I recently went to my first conference as a PhD student. Stressed Out took place at UCL in London and was organised to discuss the use and interpretation of stress markers in bioarchaeology. Its organisers may have been stressed out, and I’m sure some of the speakers were, but for those attending it was a fascinating and enjoyable two days. When you have a conference title like Stressed Out one of the first announcements has to be that the selected tag is #stressconferenceUCL. #stressedout makes a great tag but it’s already filled with plenty of tweets from people stressing about things completely unrelated to stress in bioarchaeology.
‘Stress’ gets used constantly to describe a whole host of skeletal lesions that are either ‘non-specific’ or signs of anaemia or interrupted growth. People talk about one population being under greater childhood stress than another, or the process of weaning being a particularly stressful period of childhood. It’s become an umbrella term and a key word without too much examination of what it actually implies.
Throughout the conference the same points kept coming up again and again. What do we mean by stress? We all need to define exactly what we mean. We need to rely less on the word ‘stress’ as a general umbrella term. If we overuse ‘stress’ are we then not looking carefully enough for a specific cause for the patterns we’re seeing? As much as this was a conference about how we interpret the skeletal remains of past populations, it was also a conference about language and how we analyse and communicate what we’ve found.
The same word will have completely different meanings in different fields, or in different areas of the same field. To an engineer the word stress means mechanical stress – the force put upon an object and its response to that. There are occasions where mechanical stress is used in archaeology. If we’re discussing an injury that we have found on an individual we’re often discussing the mechanical force that caused it (and the type of object that was used, whether it be bat, axe or stone).
More often it’s a general term that vaguely means ‘something caused a disruption to this person’s normal state of health’. The problem is that the ‘something’ could be any number of things. A famine. Being poor. Having an illness as a baby that left them open to every infection that wandered past. Being the child of a rich family in a period when they thought children should be kept indoors, out of the sun, and fed simple foods that did nothing to help them grow. The different influences on an individual’s health are hard enough to tease apart for clinical researchers whose subjects can answer questions. We have to do it with 98% of the information missing but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Worries about over-reliance on an umbrella term are valid. There are times when a possible specific cause can be seen, if we only do a little more digging. This debate goes to the heart of my PhD topic. When you’re studying medieval health most of your evidence is based on looking for ‘stress markers’ on bone. I spent much of those two days cycling between ‘oh wow, this is great’ and ‘oh god, I have so much reading and thinking to do’. However, part of the point of my thesis to see how much detail of environmental impacts on health can actually be seen and Stressed Out was an excellent reminder of exactly what is involved and how complex it can be.