Sunday, October 31, 2010

Headless Romans of Eboracum focus of new studies

Just in time for Halloween - I see that the Journal of Archaeological Science has released the results of a study of 80 headless Roman skeletons that were unearthed back in 2004 and 2005 in York - ancient Eboracum. In an effort to determine their place of origin through differences in their diet that had been transmitted to their bones, a team led by Gundula Müldner of the University of Reading in the U.K analyzed the skeletons for the presence of different elemental isotopes.

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine
Period  2nd century CE Marble.  Photographed
at the  Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas.
"Based on the geology and climate of where a person grew up, their bones hold telltale traces of isotopes absorbed from the local food and water," Mülder explained.
Oxygen and strontium isotopes in the bones of the headless Romans indicate that just 5 of the 18 individuals tested came from the York area...The rest of the men came from elsewhere in England or mainland Europe, possibly from France, Germany, the Balkans, or the Mediterranean. Traces of carbon and nitrogen show that five of the headless Romans ate very different foods from York's local population. And two individuals had a carbon signature from a group of food plants—including sorghum, sugarcane, and maize—not known to have been cultivated in England at that time.
Although Mülder's team favored evidence that the men were probably Roman soldiers because Eboracum contained a large garrison and the skeletons bore evidence of contact with bladed weapons, other evidence suggests the men may have been gladiators.
Evidence for this notion includes some skeletons' unequal arm development—associated with the specialized use of single-handed weapons—and, on one skeleton, tooth marks from a large carnivore, possibly a gladiatorial lion or bear.

"If the carnivore bite mark is indeed genuine, then, why not, they may indeed have been gladiators," Müldner said. - More: National Geographic
However, if they were gladiators, I wonder why so many were decapitated? Even gladiators ritually killed in the arena were not usually decapitated. However, decapitation was a common practice by victorious Celts if you think about the evidence found by Germanicus and his troops sent to retrieve the remains of the legions massacred in the Teutoburg Forest. Celts also routinely kept and employed war dogs, quite large and capable of inflicting substantial tooth marks. As for the unequal arm development, veteran legionaries would probably exhibit the same physical trait from training and frequent use of their weapons.

A Good background series on the Roman Invasion of Britain: (Part 1 of 5 - other parts will appear in a list to the right of this clip on YouTube.)

An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC - AD 409 (Penguin History of Britain)   Roman Invasion of Britain   Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest   QUEST FOR THE LOST ROMAN LEGIONS: Discovering the Varus Battlefield  Centurion [Blu-ray] (Limited Edition + Digital Copy)
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Human feces a weapon of mass destruction?

English: A group of acorns.
English: A group of acorns. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While researching documented cases of psychosis following particularly brutal engagements of ancient warfare, I came across a new (2008) introduction to Adrienne Mayor's book, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, originally published in 2003. In it she mentions that during the Gothic War (CE 535-555) Romans, under siege by the Goths, were forced to eat human feces, toxic nettles, and acidic acorn flour resulting in mass fatal poisonings.

I had never read about this particular siege or its outcome before so was appalled at the level of desperation the Romans must have reached to engage in these last ditch efforts to stave off hunger.  But as I thought about these poor unfortunate wretches, I got to wondering about whether the items mentioned would really produce a mass poisoning.  Since all three items were mentioned, I assume there was not a definitive consensus about which of the three caused the fatalities.

So I began to research this issue further.
I learned that coprophagia, from the Greek copro which means feces and phagy which means eat, is common among some animals, particularly dogs.  That's why I've had to scold my little dachshunds for attempting to scarf down cat feces when they dig them up in the yard. Veterinarians are not really sure why dogs engage in this disgusting behavior although it does appear to increase in frequency in cases of severe disorders of the pancreas (pancreatic insufficiency) or intestine, severe malnutrition from massive parasitic infestations, or starvation.  (I assure you my little dogs are rather pudgy from my husband feeding them too many snacks so they don't have that excuse!)

I also learned that in ancient times physicians would taste the excrement of their patients to try to determine their state of health.  (I knew there was a reason I decided against becoming a medical doctor) I also read about the Bedouin using the consumption of warm camel feces as a treatment for bacterial dysentery.
So, as revolting as it sounds, apparently some people have eaten feces without initial harm although long term diseases can be contracted such as E. coli, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E, pneumonia, polioinfluenza
and internal parasites.  But it doesn't sound like coprophagia could be the cause of an observed wide-spread poisoning.

