Bioarchaeology, the bumps, and Cambridge Blue: Interview with Jenna Dittmar

What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge and why?

Blue. Specifically, Cambridge Blue because it makes me think about my time rowing for Cambridge and about all of the spectacular opportunities that I have had throughout my time here.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? How did you come to be a part of the After the Plague project, and what is the project you are working on in China?

As a bioarchaeologist, I am interested in the lived experience of individuals from past populations and how skeletal remains can be used to elucidate personal histories that can contribute to the reconstruction of a more nuanced view of past populations. Within this framework, I am particularly interested in patterns of disease, and how bioarchaeological evidence can be used to reconstruct past sociopolitical environments.

For my MSc and PhD research I explored the history of anatomical training in Britain by analysing the human skeletal remains of marginalised individuals within 19th century society (i.e. the poor, women, children). Currently, I am a postdoc on the ‘After the Plague’ project’, which is a multidisciplinary project that aims to explore the lives of the inhabitants of Medieval Cambridge. As a palaeopathologist working on this project one of the things that I am interested in is how health trends changed (or didn’t change) as a result of the Black Death. In addition to this I am a co-director of a project entitled, ‘Health, Disease and Diet in the Qijia Culture of the Chinese Bronze Age (2,300-1,700 BCE)’.  Dr Hui-Yuan Yeh (now at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore) and I founded this project in 2015 and then soon after we were joined by Elizabeth Berger (University of Michigan). The overarching aim of my aspect of the project is to explore patterns of disease and how these trends intersect with climate change in this region. So far, the skeletal remains have yielded dramatic palaeopathological trends, including high levels of violence and fatal conflict especially among male individuals, a high frequency of nutritional deficiencies in infants, and evidence of infectious diseases.

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge? You received your PhD here in 2016. How has the city changed in the intervening years, for better or for worse?

Like most people, my path to Cambridge was a meandering one.  I did my BSc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States with the intention of going to medical school. But I had a change of heart during my final year and decided to pursue archaeology instead. After I graduated, I worked as a commercial archaeologist for a few years in the US before moving to the UK to do a MSc in Human Osteology and Palaeopathology at the University of Bradford.

I moved to Cambridge in 2012 to do my PhD in Biological Anthropology with Dr Piers Mitchell. Just as I was finishing up, the advert for the ‘After the Plague’ project came up so I applied for the paleopathology postdoc position. I wish the story was more dramatic, but I think it was a case of lucky timing.

Since I have been here, I have witnessed drastic changes to both the city and the university. Cambridge was the fastest growing city in the UK between 2014-2016, yet I feel that the essence of the city has changed very little. From my perspective, the University remains the defining characteristic of the city, so I have a biased view of the changes that have occurred. Some of the positive changes that I have seen in the past few years include the increase in the promotion of diversity and access at the University as well as an emphasis on student safety and welfare.

You are one of a handful of postdocs who participates in what I consider to be an extremely Cantabrigian sport—rowing. How did you get involved in rowing, and what is the competitive landscape here at Cambridge? What is your daily routine like on days that you row?

Rowing has defined my time here at Cambridge but it was not something I ever thought that I would be involved in before I arrived. I learned how to row during my first term at Cambridge (with Newnham College) because my flatmate really wanted to try it out. I went to the first training session for moral support- but after that session I was hooked and not even three weeks later I was rowing in Newnham’s first boat. Nine months after that, I was rowing for Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club.

Rowing for a Cambridge college is unlike rowing anywhere else because there are short, but very intense periods of training (about 6-8 weeks) which culminate in a University-wide competition to see which club is the best called BUMPS. Bumps is a rowing race that was devised in the early 19th century as a way to determine which college has the best crew. Generally, the best way to do this is to race multiple crews side-by-side but the River Cam is too narrow to do this. So instead, twice a year (once in Lent term and once in May term) 18 boats line up  about 30 feet apart (a boat length and a half) and mass start (to the sound of a cannon) with the objective of hitting (‘bumping’) the boat in front of them. If you ‘bump’ the boat in front of you then you move up to their position on the river. The long-term goal of every rowing club is to become the first boat on the river. In the last set of BUMPS my club (Newnham) took headship.

On a rowing morning I generally get up about 5:45am, throw on some lycra, have a smoothie and cycle to the boathouse so we can be on the water as soon as it gets light. I am not really a morning person, so I always have everything packed and ready the night before so I don’t have to think about it once I get up. After an outing I will shower and then head into work. These days I do more coaching (for Newnham and St. Edmund’s) than rowing but my routine is still pretty much the same.

Beside rowing, what do you do in your spare time?

I spend a lot of my free time outside – I run and do some cycling. The most exciting thing that I have done recently with my spare time is racing sled dogs. Before I came to Cambridge my mother and I used to travel all over North America to race. She had an accident last November which prevented her from being able to train so this past winter I came out of retirement to take over the kennel temporarily.

 

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