Early Medieval South Tyrol: anthropological, paleopathological and stable isotope analysis of human skeletal remains

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  • Project duration: -
  • Project status: finished
  • Funding:
    Internal funding EURAC (Project)
  • Institute: Institute for Mummy Studies

Since the Roman Empire era, the Alpine region was an important natural defence (limes) and in Early Middle Ages (5th-11th centuries AD), South Tyrol had a key role, as a strategic territorial junction between Italy and the Northern part of the Alps. According to the limited historical sources, from the 6th century AD, the so-called barbari, like the Franks-Alemannic crossed the limes from the north-west (Venosta Valley); Longboards (569 A.D.) from the south (Trento duchy); Bavarians from the north (Inn Valley, high Isarco Valley) and Slavic populations from the east (Pusteria Valley). However, based on the few historical and archaeological records it remains unclear in what way and to what extent the groups interacted with the local Romans. Moreover, it is yet to be validated if the noted cultural changes were due to admixture or replacement events. Therefore, very little is known about the population dynamics in Early Medieval South Tyrol and almost no isotope analysis on human bones has been carried out in this region, with the exception being on the Iceman.

Therefore, in 2014, a PhD project started in collaboration with the Ufficio 13.2, Beni archeologici Autonomous Province of Bolzano-Bozen and the Dept. for Anthropology at the University of Bern (Switzerland). A selection of above 150 skeletons found in 9 archaeological sites dated to the 5th-12th century AD and located in the Tyrolean Valleys will be analysed. The study of the human bones includes a detailed anthropological, paleopathological and stable isotopes analyses (Carbon, Nitrogen and Sulfur), that is an analytical approach not attempted before for the study of these remains, at least in a systematic way.  The primary aims of this project are to reconstruct the biological profile (i.e sex and age at death, metrics, paleopathology and activity markers) of human skeletons and to compare patterns of diet and mobility across Early Medieval valleys in South Tyrol.

In South Tyrol, one of the most problematic matter for medieval archeology is the population dynamic in Early Middle Ages. With the Roman Empire decline (476 A.D.), the so-called “barbari” burst into the European scenery. Nevertheless, according to the historical records, since the 4th century they had actually interacted with Reto-Romans. Thanks to the support of modern disciplines, the idea of a process of cultural heterogeneity and cultural exchange between Romans and Germans, has replaced the old interpretative model that looks at them both as two opposite worlds. Since the 3rd century A.D., the Alpine area was an important natural defensive shield (limes), that in the 6th-8th century was crossed by Franks and Alemannics from the north-west (Venosta Valley); Langobards (568 A.D.) from the south (Trento duchy); Bavarians from the north (Inn Valley, high Isarco Valley) and Slavic populations from the east (Pusteria Valley). Therefore, like the entire Italian peninsula, even South Tyrol became an unstable territory, due to the continued variations of the frontiers. Despite that during the Early Middle Ages, this area had a key role as a strategic junction of populations, ideas and technologies.

The limited records of the historical events related to the “Migration Period” in Trentino Alto-Adige/South Tyrol (Italy), mainly come from the work of Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum (8th century AD) and from few other historical documents collected in the Venetian and Lombardian Italian archives. Not only the historical data but also the archaeological sources offer an unrealistic picture of the medieval events in South Tyrol.

The latest archaeological discoveries (Ufficio 13.2, Beni archeologici Autonomous Province of Bolzano-Bozen) have demonstrated that the territorial and cultural categorizations are not convincing anymore. As an example, in the necropolis at Inn Valley, high Isarco, it is very difficult and often impossible to distinguish the graves that belonged to Reto-Romans from those of Germans, based on grave goods alone. This is due to the strong cultural admixture that forced the local populations to adopt the habits of the reigning kings. So far, it is still unclear in what way and to what extent the German groups interacted with Romans or if the historical-cultural changes were due to admixture or rather replacement events.

In 2014, we started a PhD project in affiliation with the Ufficio 13.2, Beni archeologici Autonomous Province of Bolzano (Italy), the University of Tübingen (Germany) and the Institute of Forensic Medicine of Bern University (Switzerland). This pilot study will insight for the first time the Early Medieval population dynamic in this region, through an interdisciplinary approach.

The aims are to:

i) reconstruct the biological (demography) and the paleopathological profiles of all the skeletal human remains (physical anthropology, paleopathology, ergonomy); 

ii) insight the diet, the subsistence strategies, the environmental adaptations, and socio-economic differences among individuals and/or groups in the valleys during that time (δ13C, δ15N); 

iii) in-depth the events of human mobility in this territory according to spatial (valleys, sites) and chronological parameters  (δ34S).Therefore, morphological and paleopathological investigation, as well as stable isotope (δ13C, δ15N, δ34S) analyses, will be performed on approximately 150 skeletal human remains found in 9 archaeological sites (Fig.1) dated to the Early Middle Age (Tab.1).

Fig.1 Map of South Tyrol, Italy showing the medieval archaeological sites and valleys/basin considered in this study.



