This summer, I attended a workshop on Juvenile Osteology in Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania. The students in the field school (“fieldies”) work at the excavation site, excavating, mapping, and pulling the skeletons buried at the church at Patakfalva, while the students in the lab (“labbies”) analyze the individuals excavated in previous field sessions. The individuals from Patakfalva lived roughly between the 13th and 16th centuries.
I was a “labbie,” which meant that from 8.30 am until 4.30 pm, Monday to Friday, I was in the lab learning about juvenile osteology. For the first 3 weeks, we had lectures every morning on subjects relevant to our study–the anatomy of the juvenile skeleton, the bioarchaeology of children, reconstructing juvenile mortality, the osteological paradox, taphonomy, isotopic analysis, and trauma. The rest of the day, we were in the lab gaining hands-on experience with the juvenile remains. All of this work culminated in a series of 6 “bone quizzes”–20 two-part questions such as “what is this bone” and what “side” of the body does it come from, as well as general questions from our lectures. Since I have not yet taken an osteology course at Penn, I found the bone quizzes the most challenging part of the course, but they are a great way to learn your osteology (especially fragments). Each wrong answer gave me insight into what I needed to work on. Now I’m really looking forward to taking an osteology course when I get back to Penn, in order to further hone these skills and put into practice the osteological knowledge I have already gained.
In addition to studying for bone quizzes, I also had to create an annotated bibliography on the topic of my choice, relating to the bioarchaeology of children. As I am a Classicist who specializes in Ancient Medicine, I decided to write mine on spinal malformations in juveniles in the Greco-Roman period. I began reading ancient medical texts such as Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, who talk about their conception of the nature of the spine, the malformations that may occur (they mainly discuss kyphosis and scoliosis), the treatments for them, and the possible reasons for their occurrence.
In the last two weeks of the course, we catalogued and analyzed the individuals that had been excavated from Patakfalva in previous years’ sessions. From these analyses we decided on a topic to present on at the end of session colloquium. The first two skeletons we analyzed exhibited copper staining on their crania, which we think indicates that the deceased were wearing a headdress with copper elements when they were buried. These headdresses–called ‘párta’–were an important part of a young unmarried girl’s clothing and were of particular importance as part of their marriage garb. We discovered a Transylvanian custom in which unmarried girls are buried in their marriage clothes. Our skeletons with staining had probable ages of 8-12 years. Understanding the use of these headdresses is a useful way to sex juvenile skeletons in this region as there is no reliable way to sex juvenile skeletons from bone morphology. Moreover, it gives insight into the status of these individuals, suggesting that they were from wealthy families that could afford to have headdresses decorated with copper wire or beads, rather than the glass or wooden beads and seeds used by poorer families.
The course was not all study–we got the opportunity to travel throughout Transylvania and visit beautiful medieval fortified churches, Bran Castle (commonly known as Dracula’s Castle), Peleş Castle (the summer palace of the Romanian royalty), and spend a weekend in Brasov. My personal favorite of these was Peleş Castle, which was like nothing I’d ever seen and the decoration of the interior was just astonishing. If you ever visit, a tour of the interior is a definite must!
Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
Julia Simons is a graduate student in the Classical Studies program, and is from Tauranga, New Zealand.