Bioarchaeology is the study of human remains recovered from an archaeological context. As defined by Dr. Jane Buikstra in 1977, bioarchaeology is a multidisciplinary research program addressing numerous topics including “1) burial programs and social organization; 2) daily activities and division of labor; 3) paleodemography, including estimates of population size and density; 4) population movement and genetic relationships; and 5) diet and disease” (Buikstra, 2006, p. xviii). Thus, in addition to the material culture and architecture, human remains can provide archaeologists and physical anthropologists with a great deal of information about the once-living population of a particular location (Larsen, 1997).
Archaeologists and physical anthropologists are often interested in the activities and daily labors of past populations, as emphasized in the second point of Buikstra’s list above. This knowledge facilitates a more comprehensive understanding of a community’s lifestyle, activity patterns, physical stressors, and socioeconomic status. A bioarchaeological approach to questions of activity and labor, as Schrader (2010) states, is ideal because it incorporates skeletal evidence of physical stress as well as cultural perspectives extrapolated from the artifacts. “Material remains of the archaeological record, particularly those associated with the skeleton, can convey key details of the individual’s identity, culture, status and gender” (Schrader, 2010, p. 3).
There are numerous biological markers that develop on the human skeleton due to repeated physical stress and activity. These pathological indicators of activity include, but are not limited to, osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease, vertebral osteophytosis, markers of occupational stress, and Schmorl’s nodes (Schrader, 2010; Robin, 2011). It is these indicators which are the focus of this paper. The purpose of this paper is to provide a review and critique of prior research assessing activity patterns and osteoarthritis for populations of ancient Nubia and Egypt.
First, this paper will briefly describe the osteological markers of activity and what conclusions can be drawn from these skeletal analyses. This will be followed by the critiques of these methods and the current recommendations for bioarchaeologists (Jurmain, 1991; Jurmain, 1999). Second, a review of the literature will outline the research scholars have conducted in ancient Nubia and Egypt and what further contributions can be made. Third, the paper will conclude with a discussion of the importance of archaeological context when studying human skeletal remains and what additional knowledge can be gleaned by taking a biocultural approach to past human activity (Goldstein, 2006).
This research is an important contribution to Nubian and Egyptian archaeology because it will establish a comprehensive picture of past lifeways in the ancient Nile Valley. Reconstructing behavior and activity patterns from the human skeleton allows for a more thorough understanding of subsistence strategies, sexual division of labor within communities, and the amount of physical stress placed upon the bodies of ancient Nubians and Egyptians during daily activities. Additionally, as Schrader (2010) states, “a thorough understanding of the regional history and previous archaeological research of Nubia is necessary to comprehensively study the Nubian peoples and their past lifeways” (p. 9). Thus, the biological and archaeological materials of this region must be analyzed and interpreted concurrently to provide the most balanced and accurate picture of life in ancient Nubia and Egypt.
Buikstra, J. E. (2006). Preface. In: J. E. Buikstra & L. A. Beck (Eds.), Bioarchaeology: The contextual analysis of human remains (pp. xvii-xx). Burlington, MA: Academic Press.
Goldstein, L. (2006). Mortuary analysis and bioarchaeology. In: J. E. Buikstra & L. A. Beck (Eds.), Bioarchaeology: The contextual analysis of human remains (pp. 375-387). Burlington, MA: Academic Press.
Larsen, C. S. (1997). Bioarchaeology: Interpreting behavior from the human skeleton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Jurmain, R. D. (1991). Degenerative changes in peripheral joints as indicators of mechanical stress: Opportunities and limitations. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 1, 247-252.
Jurmain, R. (1999). Stories from the skeleton: Behavioral reconstruction in human osteology. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Publishers.
Robin, J. B. (2011). A paleopathological assessment of osteoarthritis in the lower appendicular joints of individuals from the Kellis 2 cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. (Unpublished masters thesis). University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL. Retrieved from http://anthropology.cos.ucf.edu/main/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/JoshuaRobin_FA11.pdf
Schrader, S. A. (2010). A bioarchaeological investigation of activity patterns in new kingdom Nubia. (Masters thesis). Retrieved from ProQuest. (1479730)