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Winter 1995

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 95 > Article

Ancient Voices Speak Again in Carthage
by Judy Purdy

What started out as a road in modern Carthage has become an archaeological excavation of a 2,000-year-old cemetery.

"It was a strange and crazy series of accidents," said archaeologist Naomi Norman, the UGA classics professor who directs the dig.

First there was the bulldozer Norman held at bay for six hours.

"I stood in front of the bulldozer and said, 'You can't churn up any more.' Then I called the Tunisian authorities to get them to come down to at least see what was being churned up," Norman said.

Then there was the marble charioteer. Exquisite in form and still in mint condition almost two millennia later, the life-size portrait statue had been scooped up with roadbed rubble by an earlier bulldozer. And as yet, hardly anyone knew of its existence.

"It's one of the most beautiful statues discovered in Carthage in the past 100 years. It's really a spectacular piece of art," Norman said.

And there was the necropolis itself -- a large and elaborate cemetery in the ancient city of Carthage. Although Norman had no way of knowing then that numerous architectural structures stood intact under an accumulation of centuries of soil and decades of modern-day trash, the archaeologist was lured by the site's possibilities.

"I was really interested in that site because I was excavating the  [Carthaginian] Roman Circus -- that's where charioteers did their thing," she said. "And the statue would have been a perfect thematic tie."

Norman planned to conduct a three-week probe of the necropolis in 1992 and then move on to excavating a house she had been eyeing. Instead, the well-preserved cemetery, located only a stone's throw from the circus, turned out to be what she called "a spectacular site, a real plum."

"In about two weeks it became clear that this was a major cemetery site and we could spend the next 20 years there if we wanted to," she said. "We had a lot of questions about how they were buried and what kind of rituals took place, and this site gives us the opportunity to answer those questions, to apply scientific methodologies and to excavate the cemetery to get the maximum amount of information out of it."

It's not just the large size of the cemetery, the prominence of the people buried there or the discovery that it was used continuously for almost six centuries that makes it significant. The cemetery is in remarkably undisturbed condition, especially considering it survived an earthquake and at least one major stone robbing. And no other Carthage cemetery of its type has been excavated scientifically.

But the most important aspect of the necropolis excavation may be its impact on helping people understand the importance of archaeology.

"I think the most important thing is simply the fact that we've got Roman architecture still standing," Norman said. "Most people find it very difficult to understand a site that no longer exists. So this gives us an important datum point for people to look at, to feel and touch something real from second century Carthage."

The enormous quantity and well-preserved quality of material being excavated promises to rewrite the artistic, social and cultural history of Carthage. Archaeologists also will be able to integrate and contextualize the material from the cemetery with that from other sites in the ancient city, said Norman, who directed the excavation of Carthage's Roman Circus from 1982 to 1990.

So far, Norman and her 30-member team of students, volunteers, Tunisian workers and professional archaeologists have unearthed a large volume of antiquities from the necropolis. In addition to marble statues, a mausoleum and several tomb monuments, they have dug up a wide assortment of funerary inscriptions, coins, pottery, cremation urns and skeletons, which paint a complex picture of life and death in ancient Carthage. By the summer of 1994, they also had amassed enough data to reconstruct the site's history and relate its location to the circus and the amphitheater, two major public entertainment buildings.

But before the crew could begin excavation, Norman and a handful of Tunisian workers had to clear away a mound of modern rubbish. Since the early 1980s, the site was used as a garbage dump for the modern-day Carthage suburb of Yasmina. In addition to the dump, local farmers had constructed an animal pen using the large limestone building stones that once had been the foundation of a third century mausoleum.

"I was really shocked when I first got there and took a look at that pile of garbage," she said. "It was like everybody's worst nightmare. I just was not sure I could ask students to excavate this. I went out there with a bunch of pretty spectacular Tunisian workmen and within four days we had cleared off much of the modern trash -- old iron beds, coils for mattresses, lots of vegetable matter."

