September 23, 2011

Witches and Prostitutes in Medieval Tuscany

At the church of San Cerbone in Piombino, Italy, archaeologists have discovered over 200 burials that date back to the late 13th to early 14th centuries.  The majority of the individuals seem to have been farmers or fisherman, as the site was located near the Sea of Baratti.  Some of them were buried in stone sarcophagi or stone-lined pits, others perhaps in wooden caskets or buried directly in the ground.

Excavation at the cemetery of San Cerbone
(credit: Paolo Barlettani in Il Tirreno)

Two of the burials, though, were distinct and quite anomalous, so they're making news this week.  One was the burial of a female, with which archaeologists found a bag of 17 dice.  It was prohibited for women to play dice in the Medieval era, so Fabio Redi and Andrea Camilli have suggested she may have been a prostitute, buried with a symbol of immorality.

The other burial, they suggest, may have been that of a witch.  Her skeleton revealed that she was about 25-30 years old at the time of her death.  She was likely buried directly in the ground without any casket, but additional details reveal a rather aggressive burial treatment for this woman.  Seven curved nails, each about 4cm long, were found in her mouth.  In addition, 13 more nails were found in an outline around her body, which the archaeologists suggest reflect her being nailed to the ground by her clothing.  Alfonso Forgione, an archaeologist on the project, uses the term "revenant" to describe what the community may have been trying to prevent in their burial of this woman.

The "witch" of San Cerbone
(credit: uncredited photo in Il Tirreno)

Whether these two women were indeed considered witches or prostitutes is unclear.  Interestingly, both women appear to have been buried in the consecrated ground of the cathedral of San Cerbone.  It's possible, Forgione proposes, that they were from wealthy or influential families and thus merited burials within the Christian cemetery.

This site is quite interesting, especially in light of the recent coverage of other deviant burials from the Medieval era.  Finds like these give us a window into the mindset of past peoples and the way that they conceived of the supernatural.

Further Reading (in Italian):
Thanks to Roberto Labanti for tipping me off to the story with the three links above!

UPDATE (9/26/11) - The Daily Mail is the first English-language news source to cover this discovery.  It's not a wholly bad article, surprisingly, although there's no evidence that the nails were found "driven through the jawbone" of the woman - they were simply found inside her mouth.  The attempt to relate the find to the skeleton of the "Maya Queen" is totally odd, though - different time periods, different cultures.

UPDATE (9/29/11) - Roberto sent me a link to a new piece in Corriere della Sera in which professor Paola Villani suggests that nails in the mouth (clavis oris in Latin) were an ancient practice for adultery.  This explanation seems to make more sense than the assumption that the woman was a witch, since she was buried in consecrated ground.  For you linguists, the Latin quotation that Villani refers to in the article is the 13th century Summa de virtutibus et vitiis, which can be found in a 1668 version online here.

September 21, 2011

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival IV

Let's catch up on the last couple weeks of Roman bioarchaeology news, shall we?

Excavation News
    Eagle head from chariot
    (credit: 24 Chassa)
  • September 12 - via Sofia Echo and Novinite.  Bulgarian archaeologists announced the discovery of a Roman-period (1st-2nd c AD) tomb in Thrace (modern-day Borissovo).  The tomb had been looted at some point in the past, but numerous artifacts were still recovered, including a portable table, a unique drinking vessel, a cup to collect the tears of the mourners, and a burial chariot.  The chariot, partly destroyed by tomb robbers, is decorated with eagles whose wings terminate in dragon heads.  There were also remains of an altar strewn with various animal bones and broken pottery.  There is no mention of any human remains, but if cremation was the norm in this place (and likely was the norm for high-status people in the early Imperial period), they might be found within a vessel or might not be recovered at all.  Unfortunately, no pictures seem to be published yet of this remarkable find apart from one of the eagle heads from the chariot.
Eburnation of the distal femora,
indicating osteoarthritis of the knees
(credit: K. Killgrove)
  • September 2011 - via Fasti Online.  Jeff Becker has written up a summary of the 2011 field season at Gabii, an urban center a couple dozen kilometers from Rome in the suburbs.  I've previously blogged about the skeletons of the Gabines based on my analysis of the graves found from 2009-2010.  At this point, we have over 30 inhumations from the Imperial period (1st c AD onward), including three individuals who were buried in lead or lead-lined sarcophagi.  The first one was discovered in 2009, and the second two during the 2011 field season.  Of course, Romans tended to bury their dead outside the city walls, so the fact that there are burials within Gabii (and not in the extramural cemetery that was discovered in the late 90s) likely means the city was contracting by the Imperial period.  Fasti Online has links to the last several seasons of excavation at Gabii as well.  Hopefully, I'll have a bit more to report on the Gabine skeletons in a few months, as I have an abstract in submission to next year's AAPA meetings.  In the meantime, here's a picture of one of the Imperial Gabines, a man in his early 40s, who had really severe osteoarthritis of both knees in addition to a host of other pathologies.
Tomb fresco
(credit: S. Marino via CdM report)
  • July 30 - via Corriere del Mezzogiorno.  Although this find may not be Roman-period, I wanted to highlight it anyway because I haven't found any additional reporting.  A man touring the ancient site of Paestum supposedly fell into a hole and discovered previously unknown Etruscan(?) tombs.  Previously unknown to researchers, that is, but apparently known to the tombaroli who had plundered the tomb in the past.  Archaeologists are now working at the site and have found numerous frescoes.  There are a bunch of photographs on the Corriere del Mezzogiorno site, but all appear to have been taken with a shaky cell phone.  Still, the frescoes look good - lots of red paint still left, interesting designs, depictions of musicians, and dragons or other mythological creatures.  A very cool find.  Who knew one could discover ancient tombs just by falling into a hole?

