Microbiome of ancient humans

To reconstruct the oral microbiome of ancient humans we apply cutting-edge ancient DNA (aDNA) techniques capable of retrieving genetic information from millions of bacteria entrapped in the mineral matrix of the dental calculus. By working in dedicated aDNA facilities (University of Vienna), we isolate through silica methods the DNA contained in the dental calculus and prepare genomic libraries (figure). We exploit the high throughput power of Illumina “next-generation” sequencing (NGS) platforms to generate through shotgun methods - the untargeted sequencing of the DNA content of a library - millions of DNA sequences. By means of bioinformatic methods and metagenomic classifiers, and following strict authentication criteria (e.g. assessment of post-mortem DNA molecules damage), the oral microbiota of the ancient individuals is reconstructed, providing insights into health conditions and diet. DNA sequences from food residues entrapped in the dental calculus (e.g. plant and animal species) may also be detected, returning more direct evidence of the feeding strategies of the individual.


The Diet and ANcient TEchnology Laboratory (DANTE)

The Diet and ANcient TEchnology Laboratory (DANTE) is the main facility where most of the research activities of the HIDDEN FOODS Project take place. Studies performed at the DANTE Laboratory involve: dental calculus, residues and use wear analyses on stone tools. These are performed utilising cutting edge equipment including a Zeiss AxioZoom V16 Motorised Stereo Microscope, Zeiss AxioScope Metallographic Microscope and a Zeiss Imager Compound Microscope. All of the microscopes are equipped with high definition cameras, which allow the gathering of high definition pictures of both residues and use wear. DANTE hosts also a permanent photographic stage, including a lightbox and an automated turntable, devoted to the 3D scanning of both archaeological and experimental samples, performed through close range photogrammetry. 3D models are used not only as means of documentation but are also utilised for geomatic analyses. The laboratory hosts a variety of experimental collections: groundstones used in wild plant processing, more than 250 wild plant food species diffused in SE Europe, a reference of starch granules from a multitude of species from SE Europe, Africa and Near East, animal and mineral micro-residues. ...

Photogrammetry and Spatial Analysis

Close-range photogrammetry represents one of the new documenting technique applied in the fields of archaeology and cultural heritage. This photo-based can be applied over a variety of conditions and leads to the creation of extremely accurate 3-dimensional models that can be used for both research and outreach purposes. The application of spatial analysis is common in Archaeology. However, its application at a micro-scale in use-wear related studies is still rare. Combining the microscopic analysis of the artefacts with the spatial distribution of use wear provides detailed evidence concerning the development and distribution of wear over a given tool allowing to define spatial patterns related to specific activities or worked materials.


Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology became a scientific approach during the second half of the 20th century. The most important scholars were François Bordes and Don E. Crabtree, respectively of the French and American school. The theoretical debate related to experimental archaeology flourished during the 80’s in Western Europe, following the work of André Leroi-Gourhan and Lewis Binford, opposed to the Soviet functionalist school of Sergej Semenov. Through the production of experimental artefacts replicas (e.g. modern ground stones, bone tools, flint artefacts, etc.) and their use in different activities (e.g. plant foods processing, hunting, butchery, etc.), archaeologists create large reference collections, through which it becomes possible to provide techno-functional interpretations of archaeological material culture. In particular, by following a controlled protocol, experimental archaeologists focused on technological and functional study of material culture aim to reproduce the entire chaîne opératoire, i.e. the series of gestures and sequences involved in the artefacts production, use, discard and, eventually, re-cycle. Low and high magnification approaches are required in order to observe techno-functional modifications on experimental replicas using a stereomicroscope (10X-80X), a metallographic reflected light microscope (50X-500X), a Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and, finally, a Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope.

Dental calculus

Dental calculus (or tartar) is a mineralized bacterial plaque adhering to the tooth enamel and composed primarily of calcium phosphate salts mixed with remnants of previously viable microorganisms. As the deposition of tartar is continuous during the life and stops at the death of the individual, the calcified plaque represents a unique source of human biographic information. The study of ancient tartar allows us to shed light on:
(a) ancient individual hygiene and health status, by sequencing the DNA of bacterial communities associated with the human body (microbiome);
(b) dietary preferences, through the identification animal and plant food particles (e.g. starch granules, phytoliths, pollen grains, father barbules, animal tissues, etc.); and
(c) lifestyle and human interaction with the environment, through the identification of airborne micro-particles (e.g. feather barbules, wood debris, charcoals and plant fibres) that have been inhaled or ingested while performing daily life activities (e.g. craftsmanship, etc.).


Flotation is a technique developed in order to recover light organic materials such as plant remains (e.g. seeds, wood), shell remains and other small cultural fractions from the archaeological deposit and which would be lost in the classic screening of sediment.
Through flotation minute particles of organic material will float on the top of water as characterised by a lower specific gravity than inorganic materials such as stone and soil itself, which will sink.
Two different flotation methods are generally used during excavation: 1) hand flotation (otherwise known as wet sieving) and 2) flotation by machine. Wet sieving allows a high rate of control over the material that can be recovered. The deposit is slowly poured into water, agitated by hand and, successively, all the floating material is sieved carefully. Flotation by machine is optimal when extensive flotation is carried out as samples of archaeological sediment are poured into a large barrel full of water, which is agitated by inflowing water. ...

Use-wear Analysis

The use-wear analysis, pioneered by the Russian researcher S. Semenov, was introduced to the Western scientific world by way of French archaeological tradition and further disseminated into mainstream archaeological practice around the 1980s. This methodological approach is grounded in experimental activity through which traces related to the use of tools are re-produced and further used as reference collections in the interpretation of archaeological artefacts. The experimental traces are microscopically observed in order to find use-wear patterns to relate to a set of performed activities on particular worked material (e.g. leather, bark, wood, etc.). The use-wear analysis requires the use optical microscopes such as stereoscope for observations at low magnification (1-100x) and an incident light metallographic microscope with high magnification (100x-400x). Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy are also used for both high and low magnification analyses....