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New Directions in the Skeletal Biology of Greece

New Directions in the Skeletal Biology of Greece

Edited by Lynne A. Schepartz, Sherry C. Fox, and Chryssi Bourbou (Hesperia Suppl. 43). Pp. xix + 284, figs. 118, tables 58, plan 1. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2009. $75. ISBN 978-0-87661-543-0 (paper).


This is the first volume of a new Hesperia supplemental series dedicated to archaeological science in Greece and published by the Wiener Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. A characteristic feature and major benefit of this book is its broad scope, which reflects the multifaceted research within the skeletal biology of Greece. This diversity is well illustrated by the time periods (Middle Paleolithic–mid 20th century C.E.), geographical locations, and analytical methods represented throughout the volume, as well as the research questions of the individual papers. Health and disease are dealt with in most of the studies, but methodological issues, ritual, population mobility, kinship, mortuary variability, and human development are also covered. It is especially laudable that the editors have included papers on material from periods and areas frequently underrepresented in Aegean skeletal research, even if there is a disappointing gap concerning the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Although not immediately evident from the title, this book focuses on human skeletal remains. Even if this field is wide-ranging and an abundance of interesting and innovative research is illustrated, it would have been commendable to include a few studies integrating human and animal osteology, given the focus on multidisciplinary skeletal research and the perpetual interaction between humans and other species. Because of the intersecting as well as diverging topics, the book could also have benefited from a chronological arrangement of the contributions to facilitate navigation through the volume for readers particularly interested in certain periods. However, the short introduction includes a useful table indicating the relative age of the study samples, and there is a detailed index.

In the first chapter, Buikstra and Lagia give an excellent overview of trends in bioarchaeological research in the Aegean. The authors address the particular problem that many skeletal studies, following old research designs, still assume a detached and supplementary role in archaeological studies, entailing a lack of problem orientation. The remedy argued for by the authors is an integrative research program that includes the use of new bioarchaeological methods. These interdisciplinary efforts are repaid by the potential to approach archaeological and historical questions through new methods and models from skeletal biology. Such a problem-based and contextual approach is also represented in subsequent contributions, so this paper functions, to some extent, as the concluding chapter the book is missing.

Several papers examine the level of physiological and physical stress of intra-cemetery groupings (often sex or status groups). A common focus is also seen in the use of disease markers to study the environmental impacts on populations from different geographical settings as well as the relation between ecological conditions, subsistence, and human adaptation (chs. 7, 8, 10–13). All studies—even those discussing quite small samples—show a strong population perspective in which indicators of compromised health and/or physical activity are assessed in relation to demographic variables and sometimes in comparison with temporally or environmentally differing samples. The value of reanalyzing skeletal materials with an up-to-date methodology is evident through the new results produced by such examinations (chs. 6, 10). Some studies use osteological data to focus on specific issues that have been debated in prehistoric archaeology for a long time. For example, the relation between mortuary behavior and social status (ch. 10), the position of women within Mycenaean society (chs. 10, 11), the presence of male elites and predominance of male burials (ch. 10), and the existence of a certain warrior class in Mycenaean society (ch. 6). Other papers investigate the health and lifestyle of "common people" during periods for which little information is available (chs. 7, 8, 12).

The characteristics and etiology of certain controversial skeletal changes (cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis)—often interpreted as evidence for genetic or acquired (iron deficiency) anemia—are discussed in chapter 16. A combination of histological analyses and macroscopic examinations of prehistoric samples indicates that environmental conditions in which there are parasites and infections related to endemic malaria are important causal factors for these changes in the studied populations.

The dietary choices of temporally and geographically diverse populations as interpreted from stable isotopes and trace elements analyses are discussed in chapters 12–15. These studies demonstrate, among other things, how such data can be used for inferences on subsistence patterns, status, and population mobility. Additional dimensions are provided when the complex interactions between diet and disease are considered through the integration of biochemical results with data on health status.

This volume also covers cultural practices and mortuary ritual. Chapter 3 describes the nature of an ancient cremation burial and discusses features that may suggest similarities with Homeric descriptions of funerary rituals for heroes. The plasticity of the skeleton and its inherent potential to retain and convey ancient cultures’ knowledge of the human body, and culture-specific ways to express social identities, are illustrated in chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 reviews the first evidence for head-shaping in Greece and its potential to aid our understanding of past practices of childcare, cultural contacts, and social complexity. Chapter 5 discusses the context and methods of trepanation, which survived for some time, and the rare findings of instruments that could have been used during the operation. All three papers (chs. 3–5) show how culture-specific information may be obtained through careful examination and contextualization of highly fragmented bone assemblages.

Chapter 9 reports on a major investigation of subadult growth carried out in the large infant cemetery on Astypalia, where thousands of children, many perinatal, were buried. This important material constitutes a unique opportunity to study, in detail, variations in skeletal and dental development, as well as growth patterns of individual bones and teeth. Since growth is one of the most sensitive indicators of subadult health and nutrition, this research will significantly enhance our understanding of interactions between environmental and genetic factors in the early developmental period.

The potential of approaching questions on residential mobility through an integration of chemical analyses of skeletons with their historical and archaeological context is demonstrated in chapter 15, where the question of immigrants at Frankish Corinth is discussed. An example of successful use of mtDNA analysis to tackle questions of kinship between historical persons is offered in chapter 17.

Not only research on modern humans is covered; an exciting example of new research on the fossil record with special reference to the Petralona cranium is presented in chapter 2. Here, the question concerns early human evolution and the morphological similarities between Middle Pleistocene humans from Europe and Africa, discussed in light of morphometric analyses.

In conclusion, this is a collection of highly interesting papers that offers invaluable insight into a diversity of current research themes on past human populations in Greece. The volume will undoubtedly be an important source of information and inspiration for researchers into skeletal biology and other neighboring fields. Its reading is also strongly recommended for archaeologists and historians—especially those who are still unfamiliar with the ever-increasing research potential offered by skeletal remains.

Anne Ingvarsson-Sundström
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History
Uppsala University
751 26 Uppsala

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1142.Ingvarsson-Sundstrom

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