What is a Bioarchaeologist?
Prof. Silmarien Szilagyi
With a new school year comes a new column, this time about the niche topic of bioarchaeology. My first confession is that I almost always get asked what bioarchaeology is. In the broadest sense, bioarchaeology, or osteoarchaeology, is a subset of anthropology that deals with the scientific study of human remains from archaeological sites. Its practical applications range from basic skeletal analysis to paleopathology and stable isotope analysis.
Bioarchaeologists excavate things, just like regular archaeologists do. This leads to my second confession: no, we are not like Indiana Jones, because most of us have yet to be chased by Nazis. Or chased by a tribe of angry Amazonians. Or chucked into an Egyptian temple buried under the sand...with venomous snakes. But sometimes we do work in stressful or even dangerous situations. When my colleagues go on a dig in Egypt, armed guards are often present, mostly to deter would-be looters. Another colleague was trekking up the Andes Mountains in Peru and was held at knifepoint. Yet another colleague must acquire special permission from the US government to travel to Sudan to bring back research samples. Those are somewhat extraordinary circumstances, however; usually, we just have to contend with a period lack of electricity, extreme weather conditions (heat, cold, rain, humidity, and aridity), dodgy satellite reception, and long travel times. We're a tough bunch, I would say.
Confession #3: Like Indy, the majority of us also teach. If you're a bioarchaeologist (or any other anthropologist) in America, you must teach, because otherwise, you cannot apply for grants to fund your research. While most of us do enjoy teaching, research is our first love. We have two professions, really--professor and researcher, and, if you're a lowly adjunct professor like me, you have to do your own lab work. So my life during the school year revolves around bioarchaeology. Good job that I love it.
That leads me to my fourth confession. Bioarchaeology is not a profession for the faint of heart. Sometimes there are gross sights and smells (mummies aren't always the most fragrant); we often have two full-time jobs; working conditions on excavations can be difficult; comparatively, we don't earn much money; we have to explain that yes, what we do is science; we spend a lot of time in school (as much as doctors); and we have to fight tooth and nail for funding. But if you put in the time and effort, the teaching is incredibly rewarding and our research is nothing short of magical.
Scientifics are slightly geeky additions that have been with us since the eagle has known how to fly. Okay, not that long, but it's a nifty category that separates it from the usual ramble of articles.