Osteology in Transylvania: Putting Back a Missing Piece of the Puzzle

By Yiran He • BSc Anthropology

The Transylvanian area in central Romania is more than a famous site for tourists and history lovers. It is also an exciting spot for bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists. Between the 15th and the 17th century, South-Eastern Europe has been the site of constant battles for territory between several countries including the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary and the Habsburg Empire. For more than three centuries, Transylvanians were not only under severe physical pressure but also torn between varying political and religious authorities. In addition to human skeletons remaining from these agitated times, more remains from the medieval era can be found buried under local churches. Although excavation work of these medieval cemeteries has been conducted previously, relevant bioarchaeological analysis of those burials has been almost forgotten. These blank spots in research have intrigued Andre Gonciar, Director of ArchaeoTek Canada, and Dr. Jonathan Bethard, Assistant Professor in Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology at the University of South Florida. After realising the educational and research value of this large collection of skeletal materials held by local museums from ongoing excavations, they set up an osteology summer school in Odorheiu Secuiesc, Transylvania in collaboration with Nyárádi Zsolt from the local Haáz Rezsoo Múzeum.


The field of excavation (Credit: Ashley Curtis)

This summer field school has by now been successfully run for five years since 2013. It is intended to equip students who are interested in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology with adequate knowledge, skills and hands-on experience in the analysis of human remains using material uncovered at the sites. The school runs throughout the whole summer with several different workshops on both archaeological excavation techniques in the field, and skills of osteological analysis in the lab.

The excavation workshops in the field are led by Dr. Katie Zejdlik from Western Carolina University. Students registered for the Medieval Cemetery Funerary Excavation Workshop would conduct excavations at four local churches under the instructions of Dr. Zejdlik and her field assistant. While enjoying a breathtaking view from top of the hill, field students learnt how to plan an excavation, identify skeletal elements and take field notes by discussing with their group mates as well as from the instruction of field tutors. In addition, the burials that have been discovered by tutors and students in the field have helped the local museum’s researchers to gain a clearer understanding of the overall distribution of cemeteries at the sites.

image2-19Dr. Jonathan Bethard is the tutor for the lab group. Based in a neat villa just 200 metres away from the hotel we stayed in, the lab group received mixed types of trainings such as lectures, small-group tutorials, lab study, lab projects and data collection. I joined the lab group throughout June this summer. Every morning, Dr. Bethard would give a two-hour lecture on different topics, followed by study time downstairs in the lab in the afternoon with material previously uncovered by other field groups. The first two weeks’ lectures and study consisted of a detailed introduction to the important features on every single bone in the human body along with techniques on how to estimate age and sex. During he following two weeks, Dr. Bethard would cover a wide range of issues in the field of bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology, from paleopathology to the application of forensic techniques in mass disasters. After obtaining the basic skills of osteological analysis, students were divided into groups and assigned different burials from the field to help collect osteological data and construct biological profiles. Throughout the lab sessions, Dr. Bethard and his lab assistant Ashley Curtis were always approachable and willing to answer questions. Interesting pathological changes in the skeletons occurred often, which always caused a few minutes of excited discussions among students and tutors.

At the end of the day, lab students would usually gather in front of the villa and practice a little “meditation” for bioarchaeologists – washing the bones of the skeletons uncovered. Every bone lover in the lab considered this moment as a time for escaping from a long day of research, a time for chatting, sun-bathing and relaxing. Nevertheless, not even then did the study and discussion of skeletal structures stop.


Dr. Jonathan Bethard

Without doubt, the most stressful but also most exciting part of the lab work would be the bone quizzes. Every Thursday and Friday morning, the first thing we would do was stand around the tables, staring at a piece of bone fragment (normally less than 25% of a whole bone) in front of us. We had one minute to identify a bone fragment and its important features, something that would take an expert like Dr. Bethard less than 15 seconds. Sometimes a strange piece of non-human elements — bone fragments of a pig, a hen or a roasted rock — would be mixed among the questions to confuse us. Although our results were somehow frustrating at first, the four weeks of training saw an amazing improvement in everyone in the lab, which has been a great encouragement.

We were also very lucky to meet some other great forensic anthropologists during the workshop. Dr. Alexandra Klales, who developed a widely-used sex estimation method using nonmetric pelvis traits, and Dr. Nicholas Passalacqua, a Board-Certified forensic anthropologist, visited our workshop during the first week. They also helped us with our lab study and gave us lectures on graduate study and careers in forensic anthropology. Towards the end of the workshop, we also had a chance to meet Dr. Michelle Miranda, Forensic Scientist and Criminalist specialising in forensic tattoos. Many of us were among the 35.8 thousand followers of her Instagram page. It was a fantastic chance to talk to these great minds about cutting-edge research ideas and careers in this field.

Life after a long day of lab work and lessons was a lot of fun, too. Situated in a quiet town image4-23in the heart of Transylvania, our hotel was surrounded by peony flowers, vines and wooden swings. The beautifully-decorated garden was always a wonderful place for revising for bone quizzes, sharing pizzas and playing with cats. ArchaeoTek also organised several tours around Transylvania during the weekends, so we had a chance o visit several fascinating local churches and the renowned city of Brasov which was famous for vampire legends and Brad Pitt.

Even without any air-conditioners, every student seemed to be really enjoying this experience. Tanya Ramos, an undergraduate student of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said ‘I’m really glad that I decided to attend this field session.’ She hopes to work as a forensic anthropologist in the future, helping with forensic identification at the southeast border in Florida, ‘Although this field school is definitely more fast-paced than normal university lessons, Dr. Bethard organised the lectures and labs really well. He is also very passionate about what he does, which is quite inspiring. Besides, this workshop helps me to network with peers and professors, which is very important for the field. I can also relate more with other lab pals because we are interested in the same things.’


Lab mates and lab assistant Ashley Curtis

Of course, Dr. Bethard and his colleagues have greater aspirations for studies done in the workshops. For a long time, the bioarchaeology of the Transylvanian region has been a missing piece to the complete picture of Europe’s demography. By collecting and analysing a sufficient amount of bioarchaeological data of skeletons from this region, they are looking to add the bioarchaeology of this region to the broader conversation on life of various European populations. They also wanted to help local people to understand what their ancestors had been by studying site-specific demography, religious practices of burials and stresses their ancestors experienced. Identifying bone fragments is like a process of putting back the pieces of a puzzle with the correct reasoning, and the work in this osteology research workshop will contribute to putting the missing piece – Transylvania – back into the bioarchaeological puzzle of Europe.

*For ethical reasons, pictures of the real bones are not allowed to be taken or posted.

*For more information, please see: www.archaeotek-archaeology.org

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: