What do you want to look at a bunch of bones for?

Gretchen Dabbs outlines the aims and results of the ongoing study of human remains from the cemeteries of Amarna.

People, mostly students, often ask me “How do you get involved in a bioarchaeology project?”. My answer, which generally disappoints, is always 1.) be so good you are famous (within archaeology and bioarchaeology circles) or 2.) be in the right place at the right time. The story of how bioarchaeology came to Amarna is a mixture of the two. On a warm night in Cambridge during the spring of 2004, Barry Kemp and Jerry Rose were both at a public audience at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Neither gentleman can remember, at this point, who the speaker was, although the author thinks it was Barry. Jerry, an eminent American bioarchaeologist, was in Cambridge studying at Wolfson College on a Fulbright Fellowship (the famous part). Barry and Jerry were acquainted with one another from Jerry’s previous visit to Cambridge, so after the lecture Jerry went to say hello. That decision, that moment when Jerry decided to take a few minutes to reconnect with an old acquaintance, is the being in the right place at the right time. For, during that meeting, Barry asked Jerry if he would mind looking at some photos of bones found on the ground surface during GIS survey of the empty desert lands surrounding the city of Amarna by Helen Fenwick. Were the bones human? If they were human, could the study of the bones yield useful information? The answer, it turns out, was yes to both questions. From that one, fateful night the story of bioarchaeology at Amarna unfolds.

In the spring of 2005, the largest of five cemeteries identified by Helen was the subject of a ground surface recovery survey. This became known as the South Tombs Cemetery, due to its position near the South Tombs. A team of workers divided the cemetery into sections and then walked along the surface in a systematic fashion, collecting all of the skeletal elements found on the ground. Jerry Rose performed a skeletal analysis on the remains recovered, finding there were a minimum of 70 individuals represented in the survey materials.

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Surveying the surface of the South Tombs Cemetery for bone in 2015.

During the early skeletal analysis, his expectation was that the individuals buried in the South Tombs Cemetery were going to be reasonably healthy with long lives, few nutritional deficiencies, and little evidence of workload. These thoughts were based on the presence of hundreds of offering tables in the temples and tomb paintings showing large piles of food offered to the Aten. These painting show diverse examples of grains, vegetables, and animal offerings, which suggest a varied diet for the ancient population who, it was often thought, benefited from the redistribution of temple offerings.

Piles of offerings to the Aten. Image: Pharaohs of the Sun (fig. 50).

The skeletons told a different story, however. Some of the early findings of the analysis, such as the high rates of nutritional deficiency among children, are still the conclusions of the project. On the other hand, Jerry reported very low levels of spinal and other types of arthritis in the survey sample, which in later seasons would be turned on its head, with most of the adults exhibiting some type of arthritis.

Nine seasons of excavations would follow over the course of the next eight years in the South Tombs Cemetery. Over those nine seasons, a minimum of 432 individuals were excavated and preliminary analyses suggest life was very difficult at the ancient city. But, let me back up a little to discuss the broader reasons for studying the cemetery and the people buried within it.

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Nearly complete skeleton of an adult laid out for analysis.

As Amarna enthusiasts know, Amarna is unique in the landscape of Ancient Egypt in that the city was only occupied for a very short period of time, 15–20 years. In archaeology and bioarchaeology, this degree of specificity in dating and shallow archaeological record is unheard of. Typically, archaeological sites will have been occupied for hundreds of years and a modern city may be built directly on top of the ancient city. Archaeological cemeteries generally house individuals from several generations, spanning hundreds of years. Naturally, it is quite difficult to parse the different generations from one another. Amarna is not so encumbered with extraneous information. The city and cemetery were only occupied and used during the Amarna Period, and thus analysts know that the skeletons represent those individuals who lived at Amarna during the time of Akhenaten. This certainty is quite unique in ancient studies. Thus, there are big-picture questions that Amarna may help us answer where other skeletal samples cannot.

The bioarchaeology component of the Amarna Cemetery Project focuses on four broad questions:

1. How representative of ancient Egypt as a whole is Amarna?

In truth, we know relatively little about the lives of the vast majority of the ancient Egyptian population. Written and pictorial records available for examination are all biased, in that they were written by the literate elite, often for political purposes. The illiterate masses were likely not accurately represented in these tomb and temple paintings and carvings and literary sources. The work at Amarna in the cemetery and the non-elite areas of the city provide a unique opportunity to understand what life was like at the city of Amarna from the perspective of the non-elite, the average Joe. Given that the elites made up a small proportion of the overall population, studying the artifacts, houses, and skeletons of the non-elite gives us a much more accurate and unbiased picture of what life in ancient Egypt was like. For now, we put Amarna forward as a type-site through which to understand what life was like, because there are few other sites in Egypt where both the cemetery and city are available for analysis.

