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The Roman and Byzantine Graves and Human Remains

The Roman and Byzantine Graves and Human Remains

By Joseph L. Rife (Isthmia 9). Pp. xlviii + 509, figs. 267, tables 61. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2012. $150. ISBN 978-0-87661-939-1 (cloth).

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Throughout the third quarter of the 20th century, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens excavated the archaic–medieval site of Isthmia, located on the Isthmus of Corinth. The exploration of human burials was not a primary research goal for this project, but nevertheless 30 graves containing 69 individuals mostly dating from the first to the seventh/eighth centuries C.E. were recovered during excavation of the Panhellenic Sanctuary of Poseidon and later fortifications. In such situations in the Mediterranean region, involving an imperfect sample of seemingly disparate burials and a lack of on-site expertise, the human skeletal material often languishes in storage, eventually becoming crushed under stacks of other finds or reburied because of lack of interest.

It is for this reason alone that this exemplary volume should stand as a model for the study and contextualized interpretation of human skeletal remains from other sites in the region. Rife provides an extremely detailed monograph that not only presents mortuary and skeletal information for further comparative study but also attempts to confront larger goals of integrating mortuary archaeological and bioarchaeological data, interpreting the social elements of the burial program at Isthmia, and understanding the site within the context of larger Corinthian social networks. Rife presents his data in two sections, bracketed by an introduction outlining materials and methods and a concluding chapter recontextualizing and summarizing the results.

The introduction touches on the themes of the volume, along with detailed information on documentation of the graves and a description of how the skeletal remains were cleaned and preserved. Table 1.3 provides a useful summary of different taphonomic factors affecting each burial context and how that has affected bone preservation or postmortem disturbance. While this volume is one of a series on Isthmia, I would have liked to have seen a map clearly showing the location of the site (a regional map in fig. 1.1 points out the location of the sanctuary, but it is not immediately obvious that this is meant to show the location of the site) in addition to a map of the Peloponnesian region (which does not show up until the human osteology analysis in part 2).

Part 1 (“The Archaeological, Historical, and Social Context of the Graves”) takes a detailed approach to outlining mortuary behavior, including the material used for grave construction, the size of the interment, the number of bodies in each grave and their position, the artifacts found within the grave context, the spatial context of the grave, and any patterns resulting from variables such as time period and age and sex of the individuals. Descriptions of each grave and associated photographs are organized by location of burial, which makes sense, since each location correlates with discrete periods of use. The descriptions are followed by a catalogue of grave artifacts, which usefully distinguishes between “coincidental,” “incidental,” and “accidental” objects within the tomb. Incidental artifacts are those actually deposited during the mortuary ritual or when the cemetery was in use (often referred to as “grave goods”), coincidental artifacts originate from deposits disturbed during grave digging and end up in burial fill, and accidental artifacts are those deposited in the area after its use as a cemetery. Rife then provides an artifact catalogue with photographs and drawings of the incidental artifacts (excepting tiles or bricks used for cist tomb construction).

The next section, which includes an impressive amalgamation of textual and archaeological data, repositions the burials within what is known of the site chronology and use. However, it is hard to get a sense of how representative the burials excavated are of the larger community, particularly during the first through fourth centuries. Rife estimates that the Late Roman and Byzantine fortress could hold approximately 2,000 inhabitants (123), and while it may not have been filled to capacity during this period, this number suggests there likely are other places of burial at the site. It is true that small skeletal samples have limitations, but it is informative to know what exactly those limitations are. Rife finishes this section with an interesting use of an ethnographic analogy to ancient Isthmia using the modern village of Kyras Vrysi and its church and cemetery, which are integrated with the ancient site (46–151).

Chapter 4 (“Funerary Ritual, Mortuary Variability, and Society”) clearly demonstrates Rife’s scholarly strengths. It includes robust mortuary comparanda from the region, a clear presentation of material components of the Isthmia graves in table 4.1, and a nuanced assessment of how mortuary evidence in the graves relates to mortuary ritual at Isthmia, including what aspects could be missing from the archaeological record. Rife views the mortuary record as reflecting four poles of social identity: age, gender (based on sex of the skeleton), vertical position (status), and horizontal position (kinship, ethnicity, and religion). Rife’s interpretations rely heavily on the Binford-Saxe theoretical perspective and could be updated to reflect current thoughts on the materiality of mortuary behavior, such as Shanks and Tilley (“Ideology, Symbolic Power and Ritual Communication: A Reinterpretation of Neolithic Mortuary Practices,” in I. Hodder, ed., Symbolic and Structural Archaeology [Cambridge 1982]) or Meskell (“Introduction: Object Orientations,” in L. Meskell, ed., Archaeologies of Materiality [Malden, Mass. 2005]). However, Rife does recognize that these four elements of social personae, such as age, are culturally constructed (207). According to Rife, almost no differences exist in mortuary remains by sex or between different age categories (although these results, and others in the volume, lack statistical validation). In addition, compared with other sites such as Corinth, Isthmia does not show much difference in mortuary ritual based on status, which is determined by the quality of grave construction and quality/quantity of grave goods, suggesting a lower level of social complexity in this agricultural village. Another reflection of status, of course, could be evidence of health and diet from the skeletal remains themselves; however, that is not utilized here, despite the paleopathology data being available in the following section. The high level of homogeneity in the horizontal dimension implies the community had a strong collective identity, perhaps with the household or nuclear family positioned as the center of social units.

