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Shannon Novak

Shannon A. Novak

Contact Information:


316A Maxwell Hall / 406 Lyman Hall (lab)

Shannon A. Novak

Professor, Anthropology Department

Senior Research Associate, South Asia Center


Anthropology 131: Introduction to Biological Anthropology

Honors 360/Anthropology 300: Necropolitics

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

Highest degree earned

Ph.D., University of Utah, 1999



As an anthropologist, I seek to understand human bodies as living beings, material substances, and cultural symbols. To do so involves following variable tissues and traces that persist across generations and geographies. My fieldwork, in turn, takes place in multiple settings, including ethnographic sites, as well as archives,  laboratories, and archaeological excavations. Broadly trained in bioarchaeology and social theory, my research is especially concerned with multiple ontologies of the body and ”more-than-human” assemblages. In one form or another, my studies have engaged with ruptures that occurred across the long nineteenth-century and whose resonances are experienced in the present. 

My most recent work stems from the movement of indentured laborers from India to the Caribbean—in particular, British Guiana—to replace enslaved Africans on sugar plantations following emancipation. From distant colonies these workers brought traces of their homeland, including plants and practices that would animate social and material landscapes in new ways. This included subaltern healing practices associated with the goddess Mariamman, better known by her Sanskrit name, Kali. In the wake of plantations, these rural practices were revitalized in independent Guyana and, in the past three decades, transplanted to North American cities where thousands of Indo-Guyanese settled in the U.S. and Canada. Since 2016, I have been conducting ethnographic research on the outskirts of Toronto at the first Mariamman temple established there. I introduce my work on transnational ritual ecologies in a forthcoming edited volume, "Embodying Diversity." My chapter, “Plot-life in Flower City,” serves as the framework for a monograph that I am currently developing.  

Not unrelated, though a congregation of a different sort, is a previous project that is currently being synthesized. The Spring Street Presbyterian Church in New York City was a site of worship and social action in the first half of the nineteenth century. By gathering as a mixed-raced congregation and promoting a radical abolitionist stance, the church became a target during the 1834 race riots. Memories and materials associated with this now defunct institution were inadvertently exposed during recent construction in lower Manhattan. Excavation of the church burial vaults (ca. 1820-1840) recovered mortuary artifacts and commingled skeletons of some 200 peoples. These remains offer fascinating insights on a community who gathered in response to dramatic social, economic, and ecological upheavals brought on by an accelerating global economy. Archival records and family histories are being integrated with the skeletal findings to examine migration, disease, labor, and social identities in this diverse group. Collaborations with historians and archaeologists, artists and filmmakers, and geo- and biomolecular scientists, among others, are being integrated into an edited volume.

The questions and concerns involved in these current studies emerge from my earlier research on the American West. Here, traces of the past continue to haunt landscapes and the living, destabilizing and transforming identities in unexpected ways. 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. Ethnographic and ethnohistoric research in both Utah and Arkansas, drew my attention towards the living and questions regarding how the victims’ bodies and biographies have been deployed in cultural politics over some 150 years. These findings are elaborated in a series of journal articles and edited volumes.

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.

Areas of Expertise

Body and society, new materialism, anthropology of knowledge, historical bioarchaeology, gender, ritual, necropolitics,  North America, Indo-Caribbean diaspora

Research Grant Awards and Projects

Research Grants

NSF Research Team Seminar, School of American Research. “Excavating Bodies in the Archives: Generating New Methods and Collaborations.” 2022-23

Appleby-Mosher Fund Award, Maxwell School. “Courses and Cycles through a Guyanese Mariamaan Temple.” 2017, 2019

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


2018 Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising “Mentor of the Year.” Syracuse University

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) 



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 

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

Edited Journal

2020 “Historical Bioarchaeology.” Invited thematic issue for Historical Archaeology 54(1), edited by Shannon A. Novak

Select Articles and Chapters

In press Plot-life in Flower City: Transnational Ritual Ecologies in the Wake of Plantations. In Embodying Biodiversity: Sanctuaries in Charged Climates, edited by Terese Gagnon. University of Arizona Press, Tucson

2022 Sketchbook Archaeology: Bodies Multiple and the Archives they Create. Journal of Social Archaeology 22(2):212-232

2021 The Body as (in, and with) Text: Doing Bioarchaeology with Archives. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 36(2):45-68 (with Lauren Hosek and Alanna Warner-Smith)

2020 Vital Data: Re/Introducing Historical Bioarchaeology. Historical Archaeology 54(1):1-16

2020 Assembling Heads and Circulating Tales: The Doings and Undoings of Specimen 2032. Historical Archaeology 53(4):71-91. (with Alanna Warner-Smith)

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 MassacreIn 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 ViolenceIn 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, ManhattanIn 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. Routledge, New York

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