GARD Anthropology to better understand human history

The National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research uses anthropology to analyze and study its excavation sites.

A skeleton (Photo Anthony Maurin).

Excavation means destruction. This is how Man rewrites his past. He searches layer after layer, stratum after stratum and goes back in time, removing the most recent traces. He preserves through study. What about human remains and burials? It’s the same thing !

Except in exceptional circumstances, such as bodies found in peat bogs, the skeleton is the only part of the human body to survive long after death. Its degree of preservation depends on the terrain in which it is buried, but also on the treatment the body of the deceased underwent.

Excavations reveal more than 20 skeletons (Photo Anthony Maurin).

The burial can be individual or collective, summary or elaborate; it may involve cremation, with collection of the calcined bones. Funeral rites are as old as humanity and vary greatly depending on the culture. The anthropologist attempts to reconstruct the mortuary gestures by studying the architecture of the tomb, by the remains present and the position of the bones. The study of burials offers a great wealth of information about the past.

Anthropology

In a broad sense, anthropology is the science that studies the anatomical, biological, cultural and social characteristics of human beings. Applied to archaeology, it is interested in human remains and the context in which they are discovered.

Around ten skeletons were found during the excavations. (photo CCBTA)

In the field and then in the laboratory, the anthropologist examines the remains of the deceased to identify their biological characteristics, the circumstances of their death and the traumas and illnesses that they may or may not have survived. It also studies all the characteristics of the grave, thus enriching the knowledge of ancient societies through their funerary practices: treatment of the body, type of grave, adornment, offerings, furniture…

Search and sampling methods

The excavation of a burial is all the more delicate because, often, several funerary levels from different periods are superimposed. No bone or object should be moved before having observed and studied the structure of the tomb. Finally, the bones and accompanying furniture are described, photographed, sometimes drawn before being collected. Deciphering a burial is a team effort that involves several specialties, such as doctors, laboratory technicians, etc.

INRAP archaeological excavations in Nîmes a few years ago (Photo INRAP).. • Rémi Bénali/INRAP

Collection of bones from a multiple Neolithic burial

The study of the deceased

The study of the deceased begins with the analysis of the bones after cleaning, in order to estimate the sex, age at death, and stature. Certain traumas and chronic illnesses leave a visible mark on the bones. An unhealed fracture may indicate the cause of death.

Sometimes, a microbiological study reveals traces of parasites, viruses or a bacillus like that of the plague which will certainly have caused death. The anthropologist can also request analyzes of ancient DNA, to be able to formulate hypotheses about the biological origin of the deceased, the grouping of individuals from a necropolis.

The funeral world

The study of a burial provides many lessons on funerary practices. The methods of decomposition of the body provide information on the type of burial: in the ground, in a shroud, a coffin. All the funeral gestures are reconstructed: orientation of the body, position, clothing, adornment, deposit of offerings, ocher, personal objects or food.

Neolithic pit being excavated (Photo Cécile Martinez Inrap)

Post-sepulchral practices are also sought: reopening of the tomb, manipulation of bones, recovery of relics, reduction of the skeleton. The structure of the tomb is described, as well as the arrangements made to receive the body: shape of the grave, cover, visible markings on the ground. The location of the grave is also significant: among the living or apart.

Study death to understand life

A story emerges from a burial and the skeleton(s) it contains. Within a human group, the treatment of bodies can be egalitarian or differentiated according to sex, age or social status.

Inrap excavations 45-49 Rue de Beaucaire Nîmes April 2024 (Photo Anthony Maurin)

A jar encloses an urn containing the bones of the burnt person. Below, another glass vase undoubtedly contained an ointment or something else which must have accompanied the deceased (Photo Anthony Maurin)

Multiple burials can reveal an epidemic or an event of war. A body which bears the trace of a long chronic illness, of a repaired fracture, of medical or surgical care, indicates an ability to take charge and care for the weak and the sick.

The objects that accompany the dead evoke their daily life and the material, social and spiritual values ​​to which their society attaches importance.

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