Abstracts: Panel Session 2
University of Cambridge
It takes a village (and a doctor, and an anthropologist, and a journalist) to birth a child: Biocultural approaches to studying the obstetric dilemma.
Biological anthropologists have maintained an interest in the development of the obstetric dilemma (OD) in an evolutionary context and amongst living women. Recent studies across biological and medical disciplines have discussed the role played by the transition to agriculture, differential variation in size and shape of the pelvic canal and other parts of the pelvis, patterns of covariation between the pelvis, head size and stature and the current rise in caesarean sections as contributing factors to the OD. Other scholars have examined the research frameworks used by biological anthropologists to understand the OD, pointing to the limited consideration of the social and cultural context in which childbirth takes place today. Popular media coverage of this research has additionally prescribed biologically deterministic and patriarchal perspectives on the ‘poor design’ of the skeletons of women undergoing caesarean sections. In this paper, it is suggested that future studies on the skeletal components of the OD should be constructed with a biocultural approach that fully integrates biological and social components of the OD, and recognises gaps between medical, social and anthropological perspectives on the OD. The strengths of a biocultural approach include a) a clear outline of challenges faced by women living in specific communities, such that broad generalisations regarding childbirth are not applied to all communities and b) demonstrating variation in pelvic canal size and shape in living populations today. This approach also incorporates research on the developmental links between body and pelvic size and shape variation, to better understand the factors that contribute to pelvic growth throughout early life. The feasibility of such an approach is dependent on access to different types of data, particularly longitudinal studies of childbirth practices. The OD has developed in a social and biological context and this should prompt a multidisciplinary approach to this uniquely human problem.
What are we missing? – A method for identifying later Anglo-Saxon coffined burials using skeletal positioning
Emma Green, Dr E Craig-Atkins
University of Sheffield
Recent funerary studies of the later Anglo-Saxon period in England (c. A. D.650-1100) have established that a variety of different containers for the body were widely used, but have concluded so-called ‘plain earth graves’ were the norm. However, many containers will have been constructed entirely from wood, decomposing completely, rendering them archaeologically invisible and confounding our attempts to explore their prevalence or provision. Archaeothanatology utilizes detailed observations of the spatial positioning of skeletal elements in the grave to characterize taphonomy and reveal funerary practices that would otherwise be largely archaeologically invisible, for example the use of coffins and shrouds. As yet the detailed analysis of bone positions within the grave is not systematically employed in attempts to identify and quantify coffin use. Potentially valuable evidence for funerary practice is being overlooked.
To successfully interpret skeletal positioning a detailed understanding of the effects of coffined burial on decomposition is required. This paper will present the archaeothanatological analysis of skeletons from later Anglo-Saxon burials where preserved wood provided conclusive evidence for coffins. It will demonstrate how this information has been used to develop a tailored method to identify coffins of this period where there is no surviving wood or metalwork. In the future this methodology will be applied to burials where there is no direct evidence for coffins; with the aim of differentiating coffined burials from plain earth graves more reliably, and thus revealing the true extent of their use during the later Anglo-Saxon period.
Investigation of WW1 casualties buried at the site of Osuchowa Nowa, Poland
University of Warsaw
During WW1 a substantial amount of the military action at the eastern front took place on the territory of modern day Poland. For this reason a great number of WW1 archaeological sites, including war graves, are discovered regularly in Poland to this day. This particular investigation concerns the analysis of a group of WW1 graves containing the remains of members of the Prussian army from the site of Osuchowa Nowa in north-eastern Poland.
The project focused on the osteological analysis of 25 individuals found in 20 graves, but also involved the analysis of material artefacts (such as uniform elements, personal belongings, and remains of weaponry) and archival research.
The primary aims of the research are to understand the events surrounding the battle at Osuchowa Nowa and to learn more about the individuals buried at the site (both in life and in death), even, if possible, to identify the names of some of them.
Results include interesting observations on the pathology and health status of the soldiers, as well as trauma analysis. I believe that the discussions concerning the post-mortem fate of the bodies and taphonomic processes at the site are of particular interest. As are the description of identification attempts that were pursued: the excellent preservation state of artefacts combined with the uniquely detailed documentation produced by the Prussian army offer an exceptional opportunity for identification. So far this meant that the names of several individuals likely buried at the site could be identified (although they could not unfortunately be attributed to individual remains, due to lack of medical records).
I hope this project will be interest to conference participants for its contribution to the fields of battlefield/recent conflict archaeology, and methods for identification of the dead.