Dealing with the dead of Villamagna, Medieval Italy

I really don’t like dead bodies. But the thing about archaeology is that you never really know what you’re going to dig up, and in my last major dig, there were lots and lots of dead bodies – in the end the team excavated nearly 500 medieval skeletons from the area around a church at Villamagna, near Anagni in central Italy. The results of that excavation (the cemetery and all the rest of the large-scale multi-year project) are now being published; interim reports can be found here. Our book includes an inventory and preliminary discussion of the skeletons, the demography of the cemetery and basic paleo-pathology, a discussion of the isotopes and discussions of the topography and chronology of the cemetery, the burials and the finds. But these dead people won’t lie down and I keep finding myself dealing with them, now well after we’re finished digging. Because ours is the largest collection of excavated skeletons from medieval Italy, I’m hoping that these bones can be further studied by bioarchaeologists who are going to be more able to design and carry out a programme of scientific research that will benefit from such a large sample size, from clearly defined and meticulously recorded stratigraphic contexts. I’m in Rome this week trying to help this project along.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

The team who is going to take over the study of the bones of Villamagna include the indefatigable anthropologist who directed the initial inventory and study of the project, Francesca Candilio, and now a pair of bioarchaeologists, Sabrina Agarwal from Berkeley and Patrick Beauchesne from University of Michigan, Dearborn. Their interests lie in understanding better the general health of the population and how it might have changed over time, looking at oral health, at indications of stress on the body associated with certain kinds of work, at changes in bone density at certain moments of development and during the lifetime, and indicators of disease. Francesca has some ideas about some peculiar bone formations on some of the bones, and has identified some people who suffered fatal wounds, while others lived with their wounds for many years. Through information about nutrition levels, general health and indications of physical labour in this population we can reconstruct these particular aspects of daily life in a rural village for which we have otherwise limited data available from textual sources or other archaeological indicators. I am not a bioarchaeologist, but I remain on board because I want to think about ways in which this kind of information about health and life course can relate to the stratigraphic contexts of the cemetery and the rest of the site.


HRU 4348, the male who died in the 13th century because of a projectile wound to his head, the point of which is still there!

We all met in Rome this week, Sabrina and Patrick flew in from California and I came over from London; Lisa Fentress, the project director, and Francesca are based in Rome. We visited the site, brought some specimens to Francesca’s lab, and collected some of the samples for preliminary work to be done. We went over our data collection practices from the dig and reviewed the anthropological inventories and analysis that the dig team carried out. Francesca explained the methods her lab uses for age-ing and sexing the skeletons, and her binders full of measurements and data. She pulled out some of the interesting pathologies, and weirdnesses in the population, and also showed off one of her favourite head wounds: a guy who was buried in the thirteenth century, inside the monastic cloister, with a ballista point lodged in his cranium.

I feel very pleased that these bones will be taken over by such a competent and interesting team of people. I like Sabrina and Patrick’s approach of social bioarchaeology (Sabrina recently edited a book on the topic), looking not just at health and living conditions of people, especially through the lenses of gender, age, and social status. Francesca has expertise in teeth patterns, looking at migration of populations through dental traits, and will be happy to include Villamagna teeth in her data sets.  I think there is still a lot of work left to be done figuring out this population, and devising a strategy for the archeo-anthropology and bioarchaeology which will exploit the stratigraphic data from the excavation alongside the samples of the skeletons, and I’m interested in thinking this through.

Aside from feeling pleased to shepherd the bones into the hands of another team, there are two issues which really interest me about this research. One: the majority of these skeletons (ballista-point guy not included) came dates from about 1300 to about 1400 (several of the skeletons were dated by C14), so after the monastery was suppressed and the monks expelled. For that period we have very little information about who owned the estate of Villamagna and how the church was administered, so I’m very keen to think more about who takes over a monastery and its estate lands when the institution is suppressed and there is no clear successor to administer the estate. The village and the site of the monastery which we excavated were clearly abandoned about 1300, but this major cemetery with lots and lots of skeletons are clear evidence that the church was still in use, and some priest was involved in burying the dead. The other issue that I’m very excited about at the moment is that in the middle of this phase, in 1348 and 1349, life in central Italy must have changed radically. In 1348 the Black Death arrived in southern Italy, where – by some counts – the population was reduced by half. If I look around me right now and imagine half of the people who surround me dropping dead, my job, my family, and every aspect of my life would be radically different. It may have been so for Villamagna in the fourteenth century and I would like to know whether this was the case, or whether the Black Death didn’t affect this place in particular. We have no indication of Plague Pits, no sense of epidemic-scale deaths, which in itself is might point to the site’s survival relatively unscathed. On the other hand, the site must have been profoundly affected by the three earthquakes which shook southern Italy on 9 September 1349. In Rome, part of the Colosseum collapsed from the quake whose epicentre was located down in the Apennine mountain range—much closer to Villamagna than Rome was. It seems very unlikely that the standing buildings of Villamagna were not destroyed, and thus the population forced to relocate or otherwise reorganise their subsistence. And yet we have only slim indications in the archaeological record of that kind of destruction and rebuilding. Was everything already abandoned then? Or was it restored, only to be abandoned 50 years later? I hope that having a better sense of the population buried here might help shift our thinking about these two catastrophic events and catastrophe in general in a rural village.

