Beth Singler is a PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge.  Unlike the majority of PhDs in her faculty who are interested in long dead Theologians, difficult questions about the nature of god or translating dusty texts, Beth is researching contemporary religious movements online.  In particular her thesis is on the Indigo Children, an idea from what is often called the New Age Movement.

The seven chakras of the body are aligned - with coffee.

The seven chakras of the body are aligned – with coffee.

AA: So, tell us a little bit about your work:

BS: I’m very interested in New Religious Movements (NRMs), in particular those that have a strong online presence.  A lot of NRMs do now interact primarily online because their ideas might not be accepted by the mainstream, or indeed, they might be ridiculed for them, and the Internet enables people who self-identify in new ways to find each other.  For my PhD thesis I am looking at the Indigo Children who might not be entirely defined as a religious movement, but are definitely a new community of self-identifying people who communicate regularly through social media about their spiritual ideas.

AA: Okay, now you must know what the next question is going to be… what are ‘Indigo Children’?

BS: You surprise me! Briefly, the Indigo Children are seen by some as a special generation of children who started being born in the early 80s.  They were identified by a woman called Nancy Ann Tappe who claimed to be a synsthete (seeing colours instead of other sensory input) and a clairvoyant.  She said that she saw people’s “life colours” and that each one defined a progressive state in humankind’s evolution.  Others have taken Tappe’s idea and described Indigos and their problems further, as well as exploring new iterations such as Crystals, Rainbows, Dolphins, Blue Rays, Platinums, Angels on Earth, Starseeds, Beautiful Silent Ones, etc etc.  

Although called Indigo “Children”, Indigos can be small children, teenagers or adults.  And there are also those who were born prior to the 1980s who see themselves as Elder Indigos, or forerunners of the explosion in numbers (especially those who involved themselves with the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s).  Many indidivuals don’t seem to know that they ARE Indigo Children until they come across the term online, or a friend mentions it, and then their difficulties with fitting into structures and systems suddenly make sense.  

AA: You mention that a lot of these individuals do not know they are ‘Indigos’. Is there a list of criteria or certain traits that identify them?

BS: Nancy Ann Tappe gave us a check-list of sorts for the traits of Indigo Children.  It has been elaborated upon by subsequent writers, and version proliferate online, but it serves as a starting point. I won’t quote all of it, but here are a few of the 8 points:

“•They are very intelligent, and very oriented toward their purpose on earth.

•They come into the world with a feeling of royalty (and often act like it).

•They often have lots of energy.”

The full list, and later versions, describe a combination of a sense of entitlement and social awkwardness that can be seen or diagnosed by others as behavioural problems or ‘special needs’, and Indigos may have problems fitting into society’s main structures such as education and the workplace.  Seeing Indigos as ‘problem children’ or ‘children who just don’t fit in’ arguably provides answers for both parents and those who begin to identify as Indigos in adulthood.  The former then have a reason for their child’s behavioural problems and can hold them up as ‘special’, and the latter also now have an explanation for their difficult or even traumatic childhood.  For both, finding the Indigo concept can be like a moment of revelation, or even conversion.  Many of the Indigos I have interviewed describe how reading about the Indigo Children was like finding out something that they knew all along, but had never had a name for before.

Beth Singler.

Beth Singler.

AA: What was it that interested you in particular about Indigo children? Why did you choose to focus on them for your research project?

I’m very interested in the adoption and adaption of established discourses and narratives for spiritual ends.  So in the case of the Indigo Children there is a mix of scientific theory, evolutionary theory, spiritualism, conspiricism and utopianism that picks up from more older sources.  Contemporary religion (or spirituality, and the difference is a part of a huge debate I can’t go into here) does seem to engage in more creative play with sources in the 20th and 21st Centuries.  And some of my other research is on more consciously ‘invented’ religions, to use Cusack’s (2010) term, such as Jediism and some more obscure online forms.

AA: I expect those who subscribe to this view of their children or themselves as Indigo face a lot of skepticism. (I’ll admit to being skeptical myself.) How do you approach your research on a subject like this, especially the interviews?

