Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Adding flesh to the bones: re-imagining stories of the enslaved through the analysis of human skeletal remains

Scientists can't always see the humans stories beneath their data, but turn that data over to creative writers and a whole new world opens up.

Catriona J McKenzie
21 August 2016

Real Human Skulls in the Chapel of Bones. Jim Kelly//

The analysis of human skeletal remains can provide insights or glimpses into past lives. As a biological anthropologist, when I analyse a skeleton for the first time I look at the bones of the body to find clues about who the person once was. Through studying the bones, a picture emerges; but that picture is only ever partially complete.

I can uncover information about the sex, age, and height of an individual; but I have no way of knowing about their inner life, their personality, hopes and dreams. I can record information about different diseases which affected an individual, but the personal experience of disease or impairment often evades my study. Sometimes, the final picture is almost disappointing – there appears to be more gaps than facts.

If I analyse a large number of skeletons from the same population, then a different picture emerges. I can now identify whether all individuals from a community are likely to be represented within the burial ground, and determine whether the community was a healthy population or whether they were suffering from poor health. In a large population I can look at the patterns and types of injuries and diseases that were common, and explore the different factors that may have influenced these. By examining a large number of skeletons, there is a greater amount that can be learned about the population; but by considering the skeletons as a collective, the individual fades from the picture.

For the project Literary Archaeology: Exploring the Lived Environment of the Slave we are using data about enslaved individuals from Finca Clavijo, Gran Canaria and Newton Plantation, Barbados, that were collected from the published and unpublished literature*. One of the aims of the project is to explore the potential for collaboration between archaeological scientists and creative writers through a joint study of the human skeletal remains.

Emma Lighthouse from the University of Cambridge and I selected four skeletons from each of the two enslaved populations, and collected information about these from the written sources. Each of these skeletons had been sampled for stable isotope analysis, which provides insights into the different types of diet that individuals were consuming when they were children and when they were adults; and also the broad geographical regions from where they likely originated. In addition, I collated the information that was derived from the skeletal analysis of these eight individuals.

At the first workshop, we met with a group of creative writers and presented the archaeological information about the selected skeletons. We spent a considerable amount of time, explaining all the different indicators of disease and occupational activity in the bones, as well as the evidence for diet and geographical origin. By using skeletal information as a starting point, we aimed to inspire the writers to re-imagine stories about the enslaved, to delve deeper into re-imagining the past.

As I work with human remains on a daily basis it can sometimes be difficult for me to see beyond the bones and the scientific information that I collect, to imagine the daily lives of the people that I study. Working with the creative writers has been fascinating, as they have responded to the archaeological information in a very different way.

This project has highlighted the importance of sharing and examining information beyond disciplinary boundaries. Over the years I have worked with a number of groups from different backgrounds, explaining my work and the information that can be discovered from examining human skeletal remains. Creative writing has the potential to add a further dimension to our interpretations, and this may be particularly important when presenting the results of archaeological projects to the public. It may also aid us in considering difficult and painful pasts such as those of enslaved individuals. My hope is that this project will bring the stories of the skeletons to life – by adding flesh to the bones. 

*I am particularly grateful to Dr Kristrina Shuler who shared her unpublished data with us for use in this project. 

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