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Archaeology Week – Excavating an ancient Egyptian cemetery: pondering the ethics of working with human remains

Photograph of Excavating the Wadi Mouth site at the South Tombs Cemetery
Excavating the Wadi Mouth site at the South Tombs Cemetery © Melanie Pitkin.

I’ve recently returned from the 2013 Spring Season excavations at the South Tombs Cemetery in Tell el-Amarna, Middle Egypt. Tell el-Amarna, or more simply Amarna, is the ancient Egyptian city built by the ‘heretic’ King Akhenaten, husband of Queen Nefertiti, in c. 1350 BC. Occupied for less than 20 years, Amarna is where Akhenaten broke with 2000 years of tradition to “pursue his vision of a society dedicated to the cult of only one god, the power of the sun – the Aten” (Amarna Project).

The South Tombs Cemetery is the largest of at least four known desert cemeteries at Amarna which were used by ordinary citizens. Situated in a wadi in the eastern cliffs of the city, the burials are very simple – usually comprising the body extended in a supine position (lying face up), wrapped in textile and enclosed in a mat made from plant stem or rush and then buried in a simple pit. Wood coffins and multiple burials also appear in the cemetery, but these are less common.

The purpose of the South Tombs Cemetery project is to investigate who the non-elite Egyptians were that lived at Amarna. What was their health like? Their beliefs? And, life experiences? All of these questions are gradually being answered through an integrated study of their skeletal remains and burial practices by a dedicated team of archaeologists and physical anthropologists. Since excavations started in 2006, and concluded with our latest season in 2013, a representative sample of 401 skeletons have been lifted from five different parts of the cemetery, known as the Wadi Mouth, the Lower Site, the Middle Site, the Upper Site and the Wadi End. This is less than 10% of the estimated 6000 + graves thought to exist there.

Detail showing well-preserved teeth of an adult
Detail showing well-preserved teeth of an adult © Melanie Pitkin.

Excavating a cemetery is a constant reminder of the fragility of life, as well as how little difference there actually is between us and someone who lived 3000 years ago. One of the first burials I worked on was of a young woman, not too dissimilar in age to myself, who had a full head of beautifully braided hair and a faience beaded necklace placed over her chest. She was articulated and undisturbed, a rarity in this cemetery as I will explain shortly, and still bore traces of skin, finger and toe nails and textile wrapping. She also had very well-preserved and perfectly aligned teeth, a phenomenon I always marvel at after having had braces for many years – and which have still resulted with less than impressive pearly whites!

Photograph of trays containing the bone of an adult buried at Amarna
Trays containing the bone of an adult buried at Amarna © Melanie Pitkin.

In order to study human remains like this, however, it is impossible to lift the skeleton in one go (mainly because the bone is too friable). Very meticulously, you need to expose the bones and lift them separately, although keeping the vertebrae together as much as possible, before placing them into trays. One complete adult skeleton, after it has been lifted, can fill three trays (not including the skull which is placed in its own box). It’s a different story for disturbed burials.

It’s always difficult, as an archaeologist, going to lift that first bone. In the case of a burial which hasn’t been touched for thousands of years, we are the first to see, smell and touch that individual. There is always that very poignant moment where you pause to think that this person was once a living, breathing being and here we are, effectively, ‘undoing’ their burial and disarticulating their body. It also gets you thinking about the extent to which the ancient Egyptians went to ensure the protection and preservation of their deceased – they didn’t develop mummification, bury their dead with grave goods and write long and elaborate texts for the afterlife only to have it all ‘dug up’ and taken away again. But, on the other hand, the ancient Egyptians wanted to be remembered. They built their most elaborate tombs and temples in stone because stone lasts forever. They also carved their greatest achievements on the exterior of tombs and temples so it could be seen by everyone.

In light of this argument, it’s always ethically much easier excavating a disturbed burial. The skeleton is already ‘undone’ and the bone is much easier to lift. In some respects, it comes as a relief then, that more than 80% of graves at the South Tombs Cemetery have been robbed, many of which probably took place not long after the time of burial.

