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Archaeologist leads the first detailed study of human remains at the ancient Egyptian site of Deir el-Medina

Heritage Daily - Fri, 2014-11-21 23:55
By combining an analysis of written artifacts with a study of skeletal remains, Stanford postdoctoral scholar Anne Austin is creating a detailed picture of care and medicine in the ancient world.

Ancient Egyptian workers in a village that’s now called Deir el-Medina were beneficiaries of what Stanford Egyptologist Anne Austin calls “the earliest documented governmental health care plan.”

The craftsmen who built Egyptian pharaohs’ royal tombs across the Nile from the modern city of Luxor worked under grueling conditions, but they could also take a paid sick day or visit a “clinic” for a free checkup.

Stanford postdoctoral scholar Anne Austin examines the skeletal remains of ancient Egyptians found in the burial sites of Deir el-Medina. (Photo courtesy of Anne Austin)

For decades, Egyptologists have seen evidence of these health care benefits in the well preserved written records from the site, but Austin, a specialist in osteo-archaeology (the study of ancient bones), led the first detailed study of human remains at the site.

A postdoctoral scholar in the Department of History, Austin compared Deir el-Medina’s well-known textual artifacts to physical evidence of health and disease to create a newly comprehensive picture of how Egyptian workers lived.

Austin is continuing her research during her tenure as a fellow in the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities.

In skeletal remains that she found in the village’s cemeteries, Austin saw “evidence for state-subsidized health care among these workers, but also significant occupational stress fueled by pressure from the state to work.”

Daily work and payment records corroborate the physical evidence: Deir el-Medina’s men had uniquely comprehensive health care, but sometimes could not take advantage of it.

For example, Austin saw in one mummy evidence of osteomyelitis – inflammation in the bone due to blood-borne infection; the man clearly had been working while this infection was ravaging his body. “The remains suggest that he would have been working during the development of this infection,” Austin said. “Rather than take time off, for whatever reason, he kept going.”

The workers received paid sick leave, as we know from the written records, but they “nonetheless felt pressure to work through illness, perhaps to fulfill tacit obligations to the state to which they owed so much.”

“The more I learn about Egypt, the more similar I think ancient Egyptian society is to modern American society,” Austin said. “Things we consider creations of the modern condition, such as health care and labor strikes, are also visible so far in the past.”

Evidence in the bones

Deir el-Medina, an hour’s climb across the mountainside that looms above Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, housed workers primarily in the 19th and 20th dynasties (1292-1077 BCE). Its heyday is later than the valley’s best-known occupant, Tutankhamun, but contemporaneous with the pharaoh who was arguably Egypt’s greatest, Ramesses II, and his long line of successors.

Deir el-Medina’s skilled workers had considerable engineering knowledge and an uncommon degree of literacy. They left tens of thousands of written records – bills, personal letters, lawsuits and prayers, on shards of clay, stone flakes and scraps of papyrus.

Burial sites at Deir el-Medina were excavated from 1922 to 1951 by the French Egyptologist Bernard Bruyère, but the science of osteology was then in its infancy, and Bruyère left many of the bodies unstudied in their tombs.

Austin found tombs “crowded with bats, rats and mummies” when she visited these tombs in 2012 for her UCLA dissertation research. Many of the mummies were little more than skeletons, allowing Austin to clearly see the state of the people’s health as evidenced in their bones.

In many bodies Austin saw evidence of stress from the hard climb – today it’s a thousand stone steps – from Deir el-Medina to the Valley of the Kings and back again. As Austin found, incidence of arthritis in the knees and ankles of the men at Deir el-Medina was significantly higher than for working populations from other Egyptian cemeteries.

The bones also revealed clues that corroborate other scholars’ findings that severely disabled Egyptians were well cared for.

“I found the remains of a man who died at the age of 19 or 20 and was born without a useful right leg, presumably because of polio or another neuromuscular disorder,” Austin said.

“To work in the royal tombs, which was the entire purpose of the village, he would have had to climb,” Austin said. But in examination of the young man’s skeleton, she saw “no signs of other health issues, or of having lived a hard life. That suggests to me that they found a role for him in this community even though the predominant role, of working in the tombs, could not be met.”

Relating to ancient ideas

Austin’s research into the history of social health care invites larger discussion about how ancient peoples viewed health and disease, as well as the link between affluence and social responsibility.

“A woman named Naunakhte had eight children,” Austin said. “In her will, she chastised and disinherited four of them for neglecting her in her old age.”

“At Deir el-Medina, we see two health care networks happening,” Austin said. “There’s a professional, state-subsidized network so the state can get what it wants – a nice tomb for the king. Parallel to this, there’s a private network of families and friends. And this network has pressure to take care of its members, for fear of public shaming, such as being divorced for neglect or even disinherited.”

