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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

Black death burial site in Italy yields a rare coffin birth

Researchers investigating a 14th century burial ground have identified a rare case of “coffin birth” – a gruesome phenomenon in which a deceased pregnant woman’s fetus is expelled within the grave.

plague_victim-1c

The remains of a mother and fetus were buried alongside those of two other children in the early days of the Black Death in Italy, however researchers cannot say for certain that they died of the plague [Credit: Fabrizio Benente (Universita di Genova – DAFIST)]

The event, which has seldom been reported in archaeology, is known as postmortem fetal extrusion. It results from a build-up of gas pressure within the decomposing body.

“In this case, we have a partial expulsion of a 38- to 40-week-old fetus, which was found to be complete and to lie within the birth canal,” Deneb Cesana, at the University of Genova, told Seeker.

The remains of the woman and her unborn baby were originally uncovered in 2006, interred with two other young individuals that scientists say were aged 12 and three years old. Only recently has the discovery been fully investigated.

The research was led by Cesana and her colleagues Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a plague historian at the University of Oslo, and Raffaella Bianucci, a bioanthropologist at the University of Warwick in England. Their work appears in the journal Anthropological Science.

The gravesite was found in the cemetery of the “ospitale” (hostel) of San Nicolao di Pietra Colice, located some 45 miles from Genova.

The hostel, which also housed a church, was situated in the Northern Apennines at about 2,600 feet above sea level, and was used as a resting place by travelers and pilgrims heading to Rome and trekking along the two major transit routes of the Liguria region.

“The woman was found laying slightly on her side, while on her left there were two young individuals of unknown sex,” said archaeologist Fabrizio Benente, of the University of Genova.

Benente, who was not involved in the anthropological study, directed the excavation campaign with a team of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and the University of Genova.

“This was the only multiple burial found at the cemetery,” he said. “The others were all single graves.”

(a) Skeleton of the adult female (b) Skeleton of the 12-year-old sub-adult (c) Skeleton 
of the 3-year-old sub-adult (d) Skeleton of the 38–40-week-old fetus [Credit: Cesana, D., Benedictow, O.J., & R. Bianucci]

He added that the corpses had been buried simultaneously and directly into the soil, and dated the burial to the second half of the 14th century.

The timing corresponded to the arrival of the Black Death in Genoa in 1348. The researchers hypothesized that the woman and the two children likely died of the bubonic plague.

Bianucci’s analysis confirmed that three of the four individuals – the woman, the fetus, and the 12-year-old child – tested positive for the F1 antigen of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague.

“This is the first evidence of Y. pestis infection in 14th-century Liguria,” Bianucci said.

“Our finding supports the notion that the contagion, which had originally started from Genoa’s port area, progressively spread and disseminated through the main communication routes,” she added.

Anthropological investigations carried out and funded by the Archaeological Museum of Sestri Levante and the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria showed that the woman, who was about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was between 30 and 39 years old when she died.

It emerged that she had several ailments during her life. Her teeth revealed localized periodontitis and linear enamel hypoplasia – a band-like dental defect that denotes childhood physiological stress – while her bones showed evidence of other diseases.

The woman also suffered from congenital hip dysplasia and was likely affected by Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, a childhood condition that affects the hip, resulting in a permanent deformity of the head of the thigh bone (femur). She likely walked with a limp.

The skeleton of the 12-year-old showed signs of lesions that were possibly linked to metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. The 3-year-old child had no evidence of disease.

The researchers have not yet conducted DNA analysis that will determine the sex of the children and whether they have a relationship with the pregnant woman.

According to Benente, it is possible that they were her children. He believes that they ended up in the mountains, far from the villages, because the hostel of San Nicolao might have worked as a lazaretto, a hospital for people afflicted with contagious diseases.

“She was in advanced pregnancy and limping,” Benente said. “This wasn’t the best condition to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with two kids.”

According to the authors of the study, every conclusion is premature before DNA tests and further research are carried out.

“At the moment we can really only say that the skeleton of this unfortunate and frail woman is providing us with a new case of coffin birth,” Bianucci said, “which adds to the limited number reported so far.” 

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Mapping genes: Orkney Islanders are 25% Norwegian

They are proud of their Viking ancestors but are not as Norwegian as they might think. The lion’s share of the genes of Orkney Islanders can be traced to the native peoples who lived their several millennia before Norwegians invaded and annexed the islands in the 9th century.

Mapping genes

British and Australian researchers have mapped the genetic structure of today’s Brits. They found that the only place where the Viking inheritance is genetically strong is the Orkney Islands. Orkney were under Norwegian rule for centuries and as a result, 25 percent of Orkney Islanders’ genes can be traced to Norway.

The locals tend to be enthusiastic about their Viking heritage, which has now also been strongly identified in their genes:

“The people here are very fond of Norway and I feel most welcome,” says Ragnhild Ljosland. The Norwegian researcher is an associate professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies at Orkney College in Kirkwall, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Dialect

Ljosland’s research is in language, not genetics. She explains that words in Orkney dialect often have a close historic relationship to Norway:

“I feel that the Orkney dialect is just as Norwegian as it is Scottish,” she says. Ljosland mentions vowels, which have remained the same. For instance the Norwegian båt and the English boat, or the names for farming tools and animals. As for birds the Norwegian skarv (cormorant) is a scarfe in Orkney, a teist is a tistie and a lomvi is a loomie.

Ragnhild Ljosland explains that in the 15th and 16th centuries Norway and the the rest of Scotland shared stronger linguistic traits. Contemporary Norwegian and Scottish speech was then closely related.

Using the landscape

The Centre for Nordic Studies has initiated a project which also covers the way the Vikings made use of the landscape when they settled in the Orkneys.

“The Vikings came here and found a landscape which was already in use, with farms, paths and burial mounds. These mounds look like the ones in Norway from the Viking Era, but they actually pre-date them,” explains Ljosland.

Picts

The same goes for the genetic make-up of today’s Orkney Islanders. It traces back much further than many have believed.  A surprisingly large amount of their genes stems from the Picts and other peoples who lived on the islands long before Harald Fairhair took control of them in 875.

The other Vikings who dominated parts of the UK – the Danes in Danelaw (or Danelagh) in Eastern England – have not left anything comparable to the DNA signature as the Norwegian Vikings in the Orkneys. In fact the population of the Orkneys is the most genetically distinct in the UK, thanks to a quarter of their DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. Most of the population in Eastern, Southern and Central England is fairly homogenous. Prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century, the last immigrants to significantly alter the British genetic make-up were the Anglo Saxons who came in the 5th century after the Romans left Great Britain.

No equivalent in Celtic DNA

The Celtic languages and culture are seeing something of a revival in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. But the latest research shows that the Celtic impact is more a matter of culture than genes. The Celts in Southwest England’s Cornwall, for instance, were far closer related to other English groups than to the Celts in Wales and Scotland.

The international team of researchers behind the charting of the British genes is from the University of Oxford, University College London and Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia. The collected DNA samples from a carefully chosen geographically diverse sample of over 2,000 Brits. All of those selected had grandparents who were born less than 80 kilometres from one another. This has given the scientists information about the genes of the local populations in three generations.

The data was then compared with samples from 6,200 persons in ten different European countries.

Professor Peter Donnelly of the University of Oxford, who co-led the research, said in a press release: “It has long been known that human populations differ genetically, but never before have we been able to observe such exquisite and fascinating detail. By coupling this with our assessment of the genetic contributions from different parts of Europe we were able to add to our understanding of UK population history.”

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