Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.04.26

Anne Ingvarsson-Sundström, Asine III: Supplementary Studies on the Swedish Excavations 1922-1930. Fasc. 2, Children Lost and Found: A Bioarchaeological Study of Middle Helladic Children in Asine with a Comparison to Lerna. Skrifter utgivna av Svenska institutet i Athen, 4°, 45:2.   Stockholm:  Svenska institutet i Athen, 2008.  Pp. 151; 2 p. of plates.  ISBN 9789179160562.  SEK 300 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sevi Triantaphyllou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (

This book is based on Ingvarsson-Sundström's PhD thesis and forms part of a series which demonstrates in a very thorough and systematic way the results of the analysis of a particularly complicated skeletal assemblage excavated in the late 1920s in the Lower Town of Middle Helladic Asine in the southern Argolid by the Swedish Institute at Athens. The book contains a very detailed and thorough discussion on the biological and social status of children and the impact of children's living conditions on the adults' life, and in particular the health status of their mothers. The fruitful bioarchaeological analysis carried out by Ingvarsson-Sundström is accompanied by a rich body of literature with archaeological parallels especially from Europe but also extremely useful ethnographic examples which illustrate cultural diversity in mortuary behavior and childcare practices. The analysis of the skeletal remains is better appreciated when one considers that certain problems had to overcome. These problems include the state of articulation and preservation of the human skeletal remains due to the intramural character of the burials, the constant and intensive use of space in the Lower Town of Asine, and the relative deficiency of archaeological documentation due to the early date of the excavation. Ingvarsson-Sundström's book can be classified among a broader group of publications that have emerged in the last few years in Aegean prehistory which attempt to approach skeletal remains in relation to the investigation of archaeological and contextual information and for this reason it contributes significantly to our understanding of the social organization of MH societies in the Argolid but also of the way of life of prehistoric societies in the Aegean, in general.1

Chapter 1 is divided into two major parts: 1) the outline of the book, and 2) the definition of the main topic, which is the child perceived in both cultural and biological/osteological terms. Ingvarsson-Sundström, from the beginning of her work, makes it very clear that the approach that will follow throughout this book will contain a social anthropological perspective that in general is absent from similar studies. First, there is a helpful introductory discussion of the different excavation areas where MH skeletal material was recovered in Asine, summarized in a clear way in Table 1, along with the history of research and the different physical anthropologists who were involved in the study of the human bones. A significant part of the introduction concerns the complexity of the disarticulated skeletal remains. Furthermore, in order to provide an holistic interpretation of the role of children in the demography and health status of the MH societies in the Argolid, Ingvarsson-Sundström compares the MH children of the Lower Town at Asine to the subadults of nearby Lerna IV-VI (which represent the MH settlement deposits of the site). In the second part of her introductory chapter, Ingvarsson-Sundström is obviously affected by recent work on the conception of childhood in society.2 She argues that according to modern Western perceptions of childhood, children are usually perceived as passive and weak members of a society, where a child's social status and identity is often defined in relation to adult's lives and positions. Children, however, according to Ingvarsson-Sundström, play and learn about the material culture while at the same time they can challenge the ideas of the adults and the conventions of their society and contribute to changes and perceptions of their culture towards them. Ingvarsson-Sundström provides an example from a 7th c. AD Anglo-Saxon society where children were regarded as legally adults from the age of ten. In addition, however, there is a great body of pictorial, literary, archaeological and osteological evidence regarding childhood in the Graeco-Roman world which would be particularly productive and perhaps more relevant to Ingvarsson-Sundström's discussion.3 Furthermore, children cannot be perceived as a homogenous group which acts and develops in one specified way. Osteological child according to Ingvarsson-Sundström, is defined mainly by the investigation of a variety of biological characteristics with a particular focus on the determination of biological age as accurately as possible.

