One of the fortunate perks of studying modern human bones is that I get to travel to different skeletal collections in different countries for my research. The downside is that there aren’t many modern, documented skeletal collections available, making it hard to find ones that are suitable. For this newsletter article, I was asked to answer the question: “How do you find these places?”
The short answer is, Google. Using that wonderful search engine, I was able to find websites that list skeletal collections worldwide. From there, it was a matter of eliminating those that didn’t fit my purpose – for example, those that are from a different time period. This meant that I first had to be very clear about what my purpose was, and what criteria needed to be met in the collections I chose.
Since the purpose of my project is to create a program capable of automatically classifying a 3D model of a skull as male or female, and from which general population they originate, I needed reference skulls as a database. The initial criteria I had were:
- The skulls had to belong to known individuals so that I could test my program’s accuracy, hence the need for a documented collection.
- The individuals also had to be relatively modern to ensure that my research is forensically relevant.
- The skeletal collection had to contain enough males and females to ensure that my sample size was adequate.
- The skulls needed to be in good condition to serve as references – meaning that damage and trauma had to be limited.
To create a 3D model with a structured light scanner, patterns are projected onto the object (the bright and dark lines in the left image). The distortion of these patterns allows the scanner to re-create the surface of the object. Several scans from different viewpoints are needed to completely represent an object. In the right image, each scan is given by a different colour. This cranium is composed of 28 scans.
Even though there are a handful of modern documented skeletal collections that fit my criteria, it was still not possible for me to visit each and every one of them, given that it would generally take me 3 – 4 weeks to document 150 skulls in 3D. I therefore had to introduce a new selection criterion – which major geographical areas I wanted to cover. After eliminating a few more collections who were unable to accommodate my data collection, I was left with four collections – St. Bride’s Skeletal Collection in London, U.K. to represent a British European population; Nagasaki University Modern Cadaver Collection in Japan to represent an East Asian population; Milano Skeletal Collection in Italy to represent a Mediterranean population; and Pretoria Bone Collection in South Africa to represent an African population.
So, what did I do after I chose a location?
I was usually given a list of the individuals in the collection ahead of time, so I could randomize and choose my samples before I went, saving me the time of doing this on-site. Of course, sometimes when I’d arrive, the skulls turned out to not be in the best condition (i.e. they were broken). I was prepared for this, and I always had a reserve list of randomized individuals to replace those that were not in good condition.
The preparation didn’t stop there – before flying out myself, I had to pack up the scanner, the glass calibration boards, and the miscellaneous equipment into a suitcase with tons of padding. This suitcase was fervently labelled as FRAGILE across each surface, before being shipped off to the lab I would be visiting. I would then hope that my suitcase would make it to its destination and that nothing was broken.
Lastly, I would make plans to travel and do some sightseeing on the weekends or if I finished my data collection early. This was the case for my Nagasaki data collection where I finished one and a half weeks ahead of schedule – I ended up being able to spend a few days in Kyoto and Nara, and even visited Tokyo and Nikko National Park! Planning fun time is a vital and necessary part of the PhD in order to keep one’s sanity, especially during data collection which can be tedious, repetitive, and mind-numbing.
In conclusion, the INTREPID programme has allowed me wonderful opportunities to travel to different places all across the world, as well as to examine a huge range of assorted skeletal material. It is a very humbling experience to see the vast amount of diversity in the skeletal collections I’ve visited, as well as in the cultures and places I’ve been to throughout my PhD – spending a month in each country has been immersive, enlightening, and of course, enjoyable.
It is never easy to balance work and leisure to preserve one’s mental health, but the travelling I’ve been able to do through INTREPID has been a tremendous reward for my work, and keeps my spirits up. By the time this newsletter gets published, I will be in South Africa for my final data collection – and celebrating by taking a few safari tours throughout the country.