All the lovely skeletons!

Just finished recording a juvenile skeleton with lovely skeletal preservation, which meant a range of pathological changes were clear. The most obvious change was destruction of the bone at the base of the tooth root for the second deciduous molar in the mandible, with the bone destruction surrounded by a layer of porous new bone formation. The tooth crown had been destroyed by caries (cavity) and it seems likely that a secondary bacterial infection had developed into an abscess, which had drained into the surrounding gums. This is quite a severe change considering the pattern of tooth eruption suggests the child was only aged about 4-5 years when they died.

This particular child had also suffered from previous episodes of disease; their leg bones, particularly the femora (thigh bones), showed marked bending most likely indicating a vitamin D deficiency rickets. We need to form vitamin D either in our skin following exposure to the sun or from our diet, oily fish and eggs containing natural sources of vitamin D. A poor calcium intake in the diet may also be an important factor influencing the onset. It’s likely that a range of factors such as poor living and working conditions, limited diets and increased air pollution during the post-medieval period contributed to cases of rickets. There were also plaques of bone formation over the inside of the cranial bones, with prominent outgrowths forming in the occipital bone at the base of the skull. The deposits were thickened and formed of a long-standing remodelled bone layer, which suggests they had survived with the cranial inflammation or non-specific infection for quite some period.

Bone destruction at the base of the tooth roots and porous new bone formation caused by infection from a dental abscess in a child’s mandible. Copyright AOC Archaeology

Dead people, augmented reality, and other things of interest

Hiya. My name is Brenna, and I’m an archaeologist, with a PhD in dead people’s teeth. You can normally find me on the twitter at @brennawalks or in tl;dr format on my blog passim in passing .

So, what gives today?

So many shiny things! Turns out archaeology really suits people with rather wide and varied interests; on any given day you might find yourself with a synchrotron smashing particles or a mattock smashing soil. In my case, I had planned to go in and look at some of my research material in the scanning electron microscope over at UCL. In my ‘real’ academic life, I study teeth, and I study them very, very close up. You could call what I do ‘bioarchaeology’ or ‘dental anthropology’ … I’m not fussy. But I study the development of teeth from people who died in the past in order to look at the record of growth that is trapped in the structure of their dental enamel. Your teeth carry chemical and physical signatures of things that happened to you during childhood, while the the teeth were growing. What I look at in particular are signs that growth shut down briefly during childhood, a condition called ‘enamel hypoplasia’.  These are (ish) grooves on your teeth that can be evidence of a childhood fever or other unhappy event. By looking at different patterns of these markers in teeth, we can compare aspects of health across different groups. Did rich kids have a better time of it than poor kids? Did sedentery agriculturalists do better as kids than more nomadic groups?

To study stuff like that, you get to do some cool science with machines that go ‘ping’ and or ‘whop’. My favorite lab machine is the gold sputter coater; it turns my tooth casts into art:

gold coated tooth

the gold coated tooth of a child who died in 18th century London


You can see a big groove in the tooth above. That’s from some sort of growth disruption episode while the kid was still a toddler. Go on, check your own teeth now. You know you want to.

Of course, I haven’t ended up in the lab at all. One of my newer interests is something called augmented reality (for an example, check out the awesome new Museum of London roman app: The Only Way is Londinium). I’m really interested in applications for public outreach (particularly web-multimedia and smart-phone based stuff) and I’m totally enamoured of anything shiny and/or techie.  So instead of being good (hey, it’s Friday!) I went and made a 3d object hover over a piece of paper. It’s a poor screen capture, but hey, I should be working on publications and actual research, right?

Check out the easy, totally free-ware possibilities though. This is brought to you by Google Sketchup running the ARmedia plugin; it’s practically idiot proof and the results are pretty cool. Anything more involved and you’re looking at developing some serious modelling skills, but who needs sleep…?

sorry about the video quality 🙂

Untitled from Brenna Hassett on Vimeo.