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Reggio Emilia. Image: Wikimedia CommonsReggio Emilia. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Bones of Martyrs?

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By Kristina Killgrove, PhD

Forensic anthropologists’ two main goals in analysing a set of recent human skeletal remains are to positively identify the deceased and to work out the cause of the individual’s death.  When these techniques are applied to historical remains, generally called forensic archaeology, all too often what results are sensationalized reports that are difficult to verify – from the 1991 exhumation of U.S. president Zachary Taylor amid claims he died of arsenic poisoning [i]; to a 2005 study showing lead poisoning may have killed Beethoven [ii] (but also may not have [iii]); to the 2010 claims that King Tut died of malaria[iv] and Julius Caesar suffered from a brain tumour [v].  In an April National Geographic news piece and film [vi], a team of physical anthropologists analysed two skeletons found in a vault in an Italian church in an attempt to show that they represent the 3rd century AD saints Chrysanthus and Daria [vii].

[View the National Geographic article here]

A legend of martyrs

The legend surrounding these early Christian martyrs involves Chrysanthus’ conversion to the faith, much to the chagrin of his father, a Roman senator.  Chrysanthus’ father tempts him with prostitutes and eventually arranges a marriage between the teenager and a 20-something Vestal Virgin [viii] named Daria.  But Chrysanthus persuades Daria to convert to Christianity, and the pair remain celibate.  Daria’s conversion from pagan to Christian causes the Roman government to condemn her to prostitution, but she is saved by a lioness; similarly, Chrysanthus is saved from prison by a miraculous transformation of his cell into a garden.  In 283 AD, the pair is purportedly sentenced to death – in some stories, they are buried alive in Rome.  Their graves immediately become a place of pilgrimage, and 1,000 years later their bones are transferred to a cathedral vault in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia, where two skeletons fitting the pair’s description were found recently.

An illustration of the martyrdom of Chrysanthus and Daria taken from a 14th-century manuscript. Image: Wikimedia Commons An illustration of the martyrdom of Chrysanthus and Daria taken from a 14th-century manuscript. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Over 300 bones were found in the vault, representing two individuals: one person whose age at death was between 17-18 based on the incomplete development of the long bones, and one person who was likely female and in her 20s when she died, based on visual osteological assessment.  DNA analysis eventually confirmed this sex assessment and further showed that the teenager was male.  Carbon dating of the skeletons produced a range of 80-340 AD.  Neither skeleton had evidence of physical stress, and both had very high levels of lead, leading the investigators to conclude the individuals were likely upper class.

Between the carbon dating, the osteological age assessments, and the DNA evidence of sex of the deceased, these skeletons’ characteristics are consistent with what is known of Chrysanthus and Daria.  It is surprising that these skeletons managed to be unearthed in Rome several centuries after their deaths, transported hundreds of kilometres to Reggio Emilia, and still found in excellent condition another millennium later – taphonomically [ix] unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility.  The main problem with the investigators’ study is in the assessment of the individuals’ “upper class” upbringing from their bones.

An issue of class

The main problem with the investigators’ study is in the assessment of the individuals’ “upper class” upbringing from their bones.

These researchers first suggest that the lack of physical stress could indicate a higher social class.  Rome during the Imperial period does tend to be thought of as a violent, disease-ridden cesspool (Scobie 1986) [x] , but this view of the Eternal City is based largely on ancient texts written from the perspective of the upper class and based on modern assumptions about a preindustrial city with a high population density. Recent bioarchaeological studies of skeletons from Rome, though, suggest a different picture: many lower-class Romans engaged in physical labour and died young, but just as many do not seem to have had rough lives at all (Killgrove 2010) [xi].  The lack of physical stress markers on the bones of a teenage male and a 20-something female in Imperial Rome do not necessarily mean they were elite.

Lead in the bones

The second suggestion, that these individuals were elite because of the high levels of lead in the bones, is even more peculiar:

“By analysing trace elements in the bones, the team also uncovered signs of lead poisoning – a uniquely aristocratic ailment in ancient Rome.  The toxic metal was present in the city’s plumbing system, which reached only the homes of the wealthy.”

Roman lead piping. Image: Wikimedia Commons Roman lead piping. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Rome’s plumbing system did reach the houses of the wealthy.  They could pay for a tap to be installed in their houses and get water directly from the aqueducts, most of which had their sources to the east in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains.  But the people living along the aqueduct’s route, particularly in Rome’s suburbs, also tapped into the water system, in a way analogous to tapping into a cable TV signal in the modern day.  It has been estimated (Taylor 2000) [xii] that unauthorized water delivery in the suburbs totalled around 89 million gallons of water a day, nearly the same amount as the estimated 100 million gallons of water that was being piped into the city of Rome.  Having access to aqueduct water does not equal high status.

