Research Article: Who were the miners of Allumiere? A multidisciplinary approach to reconstruct the osteobiography of an Italian worker community

Date Published: October 11, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Marica Baldoni, Gabriele Scorrano, Angelo Gismondi, Alessia D’Agostino, Michelle Alexander, Luca Gaspari, Fabrizio Vallelonga, Antonella Canini, Olga Rickards, Cristina Martínez-Labarga, David Caramelli.


This research presents an in-depth study of the skeletal remains collected from the archaeological site of Allumiere (15th-16th centuries CE; Rome, Italy). A multidisciplinary approach was used, combining skeletal biology, molecular anthropology and archaeobotany with the aim of reconstructing the osteobiography of the alum miners buried at the site. Since 1460, the area of the Tolfa Mountains was significant for the exploitation of alum which was used for a wide range of purposes in the Middle Ages, ranging from woven production to medical practice. A total of 70 individuals (63 adults and 7 juveniles) were studied. The sex ratio of the community indicated a higher prevalence of males with respect to females. Morphological examination indicated occupational musculoskeletal stress markers, which might reflect the specific phase of alum production that each individual was occupied in. Dietary reconstruction was primarily performed through carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis with integration of the results obtained by microscopic, genetic and GC-MS investigations on dental calculus. The diet was omnivorous, indicating a reliance on C3-terrestrial protein and evidence for limited C4 consumption by some individuals. Herbivores, such as sheep and cattle, appear to have contributed to the diet more than pigs and chickens. Consumption of Fagaceae and Poaceae species was predominant; moreover, indicators of Brassicaceae and milk and its derivatives were abundantly recurrent in the population, followed by plant oils and theophylline. Furthermore, the detection of pharmacological alkaloids indicated the knowledge and application of medicinal plants by the community. The novel use of multiple techniques based on cutting-edge technologies has provided a unique window on the lifestyles of individuals from one of the first Italian settlements of alum workers.

Partial Text

The exploitation of alum in Italy started in 1460, when Giovanni di Castro, a commissioner of the Pontifical State, identified the presence of alunite, a mineral from which alum could be extracted, in the territory of the Tolfa Mountains (Rome, Italy) [1–3]. Alum is a salt made up of ammonium sulfate and potassium associated with twenty-four molecules of crystallization water, whose applications ranged from textile production to medicine. Because of its water solubility, alum is not directly available in nature, but it is obtained through transformation of the less soluble aluminum minerals, such as alunite. The discovery of alunite on the Tolfa Mountains was of vital importance for the papal coffers and influenced the rise of the Western European textile industry. This source became particularly important after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 meaning that alunite deposits located in the Eastern Mediterranean area became difficult to access [2]. The extraction of the alum was entrusted to companies of contractors while the Apostolic Chamber handled its marketing. From the beginning, the Medici family secured the control of commercialization of the product in collaboration with Genoese merchants. In 1499, the banker Agostino Chigi was responsible for the organization of the mining enterprise and settlement of the area and the birth of the village that would later become Allumiere, is likely down to his actions [2].

The present research deals with the skeletal remains recovered in the area of La Bianca in Allumiere (Rome, Italy) (Fig 1A) in a graveyard close to the church named as Cappella dei Minatori (Fig 1B). The archaeological excavation started in 2010 directed by Dr. Fabrizio Vallelonga authorized by the “Comune di Allumiere” (Municipality of Allumiere). The research was carried out at the Department of Biology of the University of Rome “Tor Vergata” and directed by Dr. Cristina Martínez-Labarga who received the authorization for the analysis of the skeletal remains from La Bianca (Allumiere, Rome, Italy) in 2015. The complete list of the specimens is provided in S1 Table.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the archaeological site of La Bianca (Allumiere) is relative in date to one of the first recorded human settlements in the area aimed to alum production. Musculoskeletal stress markers, combined with degenerative disease patterns provided important results in the reconstruction of miners’ working activity. Morphological changes depend on repeated daily exercises that stimulate bone remodeling at the attachment sites, increasing blood flow as a consequence [105–106]. However, although the macroscopic analysis of bone morphological modifications can be related to muscles subjected to a high biomechanical stress, often the absence of archaeological data or documents confirming the validity of these assumptions does not allow determining the exact activity carried out in the individual’s lifetime [107].




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