Bioarchaeology and Its Complexities for a Non-Medical Student

Entering the Archaeological Studies Program combined my love for science and history. I have always been fascinated with Classical Archaeology – a term I only learned when I got into the program. My curiosities were also piqued by the ancient South American civilizations – Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs. Imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t find an undergraduate degree for Archaeology at the University of the Philippines. Fortunately, my boredom and need to constantly seek for intellectual pursuits led me to enroll at ASP – a decision not once have I regret. During my interview, I was asked if I have any thesis topics in mind and what areas I would want to study. Immediately I knew I would focus on human remains.

My desire to study archaeological assemblages of human skeletal remains was born primarily out of my frustration to become a medical practitioner. You see, I’m a sucker for Biology way back when I was still in grade school. I was interested in the human body and all its curiosities. I even listed Microbiology as my second choice when I took an entrance exam in one of the two universities I applied for. I was waitlisted. I probably would have pursued it had I not been accepted at my first choice at the University of the Philippines. My back-up plan then was to take up Microbiology as a pre-med course should I be interested to pursue it post-graduation (No, I never wanted to become a nurse). Of course, that plan never materialized. That might have been the universe’s way of telling me (subtly) that handling medical cases involving living people is not for me. I have a weak heart. By weak, I mean that it would be very difficult for me to bear the thought of losing a patient’s life because of something I may or may not have done, which is probably the same reason it never crossed my mind to become a lawyer. Suffice to say, I do get disheartened easily. I may not have excelled in Science as much as I did in English but it was certainly one of my favorite classes – and it was something I wanted to pursue in the future.

Did I ever mention that I am addicted to forensic dramas? As a Broadcast Communication graduate, I am in love with most forms of media – television, radio, movies, and the internet. My television and movie-watching habits were formed at an early age, during which my family and I would gather every evenings to watch movies on VHS. Now that each of us has different interests in movies and television shows, I found that I am mostly interested in crime, courtroom, and forensic dramas. I first became a huge fan of the CSI brand, watching all episodes religiously (including CSI Miami and CSI New York), even going home early during the days these episodes are shown. Then came Bones, a television show starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz. Bones is about a forensic anthropologist and an FBI agent who team up to solve crimes that involve, you guessed right, bones. While some of the techniques they used to solve crimes borders on unrealistic and sometimes impractical, it still shows viewers the huge amount of information bones can tell us only if we look closely and analyze them carefully.

Zeroing in on a single topic to study human skeletal assemblages was, for the most part, a torturing process. For someone who does not have any medical background, the possibilities are endless and overwhelming. It took me a week to single out a research study that I would really be interested in pursuing, only to realize that I have no specific archaeological site where to get the samples to study. There is scarcity in recovering human remains from archaeological sites and the assemblages that one could study in the laboratory are very few. This, I think, is the main problem I had to overcome in researching for a potential thesis proposal. While there are future excavations wherein human remains are expected to be unearthed, it will take months of waiting before I could actually start writing my thesis. It was proposed in class that I join the An Son, Vietnam and/or Nagsabaran excavations which will occur late in the year and early next year so that I would be with the project from the very beginning until the post-excavation analysis. While I have other thesis topics I can pursue that also relate to human bones, I would really want to do osteological analysis in the laboratory. As mentioned, my lack of experience in analyzing human remains further poses a problem as I need the required skills and training to study skeletal assemblages. I finally decided on joining either (but hopefully both) the Vietnam or Nagsabaran excavation. The months-in-waiting can be productively used to get the skills and training I need to do my thesis.

So what exactly am I doing for my thesis proposal? I decided to investigate the use of musculoskeletal markers (MSMs) as indicators of activities of ancient populations. I was advised by an expert that the topic is quite complex and doing my thesis in Vietnam is quite costly so why not just research an assemblage in the Philippines. As easily disheartened as I am, I actually pondered on that thought for a moment until I realized that at this point, anything I do, any method I choose to analyze human skeletal remains is complicated because of my lack of medical background. I made a decision to accept the challenge then, just like going into the Archaeological Studies Program was a way of challenging myself whether I could earn a Master’s degree or not.

I am not in a hurry to learn just as I am not rushing to get my degree. I don’t need to earn my Master’s degree in the shortest time possible. I would like to think that I took my time learning while having fun at the same time. Experience is the best teacher and this is what I hope to get out of my research.

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