Conference review: The Bioarchaeology of Ancient Egypt (Cairo, Jan. 31-Feb. 2)

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Bioarchaeology in EgyptI’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.

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The lonely grave of Güllü Ayşa: Social memory and mortuary practices at Çatalhöyük

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The grave of Güllü Ayşa, the last known burial at Çatalhöyük.

On the southeast slope of the main mound at Çatalhöyük, away from the bustle and dust of the excavation shelters, a solitary grave marker stands among the tall grass. It marks the final resting place of Güllü Ayşa, a woman from the nearby village of Küçükköy who died in 1933 and was refused a place in the town cemetery. Her grave represents the last known burial at Çatalhöyük after 9,500 years of interments beginning in the Neolithic period and ending in the 20th century. It is a remarkable testament to the power and longevity of social memory operating amid an ancient landscape. Continue reading

Çatalhöyük 2012: Skull retrieval, curation and redeposition

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Primary Neolithic burial of adult male with two disarticulated crania

The retrieval, curation and redeposition of human heads – either the entire skull (i.e. cranium and mandible), or simply the cranium (without the mandible) – is a common feature of Near Eastern Neolithic mortuary practices1. In some cases, the facial features were modelled in plaster or mud, and bivalve or cowrie shells were set into the eye sockets to provide a life-like appearance. Some of the most well-known examples of plastered skulls/crania are from Jericho in Palestine and ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan. Modified skulls have also been found at other sites such as Beisamoun, Kfar-HaHoresh and Tell Ramad in the Levant, as well as at Köşk Höyük in central Anatolia. While some have argued that this practice is a form of trophy collection, likely from dead enemies2, the traditional view holds that skull collecting in the Neolithic represents a form of ancestor veneration, possibly linked to emerging sedentism and the control of local resources3,4,5. More recently, however, researchers have begun to question the interpretation of ancestor worship as evidence mounts from other sites that skull collection and modification was not reserved strictly for older adults, i.e. elder members of society6,7,8,9,10. Continue reading

Çatalhöyük 2012: Week 8

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Osteoarthritis of the right shoulder joint in an adult female.

Extremely short post this week. I have one week left to go here in Çatalhöyük before heading home on the 25th. Josh and I are mostly caught up with the cleaning and inventorying of the human remains excavated this season, although there are several crates of loose bone recovered from surface and other non-burial contexts to be dealt with first thing next year. The final task for this season will be to enter all the skeletal inventory sheets into the database and start writing up the archive report. Continue reading

Çatalhöyük 2012: “Closing time”

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Skeleton 19593: a Neolithic adolescent found in the room fill of Building 114.

One of the last Neolithic skeletons excavated in 2012 was the body of a young adolescent (skeleton 19593) found in a side room of Building 114. Unlike most Neolithic burials at Çatalhöyük, however, it was not found tightly flexed within a burial cut under a platform; this individual was found instead on top of a floor under layers of infill containing the disarticulated bones of animals and other humans. The positioning of the body and the lack of a grave cut suggests it was simply dumped on the floor along with the rest of the infill. Its cranium is missing but the lower jaw remains in anatomical position. A disarticulated foot lies above its right shoulder and another foot lies next to the body. Continue reading

Çatalhöyük 2012: Week 6

Sad news arrived this week with word of the passing of James Mellaart (November 14, 1925 – July 29, 2012), the man who discovered Çatalhöyük in 1958 and made it famous. Here on site the entire team honoured his legacy by gathering on the crest of the East Mound where a speech was given by Professor Ian Hodder, a former student of Mellaart and the director of the current excavations. The speech was followed by a minute of silence. Continue reading

Çatalhöyük 2012: Bioarchaeology in 3D

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Three-dimensional model of a Neolithic juvenile burial. (Click to view in 3D)

This week I want to write about changes in the way we’re recording burials at Çatalhöyük. Previously, once a burial was fully excavated and cleaned up for a photo we would draw the skeleton and grave cut in plan view at a 1:10 scale (1:5 for infants). This is standard archaeological practice on most excavations; the plans are typically used in conjunction with photographs in order to provide a visualization of the orientation of the body within the grave and any grave goods that may be associated with the burial. A problem with planning burials by hand, however, is that the accuracy of the scale drawing depends on the skill level of the archaeologist.

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Çatalhöyük 2012: Week 4

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Post-Chalcolithic burial of a child truncated at the right of the picture by the edge of Mellaart’s 1960’s excavation trench. All that remains is the lower half of the body.

Just a short post this week. We are halfway through the excavation season on the East Mound and the weather is extremely hot at the moment. There are now burials being uncovered in all three excavation areas on the East Mound (North, South and TPC), which means the human remains team is occupied with excavating, processing and recording the skeletal material as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the North Area we have already lifted five Roman/Byzantine burials, while a series of complicated Neolithic burial sequences are still in the process of being uncovered. In the South Area the archaeologists have begun to excavate burial cuts beneath platforms in several Neolithic houses, and in the TPC Area at the top of the East Mound several post-Chalcolithic burials have already been recovered and a few new ones have been exposed. Continue reading

Mellaart’s skeletons return to Çatalhöyük

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Re-bagging the skeletal material from Mellaart's original excavations at Çatalhöyük

Between 1961 and 1965 James Mellaart excavated the skeletal remains of nearly 500 Neolithic individuals at Çatalhöyük. The first physical anthropologists to examine the skeletal material were J. Lawrence Angel and Denise Ferembach in the late 1960s. Angel focused on the health and demographic structure of the assemblage1, while Ferembach carried out an osteometric analysis of the crania and long bones2. The remains have since been kept in storage at Ankara University. Continue reading

Çatalhöyük 2012: Week 2

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Primary Neolithic burial underneath a house floor.

Excavations began this week in the South and North Areas of the main mound at Çatalhöyük. For the human remains team it means plenty of incoming burials. One of the first burials we worked on this year was actually discovered at the end of the 2003 season by the team from UC Berkeley. Unfortunately they didn’t have time to excavate it completely so it was carefully covered and backfilled. Now, after nearly ten years, we have finally returned to complete the excavations of this area in order to link the stratigraphic sequence with more recently excavated areas of the site. As is often the case at Çatalhöyük, the interment of this individual disturbed a number of earlier burials under the house floor. Dislodged bones from previous burials are often placed alongside the body of the new inhumation. In the picture above, a number of disarticulated bones including a femur (upper leg), radius (lower arm bone) and ilium (hip bone) can be seen to the left of the flexed skeleton. The burial was fully exposed, photographed and planned yesterday and will be lifted and analysed tomorrow.  Continue reading