BMCR 2020.02.20

From Invisible to Visible: New Methods and Data for the Archaeology of Infant and Child Burials in Pre-Roman Italy and Beyond. Studies in Mediterranean archaeology, 149

Jacopo Tabolli, From Invisible to Visible: New Methods and Data for the Archaeology of Infant and Child Burials in Pre-Roman Italy and Beyond. Studies in Mediterranean archaeology, 149. Uppsala: Astrom Editions, 2018. 273. ISBN 9789925745524 €68,00.

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the outcome of an international conference organised by Jacopo Tabolli in 2017 at Trinity College Dublin. After a short editor’s preface, the book is divided into six parts and 23 papers, dealing with archaeological, anthropological and epigraphical data. The first part focuses on methodological and theoretical approaches; it references other disciplines such as ethnography, psychology and contemporary history. The five other parts are organized geographically: Ancient Rome and Italy (part 2); Veii and Tarquinia (part 3); northern sites from Tivoli to Verona (part 4); Abruzzo and Samnium (part 5); Sicily, Motya and Sardinia (part 6). The addenda constitute a seventh part without any real unity that pairs a paper about in-field conservation methods for child burials and a report focusing on two late antique graves from Macedonia; regardless of its interest, it clearly deviates from the chrono-cultural frame of the volume.

This book is one of a series of recent works about the archaeology of childhood in antiquity, which now constitute a bibliography on a topic that was for a long time significantly deficient. 1 It underlines the importance of funerary data in understanding infants and children in ancient societies, since they are often silent and invisible in other sources. With its specific geographical and chronological framework (though the notion of ‘pre-Roman Italy’, which does not correspond to any ancient cultural, ethnic or political reality, is never discussed), this volume provides an important contribution to the current debate by offering new data on various contexts long unknown. It is impossible to comment on each contribution in this brief review, but a few points can be underlined.

First, many authors discuss methodological problems raised by the study of infant and child burials, the most important of which is no doubt the difficulty of in-field identification. In this regard, the paper of Angela Trentacoste et alii is striking. It examines infant bones from two Etruscan sites, found during laboratory studies to be commingled with zooarcheological remains, because nobody had been able to recognise them in the field. Indeed, infant bones and burials often go unidentified by archaeologists, especially outside explicitly funerary contexts. The recent evolution of funerary archaeology towards a greater specialisation and collaboration with anthropologists directly in the field has changed many things, and the possibility of getting precise anthropological data is a key element for understanding the mortuary treatment of children. The paper of Claudia Lambrugo on the Peucetian site of Jazzo Fornasiello (Basilicata) notably illustrates the results of such collaboration. The excavation and study of the infant pot burials found in the settlement area allowed recognition of the precise organization of graves of various phases found inside the settlement, and even the phases of use and commemoration of every single grave. It was only by the careful examination of the skeletons, of the position of the bones, and of the very fine stratigraphy inside the graves that the author could reach her conclusions. Of course, not all the papers rely on such good anthropological and archaeological data: some deal with older excavations, with only lab studies on a limited number of graves. Yet most of the authors give great importance to the anthropological data they can get and that is certainly a sign of a recent and major evolution of the discipline.

Nonetheless, a systematic presentation of the methods is essential and not always available. For example, M.J. Becker — one of the very first anthropologists to have worked on large cemeteries from pre-Roman Italy — claims in his paper to have found an ‘extremely accurate’ method for identifying the sex of a cremated individual ‘where at least 100 g of bones were recovered’ (p. 98). Yet, as the author himself underlines, the rate of sex identification for burned remains is usually much lower. Given the importance of such affirmation, the reader wishes to have more details. Relatedly, a methodological reflection and discussion of the difference between sex and gender could have been useful, perhaps in an introduction, since confusion is obvious in several papers. It is also important to remember that no anthropological method has yet proved to be statistically effective in determining the biological sex of the remains of pre-pubescent individuals. One should thus remain extremely cautious about all the assumptions concerning the partition of child burials between males and females proposed in various contributions.

Another interesting discussion raised by this book is that of the definition of age groups. Indeed, many papers use the terms ‘infant’, ‘children’, ‘immature’ and ‘subadults’, but not always when referring to the same age ranges. The authors are certainly not to blame for such variations, only reflect the absence of general agreement on the definition of these terms in archaeological studies. Yet it would have been interesting to deal with this issue in the introduction, and even to put forward a standard definition that all the authors could have followed. Among the contributors, Deneb T. Cesana and Vincenzo d’Ercole tackle the question with the greatest accuracy. First, they underline the problems related to the anthropological habit of dividing subadults in five-year groups, inferred from demographic methodologies, while ‘they do not correspond to the stages of growth, child development and risk of death’ (p. 160). They also lay stress on the difficulties of reconciling the different notions of age: biological, morphological, civil and social. The last category is undoubtedly the most significant in an historical perspective, and it appears central in many contributions.

