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Department of Anthropology

Dr. Sharon DeWitte featured in "Exhumed" article

Dr. Sharon DeWitte, a bioarchaeologist, was interviewed by Oxygen Media for an article about "Exhumed". "Exhumed" is a forensic TV show focusing on bodies being removed from graves and examined in order to solve murder cases. Dr. DeWitte notes that the realm of forensics focuses on solving murder and missing persons cases. In contrast, bioarchaeology focuses on examining bodies, usually at least 200 years old, in order to learn about the lives of the deceased. 

At 14 years old, Dr. DeWitte underwent surgery to have a rod inserted in her spine to correct the curvature of her spine due to scoliosis. At that young age, she thought about how future archaeologists could examine her body and, noting the rod in her spine, be able to learn about her life. For instance, her social status allowed her to have health insurance that enabled her to have surgery. Serendipitously, in college, she took a bioanthropology course to fulfill a general course requirement. Bioanthropology focuses on the evolution of humans from biological and cultural perspectives. Dr. DeWitte loved the course and started a career path in anthropology that led to bioarchaeology.

Due to studying human remains, one common misconception is that bioarchaeologists are graverobbers. Although, in the past, there was more leniency about how and whose bodies were exhumed or kept for research, present-day professional bioarchaeologists follow ethical guidelines. When studying bodies, they adhere to the wishes of the communities where the bodies come from concerning how to treat the bodies. Dr. DeWitte, in particular, studies skeletons that are stored at museums and universities. 

One of Dr. DeWitte's favorite parts of her job is data collection, aka, examining skeletons. "I remember that I'm looking at the skeleton of someone who had a full life...It's such a priviledge that I get to try to understand what life was like in the past by looking at the remains of people", she says. Some of the most memorable remains that she's studied are from the East Smithfield Black Death Cemetery in London. In the 1300s, victims of the Black Death were buried on the site, and, centuries later, the Royal Mint was built there too. Chemicals from the process of minting money seeped into the ground and reached some of the remains of Black Death victims. Their bones were either stained green and/or enveloped in clear and green crystals, which Dr. DeWitte describes as "incredibly beautiful". 

Dr. DeWitte's other favorite part of her job is data analysis. Analysis involves creating models of the data on her computer. "I'm not sure what I'm actually going to find...I really do try to let the data reveal patterns to me rather than have any particular expectations", she says. Through these patterns, she's able to discover different aspects of the deceased's life such a relationship between diet and lifespan. Her work reveals how lovely it is that even after death, one's story can still be told if someone takes the time to get to know them through their bones.



Royal mint. (2021, April 2). In Wikipedia.

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