Skeletons in the Cupboard?

Femurs and food regimes in the Roman world

Authored by: Miko Flohr

The Routledge Handbook of Diet and Nutrition in the Roman World

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9780815364344
eBook ISBN: 9781351107334
Adobe ISBN:


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The study of (mal)nutrition in the ancient world long was, as Peter Garnsey (1999, 43) called it, an ‘undernourished plant’, but since the turn of the millennium there has been a proliferation of studies discussing the quality of Roman food regimes. While Roman diets are being approached from a variety of angles and by a range of specialists, it is the study of skeletal remains that has, in the last decade, had the most impact on the terms of the debate. Progress in our understanding of the skeletal record has been spectacular. Scholars have begun to study evidence for stature on a larger scale, enhancing the statistical and historical significance of their work, and making it possible to assess changes in average human body length over the very long term. Well-known is the work by Koepke and Baten (2005) on the biological standard of living in Europe during the last two millennia. For Italy, Giannecchini and Moggi-Cecchi (2008) have analysed the chronological development of stature between the early Iron Age and the early Middle Ages. Unfortunately, work on a very large and promising dataset of all published skeletal remains from the Roman period by Klein Goldewijk has thus far remained unpublished except for one chart published by Jongman (2007b, 194) and a very short methodological article by Klein Goldewijk and Jacobs (2013). At the same time, scholars have begun to systematically analyse them for indications of ill health that can be associated with structural malnutrition, such as porotic hyperostosis, and dental enamel hypoplasia. While studies like those of Lazer (2009; 2017) at Pompeii, and those of Killgrove (this volume, with references) in the region around Rome highlight the possibilities of such approaches, most of this work is still more-or-less limited to the micro-scale, partially for problems of compatibility and transparency outlined by Killgrove in this volume, partially because this work is labour-intensive and requires specialist skills not common among archaeologists. However, both developments have significantly increased the amount of historical information that can be extracted from the skeletal record.

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