February 24, 2012

Women Are Cute, Men Are Geniuses

After looking at some pretty awesome mummies on Monday, I perused the Discovery Place gift shop.  On a table at the front of the store, prominently displayed, were these tshirt-and-hat combos:

They're even specifically labeled: the band on the Genius shirt/hat reads "Men's Cap and Tee" while the band on the Cute shirt/hat reads "Women's Cap and Tee."


I'm generally ok with the pinkifying of science.  If creating bath salts in a home chemistry kit means more girls and women will get into science, that's great.  But this display pissed me off.  Men display their intelligence (which they are rewarded for), while women display their physical appearance (which we are rewarded for, but only if we make a patriarchal bargain).  Not to mention, the men's display is taller - is it because men are, on average, taller than women, or is it because women's objects / women as objects are inferior to men?  Seriously, there are so many things wrong with this display.

Interestingly, I found a number of similarly styled Genius shirts in a simple web search - this one is unisex, and the copy makes it clear it's for men and women; and this one is cut for and modeled by a woman.  (Not sure what to do with the Cute Genius bracelet I also found, though...)

Discovery Place is a science museum, one aimed at school-aged kids.  Men = geniuses / women = cuties is absolutely the wrong message to send.  Even if the gift shop is run or managed independently, I'm baffled as to why no museum staff questioned this merchandise.  Perhaps, as an anthropologist with a 2.5-year-old daughter who so far loves science, I should write them a letter.

Update (2/24) - I decided to send Discovery Place an email, through their contact form.  What I wrote follows, but you can also send them an email if this post or the tshirts made you mad.
To Whom It May Concern: 
I'm compelled to write this email in response to a merchandise display I saw in the gift shop this week.  The display had men's tshirts/caps labeled Genius and women's tshirts/caps labeled Cute.  It was baffling to me that, as a self-described "preeminent science education center," Discovery Place doesn't realize that this display is communicating an old and damaging gender bias in science. 
As a biological anthropologist, I greatly enjoyed the Mummies of the World exhibit.  But as a woman, a scientist, and the mother of a 2.5-year-old daughter who loves science, I was chagrined at the idea that she and I can be "cute" but not "geniuses."  I have blogged about both of these topics (my visit to the mummies and the gender-coded tshirts) at Powered by Osteons.  Of course, I'd be happy to include your response as a coda to my "Women Are Cute, Men Are Geniuses" post. 
In closing, I urge you to reconsider selling such blatantly gendered items in your gift shop, as under-representation of women in science is a real problem.
Kristina Killgrove, PhD

February 21, 2012

An Afternoon with Mummies of the World

Flesh and organs are not really my thing; give me dry bones over gooshy bits any day.  So I don't usually go out of my way to see mummies.  If they're on display in a museum, I'll look at them, trying to catch a glimpse of the bones poking through.  But at last year's Paleopathology Association meetings, I heard a talk by Heather Gill-Frerking on the challenges involved in creating a museum exhibit on mummies and in communicating information about mummies to a wider public.  When it was announced that the Mummies of the World exhibit would make its way to Discovery Place in Charlotte, just two hours from me, I figured I needed to check it out, and I brought with me a few interested parties from different disciplines: a Roman historian (my good friend Sarah Bond), a computer scientist (my husband Patrick), and an anthropologist-in-training (my 2.5-year-old daughter Cecilia).  We were also accompanied by Douglas Coler, the coordinator of in-house education for Discovery Place, who helpfully answered our questions about the creation of the exhibit and the mummies themselves.

The exhibit is arranged largely chronologically, starting with the oldest prepared mummies - the Chinchorro mummies from about 5000 BC found in Chile and Peru - and ending with fairly recent natural mummies of the Orlovits family from 18th century Hungary.  In between, there are mummies from Egypt and Peru, as well as a bog body.  Animal mummies are presented as well - naturally preserved rats from Europe, purposefully mummified birds and fish from Egypt, and a spectacular howler monkey wearing a feather skirt and headdress from Argentina.

You can see a nicely done 3-minute preview of the exhibit below:

I liked the organization of the collection very much.  I've been teaching osteology, bioarchaeology, and palaeopathology for six years, and I always give at least one lecture on mummies.  After explaining a bit about normal decomposition, I talk about how processes such as freezing and desiccation, as well as anaerobic environments, can preserve organic remains.  And then I present some examples of mummies chronologically, with a map showing the locations around the world that have given us a variety of mummies.  So it was great to, in effect, see my lecture come alive: I could have dropped my students into this exhibit, and they would have gotten all the information from my lecture in 3-D form.

One of the fascinating individuals on display was the Detmold Child, an 8-10-month old purposefully preserved infant from Peru, who has been carbon dated to 4500-4450 BC.  This child had all kinds of health problems, including a heart defect and growth deficiencies:

Another interesting mummy is this man from the Atacama Desert in pre-Columbian Peru.  Honestly, what intrigued me most is his braid.  How does one create a braid that points in that direction?  When I braid my hair, the Vs point downward, not upward as his does:

Another great thing about this exhibit is the way the mummies are displayed.  Most are laid out on a very thin platform that conforms precisely to the body, making the support very unobtrusive.  There aren't a lot of indications, though, about the other artifacts that might have been in the burial.  Several walls of the exhibit hold shadowboxes with canopic jars, small animal mummies, and other objects that would have accompanied the dead into the afterlife.  But there wasn't a lot of information about the burial styles of most of the mummies - the Atacama man above, for example, was likely wrapped up to create that tightly flexed position, but I don't remember there being an explanation to that effect.  Some of the lack of information, though, may very well be related to the time period in which the mummies were found.  (For example, it was the height of fashion to buy a mummy and have an unwrapping party in 19th century Europe, so many mummies are now devoid of archaeological context.)

The mummy tag on display. (Sarah took this pic of the
tag in the exhibit book.)
The artifacts that were on display, though, were quite cool.  Just one Fayum portrait was loaned for this exhibit, but it was great to see it.  In Roman times, many Egyptians were mummified with a painting covering the face area; whether the painting actually depicts the individual who has been mummified, though, has been in question for a while (with examples of female mummies having a male portrait, and vice versa).  Most people are familiar with high-status mummies from the era of King Tut, and not as many know about the Fayum portraits of the middle and lower classes.  There was also a mummy tag from Egypt - basically the equivalent of the contemporary toe tag you'd see in a morgue.  Sarah was especially pleased by this and attempted to make out the Greek writing.  And there was even a page from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  So the context of Egyptian mummies was much better explained than was the context of any other culture's mummies, but given the abundance of Egyptian mummies and artifacts as well as the historical records from much of that time period, this was unsurprising.

Halfway through the exhibit, my daughter came running up to me, saying, "Mama!  There's a mummy with a hole in it!" and immediately took off, wending her way through the exhibit to show him to me.  She wanted to know more about him (as she is currently a bit obsessed with holes and discontinuities in general), so Patrick and I explained that the hole was probably made when his internal organs were removed.  Douglas confirmed that that was indeed the case.  I asked if she could name any organs.  "Hmmm.  Intestines."  "Where does your pee come from?"  "My bladder!"  "And where do babies grow?"  "A uterus!  He doesn't have a uterus.  He's a boy."  In addition to the mummy with a hole in him, Cecilia was quite impressed by the double exit sign close to the end of the exhibit.  (When you're 2, you don't really know the difference between what's mundane and what's novel.)

