Exciting news – on June 26, the MARBAL project was featured on the Hamilton College blog. WE’RE FAMOUS!
Click this link to read MARBAL project member Lana Dorr’s description of her experience visiting the site.
Exciting news – on June 26, the MARBAL project was featured on the Hamilton College blog. WE’RE FAMOUS!
Click this link to read MARBAL project member Lana Dorr’s description of her experience visiting the site.
Post by Jada Langston
Being here for the last three weeks, I have tried an array of delicious food and drinks. To provide better context I split up this blog post into two separate food stories: an everyday food post where you will learn what we usually eat throughout the day, and a post about food we have eaten at festivals around Romania.
For breakfast and lunch: We usually have a small meal of scrambled eggs or hard-boiled eggs with toast. Then, we pack the lunch cooler before we hurry to leave around 7 am. Around 12 pm at the site we all gather around the cooler to eat lunch. We mainly eat a variety of sandwiches, such as peanut butter and jelly, or ham and salami with mustard, with different fruits on the side. Because one of us is a “ham monster” (Sophia), and because there are so many of us, we go through our basic necessities very quickly. As a result, we have to go shopping almost daily for another kilo of ham, loaves of bread, eggs, and other foods.
For dinner: We are much more creative at dinners, where each person has to make a meal for everyone to sit down and share. On a Saturday or Sunday, everyone chooses a meal to make for the coming week and places the ingredients on a shopping list for Colin and Jess to buy. After we return from the site, one person is assigned to cook that night with a helper. Meals have ranged from shepard’s pie to chicken and dumplings. Once a week, usually on a weekend, we have a leftovers night where we try to finish the meals. In my opinion, and probably everyone else’s, the best cook of us all is Tina Marcuti.
She make delicious and authentic Romanian food, ranging from langoş, a fried bread that’s stuffed with goat cheese, to bean soup, gulas (a meat and vegetable soup), fasole batuta (a white bean dip) and Romanian meatballs. Tina enthusiastically cooks us food to bring to the site or a small meals to eat throughout the day. Just the other day, she made deviled eggs that she decorated to look like small ducks.
So far, I have been two two festivals with food. The biggest one was the Alba Days Fest that lasted from June 8th to 10th. The festival was part of an annual celebration hosted by the city The occasion featured performances from prominent Romanian artists such a Smiley, Inna, and B.U.G Mafia, while also hosting a wide array of food stands throughout the fortress. There was such a variety of different options to partake in, from huge ham steaks the size of your head to a plate of small fried sardines. While I did not have the time (or the stomach space) to eat all of the food, I did try some delicious mici, chicken kebabs with fried potatoes, and fried sardines.
The second festival was a Dacian festival in the town of Cetatea de Balta. Here, we watched re-enactments of the wars between the Roman Empire and the Dacians, which took place in the 1st and 2nd century AD. The Dacians were the people that lived in Romania before the Romans came and conquered the region. Here, we ate placinte, a crepe that can be filled with both savory and sweet concoctions such as the cheese placinte that Lana, Jess, and Colin had and the chocolate-filled placinte that Sophia and I had. The food stands also had boiled corn on the cob and small dessert treats as well.
Overall, the food in Romania has been amazing! Thanks to Tina, all of the amazing shops, and festivals, the entire team has been eating fresh food almost daily. I am excited for what other foods are in store for me to eat.
The MARBAL 2018 field season has started with a bang, with most crew members arriving in Alba Iulia over the last several days. We have excavations planned for June and the first week of July, followed by several weeks of outreach, research, and analysis.
This year the project has several students from Hamilton College joining us as part of their Levitt Center Summer Research Group experience. Jada, Lana, and Sophia will be posting regularly throughout the summer. Here, they describe their experience making their way to the city of Cluj-Napoca before heading south to Alba Iulia, our home for the next two months.