2. Who were the Amarna residents and where did they come from?

When you envision Amarna and the residents walking around, it is easy to fall into a monochromatic view following textbook presentations of ancient Egyptian appearance. However, we know from diplomatic reports and literary sources, foreigners lived at Amarna. There are hints from the city excavations that suggest non-Egyptian languages were spoken there. If you sit and think for a while about any modern capital city, it may become self-evident that of course Amarna was a multi-cultural hub of international activity! Virtually all capital cities are! One question we seek to answer through the cemetery study is where do the people buried in the South Tombs Cemetery originate from and what did they look like? We use both metric (based on measurements) and non-metric (based on looking for specific trait variants) to address these questions. Preliminary analyses of the skeletal remains suggest exactly what you would expect from a capital city—that there were people from all over Egypt and from beyond the borders as well. Diversity was likely a key element of life at Amarna.

Excavating a burial of an elderly lady at the South Tombs Cemetery. Her crouched posture might indicate that she was a foreign resident of the city.

3. What was life like for the residents of Amarna?

I have already mentioned how the lives of the majority of the population is not well represented in the available historical documents from ancient Egypt. From texts, tombs, and temples, we know very little about the everyday life of the non-elite individuals. Skeletal analysis can help address questions such as what types of food were commonly incorporated into, or missing from, the diet; what types of work did they do and how did it affect the body; and were they violent toward one another?. What we see from the skeletal remains of the non-elites from the South Tombs Cemetery at Amarna is that these individuals were no part of the idyllic representation of life often presented in textual resources. Their lives were very difficult. Nutritional deficiencies were common. Childhood mortality rates were high during periods of life when children normally do not die. Trauma and degeneration of the joints associated with work occurred at high rates, suggesting a heavy workload over long period of time. One bright spot among the skeletal analysis is that there is very little evidence of interpersonal violence, so while Amarna may have been a difficult place to live, the residents at least did not have to worry about their personal safety.

3b.) Was life different at Amarna versus outside of Amarna?

This is a difficult question to answer, as contemporary skeletal samples of comparative size have not yet been excavated from ancient Egypt. But, we can compare the lives of individuals who died at ages over 35 years old with those buried at Amarna who were younger than 20 years old. Those older than 35 had to grow up somewhere other than Amarna. Even if they were the first person to move to the desert the city would eventually grow on, the 20 years of Amarna occupation means that they were at least 15 years old when they moved. On the other hand, individuals under 20 years old buried in the South Tombs Cemetery were likely born at Amarna. By comparing the two, we are able to address questions of whether life at Amarna was harder than life during the previous generation, which is a good measure of how representative Amarna is compared to other Egyptian samples.

4. How does the pattern of burial represent the lives of the individuals, if it does?

It may seem obvious, but it is important to remember that the dead do not bury themselves. Sure, they may make arrangements or express their wishes for final disposition to their families, but ultimately, the living decide what happens to the dead and how they are treated. Some questions we can investigate concerning burial patterning intersecting with biological data include: Are the people buried in the South Tombs Cemetery interred in family groups? A question we can answer by combining spatial analysis of the cemetery and grave pits with biological data from the skeleton. This is the topic of an ongoing dissertation project. Are children isolated in separate cemeteries, as is known from other cemeteries in ancient Egypt? We find no evidence that the children at Amarna were buried separately from the adults. Children are found buried in all of the excavation areas and all of the squares excavated. Are specific segments of the population treated differently than others? For example, are males more often buried with specific types of coffins or matting? Is status reflected in burial location, accoutrement, burial treatment, or other characteristics? For these last questions, preliminary analyses all currently suggest there is no real differentiation between males and females, adults and children, or individuals of different social classes (beyond the upper elite, buried in rock-cut tombs) by any of the various treatments or conditions we can identify in the burials.

Panoramic view of the South Tombs Cemetery. Photo: Gwil Owen.

In the end, the aims of the bioarchaeology project at Amarna can be boiled down to a single broad goal: to use the information the human skeleton provides about the lives of individuals to enrich our understanding of the lives of the non-elite Amarna residents specifically, and those of ancient Egypt more broadly. By excavating non-elite cemeteries we have an opportunity to learn about the large majority of the Egyptian population—those that were likely illiterate and never to be represented in the often idealized versions of Egyptian life presented in tomb paintings, temple carvings, or literary texts. Through the analysis of their graves, burial goods, and skeletons we can hear the stories of the residents of Amarna.

Gretchen Dabbs is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University. Together with Jerry Rose of the University of Arkansas, she directs the Bioarchaeology Project at Amarna.