Dr Simon Mays (Historic England): 'Humanising the past: the case of the skeletons from Stonehenge'

Humanising the past: the case of the skeletons from Stonehenge

Archaeology lies at the interface between the sciences and the humanities, drawing on traditions of both. In the study human skeletal remains (ostearchaeology), theoretical as well as methodological approaches from the sciences have become dominant. This had led to a narrowing of the discipline.  Testing of hypotheses using statistical analyses of large data sets has come to be regarded as the main and, in the eyes of some, the only valid way of conducting osteoarchaeology. In recent years this has begun to be questioned. There is a rise in an osteoarchaeology in which the focus is not on patterns at a population level but rather the construction of narratives of lives of individuals from their skeletons. Such approaches were arguably stimulated by the need to use scientific analyses to present osteoarchaeology to the public in an engaging way. However, the rise of this ‘osteobiographical’ approach may also signal a theoretical realignment in which concepts from the humanities are once again perceived as providing a fruitful basis for osteoarchaeological enquiry. As ever, the difficulty lies in reconciling these ‘two cultures’ in a fruitful way.  I will illustrate these points with a study of the osteobiographies of some skeletons from Stonehenge.