While Rome is, of course, famous for its millennia of archaeological remains, its sister city Gabii, 18 kilometers to the east, has also produced a wealth of information about the early days of the cities’ existence. But a recent study of skeletons from Imperial era Gabii reveals differences in immigration and diet compared to its more famous neighbor.
Gabii began to urbanize in the Early Iron Age, around the 8th century BC. It’s located between two lakes and was originally an important religious and cultural site where, legend has it, Romulus and Remus were educated. It was a close ally to Rome early on, but by the time Rome became a massive city, Gabii was declining, witnessing depopulation, abandonment, and re-use of previously urban areas of the site. At the height of the Roman Empire, Gabii was hanging on as people continued to use the Temple of Juno, the public baths, and some stores.
But also at this time, part of Gabii was given over to burials, which were found over the last decade by the University of Michigan’s Gabii Project in previously inhabited areas. A number of burials were made within and on top of abandoned buildings on the edge of the commercial area and date to the middle of the 1st century AD to the mid to late 3rd century AD. As the bioarchaeologist for The Gabii Project, I have studied the skeletal remains from the site, and I recently published a detailed analysis of what people were eating during this odd period of Gabii’s history.
In a newly published article in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, which I wrote with collaborator Rob Tykot of the University of South Florida, we argue that carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis from a couple dozen skeletons shows how people at Gabii ate different diets compared even to people from Rome during the same time period. In terms of carbohydrate consumption, the people buried at Gabii seem to have been eating potentially more millet than other people in Rome, but less than those Tykot and I studied in our previous research. The Gabii people were also consuming more aquatic protein than were people from some of the sites in suburban Rome, which makes sense given its location near large lakes.
We also investigated differences in diet among men, women, and children at Gabii. While the adult diet was similar, and the kids we examined showed no clear evidence of breastfeeding, one person stuck out: Skeleton 47, a male in the range of 35-50 years old at the time of death. With a very high carbon signature and very low nitrogen value – along with strange oxygen isotope results – this man seems to have been leading a very different life than anyone else tested from Gabii.
Although there were few complete bones recovered from Skeleton 47, the ones that were found suggest numerous injuries. One lower leg bone had active periostitis, an infection of the outer layer of bone. One lower molar had a giant cavity. His left elbow revealed an avulsion fracture, which means he likely injured it as a pre-teen by overextending his arm in work or play.
Because of his oxygen isotope result, we write that Skeleton 47 “suggests a potential migration to Gabii from a cooler, wetter area of the Empire some time within the previous decade before his death.” Based on his eating more millet and less fish than others who were tested, “his diet fits in well with what [the Roman historian] Pliny described for rural Italians — one of millet and beans.” Bolstering the interpretation of Skeleton 47 are his incisors — they are shovel-shaped, which is an uncommon trait in skeletal samples from Rome but more common elsewhere in Italy. This man, we conclude, “provides more evidence that migration and diet were inextricably linked in Imperial Italy.”
More research is needed into Skeleton 47, particularly ancient mtDNA and strontium isotope analysis, to better understand this person’s origins and ancestry. But given the cosmopolitan nature of Rome, as well as the long tradition of slavery, it is unsurprising to find the skeleton of a probable migrant at Gabii.
The Gabii Project continues its work on site this summer to elucidate more of the origin and history of this remarkable ancient city. Additional papers on the skeletons will be forthcoming from me, but in the meantime I will be working on my new project at Oplontis to understand the structure of the ancient Roman family and disease ecology in 79 AD.