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To Live and Die in a Turbulent Era: Bioarchaeological Analysis of the Proto-Byzantine Population from Sourtara Galaniou Kozanis, North Greece (6th–7th Centuries AD)

Chryssi Bourbou, 28th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Rethymnon, Greece, Project Grant 2006/07

A Dumbarton Oaks Project Grant in 2006–07 supported the bioarchaeological analysis of a cemetery population from the proto-Byzantine (6th–7th centuries AD) site of Sourtara Galaniou Kozanis in northern Greece.

Bourbou 2006/07, Fig. 1
Map of the site.

At present, the information on the history and bioarchaeology of proto-Byzantine Greece is scattered and incomplete, since few records or major archaeological excavations refer to this turbulent era. From the available data, we know that it was generally a period of dramatic historical, social, economic, and environmental changes. Proto-Byzantine Greeks suffered invasions, earthquakes, and the social upheavals associated with the introduction of Christianity. The excavation of the proto-Byzantine cemetery at Sourtara suggests the existence of a so-far unknown  settlement in a strategic position along the road connecting the upper and lower parts of Greek Macedonia, and in a generally unexplored area in terms of Byzantine occupation.

Forty-four skeletons were subject to anthropological and paleopathological analysis. The primary focus of the research is to provide information on specific pathological conditions that suggest evidence of stress—either environmentally or culturally induced—during a turbulent era of Greek history, and the impact of these constraints on specific age groups, such as subadults. Furthermore, chemical analysis (stable isotope analysis for δ13C and δ15N values) was also conducted for 45 samples from both adult and subadult individuals in order to demonstrate:

  1. the relative importance of animal products in the general diet,
  2. the importance of marine resources and C4 grains for the diet,
  3. possible differential access to food by gender, and
  4. weaning practices

Bourbou 2006/07, Fig. 2
Skeleton 083. Impacted left maxillary canine (radiograph).

Determination of sex was possible for 17 individuals (13 males and 4 females), while the sex of 27 individuals (19 of whom are subadults) remains unknown. Average age at death for males is ca. 42 years, and for females is ca. 35 years. The percentage of the recorded dental diseases is 72%. Most dental diseases are observed in the age groups between 40–50 years old, and males are more affected than females. The most striking pathological condition is antemortem tooth loss; a very interesting pathological condition is also recorded: an impacted left maxillary canine that most possibly resulted in an abscess.

Bourbou 2006/07, Fig. 3
Skeleton 105. Severe cribra orbitalia on left eye orbit.

Regarding hematopoietic disorders, cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis are the skeletal lesions more commonly observed; a possible case of Vitamin D deficiency was also diagnosed.

Bourbou 2006/07, Fig. 4
Skeleton 088. Osteomyelitis of the right tibial shaft.

A number of cases of osteoarthritis are observed on the joints of the upper and lower limbs of the adult individuals. Most cases of osteoarthritis for the upper and lower limbs are observed in mature adult individuals (44–50 years and older). Males are slightly more affected than females. In a total of 235 preserved vertebrae, the overall frequency of osteoarthritis is 2%; of vertebral osteophytosis is 29%; of Schmorl's nodes is 7% and of discal prolapse is 1%. Degenerative lesions are more commonly observed on thoracic vertebrae. A subadult individual presented a very interesting case of osteomyelitis, as evidenced in macroscopic and radiographic analysis. Finally, a possible case of aneurysm was also observed on the rib of a skeleton.

The bioarchaeological data derived from this analysis add essential information to the generally poor record of the proto-Byzantine era in Greece, and especially in Greek Macedonia. It is expected that the in progress chemical analysis will shed more light on the dietary habits of the population as well as on breastfeeding/weaning patterns. However, it is important to emphasize that the derived data which potentially contribute to the reconstruction of the bioarchaeological profile of a specific site need to be investigated on a case-by-case basis. One must bear in mind that adaptation to a continuously changing environment is the key characteristic of life in the past. The complex phenomena of the proto-Byzantine period had different effects on the populations. In general, two distinctive patterns of adaptation to strenuous conditions can be traced as observed in other Byzantine populations so far: for some groups, deteriorating living conditions and growing insecurity due to earthquakes and fear of invasions forced the population to abandon the settlement and look for a safer place to start a new life (i.e., Eleutherna, Gortyn). In other areas, despite the hard living conditions of the era, the population appears strong enough to resist a variety of pressures and even enjoy prosperity (i.e., Messene, Sourtara), until the subsequent centuries (9th–10th centuries AD) when cities started to flourish again. Despite the general current shortage of comparable bioarchaeological information available for proto-Byzantine Greece, future examination of other cemetery populations dating to the same period will help to assess the effects of stress, especially on individuals undergoing active growth.

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