Sunday, April 30, 2017

New Discovery, Nile Delta: Skeletons Of Two Possible Eunuchs Discovered In Ancient Egypt

Recent excavations at the Ptolemaic-Roman site of Quesna in Egypt have revealed two skeletons of individuals who might have been eunuchs. But these people’s above-average height and other skeletal irregularities might also reflect a congenital condition rather than castration.

Skeleton B21 from Ptolemaic era Quesna, Egypt. With its immature bones and 
tall stature, this individual might have been intersex.
Presenting at last week’s American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference, archaeologists Scott Haddow (University of Bordeaux), Sonia Zakrzewski (University of Southampton), and Joanne Rowland (University of Edinburgh) highlighted the two unusual burials out of 151 total interments at Quesna, located in the Nile Delta region of the country.

One person – B21 – was an adolescent of indeterminate sex from the Ptolemaic Era. The burial was oriented rather differently: with the head to the south, rather than the typical head-north orientation of the period. Although the skeleton was poorly preserved, Haddow and colleagues noticed that most of the person's bones looked extremely immature, including the growth plates of the limb bones, which were completely unfused. This meant that the person was taller than average, even though they were not fully grown.

The other person – B26 – was also an adolescent of indeterminate sex, dating to the Roman Era. Buried in a collective tomb, this person was similarly much taller than average with completely unfused growth plates.

Archaeologist Scott Haddow excavating B26, a potentially intersex
individual from Roman-era Quesna, Egypt.
Haddow and colleagues began to suspect these individuals were possibly eunuchs because castration before the onset of puberty typically results in people who are tall and slender, with broad hips, narrow shoulders, and a sunken chest. Although there are few skeletal studies of individuals known to have been castrated, those that exist – such as of the Italian castrati Farinelli and Pacchierotti – also reveal incompletely fused long bones, tall stature, and osteoporosis.

So were these people from ancient Egypt eunuchs? The historical record would certainly allow for that possibility. Intersex individuals were present throughout the ancient world, Haddow and colleagues note, with eunuchs playing important administrative roles in Assyrian, Persian, and Roman courts. Linguistic evidence also indicates the recognition of non-binary gender statuses. In Egypt specifically, there are textual references to eunuchs working in administrative roles in the Ptolemaic and Roman courts.

But the skeletal evidence is not conclusive. Haddow and colleagues clarify that, beyond castration, other causes need to be considered. These involve a number of congenital conditions affecting the endocrine system, including sex chromosome abnormalities such as Klinefelter Syndrome or autosomal disorders such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome and an estrogen deficiency called aromatase deficiency. Because these conditions disrupt a person's hormonal balance and subsequent skeletal development in a similar way to pre-pubertal castration, it is difficult to differentiate among them..... READ MORE.

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