Lourdes Herrasti transmits warmth as well as rigour when talking about her work. Specialist in osteoarchaeology, she has been working for three decades at the Aranzadi Society for Sciences; but has not lost the enthusiasm for knowing about the past and bringing out what it hides. Over all these years she has participated in a multitude of excavations, from Neolithic sites to mass graves from the Spanish Civil War. And her voice changes when referring to the latter.
I think they are all interesting. For example, the chronology is very important. Human remains from the Neolithic period always turn out to be interesting, given that they are found at very few sites and, consequently, we have very few occasions to analyse them. At other times it is curiosity that sparks interest. Each has its own charm.
Of course. You are not before bones and objects, but persons. Often we have family members around and that tell us the names and surnames of the person, they tell us their ideology and what relations they had ... it is totally different.
When you are in front of the bones of a Neolithic skeleton, you are before an object. It is very interesting for scientific research, but it is an object. In these other cases, however, you are before a person; it is something completely different. Just the clothes make it different ...
[There is a pause before she continues]. It is so different finding just bones from coming across bones and clothes as well! Clothes convert them into persons. A skeleton is composed of human remains, nothing more. But, when these bones are dressed, you find yourself before a person, who seems close to you. Moreover, these clothes may have clues or contain objects which speak about the person: the coin in their pocket, the penknife, papers. And these items bring us closer together.
Bones help to differentiate the sex and determine the age; and often it can be ascertained if the individual had some pathology. It can be seen if the person had any malformation ... from a morphological perspective. To this we add the information gleaned from the objects. Sometimes they talk of the profession or trade of the individual: if he were a carpenter, maybe he carried a pencil; if she were a dressmaker, we might find needles. Imagine it was the tomb of a king: we might find many artefacts related to this fact. In this way, objects uncovered help in completing history.
Yes, of course. Amongst Christians, the dead were always buried face up; so, finding the buried body of a person face down indicated punishment and, moreover, located outside the hallowed ground. Usually they were buried face up; at times with the arms crossed over the chest or abdomen. As regards Civil War burials, the bodies were often tossed into the grave any old way; and they are found as such – with arms and legs open, with bones broken, piled up …
The position of the buried body can also depend on rites. We have not found many Muslims; but they bury them on their side, always with their face looking towards Mecca. In the Neolithic period they also buried them on their side, with arms and legs well folded, huddled up and crouched.
We have also found a mummy or two; in Mondragon we found one dating from the XVI century. They are not mummified bodies as such; they have undergone a similar process due to natural weather conditions.
Many times it can, yes. For example, if they are shot dead, normally they should have received a bullet in the head, as it is the most efficient way to kill someone. We can tell the entry and exit points of the bullet and, thereby, we can deduce how the victim was shot.
A few receive bullets in the body. There are some who remained alive after being shot and this we can also observe. Curiously, in this vein, we have found two similar cases from very different periods. One, Neolithic, had an arrowhead between the ulna and the radius, and the fact that the bone continued to grow to the point of surrounding the artefact can be clearly observed. The other, from the Civil War, was the same in that a piece of projectile had been lodged in the bone, but the person did not die then; we can see that the bone surrounded the projectile. The same story, but 5,000 years’ difference.
Also, although at times we find bullets in the graves, it is not usual. For example, in Burgos, in La Andaya, bullets were found beside the grave, i.e. they shot them somewhere and then tossed the bodies into the grave.
Yes. The mass grave is in Lerma, where there are 29 bodies. All of them had political posts: a regional parliamentarian, the mayor and councillors from Aranda de Duero. We identified one thanks to a gold ring he wore on his right hand; when we took it off, we could see underneath the inscription of the name of a women, Benita, and a date - their wedding date. We then knew who it was - Tomas Requejo Requejo, the regional parliamentarian for Burgos.
