Ethics and Theft in Forensic Anthropology

Archaeology deals with artifacts and human remains from the past. Forensic anthropology, specifically, is the “special sub-field of physical anthropology… that involves applying skeletal analysis and techniques in archaeology to solving criminal cases” (Smithsonian). While this may seem somewhat straight forward, there are ethical issues that are relevant when it comes to all forms of anthropology and archaeology, but forensic anthropology especially. It’s the “responsibility of all archaeologists to work for the long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record by practicing and promoting stewardship of the archaeological record” (SAA, 2018). However, this is not always taken seriously as human remains are often dug up, examined, photographed, posted and shared physically and electronically, and in some cases more severe actions occur, such as taking remains to the moon. 

Ethics in anthropology and archaeology are especially vital when it comes to working with remains of non-white people. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA, was created with the intention of providing “a process for federal agencies and museums that receive federal funds to repatriate or transfer from their collections certain Native American cultural items…to lineal descendants” (BLM). Any institution that receives federal funding, other than Smithsonian which has its own laws to try to ensure ethicality, must comply. 

Archaeologists examine artifacts while following the requirements of NAGPRA / National Park Service

Furthermore, certain groups, such as the Manhattan district attorney’s office, have created teams to try and restore stolen artifacts that were obtained or kept unethically and put them back closer to where they were found. However, this itself isn’t free of ethical accusations and questions. Recently, a Greek archaeologist by the name of Christos Tsirogiannis accused the aforementioned district attorney’s office’s antiquities trafficking unit of taking his anthropological discoveries after he “has helped the unit recover and repatriate ancient treasures to their respective countries of origin, providing crucial evidence obtained through his own extensive research” (Alberge, 2023). The goal of the program is to reintroduce ethics in a situation where it was taken away, yet in doing so the district attorney’s office failed to notice their own incompetencies. 

One of the artifacts that Tsirogiannis accused the attorney’s office of taking credit for / The Guardian

Another question of ethicality arose when “around 2,000 treasures were reported ‘missing, stolen, or damaged’ over a ‘significant’ period of time” (Glynn, 2023) from the British Museum. While, at face value, this seems like a catastrophic atrocity, there has been public backlash. This is because the stolen artifacts were originally obtained by the museum through thievery as well. Because the artifacts were mostly Greek and Roman gems and jewelry, NAGPRA does not apply. Geoffrey Robertson, a British-Australian restitution expert, author, and human rights lawyer, describes the British Museum as “the world’s greatest receiver of stolen property. Tourists should bear in mind that much of the interesting ethnic stuff that’s on display is, in fact, stolen” (Wilder, 2023). This is vital to remember in order to not erase the past and ensure that people question what they see. 

While seeing artifacts in museums seems exciting and educational, it’s all lost if those artifacts are stolen or obtained unethically.

References :

Alberge, Dalya. “‘Enough is Enough’: US Looted Treasures Unit Faces Accusations Over Credit.” The Guardian. September 26, 2023. sep/26/antiquities-trafficking-unit-archaeologist-christos-tsirogiannis

“Compliance: Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.” National Park Service. January 21, 2021.

“Ethics in Professional Archaeology.” Society for American Archaeology, 2018.

Glynn, Paul. “British Museum Asks Public and Experts to Help Recover Stolen Artefacts.” BBC News. September 26, 2023.

“Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act.” Bureau of Land Management.

“What Do Forensic Anthropologists and Detectives Have in Common?” Smithsonian.

Wilder, Charly. “When a Visit to the Museum Becomes an Ethical Dilemma.” The New York Times. February 14, 2023. -stolen-art .html

Further Reading :

The Crucial Role of Teeth in the Understanding of Ancient People and Bioarcheology

The field of Bioarcheology involves the study of skeletal remains of humans, specifically those found at archaeological sites. The study of these remains gives unparalleled insight into the many facets of ancient civilization, especially in relation to diet and environment. One of the most important subfields of Bioarcheology is dental anthropology (Hillson 2014). The study of one’s teeth is among the best ways of extracting information regarding both the individual who the tooth belongs to, as well as that individual’s environment and culture.  

