What the Bones Tell Us

What the Bones Tell Us

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by Jeffrey H. Schwartz

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A physical anthropologist exposes the inner workings of archaeology and anthropology, illustrating what can be learned from fossils and fragments of ancient cultures and civilizations. Schwartz ranges from digs in the Negev Desert through Africa and Europe to the local coroner's office to explain how interpretations of the past are made.  See more details below


A physical anthropologist exposes the inner workings of archaeology and anthropology, illustrating what can be learned from fossils and fragments of ancient cultures and civilizations. Schwartz ranges from digs in the Negev Desert through Africa and Europe to the local coroner's office to explain how interpretations of the past are made.

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From the Publisher

"Scholarly sleuth Schwartz actually helps solve murders while exploring human evolution." —Columbia Magazine "It demonstrates how the skills of the forensic anthropologist carry over to the study of ancient populations when these are represented by a preserved skeletal series in a mortuary deposit. . . . Schwartz ably demonstrates how through such investigations new data can become available on matters about which historical records and other archaeological materials are silent." —Science "In a field often ruled by cockiness, Schwartz's reticence to make judgments is refreshing. Related to this, and even more welcome, is his rejection of scientific dogma. . . . Schwartz gives us the bare bones and more about the science of osteological analysis." —Kirkus Reviews "Students of osteology and anatomy will learn much from Mr. Schwartz's book, which is actually several books in one. From his excavations of charred bones from an ancient Carthaginian cemetery, for instance, Mr. Schwartz presents evidence that the Carthaginians, infamous for their alleged practice of casting children into sacrificial flames, may have used aborted fetuses rather than live children as sacrifices. In another section of the book, Mr. Schwartz defends his belief that modern human beings are more closely related to orangutans than to either chimpanzees or gorillas. He believes this hotly contested view may be buttressed by the fact that of all female primates, only humans and orangutans lack an estrus cycle and are therefore always receptive to sexual activity."—Malcolm W. Browne, New York Times Book Review "An easily readable, informative, enjoyable, thought-provoking commentary, interspersed with warm, refreshing tales. . . . It should interest both general and medical readers, dealing as it does with a subject that is near and dear to our hearts: our bones." —Journal of the American Medical Association

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University of Arizona Press
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What the Bones Tell Us

By Jeffrey H. Schwartz

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1993 Jeffrey H. Schwartz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-910-2



Imagine a Grecian urn. It was made in a certain region of Greece, at a certain time, according to certain styles and traditions. It has a trumpetlike brim. Below the pinched neck, the body swells out but then tapers toward its expanded base. The edges of the brim and base are thickened and raised. Each of a pair of ornately curved, elongate handles arches gracefully between the neck of the urn and its belly. The yellow clay used to make this urn was taken from a known quarry. In order to give the clay stability and strength as it was being fired, and forever after, finely crushed seashells — not sand, nor the chaff of wheat, nor even finely crushed potsherds — were kneaded into the clay as temper. A uniform but fine glaze, made from a crushed mineral, bathed the urn from brim to base.

Now drop the urn down a hill and try to find the scattered pieces. You will probably find at least a few body sherds, which may, in fact, be rather large. Perhaps you'll find a piece of the brim or of the base. Perhaps one of the handles. Which, if any, are the diagnostic pieces that will tell you what kind of urn it was, where it was from, and from which time period?

Clay, types of temper, even choices of glaze offer clues to region but not to time of origin. Because urns from different periods and places have similar shapes, body sherds alone rarely allow archeologists to pinpoint their origins. In contrast, it is the details — such as twists in handles, thicknesses of rims, arcs in necks and bases — that provide the clues needed to reconstruct style and, from that, time and place. Artistic or stylistic differences, sometimes very subtle, in the details of a pot or bowl are often specific not only to different civilizations but to certain regions. And, like fashions today, they also came and went quickly. Thus a small rim sherd or a piece of a handle — called an indicator sherd — is typically more diagnostic of an urn's time and place of origin than a large body sherd. Bigger is not necessarily better.