Photograph of disturbed adult burial
A disturbed adult burial © Amarna Trust

The process of excavating a disturbed burial usually starts with finding some scattered surface bone, which is commonly very sun bleached and brittle. Further down, you’ll hit the grave cut, and sometimes also the robber’s pit, which can either be virtually empty, full of jumbled bone, or something in between. Some of this bone may still be articulated and in situ, sometimes you might even be lucky enough to still find some objects. When this bone is lifted, it might fill one or two trays, but it’s also quite common just to bag it or use a small container – as one of my colleagues did when she excavated a grave cut which contained only one, lonely metatarsal (a toe bone). For the record, finding a toe bone in a grave cut still counts as an individual and will be given the same post-excavation treatment by the physical anthropology team as every other burial!

Disturbed or not, it’s important to remember just how considered, careful and methodical our work is, as well as the fact that without archaeology, these private individuals would be lost to history. In summary, we begin an excavation by setting up our grid square. We take elevations, photograph and plan the top surface and then remove about 5-10cm of sand, sieving everything as we go. Then we repeat this process several times, documenting changes along the way and varying the quantity of fill we remove, until we eventually hit the burials. Once a burial is identified, we try to find the grave cut (that is, the original pit dug for the body in antiquity). We expose the interment, whether it be a reed mat covering or wood coffin (or, more likely, a disturbed pile of bone!), photograph and plan it and then lift the top of the interment to reveal the skeleton. We also constantly take elevations and collect and record samples of skin, hair, textile, reed, wood and any other matter present. This process is repeated on the skeleton, the bottom of the interment and the empty pit. We also make a plan of the section of the grave cut. On average, it takes about 3 days to excavate one burial – so as you can see, it’s certainly no hasty job.

Photograph of archaeologists excavating burials at the Wadi Mouth site
Archaeologists excavating burials at the Wadi Mouth site © Melanie Pitkin.

But, of course, it isn’t simply the process of excavation to be pondered, but also what happens after that. In the early-mid 19th century, before a rigorous scientific approach to archaeology was introduced, a number of travellers and explorers, like Giovanni Belzoni, did the unforgiveable. Mummies were “sat on” (see Giovanni’s account here), ground down into powder for its magical, medicinal properties and sold on the black market. While these occurrences live on in some peoples’ fantasies (I’m sometimes half-jokingly called a “grave digger” by some of my friends), the reality today couldn’t be any different.

After transferring the bone to the dig house, a team of physical anthropologists come to study it (we also have a dedicated team of conservators working to consolidate finds, including coffins and other forms of interments). They reconstruct the bone to its original skeletal form and try to discern vital information about the age of the individual at death, their gender, how he/she might have died, their state of nutrition, diet, if they suffered from any diseases and so forth. Indeed, this is the type of critical information that can help to answer so many broader historical questions, especially about the ancient city of Amarna, and similarly, the non-royals who lived there. The Egyptian historical record is already unbalanced by the enormous amount of surviving material culture from the elites, yet those ordinary people have just as much of an interesting story which needs to be told.

Photograph of storage of skeletal remains at the Amarna Dig House
Storage of skeletal remains at the Amarna Dig House © Melanie Pitkin

Now that the final study season is about to get underway, and eventually all the findings published, a pertinent question remains – what will become of the bodies? A decision hasn’t yet been made on this, as it’s still a good 12-18 months until the entire post-excavation work concludes, but two potential thoughts have been circulating. The first is to create a permanent repository of the bone in Egypt so it can serve as a useful source, or benchmark, against which other human remains can be compared. Another option is to re-bury the bone in the South Tombs Cemetery. This, however, needs some further thought, especially with regards to where we re-bury them and in what conditions, how we record this information and other implications. Another potential option is to take casts of the bone first, before re-burying them – so we can still have a repository as well. But, how effective and possible would the process of taking casts be?

Finally, I do think 3000 years of separation makes the excavation of human remains ethically much more acceptable. No living Egyptian today can claim direct descendancy from any of the individuals at the South Tombs Cemetery. Similarly, there is a huge divide with religious beliefs. Egypt today is a Muslim country and while they also only bury their dead, as opposed to cremation, their belief system is very different.

So now I’d like to put it to you. What are your thoughts on the ethics of excavating human remains? And, how does this affect your view on the value of archaeology?

