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Bioarcheologist shares tales from excavation in Italy

Bexley High School students had the chance this week to learn about the excavation of a thousand-year-old monastery in Tuscany. Skeletons unearthed in the graveyard of the church, where people were buried from the 11th to the 19th centuries, offer information, the speaker said, about everything from customs to cholera.

It was the first installment of the 2016 “STEAM Talk” series, and the presenter was OSU Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology Giuseppe Vercellotti, PhD. The STEAM acronym rounds out the better-known STEM concept, adding arts to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. STEAM talks bring creative professionals in all of these areas to Bexley High School to share what is exciting about their chosen career. The talks, now in their fourth year, are supported by the McCamic Family Foundation through a grant to the Bexley Education Foundation.

Vercellotti told the students that a bioarcheologist seeks to uncover how people lived and died in order to understand “how we turn out to be the way that we are.” He co-directs a field school in Altopascio, Italy, where students are excavating Badia Pozzevera Churchyard. The church is located near a major trade route that was used for a thousand years. The dig has been going on for six years, he told students, and has been well received by locals, who anticipate the creation of a museum on the site.

During his STEAM visit, Vercellotti made a school-wide presentation and also met with a smaller group of interested students over lunch. He described in detail the methods used in his research, which include DNA analysis and ground-penetrating radar. Vercellotti’s interest is in the connections between culture and society and human biology. His team is able to piece together facts about the cultures that used the graveyard from details such as threads of textiles, bone composition, and the way the bodies were positioned for burial.

Get as much experience as you can through volunteering and study, he told students, before choosing archeology as a career. It’s a fascinating field, he said, but it’s not for everybody.