While I admit that I know next to nothing about creating a museum exhibit of this size, there were a few things I would have changed or included.  There was a box of animal mummies, for example, still wrapped, and the different species were listed.  But without an xray or CT scan, it's often impossible to tell a small dog from a large fish.  It would have been nice to see the images that let the researchers figure that information out.  (Perhaps more of this kind of information was contained in the videos on display; I confess I didn't have time to watch them, as we had already lined up lunch plans.)  I also wanted a bit more information on the mummies to be listed directly on the exhibit tags - in particular, at least one of the Peruvian mummies had undergone cranial vault modification, but there was no explanation for the individual's different head shape.  Sarah and I overheard a group of kids wonder why little Johannes Orlovitz was buried in a dress if he was a boy, but there was no explanation for the family's 18th century dress nearby; and I overheard people asking why some mummies were laid out and some were flexed.  Within a tour group, these kinds of questions can be asked and easily answered, but a bit more information about these common questions would have been useful.

The main point I took away from Heather's talk at the PPAs last year was not actually about the process of creating a museum exhibit - it was about the fact that the exhibit company had christened her a Mummyologist(tm).  Yes, they actually trademarked the word.  Hilariously, in the trademark paperwork, the description of the service provided is, "providing information about archaeology, anthropology and forensic science via the internet."  Well, in that case, I guess I'm a Mummyologist(tm) too!  Actually, maybe I can trademark Romanobioarchaeologist?  At any rate, this neologism is super weird to me, since anthropologist (or biological anthropologist) is a perfectly good designation (and, honestly, since it should be Mummiologist by the rules of English).  I think it does a disservice to kids to teach them this made-up word, and it undercuts to a small extent one of the points of the exhibit: to bring anthropological research to a wider public.  We've seen time and time again that the public doesn't really know what anthropologists do, so I question the creation of Mummyology(tm?) and wonder what, if any, effect this will have on the perception of research on ancient humans.

After a long but happy day running around the Mummies of the World exhibit, Discovery Place, and Charlotte, my daughter curled up in bed and we went through our nightly ritual:
"Mama, I want to have a conversation."
"What do you want to talk about?"
"I want to talk about mummies."
"Did you like the mummies?"
"Yes.  There was a mummy with a big hole in him."
"You're right.  Why did he have a hole in him?"
"He doesn't have any organs."
"That's right.  What else do you know about him?"

"He was from Egypt, on the black globe."
Discovery Place in Charlotte
(photo by Sarah Bond)
In spite of my minor critiques of the exhibit, Mummies of the World is an excellent overview of the types of preservation of organic remains.  The specimens include humans and animals, range from South America to Africa to Europe, and represent high and low-status burials of men, women, and children.  The chronological arrangement makes it easy to see that mummies have been created for millennia and aren't restricted to King Tut and his family. Special lighting (used to help preserve the mummies) sets the tone for the exhibit - the dimness is a bit eerie but also suggests a quiet respect for the dead, whose bodies give us a world of information about their lives and the eras in which they lived.  The exhibition catalogue (which I didn't buy, but was priced in the giftshop at a very reasonable $40) is lovely and includes numerous chapters on mummies from around the world, along with additional pictures and information not presented in the exhibit, by such well-known mummy researchers as Albert Zink, Frank Ruhli, Heather Gill-Frerking, and Dario Piombino-Mascali.

Anyone near Charlotte should take the opportunity to spend some time with these mummies before they move on after April 8.

February 17, 2012

Using Votives to Visualize Reproductive Anatomy in Antiquity

Shrine to Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso
in Largo Preneste (Roma) - Photo taken in
2007 by K. Killgrove.
A few blocks from my apartment in Rome was a shrine to the Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso (Lady of Perpetual Help) in Largo Preneste.  Every day in the summer of 2007, I walked or rode by it on my way to study the skeletons of the ancient Romans.  This is not the home of the original Byzantine icon of the same name - although that does reside in Rome - but rather a roadside shrine, located at a busy intersection near a major public transportation stop in the outskirts of the city.

The shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help includes flowers, candles, and dozens of plaques - mostly made out of marble - giving thanks for prayers that have been answered.  Some are simple: Grazie, thanks.  Some are spelled out: Per grazia/e ricevuta/e, For the blessing(s) received.  And some just employ the shorthand: PGR.  Many include a date and a name as well.

Every time I passed this shrine, I was struck by the pathos of one plaque in particular.  It reads PER GRAZIA / RICEVUTA / : SABINA / ROMA, 1972 and is unique to this shrine because it includes a drawing of a stomach:

Detail of the shrine.
Photo by K. Killgrove, 2007.
This tradition of dedicating a body part to a divine figure, however, is not unique to Roman Catholicism.  In fact, the practice may date back quite a long time in Italy and in other parts of the world.  In the Greek world, so-called Asklepions dedicated to the god of healing have produced treasure troves of anatomical offerings from people desperate to be cured of their bodily afflictions.  And there are more than one hundred similar sanctuaries in Italy, just in the area from Etruria to Campania, dating to the 4th-1st centuries BC (Turfa 1994).  These Etruscan and early Roman objects are generally terracotta and are often mold-made, meaning the creation of anatomical votives was a steady business, but others were more crudely fashioned, probably by the individuals themselves.  Offerings of various forms have been found, from swaddled babies to limbs to internal organs.

There's rather a large literature on votives in the Etruscan and Roman worlds, but researchers continue to question the purpose of anatomical votives, to try to suss out the ancient understanding of anatomy through identification of body parts, and to retro-diagnose the population based on the form and abundance of anatomical votives at healing centers (e.g., Cruse 2004).

This week on the blog of the Wellcome Collection, Catherine Walker writes about an object that has been identified as a Roman clay-backed uterus (dating to around 200BC-200AD).  Specifically, she notes:
This observational understanding of medicine provides an interesting perspective when looking at the votives we have in the gallery. The knowledge of what was going on inside the body was limited, so what couldn’t be observed would have been assumed. If we take the votive uterus pictured above as an example, we can see that there was little knowledge of what the organ actually looked like. Autopsies would not have been carried out at this time; there are isolated cases in third-century BCE Alexandria, but these are not the norm. The form of this votive is based on assumptions and what observation could have been made. They would have been aware of the function of the organ and could have observed childbirth, so we see that this understanding has been incorporated into the votive as the wavy lines represent contractions.
The question remains, though, should we assume a lack of knowledge on the part of the ancients, or should we question our assumption about what body part this represents?  Either way, we can arrive at different interpretations of this object.

If the Etruscans and Romans really had no understanding of internal anatomy, can we safely say that this depicts what we know to be the uterus?  That is, in modern anatomical knowledge, we understand the uterus and the vagina to be separate parts of a woman's reproductive anatomy.  The vaginal walls are somewhat ribbed and the vagina terminates in an opening - is our assignment of the anatomical votive above to a uterus simply our assumption that reproduction was the most important gynecological problem for ancient women?

