Skeletons in My Life’s Closet

Jelena Bekvalac is a Curator of Human Osteology at the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, Museum of London. As a life course becoming a museum curator and working with human skeletal remains was not one that she carefully planned. From exciting opportunities in London to excavations in Jordan and Prague Jelena takes us on a journey down her fascinating career path.

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– Jelena Bekvalac –

JelenaBekvalac

Jelena Bekvalac is a Curator of Human Osteology at the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, Museum of London and has been at the Centre since its establishment in 2003 with funding from the Wellcome Trust. As a research osteologist in the team from 2003 she analysed and recorded human skeletal remains from excavated sites in London on to the Wellcome Osteological Research Database (WORD) helping to create and develop the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology (CHB). In 2007 she became a curator and continues to care for the collections, assists researchers, studies the collections for individual and collaborative research projects, gives public talks and participates in outreach events and exhibitions.


“Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.”

Hans Christian Andersen

As a life course becoming a curator in a museum and working with human skeletal remains was not one that had been carefully planned and not an option put forward by my school careers officer. My path to such a career has been interesting and I have also been very fortunate for the opportunities that I have had, outstanding teachers in the field as well as great places and people I have worked with along the way.

My initial foray into the world of archaeology was at the age of 17 and a wonderful teaching excavation experience on the phenomenal Roman Wroxeter site, directed by Dr Graham Webster and Dr Philip Barker. It was a super opportunity to learn practically, having a go at all the many aspects of an excavation and for the first time become acquainted with the delights and tribulations of archaeological camping – the first tent washed away in a storm, the second the zip was shredded and finally sleeping on the floor of one of the huts! All enhanced with the glorious mix of English summer weather – rain and mud as well as the fine art of wheel barrow manoeuvres. I loved every moment and was well and truly bitten by the archaeology bug slightly tinged with fanciful thoughts of Indiana Jones. Following on from walking in the footsteps of Romans I then found myself the next summer fortunate to be part of the team excavating an area in Fulham Palace, Fulham, London. Under the auspices of Keith Whitehouse the Director of Excavations Fulham Archaeological Rescue Group the area of excavation followed the footprint of a Victorian flower bed that produced an interesting array of unexpected finds, the most notable a flint arrow head which was on display in the Fulham Palace  museum. Where the sound track to the Wroxeter excavation had been the Time album by ELO, in the palace grounds it was the vocal and frequent calling of the peacocks!

Participating on this excavation in Fulham were archaeology students from UCL and they were all set to go afterwards to work on the cemetery excavation at Apple Down in West Sussex. With permission from the director, Alex Down it was fortuitous for me to have been able to participate on the excavation as this was the first time that I had encountered skeletal human remains in situ and the practicalities of actually excavating and lifting them out of the ground. I was so very lucky to have been part of this cemetery excavation and to be able to have such hands on involvement. I will never forget my time on the site and in particular one of the individuals I excavated, an extremely tall, robust Anglo-Saxon male with the remnants of his shield boss and buckle, he was magnificent.

Using the lofty quote from the film The Mummy “You’re wondering, What is a place like me doing in a girl like this?” is a super way to para phrase a question I have been asked numerous times since having the pleasure of working with skeletons. Well the responsibility for that and my burgeoning career in the field of osteology can really be laid at the feet of Margaret Thatcher and the recession of 1990. A perhaps not too auspicious start but with the benefit of hindsight something I am very grateful for, enabling me to have followed on occasions the weird and wonderful path that I have, which has ultimately led to me being a Curator at the Museum of London. Of course I am hopelessly bias but to me it is the best job and being able to spend my days with the skeletal remains of so many people from the past is a privilege and a joy.

Interest in skeletal human remains has grown enormously over the years and a numerous variety of courses are available today for studying. Being now a bit long in the tooth, when I ventured into the field the masters course available was one that was then split between Sheffield University and Bradford University. If you are old enough to remember the British Telecom adverts with Maureen Lipman as Beattie (BT) – according to Beattie “if you get an ology you’re a scientist” and so she would have been apoplectic with the amount of ‘ology’s’ in the masters course title – Osteology, Paleopathology and Funerary Archaeology, affirmation then that we were definitely scientists. It was a great course that covered a very broad spectrum of topics and I was incredibly fortunate to have been taught by some of the leading specialists in our field, including Professor Charlotte Roberts, Professor Andrew Chamberlain and Dr Keith Manchester.

“Even in the grave, all is not lost.”

