Vaughan Grimes

Dr. Vaughan Grimes is a bioarchaeologist and archaeological scientist in the Department of Archaeology and cross-appointed to the Department of Earth Sciences. His research and teaching areas range from biomolecular archaeology, human evolution and osteology, radiocarbon dating and archaeological geophysics. His primary research uses human and animal bone and tooth chemistry and morphology to understand diet and migration/mobility in past populations. He has a PhD in archaeological sciences from the University of Bradford, UK, and prior to joining Memorial in 2009 was a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

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What first sparked your interest in archaeology?

I grew up in central Newfoundland and there, perhaps more than any other part of the province, you’re keenly aware of how the ‘Beothuk legacy’ has left an indelible mark on contemporary Newfoundland society. The effect of hearing about the Beothuk through local folklore had an incredible impact on my interest in archaeology. But my first encounter with archaeology proper occurred when I was an undergraduate student at Memorial. Initially, I aspired to being a biologist or geologist, but these were quickly replaced after taking my first archaeology course, which was taught by Dr. Michael Deal. I was hooked on archaeology immediately, and the comprehensive foundation to the discipline offered by the department allowed me to find my primary interest: the study of human remains in the past. During my undergraduate degree, I also had the opportunity to work in the field with Drs. Peter Pope and Priscilla Renouf, and conduct archaeological surveys with a contract archaeologist, Gerry Penney. Each of these individuals and the experiences they provided taught me the value and joy of archaeology, both in the laboratory and in the field.

How has your own experience influenced your academic career?

My pathway to being an academic was not direct. It happened with equal parts serendipity and acting on opportunities when they arose. Coming from rural Newfoundland, like many others I left the province for education and work only to boomerang back home. In my case, the sojourn abroad lasted ~10 years and involved travel to Australia, England and Germany. The experiences gained while pursuing my education overseas has certainly coloured my perspective as an academic, and my research areas (I’m best described as a generalized specialist) have evolved because of these varied interests and experiences.

While I never wanted to feel pegged into a specific academic category, I realized that cohesion and a focused direction were powerful attributes for a successful career. In many ways, my desire to draw from my experiences and interests in other disciplines, such as biology, chemistry, physics, history, and earth sciences, have culminated into my career today. While I’m not a master in any one of these areas, being able make connections between them and find an application for each of their contributions in archaeology has caused me to gravitate to an area of archaeology broadly called ‘archaeological science’. This particular approach best suits my aptitude, skills, and interests. Importantly, I often draw from this varied background when teaching my students about the transferability of archaeology to other career paths.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever found yourself in the course of your research?

I wouldn’t say there’s any one weird place, rather I’ve experienced an odd collection of diverse places in my research education and career. Some of the highlights include looking for traces of human activity in the Simpson Desert, Australia, being part of a forensic autopsy team in northern England, and conducting research on the remains of Neandertals and other ancient hominins.

What are you currently working on?

Since 2014 I’ve been a Co-PI with Prof. Hendrik Poinar at McMaster University on a SSHRC-IG funded project investigating the lifeways (reconstructing dietary patterns), chronology, and population structure (using ancient DNA) of past human populations in Newfoundland and Labrador, specifically the Beothuk, Dorset, and Maritime Archaic cultural groups. With the direct involvement and support of aboriginal and First Nations groups in the province, we successfully obtained significant results from our genetic analyses in this research - recently published in Current Biology (Duggan et al. 2017). This data offered another line of evidence on testing inter- and intra-population connections of precontact peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador, something the existing archaeological record can’t directly determine. Additional outcomes of this research on the dietary reconstructions and radiocarbon dating are forthcoming in 2018. My colleagues and I are particularly excited about continuing this research to further understand precontact and contemporary population structure, and how past populations adapted to Newfoundland environments.

What has been the biggest success to date for you personally?

The opportunity to work on the precontact peoples of NL. This is a rare and unique situation in which we are able to shed new light on old problems and help tell their stories directly from the physical remains. Being able to connect back to what originally excited me about archaeology as a child through this research is also very rewarding.

What is your philosophy in regards to research and the people you study?

I’m usually not focused on a specific time-period or location in research. What drives me forward are the questions, independent of time and place.

What sort of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope our research on Newfoundland and Labrador’s precontact populations will have meaning to the people of the province first and foremost. Many of the projects I work on involve material from other parts of the world, which is cool as well, but that research is likely to have less specific interest for the local public. As academics, we all strive to have our research contain meaning and significance to those who have funded it, i.e. the public through research grants.

How do you feel your work is helping to boost Memorial’s national and international reputation?

The combination of projects that focus on research about people who lived in this region, along with those that live in other areas, helps to keep my research relevant, timely and hold significance beyond the provincial boundaries. This isn’t always easy, and requires investments of time and money from the individual researcher and the institution, either through financial support or access to appropriate facilities. In addition to support from the Department of Archaeology and Department of Earth Sciences, a key ingredient for me at Memorial is the CREAIT network, specifically the TERRA and MAF-IIC facilities and staff.

How is this research helping address the needs and opportunities for our province?

Along with colleagues in our department, one of the key contributions archaeologists can make to contemporary society is through our ability to understand human behavior in the past and offer perspectives for human biological and cultural adaptations in the future. Our research project into the Beothuk, Dorset, and Maritime Archaic people is one example of this type of contribution as it speaks directly to the culture, adaptations, and environmental context of people that lived in what is now Newfoundland and Labrador.

How are you supporting the next generation of researchers and HQP (highly qualified personel)?

I’ve had the absolute pleasure of helping to train 14 graduate students and eight undergraduate honours students here at Memorial. I think one of the key ingredients in a student’s success is to allow for self-discovery within the questions inherently embedded in our research; I place a strong emphasis on understanding how their data are produced, which are usually obtained by specific laboratory methodologies, and to try and build the strongest inferences from these data.

What is the one thing you would like the general public to know about your research?

Its diversity - but that seems like more than one thing. This extends to my colleagues in the Department of Archaeology and other faculty at MUN: we have world-class facilities and novel research programs that directly translate into the classroom for our students.