We arrived in Budapest on Wednesday morning. After a long and sleepless flight, we were all happy to be back on the ground. We were all scheduled to be on the same flight from Philadelphia to Budapest. However, things didn’t go as planned…
I left from Chicago O’Hare Airport to Philadelphia to meet the crew and my flight left around 1:45 pm. Flying from Chicago to Philadelphia was peaceful even enjoyable, but the real challenge was the flight from Philly to Budapest. The only country that I have ever been to was Canada for my archaeological field school in British Columbia, so this was a huge step for me to cross the Atlantic Ocean. When I landed in Philly, I had to rush to my flight since it was already boarding and I was on the opposite side of the airport. Then, I get there and I find that Lana’s flight is delayed and I was little worried (but you will read more about that later). However, we got on the plane, unfortunately without Lana, and took a 9-hour flight to Budapest. When I get on the plane, I was terrified because not only is this my first time flying over the Atlantic, but the plane was one of the old planes you see in movies where it crashes. Plus, I am in a middle seat with no space, I have a lady next to me who thinks I am a footrest, and people constantly bumping into my pillow. After some time passes, we finally took off and overall it was not so bad. Although I did not sleep much (only about 4 out of the 9 hours), the people next to me would not stop talking, and there was a lot of turbulence; the food was good and the movies were not bad. Eventually, we landed in Budapest, got on an 8-hour shuttle from Budapest Airport to Cluj-Napoca in Romania (trying not to fall asleep and failing miserably), and headed over to our hotel for the night.
The quick flight from Boston to Philadelphia seems like it should be the simplest leg of the long journey to a small city in Romania, but a plane with possible lightning strike related mechanical issues, thousands of pounds of extra jet fuel that need to be unloaded, and a failed temperature regulating system kept me from the original schedule of joining the rest of the team in Philadelphia. Between the chaos of being amongst a couple hundred passengers in need of rebooking, many with international connections, and the fear of losing my luggage that was now in the belly of a flightless plane, I thought I might never make it. But, after three trips through security, two airport shuttles, and one frightening moment of being alone in a foreign airport with a dying phone, my first trip across the Atlantic ocean was finally complete. Jess Beck soon found me stumbling out of customs, travel weary and desperate. She revived me with some food and water and next thing I know I’m on a seven-hour shuttle bus with a broken AC, a Las Vegas Youtuber/Motorcyclist originally from Romania, and a teeny tiny teacup yorkie. After that a quick taxi finally got us to the rest of our team making my first international travel experience stressful and imperfect, but ultimately successful.
I woke up early Tuesday morning in order to get to the Asheville Regional Airport in time for my 11:15 flight to Charlotte. My parents drove me to the airport and waved goodbye as I went through security. Being a small airport with only four gates, flights from Asheville, NC are generally short and on small planes; the flight to Charlotte is just 25 minutes. Due to the short nature of these flights, most people do not attempt to sleep. However, to my surprise, the person in front of me leaned his seat all the way back. This was definitely not the most pleasant flying experience I’ve had. Thankfully, my next flight from Charlotte to Philadelphia was uneventful. My layover in Philly was quite short, so I made my way to the gate in hopes of finding the other members of my group. I was the first to arrive in Philadelphia. I texted Lana asking if she was in Philly yet, but learned that her flight had been delayed. While this was not my first transatlantic flight, I was a little nervous– there’s nothing worse than a bad seat partner on a nine-hour flight. Fortunately, this was not the case as I was seated next to a very nice woman and her husband. The plane to Budapest was an older model so there were no seatback screens or outlets. We also had a few technical difficulties with the overhead screens and lights. Before taking off, we listened to the safety video twice because the screens didn’t turn on the first time. Despite this, the flight was quite pleasant.
Last week I participated in a public outreach session titled “Unravelling the Stories of the Dead: Rethinking Truth and Evidence Through an Archaeologist’s Lens“, which took place at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.
I presented with two other archaeologists, and as our flyer on the gates to the Downing Site indicated, we all took different approaches to the themes of truth and story-telling in archaeology.
Laerke Recht, who kicked off the event, focused on vertical versus horizontal story-telling, using the biography of author Agatha Christie as a framework within which to discuss object biographies and life histories. Just as biographers find different ways to explore Christie’s life – ranging from situating her career within the the broad perspective of the first half of the 20th century, to narrowing their focus to her personal relationships – archaeologists can use the same kinds of multi-scalar strategies to assess our evidence. The parallel was neatly drawn, and Laerke concluded by emphasizing problems of truth and story-telling in her own research on equid domestication, where some archaeologists argue that tooth wear is incontrovertible evidence of bit-wearing, and hence domestication of horses, and others argue that those patterns can be attributed to age-associated wear.
