Emory Report
September 29, 2008
Volume 61, Number 6

Stirring the pot
for his students

“What’s unusual about George is his extreme love and warmth for colleagues and students, combined with scholarly brilliance and unbelievable productivity,” says Alan Goodman, immediate past president of the American Anthropological Association, and a former student of Armelagos, when he taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“George’s house was an extension of the classroom. People were always there, joking and talking about things they were writing,” Goodman recalls. “At some point he would say, ‘Well, we should have supper.’ He’s a fabulous cook. And then you realize that this person you idolize is listening to your ideas while cooking for you, feeding your mind, your soul — and your stomach.”



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29, 2008
Getting skeletons to talk

By carol clark

George Armelagos’ office is stuffed with books, papers and artifacts. An ancient human skull rests on a window ledge, tapestries brighten the walls and a cardboard box brims with T-shirts. Students pop in to excavate the box, digging for their sizes amid shirts printed with a cartoon skeleton and “Bone to be Wild.”
“I like to give my skeletal biology students a memento,” explains Armelagos, who teaches a seminar called “Reading the Bones of the Ancient Dead.”

You can’t talk to Armelagos long without encountering students, who frequently drop by to shoot the breeze with the Goodrich C. White Professor and chair of anthropology.

His ability to integrate research and teaching throughout his more than 40-year career is one reason he won the 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology. The award is the highest honor given by the American Anthropological Association, with previous winners including the likes of Margaret Mead.

The son of Greek immigrants, Armelagos grew up outside of Detroit. He briefly attended medical school but soon committed to his first love of anthropology at the University of Michigan, where Leslie White and others were igniting interest in a bio-cultural approach to the field.

While still a graduate student, Armelagos worked on a dig funded by the National Science Foundation in Sudanese Nubia, including human remains that dated back 500 to 10,000 years. “Every skeleton has a story to tell,” says Armelagos. “You can learn how a person lived, and how they died.”

He didn’t restrict his analysis to individual skeletons, however, applying epidemiology and demography to study patterns of illness and death among populations.

This revolutionary approach to paleopathology led to a flurry of groundbreaking papers, and the discoveries keep coming. The amount of scholarship done by Armelagos and his colleagues have made the Sudanese Nubians the most studied archeological population in the world.

Working with his graduate students, Armelagos discovered tetracycline in the bones of the Nubians — the first documented case of ancient people consuming low levels of this naturally occurring antibiotic, which was likely generated by beer made from grain stored in clay pots.

Armelagos is a world expert on the impact of the human diet on evolution. In 1980, he co-wrote “Consuming Passions,” about the anthropology of eating, which was popular in book clubs and is referenced in classrooms to this day.

His work documenting the origin and spread of non-venereal syphilis in the Old and New World also garnered widespread interest, adding new clues in the debate over whether Columbus and his crew brought the devastating venereal variety of the disease home with them to Europe.

After joining Emory 14 years ago, Armelagos helped solidify the University’s reputation as a national leader in the interdisciplinary, bio-cultural approach to anthropology. He is proudest of his work as a teacher, especially when he sees a student become passionate about research. The stellar record of Emory students going on to prestigious jobs in academia is one mark of the department’s success.

Armelagos won’t regale you with Indiana Jones stories. The reality of excavating ancient remains is far less glamorous, which helps explain his collection of air sickness bags, some of which are displayed in the anthropology lab.

“I used to get sick on flights all the time,” he says, describing his early days on bumpy propeller planes. One of his favorite bags shows a picture of a kangaroo holding open her pouch, with the caption: “For that clean feeling.”

Armelagos sometimes uses one of the hundreds of bags in his collection to bring food to work. “No one has ever stolen my lunch,” he says.