Summary of the New Perspectives on Ancient Migration Seminar

The theme of the first AMME seminar of 2022 was ‘New Perspectives on Ancient Migration’. The first speaker was Dr. Nina Maaranen (University of Bournemouth) with a topic ‘People in motion – bioanthropology as a tool for investigating past migration and mobility’. The second presentation was titled ‘Interpreting death: migration and burial in Roman Beirut’ by Dr. Vana Kalenderian (Finnish Institute in the Middle East).  

Dr. Nina Maaranen presented two examples of how osteology and biochemical methods like aDNA and isotopes analysis can be used to study human remains in the context of mobility or migration. Non-invasive osteological methods can be used to determine information such as the sex, ancestry, health or age-at-death from human remains. Biological distance analysis is one of the oldest branches of bioanthropology and it uses physical appearance as a proxy for genetic closeness. 

Isotope analyses and aDNA are biochemical methods that are continuously advancing. Isotope analysis is a tool to study the diet of the people of the past because what one eats, and drinks always leaves a residue on the body. Mobility studies use strontium and oxygen stable isotopes to answer questions about mobility or cultural interaction such as trade. Especially teeth are a great subject of biochemical analysis because of their mostly mineral composition, high durability and teeth are less prone to environmental exchange. 

Nina Maaranen presented two case studies from the middle bronze age Western Asia. Hyksos refers to the period in Egypt when foreign dynasty inhabited the area during the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1640–1530 BC). Maaranen has studied human remains from Hyksos capital, Avaris (modern day Tell el-Dab'a) and compared them with remains from Western Asia and Eastern Mediterranean. The study shows that 40 out of the 75 studied individuals were not locals but the variety of strontium values was so wide that it is difficult to determine their ancestry and origins. According to the stable isotope analysis and textual evidence, migration to Avaris had started already before the Hyksos period. According to the stable isotope analysis, migration to Avaris had started already before the Hyksos period.  

The second case study was from Pella, east Jordan, which was also a central settlement in the Middle Bronze Age. Unfortunately, the burials were commingled, but Maaranen and her team were able to identify 22 individuals. Isotope analyses of the studied human remains showed that strontium isotope values were closely related to the other sites nearby. The Middle bronze age (ca. 2000-1500 BCE) was an era of growing trade networks, intensifying cultivation and extending socio-political intricacy. That is why the large number of sites, and the varying level of mobility and migration provides great potential to further bioanthropological study.  

Evening’s second speaker, Dr. Vana Kalenderian discussed migration and burials in Roman Beirut.   

Kalenderian presented us with fieldwork she has been conducting in  Berytus (modern-day Beirut, Lebanon).  The Roman colony was founded ca. 15 BC and was the first in the Middle East. Her approach was inter-disciplinary and combined osteological and material evidence and isotope analyses. The case studies illustrated how mobility and migration can be interpreted through the mortuary record. Burials reflect the social norms and cultural practices of the living society and can give us information about the movements of communities and people through the analysis of the associated material culture and the human remains.  

Over 200 graves were studied, and 40 skeletons were analyzed for isotope analysis. The studied graves were located outside the city walls and along the main roads leading to the urban center. In addition to the bodies itself, grave goods and burial architecture were also studied. The osteological record shows that all age groups and both males and females were represented.  

The mortuary record suggests that cremation was an uncommon burial habit in the Beirut area, since 99,16 % of the bodies were inhumed. Based on her studies Dr. Kalenderian presented a hypothesis that cremation was possibly a habit associated with the Roman colonists.  

The first case study was about a cremated adult female. Petrous bone in the skull is strong enough to survive cremation, so isotope analysis was possible in this case, and the results of the analysis were inconsistent with local isotope values thus confirming a non-local origin. A second cremation burial with similar characteristics, however, produced a result that matched local isotope values but that nevertheless likely belonged to a migrant. This illustrates that isotope values and the archaeological evidence do not always match, and isotopes cannot distinguish between geologically similar areas.  

Dr. Maaranen and Dr. Kalenderian gave us an intriguing glimpse of their recent studies of human remains and the possibilities of isotope analyses in archaeological research. Still, both speakers emphasized that isotope results do not tell us all, and more information is needed from the studied area's history, material culture and context to build the bigger picture. Identities are complex, and we can ask ourselves: are migrant identities always expressed in burials?