One of the first Indigos I interviewed asked me if I was just going to “call them all a ‘bunch of whackos’?”.  Well, apart from the fact that a one sentence PhD thesis is pretty rubbish, I happen to think that they are acting in an eminently rational way that humankind has used for centuries. You can call it at its basic level ‘making sense’, or to use a fancy religious studies idea, that they are creating theodicies, ideas produced in order to understand the presence of evil in the world.  Evil as in the problems that they face every day. Understanding where and how these ideas come about is far more interesting to me than whether they are right or not.

Also, as a social anthropologist it is never my place to interrogate the truth of person’s ‘making sense’. Personally, as what you might call a militant agnostic, I’d also say my mind is so open-minded I’m at risk of it falling out!

AA: If you could share one particular aspect of your research with others (so far) what would you want them to know about either New Age Movements, or Indigo children, or this type of research?

I think that the main aim of my work – which may seem surprising since I research these seemingly exotic evolved psychic children, Jedi, pagans, Scientologists and many other forms of online created spiritualities – is to show how mundane the rational processes they are engaging in actually are.  I propose that they are merely people being people to each other, for good or ill.

AA: Thank you so much for taking part in Penny University and sharing your research with everyone. I imagine there’s now going to be a Google stat spike in searched for ‘Indigo children’.

Beth Singler is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge specializing in the social anthropological study of New Religious Movements online. Combining traditional fieldwork with digital ethnography, Beth explores the new definitions of self that multiple on the Internet. Her PhD is on the Indigo Children, but she has also written about Wiccans, Jedi, Scientologists, pop-culture religions and various online subcultures. She has her own blog at and you can follow her on Twitter via @BVLSingler.

Raising the Medieval Dead (Not a Zombie Thing)

Right.  I am awfully apologetic if you have been pining for research related posts in the last few weeks.  If you haven’t been pining for research related posts in the last few weeks then surely the only explanation is that you must be new here – so welcome!  However, for those of you that missed it – we have terribly exciting news (which is what kept us busy for the last little while).  We’ve been given the go ahead for our live event at Manchester Science Festival 2013!  You can read more about the 21st Century Coffee House (and apply to take part) here.

But now that we are back to our regular programming, I am very excited to bring you the most recent Penny University featured interview.

Coffee house, charnel house, I can see how you could get the two mixed up!

Coffee house, charnel house, I can see how you could get the two mixed up!

Jennifer Crangle is a second year PhD student at the University of Sheffield in the Department of Archaeology.  She is investigating the post-depositional disturbances that occurred during the English medieval period.

AA: So, tell me a little bit about your research:

JC: Post-depositional practises were extensive throughout the medieval period (c.1066 – 1550), but are also evident in the periods both before and after. For the medieval period such activities include the creation of ossuaries/charnel chapels, and relics, the disturbance and emptying of existing graves and tombs, insertions of complete or disarticulated individuals into existing graves and tombs, box and bag reburials of disarticulated individuals, charnel pits and intercutting graves.  It has been thought that skeletal imagery and familiarity with disturbance of the dead became commonplace only after the Black Death in 1348.  The evidence so far, however, is demonstrating that reverence of human bones and their role within medieval religion was developing as early as the 7th century and continued to do so throughout the subsequent medieval period.  My research aims to bring to light this important and little understood medieval funerary rite.

AA: Okay, so let me get this straight.  You’re researching what people did with the dead during the Medieval period… after they were already buried?  I’ve heard of ossuaries before, but I thought they were created because of a lack of space.  From what you’re saying, it sounds like this might not be the case.

JC: Research to this point in England regarding ossuary creation has only focussed on the functional motivations involved, such as a requirement to empty a graveyard of existing skeletons in order to continue burying the dead in that location.  Interpretations of these site types – plus other categories of post-burial disturbance – tend to be purely functional.  This is what you and other people would have heard about before.  However, the liturgical or spiritual motivations and justifications for disinterring the skeletal dead are either minimalized or denied altogether by excavators, medievalists and osteoarchaeologists.  The frequency with which these activities occurred is also not recognised.  It is believed that the creation of ossuaries never really happened to any great extent in England and so the practise cannot be comparable to that of the rest of Europe.  The reality, in fact, proves the opposite; I have found evidence of the existence of over 60 medieval English ossuary sites. Furthermore, these sites clearly served roles in penance, confession, pilgrimage and functioned as chantry chapels did (these were private chapels in churches, built by wealthy families, where they paid a priest to say prayers for their souls).