Chapter 2 describes in detail issues of terminology and the methodological tools used in the analysis. Due to the disarticulation of the material, there is a particular emphasis on the effect of taphonomic factors on the preservation of the subadult age categories. Ingvarsson-Sundström, following Nawrocki's classification, distinguishes three major taphonomic factors: environmental, individual and cultural.4 Cultural factors are associated mainly with the treatment of the body after death; the burial practices involved are considered by the author as particularly important for the preservation of children in MH Asine. Ingvarsson-Sundström argues, citing the example of a well-controlled excavation of a historical cemetery from Ontario, Canada, that the under-representation of subadult skeletons from prehistoric populations may reflect insufficient methods of archaeological excavation and identification, rather than the effects of environmental conditions such as soil type and pH value. In addition to factors of preservation, methods of quantification are described in a simple and very comprehensible way, although some more recent references to analyses for recording and interpreting fragmentary human and animal bones are missing.5 This chapter ends with an analytical description of the methods used for age estimation of the subadults by combining at the same time a remarkably large number of studies based on measurements of the long bones, tooth formation and eruption and to a lesser degree evaluating general skeletal development, that is, appearance and union of centres of ossification and epiphyseal fusion. Table 4, which presents age estimations from diaphyseal lengths of 74 bones by combining six different studies, is very useful, although an inventory number for each bone should have been provided. It is clear that Ingvarsson-Sundström, by taking into account the complexity of studying fragmentary and disarticulated skeletal material, attempts to apply as many methods as possible in order to approach accurately the age of the subadults of MH Asine.

Chapter 3 presents the method used by Ingvarsson-Sundström to calculate the Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) in the Lower Town of MH Asine. Factors such as archaeological context, excavation documentation and dating of the associated stratified material were taken into account in order to associate the disarticulated human skeletal remains with stratigraphic units and also to assign the isolated bones to different individuals, some of which may belong to the already published graves from the 1926 excavations. This task is clearly very difficult because there are 4,583 disarticulated human skeletal remains. The catalogue of the MNI units is extremely detailed and useful as regards the strategy followed by Ingvarsson-Sundström for deciding on the assignment of isolated bones to certain individuals accompanied by references to the excavation notes and to earlier publications and in particular, Asine I. There is however, a slight confusion to the reader between the Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) and the formation of the MNI units which refer to excavation units. Besides, the absence of a detailed skeletal inventory for each excavation unit does not allow the use of skeletal data by other human bone specialists for comparative analysis.

Chapter 4 deals with the limitations which need to be taken into consideration in demographic reconstructions from human skeletal remains. There is also an extensive discussion with regard to the demographic profiles of Asine and Lerna, based mainly on Angel's age estimations and in particular on the remarkably high mortality of infants, which is considered by the author to be an uncommon situation in archaeological populations, although this phenomenon may reflect a combination of insufficient systematic excavation and limited access of neonates and infants to the cemetery. With regard to the distribution of the sex groups, the relative over-representation of males over females in Asine has been interpreted by Ingvarsson-Sundström as a common problem, occurring usually in mature and elderly women, who show male characteristics as they age. Over-representation of men is also observed in the recently re-examined MH population of nearby Lerna, and in particular during the late phases of the period, where it may reflect that only certain women had access to the burial in the settlement.6 The author also advances the discussion of the limitations in palaeodemography by raising the problems of interpreting subadult mortality and morbidity based on the study of the skeletal remains alone. Ingvarsson-Sundström correctly reaches to the conclusion that the frequency of pathological lesions in a skeletal population does not reflect directly the prevalence of the disease in the living population.

