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article imageItalian graveyard's 1000 year perspective on human health

By Robert Myles     Feb 16, 2015 in World
Altopascio - The cemetery of an ancient church in Tuscany, Italy may provide key information concerning the deadly bacterium that causes cholera.
That’s the hope of an international team of archaeologists drawn from Ohio State University, the University of Pisa in Italy and other institutions.
The archaeologists and other researchers are excavating the graveyard that surrounds the now abandoned Badia Pozzeveri or San Pietro a Pozzeveri church situated near Altopascio, a town located 40 miles from Florence.
A millennium ago, San Pietro’s church, on the shores of Lake Bientina, was part of a Camaldolese monastery founded in the 11th century. The medieval Lake Bientina has long since dried up but the monastery flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries due to its location next to the Via Francigena, a major trade and pilgrimage route. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Via Francigena connected France and Northern Europe with Rome, which remained an important seat of power.
Badia Pozzeveri or San Pietro a Pozzeveri church - the site of excavations that archaeologists hope ...
Badia Pozzeveri or San Pietro a Pozzeveri church - the site of excavations that archaeologists hope will provide information on the evolution of cholera
Field School in Medieval Archaeology and Bioarchaeology at Badia Pozzeveri
The excavation site contains the remains of victims of the cholera epidemic that ravaged Europe and much of the rest of the world in the middle of the 19th century.
The number of cholera pandemics during the 19th century was legion. After 1816, there wasn’t a single year when cholera did not claim thousands of victims.
During the third cholera pandemic that lasted from 1852 to 1860, in Spain alone the disease claimed an estimated 236,000 lives over the space of two years between 1854 and 1855.
One of the extremely well-preserved skeletons  encased in lime  excavated at Badia Pozzeveri cemeter...
One of the extremely well-preserved skeletons, encased in lime, excavated at Badia Pozzeveri cemetery, Tuscany, Italy
Field School in Medieval Archaeology and Bioarchaeology at Badia Pozzeveri
At Badia Pozzeveri, archaeologists and students have spent much of the last four summers excavating a particular section of the church cemetery that was reserved for cholera victims. Their hope is that finding traces of the pathogen that caused cholera among the human remains could provide clues concerning how people lived and died in this region of northern Italy.
"To our knowledge, these are the best preserved remains of cholera victims of this time period ever found," said Clark Spencer Larsen, professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University and one of the leaders of the excavation team, adding, "We're very excited about what we may be able to learn."
What makes the Badia Pozzeveri find so intriguing is the use of lime to bury the bodies. The excavations to date have revealed that bodies of the cholera victims were hastily buried and covered in lime. The researchers suspect that those burying their compatriots, who’d fallen prey to cholera, were attempting to stop the disease from spreading.
That’s resulted in a bonus for the archaeologists since the lime hardened like a concrete coffin around the bodies. In addition, the use of lime means that not only are the bones of victims particularly well preserved but the lime also trapped soil around the bodies, soil that contains the ancient DNA of bacteria and other organisms that lived in the humans buried there.
Clues to a cholera cure
One of Larsen's colleagues, Hendrik Poinar, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, is an expert in ancient DNA. Poinar is scanning the soil samples on the lookout for DNA from Vibrio Cholera, the bacterium that causes cholera.
"We haven't found it yet, but we are hopeful. We've found other DNA associated with humans so we're continuing the search," Larsen said.
"If we found the DNA we could see how cholera has evolved and compare it to what the bacteria are like today. That's the first step to possibly finding a cure."
Overall the Badia Pozzeveri site provides much more than just information concerning cholera.
A monastery was founded there in 1056. The monastery was abandoned in 1408 but a church remained on the site, welcoming worshippers, until about 50 years ago. The timescale of almost 1000 years means several different cemeteries from different eras surround the ruins.
"We have a thousand-year window into the health of this village," Larsen said. "It is a microcosm of what is happening in Italy and all of Europe during this time frame."
In addition to cholera victims, Badia Pozzeveri’s cemeteries contain the remains of people who died during the Black Death pandemic that ravaged Europe from 1346 to 1353. Many others died from less dramatic causes, but, no matter the cause of death, what lies buried at Badia Pozzeveri is still of great interest to the researchers.
Undergraduate students examine the skeleton of a young male excavated from the Badia Pozzeveri cemet...
Undergraduate students examine the skeleton of a young male excavated from the Badia Pozzeveri cemetery
Ohio State University
"What we are trying to do is to reconstruct these populations as if they were alive, to get a glimpse about what their day-to-day lives were like and what their health was like, as well as how they died," explained Larsen.
The Badia Pozzeveri project’s been a work-in-progress since 2010 when the local community, Ohio State and the University of Pisa joined forces to study the site. As a result of their efforts, the Field School in Medieval Archaeology and Bioarchaeology at Badia Pozzeveri has been established with an academic program aimed at training students in archaeological and bioarchaeological fields and laboratory methods.
In each of the four years since excavations commenced, between 20 and 30 skeletons have been excavated to undergo further analysis.
More about Cholera, Pandemic, Archaeology, Pandemics, cholera outbreaks
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