Were the women of Pompeii really fat and hairy?
Archaologist Estelle Lazer became rather infamous in the 90s after New Scientist published an article based on her research entitled “The Fat, Hairy Women of Pompeii”. This article suggested that her research proved that many of the ladies of Pompeii were not the beauties suggested by the frescos, but fat and hairy women who suffered from headaches. But what is the real story?
On Lazer’s first visit to Pompeii in 1986, she discovered that many of the human skeletal remains had been dumped in piles behind rusted gates in unused ancient buildings, overgrown with brambles.
Although the bones had been kept in far from ideal conditions, it is surprising that they were kept at all. When Pompeii was re-discovered, and when real excavations began in 1748, people were more interested in finding bronze, gold and other items of more immediate value. The somewhat macabre reason that the bones were not simply destroyed was that the bodies were used as theatre props for visiting dignitaries. Special excavations were set up where bodies were arranged like props and a souvenir artefact hidden for the visitor to discover, as if for the first time.
Lazer’s investigations have dispelled many assumptions made about the victims of Pompeii. For example, rather than the victims comprising mainly infirm women and immobile senior citizens, she found roughly equal proportions of male and female bones, and across a wide age range.
Through assessing teeth, Lazer has been able to gain an insight into the general health of the populace, some of whom suffered from heart disease – not, perhaps, an exclusive consequence of today’s sedentary lifestyle. She has also inferred that while there was a prevalence of gum disease, Pompeians must have had good immune systems, as people were able to survive abscesses so severe that they actually burst out through the face!
The wealth of information Lazer has discovered about the population of Pompeii, is almost rivaled by the history of the bones themselves post mortem. One on occasion as she sorted though all of the bones, she noticed a shortage of male thigh bones. It was only through a chance conversation with a local that she found out about a cottage industry in the 1960s that made door hinges from bone. Once the local supply of horse bones had been exhausted, the replacement material was obvious, if, again, rather macabre: human male thigh bones.
And the truth behind the fat hairy lady story? Lazer discovered extra boney growth at the front of many of the female skulls. This is a disorder called Hyperostosis Frontalis Interna (HFI), which can occur in menopausal women, and is associated with hirsutism, obesity, headaches and depression. While Lazer found that about 12% of the skulls had this disorder, she says that it is no higher a proportion than can be found today amongst the modern western population.
In short, the women of Pompeii were only as fat and hairy as we are today.
By Kim Harvey
Listen to podcasts from Estelle’s presentation:
Related Past Events:
- Science Outside the Square: Carnevale
- The Science of Doctor Who
- The Science Exchange: Historic Tour
- Susan Greenfield Live - A Day in the Life of the Brain
- Forever Young
- Red Deer Cave People
- A Week In Science – 21 June 2013
- Media release - The Science Exchange: Historic Tour (16 April 2013)
- Telomeres and The Biological Clock
- A Week In Science - 1 March 2013