At the beginning of my Master’s in 2013, I was lumped together with all of the anthropology students in a mandatory one-semester course creatively named “ANT1000: Introductory Master’s Workshop”. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of that course was, although I think they tried to teach us basic research skills. What I do remember was that the theme was Spaces and Places, and we were meant to discuss different anthropological theories in this context. Our class size was about 40 – and all of them were sociocultural anthropologists except for myself and three others, who were in biological/physical/forensic anthropology. Needless to say, the four of us had very little to contribute to this conversation. To us, it sounded like the class was just discussing semantics – what is a space, and how is it different from a place?
It seemed to me that everyone agreed that space was a geographical term – it referred to the environment, nature, something that exists without humans or human interpretations. Conversely, place was a social construct – places were spaces that humans gave meaning, such as designating a hillside to be sacred or constructing a temple upon it. This is pretty much the only concept that I took with me from this class.
But when I was in Italy for my third data collection, I found myself thinking about spaces and places again.
At the end of April, I was graciously hosted by Professor Cristina Cattaneo at LABANOF (Laboratorio di Antropologia e Odontologia Forense), at the University of Milano. Together with the help of Dr. Annalisa Cappella and Pasquale Poppa, I was set up in a small, empty classroom that I could use as my lab. Throughout my one-month stay, I repeatedly heard from staff and students that there just wasn’t a lot of space, so makeshift labs like the one I was using were unavoidable.
I was actually quite excited to be able to set up a room however I wanted. I am used to labs with fixed benches and workspaces, and therefore having to find creative ways to organize my samples and my equipment. For the first time, I would be able to organize my own space, and this is exactly what I did!
1) Scanning station – I used one table to set up my SLS and also made an area where I could line up skulls ready to be scanned. This table had to be separate than the one I was using for assessments, since it needed to stay steady during scanning. Any table movement would interfere with the quality of my 3D models.
2) Assessment station – On a separate table, I had space for my laptop, as well as for my data sheets and for me to visually assess sexually dimorphic features on the skull.
3) Photography station – On the same table as my assessment station, I had a mini-tripod for my camera, black foam on which to set down the bones, and labelling cards.
4) Skull line-up area – I had a separate, very long table for this area. The table was divided into 2 halves: one for skulls that needed to be assessed and scanned, and another for skulls that were awaiting reassessment (so I can judge consistency in my assessments of the sexually dimorphic features).
5) Working space for my trusty assistant – I naturally had to drag my
partner-in-crime fellow researcher along to help me retrieve boxes of skeletons, so I had to give him a place to work too. Here he is, being helpful:
Etienne was instrumental in making sure I had enough samples to work with while I continued scanning and assessing.
So my first reflection about spaces and places was when I was able to transform this empty classroom into a working lab space. As I filled the room with tables, equipment, and bones, it really began to take on a new meaning and purpose. I was reminded of this when I started my data collection and I had to find my samples.
At this point, the lack of space around the University became very evident, as I had to hunt for my skeletal samples in different rooms, and in different buildings. The University of Milano is very fortunate to have one of the largest modern skeletal collections (more than 1700 individuals!) available for research, but the large collection size means it was difficult to find enough space to store them all. Many rooms needed to be repurposed in order to accommodate a portion of the massive collection. With the help of my trusty assistant, Etienne and I managed to hunt down enough complete skulls for my data collection, in what used to be an attic storage room, a radioactive lab, and a small classroom. I think we must have gone through about 500 boxes before finding 150 that were suitable for my research! It is a shame that such a wonderful skeletal collection had to be scattered across different buildings and rooms, but it was another reminder that each storage room was now something more – a resting place for the dead.
Finally, near the end of my data collection, I was invited to visit the Violenze Svelate exhibition in the city centre, which was organized by LABANOF to educate the public about evidence of violence archaeologically and in modern forensic contexts. The exhibition also expanded this premise to increase awareness about humanitarian issues faced today, and what efforts are currently being undertaken to address them. The inner courtyard of the campus was transformed – another example of how humans create places with meaning – into an interactive and visually appealing educational tool.
Left: Examining the skeleton of a child for any trauma. Right: Skulls with different pathological features.
All in all, I had a wonderful time in Italy, and I am very grateful to Professor Cattaneo, Dr. Capella, and Mr. Poppa for all their help and support during this time. LABANOF was also quite welcoming, and we made some new friends along the way, ones that I hope I can collaborate with in the future. During my one-month stay, I had great insight into how space had to be repurposed and reused, which was interesting to think about from a philosophical and anthropological point of view. The spaces with which we interact become something new, something intentional, and in the end, they are more than just a location on a map, or a geographical spot – they become places, imbued with human memory and meaning.
Photo from the Violenze Svelate exhibition, showing commingled remains and the challenge associated with processing such a scene.