Tuesday, 4 June 2013

A song of ice and teeth...

Around 5000 years ago, a middle-aged man died in a mountain pass located in what was to become the border between Austria and Italy. He was quickly buried by ice and remained there until he was discovered in 1991. Initially thought to be the remains of a deceased mountaineer, he soon became known as Europe's earliest natural mummy, christened 'Ötzi' by his discovers.

'ice to meet you. Ötzi the 'Ice Man' currently resides at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Italy
Although the remains of this remarkably well-preserved Neolithic man have been scanned, tested and analysed regularly since his discovery, it is only recently that his mouth has been systematically assessed.

University of Zurich researchers have looked at high resolution 3-D scans of the 'Ice Man' and the results suggest that problems with his dental health may have added to his already long list of ailments (poor Ötzi had broken ribs, arthritis, parasitic worms, gall bladder stones and had probably died having taken an arrow to the shoulder.)

Iceman Ötzi had bad teeth
CT scan of Otzi. Note how flat the tooth line is - a sure sign of dental wear.
Photo courtesy of the University of Zurich.

His teeth were extremely worn down, from a tough and gritty diet. Dental wear isn't something a lot of modern populations have to contend with - but Ötzi had lost about two-thirds of the height of most of his teeth. This wasn't the only thing wearing him down* though. His tough diet had also contributed to some tooth chipping, caused by small stones in his food, a 'dietary accident' according to the researchers.

Ötzi was found to have had at least two cavities, one of which was so extensive it had penetrated the nerve containing pulp cavity within the tooth. The team from Zurich also noted a great deal of change and loss to the bone around the tooth sockets, indicating a moderate to severe level of periodontal (gum) disease.

It is not unusual to find these kind of dental conditions in such an individual. Tooth-brushing isn't thought to have been happened much in Europe in the stone age and although Ötzi was found with numerous tools and equipment - a toothbrush was, unsurprisingly, not found amongst his belongings.

* Sorry. I couldn't resist.

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Friday, 29 March 2013

If at first you don't succeed?

This is going to be a bit of a departure from the usual toothy shenanigans I tend to bring to this blog. Instead I am going to write a little bit about my PhD, inspired by a recent post by the charming but palaeontology crazed Jon Tennant over at Green Tea & Velociraptors. I have to say, his thoughts on the subject are a bit more positive than mine are going to be...

I am in the fourth year of my doctoral studies. It's euphemistically called your 'writing-up' year. Of course, in my discipline you're expected to finish completely within three years - consequently, the fourth year is unfunded and mostly unsupported by your institution. Although a lot of people stray over their three year allowance, it's seen as a bit of an academic faux pas. It gets worse if you take longer than that of course. If you take more than four years you become spoken of in hushed tones in darkened corridors as a warning to others.

I like to think of it not so much as a writing-up year, but a period of existing on very little income, caught between needing a job before you run out of rent money and finishing a thesis you despise. And yes, I do despise it. I love my subject, and I love the gubbins that a PhD entails - the teaching, the outreach, the learning and the kind of day-to-day intellectual interaction you get exposed to... but the PhD itself? I'm not so keen on that and I don't think I have been for a long, long time.

It's safe to say that my experience of undertaking a PhD has not been ideal. Just before my it kicked off, the long term relationship I was in failed epically and miserably, I quickly moved into a horrible shared house and soon after I became ill. It was a like building a castle upon a bowl of jelly - so think of this as full disclosure - it was probably never destined to work out well for me.

My initial supervisor was an eminent professor and a genuinely lovely person, but unfortunately, not the kind of supervisor I needed at the time. Turns out that 'hands-off' is not the mode of supervision someone like me needed - but I wasn't really in a state to let anyone know that. So, I wandered aimlessly for a long time in the vast fields of academia, producing work of variable quality, hoping it would eventually click and I would manage to produce something of consequence.

The saddest thing is that no-one noticed. I accidentally bluffed my way through every upgrade, every progress report and presentation I had to give. I have no idea how, but not a single person for two years noticed. I take full responsibility for that of course. If you don't throw your hands up whilst you drown, it's not always possible for passers-by to see you as you slip 'neath the waves.


