The making of historical bodies: from bodies to inscriptions in an anthropological laboratory

Human remains are a particular type of archaeological resource, “provocative through their materiality” as Joanna Sofaer would say. The bone’s durability makes it prone to be a rather common presence in the archaeological record, so archaeologists have been trying to use them as part of the interpretative process of establishing a link with the traces of the past. But how is the human body approached and understood in this process of interpretation? How should we define alterity and identity when it comes to the bones themselves?

In a recent published article I have tried to answer this question by taking a trip back in time- 70 years to be precise- and to look at how the first osteoarchaeologist in Romania, Francisc I. Rainer (1874-1944) would have done this .

In 1942, the anatomist and anthropologist F.I. Rainer (1874-1944), the founder and Director of the Institute of Anthropology in Bucharest, published the first article about a Palaeolithic skull in Romania (F. Rainer, I. Simionescu 1942). Starting from his activity and experience as dissector and medical teacher at the Universities of Iași (1913-1920) and Bucharest (1920-1941), he had developed an interest in searching for human variability and its transformation with time.

The topic of the article he wrote in 1942 was the second human fossil found in Romania, at Cioclovina. In short, he described the skull as belonging to an adult (30-40 years), possibly female, identified as belonging to the type Homo sapiens diluvialis. What I found the most interseting with his research and was curious to learn more was what were the basis of identifying this human type? How was one to be classified in one type or another? As I was to discover, the journey from the actual remains to this conclusion involved several instruments- most of which are quite forgotten in our field today- and translations.

In short (and more can be read in the article, referenced at the end of this post):

Similar to other physical anthropologists at the time, Rainer’s method was an empirical one, focused on collecting facts. The first step consisted of measuring this skull by applying the anthropometric methodology as devised by R. Martin in his classic textbook (1914). Then, the goal was to obtain the contour of its shape as a 2D outline which could then be compared/superimposed on similar fossils contours. For this, the skull was placed in a standardised plane and drawn using 2 instruments: the Martin and Saller cubic craniophor, an instrument for holding and orienting
bones which  would have “properly orientated, and held in the jaws, within a skeleton cube, so that it presents the six normae and thus may be drawn or photographed in any of them” (H.H. Wilder 1920, 20), and the Martin dioptograph. Through the use of these devices, Rainer turned the skull from the natural order and placed it in a plane of mathematical coordinates, which were then turned in a series of indices, and numbers.

Source: Studii de Preistorie 11

Source: Studii de Preistorie 11

These numbers were then translated as a phenotypic variation, labeled as the Homo sapiens diluvialis type; e.g.: the skull was diagnosed as being: “dolichocranic”, “orthocranic”, “metriocranic” (F. Rainer, I. Simionescu 1942, 498). Lastly, it was photographed, photography being conceived as yet another form of measurement that, ‘when carried out under sufficient control, could be transformed into statistical data’ (A. Morris-Reich 2012, 53).

Source: Rainer & Simionescu 1942

Source: Rainer & Simionescu 1942

The second stage of the anthropological process involved comparing the contours and shape of the Cioclovina skull with other fossil human skulls: four other Neanderthal individuals from Predmost and Krapina. Between shapes, landmarks and individuals were established morphological relationships, interpreted as temporal dynamics: succession, simultaneity, proximity, so that the anthropologist can group and build a narrative regarding the evolution of men.

rainer2Studying such methodological steps can shed light on the way in which human identity was defined as part of an anthropological process. For Rainer, anthropology was the science of form, the past and otherness became
morphological varieties, whose identity could be exposed by a careful measurement of the material.

**** this text contains fragments from the original article ****


A. Ion 2014.The making of historical bodies: sex, race, and type in the beginnings of the Romanian physical anthropology. Studii de Preistorie 11: 229-242. (Open access through


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