Friday, May 6, 2016

Bioarchaeology: A Body of Knowledge

Part II

A replica skull uncovered from Windover Pond. Photo Credit: Rik Jesse, Florida Today.
Welcome back! The last post in this blog series broadly introduced the subfield of archaeology known as bioarchaeology (the study of human remains in archaeological contexts) and the kinds of information that can be gained from these types of investigations. You can read the first post here. This post will follow along with the same theme, but will focus on what happens prior to analysis, during the discovery and excavation. To take a look at these processes, we will check out a unique local bioarchaeological excavation – Windover Pond (also known as “Windover Bog”).

Site Marker at Windover Pond
            In some cases, bioarchaeologists are already working in an area where they expect or know they will encounter skeletons – for example, in an ancient tomb or cemetery, or in an on-going excavation at an ancient site. In other cases, skeletons are found by accident. This is what happened at Windover Pond in Titusville, Florida. In 1982, a backhoe operator found bones while digging in a pond as part of preparing for a new residential neighborhood. The developers followed the correct protocol – they called the police right away. Once the remains were investigated by the proper authorities, it was determined that the remains were not recent, and the developers called archaeologists from Florida State University to further investigate the site1.

Excavation at the Windover Site; Photo credit: Glen Doran;
            The Windover Pond site is extremely unique, and it received world-wide attention. Here, archaeologists discovered over 168 burials that dated to approximately 6,280 B.C. It is extremely rare to find bones that are 5,000 years old or older2, and  these burials occurred 3,500 years before the Egyptian Pyramids were built1!  There are several factors that affect the preservation of buried bone; the most influential of which are: moisture, temperature, and soil composition3. In the case of the Windover Site, the unique environment of the pond is credited with the amazing preservation: neutral pH, high sulfer levels, highly mineralized water, and an anerobic (no-oxygen) peat environment2
Windover Pond Excavation
            Each excavation is different. Bioarchaeologists must carefully assess the site and the condition and preservation of the remains before they can excavate. They must also be sure they are adhering to political and legal constraints related to the site. Some excavations are straightforward, and simply involve careful exposure, recording, and collection, while others require complex strategies4.

The excavation at Windover Pond. Photo credit: Glen Doran;
            The archaeologists at the Windover Site were tasked with a complex excavation. Because the site was in a pond, the archaeologists had to install a water pumping system to drain the area. The pump removed thousands of gallons of water every hour1. Excavated materials and skeletal remains had to be carefully conserved on site. The archaeologists quickly discovered that although the bone looked solid, it was actually extremely fragile; once the bone began to dry, it began to warp and break. To avoid this, the archaeologists came up with a conservation method that required keeping the bones saturated, and then treating them with special compounds to keep them from deteriorating 3. The artifacts recovered from the site, such as preserved cloth and wood, also needed special conservation treatments 4.

A cast reconstruction of a burial from Windover Pond.
            The actual removal of the bones from the ground is one of the last steps in a meticulous recovery process that includes careful exposure, photography, and documentation. If the bones were removed right away, important information related to the context of the burial would be lost; archaeologists meticulously record every piece of information, from the position of the body to the artifacts that are associated with it 5.

At the Windover Bog site, archaeologists were careful to record everything, and this resulted in a wealth of information about the population. For example, thirty-one types of foods and medicinal plants were recovered from the site, allowing for archaeologists to partially reconstruct diet and cultural practices. The botanical evidence also helped the team to know that the site was in use in late summer and early fall – the time when these plants were ripe and available to consume2. Later, archaeologists would combine this information with the results of laboratory analysis on the skeletons to create a more complete diet reconstruction. Together, context and analysis were able to provide a very detailed look into archaic Florida.

Once the site was properly exposed, documented, and excavated, the skeletal remains (and artifacts and ecofacts) were sent to laboratories for further analysis, and the site itself was restored to being a pond. The archaeologists at Windover excavated approximately ½ of the pond over three field seasons; the rest was left untouched to conserve the site1 .

Windover Pond:
As you can see, bioarchaeology is a lot more than digging up bones. It’s a careful scientific process that can be complicated by a number of situations. The Windover Bog site required quick-thinking and engineering to prepare the area for excavation, and the skeletal material had to be carefully recorded and conserved. Although laboratory analysis is helpful, the information archaeologists gather in context with the excavation provides a more complete look into the past. Without carefully recording the botanical remains (eco-facts) found in conjunction with the bodies, the laboratory analysis would have only offered a partial dietary reconstruction.

Mural of the Windover Pond excavation at Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science. Image credit:
Thanks for stopping in to read a bit about a local bioarchaeological excavation! If you want to learn more about the Windover Site, you can check out the references used here, or you can visit the official Windover Pond Exhibit at the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science in Cocoa, Florida.

Works Cited: 

1. Tyson, Peter. “America’s Bog People.” Nova. PBS, 07 Feb 2006. Web. 5 May 2016.

2. Wentz, Rachel Kathleen. “A Bioarchaeological Assessment of Health from Florida’s Archaic: Application of the Western Hemisphere Health Index to the Remains from Windover.” Diss. University of Florida, 2006. Web. 5 May 2016.

3. Stone, Tammy T, Dickel David N, and Glen H. Doran. “The Preservation and Conservation of Waterlogged Bone from the Windover Site, Florida: A Comparison of Methods.” Journal of Archaeology. 17:2 (1990): 177-186. Web. 5 May 2016. 

4. Adovasio J.M., Andrews R.L., Hyland D.C., and J.S. Illingworth. “Perishable Industries from the Windover Bog: An Unexpected Window into the Florida Archaic.” North American Archaeologist. 22:1 (2001): 1-90. Web. Research Gate. 5 May 2016.

5. White, Tim D, and Pieter A. Folkens. The Human Bone Manual. Boston: Elsevier 2005. Print.


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