In the last year, things started to change. I have a different supervisor, a better home life and my progress over the past year has been phenomenal compared to my first two - but I'm still running just to keep up. It's not fulfilling and it does not make me happy. Every word I write still feels like a struggle (ironically, it's a bit like pulling teeth), but since I am two chapters away from being able to hand in, I've decided to keep on at it. At least until summer. It's a precarious decision, but I've always been a 'regret something you did, rather than something you didn't do' kind of girl, so here goes. I have a few more months to get it together and hand the bloody thing in. Wish me luck!

In an attempt to do something other than whine on the internet though, I thought I might present a few words of advice for people undertaking a PhD, just in case anything I have learnt might help. So, here goes:
  • Money. If you want to do a PhD, please, please, make sure you have enough funding or other income to allow you to do it without worrying about rent and bills and how to afford shoes. I had very minimal scholarship funding, which I was very grateful for - but I thought it would get me through if I was careful with it. It didn't.
  • Support. You might be a devil-may-care rogue of a person, a lone wolf who only needs themselves - but if, like me, you are not, I suggest not doing a PhD without a good support network of family, friends and colleagues around you. Lonely nights and a lack of human conversation do not a happy worker make.
  • Seeking help. If you find yourself struggling, talk to someone, anyone in your department. I wanted to hide my situation in case they got rid of me, but it did me no favours in the end. No-one actually expects you to be infallible.
  • Be brave. If you do not have a supervisor that suits your working style or your nature (for want of a better word) and you feel like someone else might be better, change. I was told it was ' too political' to do such a thing - but fuck it. Change and find the support system you need. It's your PhD, not the PhD of some coffee room know-it-all.
  • Failure. I wish I had recognised a long time ago that failure has a lot of different meanings. I realise now 'dropping out', what I saw as my ultimate failure, wouldn't have been so bad to do in the first couple of years. It's actually only a failure if you make it into one. Lots of people do just fine without a doctorate :)
So, there you go. That's my doctoral experience. Lots of people have fantastic, wonderful experiences, but it's worth noting that it's not a given. If you find this because you are struggling with your studies, that's okay. You can do it! By the same measure, if you really don't want to do it any more, that's fine too.

Do what makes you the most happy.


Monday, 25 March 2013

Thanks for the mammoth tooth!

It was just another day at work for Environment Agency worker Simon McHugh when he spotted an unusual looking object sitting in a pool of water on the gravel riverbed of the River Otter in East Devon. The biodiversity technical officer, who had been assessing the extent of erosion of the river bank, recognised the 20cm long object as a tooth - but was astounded to realise he had stumbled upon a mammoth molar which could be up to 70,000 years old.

Experts at the Natural History Museum have confirmed that the tooth is not only a interesting find, but a rare one too - only a handful of mammoth teeth have been found in the UK, with just two being found in Devon. In fact, this is the first find of its kind since the 1800s.

The massive molar close-up
A mammoth discovery - a 20cm long, upper right molar tooth.
The sizable tooth weighs in at a hefty 2.2kg -  much heavier than it would have been sitting in the mouth of its original mammoth owner. This is due to the fossilisation process, which saw the tooth absorb silica or other minerals over time, slowly becoming petrified.

So, after surviving Ice Ages and tens of thousands of years, what's next for the River Otter mammoth tooth? As big as it is and as tough as it looks, it firstly needs some conservation to prevent it drying out too quickly and crumbling to dust. Once it's preserved, it's destined to go on display at Exeter Museum - reminding people that once upon a time, just a few thousand years ago, beasts with individual teeth as long as an iPad were once numerous in southern England...

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!

I've just got back from a really inspiring lecture and I thought I might tell you all about it. Mostly because this is more fun than staring my thesis - but also because I desperately want to share the joy I just felt at spending a couple of hours with a world renowned archaeologist Dr Warwick Bray, Emeritus Professor of Latin American Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London.

Dr Bray came to the department today to talk about his early career at the University of Sheffield archaeology department in the early 1960s and his subsequent work digging and surveying the landscape in Colombia. I knew it was going to be a great talk because we'd had to bring the slide projector out of retirement for him - and I wasn't disappointed. Right off the bat there was an anecdote about his first lecture, on the first archaeology course ever run  at Sheffield, how he'd never forget it because on that morning his wife went into labour and they shared the same taxi - with him getting out at the department and her continuing to the hospital. It did teach him early on, he said, that one could give a passable lecture on something, whilst thinking about something completely different.

