a woman's hand wearing a glove brushing dirt away from a skeleton

What is a bioarchaeologist?

6 September 2022
Bones, bones, bones!
Dr Melandri Vlok, a bioarchaeologist and an expert in ancient skeletons in the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre explains her fascinating field.

What is a bioarchaeologist?

Dr Melandri Vlok in a black tshirt and hair in ponytail. She is looking down at an archaeological dig with a paintbrush in one hand

Dr Melandri Vlok excavates a 2,000 year old skeleton from the central Philippines.

A bioarchaeologist is an archaeologist who focuses on the biological remains that are left behind from past cultures, primarily skeletons, but some can also study mummies or even ancient poo. Sometimes we are also called osteoarchaeologists if we work specifically with bones, or paleopathologists if we are specifically interested in evidence of disease in bone. It’s one hat with many different labels.

What exactly do you study?

I am a jack of all trades and I research evidence of any disease or trauma in Asia’s prehistory. I have excavated human remains buried in large ceramic jars dated to 2000 years ago in the Philippines including an individual with such severe leg trauma they required advanced care for the rest of their life, I have identified the oldest evidence of malaria in Southeast Asia dating to 7000 years ago and also found evidence of rickets and respiratory diseases from Mongolia well before Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) was even alive.

Why is it important in archaeology?

Every single discipline in archaeology adds another piece of the puzzle. Our piece is the very individuals who made that culture in the first place. We tell the stories of individuals and also entire populations. Only through the human remains themselves can you understand how the society and the environment these communities existed in affected the people’s health, wellbeing, their perception of personhood and their understanding of life and death. But we would never be able to interpret our findings if it weren’t for the contextual information from our colleagues from other archaeological disciplines. We all work as one large team.

How do you get into it?

Dr Melandri Vlok smiling at the camera, she wears a white tshirt with a university sandstone wall behind her

Dr Melandri Vlok

Bioarchaeology is inherently transdisciplinary and there are many ways you can find yourself in the discipline. The theoretical concepts we tackle stem from both the biological sciences as well as the humanities. In short, humans are complex and multifaceted, and there are many angles from which to study them in the past as is the case in the present.

I was initially interested in forensic anthropology and wanted to be the next Dr Temperance Brennan from the TV show Bones. Along the way I got side-tracked in a good way. I found myself more drawn to the past. I completed a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science majoring in Archaeology and Biological Anthropology and minoring in Anthropology and Biology. My undergraduate courses included learning theoretical and methodological approaches in anthropology, archaeology, anatomy and evolutionary ecology.

I gained a lot of experience at an early level from field schools including one in the Philippines in my first year. I am still active in research in that region almost 10 years later. 

Dr Melandri Vlok standing deep in a hole surrounded by tools

Dr Melandri Vlok excavates at a 5,000 year old hunter-gatherer site in central Vietnam.

Following this, I completed an Honours project specifically in bioarchaeology. This Honours helped me demonstrate independent application of bioarchaeological methods and exploration of theoretical paradigms. However, my PhD is where the real training began. It’s in these years that I developed my abilities to lead multidisciplinary project teams and generate and pursue research questions on my own.

Dr Melandri Vlok is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, affiliated with the School of Languages and Culture. Hero image: Adobe Stock

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