Ciao, Venezia!

Today is our last day in Venice. We had an amazing time in this beautiful city! We will truly miss it. Our final report is  available on this blog, in case you’d like to check out our deliverables. We would like to thank everyone that participated in the Genographic Project DNA testing, in addition to our advisors, our collaborators and anyone else that helped us with our project. We are very grateful!

Our time in Venice is drawing to a close! To showcase what we have been working on this semester, we will be having our final presentation Tuesday, December 15, 2009. It will begin around 10:00am and last about an hour. Two of our associate groups will be presenting directly following our presentation, so you can get a real feel for what the Venice Project Center is all about. There is no need to stay for all of them, but you are welcome to! To read about the rest of the presentations and the projects click here.

Funeral For Venice

Photo from the Funeral

On November 14, the four of us attended the Funeral for Venice. The Funeral was established by Venessia.com to raise awareness for the sinking population of Venetians. Recently, the population dipped below 60,000 residents, less than half of the population following WWII (150,000). There was much press coverage for the event, which was expected, as we attended the press conference at Ca D’Oro Hotel in Venice the week prior (you can find a blog about the press conference below). The Funeral officially began 12:00 PM, but we were asked to meet with some reporters beforehand at Stazione Santa Lucia, Venice’s train station. We were only expecting one or two reporters, however, about one dozen showed up. The reporters quickly swarmed us, and many of us were interview by national newspapers including BBC, NY Times, Boston Globe, CNN, and Polish Television, among others. We collected several samples from volunteers, even reporters, during this pre-Funeral session. After nearly one hour of interviews and photographs, we packed up our DNA sampling kits and headed to the Funeral.

Andrew collecting a DNA sample

The Funeral for Venice began at Santa Lucia and ended at Rialto via the Grand Canal. Two of us (Ben and Andrew) were fortunate enough

to actually ride in the procession, along with Professor Gibson, while Jackie and Debbie went backhome to change out of their fashion fopas (rain boots). Dozens of boats lined the Grand Canal. There was even a pianist! Eventually the

boats docked at Rialto where the Funeral continued with several speeches and ultimately, the smashing of a coffin, symbolizing the “death of Venice.”

Once we were docked, we set up shop off to the side of the main attraction, where we could collect DNA samples. The Funeral attracted hundreds of locals and tourist, so we were fortunate to collect many samples. In total, we collected approximately 50 DNA samples, bringing our grand total to 129 as of November 14. As of today, we’ve collected 150 samples out of 300.

We will continue our testing in hopes of reaching our initial goal of 300.

On Monday, November 23rd, we had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Comas of the Unitat de Biologia Evolutiva at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. He is our collaborator from the National Geographic Genographic Project, and is performing the DNA analysis for us in his laboratory. We knew we were in for an exciting tour of the facilities before we even met Dr. Comas, judging only from the outer appearance of the building.

Outside view of building housing the labs

The modern building shone in the warm Barcelona sun, surrounded by countless palm trees. In amazement we entered the lobby, where the receptionist asked for our student IDs, and then presented us with visitor ones. Dr. Comas’ office was located on the 4th floor, in the Evolutionary Biology department. As we waited in front of his office door, a casually dressed man ran towards us and warmly introduced himself as David Comas. His passion and intelligence in the field immediately became obvious as he explained the process of analyzing a DNA sample.
The DNA is first extracted from the saliva sample. This step is usually successful, but there are occasions on which the scientists are unable to recover any DNA. The known genetic regions are then sequenced and compared to carefully reconstruct the migratory pattern of that individual’s DNA. This process is not easily accomplished, and the results are available only after a few months.
Dr. Comas informed us that 200-300 samples would suffice to create a migratory route for people of Venetian origins. He also agreed to aid us in our attempts to compare Venetian DNA with that of the Paphlagonians, Central Europeans, and people’s from other parts of Europe such as Brittany, France to determine the true origins of the Veneti. The Genographic Project already has sufficient DNA samples from these regions in its database, and Dr. Comas agreed to compare them with those of the Venetians.

Freezer where the DNA samples are stored

Afterwards, we excitedly accepted a tour of the laboratory, where we were able to see the machines that carry out the sequencing and where the samples are stored. He let us know that a few of these machines had actually been donated by the Genographic Project to aid in the sequencing of the samples.

