Dr. William Schaffer, when not teaching and serving students, leans over a lab table, examining ancient teeth. He’s an anthropology professor and archaeologist who is also the Chair of the Liberal Arts Department at Phoenix College. The teeth in question tell researchers how people moved around from place to place in the past.  

“Archaeologists can measure the dimensions of different peoples’ teeth and create genealogies at the population level similar to the results you receive after you have sent in your DNA to 23andMe. This allows us to reconstruct the population histories of ancient peoples,” said Schaffer.

The sizes, shapes and contours of our teeth carry a lot of information about genetics and heredity. Schaffer’s current research is to examine where people come from when they migrate to cities. One such city, Amarna, is a study in failure. Today, Amarna is an archaeological site located midway between Cairo and Luxor. Though his imposed religion and city were short-lived, as well as a systemic failure, the site of Amarna is a treasure trove to archaeologists as it opens up new research questions about the past.

“Three-thousand years ago, a pharaoh defied convention with an attempt to convert the empire’s religion to the sole worship of one god. He started a new city called Amarna to express his novel paradigm, but it completely failed,” said Schaffer. “It was constructed, occupied and abandoned in less than 20 years (1350–1330 BCE). It was the site of a newly built capital city at the bequest of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled the ancient Egyptian empire just prior to the rule of his son King Tut.”

Most habitational sites archaeologists find and excavate are prime real estate, being continuously inhabited for thousands of years. With many soil layers of occupation containing the artifacts and materials of past people, it is challenging for archaeologists to find out where they may have come from. But not so in Amarna. Since the occupation of the site of Amarna is only 15 to 20 years, archaeologists can begin to ask all sorts of new research questions, as this timeframe is nearly a blip in time comparatively speaking.

Since 1992, the British Museum has held an Annual Egyptological Colloquium covering various topics on the history, art, and archaeology of ancient Egypt and the Sudan. This year’s topic is: “Amarna - The Lived City.” Dr. William Schaffer will present his research titled, “The Peopling of Amarna, Insights from the South Tombs Cemetery,” at a panel discussion on Thursday, September 19 at the British Museum’s BP Lecture Theatre. He will detail his research examining how teeth tell us the way in which the Amarna city was settled.

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