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From Invisible to Visible: New Methods and Data for the Archaeology of Infant and Child Burials in Pre-Roman Italy and Beyond

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

From Invisible to Visible: New Methods and Data for the Archaeology of Infant and Child Burials in Pre-Roman Italy and Beyond

Edited by Jacopo Tabolli (SIMA 149). Uppsala: Astrom Editions 2018. Pp. x + 273. €68. ISBN 978-9925-7455-2-4 (cloth)

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The investigation of the burials of infants and children has always been a challenging aspect of funerary archaeology. Infants and children are typically underrepresented in archaeological samples because they are often the recipients of differential burial treatment (e.g., placement in child-specific burial areas, shallow graves, domestic areas), which can complicate their discovery. Furthermore, the recovery of their skeletal remains is difficult because their bones are small, fragile, and prone not only to rapid decay, but also to misidentification by excavators.

This edited volume seeks to significantly expand our understanding of the short lives of infants and children who inhabited Italy before the Romans. It has its origins in an international conference of the same name that was held at Trinity College Dublin in April 2017, and the majority of the book’s chapters present unpublished data from pre-Roman Italy. The volume begins with a preface by the editor, which describes the genesis and organization of the book. The chapters that follow are subdivided into seven parts that are grouped according to either theme or geographical location.

The introduction, “Addressing Methods: Past and Present,” focuses on methods and theoretical approaches applied to the study of infant and child burials in pre-Roman Italy. The section begins with chapter 1.1 (Jean MacIntosh Turfa), which provides foundational information for the volume as it surveys subadult burial traditions in Etruscan, Faliscan, and other Italic cultures. Chapter 1.2 (Alessandra Piergrossi and Tabolli) presents a general historiography of archaeological methods and theories that have been used to study infant and child burials in pre-Roman Italy, while chapter 1.3 (Valentino Nizzo) narrows the focus and specifically considers subadult burials through the interpretive lens of “rites of passage.” In this theoretical framework of rites of passage, individuals who die before reaching adulthood are in a liminal state because they were prevented from progressing to the next stage of life. As a result, the author argues, funerary rituals surrounding subadult burials aim to confer some modicum of “adult” status on those who did not live to attain it (21). Chapter 1.4 (Francesca Fulminante) is concerned with identity-related issues. The author observes that three to five years of age was an important threshold for children in preurban central Italy, perhaps one that was linked to weaning and the development of speech. Children below the threshold typically lack gender and status indicators in burial, while those above the threshold are generally granted these identity markers.

The second part, “Including or Secluding Infants Between Rome and Latium,” discusses burials from central Italy. The chapters are site-specific: chapter 2.1 (Anna De Santis et al.) focuses on the diachronic bioarchaeological evidence of infant burials in cemeteries in Rome; chapter 2.2 (Marcello Mogetta and Sheira Cohen) examines elite domestic infant burials from Gabii (eighth–sixth centuries BCE); and chapter 2.3 (Marijke Gnade) describes an elite child burial assemblage from Satricum (early seventh century BCE). In a similar manner, the chapters in the third part, “New Old Data from South Etruria,” explore burials on a site-by-site basis. Chapter 3.1 (Tabolli) discusses infant and child burials from Veii (mid ninth–late eighth centuries BCE), while chapters 3.2 (Maria Bonghi Jovino) and 3.3 (Marshall Becker) explore aspects of infant and child burials from Tarquinia (eighth–sixth centuries BCE and ninth–early eighth centuries BCE, respectively).

The fourth part, “Meeting Differences While Going North,” describes findings from northern sites. Chapter 4.1 (Maria Antonietta Fugazzola Delpino) explores evidence of defensive magic, and possibly human sacrifice, at Tivoli (ca. seventh–sixth centuries BCE), while chapter 4.2 (Joachim Weidig and Nicola Bruni) focuses on elite, potentially royal, burials from Umbria (ca. seventh century BCE). Chapter 4.3 (Chiara Delpino) questions children’s status in ancient Novilara (eighth–seventh centuries BCE); chapter 4.4 (Angela Trentacoste et al.) discusses the commingling of perinatal human and faunal remains in refuse deposits in Forcello and Poggio Civitate (seventh–sixth centuries BCE); and chapter 4.5 (Simona Marchesini and David Stifter) concentrates on Italo-Celtic funerary inscriptions from children’s graves in Verona (second–first centuries BCE).

The fifth part, “Childhood (In)Visibility in South Italy,” turns to the south to discuss burials in Abruzzo, Samnium, and Puglia. Focusing on Abruzzo, chapter 5.1 (Deneb Cesana and Vincenzo d’Ercole) surveys subadult burials from the 11th–fifth centuries BCE. In chapter 5.2 (Elisa Perego and Rafael Scopacasa), the attention shifts to Samnium and a personhood-focused approach to children’s graves (sixth–third centuries BCE), and chapter 5.3 (Claudia Lambrugo) describes infant mortuary practices in the Peucetian site of Jazzo Fornasiello in Puglia (sixth–third centuries BCE).  

The sixth part, “Landing on the Islands,” explores island burials. Subadult graves from Sicily (ca. 1100–750 BCE) are featured in chapter 6.1 (Massimo Cultraro); Phoenician infant and child burials from Motya (eighth–second centuries BCE) are considered in chapter 6.2 (Adriano Orsingher); and infant burials from Punic Sardinia (seventh–third centuries BCE) are the subject of chapter 6.3 (Michele Guirguis et al.). The seventh and final part, “Addenda,” contains two chapters that could not fit thematically into the preceding six parts. Chapter 7.1 (Wilma Basilissi) describes the problems, methods, and operational criteria of in-field conservation for juvenile skeletal remains. The last contribution, chapter 7.2 (Paraskevi Tritsaroli and Meropi Ziogana), is removed from the others in terms of both time and geographical space as it focuses on skeletal, funerary, and textual evidence of children’s burials in northern Pieria, Greece, in late antiquity (ca. fourth century CE). 

Together, these essays comprise an unparalleled compendium of discoveries that help solidify our understanding of the often elusive subadult burials in pre-Roman Italy. Diverse cultures, time periods, and geographical locations are explored throughout the book, and each contribution is novel in that it represents either the first publication of new archaeological data or the reconsideration and recontextualization of material from older excavations. Furthermore, the majority of the essays are interdisciplinary, assigning primacy to neither the material nor the bioarchaeological data but seeking instead to present a complete analysis of all available lines of evidence. As such, this volume contributes substantially to our knowledge of the trends and practices surrounding subadult burial, not just in pre-Roman Italy but in the ancient Mediterranean in general.

Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver
Department of Classics
University of Pittsburgh

Book Review of From Invisible to Visible: New Methods and Data for the Archaeology of Infant and Child Burials in Pre-Roman Italy and Beyond, edited by Jacopo Tabolli
Reviewed by Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.SuloskyWeaver

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