This summer I received funding from CURF to aid my research on what will become my anthropology senior thesis. My project is titled “Politics, identity, and ethics in ancient and contemporary Israel: an integrated approach to a bioarchaeological collection.” In this project, I am examining a set of previously unstudied skeletal remains housed in the Penn Museum. These bones are from a Bronze Age site called Gibeon, located near the modern Palestinian village, al-Jib. My first goal in examining these remains is to use an anthropological lens to discuss how contemporary politics in the Middle East are undeniably connected to interpretations of the past, through identity formation, religion, nationalism, and ethnicity. Second, I wish to explore the collection of the bones and subsequent history within the Penn Museum; why they were brought here and why they were never analyzed or catalogued.
This summer, my intent was to focus on the latter goal. This first meant performing a basic osteological examination of the bones, establishing a radiocarbon date(s), determining minimum number of individuals (MNI), evidence of paleopathology, any trauma, and the sex of each individual. I also aimed to integrate this data with any available archival records and museum data for the Gibeon excavation. At this time, I have reconstructed the fragmented crania, have established a preliminary MNI and sex of the adult remains, have begun to note trauma, and have sent samples to a lab for radiocarbon dating. I also have examined the Gibeon archival notes and the published Gibeon excavation reports for any mention of skeletal remains. From looking through these resources, I now know what remains are supposed to be in the Penn Museum, what is not there, and what was supposedly taken by other institutions at the time of excavation (between 1956-1962).
My next steps will be to gather any standard cranial measurements possible, and thoroughly prepare a report on pathology, trauma, sex, and MNI. With the help of museum curators, I will also be reaching out to the relevant institutions to see whether, all these years later, any still have possession of remains from this same excavation. Following this, I will begin a literature review, in order to be able to discuss the relevancy of this bioarchaeological material to both ancient and modern Israel, specifically in terms of how dialogues about religion, identity, land, politics, and ethics in archaeology/museum collection intersect.
First and foremost, I learned a lot about handling and reconstructing fragile human remains. I also learned that in dealing with remains that have been stored for many decades, the records on them are scattered and difficult to gather. I am looking forward to speaking with more curators and keepers of collections, in order to understand this process, and what happens to unused, unexamined material. I am also looking forward to applying more osteological techniques and integrating this osteological data with the historical records, the ethics of excavation, and the discussion around the role of archaeology in Israel.