Exhibits and Museum News

  • September 17 - via Le Figaro.  The Maillol Museum in Paris is holding an exhibit with a reconstruction of a Roman house and stories from the destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD.  Although it doesn't seem to boast any human remains or body casts, the title of the exhibit is Vivre et Mourir a Pompei - Living and Dying at Pompeii.  Could be worth a visit!  
Lovers of Valdaro
(credit: Reuters)
  • September 12 - via Archaeology News Network.  The skeletons dubbed the Lovers of Valdaro are in need of a new home, and the Lovers of Mantua are campaigning to raise money - over 200,000 euros - to get them one.  While the Lovers are not Roman-era (they are in fact Neolithic in date), they attracted a lot of attention when they were discovered because these two teenagers - a male and a female - appear to have died or been buried in an embrace.  Their discovery so close to Mantua lent a Romeo and Juliet quality to the Neolithic skeletons.

In the Blogosphere
  • September 15 - via PoweredByOsteons.  I discuss the isotopic evidence for foreign women in Imperial Rome.  This post is the complete presentation written by me and given by my coauthor Rob Tykot at last week's European Association of Archaeologists meeting.  In short, there were plenty of foreign women at Rome, but we don't know a lot about the structure of immigration to Rome or the reason these women may have moved - slavery, marriage, work, family, etc.  Of course, you should expect to read more about foreigners at Rome as I continue to publish my dissertation research.  To the right is a photograph of the jaws of an older woman who may have arrived at Rome from as close as the Apennines but whose dental health was significantly worse than the average Roman's.
Roman dental work
(credit: S. Minozzi, SAR)
  • September 17 - via Suite101.  Sharon Brookshaw wrote a summary of Roman dental practices for the site  I'll admit that I don't know that much about this site - it seems to include short reports like does, but its name to me suggests a place where undergrads go to get help on their papers.  Or maybe it's a blog.  At any rate, Sharon talks about how the Romans cleaned their teeth and mentions the 2007 discovery of a Roman woman who had a dental bridge that was held in place with gold wire.  Additional pictures of Roman dental work can be found at Discovery News, but here's the picture of the gold wire find.
Check back in two weeks for more Roman bioarchaeology news!

September 20, 2011

Bones for Sale in the Valley of the Sun

Presumably in an attempt to capitalize on the proximity of Halloween, two different denizens of Phoenix, AZ, are selling human remains on craigslist this week.

A man named Mike Hale posted a skull for sale a few days ago.  He claims to have acquired it from a yard sale, but police, upon seeing the story profiled on local ABC 15, seized the skull.  Hale for some reason thought the skull was from a teenager, but the video below clearly shows the skull was that of an adult, probably an older female.

