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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Written in Bones

I have had an interest in archaeology as long as I can remember and, if I had thought that one could actually make a decent living in the field, I would have studied archeology instead of ending up in the oil industry like I did. But even though I’m always on the lookout for interesting books about archaeology, I would have missed Written in Bones if not for Jenclair over at A Garden Carried in the Pocket who read the book earlier this month and posted a review of it there.

Written in Bones is a fascinating presentation of all the many things that can be learned from studying ancient skeletons and bones, how that knowledge is achieved and exactly why this is so important a part of the study of human history. The photos of the graves and bodies discussed in the book are some of the best ones I’ve ever seen, so good that they give the reader an excellent understanding of what the writers have to say about the various digs covered in the book.

In addition to the more obvious things that can be discerned about human remains, such as the sex and approximate age of the person, the book explains how other things can be proved. Depending on the condition of the bones and teeth, it is usually possible to tell what kind of diet the person lived on and whether or not the death was a natural one or the person died a violent death from warfare, murder or religious sacrifice. If the grave itself is in good condition, the relative wealth of the person found can be determined simply based on the type and number of artifacts in the grave and how much care was taken in preparing the person for an afterlife.

The book documents thirty-five discoveries, some of them well known, such as the remains found at Pompeii, the great tomb of Tutankhamen, the bodies found in the peat bogs of Northern Europe and the “iceman” found in the Italian Alps in 1991. They are all fascinating, of course, but it was some of the lesser known finds that I found particularly interesting:

• In Vilnius, Lithuania a group of workers who were laying pipe inside the grounds of what used to be a Soviet army barracks discovered the remains of close to 3,000 Napoleonic soldiers who died during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812-1813. The men had been left behind in a hospital there because they were unable to keep the harsh pace of the retreat. Soldiers going to hospital in 1812 were largely receiving a death sentence and these men never left Vilnius. The bones are being studied to learn “the state of health of young Europeans of the period: age, stature, oral and dental hygiene, food deficiencies, illnesses, epidemics.”

• On tiny Beacon Island (near Australia) the skeletal remains of several people who were massacred there by mutinous crew members after a shipwreck left them all stranded on the island in 1647 have been recovered. Based on murder descriptions recorded during the eventual trials of some of those involved, researchers have even been able to put names with some of the remains based largely on the size and sex of the skeletons and the particular bone damage still evident some 350 years later.

• At least two graves containing dwarfs have been discovered and, in both cases, it appears that the dwarf was respected as a part of his group and was not left to fend for himself. I find this interesting because it proves to my satisfaction that ancient peoples had a certain level of sympathy and respect for each other that we sometimes overlook. One such grave was found in Northern Italy in 1963 and, in addition to a dwarf skeleton, it contained what is likely to have been the young man’s mother. In fact, they appear on the cover of the book.

These are just a few of the discoveries that can be learned about in Written in Bones. Keep in mind that the book’s pictures make my bare bones descriptions (pun intended) a lot more intriguing than I can make them in a short book review. The subject matter and pictures may sound a little rough but, if you are not particularly squeamish about death and old graves, this book is well worth your time.

Rated at: 4.0
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