Rife with Bones
The ASCSA's Director of Publications, Andrew Reinhard, recently interviewed Prof. Joseph L. Rife of Vanderbilt University, author of The Roman and Byzantine Graves and Human Remains (Isthmia IX) published in June. Rife had just returned from the field at Kenchreai and discusses his current work there, as well as the challenges and rewards of investigating bones and burials from the Isthmus.
Reinhard: Your book is a mix of archaeology and forensic anthropology. Which came first for you: an interest in the archaeology of Greece, or the study of bones and teeth?
Rife: What first attracted me to Mediterranean antiquity was Greek and Latin literature, and texts remain central to my research. I discovered anthropology as a second major during my undergraduate years at Kenyon College, when I worked with an inspiring teacher of biological anthropology, J. Kenneth Smail, who is now emeritus professor. My interest in archaeology has always been driven by my desire to explore ancient society with multiple sources, both textual and material. Isthmia IX exemplifies my perspective of seeing the past whole, through many lenses.
Reinhard: How long have you been working on the graves and human remains at Isthmia? How were you assigned the material? Are there graves and human remains at the site that pre-date the Roman era?
Rife: I first became interested in the burials at Isthmia in 1990, when I helped with a preliminary inventory of the human remains. A few years later I began examining mortuary practices among the site’s Roman to Byzantine residents. By 1995, when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Prof. Gregory had kindy invited me to undertake a comprehensive study of the graves that would address both their historical and social contexts and their contents as evidence for skeletal biology. My book owes a great deal to his vision of holistic research, as well as to his unwavering support and sage advice. Prof. Gebhard was also very helpful and generous in contributing for my study the few graves that had been discovered at Isthmia during earlier campaigns by Oscar Broneer. That rounded out the picture of later burial across the ruins of the central area of the Isthmian Sanctuary and the associated fortifications.
Earlier graves are also known at the site. Paul Clement found Late Archaic to Late Classical sarcophagi roughly a kilometer to the west of the Temple of Poseidon; these are rich in artifacts but poor in bones. Needless to say, they represent a very different period in the history of local settlement and their own range of burial customs in another part of the site. When the West Cemetery is published and we can compare it to the late burials covered in Isthmia IX, we will have a small but colorful picture of long-term changes in Corinthian society and ideology, inasmuch as these are reflected in death-rituals.
Reinhard: What was the most interesting thing you found when studying this material?
Rife: There were many surprises big and small. I was taken by the intentionality, the human concern, visible in the graves. Late Roman and Byzantine graves always seem to crop up at Greek sites, but they have often been dismissed as poor or common or haphazard. On the contrary, at the Isthmus I noted the personal care and order that guided their placement and design, even in the details. Also striking was the frequency of purposeful disturbance, the handling or extraction of old bones in late antiquity and beyond. Several features of the skeletal assemblage were interesting or unexpected. I was reminded how taphonomic factors, from soil chemistry to environmental moisture to human activities, can drastically impact the condition of bones and teeth from a single site, and can limit the reach of one’s analysis. Even so, the bones and teeth at the Isthmus were in relatively good condition for analysis. And then the discovery of unusual injuries or conditions in any skeletal sample is always fascinating, such as a scapular fracture, a bone tumor, or some pattern of joint disease that shows occupational stress. The discovery of one body that had been awkwardly deposited in a narrow pit made me think in new ways about the conventional limits of Byzantine burial and the treatment of social outcasts.
Reinhard: How is Isthmia IX a new kind of scientific, archaeological publication?
Rife: When I began my study over 15 years ago, apart from a few exceptions, the combination of classical archaeology and physical anthropology was unusual for a site of Roman to Byzantine date in Greece. There really was no monographic precedent. Therefore I adopted a broad approach to discussing my methods, to explaining the significance of the evidence, and to presenting the data in detail—the material is, of course, inherently interesting, but I must frame it so that it is as useful as possible to a wide audience. I like to think that my integrated study of graves, settlement, artifacts, bones, and teeth remains innovative, though more and more work addressing similar evidence has been published in recent years. From my point of view, there is still a need for studies of Greek remains that blend mortuary analysis and bioarchaeology (as the field is now commonly known). In Isthmia IX I also tried to do something new in other respects, such as using interpretative approaches to funerary ritual from the contemporary discourse of the social sciences, and considering ethnographic parallels from modern Greece. And reconstructing ancient society from literary and documentary sources, alongside archaeological and osteological remains, is a serious challenge, because each type of source-material has its own uses and limitations. But I feel that my study of the buried skeletons has benefitted greatly from my reading of, for example, the Church Fathers and hagiography, just as my understanding of funerary practices has grown from my reading of Corinthian epitaphs.
Reinhard: How does what you found compare with burial and skeletal material from the greater Corinthia, or with other places in Greece?
Rife: The Roman and Byzantine burials and human remains from the Isthmus represent the Corinthian countryside, while most major publications of comparable Greek material have examined urban or semiurban settings. The evidence at the Isthmus provides an especially instructive point of comparison for the city cemeteries at Corinth and other burials in the region, particularly at Kenchreai and in the eastern Corinthia. The burials and skeletons from the Isthmus seem to fit larger behavioral and biological patterns that typify rural communities in the late Greek world: a mixed agricultural subsistence, intimate rituals that place familial connections at center stage, infectious disease in childhood, injuries and sore joints from physical labor, and teeth that break down by middle age. It is striking that in certain respects, so far as we can tell from the published data, the residents of the Corinthian countryside were relatively healthy compared to certain urban contemporaries, such as at Corinth and Constantinople—life in the city wasn’t totally better or safer!
Moreover, my comparative study reveals a certain continuity of rituals and burial forms across the northeastern Peloponnese. Within this shared body of behaviors and materials it is interesting to trace local variation, such as in the monumentality or luxury of burial, the use of tombstones and graveside rites, formal heterogeneity, the presence or absence of specific objects, and the pace of change over time. On a basic level there seems to have been a sort of Late Antique funerary koiné across the lower Balkans and into Asia Minor that was influenced by various social and ideological factors, including Christianity. But it is on the regional and local scales that we can appreciate the dynamics of ritual and social structure at play, and the impact on individual identities within communities, and on daily life.
Reinhard: Now that your book has been published, what are you working on?
Rife: My ongoing research explores many of the themes I touch on in Isthmia IX. I am working with my good colleague Elena Korka of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture toward the publication of our recent excavations at Kenchreai, which uncovered many graves and skeletons, and I am gradually preparing the study of earlier investigations around the Roman harbor. My research on the social and cultural world of the Second Sophistic continues, as I pursue short studies on the Greek novel and biography. And when time permits I turn to inscriptions, most recently a group of epitaphs and dedications of Roman to Early Byzantine date from Kenchreai, together with their parallels from Corinth and elsewhere in the eastern provinces. The variety keeps the material fresh and my mind excited!