Several papers indeed draw on the variations of funerary treatment to discuss the existence of possible thresholds related to the construction of childhood and personhood in pre-Roman Italy. The age of four seems to be an important transition on several sites: while children older than this age were buried with adults in specific funerary spaces, younger ones were buried within or around the houses. The period between three and five years indeed appears as a crucial moment for the construction of child identity in many ancient and modern societies, as Francesca Fulminante underlines, using archaeological, ethnographic and psychological data. At several sites covered in this volume, another important threshold appears to be around the age of one.

The selection of the cemetery population on the basis of age comes as no great surprise, since the absence or underrepresentation of infants and young children in ancient cemeteries is frequently underlined. In a well-known work, Ian Morris even theorised the exclusion of children from the urban cemeteries of ancient Athens as a sign that subadults were considered to be ‘social non-persons’. 2 It is particularly interesting that several authors in the volume under review offer a completely different way of contemplating child burials in settlement areas. For example, A. De Santis et alii insist that in ancient Latium, rich infant burials were at the border of the settlement. They thus possibly represent a means through which aristocratic family groups delimited their space of representation and power. Another interesting case presented by Marcello Mogetta and Sheira Cohen is that of four child burials from the Early Iron Age in the settlement of Gabii: these very young children received wealthy grave goods, including an exceptional bronze shroud. The fact that these graves were not inside the houses but at their borders, suggests that they were made to be seen by the neighbouring families, being part of a complex system of representation. Though buried inside the settlement, in death these children thus became important social actors.

In some other cases, age does not at all seem to be a relevant criterion for access to cemeteries. Such is the case in the Final Bronze Age cemeteries from the Middle Adriatic region presented by Deneb Cesana and Vincenzo d’Ercole. Indeed, around 33% of the graves in these burial grounds contain subadults, a proportion that may correspond to rates of child mortality expected for pre-industrial societies. In other cases, the selection does not appear to depend strictly on age, but rather on status. Joachim Weidig and Nicola Bruni present the exceptional case of the 8 th to 6 th century necropolis of Piazza d’Armi in Spoleto (Umbria). Though young children are rare in this necropolis, six of them were buried in what seems to be a family group. Three of these graves contained weapons, and one is particularly remarkable. It contained an infant, aged 9-to-12 months, who had received exceptional funerary offerings, including many ceramics, some of a seemingly purely ritual function. But there were also several weapons and two small disc-cuirasses made at a size proportional to the infant, though not worn in the grave. Given the striking insistence on the status of a young child, who certainly had no achievements of his own at such a young age, the authors conclude the existence of a system of status and wealth inheritance among aristocratic groups in pre-Roman Umbria. Status inheritance is also central in the 8 th and 7 th century Picene necropolis of Novilara presented by Chiara Delpino. For pre- Roman Samnium, Elisa Perego and Rafael Scopacasa go even further by interpreting some rich child burials as a sign that these children may have had important roles and full social personhood not only in death, but even in life.

In different ways, all these cases show that infant and child burials had a form of agency, and this may be one of the greatest points of originality of this book: not taking the exclusion of subadults from ancient social communities for granted. On the contrary, many authors propose new and positive ways to interpret the variations of the funerary treatment of children, even in their apparent marginalisation.

On the other hand, some contributions in this volume take the very delicate side of suggesting that the specifics of the mortuary treatment of some children might indicate human sacrifice. One remains very sceptical about the cases from Tarquinia very briefly presented by Maria Bonghi Jovino with no further argument than the localisation of the graves in the vicinity of a possible temple. The interpretation that Maria Antonietta Fufazzola Delpino gives of some child burials from 9 th and 8 th century Tivoli is also very questionable. While no anthropological data is available, based only on the observation of the crushing of their skeletons by heavy stones, the author boldly concludes that several children were sacrificed. The much more probable hypothesis that these stones simply collapsed from a no-longer extant, perishable tomb cover is briefly raised by the author, only to be discarded without any convincing argument. Other evidence for these ‘sacrifices’ would be the crouched position of some children, the lack of grave goods and the presence of a circle of stones around the grave. According to the author, it was ‘intended to limit its area and warn people that it contained a sacrificial victim’ (p. 110). Yet the author herself also presents a stone-circled grave with a very rich set of grave goods, both fine ceramics and bronze ornaments which suggests that that stone circles were not restricted to poor graves, and thus were not a sign of exclusion from the social community (p. 109). Finally, the reference to late Roman authors, some from the 4 th and 5 th centuries AD, which point to human sacrifice in pre-Roman populations, appears to be a weak argument to deal with burials fourteen centuries older.

