Osteobiography: The History of the Body as Real Bottom-Line History

John Robb, Sarah A Inskip, Craig Cessford, Jenna Dittmar, Toomas Kivisild, Piers D Mitchell, Bram Mulder, Tamsin C O'Connell, Mary E Price, Alice Rose, Christiana Scheib

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What is osteobiography good for? The last generation of archaeologists fought to overcome the traditional assumption that archaeology is merely ancillary to history, a substitute to be used when written sources are defective; it is now widely acknowledged that material histories and textual histories tell equally valid and complementary stories about the past. Yet the traditional assumption hangs on implicitly in biography: osteobiography is used to fill the gaps in the textual record rather than as a primary source in its own right. In this article we compare the textual biographies and material biographies of two thirteenth-century townsfolk from medieval England-Robert Curteis, attested in legal records, and "Feature 958," excavated archaeologically and studied osteobiographicaly. As the former shows, textual biographies of ordinary people mostly reveal a few traces of financial or legal transactions. Interpreting these traces, in fact, implicitly presumes a history of the body. Osteobiography reveals a different kind of history, the history of the body as a locus of appearance and social identity, work, health and experience. For all but a few textually rich individuals, osteobiography provides a fuller and more human biography. Moreover, textual visibility is deeply biased by class and gender; osteobiography offers particular promise for Marxist and feminist understandings of the past.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-31
Number of pages16
JournalBioarchaeology International
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 13 Aug 2019


  • medieval experience
  • ostrobiography
  • ordinary people
  • biography


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