The discarded infants of ancient Poggio Civitate horrify, provoke and fascinate 2,500 years later

Mar 06, 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 .

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."

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TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (14) Mar 06, 2013
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.
Infanticide was rife throughout the ancient world, an understandable response to endemic overpopulation.

In Jerusalem, defective and unwanted babies were taken outside the city and cast into Gehenna, a trash-filled ravine. 'Let moloch have them.' Moloch was the Canaanite counterpart to the tribal god Jehovah.

Today we choose prenatal infanticide for the same tragic reasons, the only alternative being to let children grow up to starve or to die on the battlefield.

Time to end the religionist cultures which restrict women to making and raising babies, and which condemn family planning and contraception as immoral. It is these cultures which are immoral.
deatopmg
2 / 5 (8) Mar 06, 2013
What happens to aborted fetus' today and what will future "moralists" have to say about that? For those who read all kinds of ulterior motives into others questions; I'm only asking!
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (8) Mar 06, 2013
What happens to aborted fetus' today and what will future "moralists" have to say about that? For those who read all kinds of ulterior motives into others questions; I'm only asking!
They will say we should have addressed the disease itself rather than treating the symptoms. Which we will, sooner or later.

Cure the disease. End religion. Beyond that, make every effort to ensure that women who intend to bear children be mature and responsible enough to do so without endangering the health and wellbeing of the unborn child. All unborn children at risk should be remotely monitored in real-time; and any expectant mother who is detected using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco should be immediately incarcerated.

No woman has the right to ruin the lives of future human beings.
BikeToAustralia
3.5 / 5 (6) Mar 06, 2013
Insufficient evidence - how and why did the babies die? We judge the actions of others and justify or ignore our own actions. Many babies today, locally, everywhere are discarded. We claim we are too evolved and superior, incapable of such low actions. But, we are all humans, our 'software' so similar to each other as to be indistinguishable. The actions of our own ancestors (every one of us), just a few generations ago are best forgotten for fear of causing indigestion. We are all human, cast of the same mold, capable of all that any of us have ever done.
hemitite
3 / 5 (4) Mar 06, 2013
TGO'23
"Infanticide was rife throughout the ancient world, an understandable response to endemic overpopulation."

Where on earth did you get that little "factoid"? Traditional societies were subject to very high infant mortality rates. It was not uncommon for a woman to have 20 children and have only a few survive to adulthood.

As for the "practice" of "Jewish" infanticide, it was only practiced by those, like King Ahab and his followers, who had abandoned the worship of the Lord for the demon Moloch who was fed children by tossing them into the flames that burned inside this idle.

Gehenna became the Jewish word for hell.

Perhaps you should be a bit more selective in your historical sources.

feralblue
3 / 5 (2) Mar 06, 2013
i'd like to know the 'age' of the babies. how many months in the womb? were they healthy or were there some kind of malformations found? many questions - no answers. why were there remains in a workshop anyway? was it possible they thought that premature infants were not yet human or thinking beings? and as has been brought up, we have human remains from surgeries which are discarded. we cannot figure this out until we know much more. (btw, what kinds of animals were in the remains? and what about sacrifices?)
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 06, 2013
As for the "practice" of "Jewish" infanticide...King Ahab and his followers, who had abandoned the worship of the Lord for the demon Moloch who was fed children by tossing them into the flames that burned inside this idle.
And where did you get this crap? The bible? The bible is full of lies.

For instance it does appear that gehenna is a myth. But THIS is not: http://archive.ar...lon.html

-True, it is largely a mystery. But as the diaspora is also a myth - the mishnah was written in israel after the jews were supposedly driven out:
http://en.wikiped.../Tannaim

-And so it may not be clear just who was killing babies at the time. And as you may know, evidence suggests that hebrews wereonly one of many canaanite tribes in the region.

What we DO KNOW is that infanticide was common among ancient peoples:
http://en.wikiped...anticide#Pagan_European_tribes]http://en.wikiped...n_tribes[/url]
http://en.wikiped...anticide

My assumption stands.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 06, 2013
Traditional societies were subject to very high infant mortality rates.
Mortality rates varied as widely back then as they do now. What we can surmise is that ancient religionist cultures were every bit as intent upon outgrowing and overrunning their neighbors as they are now.

