Were These Eunuchs in Ptolemaic-Roman Egypt? The Truth May Be in Their Bones
Archaeologists have recently discovered two intriguing skeletons at the Ptolemaic-Roman cemetery site in Quesna, Monufiya city in Egypt. By analyzing the skeletal remains and graves for key features, the scientists believe the individuals were possibly eunuchs.
Evidence of Castration?
Egypt Independent reported that the group of researchers consists of Scott Haddow from the University of Bordeaux, Sonia Zakrzwski from the University of Southampton, and Joanne Rowland from the University of Edinburgh. The team introduced their findings at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference last week.
Plan of Quesna cemetery showing locations of the possible eunuchs (in red). (Scott Haddow, Sonia Zakrzwski, and Joanne Rowland)
The archaeologists explained the techniques in which the two skeletons were buried and the skeletal abnormalities, including above-average height, could just imply a hereditary condition rather than castration. However, Scott Haddow and his colleagues speculated that the individuals were probably eunuchs due to the fact that castration before the onset of puberty usually occurred in individuals who were slim and tall with broad hips, narrow shoulders, and a sunken chest.
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Middle Kingdom sarcophagus relief depicting a possible eunuch servant. (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)
Skeletons B21 and B26 Have Significant Differences too
The first skeleton, named B21, was a teenager of undetermined sex from the Ptolemaic Era. Its burial differs from the way most bodies were typically positioned during that period of time as the skeleton’s head was directed south instead of north. The archaeologists also observed that most of the skeleton's bones are not fully developed, including the growth plates of the limb bones, which implies that the person was taller than average, despite not being fully grown.
B21 (adolescent of indeterminate sex). (Scott Haddow, Sonia Zakrzwski, and Joanne Rowland)
The second skeleton, B26, also a teenager of unknown sex, dates back to the Roman Era and was buried in a collective tomb. Archaeologists noticed that this individual was also taller than average and had unfused growth plates. “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,” the archaeologists’ reports explains.
B26’s observable skeletal features: (L-R) Pelvic region showing immature pubic symphysis, unfused sacral bodies, and proximal epiphyses of the femora. Lower leg region showing completely unfused proximal and distal tibial epiphyses. Left wrist showing completely unfused distal epiphyses of the radius and ulna, in addition to the MC1 epihphysis. (Scott Haddow, Sonia Zakrzwski, and Joanne Rowland)
Haddow and his colleagues also added that while B21's burial pattern was different than the typical burials of its time, B26's was in accordance with others from its period, “Both the orientation of the grave and the artifacts included in it may 'reflect societal recognition of this individual’s conspicuous intersex status,' which could be the result of pre-pubertal castration, but might also reflect a condition such as Klinefelter Syndrome or aromatase deficiency. Perhaps B26's condition did not result in visibly ambiguous sexual characteristics,” Haddow said as Egypt Independent reports.
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Selection of funerary amulets found in association with the mummy wrappings of B21. (Scott Haddow, Sonia Zakrzwski, and Joanne Rowland)
Famous Eunuchs of the Ancient World
A previous Ancient Origins article written by Valdar, has focused exclusively on some of the most famous eunuchs in history. But what is a eunuch? A eunuch is a castrated man who is usually forced to undergo such a procedure without consent. In the past, this has been done so that the person might perform a specific social role such as harem servant, guardian of women, courtier, religious specialist, royal guard, soldier, or government advisor. The Sumerian city of Lagash from around the 21st century BC provides the earliest records for intentional castration.
By having access to the ruler within a royal court, a eunuch would have had the ruler’s ear and, as a humble and trusted servant, he would impart de facto power. However, considering their lowered social status, eunuchs could also be easily killed and replaced.
A group of eunuchs. Mural from the tomb of the prince Zhanghuai, 706, Qianling, Shaanxi. (Public Domain)
Throughout time, a series of eunuchs have risen to fame: Judar Pasha, a 17th century Moroccan military leader and the conqueror of the Songhai Empire; Sporus, known as the “playboy” of Emperor Nero; and the eunuch Pothinus, one of the most powerful people in Egypt - who is known for being involved in a plot to murder Caesar.
DNA Tests Could Reveal their Sex
Back to the recent discovery of the two adolescents of undetermined sex, Haddow and his colleagues speculate that the combination of eunuchoid body habitus, unfused epiphyses, and osteoporosis can occur as the result of either genetic or culturally induced endocrine disorders. Haddow believes that until DNA testing is conducted, it will be particularly hard for them to establish the etiology of the skeletal features observed in the affected Quesna individuals with any degree of certainty and only time and more testing will help his team to decipher the mysteries of this situation.
Top Image: GR1014 showing upper layer of burials with the partially removed skeleton of B26 (one of the possible eunuchs) in the middle. Source: Scott Haddow, Sonia Zakrzwski, and Joanne Rowland