UBC archaeologists have made several important new discoveries since unearthing in 2008 a tomb at Kaukana, an ancient Roman and Byzantine village on the south coast of Sicily.
Professor Roger Wilson, Head of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at UBC, returned to the site in 2009 to direct his students in the successful excavation of a house in this settlement, where a substantial tomb was discovered unexpectedly inside one room. Normally burials are found at this period in the village cemetery on the outskirts, or else around the village church, so the location of the tomb is a puzzle. Inside they had found two skeletons – one of a woman aged about 25, and the other that of a young child.
DNA testing in 2009/10 has now confirmed that the woman and child belong to the same family, and the child has been identified, also through her DNA, as a little girl, about four years old: they were clearly mother and daughter. From the way in which her bones were arranged, it is clear the child was placed in the tomb sometime after the mother had been buried. But the discoveries have now got even more interesting. The mother is now known to have been approximately 30 weeks pregnant (some bones of her foetus survived), and periodic feasting occurred at her graveside: not only were dining plates, amphorae for wine and oil, and cooking pots found alongside the tomb, but also ovens where the food they ate was cooked. Preliminary analysis of carbonized seeds shows that one meal consisted of wheat, barley, millet, peas, eggs and lentils. There was even a bench provided for the diners, and a low table. One of the amphorae had brought wine all the way from Egypt, and a clay lamp of about 550 CE, imported from Tunisia, is thought to show the earliest depiction of a backgammon board ever found. It is known that this game (a descendant of earlier Roman games) was being played by Roman emperors in the fifth century CE. Clearly the woman, whose tomb had a hole in the lid to take libations of wine, was a much-loved person, given the attention paid to her burial and the evidence of ritual feasting in her honour. The team now also knows, from the discovery of an inscription in 2009, that she was definitely a Christian, since a tomb slab was inscribed ‘holy, holy, holy’, an allusion to part of the early Christian liturgy.
But why was she so honoured, and why here inside a home within the settlement, and not at the cemetery or church? One discovery of 2009 was that she possessed a tiny hole in her skull, a natural defect which she had had from birth, with the result that the lining of the brain, the meninges, would have protruded from it. The condition, known as meningocoele, would have given her constant headaches and a tendency to suffer from periodic seizures. Perhaps her miraculous powers of recovery on such occasions, apparently coming back from the ‘dead’, meant that she was seen by some as a holy woman, possibly one possessing special mystical powers. Perhaps she was rejected by her local church as being too scary, given her disabilities – one revered by some but feared by others. Or did she belong to a different, non-catholic Christian sect? The cause of her death is unknown, but it might have been due to complications which arose during her pregnancy. Even if questions surrounding this discovery abound, one thing is certain. The woman remained as remarkable in death as she was once in life.
Professor Wilson and his team, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, will return to Kaukana this summer in an attempt to solve some of the riddles and make other discoveries in the house where the tomb was found. Meanwhile lab work in the new facilities of UBC’s Laboratory of Archaeology at the Museum of Anthropology will continue to find out more about the woman and her condition. Late Roman and early Byzantine life in Italy holds a fascination not only for Italians but for historians, archaeologists and scientists worldwide.
“Archaeology is about the painstaking recording of objects and structures, yes,” said Wilson, “but above all it is about people. At Kaukana we have been fortunate to recover part of the particularly poignant life-story of one young woman, and of her little daughter, who lived and died some 1400 years ago”.