Due to tooth enamel being the hardest tissue in the body, being 96% dense inorganic hydroxyapatite, it tends to preserve very well regardless of environmental factors (ADA 2022). In fact, a 1.8-million-year-old human tooth was found in 2022 in the nation of Georgia (Reed 2022).  

1.8 million year old tooth found in Georgia

Through a multitude of tests that can be run on the tooth, like carbon dating, archaeologists can put together a somewhat detailed picture of what that individual’s life was like. From lab tests using carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the enamel, scientists can understand and reconstruct diet and where food sources were originally from (Mayne 2015). This could be pivotal in establishing whether one was a part of a nomadic hunter gathering society or if they relied on agriculture for sustenance. Other testing can even give insight into the last 20 years of that individual’s life, which can be pivotal in tracking the progression of a person’s life. This is something that is otherwise incredibly difficult to learn from any other finds at a site (Mayne 2015). Scientists can also extract the exact age of the individual when they died using isotopic dating (Mayne 2015).  

The enamel is the outer most layer of the tooth and where isotopes are extracted from.

Other than using chemical testing, information can also be extracted purely through observation of the tooth. People of Hunter Gatherer societies typically had overbites, causing a specific grinding of the tooth to become common (ADA 2022). People of agriculture-based societies typically show increased pitting, small holes on the front of the tooth, due to the more common reliance on wheat and other carbs (ADA 2022). This also will lead to the increased development of cavities (ADA 2022). 

Without the analyzation of teeth, scientists’ understanding of ancient people would be far more limited. They provide unparalleled insight into the past, giving data that not only leads to explanations of the person who the tooth belonged to, but also of that person’s environment and culture.  

-Joseph Howard

Extra reading :


AAFS. “Teeth within Anthropology.” All Things AAFS. 2015.

Hillson, Simon. Tooth Development in Human Evolution and Bioarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511894916h

How Stuff Works. Bioarcheology. 2015.

Reed, Besty. “1.8m-year-old tooth of early human found on dig in Georgia.” The Guardian, September 9, 2022.

“Picture of the Teeth.” Sherwood Park Dental, No Date.

How Archeologists Identify the Presence of Tools Which No Longer Exist

Despite the overwhelming number of Paleolithic era tools found by archeologists, evidence points to tools which archeologists may never actually find or, sadly, may no longer exist. Museum shelves and archives overflow with Clovis point spear heads, Acheulian hand axes, and impossibly small, but also impossibly old, arrow heads. What about the tools long since lost to time? How do archeologists know for certain that at one point in time, they did in fact exist?

Wood Imprints

Although stone may last for centuries, wood typically does not. As an organic material, it degrades easily and quickly, leaving very little for archeologists to uncover years in the future. However, as the wood gets buried, and then later degrades, a hollow space is left where the wood used to be, preserving the shape of whatever has since been lost (Vallverdú, 2010). Archeologists can then fill this hollow with plaster, effectively making a copy of the object (Riel-Salvatore, 2011). Thus, archeologists can confirm the presence of objects or structures used by people thousands of years prior, though such objects or structures have long since deteriorated. To learn more about how these hollows are created, visit

Figure 1: Impression left by a wooden object estimated to have been made 56,000 years ago,  a replica of the wooden object placed adjacent. Photograph by Jordi Mestre.

Rock Paintings

Additional evidence of tools once used by ancient peoples includes cave paintings. One such tool is the boomerang. Although few complete boomerangs from the paleolithic era have ever been found, the oldest having been preserved under unique circumstances as it was found in a swamp, most evidence that such a tool was used comes from rock paintings (“Earliest evidence of the boomerang in Australia”, 2022). One such rock painting can be found in “a northeast Kimberley rock shelter on Balanggarra Country,” depicting human figures, animals native to the area, and boomerangs (Finch, 2021). To learn more about the significance of the Kimberly rock shelter, visit

Figure 2: Rock paintings featuring outlines of human hands and boomerangs. Photograph by Jack Merriman. 

