Final Student Blog: Data Analysis and Preparing for Presentations

Here’s the final student blog of the 2017 NSF REU Bioarchaeology Field Season! All of the students have been working incredibly hard to put the finishing touches on their projects. The presentations will be Friday afternoon before we say goodbye on Saturday! We have been so impressed with everyone’s work this summer and are looking forward to the great things these students will do in the future!

IT’S THE LAST WEEK AND WE ARE SO SAD TO GO! Whatever shall we do with our summer now that our REU is over??


The last week has been defined by sleepless nights, a lot of data analysis, and constantly working on abstracts and posters. By last Saturday, all of the students had received most of their data, which was quite the crunch time when everyone is trying to finish posters and abstracts this week. Let’s state the obvious here: data analysis is hard. You would think that the second that beautiful graph displaying data points appears that it’s all smooth sailing from there; that you could infer anything and everything from that one, simple graphic. Well, it’s a bit more difficult than that. You start searching through the preliminary articles you found, looking for the methods and ideas that they put together that will be useful to you. You make long lists in your notebook of helpful citations and constantly have at least seven tabs open in Chrome. But, as you keep sieving through your data and articles, you realize that you are the academic, coming to conclusive interpretations.


Vinu works on putting together a flow chart for his differential diagnosis project

But wait, there’s more!

As the program draws to a close, we have been designing posters to present our research to a general audience. Condensing our research process to a limited amount of space is challenging…maybe just as difficult as interpreting our data and thinking about the implications our findings have for understanding the ancient Mediterranean. It is, however, an immensely rewarding experience to produce a poster that represents the culmination of about two month’s hard work. After several rounds of revision by our advisors, we will soon be prepared to communicate our findings with the world! We are optimistic about how these presentations will go and are looking forward to practicing them Thursday.


Chrysanthi loads her samples onto the Gas Bench to be analyzed for oxygen isotopes

Near the end of the program, we have also had time to reflect on our experiences this summer. First off, we cannot express enough how rewarding and influential this program has been on all of us, regardless of what our interests were coming in and what experience we had before. It gave us all a chance to think about what we really like – and find difficult – about the research process and exposed some of us to opportunities in bioarcheology that would never have been available otherwise. We will all come away from this summer with new skill sets and a deep appreciation for researchers, scholars, and academics who do this every day (re: it’s hard).

We (Alex and Chrysanthi) would like wrap up this final blog post with a few words to thank everyone who were incredibly helpful in the second half of this program:

Let’s start with our wonderful and incredible advisors: Dr. Reitsema and Dr. Kyle. Truly, we could have not asked for better mentors and guides through this research process. The way they think, lecture, and offer advice has been an amazing resource to us. Not only that, but we feel as if we have built close relationships with extremely knowledgeable academics.

Next, is Katie, our amazing graduate student assistant. From osteology lectures to showing us around the Center for Applied Isotope Studies, Katie has been there every step of the way.


Alex, Simon, and Chelsea work together to identify features on the ulna during one of the osteology workshops

We want to say a special thank you to the scientists and technicians at CAIS who worked incredibly hard to help us get our data in time for analysis and the presentation.

We are filled with so much gratitude towards everyone that we have had the pleasure of meeting and working with this summer. We can’t wait to see where this experience takes us in the future (beyond Austin, TX in Spring 2018 for the AAPAs!).


Alex and Chrysanthi

P.S. special shout-out to Eli, we miss you!


Throwback to Sicily!


Student Blog: Life in Athens

We’ve officially gotten gelato and pasta out of our systems, and have gotten into a clear routine here in Athens. Currently, Chelsea and Chrysanthi are awaiting results from the isotope lab and Vinu, Alex, Simon, and Erika have officially conquered statistics in Excel! Abstracts and posters are the current priority right now. Late night writing and peer review sessions are back, reminding us of the first week of the program when we wrote our proposals. We have come so far since then, having developed so many lab and field skills, and an overall understanding and appreciation for bioarchaeology. It’s crazy to think we only have about a week left here, but we are taking in every moment we have here in Athens.


Dr. Kyle leads a lecture on statistical analyses

A typical day at UGA starts with waking up around 7 or 8 and grabbing breakfast at Bolton Dining Commons. Sometimes Chelsea and Chrysanthi leave breakfast a little earlier to take care of things in the lab, but most of the time we all walk from breakfast to the anthropology labs together. Those of us from smaller institutions marvel at the architecture and size of UGA but we sometimes wish it didn’t take 20 minutes to walk anywhere on campus. Our work day starts at 9 and includes numerous workshops from Drs. Reitsema and Kyle about bioarchaeological research methods, current challenging topics in anthropology, and ways of communicating scientific research to the public. We also partake in osteology workshops with Katie, ensuring that we don’t lose the valuable information we learned in Sicily. When we are not in workshops, we prepare samples for isotope analysis, or assemble the cast force (a team that makes teeth impressions and dental casts), and work on our individual projects. We have gotten into the habit of ending the workday with a bubble tea from downtown Athens.


