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Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  214 ratings  ·  49 reviews
Humans and their immediate ancestors were successful hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, but in the last fifteen thousand years humans have gone from finding food to farming it, from seasonal camps to sprawling cities, from a few people to hordes. Drawing on her own fieldwork in the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, and beyond, archeologist Brenna Hassett explo ...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 2nd 2017 by Bloomsbury Sigma (first published 2017)
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K.J. Charles
A paleoarchaeologist writes. This is about the study of human bones and what they tell us about how people lived in the dim and distant past, and specifically about what changed for us as a species as we moved towards more sitting still and clumping together. Spoiler: it's not so much city life that's bad for us, though it is, as that cities tend to mean inequality, which is the lethal thing.

It's breezily written, striving for accessibility to laypeople, and very personal, with a lot of anecdot
Tracey Allen at Carpe Librum
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 skelet
Jenny Boyce
I'm giving this book 2 stars because there was some interesting information but I was unable to finish the book because I got so frustrated with the author's writing style.

The author provides a ton of information about past societies and what we can learn from them. The subject matter is similar to books by Jared Diamond but the writing style is on a whole other planet entirely. I was ready to throw this book down in disgust by 25% of the way through and actually stopped reading right after the
Jan 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is about what bones can tell us about city living. It turns out, the answer is quite a lot, but that it's more like lots of people yelling than one person stood calmly explaining*. There's a lot to say, and one of the things I really like about this book is that it's good at explaining the scope of its statements. People are complicated!

I also really liked that it's funny. I have no idea whether it just happened to hit my particular reference set quite well, but it made me laugh and also wi
Jan 05, 2018 rated it liked it
I don't think I've ever employed the description "wisecracking bio-archaeologist" before, but that's the best label to apply to the author of this book, Brenna Hassett. She brings a very light touch to scholarly writing, transforming what might otherwise be very turgid prose into a very lively and often very funny account of her research and her archaeological adventures. Fortunately, she puts most but no means all her wisecracks into footnotes, so you can ignore them when you tire of them.

Simone Beg
Sep 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Personally I quite enjoyed the writing style. I like snarky, I like sarcasm, I like wacky humour and most of all I like scientists who are good old down to earth dorky nerds rather than condescending preachers from the academic ivory tower.

I thoroughly enjoyed especially the random glimpses into the very special tribe that seem to be field archeologists. These were usually put in footnotes as they didn’t really belong to the all over line of argument (duh). And after 20 pages any reader should b
Maura Heaphy Dutton
May 02, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
I love archaeology. And I don't mind non-fiction books in which the author's opinions and personality are given a place in the narrative. Done properly, treating the research as the author's journey can lighten up the dry facts and science. However ... Did I say "done properly"?

I had to give up about half-way through when I realized that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that Dr. Hassett won't footnote. Jokey asides about pop culture? Shout outs to friends, colleagues, rivals? Paleographic i
Jun 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is one of the Bloomsbury Sigma titles, so it’s fairly light-hearted, accessibly written, and not too heavy on the scientific footnotes (though there’s a lot of joking ones), but trustworthy enough that I found it fascinating. Hassett discusses mostly bioarchaeology and what it has to say about that great human endeavour: city life. A lot of people are very critical about city living and its suitability for humanity, but Hassett’s mostly pretty positive about it (after the initial transition ...more
J. Lee Hazlett
Mar 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars. Fascinating discussion of many topics relating to humanity's settling down into villages and towns. The author does a great job of keeping an open mind and presenting multiple viewpoints, which is important due to the many holes in our knowledge about the past. It is also a rare thing to come across in more academically-minded literature, since most authors feel the need to defend theories that they've either developed themselves or need to be true as an underpinning of their own work ...more
Holy Moses. This sucks. Are you kidding with the ridiculous annotations, which are almost always pointless? The sloppy writing, which is padded and padded some more with inane garbage? What did I pick up? Ugh. Great idea. Poor execution.
Feb 27, 2018 rated it liked it
I heard an interview with the author; she discussed her work as a bioarcheologist researching not just early cities but also the impact they had on us. My favorite moment though was her quick dismissive response to a question about the modern paleo diet and wasn't that we'd evolved to eat? "We evolved not to starve."

I was slightly worried at the beginning as it opened with a jeep ride or some such, usually a sign for me that a book is more memoir than science*. In fact her personal interjections
Book received from NetGalley.

I ended up really enjoying this book, but after the first chapter, I had to not consider it as a history book but a sociology one. While it does go into some history of our living in what eventually became cities, it focuses more on why people did it, how living in a city changed our life spans, what discovering agriculture meant to the early ancestors and how it made city living possible while occasionally poking fun at the "paleo" culture we have today. I did learn
Mar 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
I really liked this, fascinating and with a noticeable authorial voice - largely via the use of footnotes. That insistent voice might not be to everyone's taste though. It looks at cities and their impact on human history largely as revealed by bio-archaeology. As you'd expect it covers all those aspects of city life that we'd rather not think about; plague, war, sexually transmitted diseases etc etc. Well worth a read if you have the faintest interest in how we live now and how we got here. ...more
Mar 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Hmm. Some interesting stuff on bones and disease, though the level of detail is way to high. Her snide, sarcastic, sardonic jokes and asides are extremely irritating. Her last chapter ode to the future and what we can do with cities is a thin just-so wish. Too much Brenna in this book, not all likeable and not enough straightforward commentary.
Sep 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Hassett is a hoot *but no matter how funny she may be †constantly directing readers to trivial witticisms ‡inserted at the foot of every page §litters your book with literary potholes
Richard Carter
May 29, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, history

Built on Bones explores how archaeologists interpret dental and skeletal remains. In particular, it examines what we can infer from changes in humans’ bodies associated with our move from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural and, later, urban societies. Or, as Brenna Hassett puts it: ‘This book is about human adaptation in the face of human invention.’