Bone Marks

Finally, marks found on the bones of ancient peoples or animals can serve as indications for the presence of tools or weapons. The skull of a 1,000 year old Saxon warrior is a prime example. The skull was excavated from a site in East Sussex and is seen to have six distinct markings which archaeologists believe to have been made by a sword (Griffiths, 2014). Though the sword itself has likely never been recovered, the evidence of its existence can be found through the dead it left behind.

Ultimately, just as the physical presence of ancient tools and weapons are crucial in creating a clearer picture of cultures and peoples alive long before us, so are the tools and weapons archeologists may never find. 


“Earliest evidence of the boomerang in Australia.” 2022. National Museum of Australia.

Finch, Damien, Andy Gleadow, Janet Hergt, Helen Green, Pauline Heaney, Cecilia Myers, Peter Veth, Sam Harper, Sven Ouzman, and Vladimir A. Levchenko. 2021. “Australia’s oldest known Aboriginal rock paintings | Pursuit by The University of Melbourne.” Pursuit.

Griffiths, Sarah. 2014. “1000 Year Old Saxon Skull Shows Six Sword Wounds.” Eras Gone.

Renfrew, Colin, and Peter Bahn. Archaeology: theories, methods and practice. Thames and Hudson, 2012. 

Riel-Salvatore, Julien. A Mousterian Wooden Spade from Abric Romani, Spain, 14 Sept. 2011,

Vallverdú, Josep, Manuel Vaquero, Isabel Cáceres, Ethel Allué, Jordi Rosell, Palmira Saladié, Gema Chacón, et al. “Sleeping Activity Area within the Site Structure of Archaic Human Groups: Evidence from Abric Romaní Level N Combustion Activity Areas.” Current Anthropology 51, no. 1 (2010): 137–45.

What the Terracotta Army Tells us about Ancient China’s Social Structure

Burial sites can offer insights into how ancient people lived their life, and how those around them chose to preserve them with intention. Extraordinary examples, such as Shi Huangdi’s mausoleum and its Terracotta Army, are rich in information about the societies which created them. The army was created during the Qin dynasty in ancient China (Britannica 2023) to aid emperor Shi Huangdi in the afterlife (Cartwright 2017). Its scale and level of preservation are valuable in aiding archaeologists’ understanding of ancient China.

The discovery of this mausoleum aids in confirming the classification of this period in imperial China as a state society, as complex burials of those high in a social order require great specialization, resources, and social power. The evident existence of a large standing army is also evidence of a strong centralized state (Britannica 2023). In terms of societal structure, the burial site informs us that the sculptures were created through forced labor, as the remains of convicts and laborers were found with plaques among the site (Cartwright 2017). From this it is clear that the imbalance in social standing between the emperor and laborers was vast. Shi Huangdi was buried with many valuables and precious materials (VMFA), showing that the living respected him. These discoveries also support the idea that a greater purpose toward the Emperor outweighed the monetary value of these materials to the empire, enriching the understanding of their organization as survival wasn’t a priority over respect for the ruler. 

Aspects of other people’s value within society are represented within the monument as well, primarily the soldiers. The height of soldiers’ statues is correlated to their level within the military, with generals being the tallest (Cartwright 2017). Applying consistent cultural aspects from other cultures, it could be concluded that this height differentiation indicated that higher military ranks were respected and held significance in ancient China.

Figure 1. Terracotta soldiers in rows displaying variation in appearance and gestures. Photograph by Louis Mazzatenta.

A great amount of time and resources were also used to create the Terracotta Army and the rest of the burial site. Each soldier is represented as an individual, with varied colors, headpieces, and positions, and they stand upon a quarter of a million tiles (Cartwright 2017). The aforementioned wealth which Shi Huangdi was buried with is also significant. This use of time to create all of these sculptures and the resources involved indicate that specialization was very prevalent (Cartwright 2017). They may not have needed the wealth because of steady food supply and great success financially, and laborers could focus solely on crafting as they wouldn’t have to grow their own food in a state society. With this societal organization, a standing army and class systems including the laborers and craftspeople are all present because of the scale and ability to organize at levels beyond kin relationships (Renfrew 2018, 146).

Figure 2. (A bronze chariot found along with the Terracotta Army). Photograph by Hung Chung Chih.

