Social Bioarchaeology

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The third wave of engagement within the field of bioarchaeology is anchored in the greater contextualization of archaeological skeletal remains. While the incorpo- ration of archaeological contextual information has been central in the study of mortuary practice for some time for example, see Beck ; Chapman et al. Attention to the biocultural adaptation of the skeleton and the use of state-of-the-art methodology is still maintained in the field; however, current research seeks to integrate elements from biological, behavioral, ecological, and social research.

The goal of this new bioarchaeological practice is to transcend the skeletal body into the realm of lived experience and to make a significant contribution to our understanding of social processes and life in the past.

Titles in this series

Simultaneously, contemporary bioarchaeologists are more keenly aware of the present social world in which their work is practiced, and in which the skeletal remains they study are still situated in. Careful thought and attention is now paid to ethical considerations and the role of multiple stakeholders in bioarchaeological research. While early studies in human osteology emphasized biological and evolutionary change, contemporary bioarchaeology is now clearly a discipline poised to engage with social theory.

In building a social bioarchaeology, scientists are engaged in the construction of the biological and social essence of individuals from the ground, or if you will skeleton up. Ultimately the interest is in reconstructing the biological footings of the skeletal body and cultural framework that has together created the social spaces and the social creatures that inhabit them. The collection of papers here considers the constituent parts in the construction of social bioarchaeological analyses; an emphasis is placed on skeletons and skeletal samples as basic building materials that are contextually situated, engaged in a biocultural framework, and that support and reflect social representations of iden- tity in health and disease.

The opening chapters in Part I, Materials and Meaning: The Nature of Skeletal Samples, present the potential interpretive meaning and practical nature of skeletal samples. The focus in these chapters is on how the skeletal materials we study came to be, and how people in the past can affect and transform people today. They go beyond, to further outline how theoretical sophistication in the field has led to the greater historical and archaeological contextualization of skeletal samples, and growing concern for uncovering aspects of the social past. In Chapter 3, Turner and Andrushko explore the meaning and importance of human remains to both archaeologists and culturally affiliated descent groups.

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In recent years there has been much written on the ethical practice of excavation, curation, and study of indigenous human skeletal remains by bioarchaeologists Turner et al. However, there has been little discussion of the role of descendent populations and the ethical practice of bioarchaeology internation- ally. With their presentation of the practical and ethical concerns of studying human skeletal remains in Peru, Turner and Andrushko begin the dialogue on how bioar- chaeologists trained in the post-NAGPRA age can carry out ethical bioarchaeology outside North America.

They describe the very different ethical landscapes in researching indigenous Peruvian remains in comparison to those in North America, which are created by the unique relationships between indigenous Peruvians and the central government, tourism, and foreign archaeologists. In doing so the authors are able to delineate the potential pitfalls and successes possible in the practice of ethical bioarchaeology internationally. The emphasis in their paper is one of how descent groups form different views and agendas for research involving human remains, and the critical importance of developing a deep understanding of the contextual influences of descendant perspectives and beliefs that is widely applica- ble to bioarchaeological research in any geographical area.

Social Bioarchaeology

The remaining two chapters in Part I deal with the realities of the skeletal record itself, specifically the processes of taphonomy that create the burial record and the biased construction of skeletal populations. Although there has been much recent discussion in mortuary archaeology on the social formation of burials Beck ; Rakita et al.

In Chapter 4, Weiss-Krejci provides a detailed discussion of the formation processes of mortuary skeletal samples using a graphic model exemplified with historic and ethnographic exam- ples. She then goes on to provide a retrospective analysis of the formation of mor- tuary deposits from the prehistoric Mayan site of Tikal.


Further, this work reminds us that we must remain vigilant of the fact that the data we collect and how we categorize it is in fact part of our interpretation, and to use our own cultural norms as the basis for these categorizations can render the results removed from the social realities of the past. In Chapter 5, Jackes critically examines human skeletal samples as the underpinnings of social bioarchaeological analyses. She prudently crafts the ground- work noting inherent properties of skeletal samples and their implications for reconstructing the social past.

