Ruggles-Gates Award – Asta Rand

Home Past Awards Ruggles-Gates Award – Asta Rand

Award Holder: Asta Rand
University: The Memorial University of Newfoundland
Title of Research: Diet, Health, and Movement in Early Modern Poland: Evidence from the Drawsko 1 Cemetery (17th-18th c.)

The Slavia Foundation has provided students with excavation and laboratory experience at the Early Modern Drawsko 1 cemetery in Poland since 2008. After joining the project as an osteology instructor in 2014, conversations with my colleagues quickly turned to the potential the Drawsko skeletons have for dietary isotopic analyses, given their excellent preservation and secure context. Previous isotopic analyses of these skeletons had focused on the origins of supposed “vampires” from the site, with little emphasis on the typical burials from Drawsko. Importantly, dietary isotope studies of Polish skeletons are scarce, as only five studies of lower status rural medieval sites and one study of upper status Early Modern individuals have been conducted. My colleagues and I agreed that the isotopic analysis of the Drawsko 1 skeletons would provide insight into lower status diets during the Early Modern period and could reveal dietary changes in Poland over time.  

During the excavation of skeletons during the 2016 field season, bone samples from 44 individuals of all ages, sexes and burial types were selected for stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotope analyses. Samples were prepared at the Memorial Applied Archaeological Sciences (MASS) Lab in Fall 2016. Unfortunately, the samples took longer to dissolve than anticipated. Furthermore, a long waitlist meant the δ13C and δ15N values were not obtained from the Memorial Stable Isotope Laboratory (SIL) until March 2017, although they were well worth the wait.

The results indicate the Drawsko individuals consumed protein from vegetables, domesticated animals or fish, and grains other than millet. At first the lack of dietary differences based on age, sex, or burial type at the site was disappointing; however, it is consistent with historical evidence of lower status serfs working on their lord’s land who subsisted on economically unimportant crops. This also confirmed previous interpretations that a social factor other than dietary-related status led to atypical burial at Drawsko. Perhaps most exciting is the results of the inter-site comparison. The Drawsko individuals consumed significantly less millet and more protein from domesticated animals and/or fish than lower status medieval individuals, but significantly less fish than contemporary high status individuals. Thus, although chronological dietary changes occurred, dietary differences between social strata continued.

This study has offered the unique opportunity for me to apply the skills I have developed over my graduate studies to an archaeological context which I have only recently become familiar. It has also not only prompted the collaboration of an international team of researchers from Poland, Canada, and the United States on a multidisciplinary project, but has highlighted the importance of inter-site comparisons. Most important is the impact this project has had on the field school students. Although they were not directly involved, having the awareness that the skeletons they excavate contribute to research that will endure for posterity heightened student engagement in the field and provided them a greater appreciation not only for the excavation and interpretive techniques they learned, but for the research that can be conducted on the remains after recovery.