Through the analysis of artifacts found with the Terracotta Army and the burial site of Shi Huangdi to which it belongs, more details about ancient Chinese society can be understood.


Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “terra-cotta army.” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 8, 2023.

“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China.” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. September 26, 2023.

Cartwright, Mark. “Terracotta Army.” World History Encyclopedia. November 6, 2017.,of%20workers%20who%20built%20it.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. “How Were Societies Organized.” Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. 143-148, 157-158. Thames & Hudson.

Further Reading:

Lascaux and What We Know

One of the most outstanding things about archaeology is that anyone can be an archaeologist, whether intentional or not. Anyone has the power to make a discovery, and anyone can play a part in how history and our perception of it is changed forever. Chinese farmers accidentally found the Xian TerraCotta Army, and this discovery shed light on important information regarding daily life in the Chinese Qin dynasty. French soldier Pierre François Xavier Bouchard almost destroyed the Rosetta Stone, and had it not been found, scholars would not have been able to decipher the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, allowing for the understanding of ancient Egyptian language and culture.

 This is precisely what happened in Montignac, France, 1940 to four teenagers, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas, and most importantly, their dog. Under the impression that a hill near their town stood atop a series of underground tunnels that led to a secret manor, Marcel, accompanied by his dog, decided to look into foxholes littering the hill’s surface. The pair found a particularly large one, and, with his interest peaked, Marcel decided to come back a few days later with three friends and some tools. After a few minutes of digging, they found themselves looking down a 50-foot shaft that they ultimately decided to climb down. This is where they struck gold, though not in the way they’d expected. 

Visitors touring Lascaux/

In these tunnels, the group discovered a cavern 66 feet wide and 16 feet high, covered in 600 paintings and 1,500 engravings dating back to around 17,000 years ago, created by paleolithic humans. Pictures of horses, stags, and mythical creatures litter the walls, and only one human can be found, though he himself is half-bird. The paintings themselves are extraordinary in multiple ways. Many of the animals depicted are now extinct, such as the wooly rhinoceros, and the depictions are so grand in size and stretch even across the ceiling of the cave. The most remarkable aspect, however, is what the paintings tell us about the religion and religious practices of the Paleolithic peoples regarding the worshipping of animals.

While the finding of these caves is fervently important in regards to getting a broader and deeper understanding of human history, the discovery itself has also created a widespread discussion on how archaeological discoveries should be preserved and how they should be shown to the public. Since its discovery and its being opened to the public, the paintings of Lascaux have drastically deteriorated, especially due to the site’s vast popularity and commercialization. This presented a serious question regarding the balance between tourism and public education versus preserving history and artifacts. While the public should inherently have the right to visit archaeological sites due to their historical significance, the public also poses a significant threat to the well-being of such artifacts. In some instances, such overexposure can destroy them, as even light exposure and air temperature led to the degradation of Lascaux. Ultimately, the decision to close the Lascaux cave paintings to the public was wise, especially since numerous other resources allowed it to be seen. Tourism threatens not just the integrity of the Lascaux but many sites, such as the Colosseum, which has been continuously vandalized, and Stonehenge, which has been chipped away at by greedy visitors. How this can be prevented in the future is largely questioned, but it is evident that mass tourism is a true threat to the integrity of archaeological sites. 

 Visitors inside Lascaux II Grotto in France, opening day 1983. Getty Images / Sygma / Pierre Vauthey

References :

Katunga, Faith. “The Significance of France’s Lascaux Cave Paintings Goes Beyond Their Age, Here’s Where to See Them.” TheTravel, July 10, 2023. 

“Lascaux Cave Paintings Discovered | September 12, 1940.”, September 24, 2009. 

Magazine, Smithsonian. “Finally, the Beauty of France’s Chauvet Cave Makes Its Grand Public Debut.”, April 1, 2015. 

Mitchell, Robbie. “Sheer Fluke: 7 of the Most Amazing Accidental Discoveries in Archaeology!” Ancient Origins Reconstructing the story of humanity’s past, May 3, 2023. 

Semitour. “Lascaux 4 International Center of Cave Art.”, January 10, 2023.

