Review of Mortuary Archaeology and Bioarchaeology from 2014

Happy New Years! This past year has been a fantastic one for new mortuary and bioarchaeological discoveries. In this post, I’m going to review some of the best and worst of trends in the archaeology of the dead from 2014, as well as my favorite bioarchaeological finds. Feel free to add your own favorite articles and finds from the last year in the comments.

Top Finds

  1. Royal children’s burial ground found in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: Close to the royal tombs in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings, excavations by Egyptologists from the University of Basel identified the burial place of several children as well as other family members of two pharaohs, many of whom have now been identified based on writing and inscriptions found on site (See the full article on Heritage Daily).
  2. Roman Slave Cemetery Unearthed in France: Excavations of a cemetery in Southwest France revealed a 1st to 2nd century AD cemetery that dates to Roman occupation of the area. Further investigation revealed that a number of the individuals were shackled, evidence that they may have been slaves or killed in the nearby gladiatorial arena (See the full article on Past Horizons).
  3. Deviant Polish Burials were Not Immigrants, Locals: This is a best and worst for me. New studies showed that deviant burials from Poland that show the characteristics of being perceived as vampires were found to be locals, not immigrants as previously thought. See below for more discussion and the full write up about this find here on Bones Don’t Lie.
  4. Naia, the earliest American human remains: While Naia was discovered a number of years ago, we only just learned what her remains mean- Multiple methods used to date her teeth and bones suggests that she lived between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago, making her one of the earliest humans ever found in the Americas (See the full article on Archaeology Magazine).

Trends

  1. Questioning Age in the Past: One of my favorite articles this past year questioned why we don’t find the elderly in the archaeological record- is it simply because people didn’t live long? Cave and Oxenham argued that the actual age to which people lived in the past may be much higher than previously thought, and found that the elderly are invisible to the archaeological not because they weren’t there, but because our methods obscured us from seeing them (Cave and Oxenham 2014).
  2. Questioning Text: Texts are tricky- they can easily be biased, are often written with a purpose, and may omit things that archaeologists would have seen as important in the past. However, we are increasingly able to question and use text to better interpret the past. Work by Austin questioned whether Egyptian texts that claim that the workers on tombs had free medical care were actually true by comparing them against the human remains (Austin 2014). Mariotti, Condemi and Belcastro reexamined the archaeological photographs and excavation records from an Iberomaurusian necropolis and were able to create more nuanced interpretations about their ancient burial practices (Mariotti, Condemi and Belcastro 2014).
  3. Vampires Remain Popular and Problematic: Honestly, the most problematic thing I kept running into this past year was the misconceptions about the excavations of ‘vampires’. First- there aren’t real vampires, only people who were buried with special rituals to prevent potential or perceived spiritual or health related problems among the living. Second- we don’t know why specific people were determined to be vampires, though we do have some potential hypotheses (see this article on who the vampires may have been and why they may have been selected). Finally- read the original scholarly publication and beware popular news articles. As pointed out by Kristina Killgrove on her awesome special edition of ‘Who Needs an Osteologist”, news articles can be very very very wrong (See her post here).
  4. Death Today: One of the things I’m most impressed with over this past year is the increased discussion about modern death. In my post, the Future of Cemeteries, we looked at how cemeteries are changing and how we are increasingly looking at new ways to deal with death and the dead. Groups like Order of the Good Death, Urban Death Project, and others are becoming increasingly popular are modern populations realize the need to engage more with the dead, rather than leave it to be ignored and defined by modern medicine. It is exciting to see people fighting to die with dignity, to choose how their death is defined and proceeds, and talk about death openly. Hopefully this trend continues!

More personally, one of the best discussions I had this year was with Roger Overall and Sarah Wheldon on the Oceans Podcast. It was my first time doing a podcast, and it was so much fun to discuss Vikings and the dead with them. I loved the podcast format and hopefully will get to do this again in the near future! Perhaps I’ll even start my own…

To listen to the Oceans Podcast on Viking burials, go to their podcast site here on Audioboom: https://audioboom.com/boos/2745873-episode-35-eating-fish-eyes-and-drinking-your-crewmates-blood

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