The University of Southampton
ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

Research project: Biological identity in ancient Egypt

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Recent developments within bioarchaeology have enabled the role of the individual within archaeology to be better identified. In Egyptian contexts, these have included assessment of diet through stable isotopes (Thompson et al 2005) and DNA studies of modern (Krings et al 1999) and ancient human populations (Graver et al 2001).

Project Overview

Many modern biological studies of Egyptian remains have rarely placed the results into the broader context of Egyptian research (eg Zink et al 2008), and therefore this material is not widely recognised by Egyptologists. Detailed interdisciplinary studies of single sites have linked architecture, art and faunal material, but all too frequently the skeletal remains of the people themselves are left as an appendix to the rest of the archaeology.

The central focus of this project is the recognition of aspects of Egyptian identity and cultural markers from the skeletal remains. The project links into site-specific data, but draws upon material from across Egypt to assess the relative changes in social identity from the Badarian to the Late periods.

Egyptian skeletal remains
Cultural markers

The following series of research questions arise in this project (and will form the focus of the ensuing monograph):

  1. What is the 'ethnicity' of the ancient Egyptians? How do temporally successive populations differ and relate to each other biologically (eg Buzon 2008; Irish 2006; Zakrzewski 2007a)? Can this be explained by migration or population mobility? How does this compare with the archaeological record of mobility/trade?
  2. How does the pattern of skeletal sexual dimorphism change through time? Does this correlate with changes in gender roles (eg Zakrzewski 2007b)? Are there associated links with changes in social organisation and artistic representation? Give that Egyptian artistic representation of the body stresses the differing shapes and sizes of particular portions of the body at different times, how closely do these depictions relate to actual temporal changes in body plan? How does the Egyptian body plan compare with that for non-Egyptians, both in artistic form and biologically (eg Zakrzewski 2003)?
  3. How does ancient Egyptian diet vary through time and space? Egyptian diets have been reconstructed from use of dental evidence (eg Ibrahim 1987), from stable isotopic signatures (eg Thompson et al 2005), from archaeological evidence such as faunal (eg Osborn & Osbornova 1996) and archaeobotanical remains (eg Samuel 2000) and from artistic representation (eg Darby et al 1977). How closely do these methods compare? How is diet linked to changing expressions of identity through its daily re-enactment?
  4. What repeated activities were undertaken and what types of occupation can be recognised from the bioarchaeological record? What do the temporal changes in long bone morphology mean? How do these compare with analyses of musculoskeletal stress markers (eg Zabecki 2008) or trauma (eg Judd 2002)? Can activity-related changes in skeletal morphology be linked with a gendered division of labour?
  5. How does age and gender affect biological patterning? Give that marginalised groups, such as young or elderly, can be recognised by their funerary treatment, how does their biology affect their identity? What are the temporal differences in the biological buffering of women to changes in Egyptian social and environmental conditions?

Related research groups

Classical and historical archaeology


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