“Why Was the Lascaux Cave Closed to the Public?” TheCollector, September 21, 2023. 

Additional Links:

Pollen: One Man’s Allergen, Another Man’s Treasure

Pollen, Really? 

Palynology is defined as “The study and analysis of fossil pollen as an aid to the reconstruction of past vegetation and climates” (Renfrew & Bahn, 2018). Pollen is useful in the archaeological sense as it can give us an idea of the many different climatic changes that the same area may go through over a large period of time. 

What’s the Shanidar Cave?

Located in Kurdish Iraq, the Shanidar Cave was home to one very peculiar Neanderthal. This Neanderthal was excavated from the site and then examined. Oddly enough, his skull was found to be severely damaged, and his arms and legs were found to show some resemblance of deformities (The Kurdish Project, n.d.). His skeletal remains intrigued archaeologists and so that site came to be something of interest. 

Figure 1 – Outside View of Shanidar Cave

Palynology in Shanidar Cave

Pollen can provide insight into the biological composition of an area or the area that surrounds it. In the case of the Shanidar Cave, palynologists were determined to see what we can learn this, and what they found is something noteworthy, perhaps not as intriguing as skeletal remains, but we’re talking about pollen here. 

Pollen research by the School of Natural Science and Psychology, Liverpool John Moores University has found that wind and animals have played a substantial part on transportation of pollen from the outside of the cave within: “The cave structure, with a single wide entrance, is likely to facilitate good air circulation, bringing anemophilous pollen into the cave” (Fiacconi & Hunt, 2015). The teams used samples from inside and outside of the cave. These samples ranged from being in animal droppings, from vegetation, to being found within the mountains. These samples went through different tests, such as “Chlorination, acetolysis and density separation” (Fiacconi & Hunt, 2015). The most effective method was density separation. This method helped the researchers to find which locations each source of pollen derived from, and how the pollen may have traveled from one location to another.

Figure 2 – Map of Shanidar Cave

Other pollen related findings in the Shanidar Cave can be seen in the study published by Cambridge University Press. There is a common theory that the Neanderthals of the region had flower burials and their research has shown that that might not be the exact story. However, there were “clumps of pollen grains from adjacent sediments [which] were interpreted as evidence for the intentional placement of flowers with the corpse” (Pomeroy et al., 2020). They found that the Neanderthals had come back to the locations several times “to deposit their dead” (Pomeroy et al., 2020). Clearly, this cave has had some connections to funerary events.

This is merely just a glimpse of what the world of Palynology and the Shanidar Cave have to offer. Provided below will be several links to see a more in depth look at the research discussed and other examples that were not mentioned in this post.


Fiacconi, Marta, Chris O. Hunt, I.D. Campbell, J.S. Carrión, G.M. Coles, K.J. Edwards, C.O. Hunt, et al. “Pollen Taphonomy at Shanidar Cave (Kurdish Iraq): An Initial Evaluation.” Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, September 26, 2015. 

Pomeroy, Emma, Paul Bennett, Chris O. Hunt, Tim Reynolds, Lucy Farr, Marine Frouin, James Holman, Ross Lane, Charles French, and Graeme Barker. “New Neanderthal Remains Associated with the ‘Flower Burial’ at Shanidar Cave: Antiquity.” Cambridge Core, February 18, 2020. 

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.

“Shanidar Cave.” The Kurdish Project, June 22, 2015. 

Image Links:

Additional Resources:

What Burial Analysis Reveals About the Chinchorro People

The Chinchorro people lived in an ancient, segmentary society – whose earliest sites date to about 7,000 BCE – in the coastal regions of modern-day Chile and southern Peru. They are famous for their elaborate mummification practices spanning 4,000 years across five distinct styles of mummification (CNN Travel, 2019). From these well-preserved mummies, archaeologists have been able to use burial analysis – overviewed in Chapter 5 of the Renfrew reading from this week – to learn about the Chinchorro culture. 