Three members of the Cast Force assembled to finish casting all the teeth


Chrysanthi uses a mortar and pestle to crush the enamel samples into a fine powder before pretreatment

After quenching our bubble tea thirst, we return to our lovely dorms to continue working on our project or take a quick breather. The dorms are in an older building called Mary Lyndon hall and even have not one but two parlors! We usually eat dinner around 7 and come back to the dorms to work some more. Often we work in the parlors, where we have gotten to meet many of the other REU students who are also living here over the summer. Eventually we retire to bed where visions of lab samples and statistics dance in our heads.


Cheslea carefully checks on her collagen samples in the oven

On the weekend we enjoy a combination of both work and play. Chelsea and Chrysanthi head into lab some and everyone else works on analyzing their data. Since the dining hall isn’t open on the weekend, we get to explore the Athens food scene. Some of our favorite places have been Mama’s Boy, Trappeze, and Thai Spoon. After returning home after a delicious dinner we will usually hang out together, unless we decide to splash around in the fountain in the rain (which has only happened once so far). All said, Athens is an amazing place to learn in and explore, and we are so lucky to get to stay here!

Go Dawgs!

Erika and Chelsea


Student Blog: A busy week in the lab

The first week back in the United States was exciting to say the least. We were all so busy! While we all missed Italy and all the people we met, we were looking forward to starting the next steps of our projects. After a full day of travel, during which we once again had to rush through the airport, we finally reached Athens late Saturday night. Sunday was left for relaxing and attempting to recover from jet-lag, but on Monday we were all ready to get back to work.


Chelsea cleans a bone for collagen extraction for carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis

While in Italy our focus was on collecting data, in Athens our job is analyzing everything that we did for the past three weeks. That means a lot of work in the Bioarchaeology Lab at UGA. Even if our individual projects don’t require lab-work, all of us get the opportunity to help so that everyone’s projects may finish on time. Monday started with a basic introduction to the lab as we learned how to clean and cut bones using a Dremel rotary tool, and we prepared the first few batches of samples for collagen extraction (collagen is used for carbon and nitrogen analysis) and started to cast teeth (we make many impressions of teeth in the field and the lab so we can make casts that allow us to study microscopic features on the teeth). This continued throughout the week as we shuffled through all of the samples that we collected at Himera.


Chrysanthi cleans a tooth before pretreatment for oxygen isotope analysis


Dr. Reitsema demonstrates how to set up collagen extraction for carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis

Tuesday saw the arrival of Dr. Temple from George Mason University, who is a colleague of Dr. Reitsema and Dr. Kyle. His specialty is in dental anthropology and on Tuesday and Wednesday he headed two amazing workshops on dental casting and enamel microstructures. Enamel microstructures in teeth are useful to study episodes of stress of people in the past. These stress episodes can include malnutrition and sickness during childhood, when enamel forms.


Alex and Chelsea practice measuring layers of enamel on teeth in Dr. Temple’s microstructures workshop


Dr. Temple demonstrates how to mix the casting material


Erika carefully pours casting materials into the tooth impressions


When we weren’t in lab, we had lectures from Katie, Carey (another PhD student who works with Dr. Reitsema), Dr. Reitsema, and Dr. Kyle on topics such as osteology, isotope analysis, recreating behavior, and dental histology. The rest of the time was working on our individual projects, which have been going great for everyone! Whether we’re spending time in the lab, or looking at dental wear under microscopes, or doing statistical analyses on Excel, all of us are in great shape and are glad to be back in Athens doing work. The home stretch is coming up!


Thomas Maddox from the Center for Applied Isotope Studies explains how a mass spectrometer works to the students – mass spectrometers are the instruments used to measure isotope values


Carey Garland, a PhD student at UGA, gives a demonstration on tooth thin-sectioning for dental histology which uses the inner structures of teeth to study stress

Student Blog: So long Sicily, Hello Georgia

After another round of traveling we’ve made it back to Georgia, this time with less running in between flights (Although there was still plenty of cardio throughout the journey). The past three weeks in Sicily have been a whirlwind of excitement. We learned the field techniques that bioarchaeologists use to pursue their research, we went to the beach where we studied and enjoyed the beautiful Sicilian coast, and most importantly, we ate lots and lots of pasta.