AA:  Wow!  You mentioned a lot of different types of ‘post-depositional’ practices at the start of this interview, which suggests this was happening a lot.  Can you tell me a bit more about the types of practices?  Box and bag burials sound especially unusual!

JC: People tend to be surprised that post-depositional practices took place at all, let alone to the extent that they did.  People are also surprised that they were intrinsically liturgical!  As I mentioned, post-burial disturbance has been taking place throughout England from before the advent of Christianity in about the 7th century, right the way through the medieval period and into the post-medieval period (c.1550 onwards).  There are so many types of disturbance I won’t be able to go through them all here.  One of the earliest types of disturbance dating to the 8th century was the re-opening of an existing grave in order to insert a new burial.  The skeleton of the existing person was removed, the new person inserted, with the bones of the previous occupant/s placed or sometimes arranged around the new body.  In some places this happened up to 10 times in a single grave.  This also provides evidence about Anglo-Saxon Christian burial in general, for example, it proves that they knew where graves were located, who was in them, and how long they had been buried. 

From about the 7th century we also have the ‘box reburials’ I talked about – of single disarticulated individuals.  Bag reburials seem to be a totally different category or phenomenon – haven’t fully researched them and figured them out yet!  The box reburials represent the ‘translations’ of people deemed saintly due to the number of miracles attributed to this deceased person, which took place at their grave.  This justified the person to be disinterred in a specific ceremony; their bones were washed and placed in a box, which was itself placed into their original stone tomb or coffin which was also disinterred and brought inside a church.  The person was then revered as a saint with their tomb and translated remains becoming a shrine and relics.

AA: It seems our forebears were much more familiar with the dead than we are today – and maybe a lot more familiar than we thought they were!  Were you surprised that there was so much post-depositional activity happening in this period?

JC: Yes, a little!  I had previously researched ossuaries so knew a lot about them before I started my current research. And most archaeologists are familiar with charnel pits (deliberately dug pits in the ground to hold displaced bones within a graveyard) and intercutting graves!  I was surprised at the number and variety of post-depositional practices but even more so at the prevalence with which they are identifiable in the archaeological record.  Post-burial involvement with the dead was definitely ‘the norm’ as opposed to a rare occurrence.

AA: You said you’ve found over 60 ossuaries in England (so far).  Where (and what) exactly are they and why do you think they were lost or forgotten?

JC: An ‘ossuary’ is the most common term used to describe a place where human bones are stored, or to describe the collection of bones themselves.  ‘Charnel chapel’ is actually the official and original term for these places, as detailed in the foundation charters I’ve located, but colloquially within a few years of their construction, they were referred to as ossuaries, carnarium, bone stores, and charnel houses, amongst other names.  They are medieval ecclesiastic buildings, located within the confines of the cemetery of ecclesiastical complexes (including abbeys, cathedrals, hospitals, monasteries and parish churches).  They were constructed in England from the early 13th century to the Reformation in the mid-16th century but the height of construction occurred in the 1300’s.  They were built intentionally for the storage or curation of deliberately disinterred and disarticulated human skeletal elements and were intrinsically connected to prayer, penance and confession; this appears to have been the ‘real’ reason for their construction.  There are two forms of charnel chapel: free-standing, two-storeyed buildings and those built below churches. Both structural types primarily consist of a semi-subterranean vault or chamber, this was always where the bones were arranged/kept.  Free-standing examples had a chapel built directly on top of these partially underground chambers and in the majority of cases those charnel chapels built below churches were located under existing chapels within the church.

As they were intrinsically connected to pre-Reformation Catholic religion and theology, when the Reformation and its aftermath took place from the early 16th century, they were destroyed, emptied or re-used for secular purposes.  This is why their location, purpose or very existence is not known about, because the reverence of bones and the role of ossuaries/charnel chapels in society and faith was ceased, according to the new prevailing religion.  Due to this deliberate eradication of the physical structures and the inherent religious ideology, their original role and usage has been forgotten or misunderstood.

AA: Wow.  It sounds like your research has already discovered some things that may change how we think about this period of history – especially in England.  I can’t wait to hear more!  Will you come back once you’ve sussed out those bag reburials and other unusual practices to tell us more about them?

