Bioarchaeology of Care

The bioarchaeology of care is an archaeological approach that endeavors to use physical evidence of care-giving to explore and interpret the details of past behavior, some of which may be unreachable by other means (Tilley 2011). The term was popularized in the research of Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham, in which they use a case study to construct an analytical framework to approach the evidence, cognizant of its social context and implications. For the most part, this care-giving is associated with individuals that are disabled or otherwise impaired; this entails limitations to activity and participation in some – or all – of their culture and lifestyle. 

One particular case, that of Man Bac Burial 9, demonstrates this phenomenon thoroughly. The remains of M9 were discovered in a Neolithic cemetery site in northern Vietnam, dating back to roughly 4,000 years ago (Gorman 2012). The physical evidence reveals that M9 was paralyzed from the waist down in adolescence; his restricted upper body movement and immobilized lower body would have required extensive care in all aspects of life, and yet, M9 survived for approximately 10 more years. His survival to that point implies certain things about his community and about prehistoric society as a whole. Firstly, it implies altruism. The care-giving M9 received despite his reduced contributions to the Neolithic subsistence economy indicate that not only was there a surplus of labor and resources that would allow for his care, but also that there was compassion and a willingness in the community to do so. Additionally, there must have been a diverse range of food that would accommodate M9’s unique dietary needs emerging from immobility-associated gastrointestinal issues. M9 is one of the first prehistoric examples of long-term care-giving and survival with total disability (Tilley 2011).

Figure 1: Location of excavation site Man Bac 9. (Photograph provided by James Gorman of The New York Times, 2012).

Figure 2: Modern day Man Bac, cemetery excavation site visible on the middle right. (Photograph provided by Lorna Tilley, 2011).

Alongside with the growth of the bioarchaeology of care is the corresponding debate over its viability. The archaeological evidence under discussion indicates that ancient Neolithic communities cared for their disabled members. The two responses to this are (1) the compassion argument or (2) the null hypothesis. The former believes that the care-giving was motivated by altruism and a commitment to their community members. The latter disagrees, arguing that there is not enough concrete evidence to draw conclusions about community care-giving, rather, the impaired individual must have managed on their own (Thorpe 2016, 93). The two main complications in interpreting bioarchaeology originate in our modern biases. Firstly, it may be irresponsible to retroactively attribute a motive, in this case compassion, to a culture we are completely removed from (Tilley 2011). Second, our medical understanding of particular disabilities is situated within the modern, mostly Western world, which may be completely incomparable to that of the Vietnamese Neolithic (Tilley 2011).

While archaeologists recognize these limitations, they must also acknowledge how the societal implications of care-giving enhance and add to general cultural analysis. The rejection of compassion is unproductive; instead, a more fruitful conversation could be the change of care-giving throughout the archaeological record (Thorpe 2016, 105). Overall, bioarchaeology of care can provide insights on the culture and community of an individual, while also contributing to our understanding of prehistoric society.


Further Readings:

  1. Oxenham, Marc F., Hirofumi Matsumura, and Nguyen Kim Dung, eds. Man Bac: The Excavation of a Neolithic Site in Northern Vietnam. Vol. 33. ANU Press, 2010.
  2. Halcrow, Siân E. “New Bioarchaeological Approaches to Care in the Past.” Antiquity 91, no. 358 (2017): 1101–3. doi:10.15184/aqy.2017.99.



Gorman, James. “Ancient Bones That Tell a Story of Compassion.” The New York Times, December 2012.

Thorpe, Nick. “The Palaeolithic Compassion Debate – Alternative Projections of Modern-Day Disability into the Distant Past,” in Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Lindsay Powell, et al., Oxbow Books, Limited, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Tilley, Lorna and Marc F. Oxenham. “Survival against the odds: Modeling the social implications of care provision to seriously disabled individuals.” International Journal of Paleopathology, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2011, pp. 35-42,

Ethics of Archaeology: Where is the Line Drawn?

