial measurements will be taken.¬† The aim is to get as much of this work done this week, so we can fully concentrate on the sampling for the DNA and isotope analyses when we start that work¬†next Tuesday. It will be difficult to get it all done as it is a lot of¬† work but the more we get done the better.

The go ahead has been given

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Things are coming into place now. My sample has been accepted and I can soon start the skeletal examinations and the sample taking. I will start my work with the skeletons on Monday 3rd June. I am relieved everything seems to be working out nicely and it should be nice to spend some time in Trondheim.

I’m looking forward to getting out of the office for a few weeks to do some practical work. After all, it is the examination of the skeletons and collection of data, as well as the collection of samples for the DNA and isotope analyses which form the basis for my research. It is the empirical data which distinguishes scientific research from storytelling, and being allowed to collect this data and later analyse and synthesise it, excites me.

The research sample is finally decided on

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013


After a¬†few weeks¬†off work with illness followed by two weeks leave in relation to the birth of our latest family member, Vincent, I have spent the first days of this week going through all the archaeological documentation again. Although it is somewhat delayed, I have compiled a detailed¬†list of skeletons I want to include in my final study sample. This was slightly more complicated than anticipated due to the¬†restrictions/requirements I had to abide by.¬†Firstly, due to the research design,¬†all the skeletons had to have both the first and the third molar preserved and there had to be some relatively well preserved bone material as well. This excluded quite a large portion of the material; slightly more than I expected actually. The sample selection was further complicated by instructions from the curating institution requiring that I sample,¬†as far as possible,¬†from the same skeletons which are currently being¬†used by another research project. The reason for this requirement¬†is purely preservational and¬†is perfectly acceptable. I have now finally¬†managed to collate a sample which I¬†believe will fulfil all requirements. The list of the specific skeletons¬†I want access to have been sent to the relevant people and I’m hoping for a¬†positive reply, otherwise it’s back to the drawing board.

Research on human remains vs. preservation of skeletal collections

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

During the last couple of decades, human skeletal remains have become increasingly popular as research material in Norway. This has caused greater pressure on the skeletal Collections, and the importance of regulating access to material has become increasingly important. As a biological anthropologist and a researcher I would like to have access to every skeleton there is; imagine what questions could be investigated and which answers could be found. At the same time, I see that if everybody should have free access to every skeleton and be allowed to carry out any analyses they fancy, the material would deteriorate quickly and its value as research material would decrease. So, how do we find a balance between getting important research done and still preserving the material in the best possible way? This is no easy task, and a task which has become increasingly difficult with the introduction molecular methods with their destructive nature.

So, what¬†is being done to¬†solve this problem? A couple of measures have been implemented, the first of which was the establishment of the national ethics committee called “skjelettutvalget” (the skeleton committee). This committee has been operational since January 2008 and anyone who wants access to human skeletal material will have to have their research project assessed by this ethics committee.

The first thing you’ll have to consider is when you would like to have your project assessed by the committee. The committee wants projects to be assessed as early as possible, and preferably¬†during the development phase. This is, however, more complicated than it sounds. When developing a new research project there is always¬†uncertainty as to whether it will be funded or not. Without having any numbers to back this up, I am sure the majority of projects fall through due to lack of funding. Often the competition for funding is so fierce that it is hard to realistically believe that you will actually get the money. Should you¬†have your project assessed before funding is secured? I guess the answer must be yes. This means that the ethics committee will have to assess quite a few projects that may never materialise but, on the other hand, if the project is not assessed until ¬†funding has been received and is not approved, what happens then? Basically, you’ve got funding for a project which can’t be completed. I must admit that I haven’t always been the best at following this advice. When I applied for funding for this project I knew how tough the competition was and it was difficult to believe that I would actually get the funding. Because of this I didn’t have the project assessed when I should have. This meant that when I got the good news about the project being funded, I was in a slight pickle. There¬†were only two months until the¬†project should start and it was only two weeks until the next meeting in the ethics committee. It was basically too late to submit my research plan for that meeting but I was lucky and it was accepted despite the late submission. The next meeting was three months later and it would have caused me a lot of hassle if I had had to wait for that. I will try not to have this happen again. When I have a new project, I will have it assessed as early as possible, no matter what I think the chances are of getting it funded.

It should be said that whether you get your project approved or not, you will still have to enter discussions with the institution keeping the skeletal material. It is the curating institution which has the final say and the practicalities of getting access will have to be agreed with them. That said, with a positive review from the ethics committee this should not pose too much of a problem, but if your project is not approved by the ethics committee it will be close to impossible to get access to the material you want.

Another measure which has been implemented recently comes from the museums which are responsible for the skeletal collections. Although the ethics committee will weed out projects which are not sound, I think the new regulations implemented by the museums will prove even more effective in preserving the precious skeletons and I also think this will be very positive for the researchers as well. From now on, the museums demand that all raw data shall be handed over to the museum soon after the research is completed and all publications based on the material will also have to be submitted to the museum soon after publication. This means that data already collected can be reused by other researchers and new questions can be investigated without having to cause further damage to the collections. My sincere hope is that the museums will find a way to make the raw data freely and effectively available to researchers and that it will be easy to find any publications relevant for the different skeletal collections.

What’s happened so far?

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

The project has been going for a few months now but since the web site is just up, it seems appropriate that the first blog post should be a quick recapitulation of what has happened so far. As with any new research project, the first period has been spent sorting out a lot of different practical stuff, going through the research/progress plan and basically making the best possible preparations which will, hopefully, ensure that the project runs smoothly for the next three years.

The first thing that had to be done was to run the project plan through the national ethics committee. Every project which intends to make use of human material will have to have to be approved by the ethics committee. I will not go into detail about how this process works at this point. There are many issues regarding access to human remains as research material and I think I might discuss this in a separate post. To make a long story short, through the goodwill of the committee members,  I managed to have my application processed in their December meeting and they gave me a positive reply. I have lately been in discussions with NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet regarding the practicalities of getting access to the material (they are the curators of the skeletal collections I will be sampling from). They have also responded positively to the project and an agreement has been made. I am pleased to say that I have access to the material I need.

Another thing which had to be started as early as possibly was the collection of precipitation samples from Trondheim. Samples will be collectedPrecipitation collector monthly throughout the year to get proper background data for the oxygen isotope composition in Trondheim. In this respect, I am grateful to Bj√łrn Frengstad at NGU (Norges Geologiske Unders√łkelse) who managed to get hold of, and set up, a water collector. He will also be responsible for collecting and storing the samples. The water collector can be seen in the photo to the left.

In February, I travelled to Trondheim to collect the archaeological documentation for the different graveyards. This documentation is located in the Trondheim office of the Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Riksantikvaren). I spent three days there photocopying plan drawings, excavation recording forms and photographs from the excavations. This work was made easy by the help of the people working there and especially Ian Reed who always seems to know what information is available for the different sites and is also in perfect control  of where everything is located. It is always nice visiting the Riksantikvaren/NIKU office in Trondheim, although it was -16 degrees when I was there which is slightly less than I care for. The reason I collected all this information was to get a best possible picture of the different graveyards and the individual skeletons. Having gone through all this information I have developed a good picture of the material which has been important for deciding which individuals to include in my final sample.

These have been the major developments during the first few months of the year.

Immigration and mobility in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway
Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen

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