Hello! Michelle here again to share with you a bit more about the osteology and what kind of work we’re doing here with the Round Mounds project. You may remember from previous osteo posts that I have taken you through the process of assessment and some of the results of the initial assessment, so I thought now I would take you through some of the theory and practice which directs what we are doing here with the Manx bones. There are many different ways to approach archaeologically derived human remains, this is why I strongly believe in co-operative work and sharing resources, and why one of the important parts of this project is the creation of an osteological database for the Manx Museum. By generating basic inventories for this project and lodging them at the Manx Museum, it provides a jumping off point for future researchers who may want to approach the skeletal material with different research questions. In the long run the data is also being lodged with the Archaeological Data Service so that other archaeologists can access it online.
In previous posts, we have gone through some of the questions we can and are asking of this skeletal material, but how are these constructed? To understand this, a bit of history helps (if you want more history on the evolution of this stream of science, Buikstra and Roberts (2012) The Global History of Paleopathology or Buikstra and Beck (2006) Bioarchaeology: The contextual analysis of human remains are good starting points).
The analysis of human remains in archaeology has a very long history, rooted in the various anthropological disciplines, and more specifically Physical Anthropology. This discipline studies the biological aspects of humans and their evolution, including our primate relatives and early hominid species. It is also known as Biological Anthropology, and is based around the collection of metric and non-metric data from humans and primates, exploring things like growth, development and evolution. It is within these principles of data collection that we get the scales of assessment I mentioned in an earlier post, to evaluate the age-at-death or biological sex of an individual.
There are many different streams of research which use human remains from the past to explore questions about the past, whether it be far back or more recent. Depending on where you are in the world, you will hear different terms used, and each has a slightly different meaning. Biological Anthropology is now more or less equated with Physical Anthropology, and as noted above, uses biological data to discuss questions of human evolution and development. Bioarchaeology, is the methodological framework which I work within to try and answer questions about the prehistoric people on the Isle of Man.
In the first osteo blog post I defined what osteology is (study of bones) and what the bioarchaeological framework is and how we apply it to the study of past human remains. I will expand a bit on that here. Bioarchaeology, as a term is a bit contentious within archaeological circles, as in many places it is taken as it was originally intended, to encompass the study of all biological material from archaeological contexts. This means, it also includes faunal (animal, bird, and fish bones) and botanical (plant seeds, textiles, pollens, and any other plant-based remains) research. However, in the late 1970s in the U.S., the term bioarchaeology was re-defined and places human remains in the centre of exploring cultural-historical questions about the past. It focuses on human osteology (study of bones) and palaeopathology (study of past suffering/disease), alongside material culture (artefact analysis), zooarchaeology (animal bones), archaeobotany (plant remains) and contextual research to answer problem-oriented questions about the past. For example, this means that we are no longer asking, ‘how tall were people in Bronze Age Isle of Man?’; we are asking, ‘what can the estimated stature of individuals from Bronze Age Isle of Man tell us about their general health status?’ Or, ‘what are the implications of the estimated stature of individuals from Bronze Age Isle of Man in regards to child rearing and health?’ We now want to explore, as much as possible, the life and lifeways of individuals in the past.
I have to say here, this does not mean that we don’t still need to focus on our methods of biological analysis. There is still a long way to go in regards to clarifying and refining the currently accepted scales we apply to the skeletal material. The methods of age assessment, sex determination and stature estimation are constantly being up-dated and refined for different populations. Dedicated researchers use collections where the individuals within the collection have a known age-at-death, and sometimes even the medical records are known. These collections provide an invaluable resource for those in forensics (science used for the detection of crime), forensic anthropology (physical anthropology applied to a legal setting), medical anthropology (study of health, disease and medicine), not to mention bioarchaeologists.
So what does this mean for our work on the Isle of Man? Well, both Chris and Rachel are well-known and strong theoretical archaeologists, meaning that they apply various philosophical theories and methods to archaeological material to draw a more in-depth understanding of human actions and motivations in the past. As the bioarchaeologist, I can contribute to their discussion of burial practices (the actions around the burying of the bones), funerary practices (the actions prior to, and including, the burying of the individual), and population demographics. When we know more about the people that were buried, where they were buried, and how they were buried, we can start to think about why they were buried in a particular manner or place or with certain objects. Therefore, by incorporating the biological data into the archaeological context, as best I can (some of the excavations were done in the 19th century!), we can gain a greater understanding of the Neolithic and Bronze Age populations.
If you like Human Osteology and Bioarchaeology, I can recommend these great blogs:
Powered by Osteons by Kristina Killgrove http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/
These Bones of Mine https://thesebonesofmine.wordpress.com/
Bones Don’t Lie http://www.bonesdontlie.com/