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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andrea said…

A really insightful essay on Anthropology in Italy with her social and political implication. I was surprised to find a detailed reference to neglected Niceforo whose work I found on a dusty shelf in an Italian public library. How curious is the fact that Niceforo's view is rightly consider as surpassed but still grounded in North Italians mind.

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