New study sheds light on the ancient pastoralists of Iran

When bioarchaeologists excavate human remains, they are sometimes faced with burials that can be somewhat complicated. A ‘perfect’ burial for bioarchaeological analyses would contain a complete set of bones that are well preserved. Some archaeological sites, however, are of such great significance that we even work with poorly preserved and incomplete burials, using unconventional methods that allow us to overcome these preservation limitations. This was proven by our research team whilst studying the Bronze Age cemetery of Deh Dumen, located in the Zagros Mountains in Iran. 

Wszystkie kości udowe w badanym materiale były mocno uszkodzone, większość miało zachowane trzony, ale brakujące nasady (patrz: szary obszar na szkicu kości udowej). Przebadaliśmy przekroje poprzeczne trzonów kości udowej, aby ustalić ich rozmiary i kształt, a także obejrzeć mikrostruktury kostne w obrębie wydzielonych obszarów przekrojów. © J. Miszkiewicz, na licencji CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
All of the femora in our sample were fragmented, with most having their shafts preserved but missing their ends (see greyed area of the femur sketch). We were able to examine midshaft cross-sections of these femoral segments for size and shape, and then look at bone microstructure within further specified smaller regions of the femur cross-section.  © J. Miszkiewicz, under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

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The mummy with a pickled fetus: another example of wishful thinking

In the spring of last year, the media around the world circulated sensational information about the discovery of a fetus in a female mummy held at the National Museum in Warsaw. The authors of this discovery, from the Warsaw Mummy Project team, found that the woman died in the 26th–30th gestational week, i.e. at the beginning of the third trimester, and the fetus was not pulled out during embalming – contrary to the treatment of the viscera of the female, which were removed through an incision in the lower part of the abdomen. They also observed that the mummified fetus had broken bones (not shown on the published radiograph) and was found in two parts, which was interpreted as the result of the postmortem fracture of the female pelvis.

Typical ancient Egyptian mummification process drawing by SimplisticReps, published on licence CC BY-ND 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Typical ancient Egyptian mummification process;
drawing by SimplisticReps, published on licence CC BY-ND 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Bioarchaeology of the Near East: volume 15 is now available online

The recent volume of Bioarchaeology of the Near East contains three regular papers and eight short fieldwork reports, with a broad range of topics. Nina Maaranen and colleagues from the ERC Hyksos Enigma project present research on dental non-metric traits at Avaris, the Hyksos capital city, compared to other samples from Egypt. Their results indicate that the people of Avaris were of different ancestry than Egyptians, supporting the hypothesis that a large-scale migration from the Levant to the eastern Nile delta occurred during the Second Intermediate Period.

How long did women in the ancient Near East breastfeed?

The length of the period of breastfeeding depends on many factors, both individual and cultural or environmental ones. In human societies that have no access to easily digested food alternatives (this refers to foragers in particular) this period is usually longer, while in farming communities, where infants are fed with porridge or yoghurt, it can be shortened. This implies demographic consequences: a mother who breastfeeds her child for a shorter time can have more children, therefore, the breastfeeding period influences the birth rate.

Terakotowa plakietka z Babilonii przedstawiająca kobietę karmiącą dziecko piersią. Muzeum miasta Sulejmanija, Iracki Kurdystan © Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) Opublikowano na licencji CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia Commons
Babylonian terracotta plaque representing a breastfeeding woman. Sulaimani Museum, Iraqi Kurdistan
© Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)
published under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Bi(bli)oArch: Bibliographic database for human bioarchaeological studies in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East

Scholars from the Cyprus Institute, Nicosia, have prepared a bibliographic database for human bioarchaeological studies in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (EMME), chronologically covering skeletal assemblages from prehistory to early modern times.

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Rapid change of climate did not cause the fall of the Akkadian Empire

The latest issue of Antiquity published a paper presenting results of biochemical analyses of human bones from a few sites situated in north-eastern Syria, and showing on this basis that in the 22nd century BC, when the Akkadian Empire was declining, there was no change in the local economy which could be a response to a long-term drought, and even if there was a temporary climate change, the local human societies survived it in a good condition.

Stela upamiętniająca zwycięstwo nad plemionami górskimi odniesione przez Naram-Sina, króla imperium akadyjskiego w latach około 2254–2218 p.n.e. © F. Romero, France - Paris - Musée du Louvre, na podstawie licencji CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Stele commemorating a defeat of mountain tribes by Naram-Sin, the king of the Akkadian Empire in 2254-2218 BC. 
© F. Romero, France – Paris – Musée du Louvre, published under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Animal dung as a strategic resource in the kingdom of Mari

Kings of Mari controlled an important trade route in the valley of the Euphrates River in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium BCE. Although their country was situated in an area with unfavourable conditions for agriculture, the economy of the kingdom of Mari could support a big population. The key to understanding this paradox is animal dung.

The kingdom of Mari was the most powerful country of north Mesopotamia in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium BC. Its power is reflected both by the size of its capital (modern archaeological site of Tell Hariri), which occupied an area of more than 60 hectares – more than Cracow in the 13th century – and by the fact that six of its rulers were included in the Sumerian King List, that is a record of the dynasties that were regarded as those holding superior power in Sumer. The dynasty from Mari was the only dynasty from north Mesopotamia on this list. 

Sala tronowa w pałacu Zimri-Lima, ostatniego króla Mari fot. Herbert Frank (opublikowano na licencji CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The throne room in the palace of Zimri-Lima, the last Mari king
Photo: Herbert Frank
(Published under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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Suffocated with smoke. Massacre in Kan-Gohar Cave, Iran

The cruel commander Malek Ashraf attacked the town of Bavanat in 1342, during the civil war in Iran. The inhabitants of the town had hidden in a cave located nearby. Since their shelter was difficult to access the soldiers made a great fire at the entrance to the cave. The refugees could try to jump over the fire, straight into the hands of the attacking forces, but most were suffocated with the smoke. Modern archaeologists reveal tragic mysteries of the massacre by analysing burned bones found in the Kan-Gohar Cave.

Szczątki ludzkie (i kość zwierzęca) z irańskiej jaskini Kan-Gohar, obecnie w Ośrodku Medycyny Sądowej Prowincji Fars Fot. Mahsa Nadżafi
Human remains (and animal bone) from Iran’s Kan-Gohar cave,
currently at the Forensic Medicine Centre of Fars Province
photo: Mahsa Najafi

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