And yet the Etruscans and Romans knew a great deal about childbirth (and depicted it in ceramics), even if their understanding of the internal workings of the female reproductive system was shaky.  Pretty much every woman - and probably lots of men - would have seen or attended a birth and would have been familiar with the delivery of the placenta.  Could this votive object represent the placenta, which can be rather veiny and bag-like?  Or perhaps it's a conflation of the uterus, placenta, and vagina?  In a time before modern medicine and birth control, many women (and female domesticated animals) may have seen their own uterus if they suffered from uterine prolapse, which can look similar to the votive above (I'll let you google-image search that on your own, though).

Even among experts, the assignment of votives to specific parts of the human anatomy is problematic.  In her review of the publication of the votives from Punta della Vipera, Jean Turfa (2004) writes that:
One model type, G11 (83-84, pl. 33,a) has often been identified as a bladder, but it closely resembles models found at Rome and Veii that must represent testicles; the Vipera version does have a different base or backdrop, however. Although they appear extremely stylized, sometimes described as cones or phallic markers, C.'s category G12 are, as she notes (84, pl. 33,b), intended to represent human hearts. 
One category remains problematical to all of us, C.'s G10 (82-84), identified as intestines. I now am convinced that this low-relief, oval model with undulating contours and central, teardrop-shaped organ, is in fact a deflated uterus, perhaps depicted as if just emptied of its fetus and still contracting back to normal shape. As C. notes, I originally identified the type as intestines, based on an example in the British Museum, but later amended the classification. The extra organ could be a vestigial uterus as on "normal" uterus models, or it could be a bladder or other appendage. Some examples seem to show the cervix (pl. 32, e); while the path of the intestines rendered on polyvisceral plaques can be traced, the folds on these smaller plaques are simply decorative and symmetrical.
So even experts disagree about whether something represents a bladder or testicles, whether a votive is a penis or a stylized heart, and whether an object is a uterus or intestines.  That's a lot of disagreement on pairs of organs that really look nothing alike.  Many of these articles on anatomical votives want their explanation both ways: the Etruscans/Romans didn't understand anatomy, so they depicted what they thought it was; we are reaching for the closest analogy to our modern understanding of anatomy, with the assumption that these votives are supposed to be anatomically correct.  The circular reasoning employed is a bit confusing and diminishes the attempt to understand ancient medicine and anatomy.

Figure 1 from Baggieri 1998.
The most convincing bit of evidence for assuming this anatomical votive is a uterus, though, comes from the Etruscan site of Vulci (Cruse 2004).  More than 400 anatomical votives of what appear to be wombs were found - all similarly shaped, but some with an opening and some with a closed end.  Intriguingly, these models were x-rayed, and in nearly all of them, a small clay sphere around 1cm in diameter was found.  These objects have been interpreted as intra-uterine life, connecting the votive wombs with the problems of miscarriage and infertility (Baggieri 1998).

The Vulci votives are quite different looking than the Wellcome Collection example above, but they're also much earlier in date.  With such a lengthy tradition of anatomical votives, it is possible that the slightly more natural-looking wombs of the Etruscans evolved into the more stylized, flattened womb when the votives were mass-produced in Roman times. (It's always possible that they're bladders, though, and that the spheres are, more literally, bladder stones. I'm not sure if this possibility has been investigated.)

It's easy to assume that there is an unbroken tradition in the meaning and practice of anatomical votive dedication - from the 7th century BC Etruscan wombs to the 1st century AD Roman uterus to Sabina's stomach in 20th century Rome - but it's important to question this assumption in light of the growing body of information on health, disease, and ritual in ancient Italy.  I hope the June conference at the British School at Rome will yield some new information about anatomical votives in the ancient world.


Baggieri, G. (1998). Etruscan wombs. The Lancet, 352 (9130) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(05)60686-1.

Cruse, A. (2004).  Roman Medicine.  Tempus.

Turfa, J.M.  (1994).  Anatomical votives and Italian medical traditions.  In: Murlo and the Etruscans, edited by R.D. DePuma and J.P. Small.  University of Wisconsin Press.

Turfa, J.M.  (2004).  Review of A. Comella's Il santuario di Punta della Vipera.  Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.44.

Yeomans, S.K.  (2008).  Medicine in the ancient world.  Biblical Archaeology Review e-feature.

ResearchBlogging.org This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

February 16, 2012

Anthropo-morphizing Science

In the past month, two neat projects have been started by freelance science communicators in an effort to change the public's perception of science and scientists.

#IAmScience was started by Kevin Zelnio, whose goal was to let scientists explain their personal journey into the subject.  In his original post, Kevin shared the experiences that initially sidelined his pursuit of science and drew on a recent talk at Science Online (which I swear I will go to one of these years).  The hashtag #IAmScience lets tweeters share their stories in 140 characters or fewer; here's mine.  Or you can email him with a longer story, which will appear on the I Am Science tumblr.

This Is What a Scientist Looks Like was started by Allie Wilkinson, whose goal was to change the idea that scientists are all bespectacled, grey-bearded men in white lab coats.  For Valentine's Day, Allie also solicited "Dear Science" love letters, which are all very meet-cute.  Allie's site was picked up by Scientific American today ("What a Scientist Looks Like"), and I was excited to lend her the photograph of me and a little blurb about my love for science.

Only half a dozen of us have contributed to Allie's site, so currently This Is What an Anthropologist Looks Like:

(Top, L to R) - Megan McCullen (archaeologist, ethnohistorian); Josephene & Rebecca (archaeologists); Christopher Schmitt (biological anthropologist); (Bottom, L to R) - Laurie Kauffman (primatologist); Kait G. (biological anthropologist); and me (bioarchaeologist).

Both Kevin's and Allie's projects are great ways for anthropologists to contribute to fixing the public's perception of science and scientists.  So if you haven't already tweeted about #IAmScience, go do it.  And if you haven't sent in a picture to This Is What a Scientist Looks Like, go do it.  Let's anthropo-morphize science and show the many cool things we do!

February 14, 2012

An Anthropological Valentine

Author's Note:  I originally wrote this last February, in response to a post at Savage Minds calling for anthropology love letters, but thought I'd reprise it today.  You should also read the whole series of love letters collected last March by Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology, and you can even contribute your own love note on today's AAA blog post "For the Love of Anthropology."

The Accidental Anthropologist

I’m an accidental anthropologist. Don't get me wrong, I've always known what I wanted to do when I grew up. But I came at anthropology circuitously, sidewinding my way through three of the four fields before realizing just how deep I was in a field of inquiry I'd never really thought twice about.

My love letter to anthropology, though, starts with a prothalamion to my indivisible bond with the classics. One of my earliest memories is poring through every foreign-language board book I could find in our tiny public library, memorizing Spanish words with absolutely no idea how they sounded, and devouring images of the marble elegance of the ancient Greeks. I desperately longed to experience far-away lands filled with colorful tapestries, musical phonemes, spice-laden food, and history much deeper than my native Virginia. Growing up without much money, I knew I’d have to travel to Europe vicariously – through old National Geographics with illustrated Roman history timelines, middle school French classes, and used textbooks on Greek architecture.

