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  • Writer's pictureMaria Berejan

Two Weeks in Naples Studying Bones

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

That in and of itself is a fallacy because we didn’t actually study bones in Naples, but let me start at the beginning:

Three weeks ago on a very hot Saturday evening I arrived in Naples. The heat, I would soon learn, was not the norm even for Italian summers - it in fact was a high heat wave named Lucifer that overtook a number of European countries and overstayed its welcome throughout the duration of my vacation (except the last day, naturally). At the time, though, I just attributed it to wearing jeans and a hoodie and lugging around luggage on busses that were rolling at alarming speeds through narrow alleys which didn’t look like they spanned the full width of a small Fiat nevermind anything larger.

Italy was loud, hot, and rather worn down. The buildings in Naples are tall and closely perched to each other so as to provide the maximum amount of shade in the alleys. Most apartments have tiny ornate balconies - it seems to be a favorite European pastime to hang around by the windows looking out - and many of these balconies had clotheslines strung up with bedding hanging over the streets below. I’m fairly certain that for a fair number of these buildings, if the inhabitants opened up their windows or went on the balconies and stretched their arms out they would likely be able to high-five their neighbors from across the way. That is, if there were neighbors across the way. For every inhabited building there seemed to be a crumbling one next door, sometimes with large chunks of stone missing from the sides. There were no new buildings - at least, not obviously so; most had graffiti painted on the lower levels and rust on the intricate balcony fencing and seemed in general to be slowly eroding with time.

For all the run-downness of the buildings, the population thrived and bustled, even (perhaps especially) at night. I got to my hotel that first evening to discover a beautiful room - truly. It likely would have been part of a 4-star hotel except for the fact that I had to hike up a flight of twisty steps and go through a door so narrow I had to fit sideways to discover that the room’s door was in fact 3 feet from the reception desk and was overlooking a very busy street. I collapsed on the magnificent bed (it had a gold-gilded frame carved out of wood, I imagine) and ignored the sounds of the front desk and street below for a good few hours. I hadn’t slept in 36 hours, and man, it felt good.

I’m not sure why, but at around 1am the honking started - and I mean like New-York style rush-hour “it’s not gonna help but I’m really pissed off and I want others to be too“ honking. It was a recurring theme, I’d later find out - there is no true peace in Italian nights except in the wee hours of the morn. It took about an hour for it to quiet down and by then I was fully awake so I took the opportunity to plan a bit for the next day.

I had time to kill until 5pm on Sunday. At that time I would meet the others in the osteology program offered by The Apolline Project and be whisked off to Mirabella Eclano (aka close to the middle of nowhere as far as transport is concerned) to study bones. That was the whole reason for this trip; this project offered a summer camp of sorts for a variety of pursuits; they had sessions in pottery restoration, actual excavation, latin inscription, and osteology, among some others. It was naturally geared towards students but somehow I managed to sneak in (always apply for things you want to do, even if the chances are low!)

As soon as it was light out I hightailed it on my way to see some of the sights Naples had to offer. I’d decided that, since I’m here for an archeology camp, I should take the opportunity to see the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. It was about a mile walk from my hotel, mostly consisting of trekking through cobblestoned alleys and avoiding scooters coming my way, and it was actually a very pleasant walk despite the heat. I adore exploring cities for the first time - it ended up taking me close to an hour because there were so many sights to see along the way - lots of market stalls on the streets and beautiful churches nestled amongst the buildings. Many alleys had icons and shrines mounted on the walls periodically of various saints and especially Mary.

On the way I stopped by another fantastic spot - Museo Cappella Sansevero - an absolutely amazing museum that consists of a small building (the centerpiece being one room) filled with marble statues (my favorite). The moment I walked in I was in love; the ceiling was frescoed and the floor had 3D geometric designs, and the whole room’s circumference was filled with statues all culminating in the main sight - The Veiled Christ - in the center of the room. The workmanship and detail was astonishing - I’m always blown away by how these artists can make marble look so soft and warm. The Veiled Christ, laid down on a marble slab underneath a thin flurry of marbled sheets, looked almost as if he would start breathing before my eyes. It was fascinating to see, and a highlight of my trip.

