Bones of the victims at Roman Herculaneum

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Are human remains the archaeology of death or the archaeology of life? This strange paradox stated in Pearson (1999), addresses that the surviving bones, tissues and skin are more likely to reveal information about a person’s life, not a person’s death.

These studies of skeletal elements and burials in the Roman period have been of enduring interest to many archaeologists and proved to act towards a better understanding of the fundamental demographic regimes characterising Roman antiquity.

Since mortuary practices involve the interpretation of material customs, social relations, cultural principles and the human body, they represent an array of disciplines (Rakita et al., 2008). All of these disciplines offer valuable information about health, social stratification, ritualistic or cultural behaviour in ancient Roman societies.


Skeletal remains offer a wealth of knowledge about the livelihood of  people who lived in the past. In particular, bones may be used to determine the health of an individual. Furthermore, if there are multiple remains representative of a population, common diseases can be identified and associated with one community. Physical remains unparalleled in the Roman archaeology record are the remnants of devastation at Pompeii and Herculaneum; unique and phenomenal preserved townships affected by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

These cities may be argued to be one of the foremost mortuary archaeology sites to study the remnants of a human culture, as many aspects were preserved ideally from the surges and ash falls (Deiss, 1985). These skeletons have been analysed and proved to identify the health and quality of life; where recent pathological studies have identified illnesses thought to have affected the populace.

"Boat houses" where skeletons were found - Credit : Matthias Holländer
“Boat houses” where skeletons were found – Credit : Matthias Holländer

Many individuals located on the beach at Herculaneum who were buried under 30m of thin mud have been identified to have rib lesions (Capasso, 2000). These findings did not differ between the different sexes and were also identified in children, therefore independent of both sex and age. Capasso (2000) states that these lesions are undoubtedly related to pleural inflammation: the swelling of pleural cavity surrounding the lungs.This has been attributed to the high degree of particulate pollution produced by the burning of organic oils in terracotta lamps.

Roman communities burned wood to keep their homes warm, which could have also been attributed to increased particulates.  Additional findings from the victims of Herculaneum showed depressions in the skull, resulted from excess irritation and scratching. Capasso & Tota (1998) attributed this scratching to head lice, that was concluded to impact over 22 % of the population; independent of sex or ages.  This discovery is barely surprising, it is well documented that lice were quite common in Ancient Rome: both Scilla; the Dictator and the Greek poet Alcamon, died as a result of their infestation. (Capasso & Tota 1998).

The analysis of pathology, as previously discussed is beneficial when studying mortuary archaeology. However, Roberts & Manchester (1995) state that studying past diseases also gives insights into the attitudes towards physical and mental attitudes of people in the past, as many individuals suffering from diseases would have needed constant attention and care from family or communal groups. Furthermore, they must have been willing to devote considerable time and trouble to care for people who have survived with an illness.

Individuals can offer worthy information to archaeologists; however mass burials or sites including Pompeii and Herculaneum offer insight that proves significant to understanding a community. Furthermore, the analysis of multiple remains at one site can assess population density and demographic structure of ancient cities.  Due to the unique preservation of these populations, over 143 individuals have been evaluated from Herculaneum alone, providing a demographic structure at the time of the tragedy.

The age at death is determined by dental development and assessment of the morphological changes of the skeleton throughout an individual’s lifetime (Giesecke, 1998). This methodology was utilised and found only 8.4 % of the individuals at Herculaneum were older than 50 years, whereas children less than ten years of age made up 20.3% of the population (Capasso & Capasso, 1999).

The number of women who had given birth was 32.5%, with approximately 10% given birth up to 6-8 times. In addition Capasso & Capasso (1999) found that women generally had children in the second decade of their life. Foetal bones were also located with some of the individuals; indicating four women were pregnant when Mount Vesuvius erupted. From archaeological sources Capasso & Capasso (1999) states that there were approximately 5000 people living at Herculaneum.

It may be noted that there is only 250 individuals in the 15-20 age division. This indicates that there was a birth rate crisis between 59 and 64 AD. Anomalies like this are usually attributed to epidemics or war; both principal foundations of increased decreasing birth rate (Capasso & Capasso, 1999).  In this case there are no previously documented epidemics or wars throughout the region. However, there was an earthquake that of 62 that resulted in high mortality of Pompeii and Naples, which was likely to have impacted Herculaneum.  This site in particular is a remarkable example of how mortuary archaeology can be utilised to construct pathology within population demographics and prove to be highly beneficial in studying antiquity.

The benefits of dental archaeology are broader than differentiating ages in skeletal remains as they can determine the diet and overall health of a population.  Once again, victims at Herculaneum prove to be a good case study when assessing diet and health of a population. Only a very low percentage of 3.8% of individuals were carious (Torino, Rognini & Fornaciari, 1995). This percentage is considered very low when compared to both ancient and modern populations (typically between 8- 12 %).

Many specimens show enamel hypoplasia due to altered amelogenesis: abnormal formation of the enamel (Torino, Rognini & Fornaciari, 1995). This is often caused by starvation or poor nourishment, although it is common in well-nourished communities suffering from fluorosis: ingesting of high levels of fluorine (Alessandro, 2006).  The high frequency of hypoplasia indicates that these results clearly demonstrate the presence of endemic dental fluorosis (Torino, Rognini & Fornaciari, 1995).

The source of these toxic levels of fluorine has been associated with volcanic activity, which releases highly soluble hydrogen fluorine. Volcanic rocks thus contain toxins which can be transferred through water-rock interaction processes in the aquifers. Therefore the primary pathway of these toxins into the human body is through the consumption of contaminated food and drinking water (Alessandro, 2006). Enamel hypoplasia is also commonly associated with tooth decay and cavities, which, if left untreated can prove to be painful, and cause difficulties when eating.

Written by Ashleigh Murszewski

Header Image – Skeletons in the’ Boat Houses’, Herculaneum – Image Credit : BIG ALBERT

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