Newly Identified Ancient Skeleton from Ur to be Focus of Study,
Research For Penn Students Taking a Course at the Penn Museum
PHILADELPHIA, February 2015—Penn students in a new course, Living World in Archaeological Science (Anthropology 267/567), offered in the Penn Museum's new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials will be learning about scientific analysis of skeletal remains via a most extraordinary specimen: a very ancient, very rare human skeleton originally from the world famous site of Ur (in modern day Iraq), newly "rediscovered" in the Museum's storage. The students, working with Dr. Janet Monge, Penn Museum professor and Penn Museum Curator of Physical Anthropology, will be learning right along with Museum scholars as they study the skeleton, learn more about how it was excavated, and its place in the ancient history of the Near East.
An Unusual Discovery, and a Unique Opportunity
How the Museum learned about the existence, in storage, of this important skeleton is a story in itself:
In summer 2014, Penn Museum scholars working on the Ur Digitization Project, researching and digitizing excavation records from a famous 1922-34 expedition, sponsored jointly by the Penn Museum and the British Museum, to the site of Ur in modern day Iraq, made a spectacular "discovery" in the Museum's basement—a 6,500 year old skeleton from the site, preserved at the Museum for 85 years but with all trace of its identifying documentation gone. Physical Anthropology Curator and Keeper Janet Monge knew that a second box without documentation was nearby—and based on the evidence from the Ur Digitization Project, in all likelihood it was a second ancient skeleton from the site.
Prior to opening the second box, Dr. Monge was hoping to X-ray it in the Museum's new X-ray room, but the size and bulk of the box made that problematic, and the project was put on hold. Finally, on February 2, Dr. Monge, with the help of graduate student and collections assistant Paul Mitchell, used a crowbar to open the box and confirm that it was, indeed, the second and final skeleton from Ur that had lost its identifying documentation when it was moved into storage.
From February 5 through February 19, the skeleton will be used in the CAAM class as an introduction to the field of bioarchaeology. Dr. Monge explains: "What do we do when we 'find' a new skeleton? The students take on the challenge of laying out a long-term research project framed around this individual."
"First is the determination of the archaeological context from archival records of the excavation. From this framework, the students can propose appropriate hypotheses to test with the skeleton, using technical techniques of skeletal analysis, including X-ray and CT scan imaging and sampling strategies for isotopic diet research, to name just a few. Together they can explore the intricacies of skeletal analysis from the ground up and out," Dr. Monge said.
"This is the kind of learning that the Museum envisioned, really, when we first dreamed about CAAM—the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials—where Penn students at all levels could have direct experience with the rich resources of the museum, not only learning about what archaeologists and museum professionals do, but actually engaging in that process," said Steve Tinney, Museum Deputy Director and the Director of CAAM.
After the CAAM class students finish their studies with Dr. Monge, they'll continue to learn about life and death in the past: first exploring animal remains with Dr. Katherine Moore, the Mainwaring Teaching Specialist for Zooarchaeology, and then plant remains with Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Weingarten Assistant Curator for North America, Penn Museum.
About the Penn Museum
Founded in 1887, the Penn Museum (the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), 3260 South Street in Philadelphia, is one of the world's great archaeology and anthropology research museums, and the largest university museum in the United States. With nearly one million objects in the collection, the Penn Museum encapsulates and illustrates the human story: who we are and where we came from. A dynamic research institution with many ongoing research projects, the Museum is an engaging place of discovery. The Museum's mandate of research, teaching, collections stewardship, and public engagement are the four "pillars" of the Museum's expansive mission: to transform understanding of the human experience.
The Penn Museum can be found on the web at www.penn.museum. For general information call 215.898.4000.
Photo: Dr. Janet Monge points out unique features of a recently identified skeleton from the site of Ur (modern day Iraq) to students in the University of Pennsylvania's "Living World in Archaeological Science" course. Image: Penn Museum.