British Museum blog

Back in the lab: analysing skeletal remains from Amara West


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Since early July, I’ve been in London, finally getting to analyse the human remains we excavated last season at Amara West. The human skeleton acts as a unique database about a number of different aspects of past human life. It can reveal information about a person’s life such as sex, age at death, diet or health – even a few thousand years after the person died.

Tracing this information is part of my job as a physical anthropologist.

Working in the bioarchaeology laboratory in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

Working in the bioarchaeology laboratory in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

This does not necessarily require special technical equipment or analysis but can usually be deduced from visible inspection of the bones alone. For example, while certain shape traits in the skull and pelvis give information about whether the individual was male or female, attrition of the teeth and degenerative changes in specific parts of the hip bone can tell us how old a person was when he or she died.

Currently, I’m working on the human remains from the chamber of Grave 234. One of the more challenging tasks working on the burials from this grave is to find out how many people were actually buried there. Since the grave was re-used so many times, many of the burials had become jumbled together. Attributing all elements to an individual is unfortunately not always possible. Nevertheless, I can identify two more adult men and a juvenile, in addition to the four intact burials in the centre of the chamber.

Commingled burials in Grave 234 at Amara West

Commingled burials in Grave 234 at Amara West

One of the most interesting aspects of my work is when we find evidence of injuries or diseases. Even though we usually don’t find out how a person died, some injuries and diseases that occur during lifetime leave a well visible imprint on the bones. One particularly striking example from Grave 234 is a hip bone which was fractured in three different places.

The right pelvis of an adult male with fractures in three locations. Note the tiny holes – these were caused by termites.

The right pelvis of an adult male with fractures in three locations. Note the tiny holes – these were caused by termites.

Injuries of this type require high energy and are nowadays mainly associated with motor vehicle accidents or falls from great heights. Moreover they often lead to serious complications and death if the internal organs are affected as well. Although we will never know the causes of this individual’s injuries, we can speculate that it may have been a fall that occurred during building work or agricultural labour.

Such injuries are very painful but nevertheless, with two-three months rest and stabilisation, they usually heal well and do not lead to any significant walking problems. The same apparently happened in this person as the injuries are well healed, indicating that he lived on for at least several months – if not for years.

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  1. hecallaghan says:

    Very interesting – one wonders what the patient’s recovery instructions were – whatever they were, they must have worked!

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  2. Fascinating stuff – amazing to think that a fall whilst at work nowadays would perhaps result in a claim but back then they just rested and coped with the pain – and it worked! I think we could all learn a lot from their strength of character!

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See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
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On loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, these gold treasures will be a highlight of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, opening 27 October 2016. Find out more about the exhibition by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #rhino #art #history
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