Summer Centered: Yifan Zhang ’21 Digs Deep at the Haagerup Field School
With support from the Center for Career and Professional Advising’s Deborah Lafer-Scher International Internship fund, the prospective anthropology major is unearthing Denmark’s past—literally.
For Yifan Zhang ’21, a day on the job looks more like a scene from Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones than a typical 9-to-5. The prospective anthropology major is spending his summer excavating skeletons from the Haagerup cemetery through a program with the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).
Zhang’s summer fieldwork is made possible through funding from the Deborah Lafer-Scher International Internship, run by Haverford's Center for Career and Professional Advising. The rising sophomore is grateful for the opportunity to explore the immensely valuable hands-on aspects of biological anthropology and archeology.
"Fieldwork is the very cornerstone of anthropological method,” said Zhang. “Especially for my interests in skeletal remains, exposure to skeletal collections and field excavation can be very rewarding. With SDU, I have the opportunity to excavate one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Europe.”
As a student archeologist at the Haagerup field school, Zhang spends seven hours a day out in the field with a team of professional archeologists and anthropologists. It is estimated that nearly 3,000 bodies of medieval-era residents from rural Denmark are buried in the Haagerup cemetery, which Zhang and his team will use as tools to learn more about life and society in ancient times. In addition to performing his own excavations, Zhang had the breadth of SDU’s resources at his fingertips.
"I got to learn from more than 16,000 skeletons from the SDU Unit of Anthropology’s astonishing collection,” he said. “With the kind guidance from my knowledgeable supervisors, I reassembled numerous skeletons and carried out standardized demographic and pathological analysis on them. Such experience is truly fascinating.”
Beyond the skills Zhang is learning as an archeologist, working at the Haagerup field school is also teaching him about the value of this research to the public interest.
"National and local televisions and paper media all had wide coverage of our project,” said Zhang. “From energetic preschool kids and curious senior citizens, everyone stopping by our site craved to know more about the life and population history of their ancestors. I came to realize the importance of promoting the mutual understanding between academia and the public, and how an engaged public can empower our intellectual pursuit tremendously.”
At the intersection of Zhang’s interests in biological anthropology and archeology lies the emerging field of bioarcheology, which Zhang is eager to explore back in the United States after his summer in Denmark.
"Bioarchaeology is essentially still an archaeological field,” explained Zhang. “Bioarchaeologists have to study the field within the archaeological context in which the skeleton is found. What can artifacts found in the proximity of the skeleton tell us about the individual’s identity or death? How can the position of the individual’s hands offer chronological insights? This invaluable information can only be retrieved in the field, with shovel and trowel.”
Inspired by the unique value of skeletal excavation, Zhang looks forward to returning to Haverford in the fall with an increased sense of drive to succeed.
"With a potential career in healthcare and my anthropological background, I am eager to reconstruct the life history of every excavated individual and reveal more about the health of our ancestors,” he said. “In my junior year, I might study abroad at Oxford to read the unique subject of ‘human sciences’ there, which seems like a perfect match for my goals. The wonderful study abroad partnerships Haverford provides will continue to power my journey of scholarly exploration.”