Piecing together an ancient biblical site, bone by bone

In the lab of Penn Museum’s Janet Monge, rising senior Fiona Jensen-Hitch is sorting and photographing ancient human remains to shed light on the people of Gibeon.

In 1956, in a place called el-Jib in what was then Jordan, archaeologist James Pritchard discovered a four-letter inscription on the handle of a wine jug: GBcN. The letters represented the Hebrew spelling of “Gibeon,” an ancient city referenced dozens of times in the Old Testament.

Pritchard, at the time a research associate at the Penn Museum, and his team conducted several more expeditions there, finding 54 inscribed jugs, 27 vats, hundreds of jar fragments, ancient pottery—enough evidence to confirm that this was, indeed, the location of the biblical site.

But, exciting as the discovery was, in the notes and papers describing the work, Pritchard and colleagues made little mention of any human remains.

“It wasn’t necessarily what they were interested in. That’s kind of common for that time and place, and also for biblical archaeology,” says Fiona Jensen-Hitch, a rising senior at Penn. “They were more interested in ceramics. Also, they probably didn’t have a bio-archaeologist on the excavations, so it could also be there wasn’t anyone with the knowledge to accurately describe what they were seeing.”

Working in the lab of Penn physical anthropologist Janet Monge, Jensen-Hitch plans to do just that. This summer and continuing through the coming academic year, the anthropology-English double major is cataloging and photographing bones, mostly crania, but also loose vertebrae, one sacrum, one femur, and one spine, in an effort to better understand the people of ancient Gibeon.

She has many questions: Precisely how many sets of remains are in the large plastic containers she’s sorting through? Do other, similar remains exist, perhaps buried at the Penn Museum like a few discovered in the 1990s, or hiding somewhere else in the world? Why do the bones show signs of anemia and other ailments? How old are they exactly?

Jensen-Hitch also plans to use the project, which will become her senior thesis, to study the ethics of collecting and storing human remains and the role archaeology and archaeological remains play in political narratives. Case in point: The area where these particular bones were excavated today sits in the political hotbed of the West Bank.

‘Richer history’
On the ground floor of the Penn Museum, Jensen-Hitch holds up a fractured skull to provide an example of her samples. Immediately and almost without meaning to, she, Monge, and anthropology doctoral candidate Paul Mitchell start discussing the age of the bones in her hand. 

“This is a very young individual,” Jensen-Hitch says. “I think we said this person was around 4-ish?” 

“Does that go with this jaw?” Monge asks. “If it does, it would be 4 or 5.” 

“It may or may not. There’s another that looks very similar to this, also from the same tomb.”

Monge stops to admire the remains. “This is a really beautiful jaw,” she says.

“There’s a little maxilla that goes with it, if you want to put that together,” Mitchell says, pointing to a nearby piece of the jawbone.

After a few minutes, Jensen-Hitch stops to explain why all of this matters. In the few weeks she’s spent piecing together bone fragments, she’s found quite a few that belong to infants and children. Yet the little information about human remains in the public record says nothing about age. Not having such vital stats can limit the ability for researchers to interpret a site, and a site with children means something different, archaeologically, from a site without them.

“It was good archaeology—except for this,” Monge says. “They didn’t have a bio-archaeology person on site, and because of that they really missed a lot of data. So what Fiona is trying to do is fill in that data and find a new interpretation of the site, which will make for a richer history.”  

Enhancing the record?
It’s a big job, particularly for an undergraduate with just a few internships’ worth of related experience. But Jensen-Hitch seems unconcerned. Rather, she’s excited, because the project brings together so many of her varied interests.

She started as pre-med at Penn, believing she would major in Biological Basis of Behavior. But then she spent the summer after freshmen year on the Puerto Rican island of Cayo Santiago, working as a research assistant for Penn Integrates Knowledge professor Michael Platt. “The graduate student I was working with, a grad student in anthropology, talked to me about the field of physical anthropology, and that next fall I took Janet’s ‘Intro to Human Evolution’ class. That where I really got started,” Jensen-Hitch explains.

That initial anthropology course led to an independent study with Monge focused on human osteology, then a digital archaeology project with Peter Cobb, a teaching specialist with the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials, a three-year-old initiative of the Penn Museum and the School of Arts and Sciences. During Jensen-Hitch’s junior year, she curated a student exhibit at the Museum about storytelling, and then, as part of a Penn Global Seminar with international-relations lecturer Sam Helfont, traveled to Israel and Jordan.

“I learned about that cultural heritage and history. I got to talk to people about archaeology and archeological projects in that area,” Jensen-Fitch explains. “It’s exciting to be able to put it all together. I have all these different areas I want to explore. With my current project, rather than having one specific question I’m trying to answer, one road I’m trying to go down, it’s broad. Different aspects will lead me in different directions, which shows me that these aren’t just bones.”

Monge’s lab is an inviting place to follow these diverging paths. As curator of the Penn Museum’s Physical Anthropology section and an adjunct anthropology professor, Monge has decades of experience. She’s curious in a genuine way, and believes not only in Jensen-Hitch’s abilities to see this project through, but also in her student’s ability to become the teacher. 

“She’s got a long haul, because to distinguish between all of these kinds of marks she has to become the investigator. The lab is actually here to help her investigate,” Monge says. “She’ll have to become the expert.”

After only a few weeks, Jensen-Hitch is already moving in that direction. She looks comfortable handling the bones; she’s already secured some additional funding to radiocarbon date them. And at the end of the bulk of the project, once she knows what the Penn Museum possesses and what’s still missing, she plans to reach out to the Jordanian government to ask whether, by some chance, 50 years later, anybody knows anything about additional human remains from the site. She understands it probably won’t lead anywhere, but she wants to ask anyway.

“It’s very up in the air, but I think that’s also exciting,” Jensen-Hitch says. “We’ll see where it goes, and a year from now we’ll see what’s happened.” If it goes according to plan, this undergrad from Santa Fe, N.M., could enhance the historical understanding of the ancient site of Gibeon.  

Janet Monge is the curator-in-charge of the Physical Anthropology section at the Penn Museum, and an adjunct anthropology professor in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Paul Mitchell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences. He completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Penn in 2013 and 2014, respectively.  

Fiona Jensen-Hitch is a member of the Class of 2019. She is double-majoring in anthropology and English, and earning a minor from the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials. Her summer work was supported by the Pincus-Magaziner Family Undergraduate Research Fund, a Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships grant. Her work this upcoming academic year will be supported by a Wolf Humanities Center fellowship and the Penn Museum Fellows program.