Bone Research Studies Romanian Social Structure, Health in Aging

Bioarchaeologist Armando Anzellini’s work includes using Raman spectroscopy and isotope ratio analysis to study human remains.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Videography by

Dan Collins

In Székelyföld, an ethnically Hungarian region of Romania that once fought for its existence during a period of dictatorship, people are still trying to learn more about the way their ancestors were buried, according to Armando Anzellini.

Three different burial methods were used in the community’s Romanian graveyard, but there is no information as to why.

Anzellini, a bioarchaeologist, forensic anthropologist and assistant professor of anthropology, has been invited by research colleagues to assist in analyzing remains from the burial site, using isotope ratio analysis, to figure out if there is a social or temporal reason for the differences.

It’s one of three projects either ongoing, or just completed, in Anzellini’s Bioarchaeology & Skeletal Biology Lab at Lehigh. Anzellini, who is often assisted by undergraduate research assistants from a variety of disciplines, is also studying the biomechanics of bone—how bone reacts to activity by doing three-dimensional models of the bone. It’s possible the research, in conjunction with research others have done, can one day prevent or treat bone-related ailments. And he just completed a project using Raman spectroscopy, which uses a low-powered laser and the wavelength of light scattered to determine molecular structure.

With isotope ratio analysis and the Romanian remains, Anzellini uses various chemicals, depending on his end goal, on either bone or teeth that are broken into tiny pieces. To study collagen, the organic part of bones, Anzellini uses hydrochloric acid to eat away at the mineral of bone, leaving just collagen behind. To study the mineral, he uses a concentrated version of hydrogen peroxide or sodium hypochlorite bleach to rid the sample of the organic material.

Armando Anzellini in his lab

Armando Anzellini is working on numerous projects in the Bioarchaeology & Skeletal Biology Lab at Lehigh using different methods to analyze bones and remains, including isotope ratio analysis and Raman spectroscopy.

Anzellini’s lab preps the specimens, separating the components so they’re completely cleaned and ready to be analyzed by another lab, which vaporizes and ionizes the materials before accelerating them through a magnet on a curve. During this process, the heavier isotopes have more momentum and don’t curve as much as the lighter isotopes, which allows the lab to determine the number of heavier elements versus lighter elements.

Once the isotope ratios for each element have been determined, Anzellini says they can determine what type of diet people had through carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. For example, he says, corn tends to have heavier carbon than wheat. Carbon can also show how much protein intake is from plants versus animals. Nitrogen reveals the amount of protein and where the protein comes from. Anzellini says a diet of seafood or river fish will have more of the heavier form of nitrogen than one that consists mostly of cow or deer meat. And oxygen can show the source of drinking water—whether it came from local rivers, a well, reservoir or lake—as well as the geographic location of the water source.

“In combination, we can use all of these pieces of evidence to see where people are coming from, what kind of foods they're eating,” Anzellini says. “How much access to different kinds of food do they have? Are they eating mostly domesticated versus not domesticated animals or plants? Are they eating a lot of meat? Or are they really focusing on plants?”

Once that information is compiled, Anzellini says he can compare it to other archaeological data to determine the social structure and possibly provide insight into the different burial methods.

“Are the people that have the more elaborate clothing also eating more meat?” Anzellini says. “Or is it the opposite? Are they eating more plants, but domesticated plants? Are the people that are immigrants, because they're coming from somewhere completely different, being treated differently than the people who were born and raised in a particular area? Or are they getting completely assimilated into that society? We can use all of these different bits of information to try to reconstruct society in the past.”

We can use all of these different bits of information to try to reconstruct society in the past.

Armando Anzellini, assistant professor of anthropology

Despite getting permission from descendant communities, making sure those communities get all the information from the research and the researchers trying to minimize how invasive they are, Anzellini says the process is still destructive—taking pieces of bones from humans. In the long term, he says, he hopes that the use of Raman spectroscopy as a proxy in other research, such as another study he just finished, will lead to a less destructive process.

