First Review for Built on Bones!

So, I spent this week doing a lot of things. One of my favorites was freaking about my photoshopped proximity to lifetime hero author Neil ...

Thursday, 13 December 2012

We had a strange request come through our internal email a few months back. The poster wanted to know if any museum staff were willing to spend 21 days filming 4 second clips of their lives, and the lives of the museum. Given my long standing dedication to dadaism in the workplace and ever-so-slightly worrying attachment to my iPhone, you can probably accurately predict my response. Yup. Hand up in the air, stepping forward to volunteer, any excuse at all to take more footage of things with the phone...

The project is the brainchild of the artist Tony Harris ( for the Campsite event hosted during half-term. If you didn't catch the Campsite at Natural History Museum, it was actually pretty amusing (more here). Arctic explorer tents, people in outlandish field kit wandering around the museum... and of course, our little video installation (screened in a tent, no less!).

For 21 days friends, colleagues, volunteers, and anonymous members of the public were subjected to the constant refrain 'oh hey, do you mind if I just film this...?'. So, thanks to everyone: the anonymous collegial hands sorting primate teeth and photographing specimens, the birthday boy, the waiter, and the adorable Spanish lizard that had nothing to do with anything at all :)

So here it is, your insider, back stage, all-access pass to bits of the museum only we get (have?) to see...and good luck figuring out which one is me :)

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Ok, so I might have taken some time to catch my breath after the massive annual outreach event that is Science Uncovered, the Natural History Museum London's contribution to the EU-wide Researcher's Night event. About 6,000 people wandered around the museum on a Friday night, enjoying (I think that's the word I want) the bars, virtual autopsy tables, live animals, satellite links to antarctica, and our researchers dragged up from their basements and behind-the-scenes labs to talk Science (and redeem our free drink tokens).

The Human Origins Group decided to go pretty big -- we had several volunteers as well as the usual suspects manning the tables. There was a lot of discussion about human evolution by C. Stringer, M. Skinner, L. Buck and L. Humphrey. Heck, I even acted out Taung child being carried off by an eagle a few times (with sound effects, natch). L. Humphrey and L. Buck here demonstrate human evolution for the crowd...

But it wasn't all fossils... there was DIY cave art (check my favorite in the picture below, very appropriately themed for the museum I think!). This activity was set up by G. Delbarre and R. Kruszynski and proved really popular.  The more accurate illustrations are courtesy of A. Turner.

We also had plenty of artefacts from the collections out for people to see, with S. Bello, M. Lewis, S. Parfitt, R. Dinnis, R. Kruzynski, and T. Compton showing off evidence of early Britons' living habits (...and fondness for cannibalism and skull cups!).

And C. Stringer was man enough to step up and submit his measurements to I. de Groote's chart of ape and hominid limb proportions, aided here by C. Coleman though A. Freyne was also lending an expert hand. Actually, I did my measurements too, but I came out a bit too close to chimpanzee for my liking... short limbs. Meh.

And of course, I had to subject the general public to my own particular brand of outreach. I built an augmented reality app (using ARToolkit) which allowed passer-by to use three different paddles, each representing a different member of early Homo. When you hold up the paddle in front of the screen, a charming disembodied skull of the relevant species appears on a live video feed. Several individuals showed a remarkable ability to maneuver the Neanderthal skull on to the face of their companions... something to be said for increased virtual manipulation skills in a younger generation I guess :)

And as is traditional, here's a little showreel of the app! A more in depth discussion of the AR is available in a supplementary post.

su2012 ar 1 from Brenna Hassett on Vimeo.

I've finally branched out and tried a bit more sophisticated augmented reality tools. Yes, you, ARToolkit.

This particular project was in honour of Science Uncoverd, our mahoooosive annual public outreach event. At the end of the day, the rather painstaking efforts to tweak little bits of script hither and thither were a bit more intense than I had anticipated; if I hadn't wanted to do a multiple object app I would have probably just retreated back to my standard free-and-easy pipeline using ARMedia plugin for Google SketchUp (see my earlier post for the how-to). But it came off all right in the end, and I have a sneaking suspicion that most of my issues were down to the sharp learning curve in using Xcode, which I was new to.

However, I did manage to get the whole shebang off the ground eventually, and that's probably primarily due to these lovely instructional videos made by Gimpneek on how to install the OpenVRML libraries you'll need and then a quick walk through of making an animated character to model in Blender. And yes, Blender is free and awfully neat.

So, short pipeline instructions for making your own! This works for Mac OS (i'm actually running Snow Leopard  so I had to sort of dance around a few versions, but as far as I can tell this should all work just fine with the most recent releases of all the programmes mentioned...)

