Nicholas Marquez-Grant: From King’s Manor to Forensic Anthropology.

For this month’s Alumni Voices, we talked to Nicholas Marquez-Grant who graduated from the University of York in 1997 with a Bachelors’ in Archaeology and Educational Studies. Since graduating Nicholas has earned his PGCE, MSc, DPhil (Oxford) and is now working as one of only 8 Chartered Forensic Anthropologists in the UK. Nicholas tells us about his time at York, his journey after Graduation, and how he got into Forensic Anthropology.

Why did you choose to study in York?

York was recommended to me by my family who knew someone who had studied archaeology there and loved it. Also, my family, who had visited York and knew my personality and passion, thought I would love it there too. The course, Archaeology and Education was really attractive when I read the prospectus and staff interests.

What opportunities have York given you that you would not have found elsewhere?

York has given me opportunities at different levels. I grew up in Spain and was educated there up to the age of 18 years, so everything was very new and exciting for me! It is difficult to compare how I would be at other universities, but I would say that I loved living on campus, as well as studying archaeology in the aesthetics of an old building (Micklegate House and then King’s Manor). I really liked that when we studied we were in small groups, this meant we had more attention from staff and that we could focus and specialise in different periods. The education I was given has served as the foundation for many years that followed and I still use some of what I was taught at York today. I haven’t kept in touch with staff, but recently, a member of staff I hadn’t seen or been in touch since 1997 emailed me two years ago as he had heard I had been working in a particular field of expertise and wanted me to see if I could assist with a York excavation which was so lovely to hear (I only visited for 2 hours in the end). I also loved the College structure and life; I am still in touch with most people I met through college and with mutual friends. I have good photographs and memories (however no digital photos) and it was amazing for me to try new things: free language evening classes (I took Russian and one year of German), fencing for the first time, I was part of the committee for fencing and horse riding and did rock climbing at weekends for two years. I also met different people from all over the world for the first time.

What do you miss the most about York?

I miss not being connected so much, I miss the city, I miss going to class and I miss not being able to hang out so easily with the friends I used to hang out with. I vividly remember the walk from campus (Alcuin College) to my department in the town (King´s Manor), it was a lovely walk and a great time to reflect. I also remember the walks at night from the nightclubs on a Tuesday and Wednesday back to campus. I miss the excitement of starting at university, of starting new things, experiencing things. But most of all, I remember the lectures and seminars I had, the excitement of learning, the archaeological excavations I took part in. 

At King’s Manor, where Nicholas learnt about Archaeology

What advice would you give students abroad when moving to York for the first time?

York is a wonderful place, the university is amazing and beautiful. Life at any university can have its ups and downs as it is sometimes difficult to be away from home, but it is going to provide an experience that is everlasting and positive for many years to come. Make the most of it. Time goes by fast. When I started, my uncle told me to join as many sports clubs and associations as possible as I would not find the same opportunities back home. Try as much as you can. There is also support for international students but do as many social things as you can and get help whenever you need it. Explore out there, or just explore the countryside, explore England! Enjoy the city! And of course, don’t forget to put those hours into studying! (try to avoid the late last minute working the night before which I always did!).

How did you get into your current career as one of the top eight forensic anthropologists in the country?

I have been examining human remains for over 20 years now, from prehistory to the present day. People study forensic anthropology today or forensic science and want to become one, so they can study human bones for police cases or human rights investigations. I didn’t have my mindset as a forensic anthropologist. I’ve always helped people, volunteered a lot in the field and worked very hard to gain experience in the field. One day, whilst working for an archaeological company (thank you to my York degree) someone there asked me if I could help with a forensic case due to my expertise and experience over the years since graduating. That was May 2008. In October 2008, I was given a contract and for 6 years I was probably one of four anthropologists who worked throughout England and Wales regularly, working with over 20 police forces in cases of homicide, suicide, accidental deaths, etc. My archaeological background at York also helped me with forensic archaeology, which is the search and recovery (excavation) of human remains from scenes of crime. I am now accredited by the Royal Anthropological Institute as a Chartered Forensic Anthropologist.

What is your favourite part about working as a lecturer and a forensic anthropologist?

As a lecturer, it is to undertake research that has been triggered by forensic anthropology casework. It is also the flexibility to do other things and choose different projects. However, most important is to teach and inspire students from all over the world so they can learn and grow from these experiences. It is also learning from the students too.  One of the best things is helping people when we can, cases of missing people, promoting the value of forensic anthropology and transferring my passion to students, to a new generation of anthropologists. I am now dealing as a forensic anthropologist with WWI and WWII cases, soldiers who died during combat especially in Italy, Germany, France and Belgium. I also work more on Human Rights cases or Humanitarian work, for example, victims of the Spanish Civil War. I enjoy the adrenaline, the excitement and the reward of helping to provide a dignified burial and closure to families where possible. I can appreciate how from one small fragment that we find, we are able to identify a person. 

May 2021 undertaking some recording of graves that contained executed victims from Spain, just after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)

What does your daily routine as a forensic anthropologist look like? 

As forensic anthropologists, we tend to work with human skeletal remains for judicial/medico-legal/police cases. These can be up to 70 years or 100 years old. What we tend to do is work at the (crime)scene assisting in the search for human bones, recovering them (whether a body in a forest, field, buried, in the basement of a house, etc.). In the morgue we help with the identification of the deceased as we can estimate if the skeleton is that of a biological male or female, age-at-death (how old the person was when he/she died), stature and any unique features (e.g. an old fracture that may help identify that person through searching his/her medical history). We may also examine the bones for signs of trauma around the time of death and this information can be used by the forensic pathologist or coroner to establish cause and manner of death. As a forensic anthropologist, you may be called to identify if a bone is human or non-human from photographs. For example, if bones are found on a railway track and the trains have stopped briefly or bones have been found in a back garden, we need to establish if they are human. We also have enquiries about exhumations to obtain a DNA sample, we write witness reports and sometimes provide expert testimony in court. We also deliver training and awareness to police forces, primarily crime scene investigators (CSI). In academia, I am also allowed to undertake exciting research, consultancy on cases worldwide and teach.

‘My first ever archaeological excavation when I was 19 years old, at Castell Henllys, part of the University of York’s Archaeology training dig. Here I am starting to dig a trench.’
Digging Roman human remains by a beach in Ibiza, Spain, in 2018.

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