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VCU Archaeology

Cut Marks on Bone: Virtual Versus Actual

by Stephanie King, VCU student and guest blogger

Stephanie King looks at cut marks on a bone bead from Fort Hill, a Monongahela site in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Stephanie King looks at cut marks on a bone bead from Fort Hill, a Monongahela site in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday last week (February 20, 2013) I finally had the opportunity to stop by VCU’s Virtual Curation laboratory to take a closer look at the overall process. What had started out as a short visit to look at a bone bead blank fashioned from a turkey bone turned into an extended search for all incised bone artifacts that had been through the lab since its beginning. And given the utility of the lab’s information, it is likely that I’ll be stopping by more often.

My current research outside of the Virtual Curation Laboratory revolves around identifying burial processing indicators on Native American remains from the Late Woodland Period (1200 to the Colonial contact period, or 1607 and thereabouts). A lot of what I’ve found is currently drawn from CRM reports and historical recollections of Native American burial practices from individuals such as John Smith or Thomas Hariot:

“THEY build a Scaffold 9. or 10. feet high as is expressed in this figure under the tombs of their Weroans, or chief lords which they cover with mats , and lay the dead corpses of their weroans thereupon in manner following . First the bowels are taken forth . Then laying down the skin , they cut all the flesh clean from the bones, which they dry in the sun , and well dried they enclose in Mats , and place at their feet . Then their bones ( remaining still fastened together with the ligaments whole and uncorrupted) are covered again with leather, and their carcass fashioned as if their flesh were not taken away. They lap each corpse in his own skin after the same is thus handled, and lay it in his order by the corpses of the other chief lords . By the dead bodies they set their Idol Kiwasa, whereof we spake in the former chapter : For they are persuaded that the same does keep the dead bodies of their chief lords that nothing may hurt them. Moreover under the foresaid scaffold some one of their priests has his lodging , which Mumbles his prayers night and day, and has charge of the corpses. For his bed he has two deer skins spread on the ground, if the weather be cold he makes a fire to warm by withal . These poor souls are thus instructed by nature to reverence their princes even after their death.” (Thomas Hariot, 1588, on “The Tomb of the Werowans or Chief Lords”)

From these documents it is understood that a variety of Native American groups performed extended burial ceremonies that required some modification of the actual remains. Cutmarks are prime indicators of these modifications, but the specifics for their identification have not been adhered to as a universal. How can we tell that a cutmark is a purposeful incision and not simply a prehistoric injury, or a scratch from fill dirt, or even a consequence of contemporary exhumation? Part of the extended process involved disinterring individuals for secondary interment in an ossuary — perhaps more “cutmarks” were made in this process simply from bones brushing against one another, or scratches from surrounding rocks and debris.

When I first started looking at human remains (about a year and a half ago now), I assumed that identifying a cutmark from any other arbitrary dent or scrape would be easy enough. However, it is often difficult to determine a prehistoric cutmark from a contemporary scratch, or an intentional modification from an unintentional scrape. All of these marks start to look the same after hours of detailed study of the bones. Now I approach marks with a different, more cautious perspective: IF this is a cutmark, how can I tell? What evidence can I use to legitimize my claim?

This last question is what brought me to the Virtual Curation Laboratory. If I could examine bone material that had been purposefully incised for things like jewelry or comb handles, perhaps that comparison would provide the beginnings of a more systematic approach to surface imperfections on human remains. Recording the angle and shape of an intentional incision would appear more legitimate than a hunch, certainly. Likewise, I’m wondering if the same tools used to create jewelry or tools — stone, metal, wood, shell, even fingernails — were also used for body preparation. The Virtual Curation Laboratory offered several examples of incised artifacts (bone and antler are of particular interest), and in finished scans I could get a close view of the marks on their surfaces. I can even measure the length and depth of incisions within the program. All of this was done without actually having to physically interact with a fragile artifact, or having to travel to Pennsylvania to see it for myself.

Scanning a bone comb fragment at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

Scanning a bone comb fragment at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

My perusing at the Virtual Curation Laboratory is another instance where 3-D archaeology can be used for research purposes that may not otherwise involve 3-D rendering technologies. The digital information will always be there for reference (provided the files are properly “curated”), take up much less space than traditional artifact storage, and are much easier to navigate than a room full of boxes with illegible records from the 1960s (or before!). Also, the finished models offer dimensions and detailed surfaces that are much easier to manipulate on a computer than by hand (a digital file is definitely less likely to break at a touch), and even some details that are easier to see when a model is rendered differently. Apart from that, many of the artifacts at the Virtual Curation Laboratory are from other collections in other states — And, sadly, it isn’t likely that I’ll be trekking to Pennsylvania any time soon to look at bone comb fragments.

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