Dating 14C cal. AD/centuries


Appiano, San Paolo Altenburg






Montagna, Pinzon

656-782, 637-725*


Nalles, Gebreid


Conca di Merano/Meraner Becken 

Tirolo, Castel Tirolo

888-1062, 540-670*

Venosta/ Vinschgau



Venosta/ Vinschgau

Malles Paulihof

620-670,  980-1030,  900-920/940-1020,  1020-1160,  990-1040/1100-1120/1140-1150*

Venosta/ Vinschgau

Malles, Burgusio Santo Stefano


Valle Isarco / Eisacktal

Bressanone, Elvas

6th-7th century

Tab.1 Valleys/basin, sites and chronologies selected by the Head of the Ufficio 13.2, Beni archeologici Autonomous Province of Bolzano-Bozen. * unpublished data Province of Bolzano ** EURAC research.  

The skeletal human remains were discovered during archaeological excavations carried out in Alto Adige (Tab.1) by the Ufficio 13.2, Beni archeologici Autonomous Province of Bolzano-Bozen and stored in Frangarto-Frangart (BZ).

As a preliminary stage of the study, it will be necessary to: A) clean the bones with water or brushes, as some of the bones are entirely wrapped with bandages glued to the outer surface. Often the bones are also are covered by a layer of mold. B) Move the skeletal materials from the storehouse of the Ufficio 13.2, Beni archeologici Autonomous Province of Bolzano-Bozen to the laboratory of Anthropology of our Institute.

The analyses of the human bones will include different scientific approaches and methods, such as:

1. Morphology-anthropology:

  • Bones and teeth preservation (P) – representation (R): P: 1 poor, 2 intermediate, 3 good; R: levels <25 % poor, 50 -75 % partial, >75 % complete,
  • determination of the sex, estimation of the age at death,
  • measurements: cranium (Martin & Saller: M1-5-8-9-10-12-17-20-23-24-25-45-47-51-52-54-55-65-66) and postcranium (humerus: M1-4-5-6-7-9-10; Radius: M1-2; Ulna: M1-2; os coxae: M1,12,14, 14.1, 15.1,22,23; Gaillard (1960): SPU, ISMM, SA; Schulter- Ellis et al. (1983): ISMM; femur: 1-2-6-7-8-9-10-21; tibia: 1a- 1b- 3- 8a –9a-10b) to calculate indexes and stature.
  • Non-metric traits: cranium (Metopic suture, Lambdoid ossicles, Saggital ossicles, Bregmatic ossicles, Coronal ossicles, Squama parietal ossicles, Parietal notch bone, Inca bone, Apical bone, Double condiloyd facets); upper limbs (scapula- bipartite acromion, humerus- septal aperture); coxae (Pre-auricular sulcus) and lower limbs (femur- Riding facets; tibia- Lateral and Medial squatting).

2. Paleopathology and Entheses:

  • Detection of pathological evidences, location and different degrees of expression on the bones surfaces.
  • Oral diseases (dental carious lesions, dental calculus, periodontitis, abscesses and linear enamel hypoplasia),
  • Developmental-Metabolic (porotic hyperostosis, cribra orbitalia, cranii, palatine, femuri; scurvy; rickets; osteomalacia; enamel hypoplasia),
  • Degenerative joint disease (DJD), OA, Schmorl’s nodules,
  • Inflammatory disease (Osteomyelitis) and nonspecific (Periostitis)
  • Congenital,
  • Neoplastic,
  • Trauma.
  • Entheseal changes on shoulders, upper limbs, coxae and lower limbs, will be analysed according to Villotte (2006, 2010).
  • Activity markers indicating horseback riding syndrome.

3. Stable Isotopes:

  • Diet: Carbon (δ13C), Nitrogen (δ15N).
  • Mobility: Sulphur (δ34S).
  • Analyses of animal bones found in the same sites of the human remains, for the human-faunal trophic level
  •  All the geochemical and paleobiological results will be published in international journals (Additional details in the Activities section). The final work will be discussed in a cumulative PhD thesis.
Trauma patterns and injury prevalence in early medieval Säben‐Sabiona, Italy
Tumler D, Paladin A, Zink A (2021)
Journal article
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

More information: https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.2993



Early medieval Italian Alps: reconstructing diet and mobility in the valleys
Paladin A., Moghaddam N., Stawinoga A.E., Inga S., Depellegrin V., Tecchiati U., Lösch and Zink A (2020)
Journal article


Early medieval Italian Alps: reconstructing diet and mobility in the valleys
Paladin A, Moghaddam N, Stawinoga AE, Siebke I, Depellegrin V, Tecchiati U, Lösch S, Zink A (2020)
Journal article
Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences



Perimortem sharp force trauma in an individual from the early medieval cemetery of Säben-Sabiona in South Tyrol, Italy
Tumler D, Paladin A, Zink A (2019)
Journal article
International Journal of Paleopathology



Diet and Population Mobility in the Early Medieval Alpine area (Italy)
Paladin A, Moghaddam N, Siebke IK, Stawinoga AE, Coia V, Lösch S, Zink A (2018)

Conference: 8th International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology ISBA 2018 | Jena | 18.9.2018 - 21.9.2018

Vitamin deficiency in Early Medieval sub-adults: indications for metabolic disorders in the Eastern Italian Alps
Paladin A, Tumler D, Zink A (2018)

Conference: 22nd European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association | Zagreb | 28.8.2018 - 1.9.2018

Evidence of probable subadult scurvy in the Early Medieval cemetery of Castel Tirolo, South Tyrol, Italy
Paladin A, Wahl J, Zink A (2018)
Journal article
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology



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