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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Going underground – unearthing more burials at Amara West

Dyan Semple, physical anthropologist, University of Alberta

Gone underground: the shaft of grave 234, with tarpaulin covering the eastern chamber

Along with Michaela and Carina, I’m working in cemetery C at Amara West, currently in the western chamber of Grave 201.

This tomb has a central shaft and two chambers to the east and the west. It had already been partially excavated in 2009, but this year we removed the alluvium from above the western chamber, to avoid the possibility of it falling in while we were excavating.

A lot of the bones had been crushed by earlier collapse, but five articulated burials were found at the rear of the space. As they lay one on top of the other, I had to be very careful to separate them – finding a place to stand was the first issue, and then I could remove the more recent burials at the front, after recording them.

Dyan cleaning skeletons in Grave 201

From the way the skeletons are arranged, it is possible to tell that some of the individuals had been tightly bound for burial. They were buried in an extended position, laid out with their hands beneath them and their feet crossed. In some cases, however, the binding was tight and thick, leading to bodies being placed face down, perhaps accidentally.

I didn’t find any traces of cloth, although some of the individuals had wood pieces associated with their remains, which may once have been a coffin or funerary bed.

In addition to wood fragments, three scarabs have been found in the grave – one individual had two faience scarabs associated with them, clutched in the left hand, and lying under the crushed skull.

One scarab bore the prenomen cartouche of Thutmosis III, a pharaoh of the mid-18th Dynasty, which is much earlier than the use of this cemetery for burials. However, objects like these were kept for long periods of time, and scarabs with this royal name were still being made centuries later.

Scarab (F9490) of glazed steatite, found in Grave 201

The final task in this grave is drawing a cross-section of the chambers and shafts, and I have already started work in the eastern chamber of Grave 234, which is a similarly constructed chamber tomb.

Though the bones are again crushed, there is a large amount of relatively intact wood along the back of the chamber, and ceramic jars and bowls are visible at the sides and centre. One burial seems to have been placed in the chamber after it had already partially collapsed. It appears that there are at least 10 individuals in the chamber, so the excavation of Grave 234 will likely occupy the remainder of the season for Carina and I.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , ,

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Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday 150 years ago. Known for her series of children’s books and illustrations, her stories followed the exploits of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny among other countryside characters. Here is an illustration from ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’. It shows the rabbits munching on some lettuce in Mr McGregor’s rubbish heap after Peter Rabbit didn’t have enough food to share around. 🐰
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