The purpose of this investigation was to provide a reconstruction of life in a large Byzantine monastic community in Jerusalem using information gleaned from skeletal remains, and the rich archaeological and historical records. Byzantine St. Stephen's played an important role in the early church and therefore appears in numerous writings from the era; when this cultural information is added to the archeological evidence and the biological data, an enticing picture of life for this ancient urban monastery emerges.
Housed in the crypt complex under the site are the remains of the inhabitants of this Byzantine occupation. The largely male composition (99%) of the collection, represented by over 15,000 skeletal remains, is explained by the historical record of a very large monastery at the site during the 5th-7th centuries CE. The robust, healthy, well-muscled stature of these men, who lived on average into their early 50's, is clarified by historical accounts of an affluent community at this location. The textual evidence also helps in the diagnosis of pathological conditions, such as the numerous disorders of the lower limb.
The most common ailments were degenerative changes of the leg, including the arthritic response in over 90% of the adults at all sites of muscle, ligament, and tendon attachment associated with deep flexion of the leg. When combined with the historical record of highly ritualized monastic practice including daily, repeated kneeling for prayer, this collection provides an ideal test for studying the link between behavior and consequent skeletal response. In addition, it contributes to our understanding of the genesis of devotional gestures such as kneeling for prayer.
Taken in tandem, the synthesis of the written and biological records presents an opportunity to expand beyond a purely textual approach in reconstructing aspects of early urban monasticism, recognizing the importance of incorporating biological aspects of human adaptability with the social and symbolic mechanisms of human interaction for a fuller understanding of life in the past.
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