Marlon, a student from Albania, works with Chelsea on data entry

Our time in Sicily was dedicated mainly to collecting data for the Bioarchaeology of the Mediterranean Colonies Project, and for our own independent research projects. The data collection itself was both fun and challenging. Learning how to properly identify teeth was not easy, however, we gained confidence over the course of the three weeks. We feel much more comfortable identifying what side a tooth is on, and whether it is maxillary (a top tooth) or mandibular (a bottom tooth). It becomes especially challenging when the teeth have been ground down almost beyond recognition, or when the roots have broken off. However the feeling you got when Norma or Dr. Kyle looked at your tray of teeth and said “Ok. It is good.” was one of the most rewarding experiences one could possibly have. And when you finally sided a small fragment of a tibia or even the dreaded fibula, the feeling was magical.


Chelsea, Erika, and Elijah work on siding and identifying the bones


Chrysanthi uses impression material to make casts of the teeth to be analyzed later

The major takeaway from this experience is that field work with skeletons is much more challenging than expected. When you collect data about the skeletons, you have to know which parts of the body you are looking at and what side the part comes from. This is done so that the data you collect can be analyzed and conveyed correctly and fully to the broader research community. However, this becomes infinitely harder when the identifiers you use to side different bones are missing, fragmented, or covered in brusha (a solid mass of hardened dirt, rock and sometimes even shell). Working with these 2,000-year-old skeletons provided us with a very real application of the osteological skills we had been developing over the course of the program.


As we collected data, we also collected some fantastic memories with our friends, mentors, and Italian colleagues. Some memorable data collection memories include: the tomato fairy (Dr. Kyle) making her rounds amongst the stations, an adorable dog at the site giving birth to some even more adorable puppies, and of course, the strange and wonderful peculiarities we found in the skeletons (peg molars were particularly interesting).


Dr. Kyle as the tomato fairy

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Puppies at the site!

Of course, it wasn’t all work. We took weekend trips around Sicily so we could explore more of the island. We went to the beautiful city of Cefalu, which has the most stunning blue-green waters. We also visited Palermo, with its detailed and intricately carved church and historic buildings. In fact, we got to stay in a gorgeous building called “the palace” for a night and it was fantastic. We also managed to eat our weight in food, primarily pasta and gelato. We ate dinner almost every night at a place called La Torre di Elena. There was always three delicious courses, usually an appetizer, pasta, and meat with salad. After work and/or dinner we got gelato.

So now we are back in Athens, comfortably situated in the dorm rooms. We’ve slept and mostly recovered from a full day of traveling and the little sleep that accompanied it. We also had our first cup of American coffee and eggs this morning, which we (at least Chelsea) hadn’t realized we’d missed so much. Tomorrow we begin the lab work section of the program. We will be combing through the data we collected and using statistics to make sense of it. We will also learn about different techniques for analyzing the skeletons, such as isotope, faunal analysis, and osteological stress indicators. Are we nervous? Maybe a little. However, we are also so excited to learn some new skills and begin answering our research questions. So, as we say in Athens,

Go Dawgs!

Simon and Chelsea

2nd Annual Elevator Talks!

Last Friday, we had the day off from the site because of Republic Day in Italy! We took the time to have a workshop on cover letters and personal statements, and give the students a chance to give their elevator talks in a square in Campofelice di Roccella. The elevator talks are 3 minutes (TOTAL, we cut them off if they go over) and they have to describe all of their questions, methods, expected results, and the significance of their research! The goal is to be able to describe all of their research when they’re standing on the elevator with someone.

The students did a great job condensing their research into three, short minutes! We know they learned a lot about communicating their projects to all audiences and it was awesome to see exactly what everyone is doing!


Chrysanthi will use oxygen isotopes (which come from the water we drink) to study migration at Himera


Alex will be using biodistance analysis to study how closely related people at Himera were to other Greek sites


Erika is studying diet through dental health to look at differences between groups in the population at Himera


Tina’s project looks at dietary differences between men and women using carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis


Vinu is studying dietary deficiencies and disease by looking at porosities on the skull


Simon is analyzing linear enamel hypoplasias on the teeth which record periods of nutritional or developmental stress in childhood


Chelsea is using carbon and nitrogen isotopes to study the diet of soldiers from the Battles of Himera (480 and 409 BCE) and compare them to the civilian population

Student Blog: A Typical Sicilian Day


The REU Program in the Roman Amphitheater at Segesta

Our second week in Sicily has come to an end, but we definitely ended on a high note! Yesterday we met an archaeological team from the University of North Georgia at Monte Bonifato and learned all about GIS and systemic surveying. Afterwards, we all went to Segesta where we went to the last standing and intact Greek temple in the world (the temple has never collapsed) followed by a Roman amphitheater! It was a well-deserved reward for our hard work at the site this week.