One of the machines that carries out DNA sequencing

Our tour ended with a walk unto one of the gorgeous balconies of the facility.  Our jaws dropped at the incredible beach view and at the architecture which they have the pleasure of experiencing every day. Dr. Comas told us of the beach volleyball tournament all the labs participate in every summer, followed by perhaps our favorite quote of the visit, “It’s hard to work here”.  It was a great opportunity to snag a peek at what goes on behind the scenes of the Genographic Project, and we can’t wait to use the rest of the kits so that the Venetian DNA analysis can begin as soon as possible.

“It’s hard to work here”

On October 30th, we had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Marco Bortoletto’s current archaeological dig at the Chiesa Santa Maria Assunta o del Gesuiti.

Church entrance

Church entrance

Chiesa dei Friari

Church view from the distance

The Baroque architecture was awe-inspiring, and can even be seen from the boats passing by the Fondamenta Nove stop. The original church in the 12th century belonged to the Crociferi order, and was bought in 1657 by the Jesuits. Between 1715 and 1730, they rebuilt the church with its Baroque accents and flowing figures, paid for by the Manin family. They also built a hospital and a convent along with the church, to create a large complex of buildings (Veneziasi.it).

Dr. Bortoletto informed us  that this space was also a medical teaching facility at some point, as they had discovered the skeletons of corpses used by medical students. The complexes are currently being renovated in hopes of transforming them into dormitories for future Venetian university students. We began our tour by entering into the first of numerous clusters, a square-shaped open area surrounded by many brick buildings. Immediately we encountered a hole in the ground with various layers exposed where archaeologists had been excavating.  Walking deeper into the church we came upon an area where an altar had been, only a circular remnant left as proof of its existence. Soon thereafter Dr. Bortoletto pointed out diagonal sections of bricks crossing and sometimes layering on top of each other. He explained that these were the foundations of the monk houses, not all from the same period. The differences in the brick walls and also in the dirt layers indicated that these buildings came from different time periods. The dating of an area and the objects found in it is made possible using this kind of relative-dating principle, which is applicable to all of archaeology.

Each excavation site was littered with white, numbered rectangular pieces of paper. Dr. Bortoletto explained that these numbers reference the Unita Stratigrafica (US) forms that must be filled out for each and every layer and object discovered. A sample of each numbered artifact is also collected in a plastic baggie, to be later sent to the Soprintendenza Archeologica del Veneto, the entity that oversees archaeological processes in Venice. An expert from the Soprintendenza will eventually assess this artifact and complete an official RA form. This form will be numbered according to the official system used by the entire country, to be stored among the thousands of others.
Our tour concluded with a look inside one of the church rooms. Its ceilings were adorned with beautiful paintings encircled by green vines and leaves, although for many of them, the central art piece had been painted over. Dr. Bortoletto informed us that these paintings depicted Fascist symbols. After the fall of Fascism, these designs were considered offensive, and so were erased. The paintings that remained displayed smaller symbols, and thus were allowed to persist. These symbols actually help the archaeologists to date the art, as they narrow down the time period in which they were created to the beginning of Fascism.  In a place as rich in history as Venice, every detail is worth studying. It is a city in which archaeology thrives, and a place in which past human tales remains to be discovered. Our visit was a window into the archaeological process of Venice, and will help us to create a system to effectively aid archaeologists.


