‘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 …

An Odyssean Quest of Sorts

Tip o’ the pileus to Bret Mulligan for alerting us to this one … the incipit of a piece in Newsworks:

“When he had the bow in his hands, the godlike Odysseus,
Easily did stretch the string, and shoot through the axe-heads:
Then he sprang up on the platform, and poured out the arrows before him…”

Thus did the ancient Greek hero Odysseus arrived in Ithaca to reclaim his home and wife. Having revealed himself as the true Odysseus, he laid waste the layabout suitors vying for his Penelope.

“…as heads were stricken, a dreadful
Groaning arose: and the floor ran deep with the blood of the slaughtered.”

That last image was perhaps too gory for N.C. Wyeth, who, in 1929, was commissioned to paint 16 scenes from “The Odyssey” for publication. He instead chose the first part, “The Trial of the Bow,” to illustrate the scene.

“He worked in so much color — it’s quite iridescent,” said Kathleen Foster, curator American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “While he was telling a great story — and “The Odyssey” is a great story — he’s employing all the skills of the artist. He’s a great painter.”

Over the years, that set of 16 “Odyssey” paintings dispersed into the the market; most landed in unknown private collections. Only five could be accounted for, including one at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa. This one, which has just been donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, makes six.

“We’re still looking for the other 10,” said Foster.

Painting missing longer than Odysseus in epic tale

“The Trial of the Bow” was thought missing for 30 years until it was recently discovered in the Philadelphia headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company, just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Since the late 1980s, it had been in a hallway just outside an executive office. Few employees had any idea it was something special.

“We knew we had a Wyeth,” said Ray Milora of GlaxoSmithKline. “I think the importance of it was less known.”

Milora does not know how or why the company acquired an original Wyeth canvas. The company became aware that the painting was part of a set of missing Wyeths when GSK prepared to move to new headquarters in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. […]

… the original article has a bit of a slideshow of the one piece mentioned above, of course, and I’m sure some folks will recall seeing one or more of this series. Palmer’s translation of the Odyssey (whence comes the painting) is available at archive.org and various other places, but I can’t find an edition with the paintings in them.

Classical Words of the Day