Death in deep history

1 minute read

I’ve kept a post by Kristina Killgrove sitting on my desktop for a long time. Although the post is specifically about a particular highly-reported study on ancient Roman remains, I find some parts of it to be much more generally applicable: “Baby bones were trash to Romans”. As a Roman scholar and bioarchaeologist, Killgrove writes against the conventional storyline when bones are found in contexts that would be unusual within our peculiarly funerary-obsessed culture:

The reporting of infant burials is always problematic to me, though. From the "brothel babies" to the Carthaginian tophet infants to these Etruscan neonates, the headline is always about how unfeeling people of the past were about babies. It's a longstanding trope - that death was just something people used to put up with, that they were hardened to its devastation - but anthropologically and historically, it's not usually based in fact. We simply like to tell ourselves that we're better than our forebears, that we're more civilized than the Etruscans/Romans/Carthaginians, that we've culturally evolved to do right by our biological progeny. But we do a disservice to the past by assuming a lack of emotion, and we do an even greater disservice when we over-interpret small amounts of data to arrive at those conclusions.

Bioarchaeologists work to characterize the social context of human remains from details like their health status and physical treatment after death. That social context varies culturally, different cultures with different rules and attitudes about the treatment of the dead. Those cultural differences do not necessarily imply differences in the emotions people feel; they are ways of channeling those emotions.