You can tell a lot about people, civilizations, and cultures through the analysis of bones. Human skeletons provide archaeologists with direct biological evidence of the connection between past humans and their environment.
Indeed, since the human past forms the foundation of archaeological study, human remains, if present at an archaeological site, are often considered to be central to the research of past societies.
Bioarchaeologists are archaeologists who specialize in the study of skeletal remains at archaeological sites. The physical and chemical examination of bones have the capacity to reveal a wide range of information about past peoples and societies, including:
- Ritual practices
Physical examinations of skeletal remains, for example, might reveal that a certain society chronically suffered from a disease that caused skeletal disfigurement. Chemical analyses of bones, on the other hand, might provide DNA evidence or information on the dietary regimen of a population. Through their analyses, bioarchaeologists have the ability to gather information on everything from mummification in ancient Egypt to how the Industrial Revolution impacted the quality of life.
Bioarchaeologists generally work for universities, museums, and cultural resource management firms. Some bioarchaeologists work with official collections of skeletal remains, others teach students about how to identify and study bones in archaeological contexts, and still others might get summoned to an archaeological site when human remains are found. Depending on their place of employment and experience, bioarchaeologists might be responsible for:
- Identifying and analyzing skeletal remains at archaeological sites
- Ensuring that others involved in archaeological excavation are complying with federal laws and regulations regarding the handling of bioarchaeological remains (see “Issues in Archaeology” page for more details)
- Curation of skeletal collections
- Conducting research and writing articles for academic journals
- Writing and editing grant proposals
Education and Training Requirements
Bioarchaeologists generally have a master’s or doctorate degree in archaeology or anthropology. Most universities offer courses in bioarchaeology at the undergraduate level in addition to traditional archaeology and biological anthropology courses. At the graduate level, some universities offer specialized programs in bioarchaeology, such as Arizona State University’s Bioarchaeology and the Center for Bioarchaeological Research program.
In addition to coursework, bioarchaeologists must complete a field school from an accredited institution. Although a general field school is sufficient, individuals interested in bioarchaeology are encouraged to enroll in a field school with a special focus on bioarchaeology.
As discussed in the “Issues in Archaeology” page, the treatment of skeletal remains raises a number of ethical and legal issues that bioarchaeologists are expected to be very familiar with, if not experts at. As such, successful bioarchaeologists must familiarize themselves with the laws and regulations in place regarding the handling of human remains.
Salary and Advancement Opportunities
Depending on location, experience, and employer, full-time bioarchaeologists can expect to earn an annual salary of approximately $35,000 to $90,000. Like most archaeologists, bioarchaeologists generally start out their career as field technicians. An individual can only expect to attain an official position as a bioarchaeologist after having received proper training and graduate education.
Once they have completed their education, many bioarchaeologists may work as lab or curatorial assistants, and others find work with cultural resource management firms or universities. With time and experience, bioarchaeologists may advance to managerial, curatorial, or administrative positions.
Publication of research, whether in the form of a book or an article, is extremely important for the advancement of a bioarchaeological career. Bioarchaeologists are also encouraged to seek advancement through participation in professional organizations and conferences.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of archaeologists in general is expected to grow significantly in the years ahead. It is difficult to assess, however, if employment of bioarchaeologists will follow this trend. Having only surfaced in the 1970s, bioarchaeological research is a relatively new development in the field of archaeology. The recognition of its significance has been increasing over the years, but to many it remains second in importance to the study of material culture.