Edgar Allan Poe

After completing my master’s course, I was lucky to be able to be a team member for two seasons on the British Museum directed excavation led by Jonathan Tubb of a Bronze Age Tell in the Jordan Valley following on from having worked on some of the skeletal material for my dissertation. It was an amazing experience to be on such a site as Tell es-Sa‘idiyeh in a stunning location and so weighted with history. I was given the chance to be able to put in to practice some of what I had learnt from my master’s degree when dealing with the excavation, recording and lifting of human skeletal remains. I learnt a huge amount from the two seasons on the site and the complexities of a multi occupied and period site working alongside a great mix of people with many years of experience and knowledge. It reinforced for me as well how important it is to be able to experience as an osteologist the actual in situ process of excavating skeletal remains to fully appreciate the difficulties faced on site for the retrieval of the remains and the significant value of on-site recording. The sound track for Jordan was predominantly the Mamas and the Papas with a bit of Mariah Carey added in for good measure.

Jelena Bekvalac and Lisa Padilla Tell es-Sa‘idiyeh, Jordan
Jelena Bekvalac and Lisa Padilla Tell es-Sa‘idiyeh, Jordan

Whilst on the excavation in Jordan I met some lovely people who became good friends and met my great friend Steph whom I went on from Jordan to have some of the best times of my osteological life in Prague, Czech Republic. We were incredibly lucky to have been able to work on a variety of projects with cremated remains and inhumations for the National Institute of Archaeology, Prague City Museum and the National Museum. The people we met and worked with were wonderfully colourful characters who we shared many happy times with at a time of the opening up of the country in the years following the ‘Velvet Revolution’. The skeletal material we analysed and worked with covered a large time scale incorporating individuals from the La Tene Period to those we excavated from a city church dating from the 18th and 19th century. The years in which we worked on projects in Prague were great times and enabled us to apply in practical terms what we had been taught and experience working with anthropologists from different institutions. With the access to the variety of skeletal material it was a wonderful opportunity to continue to learn from the skeletal material we were analysing and appreciate ever more fully the importance of the contextual information. This aspect when dealing with skeletal remains is incredibly important and working at the Museum of London with the unique stratified skeletal collections has further embedded this and makes them so rich because of having such excellent contextual information. The soundtrack for Prague was a rich and glorious mix of Czech musicals including Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair and Dracula with the quirky but strangely beguiling place to live being the old winter quarters for the old State Circus. Living here was rather like being in the furthest flung part of the Roman Empire as it was far away on the outskirts of Prague and had features that included lots of random chairs, old animal cages and massive iron doors to gain entry that groaned like a scene from the Poseidon adventure. Life in Prague was always extraordinary!

Dracula, album cover Czech version
Dracula, album cover Czech version

Working in the field of archaeology and osteology has always been somewhat precarious, with short term contracts, work not always constant or permanent. So during my time in gaining experience working in the field I had to be able to turn my hand to other work to help support my desire to remain in the osteoarchaeological field. Again I was lucky in the people that I met and had some interesting jobs along the way, including cleaning the very small tiles of a very large swimming pool to learning the art of floristry. It was good experience because it made me even more determined to remain in the field of archaeology and osteology. I fully empathise with those coming into the field now and know how difficult it can be trying to get more practical experience whilst at the same time trying to earn a living to be able to participate in projects that do not always provide a living income.

I have always loved travelling and being able to have worked on the excavations in Jordan and Prague was more than I could have hoped with a perfect combination of living in a different country and working on excavations with skeletons. After sharing the many wonders of Prague in the 1990’s and the privilege of working with all the people I met at the different institutions, it was back to England and work on the excavations at Spitalfields Market. The site was vast and by the end of the excavation in 2001 to ultimately have excavated the largest number of archaeologically derived human skeletal remains from one site in the world. I worked as part of the team of ‘osteological processors’ as we were entitled which really meant we had the pleasure of washing and processing the skeletal remains coming in off site. The space we worked in was parts of the old and disused market spaces that at times had interesting added & missing features and tanks in place to collect the water from all the washed bones that had to be regularly emptied and cleaned. The song “mud, mud glorious mud” was not out of place on these occasions and we all looked like scary creatures as if from a film like the Black Lagoon. Our soundtrack whilst processing was Radio 1 and at a later stage when we were also marking the bones in what I termed the ‘Scriptorium’ was music of the world!

Fellow osteological processors Spitalfields Market, Anwen, Susan and Fran
Fellow osteological processors Spitalfields Market, Anwen, Susan and Fran

The extensive number of skeletons that were retrieved from the site is a unique collection and it was immediately apparent of their significance and how fortunate to be part of such an excavation. It was an osteological dream with the sheer scale of skeletal material and the exposure to such remains was remarkable for learning so much, identifying pathologies and disorders most of us had only read about in text books.

