Central Italy

Dealing with the dead of Villamagna, Medieval Italy

I really don’t like dead bodies. But the thing about archaeology is that you never really know what you’re going to dig up, and in my last major dig, there were lots and lots of dead bodies – in the end the team excavated nearly 500 medieval skeletons from the area around a church at Villamagna, near Anagni in central Italy. The results of that excavation (the cemetery and all the rest of the large-scale multi-year project) are now being published; interim reports can be found here. Our book includes an inventory and preliminary discussion of the skeletons, the demography of the cemetery and basic paleo-pathology, a discussion of the isotopes and discussions of the topography and chronology of the cemetery, the burials and the finds. But these dead people won’t lie down and I keep finding myself dealing with them, now well after we’re finished digging. Because ours is the largest collection of excavated skeletons from medieval Italy, I’m hoping that these bones can be further studied by bioarchaeologists who are going to be more able to design and carry out a programme of scientific research that will benefit from such a large sample size, from clearly defined and meticulously recorded stratigraphic contexts. I’m in Rome this week trying to help this project along.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

The team who is going to take over the study of the bones of Villamagna include the indefatigable anthropologist who directed the initial inventory and study of the project, Francesca Candilio, and now a pair of bioarchaeologists, Sabrina Agarwal from Berkeley and Patrick Beauchesne from University of Michigan, Dearborn. Their interests lie in understanding better the general health of the population and how it might have changed over time, looking at oral health, at indications of stress on the body associated with certain kinds of work, at changes in bone density at certain moments of development and during the lifetime, and indicators of disease. Francesca has some ideas about some peculiar bone formations on some of the bones, and has identified some people who suffered fatal wounds, while others lived with their wounds for many years. Through information about nutrition levels, general health and indications of physical labour in this population we can reconstruct these particular aspects of daily life in a rural village for which we have otherwise limited data available from textual sources or other archaeological indicators. I am not a bioarchaeologist, but I remain on board because I want to think about ways in which this kind of information about health and life course can relate to the stratigraphic contexts of the cemetery and the rest of the site.


HRU 4348, the male who died in the 13th century because of a projectile wound to his head, the point of which is still there!

We all met in Rome this week, Sabrina and Patrick flew in from California and I came over from London; Lisa Fentress, the project director, and Francesca are based in Rome. We visited the site, brought some specimens to Francesca’s lab, and collected some of the samples for preliminary work to be done. We went over our data collection practices from the dig and reviewed the anthropological inventories and analysis that the dig team carried out. Francesca explained the methods her lab uses for age-ing and sexing the skeletons, and her binders full of measurements and data. She pulled out some of the interesting pathologies, and weirdnesses in the population, and also showed off one of her favourite head wounds: a guy who was buried in the thirteenth century, inside the monastic cloister, with a ballista point lodged in his cranium.

I feel very pleased that these bones will be taken over by such a competent and interesting team of people. I like Sabrina and Patrick’s approach of social bioarchaeology (Sabrina recently edited a book on the topic), looking not just at health and living conditions of people, especially through the lenses of gender, age, and social status. Francesca has expertise in teeth patterns, looking at migration of populations through dental traits, and will be happy to include Villamagna teeth in her data sets.  I think there is still a lot of work left to be done figuring out this population, and devising a strategy for the archeo-anthropology and bioarchaeology which will exploit the stratigraphic data from the excavation alongside the samples of the skeletons, and I’m interested in thinking this through.

Aside from feeling pleased to shepherd the bones into the hands of another team, there are two issues which really interest me about this research. One: the majority of these skeletons (ballista-point guy not included) came dates from about 1300 to about 1400 (several of the skeletons were dated by C14), so after the monastery was suppressed and the monks expelled. For that period we have very little information about who owned the estate of Villamagna and how the church was administered, so I’m very keen to think more about who takes over a monastery and its estate lands when the institution is suppressed and there is no clear successor to administer the estate. The village and the site of the monastery which we excavated were clearly abandoned about 1300, but this major cemetery with lots and lots of skeletons are clear evidence that the church was still in use, and some priest was involved in burying the dead. The other issue that I’m very excited about at the moment is that in the middle of this phase, in 1348 and 1349, life in central Italy must have changed radically. In 1348 the Black Death arrived in southern Italy, where – by some counts – the population was reduced by half. If I look around me right now and imagine half of the people who surround me dropping dead, my job, my family, and every aspect of my life would be radically different. It may have been so for Villamagna in the fourteenth century and I would like to know whether this was the case, or whether the Black Death didn’t affect this place in particular. We have no indication of Plague Pits, no sense of epidemic-scale deaths, which in itself is might point to the site’s survival relatively unscathed. On the other hand, the site must have been profoundly affected by the three earthquakes which shook southern Italy on 9 September 1349. In Rome, part of the Colosseum collapsed from the quake whose epicentre was located down in the Apennine mountain range—much closer to Villamagna than Rome was. It seems very unlikely that the standing buildings of Villamagna were not destroyed, and thus the population forced to relocate or otherwise reorganise their subsistence. And yet we have only slim indications in the archaeological record of that kind of destruction and rebuilding. Was everything already abandoned then? Or was it restored, only to be abandoned 50 years later? I hope that having a better sense of the population buried here might help shift our thinking about these two catastrophic events and catastrophe in general in a rural village.

