Discarding Babies at Poggio Civitate?

Another bit of coverage from the AIA shindig … from the Daily Mail:

Baby bones found scattered on the ground at a seventh century workshop have hinted at an unexpected callousness towards child deaths among Romans.

Two bones and skull fragment were found lying on the floor among the remains of pigs, goats and sheep.

Another bone, that of a baby’s arm, was simply swept up against a wall along with all the other debris being brushed away from the ground around a villa.

The bones could be from up to four infants who are thought to have died shortly before or after they were born.

The findings, suggests a US archaeologist, shows that the death of infants in parts of Roman society may have been treated with rather less ceremony and respect than was accorded adults.

Bone fragments from babies were found over several years during excavations at the settlement of Poggio Civitate, about 15 miles from the modern city of Siena in Italy

Anthony Tuck, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the Archaeological Institute of America that it was likely the babies were discarded without any ritual.

‘We have the remains of one or several human infants, scattered over a relative small area that also preserves abundant evidence for bustling industrial and economic activity,’ he said.

‘In neither area do we see any suggestion whatsoever that any ritual treatment was accorded these remains.

‘Instead, they were simply either left on the floor of the workshop or ended up in an area with a heavy concentration of other discarded remains of butchered animals.’

While the Poggio Civitate settlement dates back almost 2,800 years, the bones were found in a section that was occupied during the seventh century AD when there was a lavish home and an open-air 170-feet long pavilion that was used as a workshop.

Two of the baby bones were located in the workshop area where bronze was cast and terracotta tiles, ceramics and other materials were manufactured.

He said the finds could indicated the parents, perhaps slaves or servants, who worked in the workshop were considered too lowly for their tragedy to be taken any notice by the wider community.

The arm bone found brushed up against a wall could similarly have been from a low-grade family.

Dr Tuck said that if the child belonged to the wealthy family who lived in the villa it would further emphasise the lack of impact a young child’s death might have had among the Romans.

He added: ‘These examples of neonatal infants at Poggio Civitate appear to have been treated in a manner that suggests the death of very young children did not provoke any formal ritual response whatsoever.

‘Whether this is an effect of parental social status or a phenomenon common to all early deaths, we cannot yet say with any certainty.

‘Nevertheless, we hope that continued examination of the osteological assemblage from Poggio Civitate may help lend clarity to this and a number of related questions concerning social status at the site.

Death in infancy would have been common in the seventh century and few signs of infant burial have been detected in central Italy at this time, suggesting they were disposed of with little ceremony.

Those burials of infants that have been found are usually accompanied by ornaments and jewellery indicative of coming from a wealthy family.

Attitudes that might appear callous in the twenty-first century could make sense in a society where extreme poverty and high infant mortality were common.

He added in his address to the Archaeological Institute of America: ‘A very high rate of infant mortality perhaps produced a response similar to that studied by Nancy Scheper-Hughes of modern women suffering under extreme economic and social duress in Brazilian slums.

‘In this environment, the all too common death of infants is met with relatively limited emotional responses in most cases.

‘Moreover, we ought not imagine ourselves in the western, developed world as very far removed from such responses.

‘In fact, it was not until the reforms of the Vatican II council in 1962 that priests of the Roman Catholic church were allowed to wear black vestments while conducting funerals for children under the age of three.’

He told MailOnline: ‘There is definitely a tendency – especially when working in a region like Tuscany – to romanticize the past.

‘That, coupled with a very real sense of incomprehension a lot of modern, western viewers import into such casual treatment of infants, certainly can upset people.

‘In fact, quite a few people simply reject the notion and refuse to talk about it. But the evidence is as it is and I think the best thing we can do is present it, confront it and discuss it.’

… the DM piece has the usual spate of photographs to highlight the story and, despite the sensationalizing title, really isn’t generalizing that this was a ‘feature’ of Roman society. Whatever the case, folks will want to read the commentary of Kristina Killgrove on this one: Baby Bones Were Trash to Romans (Powered by Osteons).

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One thought on “Discarding Babies at Poggio Civitate?

  1. Walter Muzzy says:

    This isn’t in the same timeframe that they are claiming but I thought perhaps the way Romulus-era Palatine Hill inhabitants buried their children might be of some interest.

    In the Roman Forum a section of an Iron Age cemetery was excavated.

    The adult graves are within the 9thC BC and are cremation (ashes in small hut or olla urns, grave objects and placed in a large vase http://tinyurl.com/b49l2r9 Boni in photo) and inhumation (with basically the same type of grave objects).

    The children’s graves are from the 8-7thC and are inhumation;

    “In Room II, children’s tombs within tree trunks are shown which belong to a later phase of the cemetery (VIII-VII Centuries BC). Among the burial equipment are notable the more refined pottery and imported or imitation Greek objects.”

    These are displayed ~150m away in the Antiquarium Forense.
    The tree trunk was split in half vertically and hollowed-out, the child and grave objects were placed within.

    And if I recall correctly; Then the other half of the hollow tree trunk was placed over it like a modern casket.

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