Conceptualizing the work that bioarchaeologists do
Bioarchaeological training is an area of expertise within biological anthropology, and biological anthropology is one of the major subdivisions within the field of anthropology. Unlike other areas within biological anthropology, bioarchaeology is also intimately aligned with archaeological theory and method, as well as theoretical approaches emanating from cultural and medical anthropology. Training in bioarchaeology focuses primarily on the excavation and analysis of ancient and historic human remains. These can include a diverse range of possibilities including primary and secondary burials; tombs; cemeteries; mummified and skeletonized remains; ossuaries; naturally or culturally disarticulated, commingled, or modified bones; and isolated elements (see Martin et al. 2013: 117—150).
Ancient human remains are generally those found in association with archaeological sites. Much of the research conducted by bioarchaeologists focuses on human remains going back as far as archaic gatherers and hunters from thousands of years ago. Human remains from these early periods in America are quite rare.
More commonly, bioarchaeologists work on periods during and after the adoption of agriculture, which in the U.S. was well established by ad 1000. It is from archaeological sites dated to before and after this general date for which there are often significant numbers of associated burials.
Historic human remains often come from cemeteries and burial sites associated with contact and colonization. Historic human remains may be associated with archaeological sites but sometimes they are not. Increasingly historic skeletal assemblages are coming from settings such as historic cemeteries, almshouses, prisons, mental institutions, and medical schools. This is a rapidly growing area of inquiry within bioarchaeology (Nystrom 2011). Human remains associated with more recent events are often analyzed by bioarchaeologists who have come to specialize in forensic anthropology and forensic archaeology. For example, the now- abandoned Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, was a place where juvenile boys were sent during the early 1900s. It was, by all accounts, a brutal place where boys were routinely beaten and possibly beaten to death by staff members. The recent excavation and analysis of the cemetery by local bioarchaeologists demonstrated that boys often died with virtually no accountability by the state and that deaths due to mistreatment were never accounted for in the school’s records (Ilen 2012). This application of bioarchaeological practice to contemporary issues (often referred to as the bioarchaeology of yesterday) is increasing as the line between bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology becomes less distinct.
Bioarchaeological practice in the U.S. is similar to research approaches in Canada and Britain, although bioarchaeology in Britain does not sit within academic anthropology departments as it does in the U.S. (Roberts 2006: 438—439). The growth of bioarchaeology worldwide (or osteoarchaeology, as it is sometimes referred to in other countries) can be measured by the increasing number of bioarchaeology books written by non-U.S. authors and editors. Other western European countries, as well as China, Australia, Mexico, and South America are currently practicing what is fairly close to bioarchaeology in the U.S. as witnessed by readers of the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology and the International Journal of Paleopathology. Shared methods, terminology, standards, and analytical techniques have become the norm. International conferences organized around paleopathology and other aspects of skeletal analysis have been ongoing for many years.
The flavor and richness of bioarchaeological studies are captured in an edited volume that covers analysis of skeletal remains for pathology in a global context (Buikstra and Roberts 2012). The volume tracks key historical figures and important historical moments in bioarchaeology and paleopathology across many different countries. Regions covered include Africa, the Americas, Eurasia, and Oceania. This volume reifies that bioarchaeologists who focus on disease speak to common theory, method, and data in their approaches. Another example of the similarities in approaches is the handbook edited by Blau (from Australia) and Ubelaker (from the U.S.), both having expertise in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. The Handbook of Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology (2009) contains more than 40 chapters written by bioarchaeologists and experts in osteology from every major country. Again, this illustrates the increasingly shared vision, techniques, and research strategies across international borders (Blau and Ubelaker 2009: 22).