Photo: That’s me on a big construction site holding onto a cow tibia. Photo by Jenn.
Osteoarcheology, or the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites, is an amazing career to have. It combines the best of both worlds (and yes, this is totally my own biased opinion) – archaeology and human osteology. It’s a branch of archaeology that requires very specific skills in the interpretation of human skeletal remains. The human skeleton is like a diary of our lives, recording nearly everything that happens to us over a lifetime. An osteoarchaeologist (or bioarchaeologist, as many call it) is trained in reading a skeleton to unlock all of that information. That information not only gives us an idea of an individual’s life, but also lets us know what life may have been like for that individual’s community. What does that mean? That means we get to learn about life in the past from the people who actually lived there. Pretty cool, right?!
Because it requires highly specified skills to become an osteoarchaeologist, it can be difficult to find the right resources to acquire those skills. Especially in Canada where our universities don’t always offer a broad variety of osteology courses (though there are some) and where there are even fewer opportunities to get the hands-on experience that is so important to osteoarchaeology. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to become an osteoarchaeologist. I found a way to do it, and I’m hoping my experiences will help those considering osteoarchaeology (or forensic anthropology) find a way to do it as well. Here’s my advice to you from my own experiences.
- Find a university that offers archaeology and human osteology. If you think you’re interested in osteoarchaeology than this is the first thing you need to do. Not all universities in Canada offer courses in human osteology or archaeology. So spend some time looking at schools across Canada (or whichever country you’d like to go to school in) and see what you find that fits your interests and budget.
- Take an intro course in archaeology, biological anthropology, an/or forensic anthropology. You might think you’re interested in osteoarch, but until you actually begin to study it you don’t really know what you’re in for. Shows like ‘Bones’ have been great for bringing the study of human osteology to the public eye (albeit in a forensic sense), but that doesn’t mean that what you’re seeing is accurate. I only figured out I was interested in osteoarch after taking an intro course on archaeology and an intro course on forensic anthropology. I fell in love with both topics and, after writing a research paper on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, realized that I could combine the two topics into one.
- Take as many courses as you can in osteology. To be an osteoarchaeologist, you need to know all you can about the human skeleton, including being able to idenfity/differentiate between normal variations and pathologies. In order to do this, you need to be able to take as many courses as you can related to human osteology/archaeology. Which goes back to point #1 on this list, finding a school where you can do that. I started studying anthropology at the University of British Columbia, which had some great archaeology courses but no osteology. One of my professors, who I had a great relationship with, suggested I look into the University of Alberta. Sure enough, U of A had (and still does have) a great number of human osteology courses covering a wide range of topics (adult osteology, juvenile osteology, osteoarchaeology, palaeopathology, etc.). I spent a couple of years at UBC and then transferred to U of A to finish my studies.
- Take a course in zooarchaeology.
A major part of osteoarch is being able to identify human remains. That’s where zooarchaeology becomes important. Zooarchaeology is the study of non-human skeleltal remains from archaeological sites. Taking a zooarch course will not only help you learn to identify animal remains (which you’ll be doing a lot of on archaeology sites), but you’ll also learn to differentiate between animal and human skeletal remains.
- Attend a field school that is osteoarchaeology-themed. Fields schools are highly recommended for all archaeology students, and there are schools out there which are focused on osteoarchaeology. Look online for available field schools and talk to others about the schools they attended. I went to a field school on Menorca (an island off the south coast of Spain), where we worked on excavating a Roman necropolis. We learned both excavation and lab techniques for working with human skeletal remains. A good friend of mine went to a field school in Poland, where they spent time excavating a cemetery underneath a farmer’s potato field. Check the fieldwork page on the Archaeological Institute of America‘s website for an amazing collection of field school/field work opportunities.
- Look for work-study programs being offered by your school. Many universities offer work-study programs offering paid work to undergraduate students for typically up to 10 hours a week. These are amazing opportunities to get hands-on laboratory experience and get paid for it! Yes, real money! Furthermore, in some cases the work you do can lead to getting your name on some publications. During my first year at UBC I was offered a work-study position in the archaeology lab, doing a variety of jobs. One of these jobs involved separating human remains out from other collected materials. During the second year, after my field school, the lab noticed that I now had experience working with human remains. As did another lab colleague (who is now one of my closest friends), who had just returned from her field school in Poland. The two of us were put together and tasked with the job of inventorying the lab’s human remains collection with the hopes they will be repatriated to their communities. It was a great chance to further develop the skills we were in the process of learning.
- Join associations/social media groups. Associations and social media groups (especially Facebook) offer you fantastic networking opportunities. They also often post job opportunities for both paid and volunteer work. And if you’re a student, some also offer grants and bursaries to be used towards either your projects or conferences. Many groups offer discounted membership for students, though prices can still add up quickly so don’t feel like you have to join them all at once. Or any at all. Social media groups are typically free to join. The Canadian Association for Physical Anthropology is one suggestion I would make for you to consider joining, as is the Canadian Archaeological Association .
- Attend and present at conferences. Just like volunteering and joining groups,
conferences are a great way to network and get your name out there. Presenting at conferences also looks great on a C.V., as you’re demonstrating your skills in research and the ability to present that research in a clear and understandable manner. Conferences can be expensive, however, you make sure you have a budget that will allow this. Many universities have their own conferences (such as the Frucht Student Memorial Conference) that offer a great starting point at an affordable price. Build up your confidence from there. And don’t feel intimidated at the prospect of public speaking, or putting your research on display! Everyone at a conference is there for the exact same reasons you are – to present your research and learn from others in a respectful and informative manner.
- Highlight all your osteology-related knowledge, skills, and experience on your C.V. You’ve gone to school and have the degree and now it’s time to find a job. Or you’re nearly finished your degree and want to start looking for a job for the summer months. Make sure you highlight all your osteology-related knowledge, skills, and experience on your C.V., including field schools. Almost all CRM companies will have encountered human skeletal remains, but not all have archaeologists who are trained to work with human skeletal remains. Highlighting the fact you have these specialized skills will make you stand out. Plus you should be proud of all the work you’ve been doing developing those skills! Show them off! But don’t be pretentious about it either.
- Recognize that you won’t only be working with human skeletal remains, but that will be part of your work. You’ve got the knowledge and the skills to be an
osteoarchaeologist, and it’s what you want to spend your life doing. It’s important to recognize that, unless you’ve been hired by an osteology laboratory, chances are you won’t be spending 100% of your working time with human skeletal remains. I work with skeletal remains a lot, but it’s not the only thing I do. I go on archaeological surveys. I excavate sites that don’t include burials. Sometimes I excavate sites which include burials that don’t have any skeletal remains left (taphonomic changes sometimes result in the entire skeleton disintegrating). My best advice is to make yourself a jack of all trades. Develop skills in other areas of archaeology to go along with the skills you have in osteoarchaeology.
Osteoarchaeology is an amazing career to have, but getting into it can be a long process that requires a lot of hard work and dedication. What I’ve mentioned above is how I found my way into osteoarchaeology, but the path isn’t the same for everyone. Use my advice as a starting point for your own journey. Good luck!