2. Background to Osteria dell'Osa

Excavation and publication of the 600 burials at Osteria dell'Osa has significantly increased knowledge of, and scholarly interest in, the Latial Iron Age. The excavation and publication of this significant site was not an isolated phenomenon, but occurred at a time when there was great interest in the Iron Age archaeology of the region. This interest was born in the 1960s and maintained through a series of exciting discoveries (see Cornell 1979-80; 1985-86; Smith 1994). Bietti Sestieri recommenced Acanfora's earlier excavations at Osteria dell'Osa in 1973, at a time when there was intense interest in the archaeology of Rome's beginnings and in the regional social changes that accompanied and reflected Rome's rise to prominence (for example, Gjerstad 1953-73; Pallottino 1972; Quilici 1979; Ridgway and Ridgway 1979; Momigliano 1984). The volume of material excavated from Osteria dell'Osa, and the quality of its publication in 1992, remain unmatched in the region.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Castiglione crater indicating location of Osteria dell'Osa and the Archaic city of Gabii (Image courtesy Google Earth™ mapping service. Captions L. Cougle)

This site has made a significant contribution to understanding mortuary customs in Iron Age central Italy, but there remains a dearth of evidence for settlement and household organisation. The discovery of a burned Iron Age hut at Fidene east of Rome around 1990 (De Santis et al. 1998) has expanded knowledge of the construction and internal organisation of individual dwellings, but a settlement excavation on a larger scale would increase understanding of the spatial arrangement of contemporary communities. Indeed, the location of the settlement that buried its dead at Osteria dell'Osa remains unconfirmed, although Bietti Sestieri (1992b, 78) surmised that it was at, or around, the western part of the Castiglione crater (see Figure 2).

Figure 3
Figure 3: Map of Latium indicating location of Osteria dell'Osa in relation to major Archaic centres (after Smith 1994, Map 1)

The Iron Age cemetery of Osteria dell'Osa (Figure 3 and Figure 4) is situated about 20 kilometres east of Rome in the modern region of Lazio, and its development is closely aligned to that of its more famous neighbour. The burials of 605 individuals, dating predominantly from Latial Phases II and III (see Table 4), have been excavated and published (Bietti Sestieri 1992a).

Figure 4
Figure 4: Plan of cemetery of Osteria dell'Osa indicating cluster boundaries and names (reproduced from Bietti Sestieri 1992b, Fig. 7.1a with permission of the author)

Table 4: Latial chronology (after Bietti Sestieri 1992b, 8)

PhaseDates (BCE)
Latial I I c.1000-900
Latial II IIA c. 900-830
IIB c. 830-770
Latial III IIIA c. 770-740
IIIB c. 740-730/20
Latial IV (Orientalising)IVA c. 730/20-630/20
IVB c. 630/20-580

The period during which the cemetery was used saw significant social change, not only in Latium but throughout Italy. Although the traditional date of 753 BCE for the foundation of Rome is likely to be apocryphal, the social and urban transformation of Italian settlements leading up to this time is well attested archaeologically. The dramatic evolution of settlements in the region from a loose affiliation of tribal village settlements to stratified proto-urban centres can be read from the changing mortuary culture of the region (Smith 1996, 44ff).

This social transformation accompanies increased interregional contact. The presence of Villanovans from Etruria to the north, and Campanians from the southern region in which 8th century BCE Greek colonies were established, is attested through imported objects among the grave goods of Phase II and III Osteria dell'Osa, most notably ceramic goods. It has even been suggested that such contact extended to intermarriage, with two Villanovan women identified as the possible occupants of burials 91 and 198 (Bietti Sestieri and De Santis 2000, 24). However, the social conditions that preceded the urban phenomenon germinated a long time before the establishment of the Greek colonies in the mid-8th century BCE: 9th century BCE trade relations extended as far as the Baltic region, which supplied the amber found in many burials. By 830 BCE, the focus of Latial culture shifted from the Alban Hills to lower-lying trade routes that created a new artery between Etruria and Campania. These routes followed the Tiber Valley, converging on the site of Rome - an important factor in that city's rise to prominence.

Urbanisation in Latium was accompanied by, or perhaps was a result of, a transformation in social structure. Phase II was characterised by a relatively egalitarian structure within, and between, villages: large necropoleis that were spatially delineated by extended family groupings replaced the sporadic burials in non-formal areas that occurred in Phase I. There appears to have been no hierarchical distinction between families, and status within the family groups seems to be ascribed on the basis of horizontal factors (age or sex), or vertical identities connected to uncommon social roles (such as priest) rather than hereditary status. Burial clusters in this phase spatially acknowledge status and identity on a family level, but there is nothing in the broader arrangement of the cemetery to suggest differentiation between groups. In Phase III, however, dramatic shifts in cemetery layout reflect changes occurring at inter- and intra-village levels in social structure.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Osteria dell'Osa cemetery, Phase III burial cluster (after Bietti Sestieri 1992b, Fig. 7.1a)

It is argued that the changes in social structure in Phase III represent the beginnings of the gens system of patrons and clients that characterised the Archaic period from the 6th century BCE (Bietti Sestieri and De Santis 2000, 17; Smith 2006, 146-9). This system saw the emergence of inequalities between families, and increased the importance of lineage identification. At Osteria dell'Osa, the neat arrangement of burial groups seen in Phase II (Figure 4) gives way to a single cluster (cluster 230-293) that is, in comparison, disordered and crowded (Figure 5). There is no longer a relatively consistent east-west alignment of spatially discrete burials, and burials are made in the new group that damage or destroy earlier ones. Bietti Sestieri (1992b, 203) suggests that this shows the importance of group membership - the unity of this particular group is stressed at the expense of observing mortuary niceties.

The important social change heralded by the transition to Latial Phase III is clearly manifested in spatial rearrangement of the cemetery. This highlights the importance of considering the spatial aspect in analysis and represents a case where visual presentation of data can be far more effective than a numerical format. Use of GIS programmes can explicitly highlight spatial relationships and allows us to explore interrelated patterning that may not be obvious through standard statistical analyses.

This article will not explore the important spatial changes brought about by the transition to Phase III. Rather, it will examine the much larger group of burials from Phase II (900-770 BCE) with a view to illustrating synchronic variability and short-term change. As the focus of this article is exploration of spatial relationships within and between burial clusters, the two isolated clusters of Phase II burials (1-60 and 34-219) in the southern part of the cemetery are not spatially examined, although they are included in broader Phase II statistics. The largest section of the cemetery, to the north, is considered most appropriate to illustrate the processes described here.

Table 5: Age classification

Age groups used in current analysis
SUBADULT Newborn, 0-1 years
Infant, 1+-5 years
Child, 6-10 years
Juvenile, 11-14 years
MATURE ADULT 15-49 years
OLD ADULT 50+ years

All age and sex classifications are based on the findings of Becker and Salvadei (1992), but determinations of sex of subadult individuals are not accepted. Methods of determining the sex of subadults are widely considered to be unreliable (see Molleson et al. 1993, 23; Mays and Cox 2000, 123-25; Moss and Moss-Salentijn 1977, 407), so a more cautious approach is adopted that considers subadult age only. Sex and age determinations of mature individuals, however, are both accepted, and are ordered according to the classifications outlined in Table 5. These do not correspond precisely with Bietti Sestieri's (1992b, 103) own divisions, but combine some existing categories and impose aggregate groupings of 'Mature' and 'Subadult' burials, allowing broader analysis.


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