Medieval Cemetery Funerary Excavation – Living and Dying on the Edge of Europe (Transylvania, Romania)

COVID-19 NOTICE: Please be sure to reach out to the project contact to find out the status of their upcoming season. Many projects have cancelled fieldwork for 2020 and the information below may not reflect that.

Location: Valeni, RO

Season: June 7, 2020 to August 1, 2020

Session Dates: Session 1: June 7 - July 4, 2020 (4 weeks); Session 2: July 5 - August 1, 2020 (4 weeks)

Application Deadline: January 31, 2020

Deadline Type: Rolling


Program Type:
Field School, Volunteer

RPA Certified:

Western Carolina University (USA); Archaeological Techniques and Research Center (Canada); and Haaz Rezso Muzeum (Romania)

Project Director:
Dr. Katie Zejdlik-Passalacqua (Western Carolina University); ; Dr. Andre Gonciar (Bio/Archaeological Techniques and Research Center); Dr. Zsolt Nyaradi (Haaz Rezso Muzeum)

Project Description:

As Europe redefines itself in the wake of the Ottoman invasion, the Carpathian frontier still holds fast against the Eastern invaders. Although Transylvanian suzerainty has passed from the Hungarian Kingdom, to the Ottomans, to the Habsburgs from the 15-17th century, its territory has never been invaded by the Turkish troops. However, the local populations lived under constant social, political, economic and religious stress. Since the Neolithic, Transylvania has been at the crossroads of European identity. During the late Middle Ages, this region goes not only through major political changes, but also through a spirituality crisis, under the pressure of Islam from the East and Protestantism from the West.

At the end of the 17th century, several churches around Odorheiu Secuiesc have been abandoned. What is even more interesting is that those churches were removed from collective memory as well. Not only the written records pertaining to these churches were destroyed, but the local communities forgot about their existence. Our excavation aims at retrieveing the memory of these churches and to try to elucidate the social, political and religious context that created such an environment that would extract a church from local collective memory.

During the 2013 season, we completed the excavation of two of Lost Churches and associated cemeteries: Bradesti and Lueta.  However, our osteology team has uncovered a very strange phenomenon: within another of our lost churches, the Teleac church, 69 out of 70 individuals were juveniles ans 49 were of preterm or fetal age, all of which dated to the 17th century. We have started in 2014 and continued in 2015 to explore the environment that created this very unique skeletal assemblage. For that purpose, we began excavating Teleac’ sister church in Valeni, with outstanding results. We have discovered two building phases, an early medieval and a Gothic one, but the stratigraphy indicates that there is an even earlier church, probably made out of wood. The most surprising result is the presence of what appears to be a migration period, pre-Christian tumulus under the church, as indicated by the burial of a horse associated with several individuals buried in fetal position. These results could also shed light on the relation between the various churches and their subsidiaries. Through a more thorough study of the cemeteries and their occupants, we will also explore the different processes that led to the penetration of Protestantism in the region and then its subsequent return to Catholicism.

Our excavation will deploy a bioarchaeological field approach. Within this context, we will concentrate our work on the individuals themselves and their immediate surroundings (i.e. clothing implements, jewelry, coffin and other primary funerary depositions. During one session of the excavation, we expect each participant to fully excavate a minimum of two individuals. All participants will receive basic training in human anatomy and morphology in order to fully take advantage of the opportunities presented during excavation.

Period(s) of Occupation: Middle Ages

Funerary excavation of a well preserved medieval church cemetery dating from one of the most tumultuous period in the history of Transylvania (Romania).

Project Size: 1-24 participants

Minimum Length of Stay for Volunteers: 4 weeks

Minimum Age: 18

Experience Required: No bioarchaeological field experience required. Basic knowledge of human anatomy and morphology preferred but not required.

Room and Board Arrangements:
          Students and volunteers will be housed in Odorheiu Secuiesc, a small and beautiful city, rich in history and culture. It is cosmopolitan town, situated in central Transylvania, on the historical divide between the Szekely Country to the East into the Carpathians Mountains and the more Romanian and Saxon Transylvania to the South and West into the lowlands. Participants will be housed in double or triple occupancy rooms within 45min walking distance from downtown Odorheiu Secuiesc (or a 10min cab ride). A bus will be rented to take us into the field and back daily. Breakfast and dinner will be served Mon-Fri in the hotel restaurant. Participants will sample a variety of amazing home cooked Romanian and Szekler traditional meals. Students and volunteers are responsible for their own lunches in the field. Beware that Romanian cuisine is meat oriented, but we do our best to accommodate vegetarian dietary requirements. There are plenty of small stores, supermarkets, farmer markets, where you can purchase fresh cheese, various meat products, garden vegetables, bread, drinks, and anything else you might need.           Odorheiu Secuiesc provides all the amenities of a small European city, which includes hospitals an international bus station, train station, and all the stores you might need. Cost: $2495 per 4 week session (additional USF tuition fees apply, if registering for credit)

Academic Credit:
3-6 undergraduate/graduate academic credit (not mandatory) offered by the University of South Florida. Contact University of South Florida (Education Abroad) for details.

Contact Information:

Dr. Katie Zejdlik or Dr. Andre Gonciar

Western Carolina University


North Carolina

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