So I started exploring the effects of eating nettles.  But I learned that nettles, even stinging nettles, actually have an edible bulb and, although the ancients may have only recorded that the inhabitants of the beseiged town were gathering nettles, they may not have realized they were only eating the tuber and not the "nettlesome" foliage.  So that leaves acorns as the only remaining suspect.

Acorns have been used as a protein-rich food source by both wildlife and humans for centuries although acorns from some species like red oak are high in tannic acid that must be leeched out by soaking them first. But processed acorns are susceptible to mold when stored.  Perhaps it was mold, then, that actually precipitated the poisonings, not the consumption of acorns itself.  Of course, poison concoctions could have been manually applied to potential foodstuffs and left where they could have been easily "stolen" by desperate townsfolk but the ancient sources were not admitting to anything like that.  Hmmm....

In this updated introduction to her book (it was written to coincide with a 2008 paperback re-release of her original work ) Mayor also mentioned that archaeologists found the remains of an ancient concoction termed "Mithridatium" in the bottom of a vat in a Roman villa near Pompeii in 2007.
Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI ...Image via Wikipedia
Mithradates VI "The Poison King" of Pontus
"Tests of the residue, published in 2007, revealed a mixture of powerful medicinal plants, including opium poppy seeds, along with the flesh and bones of reptiles. Was this an ancient witch’s poisonous brew? Quite the contrary; according to the archaeologists, the vat may have been used to prepare a secret “universal antidote” believed to counteract all known poisons.

This concoction, a combination of small doses of poisons and their antidotes, called  Mithridatium, had been invented by King Mithridates VI of Pontus, a brilliant military strategist and master of toxicology, about one hundred years earlier. His recipe was perfected by the Emperor Nero’s personal physician and became the world’s most sought-after antidote, long prescribed for European royalty."  - Adrienne Mayor
 I somehow missed hearing about this fascinating discovery back in 2007.  For 38 pages of similarly intriguing examples, I encourage you to read her "New Introduction" available online from Stanford.

Other Resources:

A Brief History of Chemical and Biological Weapons
Polybius: The Histories

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy   The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times.   Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World   Siege Warfare in the Roman World: 146 BC-AD 378 (Elite)
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Researchers say Heat Not Ash Killed Pompeiians and Call For Extended Evacuation zones

An analysis of the body postures and bone modifications of 93 victims of Pompeii has convinced an Italian research team that heat in the range of 250-300 degrees Centigrade from the fourth pyroclastic flow emitted from Vesuvius instantly killed the remaining residents of Pompeii in 79 CE.

The team, led by  Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, Pierpaolo Petrone, Lucia Pappalardo and Fabio M. Guarino divided the remains into five posture groups, those exhibiting a ‘‘life-like’’ stance - victims that appear in suspended action like those labeled a1, a2, b, c, 3b at right).; those in a ‘‘sleep-like’’ stance - victims laying on their back, on their right or left side in an apparent relaxed posture like those in a3, d; those who appear to have suffered debris impact with corpse displacement and/or rupture of body elements, those whose limbs contracted with iperflexion of hands and feet (e1, e2) and those with a ‘‘pugilistic attitude’’ in which their limbs were flexed as a result of dehydration and shortening of tendons and muscles (f). 
" Pompeii and surroundings most of the victims are typically frozen in suspended actions (73% life-like stance, 27% sleep-like stance), showing as well as limb contraction (76%) and a large number of corpses presenting the pugilistic attitude (64%). Even if different postures often coexist in the same victims group, the prevalence of people frozen in suspended actions (life-like stance) is univocally indicative of a condition known as cadaveric spasm." - Lethal Thermal Impact at Periphery of Pyroclastic Surges: Evidences at Pompeii
Unfortunate Animal victims of Vesuvius discove...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
Unfortunate Animal victim of
Vesuvius discovered near
Boscoreale Italy
The researchers go on to point out that cadaveric spasm, the rare stiffening of the entire body in its last position associated with violent instant death, is the key evidence that all victims suffered the same lethal event.  But to definitively isolate heat as the cause rather than suffocation, the team examined bone samples with an electronic microsope to see if the microscopic structure of the victims bones revealed the level of heat the victims suffered.

