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The Bioarchaeology of Classical Kamarina: Life and Death in Greek Sicily

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

The Bioarchaeology of Classical Kamarina: Life and Death in Greek Sicily

By Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver (Bioarchaeological Interpretations of the Human Past: Local, Regional, and Global Perspectives). Pp. xxv + 336. University of Florida Press, Gainesville 2015. $84.95. ISBN 978-0-8130-6112-2 (cloth).

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The driving force behind Sulosky Weaver’s study of a cemetery at Kamarina on the southern coast of Sicily is familiar to anyone who works with skeletons in the classical world: a desire to unite the often disparate scholarly traditions of classics and anthropology. This book therefore ranges from ancient Greek eschatology to archaeological theories of burial, and from pots to people, in an attempt to draw together several lines of evidence to contribute to a deeper understanding of the biology, culture, and ritual of a fifth- to third-century B.C.E. necropolis.

Chapters 1 and 2, as well as the introduction, situate Kamarina and its burials in time and space. Historically, Kamarina is known to have been destroyed and refounded several times in the Archaic and Classical periods. Its archaeological history parallels this, the city having been plundered in the 17th century, first excavated in the 19th, and the subject of numerous excavations in the 20th. Six different necropoleis dot the city: Passo Marinaro with 2,905 graves, Rifriscolaro with about 2,500 graves, Piombo with 94, and three additional cemeteries that remain unpublished. The subject of Sulosky Weaver’s study is a sample from Passo Marinaro—namely, 258 of the 1,007 inhumation burials that were excavated from that Classical-era cemetery in the early 1980s. Nearly three-quarters of the 272 skeletons in this burial sample are less than 25% complete; the fragmentary nature of the remains poses a challenge that the author admirably takes on.

Chapter 3 deals with the demographics of the human remains. While it is reasonably straightforward to assess age at death and sex from complete skeletons, given the incomplete nature of this sample even two DNA analyses failed to determine the sex. Age-at-death estimates revealed a large number of young adults aged 20 to 35, which Sulosky Weaver interprets as a catastrophic mortality profile. Several comparative sites, however, which the author lists in data tables made freely available through an online repository (, also show a high frequency of young adult skeletons and were considered by other researchers to be normal. Additionally, the Passo Marinaro sample is less than one-tenth the entire cemetery; the possibility that this is a biased sample is raised but never fully discussed. In an effort to understand geographic origins, the author carried out a small nonmetric cranial trait analysis and investigated a few dental nonmetric traits as well. The former employs statistical methods to group Passo Marinaro with a Greek, rather than a Sicilian, population, and mtDNA analysis of two individuals suggests H and I haplogroups or European ancestry. Sulosky Weaver attempts to push the ancestry data further, employing cranial morphology to identify two individuals with sub-Saharan African traits. The photographs of these remains, and all other skeletal remains in the book, are of insufficiently high resolution, and the skulls themselves are of such a fragmentary nature, that these observations are difficult to assess independently.

Chapter 4 offers a reconstruction of the health and disease patterns in the sample from the Passo Marinaro necropolis. In any bioarchaeological analysis, understanding morbidity and mortality in a nonstationary population is difficult. The fragmentary nature of this sample and, apparently, an inability to use X-rays or destructive analysis on the remains mean that Sulosky Weaver is further limited in the kinds of pathologies she can identify. Yet she begins the chapter with information on a historical plague that affected Kamarina in 405 B.C.E. then suggests that it might have been epidemic malaria, outlines the lesions that would be expected in that case, notes the lack of that evidence in the skeletal sample, and concludes that “further excavation and osteological research is necessary to provide proof of the plague’s existence” (126). A similar tack is taken as she attempts to interpret an abnormality as pituitary dwarfism. After noting that “the features that would positively confirm this condition are non-extant” (149), she goes on to say that “the presence of a dwarf in the Passo Marinaro necropolis indicates at the very least that dwarfs lived in Classical Sicily” (153). Conversely, dental disease is underinterpreted, as without a clear hypothesis about diet, hygiene, or similar research question, the statistical significance in the frequencies has little meaning. Whether by design or not, this chapter unfortunately reads as a historical recounting of disease to which osteological data are made to conform.

Chapters 5–7 concern material culture and evidence of ritual treatment in the burials at Passo Marinaro. Examining grave goods, the author ably discusses the forms these take and links their presence with meaning inferred from archaeological and historical records. Ritual treatment of the body in these inhumations appears relatively consistent, with the exception of a couple of deviant burials in which the deceased was covered with heavy stones. Using cluster analysis, Sulosky Weaver plumbs the data for potential associations between burial variables that could indicate a specific identity. Although she does not find any clear patterns, her prudence in using statistics speaks to an attempt to move beyond simple presence/absence data. Nevertheless, the resulting cluster graphs are not presented in the monograph, nor are they available in the online data repository, as the “agglomeration chart and dendrogram produced by the cluster analysis are too large to be reproduced” (271).

Despite the highly fragmentary nature of the Passo Marinaro skeletons, Sulosky Weaver attempts to wring as much information from them as possible to add to our understanding of Greek Sicily during the Classical period. She uses biological, archaeological, and historical data to contextualize and situate Kamarina, which in itself is a laudable feat, but many of her interpretations overreach the data as presented. One of the reasons, however, that it is possible to critique the author’s work is her willingness to place all her data files, including her statistical tests and individual data sheets, in a freely accessible online repository. Opening up one’s data in this way is still not the norm in archaeology, but Sulosky Weaver clearly finds it necessary in order to advance bioarchaeological research in the classical world in the 21st century, and that is commendable. This book will likely be of greater interest to classicists than to anthropologists, but the author does accomplish her goal of bringing these fields closer together with her analysis of the Passo Marinaro skeletal sample from classical Kamarina.

Kristina Killgrove
Department of Anthropology
University of West Florida 

Book Review of The Bioarchaeology of Classical Kamarina: Life and Death in Greek Sicily, by Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver

Reviewed by Kristina Killgrove

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Killgrove

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