Medieval Knights, Their Trash, and Urban Gardens Before They Were Trendy

I’m sitting in sunny California, in the Classics Library at University of California, Berkeley, and I’m thinking about sunny Italy. For 5 years (2006-2010) I spent Julys living in a Boy Scout camp in Sgurgola, Italy, about an hour south of Rome, field-directing the excavations of Villamagna. [See more about our project here: http://www.villa-magna.org]. And for the past three years I have spent Julys working on the material we excavated, working on the stratigraphy and working with finds specialists who were studying the pottery, glass, animal bones, environmental remains, coins, small finds and the human remains from the cemetery. This summer we are finishing the manuscript. I can tell you a bit about where we are for medieval Villamagna and what I’m doing today, and then I’ll tell you about my other project, which I’m working on in my spare time: urban gardens in medieval Italy.


Our project at Villamagna looked at a site over time. In the Roman period, one of the 2nd-century emperors (Hadrian, probably) built a large country house, surrounded by vineyards and forests for hunting. The buildings of that villa are still visible in some places on the site, and what was clear even before we started digging was that throughout the middle ages people had lived among the Roman ruins–the church on the site was built and rebuilt several times in the middle ages reusing Roman bricks, columns and other pieces, and we knew there was a monastery in the area from some medieval parchment documents at the Cathedral archive. Digging was great fun. We had a super team of people from Italy, America, Britain, Belgium, Algeria, Sweden, Canada; these ranged from local high school kids to a volunteer excavator who could excavate a skeleton in minutes, perfectly (it took me hours, imperfectly). The results were very exciting. We could see an early medieval phase of occupation, with high-status pottery, in the Roman building. The monastery buildings were there, including the cloister and a huge underground cistern (a storage container for water). We found a huge cemetery in front of the church, dating mostly from the late middle ages, with hundreds of skeletons; it is now the largest excavated medieval cemetery in Italy.

At the moment, I am working with a research assistant here at Berkeley and the other editors of the project, Lisa Fentress and Marco Maiuro, to pull together the work of the entire team into a publication which makes sense of the thousands and thousands of pieces of data we have collected. Let me give you an example:

Villamagna Medieval Spur

A riding spur found at Villamagna

This is O 700, a spur which came from SU 4291 (we called contexts stratigraphic units, SUs). This was a deposit of rubble and silty soil which accumulated in the well house of the monastery cloister.

Screenshot of ARK SU 4291

This is page for SU 4291 on the database ARK, an open source online recording system, which L – P Archaeology custom fit to our project, and which stores all of our archaeological data. http://ark.lparchaeology.com/


Giorgio Rascaglia tells me that the pottery from this deposit dates to the latter half of the fourteenth century, and this fits with what the stratigraphy suggests about the abandonment of the monastic buildings and their conversion to an elite residence next to the church, and also what some medieval parchments record. A bull of Pope Boniface VIII from 1297 suppressed the monastery of Villamagna and gave its properties to the bishop of Anagni, and then in the 14th century, various bishops argued with one local family, the Caetani–perhaps the most powerful family in medieval Central Italy–over their occupation of the property. The Caetani, or some of their homines (their men), were probably the ones living in these buildings and stabling their horses nearby. We found four other spurs from this period (our Finds specialist, Tyler Franconi, tells me that spurs like this, with a rowell, were common from the 14th century onwards) in this and related deposits, as well as a pair of bone dice for when the knights were playing games, and lots of broken drinking glasses, which Barbara Lepri has studied (these are her drawings):

Medieval Glass (Drawings by Barbara Lepri)

Barbara Lepri’s depiction of fragments of medieval drinking glasses found at the site

The final publication will include a website, based on ARK, with the records of our Objects, Pottery, Glass, single-context stratigraphy, as well as a printed volume with essays by Giorgio, Tyler, Barbara, and myself on this material. Today, we have been editing the footnotes and checking the bibliographic formats for essays on early medieval liturgical sculpture and ninth-century pottery and revising maps of the area from the Roman and medieval periods [thank goodness for http://pleiades.stoa.org/].


