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Bones of Complexity: Bioarchaeological Case Studies of Social Organization and Skeletal Biology

Bones of Complexity: Bioarchaeological Case Studies of Social Organization and Skeletal Biology

Edited by Haagen D. Klaus, Amanda R. Harvey, and Mark N. Cohen (Bioarchaeological Interpretations of the Human Past: Local Regional and Global Perspectives). Pp. xxii + 486. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. $100. ISBN 978-0-8130-6223-5 (cloth).

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Assessments of social complexity from material culture remains have been a long-standing challenge within archaeology. In their edited volume Bones of Complexity, Klaus and colleagues advocate that human skeletal remains are important for addressing questions of social complexity and variability. This proposed integrated system seeks to develop a “bioarchaeology of complexity” that uses human skeletal data and associated archaeological contexts to assess hierarchical and heterarchical formations of social, political, and economic structures in a larger sociopolitical context. Underlying all of the papers in this volume is the premise that, while material culture remnants of social complexity are subject to human influence and can be modified to hide issues of complexity or artificially embellished to overstate complexity, human skeletal remains preserve indelible marks of social variation, inequality, and differential access that are much harder to purposefully manipulate through human actions. Though the study of human remains was comparatively late to the table in archaeological studies of complexity, it has since become one of the most trusted avenues of inquiry into complex social issues in the past.

Taking a broad approach to the concept of social organization, this volume spans a wide global and chronological space, providing not only an investigation of social structure but also a resource for regional debates about how we can look at issues of status, social complexity, and differential access. The papers use case studies of various methodological approaches as part of the larger unifying whole. The volume is united by the broader introduction and the final chapter, both of which are presented by Klaus and colleagues. These two chapters show how the approaches utilized by the individual chapters can be beneficially employed to look at status in the past, as well as revealing opportunities and future directions for novel approaches in bioarchaeology for challenging or supporting methodologies developed within and beyond other areas of anthropological inquiry.

Bones of Complexity contains 17 chapters in three sections: part 1, “Growth, Stature, and Social Organization”; part 2, “Complexities of Sex and Gender”; and part 3, “Skeletons in Settings of Emergent Complexity and Stratified Societies.” Part 3 is the longest and most diverse section, containing nine chapters. Though the three parts are logically divided, there is a significant degree of similarity between the sections, with social status and assessments of differential treatment remaining key themes throughout.

The papers in this volume cover wide-ranging periods and regions, from Ancient Greece to Harappa to Mississippi, but at its core the book is about methodology. The periods and regions serve as foils for illustrating how different types of data and different combinations of methodologies can allow researchers to gain increasingly nuanced insights into bioarchaeological topics of inquiry, such as the interrelation of height inequality and political power (Boix and Rosenbluth), other types of inequality (Harrod and colleagues), and bioarchaeological assessments of social hierarchy vs. heterarchy (Cook and colleagues), among other foci. The methods used include variation in carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) values between males and females to examine hierarchy (Schepartz and colleagues), correlations between sex and burial wealth (Pechenkina and colleagues), and the use of stature to assess social status (Becker). These methodologies themselves are not novel. Rather, the methodological approaches developed in Bones of Complexity show how the integration of multiple data sets can be used to provide a larger synthesis.

One of the key points brought up by the methodological approach advocated in this edited volume, and an issue that has been at the root of many calls for greater disciplinary integration, is the need for dialogue and a broader multidisciplinary approach. Many of the arguments presented in this volume could be made on the basis of skeletal data alone; yet, as several papers point out, biological data in isolation can tell the observer relatively little about the social realities of living in a given time period or the particular social structuring of a given group. Conversely, data sets from archaeology and textual studies often lack the human reality of the biological experience in whatever period is under investigation. It is the call for fuller integration of diverse data sets (e.g., archaeological data, biomechanical studies, ethnography of diet) that is at the heart of this volume. The outcome is that employing multiple data sets can provide an enlightening synthesis of the broader picture of ancient societies and the lived experiences of individuals, allowing for increasingly nuanced interpretations of past lifeways and social structures beyond what the skeletal remains alone can provide.

Though the volume does not promote a specific multimethod approach, it does compare to previous attempts at synthesizing multiple data sets, such as the work of Cohen and Armelagos (Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture [1984] and Agarwal and Glencross (Social Bioarchaeology [Chichester 2011]), the former of which the editors recognize in the acknowledgments as inspiration for the present volume. Many of the hallmarks of these two antecedents are echoed in this book, providing a meaningful further contribution to the development of bioarchaeology as a social science. Though Bones of Complexity’s numerous contributors focus on disparate topics, the unifying theme of the work resonates with a larger singular message: the integration of archaeological data and theory are needed along with the analysis of skeletal remains, elsewise the bioarchaeology of social complexity will remain devoid of larger meaning and will run the risk of being little more than an inventory of skeletal lesions.

Robert James Stark
McMaster University

Book Review of Bones of Complexity: Bioarchaeological Case Studies of Social Organization and Skeletal Biology, edited by Haagen D. Klaus, Amanda R. Harvey, and Mark N. Cohen

Reviewed by Robert James Stark

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Stark

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