Features 12/04/00

Bones tell stories to archaeologist; many begin, 'Once there was a war. . .'

By Kathryn Summers

Editor's note:
This story was produced for the USU mass communication class "Beyond the Inverted Pyramid," COMM 3110. It is one of a series on USU professors who are experts in their field, or world-class creators or performers.

She teaches anthropology classes, studies the causes and consequences of human violence and warfare and collects road kill in her spare time.

Dr. Patricia M. Lambert is an assistant professor of anthropology. She is a bioarchaeologist, which means she studies the biology part of physical anthropology, the evolutionary origins of humans, and how humans relate to their environment. Her special field of study is warfare and violence and bones. She is also an osteologist, which means she studies bones.

Lambert earned her doctorate from University of California-Santa Barbara in 1994. After an 18-month post-doctoral position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Anthropology Research Labs, she worked for six months as a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, continuing the research she did for her dissertation. She studied the bones of Native Americans who lived along the coast of California. There were 8,000 years of human remains to study, so she looked at change over time and evidence of prehistoric warfare. It is really unusual to find such a long record to study, Lambert said.

She started teaching at Utah State University in 1996. She came to USU because "the job was exactly what I was looking for." She gets to assign her own curriculum and teach classes she likes.

"A lot of what I do is in the lab and museum," she said of her research. She usually studies bones that have already been excavated and then stored in museums, but she does go out in the field occasionally. Lambert emphasized that she isn't a "grave-robber." She does salvage archaeology, which means she studies bones dug up when a canal or road is being built. She tries to be very respectful and works closely with representatives of Native American tribes always obtaining their permission to study the bones of ancient people.

This summer she will go to Peru to work on a salvage project. In 1994, in Peru, a canal was started which bisected a cemetery. There are 12,000 to 13,000 burial sites, which makes this cemetery a huge archaeological find. The trouble is, in Peru, looting graves for items such as pots, textiles and beads is a lucrative trade.

Archaeologists are examining the cemetery, but there are very few Peruvian osteologists. Dr. Lambert was asked to study the bones that have already been found. She also hopes to get some money to do further excavation before the looters destroy it all. Lambert looks for "evidence of warfare in human bodies."

She wants to reconstruct the levels and types of violence based on the bones. Bones can reveal a lot about what happened to a person during life, and sometimes how he or she died. Lambert looks for evidence of death from war by looking for arrow points and spears, or club and mace wounds on the bones.

She tries to determine the status of the individuals whose bones she examines.

She looks for evidence of different social classes of the people in the cemetery, which helps determine who went to fight in the wars: rich or poor people. People of higher social status were usually buried with things like gold masks, precious stones, and other objects of value. The bones also reveal who ate well, and who was malnourished. People with a higher social status usually had better access to food.

If there were lots of high status women buried in the cemetery with few corresponding men, that means the men of high status died fighting wars. However, if there are few low status men, that means they were the ones who went to war.

Besides doing research in California, Peru and the American Southwest, Dr. Lambert teaches several classes in the anthropology department such as osteology, biological anthropology, and a new class based on her research called the anthropology of war. She likes to write on the board, and use colorful slides and overheads to liven up her lectures. Lambert said she realizes it is boring to listen to a professor who just reads notes, so she tries to get the students to ask and answer questions in class.

Lara Petersen has taken several anthropology classes from Lambert. "I was really impressed with Dr. Lambert. She acts professionally. You know she is smart and has studied a lot, but she doesn't make you feel dumb," said Petersen.

"Dr. Lambert is very personable, and she has good style," added another student, Megan Andrew-Hobbs who has taken several classes from Lambert. She's not a jeans and T-shirt person. She looks dressy, but not formal like an "executive," said Andrew- Hobbs.

She has skeletons of a deer,
elk, duck, grouse, fish,
shark, squirrel and rabbit.


For the osteology class, students have to learn to tell human bones from animal bones. Lambert obtained a permit from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to salvage game animals and other non-protected species. She drives an "old clunky Suburban to haul bones in," said Andrew-Hobbs.

Lambert collects road kill and animals that died of natural causes. She has to process the bones to get the flesh off. This can include boiling or soaking small carcasses in Borax, or for big animals cutting the flesh off the bones or leaving them in a big pasture to naturally decompose. Then she sets the bones out to bleach in the sun in her back yard.

She admitted that it is rather gross, and sometimes very smelly, but it is worth it to get the skeletons. She also said sometimes her friends who hunt will bring her the bones of animals they caught. She has skeletons of a deer, elk, duck, grouse, fish, shark, squirrel and rabbit. Most of the animals died of natural causes, but a few were road kill, she said.

Like all untenured professors on campus, Lambert is evaluated every year by a Tenure and Promotion Committee. The committee looks at what fellow teachers think of her, and at the student evaluation forms to see what students think of her.

She reports to the committee about the classes she teaches, her research and service.

Many students don't realize their professors do more than just teach classes.

Lambert said her department expects her to spend 67 percent of their time teaching and advising, 25 percent of their time doing research, and the remaining 8 percent serving the university and professional communities.

"If we're active in research we're more exciting teachers," she said.

Lambert said the tenure process at USU is "very friendly." The hard part is getting hired. After that, the reviews are generally used to help teachers improve.

Lambert says when she does research she likes to "reconstruct human history" and ask "how do people fare, and what are the costs of benefits of different lifestyles?"

Her research is applicable today because she studies violence and its causes.

Understanding violence is the first step to solving the problems of violence in society today, she said.

"Violence is scary because it threatens life as we know it," Lambert said. "[It is] a mechanism by which humans get things done." But she also noted violence is costly because it requires revenge.

In modern America there is lots of violence in impoverished areas. To some people living in poor circumstances, there seem to be few alternatives. They don't have the same access to education, health care, and things that make up the 'American Dream.'

In the past, stealing was just a way of redistributing wealth. Now it is a crime said Lambert. People assess the risks and potential gains of violence differently. For someone with a good job, the risk of stealing is great, and the potential for loss outweighs the potential gain. However someone living in poverty may not feel there is much to lose.

Violence is sometimes portrayed as a racial issue. Lambert said some people have the idea that "those people," cause problems. She said violence is more strongly correlated to economic issues. She said her research upholds this theory. In the past, when growth occurred among societies, and resources became scarce, violence increased.

Today where resources are scarce, violence is a big issue.

"Everybody wants to be somebody," said Lambert, and sometimes violence is seen as a way to gain respect.

Teaching makes one of her hobbies possible. "I love to travel. Anthropology takes you to great places," she said.

She likes to eat the food and meet the people. She reads mystery books and some classics, to keep her vocabulary up. Tony Hillerman who writes mysteries set in the Southwest is one of her favorite authors. She gardens and has three rabbits named Molly, Smokey, and Romeo.

Petersen said she knows Lambert "just loves her rabbits." In her free time, Lambert loves to cook especially Thai, Indian, Peruvian, Mexican and Cajun foods. Andew-Hobbs recalls Lambert getting into discussions about food during class with students.

Petersen said that even though Dr. Lambert has done a lot of neat things, she is modest to the point to being shy. Petersen then summed up by saying "You can tell she likes to teach, and likes what she is doing."


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