Skip to content
  • Audio
  • 15 mins

Timewatch: Explore The Pharaoh's Lost City: Listening to the dead

Updated Tuesday, 18th December 2007

 Jerry Rose shares the discoveries he's made from the corpses found in the South Tombs cemetery.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Jerry Rose is Professor of Anthropology and Chairman of the Department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA. As a human osteologist, he works together with archaeologists who analyse skeletons from the archaeological context.


Copyright BBC


Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about this cemetery up by the South Tombs.

Jerry Rose: Well, South Tombs Cemetery is an interesting one. First of all, for more than a hundred years archaeologists had looked for the remains of the dead, they estimated there should be thousands of dead individuals from the time that Amarna was occupied, and no one had found a trace of them. The tombs of the nobles, er, of course, are, are well known, of course empty because the nobles all, the dead left with the living, but there should have been remains of the people who built the city, the people who took care of the households, the people who did the work, the general population of the city. And so this is very interesting that, that we have here, then, the people who, who lived in Amarna, the people who built it, the people who, who served the royals, the high officials.
And this is very exciting because from people, the common people from even middle class down you can tell about life in, in ancient times.

Right. The wealthy are always going to be in reasonably good health, they’re gonna be reasonably well fed, we assume, but as things change, as the society does better, as the society does worse it’s the people at the lower levels that go up and down. So their, their diet will change, they’ll be better fed, lesser fed, their workloads will change, they’ll work harder, they’ll work less, they’ll, em, the diseases, the infectious diseases, the parasites, all of this will fluctuate up and down depending on the economy of the, er, greater society.

History records those in power, and the skeletons record and tell us about those without power, those who served the powerful, and, and it’s really, you know, exciting, it’s, it’s the great part of society. And, well, no matter all historic periods, our own time period we can look at cemeteries of the forgotten, historically invisible and learn an awful lot. And the same thing is true here, the people of Amarna are indeed historically invisible, they’re, they’re not there, they’re there in the cemetery and they can tell us what life was like in, er, in the time of Amarna, which is a very exciting time period in, not only in Egyptian history but in the history of the world.

The, er, skeletons at Amarna are very well preserved, we have fragments of skin, we have lots of hair, we have remnants of, of brain being preserved, there’s a fair amount of soft tissue. The bones are in excellent state of preservation, they are, em, complete, they’re measurable, we can take x-rays, we can diagnose the, er, diseases. The one thing that is, er, was a little bit disturbing at first was we expected the skeletons to be, to be complete, intact. Graves were excavated and, and these individuals were buried wrapped in, er, em, mats, sometimes in, em, coffins made out of sticks, sometimes even fancier ones, em, made out of, there’s one made out of wood, very nice. Er, but all of these have been robbed and they’ve been robbed in ancient times.

They were robbed when the decay was such that the bones were still being held together, and the ancient robbers would dig down to the head and, and they would take the head for valuables, sort of toss the head aside and then they would reach in and, and grab the shoulders and, and literally, er, yank them out of the, the graves. We’d find the graves usually with the legs and feet and then the torsos are, have been stacked up by the robbers where they’ve been rummaged through. So that we’ve had a little bit more difficulty in, in reassembling the individuals. But that has been coming together and we’ve been able to then put some heads back together with the bodies because some of the vertebrae or neck bones are still attached to the head and we can then match those to the neck bones, em, that are the vertebrae that are still attached to the torsos.

In the previous excavations and analysis we had identified about fifty individuals that we were able to assemble, and this year we have gone through and identified with this year’s excavations and some of the bones from last time about another twenty-five, so we’re looking at about, em, seventy-five individuals represented so far. By the end of the excavation we expect to find, em, be able to put together at least a hundred individuals, children and adults that we can record.

Interviewer: And that’s useful is it?

Jerry Rose: And that’s moving into the area where the, the, the percentages and the comparisons are, are very meaningful. We can talk about the frequency of a condition being 20 percent, 30 percent with a reasonable reliability.

The other thing that’s interesting is the fact that, that Amarna was, was conceived and, and, and planned and built in a very short period of time and it, people came here in a big rush, and, and this is a very interesting thing that, that, that Akhenaten came with his friendly, his, his compatible high officials that he was happy with, they, they came to live with him and then they also brought their, their servants and, and families and, and the people who built the city. So these people arrived probably from Memphis in a very short period of time so that the children, the babies were born here but everybody else, of course, came from some place else. But still, even though they’re migrants from elsewhere, they represent a microcosm of, em, Egyptian society and a little snapshot that we have available to us in no other way, especially for the lower classes.

