April 12, 2012

Palaeopathology and Urban Decline at Imperial Gabii (Italy)

As I noted yesterday, I'm at the AAPA conference in Portland.  Here's the poster I'm presenting today, which details the recent work I've been doing at Gabii.

(For those of you at the conference, I'm chairing Session 2, the poster session in human osteology/bioarchaeology, at the Plaza Level of the hotel.  My poster is number 65, and I'll be hanging out with it from 10:30-11 and 2:30-3pm.  Stop by and say hi!)

Palaeopathology and Urban Decline at Imperial Gabii (Italy)
Top - Map of Sites
Bottom - Gabine Plain

Background: Urbanism in Latium

The ancient city of Gabii emerged in the late first millennium BC during a wave of urban explosion that also saw the rise of Rome just 12 miles away (Becker et al. 2009). Gabii grew to one of the largest cities in the area by virtue of its geographic location at the intersection of several important roadways. Rumored to be the place where Romulus and Remus were educated, Gabii was a cultural icon for centuries. By the late Republican period (1st century BC), literary references to Gabii concerned its depopulation and insignificance in civic life.

Little archaeological investigation was undertaken at Gabii until 2007. One of the surprising finds was a makeshift Imperial-era necropolis. Since Roman cemeteries were traditionally located outside the walls of a city (Cicero de Legibus ii, 23, 58; Toynbee 1971), one of the salient features of the collapse of Gabii as an urban center is the reuse of the city as a necropolis. The question remains: Who was buried at Gabii?

Gabii Cemetery
Top - Map of Area B
Bottom - Excavated Burial
(courtesy the Gabii Project)

Area B at Gabii corresponds to a domestic structure dating to the mid-Republican period, followed in the early Imperial period by burials that were likely purposefully made within the abandoned structure. The sequence of burials in Area B has not been fully refined, but carbon dating of bones from three graves suggests the burial program began in the late 1st/early 2nd century AD and continued through at least the 3rd century AD (Becker 2011).

Most of the burials in Area B are aligned roughly east-west, but others, like Tomb 8 (the “lead burrito”), are more north-south in orientation. Skeletons were interred in simple pits, in amphorae, and in cappuccina-style graves, consistent with burial forms found in other Rome-area necropoleis (Musco et al. 2008; Buccellato et al. 2008). However, three burials contained lead sheeting, a practice not well-attested in Roman graves. The lead burials are not included in this presentation, as they will be studied further this summer.

The total number of Imperial-period skeletons from Area B is 23 – 5 subadults under the age of two, 7 females, 8 males, and 3 adults of indeterminate sex.

Pathological Conditions

Gabii can be directly compared with three other cemeteries in use during the 1st-3rd centuries AD: Casal Bertone, Castellaccio Europarco, and Vallerano (Killgrove 2010; Cucina et al. 2006). Demographic data show that the Gabine burial population is quite different, however, with no subadults between 2-18 years of age. None of the five children examined had evidence of cribra orbitalia, compared to much higher crude prevalence rates at the other sites. Of the adults from Gabii, 14 presented teeth or jaws for analysis. The Gabine population had worse dental health in terms of true prevalence rates of caries, calculus, abscesses, and antemortem tooth loss (AMTL) than did the other three populations. In comparing these frequencies using Fisher’s exact test, Gabii is statistically different (p≤.01) than Casal Bertone and Vallerano in caries, abscesses, and AMTL, and different than Castellaccio Europarco in the latter two conditions. Gabii is similar to Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco in frequency of degenerative joint disease: 67%, 76%, and 63% CPR, respectively.
Dental Disease at Gabii


The urban area of Rome boasted a very heterogeneous population during the Imperial period owing particularly to the importation of slaves from other areas of the Empire (Killgrove 2010). Attempts to characterize the skeletal health of this disparate population, however, are only just beginning, and most reports do not list methods or individual-level data. Based on the information available to date, the Gabii skeletal series is different than those from other cemeteries near Rome in terms of demographics and frequencies of dental disease.

Osteological investigation of the Gabine population suggests a burial program biased towards adults and young children, and palaeopathological investigation suggests consumption of different foodstuffs and/or more physical stress compared with other groups from the same area and time period. It is currently unclear whether these differences can be directly related to the collapse of the city of Gabii.

Analysis of this site and the skeletons is ongoing. Future research will involve biochemical testing to investigate the diet and the geographical and biological backgrounds of the Gabines.

This research was supported by the Gabii Project, an international archaeological initiative whose goal is to investigate the history of the ancient urban center. Thanks are extended to Nic Terrenato (Project Director), Jeffrey Becker (Managing Director), and Marcello Mogetta (Vice Field Director) for access to the skeletons, permission to use the cemetery map and burial photograph, and for information on the chronology of the burials.


Becker, J., Mogetta, M., & Terrenato, N. (2009). A New Plan for an Ancient Italian City: Gabii Revealed American Journal of Archaeology, 113 (4), 629-642 DOI: 10.3764/aja.113.4.629

Becker, J. 2011. Gabi. FASTI Online.

Buccellato, A. et al. 2008. La site et la necropole de Castellaccio. Les Dossiers d'Archeologie 330:14-9.

Cucina, A., Vargiu, R., Mancinelli, D., Ricci, R., Santandrea, E., Catalano, P., & Coppa, A. (2006). The necropolis of Vallerano (Rome, 2nd–3rd century AD): an anthropological perspective on the ancient Romans in theSuburbium International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 16 (2), 104-117 DOI: 10.1002/oa.808

Killgrove, K. 2010. Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome. PhD Dissertation, UNC Chapel Hill.

Musco, S. et al. 2008. Le complexe archeologique de Casal Bertone. Les Dossiers d'Archeologie 330:32-9.

Toynbee, J. 1971. Death and Burial in the Roman World. Johns Hopkins University Press.


adityathedarwinian said...

Another burial place of palaeo-pathological interest is Roopkund,located in Chamoli district, Uttaranchal,Himalayas (India).

Anonymous said...

Love the scannable barcode (with the tiny skull) and the design of the poster--very cool!

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