Q&A TED Fellows

I see dead people: Fellows Friday with Christine Lee

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Christine Lee

Bioarchaeologist Christine Lee reconstructs lives from ancient human remains, looking for clues as to how they lived, fought and died. In the process, she gains insight about the history of disease, the evolution of culture, the violence of human nature — and her own identity.

What prompted you to become a bioarchaeologist?

When I was little, growing up in Texas, I loved fried chicken and Thanksgiving turkeys. I used to identify everyone’s pieces of chicken before allowing anyone to eat them, and then I’d reassemble the bones after everyone had eaten. My parents, being Asian, thought, “That’s great. You’re going to be a doctor. It’s wonderful.”

So when I was at university, I went into premed like a lot of Asian-American kids do. I really loved the biological part, learning about disease. That’s one of my specialties, paleopathology, the study of ancient human diseases. But I was never really interested in the live human part. Skin, teeth, all of that stuff really grosses me out. So after seeing a program on TV, on NOVA, about Herculaneum, where they were reconstructing everyone who died in that volcano blast — whether they were slaves, or whether someone was a gladiator — I took an anthropology class that reconstructed lives from human skeletons. The class took everything I was interested in and put it into one package. So I started taking classes in anthropology and was hooked.

Bioarcheology is a fairly new field — a subset of anthropology which combines biological anthropology and archeology. It’s the use of biological techniques to look at archeological human skeletons. What bioarcheology does is help recreate lives by examining human remains for clues to what they ate, what they did for work, what illnesses they may have had, what traumas they suffered, how tall they were, whether they were a man or a woman, and their age.

husband and wife burial

Husband and wife burial. Photo: Christine Lee

The description of your work conjures up images of digging up mummies at archeological sites and peering into their skulls for clues. Is there any truth to this?

Yes, there is. It’s got this really romantic reputation because of the movies, but actually it’s not so far off. You’re usually in a really remote place — at least, because I work in East Asia it’s remote. But you’re usually in a place that’s really foreign, really exotic. You’re in the middle of nowhere, and when you excavate these skeletons you’re the first person to see these people’s faces in — two, three, four, five thousand years. So these people have really been forgotten for millennia. Sometimes we don’t even know exactly what culture they would have been from when we start excavating. And then as they come out of the ground and you realize who they are, you sort of see their personalities.

It’s quite a responsibility, because a lot of these skeletons help make up national identity and history — actually world history and world identity. So for me, every skeleton is like opening a new book. The only problem is many of the pages are missing, and so I’m trying to reconstruct what that story would have been.

But it is pretty romantic at times, especially when you see people buried in dramatic ways. I’ve seen a husband and wife buried together, or whole families buried at one site. You can tell when people were buried in a hurry. You have to wonder what was going on. Maybe there was an epidemic — sometimes these whole bodies are just thrown in. Other times there’s body parts missing. Sometimes there are people who definitely were in a battle, usually young men, just heaps of them. And it’s sad to excavate babies and children.

Are burial patterns and constructions wildly different in different geographical regions and eras?

I’ve excavated in Texas, Italy, China and Mongolia. And the time periods I specialize in are the Bronze and Iron Age — about 1000 BC to about 500 AD — and medieval, which is about 1000 to about 1300 AD. These are the periods I work on the most, but many times you have no choice. In terms of burial practices, there is usually more in common than not. Typically bodies are laid out or placed crouched in a fetal position. Cremation also existed, but it’s very hard to find cremations. You can tell things about a culture by how people are buried. If they’re interred in rows, one at a time, and each burial is contained — that usually signifies it’s a time of peace, for example.

Another interesting thing bioarcheology reveals is the treatment of children, which shows what their role was — or if they even had a role — in that particular society. Often infants are not buried in a cemetery, but under floors in houses. That speaks to whether the soul of the child is considered to have anchored yet to the body. If not, it’s not considered quite a full human and therefore isn’t allowed to be buried in the cemetery.

People get attached to certain skeletons, because you spend a lot of time with them and you know their story better than anyone else. Your own research, your own family history, your own ancestry does affect how you see the skeletons. And so each person, even if you’re researching the same skeleton, will have a different take on what’s going on or what’s important.

What are the most shocking things you’ve found?

It’s always when you see someone who’s died violently, because I think that’s a universal fear. Everyone wants to die sleeping in bed. But that’s just not the way it happens for some people. You never know when you’re going to get caught up in history. I’ve seen people who have died during famous battles in East Asia. Once I was shown several skeletons. They were all young men, all thrown on the ground. It was after one of the battles when Qin Shihuangdi, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, was going around conquering all the other Warring States. These were soldiers that actually lost defending the Han state against the Qin army. And the way of counting the dead back then to determine who won the battle was to take off their heads.

Soldier from the battle of Han and Qin, Henan, China

Soldier from the battle of Han and Qin, Henan, China. Click to see larger size. Photo: Christine Lee

Head count!

Yeah, it’s a head count! But not only are their heads all missing: these guys all have seven to twenty arrows in their backs. They were running, and were just massacred. And they were all young men. It’s such a waste.

I also went up to Bradford while I was in the UK, and I got to see the skeletons from the Battle of Towton — from the War of the Roses — Lancaster against York in 1461 — and it was the same thing. These soldiers had been massacred. Some had 13 blows to the head, all these cut marks into the chest. You only need to kill someone once, but these guys had been overkilled. So it was interesting to see, on another side of the world thousands of years later, a similar level of violence while battling for the country. I kept asking the researchers at Bradford, “Were these guys tied up or someplace they couldn’t move?” Because nobody’s going to let someone clock them in the head 13 times. You’re going to be running. You’re going to be moving. They said that it could be what happened is they were already dead and then the other army just mutilated them because they were so angry.