I was thrilled to enter 9th grade, the first time that Latin was taught in our public school system. Four years of high school Latin later, as well as a course in classical mythology and one in general humanities, I had enormous respect for my teacher, David Larrick. "Doc" gave us the keys to Rome - Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus shared with me their intimate experiences in an Empire that was massive, socially-stratified, and rife with many of the same problems as our modern world. I continued my classical studies at the University of Virginia, with professors like John Miller and Mac Bell as the Vergils to my Dante. At all times, I carried with me a variety of textbooks on the art, architecture, archaeology, and history of the Graeco-Roman world. Although my tenure at UVa was focused primarily on the classical tradition, at least once a semester I would take a class that pushed me outside my comfort zone - Prehistoric Art, Old English, Linguistic Anthropology - with quirky professors whom I had no idea were so influential to the discipline, like Dell Hymes. Without the funds to travel to the classical world or to excavate there but with a great desire to uncover history beneath layers of soil, I enrolled in an archaeological field project at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and convinced Jim Deetz to sign off on an independent study at James Madison’s Montpelier.

At the back of my mind, though, were images of graves in the Greek and Roman archaeology books I had pored through as a kid. No one was studying the human skeletons found on classical archaeology digs; nowhere in the textbooks was anything reported about the biological remains of classical civilizations. In approaching graduate school, I realized there wasn’t a name for the sort of research I wanted to do: research that combined a deep understanding of human biology with the archaeological and historical context of ancient Rome and anthropological theories of culture. The main problem with combining these lines of evidence was that anthropology and classics are on opposite sides of a structural divide in the American academic tradition, particularly in regard to archaeology.

As a result of this major academic schism, I struggled to find a university at which I could pursue a course of graduate study that I had been steadily working towards for over a decade. East Carolina University offered me a fellowship to pursue an MA in anthropology, which I graciously accepted, in spite of feeling like an impostor with absolutely no background in the subject. But the freedom that I had at ECU to take courses I was interested in, like human anatomy and disease ecology, and to design my own research project made me realize the importance of an anthropological perspective on the past. Armed with this knowledge, I pursued an MA in classical archaeology at the University of North Carolina, in the hopes of one day being able just to study maps of the Kerameikos or epigrams on Roman columbaria. Thankfully, the archaeologists at UNC not only got along across departments but actively engaged in interdisciplinary research. Even better, between Nic Terrenato's connections in Roman archaeology and Dale Hutchinson's breadth of knowledge of the research potential of human skeletal remains, I managed to draw together skeletal biology, Roman archaeology, geochemistry, and cultural theory for my multidisciplinary dissertation research in pursuit of a PhD in anthropology at UNC.

Ribcage Heart
(shamelessly stolen from Sue Sheridan's Facebook profile,
but I think she got it from this website)
Biological anthropology – or, even more specifically, Roman bioarchaeology – describes perfectly the research questions that I'm interested in. I ended up in anthropology accidentally, but it is the only discipline that takes a biocultural perspective of humans from the deep past to the present. Anthropology finally gave me a name for what I do. Finding a place within an academic family and finding a term - however neologistic - for my research interests convinced me that what I do is real, what I do is important, and what I do is possible.

Dearest anthropology, it was definitely not love at first sight between us. But we kept running into one another and spending time together, so I got to know your strengths and your foibles. It took a while for us to get to where we are, but every morning I look forward to greeting the day with you.

February 9, 2012

Blogs as Anthropological Outreach

In the winter 2011 (volume 34, number 4) edition of the Society for Archaeological Sciences Bulletin, Gordon Rakita, a bioarchaeologist at the University of North Florida, wrote a commentary on public outreach and blogging in bioarchaeology.  I'm just going to cut-and-paste it, since it's short and sweet, but you can get the entire volume here (PDF):
Of late, there have been several calls for anthropologists to reach out and engage the public. For example, Jerry Sabloff (2011), in his distinguished lecture at the American Anthropological Association's annual meetings, strongly urged us to actively speak and write to a public audience and develop mechanisms (at least within academia) to reward those who do so. In particular, he suggested (p. 414) that ―One of the most promising areas of outreach—and perhaps the launching pad of the future for public intellectuals in anthropology—is blogging. 
Sabloff is just one such prominent anthropologist to advocate for blogging. Likewise, paleoanthropologist and blogger himself, John Hawks (2010, 2011) has continued to advocate for anthropologists to reach out to the public through blogging or other forms of public discourse. 
Writing as I do from a public university in the state of Florida, I am keenly aware that the public and our elected officials often have a clouded understanding of the nature of our discipline and our contributions to society. Certainly we make such contributions, but we often fail to tout or otherwise advertise these contributions. As a result, we often have to play catch-up when others define who we are and what we do. In the wake of Florida Governor Scott's comments regarding anthropology, many rushed into the public debate to emphasize the scientific aspects of modern anthropology. None were more effective than the presentation developed by Charlotte Noble and other graduate students at the University of South Florida. 
But I can't help but wonder if this entire incident would have happened, or if such a response would have been necessary, had anthropologists been more active in communicating the value and knowledge of our field to the public. This is especially true for scientific archaeologists who both seek public funding and require public laws to preserve the cultural resources that we know are so important to our communities. For this reason, I want to highlight several blogs that are dedicated to bioarchaeology or bioarchaeology themes. 
These are the blogs I've tuned my RSS feed reader to:
Each of these regularly discusses exciting new finds or developments within bioarchaeology. They help me keep up with the literature, make connections between disparate research threads, and (perhaps most importantly) remind me why I decided to be a bioarchaeologist in the first place.  
So if you're interested in the field of bioarchaeology, tune in, and don't drop out. And if you're not interested in bioarchaeology but some other aspect of scientific archaeology, then I guarantee there's probably a blog for it out there. If not, then why not start one yourself.
References Cited
  • Hawks, John 2010 Public engagement | john hawks weblog.
  • Hawks, John 2011 Blogs, academic discourse in economics | john hawks weblog.
  • Sabloff, Jeremy A 2011 Where Have You Gone, Margaret Mead? Anthropology and Public Intellectuals. American Anthropologist 113, no. 3: 408-416.
So, Rakita points out that blogging is a valid and powerful method of public outreach, a way to tell people what it is anthropologists do.  He cites Jerry Sabloff, whose AAA keynote I covered on this blog a little over a year ago, as a prominent anthropologist who thinks blogs are awesome and who thinks that public outreach should be rewarded.  I'm quite honored to be included on Rakita's list, particularly as an example of what Sabloff was talking about.  It's always nice to be recognized by one's peers.

What's interesting about Rakita's list of bioarchaeology bloggers, though, is that not one of us has a tenure-track position.  Katy is a PhD student, David is working on his master's, and I have my PhD but haven't found a permanent position yet.  Don't get me wrong - there are some awesome job-having bio- and archaeo- bloggers out there like John HawksKate Clancy, and Rosemary Joyce.  But many of the heavy-hitters in anthro outreach blogging, like Krystal D'Costa and the Savage Minds crew, are from various levels of academia as well as outside it.

