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Social Archaeology of Human Remains, eds Rebbeca Gowland & Christopher Knüsel
Oxford, Oxbow Books. 2006. 312pp, 110 line figs and plates, hb. ISBN 1-84217-211-5 (£60)

Archaeology is the study of past societies. Very often it is the study of ‘things’ (or as my teenage son might say, ‘stuff’) and it is the materiality of the past that puts us in touch with past populations, societies and (rarely) individuals. We talk in terms of ‘cultures’, ‘societies’, ‘elites’ and ‘peoples’ but rarely do we talk in terms of individuals. There are exceptions. The body of adult and child in the ditch at Hambledon Hill – the adult killed by an arrow and the child crushed by his fall – and the Beaker fisherman at Molenaarsgraaf who choked to death when a pike bone lodged in his throat are two small windows that allow us a glimpse of real and individual-specific events that constantly remind students that these ‘past societies’ comprise individuals who, like us, had concerns, faced dangers, lived, laughed and loved. The editors of this volume rightly point out that in looking at skeletal remains we are looking at individuals and when data are combined, through human remains we can investigate larger questions such as diet, health, mobility, occupation and so on. ‘On a micro-level, skeletal remains can often provide intimate information concerning individuals……but equally one can “zoom out” and find answers to population level questions…. Few forms of archaeological evidence have this investigational sensitivity’ (p. ix). In championing the study of human remains, the editors go on to point out the secondary importance of skeletal analyses in some excavation reports and ask ‘Why should this be when these are the remains of the people who inhabited the past, who farmed animals, made the pots, built the houses etc., and whose very lives we are trying to access?’ (ibid). The editors urge a greater research relationship between osteologists and ‘interpretive archaeologists’ and most of the contributors to this volume attempt to do just that albeit with varying degrees of success.

Bello and Andrews examine factors such as taphonomy and human manipulation that might affect the survival of skeletal remains, the very well documented Spitalfields example clearly demonstrating that age and sex are important factors in considering taphonomic processes. This discussion leads on in part to the consideration of primary and secondary, individual and multiple burial, practices at Çatalhöyük by the same authors but in reverse order.

Duday’s paper, accompanied by some excellent drawings examines how detailed recording can advance our understanding of body position and decomposition. Taphonomic processes and human manipulation of human remains in Neolithic megalithic tombs are discussed by Beckett and Robb using a simulation model to examine the movement of skeletal elements from deposition to ultimate recovery. They lament the lack of dialogue between interpretive archaeologists and osteologists but do not really take into consideration the fact that many of these sites were excavated a long time ago when archaeology was in its infancy. Their claim that sites such as West Kennet were ‘poorly excavated and published’ (p. 57) is less than fair given the dates of the excavation and does not acknowledge the development of either discipline (both archaeology and palaeoosteology). It is also at odds with the comments of other re-investigators of West Kennet that ‘it is worth stressing that the recent work was only possible thanks to the quality of the excavations…’ (Bayliss et al. 2007, 97).

McKinley turns our attention to cremation and the reasons for it. It seems not to have been a cheap option, but rather a display event, even the conspicuous consumption of wealth, and may be a speedy but costly way of transforming a cadaver to skeletal state. The use of classical and historic texts may or may not be useful in considering cremation in a prehistoric environment and while McKinley rightly notes that many prehistoric cremations are ‘token’ in that complete bodies are rarely represented, this is attributed to the processes of combustion and selection which may be too simplistic. There is a growing amount of evidence to suggest that many incomplete bodies were being inhumed in the British Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age so why not also cremated? Indeed some in situ cremation pits suggest that unfleshed bone or even dismembered body parts were being burnt (Gibson 1993, 36-7; 2004).

Not just bodies in the early historic period, but Bond and Worley remind us of the inclusion of animal bones in Saxon and Viking cremations. While feasting or the inclusion of food animals in the pyre may have been part of the cremation ritual, the inclusion of other species may be more totemic as might be expected in an age when animal and human forms are intermingled in artistic expression.

Isotopic analysis is arguably one of the greatest advances in archaeological science: certainly from the point of view of reconstructing diet (and perhaps therefore social status) and identifying the potential mobility of individuals and populations. Papers by Le Huray et al. and Montgomery and Evans tackle these issues. Stable isotope analysis of Iron Age skeletons from the Czech Republic has identified a meat and dairy-rich diet amongst those buried with weaponry while the analysis of lead and strontium isotopes in the Outer Hebrides suggests that the islands were host to a dynamic and mobile population in the first millennium AD.

