Women of the OSA featuring Emily McDowell
Trowel Blazers

In honor of the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in 2020, we are celebrating the talented women who work for the NC Office of State Archaeology with our "Trowel Blazers" series.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in 2020, we are celebrating the talented women who work for the NC Office of State Archaeology with our "Trowel Blazers" series. This week we're honoring Emily McDowell, Assistant State Archaeologist and OSARC Lab Supervisor!

Emily has been with the OSA since 2013, beginning as a volunteer and becoming the Lab Supervisor in January 2017. She has been doing archaeology and forensic anthropology since her undergraduate days! She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Archaeology with a concentration in Bioarchaeology from Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania, and a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology with a focus on Forensic Anthropology from NC State University (NCSU).

How did you become interested in archaeology?

I think I was a little lost as a kid. Growing up I wanted to be any number of things, including a variety of Disney princesses. This was 100% unrealistic as it turns out dragons aren’t real, it’s very hard to own a tiger, and it’s physically impossible for a human to be a lion. In In high school I started to gravitate towards world history and biology. I spent most of my high school years working at summer camps teaching kids about salamanders and preserving creeks in Pennsylvania, and taking every history class one could imagine. As I started to gain a bit more clarity, I thought I might want to major in art history. I never actually considered archaeology as a field of study until I got a promotional email from Mercyhurst- it was like everything clicked for me. I didn’t have to just learn history from books, I could go touch history!

Emily doing some preventative conservation on wood
Doing some preventative conservation


While in college, I learned there was a biological aspect to the field of archaeology, and I turned my focus towards osteology, skeletal biology, and human anatomy. I dipped my toes in other concentrations as well, including conservation and historical archaeology- I even took two years between my undergraduate and graduate schooling to run the conservation lab at Mercyhurst. At one point I became very interested in forensic anthropology, because of the humanitarian aspect to it. As it turns out, bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology are fairly intertwined and I am still active in both fields. I teach both physical anthropology and forensic anthropology online at NCSU, and occasionally consult on field calls with the NCSU forensics unit, lead by Dr. Ann Ross.

What is your favorite project or archaeology memory?

My first skeleton was actually recovered in a forensic context. When the Mercyhurst forensic unit needed more eyes, they would take

undergraduate students for surface surveys to scan for human remains. My first forensic field investigation was in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania, a man had found a skull while hunting and we went to search for the rest of the body. After hours of searching we found the remains buried and dismembered in a plastic bag. It was exciting, but sad at the same time. The discovery really drove home the fact that this was a PERSON with a family that was loved, and that all remains deserve to be treated with the same level of respect, regardless of how long they’d been in the ground.

What other hobbies do you have?

My biggest hobby outside of work is Olympic weightlifting; I’m not competitive, I just do it for fun. I also like to garden with my husband, drink wine (red please), pet my furbabies, and collect dead animal skeletons.

Emily and her husband, Jeff
Emily and her husband, Jeff

Cat or dog?

My dog says this question isn’t fair. I would love to say BOTH, but deep down it’s cats. I’ve been rescuing them since I was a kid. I grew up next a big corn field with a large feral cat colony and I brought dozens of kitten litters into my parents’ home. My dad was never a fan of this habit, probably because he foot the bill for all of my humanitarian efforts, and we ended up with 4 foster fails. Sorry dad. I currently own 3 cats and one big ole Great Dane. I have every intention of eventually getting a second dog… and maybe a fourth cat.

Cats Pounce, Callee, Phin, and dog Porter
Cats Pounce, Callee, Phin, and dog Porter


About the Campaign

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. As part of a national campaign to commemorate this historic event, North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR) is coordinating a campaign titled “She Changed the World: NC Women Breaking Barriers” March 2019, continuing through November 2020. American women were granted the right to vote with the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified on August 18, 1920, after a 72-year fight by suffragists. The 19th Amendment did not resolve the issue of suffrage for women of color, who continued to battle for voting rights for decades. 

Image credits:

-Doing some preventative conservation, image courtesy of Emily McDowell

-Emily and her husband, Jeff, image courtesty of Emily McDowell

-Cats Pounce, Callee, Phin, and dog Porter, image courtesy of Emily McDowell

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