Current Research

Faces of Oplontis: Bioarchaeology in the Bay of Naples (2016-present)

Skeletons in Oplontis B

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on 24 Aug 79 AD was not the first sign of impending environmental doom for the people of the Bay of Naples, Italy. A powerful earthquake on 5 Feb 62 AD shook the area, causing widespread destruction of aqueducts and houses as well as loss of grain supply, and subsequent tremors and noxious gases that killed domestic flocks presaged the volcanic eruption. Although many Romans did not understand the importance of the environmental upheaval for their continued safety, these changes to the natural world certainly affected their health. The approach to investigating environmental change in this research project involves: 1) undertaking a demographic and palaeopathological analysis of all 54 skeletons at the site of Oplontis; 2) studying the diets and diseases of these individuals through their life course to see whether changes in health can be seen in the skeletons; 3) looking at migration patterns to conclude whether the individuals were local or had moved to Oplontis after the earthquake; 4) and determining whether levels of toxic elements commonly found in Roman sites varied prior to and after the earthquake, and leading up to the volcanic eruption. This environmental bioarchaeology project will analyze an historically well-contextualized skeletal collection from a catastrophic mortality event using osteological and biochemical techniques in order to understand people’s complex relationship with the circum-Vesuvian landscape during a critical period of climate change.

Funding: National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend (2017); Rust Family Foundation Archaeology Grant (2017); UWF Research Stimulus Program (2017); Loeb Classical Library Foundation Fellowship (2018-2019); Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Post-PhD Grant (2018-2019).

Sponsorship: Victorinox (field gear); Red Ants Pants (field clothes)

Publications to Date:

  • Clarke, J., I. Van Der Graff, G. Di Maio, A. Lagi, M.L. Thomas, J.L. Muslin, A. Pecci, K. Killgrove. (Under review). Oplontis: The ancient landscape, the structures, and their relationship with the resources of the Vesuvian region. Manuscript submitted Oct 2017 for edited volume, Extra Moenia: Abitare il Territorio della Regione Vesuviana. L’Erma di Bretschneider.

Intramural Burial in the Roman Suburbs (2010-present)

I am the bioarchaeologist for the Gabii Project, directed by Nicola Terrenato at the University of Michigan. Gabii was an urban area about 20 km east of Rome, occupied continuously for about 1,500 years and densely populated by the Republican period.  Fieldwork at the site is ongoing from 2009-2014 and has revealed a number of burials from several different time periods. The skeletons from Gabii are allowing me to answer questions about health, lifestyle, diet, and status using: a) palaeopathological analysis to investigate how urban development and collapse affected the denizens of the city; b) a thorough study of the Gabine diet through a combination of dental pathology, C/N isotope analysis, and analysis of phytoliths in dental calculus; c) a full osteological, isotope, and DNA analysis of the skeletons found in lead sarcophagi, which represent quite anomalous burials in the Roman world; and d) comparative analysis with the populations I studied for my dissertation research. Biochemical analyses are underway as of fall 2015 with the collaboration of John Dudgeon (Idaho State University), Bethany Turner (Georgia State University), and Robert Tykot (University of South Florida). Publication of these data will be made in top-tier journals, and the results will be synthesized with the Gabii excavation report as well. For more, see the Roman DNA Project webpage.

Funding: Rockethub Crowdfunding (2011); UWF SCAC Award (2014); UWF Graduate Student Research Award (to Andrea Acosta, 2015)

Publications to date:

Medieval Population and Space: Interdisciplinary Research into the Origin of Berlin’s First Population (2013-present)

Recent archaeological excavations show that, at the beginning of the 13th century, two towns were founded on opposite banks of the Spree River in Germany—Berlin and Cölln—and that by the early 18th century, the cities had become one. Missing, however, are historical records from the Medieval period explaining how, why, when, and by whom the cities were settled. From 2007 to 2010, archaeologists Claudia Melisch and Jamie Sewell excavated a cemetery in Cölln associated with Medieval Petriplatz (St. Peter’s Square), which held over 3,700 skeletons buried between the 13th and 18th centuries. The Petriplatz skeletal collection now represents 50% of all known Medieval and post-Medieval skeletons from the area but is unique in its size and cross-section of the population. Melisch and Sewell have identified the earliest graves at Petriplatz, those of individuals who were among the first residents of Cölln. As Berlin and Cölln were both planned cities, two major questions can be answered through analysis of the skeletal remains that have been excavated: Who were the founders of Berlin/Cölln, and where did they come from? My pilot project involved strontium isotope analysis of dental enamel from 22 individuals from the earliest phase of occupation; this was done in 2013 at UNC Chapel Hill in Drew Coleman’s Sr isotope lab.  Funding received as part of the Florida Research Fellowship program at UWF in fall 2015 is allowing me to investigate women’s economic role in pre- and post-Black Death Germany through stable isotope analysis of dietary changes; this is being done in collaboration with Bethany Turner at Georgia State University.

Funding: UWF Scholarly and Creative Activities Award (2013); Florida Research Fellowship (2015-16); UWF Graduate Student Research Award (to Mariana Zechini, 2015); UWF Graduate Student Association Research Award (to Mariana Zechini, 2015)

Project Website (in German):

Publications to date: 

  • Zechini, M.E., K. Killgrove, C. Melisch, B. Turner, B. Schaefer. (Under review.) Diachronic changes in diet in Medieval Berlin: Comparison of dietary isotopes from pre- and post-Black Death adults. Submitted to Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, July 2020.
  • Melisch, C.M., I. Garlisch, B. Jungklaus, K. Killgrove, M. Nagy, N. Powers, J. Rothe, B. Teßmann, M. Tichomirowa, K. White. 2017. Auf der Suche nach den ersten Berlinern. Das internationale Forschungsproject “Medieval Space and Population.” Mitteilungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, Bd. 37, 51-64.
  • Melisch, C.M, I. Garlisch, J. Rothe, M. Tichomirowa, K. Killgrove, and N. Powers. 2017. Medieval space and population: Internationale Forscher auf der Suche nach den ersten Berlinern. In: Archäologie in Berlin und Brandenburg 2015, Landesdenkmalamt Berlin, pp. 102-108.