As the video says, it's not illegal to own human remains if they were acquired properly, such as through a company that sells medical skeletons.  These random skulls pop up quite often - I found one on the Raleigh craigslist several years ago - particularly since the Baby Boomer generation is now retiring from medical practice.  Back in the day, many new med students were required to purchase their own human skull.  My friend's father has one in his office, and I once got to impress a group of people by estimating its age, sex, and ancestry at a party.  (Yes, I am *that* fun at parties.)  It's odd that the Phoenix police felt the need to seize this skull, but I suppose without any additional provenience from the buyer or the seller, they thought it best to make sure it wasn't a missing person.  The craigslist post has been taken down, perhaps to be relisted when the skull is returned to Hale.  $300 is not entirely unreasonable to ask, although with the lack of teeth, I'd expect it to fetch a bit less.

Oddly, another story came out of Phoenix about a woman who is asking thousands of dollars for a full skeleton, complete with pseudo-coffin:

Cindy Chamberlain seems to have inherited "Lucy" from a family member who was in the Freemasons.  She wants to see the skeleton go to a good, local home, and thinks that if someone wants to display Lucy for Halloween, that would be great.  Interestingly, when the reporters contacted the Freemasons about the skeleton, they were quickly rebuffed and told that the Freemasons were looking into it.  Doo doo doooooo, this is the stuff of good Halloween stories!

Chamberlain's listing is still up on craigslist, and the police haven't bothered her, presumably because she has good provenience - she claims a scientist has looked at the skeleton and that Lucy was a medical donation over 100 years ago.  So definitely not illegal to own the skeleton.  And at a few thousand for what seems like a good-quality medical skeleton, Lucy is a pretty good deal.

Medical skeletons are a bit problematic because the trade in bodies is not always the most ethical.  Most of our medical skeletons in this country come from India or China, places that are more populous and not as rich as the U.S.  Good-quality medical skeletons command thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands at this point, so it's not unusual to learn about unethical practices in search of a profit.

But the biggest problem I have with these two sales - and the problem with Mortimer, the restaurant mascot I blogged about a couple months ago - is that human remains are being sold and displayed as curiosities.  Chamberlain even encouraged the buyer to use Lucy as a decoration.  While it's not illegal to do these things, it's ethically questionable.  These were, after all, the remains of a living person.  These remains were donated for the purpose of training doctors and advancing science, not for the purpose of scaring snot-nosed kids out of their Snickers bars.

Bones are the most personal, most intimate part of a human, and as someone who works with osteological remains on a daily basis, I consider myself privileged to get to know these individuals from their skeletons and to be able to train tomorrow's doctors and anthropologists with the generous donation of their physical being.  Both Hale and Chamberlain should strongly consider donating these remains to Arizona State, which has a world-class anthropology department and experts in human osteology at the Center for Bioarchaeological Research.  If I lived in Phoenix and had a few thousand dollars to spare, I'd buy the skeletal remains and donate them myself.

September 19, 2011

Archaeology of the Undead

Lots of press has been given in the past week to two late 7th to early 9th century burials found at the site of Kilteasheen in Ireland.  According to the news reports and the documentary (which won't air in the U.S. until 2012, but which you can see on YouTube... for now), archaeologists excavating at the site from 2005-2009 uncovered over 130 graves.  Two of them - both males - were buried with stones in their mouths, and one of the men also had a large stone on top of his torso.  Aside from a 2008 report of a 4,000-year-old burial, these two early 8th century Irish burials seem to be the oldest evidence of what may be the practice of preventing "revenants" (zombies, vampires, and other undead people) from returning to the land of the living.

8th century male burial from Kilteasheen, Ireland,
with large stone on and under torso
(screencap from documentary)
Both Dorothy King (PhDiva) and Michelle Ziegler (Contagions) have already blogged about this.  Dorothy points out some of the other evidence for "vampire" burials in Europe, such as the 10th-11th century cemetery of Celakovice near Prague that held a dozen people who were buried oddly (as with rocks in their mouths) and the so-called Vampire of Venice, a 60-year-old woman from a 1576 plague cemetery in Italy, who was buried with a large rock in her mouth (Nuzzolese and Borrini 2010).

The tradition of weighting down or otherwise defiling corpses (as with nails through the temple and stakes through the heart) seems to be a long one in Europe, born out of a fear of the dead that was related to the rise of Christianity, the lack of understanding of germ theory, and the increase in epidemic diseases.

There weren't, for example, vampires in Rome. The Romans actually had ongoing relationships with the dead, running pipes from the ground to the grave below in order to offer them food and drink and celebrating them at least once a year in the Parentalia.  The Judeo-Christian idea that the dead should go into the ground and stay there means that deviations from this practice - as hair and nails seemed to grow after death, for example - probably caused a lot of general freaking out.  But the simple introduction of monotheism may also have caused cultural stress, particularly in 7th century England, when kings were converting to Christianity and people were no longer sure what to believe.

