As an academic, one of my favorite moments is when I receive proofs for a new article – it’s a feeling up there with freshly laundered sheets, cookies warm from the oven, and waking up to the smell of frying bacon. That’s why I was very happy when my co-author Katherine Kinkopf and I received word that our paper on the bioarchaeology of looting was accepted to the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports at the end of September. We received our proofs a few days later and I kept opening the pdf to look at them, because nothing compares to seeing your interpretations and analyses properly formatted. It’s like that teen movie trope of the already clearly attractive young woman who takes off her glasses to reveal that she has SECRETLY BEEN STRIKINGLY BEAUTIFUL ALL ALONG.
In addition to getting my proofs, I realized recently that in all of the hubub of finishing my PhD and moving to a new city, I forgot to describe another recent publication, this one in the open-access journal Open Archaeology. My friend Colin Quinn and I were invited to submit a manuscript to their special issue on Bioarchaeology, so we sat down over a few beers, talked about theory, and decided what we wanted to write.
The article in Open Archaeology is titled “Essential Tensions: A Framework for Exploring Inequality Through Mortuary Archaeology and Bioarchaeology.” We used the paper as a forum to discuss the ways in which bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology provide complementary lines of evidence about the emergence of inequality in past societies. In many analyses, bioarchaeological information about individuals’ lived experiences (like health, diet, labor, and experience of violence) are treated as “real,” and prioritized in discussions of inequality, while the identities and institutions represented in mortuary practices are viewed as “performed.” Instead of imbuing one line of evidence with greater importance or “truthiness,” we argue that coherence or dissonance between the funerary and bioarchaeological evidence reveals important information about past social organization. In order to explain our point using real world examples, we drew upon three case-studies from Late Prehistoric Europe: The Hill of Tara (Ireland), Southwest Transylvania (Romania), and Marroquíes Bajos (Jaén).
The most recent paper in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports is titled “Bioarchaeological Approaches to Looting: A Case Study from Sudan.” This paper was born out of Katherine Kinkopf’s undergraduate honors thesis at the University of Michigan. At the time, I was her “graduate mentor,” which meant that we talked through her central question, research design, and data collection strategies while she was developing her thesis. Katie is interested in looting from both an archaeological and anthropological perspective, and so we designed a project that investigated whether it was possible to discern whether a burial had been looted based on the patterning in thepreserved skeletal remains. She analyzed a sample of burials of known condition (e.g. excavators had determined that they were either “looted” or “unlooted”) from the Kerma-period site of Al-Widay in Sudan. We then identified “Culturally Significant Anatomical Regions,” or areas of the body most likely to have been targeted by looters due to the presence of jewellery or grave goods – in this case, the skull, upper neck, hands, and feet. Katie used fragmentation-zonation methods to record the preservation and condition of those regions for a sample of remains of known condition, as well as a sample of burials of unknown condition, for which excavators did not make a determination about whether burials were looted or unlooted.
The data showed a stark difference between the preservation of CSAR elements in looted versus unlooted burials (see Figures 4 and 5 above). I then worked with the Center for Statistical Consulting and Research at the University of Michigan to develop a leave-one-out logistic regression model that used the preservation and condition of known burials to predict whether the burials of unknown condition had also been looted.
Overall, we showed that looted and unlooted burials from this period in Sudan had different signatures of skeletal preservation, meaning it was possible to make inferences about whether or not a burial had been looted based on the condition of therecovered bones. This research is particularly useful in instances where skeletons were excavated before modern archaeological recording standards were in place, or in situations where provenience information like site reports or excavation notes may be inaccessible due to political unrest or curation issues.
Accordingly, if you’re interested in inequality or looting, both papers are available on my academia.edu page, and I’ve posted links to the pdfs in the references below as well. Now, to get back to writing so that I can generate more proofs!
Quinn, Colin and Jess Beck. 2016. Essential tensions in mortuary contexts: Exploring inequality through bioarchaeology. Open Archaeology, Topical Issue in Bioarchaeology. 2:18-41.
Kinkopf, Katherine and Jess Beck. 2016. Bioarchaeological approaches to looting: A case study from Sudan. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 10: 263-271.
Image Credits: Shocking She’s All That transformation from Drinking Cinema, here.
This is fantastic innovative research on two fronts, well done Jess! It is good to see the looting research published, I can imagine there are many contexts where this would be a useful method to use and gauge burial disturbance.
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