I was up next, and talked about some of the methods I use to extract data from commingled and fragmentary human remains.
I divided my talk into three separate questions: (1) When did archaeologists begin to study human bones? (2) Why do archaeologists collect information from human remains, and (3) How do archaeologists handle skeletons that are fragmentary or commingled?
When answering the third question, I drew upon my experience working at the Muzeul Național al Unirii in Alba Iulia as part of the MARBAL project this past summer, describing the complex process of analyzing collections of human skeletal remains – as you can see below, project members Emilie Cobb and Colin Quinn were heavily involved in this process as well!
Finally, Alexandra Ion, who organized the event, focused on osteoarchaeologists’ growing reliance on ancient DNA (aDNA), as a “smoking gun” when assessing claims about past familial relationships or population movements. Alexandra underscored that rather than being inherently more scientific or objective, aDNA is fraught with the same kinds of problems as any other line of archaeological evidence. No matter what methods we rely on to answer archaeological questions, as a discipline we must always be cautious about appropriately framing our research questions, assessing the limitations of our evidence, and making sure that our resulting interpretations are not overstated.
Afterwards we had a question and answer session with our audience of about 35-40 people,* who asked us about the impact of new technologies, Ötzi (as always), and the ethical considerations involved in studying human skeletal remains. For me, the most informative component of this session was the fact my posture is TERRIBLE. Below, I have included the only photo where I appear relatively normal. Despite discovering my tendency to slouch, it was gratifying to see that the audience was clearly engaged with the material and interested in archaeology, so we will chalk up this particular event as a win for outreach.
All of us are on twitter and have our own blogs, so if you’d like to hear more about any of these lines of research please follow us!
Having completed our field season, we have a bit more time on our hands to process all of the wonderful experiences and data we collected in the field. Today I want to recount my visit to a new Early Bronze Age settlement just north of Alba Iulia. The site was found during survey for the construction of the new highway (A10) through Alba. The project archaeologists have been working tirelessly to excavate the large settlement prior to the construction of the new highway. Here is a brief overview of our visit to the site where excavations are ongoing.
I toured the site with Horia Ciugudean and Vasile Palaghie – who are running the fieldwork. The site is located near a spring and stream that flows into the Mures River, likely providing year-round access to freshwater. The site is located on a terrace above the Mures River, near its confluence with the Ampoi. A recent article Horia Ciugudean and I published highlights the importance of this area for controlling trade and exchange within the Bronze Age.
The excavation has revealed a wide range of pits and structures that have ceramics associated with the Livezile and Soimus cultures – which would provide an estimated date of 2700-2400 BC. The site does have some redeposited Cotofeni (Copper Age) ceramics that likely come from a site higher up the slope.
The site does not appear to have later occupation materials at this location, but work is ongoing. The lack of later material means that the Early Bronze Age deposits are in surprisingly great shape. Based on this site, we are likely to get a great view of the Early Bronze Age community that lived here.
The site included an interesting pattern of inhumation burials in pits within the settlement.
Much to Jess’s joy, the skeletons are very well preserved.
In addition to touring the site, I got a tour of the material culture that was coming out of the site.
The site also contains a wide range of artifacts, including decorated and undecorated ceramics and animal bone.
Jess and Emilie were analyzing the skeletal material that came from this site on this same day, and I used the opportunity to take some samples of animal bone for radiocarbon dating and isotopic analysis that can be compared with the human remains.
We look forward to hearing more about the site as excavations continue over the coming months, and to start learning more about the burials and samples we took for further study!
A more area-based post this time, featuring the best thing in the world next to anthropology: food!
While here, I’ve had the opportunity to work on the MARBAL Project and also eat a lot. One of our nights was spent eating burek, a stuffed filo dough dish:
We all shared a beef burek, a cheese one, and a spinach and cheese burek. They were all good! I think we agreed the cheese one was the best though, can’t go wrong with cheese.
Food number two that I tried was langos. Langos, fried dough topped with sour cream and sheep cheese, quickly became a huge favorite of mine. I had it three times and regret nothing.
