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Unearthing a mystery from history

New project enticing for ASU's Buikstra, founder of the field of bioarchaeology.
Cemetery may increase understanding of ancient diet, disease, politics and more.
April 26, 2016

ASU bioarchaeologist co-leading study curating remains — including about 150 shackled skeletons — from Greek port, using science to understand their lives, deaths

Sometime between 2,800 and 2,500 years ago, just before the city-state of Athens was born, about 150 people in shackles were thrown into a burial pit in a Greek port city.

Were they prisoners of war? Criminals? Political prisoners? Slaves?

The pit was a necropolis — a cemetery, literally a city of the dead, used for centuries. Besides the manacled people tossed in heaps, facedown or tangled together, more than 400 infants and children were buried there in ceramic jars, obviously cared for and treated well, even in death. One person was buried in a wooden boat. Why were all these different people — 1,500 of them, both adored and scorned — buried in the same spot?

It’s a mystery from history, and Jane Buikstra has embarked on a quest to solve it.

“I’m really very excited,” said Buikstra (pictured above), Regents’ Professor Buikstra is a Regents' Professor of bioarchaeology in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.of bioarchaeology at Arizona State University, and founding director of the Center for Bioarchaeological Research. “It’s very special.”

Buikstra is leading the project to study and curate the remains of the 1,500 people buried at the Athens port of Phaleron (also known as Phalerum).

“About 10 percent of the burials are unusual,” she said. “They were buried shackled. There’s a new feature which is getting a lot of press which I haven’t seen but I’ve heard about. There were a number of individuals thrown into a pit with their arms over their heads, probably — possibly — crucified with their hands above their heads. They didn’t crucify them on crosses. They crucified them on boards, where they’d hang people — whether they were prisoners or war captives, whatever — on boards and then place them out where they could be seen, such as a hill beside the site.”

It was a message.

“Don’t do this, whatever it was,” Buikstra said.

The period is just before the formation of the polis, the city-state that became the basis of the Western world. Identifying who the people of Phaleron were, and how the city-state of Athens rose, are some of the many questions Buikstra and her crew hope to answer.

“There were a lot of strong personalities — not all of which were neighbors you’d like to live next to — who were vying for power at the time,” Buikstra said. “It’s exciting for me to learn about a period I didn’t know all that much about. I’ve worked a lot in the Western Hemisphere. It’s my first major project in the eastern Mediterranean, so it’s exciting to learn about history and what’s been written, to learn that we can put another face on this, that of people who are seldom represented terribly well in written history. History is written by elite people, and they typically have an agenda.”

On Buikstra’s agenda are some burning questions.

Why were beloved children and hated captives buried in the same place?

“That is a question, and we don’t know why,” she said. “The analyses will be able to tell us about diseases.”

Press reports claim the interred were Greeks. Actually, no one knows who they were, or where they came from. Phaleron was a port; they very well may have been sailors or travelers from other countries.

“This port city will be a wonderful place to get a baseline for some of the diseases entering Europe,” Buikstra said. “This was before the great plagues. We should be able, by looking at the chemical signatures and teeth, to talk about diet, but also origins. Were these people local to that region?”

Most intriguing, who were the shackled and crucified dead?

“We are very interested in knowing if these shackled folk appear to be political prisoners or local people from lower socioeconomic classes,” she said. “The whole way in which the Greek armies and the political climate was changed about 2,000 years ago. You had a lot of tensions between the urban area in Athens and the farmers. That frequently played out in tensions between the groups.”

Buikstra wants to create a site management plan for the Phaleron necropolis. Her main task will be to curate and inventory the 1,500 sets of remains before they are analyzed. She has never worked on a site involving that many people before.

“That is unusual,” she said. “I’m sure we’re going to prioritize the group with the shackles.”

They’re a long way from analyzing the skeletons to find out what they ate, how they died, and what their physical condition was. “My goal is to have the archaeological and osteological database online,” Buikstra said.

Buikstra is co-leading the Phaleron Bioarchaeological Project with geoarchaeologist Panagiotis Karkanas, director of the Wiener Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Their immediate goal for the skeletons showcases the crucial link between excavation of human skeletons and analysis: curation.

The biggest obstacle, besides parsing bones more than 20 centuries old for answers?

“There is no money for the conservation and the curation of the material,” Buikstra said. “And of course for the study either. We are faced with the challenge and the opportunity of taking the material from the excavation — which is now stored in storage containers like you see on trains, but temperature- and humidity-controlled — into the Wiener lab for study.”

Buikstra is considered the founder of the field of bioarchaeology. The field of study uses all the information about remains and their context, moving from an artifact- and object-centered investigation to a people-focused study, looking at individual and community lives. Bioarchaeologists look at chemical signatures in soil and bones. To use an analogy that bioarchaeologists (and homicide detectives) hate, it’s CSI for the ancient world. Were they malnourished? Did they have tuberculosis? Did they eat a lot of one particular type of food? And why? Before Buikstra, archaeology focused on stuff the dead guy was buried with. She shifted that focus onto the dead guy himself.

“There’s been a long tension between the way in which classical archaeologists do historical archaeology and anthropological archaeology, which is what we do in the U.S. and is more scientific in its methodology and theoretical orientation,” Buikstra said. “These two haven’t always been best friends, shall we say. The time has come now in the 21st century where the two sides are coming together and the classical archaeologists are appreciating what learning about the soils can do, learning about the plant residues and so on, rather than just the architecture. Now we can learn about the people as well as the architecture.”

