New Answers in Ancient Remains

Jan. 2, 2014

Q&A with Anna Osterholtz, Ph.D. candidate in bioarchaeology

Working in a lab surrounded by human bones doesn’t rattle Anna Osterholtz. The bioarchaeology fellow is conducting research on ancient remains in Cyprus that she hopes will help us learn about how humans adapt to stress.

Anna’s research is supported by the President’s UNLV Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, funded by private gifts to the UNLV Foundation.


I had several high-profile options for graduate work, but I fell in love with UNLV when I saw the labs and met the faculty. I specifically chose UNLV in order to work with Debra Martin [Lincy Foundation Professor of Archaeology]. When ancient Cyprus became my area of focus, my committee co-chair Alan Simmons [Distinguished Professor of Anthropology], was invaluable. And I couldn’t have pursued my research without the private financial support UNLV made available to me.

How would you describe your research to a lay-person – say, a childhood friend, or any of us who aren’t archaeologists?

My challenge has always been how to explain what I do to my grandmother! Simply, my research looks at how people interact with each other, their relationships. Everyone’s day-to-day activities leave physical marks on their bones. We can read these marks thousands of years later. I’ll be looking at patterns found in Bronze Age remains in Cyprus. These bone fragments can help us understand how people lived and how they adapted during a time of massive social breakdown. We can learn how their culture buffered them from sickness and biological stress.

And why should all the rest of us have an interest in what you’re doing?

Bones are inherently interesting. We all feel connected in some way to the bones in our bodies. When you analyze ancient remains, the data begins to tell a story. The holy grail of bioarchaeology is to understand that story. Once we have an understanding of what happened in the past, we can understand what is happening in the present. This research will connect the dots between culture and health, then and now. Data from the past can inform thinking on the range of responses that we can express when faced with challenges like climate change and globalization.

Do you think of yourself as more of a scientist, historian, or maybe detective?

I see myself as a scientist. My work is grounded in anatomy and physiology, and then the social sciences get brought in.

What is your greatest challenge?

Trying to learn modern Greek! I’ll be spending a lot of time reading museum documents pertaining to skeletal collections that have languished in boxes since they were acquired in the 1930s and 1940s.

What special protocols are required for working with human remains?

That entirely depends on where you’re working. Generally, you can’t permanently alter them. My research is all what’s termed “non-destructive,” so nothing I do changes or diminishes them.

Do you draw any personal connections to your research?

My father was a medical doctor, and my mother a nurse. In the house where I grew up, a volume of Gray’s Anatomy was always visible. My father passed away within the past year, and I feel that all of my research honors his work and who he was.

When you’re out in the field surrounded by bones, skeletons, burial sites, do you ever get, well, spooked?

Never. Human bones are an evolutionary marvel. I am always respectful and endlessly fascinated by them.