Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XIII

Not a lot of new stuff this past fortnight, continuing what seems to be a trend.  From here on out, then, I'll plan to put up the carnival once a month, at the end of each month... unless news reports pick up (which they may do towards the summer when loads of people are in the field excavating).
Amphorae from Trieste
(via ArchaeoRivista)

  • ArchaeoRivista has two short posts on random Roman tombs discovered at Truccazzano and Trieste.  The former are simply reported as "probably Roman," but without proper dating until further study is carried out.  The latter include two adults and one child.  It's not clear to me what time period the Trieste skeletons are from, but archaeologists also found over 100 amphorae post-dating the 1st century AD.
  • This neat little game I found is Greek rather than Roman, but it's an interactive webpage from the British Museum in which you attempt to diagnose Thucydides' disease based on descriptions of his symptoms and the medical knowledge of the time.  See if you can better understand the 430-426 BC plague of Athens!
  • If you happen to be in Milan between February 23 and March 4, you can see the exhibit Cranioscopia, curated by Alberto Zanchetta, which looks like it's in conjunction with Zanchetta's forthcoming book "Frenologia della Vanitas: il Teschio nelle Arti Visive."  (Very nifty book cover!)  Seems like the exhibit involves books on skeletal anatomy from a variety of time periods.
  • Skeletal remains of at least two individuals have been uncovered at a construction site in Milton Keynes (England).  Archaeologists say that the bones are older than 70 years and therefore not of forensic interest.  The burial style, though, is similar to what they're calling "kist" burials (which I guess is British for "cist"?) dating to the 5th century (Late Roman) found at Wolverton in the 1980s.  The picture (below) shows that the burial is quite disturbed, with ribs up near the skull.  An adult mandible (with what looks like antemortem loss of the lower right molars) is evident, and it looks like the little pile of bones could be subadult (or they could be faunal - hard to tell from the tiny, blurry picture).
Possible Roman bones at Milton Keynes (via BBC)


Anonymous said…
from Chris Morley

This article , discusses, in relation to the Salem witches in 17th Century New England, our contemporary predilection to ascribe modern-day medical causes and meanings to pre-scientific period pathology and deaths.

How societies of different periods and places would have interpreted and ascribed meaning to whatever oseopathological evidence we can now detect, struck me as something you and other experts ought to debate and consider in bioarchaeology, if you are not already paying this close attention.

I draw your attention to the advice of Professor Mary Beth Norton, of Cornell University, towards the end of this piece, especially this:

“Then you have the people who want to make a medical explanation. These are all modern people: Suzy Witten [jimsomweed], Linda Caporael [ergot], and Laurie Winn Carlson [encephalitis]. I would point out to you that medical explanations are modern. That Americans today want medical explanations for things that in the 19th century would have been explained by hysteria, and in the 18th century would have been explained by religious conversion experiences in the context of the Great Awakening, when people were having these types of fits, and in the 17th century by witchcraft.

“Let me remind you that the 17th century was a pre-modern society. This is a society before the scientific revolution. Nobody knew that hurricanes were coming because there were no satellites; nobody understood animal illnesses. When strange things happened—and many things in the 17th century were strange because nobody understood the germ theory—the default explanation became witchcraft. That is, if you didn’t have way of explaining something, you would say to yourself, ‘I bet this person or this animal was bewitched.’”

“Here is what I’m saying to you: There is the same behavior over time, and that each time period has different ways of interpreting it. I would confidently predict that 50 or 100 years from now there will be a completely different explanation.”

The professor's words made me think that bioarchaeologists need to search for evidence and consider how individuals at the time would have interpreted the effects of the osteopathology we can now detect and interpret with our 21stC medico-scientific frame of reference. This modern viewpoint tells us very little about how it would have been experienced by people at the time in that historic/prehistoric time and place. And our Western medico-scientific view does not apply, even today, in all parts of the world.

Your Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XIII tells us for example that we have some information for some literate people in the ancient Greek and Roman world (eg disease affecting Thucydides; the 430-426BC plague of Athens), but this is unusual.
What might those symptoms have meant to someone in the Bronze Age, to a pagan Anglo-Saxon, or to a monk or nun caring for the sick in a C15-16thC hospital (eg including illhealth as punishment for sin, or the devil's work); in rural Galway in late 19th C Ireland my own great-grandmother would have said semi-seriously, many aches and pains were the work of the "little people".
Anonymous said…
re the 'kist' burial Skeletal remains of at least two individuals .... at Milton Keynes
from Chris Morley

You ask whether 'kist' is British English for 'cist'.
This is a spelling error in the BBC's report of this burial in Buckinghamshire, southern England, perhaps misled by the council's archaeologist.

My British dictionary (Chambers) confirms the English spelling is cist.
Kist is a Scottish variant.
Chris - Yes, in the Greco-Roman world, we have a lot of information about diseases, from symptoms to what people thought caused them to the ramifications of having a disease or losing family members to a disease. A great resource is Mirko Grmek's "Diseases in the Ancient Greek World." It's really astounding how much the Greeks knew about disease in a time before germ theory.

But aside from that, there is a great body of medical-historical literature on diseases like leprosy, tuberculosis, and syphilis that tells us what people of the time thought (for example: whom they blamed syphilis on).

I do see the point in the link you posted, though. We are obsessed with medical explanations at the moment, at this idea of retro-diagnosing the ancients (an idea that I'm not always in favor of: The experience of disease is an interesting topic, and one that I'll have to look into further. I think osteology has a lot to contribute to that (e.g., studies of individuals with non-functioning legs or lost teeth who were clearly cared for by their community), and several researchers have started down that path with the idea of "social" bioarchaeology.
Funny. I live near Trieste and didn't know a thing about this. Thanks for sharing!

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