CCPA Summer Series 2018: Haagerup Excavation: Seeing through Skeletons into Our Past

CCPA Summer Series 2018: Haagerup Excavation: Seeing through Skeletons into Our Past

CCPA Note: Today’s blog starts our annual summer series, where Haverford students funded through college sponsored opportunities share their experiences. We are so excited for the series to begin, and look forward to an exciting summer ahead!

By Yifan Zhang

This summer, I have the amazing opportunity to excavate a medieval cemetery on the island of Fyn in Denmark. Haagerup archaeological campaign is organized by the Unit of Anthropology (ADBOU) at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), and I will be working with bioarchaeologists from SDU and Penn State. Through participating in this exciting project, I will gain valuable fieldwork experience and learn bioarchaeological knowledge that is not taught at Haverford. What’s more, few things could be more rewarding than personally contributing to an international research project alongside leading scholars in the field! All of these are made possible by the generosity of Ms. Deborah Lafer-Scher and the kind support from CCPA, for which I am genuinely thankful.

Haagerup cemetery was abandoned after the Protestant Reformation in Denmark and was in use for approximately five centuries, serving a local rural parish. Archaeologists estimate that there are 3000 burials in this site. So what can we learn from studying thousands of skeletons? Skeletal remains are fascinating carriers of information. When other organic materials and soft tissues have decomposed, bones persist in the soil. Not only do they provide us with the demographic profile of past populations, but diet, epidemic, disease, famine, and violence also leave marks on the bone. Numerous interesting questions, which are otherwise mysteries, can now be answers with the information we collect from the skeletal remains.

Personally, I am most interested in the paleodemographic and paleoepidemiological studies of the skeletons. My first-semester biological anthropology class at Bryn Mawr debunked my previous assumption about diseases by introducing me to a mind-blowing idea, that human sociocultural interactions are actively shaping our health. I am utterly fascinated by how sociocultural interactions can cause a concrete impact on one’s biology without exerting any direct physical stress. Appreciating the authenticity of archaeological discoveries, I aspire to study the biocultural interactions in the human past, especially how external factors such as class stratification, settlement structure, and migration may have influenced human health. In the framework of biocultural interaction, human skeletal remains recorded significant sociocultural stressors like a memory-card. Interpreting such memory-card will help to reconstruct sociocultural constructs like class, inequality, sexualization, integration and segregation in ancient societies.

To answers my questions regarding how sociocultural factors influenced disease, I need to incorporate knowledge of archaeology, paleopathology, and paleodemography, to name a few. Among those, bioarchaeology and paleopathology are pivotal, since skeletal remains will be my primary research objects and the most fundamental task is determining their pathological conditions. Haagerup will equip me with essential techniques for processing the unearthed remains and diagnosing abnormalities. In addition, I will learn to obtain key demographic indicators such as gender and age through osteoarchaeology component of the project, which are equally crucial for my paleodemography-focused interest. I read In the field report from last year that interesting demographic information has been retrieved from the excavation, which echoes perfectly my research interest. It is through the reconstruction of individual’s biological profile and then correlating it with the paleodemographic context that we can generalize underlying patterns of health and diseases in the population and therefore, produce theories of sociocultural constructs in ancient societies. This process helps us to eventually reach an accurate reconstruction of the human past.

Small classes and knowledgable faculty members at Bi-Co have support my interest in archaeology and anthropology tremendously. But the small size of the college also, more or less, limits the classroom sources available to us. However, college sponsored programs and funds largely make up the regrets left in the classroom. Again, I truly appreciate the support from Ms. Lafer-Scher and CCPA, without which my summer field training would not be possible. I will keep you all updated later in the summer!