Midwest Archaeological Conference: Mortuary Archaeology Updates

This weekend, Indiana University at Bloomington hosted the Midwest Archaeological Conference. The three day conference focused primarily on archaeological domestic sites and mounds from the region during the archaic through mississippian periods. However, there was an entire session devoted to bioarchaeology.

The symposium session was titled” The old wine in new bottles: recent research in bioanthropology at Indiana University”. It included eight talks, and a discussion.

Costa reanalyzed the Morton Mound 11, a Red Ochre cemetery from the Central Illinois river valley. The site which dates from 1200 to 1400 AD, consists of a 65 by 5 foot mound. Approximately 38 individuals were identified from the commingled remains that were recovered. The initial excavation took place in 1937 and only identified 13 burials. Pathological analysis was limited, but found one interesting individual who had a bowed and contorted femur, thoug cause is unknown. Discrepancies in this analysis and the preliminay one was argued to show the utility of this.

Upson-Taboas revisited the work done at Elrod site, whose excavations were previously done first in 1931 and then again in 1969.The site is a late archaic burial mound, and MNI was assessed originally at 32, but Upson-Taboas argued for 52. The problem with this site is that the context is lacking due to the intial excavation. Further research is going to attempt to connect the burial artifacts with the burials themselves.

Husmann used a new method for assessing osteoporosis in archaeological skeletal assemblages. She uses the URDAS program in order to do this. First the bone, Husmann used the eighth thoracic vertebra, was sliced in half. Then, it was scanned and imported into the URDAS progam. The program then looks at the light reflection in the program to determine bone density. This way, osteoporosis can be analyzed without slicing the bone into a thin piece. In comparison to similar methods, this one works just as well and doesn’t require the bone to be destroyed.

Spencer examined perimortem trauma among the late woodland and mississippian burials at the Schild Site in Illinois. Cranial trauma, and penetrating wounds were found in 17 of 236 individuals. Other craniums were thought to be covered in cutmarks, but SEM analysis revealed that the marks were due to trowels or rodents. Spencer argued that the violence seen in this assemblage is likely due to an overall increase in violence within this time period. Other evidence is an increase in weapons. Further research should assess the social context in greater depth.

Foley examined disability and social identity at the Morton site. Individuals with disabilities were examined in comparison to the greater burial context of the mound they were interred within. The disabilities included wounds from battle, torsion of limb bones, shortened toes, and other problems. Comparison of disabled versus normal individual graves showed that there was no difference. Foley argued that this meant that the social identity of disabled individuals did not affect their burial. Within the mound there was social egalitarianism.

Scalping as assessed by Rudolph as an indicator of social interactions at Aztalan. At the site there were 20 individuals buried, 13 of which had signs of scalping and 6 of those 13 had other post-cranial wounds. Of these, 4 were female and 7 were male. She argued that these burials likely represent warriors who were taken during battle as a trophy. Women were found because they were also involved in warfare. Ethnographic evidence showed that women were just as fierce as men.

Millward looked at the influence of the Mississippian transition on the placement of burials using DNA analysis. The site under examination was the Yokem mounds in the lower Illinois valley. 10 individuals in mound 5 and 19 individuals from mound 2 were analyzed. She compared mtDNA to see if burials were placed according to familial ties. The study showed that family was not the basis of the burial locations. Millward concluded that further research needed to be done to understand burial location.

Cook examined nasopharyngeal carcinomas in ancient Illinois and Indiana. She examined three skulls in particular from the Midwest region and provided a differential diagnosis of each. The best diagnosis for all was nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Cook then discussed the implications of this disease, specifically that it would slowly degrade the individual’s face, removing their identity. However, the individuals continue to be buried with other members of society. Therefore their disfigurement was not noteworthy in death.

The entire symposium was summed up with a discussion by Goldstein. Each discussant assessed, with the main critique being that if reanalysis is being done that the researcher needs to go back to the original sources. This is especially necessary when the original archaeologists are still alive.

From my perspective, I would have liked to see more synthesis and to have the research move beyond the basic analysis of skeletal material. Given that there was a plethora of information on Archaic through Mississippian culture in the Midwest available from this conference alone, some broader cultural trends should begin to be noticed. First, there appears to be an ideology of social equality as seen in the DNA and disability analysis. This can further be assessed by looking at iconography and public buildings, such as those analyzed by O’Gorman.Second, warfare and conflict was noted to be prevalent in the domestic sites, and also seen in the skeletal material. These two sources of information could be synthesized to gain more information. However, overall the studies were well done and the conference as a whole revealed a large amount of new information that can be used to better understand this region.

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