JC: Absolutely, I’d love to!  The medieval period in England is an extensively researched area of archaeology, yet there is clearly a large aspect of it that has basically gone unnoticed.  I guess that’s a reflection on the success of the Reformers at the Reformation.  The obligatory religious changes they imposed were so forceful that they have influenced our current understanding of England’s pre-Reformation medieval past.  The opinions we as archaeologists and the general public have regarding medieval religious ideology have essentially been shaped by Reformers acting nearly 500 years ago.  It’s only by questioning the established ‘facts’ and what we think we know, that the reality of medieval funerary practises can be recognised and understood.  It’s daunting, but I think it’s important, both to the discipline and to the medieval dead, that the reality of their post-depositional reverential practises are researched and recognised.

AA:  It’s been great having you here at Penny University.  Thanks so much for taking the time to tell us about your research.

JC: Thanks for listening/reading!

Jennifer Crangle is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on the post-depositional disturbances that occurred during the English medieval period.  If you’re interested in learning more about Jennifer and her research, you can actually visit a medieval ossuary, as described above.  Jennifer is organising /co-ordinating an open day at Rothwell Holy Trinity Church, Northamptonshire on 10th August.  It’s free to attend and includes crypt and ossuary tours by Jennifer, osteological sessions for children and adults, plus evening lectures on the subject of medieval post-depostional practises.  Further details can be obtained by emailing Jennifer directly; updates will also be posted on this Facebook group and the University of Sheffield Department of Archaeology website.

What have the Romans ever done for us?*

It has been a rainy, grey, windy week here, but have I got something that’ll brighten your day!  Today’s featured researcher may be off in Finland (along with her dashing colleague Linzi Harvey) presenting her dead Romans to the Nordic Medical Congress, but through the magic of pre-preparedness (and the internet) I bring to you today’s interview with Lauren McIntyre!

Would Rome still have fallen if the legions had access to a cup of joe in the morning?

Would Rome still have fallen if the legions had access to a cup of joe in the morning?

Lauren McIntyre is a PhD Candidate in Osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on reconstructing the population of Roman York using osteological evidence.  Lauren is also Associate Osteologist for On Site Archaeology.

AA: So, tell me a little bit about your work:

LM: For my PhD project I’ve collected osteological data from as many skeletons dating to the Roman occupation of York as I could get my hands on! I’ve ended up with information for nearly 800 individuals from about a 340 year time span.  For each individual I collected data on their age at death, sex, and living stature (height). I’ve used this information to look at the composition of the population, so I’ve been able to work out things like average life expectancy and the ratio of men to women present.  I’ve also recorded every single example of dental or skeletal pathology.  I’ve used this information to try and work out how healthy people were (what types of diseases or health problems people were likely to have), and to try and work out the types of foods people were eating.

AA: Wow, that sounds like a lot of work!  Before you started your PhD was there much known about these things for Roman York or even Roman Britain?

LM: Some work has been done on a couple of different assemblages from Roman York (such as Trentholme Drive and Driffield Terrace), but no-one had ever looked at the town as a whole.  The same is pretty much true for the rest of Roman Britain – there is plenty of work done for individual sites and cemeteries, but it’s very unusual to look at an entire settlement.  What people forget is that a lot of burials are found on tiny archaeological sites – these may be isolated burials or just very small excavations where only a tiny piece of land is being excavated.  Once you add these burials up for the whole town there can actually be quite a substantial number, which could contribute significantly to the story of the population.

AA: Can you tell us a little bit about Roman York before we get on to exactly what you’ve discovered?

LM: York is thought to have been founded in 71AD by the 9th Roman Legion.  It was originally established as a fortress as part of the Roman expansion into the north of England and Scotland.  A civilian settlement eventually grew up around the fortress and it became an important urban centre.  By the third century York was made an official Roman colony and shortly after it was made the Roman capital of the north of Britain.  It would have been quite a cosmopolitan town. There’s lots of evidence for trade with other parts of the Roman Empire – for example we know they were importing wine from the Rhone valley and olive oil from Spain, as well as other exotic foods like figs and grapes.  There’s a lot of evidence for North African communities living in the town, which may be linked to the arrival of the 6th Legion in the second century, but also with the arrival of Emperor Septimus Severus who was born in an area that’s now in modern day Libya.  So there could have been people from all different parts of the Roman Empire living in York as well as those who were born more locally.

