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Can (ancient) malaria help Lugnano?

The best discoveries in archaeology stretch your imagination. Most of all they up-end your preconceived notions about the past. Better still if the discoveries are made in blissful places.

In the late 80s and early 90s the American archaeologist, David Soren, now at the University of Arizona, partially excavated a small Roman villa, high on a promontory known as Poggio Gramignano overlooking the Tiber valley, near the picturesque Umbrian hilltop village of Lugnano. The Lugnano villa is one of a line on this eastern ridge, less than 10kms from the little ports strung along the river below. Like its peers the villa’s main range was terraced out from the upper slope of the hill to provide panoramic views of the river and the distant, extinct volcano of Monte Cimino.

View of Giove and the Tiber valley from the Lugnano villa

A second range wrapped around the north side, part of which Soren excavated, making an extraordinary discovery.

Interred into the collapsed remains of the earlier villa was a bizarre Late Antique cemetery dedicated to infants. Over forty tiny skeletons were discovered, many associated with dead puppies or tortoise shells. Occasionally, closer to the norm, a burial was in a Late Antique amphora.

The story of the villa was hi-jacked by its afterlife. Founded in the later known as Republic, abandoned in the 2nd century, as was commonplace, this ancient place gained new status in the 5th and 6th centuries. Why here? Why the infants’ cemetery? Why this strange rite involving puppies and tortoise shells?

Lugnano has a tiny museum. Mostly dedicated to memorial of the two world wars, a macabre if tawdry section is given over to this excavation and its finds. Soren’s report, majestic in its detail, has not found the readership it deserves (David and Noelle Soren, A Roman Villa and a Late Roman Infant Cemetery at Lugnano in Teverina, Italy (L'Erma Bretschneider 1999)). Then, little over a decade ago Romanists faced up to the pernicious impact of malaria in antiquity and concluded that the Lugnano cemetery, as Soren had hypothesized, was the type site for the disease.

Searching for more burials in the north range

Now, with Soren’s support, David Pickel from Stanford University is re-excavating the north range, bringing new energy to the story.

It is a wonderful narrative, I told him, on visiting this imperious promontory. But malaria on a hill so high above the river, I ask quizzically? After all the Tiber was much more free-flowing in antiquity than it is today. David has found more burials, and is forensically extending the old excavated areas. Truth be told, he is quizzical too. New scientific isotopic analyses offer the chance to test the bones of these infants and increase the probability of confirming malaria as the cause of death.

But why here at that time? Was there a church close by? Was this some earlier place imbued with enduring memory particular to family loss? As the diggers gently trowel the ground in search of tell-tale Late Antique surfaces, I venture that there’s still much to learn here. Somehow, the canonical story, well told by David Soren, may be eclipsed by remains that these days can be tested and tested again to summon up a new narrative.

David Pickel points to a late occupation level in the villa's north range

One thing is certain. Europe has lots of Roman villas. None, to my knowledge, has a cemetery quite like this. Lugnano at a stroke has become special.

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