The Burials Begin (1039 to 1300 C.E.)

One afternoon while the students ate lunch, University of Pisa archaeologist Antonio Fornaciari gave a tour of the trenches, pointing to a freshly excavated stone wall beneath an asphalt parking lot in area 4000 (see graphic, below). In the 12th and 13th centuries, this wall ran along the inner sanctum of the monastery (see video of church, below). Monks of the Camaldolese branch of the Benedictine order lived here, surrounded by a tall wall and moat, at the edge of marshes and oak woods, according to the town’s official history.

In this courtyard, the team found two partial skeletons, buried between 1200 C.E. and 1300 C.E. in a place of honor that suggests they were monks. The anthropologists are now examining their remains to answer a key question: Did monks have better health than farmers or peasants?

Stature is one clue to health, and most medieval Europeans were short. European men averaged 167 centimeters in the Middle Ages (compared with 178 cm today), and shrank by 5.4 cm by the end of the period. The team thinks that with the rise in population, more people competed for food and resources. The bones at Badia Pozzeveri could confirm a trend toward scarcer food and worse health as the Middle Ages progressed.

The bones could also show whether monks were exceptions. Historical records suggest that monks did eat better than peasants—and that both had poorer diets than nobles. To begin the analysis, Vercellotti laid out the leg bones of one monk on a table in the makeshift lab inside the church, below a ceiling covered with faded frescoes. He measured the lengths of thighbone and shinbone and made a “very preliminary” height estimate of 165 to 170 cm. A better estimate might give him a clue to the monks’ status: High-status medieval men buried in one churchyard in northern Italy averaged 171 cm, while lower status men averaged 164 cm, according to a study he published in 2011 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The team has also dug up the likely remains of peasants, probably dating from the 11th century—two poorly preserved skeletons found outside the wall—and they’re hoping for more.

Pilgrims also passed right by the church as they followed the main highway of the Middle Ages, the Via Francigena or “road that comes from France.” Knights, clerics, and peasants all traveled this route (see locator map, above), leaving traces such as two rare Islamic jugs from North Arabia, found in the cloister this summer. With the travelers came new diseases. Leprosy, for example, may have arrived from the Middle East with the Crusaders. It swept into Tuscany in the 12th century, when four leprosariums sprang up in the area, including one run by the monks. The pilgrims probably also spread many diseases including smallpox, measles, tuberculosis (TB), and typhus.

Those are just the sort of infectious company that Hendrik Poinar seeks. An ancient DNA expert at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, he jumped at the rare chance get DNA from pathogens over time in a single location. He wants to see how many diseases people of each period had to combat and how fast pathogens evolved in different conditions, such as famine and war.

One morning, as Poinar watched, Vercellotti and a graduate student laid out one skull after another on a long table. Poinar looked at the excellently preserved teeth in a freshly excavated jaw. Teeth are a promising source of ancient DNA. “This is it—this is what we came for,” he said.

“Dig in,” said Vercellotti, holding a skull steady. Poinar adjusted his facemask, pulled up his rubber gloves, and yanked a tooth out of a jaw with pliers. “Skilled dentistry,” he joked. If he does get DNA from these teeth, he’ll test it for everything from leprosy to plague to TB.