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Human Remains from the Workmen's Cemetery at Giza

Jessica Kaiser is a PhD candidate working in the Near Eastern Studies Department at UC Berkeley.

For several years, Ms. Kaiser has worked for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project (GPMP) in Egypt, directed by Dr. Mark Lehner. The main aim of the GPMP is to investigate the so-called “Workmen’s village” south of the Wall of the Crow on the Giza Plateau, which is a 4th dynasty production area related to the building of the Khafra and Menkaura pyramids. However, overlying the 4th dynasty architecture is a vast Late Period and Roman cemetery, which Ms. Kaiser and her osteology team have been excavating since 2000.

 To date, Ms. Kaiser and her crew have excavated approximately 400 late burials on the site, and she estimates that this part of the cemetery could contain a many as 12,000 simple graves. The majority of the burials have been dated based on associated pottery to the 26th through 30th dynasties (664-343 BCE), but one area of the site also contained burials dating to the Early to mid-Roman period, First to Second century CE. It is not yet known if the cemetery was in use continuously from the Saite period through the Roman period, or if there was a period of abandonment in-between.

 There is a slight shortfall of women in the material, but this may be due to incomplete excavation of the site. However, the majority of the individuals are fairly young, and there was a definite concentration of children’s burials at the eastern end of the Wall of the Crow, where approximately 60% of the graves belonged to individuals under the age of twelve. It is also in the children’s graves that almost all the burial items have been found, consisting of amulets dedicated to among others Horus, Bes, Hathor, Bastet and Nut as a sow, as well as simple jewellery fashioned from Cowrie shells. The majority of the amulets are related to fertility and childbirth.

 In the adult population, there is a high frequency of joint disease, pointing to a daily life with heavy labor. Injuries such as herniated disks and fused and fractured vertebrae in men but more injuries to the cervical vertebrae in women also suggest that there was a labor division between the sexes. The difference in location of muscle markers on the bone between men and women also support this conclusion. Traumatic injuries are also quite common in the material, but appear to have been the result of accidents rather than interpersonal violence, such as so-called Colle’s fractures of the wrist, which usually occur as the result of a fall. Examples of traumatic injuries that have not healed well are also evident, such as a dislocated jaw that was never set, or broken arms with pseudoarthroses at the point of fracture, suggesting that there was little or no access to medical care in the population. The fact that trauma occurs almost exclusively in the males of the population also points to a difference in lifestyle where the men were more at risk for injury than the women.

 Several cases of cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis, along with enamel hypoplasias, point to periods of systemic stress in the lives of the affected individuals, possibly due to insufficient diet or disease. Several individuals with severe congenital conditions (microcephaly, coxa vara, osteotomy of the femurs) that were nevertheless interred with care point to a population that supported the weaker individuals in their midst.

 The graves in the Wall of the Crow cemetery are generally poor, and belonged to people on the lower end of the status scale. Though common on the Giza Plateau, these simple, later graves have often suffered from the Old Kingdom focus of early excavators, and we know surprisingly little about them. Thus, the skeletal record of the Wall of the Crow Late Period and Roman Cemetery and other cemeteries like it represent a hitherto largely unexploited resource through which to access the voices of the people that were never heard in the literary and political record