Ancient History & Civilisation



Interpretation of the human skeletal remains from Pompeii and Herculaneum has been dominated by a storytelling approach, which originated from the culture of bodies that developed in Pompeii in the eighteenth century. Initially, this involved the use of human skeletal finds as props to produce vignettes for visiting dignitaries. A mythology was created, mostly based on finds from the eighteenth century, such as the human remains discovered in the so-called Villa of Diomedes and the alleged well-heeled woman found in the gladiator’s barracks (VII, vii, 16–17). The next and probably most enduring influence was that of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii, which combined circumstantial evidence from associated artefacts with the context of skeletons found in Pompeii to weave a story about the lives and deaths of the victims. The legacy of the BulwerLytton approach can be clearly observed in both academic and popular works about the human victims in Pompeii and Herculaneum. It is easy to understand why this approach persists as it is very attractive to invest the victims with personalities and names, which facilitate empathy. Epigraphic evidence is often invoked for this purpose, despite the fact that there is little likelihood that names found, for example, on inscriptions, could be related to specific individuals. By continuing this trend we do a disservice to the victims of the event. The lives that are recreated almost certainly tell us more about the scholars who write the work than about the individuals who continue to act as props for these scenarios. The tales tend to obscure rather than reveal information and there is always the risk that evidence may be sacrificed for the sake of a good narrative. This problem is exacerbated when it is presented with a veneer of science, as it is difficult for the lay reader to establish what is reasonable and what is pure creation. Another key problem in applying a storytelling approach is that there is the expectation that everything will be resolved with a neat ending, which belies the nature of archaeology, a subject that deals in probabilities rather than certainty.

The astonishing wealth of finds associated with the Vesuvian destruction layer has added to the problem as it has, on occasion, lured normally sensible scholars into the false notion that they should somehow be able to know everything about the site and reconstruct it into nice history or diorama.

A further complication is that physical anthropologists appear to be reticent to divulge the limitations of their field. This can partially be explained by the fact that they generally write for their peers, who understand the constraints of the discipline. Another contributing factor to this problem is the way that the discipline is funded. Grants are unlikely to be bestowed on conservative projects that deal with vague probabilities. Certainty and the grand statement are much more likely to be rewarded. This encourages scholars to push the evidence to make conclusions that cannot be supported. Archaeology and ancient history have become increasingly multidisciplinary in their approach, though it is nearly impossible to become proficient in all the disciplines that are encompassed. One of the aims of this work is to arm the lay reader with enough information to be able to critically assess the literature associated with physical anthropology.

Pompeii and Herculaneum have been in the grip of the Bulwer-Lytton approach for far too long and it is timely to explore new ways of making the findings accessible without pushing the evidence beyond what is reasonable. The human skeletal remains from Pompeii present a particularly problematic data set because they have been compromised, mostly as a result of postexcavation treatment of the bones. Perhaps it has required more than a little coaxing but it has been possible to tease out enough information to provide tantalizing glimpses into the lives and deaths of these victims.

The context of the human finds revealed that, as expected, the majority of the Pompeian victims were killed by the lethal second phase, though a substantial number appear to have died as a result of roof and wall collapse due to the build up of ash and pumice in the first phase of the eruption. Human remains that have been studied in situ, the casts in particular, confirm the current interpretation of the AD 79 event, as the victims that survived to the second phase of the eruption for the most part appear to have died quickly and were exposed to high temperatures at or about the time of death.

Analysis of the skeletal remains enabled commonly held views about the population to be tested. The assertion that young, healthy males were most likely to survive was not supported by the skeletal evidence. It appeared that there were roughly even numbers of each sex represented in the sample of victims at both Pompeii and Herculaneum. If the Pompeian sample were at all skewed, it was slightly towards those skeletons that had male attributes. Similarly, the skeletal evidence did not confirm the notion that the sample would be biased toward those that were old or extremely young. While establishing age-at-death is much more difficult than sex determination for adults, it appeared that a full range of ages was represented with the exception of very young individuals. Poor storage and the inability of untrained excavators to recognize infant bones as human may not fully account for the lack of babies and young children in the Pompeian collection as the wellexcavated Herculaneum sample yielded a similar bias. One possible explanation is that the AD 79 populations at these two sites were not stable. It is important to note that the Pompeian and Herculaneum samples cannot be used to comment about infant mortality because victims of mass disasters do not provide evidence that pertains to such issues.

While there are many disorders that do not present on bone, the skeletal record for both Pompeii and Herculaneum displays no apparent skewing towards individuals with pathology. It is possible to gain a little insight into the general health of the Pompeian victims from the skeletal evidence. Regional continuity in stature and the height difference between males and females indicates that the majority of victims were not exposed to major illness and had access to reasonable nutrition in their growing years. The number of healed and healing injuries reflects a certain robusticity in their immune systems, though the dental data suggest that there may have been some underlying health problems. The poor state of oral hygiene in many mouths possibly provides indirect evidence for systemic infections or more serious soft-tissue pathology.