We knew that, that they were servants and working class, not necessarily the workers of the tombs but probably the builders of the city, the people who operated the city, the servants of the, of the, em, elite, and I expected a number of different things somewhat in my naïveté. But if you look at the paintings in the tombs and the paintings in the palaces and stuff here, you’re seeing a life of abundance. And I saw several things, one, this is a brand new city built on brand new soil and not contaminated by hundreds of maybe thousands of years of human occupation. So I expected few parasites, em, lots of opportunity for a sort of uncontaminated environment, and also assumed that as a capital city that it would be well supplied, that the workers, everybody from top to bottom would be well fed, em, so we were talking about a brand new city, big, open environment, not so much congestion, em, good food and, er, in abundance and low parasite load.

So I assumed that we would see a sort of a high point of, em, of health in the, em, in Egypt, if you compared it to other skeletons, and in fact every aspect of my hypothesis was, was dashed from, as we went from study to study, er, this just simply wasn’t the case. That, em, er, anaemia was, was very high running, em, 60 percent in the children, and those are children that should have been born here, the, the very young ones, and 20 percent in the adults, that of course is reflecting their childhood experience elsewhere. But, er, we’re finding lots of accidents, em, so we’ve got poor diet, indications of other, em, dietary deficiencies, we’ve got high workloads with a number of, er, teenagers having accidents that involved major damage to their back, their spine, and life really seemed to be hard.

The food didn’t seem to be in the abundance that I expected, the nutrition didn’t seem to be the quality that I expected, and right now Amarna is not differentiating itself much from the other, er, studies that have been done in, in, er, the pharonic time periods. But it, it’s looking like it could turn out to be far worse than, than I even expected. There’s lots of teenage deaths, teenage deaths should be very, very rare, and they, the diseases that they’re dying of, of course, are still not known, but still we’re having a high mortality at a, between the ages of 12 and 20 years of age, very, very unusual in any population. So my hypotheses have now one by one all fallen to the data that we’ve caught.

Interviewer: Okay. And this, em, herniated disc that you found, tell me a bit about that.

Jerry Rose: When you look at, em, the vertebrae that we have from the cemetery you’ll frequently see little depressions in the surfaces of the vertebrae, and these depressions, these, er, node like depressions occur as a result of a trauma where the, the disc that sits, the cartilage in this disc that sits between the vertebrae, sort of like your ear, em, and, and provides the padding, under a serious traumatic event basically sort of pokes out into the bone, and this is the kind of event that would have occurred if you’d received a very heavy load on your shoulders, er, or on your head or you leaped out of the second floor of a building and landed on your feet, it’s, it’s this kind of a very intense trauma.

And these are frequently occurring, and what’s most interesting is they’re occurring on these teenagers at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years of age, and maybe 50 percent so far, but it’s, er, maybe not, will not get as high as in the end, but to find that much vertebral trauma in such young people certainly indicates that, that, that heavy loads were involved and, and we’re looking at, em, sort of major accidents. And we have a couple of individuals where we not only have the Schmorals nodes but we have broken ribs and, and also some fractured vertebrae, so we have two teenagers showing that, em, level of, er, trauma. So we can be thinking about, em, carters, people loading and unloading, em, em, wagons and, and trucks, if you will, during more modern times is the analogy to what we’re looking at here.

If you look at the tomb scenes, you look at the palace scenes they give indications of great abundance, and we’re not seeing great abundance in the skeletons. And as we held discussions between the archaeologists and, and the osteologists and discussed the general situation the idea came about that the, the scenes that we’re looking at, the recorded history for us is, is an aspiration of what life should have been like, but the skeletons that we see are certainly not participating in that form of life. They are, they, the food is not abundant and certainly food is not of high nutritional quality, and the workload for the commoners, certainly, is, is quite high. And, and we’re looking at life not being well, that this is not the, the city are being taken care of, em, this, this is a city of, em, er, of hard work and, and, er, very poor quality food.

And this is a very interesting aspect, a different way of looking at it where we can look at there was an aspiration of what life should be like but participation in that life, actual participation has, has not really been the case, and not just looking back and re-examining things here at, er, Amarna but maybe looking back and re-examining life in the new kingdom in general, er, for the common, er, people of, er, ancient Egypt.

Explore the Pharaoh's lost city





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?