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ASU bioarcheologist unearths medieval life through burial remains

June 27, 2023

Brenda Baker continues her ongoing research this summer in Cyprus

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of Q&As highlighting Arizona State University researchers working around the world this summer. Read about tool excavation in Africamotorbike research in Vietnam and conserving jaguars in Costa Rica.

Brenda Baker flew into Cyprus in early June. The divided island is located southwest of Turkey. 

After securing a rental car, the ASU bioarcheologist followed the signs (written in both Greek and English) for more than 100 miles along the southern coast of the island, and then north from Paphos, on a winding, rural road to Polis. This small town rises on a bluff from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, which Baker says varies in color from turquoise to cobalt blue.

It is here that Baker, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, has been returning to since 2005 to conduct burial excavations.

Trip from Larnaca, Cyprus to Poli, Cyprus on Google maps

Baker's route from the Larnaca International Airport to the excavation site in Polis, or Poli Crysochous, Cyprus. Image courtesy Google maps

The trip not only takes her a long way from her home in Chandler, Arizona, but her research takes her back hundreds of years — to the early sixth century when two stunning, sun-soaked basilicas were built on a bluff overlooking the bay and used for burials on and off until the 1500s.

The area continues to be the focus of her work as part of the Princeton University Cyprus Expedition. The goal of the project is to examine Hellenistic and Roman layers of the town that were discovered, as well as the late antique-to-medieval basilicas. Baker is the project’s bioarchaeologist and is in charge of studying the skeletons of people buried in and around the two churches some 500 to 1,700 years ago. 

Her research has a two-fold purpose. It gives her a greater understanding of the history of Cyprus and the lives of the people who once lived there, and provides rich experiences to share with her students at ASU. 

This year, Katelyn Bolhofner, a former graduate student who worked on the project more than 10 years ago, joined Baker in Cyprus. Bolhofner is now an assistant professor of forensic anthropology at ASU’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences

ASU News checked in with Baker in Polis last week to hear about her summer research of uncovered skeletons in Cyprus. 

Excavation cite of basilica in Polis, Cyprus

ASU researcher Brenda Baker has been working at this excavation site in Polis, Cyprus, for many years. The excavations are near two basilicas. Baker is studying the skeletons of people buried in and around the churches 500 to 1,700 years ago. Photo by Katelyn Bolhofner

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Your typical work day starts at 8 a.m., with a tray of bones to study. What are skeletal bones from 1,700 years ago like?

Answer: Most skeletons are in a fair to poor state of preservation in the lab. The skeletons look complete when first exposed, but they have had all the organic components, such as collagen, leach out of them, so they are very brittle and crumbly. The many tiny roots that go through the bones also break them up, so we have a lot of fragments to work with rather than complete bones. It’s a giant puzzle to put back together. 

Q: What is it like to spend so much time with skeletons?

A: It can be both frustrating, given the way the burials were excavated prior to my participation and preservation issues, and it can be rewarding, (especially when) relating to current residents about these ancient people, who were not so different from them. It can be exciting at times, as it was when finding evidence of leprosy in a young adult female. 

Q: That was one of your most important discoveries. Why? 

A: Her skeleton was the first archaeological example from Cyprus. Her burial within the entry hall of the church shows she was not ostracized by the community or barred from burial in sanctified ground. 

The separation of people suffering from leprosy on Cyprus did not occur until Ottoman colonization, and they were further subjected to separate leper houses and stigmatization with British colonialism. So it is quite important to recognize that this female who died in her 20s participated in regular activities like sewing until she was no longer able to do so.  

ASU professor Brenda Baker examining skeletons in her lab in Cyprus

Baker works in her lab in Cyprus. Photo by Katelyn Bolhofner

Q: What have you been working on this week?

A: The last couple of days, I’ve been documenting the skeletal pathology in a man I excavated from a cistA cist is a small stone-built coffin-like box or ossuary used to hold the bodies of the dead. Source: Wikipedia tomb outside of the basilica back in 2005. His tomb was constructed of ashlar (limestone) blocks and covered with limestone slabs. 

Many people were buried in simple pits dug into the ground, some with coffins evidenced by remnants of nails and some without coffins. The latter sometimes had stones placed on either side of the head to keep it in position. Most people were common folk, though some of the earlier burials within the main areas of each basilica were clergy or wealthier people. 

Q: What else have you learned about the culture through your work? 

A: The people in this area performed a lot of manual agricultural work, suffered mostly clavicle (collarbone and shoulder injuries) and rib fractures. They probably fished and, based on grooves in their teeth, did regular tasks like sewing and weaving. 

The skeletons have revealed evidence of a division of labor through the different proportions of females versus males with grooves or notches on their teeth and in patterns of trauma.

While more adult males had trauma, it’s all accidental. In adult females, some is probably accidental but other injuries were certainly intentionally inflicted as indicated by cranial depression fractures and a “parry fracture” of a forearm bone that happens when someone is warding off a blow to the face.

