The Truth About Bones

Over the last few weeks of digging, I have had first-hand experience in finding an array of materials such as pottery, glass, bronze coins, an iron key, wall plaster, tiles, bricks, and bones. Personally, the most interesting material to find are the bones because they come in all different shapes and sizes, belong to different animals, and provide evidence for the daily lives of the Romans in terms of what they ate and manufactured from animals.

Prior to the dig, I did not think about bones very much and had not really seen many of them in my everyday life. My main interaction with bones was watching TV crime shows and scientific documentaries. So, for me, this dig made me curious about living animals and their interactions with the Romans on our villa. The three main questions I have pondered are: What types of animals would one expect to find on a villa? What effect do these animals have on the Romans, meaning are the animals eaten, kept as pets, or used in some other way? Finally, what challenges are associated with analyzing bones in the present to understand what is happening at a given site?

The first question is more basic and thus is easier to answer. This is due to extensive research on the subject matter, and we have also found a lot of animal bones on our site. Some of the bones found on site have been identified as being from cows, wild boar, and horses. We have also found bones that are a lot smaller that could have been from hares, foxes, deer, pheasants, quail, or mice. It would have also been common for the Romans living on this villa to have had fish and shellfish, considering how close we are to a lake, although it was probably a river in antiquity. Another animal that was on our site is a dog.

Additionally, we can use the present to understand the past, meaning we can infer from the fauna we see today, what could have been around in the past. Today, we see many different types of birds around our site due to Lago di Chiusi being so close. We also have had mice that have nested in our trenches. The professors have encountered hares on their way to the site. Also, if we went down to the lake, we would find fish. Understanding all of that, we can posit that animals like the ones we see today could have thrived in this warm and humid environment.

Mollusks.jpg
Mollusk shell found in trench A7 at Gioella-Vaiano archaeological dig site.

My next question had to do with how the Romans used these animals. To understand this, I had to analyze the bones closely as we dug and do some research to understand what interactions Romans had with animals and what Romans ate. 

As we were digging, we came across a cow bone with butcher marks on it. Basically, the butcher marks are cuts deep into the bone that could not have been made by the bone being fragile and cracking. This indicates that the Romans ate cows because they were slicing the meat off the bone. Many studies have analyzed how Romans ate cows.

Such studies also indicate that pork was more widely eaten, probably because pigs are smaller than cows, so they are easier to transport; pigs also breed more efficiently. Archaeologist Anthony King, in his study of mammal bone patterns in regions of the Roman empire, remarks that “the pork-rich diet seems to be a remarkably consistent dietary pattern that was normal and desirable in the region around Rome itself…” (King 5). On our site, we have found tusks from wild boar and part of the mandible of a pig. 

In addition to these animals, a single horse tooth has been found. Horses would have been used for transporting people, such as to Chiusi or Rome. There are also indications that horses were eaten in Roman times. This animal may have also been used for farm labor. However, it is more likely that an ox would have been used for heavy plowing; people would of course have done much of thedaily work on a farm

Horse Tooth.jpg
Horse tooth found among the rubble at the Gioiella-Vaiano archaeological dig site.

A dog would not have been a source of food. A sculpture found in Pompeii depicts a fierce-looking dog watching over people as they work. The idea of dogs protecting people is not a new concept because they are loyal and strong. Last year, on site, tiles were found with a dog’s paw imprinted into them while they were drying before firing

Another interesting way of utilizing an animal is to fashion items out of their bones once they have died. Evidence of this has been found on our site in the form of a needle and a hairpin, both made of bone. The importance of this is that it emphasizes that Romans, in their everyday lives, did not waste materials; they fashioned them into items of utility and beauty.

Hairpin.jpg
Example of worked bone, in this case a hairpin. This was found in the A6 trench at the Gioiella-Vaiano site.

The final question I had deals with the present day finding of bones and the challenges associated with understanding their usages. Unfortunately, bones are brittle, so they tend to break over time. When we are pickaxing and troweling, it is not uncommon for us to break a bone into pieces which can sometimes be hard to analyze on site. Another problem is that it can be hard to reconstruct what happened to an animal since we often only find one bone. This means that we must surmise what happened, using others’ opinions as well as our own.

Broken Bone.jpg
A split bone found during digging the A7 trench at the Gioiella-Vaiano site.

Finally, the most difficult problem to comprehend is the context of bones. On site, we work stratigraphically, meaning we remove artifacts, clay, and soil in layers. This allows us to reconstruct a sequence of events. However, it can be hard to distinguish between debris that was created in antiquity and what happened in modernity because of natural deposition events, and human factors that can change the landscape, such changing land-use patterns and industrial plowing.  

Overall, bones help us betterto understand the everyday life of Romans on our site through the animals with which they interacted. One main interaction was between Romans and the animals they utilized for food, including cows, wild boars, and mollusks. The other main interaction was about utilizing animals to manipulate and protect their landscape, such as horses and dogs. These ancient interactions are communicated to us in the present through ancient documents and,critically, through the analysis of bones. 

Source

Beard, Mary. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. London: Profile, 2009.

King, Anthony, trans. Diet in the Roman World: A Regional Inter-Site Comparison of the Mammal Bones. Master’s thesis, The University of Winchester, 1999. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1999.

Advertisements

Some Background to the Lago Trasimeno Area

Here is a selection of links to provide context for our project.