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Rachel Schats’ Leiden Experience: ‘I want to contribute to human history and human health.’

Rachel Schats has been a familiar face at the Faculty of Archaeology since she started her bachelor’s in Archaeology in 2005. Now she is an assistant professor, working on her Veni project on malaria in the Middle Ages. ‘I have included in this project so many skeletal collections that no one has ever looked at!’

Turning points

When Rachel first came to the Faculty, it was for the bachelor’s specialisation in Egyptology. ‘I loved the pyramids, Tutankhamen, etc. But when I actually started I realised that Egyptian archaeology wasn’t actually for me.’ Instead, she was drawn into Caribbean archaeology. ‘I came in contact with Menno Hoogland, who was working with skeletal archaeology. The turning point was when I had the opportunity to excavate a skeleton during fieldwork in the Caribbean. From that moment I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life.’

Rachel working on the excavation at St. Lucia.

The best decision

Acting accordingly, Rachel organised her research master’s programme around human osteology. ‘I went to University College London to take osteology courses. At that time, we did not have those at the Faculty. Now we do, mostly taught by me and Sarah  Schrader.’ Before, the only option was to go abroad. ‘This was the best decision I have ever made.’

Mass graves in Alkmaar

Back in Leiden, Rachel put her new knowledge to good use. ‘I became student assistant for Menno Hoogland, setting up the new Human Osteology Minor, helping out with teaching, and planning an excavation in the Dutch city of Alkmaar.’ The excavation turned out to be very important, locating and unearthing two mass graves. ‘From that point onwards, I helped with the analysis and conservation of the skeletons.’ Menno noted that there might be a PhD project in it. ‘I always knew I wanted to do research, and I wanted to do a PhD, but I had never thought about doing that in the Netherlands, being focused on Caribbean archaeology.’

After making the switch to medieval archaeology, in 2011, she decided to go for an investigation of the Alkmaar skeletons in combination with research on other rural skeletal collections to study the impact of urbanisation, defending her PhD in 2016. Last year, Rachel got a Veni grant for her research on malaria in the Dutch Middle Ages. ‘So that’s why I am here now!’

Malaria in the medieval period

The malaria project investigates the impact of malaria in the medieval period. ‘Malaria is known to have had—and still has—a massive impact on health. While it is very likely that this disease was present in the medieval period as well, it is only rarely included in discussions on medieval health, hampering our interpretations of past societies.’ With the grant, Rachel investigates skeletal remains of more than 5,000 medieval individuals.

‘The malaria research should be my main focus and I try to make it my main focus. The teaching comes in the way sometimes.’ She explains that she did a lot of teaching in the past year, but that things are looking up now. ‘I very much like the combination between research and teaching. That is the reason that I applied to the Veni project for 75%, meaning that I would have time to teach next to it.’ Rachel gestures emphatically. ‘I get energy from teaching. I do not envision myself as a full time researcher. I love the interaction with students, and I would miss that.’

Side projects

The Veni project will run until December 2023, but Rachel still sees room for side projects. ‘I have applied for a rheumatology project, together with researchers from the LUMC, about arthritis in the past.’ Furthermore, she is active in committees. ‘Today [July 1, 2019], I decided to be the chair of the Leiden International Study Fund (LISF),’ adding laughingly, ‘so that’s a scoop.’ The LISF helps students to go abroad. ‘I was approached last December if I wanted to become a member of the LISF committee. My London and Puerto Rico visits have been partly funded by the LISF, so I felt this was a nice way giving something back.’

In 2010, Rachel worked on an excavation in Alkmaar.

A contribution

The near future consists of the Veni project. ‘When this project ends, I will have to start thinking about a new one. It will probably be in the line of disease in the Medieval Netherlands. Parasitic diseases, for example, looking for the lesser well known diseases like malaria. I want to contribute to human history and human health.’

Pass on the trowel

In this series we ask a staff member to pick a colleague of whom they would like to know more. Rachel Schats passed on the proverbial trowel to Tymon de Haas. He will be interviewed for the newsletter of September 2019.

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