frari churchWe, as a team, were lucky enough to be able to visit the Venice State Archive with our advisors, Professors Fabio Carrera and Dan Gibson. Our visit was on Friday, November 6th. We left our apartment with plenty of time to get lost, since we had never been to this part of Venice before. Armed with our less-than-excellent map, we set off with a general idea of where the archive should be. It is housed in the former convent of the Santa Maria dei Frari. Fortunately, it is quite a large church, because we got a little lost on the way. We could see the clock tower from where we were, so we used that to find our way. It is one of the most astounding sights I have ever seen. We walked along one side of the church, and found our way to the main entrance of the archive. Our advisors met us there. We were given a tour by, Giovanni, one of the employees of the archive, also a good friend of Professor Carrera. He gave us a detailed explanation of how the archive works.  Apparently, it is required by law that any individual can enter the archive and use its documents for research. Individuals may request to see the actual documents, or settle for digital or paper copies of the original source material. The Study Room of the archive is where individuals go to look over the documents, since these are not allowed to exit the archive. It is quite a large room, with carefully arranged wooden tables and chairs. the study roomPast the Study Room is the first cloister, called the Cloister of the Holy Trinity. It is almost a perfect square, adorned with statues and sculptures that pay homage to the Holy Trinity. It is very beautiful. We continued our tour up some very dimly lit stairs, to where the actual documents are kept. My team and I had seen pictures of the documents, but it was astounding to see them in person. The shelves were stacked up to the ceiling, and there was not a single shelf that was not filled to capacity. The rows seemed to continue endlessly in all directions. Just the dates of the books alone were enough to make our jaws hit the floor. Documents dating back to the 1200s, 1300s, 1400s, et cetera, are still in readable condition. Each document in a series is numbered, and kept in precise order. Each region of shelves is dedicated to a particular office of the Venetian Republic. Our “tour guide” informed us that the original organizers of the archive wanted to mirror, as much as possible, theshelves organizational method used in the Ducal Palace, when all of the official documents were held there. Past this first room of documents, was another room where workers were trying to recreate an ancient map that was beginning to tear and fall apart. I believe it was from the Napoleonic era, but I cannot be sure. The map took up the entire table, and was incredibly detailed. We moved on to another room, where another individual was working on scanning an ancient map, using a scanner that stood vertically and covered an entire wall. This scanner used special techniques to remove wrinkles from the parchment and to enhance what was depicted on it. The machine does several passes scanning the image, and then the individual works to patch the different fragments together on the computer program. It seems to be quite a painstaking, but worthwhile process. Similarly, other individuals within the archive work with regular written documents, and more “normal” scanning techniques to scan and copy images of the pages. These pages are the ones that become available to people who wish to use the documents in the Study Room. Most of these copies are done on a need-only basis, but others are done because the documents are in danger of becoming illegible. Our last stop was to see the director of the Venice State Archive, to explain what it is we are trying to accomplish with Uscript, and how it could potentially benefit the transcription processes in the archive. Fortunately, our advisor speaks Italian, so he was able to explain much better than we alone could. Our new friend and contact, who led us on this tour of the archive, told us that we should arrange another visit to enable us to better appreciate the age of the documents. Thus, we plan on going back within the next few weeks, to spend more time exploring this wealth of history and information.

DNA Testing Update

Upon arriving to Venice, Italy, it was learned that exactly 81 DNA samples were collected from the original 300. Through the first two weeks, a lot has been going on regarding the DNA aspect of our project. Week one was spent coordinating testing dates with several large organizations, ArcheoClub, a Venice archaeology group, 40xVenezia, a Venice political group, and Venessia.com, another Venice political group.

There are several requirements for DNA testing. First, you must be male. Because the National Genographic Genographic Project tests Y-DNA, only male DNA can be collected, since females do not have Y-chromosomes. Second, you must be 18 years of age or older. Last, you must have grandparents who were from the Veneto region (Northeast) of Italy.

Week one also lead us to visit the Venice boat warehouse during one of the Regatta’s. Professor Carerra aided us with translation with some of the participants. We collected four samples while at the Regatta. We were treated to lunch.

Following our visit to the warehouse, we collected several additional samples through connections of Professor Carrera. During Week two, we met with Matteo Secco, a member of Vessenia.com. He and his organization have planned “The Funeral For Venice,” which is an event scheduled for November 14. The Funeral’s purpose is to bring awareness to the shrinking population of Venice, which, for the first time, has dipped below 60,000. Through conversation with Matteo, it was arranged that our group will be attendance for the funeral to collect DNA samples from Venetians. He invited us to the Funeral For Venice press-conference on November 7. At the press-conference, we alerted the media of our DNA project. We collected several samples, to bring our grand total to 89.

Our group hopes to collect dozens of samples at the Funeral for Venice this weekend. Large scale events such as these are the most feasible way of collecting DNA samples. We must obtain 100 samples before testing can begin in the Barcelona Genographic Labs, however, we aim to exhaust all 300 DNA kits, as outlined in our Methodology in our Final Project Proposal.