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MYcenaean SOcial BIOarchaeology: Deciphering the interplay of funerary treatment and social dynamics in the Mycenaean period

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MYSOBIO (MYcenaean SOcial BIOarchaeology: Deciphering the interplay of funerary treatment and social dynamics in the Mycenaean period)

Reporting period: 2018-01-15 to 2020-01-14

Bioarchaeology is the contextual analysis of human remains in their archaeological context. Social bioarchaeology focuses on exploring social aspects of the life and death of past people, their social identities, and burial practices. In this framework, MYSOBIO investigates the complex relationship between funerary treatment and wider social dynamics through a novel interpretive model based on the contextual analysis of human skeletal remains and associated mortuary data. The main aim is to reconstruct, to a new level of detail, development in Mycenaean mortuary practice in the Late Bronze Age Aegean (LBA, 1700-1050 BC). This is a key area for the emergence of the first advanced European civilisations in the 2nd millennium BC. The transition from the Middle to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1700 BC) in the Aegean was characterised by an increase in social complexity that led to the emergence of the Mycenaean palaces a few centuries later. These developments were paralleled by significant changes in funerary customs, mostly characterised by a shift from the relatively homogeneous and simple single burials of the Middle Bronze Age to a complex funerary ritual, featuring collective burials, tomb re-use, and variable primary and secondary mortuary treatment. Several questions arise: how uniform or variable was the mortuary treatment and how is diversity to be explained? What were the pre-eminent social identities (gender, age, status, kin) expressed and how were social relations re-defined on death? Most importantly, why were these practices introduced at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, how did they evolve through the palatial times, and why did they change after the collapse of the palaces?
MYSOBIO unravels the diversity of social responses at death and their mutual relationship with wider socio-political developments, instrumental in the rise and fall of the Mycenaean palaces, one of the first complex societies in Europe. To achieve this, it employs, for the first time, a holistic bioarchaeological approach that integrates up-to-date theoretical reflection in mortuary archaeology with cutting-edge, interdisciplinary scientific advances in the study of collective skeletal assemblages. This methodology brings together traditional archaeology, current mortuary theory, biological anthropology, archaeothanatology and funerary taphonomy, further enhanced by state-of-the-art technological innovations from other scientific fields (social geography, geomatics, forensic sciences, archaeogenetics). Hence, MYSOBIO formulates a new methodological pathway to the social dimensions of prehistoric mortuary assemblages, by creating critical new knowledge in the following key areas: i) social developments in the LBA Aegean; ii) field and lab documentation and analysis of commingled human skeletal assemblages; iii) multi-disciplinary approaches in social bioarchaeology.
Dr Ioanna Moutafi conducted this project under the supervision of Professor John Robb at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, from 2018 to 2020. Specific research objectives included: 1) the reconstruction of funerary treatment of the body at key Mycenaean sites to a new level of detail, illuminating taphonomic processes, palaeodemography, burial acts and specific choices; 2) Interpretation of the funerary acts within their historical context; 3) Advancing the methodology pertaining to the analysis of commingled skeletal remains and collective mortuary assemblages. Training objectives included the acquisition of new skills in theoretical approaches, digital archaeology, statistical analysis, and archaeo-genetics, as well as overall professional development (teaching, communication, project management).
All objectives were achieved according to the work packages as outlined in the original proposal. These included setting-up of the project, preparation of initial databases, four fieldtrip to Greece for osteological data collection (mostly undertaken in the Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science, American School of Classical Studies at Athens), training in GIS, digital techniques and statistics, fieldtrips in Greece for a-DNA lab training in the Centre for Geogenetics, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and synthetic data processing and interpretation. Limited teaching was also undertaken during the action.
Five scientific joint publications, related to side projects, were published during the action or are now in press (all peer-reviewed; two articles in journals and three in conference proceedings). Three major peer-reviewed articles on key results of the action will be submitted and published within 2020. Finally, a monograph related to the project is accepted for publication in 2020 by Oxbow Books. Wide dissemination and communication of the results was undertaken throughout the fellowship, with various activities presented in several academic venues worldwide and in various events addressed to the public. These included:
• Presentations at 8 international conferences
• Participation in 3 international and U.K. workshops
• 6 invited research talks and seminars
• Co-organisation of 3 conference sessions or workshops
• Participation in various outreach activities
This project successfully surpassed traditional disciplinary divides and established the basis for a novel interdisciplinary methodological approach to the social dimensions of mortuary rites. Through this work, it was shown that death -and how we deal with dying- is an integral part of human life, in a constant interplay with the wider socio-political conditions we live in. The results shed new light to social developments that led to the emergence, consolidation and final transformation of the Mycenaean civilisation, showing mortuary customs to be crucial to the shaping of a common Mycenaean identity but also to the differentiation of specific groups and persons. The research suggests that the complex interaction between changing social conditions and mortuary practice is often reflected in subtle, yet meaningful, shifts of emphasis between individual and collective notions in the post-mortem treatment of bodies and bones, rather than in blatant radical changes.
The wide communication of the project’s results to different audiences (both scientific and the public) ensured a significant inter-sector impact, bridging the gap between the sciences and the humanities. Bringing together specialists from different fields, MYSOBIO set the basis for future scientific collaborations between various European academic institutions, with a great potential for EU research excellence in the years to come. The results of the progress were widely disseminated both within and beyond Europe. Promotion of this research will continue after the end of the action, as major outcomes of the project will be published in the coming months. The enthusiastic response of the public to the communication events associated with the project illustrates how deeply bioarchaeology can affect a modern audience. Building on the fascination that human skeletal remains exert on the public, MYSOBIO offered an alternative biosocial approach to ancient death, focusing on ritual, beliefs, and social relationships rather than monumentality alone. This approach will have a strong impact on heritage development, initiating change in the way we manage mortuary sites and communicate archaeological finds to the public.
Recording Mycenaean bones (Wiener Laboratory, ASCSA)
PostDoc Forum, The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, May 2019
"""A Game of Bones"". Science Festival, University of Cambridge, March 2019"
Ioanna Moutafi & Jesper Stenderup, preparing for a-DNA samping in the Wiener Laboratory, Athens .
"""Do dead tell tales?"" Bite-size talk at Cathedral Lab. Researchers' Night, Ely Cathedral, 09/2019"