Date of Award

May 2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Patricia B Richards

Committee Members

Bettina Arnold, Anne Grauer, J. Patrick Gray


Anatomy, Bioarchaeology, Historical archaeology, Materiality, North American archaeology, Personhood


Cadaverized individuals in nineteenth and twentieth-century America were overwhelmingly poor, indigent, institutionalized, and unidentified. Their bodies were utilized to transform medical students into professionals while they, in turn, were transformed from human to medical waste, and disposed of as such. The Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery was one such disposal site utilized from 1882-1925. Archaeological excavations at the site recovered cadaverized remains in multiple individual burial contexts. Analysis of mortuary patterns provides a richly nuanced medium through which this project examines the creation of social personhood and the formation and maintenance of community boundaries. These shared patterns, evident in burial treatment, communicate and reinforce what it means to be a person and a member of a community.

This research examines a skeletal collection from the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery to understand how the process of cadaverization and creation of partible bodies reflect community membership and whether this is differentially embodied across categories of biological identity such as sex, age, and ancestry. This is the first study of the commingled archaeological remains from this cemetery, which comprise the “largest number of dissected/autopsied individuals from an archaeological context” (Nystrom 2017:15).

This project’s multi-component approach significantly alters current understandings of historic period commingled burials, advances the understanding of cadaverization, and offers a framework for future researchers. The analytic techniques employed have applications in anthropology, history, and forensic investigations, as well as studies of personhood in the past. By exploring the impact of socio-economic inequality and poverty through a holistic and humanized archaeology of care, this research addresses global questions of group disenfranchisement and the development of the medical profession. It gazes critically at the actions and actors that generate conditions of social marginalization, creating a public and published acknowledgment of the roots of modern social inequality in order to reshape our present.

Available for download on Thursday, June 06, 2024