British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: the first glimpses of ancient living conditions and health

A burial at Amara West, SudanMichaela Binder, Durham University

After spending four months in the British Museum analysing skeletons from the ancient Egyptian town of Amara West this summer, our picture of health and living conditions there is becoming a little clearer.

I have now analysed 130 complete or almost complete individuals. My analyses indicate 35% of the individuals were sub-adults, which in itself is not surprising and not that high compared to other groups in antiquity. However, it is interesting to see only a very small number of children under the age of five, as very young children are generally more vulnerable to diseases. High percentages of infants in cemeteries are often an indicator of bad living conditions, and at Amara West, their absence is striking but could be explained by different burial rites – young children may have been buried elsewhere.

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

The high percentage of older children is notable, and indicates that people living at Amara West were exposed to unfavourable conditions such as a high degree of infectious diseases.

Diagnosis of infectious diseases in human remains is not easy. The changes in bones are often not specific and the same sign could be caused by a number of different conditions. Moreover, it also takes some time before bones become affected too. Therefore, only chronic diseases will leave an imprint.

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

The most common forms of infectious diseases found in the people from Amara West so far are signs of chronic sinusitis and also infections of the lung. They are visible as new bone formation on the inner side of the ribs and in the maxillary sinuses. The changes could be related to bad air quality, both in- and outdoors, such as smoke inside the houses, dust or sand, but also to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

More unfavourable living conditions are also indicated by the lengths of long bones in adult skeletons from the town. Even though height is generally determined by our genes, whether we fulfil our genetic potential depends on our state of health and nutrition during growth. At Amara West, females reached body heights of 154 cm on average, while men reached 166 cm.

In comparison, mean statures in the UK today are 175 cm for men, and 162 cm for women, according to a study published in 2002.

Another interesting finding in the human remains from Amara West so far is the high degree of fractures, particularly in the upper body. These injuries are usually associated with falls or crashes. But what happened to these people? The distribution of injuries is remarkably similar to what is observed with people involved in agricultural activities even today, especially those who regularly handle animals.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
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