This work begins with a demonstration of the influ- ence of changing social and historical context from immigration, emigration, and war to religious affiliation, occupation, social status, and personal choice, on the composition of the historic cemetery of St. Above all, this paper emphasizes the need to view both the skeleton and its context as integrated and inseparable, requiring the incorporation of both for the effect of a stronger foundation to social bioarchaeology.

Identities are composed of multiple features that are connected together in an edifice of individual personhood. While this includes sex and gender, constructs of identity also include aspects such as age, religion, ethnicity, and disability. Hollimon Chapter 6 begins with the universal variable of biological sex, which underlies not only socially con- structed gendered identities but research of any type involving human remains.

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Hollimon then goes on to discuss the study of gender identity through various sources in bioarchaeology including mortuary analysis, activity reconstruction, body modification, health and disease, diet, violence and warfare. She points out that since bioarchaeologists investigate human biocultural interactions framed within their historical and cultural context, they are well equipped to supply a compre- hensive picture of sex and gender in the archaeological record.

In outlining future avenues of research in the field, Hollimon points to the use of queer theory and life course perspectives to better understand the construction of gender identity in the past. In Chapter 7, Zakrzewski emphasizes the need to address complexity and fluidity of identity through holistic analyses. In her chapter, she builds up evidence for the often intangible feature of ethnicity as expressed in a medieval skeletal assemblage from Iberia.

Metric and nonmetric skeletal traits have long been considered impor- tant in the application of biological distance studies of inter-group variation among large temporal or geographically separated groups for reviews see Pietrusewsky ; Saunders and Rainey This work enables new insights on interpretation of intra- group variation and the identification of small subgroups of individuals with unique social and ethnic identities.

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Most importantly, Zakrzewski illustrates how ethnic identity is formed within a dynamic system constructed of social processes and personal choices, and how in the Iberian example migration and religious conver- sion are driving forces. The chapter by Barrett and Blakey Chapter 8 is also concerned with the recon- struction of identity, along with social inequality, as articulated through the skeletal and historical life histories of enslaved Africans in colonial New York.

Employing multiple lines of evidence, including the skeletal, archaeological, and documentary records, the authors reconstruct the lives of the men and women of the New York African Burial Ground. Contextualizing the New York African Burial Ground project within the greater field of African American bioarchaeology, Barrett and Blakey utilize skeletal stress markers to make distinctions between the quality of life and health shared by enslaved individuals born free in Africa, and those born into slavery in New York City. Finally, in Chapter 9 Roberts explores identity and embodiment through disease experiences in the past.

Adding to the recent use of disability theory to examine the physical and social costs of disease in the past Hawkey ; Roberts , Roberts considers quality of life, for those stricken with leprosy and tuberculosis in late medieval England in the context of perceptions and stigma associated with these diseases. While individuals with either disease are stigmatized today, in late medieval England leprosy was commonplace in special hospitals as well as social constructions of health. Interestingly, the bioarchaeological record provides little evidence to support the idea of nonacceptance of people with leprosy or tuberculosis by the communities in which they resided.

Roberts notes that bioarchaeologists, in conducting disease research, have long dealt with aspects of identity although they have failed to be explicit in stating so, and this may be due to a preoccupation with material rather than conceptual understandings of disease. Since bioarchaeologists routinely rely on syntheses of clinical, archaeological, and historical evidence, she demonstrates how they can potentially contribute to our understanding of not only the physical, but also the mental and social experience of disease.

In the third and final part of the volume, Part III, Growth and Aging: The Life Course of Health and Disease, six papers address aspects of biological and social age in the past, and the application of life course theory to research on growth, aging, diet, and injury in bioarchaeology. In Chapter 10, Sofaer examines the theoretical foundations for the social understanding of age and aging in relation to the study of human remains. Determination of age or age structure is a core component of all skeletal-based investigations. Bioarchaeologists and paleopathologists, in dealing with biological materials, have necessarily relied on biological age estimations as the basis for interpretation.

Through the exploration and comparison of alternate approaches to the study of age in philosophy, psychology, and sociology, Sofaer provides us with provocative and novel theoretical directions for the social under- standing of age and the aging process in bioarchaeology. She also highlights the challenges faced by bioarchaeologists to reconcile their interpretative focus on biology with a wider understanding of age as more than a category, but rather a process situated within human development, including life experiences and atti- tudes toward age and aging.