Michelle points out that Ireland suffered through two major epidemics of bubonic plague, in 664 and 683, followed by a massive famine in 700.  Based on the C14 dates reported in the documentary, it's possible these two burials date as early as the late 7th century.  Rocks in or on the body of the deceased may have been meant to pin the person into the grave to prevent that person from rising or coming back, or may have been placed there because the mouth was where the soul escaped from.  But rocks may also have been important in the mitigation of disease.  Many of the archaeological examples of skeletons with mouth-rocks are assumed to have come from plague cemeteries. Some of the symptoms of bubonic plague are delirium, heavy breathing, and continuous blood-vomiting. People knew that plague could spread but didn't understand how, so blocking a person's mouth may have been an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease. The sight of a terminally ill person coughing up blood could even have been the catalyst for the invention of vampires, as a cultural explanation for disease before the advent of germ theory.

The Kilteasheen burials are likely too late to be plague-related, but even a small urban center could have had endemic tuberculosis, which causes some similar symptoms, like bloody sputum.  I don't think a disease-based explanation can be completely ruled out for these burials.

8th century burial of a male, Kilteasheen, Ireland,
with stone in the mouth
(credit: Chris Read, found at
In sum, we can't be certain of the meaning of these Irish burials, but the long tradition of incapacitating the dead to prevent them from becoming revenants coupled with historical records of disease epidemics suggests the people who buried these men likely had a good reason for wanting them to stay dead.

Excavators at Kilteasheen estimate that there are around 3,000 burials at the site, so I suspect we'll be hearing more about this cemetery in the years to come.  It will be interesting in particular to see if other burials in the cemetery were given the same mouth-rock treatment and whether the practice dates only to the 8th century or continues to later periods of the cemetery's use.

Watch the documentary, Mysteries of the Vampire Skeletons, on YouTube:

Further Reading and References:

McLeod, J. 2010.  Vampires, a Bite-Sized History.  Pier 9.  [Google Books]

Nuzzolese E, & Borrini M. 2010. Forensic approach to an archaeological casework of "vampire" skeletal remains in Venice: odontological and anthropological prospectus. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 55 (6), 1634-7. PMID: 20707834.

Rickels, L.  1999.  The Vampire Lectures.  University of Minnesota Press. [Google Books]

Tsaliki, A. 2001. Vampires beyond legend - a bioarchaeological approach.  In Proceedings of the XIII European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, ed. M. La Verghetta and L. Capasso, pp. 295-300.  [Read here]

Tsaliki, A. 2008. Unusual burials and necrophobia: an insight into the burial archaeology of fear.  In Deviant Burial in the Archaeological Record, ed. E Murphy, pp. 1-16.  Oxbow Books. [PDF here]

September 15, 2011

Foreign Women in Imperial Rome: the Isotopic Evidence

Just a short time ago, I had a paper at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in Oslo.  I unfortunately couldn't attend the conference, so Rob Tykot presented it.  The paper was fun to write, though, and lays out the bioarchaeological evidence (albeit sparse at the moment) for women who immigrated to Imperial Rome.  Following is the complete presentation.  Comments are always welcome!

Foreign women in Imperial Rome: the isotopic evidence

K. Killgrove, Vanderbilt University
R. Tykot, University of South Florida
J. Montgomery, Durham University

A significant amount of classical scholarship over the years has been dedicated to understanding the demographic make-up of the population of Imperial Rome.  Without a proper census, however, classical demographers lack several key pieces of information necessary for reconstructing the number of citizens, slaves, and foreigners at Rome (Noy 2000:16). 

Tombstones provide the most solid evidence of immigrants who died in Rome.  Here we have an example of the inscription on a tombstone of a soldier, noting he was from Noricum (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum vi 3225, translated in Noy 2011). For the most part, though, the epigraphic habit was largely the province of the wealthy, educated elite, leaving us with little information about the lower classes.  Demographic estimates of foreigners at Rome range from 5% to 35%, suggesting that as many as one out of every three people in Rome arrived there from elsewhere. Below is the inscription from a large tomb that a group of freed slaves built in Rome (Année Epigraphique 1972, 14, translated in Noy 2011).  They all appear to have belonged to the same household (as they share a name and the designation C.L., “freed slave of Gaius”) yet came to Rome from various places: Greece, Asia Minor, and north Africa. The practice of commemorating one’s homeland is rare, though, and it is unclear how many slaves and free immigrants came from Italy or from further afield in the Empire (Morley 1996, p. 39).  Finally, the epigraphical record of immigrants to Rome is gender-biased, as the vast majority of inscriptions that mention immigrants are those of males (Noy 2000, p. 60). Part of this bias is attributable to the commemoration of soldiers, but males outnumber females three to one even in civilian immigrant inscriptions (Noy 2000, p. 61, Table 2). 

