Conversations with: Dr Trish Biers

This week, I am very pleased to introduce Dr Trish Biers, Collections Manager of the Duckworth Laboratory in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, Department of Archaeology, at the University of Cambridge! As well as curating and managing the human remains collections housed in the Duckworth Laboratory, Trish also teaches about treatment of the dead, ethics, and decolonisation for the Department of Archaeology and runs courses at the Institute for Continuing Education at Cambridge. Her research interests include the bioarchaeology of death and burial, paleopathology and diet, mortuary archaeology of the Americas, museum studies focusing on human remains, repatriation and indigenous visibility and more! Previously, she has held positions in osteology and outreach at the Repatriation Osteology Laboratory in the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, and San Diego Museum of Man in California. She currently serves asMuseum representative on the Board of Trustees for the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology and cofounded MorsMortisMuseum – a website dedicated to the role of human remains in museums.

Dr Trish Biers

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

My research interests revolve around death and human remains, decolonising the dead, and ethical issues about displaying the dead in museums. I’m also interested in Andean archaeology, gender, cemetery and graveyard research, and folklore studies in witchcraft and magic and material culture. My areas of expertise are osteology and paleopathology, museum curation and conservation, scientific investigations of human tissues, ethics and repatriation.

What first inspired your interest in osteology and paleopathology? 

As a teenager I went to the San Diego Museum of Man (soon to be the Museum of Us) all the time. I was always interested in death, skeletal structures, mummified remains and burials, and forensics. At 19 I got an internship with the Physical Anthropology collections under Rose Tyson, a phenomenal osteologist and palaeopathologist and she trained me. I got a job there at 21 and worked my way up from ‘shop girl’ to Associate Curator. I also volunteered with a forensic entomologist named Dave Faulkner who helped me develop my academic trajectory. At the Museum, we hosted incredible scholars from all over the world including the late, great, Dr Don Ortner whose knowledge of pathology was remarkable, I learned so much. I worked on collections and exhibitions while doing my Undergraduate and Master’s degrees, I was there for 11 years!

What was your PhD topic and who was your supervisor? What were the findings from your PhD?

My PhD was titled, ‘Investigating the Relationship between Labour and Gender, Material Culture, and Identity at an Inka Period Cemetery: a regional analysis of provincial burials from Lima, Peru.’ It combined human skeletal data, burial deposition, and documentary sources to assess identity of artisans under Inka (AD1400-1532) provincial control. My supervisor was Dr Elizabeth DeMarrais and my advisor was Dr John Robb here at Cambridge. I found some really interesting patterns in burial style (six types of mummy bundles), grave associations and gender. In particular those associated with older women, and women’s labour under Inka rule. They were very skilled artisans!

Trish with her colleague Bertha excavating a Peruvian mummy bundle in Lima.

What projects are you currently involved with? Where do you hope these will go in the future?

I have a few things happening at the moment as well as just surviving this crazy pandemic!  I’m working on a proteomics/genomics project with colleagues from Peru and the US that has had a successful pilot project so we will write a grant to do more in-depth osteobiographies. I’ve just submitted a book proposal with my colleague about museums, heritage and death, so fingers crossed. I’m thrilled to be involved in the Legacies of Empire research group via the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) and am excited to see how we can dismantle the colonial collecting practices of the past associated with Cambridge collections. And finally, I’m having fun with new research about witchcraft, human remains, and material culture.

Trish engaging with the public at the ‘Plague Late’ evening event at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.

What does your role as Collections Manager of the Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge involve? 

Well, I research and conserve the collections and archive on a daily basis. This means I check environmental conditions across the Duckworth spaces, re-box and catalogue remains, photograph remains for the database, prepare remains for repatriation, do archival research, and facilitate researcher access to the collections. I build protective structures for more fragile collections and document conservation work. I’m trying to make the collections more accessible with up-to-date information to eventually be put online. I also consult about human remains collections with other institutions in Cambridge offering advice and collaborative strategies.

What type of research is done on the collections in the Duckworth Laboratory?

We host all sorts of people in the Duckworth including visiting researchers, undergraduate and Mphil students, PhDs and PostDocs, and individuals doing archival research. The scope is broad, from non-human primate anatomy to hominin development to dental morphology. It’s mostly dissertations about human skeletal remains and a lot of researchers use micro-CT and various types of photogrammetry for 3D modelling. Applications for destructive sampling are on the rise as well.

Trish presenting on trephination and cranial modification with skeletal casts at the Cambridge Science Festival.

You have also worked at the Smithsonian Institute in their Repatriation Osteology Laboratory. Are there many differences between the UK and the USA in terms of protocols, ethics etc. when dealing with human remains? 

Yes and no. In regards to ethics, those are pretty standard across the biological anthropology and archaeology communities whether university/museum or commercial units, as professional organisations have codes of ethics that we are supposed to follow and these are very similar internationally, i.e. dignity and respect of human remains.

What’s different is legislation, and the US has the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Enacted in 1990, Federal law provides for the repatriation and disposition of Native American/First Nations human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. It is a robust programme and is now often used as a model for repatriation discourse and strategy globally. In the UK repatriation is much less structured and there are national guidelines but institutions have more options in compliance. This is changing with a national movement to “provide new guidance for the UK museum sector on the restitution and repatriation of cultural objects

What is the best thing about your job? What is the most challenging? 

I’m lucky that I get to teach on ethics, treatment of the dead, osteology, and repatriation for the Department of Archaeology. One of my favourite parts of the job is working with students and helping them with their projects. I’m thrilled to be advising a PhD student on her work with human remains abroad and we are having so much fun together (and being serious academics of course). In August I usually have several students helping me with re-boxing remains and it is enjoyable to see them get invested in the care of the collections. On the other hand, I also like disappearing into the collections and archives and having a quiet space for research and reflection.

Trish, alongside colleague Sarah-Jane Harknett from Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), presenting at the Death, Dying, and Disposal Conference in Bath 2019.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in a career working with human remains?

Death is such a deep, philosophical entity. How you perceive death and a dead body whether it’s skeletonised, fleshed, ancient or new, can influence how you work with say, archaeological human remains, or rather how you perceive them. Are they biomatter? Are they ancestors? Who really cares if they are dead? It’s all tied up into ideology really despite a background in the scientific method (it’s fascinating to see how different the views are amongst my friends/colleagues). I personally think it is important to be mindful of death practices globally in the past and the present because there is SO much variation in how humans treat dead bodies both physically and spiritually. This can help you build your professional narrative during your skeletal biology and anatomy studies in addition to field and lab methods. If you are more ‘museumy’ in nature then be prepared for the emotional and troubling information you can come across if you are working with collections that stem from colonial/imperial collecting practices. Be curious but be thoughtful!

Trish enjoying a motorcycle show (one of her hobbies) in Llandudno, North Wales.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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