AA: Wow, so York sounds like it was a pretty happening place back in the day!  With information on that many hundreds of people you must have found some interesting things.  What are some of the population-wide characteristics you’ve noticed – and have you found any interesting individuals that stand out from the crowd?

LM: Well, I’ve found that there are significantly more men living in the town than women.  This is probably to be expected – after all, we know the town was a military installation.  What’s interesting is that adult life expectancy in the town is approximately equal between men and women.  Most other Romano-British urban sites have elevated male life expectancy.  I’ve found that approximately equal life expectancy is more likely to be found at sites with a large military presence (the same thing was true at Gloucester, Colchester and London).  This is probably because men working in the military were more likely to die at a younger age, which makes their overall adult life expectancy much closer to the female estimates.

As for interesting individuals, there are quite a few!  One individual is a lady of north African descent, who was buried on the north west side of York.  This lady is quite young, probably only in her late teens or early twenties.  She also has lots of interesting grave goods such as a mirror and gold jewellery, suggesting she was quite wealthy.  She’s known as the Ivory Bangle Lady (because of the ivory bangle she was buried with) and she’s currently on display in the Yorkshire Museum.

AA: It seems like interpretation plays a big part in understanding your data.  With the example you gave of the life expectancies, how do you know it is the men dying at a younger age, instead of the women dying at an older age?  Is there some sort of ‘Roman census’ that you can compare your site against?

LM: For each skeleton I examined, I worked out the approximate age they were at when they died.  This is done by looking at certain parts of certain bones, for example the auricular surface of the pelvis, and attributing the person a rough age at death based on the appearance of the area you’re looking at.  Once I put all the male and female ages together I applied different mathematical techniques to work out average life expectancy at birth, average adult life expectancy and so on.  When I compared my results to studies that used similar methods, the general trend across Romano-British sites suggests that men were more likely to live a few years longer than women in the same populations.  Unfortunately there isn’t any Roman census data for Britain that I could use for comparison, although I am about to have a look at some demographic work done using census data from Roman Egypt.

AA: Okay, I have to ask: how do you know she is north African?  And do you have any pictures you could show us?

LM: A study published in Antiquity (by Leach et al., article no. 84: 131-145) in 2010 showed how analysis of stable isotopes found in the skeleton’s tooth enamel suggested that the skeleton was of a non-local origin.  This individual most probably grew up in Western Europe or somewhere in the Mediterranean.  The observed craniometric characteristics were found to be mixed, in that the individual’s skull comprised only a few characteristics commonly found in white European populations, instead having more in common with characteristics found in African-American populations.  I should stress that this type of analysis cannot give us a specific region of origin for this individual, but it is highly likely, given the context, that the observed affinity with the African-American reference population is the result of mixed ancestry.  There is already a lot of archaeological evidence (from pottery, historical documents etc) that there were individuals of North African origin living in York during the Roman period, and populations in Roman North Africa are well known epigraphically for being very mixed, comprising Mediterranean, Phoenician and Berber groups to name but a few.  When you put all the evidence together, it’s likely that even if she wasn’t born in North Africa, she probably had descendants who were.

This is only a brief summary of the findings, and I unfortunately I don’t have any pictures I can share.  If anyone’s really interested in the study I suggest they look up the full article.  Ancestry studies have come under fire a lot in the past, because craniometric techniques in particular have been used to come up with some fairly dodgy and even racist notions about various geographical groups.  The Ivory Bangle Lady study is a very good example of how identification of ancestry and geographical origins can be investigated thoroughly and successfully using a multidisciplinary approach.

AA: Wow, it really makes you think more about what Roman York would have been like and the different types of people that would have been a part of it.  It’s also really refreshing to see lots of different methods being used to reach the same conclusion.  It makes for a pretty convincing case!

It has been great learning about your research – and about Roman Britain in general – thanks so much for taking the time to share it with us.

LM: Thanks for reading!

Lauren examining skeletal remains at the Rothwell charnel chapel.

Lauren examining skeletal remains at the Rothwell charnel chapel.

Lauren McIntyre is a PhD Candidate in Osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on reconstructing the population of Roman York using osteological evidence.  If you’re interested in learning more about Lauren and her research, you can visit her University profile and her Academia profile.  Lauren is also a part of the current research team offering one-day and five-day short courses in Human Osteology at the University of Sheffield.

*The answer is: A lot.  But sadly one thing they did not do for us, was discover coffee (as far as we know).