They established the pattern of coloration change and structural degradation by exposing modern bone samples from both humans and horses to varying degrees of heat.  When the heat applied reached 200 degrees Centigrade bone tissue yellowed.  As heat increased the bone tissue changed from yellow to bright brown then black, dark-brownish grey and finally light grey-white observed at 800 degrees Centigrade.  Bone structure likewise disintegrated from exhibiting linear microcracks at 200 degrees Centigrade to total dissolution into crystallized irregular globules at 500-800 degrees Centigrade.
Furthermore, researchers noted that DNA became undetectable above 300 degrees Centigrade as well.

In samples from the Pompeii victims, scientists found the bones yellowed and detected linear microcracks.  They also discovered intact DNA thus narrowing the temperature exposure during the 4th pyroclastic surge to 200 - 300 degrees Centigrade.  These temperatures, however, would have been lethal in microseconds, not the several minutes it would take to suffocate and no respiratory intervention would have been effective.  The researchers also point out that the calculated concentration of inhalable ash approached survivablility and the corpses would have exhibited the final floppy posture that characterize suffocation instead of the cadaveric spasm of instant death.
A parallel analysis was conducted on victims from the town of Herculaneum and the suburban Oplontis, both of which lie at about 7 kilometres from Vesuvius. The remains of victims here consist exclusively of skeletons (Herculaneum) or skeletons with only partial body imprint in the ash (Oplontis). The analyzed specimens from Herculaneum and Oplontis show bone colours ranging from black to grey-white, linear to polygonal microcracks and incipient to high recrystallization as well as complete DNA degradation . In contrast to Pompeii [10 kilometres from the vent] but similar to Herculaneum,  several victims at Oplontis show skull explosion, as testified by clear-cut fractures resulting from intracranial overpressure induced by exposure of the corpses to very high temperature. These features suggest temperatures of ca 500 degrees C in Herculaneum, which matches well with previous supporting evidence , and a temperature of ca 600 degrees C in Oplontis. - Lethal Thermal Impact at Periphery of Pyroclastic Surges: Evidences at Pompeii
 What this all means to emergency evacuation planners in Naples and in other population centers near explosive volcanoes is that the radius of lethal exposure is much farther than originally thought and that respiratory intervention cannot be relied upon for survivability within these areas.
Pyroclastic flows at Mayon Volcano, Philippine...Image via Wikipedia"...while impact force and exposure time to dusty gas dropped below lethal conditions, the pyroclastic cloud retained its high temperature thus being the main cause of instantaneous mortality for the Vesuvius area inhabitants, including people who were sheltered within buildings as far as Pompeii. Definitely, a group of indoor victims found at Muregine, within the limit [of the 4th pyroclastic surge] about half kilometer south-east of Pompeii walls, suggests that even an extremely short exposure to the pyroclastic surge in the order of seconds to a few tents of seconds was lethal.  These facts and the evidence that the late, most powerful 79 AD PDCs reached distance exceeding 20 kilometres from the vent and the findings of several scattered groups of victims in Roman villas even as far as at least 15 kilometres in Stabiae highlight the need to strengthen the emergency plans for Vesuvius and other similar explosive volcanoes considering long-distance thermal effects even at the extreme PDCs periphery as primary cause of fatalities, " the research team ominously concluded.
The complete article can be read at
The Complete Pompeii (The Complete Series)   Pompeii - The Last Day/Colosseum - A Gladiator's Story   The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found   Pompeii: The History, Life and Art of the Buried City  The Mount St. Helens Volcanic Eruptions (Environmental Disasters)   La Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelee, the Worst Volcanic Disaster of the 20th Century
Volcanic Hazards and Disasters in Human Antiquity (Special Papers (Geological Society of America), 345.)
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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Steely Gaze Part of Cavalry Attire Since 6th century BCE

An Exceptional Roman Bronze Cavalry Parade Helmet1st century CE Bronze Roman Cavalry Mask.  Image by Ancient Art via FlickrAn auction in Britain has made a millionaire of the metal detectorist who discovered a fantastic Roman parade helmet and mask in a field near the little English hamlet of Crosby Garrett.  Whenever I see such a beautiful piece of art surface in a rather unlikely place I always wonder how it came to be discarded by the original owner.  The article in the UK's Daily Mail said the detectorist, who had searched the field for seven years, had only found bits of scrap metal and a few coins before discovering the 1st century CE cavalry helmet
The artifact looks so complete I was surprised to read that it was initially found in 67 fragments.  Some of the fragments showed traces of a white metal coating, indicating that the face mask would originally have been tinned to give the appearance of silver.  But, the silver on this helmet may have been removed in preparation for ritual burial much like the Xanten helmet unearthed in the late 1980s in an old arm of the Rhine River.   The Crosby Garrett mask had also been folded before burial, and placed with the visor face down, further suggesting that it may have been a votive offering.  
Surprisingly, researchers studying the Xanten helmet reconstructed it with folded iron like the original and found the mask could withstand the force of an arrow fired from a Roman ballistae.

