Archaeologists tie ancient bones to a revolt chronicled on the Rosetta Stone

The skeleton provides a rare glimpse into an uprising around 2,200 years ago

Egyptian warrior bones

Lower arm bones from a man’s skeleton excavated in Egypt display damage possibly caused by combat during a military uprising mentioned in writing on the famous Rosetta Stone.

R. Littman and J. Silverstein

SAN DIEGO — Excavated remains of a warrior slain around 2,200 years ago provide rare, physical evidence of an uprising that’s described on the Rosetta Stone, scientists say.

“Most likely, the warrior we found was a casualty of the ancient Egyptian revolt,” said archaeologist Robert Littman on November 22 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

A team led by Littman, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and anthropological archaeologist Jay Silverstein of the University of Tyumen in Russia unearthed the man’s skeleton at the ancient city of Thmouis. That city is now buried beneath a mound of earth and debris called Tell Timai in the Nile Delta.

The Rosetta Stone, carved in 196 B.C., is famous for bearing an official message in three scripts, including one in ancient Greek that enabled scholars to decipher another written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. That message describes a military victory of Ptolemy V, a pharaoh from a powerful Greek dynasty, against a faction of a native Egyptian revolt known from written sources to have lasted from 206 B.C. to 186 B.C. Thmouis was located in a region where battles in that revolt occurred.

Excavations in 2011 yielded the warrior’s skeleton. His body had been thrown on the ground and covered with dirt, with no sign of a burial. Healed and unhealed arm injuries and fractures elsewhere on the skeleton likely resulted from combat near the time of death as well as years earlier, Littman said. Near the skeleton, researchers found a burned arrowhead and burned ballista balls, nearly baseball-sized stones that were hurled by catapults.

Rosetta stone skeleton excavation
A warrior’s remains unearthed at a site in the Nile Delta represent a casualty of an Egyptian revolt around 2,200 years ago, researchers say.R. Littman and J. Silverstein

Littman suspects that the Thmouis warrior died at the time of the Egyptian revolt. Coins excavated just above his remains date to between 180 B.C. and 170 B.C. Coins found just below his skeleton date to 205 B.C. or earlier.

It’s unclear whether Thmouis residents sided with the rebels or the pharaoh, Littman said.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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