After a sufficient amount of gawking, I proceeded on to the Archeology museum, where I spent a good 4 hours or so getting los- I mean, exploring. I went to the basement level first, where they had many artefacts from Roman excavations like Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as from Egyptian excavations. There were a few mummies on display (the ethics of which we’d later talk about at camp) which I found fascinating. There was even a crocodile one! Upstairs consists of wide open areas and many side rooms and hallways all filled with marble statues ranging in size from small to colossal, and even higher up there are rooms filled with paintings, mosaics, pottery, a 1:100 detailed recreation of Pompeii that took up a whole room, and a sex room (because Romans were sexy and they were proud of it - lots of phallic symbols and erotic art were discovered in many excavations).

After sufficient wanderings and throbbing feet were achieved, I finished off my free time by going to Antica Pizzeria Port'alba: apparently this is the first pizzeria in the world, opened in 1830. All I can say is, it lived up to the hype for me. I got a pizza with standard tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil and an egg right in the center. The dough was thin in the center and puffed at the crust, and remarkably chewy for a wood-fire pizza. The taste was simple, salty, and creamy (from the egg yolk which ran all over once I burst it.) It was delicious.


I made my way back to the central station stuffed and happy, picked up my luggage there and gathered in a huddle of eager students awaiting pickup in front of the large Burger King. I met a few people there and eavesdropped on different discussions, joining in near the end (of course) when we were all ushered away to the bus stop. All of us loaded onto the bus - around 40 of us - and off we went through the crowded streets. The bus angled through traffic with unbelievable finesse, narrowly missing cars or buildings on both sides. It’s at this point, after a full day in Naples, when I noticed the first traffic light in sight. (We did not stop - I guess, similarly to saying “parlay” to Hollywood pirates, it’s really more of a suggestion than a necessity.)

We arrived at the first destination quickly, just on the outskirts of Naples - the pottery students would remain here, in the shadow of Vesuvius (“Is that Vesuvius,” we wondered the whole way there, and also when we left. “I’m pretty sure that’s Vesuvius. Probably. Right? Definitely!” We were clueless.) Half the people poured out of the bus, including most people I had talked to before. The rest of us settled in for another 1.5 hours of driving, about 5 of us in the back of the bus talking and laughing the whole way. It’s not hard to make friends when you’re alone, after all.

Mirabella Eclano awaited us at the end of the drive. It is situated near Mirabella, which apparently is a medieval village (or the remnants of one). It houses one long central road dotted with two pizzerias, a wine bar and a cafe (with delicious gelato and cakes, we’d come to find), two restaurants, a hotel (with a pool - very important), a bakery, a butcher, a fruit stand, a boutique pharmacy, and the ruins of a Roman city dating back to Antiquity named Aeclanum. There was a mall on the far end of the street as well (to the east, whereas Aeclanum was to the west), about a 15 minute walk away, which held the largest (only) grocery store in the area. Our accommodations were at an abandoned elementary school down a hill from the main road. It was a small building, with one main hallway with rooms on each side, two bathrooms (the public type, with stalls) near the end, and then a large kitchen/common area and a small classroom at the tip. There were two boy dorms and two girl ones - I stayed in the smaller of the girls’ dorms, which had 6 beds. It was close to the entrance and far from the bathroom and kitchen, which suited me fine; at least I was rooming with the girls from the back of the bus - they were a fun crowd.

