Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Bone: Dead Babies and Poggio Civitate

In the summer of 2010, osteoarchaeologist Sarah Kansa was making a detailed examination of hundreds of bags of mixed animal bone, the result of many years of excavation at Poggio Civitate. This site, excavated since 1966, is one of the most significant non-funerary sites in Etruscan archaeology, most famous for the stunning architectural terracottas used to decorate its central complex. It sounds like the start of a novel, or an action/ horror film, as while Sarah was working through the bone remains, she made a discovery- a tiny fragment of human bone which would become the centre of what, to an Etruscan archaeologist, has become a media storm. In typical fashion, I had left Poggio Civitate 2 days before Sarah made her discovery- heading home from excavation a week early to get married. When I returned last summer, one of the first things I did on my first lab day was nonchalantly wander over to Sarah's workspace to look at the group of tiny bones, which Sarah had identified as those of an infant or infants. Their fragility invoked in me a completely unprofessional ethnocentric response connected to human tragedies in the present for me- the loss of a child and the emotions involved. At the time that I first saw the remains, my cousin (and friend) was 8 months pregnant- imagining her and her partner's response, and that of our family, to that precious life ending soon after birth was horrific and disturbing.* 

View of Poggio Civitate looking beautiful on a summer's day. 

The same reaction which I instinctively felt on seeing the remains is what lies at the heart of what happened when the site director, Dr Anthony Tuck presented the discovery at the American Institute of Archaeology Annual Meeting a week and a half ago. The context of the find, excavated from the Orientalising period workshop building (more information about the workshop in this article by Tuck and Nielson, published in 2001, here ), alongside animal bones and debris, led Tuck to suggest that, possibly, this infant was disposed of without a formalised burial. He went on to raise questions about the status of infants in Etruria, asking whether it could have been possible for stillborn or neonatal infants to be regarded as non-persons at this period. ** The potential for mass exploitation of the emotional reactions I experienced when seeing the remains was picked up by media sources, recognising the potential for a good story- originally by NBC Science , then by Live Science and then by the Daily Mail. The latter's coverage was particularly rotten, even by their standards- describing the site as Roman rather than Etruscan and filled with sensationalist overexcitement and righteous outrage at the barbarism of the past, both features which, while present in the previous articles, were at least slightly understated. ***

 The central problem with the coverage, as astutely pointed out by Dr Kristina Killgrove, was the cultural Darwinism inherent in these posts- we in the present treat our infants well, so we can be nicely horrified by past cultures, and vilify and judge their decisions and choices. Yet, at the same time as the Poggio Civitate infant remains were being used as a bolster to our present superiority, a story was breaking in the UK that demonstrated the continuity of practice in the disposal of infant remains as non-persons. This story from Scotland outlined the facts that a crematorium in Edinburgh had been routinely misleading parents about the cremated remains of their children. The Mortonhall Crematorium told parents that no remains would be extant after cremation for them to scatter, as infants are too small to produce ashes for secondary burial. What happened was that ashes were produced, and then buried together in a mass grave over a period of 45 years. Although the placement of the grave was in a "Garden of Rememberance," the remains of neonates were treated distinctly differently from those of adults, and denied individual identity in death. The Mortonhall scandal is not alone: this article by Lynn Morgan outlines another issue of infant status in the modern world- the disposal of foetal remains as medical waste and curation as biological specimens, while there have been two cases of babies found in association with rubbish this year- one still alive after a 50ft fall down a rubbish chute and one found dead at a rubbish dump in Scunthorpe. Whether by distressed and unprepared parents or uncaring authorities, infants are still being treated in a different fashion to adult human remains in the modern world- and this is just in the UK alone! While it is great to see a site you work at in the international news, it would be even better if that news coverage was tempered by sensitivity to the otherness of the past and honesty about practices in the present.


* Her baby was born on 11/08/12 and has been from the start a very happy and healthy little boy. Look! Isn't he gorgeous? By the way, I'm not saying that the mother (s) of the Poggio Civitate infant (or infants) didn't grieve over their babies- but I doubt they felt exactly the same way a modern mother would.

** I don't want to get into the interpretative debate about the context of the bones in detail- it would take this post away from a point about present-centrism, and I'm neither an osteologist nor a forensic taphonomist. Tuck's original presentation presented one hypothesis of disposal alongside rubbish, while Killgrove's response (see link above) suggested a secondary disturbance as responsible for the presence of the infant remains in the workshop. I am tempted to think there is room for a third point of view- looking not, as Killgrove did, to the later Roman world, but north to the European Iron Age. JD Hill's "Ritual and rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex" presents a different way of thinking about deposition- recognising the incorporation of ritual into the disposal of animal remains, seeming rubbish, and humans. A recent article by Adrian Chadwick further develops the nuances of this argument. If the lines between ritual deposition and chucking away rubbish are recognised as blurred and complex, the infant remains from Poggio Civitate can be seen in a different light. The systematic destruction of Poggio Civitate's Archaic complex certainly points to a hyprid form of deposition at a later point in the site's history.

*** There is a debate here to be had about public, open access archaeology and sensationalisation, but that is another can of worms altogether- and one that, in the wake of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, is also getting a lot of attention at the moment. Suffice to say, the public deserve better than incorrect, sloppy archaeological journalism as exemplified by the Mail. I know plenty of archaeologists who would be more than happy to provide such assistance as needed! 

References (in addition to articles linked to above)

Chadwick, A. M. (2012), Routine Magic, Mundane Ritual. Towards a Unified Notion of Depositional Practice. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 31: 283–315. 

Hill, J. D. (1995). Ritual and rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex. A study on the formation of a specific archaeological record. Tempus, Oxford.

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