From Maxwell Perspective...
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Mysteries of the Deep
Shannon Novak has made an accomplished career of reconstructing long-ago lives from scant (yet rich) remains.
Shannon Novak with remains from the Spring Street Presbyterian Church site
Shannon Novak first sensed the direction of her research as a
bioarchaeologist back in the '90s, when training in archaeology at
the University of Utah and working on prehistoric sites. "We'd do
excavations and everyone would get excited about pots and
arrowheads," Novak recalls. "And then we'd find a body and the
archaeologists would grumble and complain." Intrigued by what the
others overlooked, she took a course on human osteology, studying
the skeletal system, and loved it. "The body is an extension of
these other objects. It's that person who constructed the
arrowhead," she says.
While completing her graduate studies, Novak landed an
internship with the Smithsonian's Doug Owsley, a forensic
specialist. They worked on archaeological finds at a time when the
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act greatly
increased the demand for trained osteologists.
For Novak, a key component of bioarchaeology - studying the
historical and cultural context of human remains - came into focus
with her research on Utah's Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857, in
which a local militia killed some 120 men, women, and children
migrating west. Novak blended archival and oral history with an
analysis of the skeletal remains to create what she calls a
biocultural history of the massacre. The resulting book, House
of Mourning (University of Utah), was published in 2008.
She has since conducted a long-term ethnographic study of the
victims' descendants in the Ozarks.
Novak explored another grim chapter in the history of the
American West-the Donner Party - for a new book she co-edited,
An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's
Alder Creek Camp (University of Oklahoma). She worked on the
smaller, lesser known cannibalism site, Alder Creek, where the
Donner family was trapped, examining a hearth that was filled with
pieces of chopped-up bone. The fragments were too small to
determine species visually and DNA analysis was impossible. But
through histology (the study of cell shape) the butchered species
were found to include deer, oxen, and dog.
"We know from the accounts that they were eating pine needles
and shoe leather and book covers - everything they could - until
they sacrificed the dog and then began consuming human tissue,"
says Novak. "The family pet seems to have been a transition food to
human corpses." As in all her work, what drives Novak's research is
not just the facts gleaned from physical evidence but the human
experiences behind them-in the Donner case, the unimaginable
decisions people had to make to keep their families alive.
— Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter.
This article appeared in the spring 2011 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2012 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail email@example.com.