We settled in that night and had a potluck to get to know each other a bit. There were around 25 of us - 14 for the osteology course and the rest for other programs. Two of my roommates were in Latin Inscription, it turned out, and would be leaving after only one week. We dined outdoors in front of the building, where fireworks were periodically going off (even though it was daylight still - they sounded like gunshots, and continued for a few hours) and Italian youth converged in the very large parking lot by the building to smoke and bang like bunnies, or at least show off their wicked scooters and pretend to be badasses. It was a nice but short dinner after a long day, which suited us all well by then. The beds were very small (but at least they didn’t creak, although two of them broke in the second week - good thing we had those extra free beds by then!) and the bathroom was a test of patience (there were 5 stalls - one handicapped toilet that was normal sized but was often out of toilet paper, two short toilets without lids that were temperamental in flushing, and two once-toilets-now-shower stalls that were level and thus never drained. By the time we got there they had been in use for about a month and there was a distinct fishy smell and slightly slippery feel to them beneath the constant wetness). We slept well that night. (I didn’t even notice there was a top and bottom floor to the building - completely boarded up - until near the end (I know, I’m terrible) and then my mind just shifted between ‘ghosts!’ and ‘more bathrooms!’ and settled on, obviously, “the ghosts have better bathrooms!’ Such is life.)

Monday morning was the start of our two-week course in Osteology. That first day we visited Aeclanum and learned more about the history of the city - it was an important economic center in Roman times because it laid near the center of one of the main roads through the area, so it effectively connected most of this part of Italy in terms of trade. So far a few houses and part of the city wall had been excavated, as well as a church, a rather large theater, and Roman baths complete with a beautiful mosaic floor. It also holds some interest because of the explosion of 79 A.D. - researchers postulate whether the explosion made it that far, and if it did, to what extent (I learned from a girl who had previously been digging there that they had in fact uncovered a significant amount of ash, but of course more professional investigation is needed in this area before a formal theory comes forth).

We fell into our routine quickly - lessons in the morning in the classroom at the end of the hall, then a long coffee break in which we leisurely made our way up to Aeclanum. After break we spent several hours cleaning bones and thankfully shaded beneath trees - it was a messy endeavor requiring patience to try and preserve as much of the bone as possible. We would use toothbrushes and skewers and dental equipment even, and rub water gently on the bones until the mud washed away. Craniums were the hardest - they would often come filled with thick clay-like mud, and it required very precise work to try to chip away at the dirt without breaking the bones any further. Inevitably, pieces broke off - often only held together by the dirt in the first place. We’d work over aluminum foil trays with buckets of water nearby, and constantly sift the water for teeth or bone chips before renewing it. Our teachers would come by periodically and ask us to identify which bones we were cleaning or any pathologies we could see - it was a fun test, and kept us active.

After a few hours we would lay the scrubbed bones out in the hot sun to dry a bit and go on a lengthy lunch break.The first few days we tried to hike up the not-very-inclined-at-all street up to the mall, but I soon realized that was a mistake in 48C/119F (!!) weather - way better to go in the evening. Instead I’d pick up a slice of pizza - if they were open. As luck would have it one pizzeria closed for almost two weeks soon after we got there and the other would periodically close - like most of the shops and restaurants - for seemingly no reason and following no schedule at all...probably the weather. Thank god the gelato place stayed open! I also got into the habit of eating a lot of fruit and cream-and-tomato sandwiches (by the second week I was dying for protein, but it was delicious and very cheap to do). In either case, acquiring food was a quick process which left us with an hour of free time still, which we mostly spent lying in bed and trying to use as little energy as possible while fanning ourselves with paper or hand-fans.

One day at lunch we got waylaid by two old Italian men sitting in front of one of the restaurants. We were warned against fraternizing with Italian youth, but were told the elder population was generally both very curious of us foreigners and also harmless. They insisted we sit with them and offered us very colorful drinks (apparently very popular around there, and also very bitter. It did help with the heat though.) It turns out one of the men owned the restaurant (“Ferdinando’s, see? And I’m Ferdinando! And this is Luigi.”) What’s more, he had previously owned a restaurant in Seattle, and (omg!) I’m from that area! They got us a platter of cheese-less pizza and took great joy in both saying my name and insisting we eat more, usually in combination, so we ate, and it was delicious. We promised to come back for dinner sometime, though as luck would have it, every time we wanted to it was closed.