What we might think of as indicator bones exist for human and nonhuman animals, and again it's the details that count. For example, take note of the part of the elbow joint that does not move when you raise your lower arm; it belongs to your humerus, or upper arm bone. The bump at the back of the elbow joint that does move is the hooklike upper portion of the ulna, one of the two lower arm bones. The hooklike part of the ulna rotates around the middle of the lower end of your humerus, which is spindle-shaped. As you flex your lower arm, the tip of the ulna's hook moves away from part of the lower humerus, exposing the "funny bone" on the inner side of the hook. When you straighten out your lower arm, the hook of the ulna fits into a depression at the back of the humerus, above the spindle.

On the inner side of the lower end of your humerus you can feel a prominent knob projecting toward your body. The other side — the side away from your body — is a flatter, disclike surface. The "knob" and the "disc" protrude from the spindle-shaped region of the humerus around which the ulna rotates.

As you can feel, the lower end of your humerus carries diverse, detailed anatomical, or morphological, features. Because of this, even a tiny fragment of part of the lower end of a humerus can be identified specifically. Because the knob always points toward, the disc away from, and the depression above the spindle to the back of your body, you can figure out if the fragment is from a left or a right humerus. And because of the specific shapes of the spindle, knob, and disc, a knowledgeable observer can identify a fragment of a lower end of a humerus from a human; it could not have come from a cow, or an ape; it is uniquely human.

As you "climb up" your humerus, you will feel the shaft of the bone become narrower and more tubular. If you dig into your muscles, you will feel that the shaft remains relatively consistent in shape throughout much of its length. Even with a large fragment of the shaft, you might have difficulty determining the side of the body from which it came, or you might not be able even to tell that it came from a humerus in the first place.

Only when you get to the upper part of your humerus will you again find the anatomical detail needed to identify the bone clearly. One feature is the semiglobular head of the humerus. This partially rounded surface, which faces inward when the humerus is in the correct anatomical position, rotates in a shallow socket in the end of the shoulder blade, or scapula. Toward the outer part of the upper humerus, and facing somewhat forward, you might be able to feel two bumps, between which you can feel a tendon from the biceps muscle. On the bone itself, these two bumps are very distinct; they are separated from one another by the groove in which the biceps' tendon lies.

If you had a fragment of the upper part of the humerus, you could identify it as such by the semiglobular head, two bumps, and groove. By orienting the head of the humerus inward and the two bumps to the side and slightly forward, you could determine from which side of the body the bone came. Because of the specific morphologies of these features, you could tell that it was the upper part of a human humerus, and not from some quadrupedal animal.

The upper and lower ends of a humerus are like the brim and base of an urn. The shaft of the bone is like the belly of the urn. Fragments, even minute ones, of the detailed parts of a bone are like the indicator sherds of a broken urn. Fragments, even large ones, of the shaft of a bone are like the body sherds of a broken urn. Analyzing bones, after all, is very much like analyzing pottery.

To the Field

It was 1970. I was a graduate student going on my first dig. What made this one unusual was that I was going to be in charge of the analysis of human and animal bones. One of my professors at Columbia University, Dexter Perkins, a specialist in the analysis of animal bones from archeological sites, had suggested that I go in his stead on an excavation to Tell Hesi, which is located twenty-five or so kilometers inland from the Mediterranean coast, almost due west of Jerusalem. Dexter's contact was the reigning "king" of American biblical archeologists, G. Ernest Wright, who was a distinguished professor at Harvard University's Semitic Museum.

The site of Tell Hesi holds a prominent position in the history of biblical archeology. It had been excavated first in 1890 by the renowned British archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie. Like every other tell, Tell Hesi is a mound that was created by a succession of conquerers building their cities on top of the ruins of vanquished inhabitants. Each new city level sealed beneath it the remains of the preceding civilization: architectural ruin and rubble as well as potsherds and broken bones.

