Classic Story, A City Corpse Meets a Country Corpse

I’ve been indulging in a little HGTV this week as a way to recover from post-conference exhaustion. I know that shows like House Hunters aren’t real- they already have bought the house so it’s just a sham discussion of other houses. And yet, I can’t help myself. Sometimes this mundane drama is just what one needs to recover from a long week of conferencing. In the most recent episode, there was a classic division between the couple: a city girl and a country boy. She wanted to be downtown with a big house and lots of neighbors to entertain. He wanted a small farmhouse on a large plot of land without a neighbor in sight. In the end, they got the farmhouse. But it left me thinking about the divisions between them, the difference between city and country living. Is it really that divisive? Well, if I’m going to address that question, I’ll need some dead bodies to do it.

Luckily for me, Redfern et al. (2015) have published a new article examining the differences between urban and rural populations in Roman Britain in order to determine whether there were tangible differences between these groups. Rural life in the Roman Empire was often idealized by authors, with Varro arguing that the rustic lifestyle provided individuals with superior morals and health prospects when compared with those living in cities. However, this would have been limited to elite and wealthy individuals who were supported by hundreds of enslaved peoples. When Britain was conquered in the 1st c CE, the landscape underwent major transformation from small family based settlements to a division between larger centralized cities and town, and imperial appropriation of rural lands for estates and production. Authors at the time were aware of the health differences between the two areas, especially when it came to the types of diseases that were prevalent. Redfern et al (2015) propose to use bioarchaeological evidence from Roman Dorset, along with funerary and broader archaeological data, in order to determine not just whether urban and rural populations varied in terms of health, but also how this varied by sex, age and status.

Roman Dorset consisted of Durnovaria, the civitas capital of the region, and its surrounding rural settlements. The majority of individuals buried in this region were placed in unlined coffins and buried in a flat grave, although there was some diversity in rural burial practices where Iron Age burial with grave goods was still practiced. The skeletal sample included 344 individuals from the Dorset area, including 150 who came from rural cemeteries and 194 from urban cemeteries. All cemeteries dated from the 1st to 5th centuries CE, although the majority date to the 4th c. There were 123 subadults, 116 adult males and 115 adult females with 13 adults of indeterminate sex. They examined each individual for indicators of stress, trauma and disease, age, sex, and whether they had a coffin present- due to lack of grave goods, presence of a coffin was used as an indicator of higher status.

Broughton Roman British Burial, from CBA Archaeology Excavation Report

Broughton Roman British Burial, from CBA Archaeology Excavation Report

The analysis of the cemeteries revealed that there were significantly more coffined burials in rural cemeteries than there were in urban ones. An examination of health showed that there were higher frequencies of stress related dental changes in urban cemeteries (linear enamel hypoplasia, carious lesions, and calculus), but in rural populations there were higher amounts of stress or malnutrition related skeletal changes (cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis, and non-specific periosteal lesions). Assessment of mortality showed that rural adults had a lower survivorship and higher mortality than urban adults. However, subadults in urban populations had a significantly higher mortality than those in rural populations. In general, females were likely to survive longer than males, however the result wasn’t significant and there was overlap.

These findings to not corroborate prior studies that have shown that Roman rural populations had higher frequencies of disease than urban ones. In fact, Redfern et al. (2015) found that in general, “rural populations in Dorset experienced lower frequencies of indicators of stress, dental disease, and metabolic diseases compared to their urban counterparts”. Despite this, adults living in urban locations lived longer than those in rural ones, likely due to the less hazardous environment. 

An interesting point that Redfern et al. (2015) make is that the interesting differences between rural and urban cemeteries are not apparent when the two groups are compared at a population level- it is only when age, sex, status, and cemetery are individually examined that important differences become clear. The variation between rural and urban is highly related to one’s status, mobility, sex, age, and other factors. They conclude that more detailed and localized examinations of these differences are needed, and that there is no standard pattern of health and lifestyle in Roman Britain.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgRedfern, R., DeWitte, S., Pearce, J., Hamlin, C., & Dinwiddy, K. (2015). Urban-rural differences in Roman Dorset, England: A bioarchaeological perspective on Roman settlements American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 157 (1), 107-120 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22693

2 responses to “Classic Story, A City Corpse Meets a Country Corpse

  1. Is there differences in the rural graves based upon location they lived. Modern farmers love bottom land, which is repeatedly flooded. Which brings new soil layers and deposits that naturally fertilize. The problem with this maybe lack of bodies if graves are subject to same flooding. Very interesting the rural subadults fared better. The urban diseases must have been more sanitation related.

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