Bonus Blog Post

Most of my background in anthropology is in the medical/cultural component of the field. However, in the past year or so I have taken much more interest in the biological and archaeological side of anthropology. As such, I really thought that areas in which the two sides overlapped were quite interesting and I think that the study of such areas can be quite important. An obvious example from this class is the topic of the study of mortuary customs, which can provide valuable information about how someone lived and how they might have fit into their community. They can also give us an idea of how people thought about death and dying.

Another area that I think is important to the study of ancient Egyptians (and probably to other ancient cultures as well) are bioarchaeological studies of ancient human remains. By examining osteological, odontological, and other physical evidence from ancient human remains, we can add to the body of knowledge that has been built by the study of material culture (such as the study of mortuary practices, art & sculpture, artifacts, architecture, tools, etc). For instance, by studying macroscopic and microscopic physical markers on the teeth and bones of the ancient Egyptians, we can improve our knowledge about the lives of past civilizations, gaining perspective on how different groups might have worked, how often they got sick and what sort of diseases they contracted, what types of foods they ate and if they were ever malnourished, how long they typically lived, and other valuable information. When we combine these studies with the knowledge gained from the study of material culture, language, and studies of the environment that surrounded the ancient Egyptians, we can vastly improve our understanding of their culture than if we focus on one area of study alone.







Valley of the Golden Mummies

In 1996 the Supreme Council of Antiquities found a large cemetery that appeared to have been formed during the Greco-Roman period near a wine making town in Bahariya Oasis. I would love to try some of the wine from the Bahariya Oasis region – even if it wasn’t the “favored wine” of the time. What was equally interesting about this region was something a guard of “Alexander the Great” tomb discovered while traveling with his donkey. His donkey stumbled into a hole – in which five tombs were located. One hundred and five mummies were recovered and divided into four different socio-ecomonic classes based on how they were preserved and what was buried in their proximity.

The highest of these were sixty mummies located in a large tomb entered via a rock-cut staircase. They were carefully wrapped in linen and covered with gold plated masks on their cartonnage casings and some had gold foil over the chests. The next highest class of mummy was still wrapped in linen but only on their upper parts and they were painted with pictures of Egyptian deities. Paint must have been cheaper than gold. The third highest were wrapped in linen and placed in geometric shapes on the tomb floor. Finally, the lowest burial status mummies were poorly wrapped in linen and had no decorations or paintings.

I find the progression of burial methods interesting in that highest classes of burials were time intensive and value laden, however the lowest level of burial was poorly wrapped in linen. It was as if time itself was or had become a resource not worth wasting even in order to perform the most basic of burial ritual. It would be interesting to find out if the burial methods occurred simultaneously in time and by whom, or if the burial methods declined as the power of the Egyptian kingdom declined and it citizens suffered financial strife?

Artistic Depictions of Akheneten and his Family.

For this weeks readings and lecture material, I thought the changes that occurred in how the pharaoh and his family were represented in art during the Amarna period were particular interesting.

First of all, the way King Akheneten himself is depicted is totally unexpected when one considers the history of Pharaohs being considered as almost god-like. He was depicted as having a heavy, bloated belly, wide hips, fleshy breasts, and a thin elongated face with narrow oval eyes, large lips, and a protruding bulbous chin. There are a couple of different theories as to why Akheneten would have been portrayed this way. One suggestion is that perhaps the pharaoh suffered from a glandular disease such as Frölich’s syndrome (Adiposogenital dystrophy), which is a condition sometimes secondary to a low-level of GnRH (Gonadotrophin Releasing Hormone) and is associated with dysfunctions of the feeding centers of the hypothalamus thus leading to increased caloric intake. Another theory is that Akheneten could have had Marfan’s syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that causes those who suffer from it to grow to an unusually tall height and to have long limbs and long, thin fingers. The deformities cause by either of these conditions could be the reason why Akheneten was portrayed the way he was, however to me this seems unlikely, since his wife Queen Nefertiti is shown in the same exaggerated style. To me, the more likely theory is that Akheneten (and perhaps members of his family as well) were made to appear androgynous for reasons of religious significant since Aten (who was symbolized by Akheneten) was referred to as the “mother and father of all humankind”. However, since Akhenaten’s mummy has not been found, theories as to the true reason behind the unusual depictions of Akheneten cannot be tested on physical remains, and thus interpretations are presently limited to artistic portrayals alone.

Secondly, the way in which the royal family is portrayed shows them as casual and affectionate. The pharaoh, the queen, and their children are shown together in scenes of intimate familiarity, with Nefertiti seated on Akhenaten’s lap, or with the king or queen holding or kissing his young daughters. Such scenes are not known to have existed before or after the Amarna Period. It is possible Akhenaten had ideological reasons for such depictions of the royal family. This seems likely to me, however, why did this tradition not carry on, even in a small way?

Changes in the status of the pharoahs and the elites.

After going through this week’s material, I think that the most interesting things were the shifts and changes in power that came about during the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. Whereas during the Old Kingdom we had pharaohs with an almost god-like status, we now see authority shifted away from the pharaohs. I think the fact that during the 13th dynasty, when we see a high amount of turnover as far as pharaohs are concerned, but little turnover among viziers and little internal conflict, illustrates the diminishing importance of the pharaohs during the Middle Kingdom. The decreasing importance of the pharaohs can also be seen in that there are fewer pyramids from this era and the ones that we do see are far less opulent and far diminished in their quality and size compared to those made during the Old Kingdom. When I take this into account along with the fact the Middle Kingdom era pyramids are known for their portcullises and false passages (designed to deter grave robbing), it really seems  obvious that the power of the pharaohs is waning. During the Old Kingdom, it seems like it would have been unthinkable for someone to commit grave-robbery of a pharaoh’s tomb. The fact that during the Middle Kingdom measures such as portcullises and false passages had to be taken really illustrates how the position of royal had changed. (Although, I think that it is important to note that the pharaohs were merely no longer viewed as the demigods that they were considered to be in earlier times.
During this time period, we also see changes in the status of members of Egyptian society in general in that forms of material culture that were once the the province of only the royal and upper-class members of Egyptian society were now being co-opted by lower-status social groups. For example, Pyramid Texts were no longer limited to royal use, but were now being adopted by non-royal elites.