Petrie chose to excavate Tell Hesi with the goal of delineating the indicator sherds that were characteristic of each successive phase of occupation. He then used this pottery chronology to unravel the histories of other sites. For instance, Petrie found that certain types of pottery were characteristic of a particular phase of the Bronze Age, whereas other styles were found only during a phase of the Iron Age, or only during the Hellenistic or Greek periods. Subsequent excavations of Tell Hesi during the early 1900s revealed a more complex history of occupation, and thus pottery chronology, than Petrie had discovered. Our reexcavation was going to focus on refining our knowledge of the site's occupational history — using more sources of input than just working out a more detailed pottery chronology or finding the foundations of more buildings.

The staff and some of the crew for the reopening of Tell Hesi met for the first time at the W. F. Albright Institute, which is one of the bases of archeological research of the American Schools of Oriental Research. The Albright Institute is located outside of the walls of the old city of Jerusalem, near Herod's Gate. A cousin of mine, with whose family I stayed my first few days in Israel, drove me to the institute for the grand gathering of staff. Squelching first dig jitters, I walked in, under an archway between low buildings, and emerged onto the central courtyard, complete with a fountain and islands of flowers and plants. I was just in time to catch the first truckload of Hesi staff to go out to the site.

The truck circled its way down from the city of Jerusalem and headed off into the plains. A few hours later we were at Tell Hesi, which lies just on the fringe of the Negev Desert. The site thus lies in a fluctuating climatic zone. Some years the area is less arid. In other years, however, the desert expands to capture it. As the desert expands and contracts, the region's vegetation and faunal composition change. During the 1970 dig season, which lasted the full two months of June and July, I saw on various occasions small herds of desert-dwelling gazelle bounding across the fields near the tell. But whether or not the Negev was in its expanded state, it was so dehydratingly hot at the site by early afternoon that we had to get up hours before dawn in order to put in a full day's work in the field.

Tell Hesi is so massive that it towers over the fields that surround it, even though its broad base sits in a natural depression. When Petrie discovered the site, the tell's eastern face was fairly steep. This steepness was further emphasized by the deep erosive cut of the arroyolike Wadi Hesi that borders the site as it snakes its way across the landscape. When we arrived at the site, the tell's eastern face was still steep — its top rose 120 feet above the wadi, which had cut its way 60 feet below natural ground level. The three other sides of the tell sloped gently to ground level. A 25-acre ancient city had once surrounded the tell on these three sides. Now the fields grudgingly produce wheat, whose roots struggle each season to take hold in the topsoil-free mixture of desert sand and rubble of dead civilizations.

Perhaps the most important effort of the 1970 expedition to Tell Hesi was an attempt to change the style of digging typically employed at biblical sites. Instead of focusing solely on the tell itself and on the buildings, pottery, and artifacts of the elite, the Hesi staff included experts in a number of areas: stratigraphy, pottery, geology, human and animal bones, seeds and pollen, clay and glaze composition, metallurgy, and even stone tools. The goal was to learn as much as possible about the people who had lived on the tell as well as those who had lived outside the fortified walls of the tell and who would not have had fine ceramics or jewelry. We wanted to learn about their culture, their habits, their physical characteristics as well as the environment in which they lived. And the only way in which this can be done is by analyzing everything that comes out of the ground. At other biblical excavations in the early 1970s, some broader analyses were also being made. But at those sites additional experts were used sparingly — for example, a geologist may have been called in to identify the sources of rocks and clays used during the different periods of occupation. The staff at Tell Hesi boasted a full-time contingent of analysts of the sort typically involved in the excavation of a prehistoric site.

