Ancient Abuse

Monday, September 01, 1997
RELATED TAGS: PREHISTORIC CULTURE
When archeologist Brenda Baker unearthed a 4,000-year-old female skeleton from a cemetery at Abydos--an ancient Egyptian provincial town about 100 miles north of Luxor--her examination of the bones suggested that the woman had been fatally stabbed in the back when she was about 35, perhaps with a dagger like one of those shown here. Her left rear fifth and sixth ribs were sliced, and no new bone had been laid down--a sign that the wound never had time to heal.

But according to Baker, who works at the New York State Museum in Albany, the woman’s troubles probably began long before her violent death. Her body bore the signs of a lifetime of abuse. Three ribs and a bone in her left hand had been fractured and had subsequently healed. A break in her right wrist showed signs of infection--channels in the bone that probably formed to drain away pus.

The pattern of injuries--some healed, some not--suggests that the wounds were not the result of one accident. Her injuries resemble those of battered women, who frequently suffer broken ribs when punched or kicked in the chest. The fractured wrist probably resulted from an attempt to break a fall.

Although healed fractures can be seen in two male skeletons from the site--one had a dent in the skull, the other a broken arm--the woman’s injuries were by far the most extensive. She was probably a farmer or a householder, says Baker, since she was buried in a simple wooden coffin in the sand in an area reserved for common people, many of whose bones showed signs of malnutrition and osteoarthritis--afflictions often found in manual laborers. So she may have been an abused servant in an elite household. Alternatively, her assailant could have been her husband or father.

The woman’s skeleton--and those of others around her--reveals a great deal about the lives of Egyptian working women in the second millennium b.c. Seeing these skeletons helps us learn something about the kinds of conditions that they survived, says Baker. Or, in this woman’s case, did not.
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