Gowland returns to grave goods and examines age in relation to gender specific or neutral artefacts in Anglo-Saxon contexts. She dismisses the myth that younger males are more often associated with weaponry and argues that fluid age or life-stages may well have been integral contributors to a person’s status. Sofaer and Stone and Walrath address the topic of gender in their contributions and Stone and Walrath in particular dispel many generalisations and simplicities regarding women’s health and particularly death in childbirth.

More myths are dispelled in Mays’ article on the skeletal evidence from monastic contexts. While more data are undoubtedly required, Mays dismisses some of the assumptions regarding the comparatively opulent lifestyle of these communities. In particular, the ‘Friar Tuck-like’ images based on osteological data are statistically unviable. Fay remains in the late Medieval period and examines the graves of the ‘diseased’ in Norwich. In particular, she examines the burials of those with disfiguring diseases (leprosy etc) and concludes that the role of lepers and other disfigured people was far from the ‘us and them’ dichotomy that history might suggest and that ‘Medieval attitudes to the chronic sick were ambivalent and variable’ (p. 205). Knüsel examines the other end of the social spectrum in Medieval Europe and examines how the Investiture Contest can serve as a model for the interpretation of human remains: how the mode of burial of a predecessor can ensure the succession of his successor. Using the Merovingian Childeric and his heir Clovis as an example, Knüsel concludes ‘perhaps the individual in prehistory …may be glimpsed not only in their own burial but also – perhaps more clearly – in that of their predecessor’. This reflects the growing realisation in prehistory that people did not ‘take’ objects to the grave with them, but rather that the living ‘gave’ the deceased their grave goods. Needless to say this important distinction may greatly affect the way we see grave goods as reflecting the social status of the deceased.

The two papers that follow, one by Schulting and the other by Novak look at interpersonal violence from two completely different viewpoints. Schulting takes a Europe-wide look at the Mesolithic and Neolithic skeletal material exhibiting trauma from embedded projectiles to impacted skulls. As Schulting concludes, the surviving dataset is likely to represent just a small proportion of violent deaths and injuries in the period as deaths from soft organ damage may not show themselves skeletally. There are many reasons for and forms of interpersonal violence and Schulting is careful not to draw general conclusions from small and specific datasets. Novak by contrast turns her attention to very specific form of interpersonal violence – domestic violence usually between males and females within a formal relationship. She concludes that this form of abuse, usually seen as the bane of western society may have far more far-reaching implications for women’s health and mortality in the past.

Knüsel and Outram examine the evidence for defleshing individuals and propose key factors for the identification of cannibalised human remains. Drawing largely from American literature and examples they discuss the shadowy literary evidence for the practice and also highlight the reasons for it. Following from Schulting’s discussion of interpersonal violence Prehistorians are starting to emerge into the increasin stark realities of past societies from the comfort of the politically over-correct and sanitised anthropologies of the late 20thC.

The two concluding chapters deal with body modification and the social implications behind the art. Geller examines a case study in Mesoamerica while Pettitt looks to Palaeolithic Europe. When body modification is dental and/or skeletal then archaeologically it can be easy to identify but Pettit reminds us that body art can take a variety of forms from painting to tattooing to scarring which would leave little archaeological trace in all but the most exceptional archaeological environments. Pettitt examines the similarities in death ritual amongst social groups of the 27th and 24th millennia BP and notes that while many burials are male, most contemporary figurines are female. They may represent ‘modelled dead’ or liminal beings.

This volume certainly contains some thought-provoking articles. Not everyone will find each article useful or relevant, but they do nevertheless bring together a wealth of information on the value of detailed palaeosteological and chemical analyses. In the growing world of contractual archaeology however, I wonder how routinely these techniques may come to be applied? How many cremations and/or multiple articulated deposits will be recorded in sufficient minute detail to facilitate some of the approaches advocated here? I hope that unit excavators will see the potential in these research techniques and that developers may fund accordingly.

Alex Gibson
Bradford University

Bayliss, A., Whittle, A. & Wysocki, M. 2007. Talking About My Generation: the date of the West Kennet Long Barrow. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17:1 (supplement), 85-101
Gibson, A.M. 1993. The Excavation of Two cairns and Associated Features at Carneddau, carno, Powys, 1989-90. Archaeological Journal 150, 1-45
Gibson, A.M. 2004. Burials and Beakers: Seeing Beneath the Veneer in Late Neolithic Britain. In Czebreszuk, J. (ed.), Similar but Different: Bell Beakers in Europe. Poznan: Adam Mickiewicz University, 173-191

Review Submitted: May 2007

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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