Archeology and Bones

At Tell Hesi, I wore several different hats. When I wore the hat of the faunal analyst, I studied the animal bones that had ended up in the garbage dump — the leftovers of meals, the butcher's discards, the bones of overworked draft animals, and broken bone implements, such as jawbones that had been used as scythes, slices of bone that looked like napkin rings, and cosmetic applicators of various shapes and sizes. From garbage such as this you can reconstruct a lot about the animals a society depends on: the domesticated animals kept as pets; the domesticated animals kept for heavy labor, meat, milk, wool, glue, and leather; the ages at which these animals were slaughtered; the animals hunted; the way in which animals were butchered; the parts of the animal that were preferred to eat; the parts traded away; the parts used for tools and other implements. You can even extrapolate further from the data about the capacity of the land for sustaining the flocks or herds of domesticates, as well as about the areas and environments in which the wild animals would have been hunted. Even recognizing what domesticated and wild animals were potentially available to a society but that are not represented in the garbage dumps can be of importance.

Early on in our first season of excavation, a small team of British faunal analysts was making the rounds of various biblical sites, asking for permission to sink a probe into each site in order to sample the animal bones, pollen, and seeds. The idea of taking a small sample from a variety of sites was the brainchild of the late Eric Higgs, who had taught at Cambridge University. Higgs's specialty was the study of animal bones from prebiblical sites of the Mediterranean region. His grand scheme was to collect enough data to be able to reconstruct the climate and environment throughout historical times. In order to accomplish this enormous task, Higgs sent various crews around the Mediterranean to collect samples of seed, pollen, and bone from various sites — one of which was Tell Hesi.

When the Higgs crew proclaimed that they wanted to sink their probes in a few strategic spots on top of and around Tell Hesi, the directors of the dig would have nothing to do with it. It was, after all, our first season, and we were just getting acquainted with the complexities of the site. I did, however, offer to share my data with the crew. Nothing ever came of the collaboration, and the Higgs crew attached themselves for a while to the team excavating at Tell Gezer, a biblical site farther to the north.

When I wore the hat of human osteologist, I became involved in what eventually turned out to be the first systematic excavation of the bedouin burials that typically compose the uppermost layers of any tell. These burials are densely packed and centuries old. It's easy to understand why certain groups would choose to inter their dead on the tops of tells. In this part of the world, a tell is the highest elevation and thus is closer to heaven. Petrie and all tell archeologists knew about these burials. But, because they were considered too recent to be of importance, they were seen as nuisances that stood between the excavator and the important stuff. As such, they always ended up in the heap of discarded backdirt.

It took a bit of doing to convince the veterans to change their ways and excavate and save all bone with the same care they applied to walls and pots. I don't know how many burials were tossed over the side of the tell during the first week of excavations, but an urgent meeting with the directors of the dig eventually put an end to (most of) that. When the staff of Tell Hesi visited the excavations at Tell Gezer late in the 1970 field season, the director of that site chided us for taking time over these burials. He had taken care of the problem by bringing in the bulldozers. Nevertheless, in future seasons of digging at Tell Hesi, excavation of these burials — aimed at exposing and preserving them carefully for future study — became a priority. When, after the first three seasons at Tell Hesi, I decided to move on to other studies, I left a skeletal sample and an interest among the excavators in adding to it, that could be analyzed in detail by the human osteologists who took my place.

For whatever reason — competition between excavations or an attempt to learn more systematically from the garbage of earlier civilizations — osteological analysis, both human and faunal, quickly became during the 1970 archeological field season an "in" thing to do on biblical sites. On occasion I would be asked to analyze bones recovered from sites being excavated elsewhere in Israel. But even though interest in human and faunal osteological analyses grew, there was still resistance to them. For instance, I would be told, the bedouin burials had nothing to do with the important activities recorded in the layers of a tell, and who cared, anyway, what animals past societies had been hunting, herding, and eating?

Some of this resistance also came from the belief that preserved historical writings could provide all anyone needed to know about the habits of past civilizations. Thus, for instance, if you wanted to know about the plants and animals raised, eaten, or traded at, for instance, Tell Hesi, you could refer to the lists of plants and animals in the Old Testament. But historical records can be deceiving.


Excerpted from What the Bones Tell Us by Jeffrey H. Schwartz. Copyright © 1993 Jeffrey H. Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Jeffrey H. Schwartz is a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History.

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