January 21, 2010

Annoying quotation of the day

I was e-flipping through a new (2010) book about isotopes, Isoscapes, in the hopes of reading the entire article "Stable and radiogenic isotopes in biological archaeology: some applications" by Schwarcz, White, and Longstaffe. As Schwarcz worked on the oxygen isotopes from Portus Romae, he includes this in the section of the chapter in which the authors discuss applications of O isotope analysis at archaeological sites around the world. I know he's not an archaeologist, but this quotation just started nagging at me:

"In the period of dominance of the Roman Empire, cemeteries were mainly located just outside of the walls of larger cities, including Rome itself, with the result that few burials from this period have been recovered."

Of course, I can't expect someone who is not a Roman archaeologist to know the ins and outs of the periurban cemeteries around Rome. It's extremely difficult to find articles on the few cemeteries (or samples thereof) that have been published, as they're usually found in obscure European journals, few of which are peer-reviewed or available online. And, of course, the publications are in Italian. For a throw-away sentence at the beginning of a section, I don't expect a non-archaeologist to research the availability of skeletal material at Imperial Rome or at Roman cities in other parts of the Empire (e.g., Roman York, Gloucester, and Hampshire in England). Still, throwing out such a crazy blanket statement about the presence (or lack thereof) of human skeletal remains is quite odd. It also kind of annoys me that it's possible to make this kind of assertion without any citations.

Regardless, it is clear that more attention needs to be directed to the wealth of skeletal remains that have been uncovered in Rome in the last 20 years or so. There are some issues of cultural patrimony, in that Italian researchers rightly feel they should have first crack at studying these bioarchaeological remains. Yet there is so little funding in the academy in Italy that only small samples of large cemetery populations get published (as, for example, the roughly 120 individuals from the via Basiliano cemetery in periurban Rome, which held close to 2,000 people). I am, of course, hoping that my dissertation brings to light just how much more we can learn about Rome from the amazing amount of biological remains that need to be analyzed. My work isn't currently widely published, although I hope that my upcoming Journal of Roman Archaeology paper will help disseminate at least the fact that cemeteries and skeletons exist from Rome. Perhaps after these publications, researchers will no longer be able to claim that there are few burials from Imperial Rome.

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