Last week I participated in a public outreach session titled “Unravelling the Stories of the Dead: Rethinking Truth and Evidence Through an Archaeologist’s Lens“, which took place at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.
I presented with two other archaeologists, and as our flyer on the gates to the Downing Site indicated, we all took different approaches to the themes of truth and story-telling in archaeology.
Laerke Recht, who kicked off the event, focused on vertical versus horizontal story-telling, using the biography of author Agatha Christie as a framework within which to discuss object biographies and life histories. Just as biographers find different ways to explore Christie’s life – ranging from situating her career within the the broad perspective of the first half of the 20th century, to narrowing their focus to her personal relationships – archaeologists can use the same kinds of multi-scalar strategies to assess our evidence. The parallel was neatly drawn, and Laerke concluded by emphasizing problems of truth and story-telling in her own research on equid domestication, where some archaeologists argue that tooth wear is incontrovertible evidence of bit-wearing, and hence domestication of horses, and others argue that those patterns can be attributed to age-associated wear.
I was up next, and talked about some of the methods I use to extract data from commingled and fragmentary human remains.
I divided my talk into three separate questions: (1) When did archaeologists begin to study human bones? (2) Why do archaeologists collect information from human remains, and (3) How do archaeologists handle skeletons that are fragmentary or commingled?
When answering the third question, I drew upon my experience working at the Muzeul Național al Unirii in Alba Iulia as part of the MARBAL project this past summer, describing the complex process of analyzing collections of human skeletal remains – as you can see below, project members Emilie Cobb and Colin Quinn were heavily involved in this process as well!
Finally, Alexandra Ion, who organized the event, focused on osteoarchaeologists’ growing reliance on ancient DNA (aDNA), as a “smoking gun” when assessing claims about past familial relationships or population movements. Alexandra underscored that rather than being inherently more scientific or objective, aDNA is fraught with the same kinds of problems as any other line of archaeological evidence. No matter what methods we rely on to answer archaeological questions, as a discipline we must always be cautious about appropriately framing our research questions, assessing the limitations of our evidence, and making sure that our resulting interpretations are not overstated.
Afterwards we had a question and answer session with our audience of about 35-40 people,* who asked us about the impact of new technologies, Ötzi (as always), and the ethical considerations involved in studying human skeletal remains. For me, the most informative component of this session was the fact my posture is TERRIBLE. Below, I have included the only photo where I appear relatively normal. Despite discovering my tendency to slouch, it was gratifying to see that the audience was clearly engaged with the material and interested in archaeology, so we will chalk up this particular event as a win for outreach.
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