We’d make our way back to Aeclanum in the afternoon for the practical - depending on what we were looking at that day, we’d be given bones or skeletons to assemble. The skeletons we cleaned and assembled were all found around the area we were in, and dated from Roman times to Medieval. We’d have to define all the different parts of bones - each day was a different set to look at - and be given a chance to see how they articulate together. It was very, very cool. It’s one thing to see images or even play with plastic moulds and entirely different to have actual bones in your hands. (Plus, let’s be honest, as a software engineer I don’t even get to play with the plastic bits.) Assembling a skeleton is very much like a puzzle - it’s certainly easier (and something to strive for) to be able to look at a bone and just know where it goes (right ulna, left clavicle, etc) but even if you don’t, you’ll find that bones fit together precisely with (and only with) the others they’re meant to be with. The vertebrae and teeth were particularly fun. As were, on the very last day, the hands and feet.

At around 5 or so we called it a day, and we usually ran off in pursuit of dinner, AC, and wifi, stopping to pet the local puppies on the way back (and occasionally hearing beep-beep, “Maria!” as Ferdinando and Luigi would drive by). Friendships were solidified during this time, when the weather finally cooled down and we felt more like ourselves. We had fun and talked a lot, learning about life and school and summer romances in progress. We guzzled iced tea (one of the first phrases I memorised: “Te freddo de pesca per favore”) and Italian gelato and tiny pistachio cannoli because that’s what summer in the-middle-of-nowhere, Italy, is all about. Every other night we were startled by random firework shows - the reason is still unknown, but at least they were doing them right these times. After the first week we lost one of the girls in our little friendship triad, since her program was done, so we expanded the group to include the rest of our roommates and a few others from our program, and continued the trend. We got the weekend off to relax - in 45+C weather that’s hard to accomplish so we went to the beach one day (props to the awesome driver who prefaced every announcement with “Ling-long!” to mimic the bells), got thoroughly sunburnt, and then spent a lot of time at the pool to cool off the next. I tried to do laundry and ended up locking my clothes in a very temperamental Italian washing machine for a day; we finally got them out but the laundry machine was never the same, and would only open if you could unlock the door with a wire. And that’s pretty much how two weeks of osteology camp progressed.

As far as the specifics of what we learned, on each day we’d look at different sets of bones, and also different topics. The first day was simply getting familiar with all the parts of a skeleton. The next day we learned techniques for determining the sex based on cranial and pelvic bones: 3 different methods, each comprising of at least 10 steps or areas of the bone to analyze. The analysis would all be on a range of -2 (female) to 0 (indeterminate) to +2 (male), or just f, m, i, and we’d constantly find that most people are a mixture of male, female and indeterminate traits - this of course made even harder sometimes by only having fragmentary bones. It also seemed to me at times a bit subjective - most of these rates are based on comparisons (is the iliac fossa more wide and low or more high and narrow; is the iliac crest definitively curvy and S-shaped or more subtle; is the preauricular surface grooved and definitive or nonexistent; etc) so it’s really up to the person rating to be consistent in how they rate, but it might differ when it comes to other people. Still, it was one of my favorite topics and practical subjects to try, and I think this is definitely one of those cases where practice makes perfect (or at least helps).

The next few days we looked at aging the skeletons (ie, how old the people were when they died, not from what time they came from). This was an even more subjective (to me) area - you looked at (1) the amount of closure of different cranial sutures, since it’s known on average roughly when different sutures close - each one is rated between 0-3 for fully open to fully closed; (2) the auricular surface of the sacrum, which has 5 different parts to rate (the porosity, the amount of dense bone, whether there are big pores or small pores on specific parts of the bone, etc) and give you ridiculous ranges such as 16-68 or 29-88 years old; and, (3) the wear on different teeth, which give you various ranges as well. In general, as you can guess, you end up with 3 different ranges which hopefully overlay each other so you can narrow down a decent range of 10-15 years. The teeth were often the most useful, especially for younger people; on one day we were lucky to have the opportunity to look at skeletons of children and see the differences between them and adults. For children you can measure the long bones and estimate an age based on height, since they are constantly growing. We had the skeleton of a child whom, based on bone length, was consistently estimated at 9 years old. However, when we looked at the teeth, we could see that the second molars were already erupted, which wouldn’t happen until 11-13 years old, and the third molar (wisdom teeth) were formed in the jaw and just starting to make their way up, which would bump the age even further to somewhere around 15 (give or take a few years). Thus this child was shorter than most or was possibly malnourished for an extended time (which would cause stunted growth), which was likely since the skeleton came from Medieval times.