Raman spectroscopy

Raman spectroscopy is a method that uses a low-powered laser aimed at a specific material. In his research, Anzellini says he used an infrared laser (1064nm excitation laser) on human remains. Since infrared light is just beyond the spectrum of visible light, Anzellini says it doesn’t damage the specimens, maybe just gives off a little bit of heat.

The system providing the light also picks up the scattered light from the material, and from the wavelengths of light scattered, the molecular structure can be determined.

In addition to trying to use the molecular data gathered “as a proxy” for his isotope ratio analysis, Anzellini says the work also helps determine how degraded bone material is and how well the specimen was preserved.

Biomechanics

The other of Anzellini’s projects involves biomechanics. Bone, Anzellini explains, reacts to the pressures and activities a person partakes in, and the bone can completely change shape based on the activity. He said sometimes there are significant differences in the shape of the tibia of someone who regularly runs versus someone who regularly swims.

One way to study how the bone reacts is through CT scans of the bone. Anzellini says he then creates solid body models of the bone and then puts those models into a system called finite element analysis.

Model bones

Armando Anzellini is often assisted by undergraduate research assistants from a variety of disciplines in the Bioarchaeology & Skeletal Biology Lab at Lehigh.

“We model what it looks like when you compress bone in a particular direction,” Anzellini says. “If you're pressing it in this direction, or that direction, the system does some differential equations and then tells us how that stress gets distributed across the bone and how much the bone actually will bend and change shape as a result of these pressures.”

He says the project, which is possible through individuals who donated their skeletal remains to the University of Tennessee's skeletal collection, deals with changes occurring related to age.

In addition to activity changing the shape of the bone, Anzellini says age is also a factor, but it’s unclear why exactly.

“What we do know is that your bone, as you get older, becomes more mineralized. It actually becomes more mineral and less organic, which means it is less flexible,” Anzellini says. “It gets a little bit more brittle. It's why our grandparents or great grandparents break a hip much easier than we do. … The hypothesis that we kind of have is that changes in shape are potentially the bone reacting to that increased brittleness, by changing shape to try to account for it in a way.”

To better understand what he describes as “super complex” mechanisms, he uses CT scans from individuals starting in their 20s, through others in their 90s, to run simulations and see if the distribution of the stresses on the bones changes as they get older and the bone shape changes.

While the goal, he says, is trying to better understand the patterns of bone health in aging, this research could one day have potential health benefits for people as they age, or allow doctors options for treatment for, or prevention of, bone related ailments, when applied with other completed research.

Regardless of the work, Anzellini encourages student research assistants and highlights the importance they play in his lab.

“When I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work in labs with professors,” Anzellini says. “I had the opportunity to be taken into the field and do some archaeology. And I want to give that opportunity to the students too.”

When I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work in labs with professors. I had the opportunity to be taken into the field and do some archaeology. And I want to give that opportunity to the students too.

Armando Anzellini, assistant professor of anthropology

While only one or two students are present in the lab at the same time, Anzellini says he has had a total of about five to 10 students assisting each semester.

Connor Malinger ’26 began working in the lab in Spring 2023. He began in-person, working on demineralizing bone samples and isolating collagen for later analysis with Anzellini’s isotope ratio analysis but now is working virtually, preparing 3D models of CT scans of bones with Anzellini’s biomechanics work.

He says he was interested in anthropology and initially just thought working in a lab would be “a cool experience,” but now has switched his major to anthropology.

“My favorite part is when I get in a flow and can automatically work through the protocols,” Malinger says. “There's a lot of early frustration and small adjustments that I needed to make, but now it's almost always enjoyable. Besides that, I also really enjoy the feeling that I am a part of the creation of a real product/study. In classes, often it's difficult to make the connection to what a future beyond college in the field might look like but this really helps me get a better glimpse of that.”

The lab is interdisciplinary as well, as Anzellini has had students majoring in subjects including biology, journalism and political science, not just anthropology.

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Videography by

Dan Collins

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