The presence of age-related disorders, like hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) and diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) suggests that individuals were surviving into old age. This challenges the view that is often presented by scholars, including physical anthropologists, that ancient people were shorter lived than their modern counterparts. The discovery of a significant number of cases of HFI was of particular importance because the incidence of its occurrence in the sample is comparable to that in a modern Western population. This indicates that the sample was not only random and normally distributed but also that the Pompeian lifespan was similar to that of a modern Western population. It is notable that minimal evidence for the presence of this disorder was recorded for the Herculaneum sample.

The most useful population indicators for the Pompeian sample proved to be non-metric traits. The extremely high incidence of certain traits in relation to other populations, like palatine torus, double-rooted canines and squatting facets of the tibia suggests a certain level of homogeneity, either as a result of shared genes or a common environment during the years of growth and development. This discovery is at odds with the traditional view that the Pompeian population was heterogeneous. It is possible that the various populations described by ancient writers, like Strabo and Pliny the Elder, which were said to have inhabited the region, were not genetically distinct but were separated by culture and language. The apparent homogeneity of the Pompeian sample could also be accounted for by a possible alteration to the composition of the population by some sections of the community moving from the settlement, either as a direct result of the AD 62 earthquake or as a result of disruptions caused by continuing seismic activity in the last 17 years of occupation. There could be other reasons for change to the population, as would be expected in any dynamic community with a long occupation history. The time of the year that the eruption occurred could also have influenced the composition of the victims. It now appears unlikely that the event occurred in the summer of AD 79, which means that seasonal occupants would have returned to their main residences in Rome.

Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected discovery involves the large differences in the reported frequency of both cranial and post-cranial nonmetric traits between the Pompeian and Herculaneum samples. If these results are correct, they suggest that there were either significant genetic distinctions between the samples of victims at the two sites or that they were exposed to different environments during the period of growth and development. Consideration should be given to the possibility that variation in the way the eruption was experienced at Pompeii and Herculaneum may have had an impact on who became victims at each location.

The recorded divergence between the Pompeian and Herculaneum samples for pathology and non-metric traits requires some attention. It is important to establish that these differences are real and not an artefact of variations in recording standards between scholars. To rule out interobserver error, it would be valuable to have a collaborative overarching study of the human remains from both sites, using standardized techniques. It would also be instructive to establish whether the features and pathology recorded in the Pompeian sample are distinctly associated with this site or whether there is evidence for them in other Campanian sites and if they persist over time.

When I first commenced work on this material, other scholars considered that my study was virtuous but not of any real value. The Pompeian skeletal finds had been all but written off as they had been superseded by the carefully excavated, articulated Herculaneum skeletons, which were clearly capable of providing much more information. The apparent differences between the Pompeian and Herculaneum samples underline the importance of not jettisoning evidence, regardless of how compromised it may be as a result of poor post-excavation treatment. They also indicate that, regardless of their proximity, contemporaneity and death as a result of the same event, the victims from these two sites cannot be treated as interchangeable.

The potential to cast the forms of the victims that have left their impressions in the hardened ash in the layers associated with the second phase of the eruption is unique to the region around Pompeii. Like the skeletal evidence, they have primarily served as poignant reminders of the catastrophe and evocative tools for elaborate storytelling. The x-ray and CT analysis of the resin cast from Oplontis demonstrates that the casts are an extremely valuable scientific resource. Not only do their poses provide some information about cause of death but they also provide a source of articulated skeletons that can be analyzed to test the results obtained from the disarticulated sample.

This baseline study of the human skeletal remains from Pompeii involved measurements and observations to obtain information that would describe the population in terms of sex, age-at-death, population affinities and pathology. The results of this research challenge assumptions that had been made about the people who became victims from both Pompeii and Herculaneum and can be tested by future studies on the casts and any new skeletons that are revealed in forthcoming excavations. It provides the groundwork for further studies at the macroscopic, microscopic and, if the technology becomes available, molecular level.

It would be remiss to neglect to mention the ethical considerations associated with the study and display of human remains from this archaeological context. Ideally, this section should appear at the beginning of a volume but I have specifically chosen to put it at the end in this case as, to date, these issues have not been high on the agenda for Pompeii and Herculaneum. Nonetheless, it is essential to be a bit introspective about undertaking a study that involves human skeletal material.

