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EXCAVATION AND STUDY OF COMMINGLED HUMAN SKELETAL REMAINS

Efthymia Nikita; Anna Karligkioti; Hannah Lee

This document is the second in a series of guides aimed at promoting best practice in different aspects of archaeological science, produced principally by members of the Science and Technology in Archaeology and Culture Research Center (STARC) of The Cyprus Institute. The current document was largely developed in the context of two projects: People in Motion and Promised. The implementation of People in Motion involved the laboratory study of a large commingled skeletal assemblage from Byzantine Amathus, Cyprus, which came to light in the context of excavations led by the Cypriot Department of Antiquities. Osteological work on this assemblage was co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Republic of Cyprus through the Research and Innovation Foundation (Project: EXCELLENCE/1216/0023). In addition, Promised aims at promoting archaeological sciences in the Eastern Mediterranean, with funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 811068. Commingled assemblages pose special challenges in their study, nonetheless such a study can reveal key information on the osteobiography of those comprising the assemblage and the funerary practices. In addition, since commingling is both a natural and cultural process, it should be viewed not strictly as an impediment to study (though admittedly methodology has to be adapted and ‘traditional’ bioarchaeological conclusions are often limited), but as a kind of ‘life history’ of a skeletal assemblage. In line with the above, the aim of this guide is to cover various aspects of the study of a commingled skeletal assemblage. It should be seen as a supplement to the ‘BASIC GUIDELINES FOR THE EXCAVATION AND STUDY OF HUMAN SKELETAL REMAINS; STARC Guide No. 1’, which outlines the key general methods for human skeletal excavation and analysis. As the first protocol, it focuses on the excavation and study of bioarchaeological assemblages, rather than forensic anthropological material, though many of the practices described are shared between these disciplines. Readers interested in the scientific investigation of multiple burials from forensic contexts are advised to consult the volume by Cox et al. (2008). It cannot be overemphasized that each commingled skeletal assemblage will pose different challenges and any approach to field recovery/excavation and laboratory procedures will have to be adapted to these. Therefore, the current guide is meant to serve only as a general outline and the described field and lab-based methods should be modified depending on individual circumstances, such as the degree of commingling, sample size, preservation of the material, research questions and other parameters.A number of excellent edited volumes have been published in the past years, compiling diverse case studies on the retrieval and examination of commingled skeletal remains in archaeological and forensic contexts (Adams and Byrd 2008, 2014; Osterholtz et al. 2014a; Osterholtz 2016). A lot of the information presented here has been drawn from these resources, as well as from other publications and the authors’ personal experience. References are given throughout the document but our aim is by no means to provide an exhaustive account of the literature. This document is an open resource and it is anticipated to be updated at regular intervals. We would greatly appreciate any feedback and recommendations for future improvement.

This guide was additionally funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Republic of Cyprus through the Research and Innovation Foundation (Project: EXCELLENCE/1216/0023).
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