Featured Lendület Member: Anna Szécsényi-Nagy

Although there are many written sources on the Roman period, very little is known about the biological, medical, nutritional and many other characteristics of the population of Pannonia. This will be remedied by the research of Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, archaeogeneticist, archaeologist, senior research fellow at the Institute of Archaeogenomics of the HUN-REN Research Centre for the Humanities, head of the MTA-BTK Lendület Bioarchaeology Research Group, and her colleagues, who will also study, for example, camels brought here by the Romans.

2024. január 22.

Szécsényi-Nagy deals with archaeological genetics, but has also worked with a wide range of research tools in natural science archaeology, including isotope analysis. The project “Life and Death on the Margins of Roman Civilisation” is a bioarchaeological project which won a Lendület competition award. Bioarchaeology is defined as any research that straddles the archaeology-biology border: genetics, anthropology; pathogens; nutrition; diseases; and the impact of lifestyle on health.

Anna Szécsényi-Nagy

“In the archaeology department, I chose to specialise in the Migration Period and prehistory because these seemed to be the most exciting periods from a genetics point of view, for which we have few written sources,” says the research team leader. “When I was a student, I still thought that the Roman period was a clean slate, as their literate culture left behind many relics. But as I started to study antiquity in more depth, I realised that there was still a lot we don’t know about this period.”

Researchers from several Hungarian museums are involved in the project, including the Aquincum Museum, the Bálint Balassa Museum in Esztergom and the Hungarian National Museum. As discussions with the partners began and the preparation for the research project progressed, new research questions arose. Little is known for certain about the peripheral areas of the Roman Empire, such as the frontiers of Pannonia. We do know tomb inscriptions or the names of the armies that were deployed there, but these data cannot usually be linked to individuals. In fact, the stone graves were reused in later periods (so it is not only the person whose name appears on the inscription buried there, if at all), and in many cases researchers only analyse fragments of inscriptions without context.

Over the course of the Lendület studies

the research team will focus on north-eastern Pannonia, and will therefore study Roman artefacts from a micro-region.

The main question of the bioarchaeological working group is what populations lived in north-eastern Pannonia between the first and fourth centuries AD and what can be learned about their lives. For this, they are examining different social strata and time horizons. They will investigate how the different populations related to each other, their lifestyles, their health, the circumstances in which they died and their general demographic characteristics.

“A very good example of a question that arises is the area of Aquincum, which is a settlement that has been researched for a very long time and is of great importance as the capital of Pannonia Inferior,” continued Szécsényi-Nagy. “Yet the processing of the finds is fragmentary, and no summary bioarchaeological works have been produced so far. We will compare, for example, the nobles of Aquincum with the individuals buried in the cemeteries of the military and civilian towns. In other words, there are many opportunities in which social groups can be compared from a bioarchaeological point of view.”

The head of the research group said that although there is written and epigraphic (from gravestone inscriptions) data, these “are not linked to reality, to the everyday physicality, appearance and biological relationships of people.” Pannonia was home to an amazingly mixed population. The soldiers who served there may have come from the far reaches of the empire (we know from written records that Gallic and Syrian corps served there, for example). The natives who lived there had Celtic and Illyrian roots, so the population was diverse. Comparisons at the European level will allow the results to be linked with those of researches conducted in other parts of the Roman Empire. It will be possible to see which populations of Pannonia were biologically related to those of other regions.

We know from written sources that the indigenous population of north-eastern Pannonia also came into contact with Roman soldiers and the traders and craftsmen who accompanied them. There are reliefs showing a woman in traditional Celtic dress and a man dressed in Roman military garb. In other words, there are indications suggesting that the Romans intermarried with the natives, who became Romanised, but this is the first time this process has been traced.

“We want to move from individual-level analyses to community-level studies, and finally to the study of community-based networks,”

Szécsényi-Nagy argues. “In addition, the research has smaller-scale but more interesting offshoots. For example, we plan to study the horses and camels used in Roman Pannonia. These were prestige animals, and by analysing their genome we can find out how they were bred, how they were traded, what breeds were kept and where they came from. Through chariot graves, horses provide a link with the natives and Barbaricum, the barbaric peoples of the area surrounding Pannonia. The relationship between the Romans and the barbarians can thus be traced through animals and people.”

Researchers will also use animals to try to bring modern humans closer to the Roman era. For example, they will use genetics and archaeological zoology to reconstruct horses: their appearance and stature will be presented, just as new data will help portray people. In other words, as well as scientific research, part of the work will be to disseminate knowledge and make the findings accessible to the general public.

The modern co-studies of archaeology now allow a much more in-depth study of the finds than was possible when they were discovered. For example, isotopic analysis methods can be used to check whether apparent nutritional lesions on bones are caused by inadequate nutrition, or genetic analysis can be used to identify the exact pathogens of infectious diseases.

“The archaeological attachments became standardised very soon after the Roman conquest, meaning that the indigenous population adopted the Roman style of dress, and it is no longer possible to determine from them what the origin of the deceased in the graves was,” says Szécsényi-Nagy. “We hope that we will be able to dismantle this archaeologically-unified, yet multi-ethnic society through bio-archaeological methods.”

The research group will collaborate with the HUN-REN Nuclear Research Institute in Debrecen for isotope analysis, and the HUN-REN Wigner Data Center will help with the IT studies; also participating are the HUN-REN BTK Archaeology Institute and the Hungarian Museum of Natural History.