It’s a fascinating subject for a book, and bioarchaeologist Hassett is well qualified to write about it. The book contained some, to me, surpris

A nonfiction book about archaeology told in a funny, easily accessible style. Built on Bones focuses on two major turning points in prehistory: the Neolithic Revolution (the invention of farming, the shift from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled villages with domesticated plants and animals) and the Urban Revolution (the development of cities), and how these changes affected human lives and health. Hassett is a bioarchaeologist - one whose speciality is analyzing human bones – so much of her da ...more
Lisandra Linde
Sep 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
It was with a certain level of nostalgia that I curled up with this book. After all, it's been a few years since I was an archaeology student, specifically a student obsessed with human bones and what they tell us about how people lived and died in the past. It felt nice to sink back into the familiar terrain of archaeological ramblings - complete with Monty Python references - and the contradictory nature of theories old and new about how humans were shaped by, and often killed by, the developm ...more
Daisy Reeves
Oct 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: on-my-shelf
After the dullness of my last read, I was hoping to dive headfirst into a meaty subject in a more engaging way. I am pleased to report that Hassett delivers on all fronts. The inevitable (if only occasional) dryness of the subject matter is perfectly tempered with hilarious footnotes featuring comical anecdotes, as well as amusing commentary relating to references in the main text.

Brenna has a personable voice that makes some of the heavier content accessible in a way that is endearing and capt
Jun 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Only a chapter into the book I read other reviews and decided to stop reading the footnotes which are largely the author's personal commentary, often trying to be humorous, lending little to the information in the book. Once I stopped reading them, it went much more smoothly. I am no stranger to much of the information in the book but it was nice to have information I've gathered from various sources over the years pulled together into a detailed synopsis. My only disappointment was the inaccura ...more
Mar 25, 2020 rated it liked it
Timely read about how and why humans settled into urban living when close quarters brought a host of new diseases, including viruses transmitted from close-living with animals, leading to epidemic infections (!). Entertaining chapter on tracing syphilis' path of origin, and horrifying quote from early American settlers purposefully trying to eradicate Native Americans with the "gift" of smallpox blankets:

"Out of regard for them, we gave them two Blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: archaeology
As someone with a BA in archaeology, I enjoyed this book. However, the writing style did not sit well with me and resulted in the low rating. It does have a ton of accurate information in it and covers a lot of things that I have read about in scholarship, but in a more accessible fashion. However, I do not think it revealed much new information to me and I worry that her quick references to sites and terminology without in-depth explanation would be confusing to a general audience. However, if ...more
P.D. Dawson
Aug 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
An interesting general study of bones and how they have helped us better understand history and the way people used to live. I never knew so much could be found out just by their study, and it has led me to a greater appreciation of the work these people do. Brenna Hassett also manages to turn what could have been a dry subject, into an interesting catalogue of information and fascinating facts about bones and history. There were a few moment where I found the same information was being relayed, ...more
Siobhan Johnson
This was such a weird book.

On one hand I really enjoyed it while I was reading it. I found the style more charming than anything else, and a lot of the information was genuinely interesting. It felt fresh and absorbing, which is something that can be unfortunately rare in a lot of non-fiction books.

On the other hand... Looking back on it now, I honest to god cannot say what any of the author's arguments were. I'm not sure if Hassett was arguing that cities are good for us, cities are bad for us
Thomas Womack
Oct 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stylish exploration of the marks of the human condition on our bones

Terry Pratchett’s popular science writing didn’t touch much on archaeology, but if it did it would read much like this. Lovely evocations of the tedium and the delight of field work in Anatolia and of painstaking microscopy in London, and an intriguing exploration of city life from Jericho to Petra and from Samuel Pepys to Sajid Javid.
Sep 16, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2020
It took me more than 3 years to finally finish this book and I only did it because it was a gift. The writing style is frustrating, to say the least. Good ideas drowned out by fluctuations between dull fact-giving and casual asides. This doesn't even include the footnotes which are more disruptive, unneccessary input.

How can a book make makes diseases like syphillis sound so absolutely boring?
This is a fun look at civilization and urbanism, written through the witty lens of a bioarchaeologist. I loved the author's voice and the charm she brings to what can be a very heavy, dull topic. I felt I learned a lot, despite the book being more casual and less scholarly. I enjoyed reading this book and I'll be recommending it to people outside the field who want to read about archaeology. ...more
Jean Marriott
Oct 20, 2018 rated it did not like it
I gave up this book. It could not decide if it was an academic book or a name-dropping romp about the authors career. It was full of odd words like 'uptick' instead of 'increase'. There are footnotes on most pages most irrelevant to the topic being discussed. The science, when you get to it, is thin and patchy. ...more
Jul 31, 2019 rated it did not like it
when half of the footnotes are either about beer or are inside jokes for your colleagues, you know that the research done for this book is very very poor. Lazily written; the conclusion simply states that inequality kills people, which is something so obvious and 300 pages are not needed to work that one out. Don't bother reading this. ...more
Nov 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this! What could be a macabre topic brought to life in a readable, interesting book. There were even some funny moments in the book that didn't take away from the topic at all.I would definitely read more titles by this author and I also highly recommend it. ...more
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