Bioarchaeology is Archaeology is Anthropology

“In recent years bioarchaeology has gained considerable prominence, underscoring the fact that death, burials, and associated mortuary practices are multifaceted phenomena shaped by biological, social, ideological, and taphonomic factors. Few studies attempting social reconstruction through mortuary analysis, including those of a bioarchaeological character, have adequately addressed this multidimensionality” (Shimada et al. 2004).

This quote properly echoes what Willey and Phillips argued back in 1958 regarding archaeology as anthropology or nothing. It has become increasingly prevalent for bioarchaeological studies to be undertaken in a void, with the lab serving as the only context for understanding the material. However, in order to understand the data that one has, it is important to look at the underlying relevant variables. To understand the nature of the data, it is necessary to know where it came from and what it was found in relationship to. One example of this, while not relating directly to mortuary analysis, was discussed by Chippindale (2000). He noted that a number of rock art studies looked at the pictographs as line drawings. While this helped to simplify and clarify the image itself, it is now thought that the patterns within the rock itself and location of the pictograph may be just as pivotal towards understanding its meaning as the actual form. The positioning of cracks in the rock, the patterns of colors, the inclusions within it and even the overall texture need to be considered. We need to take this as a cautionary tale for bioarchaeology.

Ubelaker and Rife’s (2011) study on early Roman chamber tombs in Kenchreai, Greece does an excellent job of combining bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology in examining the skeletal remains found there. The cemetery is located on the coast, and served as the burial ground for the urban center of Corinth from the 1st to 7th centuries CE. The team excavated 30 chamber tombs and 60 cist graves, however the focus on this examination is on the former. Human remains within the tombs were found either as full skeletal remains within shelf like compartments and cremations in heavy urns found within niches. Cremations did not occur within the chamber tombs, and but at an external location. It is unknown as to why there are two different forms of burial, but may relate to status within the familyThe tombs housed the remains of local elites, and while the tombs are relatively homogenous, there is some display of owner wealth and prominence. These tombs began to be constructed in the 1st century CE as Corinth became a major hub for economy, and were used by up to 8 generations. By the 3rd or 4th century the tombs fell out of use, although the reason for this is unknown.

Ubelaker and Rife 2011

Tomb 10 is the focus of their study due to its excellent skeletal preservation and variable sample. The goal of the more specific examination was to interpret the use of inhumation versus cremation, examine the demography of the skeletal remains, and understand the use of chamber tombs and broader funerary practices in early Roman Greece. The archaeologists pay close attention to and detail the examination of the archaeological context, taphonomy and the human skeletal remains. They found 23 individuals, 15 of which were inhumed in loculi, and 8 of which were cremated and found in niches. There were multiple individuals found in each of the locations; older individuals were displaced to the back and newer ones put in the main area. Based on these lines of evidence, they concluded that these inhumation burials represent multiple generations of the same family. The cremations are argued to have been the servants of the wealthier family.

Ubelaker and Rife (2011) argue that the importance of this study is that we can learn more about Greek society and mortuary practices through a combination of skeletal and archaeological evidence. They note that other studies in this region that have also looked at chamber tombs in the early Roman period have ignored skeletal remains in favor of artifact based data. However, I would argue that the reverse is also likely true. This study shows the utility of taking a number of lines of evidence into consideration. By synthesizing different lines of evidence they are able to create a more nuanced interpretation that adds to our overall understanding the people during this period.

Also, we see again a close attention paid to taphonomic processes and how these affect the archaeological information. As seen in the image above, by paying close attention to the layering and taphonomic processes, Ubelaker and Rife (2011) were able to understand the way that the bodies were placed into the tomb and infer more information on the funerary practices. Being explicit about all processes observed at a site is helpful for the reader to interpret the evidence as presented by the authors. Overall, this article is a good example of doing explicit anthropology.

Works Cited:

Shimada, Shinoa, Farnum, Corruccini and Watanabe. 2004. An Integrated Analysis of Pre‐Hispanic Mortuary Practices: A Middle Sicán Case Study. In Current Anthropology45(3):369-402.
Wiley and Phillips. 1958.Method and Theory in American Archaeology. University of Chicago Press.
Chippindale. 2000. Capta and Data: On the true nature of the archaeological information. In American Antiquity 65(4): 605-612.
Ubelaker and Rife. 2011. Skeletal Analysis and Mortuary Practice in an Early Roman Chamber Tomb at Kenchreai, Greece. In International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 21: 1–18.

One response to “Bioarchaeology is Archaeology is Anthropology

  1. Pingback: Using Broken Bones to Reconstruct Lives | Bones Don't Lie·

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