That’s right. At times, it is an object that gives you the clue; other times, perhaps, genetic analysis. But it cannot be said that genetic analysis always provides the answers. It may be that the DNA is very deteriorated, its analysis impossible. Or you may have the DNA, but not that of any family members for comparison. We do not always get to know what we want to know; that is the way it is.
Almost always archaeologists, anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, biologists, geneticists, historians, and so on. Depending on the case, sociologists and psychologists may also take part.
Each one examines with their tools and tells the story from their perspective; the goal is to complete the history amongst everyone.
It will depend on the period and the case. When dealing with Neolithic remains, objects are very important, especially the dating of these and, if they are radio carbon dated, that is better still. In these cases, it is one of the aspects that most interests us.
If dealing with Civil War remains, the most important is identification and, to this end, genetics is highly important. So, depending on the period and what we wish to find out, we opt for one technique or another.
A decision has to be made from one case to another. For example, in the case of clothing. It is not often that the cloth is well conserved, but if we do find them in a tomb, the task of the specialist restorer of such material will be of great importance.
First, we have to arm ourselves with documentation and records about what we want to find, undertaking initial prospections, probes, and so on.
With the Civil War cases, it is usually families or associations that ask us to carry out the research, and they tell us all they know about the case: where we might find the grave, where they were buried, etc. We arrive at the spot accompanied by these people and carry out an archaeological study of the excavation site, obtaining a lot of data in situ: the position of the bodies, the objects found and who these belong to, the condition that they are in, and so on.
Together with this, we make a sketch of the area, locating all the objects and we take photographs. This is because we know that, after we excavate a site, it will disappear. So it is essential to carry out a good record of the excavation site.
Then we transfer the objects to the laboratory, where both the bones and the objects are analysed. Carrying out anthropological analysis of the bones we can identify both the sex and the age of the individuals.
Not normally, no; but it can happen. For example, if we have reason to suspect a poisoning, a toxicological analysis is carried out.
Also, if the bone has undergone changes due to the presence of some chemical material at the site, then also a chemical analysis is carried out.
In these cases the archaeological excavation is of the utmost importance, and time to carry it out is needed. After that come the laboratory analyses, as in the rest of the cases.
Yes, we found five skeletons; we expected all to be from one grave – that of 1813. However, we found them buried separately, so they were very likely English, but more probably from the later, first Carlist War when the English came in support of the Liberals and would have died fighting the Carlists.
But we cannot be certain, as we have not found anything that tells us if the remains are from 1813 or form the later Carlist Wars. We have only found projectiles and, as these did not really change from the XVIII century to the mid-XIX century, we cannot throw further light on the date.
If they are from 1813, they could also be French. We do not know, but our investigations continue.
We are continuing with the Civil War mass graves, and we will soon be going to Soria. We are to recover the remains of ten persons; four from a grave we have already found, although as yet unexcavated; we have just encircled the site and prepared it for the dig. The other six are in another grave. They were from the CNT Trade Union and others, just local people.
All of them. Only 5 % of the total were women. But, in certain graves only women appear: in Grazalema (Cadiz), in Guillena (Seville) and in Espinosa de los Monteros (north of Burgos). There we investigated a grave of male individuals and, 200 metres away there was another one for women.
There were very few women; there were other kinds of repression against women.
We will soon be publishing research in which we show how violence has been used since the Neolithic to our days. In fact, around us there is a multitude of sites that show us that there was violence. Skeletons will have signs of aggression and we have used these to investigate evolution over time: how they were killed, with what arm, and so on.
Starting from a long time ago, we have special cases. For example, in the Basque province of Alava, at the San Juan Ante Portam Latinam neo-Neolithic site, we found 300 persons, 13 with arrowheads impacted in bones. Just calculate how many arrows would have had to be shot for some to be impacted in the bones. It is one of the few cases in Europe and a very important site. And from thereon, we have subsequently found many interesting cases.
Author: Ana Galarraga AiestaranGo to top of page
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