Sunday, December 04, 2011

Archaeology meets politics: Spring comes to ancient Egypt

Nature (Jo Marchant)

In a secluded stretch of desert about 300 kilometres south of Cairo, hundreds of bodies lie buried in the sand. Wrapped in linen and rolled up in stiff mats made of sticks, they are little more than bones. But their ornate plaited hair styles and simple personal possessions help to reveal details about the individuals in each grave. The bodies date from around 3,300 years ago, when the Pharaoh Akhenaten renounced Egypt's traditional polytheistic religion and moved his capital to remote Amarna, to worship just one god: the Sun disc Aten.

The cemetery offers a window on a unique episode in Egyptian history, a revolution that some see as the birth of monotheism. Barry Kemp, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, and director of the Amarna Project, has been working with his colleagues to excavate the skeletons, and says that they are starting to reveal “an alarming picture of a stressful life”. Many Amarnans died young, with retarded growth and signs of multiple injuries. Some young men had marks where their shoulder blades had been pierced, perhaps as part of a brutal ritual.

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