Warwick Bray
Emeritus Professor
Dr Warwick Bray
After many beautiful pictures of pottery, golden artefacts, worked Colombian landscapes and grave shafts - some of which disappeared several metres into the ground and were accessed via a bucket on a winch - we all went to the pub, as archaeologists are wont to do. Other wonderful snippets of information included how him and his colleagues were banned from a hotel in Panama for creeping into the kitchens at night to deflesh exotic roadkill and how local youths, on seeing how interested the team was in dead animals, started to bring along live ones for them. Subsequently, they had to deal with a gift of a live and angry anteater was -  wrestling it into a sack and driving it 20 miles away was apparently the solution. This was truly the stuff of Indiana Jones-esque legend!

At a time when funding for archaeology in the UK is diminishing in a misguided austerity measure, with universities closing departments and students picking university careers based on their money earning potential (who wants to do archaeology when you can do law?) rather than personal interest, it struck me as important to remember how exciting archaeology can be. Sure, there are a few more health and safety concerns these days, but there is still good work to be done - and if we can muster even half the energy and enthusiam of a gentleman like Bray, we'd stand a bit more of a chance of saving it.

PS . I recommend reading this oral-history account of Warwick Brays early career, if you're interested.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Falling out of Ivory Towers

This week I decided to throw off the shackles of writing-up my thesis and attend a free training event on the topic of 'Engaging with Non-academic Audiences' which was held at the University of York, organised by the White Rose University Consortium. Not put off by the snow, I made my way to York to attend a series of workshops about what 'impact' really is (bad terminology apparently, but more on that later) and what the practicalities of public engagement are.

The talks were generally useful, good natured and informative. The first workshop was a sort of primer for why we should be engaging with wider audiences and what the research 'impact agenda'. It quickly became apparent that 'impact' isn't a word that many people feel comfortable with - some feel that it implies that the academic is presuming their own importance or that it implies that all research has to make a big splash. Impact has thus become 'engaged research' or even, for those of you who like long words 'democratising knowledge'. I suppose the idea that came across was, simply, to share your research and have meaningful fun doing it.

The second workshop focussed on the practicalities of engaging with non-academic audiences, presenting lots of questions about how to engage those audiences, how to approach partner institutions (museums, galleries, community groups and so on) and how to secure funding for research undertakings. There was a lot of discussion, but I'm not sure how much practical information it really provided - a couple of case studies aside, I am no wiser on how to go about securing funding, other than turning up on the doorstep of your desired partner in research with a smile and bags of enthusiasm (maybe that is the only way). Slight misnomer aside, the session was still useful and again provided an opportunity to reiterate that there should be no Ivory Towers in academia.

An excellent demonstration of that was the key note speaker for the day - Professor Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Professor Hobbs gave a Powerpoint free talk (and stressed the importance of being able to talk without it!) full of anecdotes about discussing Socrates in marketplaces and the difficulties of sounding good on the radio. She was keen to emphasise how non-academic audiences aren't stupid and should never be thought of as such - most people can understand complicated subjects, if they're explained well. Definitely something to keep in mind, I thought, as I made my way home.

Given the kind of  day I'd just taken part in, I was subsequently a bit surprised to overhear some other attendees on the train home talk derisively about the same kinds of community group we'd just been talking about engaging and critically... would potentially be asking for money. I heard them chatter about how cringe-worthy some local historic interest and re-enactment groups are - a kind of 'wouldn't be caught dead doing that' attitude. From my few seats back on the train I realised that this was why academics are still thought of as elitist and as tucked away in their far off academic towers, because at least some of them are.  

You may not like the idea of running around at the weekend, eating 'historically inspired' food, watching people talk about the use of medieval weaponry - but you know what? Lots of people do. Lots of normal people, ordinary people, do.  Have you been to an English Heritage open day, with its living history and treasure hunts, or an interactive Science Museum with lots of hands-on demonstrations? They're full of people, families and 20-something year olds enjoying things they are enabled to understand and enjoy. A public lecture has its place, but simple old-fashioned knowledge transfer is not the route of learning or enjoyment for all the people. The sooner we realise that and the sooner we stop being embarrassed by the idea of applying your research in a people friendly way, the better.

It's not about dumbing down, it's about explaining it well and making people feel the joy you feel about a subject using a different route, for people who haven't spent 10 years reading the same books. You can innovate, change opinions, make people think of things in different ways. As a knowledgeable person with all that book learnin', you have the power and ability to do that.

It's hard to do, but if I learnt anything from the tales told at the event, it's worth doing.

Out of the tower, into the open. It's magic.