Leach, S., Eckardt, H., Chenery, C., Muldner, G., & Lewis, M. (2010). A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Antiquity, 84 (323), 131-145


Whether you are a regular reader or have just stumbled upon us this week, you can count yourself among the many members of Team 1p.  We have had a great response to the researchers featured thus far and the good news for all of you is that we have a lot more really exciting interviews lined up!  In a minute you’ll be presented with this week’s interview, but first – grab yourself a cup of tea or a mug of coffee and join us in ye olde coffee house that is Penny University, all are welcome.

Ahoy! 'Tis a /jɒt/ sailing upon the calm waters of Latte Harbour.

Ahoy! ‘Tis a /jɒt/ sailing upon the calm waters of Latte Harbour.

Dean Wybrow is a final-year PhD student at the University of Essex.  He is researching the subtypes of developmental dyslexia.

AA: So, tell us a little bit about your work:

DW: I don’t think I’m alone in having become interested in developmental dyslexia through having a family member with the condition, and I was always stimulated to find out more about it.  My early teaching on the subject was from Rhona Johnston at the University of Hull, and I am grateful to her for giving me the knowledge base to work from.  I am currently working on my PhD with Rick Hanley at the University of Essex, and we are investigating the methods by which researchers identify surface dyslexia in a population of dyslexic children.  There has been some controversy surrounding the kind of control group that is appropriate for comparisons with dyslexic children, and there are technical reasons why neither a control group matched for age nor a control group matched for reading ability are appropriate.

AA: Interesting.  So if I understand you correctly, you are in a sense… researching the way that other people have been researching dyslexia?

 DW: That’s not a bad way of putting it!  Researchers have come to some conclusions about dyslexia that may be incorrect because the studies that brought about those conclusions were flawed.  In my thesis, I’m trying to find a new method that eliminates some of the problems that have occurred so far.

AA: Can you tell me a little bit about the problems concerning selecting the participants and control groups – and why this is important to research on dyslexia?

DW: Certainly.  For a long time, researchers have hypothesised that people can have various kinds of dyslexia, depending on the aspects of reading that are problematic for the invidual concerned.  There are two types that I am concerned with, and these are phonological and surface dyslexia.  Phonological dyslexia, to put it simply, is where the person struggles to sound words out, but can remember unusual words adequately, and surface dyslexia is where the person always sounds words out, even when that is not appropriate (consider what happens if you try to sound out knight or yacht!).  The kind of research I am doing estimates how many people in a group of dyslexics have phonological or surface dyslexia by comparing them to different control groups.  In dyslexia research, a control group is a group of people that are not dyslexic, and have no other neural disorders.  However, they need to be the same as the dyslexics in some way or another – for example, the controls can’t have ages that vary from 8-80 if all the dyslexics are 11 years old, as that would not be useful.  The controls can have the same average age as the dyslexics, or they can have the same average something else, such as reading ability, IQ, spelling ability, and so on.  Some studies used a mixture of same-age and same-reading ability controls and found that, while they could find lots of phonological and surface dyslexics with same-age controls, they could only find phonological dyslexics with same-reading ability controls.  This suggested that surface dyslexia is not functionally different from not having read enough books, whereas phonological dyslexia appeared to be caused by a fundamental neural problem in the brains of those involved.  However, some people have noticed that the tests the researchers used to measure reading ability were biased in favour of the phonological dyslexics, potentially skewing the results.  I am currently re-doing this research without using either same-age or same-reading age controls.

AA: It sounds like it is definitely important to make sure the control groups are correct for the results to be useful.  When you get results from this type of study, what are they used for?

DW: Well, the ultimate goal is to provide teaching methods in schools that enable as many children, dyslexic or not, to learn to read as possible.  This will only happen once we are confident that we have discovered all the reasons for this process to go wrong.  In the context of the kind of research we are discussing here, the problem lies in whether there are children who might not be best served by the current method of teaching – phonics.  To understand why this is, I need to go back a bit.  Most researchers agree that the most common cause of dyslexia is what’s called a phonological deficit.  This is a deficit in the ability to store the sounds of words in memory, so that the distinctions between some sounds are fuzzy and not easily distinguished.  This in turn makes it difficult to relate these sounds to letters on the page and therefore sound words out.  This is what I referred to earlier as phonological dyslexia.  Phonics helps these children by explicitly teaching how to sound words out and therefore alleviate the problem caused by the phonological deficit.  Surface dyslexics, on the other hand, seem to have no trouble sounding words out, and in fact do it all the time, and instead seem to have problems storing the written forms of words as wholes (in a hypothetical storage module called the orthographic lexicon).  Therefore, instead of recalling a word and thinking, “I know that, it’s yacht”, they sound it out, and may give a response that rhymes with matched.  If these children can sound words out well, and have a deficit in another area of processing, they would be better off being taught by a method that includes something specifically geared towards that deficit.  It probably doesn’t do them any harm to learn phonics, but they might become better readers with some additional method.

