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Interview with Jaime Ullinger: Bioarchaeological Outreach

31 Oct

Jaime M. Ullinger is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Quinnipiac University in the United States of America, where she currently teaches numerous courses in biological anthropology.  Jaime gained her PhD from the Ohio State University and her research interests include the bioarchaeology of the Levant and the Near East, particularly the Early Bronze Age, which has seen Jaime produce a number of publications from sites across the region.  She is also interested in palaeopathology, dental pathology and mortuary archaeology.  Recently Jaime has presented the case of an enslaved individual from 18th c. Connecticut at the 2014 Palaeopathology Association meeting in Calgary, Canada, as an important study in public outreach and interaction.


These Bones of Mine: Hello Jaime, thank you very much for taking the time to join These Bones of Mine! For those that do not know you could you please tell us about yourself and your background?

Jaime Ullinger: Thank you for inviting me to participate.  I am a bioarchaeologist who looks at questions about diet, health, and genetic relatedness in past groups.  My interest in bioarchaeology began as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, where I had the amazing opportunity to work with some very inspiring mentors.  I got my M.A. at Arizona State University and my Ph.D. at The Ohio State University.

Again, I was very lucky to work with great mentors at both of those schools, where there are lots of bioarchaeologists!  My research interests are primarily in the Middle East generally, and the Levant more specifically (modern-day Jordan, Israel, West Bank), although I have also worked in Egypt and the American Southwest.

TBOM: Lets talk a little about your past projects and where this has led you to today. How did you become interested in working and researching in the Middle East and the Levant?

Jaime: As an undergraduate, I eventually discovered anthropology, and bioarchaeology more specifically.  I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, but when I applied, I didn’t have an interest in a particular region.  I worked for Dr. Susan Sheridan during my senior year at Notre Dame.  Toward the end of my senior year, she asked if I would be able to go to the Middle East with her and two other undergraduates to work on a skeletal collection.

I immediately, without thought, said “Yes!” While there, I worked with a collection that eventually became part of my master’s thesis.  That sparked my interest in the archaeology of the region, and the rest is history.  My advice to every undergraduate is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along.  You never know how it may alter your life in a positive and permanent way!

TBOM: That is some great advice and a point that I would recommend for all archaeology undergraduates!  Since that first trip you have produced a non-stop corpus of bioarchaeological research based on sites throughout the Levant, from the Early Bronze Age to the Byzantine period.  Do you feel that your work will stay largely focused on this area or are you actively involved in pursuing other avenues of research?

Jaime: My current and future research plans include the continuation of work in the Levant — particularly from the Early Bronze Age sites of Bab adh-Dhra’ (in Jordan) and Jericho (in the West Bank).  But, I have worked recently on a number of projects through the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University (BRIQ) that are not in the Middle East.  Two projects grew out of BRIQ’s relationship with the state archaeologist in Connecticut and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — one involving the skeleton of an enslaved man that had been on display at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT, the other related to human remains that were used in a Santeria/Palo Mayombe ritual.  I have also recently examined 17th-19th century skeletons from St. Bride’s Lower Cemetery, housed at the Museum of London.

TBOM: As mentioned you recently presented the important case of the enslaved man at the recent 2014 Palaeopathology Association annual conference in Calgary, Alberta, and suggested that the case has a vital significance for public bioarchaeology.  Why is this the case?  Do you think it is important that the public have an understanding of the work of bioarchaeologists, and archaeology, in general?

Jaime: I feel incredibly privileged to have worked with Mr. Fortune – the man who was enslaved, and subsequently used as a teaching skeleton.  His story is important for a number of reasons.  It is not uncommon to hear people in the Northeast of the US saying that slavery was something that “only happened in the South”.  His skeleton was a visible and tangible reminder that slavery was a vital part of the economy in most of the United States in the 18th century.  He was afforded no greater freedom in death, as he was turned into a teaching skeleton and inherited by numerous ancestors of the bone surgeon that owned him before going on display as a curiosity at the Mattatuck Museum.

The museum removed Fortune from display following the Civil Rights Movement, and has worked tirelessly with the local Waterbury, CT community in order to arrive at a consensus regarding his final disposition.  The Mattatuck Museum’s African-American History Project Committee (AAHPC) has been involved in the discussion for decades, debating all sides of the issue.  The main questions were: Should he be buried? Should he be stored for future research?  Another powerful side to this story is the amount of thoughtful discussion that went into the ultimate decision that he should be buried.

From a bioarchaeologist’s perspective, I am grateful that we were able to examine his skeleton one last time before he was buried.  And, we were able to learn some things about his skeleton that hadn’t been identified in earlier examinations.  For me, this was important because it showed just how much information can be obtained from the skeleton.  I have participated in a number of group panels, and discussion with members of the AAHPC, and that has reaffirmed that people generally value the information that can be learned from a skeleton — it is an objective, scientific approach to learning about the past.  And, in some ways, it was the only way that Fortune could actually speak on his own.  That was a very powerful realization.

