Where the Girls Are, Roman Edition

Posted on November 12, 2011


Once upon a time, the kinds of things we could know about ancient populations were highly generalized. Now, through the work of people like Kristina Killgrove, that is changing– and you can be part of making it happen.

I couldn’t be more happy. A while ago (a loong while ago) I started writing a blog post inspired by Killgrove’s work. For a lot of reasons, I had to leave it unpublished (you’d be surprised how many posts end that way; if I don’t have something broader to say I still have an old-fashioned print publication idea that just reposting is not really right…).

The post that originally inspired me to start my draft reproduced a paper Killgrove (and co-authors) presented at the European Association of Archaeologists. They used a combination of bioarchaeological methods to explore the lives and statuses of immigrants to ancient Rome, who are estimated to have made up at least 5%, and possibly as much as 35%, of the population of imperial Rome– as they noted, possibly one in three people on the streets of ancient Rome.

The entire study is worth reading– I particularly like the critical attitude they brought to using epigraphic data (tombstone inscriptions) as a source of information, where their paper is a textbook example of source-side critique in archaeology, fundamental to contemporary practice in the discipline.

(While most of the links for source-side critique I would like to embed are behind walls, check out Alison Wylie’s classic essay on analogy in Thinking from Things).

So, a great paper overall. But the paragraph that inspired me to think about blogging was at the end, zeroing in on the most invisible of this invisible population: immigrant women in imperial Rome.

Immigrant Roman women comprise one of the most understudied populations in the ancient world, with sparse evidence of their existence and their daily lives coming from tombstones and other written accounts.  As part of a larger project on migration to Imperial Rome, we found bioarchaeological evidence of female immigrants through isotope analysis. Contrary to assumptions that migration is age- and gender-selective, chemical analysis of skeletons showed that immigration to Rome was not the exclusive domain of men; however, the reasons for and structure of migration is much better understood for Roman males because of historical and epigraphical biases in their favor.

You can see what excited me here. I like to say that archaeologists just need to ask the right questions and we will find ways to tease information out of our already-existing evidence. I am kind of a trace methods evangelist.

(Here, it would be fair to say I could be subject to the old canard “those who can, do; those who cannot, teach”, since I came along at a time when methods like these were either unbelievably expensive specializations dominated by a few people privileged to have access to nuclear reactors or the like, or were way in our future. So maybe better to say I am a trace methods groupie… and as anyone who followed the Grateful Dead will appreciate, there is honor in recognizing genius even if you are not a genius yourself.)

Anyway, back on point: I really do believe that the democratization of trace methods that has already happened is revolutionary. It is exposing the actual variability once cloaked in our assemblages– the stuff of difference, of all kinds.

But the revolution has been slower than I would like. Yes, XRF portables are now in the hands of the people– but only the people whose institutions can raise tens of thousands of dollars. Ancient DNA analyses are still very expensive, so large numbers of samples from a population are a rarity. Big projects still tend to be dominated by big institutions, and big institutions are inherently conservative in the ways they conceptualize research. But it is arguable that it is in the borderlands of disciplines that we see truly new ideas emerging, a theme considered in relation to gender studies 2003 in the journal Gender and Society.

(This is an absolutely expected outcome of peer review, and not a criticism of people: big new ideas are by definition untested, so they are eliminated when a large number of peer reviewers are asked to weight in. In a group of 5 or 6 reviewers, someone will find an unsupported assumption. Ironically, much of the writing about would also be inaccessible to readers, but try this open access paper.)

And that brings us to what Kristina Killgrove and her colleagues have done. They have turned crowd-sourcing into a new, independent stream of funding for exciting new research. They already have achieved their modest goal of raising $6,000– and got mainstream news coverage in the process. (Don’t let that stop you from adding to the contributions! they promise to use the funds to increase our knowledge of this understudied population, and in this business, more samples not only makes for stronger generalizations, it also increase the possibility of including individuals from rarer segments of the ancient population.)

And what coverage: CNN’s story actually gets it: titled Who were the 99% of ancient Rome?, the story accurately summarizes the previous research on which Killgrove and colleagues will build:

Many people thought only young boys came to the city, but Killgrove found older men, women and children among her immigrants.

Reporting like this (albeit in a CNN blog, and not–yet– on the front page– but that will come…) is what we ideally would like to see emerging from archaeology: reports that connect our work to the lives of the majority of people today. Brava!