mortuary archaeologist

Codes, Bones, and a Backstory

Happy Day of Archaeology 2014! It is a day where archaeologists from all around the world share what they are doing in order to spread awareness of the breadth and diversity of archaeology not only to the public, but to other archaeologists. For me, I always love learning about the different projects that people are working on, and learning how they are using similar methods and theories on completely different regions and time periods, or conversely examining a time period similar to mine in a unique manner. It is also a time when we learn what archaeologists really do: it’s not just digging in the dirt and interpreting fantastic burials. We spend a lot of time doing lab work and analysis.

Coding at my kitchen table

Coding at my kitchen table

Today when I woke up early, the sun was shining, there was enough dew on the ground to ensure easy digging, and there was a light breeze that meant outdoor work would be nice and cool. But I’m not digging today. I’m sitting inside at my desk coding cemetery data, which means that I’m taking archaeological reports on cemeteries and creating digital versions of them on my computer that I can use to run statistical and spatial tests. It is one of the parts of archaeology that is both mind-numbingly boring but also extremely insightful. As I go through each grave coding it for age, sex, type of coffin, presence or absence of artifacts, and 30 other variables, I start to make some connections and see patterns. For the most part though it is the most lackluster element of archaeology. So instead of recounting this day that has been beyond boring, I’m going to retell the story of how I came to be where I am.

I spent most of my summers as a child running up and down the gullies of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. I would often find fossils of brachiopods and trilobites, as well as old bottles and ceramics. My collections each day would be brought back up to my parents cabin for analysis. The first time I thought about becoming an archaeologist was when I began playing the first-ever version of Tomb Raider on my computer. My dad actually helped me find khaki shorts and a turquoise tank top so I could pretend to be her while exploring the gullies (of course it was the kid version, so it wasn’t that scandalous).

Working on my first archaeology dig in Ohio!

Working on my first archaeology dig in Ohio!

When I started college, I had chosen anthropology as my major and archaeology as my sub-field, not so much because I was interested in it, but because I loved history and wanted to travel. During my first undergraduate osteology course I fell in love with the study of human remains and mortuary practices. I wanted to piece together who the average person in the past was, and what their afterlife beliefs were. My first ever mortuary field school was in Giecz, Poland and other than some culture shock at the beginning, I really did enjoy it, and I knew that this was what I wanted to be.

After graduating, I became a Ph.D student at Syracuse University in their Bioarchaeology program. Despite doing well and enjoying my study materials, grad school wasn’t quite what I had expected. I was getting to study bones, but wasn’t learning anything about the context of the cemetery or culture. So I applied for a one-year Masters program at University of Edinburgh. It was the best decision I ever made. I left Syracuse, moved to Scotland, and spent an entire year completely immersed in osteology (I also did a lot of traveling around Scotland and did develop a taste for fine whiskey, but that’s a different story).

Excavating on MSUs campus

Excavating on MSU’s campus

After Edinburgh, I knew that I wanted to keep studying the dead, but I didn’t want to be a bioarchaeologist. I wanted to be a mortuary archaeologist who looked at death rituals, funerary behavior, and the entire archaeological culture in order to understand the dead. I was accepted into the Ph.D program at Michigan State University. Since starting there, I’ve been involved in a number of digital archaeology projects, traveled to Rome and England for research, and discovered that I’m truly passionate about learning about variation in mortuary practices. It was when I started at MSU that I began Bones Don’t Lie as a way to force myself to read a wide range of mortuary archaeology journal articles and stay up to date in the field.

My advice for anyone wanting to become a mortuary archaeologist is this:

  • Take geographic information systems classes, and take them early. It was something I was forced to learn during my undergraduate work, and I’m so glad I did. Being able to use mapping software is a major advantage.
  • Keep up to date in the field. You don’t need to write a blog, but set aside time to read from a range of journal articles to stay current with research and methods.
  • Don’t be afraid to change universities. If you aren’t happy in your program and it isn’t what you expected you can always change.
  • Take a one-year Masters course in osteology. You can a lot of experience quickly, and it aids the transition into grad school. The Ph.D is very different from undergrad, and can be a tough leap for some people.
  • Find a number of mentors to help guide you. Throughout my career I have been lucky enough to have a number of mentors that I could ask open and honest questions about my decisions.

Learn more about the Day of Archaeology on their website or Twitter!


Also, check out Heritage Jam today! I’ve submitted my Ieldran map project, and this year’s theme is death! So cool!