Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Life in Crete

I'm home from my short trip to Greece. For the second part of my trip I was staying on the island of Crete, in Pachia (sometimes spelled Pacheia) Ammos. The population of Pachia Ammos is 300. It's very small, and very beautiful.

 The real reason I was in Pachia Ammos was to do osteological research. The first few days were spent washing bones. This was... an experience. For my forensic anthropology lab I did an experiment that ended in my washing bones of a pig. In my archaeology class I've washed pottery. Neither was anything like the bones I encountered in Greece. These bones were highly fragmented, and highly fragile. The bones were caked in dirt, and the long bones were packed with it. Dislodging the sediment from the marrow cavity required the assistance of a wooden skewer and a lot of patience. In what I thought was a stroke of luck, I was given a mostly complete skull to wash. It was completely compacted with dirt. Using a wooden skewer, I carefully began to remove the dirt from the underside of the skull. Pieces began to fall off, and when I added water (drop by drop) the bones began to dissolve! When I finally worked my way around to the mandible, there were still teeth embedded in the bone, indicating a young individual. I tried to wash up the mandible a little bit, and the bone disintegrated. In the end I was left with only a few fragments of skull and a lot of teeth.

Over the next few days we began the long process of piecing together the bones we had so carefully cleaned. Find two pieces that match, glue them together, tape them, repeat. To give you an idea of the complexity, it's almost like doing three jigsaw puzzles at once, only almost all of the edge pieces have been removed, as have half of the center pieces. Oh yeah, the puzzles are all almost identical, too, and all the pieces are mixed together in one bag. Despite the challenge, we worked well and pieced together a rather impressive (to me at least) amount of bone. On the last two days of our project, I was working with a bag containing four individuals. I was happy with myself for being able to work through this an assemble their skulls, one of them being mostly complete.

The other students and I learned a lot of different things about the information gained from bones and teeth. We learned how to side bones when only a few fragments are present, to sort and side hand and foot bones (which is very difficult), and to sort teeth. The last one became sort of my specialty. I was taught to decide which tooth was which (incisor, canine, premolar, molar), determine if it was a deciduous "baby" tooth or a permanent tooth, to know if it belonged to the upper or lower row of teeth, if it was from the right or left side, to determine the amount of enamel wear and interpret the meaning, and to check for the presence of enamel hypoplasia. With the disintegrating skull I mentioned above, I was left with almost two complete sets of teeth: one deciduous and one permanent. From there I determined the age of the individual. It was a long and taxing process, but I felt very accomplished once I had completed the evaluation. Next spring I am going to present a poster of my dental analysis at my university's Student Scholar Symposium.

While I'm not at liberty to share photographs of my work, I can share some pictures of the beauty in Pachia Ammos. This was the view from the research center where I was working:

It's really a shame we had to work in the basement the entire time. Our hotel was beach front, and we were so close to the water that I fell asleep to the sounds of crashing waves every night. The weather was as beautiful as the scenery, and if it hadn't been for the bugs, I would have let the doors to my porch stay open the entire time I was there. This picture was taken from the hotel:

As well as being an exceptional educational experience, my short stay in Pachia Ammos was amazing. I grew closer to the classmates with whom I worked every day, and I met some great people at the research center. This is truly an experience I will never forget.