This week Mona’s guest is Dr Jonny Geber, Lecturer in Human Osteoarchaeology in the School of History, Classics & Archaeology.
Mona Siddiqui: First of all, Jonny, tell us what is osteoarchaeology?
Jonny Geber: Human osteoarchaeology is the study of human remains from archaeological but also historical contexts. We’re studying how the human body adapts to its environment – that could be its cultural and social environment, or its physical environment and from that knowledge we can elucidate how people in the past experienced their lives.
MS: And were you drawn to this from an early age?
JG: Not at all actually, my career path has been very unplanned – it just went in this direction. When I was a child, I was always interested in history. In the part of Sweden where I grew up there’s quite a lot of medieval history around. I loved to go to old ruins and see that kind of thing. When I started at university I wanted to study history but at the time when I began my studies there weren’t any courses available at the particular place I wanted to study. While I waited for those to fit my schedule I took a course in archaeology instead and then I got hooked. I did some modules which included osteoarchaeology and I found that to be very interesting so I went on to that path.
MS: One of your interests is the experience of poverty and social marginalisation and health and disease and these social and cultural and physical contexts of these bodies basically. So from these archaeological sites, and these skeletons, how can you tell when somebody’s been marginalised, or somebody grew up poor?
JG: We can learn the basics in terms of we can determine the age of death and we can estimate the sex of the individual – so males tend to have longer bodies than females and females are adapted for childbirth and so on.
What’s exciting about this field is that it has developed so much in the last 20, even 10 years. There are new methods but also new research questions so it’s not so much just to describe the skeleton, which is often what I was doing when I was a student. It’s more about interpreting lives and lifestyles from the skeleton.
So we’re generally not just looking at the skeleton, we have to consider the social and cultural contexts in which this person lived. That means we need to interpret how they’re buried, the date of the burials and it’s from that type of historical and archaeological contextualisation that we can get the social and cultural framework in which these people lived. What’s exciting is when you look at the skeleton itself as that’s the actual person. So the skeleton will give you a record of how that person experienced their life and from that experience we’re interpreting it within that broader cultural and social context.
A lot of my research has been focusing on individuals that I know belonged to the lower social strata at that time.
MS: Have you come across anything in recent years that was really surprising? You didn’t expect something?
JG: Mostly in my research it’s that the diversity of life experiences is of the so-called lower classes, as they were described at the time. When you look at the historical records they’re often described as a collective, and often in quite demeaning ways so you generally never get their perspective. You can get insights on it from folklore and so on but when you look at the actual skeletons, you’re seeing the individuals. You often see that there’s a lot of individuality and a lot of diversity so life at the margins, in the past, it wasn’t just one experience, it was lots of different experiences and I suppose that’s the most striking thing. They’re not really a collective anymore when you’re focusing on them from an osteoarchaeological perspective.
MS: Is there one regret, either from your recent or distant past you might be able to share with us?
JG: I’ve been thinking about that and I don’t really reflect on much as regrets actually. I suppose it’s more about reflecting on a lot of what ifs because my career and choices in life they’ve gone in all directions. I’ve lived in seven countries for instance and that was never planned but that just happened because of a particular moment in time in my life when I had to decide yes or no basically. So I have a lot of what ifs – what if I didn’t go to university, what if I didn’t move to New Zealand where I worked before I joined Edinburgh for instance.
MS: And what is your one hope for the future?
JG: Before the war in Ukraine, I was thinking a lot on the current pandemic. From a historical perspective, when there’s been a global crisis and it’s finally over, generally there’s always been a period of optimism following that. I suppose that’s maybe a naïve hope, that we’re going towards better times, that the war in Ukraine will end, and maybe some more optimism in the world.