The Thousand Year Graveyard

December 12, 2013

The Thousand Year Graveyard


Clark Spencer-Larsen, professor and chair, anthropology; and Hendrik Poinar, evolutionary geneticist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada joined Science contributing correspondent Ann Gibbons, for a Science LIVE web chat about their ambitious project to document 1000 years of sickness and health in people buried since the year 1039 in one graveyard at the Badia Pozzeveri Churchyard near Lucca, Italy.

By studying the skeletons of farmers, peasants, monks, and nobles, Larsen and Poinar along with Giuseppe Vercellotti, assistant adjunct professor in anthropology at Ohio State, hope to find out what diseases killed people from medieval times until the present—and how their overall health fluctuated during famine, war, climate change, and other challenges. They are also using new tools, such as ancient DNA, to trace the origin.

In today's issue of Science, Gibbons details how the researchers have opened a remarkable window into centuries of health and disease in Europe, from the Black Death of the 14th century to a cholera epidemic in the 19th century.

Vercellotti, Larsen, and Poinar are analyzing skeletons, teeth and ancient DNA from graveyards around the monastery in order to learn how epidemics such as the bubonic plague spread through Europe. The church was located along an early pilgrimage route, where knights, clerics, monks and peasants—as well as pathogens—all congregated. Comparisons to modern bacterial genomes can inform how such pathogens evolved under various conditions, like famine or war. The researchers, having completed their third year of excavations, are now comparing fossils (and genes) from various social classes and time periods to get a better idea of how people lived and died from the Middle Ages onward.

They would also like to know why the bacterial strain that causes the bubonic plague is so much less virulent today than it was hundreds of years ago—and their genetic studies seem to be paying off so far. (The researchers have already learned, for example, that malaria may have played a decisive role in a historic battle that raged at the site long ago.) But the mass grave at Lucca is just starting to spill its secrets, according to Gibbons.

The goal of the investigation is to read the history written in these bones: when and where these people were born, what they ate, what diseases they suffered and died from, and how their health varied by social class and over time.

“This is a superb opportunity to learn about life in the medieval period and how it evolved and changed over that time and into the Renaissance and Industrial era,” said Larsen.

Since 2011, a team of American and Italian researchers have been involved in an archaeological investigation of the medieval site which is located along a major trade and pilgrimage route running from northern Europe to Rome. Students from Ohio State and several other U.S and Canadian universities as well as students from the University of Pisa have participated in reconstructing the biocultural complexity in the region, shedding light on monastic subsistence, interregional trade and pilgrimage dynamics.

"Students get hands-on experience doing research with experts in local archaeology from the initial excavation phases to the complete analysis of human skeletal remains," said Vercellotti.

In 2012, Ohio State and the University of Pisa, Italy, entered into an agreement to develop academic and cultural interchange in the areas of education, research, and other activities. The Field School in Medieval Archaeology and Bioarchaeology at Badia Pozzeveri (Lucca, Italy), an academic program aimed at training students in archaeological and bioarchaeological field and laboratory methods, became the cornerstone of this agreement.

Larsen became the school's co-director along with Gino Fornaciari professor of history of medicine and of paleopathology, archaeoanthropology and funerary archaeology at the University of Pisa. Vercellotti is one of the field school instructors.

“The joint Ohio State-University of Pisa field school provides students with perspectives on bioarchaeology and archaeology jointly and combines diverse perspectives that can be accomplished only by this special collaboration,” said Larsen. “Badia Pozzeveri is the leading field school in bioarchaeology internationally, one especially engaging students in the excavation of human remains and in the wider context of archaeology and history.”

Vercellotti believes that the Ohio State-University of Pisa partnership provides students with a once-in-a-lifetime experience not generally found at other universities.

“This collaboration offers students a rare opportunity to learn all aspects of a bioarchaeological project by working side-by-side with international experts in the discipline. Students will not only be able to conduct research on the collections, but they will also have the chance to deepen their knowledge in specific aspects of bioarchaeological investigation, such as GIS, medieval material culture, and advanced paleopathology.”

Find out more information on the Field School Pozzeveri in Medieval Archaeology and Bioarchaeology.

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