Alexandra Morton-Hayward

Biography

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.

Research

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 Cambridge

JANUARY 2021 - PRESENTArchaeology (Suspicious minds: exploring differential preservation of brain tissue and its bioarchaeological value in archaeological contexts)

MSc (Distinction) / University College London

SEPTEMBER 2018 - SEPTEMBER 2020
Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology

BA (Hons) First Class / Open University

SEPTEMBER 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 Studies

SEPTEMBER 2011 - JUNE 2012
Arabic

Diploma of Higher Education / University of St Andrews

SEPTEMBER 2007 - JUNE 2010
Linguistics with English and Latin


Honorary Placements

Visiting Researcher (FEBS Fellowship) / GLOBE Institute, University of Copenhagen

AUGUST 2020 - DECEMBER 2020“Wet” and “dry” lab training in proteomic, lipidomic, genomic and metabolomic protocols, and downstream bioinformatics.

Consultant Osteologist / Barts Pathology Museum

NOVEMBER 2019 - PRESENT
Collections care and management in compliance with the Human Tissue Authority Codes of Practice.