‘Discarded’ Infant Remains at Poggio Civitate Redux

More coverage of Anthony Tuck’s work, this time by his home university:

More than 2,500 years after tiny infant bones were scattered, perhaps offhandedly, amid animal remains on the floor of an Etruscan workshop, recently-discovered fragments of those bones are causing a stir far beyond Italy’s Poggio Civitate Archaeological Project.

University of Massachusetts Amherst archaeologist Anthony Tuck recently told an Archaeological Institute America annual meeting in Seattle that the bones discovered in the ancient Etruscan town of Poggio Civitate 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.”

It is an image that has, in ensuing weeks, resonated powerfully, if not always accurately, in the international press as everyone from religious fundamentalists to luridly invasive tabloids has scrambled to assemble narratives for the baby bones that might be either more or less appalling to modern sensibilities – narratives, notes Tuck, that tell us more about ourselves than they do about perinatal death in ancient Italy.

“Romans may have dumped remains of dead kids with their rubbish,” screamed an Asian News International headline; “Grisly discoveries reveal unsympathetic attitudes,” wrote a Daily Mail reporter. Other news outlets placed the excavated site on a timeline that might have associated it either with BCE cave dwellers or alternatively in the path of seventh century CE invaders.

In fact, Poggio Civitate, notes Tuck, was located about 10 miles south of the Tuscan city of Siena, and was neither Roman nor primitive. It was inhabited from approximately 900 – 550 BCE, and is characterized by the remains of lavish aristocratic dwellings and highly stylized fine ceramics and carvings. Particularly significant, was the discovery of a workshop pavilion built in mid-seventh century BCE and measuring over 150 feet in length – “considerably longer,” says Tuck, “than anything known in the contemporary Greek world” and decorated with opulent terracotta. While no kiln has been discovered, ceramics appear to have been produced there, along with other manufactured goods.

And then, beginning about two years ago came the discovery of human bones among the detritus, the arm bones and ilium of what appears to be several newborn or perinatal infants.

“The fact is simply this,” says Tuck. “We found elements of neo-natal human skeletons in refuse areas.”

“One element of a human pelvis comes from an area with an exceptionally high concentration of butchered animal remains, suggesting that an infant corpse was thrown into an area already filled with discarded, decaying animal parts. Other portions of a skeleton were found resting directly on the floor of a workshop area and elements of a third child were found pushed or swept up against the interior wall of an aristocratic residence.”

This is where Tuck and his team started to encounter pushback following January’s AIA presentation in Seattle. How could Tuck so casually treat infant mortality, or, even worse, infanticide, asked some evangelicals? Why not just describe the bones and leave it at that, asked some paleoanthropologists? Couldn’t the bones have been placed at the site as a result of some later catastrophe or disruption, asked a biological anthropologist? Wasn’t this just another example of how nasty, brutish and short life was in the savage past, declared the tabloids? Let’s not go blaming the Romans, demanded Roman archaeologists.

The bones themselves, says Tuck, limit the possible narratives. It remains highly likely that the bodies “were simply discarded within the debris associated with other bone and unused animal material.” As in much of the ancient world, infants in Poggio Civitate – and especially the infants of slaves and workers – were not accorded the death rituals accorded to adults, and do not generally appear in cemetery plots.

“Troubling though it may be to modern sensibilities, it seems probable that a rigidly hierarchical social system at Poggio Civitate is reflected in the discarding of this infant’s remains,” Tuck told the Seattle gathering. “If workers there were slaves or even a free population drawn from elements of the community’s lowest social orders, it is entirely possible that an infant born to a woman within that class group would not have merited even the limited ritual treatment reserved for perinatal deaths.”

The only narrative that Tuck rejects categorically is the one that dismissively ascribes superiority to modern societies. We may be more like the Etruscans than we like to believe to disparate value to we attach to the lives of children.

“Any modern discomfort at treatment of these infants at Poggio Civitate is a little misplaced,” Tuck says. “What we should find more offensive to our modern sensibilities is really the profound manner in which societies maintain systems of caste and ranking that allow one group to effectively dehumanize another. This is exactly what happens when an infant’s corpse is discarded in the trash – the child is treated in a manner that reflects the communities’ perception of it as something other or less than fully a person.

“It’s hard to argue that we don’t place different cultural values on children’s lives and assign greater or lesser value upon their deaths – for any number of subtle, nuanced and culturally complex reasons. We just don’t like to admit it.”

… we first mentioned this back in the wake of the AIA/APA shindig (Discarding Babies at Poggio Civitate?) … see there for a link to Kristinia Kilgrove’s response to that paper. At least no one is tossing around a ‘there must be a brothel’ here theory …

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).