As for the debate about control groups, if a group of surface dyslexics aren’t functionally different from younger readers of the same reading ability, it suggests that perhaps they have no specific deficit at all, and maybe just need to read more books (amongst other things), in which case there is no need to develop a specific teaching method for them.  If the tests used to measure reading ability were biased, then it throws doubt on the ‘not enough books’ theory, and hence we are still investigating the best method to do this.

AA:  Let me see if I’ve got this right; we all sound out words when we’re learning to read and then when we learn new words, but for surface dyslexics they continue to do this – even if they’ve encountered the word before.  What you’re trying to do is identify these children who take the test, because you think it’s not just a case of ‘not experiencing as many words as other children’, but maybe something more.  Is that right?

DW: Yes. We’re hoping to show that children with surface dyslexia are actually impaired in their ability process words as complete units rather than simply being behind their peers.

 AA:  Can you tell us any interesting results from the research so far?

DW: Yes, we have just analysed the results and it seems to have turned out as predicted.  We replicated the results from previous studies when using the old analysis methods, but when we used our new analysis method, we found that the numbers of surface and phonological dyslexia were more equal.  In fact, most of the children (nearly 60%) had problems reading both nonwords and irregular words.  We call these children mixed dyslexics.

AA:  Wow, dyslexia is a lot more complex than I thought – especially with so many different ‘types’!  It definitely sounds like your results will be helpful in identifying these children with different forms of dyslexia (and this in turn will help them get the assistance they need)!  It has been a very interesting introduction to a subject that many of us have experience with, but perhaps don’t know a whole lot about on a research level.  Thanks so much for taking the time to share it with us today.  I hope you’ll get back to us with more of your results in the future!

DW: No problem.  Thanks for inviting me to the Penny University, and thank you to the readers for reading.

Dean Wybrow is a final-year PhD student at the University of Essex.  If you’re interested in learning more about Dean and his research, you can visit:  If you are near the University of Essex in Colchester, you can sign up to take part in experiments here.

*Noun. 1) The fear of long words.**


Warning: contents are hot

Welcome to back to Penny University!  If you haven’t check in during the last week, be sure to check the post Research Blogging to learn about a great service for finding blog posts on peer-reviewed research (<spoiler> we’ve been approved to use it </spoiler>).  Now, on to this week’s interview!

Wow, this sure is strong coffee. MAGNETICALLY STRONG!

Laura Roberts Artal is a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool.  She is studying 3.5-3.2 Billion year old rocks in South Africa to see what they can tells us about what the Earth was like, relatively soon after its formation.

AA: So, tell me a little bit about your work:

LRA: I am interested in how the Earth’s magnetic field works and more importantly, what it can tell us about what the Earth might have been like soon after it formed.  The rocks I study come from the geological time period, called the Archean, a period of time from which we know very little about.  This is mainly due to the fact that very few rocks from that time still exist today.  Because they’ve been around for so long, they’ve also seen a fair bit of action: they’ve been buried to great depths, brought back to the surface; folded, tilted…you name it!  I am lucky to work with some rocks from NE South Africa, which haven’t been too badly affected by these processes.  From those, I’m hoping to gain information which might tell us more about how the Earth was all those billions of years ago: did plate tectonics exist as we know them today?  Did the interior of the Earth (the core) behave as it does now?  Were the conditions on Earth favourable for the first forms of life to start developing?

 AA: Wow, so you’re really digging into the history of the Earth, aren’t you (sorry for the pun)?  What exactly do you do with the rocks you study, in order to find more out about these processes that have occurred over time?

