August 3, 2010

Meet the Gabines

I spent the last two weeks on site with the Gabii Project, an archaeological dig excavating the urban center of Gabii, whose development more or less paralleled Rome's in the first millennium B.C. Last summer, the team excavated 12 burials from what appear to be a few different time periods, and this summer they found an additional 17 people. I wasn't sure if I'd get everyone studied in just two weeks, but I managed. (Well, all but the lead sarcophagus guy/gal - that burial hasn't yet been opened.)

The current Gabii population is a very small sample size, even smaller when you consider it consists of people from different time periods. My overall impression, though, is that the population is much more similar to the Castellaccio Europarco population of my dissertation (which was located about 12km from the city walls of Rome) than to the Casal Bertone population (which was located less than 2km from Rome). This isn't particularly surprising, as most of the skeletons seem to be Imperial in date, a time at which Gabii as an urban center was likely in decline, and it doesn't appear that Gabii had access to any of the eastern aqueducts that supplied Rome with clean, fresh water. So the Gabii skeletons are more similar to people in the suburbs than they are to people who lived near the city of Rome.

In general, the Gabines had pretty bad teeth. There was a lot of dental wear, a fair amount of antemortem tooth loss, dental calculus, and some carious lesions. Surprisingly, there were few linear enamel hypoplasias. The demographics of the 28 people I studied can basically be separated into infants and adults (with no kids over 2 and no adults under about 20 years old at death) and a relatively balanced adult sex ratio. Predictably, I saw a lot of degenerative changes in the adults: osteoarthritis, Schmorl's nodes, fused toe phalanges, etc. Some of the more interesting pathologies include:

  • internal frontal hyperostosis, a thickening of the cranial vault resulting from a hormone imbalance often following menopause;
  • probable recurrent sinus infection, as evidenced by apposition of a thin layer of new bone in the maxillary sinus;
  • well-healed fractures to the hand, nose, elbow, hip, ankle, and back of head, some of which may be attributable to interpersonal violence and some to accidental injuries; and
  • two separate cases of severe eburnation of the lateral femoral condyles/posterior patellar surfaces, indicating very bad - and very painful - osteoarthritis of the knees.
Only one kid had evidence of pathology: a severely hyperostotic cranium that appears to show two distinct episodes of iron deficiency. I need to do more research on this infant and on some of the adults, but many of the Gabines are already giving me interesting life stories.

My plan is to do a dietary study of some or all of these skeletons, as many of them had significant amounts of dental calculus. A combination of C/N isotope analysis and analysis of the phytoliths present in the dental calculus could provide a good amount of information about individual diets, and this combination hasn't been done on Roman skeletons before, to my knowledge. Of course, it would also be interesting to find out if these people came to Gabii from elsewhere, and Sr/O analysis is always on my mind.

It was exciting to be on site and to collect data again, after three years of analyzing the data and samples I collected for my dissertation, even if for a very brief time. I also got to give a mini presentation on Roman bioarchaeology for the field school students, many of whom were quite interested in finding out more about the skeletons they'd uncovered, and one of whom insisted she is going to declare a physical anthropology major when the semester opens. In my view, anyway, the project had a very successful field season, and I was thrilled to be a part of it and to get to fondle skeletons and traipse around Rome.

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