A Middle Palaeolithic Burial of a Modern Human at Taramsa Hill, Egypt

Article excerpt

Excavation

Taramsa Hill, near Qena in Upper Egypt, is an isolated landform, situated some 2.5 km southeast of the Dandara temple (26 [degrees] 6 [minutes] N 32 [degrees] 42 [minutes] E) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The hill is capped with a 4-m thick cobble deposit. Excavations have been carried out at the site, called Taramsa 1, since 1989 (Vermeersch et al. 1995).

The site was used for systematic quarrying of chert cobbles, as demonstrated by numerous pits and trenches. On the basis of both typology and stratigraphy, multiple quarrying phases fall into three main extraction periods, of early, mid and late Middle Palaeolithic respectively (Vermeersch in press). The early Middle Palaeolithic is characterized by the presence of handaxes, foliates and Nubian point and flake Levallois methods. In stratigraphically superimposed assemblages, assigned to the mid Middle Palaeolithic, foliates and handaxes are lacking but the Nubian point and flake Levallois methods continue to be represented. The latest assemblages, established through stratigraphical observations, do not contain Nubian point Levallois methods but they are characterized by a Levallois reduction system that is transitional to the systematic production of blades. In these late Middle Palaeolithic assemblages we are confronted with a changing Levellois production, not unlike the transitional assemblages known in the Negev [Marks 1976-83).

During a visit to the site, while surveying the Taramsa area for other extraction sites in March 1994, a heavily weathered skull was discovered in a collapsing ancient trench section [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. We decided to excavate the find immediately in order to prevent it from being destroyed further. During the excavation, other skeletal components in their anatomical position were discovered [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED].

The skeleton (apparently a child) was poorly preserved and very fragile, and we decided to consolidate the sediments round it. In this way we were able to preserve the skull, which is now embedded in consolidated sands. The clavicle, scapula and the vertebral column were so completely weathered that they could not be recovered. Some traces of ribs could be observed in the chest region but they were unrecoverable. No bones from the pelvis, or from its hands or feet, were found. Only the shafts of the long bones were more or less preserved. Even after a careful conservation attempt, most bone shafts collapsed during recovery. The skeleton was leaning backwards in a seated position, oriented towards the east, with the head oriented skywards, resting upon a sand bed containing fewer cobbles. The legs were bent to the left in a pronounced contracted position. The left arm was also bent, resting upon the pelvis. The right arm was stretched down behind the back of the skeleton.

During the excavation full attention has been paid to all observations that could exclude or confirm the possibility that the burial was an intrusion into older deposits, All our observations point firmly to the conclusion that the skeleton is contemporaneous with the surrounding deposits. The corpse was deposited against the southwestern side of a prehistoric extraction pit which was 5 m long, 4 m wide and had a maximum depth of 1-2 m [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED], the main part of which was excavated by us during the 1991 campaign. It was clear that the extraction occurred over at least two different phases. The first was organized by humans from the mid Middle Palaeolithic, where cobbles were extracted from the terrace deposits. During a second exploitation phase, the mid Middle Palaeolithic dump, together with fresh cobbles, was re-exploited by late Middle Palaeolithic humans. This interpretation is based on the clear sequence of dumps above the in situ terrace cobbles: the lowest one containing only mid Middle Palaeolithic artefacts and the upper one containing a mixture of mid Middle Palaeolithic and late Middle Palaeolithic artefacts. …