In order to learn more about female immigrants to the Imperial capital, we undertook a bioarchaeological study of human skeletal remains from Rome.  Through a combination of isotope analyses, palaeopathology, and burial style, we identified previously unknown female immigrants in the archaeological record of Rome and were able to reconstruct key aspects of their life histories.

Our skeletal material comes from the cemetery of Casal Bertone, which was located just 2 km from the center of Rome and was in use from the 2nd-3rd centuries AD (Musco et al. 2008). The majority of the graves were located within a simple necropolis, which included unmarked pit burials as well as burials a cappuccina.  An above-ground mausoleum that slightly postdates the necropolis was found as well, and it may have held people of higher social status.  Out of the 138 burials, we chose a stratified sample of 30 adults to subject to strontium, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen isotope analyses – 19 males and 11 females.

This graph shows the strontium and oxygen isotope results for the first molars of adults from Casal Bertone.  The approximate isotope range of Rome is represented by a box comprising the upper and lower bounds of expected Sr and O values.  No other Sr studies in the Italian peninsula have been done on human skeletal remains, so the local range was estimated conservatively using geochemical modeling that took into account the fact that Rome was supplied by aqueducts that drew water from sources with distinctly different geology than is found in the volcanic Alban Hills (Killgrove 2010a, 2010b).  By combining Sr with an O range from previously published human skeletal data (Prowse et al. 2007), however, it is easier to see nonlocals.  Here, females T82A and T39 are fairly clearly immigrants to Rome because of low/high O isotopes and rather low Sr.  T42, on the other hand, is a borderline case since measurement error could put her within the local O range for Rome.  Clearly, though, isotope analysis of human skeletal remains is a viable way to identify female immigrants in the bioarchaeological record of Rome, particularly those who were not commemorated as such on tombstones.

Three of the 11 females we tested (27%) were probably immigrants to Rome.  Out of the 19 males studied, 6 were immigrants (32%).  More interesting, though, is the sex ratio in the immigrant population.  Whereas the sex ratio in tombstones that commemorate immigrants at Rome is 78% male versus 22% female, the ratio of immigrants discovered through skeletal evidence is 66% male versus 33% female.  This is, granted, a small sample but suggests that the bias towards male immigrants may in the future be rectified by studying skeletal data.

Epigraphy does occasionally tell us a little about the lives of female immigrants.  The tombstone of freedwoman Valeria Lycisca, for example, specifically notes that she came to Rome at age 12 (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum vi 28228).  Isotope analysis of the skeleton can give us similar information, in that it can help narrow the window of time in which a person immigrated. Two of the Casal Bertone female immigrants – T39 and T82A – also had third molars that could be subjected to Sr isotope analysis.  Both produced M3 Sr values that were very close to their M1 values.  The difference between T39’s first and third molars is .00016, and the difference between T82A’s first and third molars is .00017.  Their M3 values still place them towards the low end of the calculated Sr range of Rome.  People in the low end were probably immigrants from an area with younger geology (such as the southern, volcanic areas of Italy); however, it is possible people in this range were locals who consumed a significant amount of Roman aqueduct water (roughly 90% of all water consumed) throughout childhood.  Oxygen isotope analysis on the M3s has not yet been done.  Based on the small differences between these women’s M1s and M3s, it is likely that both immigrated to Rome after the development of their M3s was complete.  Therefore, T39, a woman of about 15-17 years at the time of her death, likely died shortly after arrival in Rome.

Not only can isotope analysis help us find immigrants to Rome and the date at which they immigrated, it can help us learn more about their lives before and after migration.  This graph shows the carbon and nitrogen isotope values measured from the femora of women buried at Casal Bertone.  There is a surprising gap between two clusters of data – representing a C3- and terrestrial-plant-based diet towards the bottom left and a diet slightly higher in C4 plants and aquatic resources towards the upper right – but the three immigrant women do not show evidence of having a non-Roman diet.  They were likely consuming a diet similar to that of local women (Killgrove & Tykot, n.d.).

