While she appreciates the interest the TV show “Bones” has generated in anthropology, Dr. Dawn Mulhern just can’t watch it because of the artistic liberties the show takes with her profession, even down to the set design.
“They’ve got the bones laid out on this table that lights up, so you’d be totally blinded if you actually tried to look at the skeleton,” she says. “You couldn’t see any detail because the light is shining in your eyes, but it looks good on TV.”
It might not be as stylish, but the real world work of anthropologists like Dr. Mulhern, associate professor and chair of the Fort Lewis College Anthropology Department, is no less interesting. It is the breadth and depth of her work that earned her the 2015-16 Fort Lewis College Featured Scholar Award.
It was trips to the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a child that set her on her life’s path. She remembers seeing one display showing bones lying just below the ground.
“This stuff was just waiting to be discovered,” she says, “for someone to look at and figure out what it is. I found that absolutely fascinating.”
Her research specialties are osteology (the study of bones) and histology (studying the microstructure of bones). She’s brought her expertise to examining remains in the shadow of Egypt’s Great Pyramid, and now she’s using her knowledge to unlock the prehistory of the Four Corners.
“One goal I had when I came to Durango was to immerse myself in this area and to understand more about the people who used to live here,” she explains. “I’ve been really fortunate to get involved in that by doing the most complete study of the skeletal remains from the Basketmaker II time period in the Durango area.”
The Basketmaker II people lived around Durango between 1500 BC and 500 AD. Dr. Mulhern has studied area sites such as the Falls Creek Rock Shelters and the Darkmold site. She is bringing new discoveries together with previously excavated remains to help fill in the missing pieces about this place that we live.
For Dr. Mulhern, part of the reason she does what she does is her own curiosity, but getting to know our ancestors and how they lived does have important implications for us today.
“After Basketmaker II times, people left the Durango area,” she says. “We don’t exactly know why that was. It could have been climate change. It could have been because the resources were scarce. The bones can tell us about the health of the people who lived here, which may give us clues about what happened.
“Certainly some of those issues that people dealt with in the past are things that we’re dealing with now. So if we can understand how people dealt with it and were either successful or not successful, that’s something that might be able to inform us in the future.”
She has also used her expertise to assist in the repatriation of human remains to Native American tribes, first at the Smithsonian Institution and now at FLC. “This has been an significant and rewarding aspect of my work. With the Falls Creek project, I was able to collaborate with other scientists, consult with tribes about our findings and participate in the reburial ceremony.”
As much as her curiosity drives her to uncover the mysteries of the distant past, she is also motivated to serve here in the present. She works with law enforcement on forensic cases and is involved in recovery efforts after disasters and other tragedies. Most notably, she was deployed after September 11 to Pennsylvania and New York City to help identify the victims of the terrorist attacks.
“To make a contribution in a crisis situation was a pivotal experience in my career,” she says. “I realized what anthropologists could offer in practical and even tragic situations.”
As a teacher, she wants her students to have the same rewarding moments of discovery and service that have made her own career so fulfilling.
“It’s a great place,” she says of studying anthropology at FLC, “and not only for being able to do field schools in the area or internships at places like Mesa Verde or the Anasazi Heritage Center. Undergraduate students are going to have opportunities at FLC to apply their learning that most students don’t have until graduate school. When I get called to investigate cases of prehistoric, historic or recent human remains, I always have my students with me.”
Plus FLC exam tables don’t light up, so students will be able to actually see what they’re studying.