Thousand Year Graveyard

I just finished Science’s online article, “The Thousand Year Graveyard“. It’s a very interesting story about excavations around an Italian monastery that’s been a cemetery since the middle ages. It’s a very slick HTML 5 presentation, with big pictures, video, and elements that slide in and out. It gives the background of the monastery, and explains how the excavations were done and what the scientists were looking for.  I highly recommend it.

The story feels oddly incomplete though. It talks about the excavations, and what the scientists were looking for, but there’s not as much analysis of what they found as I would like. I suspect the article is about a year premature–the text keeps mentioning how the archeologists were planning on looking for pathogen DNA, but doesn’t say whether they found any.  I feel that the article would have benefited from being held a year while the results came in. Only the fourth chapter, which deals with a set of skeletons buried en masse, draws any conclusions. Excavators found five skeletons covered in lime, generally a sign of a hasty mass burial; the lime being put down to prevent smells and contagion from the bodies. The archeologists had hoped that they’d found victims of the Black Death, as that would give them information about what caused the plague.

One of the skeletons was very intact and complete; by the fragility of the bones, they could tell it had been an older woman. The lime had preserved the impressions of her clothing, and they found an earring under her. The style of the earring told the investigators that the grave was not from the Middle Ages, but from the mid 1800’s – around the time of a cholera epidemic. They’re now hoping to culture the earth from the grave in hopes of finding cholera DNA, in order to find out if somehow cholera has become more or less virulent.

It’s all very interesting, and very well done, but I have the same problem with it that I had with the Body Worlds exhibits. The skeletons are too human. They’re not beetle browed monkey-like distant hominids from millions of years ago. I keep remembering these were people. From not too long ago. I get the scientific curiosity; I get the potential for discoveries, but there’s part of me that’s bothered by digging them up in the first place.