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Mackenzie Masters


Social Entanglement in Death: Interpopulation isotopic analysis between a mass grave and an attritional assemblage to assess social reactions to catastrophe from Medieval Leicester, England and Roman-Byzantine Ibida, Romania  

Supervisors: Michelle Alexander and Malin Holst

My PhD research will utilise, at the very least, Carbon and Nitrogen isotopes with the potential of Strontium and Oxygen isotope analysis to conduct a comparative assessment between two mass graves with associated contemporary attritional assemblages. The mass graves will derive from two catastrophic contexts, an epidemic (11th century from Leicester, UK) and a conflict event (Late Roman period from Slava Rusă, Romania). Through isotopic analysis I will examine the diet of each assemblage and identify patterns that set apart the mass grave individuals from the attritional individuals. I will then contextualise the results through the chaîne opératoire model I have developed (from my MSc dissertation). I aim to identify the social motivations which may explain why a mass grave was a warranted course of action, gain a better understanding on migration and diet of these populations, identify correlations between diet/migration and catastrophic events, and understand the socio-cultural implications a mass grave may have had on the living community.

Through this study I intend to demonstrate: (1) the application of an interdisciplinary approach can produce a holistic evidence based understanding of complex funerary sites; (2) how the chaîne opératoire interpretive model reduces subjectivity, standardises how archaeologists interpret complex burial sites and makes the archaeological record more transparent; (3) how isotopic analysis is a vital tool in reconstructing an individual's life and death history, and (4) how mass graves provide an unparalleled snap shot into social relationships and communal reactions to catastrophe.



In 2018 I completed my BSc in Anthropology at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. During my undergrad, in 2017, I participated in a mortuary field school with the Slavia Project in Giecz, Poland; this field school set me on my path into bioarchaeology and funerary archaeology. In 2019 I moved to the UK to pursue my MSc in Bioarchaeology (distinction) at the University of Southampton.

In my dissertation I utilized the chaîne opératoire theoretical approach to design an interpretative to be applied to the investigation of mass grave assemblages. Through this approach I drew upon methods in osteology, archaeothanatology, taphonomy, and archaeological science to reconstruct the actions at play in the deposition of human remains in mass graves and the great cultural impact this behaviour may represent.  Drawing upon the principles of sequential order and classification underlying the chaîne opératoire framework, this model presents an avenue in which archaeological data can be objectively interpreted and modified overtime with the incorporation of new finds. This dissertation inspired me to further explore human behaviour surrounding mass graves and has led to my PhD research.

Around my studies I completed an internship through the National Council for Preservation Education at the National Park Service site Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Louisiana. This internship allowed me to gain experience in historical archaeology, ethnography, public engagement, museum curation and exhibit design. I have also participated in commercial archaeology projects across the American Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Idaho and Utah). In recent months I have been working as a laboratory technician in the Centre for Learning Anatomical Sciences at the University of Southampton.


Academic awards

  • BABAO Research Grant 2021: Oxygen isotope analysis of three contemporaneous mortuary populations from late Roman Ibida, Romania
  • Presidential Scholarship for Portland state University (2015-2018)

Teaching and Impact

GTA in 2021-22 on the following modules:

  • Artefacts and Materials (Autumn 2021)
  • Introduction to Archaeological Sciences (Spring 2022)
  • Archaeological Theory (Spring 2022)
  • Research Design (Summer 2022)

photo of Masters, Mackenzie


Contact details

Mackenzie Masters
Department of Archaeology
University of York