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Archaeology From Reel to Reel - A Special Report
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I Take It, I Bury It In The Sand For A Thousand Years, It Becomes Priceless... - Raiders of the Lost Ark
Workers excavate an ancient Egyptian skeleton at Hierakonpolis.
Ancient Egyptian Skeletons Tell the Story of a Society in Transition
Workers excavate an ancient Egyptian skeleton at Hierakonpolis.

Credit: Renée Friedman, Hierakonpolis Expedition

Skeletons there are in plenty in the Indiana Jones adventures.

There is the skeleton of an ill-fated colleague that gives away the location of a booby trap in an abandoned temple in the South American jungle. Or the desiccated remains of a medieval knight in the fictional catacombs of Venice, whose tomb holds an important clue to the location of the Holy Grail.

And, naturally, there are many, many very animated skeletons, whose primary role is to appear on camera at just the right moment to frighten both the audience and the heroes of the films.

But to Jerome Rose, an NSF-funded archaeologist at the University of Arkansas, skeletons—particularly those found in an endangered burial ground at the archaeological site of Hierakonpolis on the Nile, some 650 miles south of Cairo—are a tangible, vibrant and very instructive link to the lives of a people and culture that passed away thousands of years ago.

Based on the finds at Hierakonpolis, the stories these bones help to tell contain instantly familiar themes of familial love, personal vanity and perhaps even sudden and cruel death.

Based on the finds at Hierakonpolis, the stories these bones help to tell contain instantly familiar themes of familial love, personal vanity and perhaps even sudden and cruel death.

Rose's specialty in the broader field of archaeology—bioarchaeology—is the study of ancient bones and the tales they tell, by inference, of famine and feast, plague and plenty in the distant past.

"In the United States, the term was coined in the 1970s to describe individuals who study human skeletons within an archaeological context, within the context of the excavations," he said. "In a sense it's constructing a biography of culture. What people ate and how much they ate, for example, tell us how tall they might have been, as a people."

Rose was part of an NSF-funded team that studied the remains in a cemetery at Hierakonpolis that itself was destined to soon become part of history. The cemetery was endangered by the expansion of gardens and fields by the local residents.

Rose was a member of a team of bioarchaeologists assembled by Renée Friedman that also included Joseph Powell, of the University of New Mexico; Joel Irish, of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and Ahmed Fahmy, of the University of Helwan, Cairo.

To build upon previous work by Friedman and others at the cemetery of Hierakonpolis, NSF provided funding for three seasons of large-scale excavation and analysis, with an excavation in 2004 to support the rescue of the last burials from this unique cemetery. A total of 470 graves containing more than 500 skeletons were rescued and analyzed.

The average person, if asked to describe what archaeologists do, would probably agree that at first blush, the type of work the team carried out is exactly what popular entertainment suggests archaeologists should do: digging away in the tombs of Egypt.

But Rose points out that Hierakonpolis is scientifically significant precisely because it is very different in most respects from the classic Hollywood image of Egyptian archaeological digs. It provides a window into a period of time immediately prior, historically speaking, to the unification of the ancient kingdom of Egypt and the advent of the cultural mainstays, such as mummies, lofty tombs and the treasures of King Tutankhamen that so fascinate the public.

For one thing, the team's excavations centered not on immense pyramidal burial sites built by hundreds for the eternal repose of a small ruling class, but on the graves and burial practices of comparatively average people.

For another, the graves and artifacts of Hierakonpolis represent a key period in time before the ancient kingdom of Egypt became the entity that is so engrained in the public consciousness.

"Here, these particular skeletons are very important," Rose notes, "because just after this time period, historically speaking, you have sociopolitical events that result in the unification of Egypt."

The copious and coherent historical records left to us by the ancient Egyptians is what persuaded Rose to focus his career on the study of this cradle of civilization, rather than the remains of the cultures of the desert southwest of the United States, where he got his start in the field.

"I switched to studying the archaeology of Egypt because you could work with skeletons in a much better historical context: written history going back a long time. There are all of these records: there are mentions of plagues and disease and famines and all these things that allow us to correlate the remains with the historical record."

For example, evidence of artifacts found in the graves indicated that the full-blown conception of an afterlife and the elaborate preparations for it that characterize the most famous tombs of the great pharaohs may only just have been in its infancy at Hierakonpolis.

According to a written report on the excavations, the pit-like graves were dug into hot dry sand which led to outstanding preservation of organic matter—unique in modern times—of mats and baskets as well as hair, bone, body tissues, foodstuffs and gut contents, all of which provide unparalleled information on diet, nutrition, health and lifestyle of the ancient Egyptians.

"The burials," it adds, "were arranged in large circles with empty centers, apparently associated with family groupings in which the greatest attention and endowments are given to the burials of older women."

In the intact burial of one woman, who was between 40 and 50 years old at the time of her death, a basket containing a wide variety of objects that may be interpreted as what the team described as a "magico-medical kit," that included a leather pouch filled with slivers of imported cedar and juniper and rarely preserved remains of dill and tubers, suggesting that it was an incense mixture.

This grave and those of older women also revealed well-preserved, and, in some cases, elaborately styled hair.

In addition to the body and its wrappings, small personal items and pottery vessels were arranged to suggest ritual activity rather than simply provisioning the grave for the afterlife.

In other words, Rose notes, "the concept of the afterlife appears to be changing."

"Nevertheless," the report continued, "food stuffs remained major and sometimes the only offering in most graves. A small loaf of bread on a potsherd was placed lovingly before the mouth of a small child. At the base of another grave was a basket filled to the brim with desiccated fruit of the Egyptian plum and the crab-apple sized product called 'Christ's thorn bush' that are both still eaten today."

The report also notes that there were key differences between male and female burials and that those differences needed to be carefully considered before conclusions are drawn about what they mean.

"The association of metal and other reusable artifacts with male burials may, however, skew the impression of relative wealth," it notes. "Case in point is the burial of a large male, 35-40 years of age, that contained a fish tail flint knife, still wrapped in a hide bundle and uniquely still hafted to a reed handle, fabric-wrapped balls of crushed malachite and a quantity of textiles."

The report adds that "investment in male burials may also be seen in the efforts made to contain or protect the body. In one burial, planks of wood were used as a revetment along the sides of the grave to hold back the sand and the burial matting had been woven into a type of hamper, with wood sticks inserted to provide strength and support to its curving vertical walls, heralding coffins of later times. Most of the previously excavated burials had woven reed mats placed under and over the body. Also apparently reserved for males was the practice of what appears to be scalping."

There also is no lack of apparent drama in the information a grave can yield, in some cases providing evidence of practices previously unknown.

Although the site where they were discovered had been disturbed, four skulls were recovered, according to the Hierakonpolis report, "with clear and obvious cut marks…[i]n one case over 190 individual cut marks were observed. The cuts begin at the forehead line and move back surrounding the vault [of the skull]. These remains were found in conjunction with cervical vertebrae exhibiting severe cut marks indicating decapitation, and together with a decapitated and scalped skeletal remains found in a burial in the previous season, suggest ritual or punitive activities previously unattested in Predynastic Egypt."

To Rose, the Hierakonpolis finds and what they may tell us about the people who so carefully prepared the graves is the essence of the value that the science of archaeology brings to contemporary human culture.

"Discovering people's pasts is a way of giving them immortality," he notes. "The remains in these graves are those of a body of a person who lived in a particular place and in a particular time. They provide an emotional tie to studying the dead and talking about their lives. For me, it is far more than just studying a dead body on a table."

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