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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.”

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.

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Originally published August 30, 2017. Written by Geoff Cantrell.