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Sheridan continues research program with grant

Joe Trombello | Friday, September 12, 2003

Susan Sheridan, associate professor of anthropology at the University, continued her summer research on bones found at the École Biblique et Archéologique, a Dominican monastery in Jerusalem.

Made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the NSF Summer Fellowship in Biocultural Anthropology allows Sheridan to choose 10 students from universities around the country to participate in a six-week active field research project and receive college credits, full Fellowship scholarships and hands-on experience.

In existence since 2000, the summer research project has studied over 15,000 bones dating between the 5th and 7th centuries A.D., collected from the former St. Stephens monastery (now the École Biblique et Archéologique) in Jerusalem. Former projects have included the study of children found buried in the tombs, and research last summer was concerned with ancient disease reconstruction.

Because the funding prohibited study in the volatile city of Jerusalem, Sheridan and her colleagues bring portions of the collection back to Notre Dame each summer. Graduates of the program frequently present posters or make presentations at conferences, and some have published work in scholarly journals.

Anne Holden, a 2003 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, participated in the research project two summers ago. She presented study findings at meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists last year and has received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to work on her Ph.D. in biocultural anthropology at Cambridge University. Holden said the summer fellowship project was invaluable.

“Enrolling in the Byzantine St. Stephens summer program helped me immensely when applying to Cambridge and to the scholarship that is providing my Ph.D. funding,” she said. “Dr. Sheridan was an amazing teacher and mentor … [who] along with Dr. Robert Haak and teaching assistant Jaime Ullinger, pushed the entire group to create the best possible work we could. I am deeply indeed to Dr. Sheridan for allowing me to participate in this program.”

Sheridan’s work, along with that of Notre Dame colleagues Mark Schurr, associate professor of anthropology, and Eugene Ulrich, John A. O’Brien professor of Hebrew Scriptures, was featured in a Discovery Channel documentary that aired in January of 2002.

The Byzantine St. Stephen’s project was a product of her work abroad. While lecturing in Jerusalem in 1994, Sheridan, at the suggestion of Ulrich and colleague James VanderKam, visited the former Saint Stephen’s monastery and learned of the underground tombs once used by monks.

Members of the monastery asked if she would be interested in exhuming the remains for research purposes, and she agreed. She estimates that 129 students have since worked on the Byzantium Bones project.

“Students have been involved with the project since we began excavating the tombs in Jerusalem in 1995,” she said.

In addition to her work with the Byzantium bones, Sheridan, along with students, has also conducted research on bones from the ancient near east Qumran community.

“It turns out the École Biblique was the host institution for the original excavations at Qumran in the 1950s. I’d been working on the Byzantine collection at the École for about seven years when the Qumran bones were rediscovered as the Archaeology laboratories were being relocated,” Sheridan said.

Biblical scholars have linked the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Qumran community, and Sheridan’s research in this area has connected her with VanderKam and Ulrich, leading experts on the scrolls. Both professors speak highly of Sheridan and her work.

“I have great respect for Sheridan’s professional work,” VanderKam said. “She has now subjected a set of the bones from Qumran to the appropriate scientific tests and has for the first time been able to draw disciplined conclusions about them. She is a wonderful, energetic scholar who has involved students in her work; she is also a delightful person – who throws a mean party – a real boon to Notre Dame and also to Dead Sea Scrolls research,” he said.

Angela Kim Harkins, who completed her doctorate in theology at Notre Dame this summer, worked with Sheridan on researching the Dead Sea Scrolls. Kim Harkins studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1997 to 1998, where she “stumbled across [Sheridan’s] work on the St. Stephen’s Crypt.” She said that the project sounding intriguing to her, so she volunteered her help.

“I volunteered for the Byzantine Bone Project while I was in Jerusalem that year mostly because it was a fascinating project that brought so many different fields that were new to me. Dr. Sheridan was a great teacher, and I learned so much about what is involved in creating a biocultural reconstruction of monastic life,” she said.