Astypalaia Bioarchaeology Project

Project Director

Prof Simon Hillson 

This is a collaboration with 22nd Ephorate of Prehistoric & Classical Antiquities. The Director of the 22nd Ephorate is Maria Filimonos, and the archaeologist responsible for Astypalaia is Maria Kollia. Simon Hillson's role is to supervise the human remains team from UCL, which is responsible for recovering, cleaning, conserving, cataloguing, recording, studying and storing the human remains from the sites on the island.

Brief purpose of project

  1. To recover, record and store the human remains from the Kylindra and Katsalos sites in a suitable state for research.
  2. To investigate variation in the pattern of skeletal and dental growth during childhood from the large collection of young children's remains
  3. To investigate the degree of biological affinity between individuals buried on the sites and to consider movements of people in relation to the origins of the large amphora assemblage
  4. To investigate the commingled assemblage of adults and children from the Katsalos site, reconstruct the individuals present and assess the evidence they provide for the way of life and health of people on the island in Archaic/ Classical times.

Research Design

The project is a collaboration between the 22 nd Ephorate of Prehistoric & Classical Antiquities and the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. Since 1999, the 22 nd Ephorate has been excavating two large cemeteries on the island of Astypalaia in the Dodecanese . Most of the burials date to Late Archaic – Early Classical times (600-400 BC). One cemetery, Katsalos, includes both adults and children with fragmentary remains representing perhaps some 200 people. The other larger cemetery, Kylindra, includes only young children buried in small coffins made from amphorae and domestic pots. Kylindra is absolutely unique, both within Greece and the world in general. The Ephorate’s excavations have exposed 1800 children’s burials, and this is by several times the largest archaeological assemblage of young children’s remains in the world. We have been working together since 2000 and a UCL team has visited Astypalaia annually, using funding from the Institute of Archaeology , British Academy and Arts & Humanities Research Board.

To date we have recovered, cleaned, conserved, recorded and stored 650 children’s skeletons from Kylindra. Most are in a state of development which suggests they were newborn babies, but they vary from very premature babies, to children who must have died 1 or 2 years after birth. These skeletons provide us with a unique opportunity to study the changing size and shape of the bones during growth in early childhood, together with the form of the developing teeth.

Our preliminary results have been submitted for publication as a chapter in “New Directions in the Skeletal Biology of Greece”, a volume in the Occasional Wiener Laboratory Series of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens . We have also been establishing new techniques at UCL to study development of teeth through the very finely layered structure of the dental tissue enamel. Using independently known ages-at-death for children buried at Christchurch , Spitalfields, in London , we have been able to confirm that these microscopic structures represent a daily rhythm of enamel matrix formation. Teeth are developing inside the jaws of babies even before birth, and we intend to use these new techniques as a clock against which to calibrate the development state of the Kylindra children. The project is exciting for us, because it provides the best collection in the world on which we can work.

Wider relevance of project

Growth is an important indicator of health and nutrition in living children. It is monitored, not only through overall body size and proportions, but also by the size of major bones or wrist bone development, and the teeth provide a useful sequence with which to compare other parts of the body. Research in modern children can only be carried out by postmortems, or x-ray studies, both of which pose severe practical and ethical problems. Up until now, there have been no large research collections of young children’s skeletons, and we believe the Kylindra assemblage is the largest such collection anywhere, even including those in anatomy museums. For these reasons, there have been few large studies so, whereas the general sequence of development is known, there is little detail on variation in the sequence, or in the size and three-dimensional morphology of the different developing elements. Development of the skeleton and dentition have never been directly compared in any study. In order to investigate these things, a large number of skeletons and associated dentitions, at a range of different stages of development, is needed. The aim of the Astypalaia project is to provide that research resource.

Aims of project

  1. To establish a large and well documented resource for research on growth and development of the human skeleton and dentition. Part of the resource will be the remains themselves, which will be stored in the Astypalaia Bioarchaeology Centre, in the large old school building provided by the island council and administered by 22 nd Ephorate. The island council is very much in support of the project. As well as a store, the Centre will provide a laboratory, a study room, a museum display and a project office. The other part of the resource will be the online catalogue, photographs, plans and records that form the database which is being built for the project.
  2. To investigate the origins of the people buried in the Astypalaia cemeteries. Initially, this will be by examining the morphology of the teeth, which tends to run in families and will allow us to make a preliminary study of possible relationships between different burials. We also hope to use an approach based on the analysis of stable isotopes of Strontium, which make it possible to reconstruct migration, based on variation in geology between different regions. The young children are all buried in re-used amphorae, from many parts of the eastern Mediterranean , so the Ephorate’s study of them will yield additional information about the links of the city state on Astypalaia.
  3. To study the growth and development of the skeleton and dentition, using dental histology, measurements and digital imaging techniques.

Recent Developments

Successful field season in Astypalaia, August-September 2005

Funded by travel grants from the Institute of Archaeology and Centre for the Classical World. We have now taken the total of skeletons recovered and recorded to 720. In addition, 6 new archaeologists were trained to work on the unusual remains from the site, and several of them are likely to come again.

More detailed discussions of plans for Bioarchaeology Research Centre. Some of our completed material was moved in to the new Centre, so we have at least established a presence.

Invited talks

13 April 2005, The Archaeological Institute of America, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. Introduced by Mr E. Efthymiades, the Greek Consul General of Canada. "The Classical cemetery on the Dodecanese island of Astypalaia: the worlds largest assemblage of infant skeletons".

14 October 2005, Natural Sciences Dining Club, University College London. "Studying the development of ancient children from the island of Astypalaia in Greece".

Publication in Press

Hillson, S. The world's largest infant cemetery and its potential for studying growth and development: the Notia Kylindra site on the island of Astypalaia in the Dodecanese. In: New Directions in the Skeletal Biology of Greece, Edited by Lynne Schepartz, Chryssa Bourbou & Sherry Fox. Occasional Wiener Laboratory Series, American School of Classical Studies at Athens Publications Office.

Awards

Simon Hillson was awarded a Foreigner's Fellowship from the Alexander Onassis Public Benefit Foundation. The fellowship will last from January to April 2006 and is to fund work on the material from the first year's excavation on Astypalaia which is stored at the head office of 22nd Ephorate in the castle on the island of Rhodes.

For further information, contact

Prof Simon Hillson


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