Austin finds Egyptians’ ideas about health care particularly compelling and fruitful for discussion because, she argues, their ideas about disease were much like ours.

While the Greeks believed that disease stemmed from an imbalance of bodily fluids, she said, “Egyptians thought about it as a kind of contamination of the body. To get better, instead of balancing yourself, you had to purge yourself of the contaminant.”

For example, a doctor in the medical text known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus treats a patient with an open wound over a broken arm by placing ground ostrich-egg shell in the wound and pronouncing, “Repelled is the enemy that is in the wound; cast out is the evil that is in the blood.”

“It’s very similar to modern germ theory,” Austin said. “It shows an awareness of disease as being external.”

In March, she will return to Deir el-Medina in collaboration with Egyptologist Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo to study more remains in hope of identifying specific diseases.

“Egypt has a complex civilization, a written tradition and a long history of study,” Austin said. “The further away Egypt is and the more we learn, the more relatable it is and thus the more fascinating it is to me.” Austin and her students will be exploring our broader fascination with Egypt in her winter quarter course, Egyptomania! The Allure of Egypt over the Past 3,500 years.

Stanford University

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Categories: General

Archaeologists race against time to explore Neanderthal site

Heritage Daily - Fri, 2014-11-21 23:37
University of Southampton archaeologists are working to save important Palaeolithic remains at a rare Neanderthal site, before they are lost to the forces of nature.

The Baker’s Hole site, at Ebbsfleet in Kent, is Britain’s foremost location for evidence dating back to the time when Britain was being colonised by early Neanderthals, some 250,000 years ago.

But researchers are now facing a race against time to excavate and examine the surviving remains, as erosion, animal burrows and plant roots threaten to damage the site.

The dig is being supported by English Heritage, Natural England and Lafarge Tarmac, who own the land where Baker’s Hole is located – an old chalk quarry next to Ebbsfleet International railway station.

In the latest phase of work, the University of Southampton’s Dr Francis Wenban-Smith has been working to identify where important deposits still survive and to find out what these can still tell us about the period.

Sediment samples were taken to be searched for paleo-environmental remains, such as snail shells and the bones of small mammals, like voles.

“These biological remains can tell us a lot of about the environment early Neanderthals lived in,” says Dr Wenban-Smith. “We can tell if the climate was warm or cold, whether the area was wooded or marshland, and other factors that help us to see the context in which they lived. They can also help date the site accurately.”

“We have one to two years to examine this area and implement a new management plan to ensure its survival, otherwise the remains will be eroded away or otherwise damaged by plants and animals, so it is crucial work like this takes place now.”

Stone tools, mammoth teeth and other fossils such as giant deer, bear and lion, have previously been found at Baker’s Hole.

Sites from this period are rarer than older ones, which date back 400,000 years and are relatively common in the Swanscombe area.

Baker’s Hole is also unusual in being one of the very few non-cave Palaeolithic sites on the national list of protected ancient monuments. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest on geological grounds. These protections have ensured its preservation in conjunction with the adjacent development of Ebbsfleet International and the High Speed 1 rail link.

Clare Charlesworth, English Heritage Principal Adviser for Heritage at Risk in the South East, said: “Baker’s Hole archaeological site was added to English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk Register last year because thick scrub and animal burrowing are endangering this significant archaeological site. Faunal remains are also decaying due to exposure to the elements. This clearance work is a step towards safeguarding this rare landscape for future generations.”

Eleanor Brown, Senior Geologist at Natural England added: “Natural England is delighted to support this important survey on one of Kent’s most important geological sites, which is notified for its rare combination of fossils and sediments with evidence of ancient human activity. The University of Southampton’s survey will provide a vital record of this irreplaceable site and support its conservation in the long-term.”

University of Southampton – Header Image : Levallois flakes from Baker’s Hole – WikiPedia

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Categories: General

VIDEO: "They've taken us for granted"

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 22:53
With turnout just over 50 per cent at the Rochester and Strood by-election, Carole Walker reports on the growing disaffection among voters.
Categories: General

VIDEO: Stray firework hurts eight in Salisbury

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 20:55
Eight people have been injured by a stray firework that fell in to the crowd during a display to switch on the Christmas lights in Salisbury.
Categories: General

VIDEO: A&Es miss four-hour wait standard

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 20:20
NHS England figures show 92.9% of patients were seen within four hours of arrival in A&E last week- the lowest percentage since April 2013.
Categories: General

VIDEO: 'Extremist risk' at Muslim schools

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 19:29
Pupils at six east London schools are "vulnerable to extremist influences and radicalisation", Ofsted's Sir Michael Wilshaw says after snap inspections.
Categories: General

VIDEO: UK joins Poland in Nato drill

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 19:22
UK troops take part in the largest British armoured exercise in Europe since 2008.
Categories: General

VIDEO: Two dead in London balcony incident

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 18:28
Two men die and six other people are injured in an incident in Cadogan Square, Knightsbridge where a sofa was being moved through a balcony window.
Categories: General

THE – The Heritage Explorer (Magazine) Crowdfunder

Heritage Daily - Fri, 2014-11-21 18:24
THE- The Heritage Explorer (Magazine)

Support us in launching a printed magazine that explores the history, archaeology, travel, culture and exploration of the world.