Regardless of these possible disagreements, one will appreciate the completeness of the volume and the general quality of its papers that present mainly unpublished and stimulating data. Let us hope that it will encourage the development of further in-field interdisciplinary collaboration among archaeologists, physical anthropologists and other specialists. Such collaboration will undoubtedly be a key element for the renewal of our knowledge on childhood construction and child life and death in ancient societies.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction. Addressing methods: past and present
1.1. Jean MacIntosh Turfa – Archaeology’s Tir Na N-og (‘The Land of the Young’): understanding burials of children in ancient Italy (pp. 3-11)
1.2. Alessandra Piergrossi and Jacopo Tabolli – Hide and seek. Searching for theories and methods within the ‘history of research’ for infant and child burials in central Tyrrhenian Italy (pp. 13-19)
1.3. Valentino Nizzo – ‘Rites of passage beyond death’. Liminal strategies and premature death in protohistoric communities (pp. 21-28)
1.4. Francesca Fulminante – Intersecting age and social boundaries in sub-adult burials of central Italy during the 1 st millennium BC (pp. 29-38)

2. Including or secluding infants between Rome and Latium
2.1. Anna De Santis, Iefke van Kampen, Clementina Panella, Paola Catalano, Carla Caldarini, Andrea Battistini, Walter B. Pantano, Claudia Minniti, Alessandra Celant, Donatella Magri, Antonio Ferrandes and Francesca Romana Fiano – Infant burials related to inhabited areas in Rome: new results for understanding socio-cultural structures of an ancient community (pp. 41-46)
2.2. Marcello Mogetta and Sheira Cohen – Infant and young child burial practices from an elite domestic compound at Early Iron Age and Orientalising Gabii (pp. 47-57)
2.3. Marijke Gnade – A new Iron Age child burial from Satricum (pp. 59-68)

3. New old data from south Etruria
3.1. Jacopo Tabolli – What to expect when you are not expecting. Time and space for infant and child burials at Veii in the necropolis of Grotta Gramiccia (pp. 71-82)
3.2. Maria Bonghi Jovino – Tarquinia. Infant burials in the inhabited area: a short reappraisal (pp. 83-87)
3.3. Marshall J. Becker – Infancy and childhood at pre-Roman Tarquinia: the necropolis of Le Rose as an example of regional patterns and cultural borders during the Early Iron Age (9 th –early 8 th centuries BC) (pp. 89-100).

4. Meeting differences while going north
4.1. Maria Antonietta Fugazzola Delpino – Infant and child burials in the area of Rocca Pia at Tivoli. Ritual customs, defensive magic, funerary ceremonies and human sacrifices (pp. 103-112)
4.2. Joachim Weidig and Nicola Bruni – Little heirs of an Umbrian royal family of the 7 th century BC (pp. 113-121)
4.3. Chiara Delpino – Infant and child burials in the Picene necropolis of Novilara (Pesaro): the 2012-2013 excavations (pp. 123- 131)
4.4. Angela Trentacoste, Sarah Kansa, Antony Tuck and Suellen Gauld – Out with the bath water? Infant remains in pre-Roman zooarchaeological assemblages (pp. 133-142)
4.5. Simona Marchesini and David Stifter – Inscriptions from Italo-Celtic burials in the Seminario maggiore (Verona) (pp. 143-154)

5.Childhood (in)visibility in south Italy
5.1. Deneb T. Cesana and Vincenzo d’Ercole – Infant burials in the Middle Adriatic area (Abruzzo, central Italy) from the Final Bronze Age to the Archaic period: new data through a bioarchaeological approach (pp. 157-165)
5.2. Elisa Perego and Rafael Scopacasa – Children and marginality in pre-Roman Samnium: a personhood-focused approach (pp. 167-176).
5.3. Claudia Lambrugo – Peucetian babies. New data from the enchytrismoi at Jazzo Fornasiello (Gravina in Puglia-BA) (pp. 177-184)

6. Landing on the islands
6.1. Massimo Cultraro – Searching for the missing corpses: infant and child burials in southeastern Sicily from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age (pp. 187-195)
6.2. Adriano Orsingher – Forever young: rethinking infancy and childhood in Motya (pp. 197-206)
6.3. Michele Guirguis, Rosana Pla Orquín and Elisa Pompianou – Premature deaths in Punic Sardinia. The perception of childhood in funerary contexts from Monte Sirai and Villamar (pp. 207-215).

7. Addenda
7.1. Wilma Basilissi – ‘First aid’ and in-field conservation for infant and child bones in archaeological contexts: notes on problems, methodology and operational criteria in Pre-Roman archaeology (pp. 219-224).
7.2 Paraskevi Tritsaroli and Meropi Ziogana – Bioarchaeological investigation of childhood in Late Antiquity: a case analysis from northern Pieria, Greece (pp. 225-234) Bibliography (p. 235)
Index (p. 273)


1. Among others: J. Baxter, The archaeology of childhood: children, gender, and material culture, Walnut Creek, 2005; A.M. Guimier-Sorbets, Y. Morizot (ed) L’enfant et la mort dans l’Antiquité, I. Le signalement des tombes d’enfants, Paris, 2010; A. Hermary, C Dubois (ed), L’enfant et la mort dans l’Antiquité, III. Le matériel associé aux tombes d’enfants, Aix-en-Provence, 2012; M.D. Nenna (ed.), L’enfant et la mort dans l’Antiquité, II. Types de tombes et traitement du corps des enfants dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaine, Alexandrie, 2012; C. Lambrugo (ed), Una favola breve: archeologia e antropologia per la storia dell’infanzia, Sesto Fiorentino, 2019.

2. I. Morris, Burial and ancient society: the rise of the Greek city-state, Cambridge, 1987.