Archaeological Anthropology at Kaman-Kalehöyük

by Veronica Hunt, London UK

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Veronica working on human remains at excavation site at Kaman-Kalehöyük.

Kaman has a small but thriving archaeological anthropology section, led by Veronica Hunt from London. Veronica received her MSc in the archaeology of human remains at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, London, and has had many years' experience at handling and analysing human remains, both on and off site in the UK and abroad.

"Anthropology" is often associated with field trips to living groups of people in order to research their life style, their health, their average age, their population composition and many, many other questions. Anthropology in an archaeological context is less often heard of, at least outside archaeological societies, universities and museums. Yet it is this discipline that helps us to answer several of the questions posed to living groups, asking our questions of the remains of what was once living people. Here is a list of some of the things we can ask, although it is not exhaustive:

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An adult male under excavation.

These, and many more, questions can be asked at two levels, that of the individual, and that of the population. The starting point always has to be the individual, and only when we have data from a sufficient number of individuals from a securely dated context can we carry out the statistical analysis that is necessary to reveal trends within a group, and indeed between groups.

Some of the questions above can only be answered using specialised laboratory-based techniques, such as 14C dating, stable isotope analysis and DNA analysis, and some of this work is now being carried out by one of the PhD students at Kaman.

So, why do we study human remains? All archaeology is, ultimately, about learning about people from the past. Much can be learned from the structures they left behind, from the tools they used, the personal jewellery they wore, the pottery they used, but there are a number of questions that can only be answered using biological information, and we surely cannot get closer to the ancient people than we can through studying their own remains. There is a lot of potential for further knowledge at Kaman, which encourages ongoing study.

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The upper layers of a multiple burial from the Iron Age.

Human remains have been uncovered at Kaman right from the early days of the excavation, and these are now systematically being given a preliminary analysis which is published in the Journal published after each season. At the beginning, the remains were inspected according to their year of excavation, but it has since been decided to focus on specific cultural periods. Thus, the preliminary analysis of the Late Iron Age skeletons uncovered by the end of the 2007 season have now been reported on. The next period to be done will be the Assyrian one, followed by the Ottoman period.

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Skeleton of young child, ready for analysis.

Since all information available from human remains depends on accurate initial sorting, the first task in the preliminary analysis is to determine exactly how many individuals were excavated from each recorded location. After that, each individual's level of maturity, sex and approximate age at death is assessed. This is exacting work, as each complete bone, each fragment (and many skeletons are quite fragmented) and each tooth or tooth fragment has to be inspected and be given its position in the skeleton. Some fragments may not appear to belong, and a decision must then be made as to whether the fragment (sometimes with little or no distinguishing morphological traits) simply cannot be properly determined, or is likely to belong to another individual. It is invaluable at this point to have copies of any photographs, sketches or drawings of the skeleton made while still in situ, and Veronica can regularly be seen raiding the folders and notebooks in Kaman's extensive excavation records. Multiple burials, either primary or secondary, can be a special challenge, since bones and teeth are regularly disturbed after burial by factors such as animal activity or subsequent human interference (e.g. a later burial using the same spot), or even destroyed by soil conditions, insect activity, or temperature and humidity extremes.

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Lower leg bones (tibiae) from the same individual. The top one shows a healed fracture, leaving it shorter than the other one.

The preliminary reports also include notes on any obvious signs of illness (e.g. osteo-arthritis (think "painful joints"!), cribra orbitalia (must commonly associated with anaemia), or dental disease), any injuries (e.g. broken bones) and/or congenital (genetic) traits (bone or tooth configurations that do not appear to be the result of pathology and that fall outside the normal range of variation in the human skeleton). A full pathology report and complete inspection of the more commonly noted genetic markers will be undertaken at a later date, once the preliminary reports have been completed.

When she is not analysing skeletons, Veronica also advises on excavation, lifting and transport of human remains in general, does site inspections of new specimens coming to light, and undertakes the actual excavation when this is necessary. She also collaborates with the Conservation Laboratory regarding the best preservation of the human remains, and advises on storage questions. She works with individual students who are either pursuing their own projects or are learning the basics about human remains.

It is hoped that a course in Archaeological Anthropology will be taught in the 2008 season, which will introduce the subject at beginner's level. The course will consist of both lectures and practical, hands-on experience.