Science's 'The Thousand-Year Graveyard' Earns Archaeology Writing Award

An older woman was buried in a hurry in the mid-1800s at Badia Pozzeveri graveyard in Altopascio, Italy. She was entombed in lime, probably to quell infection during an epidemic. Archaeological research at this graveyard was the subject of an award-winning news feature in Science. | Francesco Coschino

Science reporter Ann Gibbons has received the Society for American Archaeology's annual Gene S. Stuart Award for her behind-the-scenes coverage of an archaeological investigation at an ancient Italian burial ground.

The award recognizes Gibbons' reporting in 'The Thousand-Year Graveyard,' a special multimedia story featuring the ongoing work of archaeologists to uncover secrets about medieval European life from the bones of monks, peasants, soldiers and travelers buried at the Badia Pozzeveri graveyard in Altopascio, Italy. Published in December 2013, the online piece is Science's first mixed-media project of this scale. News Editor Tim Appenzeller said he was eager and enthusiastic to incorporate more video, photography, and digital storytelling techniques into the journal's online coverage.

"I think we're getting the award for the quality of story itself, but we're also very proud of the way we told it, through this multimedia, digital-first form," said Appenzeller. "To stand out from the crowd I think you need to do stories that are distinctive, and the way to do that is to produce reporting that no one else has."

Students at a field school excavated dozens of skeletons. | Francesco Coschino

From the beginning, Gibbons and Science's team, led by Deputy News Editor Elizabeth Culotta, believed the complex story could best be told online with the support of image slideshows, animation and videos. Interspersed within the written narrative, the multimedia helped explain the historical significance of the region and illustrate the investigative techniques used to examine the lives of the people buried over a thousand-year period near the now-decrepit Abbey of St. Peter.

"It's obviously a delicious story about health and disease in ancient times. It was an interesting site, it was a crossroads for pilgrims and armies, so it had a lot of rich historical context," said Appenzeller. "But also we saw a chance to do a story about how science works." Team members included producer Dan Berger, developer Chris Coleman, multi-media producer Meghna Sachdev, and designer Chrystal Smith.

As the project continues, archaeologists from Ohio State University and the University of Pisa hope to unearth more clues about disease epidemics, the nutrition and health of the deceased, burial traditions, and the regional transfer of pathogens, goods, and knowledge.

Given annually, the Gene S. Stuart Award recognizes the author of the most interesting and outstanding original newspaper or magazine story published in the past year that enhances the public understanding of archaeology. Gibbons received $2,000 and a plaque at an awards ceremony on Friday, 25 April at the Society for American Archaeology's annual meeting, in Austin, Texas.