I think it is very important to discuss bioarchaeology in a public setting.  We can learn an incredible amount of information from the things that people leave behind (the archaeology part of bioarchaeology), and we can learn about the people themselves from their skeletons (the “bio” portion).  Giving a voice to skeletons that may not have had a voice in life is an incredibly powerful tool, and most people that I have met want to know more about Mr. Fortune and what we can determine about his life and death.

TBOM: That is great to hear that the outcome of working with Mr. Fortune benefited the community, but also (and perhaps most importantly) that it resulted in him being given a final and respectful resting place.  As bioarchaeologists we must always respect the fact that whilst we work with skeletons in our daily lives, we must also remember they are the physical remains of an individual person who had once lived.  Do you think that bioarchaeologists, or archaeologists in general, are doing enough to publicize their work?  Or is there an area that you think we could improve on?

Jaime: I think that there are a lot of great bioarchaeologists and archaeologists who are communicating their work to a much larger community than just academics.  There are a number of blogs that report on original research, as well as current news stories.  And, there are typically several sessions at annual meetings related to community archaeology and archaeological heritage/ethics.  We can always make improvements, but I think that this has become a much more visible and important part of academia.

TBOM:  I think that even since I started this blog there has been an incredible and diverse array of archaeological and bioarchaeological blogs appearing all the time.  It is a great indication of the initiative of individuals and organisations to spread the word about the value of archaeology.  You previously mentioned the Santeria Palo Mayombe ritual, could you give us a little insight into what this is and what your investigation and research consisted of?

The Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac was contacted about a ceramic vessel that had a human skull inside (visible with the naked eye), as well as other items: feathers, stone, sand, etc.  It had been recovered with a box of bones from an apartment in Connecticut.  The ceramic vessel was viewed with CT and x-ray in order to further determine its contents before “excavation” of the pot.  Most likely, all of the components were used in Santeria or Palo Mayombe rituals.  We digitally imaged the vessel (and its contents) as well as the accompanying skeleton, and tried to learn as much as possible about the skeletal remains, which we believe were historic.

In addition, I taught a forensic anthropology class last spring, where pairs of students worked together in order to address multiple questions about the vessel and remains, such as: Were marks on the bones from decomposition, or part of a ritual process? What parts of the skeleton were present, and did they have particular meaning? Can we match the excavated artifacts with particular images in the CT scans? What was written on the numerous sticks in the pot, and what did it mean?  We wanted to understand the event from a greater, biocultural perspective.

TBOM: That is a fascinating find, and one that I imagine could be fairly rare.  Finally Jaime, I wonder what advice you would give to the budding bioarchaeologists and human osteologists out there.  You have already highlighted the need to seize each and every opportunity, but do you have any other advice or guidance that you could give?

While I think it is important to seize every opportunity that comes along, it’s also important to remember that you can “make” many of those opportunities appear.  Talk with faculty and fellow graduate students about what they are working on.  Volunteer in a lab.  Ask a professor if they need assistance with research.  Attend conferences if possible.

Above all, remember that you love what you study.  At times, it can be difficult to pursue a career in academia, and you may meet naysayers along the way.  But, not many people can say that they are passionate about their work.  I feel lucky to be one of those people.

TBOM: Thank you very much for taking part and good luck with your continuing research!

Further Information

  • Jaime Ullinger’s research profile on academic.edu can be found here, which details some of her recent bioarchaeological publications.
  • Read about recent research by members of the Palaeopathology Association here in their41st annual North American Meeting in Calgary April 2014, including Jaime’s fascinating research abstract on the life and death of Mr Fortune.  Head to the Mattatuck Museum’s site on Mr Fortune to learn about his life.
  • Have a read about life and bioarchaeological study at Notre Dame University with this coffee interview with Dr Susan Sheridan here.

Select Bibliography

Ullinger, J. M. 2002. Early Christian Pilgrimage to a Byzantine Monastery in Jerusalem — A Dental Perspective. Dental Anthropology. 16 (1): 22-25. (Open Access).

Ullinger, J. M., Sheridan, S. G. & Ortner, D. J. 2012. Daily Activity and Lower Limb Modification at Early Bronze Age Bab edh-Dhra’, Jordan. In Perry, M. A. (ed). Bioarchaeology and Behaviour: The People of the Ancient Near East. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 180-201. (Open Access).

Ullinger, J. M., Sheridan, S.G. & Guatelli-Steinberg, D. 2013. Fruits of Their Labour: Urbanisation, Orchard Crops, and Dental Health in Early Bronze Age Jordan. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. DOI: 10.1002/oa.2342. (Open Access).