Students from the field school assessing dental pathologies
Archaeology is an old discipline, but osteoarchaeology – the in depth study of archaeological human bone – is relatively new. For most of the history of archaeological research, when human bones were found in excavation they were either tossed out, reburied, or languished dirty and unanalyzed in museum cellars; only the artifacts that accompanied a burial were kept. Even when it became standard practice to study archaeological animal bones beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, interest in human bones continued to be sporadic. Of course, there were some researchers who were interested in human skeletal remains, but analyses tended to be case studies of specific individuals at a site, rather than investigations of all interred individuals. Most archaeologists simply didn’t think that human bones could provide any interesting information about ancient life. Thankfully, in the 1980s and 1990s, this view began to change. Now, it has become standard practice at most sites for all human remains to be analyzed, not just individuals who are deemed to be particularly interesting. This has greatly expanded awareness about the wealth of information that we can learn from doing advanced osteological analysis on human skeletal remains.
Joint disease in the hip from Sanisera Necropolis 6
It is typical for skeletons at a site to be assessed in terms of their basic demographic information (primarily sex of the individual and age at death). This is an important starting point, but much more information can be gained from a skeleton if the person doing the analysis is trained in recognizing the ways that a person’s skeleton can provide a record of their life. Although we tend to think of our skeletons as static and unchanging throughout our life, skeletal tissue is actually quite responsive to its environment – it will adapt and transform in reaction to the activities we perform in life, illnesses or injuries we survive, and even the foods we eat. For example, repeated strain on a joint can lead to degenerative changes within the joint, such as we found this week while examining a skeleton from tomb 40 in Necropolis 6 -Sanisera Site, Menorca, Spain-.
Students from the field school recording cranial measurements
This particular case is interesting on its own, since the individual was in his early 20s when he died, fairly young to already have joint disease in the hip, but what will be really intriguing is to see if similar patterns of joint disease are found in other individuals. This is where the true strength of osteoarchaeology lies – in finding the patterns within populations, and in comparing those patterns between populations. For example, if other young males at the site show signs of joint disease, but not young females, this would suggest a difference in division of labor between men and women. Similarly, other small, seemingly idiosyncratic bone modifications can help us understand different aspects of life. A group of individuals who all have an extra cusp on a tooth might be family members, an abundance of fractures in specific bones will reveal interpersonal violence, chemical signatures in the bone can tell us about migrations, tooth decay will give us clues about dietary practices, and so on.
Every time an osteologist analyzes a skeleton, it is like interviewing that person from the distant past, allowing them to speak about their life: the work they do, the challenges they face, their relationship to the people around them, and even the difficulties they survived as a child. Of all the subfields of archaeology, osteology is the only one that enables direct access to actual ancient person. If the goal of archaeology is to better understand how people in the past lived, what could be better than looking to the people themselves for that information?