A Study of Social Stratification and Physical Health in an Ancient Egyptian Population of Saqqara

UoM administered thesis: Phd

Abstract

The present research was based on a biocultural analysis of the funerary customs and human remains from the late Old Kingdom (5th-6th Dynasties; 2494-2181 BC) and Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC) cemeteries at Saqqara-West, Egypt. The study was built on a detailed analysis of archaeological attributes of burials and skeletal indicators of health to address the general research question: "What are the socioeconomic, cultural and historical determinants of health in ancient Egypt?" The specific hypotheses tested in the project were that: (H1) the material cultural attributes of a burial can be used as a reliable indicator of the social status of the individual, (H2) greater wealth in death is associated with better health during life, and that (H3) at the level of the population, the environmental conditions in the settlement area affected the frequency of ill health in the communities represented in the cemetery. A total of 32 Old Kingdom (OK) and 89 Ptolemaic (PP) burials were subject to in-depth contextual and osteological analyses to determine the pattern of association of the archaeological attributes of burial with the individual's social status and physical health. The former was determined with the application of a specifically designed Funerary Wealth Index intended to measure the wealth of the individual burials, believed to be reflective of the person's social status in life. The human remains were subject to in-depth osteological analysis to ascertain individual characteristics, including demographic attributes (sex, age at death, population affinities) and indicators of lifestyle (dental and skeletal health status, dietary practices and activity patterns). The data matrix that incorporated archaeological and anthropological attributes of the individual inhumations was statistically analysed in order to determine if any of the findings or correlations between variables in both population samples, such as the patterns of association between the funerary wealth and demographic attributes of the burials, as well as the individuals' state of health, were statistically significant. The funerary wealth distribution in the OK burial assemblage demonstrated greater diversification in comparison to the PP assemblage, and the overall funerary wealth in the OK group was statistically significantly greater than in the PP assemblage. In the OK burials, the condition of interment and personal adornment and funerary goods variables of funerary wealth demonstrated a significant positive association, although the level of the correlation of the two variables was low, most likely due to the limited assemblage of funerary goods recovered from these predominantly plundered burials. In the PP burials, the personal adornment and funerary goods variable demonstrated a significant association with the post-mortem funerary treatment; however, the level of association was low, most likely due to the poor diversification and low quantity of the funerary goods recovered from these lower status burials. No significant difference (p>0.05) was found in the distribution of funerary wealth between males and females in both burial assemblages. No significant difference (p>0.05) in the overall funerary wealth was also determined between the sub-adults and adults in both skeletal series. Individually, however, significant differences were determined in the post-mortem body treatment variable in the OK and the condition of interment in the PP sub-adult and adult skeletons. Only one burial in the OK assemblage was different from the remaining inhumations, but the individual's physical disability caused by short-limbed dwarfism was unlikely the reason for differential burial treatment of the deceased. In the OK burials, only one archaeological find was likely associated with the deceased's impaired health during life.Both skeletal series were severely under-represented by infants and children and by Old Adults in the PP assemblage. Both population samples were characterised by an over-representation of males. Physical health as determined by a combined study of a number of the observed pathological conditions in the skeletons was found to be significantly different between the OK and PP individuals, and the élite individuals (OK) demonstrated poorer skeletal health in comparison to the lower status individuals (PP). Dental health status as determined by the overall prevalence rate of ante-mortem tooth loss, caries, calculus, periapical lesions, periodontitis and LEH was only marginally different between the two skeletal samples, and the élite individuals (OK) demonstrated a higher prevalence of dental disease in comparison to the lower status individuals (PP). The differences in the prevalence rates of standard indicators of physical health such as cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis and linear enamel hypoplasia were not statistically significant (p>0.05) between the two skeletal series. The prevalence rates of the skeletal indicators of health recorded in the Saqqara-West populations demonstrated similarities to other contemporaneous population groups from the Nile Valley, but were statistically significantly different in comparison to the Predynastic and contemporaneous population groups from the Western Oases.The findings of the present research supported Hypothesis 1 and Hypothesis 3. In the Saqqara-West population samples, the greater wealth in death was not associated with better health during life, and therefore Hypothesis 2 was rejected.

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Original languageEnglish
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Award date1 Aug 2014