The ones who were better at this than their neighbors, were the ones which survived and the ones we are left to suffer with today.

But overpopulation became chronic as soon as humans began eliminating those natural attritive elements which had kept their numbers in check. While survival rates soared, reproductive rates remained unchanged.

The next tribe became the principal enemy of human beings, and tribal competition replaced evolution as the driver of human change.

Religions only learned how to exploit this dynamic by extending it over other tribes, and by maximizing reproduction. Implicit in this is the REALITY that defective children and those born during recurring famine would not be kept.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 06, 2013
The bible even alludes to this Process. Throughout the OT the hebrews are tempted and those who stray are repeatedly culled. 'Wheat from chaff'. The Remnants are left to be fruitful amd multiply until they drop.

It should be obvious that this is a description of husbandry; of the domestication of the flock. The Process necessarily includes infanticide.

By the way a king ahab may have existed but the character described in the bible is a fiction.
Raymailhot
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2013
This is a question of discarding human remains. We do not know the source or reason for the deaths, but it is obvious they were just left to be scattered with other rubbish.
PaisleyPanties
2.1 / 5 (7) Mar 08, 2013
Hey, GhostofOtto--if you're going to post links to prove your point, at least make sure that's what they actually do. Your first link has nothing to do with ancient Jewish infanticide--the remains in question were from a 4th century Roman whorehouse, hundreds of years after Ahab's time and during a period when Palestine was no longer mainly Jewish. And the fact that the Mishnah was written in Palestine proves nothing at all about the Diaspora. The Jews were never formally "driven out" of Palestine--life was made so difficult for them there after the Bar Kochba revolt in 125 CE that most simply left. Your points are ridiculous on their face. Even for a ghost, you're not real smart.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (4) Mar 10, 2013
hundreds of years after Ahab's time and during a period when Palestine was no longer mainly Jewish.
We dont know if it was mainly jewish or not.
The Jews were never formally "driven out" of Palestine--life was made so difficult for them there after the Bar Kochba revolt in 125 CE that most simply left.
Most simply did not leave. We only found this out recently. We are starting to suspect that most of what we thought we knew about this area is a politically-motivated fiction. As is this latest sickpuppet of yours.
http://www.youtub...vANgw9Mk

-As dr sand will tell you, we do know that judaism was spread around the mediterranean by proselytism and by propagation.
Pkunk_
3 / 5 (4) Mar 11, 2013
Cure the disease. End religion. Beyond that, make every effort to ensure that women who intend to bear children be mature and responsible enough to do so without endangering the health and wellbeing of the unborn child. All unborn children at risk should be remotely monitored in real-time; and any expectant mother who is detected using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco should be immediately incarcerated.

No woman has the right to ruin the lives of future human beings.

In any civilized democracy one of the basic human rights of a person is right to religion (which also includes the right NOT to believe in religion). I don't have a problem with people who "believe" as long as they don't get involved in Science. What you are proposing is yet another return to the Soviet Union with the most basic human rights snatched away from the Volk.
Also, there is a certain symmetry in how Nature deals with people who are careless with their progeny by erasing their gene's from the gene pool.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Mar 11, 2013
I don't have a problem with people who "believe" as long as they don't get involved in Science.
Today's moderate is tomorrows fanatic. Today's moderate lends credence to fanatics all over the world TODAY.
yet another return to the Soviet Union with the most basic human rights snatched away from the Volk
What myself and many others WANT is to end the same sort of SCOURGE which engulfed the soviet union and enslaved the people there for generations.

There is no intrinsic right to believe in things which don't exist, as with any other form of insanity. Religion imperils science by definition; it is the insistence in believing WITHOUT evidence. It poisons thought in this respect. Per Dawkins it is evil.

Religions endanger the world by claiming that some particular god will grant wishes and eternal life in return for rejecting all others, and by trying to outgrow them. The world sits on the brink of war because of this LIE.

'For the world to live, religion must die.' -maher