Snap-shots of research: mortuary and biological analyses of fetal, infant and child bodies in Roman Egypt

This month I have the pleasure of showcasing the bioarchaeological work that Dr Sandra Wheeler is doing with fetuses, infants and children in Egypt. Dr. Wheeler is a bioarchaeologist with research expertise in juvenile osteology and mortuary archaeology with a regional focus in ancient Egyptian populations. She is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in the United States.

K2 sandra excavating

Dr Wheeler excavating a juvenile burial from the Kellis 2 cemetery, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt.

Tell me a little bit about your work:

As a bioarchaeologist, I am particularly interested in the synthesis of information gained from the study of the human body as it relates to adaptations and interrelations among the biocultural and natural environments from archaeological contexts. Infants and children are sensitive indicators of environmental and cultural change, so the direct analyses of children’s skeletons and dentitions, as well as the stressors that affected their bodies, provide a unique window into human adaptation to various environments. This, in combination with analyses of mortuary practices, can shed light on cultural ideas of personhood, and child status and agency in past societies. My research aims to interpret patterns of infant and child health and disease to understand the age and risk factors associated with child morbidity and mortality, culture change, and treatment and placement of child bodies at death.

How did you get into your field and why?

I initially began with studies in Mesoamerican archaeology and came to focus on studies of the human skeleton during my Master’s degree. I didn’t know what bioarchaeology was or what it entailed but I knew I wanted to study the human skeleton within its archaeological context. I became interested in the juvenile skeleton and had the wonderful opportunity to illustrate The Osteology of Infants and Children with Brenda Baker, Tosha Dupras, and Matthew Tocheri. This experience strengthened and focused my research interests in juvenile osteology specifically and the archaeology of childhood more broadly. I completed my PhD in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario in Canada under the direction of Christine White with a focus on bioarchaeology, juvenile osteology and paleopathology, and a regional focus in ancient Egypt. I have been fortunate to work with wonderful colleagues interested in the bioarchaeology of childhood with whom I continue to collaborate and publish. I have had the privilege to conduct fieldwork and publish bioarchaeological research from ancient Egyptian contexts, work that I hope to continue in the future.

K2 analysisDr Wheeler analyzing juvenile skeletal remains excavated from the Kellis 2 cemetery in Egypt.

What is on the future horizon for your research?

I am particularly interested in the full integration of juveniles within bioarchaeological research frameworks, whenever possible. The life course approach is a valuable one for researching trends in stress and disease through time and the risk factors associated with various life stages. I will continue to collaborate with my bioarchaeology colleagues to tease out individual life-histories through the analyses of multiple tissues to better understand the relationships among maternal health, infant survivability, and adult health outcomes, such as the biological and social risk factors for metabolic and infectious diseases.

b.600 3

An example of a juvenile burial from Kellis 2.

Selected publications:

Bleuze, MM, Wheeler, SM, Williams, LJ, Dupras, TL. 2016. Growth of the Pectoral Girdle in a Sample of Juveniles from the Kellis 2 Cemetery, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. American Journal of Human Biology. Early View Article first published online: Feb 2016. DOI:10.1002/ajhb.22844.

Dupras TL, Wheeler SM, Williams LJ, Sheldrick PG. 2015. Birth in Ancient Egypt: Timing, Trauma, and Triumph? Evidence from the Dakhleh Oasis. In (S Ikram, J Kaiser, R Walker, Eds) Egyptian Bioarchaeology: Human, Animals, and the Environment. Sidestone Academic Press, Leiden pp. 53-65.

Wheeler SM, Williams L, Beauchesne P, Dupras TL. 2013. Shattered Lives and Broken Childhoods: Evidence of Physical Child Abuse in Ancient Egypt. International Journal of Paleopathology, 3: 71-82. DOI:

Wheeler SM. 2012. Nutritional and Disease Stress of Juveniles from the Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 22(2): 219-234. Article first published online: 2010. DOI: 10.1002/oa.1201.

Wheeler SM, Williams LJ, Dupras TL, Tocheri MW, Molto JE. 2011. Childhood in Roman Egypt: Bioarchaeology of the Kellis 2 Cemetery, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. In (M Lally and Alison Moore, Eds.) (Re)Thinking the Little Ancestor: New Perspectives on Infancy and Childhood. Archaeopress, Oxford, pp. 110-121.

Baker BJ, Dupras TL, Tocheri MW. 2005. The Osteology of Infants and Children. Illustrations by SM Wheeler. Texas A&M University Press: College Station.




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