In part 2 (“The Osteological and Bioarchaeological Context of the Human Remains”), Rife turns to the osteological data from Isthmia, focusing on the 58 individuals from the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods (fourth–eighth centuries), the most coherent sample at the site (two additional burials come from the Early Roman levels, and the other nine burials come from the 12th–15th centuries). One looming issue comparing skeletal data from different sites stems from various methodologies that are used for data collection. Rife clearly outlines his data-collection methods, which utilize Buikstra and Ubelaker (Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains [Fayetteville, Ark. 1994]) for inventory and age and sex assessment, and lists other guides consulted for paleopathology interpretations. Table 5.3 provides a detailed outline of which age and sex estimation methods were used for each burial. Infants in the sample are clearly underrepresented, as are hand and foot bones of the adults, likely, as Rife notes, because of excavation practices.

The osteological data are presented in three parts, one outlining paleodemography, physical appearance and diversity, growth and stature, and nonmetric variation, followed by another on teeth and oral health, then the third on paleopathology of bone tissues. Overall, these sections provide significant information on Rife’s observations, important for comparative analyses, in addition to a detailed summary of comparative human osteological data from the region. The paleopathology section includes descriptions and possible etiologies of skeletal lesions seen in each individual, and how this condition could have affected quality of life, accompanied by photographs of almost every case. The level of detail here is remarkable, but so, too, is the lack of references to clinical data supporting the broader interpretations of these legions. Some photographs could also include arrows or other indicators identifying the location of the pathology (e.g., the healed cranial depression fracture in fig. 7.33).

The population of Roman and Byzantine Isthmia had a demographic profile similar to the Isthmian population center of Corinth, with almost equal proportions of males and females but a relative lack of young children, likely resulting from excavation issues, as noted above. The small number of juveniles recovered demonstrates a regular growth progression compared with rather temporally, geographically, and genetically disparate samples from Roman Poundbury in England and prehistoric North America, perhaps not the best comparative material. Diet at Isthmia seems to have been high in sugars and starches (not surprising for an agricultural population), which also corresponds to other dietary evidence from the site. Oral health was poor, and although precepts for oral health and hygiene were outlined in ancient textual sources, it seems these were either not available to, or were largely ignored by, this population.

Little evidence exists for systemic infections, and most cases of bone lesions likely stemmed from localized injuries. Many individuals suffered from cranial porosity due to acquired or congenital anemia (cribra orbitalia/porotic hyperostosis), although Rife considers this to be from acquired anemia based on the high rate of this pathology in the sample and the lack of lesions in other parts of the skeleton expected with congenital anemia. Here he attributes the cause of high levels of infectious disease to crowding in the village, which is reflected in other indicators such as scurvy, rickets, and dental enamel hypoplasias of the teeth. Rife does not explain why periosteal lesions do not show a similar high frequency. High levels of joint disease are attributed to activity and biomechanical loading (although Rife does consider the multifactorial nature of this condition), and fractures seem to increase with age (not surprising for an attritional condition such as this—the older you are, the more likely it is that you have had at least one fracture that even if healed, can still be identified). Both trauma and joint disease are attributed to strenuous countryside labor.

Although Rife presents his interpretations in detail throughout the volume, a few issues emerged not only with his discussion but also with the methods used in his analysis. The first section on physical appearance and diversity, growth and stature, and nonmetric variation presents the most problems. Physical appearance was quantified using head shape typologies and the index between arm and leg lengths to demonstrate that the Isthmians were a genetically homogeneous population. Anthropologists have long realized that both of these metric variables have extremely strong environmental components, and changes in environment can be reflected in variables such as head shape within a generation. Therefore, they do little to reflect population diversity. However, there are numerous other techniques that can and are regularly used to identify the presence of higher-than-expected genetic diversity, through analysis of metric and nonmetric skeletal and dental traits and individuals born in another region using strontium, oxygen, lead, and hydrogen isotopes. On the other hand, long-bone metrics reflective of stature, which also has a strong environmental root, should be used as an indicator of nutritional and other factors affecting growth and development, not to “help readers imagine what ancient people looked like” (283). Furthermore, nonmetric congenital traits are used to trace genetic relationships in this study, but only by noting that groups of multiple burials sharing congenital anomalies must be family members sharing a grave (141). Even though the best way to assess genetic diversity within a site is to collect data on a large number of traits and subject them to multivariate statistical techniques, this more simple utilization would work better through computation of overall frequencies of these traits at Isthmia (and other sites) to know actually how much “higher” they are in the multiple vs. the single burials.

These and other more minor issues, however, should not detract from the value of this volume as a source for comparative skeletal data in the Mediterranean region. Rife clearly has committed himself to rescuing this skeletal sample from obscurity by not only providing detailed information on each grave but by also presenting these data in a historically and socially contextualized manner. These data could potentially be used to answer specific research questions, such as the geographic origins of the individuals, the quality of life in a rural Greek settlement, or the level of genetic diversity that exists in the population, something that is lacking in this endeavor. The mortuary analysis remains the strongest part of this volume, and as a result the research questions here focus on those that can be addressed through the mortuary context, not the bioarchaeological data. This is also reflected in the organization of the volume, with the separation of the two datasets into two sections, which would have benefited from presenting the skeletal data and mortuary information first, followed by interpretations integrating the two. However, this reflects the original research design of the project more than Rife’s goal to facilitate further comparative study of burials within this region, an effort that surely is greatly appreciated by bioarchaeologists, archaeologists, and historians in the region.

Megan A. Perry
Department of Anthropology
East Carolina University

Book Review of The Roman and Byzantine Graves and Human Remains, by Joseph L. Rife

Reviewed by Megan A. Perry

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Perry

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