I've always had an interest in archaeology. I don't mean fossils and dinosaurs, but the remnants of recent civilisations and those long buried and forgotten. When a new plague pit is discovered on a construction site or the long lost remains of Richard III were located in a supermarket carpark, I'm going to be there to read about it.
As the title suggests, Built on Bones by Brenna Hassett takes a look at 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. As an archaeologist she specialises in the human skeleton to look at whether the move towards an urban lifestyle results in an earlier death than the foragers and nomads of history. Hassett looks at the changes in skeletons - and teeth in particular - which provide plenty of interesting tidbits and conclusions.
A highlight for me was on Page 49, where Hassett explains that with the move to agriculture and 'slurpable foods,' there was less work for our jaws, therefore less muscle, and as a consequence our jaws and faces have shrunk in size. This explains a great deal of the dental crowding and associated problems we see today.
I enjoyed learning more about the history and symptoms of urban diseases including syphilis, smallpox, leprosy and TB and Hassett also piqued my interest on Page 153 when she wrote about the practice of burying criminals in embarrassing positions.
Ultimately though, Built on Bones was a whole lot more academic than I was expecting. For a complete novice it was tough going at times and quite scientific. What made this somewhat harder were the infuriating footnotes on every other page. The majority of the footnotes were jokes and comic asides which kept drawing me away from the text and disrupting my rhythm. Well, why didn't you just ignore them I can hear you ask. Well, I couldn't ignore them because occasionally there would be an absolute gem* I didn't want to miss, so I had to persevere.
Built on Bones by Brenna Hassett is recommended for armchair archaeologists, scientists, doctors, medical professionals, historians and devotees of Darwinism.
My rating = ***
* Brenna shared the case of the Rising Star Cave, where a call-out was made for skinny and small archaeologists able to squeeze through a gap in a cave just 18 centimetres wide to excavate a collection of hominid fossils. Wow.