Isotopic Analysis in Environmental Archaeology

The use of isotope analysis in environmental archaeology has expanded. By measuring the ratio of different isotopes found in human and animal remains, archaeologists may be able to tell a human or animal’s geological origin, including climate and seasonal movements, as well as their diet.

Most forms of isotopic analysis consist of analysis on bones and teeth and shells. An individual’s tooth is said to be able to provide a “geological snapshot from the early years of life, when teeth were developing.” An archaeologist could gain evidence of a person’s environment when they were younger as the isotopes in that environment during the period of time when the tooth was forming influences the isotopes found in that tooth. Another less used part of the body that can be analyzed is hair. It is thought to be not as susceptible to change due to age as bone and teeth may be and absorbs many isotopes from the surrounding environment.

Examples of various human diets

Examples of various human diets

The ecosystem a person lives in transfers isotopes to the people and animals feeding there. They are transferred when people eat animals and/or plants and by reading the different levels of different isotopes a pretty accurate construction of what their diet consisted of can be formed. For example vegans and vegetarians differ from those who are neither vegan nor vegetarian in the composition and levels of isotopes in their bodies. Isotope analysis sometimes shows cultural differences through dietary habits. Stable carbon and nitrogen values found in the bones from an Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery site provided results on how class distinctions altered dietary habits between the “wealthy,” “intermediate wealthy” and “poor.” It also showed how diets were not different between the sexes at the time. Another study in Europe, through isotopic research, was able to propose the idea that the Late European Mesolithic era diet consisted of mostly marine fish with small contributions from shellfish or marine mammals.

Dr. Thorton using strontium isotope analysis to investigate faunal resource exchange among the ancient Maya

Dr. Thorton using strontium isotope analysis to investigate faunal resource exchange among the ancient Maya

Climate leaves is mark on human beings and animals alike with its own isotopic signature. A carbon ration may be used to show where an individual obtains his or her food, displaying if the food was from an arid environment or not. The isotope strontium can be used to discover an individual’s geologic origins. The prevalence of the isotope found in remains can indicate the area a person lived in according to the area’s own isotopic record. Oxygen isotopes provide a good climactic indicator as well as evidence to animal movements. If an individual lived at higher altitudes the air would have been thinner than someone living at or below sea level and they would have, consequentially, had a different oxygen isotope ratio.

Isotopic Analysis is growing in its significance and use in archaeology. It can be used to do more than just date remains or artifacts. It can create a picture of the object or artifact’s environment.


Additional Resources:

Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton, Second Edition

american archaeology: a quarterly publication of The Archaeological Conservancy


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A Social Bias in the Approach to Understanding Paleolithic Art

Until the 1970’s, Paleolithic art was classified into two major groups: parietal art, including cave and rock art, and portable art. The clear difference between the two is that one form is moveable and the other is not. This classification gave rise to a bias in understanding and interpreting Paleolithic art, especially when considering portable and nonfigurative representations.

Many archaeologists derived working concepts of art from art historians when looking at style, perspective and form. However, the bias that arose from this method came as a result of art theory ideals prevalent since the Renaissance. There was an emphasis and focus on the “naturalistic” ideal in which artists were praised for their accuracy in representing the world. These guidelines then put great importance on cave paintings, which had more “realistic” art representations, and often underestimated or ignored portable artifacts and ornaments.

To further this bias, 18th century Europe saw the growth of public art museums, such as The British Museum and the Spanish Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture. With this new appreciation for aesthetics, crafts were pushed aside and judged as mechanical and unrefined. During this period, the parietal/portable classification of Paleolithic art, which already rejected portable work for its lack of naturalism, started to adapt to the fine arts/crafts distinction in which portable art was seen as naïve or infantile. At this time, some archaeologists assumed that painting was an indicator of higher cognitive function as compared to the skills in making portable pieces.

What is clear is that if art theorists were captivated by paintings yet denigrated crafts, archeologists followed suit, ignoring many portable works while celebrating cave paintings, such as those at Altamira and Niaux.


Many culminating factors, such as the globalization of Paleolithic art studies and the development of new approaches to art and symbolism, led to a change in archaeologists’ viewpoints in 1970. These new methods took into account that the making of artifacts was the culmination of the artistic experience. To understand the value of the piece, the creator’s stance toward a work of art must be considered. Furthermore, portable art and personal objects, while previously ignored, were now recognized for their value in assessing the social culture of Paleolithic groups. While parietal images on a wall might serve as landscape markers, portable objects are now regarded as indicators of social and individual identities. Since portable objects have the potential of traveling distances, it is acknowledged that these artifacts and art pieces could have been used to express the social statuses of individuals or groups within a larger Paleolithic culture.


Overall, social stigma derived from art theorists and artistic culture previous to 1970 influenced archaeologists interpretations of Paleolithic art in such a way that cave paintings were generally overemphasized relative to portable art pieces. However, with the rejection of this Eurocentrism and an anthropological turn in the conceptualization of Paleolithic art, movable and fixed forms of art are now considered distinct yet equal in their insight into different aspects of Paleolithic culture.


Works Cited:

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2010. Print.

Moro Abadía, Ór 2013, ‘Paleolithic art cultural history’, Journal Of Archaeological Research, 21, 3, pp. 269-306, Anthropology Plus, EBSCOhost, viewed 27 September 2014.


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Additional Reading:

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