Burned bones tell tales

Burned bones tell tales

April 11, 2017
By Matt Windsor
Undergraduate Emily Quarato will share discoveries from European Bronze Age dig at 2017 UAB Spring Expo.

Emily Quarato spent six weeks last summer digging in a Hungarian cemetery. For someone who has “always had a fascination with burial practices and death culture,” this qualifies as a great opportunity.

Quarato, a rising senior majoring in chemistry and anthropology, was selected to participate in the National Science Foundation’s competitive Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. In July 2016, she joined a team from Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University as they investigated a Bronze Age site not far from the Romanian border, where she gathered specimens for an independent research project. Working with Quinnipiac anthropologist Julia Giblin, Ph.D., and with assistance from Gary Gray, Ph.D., in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Chemistry, and Stephen Merritt, Ph.D., in the UAB Department of Anthropology, Quarato used modern science to investigate bones charred in the flames of ancient Hungarian cremation rituals.

This spring, at the UAB Expo, the rising senior will share her findings. Contrary to popular wisdom among anthropologists, she found evidence that charred bones have stories to tell, after all.

mix quarato hungaryEmily Quarato spent six weeks in Hungary last summer as part of the Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates program from the National Science Foundation. (Photo courtesy Emily Quarato.) 

What drew you to this topic?

“I got interested in my research on bone chemistry because of my brother, [who has] a disorder that affects the growth and ossification of his bones. I also have always really liked chemistry as well, so I simply combined the two into something I am very passionate about.

 emily quarato
Emily Quarato
Majors: Chemistry and Anthropology
Science and Technology Honors Program
UAB Chemistry Scholar
Hometown: Westchester, New York

“I was especially interested in this project because it deals primarily with cremation burials. Many people within the world of anthropology have believed that there is little to learn from cremations. I enjoyed the challenge of possibly finding useful information.”

What were your main findings?

“As you increase the burning level, the bone crystallinity changes, making [cremated bones] a more valuable source of measuring in-vivo isotope values. I have also found that there is a significant difference between the burning level of the cranial (head) area and the post-cranial (torso and limbs) area within our cemetery, indicating that there may have been a body preference in insertion into the fire.”

What are the next steps for this research?

“I am planning to continue to look into crystalline structure to get a better understanding of the bone changes over the course of burning, and comparing the extent of burning in our cemetery to others within the region.”

What are your career goals?

“I hope to work as a forensic anthropologist and continue my research in bone chemistry on cremations. I also would like to go into academia to teach further generations about the past.”

mix quarato fieldWhile she was on site at the Körös Off-Tell Archaeology Project, Quarato collected bone samples that she later analyzed at UAB using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. (Photo courtesy Emily Quarato.)

Research: The next generation

Quarato's project, "Burning Questions about Preservation: An Investigation of Cremated Bone Crystallinity in a Bronze Age Cemetery," is one of several hundred UAB undergraduate student projects that will be presented at the 2017 UAB Spring Expo.

The event, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, showcases research, scholarship and other academic endeavors by UAB undergraduates on April 13 and 14. 

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