Reading the Bones: SSU Students Mix Art and Science to Understand an Ancient World

alexisbonesdisplay.jpg When Chirelle McCorley fashioned a replica of a 4,000-year-old ceramic pot found in a Middle Eastern burial mound she was sure to show respect.

"I put myself in the time and place of the person making it and asked 'who is that person making this form,'" she remembered.

When Emily Carleton was analyzing the skull of a teenage boy buried at the same time, she was filled with awe as she saw the power of facial reconstruction and 3D scanning software.

The two SSU students, like others who have studied with anthropology professor Alexis Boutin since 2009, have had unusual access to a rare collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley.


Through Oct. 15,
University Library Art Gallery

Gallery talk from 4-5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 18

From Death to Life in Ancient Bahrain begins with archaeological materials excavated by Peter B. Cornwall in 1940 and 41 --one of the first excavations in the area. Cornwall was an archaeologist who not only surmounted the challenge of fieldwork during World War II, but also his own deafness.

The SSU exhibition marks the first time this research has been organized into a traveling format. Highlights include reproductions of ancient pottery made by Sonoma State University ceramics students, a life-size replica of the contents of a burial mound, and facial reconstructions of two ancient Dilmunites, created by 3-D scanning and forensic science.

Besides Boutin, participating researchers and coordinators include Benjamin Porter (Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, UC Berkeley), Sabrina Sholts (Stockholm University), Gloria Nusse (San Francisco State University), Gregory Roberts (Associate Professor of Studio Art, Sonoma State University), Jennifer Jacobs (Sonoma State University), and Karen Brodsky (Sonoma State University Library)

The project began with Friday afternoon visits to the Peter Cornwall collection at the museum that had 4,000-year-old bones unearthed from burial mounds in the Arabian Gulf just asking to be investigated.

Stored carefully by the museum since 1952, a thorough inventory was needed to better understand what Cornwall had unearthed in Bahrain, an island nation off the east coast of Saudi Arabia.

The study opened up the world of biological anthropology to SSU students as well as an introduction to the archaeological processes used in recovering and reconstructing ancient life. The work included analysis, description and interpretation of human remains, artifacts, and animal bones. Cutting-edge technology was employed to visualize and reconstruct ancient human faces.

Carleton was an anthropology major but her art background helped her provide assistance to the forensic artist Gloria Nusse who trained her in basic techniques and helped pave a future career path after graduation.

"I was so happy to find different ways to pursue art and science,' she said, describing her current work after graduation with California State Parks as an archaeologist and osteologist.

Nusse used facial reconstruction and 3D scanning techniques to develop the possible face of a teenage boy, confirmed by her comparative research into the likenesses of modern day males from the area.

emilycarlton.png"This face-to-face encounter with ancient Bahrain helped to demystify faraway places and narrow the 4,000 years that separate our lives, allowing us to see people not so different from ourselves." says Boutin who has mounted a first public viewing of a traveling exhibit now on display at the University Library Art Gallery.

Art was also part of the mix for students of art professor Gregory Roberts who last semester presented a challenge to his ceramics class. This meant reproducing replicas of 4,000-year-old vessels found in burial mounds dotting the hillside area in Bahrain.

From matching the color and consistency of the clay to replicating the techniques of the construction, the students rose to the challenge, building the vessels from coiled clay first and then completing them on a wheel as people who made them would have done.

ceramicreplica.png"We aimed to show how both scientific rigor and artistic interpretation are necessary for advancing our understanding of ancient Bahrain from one of "death" to that of "life," said Boutin.


The Peter Cornwall collection included the remains of 34 people, mostly middle aged, uncovered in ancient Bahrain burial sites. Boutin and her team were able to conduct fascinating analysis of these human remains with help from the SSU undergraduates.

As biological archaelogists - scientists who study human remains - they could discover the sex, age at death, health and diet, and habitual activities that are direct evidence of past lives. Recent bone chemistry methods show where a person grew up and what kinds of proteins and grains they ate.

One old man who died at 60 showed signs of arthritis throughout his body which would have made chewing painful. A teenage boy was shown to have died between 12-15 years of age and had poor dental health, due to either malnutrition or an infectious disease.

TOP, Professor Alexis Boutin places bone replicas from a Bahrain burial mound with help from Jessica Ruddell, one of the students involved in the exhibit now at the University Library Art Gallery.

MIDDLE, Anthropology major Emily Carleton works with forensic artist Gloria Nusse to develop the face of a teenage boy.

BOTTOM, Art students Chirelle McCorley, Josselyn Torres and Amaryah Sands stand alongside their completed ceramic vessels.

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