The Archaeology of Human Bones. Simon Mays. Routledge, London and New York, 1998. xiii + 242 pages, 120 figures, 22 tables. Paperback: $32.99, ISBN 0-415-17407-4. Hardback: $99.99, ISBN 0-415-16621-7

Reviewed by Andrew Millard, Department of Archaeology, University of Durham, South Road, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK

When I heard that this book was coming out I assumed it would be something like a replacement for Brothwell’s (1981) Digging Up Bones. It isn’t that, but it is an excellent introductory text on what we can learn from human bones in archaeology, and how we go about doing it. Two introductory chapters discuss human skeletal anatomy and the nature of archaeological assemblages of human bones. Consideration is then given in the next six chapters to the methods and applications of ageing and sexing, metric and non-metric variations, bone and tooth diseases and injuries. The strength of these chapters, and indeed of the book as a whole, is the consistent use of examples to illustrate the outworking of the methods. There follow two chapters on chemical analysis and ancient DNA studies of bone, and a final chapter on cremation.

The archaeology of human bones is a welcome addition to the selection of books available on this subject. It fills a gap at the introductory level, where there a few texts which treat the methods, without giving too much detail for the novice, and then illustrate them with clear examples of their application. The collection of studies of population data is especially welcome, as previously I have had no compilation like this to which I could refer students. For my students taking their first lectures and practicals in human remains in archaeology during the last academic year, this book had become a popular text even before I could add it to reading lists or the library had obtained a copy.

With regard to my particular interests in bone chemistry I was also pleased to see chapters on chemical analysis and ancient DNA in bones integrated into a textbook on human remains. In terms of palaeodietary analysis, the principles and major applications of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes are covered, and Sr/Ca ratios, with an emphasis on Sillen’s solubility profile technique. Lead levels are given a cursory treatment, as are the problems of diagenesis.

A chapter on ancient DNA might be expected of a book like this nowadays, though after an explanation of the principles there are only three examples and a discussion of future directions from the perspective of 1996 (and that is already becoming outdated). Other biochemical analyses such as detection and use of proteins and lipids are not mentioned. The final chapter on cremations seems out of place after two chapters which have moved from macroscopic to molecular analysis: perhaps it should have preceded them. The book ends with this chapter, in fact with a discussion of quantities of bone in cremation urns, which gives and abrupt end if one is reading the book as a whole. A couple of pages of afterword to round off the preceding 240 pages would not have come amiss.

Although overall I am positive about this work I do have some reservations. There are omissions of features which I expected to see at least given a mention in an introductory text of this scope. For example, in discussing sexing, two indicators which are pretty certain (though buy no means always present) are the pre-auricular sulcus for females and the penile root attachment for males; neither appear here. Discussion of elemental analyses of bone mineral focuses on Sr and Pb, with a mention (and dismissal) of Zn, and no mention of the wide range of other elements which have been analysed and interpreted with more or less success. The limitations of the discussion are indicated by the absence from the bibliography of the key volume edited by Price (1989).

There is a strong bias to English examples (the author is the Human Skeletal Biologist in English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory), and particularly to Mays’ own work, including a number of his unpublished studies, notably the churchyard at Wharram Percy. I found it annoying that a textbook should use unpublished examples, as students cannot follow them up in the literature to gain a more detailed understanding of a method and its limitations. For example, there is an interesting and innovative comparison of stature and growth rates in children from medieval Wharram Percy, with 19th century and modern British growth data, but all we have is the outline of a methodology and its results, without the details of the data and without it having gone through a peer review process.

In general the photographs and drawings are excellent but a few are of lower quality. One that stood out as poor was fig. 3.13 showing age related changes in the pubic symphysis. The use of the same lighting for 3 specimens in one photograph does not bring out the surface morphology at all well. I shall still refer students to the wonderful photographs of this feature in Chamberlain (1994).

My final and strongest criticism of this textbook is that it is a classic example of ‘pure’ science divorced from any ethical implications or social involvements of that science. The excavation and study of human remains is a controversial issue in certain quarters and widely debated amongst archaeologists and anthropologists. However, I found no mention, let alone discussion, of issues of:

when and why we should excavate human remains; whether in principle we should study them (the implication of the preface is that there is no question "studying human remains is a central component of archaeological enquiry"); whether they should be repatriated, reburied, or stored; whether they should be displayed to the public. These are all questions which in recent years have loomed large in the minds of those of us who work with human skeletal material, whatever answers we give to them, and an introductory textbook is lacking without some consideration of them.

My review has majored on the weaknesses of this book, but I do find it very useful. It will be on my reading lists from now on, and I recommend it to those who, like me, have to teach some basic palaeopathology without having great expertise or active research interest across this field. The bibliography runs to well over 500 items and is a valuable resource in itself.


Brothwell, D. 1981. Digging Up Bones. London: Oxford University Press.

Chamberlain, A. 1994. Human Remains. London: British Museum Press.

Price, T.D. (ed.). 1989. The Chemistry of Prehistoric Human Bone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.