Near the end of the first week we talked about teeth and got a crash course in dentistry and determining age or diet from them. We also talked about paleopathologies, and then were given skeletons and tried to identify different issues we had talked about. That was very interesting, because you can clearly see defects - lipping on vertebrae, rubbing of joints together (joint disease, or arthritis) causing the articulating areas of bones to be smooth and shiny. It feels like ivory and has a very yellow glint. We rubbed these areas together and they squeaked - we all winced in empathy at the pain this would have caused.

The second week we had more vague topics - ie, not “here’s how to determine these things form bones”, but topics that evoke discussion. We talked about the ethics of working with bones and displaying them, or using them for scientific research, and we talked about diets and the many theories that center around food’s role in our lifestyle, as well as how agriculture fits in. We read scientific articles and presented an analyses of their findings and techniques. (Mine was about tooth ablation in Japanese populations about 3500 years ago, and whether different patterns were connected to migration patterns - I thought it was super interesting! To cut it short, they looked at strontium isotope analysis of third molars (because that doesn’t really change over time and thus reflects childhood diet) and ribs (which do have a turnover rate of about 10 years and thus reflect recent diet) and then compared it with strontium levels in plant and marine life (saltwater) in the area. Those with higher strontium levels were viewed as immigrants, because they wouldn’t have been able to reach such levels by eating the food available in the area, and then they compared that knowledge with the hypotheses for different tooth ablation patterns (that some patterns were only for immigrants and some only for locals) - turned out, the hypotheses were wrong, based on this short study.)

On the last two days we got a crash course in hands and feet, since we hadn’t had too many full specimens to look at - carpals and tarsals rock! They’re absolutely hilarious. They look like funny little pebbles half the time, but each one has an interesting story to help you figure out which it is and what side it’s on. The cheesiest was probably the scaphoid carpal in your wrist - it looks like a snail, but only from one side. So the story goes (if you’re trying to side it), the snail wants to give you a kiss, but it wants to be able to look at you the whole time, so it’s going to climb up whichever arm it can keep you in its sight (whichever its “head” faces you) and that’s the side it’s on! There’s many others: a carpal that looks like Darth Vader (if you squint really hard) and another - lunate - that looks like a moon; a tarsal that looks like a wedge of cheese and one that’s a pinched marshmallow; another that looks like either south america or Africa depending on which side it goes, and one that has a revolver on its surface that shoots in the direction of the side it’s on (coincidentally shooting at one of the continents)! I wish we’d had more time to look at these; they were probably the hardest part of the skeleton to figure out.

We put all the knowledge we had gathered together at the end and broke off into groups to look at complete skeletons, assemble them, and try to find out everything we can about them. It was an awesome way to finish the program, since it allowed us to practice everything we’d learned one last time. It was also wonderful because Luficer finally broke; for the first time the temperature went below 40C and we had strong winds that blew our books closed and rattled the bones when we tried to lay them out, threatening to blow away some of the smaller bits. In the afternoon, just as our classes let out, it thundered and rained for a bit; the next day was muggier but still less hot than before, so we considered it a win.

And that’s it! Osteology camp was officially over. We had a big dinner one night, and a big pot-luck the next to try to finish off all the food we’d all bought. We did a deep cleanse of the school (except for the showers - nothing can clean those) in preparation for the next group of students who were coming the day after we left, and we packed our bags and sat on them when they refused to close until we wrangled the zippers in place.

