Bodies as Narratives: Revisiting Osteobiography as a Conceptual Tool

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 82nd Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC (2017)

Bodies are stories. They combine a lifetime of biological change and culturally negotiated activities with corresponding bodily responses. The traces of the lifecourse are embodied in the skeleton itself. The term "osteobiography", introduced by Saul and Saul (1989), refers to the life history recorded in the human skeleton. Reading skeletal data interpretively within cultural and behavioral contexts to trace unique life paths can help to bring human remains out of the ghetto of specialist appendices and into humanistic and multidisciplinary analysis. However, the concept of osteobiography has rarely been systematically explored, remaining simply the detailed description of the skeletal remains of a single individual. This session provides a focused discussion of the concept. Among the topics

to explore are:

• The normative biography as a cultural narrative weaving together time, history, and individual experience

• The experience of activity, health, and illness

• How bodies become gendered, aged, and individuated

• Habitual activity molding the body and its identity

• The role of narrative, contingency, and risk in human lives

• Methodologies for constructing osteobiographies, tacking between individual and social scales of analysis and combining archaeological, textual, and/or iconographic evidence

• Biographical narratives as bridges for outreach, education, and communication

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-13 of 13)

  • Documents (13)

  • Being Male in al-Andalus. A Comparative Osteobiographical Approach to Reconstructing Islamic Identities in Medieval Spain. (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Sarah Inskip.

    In 711 AD the influx of Arabs and Berbers into Iberia culminated in the formation of the only Islamic state in medieval Western Europe. The uptake of new religious ideology and cultural practices by the inhabitants, which when applied in their unique sociohistorical context, resulted in an Iberian Islamic identity. While much research has explored variation in the lives of women, including debates on their freedom of movement and activity, less is postulated about the lives of men and what it...

  • Beyond Broken Bones: The Value of Creating an Osteobiography when Analyzing Violence in the Past (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Ryan Harrod.

    Population level analyses of violence that are focused on quantifying and comparing traumatic injuries on human skeletal remains recovered from an archaeological context are crucial for understanding violent interactions through time and across regions. However, these types of studies are also limited because, by design, they place less emphasis on individuals and their lived experience. In contrast, when researchers create what Frank and Julie Saul called an osteobiography for each set of...

  • Bone Remodeling Behavior Across the Surfaces of the Skeleton as Biographical Windows (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Sabrina Agarwal.

    The morphology of the whole skeleton is crafted over the life course by bone remodeling across its skeletal surfaces: the endosteal surface of its trabeculae, and on the periosteal, endocortical, and intracortical surfaces of its cortex. The behavior of each of these surfaces differs between individuals and populations resulting in some understood differences in bone morphology across human groups. But the skeletal surfaces are also differentially influenced during growth, aging, reproduction,...

  • Corporeal Congregations and Asynchronous Lives: Unpacking the Pews at Spring Street (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Shannon Novak.

    This paper seeks to expose the "fallacies of synchrony" that often accompany the analysis of human remains. In approaching a cemetery, for example, we all too easily think of the bodies there as a "community," even when they belong to different generations or geographic contexts. This simple point has major implications, especially for the bioarchaeology of urban landscapes. Here, chronologically disparate elements accumulate in vast mélanges, offering innumerable examples of the...

  • Exploring Intersectionality through Osteobiography: A Case Study from Early Medieval Ireland (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Rachel Scott.

    Over the last decade, social identity has become well established as an area of bioarchaeological research. Although bioarchaeologists now examine a variety of identities in past societies (such as gender, age, and disability), it remains challenging to discuss the ways in which multiple identities intersect in the creation of individual lives. The construction of osteobiographies provides a means of investigating these intersections, in particular the interrelation of age with other aspects of...

  • Extending Osteobiography: Disability, Care, Agency and Emotion (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Lorna Tilley.

    Based on evidence in human remains suggesting survival despite functionally-limiting disability, the bioarchaeology of care approach infers provision of health-related care; identifies likely elements of this care; then explores the implications of care practices and outcomes for increased understanding of both the subject of care and their community. A comprehensive osteobiography of the care-recipient (framed within the individual’s lifecourse and lifeways, and acknowledging the centrality of...

  • From Life History to Large Scale: Osteobiography as Microhistory (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Lauren Hosek.

    Osteobiography, like other types of biographies, extends beyond the individual through entanglements with objects, landscapes, and social phenomena. The approach requires a multi-scalar analysis to understand how bodies both emerge from and create historical process. Osteobiographies are developed by tacking between an individual’s remains and the wider skeletal population to establish a contextualized life history. Conceptualizing osteobiography as a microhistory of human remains is one way in...

  • Osteobiography as Local Biology (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jo Appleby.

    Osteobiography is an increasingly popular approach, but one that can have the effect of producing unproblematised, individualised approaches to the life course. In this paper I wish to explore how we can create a theoretically informed osteobiography. I propose two strands to this. Firstly, rather than osteobiography being something that ‘happens to’ individuals living in a society, I suggest that it constantly emerges through inter-relations with culturally specific understandings of the person...

  • Osteobiography: A Conceptual Framework (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only John Robb.

    Osteobiography provides a rich conceptual basis for understanding the past, but its conceptual basis has never been systematically outlined. It both stands in conceptual opposition to a traditional statistical approach to bioarchaeology modelled upon clinical studies in biomedicine, and is interdependent with it. As such, its position mirrors those of clinical case histories as opposed to statistical studies, participant-observation ethnography as opposed to quantitative sociology, and...

  • Osteonarratives in the German-Language Tradition (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Estella Weiss-Krejci.

    This paper will discuss the research history of "osteobiography" in German-language anthropology and archaeology. That the term "Osteobiographie" is actually not in use does not imply that the concept does not exist. Although German-speaking prehistoric anthropologists were and still are predominantly focused on population research, science-based stories relating to individuals have been told, for instance, about Ötzi the Iceman. On closer inspection such narratives reveal a tendency to surface...

  • A Prism or a Mirror? Reflections of a Hopewell Man (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jane Buikstra. Jason King.

    Interred within a deep, mounded and relatively elaborate tomb nearly two millennia ago, our Hopewell man lived approximately as many years as we have studied his remains. While his tissues have remained unchanged since excavation, our analytical gaze has witnessed near tectonic shifts in theoretical perspectives. The first interpretations, those of the senior author in zealous pursuit of her doctoral degree, were decidedly processual and lacked reflexivity. She spoke of status, for example,...

  • Scales of Analysis and Modes of Interpretation in Osteobiography: An Example from the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Alexis Boutin.

    Bioarchaeologists have traditionally prioritized statistically significant patterns in large skeletal assemblages to document major biocultural trends in human populations. But in the last 15-20 years, the osteobiography approach has returned to favor, encouraging bioarchaeologists to focus on the specifics of the human scale, reconstruct an experiential prehistory, and restore an identity to those "genderless, faceless blobs" (Tringham 1991: 97) who people so many traditional interpretations of...

  • ‘Where Individuals Are Nameless and Unknown’: Osteobiography Reveals the ‘Big Man’, the Ritualist, the Heiress, and the Priest (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Christopher Knüsel.

    In 1957, Christopher Hawkes (of the ladder of inference renown) wrote: "…. the most scientific and therefore the best, because the purest, kind of archaeology is the prehistoric kind, where individuals are nameless and unknown, and so cannot disturb our studies by throwing any of their proud and angry dust in our eyes."1 Because the social identity of the deceased cannot be identified from human remains without analysis, osteobiography, the bioarchaeological reconstruction of the lives and...