Tuscany is synonymous with the good life—wine, rolling hills, luscious cuisine. But for many years it was a pretty tough place to live.
At the Badia Pozzeveri church cemetery near Lucca, archaeologists have uncovered skeletons that hold a thousand-year record of ills and tragedies, including possible clues to the spread of a cholera epidemic that wiped out thousands of Tuscans in the 1850s.
The skeletons reveal a millennium of hardship and poor health starting in the 11th century, with bone infections, dental cavities, and poor diets fueled mainly by carbohydrates. One of the oldest sections of the site contains victims of the Black Death in the 1300s; capping off the most recent burials are cholera victims. (Learn more about studies of Italy's dead in "Sicilian Mummies Bring Centuries to Life.")
"To our knowledge, these are the best-preserved remains of cholera victims of this time period ever found," said archaeologist Clark Spencer Larsen of Ohio State University at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Jose, California. Larsen, one of the study's co-leaders, reported the international team's latest findings Sunday at the meeting.
Why It Matters
Finding this trove of remains, buried over such a long period of time, gives archaeologists a rare window into the lives and deaths of the monks and villagers buried there.
The cholera victims died in the third pandemic of the disease—a worldwide outbreak that killed more than 27,000 people in Tuscany in 1855 alone, said Larsen (See how history's pandemics rank in this infographic.)
The dead were buried in a hurry and covered with lime, perhaps in an effort to prevent the spread of disease. The lime casing also protected the skeletons, leaving them amazingly well-preserved.
The Big Picture
Founded in 1056, the San Pietro Pozzeveri church was home to a monastery that thrived during the Middle Ages thanks to its proximity to the Via Francigena, or "Road From France"—a path well-worn by traders and pilgrims traveling to England's Canterbury Cathedral.
Because the church was a rest stop for pilgrims, remains there could help track how some of them carried disease across Europe.
Soil preserved under the layer of lime may hold ancient DNA from these people, said Larsen, as well as from the bacteria that lived inside them. That includes Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera.
The team has begun testing soil from the grave sites, and has found DNA consistent with a number of bacteria linked to human disease, though no cholera yet.
During the next summer field season, the researchers will test more soil in hopes of comparing cholera DNA from the epidemic with cholera DNA today. Differences could show how the pathogen has evolved—a first step toward staying ahead of its evolution.