In chapter 5, probably the most significant chapter in this book and particularly interesting for the human bone specialists, data provided by the skeletal analysis of the MH Asine and nearby Lerna subadults are discussed in relation to three main issues: growth, mortality and morbidity. The skeletal growth profile (SGP) of the MH Asine and Lerna children, estimated from the mean measurements of the long bones and compared to age intervals given by teeth, was plotted with three European archaeological populations and a sample of modern American children as used by Hoppa.7 The Argive children who fall below the modern interval are all aged three months or older, regardless of which bone is studied (femur or humerus). The aetiology of factors, whether genetic or environmental, involved in the decreased growth of the infants after three months are extensively discussed by the author. Ingvarsson-Sundström agrees with Saunders and Hoppa's interpretation that the main cause for archaeological populations to exhibit generally shorter bones for age than modern populations involves environmental discrepancies like nutritional status or exposure to disease rather than genetic differences. With regard to mortality, the subadult age distribution of both the Asine and Lerna children shows high rates in early infancy since in both populations, there are a number of probable stillbirths and most deaths occur around birth. Ingvarsson-Sundström, however, observes an important difference between the two populations when age intervals are segmented in more detailed divisions. When the neonatal (over 10 lunar months to 27 days) and post-neonatal (28 days to 3 months) mortality is compared between the two populations, the post-neonatal mortality at Lerna is higher than the neonatal mortality while the opposite pattern occurs for Asine. This discrepancy is evident only when two age intervals that is over 3 to 6 and 6 to 9 months, respectively, are pooled together, something which does not become very clear in the text. High neonatal mortality in Asine is associated by Ingvarsson-Sundström with poor maternal health and weaning prior to one month for some infants. High post-neonatal mortality in Lerna, on the other hand, is considered to reflect stressful environmental conditions. Malaria due to proximity to marshy environments was proposed initially by J. L. Angel to have had a serious impact on the health status of the population at Lerna, and the effect of malaria and its association with anaemia in the population of Lerna has been a particularly controversial subject for palaeopathology.8 A recent histological investigation for the association of porotic hyperostosis, which is one of the lesions observed in the subadult population of Asine and Lerna, with malaria suggests that parasite load and infections caused by endemic malaria were probably occurring at the same as a response to anaemia reflecting thus the complexity of the disease.9 Also, with regard to mortality rates and their association with stressful environmental conditions, it is of particular significance to note the peak in mortality rates in the age interval over 3 to 6 months for both Asine and Lerna which may reflect, according to the author, an early introduction of semi-solid food or even an early weaning practice which would increase the exposure to infectious disease. In addition to factors affecting growth and mortality rates, Ingvarsson-Sundström correctly evaluates the effect of pathological lesions and in particular of metabolic disturbances e.g. cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis, endocranial lesions and dental enamel defects on the health status of subadults. It seems that in the two Argive populations there is some minimal correlation between enamel defects and early age at death suggesting that individuals who experienced physiological stress at an early age were predisposed to an early death. Chapter 5 ends with a special reference to the mother's vs. the children's health status, where Ingvarsson-Sundström argues that high neonatal mortality in Asine was not affected only by the poor health of the mother and problems arising during birth. It seems possible that the introduction of a supplementary diet as early as during the first weeks after birth may have contributed to high mortality rates in the neonates due to exposure to infectious agents. This practice is further supported by many ethnographic parallels from around the world but also by the application on the Argive populations of the Bourgeois-Pichat biometric model for estimating weaning age.

Chapter 6 focuses on different aspects of mortuary treatment of the Asine and Lerna children in order to investigate their perception by the contemporaneous MH societies. For Asine, there is an overview of all MH burial grounds, including the Lower Town intramural burials and the two extramural cemeteries of the East cemetery and the Barbouna slope. Although the overall treatment of the deceased in relation to certain biological parameters is provided in Nordquist's work, based on Angel's examination,10 Ingvarsson-Sundström, in this study, is using the evidence of her osteological investigation in order to explore parameters such as age and/or sex in the formation of mortuary practices in MH Asine. Location of the graves is discussed in relation to contemporary houses while it is interesting that contrary to the prevalent view,11 MH intramural burials to a certain degree in Asine and Lerna seem to have accommodated children as well as adults. At the East cemetery, the formation of a tumulus with graves situated in and at its periphery, the absence of any pit graves as well as the emergence of elements requiring the investment of high energy expenditure would suggest according to Ingvarsson-Sundström, in agreement with Nordquist (1987), that people accommodated in that distinct area represented an emerging elite in the MH society of Asine. A critical point however, to compare aspects of mortuary behavior between the three burial precincts in Asine, would be the clarification of the chronological resolution at the site, which is currently under progress,12 since the adoption of two extramural cemeteries and the construction of the tumulus at the East cemetery point out to a significant change in the mortuary programme of the MH society. Also, recent work undertaken by Milka tends to support that differences between the burial grounds are not as marked as previously suggested while almost all wealthy burials in the extramural cemeteries date from the transitional MH II/III period onwards.13 This is the period when similar changes emerged in the mortuary arena in nearby Argos and Mycenae. Another important observation made in this chapter is that four clusters of graves in Asine containing both sexes and all age groups were associated with Houses A, C, D and E suggesting therefore that kin-based relationships rather than vertically defined hierarchical distinctions allowed accessibility to certain houses.14 The last section of this chapter attempts through analogies from demographic anthropology, to explore childcare and its implication to the structure of family relationships and gender roles in the MH society. Lack of evidence however and very restricted knowledge of internal rules adopted by the MH societies make this section very tentative.

