The discarded infants of ancient Poggio Civitate horrify, provoke and fascinate 2,500 years later
March 6, 2013
(Phys.org) —More than 2,500 years after tiny infant bones were scattered, perhaps offhandedly, amid animal remains on the floor of an Etruscan workshop, recently-discovered fragments of those bones are causing a stir far beyond Italy's Poggio Civitate Archaeological Project.
University of Massachusetts Amherst archaeologist Anthony Tuck recently told an Archaeological Institute America annual meeting in Seattle that the bones discovered in the ancient Etruscan town of Poggio Civitate were "simply either left on the floor of the workshop or ended up in an area with a heavy concentration of other discarded remains of butchered animals."
It is an image that has, in ensuing weeks, resonated powerfully, if not always accurately, in the international press as everyone from religious fundamentalists to luridly invasive tabloids has scrambled to assemble narratives for the baby bones that might be either more or less appalling to modern sensibilities – narratives, notes Tuck, that tell us more about ourselves than they do about perinatal death in ancient Italy.
"Romans may have dumped remains of dead kids with their rubbish," screamed an Asian News International headline; "Grisly discoveries reveal unsympathetic attitudes," wrote a Daily Mail reporter. Other news outlets placed the excavated site on a timeline that might have associated it either with BCE cave dwellers or alternatively in the path of seventh century CE invaders.
In fact, Poggio Civitate, notes Tuck, was located about 10 miles south of the Tuscan city of Siena, and was neither Roman nor primitive. It was inhabited from approximately 900 - 550 BCE, and is characterized by the remains of lavish aristocratic dwellings and highly stylized fine ceramics and carvings. Particularly significant, was the discovery of a workshop pavilion built in mid-seventh century BCE and measuring over 150 feet in length – "considerably longer," says Tuck, "than anything known in the contemporary Greek world" and decorated with opulent terracotta. While no kiln has been discovered, ceramics appear to have been produced there, along with other manufactured goods.
And then, beginning about two years ago came the discovery of human bones among the detritus, the arm bones and ilium of what appears to be several newborn or perinatal infants. "The fact is simply this," says Tuck. "We found elements of neo-natal human skeletons in refuse areas."
"One element of a human pelvis comes from an area with an exceptionally high concentration of butchered animal remains, suggesting that an infant corpse was thrown into an area already filled with discarded, decaying animal parts. Other portions of a skeleton were found resting directly on the floor of a workshop area and elements of a third child were found pushed or swept up against the interior wall of an aristocratic residence."
This is where Tuck and his team started to encounter pushback following January's AIA presentation in Seattle. How could Tuck so casually treat infant mortality, or, even worse, infanticide, asked some evangelicals? Why not just describe the bones and leave it at that, asked some paleoanthropologists? Couldn't the bones have been placed at the site as a result of some later catastrophe or disruption, asked a biological anthropologist? Wasn't this just another example of how nasty, brutish and short life was in the savage past, declared the tabloids? Let's not go blaming the Romans, demanded Roman archaeologists.
The bones themselves, says Tuck, limit the possible narratives. It remains highly likely that the bodies "were simply discarded within the debris associated with other bone and unused animal material." As in much of the ancient world, infants in Poggio Civitate – and especially the infants of slaves and workers – were not accorded the death rituals accorded to adults, and do not generally appear in cemetery plots.
"Troubling though it may be to modern sensibilities, it seems probable that a rigidly hierarchical social system at Poggio Civitate is reflected in the discarding of this infant's remains," Tuck told the Seattle gathering. "If workers there were slaves or even a free population drawn from elements of the community's lowest social orders, it is entirely possible that an infant born to a woman within that class group would not have merited even the limited ritual treatment reserved for perinatal deaths."
The only narrative that Tuck rejects categorically is the one that dismissively ascribes superiority to modern societies. We may be more like the Etruscans than we like to believe to disparate value to we attach to the lives of children. "Any modern discomfort at treatment of these infants at Poggio Civitate is a little misplaced," Tuck says. "What we should find more offensive to our modern sensibilities is really the profound manner in which societies maintain systems of caste and ranking that allow one group to effectively dehumanize another. This is exactly what happens when an infant's corpse is discarded in the trash – the child is treated in a manner that reflects the communities' perception of it as something other or less than fully a person.
"It's hard to argue that we don't place different cultural values on children's lives and assign greater or lesser value upon their deaths - for any number of subtle, nuanced and culturally complex reasons. We just don't like to admit it."
************************************************************"One element of a human pelvis comes from an area with an exceptionally high concentration of butchered animal remains, suggesting that an infant corpse was thrown into an area already filled with discarded, decaying animal parts. Other portions of a skeleton were found resting directly on the floor of a workshop area and elements of a third child were found pushed or swept up against the interior wall of an aristocratic residence."
So, the entire article discusses reasons why infant corpses may have been discarded, but scant attention is paid to WHERE THEY SHOWED UP. Three infant remains amidst thousands of bones and refuse? So perhaps, like today, some desperate girl or woman left a new-born baby to die. Dumpsters are popular places in the United States, for instance, in disposing of an unwanted live child.
We know it happens. But the question that should be asked is - why would the remains of a baby be found within the confines of the workshop itself? Surely someone didn't just dump a baby's body there and it rotted away while people worked around it? That is just too ridiculous a scenario to believe. The same for the infant remains found "against the interior wall of an aristocratic residence." And one day the mistress of the residence happens to stroll by on her way to a party and spies a half-rotted baby's corpse and says "sweep that out of the way, somebody please. I just don't know what is wrong with the help around here these days, I have to tell them to do everything." Yeah, right.
Let's look at the underlying assumptions implicit in many of the statements quoted in the article. Why does Tuck assume that finding the remains of three infants means there are many more? That is the implication in everything he said, isn't it? But that is a bad assumption to make based on the current evidence. In a city area occupied for some 400 years, wouldn't one assume, instead, that if putting a baby's body into the garbage was a common practice there should be evidence of hundreds, maybe even thousands of such remains. Where are they?
Point of fact is, not a word was written about how long those bones may have been there. The underlying assumption appears to be that the deposit of those infant bones was contemporaneous with occupancy of the city. But do we know this for a fact? What if the bones were deposited after the city ceased to be occupied but wasn't covered over by the centuries? What if they are remains carried there and left by wild animals after the population moved to other areas, or remains of babies abandoned by the aforesaid desperate mothers who came from Sienna, gave birth, and then left the newborns to die in a "ghost" city? Awful as that is, it certainly does not demonstrate the wholesale degree of callousness of the Etruscan residents of Poggio Civitate that Tuck and others are ascribing to them!
People haven't changed throughout all of written history. There have always been, and will always be, people who are kind, empathetic, and compassionate, there will always be concepts of justice and fairness, and there will always be those who lack that significant essence of what makes us a human being, and not a monster. I will not call those people animals, because animals do not harbor our concepts of good and evil. They act out of instinct and the drive to survive. It is only humans who can be monsters.
Tuck is right about the focus of the press and the religionists being skewed and misguided, those people expressing shock and horror over the bones of three infants found scattered amongst acres of ruins. The truth is that all around the world today there are millions of children who would probably be better off dead, because at least when you're dead, you do not feel pain, you do not feel hunger, you do not feel despair, desperation, fear and hatred for the human beings around you who are supposed to be nurturing and guiding you to adulthood but instead ignore you like you do not exist or, even worse, abuse you. Do an internet search for "street children." Do an internet search for "infanticide." Do an internet search for "foster child." Do an internet search for "child sex slaves." Hell, read the news in your local newspaper.