Q: Sometimes excavations unearth extraordinary discoveries, but smaller observations are equally significant. Can you explain?

A: Yes. I’ve been documenting notches and grooves on incisor teeth that show they were being used as tools — mainly doing things like snapping thread along the side of a tooth. An adult female buried around 1,000 A.D. in the cemetery, excavated in 2005, was the first, we noted, to have grooves on her teeth. She had other skeletal alterations that support the contention that she was a seamstress. 

Since then, I’ve documented grooves and notches on teeth of many other individuals, both male and female, though females predominate. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of the discoveries here has been the discussions I’ve had with women who do local crafts — weaving, lacemaking, embroidery. When I told one shop owner in Polis about the teeth of our seamstress, with the deep grooves on the side of her top second incisor teeth, she exclaimed that she does the same thing and her dentist keeps telling her to use scissors instead of her teeth or she will break them off!  

A Cypriot archaeologist who heard a presentation I gave told me that his mother does that, and it made this medieval woman come alive. 

Top photo: Brenda Baker, an associate professor in ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change, spends time in a lab in Polis, Cyprus. Baker begins her work day by retrieving trays of bones from storage. The lab provides good light and a lot of table space to analyze the bones. Baker takes an inventory of what bones are present or absent and then determines the sex, dental wear and more. Photo by Katelyn Bolhofner

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News

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The unintentional executive

June 27, 2023

Jacob Moore named ASU's new vice president, special advisor to the president on American Indian affairs

Fourteen years ago, Jacob Moore held a part-time management intern position with Arizona State University while he was studying for his MBA, with no long-term plans to work at the university.

He had a career in banking before returning to college to earn his bachelor’s degree in finance at the age of 40 with the goal of working for tribes. Moore went on to earn his MBA from the W. P. Carey School of Business almost a decade later.

He has evolved from a management intern to executive leadership and today is the new vice president and special advisor to the president on American Indian affairs. But suggesting Moore was simply an intern doesn’t properly account for his years of experience in banking, health policy, economic development, tribal government, gaming, entrepreneurship and eight years on the Arizona State Board of Education.

Now in his 60s, Moore readily admits he’s a late bloomer.

“I only wish it happened 20 years earlier,” Moore said with laugh. “But I’m not bothered by it. My path has brought me to where I am today, and that’s how it’s supposed to be."

"I am grateful for the opportunity to be of service to ASU and to Indigenous students and communities,” said Moore, who is Lakota, Dakota, Akimel O’odham and Tohono O’odham.

His new post starts July 1.

“Arizona State University is working harder than ever to support the success of Native American students, and Jacob Moore has contributed meaningfully to our progress,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said. "Jacob is knowledgeable and passionate about developing better ways to serve tribal communities, and we are excited to see where his leadership will guide us.”

Moore is the former associate vice president of tribal relations in the Office of Government and Community Affairs. He was responsible for the intergovernmental affairs between ASU and tribal nations and communities.

His new job duties will focus on expanding the efforts of those who came before him in his new role as special advisor to the president.

Moore said ASU has a legacy of prolific leaders who proceeded him in the role of special advisor on tribal affairs. The first was Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation; followed by Diane Humetewa, former U.S. attorney and a current federal District Court judge; and, most recently, Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, a well-established Native scholar and researcher.

Brayboy said Moore is the perfect choice for this role.

“Vice President Moore brings an unbelievable skill set that is rooted in being a remarkable ambassador and emissary for ASU,” said Brayboy, who became dean of Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy on June 1. “He is a brilliant thinker. He is also beloved among the faculty, students and staff at ASU and among tribal peoples across the nation. His deep knowledge of ASU, coupled with his lived experiences, situate him to take on this role in wonderful ways. I’m thrilled for Jacob. And for ASU.”

Moore’s goal is to build upon the university’s previous work to make higher education more accessible for American Indian/Indigenous students and strengthen the university’s engagement with tribal nations and communities.

His new responsibilities will cover a broad spectrum of duties and transformational initiatives, including aligning research projects with tribal priorities, sustainability practices that incorporate traditional knowledge in a respectful way, collaborations with a wide variety of stakeholders, and social advancements in equity and global health.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

One of the larger objectives before Moore is to enact strategies that emphasize student success by aligning programs and services — from recruitment to retention to career services, on to graduation and, ultimately, alumni and donor relations — into one coherent system.

“Dr. Brayboy’s research identifies four key elements for Native American student success in higher education: academic preparation, cultural congruity, financial need, and role models and mentors,” Moore said. “As we continue to do a thorough analysis of student data, we see wellness and well-being as a fifth key element to student success. It’s an opportunity to build upon the solid foundation that already exists at ASU and ramp up our commitment to the next level.”

Moore said each of the 22 federally recognized tribal governments in the state of Arizona have a significant role to play in determining the future of this state when it comes to economic vitality, tourism and critical natural-resource management, such as water, land, timber, wildlife and mining. Preparing the next generation of leaders, engineers, educators, artisans, healers, wisdom keepers and caretakers of these precious limited resources is a role that ASU has a duty to support, Moore believes.

"Assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves is straight out the university’s charter,” Moore said.

Moore put that into practice in his former role, said Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Rambler said a few years ago he approached President Crow to start their own tribal college and obtain accreditation. He put Moore on it, and it got done, according to Rambler.

“Our tribe partnered with the Tohono O’odham Nation’s tribal college to use their accreditation. San Carlos Apache College is now in its fifth year of existence and has recently applied for accreditation,” Rambler said. “Every step of the way, from meeting with Tohono O’odham Community College to helping educate our college board members to today, Jacob has been there with us. He is helping us create our own tribal college, which will become a game changer for our people. Our college will help us strengthen our self-determination and sovereignty. I thank Jacob and President Crow for believing in us and education.”

Moore also believes in strengthening the Indigenous community through his volunteer efforts. He serves on the Phoenix Indian Center fundraising executive leadership committee and last year co-chaired the 75th annual Silver and Turquoise Gala Ball, the center’s annual fundraiser. Because of Moore’s participation, the center raised $500,000, according to Jolyana Begay-Kroupa, the center’s chief excutive officer.

“It was important for me to ask a local leader to help co-chair the event,” said Begay-Kroupa, who also teaches Navajo language courses as ASU. “I asked Jacob, thinking he was probably going to say no because he’s so busy, but he was happy to do it. It was my first year as CEO and he helped guide me through the process, suggesting we invite Valley leaders and corporate sponsor executives to our event. As a result, we had a record-breaking year.”

Begay-Kroupa said Moore is a “quiet mentor” who sees the need for more Indigenous leaders and supports their needs.

“Jacob helps pave the way for these leaders and their initiatives to fulfill these important roles in the community and our urban Native people here locally,” Begay-Kroupa said.

Maria Dadgar, who has known Moore since 2000, sees him as a master weaver and troubleshooter who has one goal in mind: to help everyone reach their goals.

“Jacob seamlessly works through political, cultural, business and academic circles to create innovative ways for us all to work together to achieve overarching goals,” said Dadgar, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. “He is very effective at building community and tireless in his service to others. Every community needs a leader like Jacob Moore.”

Moore’s troubleshooting skills comes from a variety of work and scholarly experiences. He currently serves on the board of directors for Arizona Community Foundation, ASU Morrison Institute, WestEd, Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center, Xico and Tohono O’odham Gaming Enterprise.

He is also a senior global futures scholar with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory and a health solutions ambassador with ASU’s College of Health Solutions.  

Moore first started at ASU in 2007 assisting Ivan Makil, former president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, in launching a two-day training program called American Indian Newly Elected Orientation. The program evolved into the Tribal Government Leadership Forum and continued for seven years.  

In 2014, Moore was tasked with developing “The State of Indian Country in Arizona” report, produced for the ASU Office of Public Affairs. The report profiled the role of faculty across the university that were engaged in research and policy in Indian Country and identified opportunities for focused programs in the coming years.

The university responded to the call for greater engagement in the report, according to Moore. In May 2020, ASU reached a major milestone when it enrolled approximately 3,500 American Indian students. That same year, it graduated 679 Indigenous students, another breakthrough achievement. 

A year later the university reached another milestone: ASU now employs approximately 60 Indigenous scholars — one of the largest cohorts assembled at any major university in the United States.

These world-class scholars have won Pulitzers, fellowships, MacArthur “genius” awards and National Institutes of Health grants, and have either been inducted into major academies or had other significant awards bestowed upon them. They teach subjects that cover a wide spectrum of academia, including sustainability, education, engineering, dramatic arts, architecture, liberal arts, social work, science, law and health care.

Recruiting, guiding and inspiring these academic leaders takes a special person with people skills and know-how, said Amanda R. Tachine, an author and assistant professor with ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“Jacob is a wise leader and exudes wisdom,” Tachine said. “Being alongside him and seeing the way he includes everyone in conversation is a phenomenal gift. We’re lucky to have him.”

Moore said his new job recognizes tribal nations and communities as a key stakeholder in the university and comes with the responsibility of ensuring that current and future Indigenous students are provided every opportunity for success in higher education.

“I’m honored to be appointed to the role of vice president and special advisor to the president on tribal relations,” Moore said. “I remember well the many Native leaders, alumni, scholars, mentors and peers that continuously pushed this institution to respond to the needs of tribal nations, communities, faculty and students. Having the opportunity to carry out just a small portion of their collective hopes, dreams and expectations is humbling.”

Top photo: Jacob Moore poses at the Hayden Library’s Indigenous Labriola Center table on June 1. He was recently promoted to vice president and special advisor to the president on American Indian affairs. His tribal heritage is Lakota, Dakota, Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham. The Labriola Center's table was designed to evoke the ancient canal system built by the HuhugamHuhugam is the O'odham word for all O'odham ancestors, including those known to archaeologists as the Hohokam. Source: that first sustained people in the Valley. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Reporter , ASU News