K. Salesse and C. Stantis Scholar Grant Report (2021/2022)

Awakening the Dead: Approaching the Social Fabric of Pompeii through Mobility and Funerary Customs Using Molecular Bioarchaeology

Kevin Salesse and Chris Stantis

What Makes a Roman City?

Understanding the social fabric of a small Roman city is a complex endeavor that requires not only a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary approach but also adequate and well-preserved archaeological material. The Roman Pompeii presents a unique opportunity to explore the creation and development of the makeup of this city following the Social Wars (91-87 BCE). Indeed, due to the 79 CE Vesuvius eruption, the city was frozen in time, leaving a unique testimony that enables a better understanding of not only the social fabric of Pompeii itself but also provides new insights on the lives of those living in other small Roman cities during the Late Republic and Early Empire.

Social fabric is intimately linked with mobility. Rome drew most of the attention of the Roman historians. However, mobility in cities the size of Pompeii is still quite understudied. Although mobility is known as a phenomenon of all times, it is important to keep in mind that mobility differs depending on the economic, social and cultural contexts, which can change the interpretation of its complicated patterns from one society to another. For the Roman period, it is noteworthy to study economic, social, and cultural interactions from the angle of mobility to explore the reasons why people decided/were forced to move, or not to move, or in other words the pull and push factors. A large part of the evidence of mobility comes from epigraphy, especially funerary inscriptions commemorating some movers. But very often, time affects the traces of migration, and most migrants have been forgotten without any kind of literary or epigraphic evidence showing their origin.

The demographics of colonial cities deeply affected daily life. Roman cities of colonial origin, like Pompeii, took Rome as a model reproducing its institutions and cults. However, one should not believe that all the cities were miniature Romes. Local variations occurred creating a certain diversity with mixed types of architecture and styles. It is not only Rome, but the hundreds of other Roman cities that gave the Roman territory its political unity and cohesion. Obviously, a kind of hierarchy has been created where small and large cities differed in their level of cultural, religious, political and economic influences. This ultimately impacted the power of attraction, the demographics and the social fabric of these different cities. Most of the evidence regarding the Roman social reality of urban life derived from Rome since it was the focal point of the Roman world. Thereby, little information is available today about smaller cities as both centers of their cultural areas and as nodes to Rome.

The potential dangers of using Pompeii as a historical testing-ground, particularly for applying conclusions to other cities or to Roman society more generally, have been thoroughly rehearsed in recent years; nevertheless, its advantages clearly outweigh its possible hazards. Moreover, it is an essential reference for validating new archaeological and bioanthropological methods. Pompeii was the ideal context to implement the high-risk, high-gain project entitled "Awakening the Dead" co-directed by Dr. K. Salesse and Dr. C. Stantis. In particular, state-of-the-art molecular bioarchaeology, including isotopic and proteomic analyses, has been used to shed new insights and complement our current knowledge on mobility and demographics. The project focused on the Roman necropolis located outside a gate of the city of Pompeii known as Porta Nocera, excavated since 2003 by a French team led by Prof. W. Van Andringa and Dr. H. Duday.

Molecular Analysis

Morphological sex determination is notoriously difficult for juveniles, highly fragmented adult skeletons and cremated individuals. Recently, a new method of sex determination via sexually dimorphic amelogenin protein fragments in human tooth enamel has opened up new avenues. Amelogenin gene is translated into two isoforms linked to sexual chromosomes, namely AMELX (present in both sexes) and AMELY (restricted to male only). Occurrence of AMELX and AMELY isoforms is determined by liquid-chromatography mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS). Although the method was originally developed for unburnt human remains, some authors have recently suggested that this approach could be successfully applied to burnt human teeth. In this project, all available buried juvenile individuals were successfully analyzed by this method. The application of this method on burned remains proved to be more difficult than expected, providing results that are currently not readily usable. We have worked on the improvement of the method and continue to develop it using experimentally burned proxies in an muffle furnaces. The data obtained is being processed and will provide a better understanding of the demographics in the funerary enclosures or monuments.

Strontium (Sr) isotopes are a powerful tool to study human mobility. Sr enters the body through diet, and the isotopic composition of the consumed foodstuffs is related to the 87Sr/86Sr values of underlying geology where they are produced. Several studies has demonstrated that modern plants are among the most suitable sample medium for mapping bioavailable Sr across a wide landscape. In this project, we have made progress in mapping the isotopic composition of biologically available strontium for central Italy from plants. Such an isoscape is in the process of being submitted for publication. The isoscape will be then used to interpret Sr data being acquired from burnt and unburnt human remains. Recontextualized, the data will allow us to better understand population dynamics, and by extension the social fabric.

We are immensely grateful to the International Catacomb Society and its Shohet Scholars Grant program for supporting this project.