Textbook of the Week: The Archaeology of Death and Burial.

Every week we highlight one archaeology/anthropology textbook from our suggested readings, a full list of our suggested resources can be found here, on our Useful Literature page.

Archaeology_of_Death_and_Burial

The Archaeology of Death and Burial (UK/Europe)
The Archaeology of Death and Burial (Texas A&M University Anthropology Series) (US/Worldwide Link)
by Michael Parker Pearson. Rating – ****
“I picked this book up pretty cheap, and it was worth it! Especially if you’re into weird, morbid but interesting accounts of burial rituals – this book contains examples ranging from ancient world to modern times.”

 

If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks to buy? Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page!

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Quick Tips: Archaeological Techniques –Use of Isotopes in Archaeology.

Isotopic analysis is widely used within the worlds of archaeology and anthropology. From analysing isotopes we’re able to uncover a wide range of information regarding the past; ranging from palaeoenvironments to palaeodiets, and even using isotopes to reconstruct trade routes of materials.

But first, what are isotopes?

All of the chemical elements consist of atoms which are specific to the element and the mass of an atom is dictated by the number of protons and neutrons it contains. The identity of the chemical element depends on the number of protons found within the atom’s nucleus, but the number of neutrons within the atom can vary. Atoms of the same chemical element (same number of protons), but with different masses, which is from the varying amount of neutrons, are called isotopes.

Stone Circle at Drombeg

Within nature, most of the elements consist of a number of isotopes. These isotopes can be found within water, livestock, crops and plants, which can then be used to reconstruct palaeodiets and palaeoenvironments.

Within nature, most of the elements consist of a number of isotopes. For a great majority of elements these relative proportions of isotopes are fixed, but there are a group of elements which either due to chemical or biochemical processes are of variable isotopic composition. These elements are oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. Another group of isotopes that are used for analysis are strontium, lead and neodymium. These are formed by elements which contain stable but radiogenic isotopes, which are formed by radioactive decay of another element. Carbon and nitrogen isotope composition are primarily used to reconstruct diets, and oxygen isotopes are used to determine geographic origin. Strontium and lead isotopes found within teeth and bone can sometimes be used to reconstruct migration patterns in human populations and cultural affinity

Isotopes Table

A table of the various elemental isotopes that are valuable in archaeological and anthropological research.

But how do isotopes get into skeletal remains?

Carbon isotopes are taken up through the diet of animals during their lifetime and these isotopes are deposited into teeth and bones of humans when they are consumed and digested. By studying animal bones and examining the 12C and 13C isotope ratio, it is possible to determine whether the animals ate predominately 3C or 4C plants. Oxygen isotopes are constantly being taken up and deposited into the body through the water a population drinks. This process ends with the organism’s death, from this point on isotopes no longer accumulate in the body, but do undergo degradation. For best result the researcher would need to know the original levels, or estimation thereof, of isotopes in the organism at the time of its death.

By creating a map of these natural occurring isotopes in different environments, rivers and areas, it is possible to identify where in an area the population lived, sourced their water or where the livestock grazed, by comparing the levels of isotopes that were obtained from skeletal remains to the environmental map. This mapping can also help identify trade routes that once existed and can also identify the migration patterns of populations.

References:

Balme, J., Paterson, A. 2006. Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analayses. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. Pg 218.

Renfrew, C., Bahn, P. 1991. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. Pg 249-53.

If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks to buy? Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page!

Fourth century settlement unearthed in Japan.

Archaeologists excavating in Nara Prefecture, Japan have discovered the remains of pit houses and ditches that indicate the boundaries of a settlement.

This fourth century settlement was unearthed at the Nakanishi ruin archaeological site. It is believed that the newly revealed site could have been built alongside the nearby Akitsu ruins, which if proves to be true, would make this one of the largest fourth century settlements in Japan.

