While walking through the Chianciano Terme museum, I saw many things, but what caught my eye from a distance was the display of the ‘Necropolis of Tolle’ holding a partial skeleton. At first, I was eager to see this skeleton and its significance within the museum, but became disenchanted as I got a closer look. Being interested in the forensic field and knowledgeable in osteology, I noticed right away that the bones were not in their appropriate place. The accuracy in placement and reconstruction of skeletal remains is more significant than one might think. There is always room for error; however, these errors within can impact not only the experience of the museum but hypotheses of future research as well.

As my fellow students watched me stare down this skeleton, I tallied the number of reconstruction mistakes: too many. Not only did these mistakes consist of bones put in the wrong place, but in particular, the ulna (in your forearm) was placed as the tibia (in your lower leg), which is wrong for so many reasons – but I’ll describe just a few (see figure 1). Since learning from previous osteology classes, the patterns and angles you see within the biomechanics of humans can help uncover history, as well as discover new kinds of evidence. Not only that, it can help recognize the trial and errors that humans may have had to go through at one point to succeed with the environment. Analyzing this skeleton’s evidence of walking patterns through the bone could help determine any number of things including what type of physical environments they lived regarding the landscape.

At the top of the ulna lies a curved part of bone called the ‘olecranon process’ (see figure 2). This connects to the distal end (bottom) of your humerus in your arm, which connects to your arm so it can bend up and down. However, in your leg, the distal end (bottom) of your femur connects to your knee and the proximal (top) of your tibia. Looking at figure 3, you can see a comparison of the tibia to the previous photo of the ulna. “The elliptical shape in humans helps to lock the knee in place and create straight-forward forward leg movement” (Kappelman 2012, 8). Structurally, the biomechanics of the ulna against the femur, rather than the tibia against the femur, simply lacks the ability to function properly. Also, visuals are important in the sense that trying to notice that structure of forward leg movement can be difficult, especially when bones are not reconstructed properly.

Reconstruction errors among skeletal remains are not only confusing visually, but can also skew potential research data. For stature (measuring an individual’s height), there are specific equations related to different parts of the body where you have to size up the bones to one another. More importantly, you need to measure the tibia to help with stature (not the ulna). Looking at figure 4, you can see that there are pre-determined equations that help anthropologists do this. Using an ulna rather than actual tibia would skew the data drastically in estimating height. The SFU Museum helps emphasize this idea of measuring different bones, “this would have required a different formula, and because the arms do not correlate as well to height as the legs, the stature estimation would not have been as accurate” (Simon Fraser University 2010). Your bones are all different sizes, so the pre-set calculated numbers would be off and you would get the wrong answers if you took the bones and conducted research from there.

Of all things that could go wrong with skeletal reconstruction, the visual function itself within a museum is one of the most important. Reconstructing properly makes things more real, “the collections and even the exhibitions of any museum are only as valuable as the documented knowledge about them” (Lord and Piacente 2014, 9). If skeletal remains are reconstructed and documented incorrectly, information that is displayed to the viewer is obviously incorrect as well. One thing worth pointing out, however, is the archaeological state in which these remains may be found. When scholars dig up a grave, it isn’t aways in the burial state. Some of these excavations may be something like family tombs, and for hundreds of years things can interfere from the transition to archaeological state from the burial state.

All in all, if the reconstruction is wrong, then it can’t be real. If the purpose is to convey that reality, then the realness in reconstruction can undermine the whole thing. It really is all about the correctness and what the museum is trying to tell you through time. Walking up to that skeleton in the museum was great – until I saw the errors in the reconstruction – then it became exciting. It was an excitement and annoyance all in one, and if anything, it became more interesting because I wondered why it was placed like that. Did the archaeologist not know? Was it found in that wrong position to begin with? Was the burial or excavation that made it look like the bone ‘belonged’ there? Or was it moved in antiquity?

 

 

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Skeletal Remains

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Figure 1: Bone Error of Ulna as Tibia. Chianciano Terme museum

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Figure 2: top of ulna White, Tim. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London, UK: Elsevier Academic Press.

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Figure 3: top of tibia White, Tim. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London, UK: Elsevier Academic Press.

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Figure 4: Stature Estimation Chart Washington State University, Anthropology Department
 

Works Referenced

Kappelman, John. 2012. The Evolution of Bipedalism. Austin, Texas: NSDL.

Lord, Barry. 2014. Manual of Museum Exhibitions, Second Edition. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield

SFU Museum of Archaeology. 2010. Biological Profile/ Stature. Burnaby, B.C., Canada: Simon Fraser University.

White, Tim. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London, UK: Elsevier Academic Press.

 

 

 

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