Thursday, December 5, 2013

Students study Tunisian bones for archaeological excavation

Olivia Reed ’16 carefully removed a handful of 1,300 year-old human bones from a dusty plastic bag. Sifting through them one by one, she analyzed and identified them. Reed knew the names of some bones almost immediately, but she consulted a nearby skeleton to identify others.

One bone fragment puzzled her, so she asked Igor Bayder ’14 to give his thoughts. “I wonder if it goes with my skull,” said Bayder, who had started assembling a cranium nearby.

Reed and Bayder are among a group of students helping to piece together life from an a Roman-era church in Carthage, Tunisia. Susan Stevens, a Randolph classics professor and the Catherine E. and William E. Thoresen Chair in Humanities, has led the excavation and study of that site since the early 1990s.

Stevens began working on the church because of her interest in burial practices during the time when Christianity grew in the Roman Empire. “It’s one way of looking at a transformation from the ancient period to the medieval period,” she said.

Many of Stevens’ students have gained hands-on experience with archaeology and anthropology while helping study artifacts from the site. Earlier this year, she solicited the assistance of a group of students who help with Randolph’s Natural History Collection.

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Analyzing Tunisian bones is one of several opportunities for students on the Randolph College Natural History Collections team.

Read a Randolph magazine story about a behind-the-scenes tour they got at the Smithsonian earlier this year.
Reed, Bayder, and others are classifying and measuring the bones excavated from the crypt. Their data will help determine the minimum number of people who were buried there, which will help Stevens gauge the size of the community that worshipped there.

“It’s kind of a detective story,” said Stevens.

The students also are looking at the bones for signs of disease and injuries that will reveal what the community’s health was like, Stevens said. For example, Bayder pointed out a bone that had deformed areas that could signal cancer.

The students have enjoyed getting to work with real archeological material that also relates to their other academic interests. “I can basically identify the entire skeleton now,” said Reed, who plans to practice medicine someday.

Next spring, the team will work on extracting DNA from the bones for analysis that would provide further insight into the number of people there.

Emily Patton Smith ’12, Randolph’s Natural History Collections manager, said Stevens’ project is helping students set themselves apart from those they will compete against for jobs or graduate school admissions. “There’s a lot of crossover between the archeological disciplines and the sciences that I think is underutilized,” she said. “It’s something that not every biology major is going to have on their resumes.”