The final night we were there, Jess, Colin, and I had kürtőskalács. Kürtőskalács is spit-cake that is made from yeast dough coated with sugar and butter before being cooked. It is sold at a stand in the center of the Cetatea Alba Carolina, which is normally easy to find because of the groups of excited children clustering around it!
I got a really cool picture of it cooking! Once it’s cooked it can be coated with various toppings. We had ours with cinnamon.
Later on I had a stew called pomona porcului that made my night. It had sausage and cubes of pork with polenta in the center. The polenta was great! We had seasoned mushrooms to share which were some of the best mushrooms I’ve ever had.
It was the perfect end to the field season and helped me get through the overnight train to Budapest!
Disclaimer: This post is a time-stamped “day in the life” of MARBAL co-director Jess Beck, and is brought to you by approximately 17 cups of coffee. It was written as part of the “Day of Archaeology” project on July 28, and was originally posted here.
The Day of Archaeology project “aims to provide a window into the daily lives of archaeologists from all over the world. The project asks people working, studying or volunteering in the archaeological world to participate with us in a “Day of Archaeology” each year in the summer by recording their day and sharing it through text, images or video on their website.” You can learn more about the project here.
6:40 am: Consume first two cups of coffee. Begin analyzing bones in home lab.
8:53 am: Two cups of coffee later, head out the door for the museum. Demolish breakfast of Cascaval, bread, and delicious Romanian red peppers that project member Emilie Cobb thoughtfully prepared for me.
9:24 am: Arrive at our collaborator Horia Ciugudean’s lab at the National Museum of the Union. Emilie begins size-sorting fragments, while I finish entering data on an adolescent pair of scapulae, clavicles, and innominates.
10:53 am: I continue my analysis, moving on to the fragmentary adolescent cranium. Please notice the binder clip I have fetchingly clipped to my shirt so that I do not lose track of it.
12:25 pm: The most important meal of the day! Cookie break as we pack up for the field.
12:46 pm: Make a brief detour to the train station to procure tickets for our trip back to Budapest on Monday.
1:13 pm: Stock up on field snacks at local supermarket.
1:33 pm: En route from the train station in Alba Iulia to our field site in the mountains. I nurse my current thermos of coffee on the ride.
2:17 pm: Arrive at field site to find it only SLIGHTLY more glorious than morning lab setting.
2:47 pm: Project co-director Colin Quinn begins putting in shovel test pits.
4:06 pm: Colin bemoans not taking a charcoal sample two years ago after we hit multiple sterile test pits.
4:11 pm: After being (foolishly) entrusted with making a sketch map of our STPs, it becomes clear that I do not in fact know where North is.
5:01 pm: After a rough half-hour of realizing our own limitations, we switch locations, and begin putting in a 1mx1m to examine the profile of an area in which a modern road cuts through an Early Bronze Age tomb.
5:07 pm: Colin teaches Emilie how to package a charcoal sample.
6:15 pm: After taking some closing photos, we stock up on glamour selfies and pack out.
6:30 pm: Important car snacks are consumed in celebration of a stratigraphically informative 1×1.
7:30 pm: Return to the house to shower, eat, and load and label photos from the day. Next up: publishing this post, and then immediately copying this Romanian buddy I spotted yesterday:
Most of the human skeletal remains that Emilie and I have been analyzing for the past two weeks are either primary burials, or secondary burials of bits of a single individual.
We’ve recently been examining material from an Early Bronze Age site located just east of us, across the Mureș river. This archaeological site has five distinct graves documented, and after reviewing the maps, I did what I do best: decided to save what looked like the worst work for Future Jess.
For all of last week, I analyzed about a burial every day or two, and things were moving along at a rapid clip until on Saturday night I realized that the only provenience left from the site was from the commingled grave. With growing trepidation, I decided to re-examine that particular map. I have provided an schematic replica of the map below:
Since Sunday morning, I have spent approximately 157 hours working on this burial. Because my previous research project also involved the analysis of commingled remains, I am providing a brief guide to the stages involved in this foolish undertaking, for you to keep in your back pocket in the event that you are ever also unexpectedly presented with a hodge-podge of human bone.