We left Mirabella Eclano early on Saturday morning; half the group had flights that day, and the rest mostly dispersed to Rome or elsewhere, but I had one thing left to see on this trip: Pompeii. Two of my roommates were also staying in Naples for the night so we joined forces and went together. It was a quick train ride from Naples; under an hour, and costing only about $3 each way. Some street performers took over our car at one point and played some instrumental music, so the entertainment value was top-notch, just like the crowd factor (ie very top, hella crowded).

The moment we got off the train we were greeted by a loud announcer: “English tours, don’t wait two hours in line to get tickets, tours leave right now!” so we shimmied on over and got tickets to that; ended up paying about twice what a normal admission ticket costs (which is not bad - we paid 25 Euro total) and got a 2-hour tour with a bit of information out of it.

I’ve gotta say it - Pompeii is massive. Like truly, you could spend days there. There is so much to see. I learned some facts I never knew (then again, I didn’t know all that much to begin with). For one, the explosion actually didn’t reach Pompeii - only the ash, but that was enough, since it was buried under (ranging from) 5-50 meters of the stuff. (Side note, if you do want to see a city excavated from lava, apparently Herculaneum is your go-to place. We wanted to go but there just wasn’t time). The streets are large - enough room for chariots - and built from large flattened boulders with sidewalks about a foot up on either side. These sidewalks span every road - why? Because sewage used to flood the roads, and nobody wanted to step in that shit. (Ha!) If you wanted to cross the road, you’d have to walk on the sidewalk until you found some large boulders jutting out of the road - they were fairly frequent and were there specifically for this purpose. (It almost looked like a 3D crosswalk, but instead of white lines there are rocks.) It was also really cool to note that there were some fairly deep lines visibly engraved in the roads fairly often - apparently those were from chariot wheels constantly eroding the same path over and over.

The houses are large and multi-storied, with the wealthier families living lower and the poorer higher up. They have large central holes in the building ceilings with a pool right underneath to catch rainwater and funnel it into use for daily chores. There are large fountains all around the city with drinkable water (even now), and they all have statues of heads on them, in case you needed distinctive fountain features to let you know where to drink.

We visited a Roman brothel as well - there were 5 rooms, each the size of a small walk-in closet with a large stone slab jutting from the wall. These were the beds for the 5 women that worked here. Above the doorways and around the walls outside of the rooms there were paintings of different sexual acts and positions, at the end of which was a painting of a man pointing to a painting to drive home the point; so, apparently (as the tour guide said) men would simply go in and point at what they wanted and that’s what would happen.

We saw the Roman baths as well, which were beautifully decorated on the inside. Every bit of wall and ceiling was painted or covered with mosaics - it was truly beautiful (except for the crowds).

And finally we saw the people. Those that died and were buried under ash - over time their bodies decayed, leaving behind bones and the shape of their bodies - an echo of how they died - in the ash which had pushed down with such weight that it almost solidified. When archaeologists excavated the city, they noticed these empty areas in the ground beneath them and funneled plaster into them; thus, when they dug them up, they had the shape of some of the people that died in the moment they died, with the bones still stuck inside. There are only a few for display, though there are 60 or so total; a few adults - some laying down, some sitting with their hands covering their mouths - a few children, and even a dog, twisted upside down with even the plaster-imprint of its collar visible on its neck. It was humbling to see.

We headed back to Naples with our feet burning from walking on uneven ground all day. We had one final pizza together and said our goodbyes; it was a wonderful day - a wonderful two weeks on many accounts, and I valued having the opportunity to do something like this and meet the people I met. I headed to my hotel - a gorgeous monastery-turned-4-star-hotel called San Francesco al Monte, which featured absolutely stunning 7th-story rooftop views of Naples, the bay, and Vesuvius in the distance. I only had 6 hours to enjoy it before leaving at 3am for the airport - the rooftop pool carved from the mountainside is calling my name next visit! - but it was still well worth it.

Goodbye Italy, it’s been a pleasure.

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