The Essentials: Zoë Crossland

Photo of Zoë Crossland

Jill Shomer

As a mid-term study break on Halloween, Associate Professor of Anthropology Zoë Crossland took some of her students to see Night of the Living Dead at a Washington Heights theater — a cheeky outing for a class called “Corpse Life.” The popular undergraduate course (there’s a waiting list!) takes on the history of death and the practices around human remains, one of Crossland’s specializations. As a historical archaeologist, her focus has been on Madagascar and the 19th-century relationships between the island’s highland natives and Welsh missionaries. On an unseasonably chilly November day, Crossland spoke with CCT about the rituals around dying, the mountains of Madagascar and the excitement of excavation.

CROSSLAND IS FROM the Cotswolds in England, near Bath. In the United Kingdom, students make a decision about their major while applying for college; Crossland enjoyed studying history but thought archaeology would allow her to be outdoors more. Before starting university at Cambridge in 1990, she spent a year volunteering on digs and traveled to Peru. She loved the work. “Archaeology is an incredibly expansive discipline,” she says. “It’s impossible to reach the limit of what you can do.”

AS A GRADUATE STUDENT at the University of Michigan, Crossland planned to return to South America to do fieldwork, but after taking a class with renowned archaeology professor Henry T. Wright, she volunteered to work with him in Madagascar. As she says, “That was it.” She surveyed with Malagasy archaeologists and students, looking for traces of fortifications and remains from earlier civilizations. Crossland earned an M.A. in 1995 and a Ph.D. in 2001, both from Michigan.

HER PARTNER, BRIAN BOYD, also works at the College, as the director of museum anthropology. After they met at an archaeology conference, Crossland went to Wales, where Boyd was teaching, to work on her dissertation. She soon realized she was living a village away from where the first missionaries to highland Madagascar had been raised and trained. “In the 19th century, these four missionaries established the Protestant church in Madagascar, and they were incredibly influential,” she says. Crossland applied for a post-doc fellowship at Cambridge to further study the relationships between the missionaries and the Malagasy, and in 2014 she wrote the book Ancestral Encounters in Highland Madagascar: Material Signs and Traces of the Dead.

IN 2006, A FRIEND from Michigan who was teaching at Barnard let Crossland know there was a visiting professorship open at the College. She applied and got the job, leaving the Welsh countryside for the city. “When you walk out of the archaeology department in Wales, you see hills and sheep,” she says. “I wondered how we would manage in New York! But we got here and we just loved it.” She became an assistant professor the following year.

“CORPSE LIFE: Anthropological Histories of the Dead” is Crossland’s largest undergraduate class. The theme is how people in other times and places approach death through practical activities and mortuary ritual. “We examine archaeological evidence of sacrifice, relics and mummies, drawing on anthropological literature,” she says.

FORENSIC ARCHAEOLOGY and the treatment of skeletons as forensic evidence is a subject Crossland became interested in as an undergraduate. “I went to Argentina to volunteer on an excavation; the student who met me at the airport was working in Buenos Aires exhuming remains of people who were ‘disappeared’ during the Dirty War in the ’70s,” she says. The student brought Crossland to the grave site to see the work in progress. “Seeing something like that is pretty forceful,” she says. Crossland is working on a new book, The Speaking Corpse, which explores the establishment of the forensic corpse and the ways in which bodies are portrayed in situations of dissection or autopsy.

IN SPRING 2017, Crossland taught the class “Science and Art in Archaeological Illustration (AI).” She got a grant from Columbia’s Center for Science & Society to hire an artist friend, Tracy Molis SOA’11, to teach with her. “I wanted to train the students in techniques of AI, but I also wanted them to think more broadly about the work of representation and how certain conventions became sedimented in practice,” Crossland says.

“ONE OF THE THINGS I wanted the students to explore in the illustration class was, ‘Why, when we describe our archaeological results, do we rely on text? Why not more imagery?’ ” she says. [View the students’ artwork at] “Some of the excitement evaporates when a found object gets described in a dry, clinical way,” Crossland adds. “And it’s incredible, when you scrape back the dirt and realize you’re the first person to see this thing since somebody dropped it hundreds or thousands of years previously.”

— Jill C. Shomer