October 18, 2011

Mutiny in Mutina? Decapitated Slaves in Roman Modena

In a story that has gotten surprisingly little international press, on October 5th researchers at the archaeological superintendency of Emilia-Romagna announced the discovery of a necropolis dating to the 1st century BC to 1st century AD along the ancient Roman via Emilia outside Modena (ancient Mutina).  Discovered during excavations for a car park, the necropolis held mostly cremation burials.  Three young males who weren't cremated, however, are the real news.

The three mudered Roman-era men (credit: Gazzetta di Modena)
One man was about 18-25 years at death.  His younger compatriot was a teenager, around 16-20 years at death, and was discovered with his skull between his legs.  The oldest of the men, 24-30 years of age at death, was found with his arms crossed behind his back.  As evidenced, the tableau of skeletons suggests quick, haphazard burial at the same time.  Further, the archaeologists suggest that the bricks seen in the photograph were thrown in at the same time as the bodies.

The bioarchaeologist on the case is Vania Milani, whose previous work in the region includes the lovers of Modena and the mummies of Roccapelago.  Milani found cutmarks on the bodies, although the news reports I read did not note precisely where they were located.  Because of an absence of healing and periosteal reaction, Milani suggests that the cutmarks were made at or just after death.  These men were buried in a cemetery that held only cremations, they were haphazardly buried together, and there is evidence of cutmarks, which leads Milani to conclude that, rather than postmortem burial ritual, these men were victims of homicide.

Under the dictatorship of Sulla, decapitation was a popular form of proscribed death.  But Sulla generally wanted the heads as trophies.  Since the heads of the murdered men from Mutina were present in the graves, the archaeologists suggest this was not a government-sanctioned killing.  Rather, the director of the excavation, Donato Labate, told La Repubblica that they may have been slaves killed by their master, possibly as a lesson to other slaves (and the inclusion of bricks may have been to prevent them from re-emerging, he suggests, trying to jump on the recent witches/prostitutes/zombies bandwagon).

Close-up of a murdered Roman-era man (credit: Gazzetta di Modena)
This story is a pretty interesting one - Decapitation! Bricks in the grave! Hands behind the back! - so I hope we hear more once laboratory analysis has been accomplished.  Until then, click over to the Gazzetta di Modena, which has a nice slideshow of the skeletons, excavation, and associated artifacts.

2 comments:

Katy said...

I think one of the most interesting parts of this is that the individuals weren't cremated in a cemetery of cremations. If this was indeed the era of Sulla, cremation would have been increasing in fashion- so not being cremated must have symbolic meaning. If cremation was a way to prevent desecration, as some contemporary authors argued for, then the lack of cremation may mean that they were allowing the bodies to be potentially desecrated. It will be interesting to pursue this further- hopefully we get a more full publication in the near future!

Kristina Killgrove said...

Well, in spite of the fashion, not everyone could afford a cremation. In Rome, the really indigent were sometimes just tossed into the Tiber River. The combination of cut marks and anomalous burial style, though, definitely suggests these men were reviled for some reason - maybe they were slaves, or gladiators, or foreigners. Lots of interesting bioarchaeology coming out of Modena this month!

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