The revolution in public outreach - particularly in bioarchaeology - seems to be coming from the Young Turks.  This is especially interesting, since we (Katy, David, and I, for example) aren't even required to engage in public outreach or in service activities like tenure-track faculty are. Still, there is a growing conversation about the place of blogs in CVs, cover letters, and promotion-and-tenure files, suggesting more of us are starting up blogs and using them as a way to... well, that remains an open question, one that we each answer at an individual level.

I blog because I find it rewarding - there's excitement in knowing that people who probably wouldn't touch my journal articles are reading about my work and about other developments in bioarchaeology; there's joy when I get emails from up-and-coming researchers, as young as middle schoolers, who want advice on how to make bioarchaeology a career; and there's the interaction with my readers that doesn't come across in the unidirectional, static medium of a publication.

Blogging is an exercise in writing for a different public, an exercise in taking all that jargon you learned in your coursework, distilling it, injecting your own ideas, and making it interesting.  Writing a blog has helped me refine my research and my prose, and I think that my public lectures and my successful grant proposals in particular have greatly benefited from the practice.  I always wish I had more time to blog.  There's just so much cool stuff out there to talk about, and so little time to write...

(Thanks to Katy Meyers for the heads-up on Rakita's article!)

February 8, 2012

A Brief History of Bioarchaeology - Part II: Italy

Author's Note: This is the second post in what I envision as a series addressing the history and practice of bioarchaeology around the world.  The first post was Part I: America.

Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.
[It was such a massive task to establish the Roman race.]
(Vergil, Aeneid 1.33)

One of the major themes of the Aeneid is the struggle of the protagonist to reach Rome.  The burden of founding the population of Rome rests entirely on heroic Aeneas, and the quotation above illustrates the immense effort required to create what was, at the time, the largest city in the known world.

Aeneas Fleeing Troy, by F. Barocci, 1598 (credit)
With history and myth stretching back over two millennia, the biological and cultural origins of the Italian people are quite different than the story of the colonists in America.  Modern anthropology in the American (Boasian) tradition has been characterized as “a bond between subject matters... part history, part literature, part natural science, part social science” (Wolf 1964). Most American anthropologists practice their research in a four-field manner that promotes an holistic approach to academic inquiry through incorporation of linguistics, culture, archaeology, and biology. Italian anthropology, on the other hand, is not as coherent a discipline as American anthropology -- archaeology can be found in either history or classics departments, physical anthropology is often found in biology departments, and cultural anthropology is split among four different subfields comprising cultural anthropology, (British-inspired) social anthropology, ethnology, and folklore.

The Italian and American anthropological traditions reflect a disparate response to differing subjects of inquiry and the contingencies of political history, and it's interesting to see where the two traditions paralleled one another and diverged, with the result that, today, bioarchaeology is a more mature discipline in contemporary American archaeology compared to Roman archaeology.

Classical Origins of Anthropology

Some would argue that the roots of Mediterranean anthropology can be found in ancient literature. Homer knew about the Scythians in the north and the Ethiopians in the south, and by the 8th century BC, Greek colonizing efforts expanded the oikoumene in all directions (Kluckhohn 1961). In the mid 5th century BC, Herodotus, reporting on the aftermath of a battle in the Persian Wars, wrote that (Histories 3.12.2-3):
The skulls of the Persians are so brittle that if you throw no more than a pebble it will pierce them, but the Egyptian skulls are so strong that a blow of a stone will hardly break them. And this, the people said (which for my own part I readily believed), is the reason of it: the Egyptians shave their heads from childhood, and the bone thickens by exposure to the sun (Godley 1982).
Geography of the Oikoumene (credit)
Herodotus noticed a difference in the thickness of the skulls of two populations of warriors lying dead after a skirmish, which he attributed to the sun.  This explanation isn't correct, but he did foreshadow discussions in physical anthropology of the effects of the environment on the human skeleton.

For examples of early ethnographies, we can look to Roman authors from the first century BC. Julius Caesar was both a consummate military general and a thorough recorder of the peoples with whom he came into contact in his conquering expeditions. His observations about the ancient Gauls in the first lines of Commentarii de Bello Gallico include geographic dispersal and linguistic differences:
Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae nostra Galli appelantur.  
[All Gaul is divided into three parts: in one of these live the Belgae, in another the Aquitani, and in the third, the Galli, who call themselves the Celtae]. 
Lucretius, who wrote De Rerum Natura in the first century BC as well, included a more sophisticated idea of biological evolution than would be seen for thousands of years, and in the first century AD, Tacitus wrote an early tribal ethnography of the Germani, touted by some as “the finest tribal monograph prior to the 19th century” (Grottanelli 1977:593).

Although this written tradition of investigating the cultural Other was largely continuous for two thousand years, the academic tradition of anthropology in Italy was surprisingly slow to develop. Pre-anthropological literature was largely comparative in nature, intent on describing variations and similarities among cultures. Philosophically minded Italians such as Giambattista Vico and F.A. Grimaldi denied in the mid-to-late 18th century that there was a linear progression to culture and that there was such a concept as Rousseau’s l’homme naturel or noble savage.

In spite of the legacy of the Renaissance to questions about natural history, art, and literature in Italy between the 16th and 18th centuries, Italian anthropology did not exist until the middle of the 19th century. Even in this century, however, Italy’s fight for political independence and unity between 1860 and 1870 absorbed much of the energy of the country (Grottanelli 1977:594).

Anthropology in the Italian Academy

It is important to note that the nomenclature for subfields and areas of anthropological concentration is not the same in Italy as in the U.S. The term antropologia was originally used to mean the English equivalent of physical anthropology, “the natural history of the human family” (Grottanelli 1977:597). What we call cultural anthropology is known in Italian as etnologia, which is distinct from folklore studies (demologia or storia delle tradizioni popolari in Italian) and, to a lesser extent today, distinct from a theoretical, sociocultural anthropology sometimes called antropologia culturale in Italian (Saunders 1984).

Historical archaeology in Italy, of course, has always been under the purview of the academic tradition of classics, and prehistoric archaeology, called paletnologia in Italian, is variously included under a humanities or sciences department (Bernardini 1976). Grottanelli (1977:597) explains that “as a rule, ethnology and folklore are classed with the humanities, anthropology with the sciences (mathematical, physical, and natural), and palaeoethnology with either faculty according to the setup of the various universities.” This separation largely resulted from the German academic model of Naturwissenschaften versus Geisteswissenschaften that remains today in Italian academia and, to a lesser extent, in American anthropology as the dichotomy between scientific and humanistic approaches.

The first actual university position in anthropology in Italy was created in 1869 and was taken by Paolo Mantegazza, a follower of Darwin, who filled the post as a physical anthropologist. In 1870, the Società Italiana di Antropologia e di Etnologia, which concerned itself with “the study of the ancient and modern peoples of Italy” (Grottanelli 1977:594) according to the invitation they sent to prominent Italian scholars, was formed in Florence for the study of ethnology and anthropology.

The Società began the journal Archivio per l’Antropologia e la Etnologia in 1871, the first anthropologically-minded journal to exist in Italy. Numerous societies and journals soon followed: the Bullettino di Paletnologia Italiana in 1875 and the Società Romana di Antropologia by Giuseppe Sergi in 1893, which later changed its name to the Istituto Italiano di Antropologia and published the Rivista di Antropologia. This latter serial became the foremost Italian journal for physical anthropology and remains so to this day (although it is now called the Journal of Anthropological Sciences).

