ROME - First-century burial grounds near Rome's main airport are yielding a rare look into how ancient longshoremen and other manual workers did backbreaking jobs, archeologists said yesterday.
The necropolis near the town of Ponte Galeria came to light last year when customs police noticed a clandestine dig by grave robbers seeking valuable ancient artifacts, Rome's archeology office said. The burial grounds spanned the late first century into the second century.
Most of the 300 skeletons unearthed were male, and many of them showed signs of years of heavy work: joint and tendon inflammation, compressed vertebrae, hernias, and spinal problems, archeologists said. Sandy sediment helped preserve the remains well.
Judging by the condition of the skeletons, archeologists concluded that the men probably carried loads on their backs at a nearby port during the early years of Imperial Rome, said Gabriella Gatto, a spokeswoman for the archeology office.
Many ailments "seem to hark back to work as laborers, in transport and carrying of heavy loads, in an especially humid environment, circumstances that makes one think of the burial of individuals who worked in port areas of the city," the office said in a statement.
Finding a necropolis near ancient Rome is not rare, but most have been the burial grounds of the privileged classes. So the Ponte Galeria find is showing experts how the ancient lower class lived.
Also excavated was a skeleton of a man whose lower jaw was fused to his upper jaw. Study indicated "how for all of his life this individual was fed, likely through the care of his family" with liquids or semisolids "introduced through a hole made through his teeth," the archeology statement said.
The man lived into his 30s, a decent age at the time. Specialists took that as evidence that the lower classes cared for the disabled.
Artifacts found in the necropolis were simple ones, including lanterns to guide the dead to their next life, Gatto said. One ceramic-and-glass lantern was decorated with a grape harvest scene.
The dig yielded a glimpse into a working-class community that was "humble and marked by strong ties and solidarity among its members," the statement said.
The construction materials they found reinforced the archeologists' conclusion that the necropolis was used by the lower class. The tombs consisted of graves covered with such everyday materials as wooden boards and roof-type tiling, the archeologists said.