As I have been in the Bay Area, I’ve become quite interested in urban gardening. Here in Berkeley it is high-status display horticulture in a foodie society (people have raised garden beds in the front of their Craftsman homes, with rows of broccoli and the most elegant heirloom tomatoes you’ve ever seen) and in Oakland, it is activism and community-organisation in the economically blighted parts of the city, where there are no grocery stores which have fresh food. Among some of the immigrant populations of Oakland, like the Hmong, community gardens have provided people places to grow familiar plants not available elsewhere, speak native languages, and help the elderly to socialise. I assumed, initially, that many of the urban gardens of Oakland were built on derelict land, gaps in the urban fabric of the city created by abandoned houses or unused lots. (Some of them were.) I wondered if the urban gardens of early medieval Rome were not similar, and I wondered what I could learn about the past based on the example of the present. So I set out to collect the evidence of early medieval urban gardens not only in Rome but all over Italy, to see who owned gardens, where they were, and to determine if they were household kitchen gardens or market gardens. I also went looking for ‘dark earth’ in archaeological reports. That is the archaeological deposit characteristic of early medieval cities, with thick (.70-3.0+ m) dark soil, few inclusions of potsherds or other materials, and little or no internal stratigraphy. These have been interpreted as abandonment and decay of organic materials used in late antique and early medieval buildings, but more recent thinking suggests that they are actually the archaeological remains of cultivation.

I have spent the past few months looking through property documents from Italy up to about 1100, and archaeological reports for major cities: Milan, Verona, Lucca, Rome, Naples, Salerno, Ravenna. What I have found is this: there were urban gardens within the walls of every early medieval city, more in Rome (which was of course the largest city in medieval Europe), fewer in Salerno (which was very small indeed). These were not, on the whole, owned by the poor, or by people who rented houses, but by the elite who owned their own houses, and constituted significant social and economic potential for growing food and providing it/selling it to others.

Doc. 82 in the Regesta Sublacense, is a good example of what I have been looking for. The ‘humble monk’ Crescenzio Murcapullo gave his property on the Caelian hill in Rome to the nearby monastery of S. Erasmo in 1003:

‘It is a one-story house entirely tiled and shingled, with an oven inside it and a yard and a vined pergola in front of it. Also a garden with fruit trees next to it, with right of passage to a public road, and with all things pertaining to these, located in the region called ‘porta metrovia,’ where I Crescenzio up to now have lived. One one side is the garden of Iohannes Folle. On the other side is the garden of Iohannes, priest and cardinal. And the third and fourth sides are surrounded by public roads.’

In the same document he bequeathed a grain-field measuring 13 moggi outside the nearby Porta Metronia, in the Prata Deci (Decenniae), which was surrounded by four other grain fields. Crescenzius himself appeared as neighbour to other parcels which ended up at S. Erasmo, as a renter of other parcels, and then the donor of this land. This seems a rather plush residence and it clearly included land designed for growing grain, vine, fruit trees and vegetables. The urban plot would have been 6900 m2, and his extramural field over 4 times that. Given a ballpark-estimate that in pre-industrial Europe, 40 m2 would grow the vegetables for a single person for an entire year (this is the figure that German agronomists working on Constantinople use), this monk had a very sizeable plot, indeed.

Like this example from Rome, these gardens were mostly owned by churchmen. This may be an issue of the documentation (the vast majority of property documents from the period record properties which eventually came to the hands of churches or monasteries), but it also may reflect new social values which emerged in relation to changes in social structures. Abbots and bishops–and priests as well–became powerful figures in early medieval cities, and one of the ways in which they negotiated their new status was by showing themselves to be good managers of estates–a new book by Kristina Sessa  makes this point very clearly. As good estate managers, they provided for their households and their dependents, and also provided charity for the poor and for pilgrims. The gardens attached to their houses, and the many gardens inside monasteries, helped them to do that. Towards the central middle ages, in the eleventh century, populations of Italian cities grew, and so too their economies. Where there had been lots of empty lots in cities and very little in the way of a market for foodstuffs and firewood, in the eleventh century these were sold off and rented out to new people and there were market gardens, mostly outside city walls. Historians have often made the gardens out to be subsistence-level food-production in the gaps left among decaying Roman buildings. I think, however, that they were controlled by the cities’ elites and while the mustard-greens and onions of these gardens may indeed have fed the poor, they did so through a new system of redistribution organised by the cities’ churches.