Katy Meyers is a graduate student in mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University.

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!



A Day in the Life of Bones Don’t Lie

That's me in a giant trench excavating for Campus Archaeology, found part of the first dormitory

That’s me in a giant trench excavating for Campus Archaeology, found part of the first dormitory

The Day of Archaeology is a digital celebration of the breadth and variety of archaeology that occurs throughout the world. It provides a snapshot of what different types of archaeologists do on a day to day basis. The goal is to increase “public awareness of the relevance and importance of archaeology to the modern world” (Day of Archaeology). I’ve participated in this event for the past two years, and I’m excited to be joining in again for my third year! I’m adding my perspective in two ways, the first is through my primary job as Campus Archaeologist of MSU. You can check out my Day of Archaeology post on Campus Archaeology here: Our Favorite Moments in Campus Archaeology which includes my favorite moment from digging this summer. Second, I can share what I’m doing on a daily basis.

Early Morning: I always start the day with a flavored coffee, and my current favorite is Macadamia Nut Cookie coffee that I have to order special online. Once I get that first sip into my system, I read up on the archaeology news. It’s important to keep up to date on what has been found, what new techniques are being used, and what may potentially serve as a new blog post for Bones Don’t Lie. I’ve found that starting the day like this prepares my brain for work. This morning I’m caught looking up the effects of corsets on bones; an odd topic for breakfast, but oh so intriguing.

Morning: I head into the office to start my job as Campus Archaeologist around 8am. The MSU Campus Archaeologist is a position held by a grad student, and involves running the day to day operations of the program including monitoring construction, excavating prior to construction, engaging with the campus community and conducting research on the archaeology of campus. It is a two year position, and I’ve been Campus Archaeologist for approximately 23 months. This means that my time today is going to be spent preparing for the new Campus Archaeologist. I’m hoping to get all of my reports finished before my predecessor begins. A quick break from writing to meet with the Chair of the Anthropology department to discuss my new job, and then I’m back to working on Campus Archaeology reports. We did about 6 archaeological surveys, so there is a lot of research and writing that needs to be done to complete the summer work.

Afternoon: This afternoon I’m working on writing up my research trip. As many of my Bones Don’t Lie readers know, I’ve been in England examining archaeological collections and meeting with various archaeologists to prepare for my dissertation proposal. Every day over the two weeks abroad I visited a different museum or university. All of that information needs to be collated and written up before it leaves my brain. When I think about my life as an archaeologist, I mostly remember the days in the dirt. Realistically though I spend most of my time at my computer writing up what I’ve been doing or what I intend to do. Archaeology is a few months of digging bookended by months of careful research, interpretation and writing.

Night: If it is a Monday or Wednesday night, that means I’m going to spend a couple hours researching and writing a new Bones Don’t Lie post. One of the things I love about writing a blog broadly on mortuary archaeology is that I get the chance to learn about a lot of different regions and time periods. Burial practices vary so much through time and space, and I love that I have a venue for sharing what I’ve learned about them. Tonight though, I’m doing something less scholarly because its Friday. I was inspired as a kid by Tomb Raider, and I still get a thrill playing archaeology themed video games. Admittedly, tonight I’m playing a grave robbing and completely not politically correct adventure game with archaeological undertones- Uncharted. These types of games allow me to feel something I only feel when digging- the sense of the unknown and the opportunity to uncover it. I’d rather be digging up a burial, learning who the skeleton inside was, and doing the hardcore research- but sometimes we need downtime, and games like these provide a quick fix for that desire.

Gaming in Archaeology

Today for me is probably not what you would call a typical archaeologist’s day; although it has become quite typical for me. I’m the head video game designer on the project Red Land Black Land. The game we are designing is a modification of Sid Meier’s Civilization V and is going to serve as an educational game about the development of Ancient Egypt. The game has an archaeological spin to it, in that we are modifying the advisors to be archaeologists instead of economists, diplomats or scientists.

Today I’m primarily working on the development of dialogue and content to the game. Instead of making witty remarks and pithy banter, the characters will have historically and archaeologically accurate facts to teach the players. Every word that comes from the advisors is based on archaeological, historical, or textual evidence. The work itself is actual quite similar to trying to prepare to do any fieldwork or analysis of Ancient Egypt, except instead of applying this knowledge to create questions for fieldwork I am developing questions that players can explore in the game.

Archaeology has had a bumpy relationship with video games. Characters like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft play on stereotypes that we as archaeologists have worked so hard to dispel. Through mainstream video games, the archaeologist is akin to an imperial looter, stealing from ‘primitive’ cultures and disregarding any from of academic or scientific process. Its not like Dr. Jones took the time to take careful notes on the provenience of the golden idol before having to make a mad dash out of the tomb. By creating accessible and most importantly fun video games that accurately represent archaeology and the process of interpreting the past we can help to create a better public understanding of what we do.

But the digital archaeologist/video game designer is only a third of who I am. For my mortuary archaeology, check out my site Bones Don’t Lie, and for public archaeology check out MSU Campus Archaeology


[Image from Flikr user Marta Manso and used under Creative Commons License]