So if you consider each skeleton an entire story with some of the pages missing, for me that makes living people even more fascinating. Because you’re the whole book. I can just ask any living person what’s making them tick.

Why did you decide to research in China?

One of the things that got me interested in East Asia was that I wanted to research my own ancestry. When I was little, I was interested in Asian culture — most Asian-American kids go through a period where it’s definitely NOT cool to be Asian. But when I went to university, I started meeting a lot of Asian-Americans from other parts of the US who had experiences growing up that were both similar to and different from mine. I thought it was interesting how everybody wanted to be as Korean or as Chinese or as Japanese or as Indonesian as possible. And as I was studying anthropology, I wanted to know, “What does that really mean?”

Our family history says we came from Western China — Gansu Province and Shaanxi Province. I realized I may be ethnically more than just Chinese. So I managed to find work on projects in China — first in Beijing and then further west. It took several years to finally get to Gansu Province, where the Archeological Institute has a cemetery with more than 5,000 individuals that need to be processed.

When I finally arrived in this beautiful region situated between two mountain ranges, I was shocked by the population living there. Everyone’s there. There are Mongolians there, Tibetans, Chinese Muslims. There were all these other ethnicities I’d never heard of. And I found that I looked like them. Once I started doing research on the skeletons, which date back several thousand years, it also became very clear to me that my own ancestry incorporates many different ethnicities and cultures that weren’t talked about when I was younger.

I now realize parts of my father’s family probably were Muslim, parts of my mother’s family were Nestorian Christian. Both sides of the family are probably related to native Taiwanese who are related to Southeast Asians and Polynesians. I had a DNA test done with National Geographic, and it came up closest to native Taiwanese. The whole experience made me realize that the Chinese today really are a lot more complex than anyone realizes. I find it comforting, being more related to everybody.

Excavating a secondary multiple burial, Yunnan Province, China 2009

Excavating a secondary multiple burial, Yunnan Province, China 2009. Click to see larger size. Photo: Christine Lee

If you could pursue your heart’s desire, would you go back to China and carry on there?

I would love to. I only had a month to do my preliminary research in Gansu Province, and I’m hoping this pilot study will help me get funding to do further work. Not only would I go back, but I would take people with me. Not just other bioarcheologists: I would love to take photographers, filmmakers, story writers. I think it would be wonderful. And 5,000 skeletons is a lifetime of work.

The other thing about that site that’s so important is it’s actually the Tibetan region of China, historically, so those skeletons are not ethnically Han, not Chinese. They’re probably ethnically Tibetan, which is so fascinating. It’s also possibly one of the oldest sites with leprosy. There are several skeletons that have leprosy at about 1800 BC. There’s only one site older than that, in India at 2000 BC. But technically it’s about the same time period, so it really documents the antiquity of that disease.

You discover all sorts of information about these people — their health, diets, social structures, the history of disease — which must interest scholars across many disciplines.

I don’t think there’s as much cross-disciplinary research and interest as there should be. One of the reasons I was at the National Endowment for the Humanities’ seminar in Medieval Health and Disease at the Wellcome Library in London this summer was to start working with historians to try to put together the skeletal evidence and the historical written evidence to get a fuller story. I was especially trying to find people who could help me decipher what was going on at certain time periods around health and epidemics, because not many people can read ancient versions of East Asian languages.

Christine Lee at work

Looking over skeletons recovered from a Black Death cemetery. Museum of London, 2012. Photo: Charlotte Stanford

What are you working on next?

There’s been a site in Henan Province where I’ve been able to look at foot binding, which is interesting because the Chinese usually don’t excavate skeletons after the Song Dynasty. They’re superstitious about digging up their ancestors. But because they’re doing the relocation of the Yangtze River to Beijing, they have to dig up lots of newer skeletons. These skeletons are from the Song, Ming, and Qing Dynasties — the last thousand years. This means it’s one of the first times we’ve been able to actually look at foot binding from archeological skeletons.

What’s interesting is that you can tell that foot binding increased through time. At the very beginning, because only the elite practiced binding — this is a middle-class cemetery — there’s nobody with foot binding. Then, in the Ming dynasty, about 50 percent have it. It starts to trickle down. And by the Qing Dynasty, it’s almost 100 percent. They think maybe, because the Qing dynasty was Manchurian, it was a rebellion against Manchurian culture to be even more Chinese.

How has being a TED Fellow had an impact on your work?

On a practical level, the fellowship has helped me improve my teaching and speaking style. I’ve also realized it’s possible to incorporate artists and filmmakers and writers and others from outside of my field into my research. I realize now it’s not enough just for me to be teaching in the classroom and publishing in journals that only my colleagues read. I think the best way is to disseminate this information to a wider audience. It’s information everybody would appreciate.

TED has also given me the confidence and the ability to speak to different types of people from different backgrounds — not just occupational backgrounds, but cultural, religious, socio-economic backgrounds — and be comfortable. It’s helped me be a lot more comfortable with myself and where I am and where I’ve been in the world. When I’m with the Fellows I realize my quirkiness and idiosyncrasies fit, somehow. The fellowship has given me an incredibly glorious scope of friends that just makes me feel a lot more grounded.