Osteobiography: The History of the Body as Real Bottom-Line History

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John Robb
Sarah A. Inskip
Craig Cessford
Jenna Dittmar
Toomas Kivisild
Piers D. Mitchell
Bram Mulder
Tamsin C. O'Connell
Mary E. Price
Alice Rose
Christina Scheib


What is osteobiography good for? The last generation of archaeologists fought to overcome the traditional assumption that archaeology is merely ancillary to history, a substitute to be used when written sources are defective; it is now widely acknowledged that material histories and textual histories tell equally valid and complementary stories about the past. Yet the traditional assumption hangs on implicitly in biography: osteobiography is used to fill the gaps in the textual record rather than as a primary source in its own right. In this article we compare the textual biographies and material biographies of two thirteenth-century townsfolk from medieval England—Robert Curteis, attested in legal records, and “Feature 958,” excavated archaeologically and studied osteobiographically. As the former shows, textual biographies of ordinary people mostly reveal a few traces of financial or legal transactions. Interpreting these traces, in fact, implicitly presumes a history of the body. Osteobiography reveals a different kind of history, the history of the body as a locus of appearance and social identity, work, health and experience. For all but a few textually rich individuals, osteobiography provides a fuller and more human biography. Moreover, textual visibility is deeply biased by class and gender; osteobiography offers particular promise for Marxist and feminist understandings of the past.

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