Beyond Bones

By Joanna Pearce

“The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone. The foot bone’s connected to the ….”

Everyone knows the song, but you don’t often expect to have the chance to be faced with the real thing. “The distal phalanx is connected to the intermediate phalanx…” doesn’t have the same ring, but it certainly has its own intrigue.

I’ve always been interested in forensic anthropology, so I jumped at the chance to be involved in a bioarchaeology excavation. The Slavia Project’s Field School in Mortuary Archaeology is located in the tiny, rural village of Drawsko, Poland. The burials we are excavating date from the 16th-18th century and include cremation burials from the Early Bronze Age.

Feature outlines from our first days in the field

On our very first day, we walked to an open field and performed a surface collection – surveying the landscape and acquiring objects such as pottery from broken urns or shards of cremated bone. Then came the digging. Never-ending digging. We had to slowly work down, 5cm by 5cm, so as not to disturb the features below. When outlines of graves finally appeared, we were filled with excitement.

Paired up for features, we then spent our days uncovering the skeletons, mapping their location and orientation, and removing bones for analysis in the lab. I didn’t think I’d ever be that excited to see a foot, but every bone I brushed into view gave me a shot of excitement and awe at this opportunity.

Working on my first skeleton

However, from my brief background research into the ethics of mortuary archaeology, I worried about how past civilizations would feel about us digging into their cemeteries to study their families – and the sense we might make now of their past practices. My instructors have explained that European groups are much more lenient in letting gravesites be examined, as the map has shifted over thousands of years and an Indigenous group is not clearly present to lay claim to discovered sites. But in Christian societies, anatomical studies of the dead used to be very trouble-some as many people feared resurrection would be impossible if their body had been dissected. There has been much discussion about the line between grave robbing and archaeological research, and I wonder if that line is at least in part guided by the beliefs of the groups being studied. Learning from the dead is an important practice in modern societies, but cultural sensitivity and respect for those you are learning from is equally important.

This is why the field school has strict protocols when concerning our skeletal remains – we can take photos and share stories of our work, but must demonstrate respect at all times. We do not name the skeletons (as we do not know what terms may be offensive to those we are working on) and we do not make macabre jokes or lie down in the graves after removing the bones.

I am not done my time in the field and still have much to learn about skeletal anatomy, mortuary archaeology, cultural ethics and the history of Poland. The archaeology of death has the capacity to reveal lots of information about the living and what it inherently means to be human. Even if you don’t want to be in the field digging – there’s something to find and learn!

Read more about this project in Joanna’s article in Sapiens.

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