A close examination showed that the helmets were forged from sheet iron, folded and wrought from several layers of iron, and covered with silver foil for decoration purposes. Remains of braided ribbons combined with circular bands around the head were found outside the skull piece. The textile applications proved to be made of horsehair. The fineness and the length indicate that selected hairs from the tail of the horse were used. The headbands were sometimes additionally padded with a woolen fabric to generate a certain relief. An ancient glue mix was used to fix the silver foil and the textile applications. It consisted of pitch, bitumen and fatty components. - Sylvia Mitschke, University of Sheffield, Questions of identities concerning Roman cavalry helmets
Heavily armored cavalry wearing masks actually dates back as far as the 6th century BCE.

One of the earliest known examples of heavy cavalry was discovered in Khwarezm, a region in central Asia near the Aral Sea. Excavations have revealed paintings of warriors clad in armor mounted on an armored horse, carrying a lance and bow. It is estimated that these horsemen were used in that region as early as the sixth century BC. It is also around this time that cavalry gradually began replacing chariots in the near east. Cultures such as the Assyrians, Achaemenids Persians, and later the Macedonians all successfully fielded heavy cavalry in their armies. The Acahemenids, in particular, were known to field heavily armored horsemen along with horse armor.- Cataphracts and Clibanarii of the Ancient World, All Empires Online History Community
 Graffito of a Parthian Cataphract at Dura
Europos.  Courtesy of  All Empires.
 The Seleucids, ruled by descendants of one of Alexander the Great's generals, first used heavily armored cataphracts against the Romans in the battle of Magnesia in 188 BCE.  Although the Seleucid army was defeated in the battle, including the cataphracts, Polybius tells us that the Romans began arming their cavalry in the "Greek style" during the late Republican period.  Both Plutarch and Crassus reported that the shear momentum of the rider and horse was capable of driving the spear through two men. I wonder if Crassus had any premonition of the fate of his troops at Carrhae when he recorded that observation?
Although Christie's did an excellent job of restoring the Crosby Garrett mask's aesthetic appearance I was disturbed to read that experts from the British Museum were not asked to examine the find before restoration took place so archaeological information may have been lost.  Apparently, even though this mask brought a staggering sum of money from anxious bidders, it was not legally considered "treasure" by the British government because it contained neither gold nor silver. 
Although no significant remains of Roman occupation was known in the general area where the mask was found, preliminary investigations that have been conducted since the discovery indicate a Roman occupation layer may be revealed with further excavation.

The article mentioned that there have been only two other complete helmets with masks found in Britain.  Fortunately, others have been found elsewhere to give us information about the variety of designs that were developed during the height of the Roman Empire. has a webpage with images of several distinctly different cavalry masks that have been found across Europe dating from the Augustan period through the 5th century. 

Cavalry Helmet Mask Roman 75-125 CE BronzeBronze Roman cavalry mask 75-125 CE.  Image by mharrsch via Flickr
I have seen other examples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the one pictured at right produced from 75 - 125 CE at the Getty Villa.

Arrian of Nicomedia described the wearing of full face masks by cavalry troops on parade in the 2nd century CE:

The horsemen enter fully armed and those of distinguished station or superior in horsemanship wear gilded helmets of iron or bronze, to draw to themselves the gaze of the spectators. Unlike the helmets made for active service, these do not cover the heads and cheeks only but are made to fit round the faces of the riders with apertures for the eyes, so as to give protection to the eyes without interfering with vision. From the helmets hang yellow plumes — a matter of decor as much as of utility. As the horses move forward, the slightest breeze adds to the beauty of these plumes.—Arrian of Nicomedia

The Roman Cavalry Late Roman Cavalryman AD 236-565 (Warrior)   The Cavalry of the Roman Republic 
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