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Asine III: Supplementary Studies on the Swedish Investigations 1922–1930. Fasc. 2, Children Lost and Found: A Bioarchaeological Study of Middle Helladic Children in Asine with a Comparison to Lerna

July 2010 (114.3)

Book Review

Asine III: Supplementary Studies on the Swedish Investigations 1922–1930. Fasc. 2, Children Lost and Found: A Bioarchaeological Study of Middle Helladic Children in Asine with a Comparison to Lerna

By Anne Ingvarsson-Sundström (SkrAth 4º, 45). Pp. 156, figs. 28, b&w pl. 1, color pl. 1, tables 14, plans 2. Svenska Institutet i Athen, Stockholm 2008. SEK 300. ISBN 978-91-7916-056-2 (paper).

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The study of skeletal remains from long-past archaeological excavations is a task infinitely more difficult than conducting one’s own excavations and considerably less glamorous. Scholars undertaking such ventures, and the archaeologists who carefully curate their field records and excavated materials, are to be congratulated for their efforts. Both materials and records warrant examination, and often reexamination, as our analytical abilities improve through time. Unfortunately, the task of publishing materials excavated decades earlier commonly falls to inexperienced students whose lot it is to atone for the sins of their academic elders. Use of an old skeletal collection for a dissertation is fraught with danger. The research for this volume “was initiated in the early 1990s when the archaeology of childhood, and the bioarchaeology of children were scarcely more than emerging study areas” (9). Ingvarsson-Sundström defended her dissertation in 2003, and this book is “a slightly revised version” (9). The decision to omit or to mention only “very briefly” much “recent interesting research” (9) was unwise. The result is a dated volume presenting information better summarized in a different format.

Ingvarsson-Sundström based her dissertation on excavation field records from Middle Helladic (ca. 2050–1680 B.C.E.) Asine in Greece and material stored in “approximately 6000 boxes of various sorts of finds” at Uppsala University (15). The bones of subadults at “two extramural cemeteries” as well as the acropolis were examined (17–18). The material from “the Lower Town of Asine ... found in the form of disarticulated bones without a clear grave context, during the Swedish excavations there in 1926” formed the core of this study (15). Comparative data were incorporated from Lerna, where large numbers of children’s graves were excavated. Methods of recovery and analysis at both sites were problematic.

The most difficult task was determining the Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) recovered from each excavation unit and determining the age of each. Ingvarsson-Sundström, challenged to make sense out of a nightmarish jumble of information, handles it with considerable skill, but her presentation is wanting. The MNI catalogue reveals the large number of individuals represented beyond the 25 that come from graves (38–71). No plan locating these MNI units is offered, nor is there any tabulation of the complete set of findings by age and date. Since this is central to her study, significant attention should have been directed to organizing the results in a useful form.

Ingvarsson-Sundström devotes a chapter to general limitations, considered from a demographic perspective. But without a clear tabulation of the MNI for the subadults, any interpretation is compromised. That “the osteological and archaeological” records are complementary (16) may be self-evident, but Ingvarsson-Sundström fails to allow the core problem of determining MNI to inform her own ability to use these findings toward making meaningful statements. Figure 5, the graph captioned “Age distribution of individuals >15 years from Asine,” includes some information never explained in the text, but in a confusing manner. For instance, four women in this group who died before the age of 20 may reveal primipara deaths, suggesting an ideal marriage age, but this evidence is ignored, as is information in appendix 2 (other data from the adults from Asine).

In attempting to address cultural factors, Ingvarsson-Sundström largely ignores the two essential goals of osteological research: determining how many people are represented and of what ages. Contexts for these bones are nearly impossible to determine. The plan of the Lower Town (fig. 2) offers no clarification regarding “houses” defined by the excavators or locations of excavation units. Table 8 summarizes data from the three locations of children’s graves in Asine but offers no age distribution. A single large table including excavation units, graves, individuals, ages, and dates would provide much useful information. Failure to establish useful goals and definitions, such as neglecting to provide a specific age in the section headed “Who is a Child” (19–23), plagues the volume. Ten terms related to age categories are listed (table 2), but their definitions include at least three major points of overlap. For example, an adult is defined as anyone above the age of 15, but whether 15.0 or 15.9 years of age is not stated. Neither was an effort made to correlate these age categories with those in a superfluous appendix by Soomer.

All theoretical discussion, such as that found in the chapter “The Osteological Child,” is poorly correlated with the findings. A review of the data from 103 individuals at Asine and 137 from Lerna (16; see also fig. 12) offers scant evidence for the supposed age of weaning at both sites: one to two years. The age of weaning and the age of marriage (and first birth) may be the most evident findings from a morbidity curve, but Ingvarsson-Sundström neglects the mothers while focusing on the children. Discussion in the chapter “The Cultural Child” reflects recent perspectives of postprocessual archaeologists recently adopted by some physical anthropologists to discuss “how children were looked upon by the contemporaneous society” (102). I find this approach jargon laden and data short, substituting theory where supporting evidence is not available.

At these sites, where skeletal information from graves or other locations and information regarding types of context and contents are sparse (102–3), I was unable to decode these data. Long sections on “mortuary evidence of work, play, and gender roles” (107–12) and “childcare” (112–18) are also not related to the data. The promised archaeological child appears to me to be a neglected child, lost somewhere in the maze of indecipherable walls that represent the ancient habitations.

I believe that the primary goals of a physical anthropologist undertaking the study of human remains from an archaeological site are to evaluate the numbers of individuals represented and to establish the age and sex of each one. These findings, plus information available from a number of other types of biological studies, can provide higher-order insights into the workings of an ancient society. These insights, requiring a combination of skeletal analyses with the archaeological record, include, but are not limited to, sex ratios, how cemeteries were used, which individuals were placed outside a cemetery location, and changes in mortuary patterns through time. Such results may emerge from the evaluation of excavated skeletal remains when the archaeological record is of high quality. Ingvarsson-Sundström faced a number of unusual challenges associated with the materials at her disposal, but her concern with theory distracts from an examination of the records she used to decode the past. That the record may be beyond salvaging is another matter. The records available to Ingvarsson-Sundström presented unusual if not impossible challenges. Here, she has devoted considerable effort to framing problems that are better treated in other works using newer methods. Her effort to extract data from masses of bones recovered at Asine should be lauded, but the dated review of the literature is not useful. Scholars interested in recent approaches to the archaeology of childhood might consider the papers in Cohen and Rutter’s Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy (Hesperia Suppl. 41 [Princeton 2007]), to which I contributed, and Hillson’s study in Schepartz et al.’s New Directions in the Skeletal Biology of Greece (Athens 2009).

Marshall J. Becker
Department of Anthropology and Sociology
West Chester University
West Chester, Pennsylvania 19383

Book Review of Asine III: Supplementary Studies on the Swedish Investigations 1922–1930. Fasc. 2, Children Lost and Found: A Bioarchaeological Study of Middle Helladic Children in Asine with a Comparison to Lerna, by Anne Ingvarsson-Sundström

Reviewed by Marshall Joseph Becker

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 3 (July 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1143.Becker

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