Gretchen Dabbs digging

Southern Illinois University Carbondale bioarchaeologist Gretchen Dabbs, in blue, demonstrates that digging is everyone’s job at the Northern Cemeteries section of the Amarna Site in Egypt. She is co-director of a team excavating graves there. Unlike the famous rock or pyramid tombs of Ancient Egypt, these are pit burials for less illustrious occupants.   Dabbs is associate professor of anthropology at SIU. (Photo provided)

June 03, 2015

Team exploring life and death in ancient Egypt

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Archaeologists have been digging in Egypt for more than 200 years, seeking to learn more about the ancient culture famous for pyramids, hieroglyphs and mummification. Even so, secrets remain buried and the mystery remains, beckoning archaeologists to the desert country again and again. 

Gretchen Dabbs, a bio-archaeologist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale,  heeds the call with the help of a $253,817 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a research project called “Death and the City: Towards an Integrated Narrative of Life and Death in Ancient Egypt.” 

Dabbs is the co-director, with Anna Stevens of the Amarna Project, of a collaborative project that focuses on the North Tombs Cemeteries at Amarna. The project involves several trips to Egypt, for digging, for analyzing, and then for writing. 

Amarna is a well-known site for ancient Egyptian history. Excavations at the site, and attempts to preserve it, are on-going and involve teams of archaeologists from all over the world. In its heyday, it was known as the city Aketaten. One of the most famous pharaohs of them all, the “heretic” Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamen, the boy-king, and husband to Nefertiti, whose images have become almost synonymous with ancient Egypt in modern popular culture, founded the city in approximately 1350 BC. 

The site at Amara is crucial to understanding what archaeologists and historians call the “Amarna Period.” Akhenaten seems to have undergone some sort of religious (or arguably political) conversion in the fifth year of his reign. He deviated from the religious traditions of his times and instituted the worship of Aten, a solar deity. He abolished the traditional polytheistic religion of Egypt at the state level, and established the first known monotheistic state with his insistence on the worship of Aten as the only god. During that time, he moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to Aketaten, known today as Amarna. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, to use an easily accessed source, the Amarna Period is one of the most studied and debated periods in all of ancient Egyptian history. 

Another level of significance at the site is that it includes an entire city – temples and tombs, bakeries and grain silos, common homes and public buildings. Decorated boundary markers known as stele tell us the ancient city limits, which included fields and suburbs nearby, and the North Tombs Cemetery. 

The north end of the site includes the North Suburb, which was home to an ancient middle-class, including merchants, and the Palace of Nefertiti, a self-contained residence with gardens, solar altars, and painted walls. 

The North Tombs are six decorated tombs made of rock and belonging to some of the highest officials of Akhenaten’s court. They are separate from the city proper, and lay at the base of a cliff but on top of a slope. A dry-river bed known as a wadi separates the tombs into two groups. The site also includes a number of smaller, unfinished tombs. 

Dabbs’ team will study graves that are essentially pit burials, and were likely used for people with less social standing. Dabbs said for these simple burials, most individuals are wrapped in linen, while some are enclosed in a mat of woven sticks, sometimes with pieces of pottery. 

Dabbs’ team focuses on bio-archaeology, which is the study of bones and other biological materials found at an archaeological site. The NEH funded excavations will run for three years (2015-2017). The first excavation season was March 25 to May 8 of this year, and the team excavated 115 individuals during that season. In addition to Dabbs, with her specialization in bone analysis, the team includes several archaeologists interested in the mortuary landscape, an archaeo-botanist, pottery expert, and experts in plotting the spatial organization and patterns of ancient Egypt. 

Dabbs has worked in Egypt before – in fact, she’s worked at Amarna. She was part of a South Tombs excavation team that included Jerry Rose from the University of Arkansas and Anna Stevens, co-director of the current project. The North Tombs expedition will share a few traits in common, including a field school where students will learn by participating in every step of the bioarchaeological analysis, from cleaning the bones with tooth brushes through skeletal analysis, all the way to writing burial descriptions and entering data into a database for future analysis.   

Dabbs explained that some field schools fit students almost exclusively into their preferred areas of specialization. While this gives students an immersive experience in a focused area of archaeology, it’s not in keeping with the broader base of knowledge Dabbs wants her students to have. 

Dabbs wants the students in the field school to appreciate the work of other specialists, she said, and to see how their own specialization contributes to the overall picture – something that doesn’t always happen with a narrow focus. 

“It’s difficult in Egypt,” she said. “We are all digging in sand, and because of that, there are no sidewalls. It takes a lot of skill. On the other hand, it is easy to sift for artifacts and fragments.” 

During the analysis phase, students pair up to work with a skeleton. Cleaning the skeleton or skeletal remains is of paramount importance, Dabbs said, emphasizing that the work is meticulous and painstaking. If students discover something unusual as they clean, they flag the find with a small piece of tape. Later, in what Dabbs called the Grand Rounds, all the students discuss all the work – including the flagged items. Sometimes the “find” is merely a slight but common variation, and sometimes solving the mystery takes more analysis. Either way, the students see a wide variety of examples, which better helps them to identify variations and to recognize normal ranges. 

The analysis helps the bio-archaeologists estimate the age, sex and stature of the people whose skeletons are under examination. If teeth are available, the bio-archaeologists can more easily learn about the nutritional health of the person than they can from bones alone. 

Students also learn to use x-rays and to develop x-ray film, and they participate in written and photographed descriptions of the burial sites. These descriptions become part of the Amarna database and will benefit future scholars. 

Two doctoral students from SIU are part of the team: Lindsey Roberts and Jessica Spencer. Roberts earned her bachelor’s degrees in biology and Spanish from the University of Kentucky. Her master’s degree is from SIU. Her master’s degree thesis, focused on the effects of freezing on soft tissue decomposition, won SIU’s Outstanding Thesis award. Roberts has previous dig experience at the Mead Site and the Gerstle River Site in Alaska. At Amarna, she hopes to further her research into biodistance relationships using a variety of methodologies to answer questions about the cemeteries: are they structured according to kin-groups, or is biological relatedness not a factor in Ancient Egyptian cemeteries? 

“This is my first time in Egypt,” she said. “I am very excited to analyze the skeletons excavated during the dig season. What will we find?!” 

Spencer earned a baccalaureate degree from Oregon State University and a master’s degree in forensic anthropology from the University of Montana. For her dissertation research, she’s studying a late Roman-early Byzantine skeletal collection from Jordan. She held an internship in Hawaii with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory (better known as JPAC-CIL), where she worked with unidentified American soldiers’ remains from the Korean War.