When I wrote about the latest finds from Pompeii earlier this week, I focused on the stories told about the revelations of new material extracted from the debris of Vesuvius. There is, however, another huge issue that must be grappled with, both as archaeologists and as people, and that is the fact that we are dealing with human remains. How we do that as Classical Archaeologists is, for historic reasons I cannot fully identify, very different from how such remains are handled in other parts of the world, and in other fields of archaeological science.
Five years ago, at the time my doctoral dissertation on tombs was being published as a book, my dad managed to get me invited to give a talk about my research at the local public library in Illinois when I was home for the holidays. After the talk (surprisingly, even attended by people I’m not related to), I was asked a question regarding what happened to the human remains found in Pompeii after excavation. The audience member who asked made specific reference to NAGPRA, which is something that I was well schooled in from my undergraduate days, but had never considered in the context of my work in Italy. For those not from North America, this law requires the dignified treatment and eventual return of any human remains found on federal or tribal lands to their descendants. This has sometimes caused drawn out legal battles between tribes, in part because the length of time that has passed (multiple thousands of years) can make finding direct lineage difficult, or in many instances, allows claims from more than one group. This is, of course, very much tied up with the historic mis-treatment of Native Americans, their displacement from ancestral lands, and the genocidal level reduction of their population over the last six hundred years. What is intriguing to me, is that this same reverence is not necessarily shown for the remains that are found in the Vesuvian sites. Unlike some of the issues caused by forced migration and genocide of Native American peoples, there should be no doubt that modern Italians are the descendants of ancient Romans (as are numerous other European and North African peoples). All you need to do is listen to a Neapolitan or a Sicilian speak Italian and you can hear faint remnants of your school Latin. Even amongst Americans whose ancestors came from Italy there is still a vague association with the Rome of the past (consider Tony Soprano’s (sweary) response when asked by a Jewish business associate waxing lyrically about the braveness of those at Masada holding out against Roman soldiers.) So what’s the difference, and more to the point, why is there one?
Since excavations in Pompeii began in 1748, approximately 1200 sets of human remains have been found. Initially, these were categorised as the old, the infirm, and children who were physically unable to escape the cataclysm of the eruption in AD 79. This determination, however, was made with no examination of the bones themselves. Since the late nineteenth century, slightly more than one hundred plaster casts have been made of human and animal remains. It is only recently that the skeletons contained in the casts have begun to be studied by Estelle Lazar. Her team has discovered that the previous ideas about who died in the eruption is wrong, and the remains actually represent a broad spectrum of the population of the ancient city. What makes the two recently made casts unique is that the skeletons themselves were examined prior to casting. Skeletal remains from an archaeological site of any context can provide information about age at death, sex, health, diet, occupation, and migration. Mix in a documented cause of death by volcanic eruption, and there is more information to be found about stages of the eruption, cause of death (suffocation from ash, pyroclastic flow gases, blunt trauma, etc.), and the behaviour and reaction to those attempting to escape (consider, for example, the hundreds found on the beach in Herculaneum).
This is, in part, why the skeletons and casts from Pompeii and Herculaneum are, in my view, treated on some level as artefacts rather than as human remains. This can be taken one step further when you consider that a large number of casts were first made in late 1800s. In a sense, they have become artefacts in their own right in relation to the development of the technique and of the evolution of archaeology as a scientific discipline. Many of these have been on display within the archaeological park, in museums, or simply kept gathering dust in storage in various facilities around Pompeii. The casts of the victims have always been a draw for visitors to the site – I can’t tell you how many times a tourist has asked me for directions to ‘the bodies’ – and indeed have featured on postcards and other memorabilia. I suspect – based in part on the reaction I’ve had from some students over the years – that there is some confusion as to what they actually are (and I would guess this may arise from referring to them as ‘casts’). Yes, the process of making a cast preserves the shape of the whole person, including details such as clothing, anything that the individual may have been holding or carrying, and in the case of animals, harnesses or leads. But the outer plaster shell does contain human remains: skulls, teeth, long bones, fingers, and toes. They are not models of what once existed, they are skeletons. They are people. As Mary Beard has said, ‘Pompeii is not just an archaeological site, it’s a site of human tragedy.’ It surprises me that there isn’t more reverence for them, not just by scientists and tourists, but by the people of Italy themselves. Why isn’t there a call to re-bury those we have dug up? Every once in awhile, a meme circulates asking the question how much time has to pass before grave robbing becomes archaeology. It pokes fun at an incredibly awkward question about how we treat those whose resting places (whether intended or tragic) we disturb. I, for one, would rather be an archaeologist.