LRA: We need the samples we work with in the lab to be a standard shape and size.  Standard meaning:  1 inch in length and width and perfectly cylindrical.  So, we take a drill (not dissimilar to the ones used for DIY, just a little more powerful) out into the field and collect the samples.  Once back in the lab, we carry out a bunch of experiments to get as much information about the rocks as possible.  The main (and most time consuming) experiment I perform aims to find the original magnetic signature held within a sample.  To extract this information, I heat the sample up to 600°C, but in 16 heating steps.  We do this in an oven which is designed to cool very fast once it’s reached the desired temperature.  In between each heating step, I take the sample and measure it in a magnetometer, which essentially reads the magnetic information held in the rock.  The data is shown in a graph, which I then go off and interpret.  I would always do this experiment last, as the heating process, ultimately destroys all the information held within the sample.  If I wanted to run any other experiments on the sample, I’d do those first.

AA: What exactly does the repeated heating do to the sample that allows you to gain useful data from it?  Any why 16 steps, instead of 15 or 17?

LRA: So, I’ll try to keep this simple, but we are going to have to go into a little detail of how rocks hold magnetisation for me to be able to answer this question.

As a rock cools following its formation, the magnetic minerals within it align themselves with the local geomagnetic field.  The aim of most palaeomagnetic studies is to measure and interpret the components of natural remanent magnetisation (NRM).  A primary NRM is acquired during rock formation whilst a secondary NRM can be acquired subsequently; for example as a result of the rocks folding or being struck by lightning.

NRM = Primary NRM + Secondary NRM

Heating a rock to a temperature below its Curie Temperature (Tc= the temperature at which all ferrimagnetism is destroyed), then allowing it to cool in zero magnetic field, allows removal of the secondary NRM and isolation of the primary NRM component.  The primary NRM is what I am interested in, because it is the record of that really old magnetic signature that I am after!

Rock MagnetisationThe number of steps you carry out, really depends on the rocks (or materials) you are working with and what information you want for them.  In my case, the 16 steps are associated with this Tc that I talk about just above.  I need to heat my samples to at least 580ºC if I want to isolate the primary NRM and I need to have a number of detailed ‘ish’ steps at lower temperatures to be sure I will be able to see the secondary NRM also.

AA:  I think many of us will have heard about that fact that the Earth’s magnetic poles shift and in the past have actually been reversed – is this the type of information you are looking at in the rocks?

LRA: Yes, that is correct.  The Earth’s magnetic field poles are always on the move, via a process called True Polar wander.  Associated to that is another process called Apparent Polar Wander.  In addition, the poles can flip, which is a reversal of the magnetic field.  You’ve hit the nail on the head in your question; I am in fact looking for evidence for all of those, especially for a reversal.

AA:  That’s absolutely fascinating.  It’s especially interesting that you can isolate the primary NRM ‘just’ through heating and cooling, taking advantage of the properties of magnetism.  I had thought it would have been a far more complex process – although I am sure your simplified it for us in your description!  Since you’ve started your research have you come across any intriguing results you can share with us?

LRA: That’s a tricky one!  I have, but the problem with it is, I’ve not published them yet, so I need to be careful quite how much I tell you!  Despite that, I can give you a little taster.  Previous research has suggested that a magnetic field must have been active in the Archean, 3.5 Billion Years ago, and I’ve been able to confirm that through my research.  Just because you are able to isolate a primary NRM, it doesn’t mean it is as old as the rocks are.  I’ve been able to prove, through using geological evidence and some tests, that the magnetisation held in ‘my’ rocks, is in fact 3.5billion years old.

AA: Incredible.  Well, we won’t pester you for results (we wouldn’t want you to get in trouble), but maybe once you’re able you’ll come back and tell us a bit more about what you’ve learned?  It has been great having you here and it’s been very fun learning all about your research.

LRA: Thanks so much for having on Penny University, it’s been brilliant!  I hope I’ve inspired you to learn a little more about our planet and its magnetic field in particular!  If you want any extra information, don’t hesitate to get in touch, check out my details below.

Laura Rocks!

Laura, in South Africa, with something that is not a rock!

Laura Roberts Artal is a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool.  She is studying 3.5-3.2 Billion year old rocks in South Africa.  If you’re interested in learning more about Laura and her research, you can follow her on Twitter at @lauRob85, visit, or check out the EGU blog network – for a number of guest blog posts about the Earth’s magnetic field.