I’ve just returned from the Conference on the Bioarchaeology of Ancient Egypt held in Cairo last week. I was there to present a paper on hereditary dental trait analysis of Roman-era burials from the Dakhleh Oasis. The conference was organized by Salima Ikram, Roxy Walker and Jessica Kaiser with support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, The American University in Cairo (AUC), The Institute for Bioarchaeology (IB) and the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). The first Egyptian bioarchaeology conference was held in 2010 at the AUC downtown campus, but due to the proximity of the AUC campus to Tahrir Square – the focal point of ongoing protests – it was decided to move this year’s conference venue to the Flamenco Hotel in Zamalek instead. The original vision was to hold the conference every two years, but funding issues and the revolution in 2011 meant the organizers had to wait. This year the conference incorporated zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical research into the programme, broadening the scope of the conference to reflect the true sense of the term “bioarchaeology”. This was my first time in Egypt since 2010 and it was great to catch up with old friends and colleagues, as well as to see for myself how much Egypt has changed – if any – since the revolution.
Thursday and Friday’s sessions focused on human remains, both mummified and skeletal. The full conference program can be downloaded here. Highlights included Daniel Antoine’s (British Museum) paper on the recent CT analysis of the Predynastic natural mummy from Gebelein, as well as other ongoing BM projects in Egypt and Sudan. Raffaella Bianucci (Università degli Studi di Torino) and co-workers presented a paper on tuberculosis and malaria co-infection in Late Period and Greco-Roman mummies from the Fayum. Frank Rühli of the Swiss Mummy Project discussed his analysis of canopic jar contents using CT scanning and histological analysis, while Rabab Khairat and team presented their work on DNA analyses of mummies in the collection of the University of Tübingen using Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology. Other mummy-related topics included a poster by Dario Piombino-Mascali and co-workers on the analysis of a potentially fake mummy from Kaunas, and a paper by Yehia Z. Gad – part of the team that studied the DNA of Tutankhamun – on the establishment of the first ancient DNA labs in Egypt.
On the human osteological front, Brenda Baker (Arizona State University) discussed her ongoing research at Early Dynastic Abydos. Her analysis of skeletons found in subsidiary burials within the funerary enclosures of Pharaoh Aha calls into question the long-standing interpretation of these individuals as victims of human sacrifice. There were no signs of perimortem trauma on any of the bones, although she did allow that these individuals may have been poisoned or asphyxiated. Professor Eugene Strouhal presented his work on the Romano-Byzantine cemetery of Sayala in Egyptian Nubia, while Tosha Dupras (University of Central Florida) and co-workers gave a paper on evidence for birthing practices, timing and trauma in Romano-Christian burials from the Dakhleh Oasis. Melissa Zabecki and co-workers presented a paper on their work at the New Kingdom site of Amarna (ancient Akhetaten) that showed higher than expected levels of general, nutritional and workload stress among non-elite burials. A number of interesting paleopathological case studies were presented, including a poster by Mindy Pitre (St. Lawrence University) on a possible case of infantile scurvy from the Predynastic site of Nag Qarmila in Aswan, while Tosha Dupras, Lana Williams and co-workers presented examples of metastatic carcinoma from 4th Dynasty Dayr al-Barsha and Romano-Christian Kellis. Finally, Professor Jerry Rose (University of Arkansas), delivering a keynote lecture filled with wisdom and humor, chronicled his transition from the bioarchaeology of prehistoric U.S. populations to ancient Egyptians. He also discussed the emergence of new technological and theoretical developments in bioarchaeology while expressing concern at the continuing lack of access to comparative Egyptian skeletal collections and the absence of standardized recording procedures.
While the conference programme was wide-ranging and filled with high-quality research, I couldn’t help but feel a little bored by the end of the first day (I don’t know how I’m going to survive the AAPA meetings in April!). Data galore and detail aplenty but many presentations made very little connection to any larger archaeological or anthropological research questions. In this regard, Sonia Zakrezewski’s paper, “Egyptian Bioarchaeology and Ancient Identities“, was extremely prescient. She outlined the need for our research to escape the confines of niche journals and the appendices of archaeological site reports by engaging with broader cultural issues such as ethnicity, disability and gender roles (to name but a few). It’s not enough to present demographic breakdowns or charts expressing, for example, the percentage of fractures, osteoarthritis, cribra orbitalia or linear enamel hypoplasias in a cemetery population. Beyond this, what might these numbers actually represent in terms of real people’s lives? What is the point of collecting these data? I know that as scientists (I use the term loosely in my case) we are careful not to extend our interpretations beyond what the data allow, but “the people worked hard” or “they suffered from non-specific environmental/nutritional stress” is not saying much of anything – it also oversimplifies the complex relationship between culture, genes and the environment.
I realize, however, that it’s difficult to situate our work within a broader context in the course of a 15-20 minute conference slot (I had the same problem with my own paper!), and many speakers were either presenting methodological work or very preliminary data and that’s fine. Nevertheless, we as bioarchaeologists should be thinking about the bigger picture while conducting our research, not just generating data for the sake of it. To start with, we need better and more explicit research questions from the outset. This can be difficult of course, especially when bioarchaeologists are not directly involved in the research design or sampling strategy of large-scale excavation projects. There still exists an attitude of “excavate first, ask questions later” among many project directors. More often than not, we’re called in to deal with skeletal material that has already been excavated by archaeologists who are more interested in grave goods than they are in the bones of the people who actually produced the artifacts. In such cases, our data set and our research questions are shaped by circumstances beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something a little more analytical with the material.
Lastly, the continuing obsession with elites in Egyptology is tiresome – what about the other 99% of ancient Egyptian society? It’s our role as bioarchaeologists to explain why they shouldn’t be left out of the picture. Most of us already do a good job of this, but with the rise of ancient DNA analyses of soft tissue (and bone), the focus of many of these studies is once again on the elite members of society (i.e. those who could afford to be properly mummified). Large-scale genome sequencing of the kind of non-elite skeletal samples most of us work with, however, is a long way off, both in terms of technology and, more importantly, cost. Let’s not lose sight of the importance of including all segments of society in our analyses of past populations.
Bioarchaeologists are a diverse bunch – many have backgrounds in medicine, biomolecular science or population genetics; these people are valuable to the discipline because they bring with them new approaches to the study of human remains while their scientific rigor keeps the rest of us honest in terms of what interpretations we can realistically make based on these borrowed methodologies. Others, like me, come from a more anthropologically based background: we use bioarchaeological methods as a means to understand the human condition, not just in terms of biology but also in terms of culture, not just in Egypt but globally, and not just in the past but in the present as well. This approach should not be undervalued.
Examples of how we might better incorporate more complex biocultural issues into bioarchaeological research can be found in Sabrina Agarwal and Bonnie Glencross’ edited volume “Social Bioarchaeology“. The introductory chapter can be found here. It’s worth a read.