8 Jan 2020

Excavating human remains from the middle ages in Uzbekistan

From Summer Times 2020/2021, 10:05 am on 8 January 2020

Scientist Dr Rebecca Kinaston from the University of Otago travelled to Uzbekistan to dig up human remains from the backyards of local villages and says they can teach us a thing or two about sustainable living.

The excavations were part of a study into how people lived in the middle ages. The region has a long history of human settlement and was part of the Silk Road, a medieval trade route between Europe and Asia.

Dr Kinaston says a skeleton can tell the story of a life, and sometimes a death. 

“As a bioarchaeologist, we look at the skeleton and look at things like joint degeneration, the shapes of the bones, the lesions on bones to tell how old people are, if they were male or female, and what diseases they may have been affected with during their life.”

She first found herself in Uzbekistan in 2007 for a different project where they were excavating from a cave site. Word got around that there was a skeleton expert in the village, and a man asked her to look at some skeletons on his property. 

“When we were there, we actually found there was about ten skeletons eroding from his backyard. He was really interested in us removing them right then, but we didn’t have the time or the specialists. When my back was turned, he pickaxed a skull out of the soil and gave it to me insisting that I took it away.”

Dr Kinaston says that because soil in Uzbek is good for the preservation of bones, and the houses are made from excavated mud brick, locals often turn up skeletons which they are uncomfortable having around. 

“In the Middle Ages, the time period we’re really interested in, was when Islam came through the region. This time saw a huge increase in growth in urban and rural centres… we’re really looking at how people settled the region during the Middle Ages and I’m really interested in how people adapted to these desert environments and oases and what their health and diet was like.”

She says they can compare the skeletons from different periods, including Ghengis Khan’s invasion, and see if people were more stressed and how their diets, and their health changed. 

“I look at the oral health of people, the cavities, tartar, different infections in the mouth, and this can tell us about what people ate. As we know, sugars and carbohydrates can cause cavities so if they have a lot of cavities, they probably ate that kind of diet. 

“We can also look at lesions on the skeletons and this can tell us about specific types of diseases that they may have had. A good example is leprosy, we know that in the advance stages of leprosy, the fingers and the face are really affected and can cause a lot of deformity.”

Dr Kinaston says that by looking at these diseases and identifying them, they can also see the spread of diseases over regions and trade routes spanning from Asia to Europe.  

Another thing we can learn from skeletons is about culture by analysing the burial positions of the remains. 

“In this circumstance, the bodies were buried with their heads to the north and their feet to the south and were facing east. This told us they were most likely Muslim because they were facing Mecca.” 

She says the skeletons can also provide lessons for how we live today. 

“People are living in these oasis environments for thousands of years, and this shows they’re living a really sustainable way. They’re adapting to their environment, and the Silk Road is known for all this interaction and trade, so they’re bringing foods from all over and adapting them to their small environment and using really advanced but basic farming methods that involve a lot of manure and irrigation systems to thrive. It’s something that we can take some advice from."

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