Jelena Bekvalac Spitalfields Market Processing sub adult with congenital syphilis
Jelena Bekvalac Spitalfields Market Processing sub adult with congenital syphilis

With the sheer scale of the numbers of skeletal remains it was imperative that a robust system was established to capture all of the osteological data and as a consequence Brian Connell (osteologist) and Peter Rauxloh (IT) developed and created the database that I work on today with my colleague at the CHB and colleagues at MoLA. It was also at this time that the Museum of London began the process of applying for funding to Wellcome to be able record all of the human skeletal remains that had previously been archaeologically derived and were retained in the archive. This would ultimately mean that two osteological teams would be working in tandem with one another recording the skeletal remains using standard osteological methods. Nothing like this had been done before on this scale and with the end result making all of the data available to researchers.

Before being incredibly fortunate in 2003 to be selected to work as a research osteologist on the Wellcome funded project I went to Russia and worked on an excavation of Dolmen near the Black Sea. It was an interesting experience in the process of excavation and learning about another area of history. We endured a heat wave and extreme temperatures which led the male contingent of the team to excavate in their trunks! There was also clearly now a theme with my  associated accommodation being different, for on this occasion I was in hut 69 in an old 1950’s holiday camp that had intermittent electricity and running water. It was a good bonding experience and I made more lasting friendships. The soundtrack for Russia was a mix of Czech musicals and REM.

Dolmen Excavation, Russia
Dolmen Excavation, Russia

With my role as a research osteologist at the museum I had the greatest pleasure of working with Bill White the senior curator of the Wellcome funded project who was such a generous spirited person with a remarkable mind. They were happy years with the establishing of the Centre and for us to being given opportunities to be involved in such a broad scope of work. The Wellcome funded project established the Centre and I was delighted to be able to continue working at the Centre and having the privilege of developing its role in the osteological field. I became a Curator of Human Osteology in 2007 and took on more responsibilities within the Centre and the activities of the Centre. I greatly enjoyed teaching on the London Bodies Course that my colleague and friend Lynne Cowal had started when we worked together on the Wellcome project and I was luckily able to continue teaching the evening course Bare Bones for several years. I also spent a happy year in the crypt at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street analysing and recording the wonderful collection of skeletal remains with biographical information that are retained in the church. They are a very important collection and the sealed crypts were rediscovered when the church was excavated after bombing in WWII. The individuals were the wealthier of the parish and having the biographical data has enabled more documentary searches on them revealing them to be important ‘movers and shakers’ of the Georgian period.

Bill White and Jelena Bekvalac with plastic Dr W in Centre for Human Bioarchaeology
Bill White and Jelena Bekvalac with plastic Dr W in Centre for Human Bioarchaeology

In 2008 I was able to be a co-curator in the exhibition ‘Skeletons: London’s Buried Bones’ at the Wellcome Trust and worked with a super team in putting together the exhibition that proved to be incredibly popular. It was my first taste of being involved in an exhibition and with the mass media but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of both, happily participating in TV and radio appearances. I was honoured in 2011 to become a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, London and I am privileged to be part of such an eminent society.  I was very happy and excited in 2012 to be the lead curator for the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at the Museum of London. I learnt so much about the intricacies and details for planning and bringing to fruition an exhibition that I see exhibitions I visit now with a new set of eyes. The exhibition was a pleasure to work on with colleagues at the museum and specialists from other institutions who so graciously supported the exhibition. The basis was the fascinating skeletal material excavated from the Royal London Hospital revealing such a wealth of information about a functioning 19th century hospital and a pivotal time in social and medical history. From events linked to the exhibition I had the pleasure of meeting many people and in particular two who have become my friends, where I found out that the ladies husband is descended from one of the ‘Resurrection Men’ arrested on the site of the hospital. I never would have thought that I would have such a tangible link to the subject matter of the narrative of the exhibition!

Museum of London - Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men
Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men (Copyright: Museum of London)

My days as a curator are never dull with the skeletons and they continue to fascinate me with all that we can learn from them as people and the times in which they lived. I am currently working on a number of interesting projects that will have exciting outcomes and am most grateful to the City of London Archaeological Trust (CoLAT) awarding the Rosemary Green Grant to myself and colleagues to fund a three project investing the Impact of Industrialisation on the health of London. It is a very generous grant and will enable us to attempt to address questions long asked about the time period and what affects we may be able to observe from the skeletal remains of the people. I will hopefully in three years’ time be able to update this blog with some answers. Until then I look forward each day to spending time with all the enthralling individuals I have got to know over the years who now reside in the museum rotunda store and the crypt at St Bride’s church.

Jelena Bekvalac Curator of Human Osteology, Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, Museum of London
Jelena Bekvalac Curator of Human Osteology, Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, Museum of London

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