Social Institutions & the Pyramids

One idea that really sort of resonated with me during this week’s material was the notion  presented by Prof. Watrall that what was really noteworthy of the construction of monumental mortuary architecture such as the pyramids was not their physical engineering and construction (although that is certainly noteworthy), but the social, cultural, political, economic, and religious institutions and complexity that had to be in place in order for such monuments to be built.

One hugely important thing that I think must have contributed a great deal to creating social environment in which the pyramids could be built is the ancient Egyptian’s cultural and religious beliefs and practices surrounding death and the afterlife. As we have progressed from discussing the predynastic to our current discussions of the Old Kingdom we have seen the complexity of mortuary customs increase.

Continue reading

Evidence for Social Stratification

The discussion of social stratification, and the archaeological evidence for such stratification, was something that I found especially interesting about this weeks readings and lectures

Most of the archaeological evidence for social stratification comes from the material remains of mortuary practices. Highly differentiated Naqada II graves at cemeteries in Upper Egypt, but not in Lower Egypt, probably symbolize an increasingly hierarchical society. Competition and the aggrandizement of rulers is represented by high-status burials, such as Cemetery T at Naqada, whose graves were even larger, contained more grave goods and had larger, internally divided rooms. Unequal distribution of wealth is also often an indicator of social inequality. This is observable among late Neolithic Badarian burials where a small number of the graves (8 percent) display greater material wealth than the vast majority (92 percent). This difference in wealth distribution suggests an early form of social distinction and a two-tiered society, possibly reflecting inequality in access to resources. When social development in Egypt reached the stage of specialized, full-time craft industries, a redistributive economy, and centralization, high-status elites were now in firm control of the access and distribution of resources. Separation between elites and commoners grew, particularly in the South, where an abundance of well-documented mortuary data shows that elites were clearly distinguished with larger, more architecturally elaborate graves containing large quantities of grave goods, including pottery and stone vessels containing food, drink, tools, weapons, ornaments and personal belongings.

While mortuary evidence and data is useful, I would agree with Kohler’s assessment that the socio-political processes of Naqada expansion is difficult to characterize from evidence that is almost solely mortuary in nature. The limited quantity of archaeological evidence from other aspects of material culture, as well as from different regions of Egypt limits the usefulness of examinations of social and political processes. Even among mortuary data, southern Egypt is overrepresented, limiting successful explanations of social and economic development to that region. Such limitations to the known archaeological record mean that socio-political changes evidenced outside the arena of mortuary custom, or outside the southern region of Egypt, cannot be reliably accounted for.

In order to remedy these problems, Kohler calls for a reexamination of existing evidence from southern Egypt and further exploration of the North. I would suggest reexamination and further exploration of both areas, and I think that something that could be useful is an examination of non-funerary material culture from a framework of investigating socio-political differences. Additionally, perhaps information regarding nutrition could be gained from human remains. Differences in nutrition and in general health may be another way to learn what kinds of differences existed between social strata.

The Process of State Formation

One of the topics that I found particularly interesting as I went through this week’s materials was the transition to and the development of an agrarian-based culture and the development of the economic foundations for a unified Egyptian pharaonic state. The process of forming a unified Egyptian state began with the Naqada II culture of Upper Egypt and became more and more visible during Naqada III. Some of the questions that might be able to be addressed through the archaeological record are; How did the process of political unification take place? Why and how did the Naqada culture (and only the Naqada culture) of Upper Egypt develop the social and economic complexity upon adopting Neolithic economies? The processes that lead to the formation of an Egyptian state can be observed primarily in Naqada mortuary practices, grave goods, tomb art and artifacts and the material culture remains from economic activities.

Continue reading

Introduction: Jason

Greetings! I am Jason, and I am currently in the process of changing directions, academically speaking. For the past two years I was a medical student here at MSU while also pursuing a master’s degree in medical humanities with a focus in anthropology. At the end of the Fall 2010 semester, I decided that medicine was not what I wanted and that anthropology would be a much better fit for my personality and academic strengths. Because I already had a strong background in cultural anthropology (from my undergraduate minor as well as graduate school at MSU) I have been taking courses in physical anthropology and archaeology in order to round out future graduate school applications. Taking such courses has made me realize that physical anthropology, a field I hadn’t really considered during my undergraduate years, is where I see myself professionally.

I, like Cristina, am also interested in the field of forensic anthropology. This interest has been developing since undergrad and has grown since taking courses covering forensic anthropology in human rights investigations (a topic which I also covered in my master’s research paper), hominid fossils, and biocultural anthropology. I’m looking forward to further exploring my interests in the fields of physical and forensic anthropology during the Fall and Spring semesters by taking ANP340 (Physical Anthropology) and ANP440 (Forensic Anthropology) and by helping the physical anthropology graduate students with forensic casework.

Aside from school, I live with my wife (an intern in internal medicine at Ingham Regional Medical Center) and four cats, (Olivia, Sophia, Parker, and Paul) in the West Side neighborhood of Lansing. I like to play piano when I get the chance, and recently I have begun to brew my own beer.

I enrolled in this course partly because I need more coursework in archaeology, and partly because the idea of a course in the archaeology of ancient Egypt just sounded really fun and interesting.