Relics Rewrite History

Once the site was cleared, the crew began the laborious job of unearthing large architectural structures with picks and shovels, under the blazing equatorial sun. Dental picks and cotton swabs were the tools of choice for the more delicate and often tedious work of scraping away layers of time from coins, skeletons, glass bowls and stuccoed reliefs.

The fruits of their labor may help rewrite sections of the history of the Roman Empire. For instance, of the thousands and thousands of Roman coins unearthed in Carthage excavations, the overwhelming majority had been minted in the East, in places like Syria and Turkey. That is until Norman and her crew came on the scene. They found several bronze coins that were minted in Gaul, and that pocket change is expanding our current knowledge of Roman economics and changing maps of third century trade routes.

"We certainly didn't expect to find anything new about coins. I was really shocked and delighted when my coin specialists told me about these really important third century coins from Gallic mints," Norman said. "Coins we're producing from this site are changing the scholarly picture of the monetization of Carthage and suggesting new trade patterns and new economic patterns for Carthage which we hadn't thought of yet."

Often in archaeology, simple, everyday items like coins lead historians and mapmakers to make major changes. For instance, funerary inscriptions, which help fill out family trees of important Carthaginians and provide insight into daily life, also have an important role to play. One inscription in particular, that of 60-year-old Quintus Iulius Felix, simply reads "a veteran," but it may mark the grave of one of Carthage's founders.

"The letter forms and the absence of certain formulaic expressions suggest it's a late first century inscription," Norman said. "And it was found in a tomb with scrolls on the top surface, which also indicates the tomb dated to the late first or early second century. I think what we've got here is the tomb perhaps of one of the first founders, one of the settlers of Carthage."

The Roman colonists who settled Carthage during the first century were veterans -- soldiers who had fought for Augustus and were rewarded with land in this new province.

The inscription also implies that Carthage covered a larger area than scholars had originally thought. Roman citizens tended to put their cemeteries in conspicuous places where they would be seen; this one is located just outside the city's south gate, on the route to the Roman Circus, which would hold 70,000 people.

"If you're placing a cemetery in this area, that means there is occupation in this quadrant of Carthage at that earlier period," Norman said. "It's a mark of status to have your tomb right on the road. As people are going in to town they will see your funerary monument and will perhaps stop and read your funerary inscription, read all about your glorious life, and give you a certain measure of immortality. So you like to be  [buried] near places where people go."

And that's why the charioteer statue seems very much out of place in this cemetery, which was used by some of the city's most prominent, high-status citizens during the first through third centuries. Funerary monuments and statues, usually commissioned by the deceased before death, were a type of propaganda, a complimentary image portraying the deceased at the prime of life.

Roman charioteers, who often were slaves or ex-slaves, were considered very low-status individuals. Some became "fabulously wealthy, popular celebrities" who could buy their freedom, but despite their success, they could never break social class barriers, Norman said. Even so, many tried to disguise their charioteer past and pretended to be something they were not.

"The charioteer is an interesting sociological study in and of himself," she said. "This guy is not trying to hide who he is but really seems to revel in it. Instead of commissioning a statue that shows him as an aristocratic man of leisure, he shows himself as a charioteer. And he chooses a burial ground that is literally within eyesight of the Roman Circus so people going into the circus on game days to watch the chariot races will file past this cemetery and see his statue."

Circus-goers would have been hard pressed to miss the charioteer statue. After all, it was part of an expensive, elaborate mausoleum. The statues of the charioteer and his wife, which was found in 1992, would have stood in two niches in the mausoleum's exterior walls, which were partially destroyed by an earthquake later in the sixth century.

Like her husband, she holds an implement used in funeral rituals in one hand and a professional implement, a round object, in the other. Norman speculates the object is a ball of yarn since a typical epitaph for a Roman matron is "she made wool."

"The statues are perfectly complementary toward one another; you've got an implement for funerary ritual in one hand and a professional symbol in the other. What's really interesting is that the ball of yarn is her professional badge in the same way that the whip in her husband's hand is his professional badge," Norman said.