STEP 1: PROCURE ESSENTIAL SUPPLIES
Figure out the fastest way to get energy into your body, and then stockpile it in advance. I am currently enamoured of these wonderful little Jacobs 3-in-1 packets that taste like caffeinated hot chocolate. My collaborator Colin is disgusted by this, partly because he is a coffee snob, and partly because his analytical fuel of choice is Lion Bars. Emilie has now developed a capuccino habit after near-daily visits to the stands in the citadel. Whatever supplies you need for motivational sugar/snacks/caffeine, stock up!
STEP 2: INVENTORY
When working with museum collections, conducting your own inventory is an essential first step before analyzing anything , not only commingled remains. After learning my lesson the hard way on previous projects, Emilie, Colin, and I spent the first day at the museum carefully inventorying all of the bags and boxes of material available for us to work with. I also tagged each bag with my own numbering system, matching up an alphanumeric code to a specific provenience to ensure that I had all of the material from a given area before I began my analysis. This prep work ensures that you don’t accidentally skip a bag of bones that might affect your assessments of age, sex, or MNI.
STEP 3: CLEAN WHAT NEEDS TO BE CLEANED
Shockingly, not all bone comes out of the ground looking sun-bleached and perfect. Many of the bags you open will in fact contain things like this:
This is why it’s important to figure out what needs to be cleaned before starting analysis. Emilie has been cleaning burials from the site we will look at next in advance of completing the commingled burial, so that by the time we begin those bones will be fully prepped and ready to examine.
STEP 4: GO OUTSIDE
You’ll probably need to leave the lab at this point. Remember the sun? It can be hard to pull yourself away from your research (says the woman who has eaten a 10-minute lunch at her desk for the past three days in a row), but give it a shot.
STEP 5: ANATOMICAL SORT
After your five-minute jaunt outside to accumulate as much Vitamin D as possible, the fun begins. If your site has been meticulously mapped, with each piece of bone or bag of bone georeferenced, then avoid this step, because you may be able to associate bones with particular individuals.
If, however, you find yourself in the most common archaeological scenario (e.g. having a massive heap of bones that all come from “Unit C”), you’re in luck. Begin sorting your bones by anatomical region, and move from something that looks like this:
To something that looks like this:
STEP 6: IDENTIFY ALL OF THE BONES
Once the general sort is complete, it’s time to delve into the business of ID-ing and refitting as much as you possibly can. If you’re me, this involves orienting bits of bone relative to your own body. In this picture, I’m deciding that these refit fragments of ilium are, in fact, from the left side.
STEP 7: TAKE METICULOUS NOTES
This step is true for all archaeology, and likely all museum work anywhere. I have an Excel spreadsheet in which I enter individual bones, a Word document in which I write up a summary of a particular mortuary context and outline my thoughts about preservation and taphonomy, and then a physical notebook in which I jot down inventory items and to do lists.
STEP 8: CELEBRATE THE END OF ANALYSIS WITH THE BEVERAGE OF YOUR CHOOSING
As of yesterday morning, the final count for the commingled burial was 136 bones, 45+ teeth, and at least five individuals. I am currently celebrating the conclusion of the commingled burial by working on some beautifully preserved primary burials from a site just north of us (one individual has a hyoid! all of the metacarpals are present!), but I have also had several beers in the interim.
And with that, on to my next packet of Milka Jacobs!
Have you ever stared at a young person’s teeth to estimate how old they are? Well you should!
Teeth are important for determining ages of individuals, especially when there is more than one individual in a burial. We’re currently working on a commingled grave which contains adults and sub-adults which has given me some exposure to deciduous and developing teeth. Deciduous, or baby teeth, are temporary teeth that are replaced by permanent teeth as an individual ages. The presence of these teeth in a burial allows for a precise age estimate, since tooth development occurs at specific ages. In this case, some teeth were in the process of erupting. These teeth can be seen still in the crypt, or hollow areas of the jaw where the teeth develop before eventually erupting.
Permanent teeth are different from deciduous teeth in that once they erupt, they are present for the remainder of an individuals life unless removed (such as in cases of infection or injury). The roots of permanent teeth are thicker and more uniform in shape than their baby precursors. The crowns on baby teeth are also more rounded and bulbous than the defined crowns of permanent teeth. The differences between types of teeth are particularly important in commingled burials. There are several questions to ask: “Are there children in this grave? Only children, or children and adults? What are the specific ages of the individuals? How many children and adults if both are present?” Only one way to find out the answers to these questions!
