Maura Griffith — Adventures in Archaeology

Maura Griffith, Trinity College Class of 2017, with a self-designed major in Classics and Biology, Maura Griffithis spending the summer working on an excavation in Romania, where she is participating in two archaeological digs with ArchaeoTek. “For three weeks,” Maura notes in an article about her and two other Trinity Classics majors recently published in the Trinity Tripod, “I’ll be excavating graves at a 15th century Christian church. The following four weeks, I’ll be working in a juvenile osteology research laboratory. This lab conducts the analysis on the specimens excavated during the previous weeks. Each participant in the osteology lab will be presenting at the Fourth International Osteology and Bioarchaeology Student Colloquium in Odorheiu Secuiesc,”

Maura received a summer research grant from Trinity to support her work.

She recently submitted an account of her initial experiences, the first installment of a series she calls “The Transylvania Diaries”:

The Transylvania Diaries: Week 1 – Into the Breach

After many hours of traveling, I was beyond excited to reach the Hinto Panzio in Transylvania. It certainly was a nice feeling to know that I’d be staying in one place for longer than three days. As much as I loved visiting the United Kingdom and Budapest, I was certainly footsore and ready to settle down for my summer of work with ArchaeoTek. I’m participating in two different projects, the Medieval Funerary Excavation and the Juvenile Osteology Research Workshop. Out of respect for the individuals I’m working with, I will not be posting any photos of human remains.

We were greeted at the train station in Sibiu by Dr. Anna Osterholtz, the project director for the Deviant Mass Grave Mortuary excavation. Once we were sure that everyone who was supposed to be there had arrived, we set off for our lodgings in Odorheiu Secuiesc or Szekelyudharvely. The whole crew was welcomed to the Hinto with snacks and palinka, a traditional Romanian drink. Palinka is made with distilled plums and is strong enough to peel paint. There was also a milder, berry form for those who are not as strong livered, such as myself. We heard about what our routine would be at the Hinto – breakfast and dinner at 7 – pretty easy to remember.

The next day we took a tour of the town, where the directors pointed out important landmarks to us – where to buy essential overalls, Kaufland which is slowly becoming our god (it’s like Kmart), and the location of the ATMs. All essential information. The group got a special tour of the local archaeological museum. They had artifacts from sites all around the Transylvania region; artifacts that would be similar to those that might be found at the active sites this season.

After the museum tour, we were unleashed upon Szekelyudharvely. Grocery shopping is already a difficult task. Grocery shopping in a different language? Nigh impossible. Mix ups included: sour cream instead of yogurt, mixing up yogurt types, yogurt instead of milk (two different people, including me) – clearly dairy isn’t our strong suit. We had the first of many amazing meals at the Hinto and spilt up to prepare for our first field day.

The weather, however, had other plans. A rain day was called by the principle investigator, Dr. Zsolt Nyaradi, so no one went out into the field. The Patakfalva, or Medieval Funerary Excavation, crew met in the lab to wash bones. Some of my fellow excavators, Larissa and Crista, were both patient and helpful in my quest to identify the bones we were washing. Though my biology background has helped with the major bones, I still have a lot to learn. I certainly appreciated their tricks for identifying and siding bones – for example, the patella (knee cap) when placed on a flat surface will fall towards the side it belongs on. Katie Kulhavy, the assistant program director, and some of our more experienced excavators taught us how to sharpen our trowels. If this whole bioarchaeolgoy thing doesn’t work out, I’m opening “Griffith’s Ye Olde Trowel Sharpening Shoppe.” Dr. Katie Zejdlik, the program director, taught us how she wants the paperwork associated with burials filled out. Katie Z. also gave a brief lecture about the history of our site, Patakfalva.

Patakfalva is a site that has been in use from the 1100 to the present. Our excavation site is a stone’s throw from modern graves. The cemetery that is currently being excavated was in use from the 1100’s to the 1700’s; most graves that have been excavated are from the 1500’s and 1600’s. Last season, inside the ruined church was excavated. In that season, almost all of the remains were children and males. Traditionally, being buried closer to the altar of the church was a sign of status (though in theory, it was a sign of devoutness, it is more likely a sign of wealth). This season, the excavation moves outside the church walls. Due to being further away from the church, Katie Z. expects to find more females, in addition to males and children.

In addition to the history of the site, we learned about the history of the Szekelyfold region of Transylvania. The Szekely (See-kay) people, who are culturally Hungarian, occupy this region. In fact, the Szekely are often considered the “original” Hungarians. So even though I’m in Romania, I hear Hungarian and all the signs are both in Romanian and Hungarian. Out of respect for this culture, I’ll be using the Hungarian place names in my posts. Holding onto this culture is particularly impressive considering every country and their mom have tried to invade the Transylvania region. Invaders have included (but not limited to): Romans, Saxons, the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburgs, Romania, Hungary, and Russia.

The other lecture this week was about vampires, naturally. Being in Transylvania, I don’t think I could’ve made it out of field school without a lecture on vampires. It mainly focused on biological explanations for the characteristics displayed by vampires of Europe and North America. Many of the classic descriptions of vampires – ruddy face, bloating, leaking blood, making groaning noises, et cetera – can be explained by natural processes of decomposition of a body. Vampires do infect their neighbors or loved ones and cause them to wither and die, of whatever disease the “vampire” died from in the first place. Though it may have removed some of the magic of vampires, it certainly was a new perspective. I had never thought to try to explain biologically before.

The rest of the week was spent in the field. My dig partner, Eleanor, and I spent the week excavating a neonate. Based on femoral and humeral measurements, the infant is between 38 and 40 weeks old. The bones are tiny, of course, and very fragile. This has led to slow and painstaking excavation. Every time we think we’re “just cleaning up for a photo,” we find more bones. My favorite question for Eleanor, who has more experience than me, is: Is this a rock or a bone? It’s surprisingly difficult to tell with bones that tiny. Other ongoing burial excavations at the site include an adult female, a juvenile with a headdress, several adult males, and many unassociated bones. Due to the heavy use of the cemetery, many graves were dug on top of existing burials, sometimes disturbing them.

My hands have cramped from trying to trowel through rock hard clay, I am sunburned, and my back and shoulders are killing me. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.

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