We also looked at the change in use of carbon-based resources through a comparison of enamel and bone apatite values, which represent the ages of 0-3 and the last few years before death, respectively.  T42 and T82A changed very little about their diet between childhood and their deaths at 30-40 years old, at least in terms of the carbohydrate portion.  Surprisingly, some of the local women dramatically changed their diets – F1A and F6E, for example, consumed more C3 resources as adults.  The average d13Cap value for locals is -12.5 permil with a stdev of .5, which means that T39 had an enamel apatite value more than three stdev higher than the local average.  Her bone apatite value, however, is only 1.5 stdev higher than the local average.  You’ll remember that, based on age-at-death and a third molar Sr value that was likely nonlocal, T39 was probably a fairly recent immigrant to Rome before her death at the age of 15-17.  We are cautiously interpreting the d13Cap data as showing that T39 had started acculturating to a Roman-style diet from a childhood diet that was higher in C4 resources, but may have died before bone turnover could fully demonstrate this.

Although T39 died young, her skeleton betrays no major illness as the proximate cause of death.  Her postcranial skeleton was fairly friable and incomplete, but her teeth were decent, with just one carious lesion and minor calculus.  Her fairly high O isotope signature suggests she was from an area with warmer, drier climate than Rome; her low Sr suggests young, volcanic geology.  Both of these are consistent with an origin in the southern part of the Italian peninsula, but she could have been from a number of places in the southern Mediterranean.  Upon arriving at Rome, she changed her diet, likely out of necessity rather than by choice.  Similarly, T42 had no evidence of skeletal pathology and only minor dental disease.  Her Sr and O values are less clearly non-local, and her C and N values are in line with a Roman diet, so she may have come from an area not too distant from Rome.

T82A, on the other hand, had a much lower O isotope signature than the local range, suggesting her origin was somewhere with a cooler, drier climate than Rome.  The low Sr value could have been from volcanic geology south of Rome or could reflect travertine in the central part of the peninsula.  Together, the Sr and O suggest this woman may have been from the Apennines or geologically similar area.  She was average in height, and palaeopathological analysis revealed she didn’t perform a lot of physical labor in her life, nor was she chronically ill.  She consumed wheat/barley as a child and as an adult, but in the later years of her life, she ate less fish and more terrestrial plants than other Romans.  For such a healthy skeleton, T82A has very poor dental health.  Carious lesions in her molars and premolars could indicate that she was eating sticky, sugary foods (perhaps dried fruits), and rampant periodontal disease indicates a probable inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) during life.  Both conditions, if left untreated, can lead to chronic halitosis. This woman had a relatively unstressed life as judged from her skeleton.  Further, unlike most of the people in the cemetery, T82A was buried with grave goods; excavators found a bronze ring and 5 hair pins arranged around her skull.  The poor dental health indicative of consumption of sweet, sticky food combined with the presence of grave goods suggests this woman was of higher social status than others buried at Casal Bertone. Regardless, she was buried in a simple, unmarked grave that did not, on the surface, differentiate her from others in the necropolis.

The question remains, why did these women immigrate to Rome?  Anthropological theories on ancient migration suggest four main types of physical mobility: local, circular, chain, and career (Tilly 1978, pp. 51-4).  Local immigrants to Rome would have come from other nearby areas of the Italian peninsula, perhaps to find a job or a marriage partner.  Circular migration, where people migrate then return to their homeland, also occurred in the form of students, travelers, soldiers, and itinerant occupations like poet and shepherd.  Chain migration, where migrants at the destination encourage additional people to immigrate, was also prevalent in Rome, particularly with the diaspora of Jews and the rise of Christianity.  Career migration – moving to Rome to practice medicine or to teach – was another way that foreigners would end up at Rome.  Finally, slavery brought millions of people to Rome during the course of the Empire.  Most of the voluntary forms of migration, though, were not available to the majority of women in the Empire.  There is little evidence of family migration, except in the case of soldiers, whose wives and sometimes mothers would accompany them on campaign (Noy 2000).  And there is only one extant tombstone mentioning a foreign woman at Rome with a secular job: Coelia Mascellina, a wine and oil merchant from Baetica (Spain) (Année Epigraphique (1973) 71). In short, there is no indication in the archaeological record of Casal Bertone why these three women immigrated to Rome.  Based on their demographics and possible homelands, T82A and T42 may have engaged in local migration, whereas T39 likely came from further away.  As a recent arrival at Rome during her teenage years, perhaps T39 came as a new wife, or perhaps she came as a domestic slave.  The wealth of bioarchaeological evidence on these female immigrants to Rome makes it tantalizing to consider their motivations to migrate, but with so little known about the structure of slavery or the number of slaves at Rome, it isn’t yet possible to completely understand the pivotal moment of migration within their life histories.