In Chapter 7, Ingvarsson-Sundström summarizes her examination of the physical development and health status of children, and their social roles in the Middle Helladic Argolid. Two key points which consist the main body of discussion throughout this book are briefly raised in this chapter: 1) children's heath in MH Asine was severely affected from diseases related to environmental stress factors and nutritional deficiencies particularly after early weaning, and 2) children were buried in the same way and within the same area with adults suggesting their equal inclusion in the world of adults.

Appendix I by Helena Soomer provides extremely useful information on the methodology of ageing subadults from teeth and measuring enamel hypoplasia disruptions accurately in order to estimate the chronological age when metabolic episodes occurred. In Appendix II, Ingvarsson-Sundström gives a short catalogue of the adult population of MH Asine with a special focus on the skeletons which can be assigned to already published graves. Considering that MH Asine provided three different burial precincts and that Ingvarsson-Sundström completed recently the re-study of all associated human skeletal remains,15 it would be particularly useful to have included, in Appendix II , in a catalogue form, all adult skeletons excavated and studied to date by the different human bone specialists according to their burial location.

To conclude, this book contributes largely to the way of how human skeletal remains in the prehistoric Aegean should be investigated and integrated with their archaeological context. It is unfortunate, however, that this study focuses primarily on the subadult population of the Lower Town of MH Asine. Ideally, all evidence regarding different aspects of mortuary treatment of the deceased, including the skeletal remains, should be incorporated in one thorough publication, in which the integration of biological parameters with archaeological records would be applied. Nevertheless, this work undertaken by Ingvarsson-Sundström on such complex and fragmentary material accompanied with convincing arguments on the biological and social roles played by a certain segment of the MH population consists in an exemplary piece of work for our understanding of the Middle Helladic societies in the Argolid.


