Finding burials is not always easy. Bodies decay over time, and their visibility can vary for a number of reasons. One reason in particular is the wealth of the deceased. If you’re rich you can afford a very lavish and very visible burial. As a result our understanding of the past can be skewed in favour of the social élites. That’s one reason why archaeologists get so excited about large cemeteries. News is coming out of Italy of one such cemetery near Fiumicino airport. What has been found is a necropolis with around three hundred skeletons. What makes these special is that they’re the skeletons of the poor.
There’s various reasons why the Italian archaeologists think they were poor. The grave goods aren’t as plentiful as you get from the richer sites. In the tombs there are ceramic tankards, oil lamps and what remains of ancient shoes. There’s also around seventy coins, mainly of Trajan and Faustina, used to pay the ferryman Charon. The coins date the tombs to the early second century BC. The location may not have been as prestigious, this was down towards the ports of Rome, which played a vital role in connecting Rome with its empire. In Trajan’s period, Portus, a new port was being built to service Rome’s booming economy. Most tellingly, like the other poor people of the ancient world, their poverty is written into their bones. The correlation between poverty and deformity was recognised in the ancient world. Mark Steel has a nice line on it:
Aristotle wrote over 2,000 years ago, “It is nature’s intention to distinguish even the bodies of freemen and slaves. The latter are endowed with strength to suit their employment while the upright carriage of the former renders them unfit for servile work.”
So Ancient Greece was full of masters bursting to spend the day labouring but just not up to it with that upright carriage.
The Greeks in particular noticed that the aristrocracy were on the whole much better looking than the callous-handed labourers they employed and recognised cause and effect, just not in the right order.
The burials are mainly men. Anthropologist Paola Catalano estimates the ratio of men to women is around 3:1. Sexing skeletons is not always easy, but the preservation of bones in the sandy soil is a help. Additionally they’re also mainly adults, with many more adult burials than adolescent or juvenile burials. The skeletons are deformed due to the stress of work. They have stress fractures and crushed vertebrae, hernias and tendon inflammation. Don’t ask me how you spot the last two on a skeleton — I have no idea. The evidence is that these are the people who built Rome and made it what it was. The value of the site is that it is a one of the largest cemeteries excavated, and the grave goods can tell use what life was like for the average Roman, not only from what they have but also from what they lack.
At least that should be the case. Many versions of the news story overlook a detail mentioned in the Italian press.
Il Messaggero reports that the site was found following an investigation by the Guardia di Finanza, one of Italy’s many police forces, at Fiumicino. The police were involved in tracking down two tombaroli, grave robbers. A raid on thei homes revealed more evidence of pillaging and they are now chasing down a third individual who they think was involved. The material, if it had got to market, would have said little about Roman life. In an auction house they would have just been reduced to trinkets. No-one would know where they had came from or what they meant. As it is we will not know what was destroyed in ransacking the tombs. One of the most poignant finds would certainly have been trashed by the tombaroli if they had worked it over. To the right is a necklace found in a child’s tomb. The individual pieces wouldn’t make any sense at all and would be valueless, except in context with each other.
And that’s why context matters.