Students dig up bones, chart historical changes in Romania during field school

Methodical excavation takes place at a medieval cemetery in Romania. Seen here (from left) are WCU students Caroline Howell and Renee Reinman, along with a University of Nevada Las Vegas student. Permission to publish photos of human remains has been granted by the descendant community.

Exhuming medieval graves in the Transylvania region of Romania ― the legendary home of Dracula ― sounds like fiction, but that is what a Western Carolina University bioarcheology research group did this summer.

The field school, under the leadership of Katie Zejdlik, WCU instructor of anthropology and sociology, examined how centuries of religious and political upheaval have affected burials within church walls and nearby cemeteries. Much of the WCU research centered around the excavation of an abandoned medieval church in the Transylvanian village of Patakfalva, often listed on maps as Valeni. Permission from descendants was obtained prior to any excavations.

“A unique piece of this project is that the students are excavating the ancestors of the people who live in the village,” said Zejdlik. “So, there were visitors wandering up to the site to peer into the trenches. It is powerful in that it commands deep respect for the work and gratitude of the people. This is a feeling that every bioarchaeologist should have when excavating human remains, but often descendants are not as readily available as they are in Transylvania.”

Part of the WCU research team takes a moment for a group photo that includes (back, from left) Katie Zejdlik holding Penelope Passalacqua, Caroline Howell, Brandi Delp, Alexandria Anderson, Emily King, Sammy Lovette, Casey Averill, Stephanie Powell, (front, from left) Wesley Somers, Renee Reinman, Zindy Cruz and Joe Canosa.

Nineteen WCU students participated in the field school, an ongoing part of a broader investigation into the abandonment of medieval churches in the area, with significant opportunities to get involved in international bioarchaeology, multi-institution networking and collaboration. Students apply skills in drawing, mapping and documentation with both large- and small-scale excavations. The experience also further developed techniques needed for jobs working with archaeological and forensic organizations around the world, Zejdlik said.

“It is hard work, but is so rewarding,” said Lucy Snell, a senior from Fredrick, Maryland. “At the end of one day, I found a piece of skull that we’d been looking for for two days, which was so exciting. On the last day, I found a centuries-old headband or head dress that had been fitted to a youth. It had been preserved, so that was the coolest thing.

“The other part of the experience I gained from was getting to know the people you are in the trench with, digging up bones,” Snell said. “You really get to know people and we all have stayed in touch. Coming away from this experience, I’d say if you want to gain real-world skills, knowledge and experience in your field and in life, the field schools are ideal.”

The field school was made possible through a collaboration of WCU’s Office of International Programs and Services and Anthropology and Sociology Department, and ArchaeoTek, a Canadian-based archaeological techniques and research center. Aiding the collaboration onsite was the Haaz Rezso Museum and field director Zsolt Nyaradi. The museum provided the excavation site and housed the remains in its skeletal collection.

Evan Puckett documents a find. Permission to publish photos of human remains has been granted by the descendant community.

Evan Puckett, a senior from Monroe, said he enjoyed learning the cultural perspective from the local vantage, as opposed to an official or tourist viewpoint. “We went on tours of the surrounding area, where we saw and heard some background on the many changes that generations had gone through and how it influenced life. We saw how prevailing influences, whether church or government or whatever, would dictate things. We saw public art that was censored, literally 500-year-old murals with a section whitewashed,” Puckett said.

The village is in a largely Hungarian ethnic area of Romania, so it has a common name used by inhabitants and an official name placed on maps and documents. The differing village names reflects the often turbulent heritage of the region, with invasions by the Mongols and Ottomans and periods under the jurisdiction of Hungary first then Romania, and back again during the World Wars, followed by Soviet-influenced Communist rule until 1989.

Both Snell and Puckett said a tour of Bran Castle, near Brasov, was fascinating, as was learning more about the vampire lore of the area, but their concentration was on field work and fun. The castle and surrounding region inspired Bram Stoker, author of Dracula.

“After the first day or so, the students forget about Dracula,” Zejdlik said. “There’s an attraction to that element, to be sure.” But, as the students begin to learn about the Szekeler family, whose members are the people they are both excavating and living among, and become immersed in field work, that fascination goes away, she said.

So they forget about Dracula. Though, on an ironic side note, Stoker does mention that Dracula was a Szekler, Zejdlik said.