1.   Recent work reflecting a bioarchaeological approach of studying human skeletal remains in the prehistoric Aegean can be seen in: Papathanasiou, A. 2001. A Bioarchaeological Analysis of Neolithic Alepotrypa Cave, Greece. Oxford: Archaeopress, BAR International Series S961; Triantaphyllou, S. 2001. A Bioarchaeological Approach to Prehistoric Populations from Western and Central Greek Macedonia. Oxford: Archaeopress, BAR International Series S976 and more recently Schepartz, L. A., Fox, S. C. and C. Bourbou (eds). 2009. New Directions in the Skeletal Biology of Greece. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies, Hesperia Supplement 43.
2.   Scott, E. 1999. The Archaeology of Infancy and Infant Death. Oxford: Archaeopress, BAR International Series S819; Sofaer Derevenski, J. 1997. Engendering children, engendering archaeology. In J. Moore and E. Scott (eds), Invisible People and Processes: Writing Gender and Childhood into European Archaeology, London & New York: Leicester University Press, 192-202; Sofaer Derevenski, J (ed). 2000. Children and Material Culture. London: Routledge.
3.   Cohen, A. and J. B. Rutter (eds). 2007. Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies, Hesperia Supplement 41.
4.   Nawrocki, S. P. 1995. Taphonomic processes in historic cemeteries. In A. L. Grauer (ed), Bodies of Evidence: Reconstructing History through Skeletal Analysis, New York: Wiley-Liss, Inc., 49-66.
5.   See for instance: Outram, A. K., Knüsel, C. J., Knight, S. and A. F. Harding. 2005. Understanding complex fragmented assemblages of human and animal remains: a fully integrated approach. Journal of Archaeological Science 32: 1699-1710. Lately, due to much forensic work undertaken by international missions in mass disasters from former Yugoslavia, there is a large body of recent literature, as for instance: Haglund, W. D. and Sorg, M. H. (eds) 2002. Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory, and Archaeological Perspectives. FL: CRC Press, Boca Raton; and more recently, Adams, B. J. and J. E. Byrd. 2008. Recovery, Analysis, and Identification of Commingled Human Remains. Totowa: Humana Press.
6.   Triantaphyllou, S. 2007. Strenuous life conditions in the Argive plain during the MH period: a comparative analysis of human skeletal remains from Lerna, Argos, Mycenae. Oral presentation in Social Change and Cultural Interaction in the Middle Helladic Argolid 2000-1500 BC. Athens: The Netherlands Institute.
7.   Hoppa, R. D. 1992. Evaluating human skeletal growth: an Anglo-Saxon example. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 2: 275-288.
8.   Angel, J. L. 1971. The People of Lerna: Analysis of a Prehistoric Aegean Population. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens. But, see also Lagia, A. 1993. Differential Diagnosis of the Three Main Types of Anaemia (Thalassaemia, Sickle Cell Anaemia, Iron Deficiency Anaemia) from the Skeleton based on Macroscopic and Radiographic Skeletal Characteristics. Bradford: MSc thesis; and more recently, Lagia, A., Eliopoulos, C. and S. Manolis. 2007. Thallasemia: macroscopic and radiological study of a case. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 17: 269-285.
9.   Stravopodi, E., Manolis, S., Kousoulakos, S., Aleporou, V. and M. P. Schultz. 2009. Porotic hyperostosis in Neolithic Greece: new evidence and further implications. In L. A. Schepartz, S. C. Fox and C. Bourbou (eds), New Directions in the Skeletal Biology of Greece. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies, Hesperia Supplement 43, 257-270.
10.   Nordquist , G. C. 1987. A Middle Helladic Village: Asine in the Argolid. Uppsala: Boreas, Uppsala Studies in Mediterranean and Near Eastern Civilizations, 16.
11.   Cavanagh, W and C. Mee. 1998. A Private Place: Death in Prehistoric Greece. Jonsered: Paul Åströms Förlag, SIMA 125.
12.   Radiocarbon analysis of Asine burial assemblages is under progress and preliminary results can be found in Voutsaki, S., Triantaphyllou, S., Ingvarsson-Sundström, A., Sarri, K., Richards, M. P., Nijboer, A., Kouidou-Andreou, S., Kovatsi, L., Nikou, D. and E. Milka. 2007. Project on the Middle Helladic Argolid: a report on the 2006 season. Pharos XIV: 69-70.
13.   A preliminary analysis of Asine archaeological data from the Lower Town intramural burials and the two extramural cemeteries can be found in Voutsaki, S., Triantaphyllou, S., Ingvarsson-Sundström, A., Sarri, K., Richards, M. P., Nijboer, A., Kouidou-Andreou, S., Kovatsi, L., Nikou, D. and E. Milka. 2007. Project on the Middle Helladic Argolid: a report on the 2006 season. Pharos XIV: 76-80. Also, Milka, E. 2007. Diversity and change in mortuary practices: a comparison of Lerna, Asine, Argos. Oral presentation in Social Change and Cultural Interaction in the Middle Helladic Argolid 2000-1500 BC. Athens: The Netherlands Institute.
14.   A similar pattern has been pointed out recently by Milka for intramural burials at nearby Lerna: Voutsaki, S., Triantaphyllou, S., Ingvarsson-Sundström, A., Sarri, K., Richards, M. P., Nijboer, A., Kouidou-Andreou, S., Kovatsi, L., Nikou, D. and E. Milka. 2007. Project on the Middle Helladic Argolid: a report on the 2006 season. Pharos XIV: 64-68.
15.   Preliminary results of Ingvarsson-Sundström's recent work on the human remains from the Asine extramural cemeteries can be found in Voutsaki, S., Triantaphyllou, S., Ingvarsson-Sundström, A., Sarri, K., Richards, M. P., Nijboer, A., Kouidou-Andreou, S., Kovatsi, L., Nikou, D. and E. Milka. 2007. Project on the Middle Helladic Argolid: a report on the 2006 season. Pharos XIV: 70-76.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 10:45:33, Thursday, 15 April 2010