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Researching skeletal remains in the night

October 12, 2015

A bone collection sounds like something that belongs in a scary movie, but for the Joseph Moore Museum (JMM), it’s an opportunity for study and a chance to become compliant with federal laws.

Carmen Mosley, a teaching fellow in Earlham’s Museum Studies program, is leading a collaborative student-faculty research course this semester with the goal of updating the Museum’s human skeletal collection, which has been understudied because of a lack of resources and expertise.

Skeletal Remains1Specifically, the Human Skeletal Curation Practicum in JMM will identify, inventory and document the collection, and improve the storage and organization of the collection.

With about 85 percent of faculty working collaboratively with students on research on and off campus every year, this is just the latest example of the kinds of undergraduate research available to Earlhamites across the curriculum.

 “The first five weeks will be a crash course in osteology,” says Mosley, whose research interests include the use of human skeletal remains to investigate patterns of variation throughout human history.

“We will learn the basics: which bone it is because there are certain landmarks and features on bones, which side of the body or the anatomical position where it is situated, and whether it is human or non-human.”

Additionally, the project will maintain the Museum’s compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act’s (NAGPRA) rules concerning culturally unidentified human remains, and identify research and teaching potential of the collection.

Mosley hopes that will including teaching students about reading the bones, such as basic clues to help determine age, sex, activity patterns, disease and trauma.

“Some indicators are very obvious like a broken bone — or fracture — or arthritis in the vertebrae,” Mosley explains.

Determining the ethnicity or tribal affiliation will be more difficult to determine and are important for compliance with NAGPRA, which requires that all museums, agencies and institutions return Native American sacred objects and human remains to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated tribes.

“If we can connect a bone or sacred item to an existing, Federally recognized cultural group, we have to return it,” explains Ann-Eliza Lewis, JMM Collections Manager. “Some Native Americans believe that a person’s spirit remains with their bones, and they believe their ancestors are trapped in shelves in storage in museums all over the country.”

JMM has human remains collected during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lewis says. Some were acquired by Joseph Moore himself, the Museum’s founder and a former president of Earlham. The Museum completed all necessary NAGPRA requirements years ago and returned what could be positively tied to an appropriate group. Lewis hopes Mosley’s work will reveal new information to continue this important work and build positive relationships with Native American communities.

Cole Harmon ’17 says he took the class to make sure the bones are properly cared for.

“Regardless of what happened to someone in their lifetime, we can’t leave them languishing in a closet without thought or worry,” says Harmon, an Environmental Science major. “They experienced thoughts, emotions. They loved, and I hope they were loved back.

“And now by some strange twist of fate, we have become entrusted with their bones. We don’t know who they were or what they did; nevertheless, we have what is left. And that is deserving of whatever kindness we can offer. When you look at a person’s bones you are driven to consider what it means to be human and in so doing, your own humanity.

Malia Paulmier ’17, a Biochemistry major, thought the course would help her with her studies to become a medical doctor.

“We have to learn all 206 bones in the body, so we can identify them in the collection,” Paulmier says. “I haven’t taken anatomy yet, but the bones will correspond to arteries and muscle attachments, and when I learn these things I will be better able to place them because I have learned the bones. I am going to medical school, and I thought it would be helpful to learn about the human bones.”

The course has become a highlight of the week for both students.

“We meet in the basement in a tiny room at night, and we talk about and handle bones,” Paulmier says. “It’s such a movie scene. I can’t wait until it’s dark and cold outside.”

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at (765) 983-1256 and zimmebr@earlham.edu.

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