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FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam

Future preservation of past life: A multidisciplinary investigation into preservation of ancient biological remains from medieval cemeteries

Alternative title: Bevaring av fortidig liv for framtida: Ei tverrfagleg undersøking av biologiske leivningar frå mellomalderske gravplassar.

Awarded: NOK 8.0 mill.

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Project Period:

2020 - 2025


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Skeletons tell stories. How talkative the dead are depends upon their level of preservation. But what factors determine the preservation of archaeological biological remains? To investigate this question, we will carry out the excavation of a medieval cemetery in Stavanger, Norway as well as the analysis of skeletal remains in the collections of the city’s university museum. In-depth analyses of skeletons will illustrate the value of the material as an archive of lived life. Where did the first Stavanger urban dwellers come from? How did their lives compare to those in rural areas considering diet and health? In the study of past humans, few finds are more telling than remains of the humans themselves. Bone and teeth have always been important evidence for archaeologists, and have only become more so with the advent of new methods such as ancient DNA and protein analyses. Such biomolecules tell stories of individuals and populations through time. Unfortunately, the material is sensitive to decay and contamination. This may compromise analyses and limit our ability to make skeletons talk. It is thus important to understand how biological remains degrade or preserve. This is not straightforward. These are complex materials buried in a complex environment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Furthermore, the biomolecules are invisible to the naked eye. Our project combines traditional archaeology with environmental science and molecular biology, using state of the art methods to analyse the biological remains and environmental conditions. The knowledge we create will improve recovery and storage methodologies, ensuring preservation of the valuable but fragile archive such remains constitute. The project group will collaborate with various stakeholders, mainly the present day population of the Stavanger region. These remains represent their history, and their involvement is vital in order to ensure future preservation. Please see our website for more information.

The archaeological deposits in cities with a medieval origin constitute a valuable source of knowledge about the human condition throughout long-term processes of environmental and socio-cultural changes. Skeletal remains and other biological materials are key in this respect, providing a direct window into past lived life. Stavanger was one of few medieval towns in Norway. Skeletal remains from the period have previously been excavated in the city, and in the surrounding rural areas. The collections have never been the subject of systematic research, and current condition of the materials in- and ex situ is unknown. Analyses of ancient biomolecules have become powerful new tools in archaeological research. However, we lack fundamental knowledge on preservation issues concerning this invisible archive. The FUTURE PAST project will involve an excavation of select areas in the city, and advanced analyses of biological remains, both recently excavated, and from the existing collections of human remains. It will be the first to combine multi-scale assessment of material and environmental conditions with state of the art bioarchaeological methodologies, including the analyses of ancient lipids, proteins and DNA. We will use a new holistic approach to explore the relationships between material and environmental conditions at different scales of analyses: Molecular to macro preservation of biological remains; grave, site and regional/storage environment. This will address the societal and scientific challenge of monitoring and safeguarding the invisible and sensitive biomolecular archives. The project will promote a new line of research within conservation science; the conservation and management of biomolecular cultural heritage. It is a timely research proposal as biomolecular analyses are being established as standard tools in archaeology. We therefore need to address the conservation challenges facing the biomolecular archive.


FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam