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Lively Bones: The Karanis Cemetery Survey Project

by eric — last modified March 09, 2009 11:22 AM

Archaeology Program student describes her ongoing bioarchaeological research in the Fayum By Anne Austin

Anne Austin
Anne Austin working at Karanis.

Spending an entire field season roaming a cemetery and looking at bones may seem morbid to many, but to me it was a dream. Over the past several years, Willeke Wendrich, Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, has lead an international team of archaeologists in excavations at the ancient city of Karanis. The project seeks to explore and understand the ways Karanis used the rich and lively landscape of the Fayum, a region known even in present day for its agricultural fertility. Specialists analyze the botanical remains to see what was living and growing over a thousand years ago, and excavations of an ancient granary this season help us understand life and prosperity in the past. So why am I sitting across the street immersed in the skeletal remains of the people of Karanis? How does studying the dead shed any new light on the project’s goal of understanding the living and growing landscape?

Contrary to popular opinion, the dead are actually quite talkative. Through analysis of their bones, they tell us the kinds of diseases people had to face, the daily work they had to undergo, their toothaches in old age and broken legs from their youth. While excavations can bring back into our public knowledge the growth of the city and activities of Karanis, skeletal analysis can populate Karanis with the real lives and struggles of its people.

This fall 2008 season, which was part of the UCLA Archaeology Field Program, we have literally just scratched the surface of the Karanis Cemetery with a survey of some of the exposed remains simply begging to be analyzed. Over 3,000 elements were collected and assessed for age, sex, and pathology, demonstrating incredible variety and preservation, from prenatal hipbones to fleshy feet. From these bones, we have already found evidence of occupational stress and high infant mortality rates, helping to understand some of the hardships people in Karanis had to endure.

The preservation and size of this cemetery made it—as one smiling and gleeful field program student called it—“bone heaven” and the potential for future research seems much grander than the corpus of corpses to be studied.  With both skeletal material and grave goods, we could answer a wealth of research questions regarding identity, demographics, and life histories. So while some may think spending all of your time in a cemetery is morbid, no one can deny the opportunity the Karanis cemetery brings to learn about the lives of its people.

Anne Austin is an Archaeology Program graduate student.

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