Calling all Biosteoarchaepologists!

I think about terminology quite a lot. So much so, that I am participating in a roundtable session at a conference in September on ‘terminology in funerary archaeology’, being run by other researchers in the field. In my opinion, unless we all agree at some level to be consistent with the terminology that we use within our subject discipline it becomes almost impossible to progress. A necessary pedantry, if you will. Efficiency through language. And yet, in almost every other aspect of my life, the one thing that I love most is the absolute absurdity of language. Its ever evolving usage.

Recently, Howard Williams wrote a blog about terminology in reference to ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and it got me thinking about my own use of terminology when engaging with the public in a ‘professional’ capacity. Rather rapidly I arrived at a situation that I find truly absurd: the many terms used to refer to people who study the dead. To those of us within this Venn diagram of subject disciplines I suspect each of these terms illicit a different understanding of what it is the people underneath them would do; nuances of research areas and roles undertaken. I wonder if we all agree. More to the point, of this post, at least, I wonder what individuals outside of this circle/ these circles (‘the public’, as mentioned above) arrive at when presented with these terms. How does the term I use to describe what I do, influence what others think about what it is that I actually do?

Therefore, I have compiled a list of terminology below along with some thoughts (not necessarily definitions) from my own point of view. These thoughts are not exhaustive. In order to avoid any possible linguistic subterfuge, you will need to highlight the area below each term in order to see what I think. If your understanding of a term differs from mine, I would be very interested in your comments (either below, on Twitter, or via some other means).

Forensic anthropologist:

Tries to determine the identity of an individual from examining their skeletal remains, usually in a medical/legal setting. The remains are generally modern and while some soft tissue may remain, a forensic anthropologist studies only the bones. Probably technically a biological anthropologist with specific training.

Biological anthropologist:

Studies things that further understanding in subject areas related to human biology, especially with regards to human evolution. May study human skeletal remains, or other primate species, especially extinct hominids. Or may not. Probably an umbrella term with a seriously large number of sub-specialities underneath. It definitely involves DNA and other non-skeletal remains things now.

Physical anthropologist:

For some people, see above. For other people, studies things to further understanding in subject areas related specifically to human anatomy, especially with regards to human evolution.

(Human) Osteologist:

Falls under anatomy somewhere and is specifically concerned with the study of the human skeleton, with regards to its structure and function. Lots of biological anthropologists will learn osteology. Lots will not. For some people it will also include similar aims to forensic anthropologists, but in not-medical/legal settings, and with remains that are not-modern. Definitely not to be confused with an osteopath.

Forensic archaeologist:

Uses archaeological methods and techniques in a medical/legal setting, with an aim to recover evidence. Frequently involves human remains, which may or may not be skeletonised, but sometimes doesn’t involve human remains at all. Will have training in archaeology, may have training in forensic anthropology or (human) osteology, probably should have training specific to evidence recovery.


Combines osteology and archaeology (and other things, including by not limited to, information about broader cultural context) to study human skeletal remains from not-modern settings, usually with an aim to reconstruct the lives of individuals and populations. More popular term in America. For some people it may refer to non-human animals too.


See above. More popular term in not-America. Or, for some people, describes trained a field archaeologist who is also a specialist in (human) osteology, which may or may not combine the above definition as well.

Funerary archaeologist:

An area of archaeology that involves studying death and burial (and other related things, including but not limited to, memorials) from not-modern settings, which may or may not involve human remains. Almost certainly an archaeologist, but may or may not have studied (human) osteology/ biological anthropology.

Mortuary archaeologist:

See above. But also somehow vaguely different, although not sure in exactly what way.

I currently use the term osteoarchaeologist if asked to state ‘what I am’. But I reckon that at various points in my ‘career’ I have been referred to as… all of these. There are of course even more terms to refer to people who study the dead in other ways, including but not limited to anatomists, pathologists, morticians, etc. If you think there are others terms that further complicate matters and should be on the list above, please let me know.

[Important note: I thought writing this blogpost was going to be quick and easy, but instead it made me want to cry. Even I’m confused now.]


2 responses to “Calling all Biosteoarchaepologists!

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