Student Spotlight / Samantha Cox

Samantha Cox, senior anthropology major  Photo credit: Mark Stehle

AT A YOUNG AGE: Cox, a senior anthropology major, became enamored with anthropology and archaeology when she was nine years old. She spent fourth grade in England and says the entire school year focused on Ancient Egypt. “That’s when I decided I wanted to do archaeology,” she says.

PENN PAL: When Cox was beginning to look at colleges, her mother’s friend, who was a Penn employee and knew of Cox’s interest in anthropology, recommended that she visit the Penn Museum. While here, she ran into Janet Monge, keeper of physical anthropology at the Museum. Monge, who is now Cox’s advisor, offered her a chance to work at the Museum, and Cox began volunteering.

I SEE DEAD PEOPLE: Working with bones, mummies and skeletons did take some getting used to, Cox says, “especially being down in the bone room by yourself with cabinets full of dead people.” She says it was harder adjusting to everyone saying, “You do what? You work where?”

SECOND HOME: Cox says she probably spends more time at the Museum than she does in her dorm room. She is performing CT scans at HUP on some of the Museum’s Egyptian mummies and also for her senior thesis.

HANDLE WITH CARE: Cox says the scans, which are available online, are three-dimension X-rays that allow viewers to see inside structures, and also help conserve the collections by decreasing the number of people who handle them. “If you wanted to look at how thick cranial bones are, you’d have to actually cut a skull in half,” she says. “With the CT scans, you can do it digitally so you don’t destroy the specimen.”

A COVER-UP: In Chester County, Cox is supervising the field excavation of the skeletons found in a mass grave. In 1832, a group of Irish immigrant rail workers died while constructing the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. It was reported at the time that the men died of cholera, but historians now theorize that the men were victims of violence and the cholera story was a cover-up.

REMAINS TO BE SEEN: Cox and Monge are investigating human remains found at the site. “We only have three individuals excavated at the moment,” she says. “We were able to excavate one last August. Hopefully once it starts to warm up a little bit we’ll start excavating ... to see if we can find the rest of them.”

ALL-IN-ONE: Cox submatriculated this year and is working on her master’s in physical anthropology, which she plans to complete next year. She then plans to pursue a Ph.D. “I like the museum work, I like teaching, I like excavating,” she says. “If I could do something where I would get to do everything, that would be great.”

Originally published on February 18, 2010