University of Southampton

Department of Archaeology


Human Skeletons and Society in Prehistoric Italy

John Robb

This research, ongoing since 1990, focuses upon skeletal signs of health, violence and activity in prehistoric Italian skeletons. To date, about 400 skeletons from about 40 sites have been studied. The earliest site, Ripa Tetta, is a Neolithic village dating to the sixth millennium BC. The latest site, Pontecagnano, is an Iron Age cemetery dating to the 7th-3rd centuries BC.

Prehistoric Italian skeletons reflect a number of cultural practices. Many were trepanned; about three fourths of trepanations are found in males. Some, however, are known in females (see Rivista di Antropologia 72, 1994).

skullTrepanned male, Bronze Age, Grotta dello Scoglietto, Toscana; note also benign osteoma

Dental remains reveal a practice of intentional tooth removal in Neolithic women, possibly for ritual, cosmetic or ethno-medical reasons (see Antiquity 71:659-669, 1997).

teethPre-mortem loss of two incisors, Neolithic female, Fonteviva, Puglia

Skeletal remains portray long-term changes in violence. Skeletal trauma appears highest in the Neolithic, uncommon in the Copper Age, and moderate to high in the Bronze and Iron Ages -- a pattern which contradicts the image of the peaceful Neolithic and the warlike Copper Age derived from art and artifacts, and which complex changes in the social use of violence (see "Violence and Gender in Early Italy", in Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past, edited by D.W. Frayer and D. Martin, 1998).

boneBronze arrowhead embedded in femur, Iron Age male, Pontegagnano, Campania

Many paleopathologies of varied types are evident in the Italian skeletons; for instance, three cases of an unusual congenital malformation, humerus varus, are known -- two from Bronze Age people from Toscana and one from an Iron Age site known to be settled by Etruscans. Periostitis is common, and cases of spina bifida, hyperostosis frontalis interna, osteitis of the pubic symphysis, and non-specific infections are also known.

longboneCongenital deformation, right humerus, Iron Age male, Pontecagnano, Campania

Systematic analysis of dental remains focuses on caries, ante-mortem tooth loss, abcesses, calculus, and enamel hypoplasias.

jawAnte-mortem tooth loss, Iron Age male, Cairano, Campania

The real significance of dental analysis lies in what it can reveal about ancient economies. Long term trends in dental disease through Italian prehistory show that dental disease was common in all periods, though it was less prevalent in the Copper Age, a fact possibly related to economic shifts to pastoralism in this period.

Another major economic change reflected in skeletons is urbanism. Urban Iron Age populations show sharp increases in infectious disease and childhood stress, as known from periostitis and from enamel hypoplasias. This probably mirrors the health hazards of living in crowded, early towns, with poor sanitation, unclean water sources and large groups of people for pathogens to live in. A second major consequence of the urban lifestyle is reduced mobility; both femur cross-sections and tibia cross-section become noticeably rounder in the Iron Age, reflecting less walking-related bending stresses upon them.

Long-term changes in stature probably reflect both increasing nutritional variety and adequacy, and the effects of urbanization.

Signs of craft specialization and occupational stress are most evident in the Iron Age (see Human Evolution 9:215-229, 1994).

vertebraSchmorl's nodes and osteoarthritis, young Iron Age adult male, Pontecagnano, Campania

One current focus of research is the connection between social status and ritual, as shown in burial goods, and biological status as evident in skeletal signs of health, stress and trauma. Current statistical analyses on Iron Age samples shows that the relationship is quite complex. There is no clear linkage betwen grave goods and signs of childhood stress (enamel hypoplasia, stature, cribra orbitalia). At the same time, a discrete group of adult males can be identified who were buried with no goods in the simplest type of tombs, and whose skeletons reveal very high rates of trauma, tibial periostitis and Schmorl's nodes. An underclass or distinct status group? Perhaps.

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