By the 1870s, anthropological inquiries were dramatically increasing, and until World War I, Italian explorers and early ethnographers traveled to such diverse places as the Sudan, New Guinea, Malaya, and little-explored islands to bring back stories and sometimes inhabitants. Yet, as with all early ethnography, the studies were largely descriptive and tended to treat the peoples as something to be classified, another chapter in natural, not cultural, history.

Italian Anthropology during the World Wars

In the early 1900s, Lamberto Loria visited Turkestan, Eritrea, and even the Trobriand Islands before founding the Società Italiana di Etnografia in 1910 because “one cannot study the ethnography of Italy without being familiar with that of other peoples, whether they be civilized, semicivilized, or savages” (Grottanelli 1977:596). Thus, immediately before World War I, Italy had established a tradition of physical anthropology and had begun to create fields of folklore and ethnology.

The history of Italian anthropology is rather muddled between the two world wars. A hiatus appears to have occurred between Loria’s and others’ ethnographic embryos and the 1948 publication of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks in which he commented on class struggle, history, philosophy, and literature, among other topics. This lacuna of scholarship, however, could be deceptive, as very few English-language works exist tracing the development of Italian anthropology.

Since its inception, anthropology in Italy has always been extremely politically active (Saunders 1984); however, the rise of Mussolini and the dominance of Fascism are often omitted from articles like Grottanelli’s 1977 retrospective because the interregnum was not pleasant for many scholars asked to take a political stance. After decades of cultural introspection, it seems that Italian anthropologists, or at least those who write for an anglophone audience, are glossing over this period because, in the words of Vittorio Lanternari, “Fascism negatively influenced the free development of anthropological studies, because its racist ideology shaped a sizable section of public opinion and even the views of some of the scholars involved in ethnological research” (Lanternari 1977:604).

Post-WWII Anthropology

Nevertheless, following World War II, cultural anthropology took off in Italy, bolstered by the writings of Gramsci and his interpretation of Marxism. Anthropologists were free to ask questions about hegemony, the subaltern, and class struggle. By the 1980s, Italian anthropologists had become at least as reflexive as their American counterparts, interested in their own distinctions among ethnology, sociocultural anthropology, and folklore, their own history, and their conception of The Other (Saunders 1984).

The first Italian university to integrate the subfields of anthropology in the American tradition was the Università degli Studi di Torino, whose Dipartimento di Scienze Antropologiche, Archeologiche e Storico Territoriali was created in the mid-1980s.  Although a more holistic approach was being taken in Italian anthropology around the end of the era of positivism, a concomitant development of bioarchaeology did not occur. The main reasons for this failure can be found in the divaricated origins of physical anthropology and archaeology in Italy, particularly in regard to politics and strong ties to the historical approach.

The Role of Italian Physical Anthropology

Early physical anthropology in Italy was concerned with one of two questions: the origin of the Italians and the problem of integrating the Etruscans; and political issues that split the peninsula into North and South. Because of written history, it was always known that the ancestors of the Italians dated back at least to the Roman world. The shared Greco-Roman creation myths hypothesized an autochthonous origin in which Zeus or Jupiter created five races of man, from which there was a degeneration of humankind through the ages.

Giuseppe Sergi
By the late 19th century, Italians no longer took myths to heart but clung to the search for the origin of the Italic people. One of the earliest researchers in this regard was Giuseppe Sergi who founded the Società Romana di Antropologia in 1893. Sergi did not believe in Retziuscephalic index nor in skin color as valid bases for human taxonomy; instead, he favored cranial morphology, which he believed held the key to persistence of primitive biological traits in some populations (D’Agostino 2002). Thus, Sergi departed from other physical anthropologists at the time who were computing cephalic indices and claimed that, based on his analysis, the origin of Europeans was in Africa (Sergi 1901, Gillette 2002). This proto-race migrated from Africa through the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, Russia, and England but developed into three more traditional races: African, Mediterranean, and Nordic, differing in skin color and body type on account of geographical variations. In Sergi’s model, Europe and the Mediterranean were invaded by Eurasian peoples, a separate species that would later give rise to the Celts, Germans, and Slavs. He called these inferior people Aryan and proceeded in later works to show the supremacy of the Italics over the Aryans.

North vs. South Italy
(credit: search.com)
Sergi was a student of Cesare Lombroso, a medical doctor and professor of criminal anthropology at the end of the 19th century. Along with Lombroso, Alfredo Niceforo, and Enrico Ferri, Sergi translated his ideas about the origin of the Italians to contemporary social problems, namely the troubles between the North and the South. The political history of the South is complicated; during the 12th century, it was under the control of the Normans, then the French Angevins until the mid-15th century, when it was conquered by the the Spanish, resulting in a subsequent three centuries of rule. In the 19th century, the French regained control under Napoleon. By 1860, South Italy was emancipated by Garibaldi. Known as the Mezzogiorno based on a nautical term, the South remained largely undeveloped until the middle of the 20th century when socioeconomic reforms were finally instituted to stimulate development. Because of rampant illiteracy and mob control by the mafia, the South was looked down upon by people in the North.

In scientific circles, Cesare Lombroso became well-known for his views on criminality and penology resulting from investigations into anatomy, behavior, and the environment that he applied to criminals from the South. Lombroso argued that it was necessary to consider a criminal within his social and biological circumstances when meting out punishment (Gould 1981). This view was different from Enlightenment thinking that a criminal could freely choose whether or not to commit a crime and was hailed as a progressive force (D’Agostino 2002).

Plates from Lombroso's Criminal Man (1876),
showing atavism in criminals (credit)
In terms of anatomy, Lombroso postulated “atavistic anomalies” and, to this end, collected information from crania as well as post-cranial elements that he felt distinguished the “born criminal” (D’Agostino 2002:322). Environmental factors, Lombroso thought, could further influence the born criminal. Sergi agreed with his mentor and suggested that the inhabitants of the Mezzogiorno had degenerated in their social and cultural development from their Italic predecessors.

Alfredo Niceforo also argued that biology was the key to the criminality of the South, using Sergi’s ideas to claim that the North and the South represented two physically and psychologically different races (Niceforo 1898). He firmly believed that Italy would never be unified because of the primitive nature of the South, which could neither govern itself nor be governed. Enrico Ferri, a lawyer, also supported Lombrosian ideas and linked the idea of the born criminal to the Southern Italian race. Ferri viewed the South as an immutable race, unable to evolve through a series of cultural steps to become civilized (D’Agostino 2002).

Although idealist thinkers like Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce rejected Lombrosian thinking, it took hold in criminology, making its way even to the United States, where the great influx of European immigrants was causing different political issues.

Italian physical anthropology is sketchy after Lombroso, but in the 1920s and 1930s, ironically under the Fascists, Lombrosian thought was eliminated. Mussolini apparently did not like German accusations of the mongrelization of his people and thus concentrated on eliminating the racial bias against the South (D’Agostino 2002, Gillette 2002). The concept of race was used to explain the seemingly different culture of the Mezzogiorno, and Italian thinkers further applied this notion to their forays into the colonies.