Download all the kit you need from ARToolkit's homepage. There are quite reasonable instructions for the basic set up on the page, but it does assume you have a vague knowledge of things program-y. You also need Xcode or similar to actually build the executables.

You'll also want the OpenVRML libraries available in the same bundle, which btw are annoying to build; but see this video for step by step.

Once you have the toolkit built, there are a bunch of executable options:

You can go into each of these packages and re-set the parameters, changing either the default marker associated with a shape or the 3d model that is called up when the marker is 'seen' in a video feed. The tail end of this video gives an example of how to set up the simpleVRML package with your own object.

For this project, I modified the simpleVRML executable to find three new pattern files that I made by putting a letter in a black box template in Illustrator and then waving around in front of the incredibly useful ARToolkit Marker Generator.

I then took 3 lovely, very high-detail .stl mesh files from CT scans of fossil Homo skulls that were generously (and very temporarily) donated by a colleague... and i destroyed them by simplifying them considerably. Only so much room at the inn! In seriousness, I had to reduce the number of faces in each .stl considerably. I don't have a terribly flash machine (4 GB of RAM if i'm lucky) so I'm actually kinda impressed it ran at all...

Anyhoo, I resized, rotated, and generally fiddled with the meshes in Meshlab, then exported the results as VRML (.wrl) files. These get associated with their respective markers in a little editable text file within the executable package, then next thing you know, you have a crowd full of people standing around your table trying to balance a Neanderthal skull on their friends' and loved ones' shoulders.

Good fun? Yes. Engaging of public? Definitely. Quitting my day job? Noooooooooo...

However, if anyone has any good ideas for similar AR stuff, let me know, I'd be interested to hear what other folks make of the utility of this kind of thing.

And, of course, obligatory showreel...

su2012 ar 1 from Brenna Hassett on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

So, here are a few snaps taken from the European Society for Human Evolution's post-meeting outing to the caves and rock shelters of the Dordogne. I took the trip to the Upper Palaeolithic rock shelter site of Abri Pataud... it's right down the road from the charming Cro-Magnon hotel, and a few paces away from the impressive Musée National de Préhistoire.


The site is very impressive... level after level of rocks, rocks, and archaeology hidden amongst the rocks! I think I see now why I never wanted to dig a seriously early site--you have to be very exacting, I think. Just check out this set-up:


No doubt worth it when you find something like this lovely 'venus' carved into the rock:


The tour was followed by a drinks reception in the Museum, and the chance to wander around looking at the excellent collection of sharp pointy things and old dead things they have accumulated. Every so often, you come around a corner and see a pretty bit of shell bead or something and realise that it was made by human hands nearly 7 times as long ago as the pyramids, or 3 times as long ago since we invented farming. Prehistory requires a serious scale adjustment! 

My favorites though, are the people. Check out the interpretations of Turkana boy and this little Neanderthal fellow!

DSC_0103 DSC_0098
Many and profuse thanks to the organising committee of ESHE 2012, the crew from Abri Pataud, and the National Museum of Prehistory for the lovely tours.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

So, here we have it: the epic Storify of collected tweets and retweets from #ESHE12. It was a great conference, looking forward to Vienna next year! Thanks everyone for following along, commenting, and generally being amusing during the longer lithics papers :)

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Regular readers of this blog (hi mom!) will be aware that generally, I talk about teeth. I post videos of teeth, I wonder what teeth might be telling us about Neolithic children, and otherwise tend towards the dental. Recently however, I was asked to do something a bit out of the ordinary -- the lovely organisers of the BONE exhibit at the Florence Nightingale Museum ( @florencemuseum )asked me to come and be a 'live respondent' in their installation.

How much fun, right? Art! But me, a scientist? However could it work??? It's like oil and water, right? Cats and dogs, chalk and cheese, Ikea furniture that requires an allen wrench and Ikea furniture shipped with an allen wrench. Which is to say, things that don't always come together. But Simon and Rhiannon, the organisers, were determined to bring a 'scientist' (moi) in to their thoughtful display. So how did that work?

Actually, pretty well. The exhibit focuses on 'bone', but by focus, I mean it writhes around all aspects of the stuff. On display are a wide variety of bone-related objects, from comfrey leaves (a plant used as a folk medical remedy, otherwise known as 'bone-knit'), x-rays of Sigmund Freud's jaw after that cigar habit finally lost him his maxilla to cancer, and horse metatarsals used as medieval ice-skates.

Various live respondents have left little objects in the exhibit as well; there are bone carvings from a well-known Maori artist alongside this dapper little fellow, prepared by Amanda ( @amanda_autopsy ) of Amanda's autopsies live in the exhibit.

