Studying the Lived Experiences of Ancient Eleonians Through their Physical Remains

By Skyler Buchfink

*DISCLAIMER: This post discusses the study and analysis of ancient human remains.*

The opportunity to work closely with bioarchaeologists was one of the primary reasons I applied for the EBAP field school. During my first two years as an undergraduate, I have settled in my belief that studying burials and human remains allows an archaeologist to connect with people from the past directly.

Although I did not anticipate working directly with human remains on this field school, because of my lack of experience, during the first week, I was given the opportunity to assist with the bioarchaeology specialists. This is how I found myself sitting at a crowded table in the apotheke (storage depot), peering over a box of bones carefully wrapped in acid free tissue paper. I was instructed to take a toothbrush and carefully remove the dust and soil from the bones over a tin tray. This was my first time touching ancient human remains, and for a time I didn’t think about it. I set to work brushing away dust, enamored and concerned at the delicacy of the bones. Many were small. Some were so poorly preserved after millennia of sitting in damp tombs that they were little more than dust.

Although they are dead, and have been for a very long time, this bone was once united with the soft tissue of an individual. It carried them through life. For every bone I held, I began to wonder who it belonged to and their story. What was their name? How did they die? How did they live? Experiencing human remains has come to mean more to me than a connection with the past: it has become a reflection of the stories shared by humans through time and space.

Many bones have markings upon them. Some from before death, perhaps because the individual was injured or suffered a condition which was visible in their bones such as arthritis. Some happened at or around the time of death, possibly being the cause of death. In this case, there is no healing or growth present around the injury. Many more happened after death, during the process of decomposition, rearrangement by their descendants, or sitting in the earth for thousands of years. All of these markings and breakages work together to tell the story of where a bone comes from and why it is a certain way.

Figure 1: Tools used for carefully cleaning dirt and mud adhering to human bones (Courtesy of Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

At Eleon, bones are removed from site and taken to the apotheke to be carefully dried in a controlled environment, wrapped, and stored for future study. When the time comes, the bones are removed and cleaned using gentle equipment like a soft toothbrush and a small wooden stick to chip away hardened dirt (Fig. 1). Then they are repackaged and organized. They are measured, weighed, and analyzed closely. Any noteworthy physical features of a bone are recorded and interpreted. Then isotope analyses may be conducted, which can reveal dietary patterns, whether a person has migrated from another region, and how old the remains may be. This information helps reconstruct the history of a person and gives some context to how people lived in ancient Eleon.

I spoke to a bioarchaeology student on site who is studying diseases, injuries, and abnormalities of bones. She uses this data to research the malnutrition and illnesses that affected children at ancient Eleon. I asked why she believes this is an important topic, and she explained that understanding the way in which people lived and died in the past can contribute to our understanding of health now. The example she used was the malnourishment of impoverished children in many countries leading to deficiencies which can stunt growth or lead to chronic conditions. Evidence of this can be seen in some of the children at Eleon, who had evidence of deficiencies in their bones. I sat with this thought for a long time, imagining the many conditions that people face, and how some reveal themselves in the bones: arthritis, gout, breakages, infections, cancers, malnourishment, rickets, polio, and venereal syphilis, among others. If we can find evidence of these conditions in past populations and place these in the context of the diet and lifestyles led by the people of that time, we can better understand what leads to increases in these conditions today. We can then also advocate for prevention in our own societies.

The first step to observing the bones or running tests on them, however, is cleaning them and this is the task that I was presented with in week one. While sitting with a toothbrush in hand and wiping dust off of the ancient bones for several hours may seem tedious, it is work that I have come to understand as a first step in a long process of revealing someone’s story.

After my first experience at EBAP, I hope to spend many more hours working with these bones, and perhaps learning more about their burial contexts to gain a better understanding of the time period in which they lived and the way they were put to rest.

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