As it gets later and later into the semester, I’ve started trying to put together ideas for my CHI project. While I’ve been thinking about what specifically I would like to do, there was one notion that kept popping up in my head: make accessible, usable, and relevant for other people, not just myself. Sometimes as researchers, we get so buried in our niche fields and specialties that although we view our own research as interesting and significant, others obviously do not. I feel that this is especially true in anthropology and archaeology given how technological advances of the past few decades have allowed us to create even more specialized areas of research. Though these new methods can greatly add to our understanding of how populations of the past interacted and moved within, through, and around cultural and physical landscapes, we must be careful not to disenfranchise other researchers in the process.
As I discussed in my previous post, I study subadults’ social identities as well as skeletal growth and development within Late Classic Maya society. To me, this is absolutely fascinating and necessary for understanding the ancient Maya. To other bioarchaeologists, archaeologists, or even the general public, it is not, just in the way that other people put emphasis on their research as an essential tenet of their field. In other words, not everyone places the same level of importance on specific aspects of research as you do. The specialization of your methods and research should be approached very cautiously so as not to make you too generalized on the one hand, or too specialized on the other. This is what I want to avoid while thinking about my CHI project. If it’s too generalized, it will just become lost in the sea of similar online tools. If too specific, then it has the potential to be relevant to a very small number of people and therefore useless to most archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and students of human osteology my target audience.
Taking all of this into consideration, I’ve been thinking about how to effectively integrate my specific research into a much broader capacity for my CHI project that would be useful for people other than those who study ancient Maya childhood (of which there are very few). However, since I do focus on skeletal growth and development I feel that I can use that knowledge and hopefully translate it into a tool that is useful and educational. My most likely idea would be to create some sort of minimally interactive repository for estimating the age of subadult skeletal remains.
Subadult skeletal remains are much easier from which to obtain an age-at-death due to incredibly well-documented processes that the body undergoes during the first 18-20 years of life. These mainly include the incredibly specific timing of teething events (down to a few-month window) and tracking growth plate fusion.
In adults, it is much more difficult to estimate age-at-death since the body has stopped growing and you are then looking at degenerative changes over time which are affected by health, occupation, status, etc. Although studies over estimating age are numerous, there is not a dedicated repository focusing on subadult remains. I feel it would be beneficial to create some kind of age estimator where the user would indicate what levels or stages of growth and development an certain bone presents (that is being physically studied by the user) and the website would crank out an estimated age range based on the most updated or accepted age-estimation studies. Ideally this would be most heavily geared towards students but also used by other researchers as a way to quickly estimate the age based on multiple bones which otherwise would cause them to wade through different publications. My goal is for this to potentially be used as both a learning interactive experience and a tool for the user.
This might sound all well and dandy, but why is estimating age-at-death so important? Estimating the age-at-death of skeletal remains is one of the first tasks when encountering these materials, be they modern or archaeological. Understanding the age distribution of a past population is invaluable to how you interpret that population. Different cultural, biological, and environmental factors, all of which affect one another, will determine what the age distributions are within that population. For an archaeologist, this helps reconstruct who this population was and how they functioned and interacted. For example, normal age distributions for the ancient Maya show high infant mortality rates, low death rates among young adults, but higher death rates among older adults. Compare this to the plague pits of Europe during the Black Death – everyone was affected almost equally so the age distribution is more or less even. Since we are able to more accurately determine the ages of subadults, researchers can ask age-specific questions and better understand what kind of stresses juveniles and infants are experiencing at what specific ages in their childhood. Overall, understanding the age distribution is essential to understanding the people themselves.