To find out more about the Amarna Project and to support their current and future excavations, see here.

Melanie Pitkin
Assistant Curator, Design and Society
Team Member, Amarna South Tombs Cemetery Project

11 responses to “Archaeology Week – Excavating an ancient Egyptian cemetery: pondering the ethics of working with human remains

  • A lovely thoughtful article Melanie, enjoyed reading it. I once had the bizarre experience of working in a Roman cemetery, whilst literally over the fence burials were going into a modern one. I also worked on a visiting mummy exhibition within a predominantly Chinese culture and they were very sensitive about having human remains on display, with exhibits going through a religious blessing ceremony before entering the museum. But I take the view that we are ultimately curious beings. As long as remains are treated with the respect you describe , they, more than anything else have the potential to inform, and this is important for the study of ancient Egyptian culture which is so heavily biased towards the elite. Totally support your work, best of luck.

  • A wonderful article Melanie , about a layer of society does not know much about it in the Amarna period

  • A fascinating insight into the work going on there.Thank you for that.
    A bit of googling and a quick calculation show that every square mile of habitable land on earth , is a grave to, on average over 2000 people.Every new construction is disturbing the final resting place of somebody

  • The ethics of any archaeological dig depend surely on the intent of the archaeologists. Why feel more justified in unearthing human remains if grave robbers have got there first? They were not interested in the individual who they just plundered and cast aside!
    True archaeology is fuelled by the desire to understand more about those people from the past: not necessarily their riches or ‘treasure’ but evidence that contributes to more knowledge and understanding about who they were and what beliefs they had, their lifestyle and what made them tick. It’s ironic that such top-notch people as the Egyptian pharaohs sought to ensure eternal life by burying with them all the accoutrements that were deemed necessary in the next life, when such rich burial goods caused them to be robbed time and time again!

    As archaeology evolves, ever more detailed analysis of DNA, isotope analysis of place of origin, style/content of material goods, biological study of interred foodstuffs, residues from used pottery etc etc let alone geophys patterns of landuse/building patterns etc etc yield an increasingly detailed insight into how people from the past lived and moved and had their being. Roll on archaeology! Destructive methods have long since given way to more respectful analytical reverence for even the slightest details.
    Surely, this is the most reverential way that we of the 21st century can appreciate and respect those who have lived before. Perhaps it is best then to re-inter human remains that have been unearthed to be studied. Then again, such remains may yield ever increasing details of past life-styles as archaeological techniques evolve in the future.
    A pure intent to understand, appreciate and respect any archaeological remains, human or otherwise, makes archaeology one of the most appropriate disciplines to honour the evolution of the human species and to give some insights as to why we live as we do today…and may do so in the future.

    • Thank you for your very considered and insightful comments, Liz, and I agree with what you say. You’re right, the intent of the archaeologist does determine how ethically sound working with human remains on a dig is. What I’m getting at though, is that even with all the best intentions in your heart and mind, you’re still aware that the articulated body before you once had his or her own very personal intentions too – which may just be contrary to your own. But, this is how it should be. Archaeologists need to think like this in order to maintain the respect and dignity warranted throughout the entire excavation and post-excavation process. Regarding non-destructive techniques, Amarna has also been implementing these for many years-especially through surveys, aerial photography, residue analysis etc. But, Anna and Barry are much better placed to talk about this than I am, so if you’d like to discuss further, I’d recommend you contact them through the Amarna Project website. All the best, Melanie

  • I think you made a good point when you wrote “3000 years of separation makes the excavation of human remains ethically much more acceptable”. As long as the excavation of those human remains are generally beneficial to all, then I see no harm in excavating. Though I don’t know about re-burying the bones as we are well aware that many of the historical sites in Egypt are at risk of looting.

    As a soon-to-be archaeology student, this post has gotten me more excited to start pursuing this field of study.


    • Hi Chelle, Thanks for your comment. I’m so glad to hear this post has spurred you on with your studies! May I ask where you’re enrolling?

  • As u hinted, there is no ethical issue involved in excavating burials of people unconnected to the present. But, the ethical question that archaeologists would definitely have to bear in mind is whether they are excavating burials with diligence. I liked the way u commented on the Egyptians who preserved the grave goods to be remembered.

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