Immigrant Roman women comprise one of the most understudied populations in the ancient world, with sparse evidence of their existence and their daily lives coming from tombstones and other written accounts.  As part of a larger project on migration to Imperial Rome, we found bioarchaeological evidence of female immigrants through isotope analysis.  Contrary to assumptions that migration is age- and gender-selective, chemical analysis of skeletons showed that immigration to Rome was not the exclusive domain of men; however, the reasons for and structure of migration is much better understood for Roman males because of historical and epigraphical biases in their favor. This project was undertaken on a small skeletal sample, but we hope we have shown that there is great potential in taking a bioarchaeological approach to understanding the lives of foreign women in Imperial Rome.

Acknowledgments:  P. Catalano, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma; D. Coleman and J. Inglis, Department of Geological Sciences, UNC Chapel Hill; NSF (BCS-0622452), Wenner-Gren, and the Research Labs of Archaeology for funding to KK.


K. Killgrove (2010a).  Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome.  PhD dissertation, UNC Chapel Hill. [PDF]
K. Killgrove (2010b). Identifying immigrants to Imperial Rome using strontium isotope analysis. In Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, ed. H. Eckardt. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Suppl 78, Ch. 9. [PDF]
K. Killgrove and R. Tykot. n.d.  Investigating diets of the lower classes of Imperial Rome through carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses. Unpublished manuscript.
S. Musco et al. (2008).  Le complexe archéologique de Casal Bertone. Les Dossiers d’Archéologie 330 (Nov/Dec):32-39. [PDF]
N. Morley (1996).  Metropolis and hinterland: the city of Rome and the Italian economy.  Cambridge University Press.
D. Noy (2000).  Foreigners at Rome.  Duckworth.
D. Noy (2010). Epigraphic evidence for immigrants at Rome and in Roman Britain. In Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, ed. H. Eckardt. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Suppl 78, Ch. 1.
T.L. Prowse, H.P. Schwarcz, P. Garnsey, M. Knyf, R. Macchiarelli, & L. Bondioli (2007). Isotopic evidence for age-related immigration to imperial Rome. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 132 (4), 510-9. PMID: 17205550.
C. Tilly (1978).  The historical study of vital processes.  In Historical Studies of Changing Fertility, ed. C. Tilly.  Princeton, pp. 3-56.
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September 13, 2011

Petriplatz - Wo Berlin Begann!

My colleague Claudia Melisch, who excavates at Petriplatz, made me aware of a petition campaign to encourage the Berlin senate to fund archaeological excavation and analysis at the site.  The subtitle of the project - Wo Berlin Begann - means Where Berlin Began.

Claudia Melisch in the finds lab
Excavations at the site have been ongoing for years and have revealed that beneath Petriplatz lie the remains of the earliest settlement in the modern era, including over 2,300 skeletons.  Tradition has it that immigrants from Cologne moved east and founded the city of Cölln, in the contemporary suburbs of Berlin.  Most interesting is that the cemetery dates to about 1200 AD, or several centuries earlier than anyone expected.  Cologne has very unique geology, meaning a strontium isotope study of the teeth of the people buried at Petriplatz should tell us if the founders of Berlin were indeed immigrants from Cologne.

I'll be involved with the Petriplatz Project doing the strontium isotope analysis, provided Claudia is successful in her bid for funding. So we need your help!  Please take a minute to click through to the website and add your name to the growing list of supporters.  There's a version in English, but you'll have to click back under Ihre Meinung to sign the petition.

Archaeologists excavating three of the
2,300 skeletons found at Petriplatz

September 8, 2011

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival III

Between teaching, researching, and applying for jobs, I have not had as much time as I'd like to blog.  That partly explains the delay in this installment of the Roman bioarchaeology carnival, but the other reason for the delay is that, well, not much has happened in the past two weeks that I'd consider particularly Roman bioarchaeological.  I have, therefore, just a few offerings for this carnival...