First found by German archaeologist Max Uhle in 1917, the Chinchorro mummies have come to be known as the oldest mummies in the world – predating Egyptian mummies by over two millennia. The process of mummification was puzzlingly complex, involving the removal of the body’s skin, flesh, organs, and brain, a reassembly of the bones with twigs, the reapplication of the skin to the body, the painting of an ash paste over the body, and the application of a final layer of either black or ocher paint to the entirety of the mummified body (Britannica, n.d).

Figure 1: Two sculptures from local artists Paola Pimentel and Johnny Vásquez depicting Chinchorro Mummies in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Photographed by Mark Johanson, CNN 2019.

These mummies, as well as burial analysis more generally, are able to shine a unique light on the individual, an aspect of the past “seen all too rarely” in archaeology (Renfrew 2018, 157). One of the most important facets of life that burial analysis can reveal about past individuals is social status, or, in the case of the Chinchorro, the relative lack thereof. The Chinchorro mummies reveal signs of a markedly egalitarian culture, with all members of society – men, women, children, the elderly, babies, and even fetuses –  receiving the same, elaborate burial. This differs greatly from other ancient cultures that practiced mummification, such as the Egyptians, who reserved the practice for deceased members of the elite (BBC, 2021).

We can also learn a great deal about the diet and lifestyle of the Chinchorro from their mummies. Stable isotope analysis of the hair and human bones of the mummies indicates that nearly 90 percent of Chinchorro diets came from maritime food sources, and the other 10 percent from terrestrial animals and terrestrial plants (ThoughtCo, 2017). Other archaeological data, such as coastal middens and sophisticated fishing tool assemblages, reveal that the Chinchorro people primarily ate fish, coastal birds, and sea mammals. 

Further analysis of the mummies can also elucidate the Chinchorro’s relationship with the environment. Many archaeologists argue that Chinchorro mortuary practice was a cultural reaction to environmental forces. For example, in his 2005 journal article on the subject, Bernardo T. Arriaza highlights how arsenic levels present in the Camarones River, a body of water central to the Chinchorro, are “a hundred times the modern safety level” (Arriaza 2005). He thus correlates the high percentage of infant burials found in the early stages of Chinchorro mummification with infants’ greater susceptibility to Arsenic poisoning in order to argue that high arsenic levels initiated the Chinchorro’s cultural practice of mummification.

Figure 2: Arsenic levels in northern and Chinchorro sites along the coast. Uploaded by Dr. Sam Byrne to ResearchGate, 2010.


Hirst, K. Kris. “Chinchorro Culture.” ThoughtCo, March 8, 2017.

Johanson, Mark. “Surprise! The World’s Oldest Mummies Are Not in Egypt.” CNN, May 1, 2019. 

Chambers, Jane. “Living with the World’s Oldest Mummies.” BBC News, October 24, 2021. 

Lohnes, Kate. “That’s a Wrap: Methods of Mummification.” Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d


Further Reading:

Use of Human Bones in Toolmaking

While humans have a long history of tool-use, about 2.6 million years of it,1 the history of tools made from humans has a shorter timeline. Until the Upper Paleolithic (between 50,000 and 12,000 year ago), humanity hadn’t made the foray into the moral less-than-gray area of human tools. These first human tools were not forks or spoons, but use of teeth in jewelry, not finding a functional use till later on our timeline. Later, human bones were also used as retouchers, tools used to reshape and perfect other instruments. The marks left by tool retouching are distinct, meaning these bone fragments had a specific purpose-they weren’t scratched by happenstance. 2

An antler retouching tool

Later on, 11,000 years ago, human bones found usage in weaponry, near Britain. But while it might sound useful enough, human bone would’ve been a bit of an inconvenience for our ancestors. It’s rarer than materials from animals, and more brittle too, needing to be harvested shortly after death before it becomes far too brittle to be worked with. This suggests a different significance outside of killing deer, more towards a sentimental or spiritual one. With over 1,000 bone weapons found in the area these weapons were not something to be written off within this ancient culture.3 Along this vein, warriors in New Guinea chose human bone for some of their daggers. Because the daggers were made of human bone, they were said to retain the strength and power of its previous owner. This made them prized objects and significant to their possessors, and a more ceremonial object than functional.4

