Archaeology Quote by Joanna R. Sofaer

January 23, 2012

“Bodies intrigue us because they promise windows into the past that other archaeological finds cannot. They are literally the past personified.”

— Joanna R. Sofaer 2006, p. 1

The phrase “past personified” is what first caught my eye in this quote by Sofaer. The human body is an asset that cannot be replaced by other forms of material culture available to archaeologists. This is not to say that studying humans alone will unlock all the question into the past. Rather, they form an integral part of understanding how people, we, lived our lives in the past. People are not only producers of archaeological materials (as I have mentioned elsewhere), but are ourselves, the materials produced. Thus we have roles within the archaeological record as well. By studying people, Sofaer says they can be our ticket into understanding the past, as we will be able to see their lives through their eyes (metaphorically speaking).

There is much contention over the use of human remains for study by archaeologists in the present day. I do not propose to take sides on whether bodies should be studied or not, as this is neither the time or the place for such a discussion. Also, my opinions would be biased as I have had training in osteology! Nonetheless, it would be valid to share how archaeology makes use of bodies. Both non-invasive and invasive methods are used, including interpretations through body placement and location for the dead, studying the actual human remains to deduce age, sex, height, etc.. and for signs of trauma and activity, and doing hair, bone, and nail biochemical analysis to make inferences on diet, disease, and health. Likewise, there is much debate over using humans to study the past due to the sanctity of the body and varying beliefs on the soul and the afterlife. There are also cases to be made for misuse of the dead, human rights of the dead, and ethical concerns (i.e. no informed consent given) with regard to studying the dead.

Reference: Sofaer, J. R. 2006. The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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