800-Year-Old Skeleton Gives Archaeologists A ‘Preserved’ Surprise They Never Expected

A female skeleton has been unearthed in Turkey, just outside what was the ancient city of Troy, some 800 years back when the woman died.

Credit: GEBHARD BIEG Credit: GEBHARD BIEG

Archaeologists have been examining her remains as well as others that were found at the same site in what must have been a Byzantine-era graveyard. They determined the woman to have been approximately 30 years old at the time of death. As they worked, they learnt a lot more, discovering evidence of some of the hardships this community must have been exposed to in the late 13th century.

The most significant finding was unique fossilised evidence of a maternal death, including preserved genetic matter including the 800 year-old pathogen resulted in the woman’s death. While examining the remains of the 30 year-old woman, archaeologist Henrike Kiesewetter of Germany’s Tüebingen University, discovered two small calcified nodules low on her chest, just underneath the ribs.

From past experience they looked similar to what you would find on the skeleton of someone who had suffered from tuberculosis. Intrigued by the find, Kiesewetter sent them on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, a professor of microbiology and medicine who is an expert on the evolution of pathogens, Caitlin Pepperell, studied the nodules.

Credit: PATHOLOGIE NORDHESSEN Credit: PATHOLOGIE NORDHESSEN

She performed and microscopic analyses and DNA analysis which ruled out tuberculosis, as well as urinary or kidney stones. The cells were opened and what they found was very similar to bacteria from the genus Staphylococcus. The samples were then sent on to laboratory that specializes in ancient DNA at the McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Here they were studied by Hendrick Poinar and his team.

“Amazingly, these samples yielded enough DNA to fully reconstruct the genomes of two species of bacteria, Staphylococcus saprophyticus and Gardnerella vaginalis, which infected the woman and likely led to her death,” Poinar stated in a press release Wisconsin-Madison University. Poinar and Pepperell set up a team to study the well preserved, ancient DNA.

Pepperell said, “Calcification made little tiny suitcases of DNA and transported it across an 800-year timespan.” Adding that their findings would join “a pretty short list of ancient bacteria—cholera, tuberculosis, leprosy, plague—for which we have DNA.” The team later published their findings in the journal eLife.