Shannon A. Novak

Professor, Anthropology

Shannon Novak

Contact Information

316A Maxwell Hall
(315) 443-4347
Curriculum Vitae
Shannon Novak CV 2018


Ph.D., University of Utah, 1999


Bioarchaeology, ethnohistory, gender, political violence, materiality of the body, North America


Anthropology 131: Introduction to Biological Anthropology

Honors 360/Anthropology 300: Necropolitics

Anthropology 400/600: Seminar—Materiality

Anthropology 400/600: Seminar—Reading the Body

Anthropology 400/600: Excavating Bodies in the Archives

Anthropology 433/633: Human Osteology

Anthropology 434/634: Anthropology of Death

Anthropology 436/636: Bioarchaeology

Anthropology 631: Method and Theory in Biological Anthropology


As a biocultural anthropologist, I seek to understand human bodies as living organisms, cultural symbols, and material substances. More specifically, my research interests include political and gender violence; historical memory, movement, and materiality; and multiple ontologies of the body. 

Such interests developed during my studies of two infamous events in nineteenth-century America: the Mountain Meadows massacre and the ordeal of the Donner Party. My first book, House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (2008), examines the murder of some 120 men, women, and children in 1857 by a local militia in the Utah Territory. My analysis of skeletal remains from the massacre site is integrated with archival records and oral histories to offer a portrait of the victims as individuals, family members, cultural beings, and living bodies. Having completed a decade of ethnographic and ethnohistoric research in both Utah and Arkansas, my attention turned to the living and how the victims’ bodies and biographies have been deployed in cultural politics over some 150 years. My second book, An Archaeology of Desperation (2011), is a co-edited volume that synthesizes the findings from excavations at the Donner family encampment in the Sierra Nevada. Here, a contingent of overland emigrants became snowbound during the winter of 1846-47 and had to resort to cannibalism to survive. In this book, specialists weave together lines of evidence from archaeology, history, ecology, and osteology to reflect on human social behavior under extreme conditions. Both books received the James Deetz Award from the Society for Historical Archaeology.

A more recent bioarchaeology project explores a different kind of American frontier, that of an urbanizing metropolis. Along with my students, I completed the analysis of some 200 individuals from burial vaults associated with the Spring Street Presbyterian Church in Lower Manhattan (ca. 1820-1850). The church housed a multi-racial congregation of radical abolitionists, whose controversial practices became the focus of race riots in 1834. The remains of people interred there provide a fascinating view of a community who gathered in response to dramatic social, economic, and ecological changes brought on by commercialization and early industrialization. Archival records and family histories are being used to complement the skeletal findings and to provide insights on migration, disease, labor, and social identities in this diverse group. Stable isotope analyses are being conducted by my colleagues, Dr. Joan Coltrain and Dr. Diego Fernandez at the University of Utah, and together we initiated a geomapping project using faunal remains from archaeological sites in New York City and surrounding areas.   

I recently initiated a new project that might be characterized as the “bioarchaeology of the contemporary,” an attempt to understand bodily experience in the present using an archaeological approach. My case involves the materiality and movement of women’s bodies, broadly conceived, in and through a Guyanese Hindu temple in Toronto. Here they practice Kali Mai worship, a religious tradition that traveled to Guyana with South Asian indentured servants who were imported by the British to work on sugar plantations. Kali worship is known for its ritual displays and performances (including spirit possession), and the special attention it pays to the bodies of women and other feminine forms. Over the past three decades, the tradition has been transplanted to North America, as many thousands of Guyanese have settled in Canada and the United States. Entangled in this tradition are wider global flows of peoples, commodities, and practices, many of which provide vital substances for sustaining Kali worship far from home. While exploring health and well-being across the life course, I will investigate the gendered aspects of ritual and the ways these enter into activities beyond the temple. To do so will involve following the movements and transformations of multiple beings, substances, and other tangible forms.



2008  House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City

2011  An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp, edited by Kelly J. Dixon, Julie M. Schablistsky, and Shannon A. Novak. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman


2017 Corporeal Congregations and Asynchronous Lives: Unpacking the Pews at Spring Street. American Anthropologist 119(2):236-252.

