The Dilmun and Tell en-Nasbeh Bioarchaeology Projects

Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project

From 1940-41, Peter B. Cornwall, a graduate student at Harvard University, excavated and surveyed regions that once comprised the ancient polity of Dilmun, known today as the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Cornwall excavated multiple prehistoric settlements throughout central and eastern Saudi Arabia and also excavated 24 burial mounds around the island of Bahrain. From the latter, he recovered human skeletons (representing at least 35 individuals), faunal remains, and associated objects. Upon returning to the United States with this material, Cornwall published portions of the data in his Ph.D. dissertation and other journal articles. The entire collection was deposited in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley in 1945.

In Fall 2008, I came across this collection while perusing the Hearst Museum's card catalog. Joining forces with Benjamin W. Porter (Department of Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley), the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project (DBP) was initiated to conduct a comprehensive, interdisciplinary bioarchaeological analysis of the skeletal and artifactual remains from Cornwall's expedition. A team of scholars with unique talents and complimentary research interests was assembled that consists of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and professionals. It includes individuals from a number of institutions, with interests ranging from bioarchaeology and Near Eastern Studies, to zooarchaeology and facial reconstruction.

Each semester, 1-2 undergrads from Sonoma State participate in the DBP to get hands-on experience with human skeletal remains and/or artifacts.

Tell en-Nasbeh Bioarchaeology Project

Tell en-Nasbeh, most likely biblical Mizpah of Benjamin, was excavated by William Frederic Badè between 1926 and 1935. Human remains were recovered from multiple contexts, including cave tombs, cisterns, storage jars, and ossuaries. These dated mostly to the Early Bronze Age I (ca. 3500-3300 BCE) and the Iron Age II (ca. 950-586 BCE) periods.

The Tell en-Nasbeh Bioarchaeology Project is being undertaken by Whitney McClellan (Anthropology major, SSU) and myself. Our primary goal is the first systematic inventory, skeletal analysis, and contextual interpretation of the human remains from Tell en-Nasbeh since their excavation from Early Bronze Age I and Iron Age mortuary contexts. Most of the human remains are stored in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at U.C. Berkeley, although a small number are still curated at the Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology.

Preliminary analysis suggests that the remains of at least 27 individuals are present, which includes juveniles and adults, males and females. The remains of multiple individuals were frequently mixed together postmortem, which can make their interpretation challenging. Nevertheless, we are excited about the Nasbeh collection’s potential to shed light on ways of life and death in the ancient Near East more than three thousand years ago.