Ancient burials reveal how common Romans fed their dead for the afterlife

about 1,700 years ago, a child in Roman-occupied Spain died in infancy. Buried in a simple wooden coffin, the boy went to the tomb with the usual offerings of meat to sustain him in the afterlife: a tomb was not a tomb unless there was a sacrifice to the goddess Ceres, according to some. legislators.

By killing an animal and offering meat to the gods and the family of the deceased, and placing it in the tomb, the mourners symbolically closed the door to the space between the living and the dead. Some accounts suggest that the sacrifice had to be a pig. But others, like the Roman poet Ovid, suggest otherwise. In one treaty, Ovid explains: “The good Ceres is content with little, if that little is pure.” In the case of this child, Ceres would be content with an animal that very few people would eat: a fox.

This strange discovery is just one among a trove of new details about the life and death of the ancient Romans found in the necropolis of Vila de Madrid, which today lies in the heart of the city of Barcelona. in a new to study published this week in plus oneA trio of researchers reveal details of who the people buried there are, what they ate before they died, and how their loved ones enshrined their graves with food…and, mysteriously, why some were left with nothing to support their journey to El beyond.

What’s new – The study delves into the human and animal remains found in the Vila de Madrid, which was a necropolis on the outskirts of the ancient Roman city of Barcino (today, the excavated ruins are located next to the tourist spot of Las Ramblas in Barcelona so that all They can see). The researchers identified 41 human and 50 animal remains. They expected to find that every tomb in the complex would show some sign of animal sacrifice or meat offering, preferably, the stories seemed to say, a luxurious meal. It was, after all, supposedly the law. But the search found the opposite.

Graves at the Vila de Madrid.Courtesy of the authors.

“Offerings, banquets and animal sacrifices were an important part of funerary rituals, taking into account the Roman written sources. Therefore, we expected to find more luxurious foods. And it has not been like that, quite the opposite, ”say the authors of the study. Domingo Salazar-Garcia Y Lydia Colominasboth archaeologists based in Spain.

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Along with the rather unsavory fox offering, the team found bones belonging to roe deer, cows, sheep, chickens and pigs, as well as dogs, rabbits and horses, inside the graves, likely placed intentionally, and on the floor of the necropolis. Some animals may have died there by chance, but many were probably sacrificial victims offered to the gods, as evidenced by butchery marks on the bones.

“According to written sources, it was common to bring whole animals or parts of animals to the site, held together by the bones,” they add. However, the analysis took another unexpected turn: some graves did not have any animal bones.

“We cannot know for sure why some of the burials do not have offerings,” say Salazar-García y Colominas.

But they have some theories.

Unravel the mystery – An important detail of this study is that the occupants of the Vila de Madrid were probably members of a funeral college, or funeral club, like a cooperative today, but for funerals. Paying at the club meant you had a proper burial with all the necessary rites attended to, even if you died penniless and unable to pay the bill. Slaughtering pigs for Ceres was a luxury equivalent to throwing a party and deciding to buy an organic, grass-fed whole sow to roast in the garden for your guests. Only some people can afford it.

Sacrifices were an important part of Roman religious rituals, including funerals.DEA/ICAS94/De Agostini/Getty Images

“We must bear in mind that we are talking about a funeral college,” Salazar-Garcia and Colominas say.

“Bearing in mind that we are facing a funeral college —a burial place for the lower economic classes and even slaves— could possibly mean that the economic effort required for the banquets was not within the reach of the family of the deceased”, they theorize.

“Of course, it cannot be ruled out that some may have simply been deposited in the cemetery without a social ceremony if they did not like them, considered them undeserving or had no living relatives,” they say. “However, this is more of a speculative terrain.” And a bit gloomy.

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This may also explain why the baby was buried with a severed fox paw. The fox may have been all that the boy’s family could send with them to the grave.

“[The fox] possibly it would be hunted and cooked, probably by a member of the family”, say Salazar-García and Colominas.

“The presence of wild animals in funerary contexts, although infrequent, is not rare. It has been suggested that the presence of these animals could be linked to symbolic offerings or, on the contrary, it could be a way to avoid the killing of domestic animals and instead use wild animals as a kind of surrogate victim.

Even the choicest animals slaughtered on-site were older specimens, the researchers found.

In fact, the Roman poet Ovid in his thoughts about how indulgent Ceres was, a rarity for a Roman deity, he goes on to suggest that people shouldn’t bother offering a luxury sacrifice:

“You servants, with tunics rolled up, remove the knives from the ox; let the ox plow; sacrifice the lazy sow. The ax must never hurt the neck that fits the yoke; May he live and often work on the hard land.”

Anything was better than nothing, but for some, nothing had to do.

Why does it matter? One of the key findings of this study lies within the bones themselves. The research team conducted an analysis of chemical isotopes in the bones of humans to find out what kinds of food they likely ate in the years before they died.

A couple of tombs in the necropolis. Courtesy of the authors

“Honestly, it was a surprise that the offers were aligned with daily diets,” say Salazar-García and Colominas.

They had thought there would be a distinct difference, since funerals were an opportunity to go all out on the menu. But one theory that has worked is that the men, women and children at the site displayed slightly different dietary habits, and this was largely reflected in their burial offerings. In ancient Rome, women were subjugated. Some of their oppression manifested itself in their food: women were expected to eat more grains and less meat than men, and children also tended to eat a more restricted diet than adult men.

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Ultimately, though, the study sheds light on a class in Roman society often overlooked in historical accounts of these ancient peoples: the poor. History is written by the winners, and in social terms, these people were not winning.

“In the case of the study of ancient human lifestyles, the study of burials is key, since it is the only way to directly study the real subject of the studies: humans,” say Salazar-García and Colominas.

“The study of ancient lifestyles is important if we want to know how we humans lived and dealt with daily life in the past,” they say. In turn, this may help modern humans “avoid past ‘mistakes’ that resulted in suffering of any kind on the part of human individuals and societies,” they add. It can also reveal ideas and tools that allowed our ancestors to prosper despite the odds stacked against them.

“Ultimately, knowing who we are today means knowing how we were before and helps project who we want to be in the future,” say Salazar-García and Colominas.

Whats Next – Of the many mysterious items that the researchers found in Vila de Madrid, two skeletons stood out: a pair of males buried there show a very different isotopic profile than the others buried in the necropolis, suggesting that they ate different foods throughout their lives. their lives than other people. . And that begs the question: Why?

“We would like to carry out an analysis of strontium and oxygen isotopes in the study population to verify if these individuals were raised elsewhere or if they were local,” say Salazar-García and Colominas.

The team also wants to run analyzes of any plants and other remains on the skeletons’ teeth to understand what plants they might have eaten and other foods that wouldn’t show up so clearly in this first analysis.

Beyond the next step, they want to continue digging into other tombs to try to learn more about what other Romans did for their loved ones’ mortuary meals.

“This study is just a first milestone,” the researchers say.