Understanding the past through bones: Dr. Gabriel Wrobel and the MSU Bioarchaeology Laboratory

Photo of Dr. Wrobel

In the MSU Bioarchaeology Laboratory, graduate and undergraduate students learn how to read the lives—and deaths—of individuals and groups from the past. The laboratory was established in 2012 by Associate Professor Gabriel Wrobel, who has conducted numerous excavations and research projects on ancient Maya sites in Belize.

As a bioarchaeologist, Dr. Wrobel focuses on the analysis and interpretation of skeletal remains from archaeological contexts. One of his primary research interests involves analyzing how Maya communities used cave and rock shelters for ceremonial and burial purposes, some sites reaching back 2,000 years. He also examines how changes in the rituals performed over time reflect broad sociopolitical transitions that occurred in the Maya region.

In Dr. Wrobel’s lab, students learn how bones and teeth can provide insight into where individuals came from, genetic relations between groups, what individuals ate, how they altered their bodies for cultural or religious reasons, diseases and traumas they experienced, and how they died. Undergraduate students who want foundational lab skills learn how to care for and maintain skeletal collections and work with data bases. Those with more experience typically undertake independent research projects, often publishing papers or presenting their research at conferences.

Photo of the bioarchaeology lab
The MSU Bioarchaeology Laboratory, photo courtesy of Jack Biggs

Research is a constant and dynamic part of the MSU Bioarchaeology Laboratory experience. Dr. Wrobel and his students often focus on documenting morphological variability that can be directly observed on the bones. For instance, some skeletal variants in the lab have an underlying genetic cause that makes possible determining relatedness between individuals and groups. Other projects focus on observable markers of pathology, such metabolic diseases like scurvy that leave their mark on bones. One major endeavor in the lab has been using digital 3D modeling to study and document bones, particularly skulls. These models create permanent digital records of the remains, helping both Dr. Wrobel’s lab and other researchers across the world for years to come.

Dr. Wrobel’s collaborations with other MSU researchers allow him and his students to look deeper into bones and teeth using medical imaging techniques. For example, Ayla Schwartz, an undergraduate working in the Bioarchaeology Lab with Dr. Wrobel, is studying Harris lines seen in the ends of long bones with computed tomography (CT). These lines of increased bone density, visible only in CTs and X-rays, show when growth paused due to juvenile malnutrition, disease, or trauma. Dr. Wrobel and his students also collaborate with researchers beyond MSU who use isotope analysis to reconstruct diet and geographic origin.

Since 2005, Dr. Wrobel has directed a field project in central Belize, which includes an Education Abroad field school program providing undergraduate students firsthand excavation and research training. The school’s focus is shifting from its original inland location to the coast of Belize, where Dr. Wrobel co-directs a research project with a colleague from University College London. The program, already underway, excavates a Maya site known as Marco Gonzalez on the island of Ambergris Caye. The site was a trading post connecting coastal and inland communities in Belize, Mexico and the Caribbean. This port managed to weather the 9th century Collapse, when large areas of the Maya region went through a cataclysmic depopulation and most large cities in Belize and Guatemala were rapidly abandoned. In addition to exploring the extent of trading activities, research will focus on the community’s resilience, using data from excavations and skeletal remains.

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05.26.21