Italian empire, c. 1940
(credit: wikimedia commons)
Italy was late getting into the European colonization game on account of the problems with internal unification. The first colony, known today as Eritrea, was occupied in 1885. In 1889, Italy colonized Somalia and in 1911, Libya. These two colonies were not primitive in the general sense of the term; there were traditions of literacy, and many people were either Muslim or Christian.

It was not until the colonization of Ethiopia in 1935 that Italian anthropologists could literally chart unexplored territories and unknown societies (to Europeans, of course). However, these early investigations were largely geographical and biological in nature. By the time cultural anthropologists became interested in this area of the world and planned field expeditions in the late 1930s, World War II broke out and dashed all plans. Anthropology became connected to colonization in the mind of the general public and was looked upon with suspicion for years (Grottanelli 1977).

Where Archaeology Fits In

Although archaeology in Italy is largely separate from cultural anthropology, its historical development is key to understanding the lack of integration of human skeletal remains in explanations about the past. Classical archaeology began very much in a German tradition of aesthetic connoisseurship, predicated on a centuries-old pan-European passion for collecting and owning great works of art. Many ancient temples were still visible on the Mediterranean landscape in the 18th century, but new ones were discovered at Agrigentum in 1732 by Giuseppe Pancrazi and at Paestum by Soufflot in 1764. Johann Winckelmann, who visited these temples, has been cited as perhaps the earliest theoretician of classical archaeology for his perceptive analysis of ancient Greek art in his 1764 book Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums. Because of Winckelmann, art and other artifacts became of interest to scholars in their own right, not just because they brought history books to life (Renfrew 1980).

The end of the 18th century saw Greek and Roman antiquities becoming valued commodities of the upper class, and by the early 19th century the disrobing of architecture began to occur when Lord Elgin acquired the Parthenon marbles. It was Winckelmann (as well as the classical tradition of antiquities and literature) who was the inspiration for Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Troy and Mycenae in the late 19th century and for Arthur Evans’ excavations at Knossos at the turn of the 20th century.  In Italy at this time, Giacomo Boni was the director of the Forum Romanum and Palatine excavations, and Paolo Orsi produced serious work at Syracuse and on Sicily (d’Agostino 1991).

In a way, the turn of the 20th century signaled the end to classical archaeology’s brief stint as an holistic discipline. Idealism filtered through the Hegelian tradition manifested itself in Benedetto Croce, who believed that history was the basis of true knowledge (d’Agostino 1991:53). This belief, pervasive in many aspects of Italian academic thought of the time, was detrimental to archaeology, but mainly to prehistoric archaeology both in terms of empirical methodology and in terms of the subject of inquiry (Guidi 1996). Stripped of method, devoid of history, and unconcerned with famous literary personages, prehistoric archaeology was forced to take a different path. While prehistory went to join the natural sciences, classical archaeology allied itself with the acontextual study of ancient art.

The Roman fasces on the back of
a U.S. Liberty dime. (This symbol was
eliminated during WWII, when it
was co-opted for Fascism.) (credit)
In the 1920s and 1930s, the archaeology of ancient Rome brought forth portraits, regalia, and architecture that proclaimed the supremacy of the ancient empire. This material culture was easily co-opted into modern propaganda by way of imperial eagles and the fasces. Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, an art historian, became disenchanted with Fascism and, after WWII, was made director of the new government’s Antichità e Belle Arti in the mid-1940s. From this vantage point, Bianchi Bandinelli managed to take issue with reductionist perspectives on ancient art, buying into neither a nationalist perspective nor the rusticity of Roman art. In the 1950s and 1960s, Italian archaeologists discovered Marxist thought and began to focus on material culture as evidence of economic processes, not just as a history of ancient art (d’Agostino 1991). Finally, in the 1970s, Italian archaeologists began to think about theory again, focusing on methodological advances such as introduction of the open area method from Great Britain.  Nevertheless, theoretical advances being made in American archaeology, as well as in Greek archaeology, were not taken up in Italy; both the historical approach and the lack of comparative studies are to blame for this.

Classical archaeology is steeped in the historic approach on account of the wealth of literary evidence from two thousand years of past culture. Modern scholars, however, are now questioning the primacy of the literary record, or what Stephen Dyson calls the “Socrates sat here and Alexander fought here agenda” (Dyson 1993:201) and what Colin Renfrew calls the legacy of the “Great Tradition” (Renfrew 1980:288). The problem that prehistoric archaeology suffered following Crocean idealism has lasted to the present day, with classicists often assuming a priori the uniqueness and importance of their geographical area and culture (Bietti Sestieri et al. 2002, Terrenato 2002, Terrenato n.d.).

The educational background of classical archaeologists is quite different from that of other archaeologists, especially American archaeologists. Four or more foreign languages (usually Latin, Greek, German, and French or Italian) are veritable prerequisites to the gauntlet of undergraduate or graduate study, which includes courses in ancient art, literature, and history, as well as archaeology. This thorough cultural training is seen as necessary for the archaeologist to manage a complex material corpus as well as to get a job after graduation (Dyson 1981). To some extent, though, the paradox of too much data prevents classical archaeologists from asking questions, as the tradition of classics as a discipline brings with it a tradition of competitiveness and correctness in academia (Dyson 1993, Redfield 1991).

The lack of both practice and theory are further problems in classical archaeology. In the past, students were not encouraged to question archaeological methods but rather to apprentice at the knee of an excavation director, who himself was academically pedigreed. Excavation was formerly based on the idea of the Big Dig, where students were encouraged to join an excavation with the hope, after a decade of digging, to become a trench supervisor at a site like the Agora or the Forum Romanum. According to Dyson and Renfrew, this type of practical training of archaeologists, which worked well in the historiographic tradition of Blegen and Evans, only serves to further compartmentalize classical archaeology, with pottery specialists and architecture specialists and grave marker specialists not directly contributing to synthesis of large sites but rather publishing their findings in appendices largely devoid of context (Renfrew 1980, Dyson 1981, 1993).

Because of the tradition of historically-based archaeology and the assumed uniqueness of ancient material culture, classical archaeology has barely participated in a comparative approach to world culture. The New Archaeology confused many classical archaeologists in the 1970s with its insistence on quantifying and qualifying assumptions in archaeological thought. G.E. Daniel, a Brit, explained the creation of New Archaeology thus: “American archaeologists, dismayed by their archaeological record, have sought refuge in theory and methodology, and spend their time talking about ‘the elucidation of cultural process’ and the production of ‘laws of cultural dynamics’ ” (Daniel 1975:371-2). This antipathy between classics and anthropological thought, in Redfield’s (1991) opinion, resulted from the former’s realization that taking a comparative approach to ancient remains would cause classical culture to fall from its pedestal as the progenitor of Western society.

Many classical scholars began to interact with anthropology at the end of the 20th century. Ian Morris’ work in Greece (Morris 1987, 1992, 1994) on social structure and death ritual demonstrates that he is quite aware of contemporary anthropological theory, including methods in bioarchaeology. Bietti Sestieri and colleagues (2002:413) critique classical archaeology for borrowing theory wholesale from other disciplines without concomitantly modifying their methodological approach. Wiseman and Woolf advocate comparative approaches in classical archaeology that include both knowledge of the literary and material corpus and command of anthropological theories (Wiseman 1983, Woolf 2004).

