Winter 2010: Of Note

Portrait of Kathryn Marklein

skull study: Kathryn Marklein 10C uses bones to learn about the lives of people from centuries ago.

Kay Hinton

Reading Books and Bones

Marshall Scholar studies bioarcheology to unearth secrets of the past

Marklein on the Acropolis

skull study: Kathryn Marklein 10C uses bones to learn about the lives of people from centuries ago.

Courtesy Kathryn Marklein

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By Carol Clark

Emory senior Kathryn Marklein 10C came to Emory with plans to go to medical school, but all that changed when she took a freshman anthropology seminar called Reading the Bones of the Ancient Dead.

“I was hooked,” Marklein recalls of the first day of class, when she walked in and saw two skeletons laid out on a table. “I immediately wanted to understand and appreciate their lives. It’s fascinating to learn about the person behind a skeleton.”

The seminar is taught by anthropologist George Armelagos, one of the founders of the field of bioarcheology—the study of skeletal remains of past human populations. “I see Katy as one of the legacies of my teaching,” says Armelagos, whose forty-year career includes lifetime achievement awards from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the American Anthropology Association.

“Katy will be able to pick up and carry on skeletal biology in a way that it should be carried on,” he says. “She has an infectious curiosity that drives her to learn as much as possible about ancient life, and to apply that knowledge to problems facing humanity today.”

Marklein has received the Marshall Scholarship, making her one of only forty scholars in the nation this year to get the prestigious award for advanced studies in Britain. Started by a 1953 Act of Parliament, the Marshall Scholarships commemorate the humane ideals of the Marshall Plan and are designed to give future U.S. leaders an understanding of British life.

With a double major in classics and anthropology, Marklein will use the all-inclusive scholarship to pursue two master’s degrees during two years: the first in skeletal and dental bioarcheology at the University College London, and the second in osteology and funerary archeology at the University of Sheffield.

Although many bioarcheologists focus on prehistoric populations, Marklein is using bone biology to unlock secrets of the classical era. During the summer, a Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory grant took her to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She worked in the Weiner Laboratory run by physical anthropologist Sherry Fox.

“There was a big box of skulls, and my first task was to clean them with toothbrushes,” says Marklein, who was dubbed “the skull washer” by a graduate student in the lab. “It probably sounds like a bad horror movie to a lot of people,” she says, adding that for her, it was a dream come true.

Marklein is continuing to work on an analysis of those remains from the classical and Hellenistic periods. “I’ve found some interesting cases of pathologies, and I’m getting some good portraits of a few individuals,” she says, explaining that bones can provide clues to what people ate, whether they suffered from a disease or trauma, and even what they did for a living.

From her studies of the classics, Marklein knew that the ancient Greeks had a reputation for feeding strangers first and asking questions later. “That’s the same way I was received,” she says. “People treated me almost as if I were family. I’m sure I will be going back.”

In addition to being a top scholar, Marklein has been involved in theater since the fifth grade and has participated in Emory stage productions every semester since arriving on campus. She also sings for services at the Emory Catholic Center and, for the past four years, has volunteered at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge.

Her parents live in Dunwoody, where Marklein attended Marist High School. The family moved frequently when she was growing up. “I met a lot of unusual and memorable personalities along the way,” she says, adding that she looks forward to studying in England after she graduates. “There are so many people in the world to meet.”

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