Students admire the temple at Segesta

A day in the life for us in Sicily starts with the group waking up at around 7 am. Lorenzo serves us breakfast, which typically includes a pastry with coffee and then at 8:15 we head out for the site. The site isn’t a place where one would imagine archaeological work takes place. Rather, since all of the skeletons were excavated a couple of years ago, we work at an industrial park, where there are boxcars filled with already catalogued skeletons. Once we get there, we greet the dogs that roam the site and start setting up the stations of work: osteology (a.k.a. Norma’s station), biodistance, and the archaeology box.


Chrysanthi and Erika work with Dr. Reitsema on identifying cavities and infection on teeth in the “Archaeology Box”

We rotate through the stations every day or two, which allows us to experience as many types of bioarchaeological data collection methods as possible. At Norma and Giorgia’s stations, we take inventory of each burial. This includes reconstructing the fragments (sometimes as small pieces of long bones and cranium) and recording traits related to age and sex. Estimating the age and sex of the individual we are studying is very important for our analyses later when we can try to identify trends that show up in different groups in the population. At biodistance, we work with Dr. Kyle in recording genetic traits and variations in the teeth and cranium. We are interested in seeing how closely related the people at Himera are to other sites in the Greek Mediterranean world.

Lastly, in the archaeology box, we work with Dr. Reitsema and record any trauma or pathological markings on the skeleton. The program in general is interested in understanding what health was like during Greek colonization, so we gather a lot of our research project data here. Erika’s project in particular is looking at differences between men and women in oral health. She is studying cavities, infection, and tooth-loss to see who had worse dental health and explore why these patterns might occur. She is interested in understanding diet and gender roles of people living at Himera.

Our Italian collaborators are amazing, and we love working on the site with them. Norma and Giorgia help us learn Italian, Norma always has the best one-liners in response to our questions and observations, and our impressions of Matteo saying “Teachers!” is getting pretty spot-on.


Tina measures a tooth at Norma’s station

In our two weeks of work, we have all learned so much about osteology and bioarchaeology. We have basically gone through a crash course in identifying and siding skeletal remains and by the end of this trip we all hope to have sided a fibula diaphysis correctly and identify a full set of teeth! These have definitely been the most challenging, but we are almost there. We’re sad to leave Sicily in a week, but we’re excited to continue our research projects in Athens!


Vinu and Erika


Vinu and Erika leading the group up the hill to see the temple

Preview: Archaeological Site Visits


Students from the University of North Georgia demonstrate how to do a surface test for archaeological survey – this allows archaeologists to record artifacts found on the surface in an organized way to locate potential sites

On Saturday, the REU students traveled to Monte Bonifato to learn about archaeological survey techniques from students from the University of North Georgia. The project, led by Dr. William Balco, is investigating Iron Age through Medieval occupations of Monte Bonifato. It was a great experience for the students to see multiple sides of the archaeological process and some of the steps that archaeologists take before excavation and lab analysis.


The second step of the surface test is to screen some of the surrounding soil for smaller artifacts


Scott Kirk, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, explains the ArcGIS map of the survey blocks the students have been recording


REU students practice a field survey across a unit on Monte Bonifato



Students and leadership teams from the UNG and REU Projects

Previously this week, students have had the opportunity to explore the archaeological site of Himera!


REU Students at the Temple of Victory at Himera

Student Blog: First week in Sicily


The Temple of Victory at Himera

Our first week in Sicily has come to an end, and it has been an amazing experience so far. From traveling to Italy to seeing Campofelice di Roccella to the work site, every single moment was memorable. While this week has flown by we can’t help but remember all of the wonderful things that has happened.

Our first impression of the town consisted of one word: stunning. Everything from the little gelato and pastry shops to the beautiful mountains lingering nearby to the glistening Mediterranean. Not to mention the cool nights with the chillingly beautiful toll of the church bell on the hour. Even the food we ate (including our daily gelato) was nothing short of excellent and had everyone trying to be the Good Fork of the night (in Italy you are considered a Buona Forchetta “Good Fork” if you eat all of your food).

From around eight in the morning until around five in the afternoon, we hit the ground running this week becoming better acquainted with Himera and getting into the rhythm of fieldwork. The majority of each day is spent at one of four stations, carefully examining the bones and polishing our osteological knowledge. There is a station for biodistance analysis, two for identifying and siding the bones, and one more focused on recording pathologies and disease on the bones. After reading about the site history and preparing for osteological analysis for months, it was absolutely thrilling, if also daunting, to finally be able to apply what we learned in theory. It was equally exciting to work with and learn from our Italian collaborators Dr. Stefano Vassallo and Dr. Matteo Valentino who were incredibly helpful in learning about Himera’s history and understanding the significance of our work here. We’ve also been learning so much from other Italian researchers, Norma and Giorgia who work with us to identify many of the bones from Himera.