TB or Not TB

Map of Poundbury Camp.  Fig. 1, Lewis 2011.
In the first ever issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology (which is dated March but didn't show up online until fairly recently), Mary Lewis discusses the evidence of tuberculosis in the skeletons of children from the Romano-British camp at Poundbury (Dorset, England).  Originally an Iron Age hillfort, in the Roman period (3rd-4th c AD), Poundbury Camp was the main burial site for people living in Durnovaria (modern Dorchester).* It is unclear what kind of environment people lived in at Durnovaria, such as conditions in the small urban settlement, kind of food consumed, and prevalence of diseases. Previous work by Lewis established that the children buried in this settlement were subjected to poor living conditions and malnutrition, as seen in the high frequencies of cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis, rickets, and scurvy.

New bone formation on the visceral
surface of the ribs.  Fig 5, Lewis 2011.
For this study, Lewis investigated a sample of 165 subadults (individuals under the age of 17, the approximate age of biological maturity) for evidence of tuberculosis.  While tuberculosis is fairly well-known in the palaeopathological literature, only two cases of TB in children have been published in ancient Britain (with an additional 14 possible cases).  Ten subadults were found with probable tuberculid lesions, or about 6% of the population studied, although three of these could have had brucellosis which, like TB, is an infectious disease linked to animal domestication.

The presence of TB in children leads Lewis to conclude that the incidence in the adult population was probably higher, as children tend to get TB from adults and also tend to grow up to become adults with TB (if they survive, of course).  Whether the percentage of subadults with TB is 6% or 4%, this frequency is much higher than expected for Romano-British Poundbury.  The presence of TB in children in this sample suggests that people were living close together, and perhaps close to their animals as well.  Lewis concludes by suggesting that TB may well have been endemic in this population.

Roman Fishies

Mmm, tasty human. Grouper likee.
Bardo Nat'l Museum, Tunis
If you're a regular reader, you know that one of my research areas is the diet of Imperial Romans.  To that end, I've written quite often on this blog about the use and consumption of aquatic resources in the Roman world: Weaning and Freshwater Fish Consumption in Roman Britain and Bioarchaeology of Roman Seafood Consumption.  Although not technically Roman bioarchaeology, a press release this week mentioned a Stanford researcher who looked to Roman art to study issues of marine conservation.  Based on depictions of dusky groupers in hundreds of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman artworks, researchers have concluded that the species should be much larger and should be found in more shallow waters than it is today.  Of course, artistic depictions are not always true to life, but the preponderance of depictions of groupers as very large fish leads the researchers to conclude that today's 50- to 60-cm groupers are much smaller than they were in the past.  Further, Pliny and Ovid mention fishing for groupers from the shore, a practice that wouldn't work in modern times because groupers range in much deeper waters today.  The grouper population today seems to be shrinking, and researchers want to prevent people from fishing for them, in order to restore the population and prevent extinction.

I find it quite interesting that ancient mosaics have proven useful to conservation biologists.  In terms of diet, we need to think about what the aquatic species looked like in the past.  If groupers were large, tasty, and easy to catch, Romans may have eaten their fair share.  Assumptions about the kinds of aquatic resources consumed based on contemporary fish populations may therefore be wrong.

Roman Funerals in Gaul

Excavation at Epiedes-en-Beauce
A brief bit of news notes the discovery of a cemetery dated to 30AD in Epiedes-en-Beauce, in Loiret (north-central France).  Within a square enclosure, archaeologists found weapons, jewelry, and pottery, leading them to think the area was religious in nature.  But they also found burned ceramics, remnants of funerary meals, nails, and human and animal bone, suggesting it was a cemetery or other funerary area.  The abundance of material remains may indicate a high-status burial or burials.  The remains are currently being analyzed in the laboratory, so there is no additional information yet.

This discovery could be interesting, but I suspect that lots of little Roman-era burial sites are uncovered in France and other parts of the Empire.  Depending on the condition of the bones and teeth and the number of individuals recovered, though, the human remains could form a nice little dataset for understanding life in rural Gaul.

Well, hopefully in another two weeks' time, I'll have some more interesting Roman bioarchaeology news for you!

* See also news from the 1st Roman Bioarch carnival, on a child skeleton found at Durnovaria.


M.E. Lewis (2011). Tuberculosis in the non-adults from Romano-British Poundbury Camp, Dorset, England. International Journal of Paleopathology, 1 (1), 12-23. DOI : 10.1016/j.ijpp.2011.02.002.

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