Bioarcheology work puts UIndy at center of global research effort

 

Brower-Remy-Oakley---Italy-2014Back in the summer of A.D. 79, wealthy Roman vacationers were kicking back in the seaside resort of Herculaneum when Mt. Vesuvius buried them in a tsunami of hot gas and rock. How hot? Good question. Most experts have pegged the temperatures
at around 400 degrees Celsius, or 750 Fahrenheit. Some thought the heat was sufficient to vaporize the victims, or at least make their heads explode—seriously.

But then Elizabeth Oakley came along. At 25, she is wrapping up her master’s degree work in UIndy’s Department of Anthropology. For her thesis project, she traveled last year on a University grant with Professor Christopher Schmidt and fellow grad students Rebecca Brower and Ashley Remy to Italy, where they examined the skeletal remains of 150 individuals excavated from Herculaneum and kept at a nearby museum. “Boxes to the ceiling” filled with 2,000-year-old skeletal parts, Oakley recalls, some with jewelry and other accessories fused to the bone. “It was fun.”

Their findings show that the temperatures in that volcanic disaster briefly reached at least 700 C and maybe as high as 900 C, or 1650 F.The color tells the story. In areas such as the forehead and the shin, where there’s not much soft tissue to protect the bone, some Vesuvius victims show distinctive white patches. (And despite the high temperatures, there is no indication that anyone exploded.) “We found that tissue shielding was an important factor that other people didn’t consider,” says Oakley, a graduate of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. “Most of the people (show) a light burning of the bones, but a few individuals have really localized spots of calcined bone, which is consistent with temperatures between 600 and 900 degrees Celsius.”

students-at-work---ItalyThat’s a breakthrough, and it has enabled Oakley to present at national conferences and prepare an article for submission to a leading academic journal. She, Remy and Brower—each earning a master of science degree in anthropology with a concentration in bioarcheology—will be listed as co-authors of a new chapter in The Analysis of Burned Human Remains, 2nd Edition, a book co-edited by Schmidt that has become a standard in the field. Oakley also has landed a spot in a prestigious molecular anthropology doctoral program at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, where she will begin a fully funded five-year research stint this fall. Such are the opportunities arising out of UIndy’s Indiana Prehistory Laboratory, where the expertise and technology are making friends around the globe.

These teeth tell tales

Herculaneum-skullMuch of the recent activity is related to the lab’s white light confocal imaging profiler, a high-tech microscope of sorts that Schmidt obtained in 2009 with a $215,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Rarely used in academic settings, the device creates 3D digital models of surface texture. When aimed at human teeth, it can show miniscule patterns of wear that yield surprising amounts of information about diet and lifestyle, even from specimens that are thousands of years old. NSF provided the funding in order for UIndy to spearhead the largest-ever collection of dental microwear data from cultures all over the world, a trove that now represents more than 1,200 individuals from more than 70 sites on all five continents.

It was through this larger project that Schmidt developed the relationship with Italy’s G. d’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara, which opened the door for Oakley’s project, too. Likewise with Britain’s University of Kent, which shared a coveted British Academy/Leverhulme grant with UIndy to study remains—primarily children’s teeth—from cemeteries at the legendary Canterbury Cathedral that date from the 1100s to the 1400s. The grant helped to fund Remy’s position as a research assistant, and as such she has become the chief current operator of the UIndy lab’s white light profiler and scanning electron microscope, working not only on the main project but also assisting undergraduate programs in biology and other sciences.

“I’ve been sitting in that chair for two years straight now,” she says with a smile, nodding toward the microscope station that drew her to UIndy after her undergraduate work at New Mexico State University. “I love being involved with microscopy, because it allows me to learn about all these other disciplines as well.”

So what does the confocal profiler tell us about the Canterbury kids’ teeth? Remy says the tiny wear patterns indicate that, at some point between the ages of 6 and 10, their diet became less consistent. The implication is that medieval times were tough, and even before their teen years, children were expected to fend for themselves to a large degree. The transition is called “social weaning,” she explains. “At certain points in life, your role in society changes.” Many researchers don’t even bother studying children’s deciduous or “baby” teeth, in part because they’re small and fragile, making them hard to find and hard to study. “I’m trying to argue that they do tell us about diet,” says Remy, whose own thesis project involves teeth from Herculaneum. “We can really tease out the differences” with this technology.

Canterbury connection

The Canterbury connection also has paid off for Brower, an Oregon native who likewise was drawn to the UIndy program because of its unique specialties. In May, she spent over two weeks at the University of Kent, measuring the jaws and teeth of 100 medieval individuals in pursuit of a nagging question about human evolution:“We know that teeth are getting smaller,” she says. “There’s still a lot of debate about why.” In Brower’s case, the work didn’t involve high-end digital technology; instead, she used hand-held calipers and other traditional tools to collect data on the relative size and shape of jaw vs. tooth in various age ranges. Making the most of her access to the one-of-a-kind Canterbury collection, she also brought back epoxy castings of teeth for Remy to scan and add to the global microwear database. “That’s going to be really interesting, especially when we can use it as a predictive model,” she says. “I like the fact that it has opened up connections to other schools.” Brower, whose knowledge of human burn patterns was instrumental in Oakley’s Herculaneum study, has enjoyed contributing to her fellow students’ projects. “Some of them have interesting implications for the present,” she says, such as how to protect people from natural disasters. “Vesuvius is still an active volcano, and there are thousands of people living at the foot of that mountain.”

UIndy team plans archaeological survey

A $50,000 federal grant is supporting UIndy faculty and students in a major archaeological survey of southern Indiana’s Floyd County. After months of preparation, Assistant Professor Christopher Moore and research associate Rebecca Van Sessen, both UIndy alumni, hit the field with 11 students in May to begin cataloging historical sites that range from prehistoric Ohio River settlements to 20th-century structures. The goal is to create an official record of potential archaeological resources that are vulnerable to erosion and real estate development, before they are lost to construction projects or the passage of time. The funding from the National Park Service, which comes through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology, will enable students to learn from hands-on field experiences while creating a valuable resource for the Floyd County community. They began their summer work in residential areas and parks in New Albany as well as rural and wooded areas near Lanesville and Floyds Knobs.