Clues to Burial Rituals

In addition to the mausoleum, the crew has found a number of smaller tomb monuments built in the first through third centuries. Several have solid rubble concrete cores and white stuccoed exteriors. In others, the interior walls contain niches that still held cremation urns placed there nearly two millennia ago. Many are decorated with reliefs that depict scenes of daily life among the deceased.

For instance, scenes on the Tertullus/Vibius family tomb, a three-story monument that may date to the late first century, show activities typical of an aristocratic family. They also depict pigs trotting across an abstract landscape, an animal with cloven hoofs -- which may allude to the aristocratic penchant for boar hunting -- and men galloping on horseback.

"It's tempting to speculate that family members who erected the monument were professionally involved in horse breeding," Norman said.

But neither pigs nor horses caused as much speculation or excitement as the mysterious animal that the excavation slowly revealed in the funerary relief for Marcus Vibius Tertullus. Tertullus is seated in a highback chair reading a papyrus scroll unrolled on his lap, and some sort of animal stands at his feet. At first, all the excavators could see was the animal's tail and a hind paw.

"There were raging debates on what kind of animal this was. Was it a dog? A lion? I was sure it was a dog, and the field director was sure it was a lion," Norman said.

Actually, it was much more symbolic. The tail and paw belonged to Lupa, the legendary she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. The twin boys also were depicted on the relief.

In addition to giving glimpses into daily life in Carthage, the cemetery answers questions about ancient burials and funeral rituals, such as when Carthaginians changed from cremation to interment. For example, the vaulting tube monument, which was excavated last summer, confirms scholars' age-old assumption that Romans offered libations to the dead.

"We knew that the vaulting tube monument was very different from the other tombs at the site because most of them are solid structures," Norman said. "This small tomb was hollow inside. It had a door and a vaulted room, but we couldn't excavate it for the longest time because it had a huge crack that ran up the middle of it. If we took the fill out of the interior we thought the whole thing would fall down."

After two years their mounting curiosity about this unusual tomb was satisfied when conservator Tom Roby stabilized the tomb so excavation could proceed. In addition to the niches for cremation urns, the crew found a rectangular receptacle with a tube inserted into a small hole.

"That was very exciting because literary sources talked about how family members would go back to cemeteries on various anniversaries and pour libations and do certain other rituals in honor of the dead," Norman said. "We think we have clear-cut evidence that they were walking inside this tomb and pouring libations in this little tube down into a cist  [a rectangular receptacle in the wall] in honor of all the family members who had been buried there."

The crew also has discovered an area of the cemetery reserved for the burial of small children, which may help corroborate the assumption that Roman children held a peculiar social status.

"It seems clear that the practice of burying small children in separate areas away from older children, juveniles and adults could reflect a Roman status distinction," Norman said. "This practice probably arose from the fact that fully half of all children in antiquity died before the age of 5."

Remnants of a structure found by crew members in another part of the cemetery could contain evidence of Christian burials. So far, they have excavated a wall that Norman speculates may have been part of a church associated with the cult of a local Christian martyr, St. Perpetua. The discovery might also explain why Carthaginians went to the trouble of restoring the cemetery to usable condition following the catastrophic earthquake in the sixth century.

But many secrets of the Roman Empire's third largest city may remain buried in the Carthage cemetery for many years to come. That's because archaeological digs are very expensive undertakings.

"Tunisia is a poor country," Norman said. "They are very interested in preserving this part of their heritage and the Tunisian Institute of Art and Archaeology has been very cooperative, but Tunisia doesn't have the money for this kind of work."

Funding for Norman's research, which comes from the University of Georgia, the Kress Foundation and the Polaroid Corporation, runs out this summer. "If we can't excavate anymore then I want to raise the money to build a site museum so we can keep this site open and accessible to the public so visitors can see this very important Roman period. We have actual monuments that people can walk around in," Norman said.

If she is unsuccessful, the site will be covered over to preserve it and "squatters will move in and plunk their houses down on these monuments and that will be it," she said. "This spectacular site will be gone forever."

For more information please check out http://www.uga.edu/archsciences/associates/norman.html


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