The Unbearable Lightness of Bones – by Novella Nicchitta

The excitement of finding a tomb always brings high expectations, with Grave Circle A being a dreamy reference. The reality of what you deal with most of the time, however, is very different. If you are lucky, you find a fairly well preserved skeleton and, if you are even more lucky, its funerary accompaniment goods.

No matter how pretty, valuable, or particular those may be, there is one part of the process of the tomb excavation that will leave you almost unsatisfied. Once the bones are exposed, in fact, they reveal themselves in all their fragility and crumbliness. The process of excavation requires, indeed, a great deal of patience, lightness, and attention. First you brush all around them, eliminating the loose soil in the attempt to elevate them from the rest of the dirt while maintaining their position and shape. Successively, a more detailed process begins with trying to define the bones. We use the smallest tools in order to contour and individuate their first characteristics: whether left or right tibia, whether a man in its prime or a younger individual. Even for an expert, the identification can be problematic for the particular characteristics and shapes have been smoothed or destroyed over time, leaving very few clues and space for guess.

Despite all the precaution you may take, those timeworn bones will blow to pieces like dust in the wind, crumbling in your hands and under your eyes, and there is not much you can do to avoid it. One moment they had shape and form in the soil, now they are only amorphous fragments closed in a box, whose value and purpose are mostly reserved to the expert eye of an osteologist. Some of them come in so many tiny little fragments that they are not even worth to be saved in a box, so they get discharged with the loose dirt and the soil they were resting in.

Every detail, from location to positions, matters in order to infer why the corpse was left there alongside all its social connotations, but sometimes its mysterious story cannot be revealed. Was this person belonging to a specific social group? Is there a relation with the other tombs around? What was the cause of death? Was this tomb disturbed? Answering these questions on site is not very easy and the whole process requires thought and further study. Everything can get even more complicated as the tiny little bones can float around due to infiltration or to human disturbance, turning themselves into a skeletal puzzle that is difficult to reassemble.

Overall, finding human bones is a remarkable moment, in which one of the primary goals is the willingness to preserve and respect the remains of an individual, no matter how long ago he or she lived and, whenever possible, try to answer some questions regarding a whole civilization.

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