Is maintaining the dignity of the deceased worth withholding a scientific breakthrough? Which ethical framework do we use when working with human remains from different locales (the archaeologists’ or the deceased’s)? These are among the endless questions archaeologists must wrestle with when carrying out their research. When we tell the story of the dead (be it through the food they ate, what religious ceremonies they performed, their recreational activities, etc.) we personify them, and, by consequence, “Those past people should not be regarded as dead or static but, as social beings, capable of being affected by action or discourse in the present,” (Tarlow 2006, 202). It is misguided to treat the dead as means to our archaeological end, rather, we must think of ourselves as their spokesperson in the modern era. 

The past of archaeology is far from a pretty one. Thus, it is important to emphasize ethics in our archeological discussions. Historically, the practice has been one riddled with looting and cultural insensitivities. For example, archaeologists disregard to Native American populations. In one case, the Chumash refused entirely to let archaeological research continue on bones thought to be descendents due to the reprehensible treatment of their ancestors’ skeletons in the past (Renfrew 2018, 307). Strides have been made to rectify this and return artifacts to their rightful owners via acts, like the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation act (Renfrew 2018, 307), but archaeology is not immune to making similar mistakes. Even now, archaeologists must make ethically conscious choices regarding where they excavate, what they remove, where they put it, and more. 

In another example, the iconic “bog-people” (Figure 1 and 2) have been the subject of much conversation, regardless of archaeological experience. “Bog bodies” are remains that have been preserved remarkably well due to their waterlogged state (Renfrew 2018, 59). Their museum displays have amassed much interest and drawn many visitors. But is it ethical or respectful to display human remains as a spectacle? Is it out of scientific and educational intrigue, or is it “out of cheap sensationalism or morbid curiosity,” (Bahn 1984, 222). The dilemmas that archaeology introduces only become more complicated when considering the diverse cultural practices concerning the dead. 

Figure 1: The remains of the Lindow man, exhumed from Lindow Moss Bog. Displayed at the British Museum. (Photograph provided by the Trustees of the British Museum, Asset 126565003, the British Museum).

Figure 2: The ‘Red Franz,’ another “bog body” discovered in Northern Europe. (Photograph by Robert Clark, Red Franz, Archaeology Magazine, 2015).

It is important to note that respect as a concept is culturally situated. Most of archeology’s ethical practices are predicated upon the western cultural milieux. In some cultures, displacing the body from its burial ground is a regular, often ceremonial practice. Elsewhere, this practice would be insulting. How do archaeologists navigate these ethical frameworks? 

Many archaeological organizations (for example, SAA) have codified their set of ethics, but, in all truth, it is impossible for archaeologists to determine an all-encompassing set of ethics that will command our research. It is more realistic to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, although there are times when a concrete ethical framework can be effective (Tarlow 2006, 216). Archaeologists not only have an obligation to the present and future, but also to the past it seeks to represent. Archaeologists must find a balance between their scientific endeavors and culturally informed ethical decisions made with knowledge of the indigenous cultural framework.


Further Readings:


Alex, Bridget. “When is it OK For Archaeologists to Dig Up the Dead?” Discover. 7 September 2018.


Alberti, Samuel et al. “Should we display the dead?.” Museum and Society, 7.3 (2009): 133-149. 10 Sep. 2022.


Calugay, Sophia. “Bodies in museums: The moral standing and displaying of the dead. The Post Hole. December 2015.



Bahn, Paul. “Do Not Disturb? Archaeology and the Rights of the Dead.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 1, no. 2, 213–25. 1984.

“Bog body; arm-band; garrote.” The British Museum.

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories/Methods/Practices. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., Fourth Edition, 2018.

Society for American Archaeology. “Ethics in Professional Archaeology.” SAA: Society for American Archaeology. 2016.

Tarlow, Sarah. “Archaeological Ethics and the People of the Past.” Chapter. In The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, edited by Chris Scarre and Geoffrey Scarre, 199–216. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511817656.012.