I discovered bioarchaeology by accident, having stumbled across a dusty copy of Mike Parker Pearson’s The Archaeology of Death and Burial in a second-hand bookshop.
At the time I worked professionally as an undertaker and apprentice embalmer; fully versed in the safe and lawful handling of human remains (including autopsied cases, body parts and the severely decomposed), and regularly consulting with UK forensic services, HM Coroner’s Office and coronial services worldwide. I was immediately intrigued by the kaleidoscopic diversity of funerary rituals across human history, reflecting the mutability of our attitudes toward death through space and time. With British Institute of Embalmers-accredited training in an array of techniques for preserving the human body, I worked with victims of homicidal violence, suicide and serious trauma, performing complex reconstructions to disguise perimortem damage. Paradoxically, performing these reconstructions encouraged me to study traumatic, palaeopathological and taphonomic processes in finer scientific detail, and I developed a keen interest in experimental taphonomy and particularly in soft tissue decomposition.
Seeking out a new challenge, I joined the highly-experienced curatorial team at Barts Pathology Museum in London, and was privileged to undertake Royal College of Surgeons-accredited training in medical museum technology. Now in its 140th year, the museum’s hard and soft tissue collections comprise a vast number of key common pathological conditions, many of the unusual and even some of the exceptionally rare; encompassing every anatomical system of the human body. In addition to the dissection, preparation, fixation, preservation and presentation of historical soft tissue specimens, I was delighted to spearhead the creation of a new osteological and dental teaching collection; of value not only to clinical specialists but also to a broader spectrum of researchers, including bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists.
After leaving the funeral profession and while reading neuroanthropology during my graduate program in bioarchaeology [MSc Distinction, UCL], I became intrigued by at least half a dozen reports of ancient brains that each described the preservation of this fragile soft tissue (so quick to liquefy after death) as a ‘unique’ phenomenon. Digging deeper, my subsequent postgraduate research revealed that not only does this material appear to harbour an exceptionally rich and diverse ancient proteome, but since the 17th century over one thousand brains have been unearthed in a global array of archaeological contexts, some many millennia-old.
Given the brain is typically amongst the first organs to decompose postmortem, preserved ancient brains are far more numerous than they should be in the archaeological record. What arrests decay and how does this tissue persist through time, particularly in waterlogged environments like bogs, lakes, wells and even sunken shipwrecks? Clinically, technological advances in neuroimaging are fuelling our understanding of brain development, decline and disease: with cutting-edge techniques, what might brains preserved in the archaeological record reveal about the ancient life of the mind? My doctoral research aims to make a comprehensive and systematic study of samples from a spectrum of wet depositional environments, uniting quantitative biomolecular techniques with high-resolution imaging in an effort not only to understand how this fascinating organ unexpectedly preserves, but even to explore the broader experiences of learning and ageing through our human history.
Education & Expertise
PhD /University of CambridgeJANUARY 2021 - PRESENTArchaeology (Suspicious minds: exploring differential preservation of brain tissue and its bioarchaeological value in archaeological contexts)
MSc (Distinction) / University College LondonSEPTEMBER 2018 - SEPTEMBER 2020
Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology
BA (Hons) First Class / Open UniversitySEPTEMBER 2015 - JUNE 2017Arts & Humanities: Linguistics with Arabic, English and Latin (dissertation Commended at the Global Undergraduate Awards 2018)
Certificate of Higher Education (Distinction) / School of Oriental & African StudiesSEPTEMBER 2011 - JUNE 2012
Diploma of Higher Education / University of St AndrewsSEPTEMBER 2007 - JUNE 2010
Linguistics with English and Latin
Visiting Researcher (FEBS Fellowship) / GLOBE Institute, University of CopenhagenAUGUST 2020 - DECEMBER 2020“Wet” and “dry” lab training in proteomic, lipidomic, genomic and metabolomic protocols, and downstream bioinformatics.
Consultant Osteologist / Barts Pathology MuseumNOVEMBER 2019 - PRESENT
Collections care and management in compliance with the Human Tissue Authority Codes of Practice.