April 16, 2011

Learning from human remains: Seianti's skeleton

Tags: History, Podcasts

Available from iTunes and OU Podcasts

This podcast series investigates the sarcophagus and skeleton of Seianti, an Etruscan noblewoman who died around 150BC and was buried near Chiusi (which was under Roman control, but not fully Roman until after the Social War). Similar to many of the Open University podcasts I have been reviewing, it is part of the course Exploring the Classical World (A219). There are 4 video podcasts in the series and an introductory audio only podcast. The video podcasts are in documentary format, normally showing a talking head or an object being described. The video podcasts are all from 6 to 9 minutes long and recorded at 640x360 resolution, or a smaller iPod optimised format. Transcripts are available in PDF format.

The videos go through what is known about Seianti, details of her sarcophagus, a pathologist’s report on her skeleton and the details of a facial reconstruction. The resulting reconstruction shows a face similar to the sculpture on the sarcophagus - just younger and prettier. It is suggested that this makes the sculpture the earliest known named portrait in western art. The name, Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, was cut into the sarcophagus’ clay when it was still wet. Thus the sarcophagus was made specifically for its occupant, which since it was the only set of remains in the tomb, suggests Seianti must have been a person of some note.

The sculpture on the sarcophagus, shows a figure wearing a veil and bedecked in jewellery. The jewellery was originally painted gold and the figure white - apparently it was fashionable at the time for women to be appear pale. However, there is no suggestion in the remains that Seianti was unhealthy. Examination of the skeleton suggests an active, robust woman of 50-55 (old for the time), who had children. There were no signs of violence or long term illness other than a damaged pelvis (probably from a riding injury at around age 16) and very bad dental hygiene. It seems Seianti would have had incredibly bad breath, even by the low standards of the ancient world.

Intriguing and worth watching.