The Romans did indeed have lead pipes, and our word “plumbing” and the chemical symbol for lead (Pb) both come from the Latin word for the element – plumbum [xiii].   Lead poisoning resulting from the plumbing system, though, has been thoroughly discredited by researchers over the years [xiv] by showing two things.  First, water flowed through the aqueducts at a terrifically high rate, meaning there was no opportunity for the lead to leech into the water.  Second, the water coming from the Apennines had a significant amount of calcium in it, which formed rock-like concretions on the interior of the lead pipes, a phenomenon known since ancient times. The calcium in effect buffered the water against direct contact with lead for the majority of the span of the plumbing.  More germane to the idea that elite Romans had lead poisoning is information from ancient sources like Pliny’s Historia Naturalis [xv] and Columella’s de re Rustica [xvi],  which noted that people used lead utensils and cookware, and also sweetened their wine with powered lead.

No skeletal evidence, though, has ever been found to suggest that only upper class Romans suffered from lead poisoning, but it is a difficult study to undertake because lead in the soil can leech into the porous bones of a long-buried skeleton. Lead was smelted all over the Empire, and it undoubtedly contributed greatly to the environmental pollution that rose to unprecedented levels in Europe during the Imperial period. A recent international study showed through analysis of teeth, which aren’t as porous as bone, that there were high levels of lead among the commoners of both Roman Britain and Rome itself (Montgomery et al. 2010) [xvii]. More lead analyses need to be done on skeletons from around the Roman world, but it is possible to say based on current research that a high level of lead in the skeleton does not alone suggest the person was upper class.

The question remains

The question remains, are these bones really the remains of the saints?  They very well could be.  Ezio Fulcheri, the palaeopathologist at the University of Genoa who acted as lead investigator in this National Geographic-funded study, noted that “there is no evidence in contrast of this hypothesis” that the skeletons are those of Chrysanthus and Daria.  Forensic anthropologists working with modern skeletal remains would be able to match dental records, undertake a facial reconstruction, or perform a comparative DNA analysis of a relative to secure a positive ID.  These techniques are not possible with two-millennia-old skeletal remains, so Alessandra Cinti, an anthropologist at the University of Turin, could only say “maybe it’s actually them […] of course, we can’t be certain.”

The evidence in favour of Daria and Chrysanthus is circumstantial, likely not enough to hold up in a modern court of law, but in the world of forensic archaeology it is fairly convincing.  We won’t ever know if these are indeed the bones of the saints, but there’s enough for believers to continue their pilgrimages to Reggio Emilia and the graves of the saints.


  1. [i]http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/05/AR2005120501937.html ->>Return to text
  2. [iii] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/arts/music/29skull.html ->>Return to text
  3. [iv]http://articles.cnn.com/2010-02-16/health/king.tut.malaria_1_king-tut-mummy-researchers?_s=PM:HEALTH ->>Return to text
  4. [v]http://rogueclassicism.com/2011/03/16/caesars-brain-tumour/ ->>Return to text
  5. [vi]http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/04/110415-saints-murdered-chrysanthus-daria-science-rome-roman-christians/ ->>Return to text
  6. [vii]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saints_Chrysanthus_and_Daria ->>Return to text
  7. [viii]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vestal_Virgin ->>Return to text
  8. [ix] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taphonomy ->>Return to text
  9. [x]http://www.plu.edu/~315j06/doc/slums-sanitation.pdf ->>Return to text
  10. [xi]http://www.unc.edu/~killgrov/Migration-Mobility-Imperial-Rome.html ->>Return to text
  11. [xii]http://books.google.com/books?id=rqMGZr4yAkQC&pg=PA293&lpg=PA293&dq=taylor+2000+public+needs+private+pleasures&source=bl&ots=Z4vDXJEqZx&sig=k5liGtlgLCxpWieJHfEfe9k0Z3o&hl=en&ei=GaLKTb3MHcn20gHXsazQBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CB8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false ->>Return to text
  12. [xiii]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plumbing ->>Return to text
  13. [xiv]http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/leadpoisoning.html ->>Return to text
  14. [xv]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Pliny) ->>Return to text
  15. [xvi]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columella ->>Return to text
  16. [xvii]http://unc.academia.edu/KristinaKillgrove/Papers/360779/_Gleaming_white_and_deadly_using_lead_to_track_human_exposure_and_geographic_origins_in_the_Roman_period_in_Britain ->>Return to text

References:

  • Scobie, A.  1986.  Slums, sanitation, and mortality in the Roman world. Klio 68:399-433.
  • Killgrove, K.  2010.  Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome.  PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Montgomery, J., J. Evans, S. Chenery, V. Pashley, and K. Killgrove.  2010. “Gleaming, white and deadly”: using lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain.  In: Roman diasporas: archaeological approaches to mobility and diversity in the Roman Empire, edited by H. Eckardt.  Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement 78, pp. 199-226.
  • Taylor, R.  2000.  Public needs and private pleasures: water distribution, the Tiber River, and the urban development of ancient Rome.  Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider.

Kristina Killgrove is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina. She blogs on archaeology, biological anthropology, and the classical world at Powered by Osteons (killgrove.blogspot.com).


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