August 3, 2011

Greece: This is the life…

Here I will tell you about what I’ve been doing and my thoughts, in no particular order.

1. I am on a tiny tiny island called Astypalaia working on the Astypalaia Bioarchaeology Project. About 11 years ago, someone tried to build a house on the side of the hill below the main town and hit some burials. Not unusual for this part of the world. What was interesting about these is that they were all infant and neonate burials, and there were 3000 of them. Thus it instantly became the largest collection of infant remains in the world, including modern medical collections. They are extremely important to study for a bunch of reasons, primarily because there are so many of them and little is known about this age group in bioarchaeology. Also, there are enough here to study infant skeletal development comparatively. Many archaeologists claim that they never find infants because they preserve poorly, but that seems to be untrue: in many cases, they actually preserve better than adult bones because they are more dense. The problem may be that archaeologists don’t know how to recognize them (as they are very small, people might confuse them for chicken or rat bones) or they are lost during excavation, as happens with adult hand and foot bones: if you’re not careful, you can leave them in the dirt. Fortunately, the ones here are preserved pretty well because they were all buried in trade pots (used for wine or olive oil) with a hole cut in the side. Some questions we are frequently asked:

-How did they get the babies through the tops of the jars? They didn’t. Each pot has a hole cut in the side to put the baby in, then it was re-sealed with clay or mortar. Over the centuries, the weight of the soil pushed this “door” back into the pot, filling it with dirt. The pottery underneath also breaks, so we just remove it all and excavate out the baby.

-How old are they? The individuals range in age from pre-birth (probably premature infants or stillbirths) to possibly 3 years old, but most are probably neonates (the first month after birth). I got one last week that might have been a month premature; it was so tiny!

-Were they child sacrifices? Probably not. Although certain places in Greece have records of infant exposure (basically, leaving a baby on a hilltop if it wasn’t wanted), but these babies were buried in the customary pattern of infants all over Greece – respectfully, in jars in a large cemetery. There is no evidence of trauma. Yes, there are 3000, but they were buried over a period of around 800 years, from the Geometric period to Roman times; that works out to only 3.75 burials per year if they were evenly spaced. Considering the island’s constant habitation during those years, I personally don’t think we have to look for other reasons, although some have been suggested. Until the early 1800s, up to 1/5 of all children died before the age of 5. I’d actually say 3000 babies is underrepresentative of the total.

-Then why are they buried separately? We have no idea. Not a clue. There’s a separate adult cemetery elsewhere on the island, which we are also investigating, but there are also some infants in it. There are some theories, like these were too young to be named. Really, we don’t have a clue.

-What do you do? Are you excavating out in the hot Grecian sun? DO YOU HAVE SUNSCREEN? The burials were excavated by local workers in the course of construction of the house. Each pot has been wrapped in bubble wrap, taped up in a cardboard box, and put in storage. We work in the old high school building, which is perched on a hillside by the Venetian castle with a great view of the sea and (sometimes) a nice breeze. We do all excavations indoors, as it’s very delicate work and sometimes uses expensive equipment like cameras and special conservation paper. Instead of trowels or pickaxes, we excavate with scalpels, dental picks, and tweezers. It takes about 2-3 days to go through a burial, including excavation, cleaning and cataloguing, and photography.

-What do you do the rest of the time? Often, I go to the beach. We start work at 7, and we live about 3km downhill, so it’s a nice (read: sweaty) walk up in the morning. We finish at 3 and have 3 hours of prime beach time before dinner. In the evenings, we play Scrabble, read, work, or go on the internet (although I’ve only checked my computer once a week, woohoo).

-It’s 2:20. Why are you at neither of these places? Today we’re taking a day off to work on making plans, which are basically little maps of each burial. It involves scaling down a photo and drawing over it to show the position of the burial. ALSO I just wanted to write an update before I went off to the beach!

(to be continued…)

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