For this season of the MARBAL project, we are analyzing existing mortuary collections curated at the Muzeul Național al Unirii (National Unification Museum) in Alba Iulia. Our hope is that the data we collect this season, as well as the samples taken from these collections for radiocarbon dates, stable isotope analysis of mobility and diet, and ancient DNA will provide an important baseline of regional knowledge.
This season’s lab work is only possible thanks to the work of project collaborator Horia Ciugudean, who has ensured that human remains from his excavations have been curated and made available for study. While collections analysis is always fraught with difficulty (e.g. working with mislabeled or deteriorating bags), we have been able to extract a significant amount of information from these collections, some of which were excavated decades ago.
The biggest issue for mortuary archaeologists and bioarchaeologists working in Romania is that there are surprisingly few collections of human remains to analyze. This can be summarized as issues of resources and research questions. For a long time, Romanian archaeology was hampered by a lack of time and resources to excavate sites and curate these kinds of assemblages. In Romanian Bronze Age archaeology, the focus has traditionally been on recovering ceramic and metal artifacts, with far fewer resources dedicated to analyzing human remains.
This is where we see the power of archaeological research questions. Because European archaeology is more closely related to history than anthropology (in contrast to the USA, where it is linked to anthropology), there are many differences in how sites are excavated, recorded, analyzed, and curated. While historical research questions focus on “where” and “when” something happened, anthropological questions also encompass “how” something happened, “who” did it, and “why.”
Developments in both American and European archaeology have increasingly emphasized overlap between these different approaches (see Kuijt et al. 2014). This legacy, however, has meant that Romanian museum collections are full of metal and ceramics (which can tell you “when” something happened based on relative chronologies) and lack collections of human remains – which often are not formally accessioned within museum collections.
Things are changing in Romania. Recent research by Ion Motzoi- Chicideanu (2011), Nona Palincaș (2014), and Gabriel Bălan (2014) has emphasized what human remains, and their context, can tell us about human behavior and societies in Romanian prehistory. New radiocarbon dates and isotopic research by Claudia Gerling and Horia Ciugudean (2013) have shown the ways in which bone chemistry can inform our understanding of the past in southwest Transylvania. The rapid increase in large-scale contract archaeology related to the construction of highways and pipelines in this developing country has meant that Romanian archaeologist now have the time and resources to excavate a wide range of critical sites. In fact, the MARBAL project is now analyzing important finds that only came out of the ground last week!
Without having an opportunity to analyze human remains in the field, and collect the bones in a systematic way, there are limits on the information we can recover from these collections. It is critical that new excavations of mortuary landscapes – which employ cutting edge excavation, recording, and analytical methods – are undertaken to fully understand the life and death of Bronze Age Transylvanian communities. The data collected this season will be important for providing a baseline for future bioarchaeological research, but our research here also underscores the need for new systematic excavations.
Bălan, G., 2014. Deviant Burials of Wietenberg Culture at Micești-Cigaș (Alba County, Romania), Annales Universitatis Apulensis. Series Historica 18, 95-118.
Gerling, C., Ciugudean, H., 2013. Insights into the Transylvanian Early Bronze Age Using Strontium and Oxygen Isotope Analyses: A Pilot Study, in: Heyd, V., Kulcsár, G., Szeverényi, V. (Eds.), Transitions to the Bronze Age: Interregional Interaction and Socio-Cultural Change in the Third Millenium BC Carpathian Basin and Neighbouring Regions, Archaeolingua, Budapest, pp. 181-202.
Kuijt, I., Quinn, C.P., Cooney, G., 2014. Transformation by Fire: The Archaeology of Cremation in Cultural Context, University of Arizona Press, Tuscon.
Motzoi-Chicideanu, I., 2011. Obiceiuri funerare în epoca bronzului la Dunărea Mijlocie și Inferioară, Editura Academiei Române, Bucharest.
Palincaș, N., 2014. Body and Social Order in Middle Bronze Age Transylvania (Central Romania, c. 1900-1450 BC), European Journal of Archaeology 17, 301-328.