Boning up on early Bronze Age

by YaShekia Smalls

ND’s collection of skeletal remains holds clues to past

Make no bones about it: The people of the early Bronze Age had it pretty hard.

The evidence lies in the hands of Ohio State University doctoral candidate Jaime Ullinger.

“Some of it is burned so much that it’s gone beyond a brown color to a white color,” Ullinger, a 1999 University of Notre Dame graduate, says as she holds up a charred vertebra, arm bone and skulls from the crypts of Jordan.

In a lab tucked away in the basement of Notre Dame’s Reyniers Building lies a collection of countless bones from the early Bronze Age (3500 to 2000 B.C.) — several of them burned in a burial structure thousands of years ago for a reason still unknown. Here, researchers scrutinize the bones dug up from around the world, hoping to glean more clues about the mysteries of past civilizations than textbooks can provide.

For the past decade, the university also has been studying about 15,000 bones of the Byzantine St. Stephen’s Monastery collection, bones that are about 1,500 years old. Susan Sheridan says they belonged to some of the most robust men she has ever studied.

“What we found was they were exceptionally healthy,” said Sheridan, a Nancy O’Neill Associate Professor of Anthropology. “Really oddly so. There is no cancer, not many broken bones, but they have very arthritic knees.”

A bookshelf in the skeletal biology lab makes it clear how much history and science join at the hip socket of anthropology. Among the books are the “Encyclopedia of Early Christianity,” “The History of Rain” and “Ancient Iraq.”

Who knew moldy grains in a bone could confirm accounts of beer’s significance in the diet and commerce of monks? And the history books can tell you the religious men, some as tall as 6 feet 6 inches, bent at least 300 times a day in prayers and genuflection, hence the worn-out knees.

A skull bearing a gash, most likely caused by an axlike object, hints at a larger problem among the once-nomadic people of Bab edh-Dhra’s walled city. Bab edh-Dhra was a settlement on the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea that established a way of life featured in the Bible.

“It looks like there’s more interpersonal conflicts going on with these things, so they may have been building a wall for a reason,” Sheridan said.

For the researchers, the bones, which also reveal infectious diseases and nutritional problems, are providing a different picture of what life was like thousands of years ago.

“The bones help us to make questions of the text, and the text helps us to make questions of the bones,” Sheridan said.

Universities take turns at the interrogating, too. The skeletons of the more than 300 Bronze Age individuals came to the anthropology department about a year and a half ago from Kansas State University, which housed them for the past 20 years.

The department also has two mummies dating back about 1,500 years from Kulubnarti in Sudan — one about 9 years old and the other a newborn infant. The mummies were preserved in the country’s dry heat and hot sands and came from a collection at the University of Colorado.

Eight undergraduate students from across the nation spent six weeks at Notre Dame this summer in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates, where they studied the migration and pilgrimage of the monks during the Byzantine period.

Notre Dame junior Alicia Cooper, part of the “lifeblood of the project” as Sheridan calls the students, has been looking at the bones’ chemistry to examine migration and diet patterns.

“We don’t have any data yet, so it’s a matter of figuring out a way of getting it and what instruments are required,” Cooper said.

The biology major will travel to Jerusalem in early August to study animal bones buried in the crypts. Joining her will be Ullinger and Lesley Gregoricka, who graduated from Notre Dame this year.

“You really need to see it and be there to understand why they may have had bad knees and what they had to choose,” Sheridan said of the Byzantine monks. “A lot of it you can get from books, but a lot of it is time in the trenches.”

Gregoricka is glad to help uncover some of the mysteries. She is studying the ancient people’s diets by examining the ratio of carbon and nitrogen in their bones, and will begin her master’s thesis at Ohio State in the fall.

Ullinger, a Distinguished University Fellow at Ohio State, is completing her dissertation on the Bab edh-Dhra inhabitants.

“There’s a lot more here to be done than will be done in my dissertation,” Ullinger said.

“There’s a lot more here to be done than will be done in my career,” Sheridan followed with a laugh.

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