Tying skeletal remains into the narrative of early China

By Sheila Evans

Lauren Ledin, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, uses bioarchaeological techniques to analyze skeletal remains originating from Yinxu during the Late Shang Period (ca. 1200-1050BCE). However, as Ledin explains, her research goes beyond just biology, “We can use these techniques to find how people were biologically related, but what does that really tell us?” Using mortuary contexts and modern Chinese ethnography work, Ledin seeks to demonstrate the fluidity of kinship as opposed to the rigid nature of a corporate lineage kinship structure.

Skeletons and Kinship in Early China

“Kinship isn’t a genetic structure - it unfolds during a person’s life,” Ledin explains, “Once you have kinship, it’s not ingrained, it’s dynamic.” To understand how fluid kinship can be, Ledin gives the example that direction of care starts as parents caring for children, whereas as the parents age, this relationship flips as children tend for their parents in old age.

Ledin became interested in how these relationships change over the course of a person’s life. “Traditionally, at an archaeological site, human remains are separated into groups of adults and children.” Ledin explains, “Many researchers disregard the children entirely because they want to focus on adults to establish a lineage.”

“Going into the University of Chicago, I didn’t know that my work would focus on skeletal remains, but I was inspired originally by archeological fieldwork right after my undergraduate degree,” says Ledin. During the summer after Ledin’s senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she conducted fieldwork in Yinxu, at the same site she studies today. The work was fascinating to her, and the infant sacrifices found in building foundations particularly interested her.

Finding Opportunity at UChicago

Before classes even started, Ledin’s advisor Professor Alice Yao went to work connecting Ledin with opportunities around campus. Professor Yao encouraged her to apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, to which she was accepted and supported her work for three years. Professor Yao also set up Ledin to spend two months doing fieldwork with Shandong University, the work being funded partially by UChicago’s Beijing Center. Through the GRAD Global Impact (GGI) Internship Program, Ledin worked at the Field Museum as an intern for the North American Biological Anthropology department, continuing her bioarcheological focus on skeletal remains. With the help of UChicago GRAD’s grant writing support staff, Ledin is able to secure funding through organizations such as Wenner-Gren Foundation and through Fulbright.

As a Social Sciences Research Center fellow, Ledin is grateful for the opportunity to write her dissertation in a dedicated workshop at the SSRC. “The space is awesome. I have my own cubicle, which is a rarity,” says Ledin.

Using the research stipend of the fellowship, Ledin is able to get her work edited in Mandarin, helping her research reach colleagues worldwide.

Ledin explains that the experience goes beyond just a stipend and workspace saying, “At the Social Sciences Research Center, I’m surrounded by people doing all types of research, which is invigorating. Through my interactions with other fellows, I feel as though my work has improved. It creates an incredible interdisciplinary environment.”

That interdisciplinarity and a well-regarded East Asian department and a vibrant community were one of the characteristics of UChicago that attracted Ledin to the program. Further, “faculty and fellow students were really responsive to my inquires and seemed excited about my project.” Ledin found classes relevant to archaeology well beyond her home department, whether it be studying supernatural beliefs in late imperial & modern China through the Department of History or an architecture class through the lens of archaeology through the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations program.

Ledin laughed, saying, “I’ve been here 7 years, and I still haven’t taken all the classes I want.”

Different Paths in the Future

Ledin expects to spend another year writing her dissertation but does not yet know what the future holds after graduation. She is choosing between a post-doc position to stay in academia, a curatorial position at a museum, or an industry job in archaeology. This uncertainty doesn’t stress Ledin; she explains, “I’m pretty easy to please as long as I’m doing the work I’m passionate about.”

Ledin is excited to continue her work changing academia’s perception of what kinship means and to contribute to the narrative of early China. If there was one thing Ledin would want people to understand about her research, it’s that “the scientific facts that we know about humans are wrapped in layers of culture that we must also understand.”