Inquiring into the relationship between humans and warfare
As a child who would play on old Civil War battlefields, CAIS graduate research associate Katie Reinberger grew to develop an interest in the relationship between people and the institutions of warfare. More specifically, she is a bioarchaeologist who studies human skeletal remains in order to answer population-based questions about past civilizations and their interconnectivity.
“Bioarchaeologists study how humans embody their social and cultural surroundings. [Humans] are not just biological creatures, we’re also affected by the social aspects,” Katie said.
The archaeological site that forms the basis of Katie’s dissertation is a mass grave of rouhgly 140 individuals who fought and died in the battles of Himera, 5th century BC. Himera, a rich seaport on Sicily’s northern coast, was the site of two decisive battles fought between Greeks and the invading Carthaginians.
Analyses of bones and teeth recovered from these mass graves can help answer questions about how these soldiers embodied their social and political institutions. Did they all have the same diet? Were they in good health? What sorts of stresses were they under and how did these stresses physically affect them? How was this population related to populations across the region?
To make estimations about health and stress, bioarcheologists look for certain signs in bone and teeth. Disease, malnutrition, physical activity like heavy labor, and other stressors leave permanent markings, such as furrows, and can morph bone growth. Consider that trained archers develop specific bone growth in their elbows from the repeated actions associated with shooting a bow. Identifying individuals with bone growth matching the pattern of an archer suggests specialization, which suggests that the army was composed of at least some full-time soldiers as opposed to laymen rallied together in a time of war.
The two scenarios each have different implications about the civilization’s structure and how connected the community might have been to others in the region and beyond it. A full-time military might be evidence of an imperial society who holds warfare in high prestige. In fact, historical accounts assert that ancient Greeks considered the ability to fight as a sign of the elite, and that the non-elite would strive to become soldiers.
For dietary reconstruction, bioarchaeologists turn to isotopic analysis. Long-term dietary patterns impart specific chemical signatures that correlate to not only what individuals were eating, but also where the food derived. Let’s say isotopic analysis demonstrates that the 140 individuals from Katie’s study site were eating a lot of C4 plants. C4 is a category of plants that undergo a process of photosynthesis specific to particular conditions, like climate. Let’s say that, hypothetically, Sicily didn’t naturally contain C4 plants in 5th century BC. We may build a hypothesis that the study population engaged in trade to obtain this key food item, and we would start to build on the hypothesis of interconnectivity across peoples and regions.
Although seemingly minor, variables of age, sex, diet, physical activity, and disease form databases that are not unlike thousands of pieces to a puzzle. The puzzle is, of course, how all of these elements act upon and react to one another to create institutions that influence and are influenced by members of civilizations.
Armed with other insights about human history and culture, Katie could possibly extrapolate beyond the population subset that the soldiers of Himera represent, beyond the 5th century BC, up through today and into the future.
This coming summer and the summer after, Katie will travel to Sicily to visit the site. She and her major professor Laurie Reitsema will work with a team to conduct macroscopic analysis, take photos, collect data, and look for pathologies on the bones, as well as bringing samples back for isotopic analysis.
“I’m very excited,” Katie said.
CAIS Graduate Research Associate
A PhD student at the University of Georgia, Katie works as a graduate research associate at CAIS. The job covers her tuition and supplements her studies with experience in the radiocarbon lab. Alex Cherkinsky, CAIS’s radiocarbon expert, functions as her mentor.
“Alex is awesome to work with. He’s taught me a lot, including tricks of the trade,” Katie said.
Sometimes, samples much smaller than required for analysis come through the lab. Pretreatment, which entails cleaning samples of contaminants and prepping them for radiocarbon analysis, is critical to retrieving precise and accurate data. Depending on bone preservation, extraction methods sometimes yield only 10% of collagen, the material within bone that contains the necessary ingredients for radiocarbon dating. For this reason, samples usually need to weigh as much as 1 to 1 ½ grams. In one case, a fishbone sample arrived that was only 8 miligrams. So Alex, calling on his 40+ years of experience, worked with Katie to do a sort of flash-treatment, adjusting the protocol of pretreatment and extraction to make the most of what they had.
“If we had tried to do it the way we always do, we would have lost the sample. And when customers are paying a significant amount for these samples, it’s important to be able to give them the results,” Katie said.