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Popular Science: The work of anthropologists in commercial archaeology

While excavating human remains in commercial archaeology, anthropologists are often limited by financial and time constraints and the collection of meaningful information is therefore rather difficult. That is why technologies and work methodology need to be quicker, cheaper and simpler and the collaboration between anthropologists, archaeologists and developers needs to be better to achieve maximal results. Erika Průchová from our faculty and her colleagues examined these field techniques and their effectiveness during the recent excavation of three cemeteries in Karlín, Prague.

Commercial archaeological excavations are constrained in many ways, such as by limited funding, short time intervals, developers’ demands and, last but not least, possible public interest. Therefore it is not possible to use the same approaches as in long-term and more stable academic projects. Moreover, archaeology and anthropology are separate disciplines in the Czech Republic and in the past, anthropologists were only able to examine skeletal remains in laboratories where a significant amount of information is already lost. To gain as much data as we can, the presence of anthropologists in the field where they can perform the excavation and evaluate the situation is the most beneficial. Because of all the aforementioned constraints, this could only be possible when fast and low-cost methods are used to maximise the collection of valuable information about the lives of our ancestors.

The possibilities of these work techniques were recently tested in the field when the excavation of three Prague cemeteries (military, Lutheran and Reformed) was performed by a private archaeological company. Anthropologists were invited to excavate the graves, which was performed by both professional anthropologists and trained anthropology students. To simplify and quicken the data collection, field research forms were prepared and filled at the site. All findings were documented with fast and low-cost digital photography.

Altogether, 1429 individuals from 923 graves were excavated in approximately 5% of the cemetery area. Single burials prevailed over multiple burials (31 in total). On average, 0.73–0.76 skeletons were excavated and documented per hour, depending on the character of the sediment, burial type, bone preservation and excavator’s experience. Single burials were processed faster than multiple burials when counting the number of skeletons per hour. In Karlín cemetery, a mass grave with 140 comingled individuals took the longest to excavate. The better the bone preservation, the longer it took to process them, especially because of their larger amount and possible anomalies. As expected, experienced anthropologists were faster in grave excavations than less experienced students.

Mass grave, Karlín, Prague. Author: Pavel Kacl.

The presence of anthropologists during the excavation of human remains is essential for data collection. Some information might be irretrievably lost after exhumation, such as poorly preserved bones or the context and relationship to other funeral elements. The knowledge about methodology effectiveness applied during the excavation of three Prague cemeteries allows us to specifically modify the field techniques as needed in other projects. They can be then used to lower the financial and time costs in commercial archaeology while at the same time maximising the collection of valuable data which we need to answer inquisitive anthropological questions.

Průchová E, Chroustovský L, Kacl P. 2016. Maximising Skeletal Data Collection in Commercial Archaeology. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 27: 527–537.

Gabriela Suchanová


Published: Aug 06, 2018 05:40 PM

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