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Students help examine saints’ remains

by Janene Zaccone, communications and marketing last modified Sep 11, 2012 08:31 PM

Several University of Louisville forensic anthropology students recently finished work on an unusual project — one which even UofL staff archaeologist Philip DiBlasi had never done anything like before they started in May.

Students help examine saints’ remains

Kara Jo Carmichael, left, and Sierra Jeffries examine St. Bonosa’s skeletal remains.

They examined the skeletal remains of two Roman Catholic saints — martyrs from the third to fourth centuries that were interred at St. Martin of Tours Church in Louisville.

“These are treasures of the church,” said the Rev. Paul Beach, pastor of St. Martin. “To have Roman martyrs in an American church is quite unusual.”

St. Martin received the bones at the start of the 20th century. They were believed to be those of St. Bonosa, a young Roman Christian, and St. Magnus, a Roman military commander who converted to Christianity after seeing Bonosa killed for her belief. After their arrival, parishioners wrapped the bones in cotton batting and muslin, placed them in anatomical position, clothed the packets in handmade robes and interred them in side altar reliquaries.

That was 110 years ago.

The effects of those years became apparent earlier this year when the church replaced the fluorescent lights in the reliquaries with LED lights. That’s when Richard Krekel, facilities manager, saw that the back glass had shattered from the settling of the church building. Since the relics had to be removed to make repairs, the Rev. Fred Klotter, then pastor, decided that the time was right to examine them, Krekel said. They placed a call to UofL’s anthropology department for help.

Justice administration major Sierra Jeffries, biology majors Kara Carmichael and Kristen Frisco, and anthropology majors Milena Carvalho, Sara Deurell and Lisa Hagan, joined DiBlasi and his wife, archaeologist Jan Hemberger, on the project.

Through the process, the UofL team learned the Catholic Church’s protocol for handling relics to protect their sanctity. The students also learned a lot about human bones, the early Roman catacomb burial practice and the professional process of conducting a skeletal inventory. The team created demographic profiles that included what they could learn of the saints’ ages at death, sex, ancestry, stature, cause of death, handedness and other attributes.

“It seems so much easier on TV,” Jeffries said, noting that measuring and identifying bones to estimate different characteristics is a complex process. The task was made even more difficult by the condition of St. Magnus’ bones — many of which were either missing or in pieces.

Data the team collected indicates that the bones are from a middle-aged male and a female in her mid-20s who had catacomb burials. The female skeleton is complete enough for the team to estimate that she had been five-foot to five-foot-six inches tall and was right-handed.

It was a surprise that the information from the bones “so closely matched the story of the saints that came down to us,” DiBlasi said.

Besides being a learning experience, the project also validated for some students that they are on the right career path.

“I hope to go into archaeology as a career, so working in the (UofL) lab and at the church with professor DiBlasi has been a wonderful opportunity for me to get some hands-on experience,” Deurell said. The work was “a strong confirmation for me that I am headed the right direction with my academic life.”

Carvalho agreed, noting that working with DiBlasi is helping her prepare for a career as a zooarchaeologist.

“He takes the time to explain every little detail, every piece of history regarding the matter at hand. He gives great advice on pursuing graduate school and our individual careers,” she said, adding that the practical experience she’s gained will give her an advantage when she begins her career.

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