Meghan Burchell is an associate professor in archaeology. Her research intersects archaeology, biology and geochemistry to understand long-term human-environmental interactions. She specializes the microanalysis of archaeological shells to understand past climate, diet, settlement and trade. She’s the co-director of the Memorial Applied Archaeological Sciences Lab and the Laboratory for Environmental Archaeological Sciences.
She completed her BA, MA and PhD Anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and is also a visiting researcher in the Department of Applied and Analytical Palaeontology at the University of Mainz. Meghan started at Memorial in 2013, and became the graduate officer in the archeology department in 2015.
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What first sparked your interest in archaeology?
It started with palaeontology when I was younger, and it’s a bit cliché, but I ran excavations in my backyard sandbox. In high school, I became interested in ancient civilizations and history. I hoarded history books on ancient Rome and Greece. I had a poster of Nefertiti in my locker.
In university, I found anthropological archaeology and in my third year, I knew I wanted to work on coastal archaeological sites – especially shell middens. Shell middens are archives of environmental and cultural histories. They are sites that consist mainly of shells harvested by people, and some of them have been in consistent use for over 10, 000 years.
How has your own experience influenced your academic career?
I had a full-time job as a lab manager in the anthropology department where I completed my PhD, so I have appreciation for gaining practical experience while completing a graduate degree. For a long time, I thought I was falling behind because my PhD research was happening at a slower pace than the other students around me. It wasn’t until I was finished that I appreciated my training as a university staff member and the mentorship I received by other professionals. When I started at Memorial, I had experience in curriculum design, teaching, and project management so that helped me launch my current projects.
I encourage my students to seek out practical opportunities to enhance their own education. Volunteering, public lectures, and sharing your work is critical to develop as a researcher. So is collaboration and working with people who have diverse backgrounds, training and ideas. I want to make sure my students are prepared for the next stage in their careers, and Memorial also has a lot of support for students to build professional skills– the EDGE program by the School of Graduate Studies is a great example.
What’s the weirdest/strangest/most surprising place you’ve ever found yourself in the course of your research?
Travel Lodge in Courtenay, British Columbia. My graduate students and I turned the parking into a lab. After we collected shell midden samples, we would sift, sort and bag them before shipping it to Memorial for analysis. The motel staff gave us newspapers to cover picnic tables, extra garbage bags, and they even helped clean up the dust. There was a lot of dust so I really don’t know why they were so accommodating.
Since we looked weird in the parking lot we had a lot of visitors. Shell midden matrix is really dusty, so we were wearing glasses, dust masks and lab coats while cataloguing bags of sediment. People staying at the motel would ask questions and some even helped us with the samples.
What are you currently working on?
I have three projects right now in different stages, and they’re all starting weave together. I work with museum collections from British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and I’m starting a new project in Cuba. All of these projects use shells to answer questions about past environmental conditions and how people interacted with the landscapes over thousands of years. Some projects are using the chemical data from shells to reconstruct sea surface temperature (and maybe hurricane patterns). I’ve almost finished setting up the new lab for Environmental Archaeological Sciences with Dr. Kris Poduska from the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography – we just had our first instrument installed – an FTIR spectrometer that will allow us to characterize archaeological materials.
I’m also working on some new courses. One is going to be on the archaeology of cats.
What has been the biggest success to date for you personally?
I think it’s the culmination of opportunities for students I’ve developed over my career. I’m astounded by the achievements of my former and current students.
(I also won the Dean’s Award from the School of Graduate Studies in 2018 and that was a big deal for me personally).
What is your philosophy in regards to research?
Collaboration and experimentation.
What sort of impact do you hope your research will have?
I hope my work brings attention to the significance of working with archaeological collections. There is crisis in curation of archaeological materials in Canada. Often, materials of ‘low interest’ are kept in storage, sometimes discarded, and generally are unavailable. Museums are underfunded and understaffed. I hope my approach demonstrates that you can build a sustainable program of research in archaeology by excavating collections, and an awareness for the need to fund long-term solutions to protect archaeological materials from Canada – especially excavated belongings from Indigenous and First Nations peoples.
How do you feel your work is helping to boost Memorial’s national and international reputation?
My students work in labs across Canada and in Europe – including the AMS Lalonde Radiocarbon facility in Ottawa and the Department of Applied and Analytical Palaeontonlogy at the University of Mainz, Germany. We’ve presented research across Canada and the United States, France, Spain, and Ireland, and in June my students and I will be at the International Sclerochronology conference in Split, Croatia.
I’m also supervising Memorial’s first Banting Post-Doctoral fellow in Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr. Madeleine Mant. She’s done some amazing work in since she came to Memorial – last year, she curated a new display for Queen’s College on the collection from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary that has now developed in a whole program of research for us.
How is this research helping address the needs and opportunities for our province?
We have the facility for high-resolution preparation microanalysis for natural and geological materials, and with our collective expertise we develop new private-public research projects. For example, we can use archaeological collections from the province to reconstruct sea surface temperature, salinity. By looking at modern specimens, like blue mussels, we can track pollution. This kind of information is critical for industries like fishing, aquaculture, mining, cultural resource management – and of course, archaeology.
How are you supporting the next generation of researchers and HQP (highly qualified personnel)?
The archaeology department has amazing labs where we can generate a lot of data and ask diverse questions. This summer, I have an NSERC- USRA student, who’s going to be developing new microanalytical techniques to analyze seal teeth from archaeological sites. MUCEP is supporting a biology student to see if we can use growth equations from fisheries biology on archaeological samples.
Students from ocean sciences, and physics are working with archaeology students in our labs so we’re building transferable skills between disciplines. This summer, we’re working on standard operating procedures for our new CFI equipment and technical reports that we’ll be providing to our community research partners.
What is the one thing you would like the general public to know about your research?
I can see daily growth lines in shells that are 10, 000 years old. It’s like reading a story written by the ocean.