Dr. Matteo Valentino shows some of the grave goods found in the West Necropolis at Himera

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Dr. Vassallo and Dr. Valentino look at artifacts with Alex


Dr. Kyle and Dr. Reitsema work on identifying bone fragments with Alex

Our first week in Sicily has been incredible beyond words. With expectations already so high, we were blown away by not only the sheer beauty of our surroundings, but also by the amazing people we have an opportunity to work with in the coming weeks. As a perfect close to this first week, we spent our first free Saturday exploring Cefalu, a town ten minutes eastward by train from Campofelice. We spent the day gawking at Cefalu’s medieval architecture and hiking up the overlooking mountain to explore the ruined fortress above. Now more than a little sunburnt, we are ready and excited to continue our work here in Sicily.


View of Cefalu from La Rocca


Alex and Tina


Student Blog: Goodbye Georgia, Hello Sicily – REU First Impressions

We are at our bed and breakfast in Sicily with the windows open, listening to a local family talking (yelling loudly), and enjoying a beautiful Sunday on the coast of the Mediterranean.. Although it has only been about a week since the program started, it feels like much longer than that, especially after getting to know all of the wonderful students that are a part of this year’s program. Currently, we’re fighting the urge to let our semi-jet lagged bodies sleep, especially after a lovely day at the beach eating paninis on our one free day before the Italy portion of the program officially begins. Before we go further, let’s take a step back and reflect on the first week of the REU program.


Waiting for the shuttle to the ATL Airport

The first day we all arrived and got situated in a hotel at the University of Georgia. In short, UGA is a fantastic university. There are lots of neo-classical buildings and large trees for us to admire. The second day was full of information, and quite a lot of walking (Chrysanthi’s calves were sore). We toured the campus, received our first set of lectures from Dr. Kyle and Dr. Reitsema (the program directors), and totally bombed an osteology quiz. The third and fourth days were dedicated towards learning more about the historical and bioarchaeological context of Himera.

How beautiful is this campus?!?

We received a seminar on osteology, which was extremely fun, but an incredible amount of information to digest for those of us new at examining bones. Katie, Dr. Norman, and a previous REU student named Adam all gave us lectures relating to Himera and some of the historical, archeological, and research findings that have been discovered there. The first week was marked by daily trips to Downtown Athens for ice-cream and bubble tea, and the nights were filled with tons of reading and drafting of our research proposals.


Students learning osteology from Dr. Kyle

Basically, field school is a TON of work. But the work has been completely worth it. Studying bioarchaeology, learning all the bones and how to side them, and interacting with people that have a common interest in the field feels amazing. We talk about our thoughts and ideas about our research projects while we walk across campus. The readings we have collected have provided valuable information for helping to better contextualize 7th-5th century Himera, and they have helped us to more fully concentrate our research topics. The topics of this year’s research are all very interesting, with work being done on biodistance, isotopic analysis, and osteological stress. We hope that our research can help provide more data for understanding the population at Himera, and all of the interesting interactions that took place during this time.

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Arrivaderci, from Simon and Chrysanthi

Students have arrived!

The 2nd year of the NSF REU Bioarchaeology Field School is here! Students are checking in and getting settled. In just a few hours we will have our first event of the REU – a meet and greet and then a group dinner at a UGA dining hall. Tomorrow we get started with orientation where students will begin learning osteology (study of human bones and teeth), get to know Athens and UGA, and become familiar with the rest of the program. The REU team is excited to get to know all of the students and guide them through the research process.

This blog will be updated about twice a week. Students will work in pairs to post during the week about their experiences with research and what they’re doing in the field. There will also be a summary blog post at the end of the week by me (Katie) to update on the progress of the field school.

We leave Friday, May 19th from Atlanta, GA in the evening, and arrive in Palermo, Italy the next Saturday afternoon, before driving to the hotel. There is a six hour time difference between Athens, GA and Italy, so it will be quite the adjustment! We are staying at the Sosta dei Garibaldini Casa Vacanze in Campofelice di Roccella. Feel free to explore the rest of the site and get to know our staff and students on their profile pages. If you have any comments or questions for the REU Team please go to the “Contact” page through the WordPress site (one of the tabs listed).

Thanks for stopping by and look forward to more posts in the near future!