Human Bioarchaeology and Public Outreach in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (EMME) - How to Approach It?

By Mahmoud Mardini, Associate Editor for Bioarchaeology

Human bioarchaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (EMME) has played a key role in understanding the past human populations of this highly complex region. This field of study combines the methods of archaeology and physical anthropology to analyze human bones and teeth to reconstruct information about past health, diet, mobility, and occupation. This information in turn is critical for decoding the social, economic, and political dynamics of past societies. In this context, public outreach plays a crucial role in bioarchaeological research as it helps to foster a deeper understanding of the past, often with regard to topics of high contemporary relevance (e.g. migration, structural violence, human responses to climate change). Bioarchaeologists in the EMME have followed the example of their colleagues in other parts of the world and employed various strategies to connect with the public, such as giving public lectures, creating museum exhibitions (e.g. upcoming exhibition on the osteobiography of selected ancient Cypriots in the context of the Face to Face: Meet an Ancient Cypriot project), organizing workshops, and participating with hands-on activities in Europe- wide outreach initiatives (e.g. European Researchers’ Night, Festival of Ideas).

However, human remains in public outreach events can raise a number of ethical concerns that must be considered by bioarchaeologists. Relevant discussions have been taking place systematically over the past few years, not only in the EMME but worldwide. One key concern is that the display of human remains can be seen as disrespectful by some individuals or groups. This is particularly true when the remains are displayed in a way that is not in line with cultural or religious beliefs. For example, some cultures may consider it disrespectful to display remains in a public setting or to display remains that have been excavated from specific burial contexts (e.g. Christian). Some individuals may feel that the display of human remains is exploitative, as it may be perceived as using the remains for commercial or entertainment purposes, rather than for educational or scientific purposes. Another ethical concern is the long-term preservation of human remains. Human remains can deteriorate over time if they are not properly cared for, and this can be a significant concern when they are displayed in a public setting. The remains may be exposed to elements such as light, heat, and humidity, which can cause damage and deterioration. The remains may be subject to vandalism or theft, which can further compromise their preservation. Bioarchaeologists must take into consideration the preservation of the remains, as well as their proper treatment, to ensure that they are not used or displayed in a manner that is disrespectful or exploitative.

Some bioarchaeologists in the EMME, as in other parts of the world, have started substituting 3D printed casts for actual human remains in public outreach activities to address these ethical issues. The advantages of using 3D printed casts include the ability to accurately replicate the remains in their original form, as well as the ability to replicate the remains in multiple copies for multiple exhibitions and events without requiring the original remains to be moved. Furthermore, the use of 3D printed casts allows for greater display and interpretation flexibility. 3D printed casts, for example, can be manipulated to show different angles or features of the remains, making for a more engaging and informative display for the public. The casts can also be used to create virtual reality experiences that allow visitors to interact with the remains in a more immersive manner. Finally, the use of 3D printed casts as a substitute for real human remains allows more hands-on activities in public outreach events (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Dr Efthymia Nikita at an outreach event using printed casts of human bones to demonstrate key information bioarchaeologists extract from the skeleton (left) and real animal bones of domestic animals are being used to teach children about zooarchaeology (right).

A more regional-specific challenge in the EMME is the impact of financial and political crises on public interest in (bio)archaeology. Financial crises divert funds away from archaeological heritage initiatives, whereas political instability and conflict can cause the destruction of archaeological sites. Under such circumstances, people are reasonably concerned with meeting their basic needs than with preserving or learning about their past. Additionally, access to information about archaeology and cultural heritage may be restricted in circumstances of political oppression or censorship, and people may not be able to learn about or take part in research about their past. Within these constraints, bioarchaeologists must work in order to communicate the significance of their work and make it relevant to people’s lives; as mentioned above, this field can offer critical insights to the history of (structural) violence and inequality. In addition, bioarchaeological research can shed light on the region’s history of migration, disease, and health, which may be relevant to current public health issues.

Although archaeology has been the subject of several educational and community-building initiatives in the EMME, bioarchaeology has somewhat lagged behind, despite its great interest and potential to shed light on crucial and very timely aspects of past life. In part this is due to ethical concerns regarding the display and handling of human remains, and in part because human bones were not considered an important part of the archaeological record until a few decades ago when the material culture was all that mattered. This attitude has drastically changed and the role of human remains in enhancing understanding of the past is now well- established. Digital methods are also helping overcome various ethical issues (though it is creating new ones pertaining to the ownership and open sharing of the digital archives). Bioarchaeologists are increasingly collaborating with local and regional institutions, such as museums and universities, to create exhibitions and educational programs that highlight the potential of relevant research in addressing critical issues such as human health, migration, violence, and sustainability. In the future, we anticipate such initiatives to develop even further.

Suggested Readings

Almansa-Sánchez, J., 2021. Paper, Perception and... Facts? Exploring Archaeological Heritage Management in the Mediterranean and the Weight of Public Archaeology. Ex Novo: Journal of Archaeology, 6, pp.7-25.

Elefanti, P., 2021. The Unfamiliar Past: The Outreach of Palaeolithic Archaeology in Greek Archaeological Museums. Ex Novo: Journal of Archaeology, 6, pp.65-85.

Huffer, D., 2018. The living and the dead entwined in virtual space:# bioarchaeology and being a bioarchaeologist on Instagram. Advances in Archaeological Practice, 6(3), pp.267-273.

Mamo, A.R., Ibraheem, I.M., Al Kassem, A., Al-Khalil, A. and Hopper, K., 2022. The impact of the Syrian conflict on archaeological sites in Al-Hasakah province. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 43, p.103486.

Papadaki, A. and Dakouri-Hild, A., 2017. A Past for/by the Public: Outreach and Reception of Antiquity in Boeotia, Greece. Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies, 5(3-4), pp.393-410.

Sakellariadi, A., 2021. Public Archaeology in Greece: A Review of the Current State of the Field. Ex Novo: Journal of Archaeology, 6, pp.45-65.

Schug, G.R., 2020. 3D Dead: Ethical Considerations in Digital Human Osteology. Bioarchaeology International, 4(3-4), p.217.

Stojanowski, C.M. and Duncan, W.N., 2015. Engaging bodies in the public imagination: Bioarchaeology as social science, science, and humanities. American Journal of Human Biology, 27(1), pp.51-60.

Video lecture acor-video-lecture-by-dr-andrew-mccarthy/