The project has caught the imagination of Buikstra’s students.

“I’m particularly excited because there are several students who are interested in it,” she said. “I always learn from my students.”

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens said the scope and range of the burials are of unparalleled importance for the study of ancient Athens and its port of Phaleron in the Archaic Period.

“The potential that these burials provide for increasing our understanding of ancient Greek society is significant,” the school said in a press release. “Questions concerning ancient diet and disease, as well as social and political processes — such as the death penalty, political reforms and legislation — can potentially be answered. These answers could then lead to comparative studies that would eventually have global impact.”

Buikstra couldn’t be happier.

“I hadn’t expected to take on a new project at this stage in my career, but this is so enticing,” she said. “Here we go.”

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News


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Real-world experience in a model embassy

Innovative program at #ASU @McCainInstitute trains students to be embassy staff.
#ASU students in #DC gain valued experience with foreign service professionals.
April 26, 2016

Students in ASU's McCain Institute class immerse themselves in the jobs of foreign service officers for unique international relations experience

President Barack Obama is scheduled to travel to Vietnam next month, and a class at Arizona State University’s Washington Center is researching what he should do while he’s there.

Global studies major Caitlin O’Grady has looked into what it would mean for the president to make remarks about decreasing corruption in the business sector of that developing economy.

Connor Murphy, a journalism and political science student at ASU, has suggestions for the president about selling weapons to Vietnam.

And Irene Kinyanguli, who is studying public policy, wrote the president some talking points about the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

None of these students is interning at the White House or the State Department. (And by the way, interns there don’t get such cool assignments.)

But they sure could.

The three, all juniors, are studying this semester in the McCain Institute’s Washington Policy Design Studio, a semester-long seminar that puts students in roles of a U.S. embassy in a foreign land.

“I would describe the course as very practical,” said O’Grady. “… It’s structured as you would work in the U.S. government.”

A photograph of spring 2016 Washington Policy Design Studio students

The 2016 spring semester Washington Policy Design Studio students: (back row, from left) Megan Kelly, Enrique Carassco, Irene Kinyanguli, Connor Murphy, Caitlin O’Grady and Ben Martin; (front row, from left) Skyler Daviss, Amber Orquiz, Kelly Chung, Jenny Ung and Oona Zachary. Photo by McCain Institute

And that’s the point. The Washington Policy Design Studio, led by McCain Institute senior director Michael Polt, puts ASU students in the roles of foreign service officers abroad and asks them to do those jobs to complete the course.

“We don’t do imaginary scenarios,” said Polt, the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia (among other posts). “We take the actual, real relationship between the United States and Vietnam, or the United States and Germany, or the United States and Mexico, and we make that the scenario that we actually work.”

This semester it’s Vietnam. By good planning, or a stroke of luck, students currently enrolled have gotten to work on an exciting event for any in-country diplomat — the impending arrival of the commander-in-chief.

But let’s back up for a second.

Students start the semester learning how embassies work. They then focus on how the specific diplomatic outpost they’ll be studying works.

And they’re each assigned a job to do as part of the class, with a real counterpart in the embassy they’re focusing on. They interact, via email and occasional phone calls, with the people who actually hold the jobs into which the students are taking a deep dive.

Murphy’s role in the class is as the deputy chief of mission — the No. 2 — for Embassy Hanoi. He has forged a great relationship with the actual DCM some 8,000 miles away.

“She’s been pretty frank about what it was like to work on the ground,” Murphy said, “and that’s been really insightful.”

In the class, the students research the bilateral relationship between the two nations, respond to issues in real time, and work on many of the same things the actual embassy is focused on — hence the preparations for Obama’s trip.

And though their recommendations aren't actually going to the White House, they're tackling the same problems that real foreign service officers are facing as they're facing them.

Kinyanguli, who is from Tanzania, is the foreign commercial service officer in the Washington Policy Design Studio version of the Hanoi embassy. That means her work for the class deals with the trade relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam, and she thinks about ways to ensure that the embassy is helping create jobs for Americans.

“Everyone has a role to play,” said Kinyanguli, whose career aspirations have shifted more toward foreign policy since enrolling in this class. “You have to contribute to the whole team. Without you, the work is not done.”

On Wednesday, students will give their final presentations to a panel of seasoned diplomats including a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.

That’s a lot of pressure, but the real jobs are pressure-filled as well. 

“[We want to] teach them some of those skills of good speaking, good writing, clear thinking, perpetual learning, solid management and leadership skills that will serve them well no matter what professional capacity they plan to function in after they leave the university,” Polt said.

“We want to provide access for our ASU students into that exclusive club of working on foreign policy.”
— Ambassador Michael Polt, McCain Institute Senior Director

The class hews closely to the model of so many of the courses at ASU, which put practical experience on the same plane as academic knowledge.

And, actually, calling it a “class” may not give it enough credit, according to Polt.

“It’s not a class in foreign policy; it is a foreign policy development and implementation experience,” he said. “… We want to provide access for our ASU students into that exclusive club of working on foreign policy.”

And it’s working. Murphy’s point of contact in Hanoi, essentially the deputy ambassador, is supportive of his application to intern in the actual U.S. embassy in Vietnam next spring because of the rigor she knows the Policy Design Studio requires.

And O’Grady has already landed a coveted foreign service internship. This summer she’ll be in the U.S. embassy in Macedonia.

“I am really excited to put what I learned into practice,” she said.