Nakanishi ruins

Archaeologists excavating in Nara Prefecture, Japan have discovered the remains of pit houses and ditches that indicate the boundaries of a settlement.

Fumiaki Imao, senior researcher at the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara has said that “the site occupies a prominent area,” and that it may have been used for rituals that were carried out by the early Yamato imperial court. Little is known about the actions of the Yamato imperial court during the fourth century, but archaeologists hope that their continuing excavation of this site will be able to offer fresh insights to the rituals that occurred.

Unusual-ology: Strange 6,500-year-old Neolithic Burials Discovered in Egypt.

Unusual-ology: Strange 6,500-year-old Neolithic Burials Discovered in Egypt.

A team of archaeologists, led by Jacek Kabaciński from the Polish Academy of Sciences, have discovered the burials of sixty adults in a cemetery in Gebel Ramlah, Egypt.

Egypt Neolithic Burials

The unusual thing about these burials is the discovery of a grave that contained the skeletal remains of two individuals, one of which has deliberate cuts on their femur. These cut marks have not been seen in other Neolithic burials that have been unearthed in North Africa. But this particular grave wasn’t the only odd one they found. Kabaciński’s team found another two unusual graves one which was found to be lined with stone slabs, but it’s the third burial they discovered which is the oddest.

In the third grave, the skeletal remains of a man were found to be covered in pottery fragments, stones and lumps of red dye. Near his head a fragment of a Dorcas gazelle skull was found, which may have been used as a ceremonial headdress. The skeletal remains also showed signs of abnormal bone adhesions and fractures, leading Kabaciński to believe this man may have performed hunting rites.

Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – Dental Caries.  

Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – Dental Caries.  

In our previous Quick Tip post on identifying dental diseases, we gave a basic overview on the disease dental/enamel hypoplasia. If you haven’t read it, you can find it by clicking here.

Dental caries, also known as tooth decay, is thought to be the most common of dental diseases. This is due to it being recorded within archaeological populations more frequently than other dental diseases. It is an infectious and spreadable disease, which is the result of the fermentation of carbohydrates by bacteria that are present within teeth plaque. Its appearance can sometimes be observed as small opaque spots on the crowns of teeth, to large gaping cavities.

dental caries

Dental caries appearance can sometimes be observed as small opaque spots on the crowns of teeth, to large gaping cavities.

Dental caries occurs when sugars from the diet, particularly sucrose, are fermented by the bacteria Lactobacilus acidophilus and Streptococcys mutans, which are found within the built up plaque. This fermentation process causes acids to be produced, which in turn break down and demineralises teeth leaving behind cavities.

Powell (1985) divided the causes of dental caries into different areas, which are;

  • Environmental factors, the trace elements in food and water (i.e fluoride in water sources may protect against caries).
  • Pathogenic factors, the bacterial causing the disease.
  • Exogenous factors, from diet and oral hygiene.
  • Endogenous factors, the shape and structure of teeth.

Any part of the tooth structure that allows the accumulation of plaque and food debris can be susceptible to caries. This means that the crowns of the tooth (especially with molars and premolars due to the fissures), and the roots of the teeth are the areas most commonly affected by dental caries.

References:

Lukacs, J.R. 1989. Dental paleopathology: methods for reconstructing dietary patterns. In M.Y. Iscan and K.A.R. Kennedy (eds), Reconstruction of life from the skeleton. New York, Alan Liss, pp. 261-86.

Powell, M.L. 1985. The analysis of dental wear and caries for dietary reconstruction. In R.I. Gilbert and J.H. Mielke (eds), Analysis of prehistoric diets. London, Academic Press, pp. 307-38.

Ubelaker, D.H. 1989. Human Skeletal Remains: Excavation, Analysis, Interpretation (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Taraxacum.

White, T.D., Folkens, P.A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Pg 392-398.

This is the second post of the Quick Tips series on identifying dental diseases. The next post in this series will focus on how to identify calculus (calcified plague), and highlight the cause of this dental disease. To read more Quick Tips in the meantime, click here.

