Oplontis (Italie) : Pregnant Women And Fetuses Among Vesuvius' Victims
Skeleton of a 36-week-old fetus found in the abdominal cavity of a young female from Oplontis B.
Exactly 1,938 years ago today, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, famously burying Pompeii, Herculaneum, and outlying villas in pumice, ash, and mud. New archaeological research this summer at the site of Oplontis has shed light on the men, women, and children who died in this tragic environmental catastrophe -- including two pregnant women and their full-term fetuses.
Since it is not nearly as famous as the other Bay of Naples cities preserved by the volcano, Oplontis is not often taught in Roman archaeology courses; but it is perhaps even more interesting because of its odd set-up. One massive structure on site is a wealthy villa, known as the Villa of Poppaea (wife of emperor Nero) due to the discovery of an amphora with her name on it. This villa was not occupied at the time of the volcanic eruption, but a second structure just a few hundred meters away preserved dozens of residents for two millennia.
Oplontis B, also called the Villa of Lucius Crassus Tertius after a seal that bore his name, appears to have been an import-export type business, primarily dealing in wine. Washed amphorae were found stacked against the wall of the open courtyard, waiting to be reused for shipping, when the structure was first discovered in 1974. It wasn't until 1984, however, that Italian archaeologists were able to excavate into the numerous rooms of this building -- and in one room, they found over 50 skeletons, presumably of people who were waiting to be rescued by the Roman navy on the fateful day of August 24, 79 AD.
Photomodel of skeletons in situ, Room 10, Oplontis B (Torre Annunziata, Italy).
Half of the skeletons were excavated and removed in 1984 and 1985, and the remaining were partially uncovered in 1991. This summer, in collaboration with the Parco Archeologico di Pompei and my University of Michigan colleague, Roman archaeologist Nicola Terrenato, I headed a small team that excavated the remaining skeletons and collected osteological data on all of the people who were trapped at Oplontis by the volcano.
My team's preliminary research points to a number of intriguing differences in the Oplontis population compared to those that have previously been studied at Pompeii and Herculaneum. First, there were men, women, and children of all ages at Oplontis, and their collection of genetically linked skeletal and dental traits suggests that they were biologically related, such as an extended family or a few families.
Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove excavates a skeleton in Room 10 of Oplontis B.
As one small bone from the earlier excavations was found to be that of a perinate (either a full-term fetus or a very newly born child), we paid special attention in this summer's excavation to the abdominal cavities of female skeletons. Our patience paid off, as one young adult female - who was either wearing or lying on fabric and had an oil lamp and coins with her - was found to have a 36-week-old fetus inside her. Preservation of the fetal bones was excellent, and I recovered even the tiny bones from the hands and feet.
A second difference between Oplontis and other similar sites is the people's health status. There was no indication that the people from Oplontis were suffering from anemia or infections at their deaths, which is surprising given the long history of malaria and other diseases known from 1st century AD Italy. But many people did have to deal with poor dental health -- evidence of periodontal disease, cavities, tooth loss, and plaque abounds, even among children.
Poor dental health in the mandible of an older adult male.
These newly analyzed skeletons from Oplontis are a game-changer in Roman bioarchaeology, since they represent people who all died catastrophically, rather than after an illness. This means that these skeletons give archaeologists a better glimpse into what life was like for people in their prime than do cemetery burials.
And the analysis at Oplontis isn't over. As the lead on the skeletal side of the project, I am collaborating with scholars around the world to accomplish isotope, trace element, parasite, and DNA analysis in order to learn more about biological relationships, diseases people were suffering from, food they were eating, and their physical responses to other environmental changes, such as earthquakes that struck the area in 62 and 64 AD.
Of special interest during this next phase of analysis will be the young pregnant woman and her fetus found this summer. While their biological relationship is not in question, their disease status and diet certainly are. If the mother suffered from an intestinal parasite or an infectious disease, did that affect the fetus as well? How will the carbon and nitrogen isotopes reflect the mother's diet of food and the fetus's "diet" of maternal nutrition and energy stores? For our further research, we hope to answer questions such as these that cannot be solved through study of history and archaeology alone.