Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Secrets in the Skeletons Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by Brenda Baker

Disease and deformity attest the hazards of daily life.


This skeleton of a woman in her 30s has an extra pair of ribs. (Brenda Baker, Courtesy Penn-Yale-IFA)

Thousands of people were buried at Abydos between the Predynastic period and Greco-Roman era, giving it the potential to provide us with a portrait of a population over some 3,500 years. So far, we have excavated and analyzed more than 100 burials and huge concentrations of disturbed and commingled human remains.

In 1991, six burials of infants and young children were discovered under the floor of a house dating primarily to the First Intermediate period (2134-1797 B.C.). One infant showed evidence of a rare congenital disease, osteopetrosis or "stone bones." Burials from the nearby Middle Cemetery provide further evidence of congenital abnormalities among the First Intermediate period residents of Abydos. The abundance of developmental defects in the burials implies that the townspeople were exposed to as yet to be determined environmental hazards that triggered abnormalities or had a high degree of genetic relatedness.

Middle Kingdom burials from the North Cemetery have also yielded a wealth of information. Childhood nutritional stress was ubiquitous, contributing to short adult stature. Men averaged 5 feet, 5 inches tall, and women, 5 feet, 1 inch. People in their late teens show wear and tear in their skeletons associated with repetitive stress such as carrying heavy loads. Infectious disease was prevalent.

Brenda Baker is assistant professor of anthropology at Arizona State University.

Abydos Intro

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America