If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks are good? Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page for suggestions from peers and professors!

Unusual-ology: Wasn’t Curiosity That Killed The Baboon… – Ancient Egyptian Pet Cemetery Found.

A team of archaeologists in Hierakonpolis have unearthed an ancient Egyptian animal cemetery, which has uncovered the remains of numerous exotic animals. The skeletal remains of numerous baboons, hippos, and other animals, have depicted a dark past for these companions of the ancient Egyptian elite.

The skeletal remains of the pets, thought to have been buried more than five thousand years ago, revealed numerous broken bones and fractures, which points to them having received harsh beatings. At least two of the baboon skeletons that were discovered had parry fractures, a common fracture of the ulna, caused when a victim is trying to shield their heads from damaging bones.

The skeletal remains of the pets, thought to have been buried more than five thousand years ago, revealed numerous broken bones and fractures, which points to them having received harsh beatings.  ©Renee Friedman

The skeletal remains of the pets, thought to have been buried more than five thousand years ago, revealed numerous broken bones and fractures, which points to them having received harsh beatings. ©Renee Friedman

The skeletal remains of a hippo calf showed evidence of a broken leg, which is thought to have been caused from the animal trying to free itself from a tether. This isn’t the only tether related injury that was discovered at the site; an antelope and a cow also showed similar injuries. The excavations at the Hierakonpolis site also revealed the remains of two elephants, two crocodiles, a leopard, and nine other exotic species. It is thought that the burial ground near to the Nile is the only archaeological evidence of such a wide assortment of zoo animals within ancient Egypt.

Wim Van Neer, a zooarchaeologist from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, noted that the ancient zookeepers “clearly had difficulty maintaining these animals”. The analysis of the skeletal remains showed that “the practical means of keeping animals in captivity were not so sophisticated as nowadays,” which would account for the numerous injuries sustained by the animals. The animals’ injuries showed signs of healing, which suggests that they were kept in captivity for a further several weeks or longer, rather than being killed immediately after obtaining them.

It is thought that the burial ground near to the Nile is the only archaeological evidence of such a wide assortment of zoo animals within ancient Egypt. ©Renee Friedman

It is thought that the burial ground near to the Nile is the only archaeological evidence of such a wide assortment of zoo animals within ancient Egypt. ©Renee Friedman

It is argued by Richard Redding, an archaeologist of the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum, that the animals’ struggle whilst being captured could have led to the injuries. Van Neer agrees that some of the injuries could have been caused by the struggle, but the forty-plus broken hand and feet bones observed on the baboon remains are just “too numerous to be due to capture”. Van Neer also pointed out that an escaping baboon would have been more likely to break the long bones rather than the metatarsals and metacarpals, whilst escaping the capturers. It is also stated that the baboon remains from more recent tombs display fewer signs of harsh treatment, which may be due to the ancient zookeepers developing better animal keeping techniques.

References:

Van Neer, W. 2015. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 25:3. Pg 253-374.

If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks to buy? Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page!

Textbook of the Week: The Archaeology of Human Bones.

Every week we highlight one archaeology/anthropology textbook from our suggested readings, a full list of our suggested resources can be found here, on our Useful Literature page.

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The Archaeology of Human Bones (UK/Europe Link)
The Archaeology of Human Bones (US/Worldwide Link)
by Simon Mays. Rating: *****

“This text book is a amazing to use as a reference, as its very thorough. It’s not as easy to follow as Human Remains in Archaeology: A Handbook by Charlotte Roberts, but is perfect for anthropology and archaeology students who want to get a full grasp on the subject, and learn everything there is to know!

If you’re a student – check out our ‘Quick Tips’ posts where we breakdown topics of AAFS into bite-sized chunks. We’re currently covering how to age and how to estimate the biological sex of skeletal remains, and also how to identify dental diseases!