In return, anthropology can also learn from classical archaeology. Anthropology can gain from the tradition of discipline and exactitude in classical analysis of culture, as well as the information that prehistoric archaeology of the Mediterranean can provide in terms of domestication of plants and animals and human adaptation to diverse environments (Renfrew 1980). There is a place, writes Renfrew, “for anyone who can command the data and the scholarship of the Great Tradition while employing the problem-orientation and the research methods of current anthropological archaeology” (Renfrew 1980:297).

The current place of Roman archaeology as viewed by such anglophone scholars as Dyson, Renfrew, and Morris, is in a more integrated discipline, whether in an American or Italian anthropological tradition. One particularly easy way to bridge the gap between classical archaeology and anthropology is in the use of bioarchaeology as an approach to recovering biocultural information about the past.

Bioarchaeology in Italy: Past and Future

Human skeletal remains have been collected from archaeological sites for hundreds of years, but until the past few decades, archaeologists, especially in the classical world, were primarily interested in associated material remains. Undisturbed burial places such as the shaft graves at Mycenae and Etruscan house tombs were veritable treasure-troves of elite material culture and inscriptions. Skeletons were bagged as just another artifact to be classified and stored (or sometimes thrown out!).  The humans they represented in life might have been given sexes and ages, although these assignments were all to frequently done in order to bolster conclusions already drawn from a "gendered" analysis of the collection of grave goods.

Yet the field of bioarchaeology in the classical world is not completely devoid of scholarship. In Greece, because of the support of the Wiener Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, bioarchaeology has become more integrated into the discipline. But with no similar arrangement in Italy, it is more difficult for an American to undertake a large-scale research project on human remains.

Most of the early bioarchaeology in the Roman world published in English came from British scholars such as John Robb and Simon Mays, while many Italian scholars such as Brunetto Chiarelli have concerned themselves with scientific analyses of DNA in an attempt to isolate population origins. Other scholars prominent in the early bioarchaeology of Italy include Sara Bisel, Marshall Becker, David Soren, Luigi Capasso, Gino Fornaciari, Loretana Salvadei, Giorgio Manzi, Simona Minozzi, Estelle Lazer, and Renata and Maciej Henneberg.  One of the best syntheses of burial data and human remains in reconstructing ancient Roman life from a cemetery comes from Anna Maria Bietti Sestieri, an Italian whose 1992 Osteria dell’Osa traces the development of the city-state in central Italy during the Iron Age.

The international picture of Roman bioarchaeology in the 21st century is still primarily focused on Italy, Greece, and Britain, which have produced a wealth of skeletal remains in the past few decades, but research is also being undertaken by bioarchaeologists in far-flung provinces of the Empire, including Egypt (Tosha Dupras), Bavaria (Gisela Grupe), Croatia (Mario Šlaus), and Tunisia (Anne Keenleyside). Although the population of bioarchaeological practitioners has diversified since the end of the 20th century, British researchers remain at the forefront of the field, particularly those at Durham University (Charlotte Roberts, Janet Montgomery, and Rebecca Gowland), the University of Reading (Hella Eckardt, Mary Lewis, and Gundula Müldner), the British Geological Survey (Jane Evans and Carolyn Chenery), the Museum of London (Rebecca Redfern), and English Heritage (Simon Mays). With large skeletal series such as the population from Poundbury Camp and cutting-edge technology, the bioarchaeology of Roman Britain is yielding in-depth reports on palaeopathology, demography, mobility, and diet. New techniques in chemical analysis are just beginning to be applied to Rome and Ostia Antica by Italian researchers affiliated with the Servizio di Antropologia in Rome (Paola Catalano, Walter Pantano, and Carla Calderini) and the Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico (Luca Bondioli and Alessandra Sperduti), as well as by North American scholars (Tracy Prowse and, of course, me).

"Lovers of Valdaro" (credit: Reuters)
There's long been an interest in the Roman world, but the study of its skeletal remains is still quite a new undertaking.  The list of researchers above (and their publications) shows that bioarchaeology can shed new light on a culture that has been studied for millennia.  And yet, at the same time, not enough is being done.  Classical archaeology as a whole and Roman archaeology specifically can benefit from increased bioarchaeological analyses both in ongoing excavations and of skeletal collections that have been gathering dust in museums for hundreds of years. Phil Walker (2000:14) put this best when he wrote, “By using a series of data sources that, standing alone, would be open to many different interpretations, it is in this way possible to triangulate on what really happened in the past.” Human skeletal remains, subject to different taphonomic processes and issues of interpretation than linguistic and material evidence, can aid classical archaeology in establishing a base from which we can formulate hypotheses and answer questions about the past, rather than merely addressing issues of chronology.


The early history of American and Italian anthropology was thematically similar until the middle of the 19th century. Explorers discovering new lands and new peoples wrote about their findings in proto-ethnographies, and an interest in antiquities spurred the practice of archaeological excavation. The ends to which these new discoveries were put, however, differed on account of the political vagaries in the two countries.

The prevailing hypothesis in 18th century academia was that cultures progressed from simple to complex in unilinear evolution. It was assumed that, in Europe, cultural “survivals” could shed light on the lives and cultures of prehistoric humans, and that, in America, little cultural evolution had occurred over the course of Native human occupation (Trigger 1989). Whereas the goal in American anthropology became to preserve information about the dying race of Natives and to explain why some cultures were more advanced than others, in Europe much anthropology was still based on historical records.  In the circum-Mediterranean, these texts were largely the classical histories written by such greats as Homer, Herodotus, Pausanias, Thucydides, Sallust, Pliny, Tacitus, and Caesar.

Based on the culture-history concept, both American and Italian anthropologists of the first half of the 20th century attempted to look at skeletons, especially the skull, for evidence of diffusionary traits. Coupled with such pseudo-scientific tools as Retzius’ cephalic index, Italian anthropology became heavily interested in discovering the true race of the Italians and explaining the Mezzogiorno, and American anthropology in finding a biological basis to support the practices of slavery, racism, and forced removal of Natives.

Skeletal measurements, when twisted to fit preconceived notions of racial superiority, represented both nationalist movements in Europe and America and a reliance on early empiricism. The legacy of Retzius, Morton, and Broca survived through the early 20th century and, unfortunately, can sometimes be seen today in major site publications in classical archaeology by authors afraid to question those who came before them and apply new methodologies in asking new questions.

It is not enough, though, to rely on the data and methodologies of your predecessors. American archaeologists realized this in the discipline-wide changes that processualism and post-processualism brought about, but classical archaeologists lagged behind in terms of anthropological theory, as they belonged to a discipline created from historical, textual analysis of classical literature. The time of cranial indices and -cephalic suffixes is past. Only by directly addressing the follies of our pseudo-scientific, nationalist predecessors can we be confident that past mistakes will not resurface in a new generation of archaeologists. This is why bioarchaeology is necessary in Italy and the Roman world.

Note:  This post has been revised (and significantly shortened) from my 2005 master's thesis.  You can find the original here.


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