Eileen Murphy

Full name and title: Professor Eileen Murphy
Current position: Deputy Head of School
Institution: Archaeology & Palaeoecology, School of Natural & Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast
Member of the EAA since: 1999 

TEA: Why do you do archaeology/How did you decide to do it?

E. Murphy: As a child I was fascinated by archaeology but at the time I did not think it would be possible for me to actually be an archaeologist. I have strong memories of childhood trips to the Ulster Museum with my Mum and cousins and being completely enthralled by the mummified remains of Takabuti, a high-status young woman from the 25th Dynasty of ancient Egypt (who I had the pleasure of studying in recent years). I also spent a summer ‘excavating’ what turned out to be a brass headboard with different cousins – and how we enjoyed every moment of the experience! When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I was a big fan of the Indiana Jones films (very excited about the new one too!). As I progressed through school, however, all I wanted to do was go to art college. However, archaeology was still there in the background and a lot of my pieces focused on archaeological sites, especially the castles of Fermanagh where I lived. I completed a Foundation course in Belfast Art College but then decided it was not for me. I well remember the panic of wondering what on earth I was going to do with my life. I decided to put down archaeology on my university application form. In the first week of the course the late Professor Derek Simpson gave us lectures on prehistoric Wiltshire and I was enthralled. I realized I had found my home.

TEA: What is the most important and relevant part of your work?

E. Murphy: My main area of expertise lies in human osteoarchaeology. I have learned that we can gain important new information that has the potential to benefit the living by studying the remains of our ancestors. For example, collaborative projects with isotope and aDNA specialists can improve understanding of the evolution and spread of infectious diseases, such as leprosy and tuberculosis as well as genetic conditions, including multiple osteochondromas. Ancient DNA can also identify conditions that are invisible in the skeleton, such as lactose intolerance and haemochromatosis. I am also particularly interested in ensuring the children of the past are visible and I have been the editor of Childhood in the Past since establishing the journal in 2008. My work in this area has largely focused on children’s burial grounds (cillíní) in Ireland – there are over 1600 of these poignant sites dotted around Ireland where the remains of unbaptized infants and others excluded by the Catholic church in the wake of the Counter-Reformation are buried. There is an important social justice aspect to this work which encourages communities to record the locations of cillíní in their area to ensure they are protected from future development.

TEA: How does archaeology contribute to society at large? 

E. Murphy: I strongly believe that to understand our place in the world we need to have a good appreciation of where we came from. Archaeology can strengthen a sense of identity as well as enhance a sense of connection to a particular place. Together with Dr. Colm Donnelly, I am co-director of the Centre for Community Archaeology in Queen’s University (Belfast). Our group works hard to share the excitement of archaeological discovery with people of all ages and wakes of life across Northern Ireland. With the increasing understanding of the potential for involvement in archaeology to enhance wellbeing, we aim to be as inclusive as possible and to reach out to groups who traditionally would be less involved in heritage activities. Living in a post-conflict society with an education system segregated on religious lines, we also aim to provide a space for shared education where school groups can come together. I was one of the founders of the Belfast Young Archaeologists’ Club at Queen’s University in 2006 and I still thoroughly enjoy engaging with our young members (aged 6-16 years) as they explore aspects of the past. Instilling the value of heritage in children is crucial since they are the future custodians of our precious archaeological heritage and all the benefits that it brings to society.

TEA: What archaeology literature are you reading right now? 

E. Murphy: Laqueur, T. W. 2015. The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

TEA: Describe your workspace in five words or less

E. Murphy: Active, organized chaos, multi-functional, familiar

TEA: What is the one piece of gear that you can't live without in the field? 

E. Murphy: The weather in Ireland is very changeable so either a waterproof coat or Factor 50 sun cream.

TEA: If you could go back in time, would you go? Where and when?  

E. Murphy: This is a very difficult question since there are so many places I would like to go! While I would love to go and live among the medieval populations of Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal, or Ranelagh, Co. Roscommon, since I have spent so long studying the remains of these people and there are many I would like to meet, I think I would go further afield to Iron Age Siberia. My PhD research focused on the substantial population buried at Aymyrlyg in Tuva. By studying the remains of these people, it was possible to gain major insights concerning their seasonal burial practices, diet and economic practices, attitudes towards individuals with disabilities and warfaring activities, amongst others. I would love to go back and see how accurate our interpretations were and experience such things as how their shamanic belief system impacted upon their daily lives. I might even have the chance to meet an Amazon!

TEA: Any advice to new archaeologists just starting out?

E. Murphy: Enjoy every minute of your studies and seize every opportunity that comes your way. Archaeology is a hugely broad field, and you should try to experience it in as many different ways as possible before you settle into your chosen area. This will help you be open-minded to the different aspects of the discipline.

Eileen Murhpy. Photo by P. Murphy

Photo at right by Abi Murphy-Donnelly

Photo at above: Community event during the excavation of a famine road in Boho, Co. Fermanagh. Photo courtesy of Ciaran Campton.