Agarwal and Beauchesne Chapter 11 further critically examine aging in bioarchaeology in their discussion of the plasticity and develop- ment of the skeleton. The authors first provide an overview of the history and limi- tations of the concept of plasticity and adaptation in human biology and bioarchaeology. They then explore alternative perspectives on human morphology in development and plasticity, particularly drawing from theoretical approaches of developmental systems theory DST and life course theory.

Agarwal and Beauchesne outline new directions in the study of bone maintenance and aging of the skeleton that are possible with the integration of ideas in both biological and social theory.


More importantly, this work calls for a focus on the pivotal role of ontogenetic processes and embodied lived experience in the construction of the healthy and aged skeleton. Chapters 12 and 13 consider the bioarchaeology of childhood. They first discuss the issues of terminology in subadult research, and provide a historical overview of the primary methods of assessing subadult health in the skeletal record such as the examination of nonspecific stress indicators, diet, and trauma. The authors then present a detailed examination of the construction of childhood and the social child.

Echoing earlier chapters in this volume, they argue that biosocial approaches to age and childhood need to integrate the bio archaeological data with childhood social theory, and not view biological and social aspects of the body as mutually exclusive. Chapter 13 provides us with a bioarchaeological example of modeling childhood from the skeletal record. Using multiple indicators of skeletal stress, Littleton presents a comprehensive picture of growing up in the Hellenistic period in Bahrain through an exploration of the biological, environmental, and sociocul- tural influences on the risk of survival.

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  • Further, this work highlights how localized ecological conditions place children at risk or may in fact protect them from the external environment. In Chapter 14, Glencross argues that paleopathology, and particularly skeletal injury, are unique sources of biological data that when combined with other contextual information have the ability to make significant contributions to the exploration of social identity, cultural age, and social agency across the life course.

    She emphasizes the strong relationship between growth, development, chronologi- cal age, fracture patterns, and associated behaviors as forming the basis for identify- ing age-related patterns of skeletal injury. As an example, Glencross integrates evidence from mortuary data and age-centered patterns of skeletal injury at Indian Knoll within the context of traditional value systems. She demonstrates for the group, peak fracture frequencies at adolescence, middle age, and in old adults, with distinct patterns between males and females. Glencross shows that when inter- preted in the context of traditional value systems, the patterns of fracture risk highlight how communities shape and guide individual behavior in social relations and responsibilities across the life course.

    Social Bioarchaeology

    This work also clearly shows how the added dimension of viewing skeletal fractures as accumulated pathology boosts our ability to understand skeletal injury in the context of lifelong processes. In the final chapter Chapter 15 , Prowse uses life course theory to explore diet and dental health in the Roman Imperial first—third centuries A.

    Like Glencross, her approach is interdisciplinary, integrating the analy- sis of stable isotopes and dental pathology data within the historical context of Roman Italy. She specifically integrates isotopic and dental evidence with literary and archaeological evidence of food choice in the Roman diet.

    Prowse clearly shows that men and women were eating different diets and points to the historical evidence from the Roman period that suggests tighter control over the bodies and behaviors of women, and the disparate status of Roman women as compared to men. The overarching theme of all the chapters of this volume and social bioarchaeol- ogy more broadly, is that of the contextualization of human skeletal remains.

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    • Current bioarchaeology has also never been more noticeably distinct from the descriptive and reductionist skeletal biology of the past. Contemporary bioarchaeologists are much more engaged with social theory as they strive to better connect the biology and social construction of the skeleton. Easily stemming from this and ethics in archaeology, is the growing interest in the practice of a bioarchaeology that involves community outreach and consideration of multiple stakeholders Swidler Further, as evinced in these chapters, the success of the field is in the use of multidisciplinary and multiscalar research that can skillfully glide between varying levels of analysis and builds on collaborative perspectives.

      Perhaps most exciting is the realization that the temporal and regional boundaries of bioarchaeology can be pushed open. It is with these new directions and hopes that social bioarchaeol- ogy is poised as a truly holistic field to rebuild the lives and people of the past.