ARCHEO-ANTHROPOLOGY | Reconstructing life through death

In the Alegoría de la Muerte, an oil painting by the artist Tomás Mondragón from 1856, the scene depicted is divided into two symmetrical parts: on the left is a rich, well-dressed woman accompanied by the customs and traditions of her time; on the right, however, in her reflected image in the mirror, what we all have in common, a skeleton. Life and death have always been conceived as two distinct realities. This is manifest in the separation of cemeteries from cities, of the world of the living from that of the dead.

Alegoría de la Muerte, oil painting by the artist Tomás Mondragón, 1856.

The great archaeothanatologist (an archaeologist who studies death and the modifications of the body that occur after burial) Henry Duday uses the powerful image of the painting – by detaching it from the Mexican context of its creation – to emphasize the concept of how archaeoanthropology can “overturn perspectives”: we start from death, from the analysis of skeletons, to reconstruct history, the lives of people from the past, to better understand our present.

What is Archeo-anthropology?

When we talk about an ancient funerary context, in which the tomb is the central element of an archaeological excavation, what we think of, and what we encounter most easily, are the bone remains. These materials are, in their own right, to be considered on a par with the other objects that characterize a burial. Artifacts, architectural and funerary structures are a material manifestation of man; human remains are the only representatives of the “maker”, of those who made these artifacts. They constitute the last biological link with our ancestors, as well as an additional and complementary source of information about the life of ancient communities.  

Archaeo-anthropology is the branch of Archaeology that deals with the analysis and recovery of human bones, following specific criteria of application. This is the starting point of a work that continues in the laboratory.

How can we listen to what human bones have to tell us?

We will try to answer this and other questions by looking at the studies, research and analysis that have developed over time around human remains, during their discovery and after their recovery, and to illustrate how they have brought to light significant aspects of our past. 

A Neanderthal holds a skull

Extravagant burials and unusual beliefs

We will focus on “singular” cases, expressions of curious funerary beliefs; cases that indicate the presence of different ways or places of burial in relation to the different age classes of the deceased or their social level; the role and explanation in death of intimate mother-son, woman-man or sibling relationships; a special focus will be placed on the most recent studies. We will focus on funerary practices, on the choices of burial and the substrate of beliefs related to them. All this always starting from the skeleton, the real protagonist of the stories and events that will be told, which is able to “reincarnate” the life of the past, even after death.

A skeleton in the mirror

The main objective of the column is to push the reader to approach the skeletons with a new look, in order to understand their importance in the archaeological field. To move away from the idea that they are only simple piles of bones, or the macabre expression of the past, instead of the main witnesses of the time that was. The reader will be encouraged to reconstruct, in his own mind, starting from the flesh, then from the clothes, the beliefs, the customs, the life of these men buried long ago. 

It will be just like turning Mondragón’s picture upside down: starting from the reflected image of the skeleton, to get to the other side of the mirror and see what it was in order to reconstruct the man, the humankind and its stories, from the past, from prehistory and protohistory, up to the periods closest to us.

The column Archaeo-anthropology will begin in the new magazine of ArcheoMe from February 2021 that, on a bimonthly basis, will accompany us throughout the year….see you soon.

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