THE Heritage Explorer is an exciting print magazine and publishing business proposal dedicated to delivering you the latest exploration, travel, archaeology, culture and heritage news.

A concept born out of the aspirations of a team of journalists, archaeologists and historians to build a credible and sustainable publishing business that will not only provide the public with entertaining articles and up-to-date research, but also to develop career opportunities for all those involved.

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We have put together a fantastic team of high profile writers, bloggers and explorers from TV, academia and leaders in their professions to contribute with the latest research, discoveries and travel features.

Exploration – Our team of intrepid explorers will be share with you their globetrotting discoveries.

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Leading the team is our Managing Editor Markus Milligan, who is an established figure in the publishing world, having worked on several large mainstream magazines in politics, heritage, finance, fashion and lifestyle. Markus is also the founder of the London History Group and works closely with a majority of the mainstream heritage and archaeology groups within the UK.

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Categories: General

VIDEO: Please clamber around the exhibit

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 17:12
The Tate gallery has teamed up with Minecraft to produce digital, 3D landscapes, which visitors can explore, and interact with.
Categories: General

VIDEO: Dyson: 'Keep engineers in Britain'

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 17:06
James Dyson tells the BBC it is important to keep engineers in Britain to produce hi-tech exports, as he announces a £1bn investment in research and development.
Categories: General

VIDEO: Games tech boost for movie planning

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 14:42
Researchers at Abertay University in Dundee look to have given the blockbuster a boost by applying computer games technology to the film industry.
Categories: General

Another Archive Deposited

Wessex Archaeology - Fri, 2014-11-21 12:10
Our archives team has been busy preparing archives for deposition, and yesterday saw the delivery of a batch to Hampshire Cultural Trust (formerly Hampshire Museums Service). At the request of David Wilson Homes, the landowners, we took selected finds from our site at Marnel Park, Basingstoke, to the Willis Museum in Basingstoke for a photo opportunity. These included pottery, metalwork and shale objects from Romano-British settlement and cremation graves.  Copyright David Wilson Homes Lorraine Mepham and Catherine Coates from WA, and David Allen (right) from Hampshire Cultural Trust, were on hand to show the finds to Simon Kirk (left) of David Wilson Homes. Many photographs were taken, including some of the group arranged around a life-size model of the occupant of a Roman sarcophagus, rather disconcerting as he relates his life story! Thanks to David Wilson Homes, who as well as funding the excavation of Marnel Park and part-funding the publication, which also includes the adjacent site of Merton Rise (available to download from the WA website), have signed the necessary transfer of title, the archive will now be safely curated at the Hampshire Cultural Trust’s store in Winchester.  
Categories: General

VIDEO: Learning maths the Chinese way

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 11:59
Around 60 Chinese maths teachers come to Britain, to try to pass on some of the techniques which have helped Chinese pupils come top of global league tables.
Categories: General

VIDEO: WW1 hero Chavasse twins remembered

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 11:17
The bravery of two World War One brothers is remembered in a production in Lancashire.
Categories: General

Kent Jones at Large

Wessex Archaeology - Fri, 2014-11-21 10:08
Are you keeping up with Kent Jones?Follow these links to find out how Kent got on in Finds and when he went back to School   
Categories: General

VIDEO: Bike prototype with global interest

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 08:38
A four-wheeled bike being showcased at the UK Investment Summit is being developed in Swansea with the inventor hoping it will be a "global force"
Categories: General

VIDEO: 'Bed blockers face legal action'

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 08:08
A hospital is to give so-called "bed blockers" seven days to leave or face possible legal action, saying that too many families are refusing to take elderly relatives home.
Categories: General

VIDEO: Domestic abuse victims 'turned away'

BBC test - Fri, 2014-11-21 07:02
A leading charity is warning that refuge centres are having to turn a third of people away because of a lack of space.
Categories: General

Bristolians dance under streetlights in six-week digital art show Shadowing

24 Hour Museum - Fri, 2014-11-21 00:00
Artists Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier say Shadowing, their digital artwork in the streetlights around Bristol during September and October, was played 100,000 times.
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