December 1, 2017

Learning from Bones

UMass Amherst anthropology students study medieval skeletal remains

In an anthropology lab in Machmer Hall, University of Massachusetts Amherst senior Emma Berthiaume uses an osteometric board to measure a human femur. She is the very first person to study this bone, buried in the cemetery of San Paragorio church in Noli, Italy, sometime between the years 1000 and 1400.

Berthiaume is making the most of a remarkable educational opportunity: it is highly unusual for an American university to have access to medieval skeletal remains. The bones arrived at UMass Amherst in September through the efforts of Associate Professor of Anthropology Brigitte Holt. “We use bones to teach students to tell the stories of forgotten people,” explains Holt, a biological anthropologist. The lives of royalty and the stories of battles are often well documented, she explains, but anthropology is one of the only ways to discover the stories of ordinary people.

Church of San Paragorio in Noli, ItalyThe San Paragorio-Noli collection comes from a medieval cemetery outside the church of San Paragorio in Noli, Italy.

Bones can reveal what people ate, how they lived, and how they died. The skeletal structures in the San Paragorio-Noli collection, for example, may indicate that the people of this coastal village built up their shoulder muscles tossing fishing nets. Robust femurs could result from manual labor in the fields or a lot of walking.

Using skills she acquired in Holt’s osteology lab, Berthiaume is determining the ages of the individuals in the collection for her Commonwealth Honors College thesis on medieval mortality. “Life was hard in medieval times, and people died young,” Berthiaume says. She will compare the mortality profiles of people in Noli to medieval mortality in London. “I'm hypothesizing that because they most likely had more food and less disease in Noli than in London, where living conditions were much more crowded and difficult, that these coastal people may have lived longer,” she says.

The village of Noli is on the Mediterranean Sea near the French border and near Riparo Bombrini, where Holt conducts research on the origins of modern humans. When she learned that a medieval cemetery had been dug up for restoration work on Noli’s 11th-century church of San Paragorio, she sought to officially borrow the bones, which had been in storage for 20 years, for study at UMass Amherst. After seven years of negotiations with Italian antiquities and export authorities, Holt received permission to pack 41 boxes of bones, the remains of between 60 and 100 individuals, and put them on a British Airways flight to Boston.

In Machmer, six undergraduate students have spent the fall semester cleaning and inventorying the bones for future study. Holt and her students regard the skeletal remains of the medieval residents of Noli with immense respect. “We are fortunate to have this collection,” says Holt. “Now we can begin to tell their stories.”