The cassowary-bone counterpart to the human-bone daggers of New Guinea

Human spatulas however, made their foray into the cutlery scene between 200 and 400 CE, far later than the earliest instances. These artifacts came from Teotihuacan, in modern-day Mexico, a culture which has a history of the use of human remains for alternate uses. The spatulas weren’t alone in their composition, other everyday objects were also constructed from human bone. While to us, their usage might seem foreign but within the culture (considering the 5,000 bone fragments found) it was not taboo.5

While the use of human bone for tools and utensils sounds absurd to us from a modern perspective, it’s an interesting view into how our ancestors viewed death and human remains. These more liberal uses of human remains are obscure and infrequent in our history but are still part of our evolutionary timeline.






The Colosseum Showcases Colossal Discoveries about Roman Social Hierarchy

The Colosseum, in Rome, was an engineering feat and a place for gladiator matches, but it existed as a physical representation of class stratification too. In an attempt to symbolize their triumph in subjugating Jerusalem during the First Jewish Roman War, Vespasian, the Roman emperor, ordered the construction of the Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheater (Evans 2022). Given the history of Rome’s warfare tactics, including enslavement, it was likely that the construction was done by Jewish slaves, or women (in Greco-Roman culture, believed to be inherently subordinate). 

Giacomo Lauro illustration of the Colosseum, showcasing the inside structure (“Architecture · Colosseum · Piranesi in Rome”, n.d.). 

As a prominent aspect of daily life in Rome, the Colosseum was enjoyed by many, but it was a constant reminder of the inequality among Romans, ordered by the political and social elite. In 2015, archaeologists discovered traces of red paint on the seats and archways at the Colosseum depicting numbers, about 13 inches tall. It was said to specify seating assignments based on class (Clark 2015). This paint, consisting of iron oxide and clay, was likely preserved by a layer of dirt, serving as protection from harsh weather and outside meddling (Clark 2015). We know, from this labeling, that the section nearest to the arena was reserved for the emperor and senatorial elite; above them were former cavalry members, artisans, and bureaucrats. In the two upper most tiers of the Colosseum sat the “women, foreigners…poor and enslaved Romans” (Evans 2022). However, appeals of the Colosseum were its elliptical shape (giving everyone a virtually equal view) (“Colosseum Architecture” n.d.), free entry (Clark 2015), free snacks (Kuo 2004), and large accommodations, such as two vast restrooms (“Colosseum Architecture” n.d.). 

Traces of red paint found on the engravings of numbers on archways in the Colosseum (Russon 2015).

More recently a group of archaeologists, led by Federica Rinaldi, used wire-guided robots to explore the 230 feet of sewage beneath this structure . The findings of this analysis included  “traces of olives, nuts, meats, cherries, grapes, figs, blackberries and peaches from 1,900 years ago” (Enking 2022).  It was not mentioned explicitly what the word  “traces” indicated.  One could hypothesize that the word suggests excretions drained from the two large restrooms, or different parts of the food (pits, seeds, etc.). As these, now free, foods were frequently enjoyed by the rich and desired by the poor, they give us insight into more possible motives for the upper and lower class to be equally drawn to the Colosseum. It is plausible that these traces of food, in its pure form or in excrements, were preserved through the large fire that occurred in 217 CE (Mueller 2011). Burning is often a form of preservation of vegetation and other natural resources. 

We believe, today, that all great discoveries have been made, but those recently discovered at the Colosseum are colossal. We understand better the motivations for attending the arena, outside of its entertainment, and the extent to which the rigid Roman social hierarchy infiltrated all aspects of life. The extent to which these traces of natural products were preserved and pursued in the Colosseum sewage system continues to lend to the engineering prowess of Rome at this time. The earth is laden with history, and with proper research, some of it waits to be discovered.

Further Reading

Cascone, Sarah, and Eileen Kinsella. 2021. “Engineers Will Reconstruct the Colosseum’s Arena Floor, Allowing Visitors to Stand Where Gladiators Once Fought.” Artnet News.

Siwicki, Christopher. 2023. “New Excavations at Rome’s Colosseum.” Art & Object.


“Architecture · Colosseum · Piranesi in Rome.” n.d. Omeka.Wellesley. Accessed September 24, 2023.