2017 Talking Heads and Other Specters of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In Studies in Forensic Biohistory: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Christopher Stowjanowski and William N. Duncan, pp. 168-190. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

2017 On the Stories of Men and the Substance of Women: Interrogating Gender Through Violence. In Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology, edited by Sarbina C. Agarwal and Julie K. Wesp, pp. 129-164. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque  

2017 Partible Persons or Persons Apart: Postmortem Interventions at the Spring Street Presbyterian Church, Manhattan. In The Bioarchaeology of Dissection and Autopsy in the United States, edited by Ken Nystrom, pp. 87-111. Springer, New York

2014 Leave Taking: Materialities of Moving Over Land.  Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24(3):1-9

2014 How to Say Things with Bodies: Meaningful Violence on an American Frontier.  In The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict, edited by Christopher Knüsel and Martin J. Smith, pp. 542-559. New York: Routledge

2011 [Wo]man and Beast: Skeletal Signatures of a Starvation Diet. In An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp, edited by Kelly J. Dixon, Julie M. Schablitsky, and Shannon A. Novak, pp. 185-218. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman

2011 The Signature of Starvation: A Comparison of Bone Processing at a Chinese Encampment in Montana and the Donner Party Camp in California. Historical Archaeology 45(2):97-112. (with Meredith A. B. Ellis, Christopher W. Merritt, and Kelly J. Dixon)

2010 “Men, Women, and Children Starving”: Archaeology of the Donner Family Camp. American Antiquity 75(3):627-656. (with Kelly J. Dixon, Gwen Robbins, Julie M. Schablitsky, G. Richard Scott, and Guy L. Tasa)

2010 Resurrectionists' Excursions: Evidence of Postmortem Dissection from the Spring Street Presbyterian Church.  Northeast Historical Archaeology, Volume 39:134-152. (with Wesley Willoughby)

2010 Archaeologies of Disease and Public Order in Nineteenth-Century New York: The View from Spring Street.  Northeast Historical Archaeology, Volume 39: 86-108. (with William Werner)

2009 The Political Significance of Gender Violence. In Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females, edited by Martin N. Muller and Richard W. Wrangham, pp. 292-321. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (with Lars Rodseth)

2009 [2006] Beneath the Façade: A Skeletal Model of Domestic Violence. In The Social Archaeology of Human Remains, edited by Rebecca Gowland and Christopher Knüsel, pp. 238-252, second edition. Oxbow Press, Oxford.

2007 [2001] Battle Related Trauma. In Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461, second revised edition, edited by Veronica Fiorato, Anthea Boylston and Christopher Knüsel, pp. 90-102. Oxbow Press, Oxford

2006 Remembering Mountain Meadows: Collective Violence and the Manipulation of Social Boundaries. Journal of Anthropological Research, 62:1-25. (with Lars Rodseth)

2006 The Impact of Primatology on the Study of Human Society. In Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists, edited by Jerome H. Barkow, pp. 187-220. Oxford University Press, New York. (with Lars Rodseth)

2003 To Feed a Tree in Zion: Osteological Analysis of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. Historical Archaeology 37(2):85-108. (with Derinna Kopp)

Research Grants and Awards

Research Grants
Appleby-Mosher Fund Award, Maxwell School. “Women’s Courses and Cycles through a Guyanese Mariamaan Temple.” 20017-18

Faculty Fellowship Program in the Syracuse University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center. Develop course, “Excavating Bodies in the Archives.” May-June 2017

Office of Research Small Grant Program, Syracuse University. “Geomapping Movement and Migration in Historic New York City: A Stable Isotope Pilot Study.” 2015-17

Appleby-Mosher Fund Award, Maxwell School. Spring Street Presbyterian Church Research. 2008, 2010, 2012  

Summer Project Assistantship Program, Maxwell School. Spring Street Presbyterian Church Research. 2009, 2011, 2014

National Institution of Justice, “Continuing Professional Education Program in Forensic Anthropology by Syracuse University.” 2009-11

Humanities and Social Science Research Council, Idaho State University, “Networks of Memory: The Hidden Histories of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.” 2004-6

American Fellow, American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. Complete book manuscript, House of Mourning. 2003-4


2015 Excellence in Graduate Education Faculty Recognition Award, Syracuse University

2013 Society for Historical Archaeology James Deetz Award for: An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp (2011, University of Oklahoma Press)

2010 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Award for Outstanding Research, Teaching, and Service. Maxwell School, Syracuse University 

2010 Society for Historical Archaeology James Deetz Award for: House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (2008, University of Utah Press)