This is an excellent book about a subject so fundamental to archaeological field practice that nobody should be let loose on an excavation unless they have read it. Human remains are everywhere, and this book tells us what we need to know about the laws relating to finds of human remains, and how to excavate, conserve, store and curate skeletal remains.
The author – Charlotte Roberts, Professor of Archaeology at Durham University – is one of the UK’s leading experts on the study of human remains, and she writes with that ease and fluency that comes from total familiarity with her subject and a desire to enthuse readers with a sense of how much knowledge can be gained from studying ‘the ancient dead’. She argues powerfully for the ‘respectful preservation and curation’ as a reasonable alternative to ‘repatriation and reburial’, an argument that will probably cut no ice with the self-appointed ‘heirs’, guardians and representatives of the dead who have recently sought to impose their subjective interpretations of past spiritual beliefs on relatively objective archaeological practice. One way to honour the dead, in other words, is to bring them to life again by studying their remains, thereby adding to the stock of human knowledge.
But this is only one strand in a thoroughly practical book, the meat of which lies in what the author tells us about the analysis and interpretation of human remains, from simple facts, such as the sex, height and age at death of the individual concerned, to pathological lesions that can inform us about lifestyle and disease, and more advanced methodological developments, such as stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses, that is helping to answer long-standing archaeological questions about migration, agriculture, health and healing.