While my session (in a charming, but decidedly indoors-and-underground room) coincided with the sunniest Saturday the UK saw all year, a few people did manage to come in to see the exhibit while I was around to answer questions, offer opinions, and generally natter on about the many interesting pieces in the exhibit, as well as my own research. It also gave me a chance to test out my new interactive... to be fully uncovered at the forthcoming Science Uncovered (woo! bar at work! how could that go wrong?) on September 28th, 2012 ... technology permitting.

In the meantime, a sneak preview of the beta test...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Occasionally, people wonder what it is a dental anthropologist does. Not often, mind. And if they do make the mistake of asking, generally eyes glaze over before you can say 'hydroxyapatite'.

So as you can imagine, I get a bit overexcited when people seem to actually want to know how one goes about the business of being the Tooth Fairy.  I've just come back from Turkey, where I've been studying human remains from the beautiful early Neolithic site of Asıklı Höyük, home to the first farmers and earliest settlement of the Anatolian plateau.

My mission was to take casts of the teeth, to address questions about childhood health and growth. One of the first queries I got from my fellow archaeologists however, was what, exactly, I actually do -- so I made this little instructional video for the benefit of the lab, and hopefully future students in the biological anthropology program at Hacateppe University.

Dental Impressions from Brenna Hassett on Vimeo.

So now, you know. The life of a tooth fairy is a strange one, and often accompanied by Glenn Miller.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

#update! day of archaeology site is having some problems, so the links have been temporarily removed...

originally posted by   on JUNE 29, 2012 as part of the 

This is reposted from here at Day of Archaeology 2012 - bigger and badder than last year! #dayofarch
So, now you know. The Tooth Fairy is an archaeologist.
Archaeologists get everywhere. Like sand. This also applies to  jobs, so it’s not totally impossible that someone who specialises in the minute structures of teeth (see my previous post from DayofArch 2011) would end up in the overwhelmingly awesome Human Origins Research Group at the Natural History Museum, London.
Natural History Museum
For starters, this is an awesome place to work. Yesterday I found out that during WWII, the collections were evacuated to stately homes across the country to escape the Blitz… complete with associated researchers. And there’s a basement here that’s really a bomb shelter which was used by Churchill as a telephone exchange – part of the secret tunnels which run all under this area up to the Palace and War Rooms. Herman Hess apparently even spent a few nights in the Anthro Stores before his trial.
And today, on the Day of Archaeology, this particular Tooth Fairy is gearing up for more research than you can shake a stick at. In relation to the main project I work on at the NHM I’ve:

uwrapped my new camera toy;

eaten cake and discussed human origins/Euro2012; and

discovered a disturbing image mode setting on the new camera.
I’m also getting ready to go out to the field to look at the teeth of children who died in central Anatolia (Turkey) sometime between 10,500-8,500 years ago.  These are the remains of subadults from the amazing site of Aşıklı Höyük, the earliest settlement of the Anatolian Plateau.
I’ll be looking at the microscopic records of growth captured on every tooth–perikymata–to see how these children lived and grew. Like tree-rings, the lines on the outside of our teeth give a lot of information on how we grew (here‘s a more in-depth explanation). It’s a way to find out about health and development in early childhood at the very beginning of human settlement. Were there lots of growth disruptions? Can we see records of illness that might suggest seasonal diseases related to shifting subsistence patterns? That tell us about birth spacing?
I’m excited to find out. Even if I will totally get green dental impression material all over my nice new lab coat. It’s the price you pay for science!
Anyway, my days are pretty varied, but you can certainly keep up with me @brennawalks, or follow @ah_arkeoloji for more on Aşıklı Höyük.

N.B. All opinions etc. are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my benevolent employer. Images under creative commons fair use.

Monday, 25 June 2012

#update! day of archaeology site is having some problems, so the links have been temporarily removed...

So, as some of you might have guessed, I sort of ran out of time to keep up with the blogging and whatnot. There's been a series of cross-continent moves (nothin' but love, Aix. nothin' but love) followed by a new position with rather dense stipulations on social media use. So while I negotiate the social media policy document, obtaining creative commons licences for pictures of replica dinosaurs, and the other trials and tribulations of working for what has to be the most awesome museum in the whole of London (unless there is one about cheese I don't know about...?)--well, suffice to say, I won't be saying much. 

Hope to be with you in time for Day of Archaeology 2012 though! Until then... enjoy...the sound of silence...

Trivia (personal)

archaeologist. dental anthropologist. yes, that's a real thing. Author of Built on Bones, available in February 2017 (UK), May 2017 (USA) from Bloomsbury.



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