As a scholar coming from an Australian perspective, it is not possible to contemplate studying any human remains without some thought about the ethical issues. Archaeologists have been forced to consider the sensibilities of Indigenous people in Australia as a result of a history of collection and study of bones without consent, often for nefarious purposes, to maintain the status quo of ‘racial’ inequality. From the latter part of the twentieth century, Indigenous people in North America and Australia began to lobby for the return of the remains of individuals that they identified as ancestors. Laws have now been enacted to facilitate this process.1 Further, codes of ethics have been devised to ensure that research is appropriately carried out with the consent of stakeholders.2 There has been a flow-on effect as a result of the need to address the concerns of traditional communities. It is possible to discern increasing interest in the treatment of the remains of humans in a more sensitive manner, from cultures that have not previously been concerned about the study and display of their ancestors, including those from a modern Western context. One form in which this has been manifested is the development of a series of guidelines for dealing with European remains and cemetery excavations. Australia has been a leader in this field. In 2005, English Heritage and the Church of England produced guidelines for the excavation, study and reburial of Christian remains from archaeological contexts.3 This is significant as it is possible that there may ultimately be a knock-on effect that will have an impact on the treatment of archaeological human remains in Europe.

It should, however, be noted that there is a long tradition of displaying human anatomical images in Europe, often in an extremely theatrical manner. The major work of the sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, De Humani Corpus Fabrica, includes detailed woodcuts of humans divesting themselves of layers of their anatomy, often within the setting of a romantic landscape (see Frontispiece).4 The exhibitions of plastinated bodies devised by Gunther von Hagens, while considered highly offensive by some people, clearly operate within this tradition. It is possible that some of the public outrage about Von Hagen’s exhibitions of posed humans reflects a shift in attitude.

Italy may be slightly more immune from changing global attitudes, as there is a tradition dating back to medieval times of public exhibition of human remains for religious purposes. Natural mummification of deceased individuals who had been placed in crypts, for example, was considered to be the result of divine intervention, as a failure to putrefy was seen as suspension of the laws of nature, and such bodies were usually displayed. Similarly, monks and lay supporters of the Capuchin monastery at Palermo, who were either naturally or artificially mummified between the sixteenth and turn of the twentieth centuries, are on view in subterranean chambers of the building.5 Sometimes bodies have been exhibited to emphasize views about the Resurrrection and the separation of body and soul, like the disarticulated remains of approximately 4,000 Capuchin brothers and other individuals who died between 1528 and 1870. These bones have been used to form elaborate patterns, such as a clock made from vertebrae and other skeletal elements, which decorate the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome.6

To date, there has been no controversy about the ethical considerations associated with the study of human remains in either Pompeii or Herculaneum and, while there is evidence that human skeletal elements have been souvenired from Pompeii, there has been no call for their repatriation. Human remains have been on view to the public in Pompeii since the eighteenth century and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Still, ethical issues are dynamic and it is possible that attitudes could eventually alter.

Human skeletal remains in Herculaneum have, until recently, been on display. Some of the more recent finds were cast in latex prior to their removal for analysis, which allows skeletons to be observed as they were found in their original locations. This is probably more the result of pragmatic considerations, rather than the desire to deal with sensibilities about seeing real skeletons in situ. Ongoing problems with groundwater provide an imperative for the removal of bones, particularly those on the ancient beachfront.

Discussion with members of the Herculaneum Conservation Project revealed that the local community identify as stakeholders and maintain a continued interest in being able to view the remains of the victims, preferably in situ.7 They have expressed disappointment when told that the human remains can no longer be viewed on site. There have been suggestions from foreign visitors, mostly North Americans and Australians, that the human remains should not be displayed as they might upset visitors to the site.

It is perhaps rather chauvinistic for people from other cultures to extrapolate their values onto site management. Ultimately, the decisions that are made are the responsibility of the stakeholders, though it could be argued that these sites are of world significance and that we could all be described as stakeholders.

The most essential and pleasurable part of the morning ritual to gain access to the Sarno and Forum bath skeletal collections was to share coffee and a chat with the custodians responsible for the keys to these buildings. Their main interest in my Antipodean background was the wildlife – mostly its potential as cuisine. One of the custodians was a touch on the corpulent side and another rather thin. One morning the thin one was giving his rounder colleague a hard time about the quantity of food he ate. The subject of kangaroos came up and the better fed of the two quipped that this was just the kind of meat that his more slender counterpart would eat as it was lean and hard. He concluded that regardless of the fact that his colleague never ate any fat, he was going to die just the same. Sadly, he was correct and both of them are no longer alive. We cannot stave off death, no matter what we do. A mass disaster does not discriminate and has left us with what appears to be a random sample that reflects a living population. While the victims did not choose their fate, their rediscovery and subsequent subjection to analysis has bestowed upon them a modicum of immortality.

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