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Summer of seals

Bioarchaeology undergraduate student nabs NSERC award

Student Life

By Janet Harron

Analyzing seal teeth for environmental reconstruction might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for Jenn Wilkins it’s a dream come true.

Heading into the fourth year of her bachelor of arts degree, the bioarchaeology major discovered her interest in seals after taking a volunteer position at the Ocean Sciences Centre in Logy Bay. The television series Bones helped further deepen her interest in forensic and biological archaeology.

“The program (Bones) is quite inaccurate when you know more about archaeology, but it did show me a way of doing both humanities and science,” said Ms. Wilkins, who has received a coveted Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Award.

“I explored Memorial’s calendar and found biolarchaeology. Right away I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

Fundamental to Newfoundland and Labrador’s history, the first evidence of sealing dates back 7,500 years to the Maritime Archaic period. They were used extensively for food, clothing and fuel.

A seal skull
Photo: Submitted

This summer Ms. Wilkins will be looking at annual growth pattern in seal dental annuli, or growth ring. Teeth are constructed from incredibly tough material; like the trunks of trees, they have rings that can be counted to see how old they are.

Teeth fragments can therefore explain seasonality patterns and when and how people used the land and its resources thousands of years ago.

“Within each growth line, there’s smaller growth increments,” she said. “Through that we can discover whether seals were killed in the winter or spring and when the seal hunt was going on.”

Full of questions

Ms. Wilkins hopes to refine her microanalytical techniques in the laboratory this summer and plans to explore the possibility of geochemical analytics while looking at human environmental interactions.

Jenn Wilkins and her favourite subject.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

During the winter 2019 semester, Ms. Wilkins took a coastal archaeology course with Dr. Meghan Burchell and chose seals and seasonality as her research project.

She became deeply involved in the subject and began to have more and more questions. She consulted with Dr. Burchell and decided to apply for the NSERC award.

“The idea for her NSERC project aligned so well with my research that it was impossible not to support her application,” said Dr. Burchell. “She’s already made significant progress and has been key in getting our new lab equipment up and running.”

It’s unusual for a Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences undergraduate to get an NSERC award, but Ms. Wilkins maintains there does not need to be a divide between the sciences and humanities.

“In archaeology, the more you explore, the more questions arise. And you can involve all sorts of different disciplines in it,” she said. “Archaeology is such a fascinating area for research precisely because of how it connects with other disciplines, enabling us to gain a better understanding of human history. Humanities and science really do overlap in so many ways.”

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