Clark, Laura. 2015. “Evidence of a Seating Plan Discovered at the Colosseum.” Smithsonian Magazine.

“Colosseum Architecture | How Colosseum was built | Colosseum Building.” n.d. Rome Colosseum Tickets Tours.

Enking, Molly. 2022. “Archaeologists Find 1900-Year-Old Snacks in Sewers Beneath the Colosseum.” Smithsonian Magazine.

Evans, Farrell. 2022. “How the Colosseum Was Built—and Why It Was an Architectural Marvel.” History.

Kuo, James. 2004. “The Colosseum: Power, Brilliance, and Brutality.” University of Washington Honors Program.

Mueller, Tom. 2011. “Secrets of the Colosseum | History.” Smithsonian Magazine.

Russon, Mary. 2015. “Rome: Colosseum’s ‘ancient seating plan’ revealed.” IBTimes UK.

Looking Deeper: Kivas

Kivas are underground structures made for ceremonial purposes, including both religious and cultural contexts. “Kiva” stands for “ceremonial room” in Hopi, and it was adopted by archaeologists from the late 1800s and early 1900s (Lekson 1988, p. 215). They evolved from pit houses, semi-subterranean buildings used for warmth during winter, food storage, and occasionally cultural practices such as dancing and storytelling. These underground structures were mainly used by Native American tribes in the Southwest, from the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma tribes to name a few. 

One main use of the kiva is to hold religious ceremonies. The entrance symbolizes the physical world, while the kiva serves as a glimpse into the spiritual world. The sipapu, a small hole in the wall, creates this spiritual environment, as tribes believed it was where ancestors emerged from the underworld into their realm. The fire inside also holds spiritual connotations, and its smoke is believed to hold the prayers and offerings of those participating in the ceremony. Aligned with the ladder, the fire’s smoke ascends to the spirits, while displaying reverence for the community’s beliefs. As each person arrives and leaves, they interact with the smoke as they use the ladder. In the ceremony itself, kiva participants circle around the fire and all are aware of its sacredness.

  • Kiva, Far View Sites Complex, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. 11th-12th century. 

Besides religious ceremonies, kivas provide a sense of community. Simply building the kiva inspired comradery as it required multiple people to build one. The technique passes down to each generation, and it serves as just one of many enduring traditions of the indigenous tribes. Along with the creation of the kiva, other events in the kiva allowed for culture to pass through generations. Many meetings, storytellings, and feasts were held in kivas, which allowed for culture and knowledge to continuously flow through tribes.

Kivas were not plain, barren pits. They held various murals, altars, textiles, and works of art to display their culture and welcome spirits into the sacred space. Murals were important as the indigenous people painted specific spirits, stories from their ancestors, or the tribe’s creation story, painting the most important moments which conveyed important teaching or were believed to bring good fortune. Kachina dolls were also popularly found in kivas, wooden carvings of spirits primarily used in the Pueblo and Hopi tribes. Pottery, sculptures, and costumes round out some of the most common items in a kiva.

  • Kiva and room block from the Puzzle House site in Montezuma County.

Archaeologists have discovered that kivas evolved more than initially realized. Three more types of kivas have been unearthed apart from the original kiva. Two include a small kiva, found after AD 900 in Puebloan sites within each small room block, and a great kiva, a structure for ceremonies that could accommodate great numbers of people (Larkin 2020). Tower kivas were a third adaptation of kivas, a circular structure with two or more stories.

In sum, kivas were an essential part of the culture and history of native people. It allowed for ceremonies, feasts, and most importantly, for these traditions to be passed down generation through generation.

Graham, Don. “KIVA.” Art History Glossary, Accessed 22 September 2023. 

Larkin, Karin.  “Kivas,” Colorado Encyclopedia, last modified September 09 2020, Accessed 19 September 2023

Lekson, Stephen H. “The Idea of the Kiva in Anasazi Archaeology.” Kiva 53, no. 3 (1988): 213–34.

Puzzle House Aerial, 1993 | Images | Colorado Encyclopedia, Accessed 20 September 2023. 

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