I began my group interview of the Michigan State University Anthropology PhD students engulfed by their smiles and warmth. They seemed to read each other’s minds, yet each brought a unique energy to their collaborative dynamic; for example, both Mari and Alex cited Elena, “sweet baby E,” as the designated “little ball of sunshine” of the group, and all seemed to mark Mari as the sweet profound speaker and Alex as the kind and intelligent comic character. They all came to know each other through their Anthropology research under their mutual professor, Dr. Todd Fenton, but these vibrant and hardworking women found a friendship beyond collaboration that slowly engulfed their relationships. They enjoy the little moments and support each other emotionally, like when Alex brings her classroom desk-neighbor, Mari, candy. They have become thoroughly bonded after their now two group academic-adventures to Italy together and their many long, mentally and physically exhausting lab-days through their partnered investigation of skeletal trauma under a Department of Justice research grant. The work of the latter was shocking at first, since they have to face more explicitly the humanity of each cadaver, yet the crucial nature of their work in ensuring justice fills them with humility and passion. Mari has been engaged in blunt force trauma research for six years—studying the biomechanics of skeletal trauma for her dissertation—and finds that, rather than being grotesque, this level of intimacy with the body being studied forces the investigator to truly think about and respect the people behind the cadavers. Further, she cited the importance of such work to the present—lending knowledge to prevent the innocent from imprisonment and the guilty from anonymity when solving crimes. At the same time, these women are able to imagine the humanity even of ancient bones at Rusellae, the ancient Etruscan hub where Alex hopes to concentrate her dissertation. According to Mari, through analyzing the bones, you can reconstruct who a person was and how that person lived. This year, through analyzing the skeletons of children, the reality of the dead’s humanity and circumstances against disease have come to the forefront. Alex added that witnessing breaks in the bones allows her to empathize with the pain and reality of healing of those long gone, and actually seeing the site of Rusellae moved her—she placed the imagined humans in their contexts and could picture their lives more wholly, and Elena further stated that seeing the site allowed her to imagine the community dynamics at large as well. Although truly “long gone,” Alex and the others do not find the study of the past any less important. Currently, researchers at the site aim to examine Malaria within the ancient bones to assist affected populations of the present and the future, which is a focus that Elena, perhaps in a place other than Rusellae, aims to pursue. Although both research projects are vastly different in the size of the research communities, the everyday importance of their results, and the pacing of the work, all three of the twenty-five and twenty-six year old graduate students agree that they are incomparable. Both projects vastly impact both the field of anthropology and the world at large in equally important ways, but all of the skills learned and research results, as Elena said, “are applicable to different parts of our futures.”
Within their projects, the individual personalities, skills, and interests of these women are just as important as their unity in research and friendship. As Mari stated, each of their “individual projects have a touch of the others in [them],” and they incorporate the influences and aid of each other, learning and teaching amongst themselves, in both their solo studies and in their projects with other people. Although they are so tightly knit, they live vastly different personal and professional lives, returning to their differing friends at home without losing their closeness, and they adore their collaborations with others in their field. For Mari in particular, interdisciplinary collaborations are absolutely crucial, and field school groups such as these provide a wonderful setting for different minds to find a similar unity to what these three women share. Alex is excited about this growing change in the scientific study as well—boundaries between disciplines and personalities are lowering every day, and people are becoming more welcoming both with their data as well as themselves.
This academic encouragement finds a keystone in Dr. Fenton. As their professor at MSU and the leader of both the blunt force skeletal trauma and the research project at Rusellae, Professor Fenton has played a vital role in Elena, Alex, and Mari’s self-actualization as academics. Mari, who has known Dr. Fenton since she was eighteen and has worked with him since one of his early research grants, told me that the professor “is pushing us to be our own scholars”—He constantly values their opinions and has ensured that they are able to ask questions, choose their own directions in their studies, write, research, and present independently since they were in their early twenties. Even though Dr. Fenton occupied this leadership role, these women have become quite close with their professor; after five years of traveling to Italy together, for example, Dr. Fenton celebrated Mari’s birthday with her, Alex, and Elena, and Alex felt closer to him after he supported her and her authority in her Teaching Assistant position over one of his classes. Elena, a third-year graduate student, bonded with Dr. Fenton through their desk-proximity, laughing and working side by side, as well as through her position as forensic lab manager alongside the professor. Elena is always moved, and the other girls agreed, by Fenton’s contagious excitement and his desire to provide everything for them; on this trip, these students toast often to their beloved professor for taking them to so many spectacular places and always being there for them.
Both interdisciplinary openness and personal kindness are present in these students’ newfound relationships with the “incredibly patient,” as Alex stated, IMPERO Team and the museum director, Dr. Mariagrazia Celuzza—a “spitfire female scientist” whom they have worked with over the past three weeks and in the past—as well. The passion, easy-going nature, and patience of all those whom these women work with, particularly at this field school and in the surrounding areas, make it, according to Mari, “impossible not to get sucked in.” The humanity behind the IMPERO Project, in particular, has not only taught these women crucial skills and presented the possibility of more skeletal finds but, according to Elena, has a definitively tangible impact on the surrounding community and studies of the region. Alex expanded on this point, marking the IMPERO Project’s role in “filling in the gaps” of under-studied rural daily life over a tremendous span of time, and Mari cited IMPERO’s vital focus on interconnectivity between different sites across a landscape as well as over time. With the hopeful discovery of skeletons, Mari believes that we will be able to connect people to the landscape as well, and she sees the collaboration of our directors as an “interconnectivity of present places…[skills] and disciplines” parallel to the interconnectivity of past places.
Both powerful, variously curious individuals and a remarkable team, these women stress the importance of warmth and unity in research and academia as we plunge into the future. As we cheered “female friendship!” and did a team break at the end of the interview, I was faced with the absolute beauty of supporting one another in all of our pursuits. This team of Ph.D. powerhouses represent what these biographies are all about: field work and archaeology are inherently collaborative; as a family and individual body we must act as one, but we can never forget what every individual brings to our efforts nor forget to support one another. Just as we blaze into the future, constructing new definitions of what it means to research across disciplines and who gets to be included in the voice of academia and of the future, these women remind all of us of anthropology and archaeology’s power to give voice to the voiceless—comparing findings with historical writings to challenge the narratives of the past while defending and raising up the people of the present.