Meet the specialists: Bonejour

So we are heading back over to the specialists this week to meet another member of our team. Natasha Powers is the Head of Osteology and Research Coordinator – basically she looks after our dead! But what does it take tibia osteologist? And is there a humerus side to the job? (OK, we promise no more bone puns).

*sigh*

In January 1999, Natasha found herself excavating post-medieval dumps under a tower block on Chiswell Street. She had recently completed an MSc in Osteology, Paleopathology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Bradford and had heard a rumour that there might be a big cemetery excavation coming up, so took a job as an archaeologist at MOLA. As she had no money after her studies and really needed a job it was rather serendipitous! Having studiously avoided anything Roman (red pots, square buildings) at University by mostly studying prehistoric Scotland, Natasha soon found herself excavating Roman burials as part of the redevelopment of Spitalfields market. The job of on-site osteologist came up working with 10,500 medieval burials and, barring a year back on the field team and 9 months working for the Cambridge University Unit, she has been a bonefied (whoops!) osteologist at MOLA ever since, becoming Head of Osteology six years ago.

Old mola site photo, can you spot Natasha?!

Old mola site photo, can you spot Natasha?!

Natasha pretty much always wanted to be an archaeologist, attracted to this field by the mix of arts and science.  She took a 4 year undergraduate degree in Archaeological Sciences, also at Bradford, and spent the first part of her placement working as assistant to the Shetland Archaeologist. Ironically, on her first day as a paid archaeologist she had to rebury skeletons which had eroded from a cliff, but there she also helped excavate a cemetery on the island of Noss then analysed these burials for her undergraduate dissertation (supervised by Charlotte Roberts) and was hooked.

For Natasha’s job you need a mix of osteological, archaeological and managerial skills and experience. A masters qualification is pretty much essential. There are an awful lot of osteology graduates and very few jobs, so practical experience really helps. Before coming to MOLA Natasha worked as an archaeologist for several other commercial units and on research excavations in the UK and Ireland and wrote client reports on skeletal remains, learning from some really generous people.

Nasha at work (c) MOLA 2013

Look behind you!!

Natasha is mostly found behind a desk at our offices at Eagle Wharf Road where she has assessed and/or analysed several thousand inhumations and more than 200 cremation burials, writing reports for developers as part of their planning conditions and passing information about our past on to anyone who would like to read about it. Human remains are the most direct evidence of past lives – chronic disease and injuries leave their mark on our bones and we can tell the age at which someone died, their sex, how tall they were and so on. Basically, she gets to understand the people who made/built/broke all the other stuff we find. Of course the human remains don’t give you the story on their own; it is really important to work with other specialists and to understand the archaeological evidence, taphonomy and formation processes.

Boiled down (just to clarify that is NOT what we do with human remains), a lot of Natasha’s job involves writing (reports, quotes, contributions for WSIs and tenders, books, policies etc). She manages MOLA’s human osteology, zooarchaeology and botany teams and forensic and grant-funded osteology projects; provides human remains advice, works with external specialists and researchers, does bits of outreach and teaches at a number of Universities. Bones are always popular (?!) so Natasha occasionally ends up doing various things for TV, radio and the newspapers. Her favourite bit of random press stuff is having her desk photographed by the art department of Silent Witness!

No two days of Natasha’s job are the same. That can certainly be stressful. There is always a pressure on time/money, but she is unashamedly a commercial archaeologist and likes the challenge of designing interesting projects to fit budgets. Natasha still thinks she is really lucky to have a career in archaeology and likes the fact that her specialist area doesn’t confine her to one time period. Having looked at rather a lot of them now, she has even learned to love the Romans, particularly when they are doing something odd like leaving heads in rivers!

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