August 10, 2011

1st Installment of the Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival

Since I'm gearing up for a new semester (finishing up syllabi, packing for a move, etc.), I haven't had as much time as I'd like to blog about the interesting reports and publications that have come out recently on the topic of Roman-era skeletons.  So here's a carnival or round-up of links from the past few weeks, things I've wanted to talk about but haven't had the time to craft full posts about.


Skeletons
Roman Child Skeleton from Durnovaria
(credit: DorsetECHO)
  • August 10 - Today's news brought a brief story about the discovery of a skeleton of a Roman child from what used to be Durnovaria (modern-day Dorchester, England).  There's no osteological information in the report, but there is a nice little history of Durnovaria and this photo of the skeleton, which was found within the settlement (unclear if it was in a house).  It's not unusual to find children buried outside of cemeteries - within houses, near walls, etc.
  • August 8 - On Monday, the BBC gave a bit more coverage to the discovery of nearly 100 infant skeletons in a Roman-era villa in Britain.  Jill Eyers, who rediscovered the skeletons in a storeroom, put forth the idea last year that these infants were killed on purpose and that the villa was in use as a brothel.  [Original BBC report here, bit of video here.]  Dr. Eyers remains convinced of her theory, but scholars in both the classical and anthropological blogospheres are questioning that.  Most notable are the posts by archaeologist Rosemary Joyce, who wrote a critique of the theory last year and wrote an updated post yesterday continuing to cast doubt on the whole brothel idea.  Dr. Joyce's posts are well worth a read, as she delves into the historical and archaeological evidence of Roman brothels to bring a counter-point to the discussion of this interesting discovery.
  • August 8 - The American Journal of Physical Anthropology published an interesting paper on Monday by Becky Redfern and Sharon DeWitt (2011) on the effect of status on mortality risk in Roman-era Dorset, England.  The authors looked at nearly 300 individuals dating to the 1st to 5th centuries AD and assigned them a status level based on burial type.  Using models of mortality, they found that indeed higher-status individuals had lower mortality risk.  This was especially true for children and for people who were buried (and presumably lived in) an urban environment.  Interestingly, male mortality risk was higher than female mortality risk (I presume owing to warfare and other job hazards).  Redfern and DeWitt conclude that, "...the cultural buffering afforded by being of high status enabled people to more effectively deal with urban environments and migration, with lower-status individuals having greater risk because of their forms of employment and living conditions."  We can, of course, assume that individuals with higher status had better diets and overall health, and therefore lower mortality risk. But it's great to see researchers actually test that hypothesis.  It's also interesting to see that urban denizens had lower risk of mortality; in many ancient societies, urbanism meant dramatic changes to health and wellbeing, but I've also been finding with my Romans that those who lived in or near the city were generally healthier than those from the suburbs and countryside.

Mummies
Mummies arranged by age, sex, and occupation.
(credit: Panzer et al. 2010, Fig. 2)
  • Not Roman and not recent news, but still neat: last summer, S. Panzer and colleagues published a study of late 19th/early 20th century mummies from the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily.  The pictures in the article are astounding: the mummies are excellently preserved, and the radiographs show a variety of minor pathological conditions (e.g., healed fractures) in some of the mummies.  The authors were able to learn a lot about embalming techniques and about the health of the people who were given this treatment after death.

Interactive Teaching Tools
  • And finally, this link has been sitting in my bookmarks for a while.  I discovered the BBC's online video game Dig It Up: Romans through Katy Meyers' blog post (July 14, at Play the Past).  It's cute, fun, and educational.  Katy writes that, "not only does the game allow players to see the different stages of archaeology, but it is all done in a cultural resource management with the threat of construction setting time limits."  Unfortunately, I didn't find a skeleton when I played... just a lamp and an amphora.  But the game shows that archaeologists need sampling strategies, that we don't always find every piece of an artifact, and that we don't always find anything of interest (ah, memories of Spam cans from my days excavating at Monticello).  Go play it now!  You know you need a break from work.

References:
ResearchBlogging.org
Panzer S, Zink AR, & Piombino-Mascali D (2010). Scenes from the past: radiologic evidence of anthropogenic mummification in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily. Radiographics 30 (4), 1123-32. PMID: 20631372.

Redfern RC, & Dewitte SN (2011). Status and health in Roman Dorset: The effect of status on risk of mortality in post-conquest populations. American Journal of Physical Anthropology PMID: 21826637.

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