A Day of Archaeology on the MARBAL 2017 Project

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.
The MOST important meal of the day
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.

Important healthy snacks
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.

Alba --> Teius

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.

The 1x1
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:


How to Analyze a Prehistoric Commingled Burial

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.

Two humeri, two radii, two ulnae = 1 person. Would I that all bioarchaeology was this simple.

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.

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!

SUPER caffeinated and ready to analyze some commingled assemblages!

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.

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.

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.

It is easier to convince yourself to venture beyond the confines of the lab if you work somewhere beautiful.

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:

Ignore these siding labels.

Obviously these siding labels are incorrect because I decided to pair match some of the bones mid-way through the photo process, but you get the picture.

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.

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.


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!

Baby Teeth in Bioarchaeology

Have you ever stared at a young person’s teeth to estimate how old they are? Well you should!

Deciduous dentition from Early Bronze Age archaeological site in Romania (© MARBAL Project 2017).

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.

Emilie analyzing deciduous dentition (© MARBAL @2017).

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!

Deciduous (baby) teeth, from Early Bronze Age archaeological site (© MARBAL 2017).

Resources and Research 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.

Collecting data from a collective burial (© MARBAL Project 2017)

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.

Field drawings are valuable reference materials for bioarchaeological analysis (© MARBAL Project 2017)

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!

Skeleton excavated along the motorway in the last week (© MARBAL Project 2017)

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.