BU Mourns the Loss of Archaeology, Anthropology, and Gastronomy Professor Mary Beaudry
Preeminent scholar and dedicated mentor remembered for her commitment “to unveiling unwritten lives”
As an undergrad at the College of William & Mary in the early 1970s, Mary Beaudry enrolled in an anthropology class, looking to fulfill a course requirement. As part of the curriculum, she helped excavate a Native American site at Maycock’s Plantation in Virginia. As she recounted the story at a conference years later, someone on the dig handed her a sharpened popsicle stick and told her to start chiseling away. The pit turned out to be the grave of a young boy, and when his body was unearthed, he was wearing a necklace of copper wire and glass beads.
It was a eureka moment for Beaudry, setting her on a life devoted to historical archaeology, the study of past societies that left behind historical records. She went on to become one of the world’s preeminent historical archaeologists, teaching at BU for 40 years, where she helped create the University’s archaeology department.
Legions of former students and colleagues were stunned to learn that Beaudry had died unexpectedly Tuesday night. She had recently undergone surgery and her death is believed to be related to an ongoing health condition, according to John Marston, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of archaeology and of anthropology and director of the Archaeology Program. She was 69.
Beaudry, a CAS professor of archaeology and of anthropology, who also taught in Metropolitan College’s Gastronomy Program, arrived at BU in 1980. Described by colleagues as a scholar “committed to revealing unwritten lives,” including those of people of color and women, Beaudry mentored and influenced generations of students, many who are now professors and professional archaeologists across the country, working at sites like Plimoth Plantation and the Jamestown Settlement, and teaching at colleges and universities around the world.
Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford, who coauthored two books with Beaudry, says she was one of the most significant archaeologists of her generation. “The sheer unflinching humanity of her vision of archaeology as a part of the wider anthropological project was a major part of what set her apart as a scholar,” he says. She was dedicated to “a feminist and anti-racist historical archaeology, committed to revealing unwritten lives through material culture.”
“There isn’t an archaeologist in the area who wasn’t a direct student of Mary’s,” says former student Joe Bagley (CAS’06), now the archaeologist for the city of Boston. “She was the one through whom information filtered, because of the role she played in everything. I think it’s fair to call her one of the grandmothers of archaeology: she helped to create so many people’s careers. We owe our interests and enthusiasm for the work to her.”
Beaudry grew up in a military family, moving around frequently before eventually settling in Virginia. She regularly visited nearby historic plantations and Colonial Williamsburg with her mother and sisters, according to a biography written by two of her former PhD students when she won the Society for Historical Archaeology respected J. C. Harrington Medal for lifetime contributions to the field in 2013. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the College of William & Mary, and went on for a master’s and PhD, also in anthropology, at Brown University. After wrapping up her studies in 1980, she was offered a job as an assistant professor of anthropology at BU. “Her classes were always extremely popular, and not just because they were on occasion held in the nearby pub,” her biography reads.
Throughout her career, Beaudry conducted fieldwork all around New England, as well as the Western Isles of Scotland and Montserrat in the Caribbean. Her research interests included historical and industrial archaeology of the Americas and the British Isles, gender and equity issues in the field, cookery and dining, and the archaeology of historical households, to name a few. Elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, she was the author or editor of 11 books, including The Historical Archaeology of Shadow and Intimate Economies (University Press of Florida, 2019). She had recently become interested in Viking archaeology and made several trips to Scandinavia for research. She collaborated with MET’s Food & Wine Program to end each semester with a feast, where her students could eat, drink, and dance like Vikings.
I think it’s fair to call her one of the grandmothers of archaeology: she helped to create so many people’s careers.
But it was her work closer to home that Bostonians may most appreciate. Beaudry was involved in some of the city’s most important archaeology finds, including digs and analysis of objects found at the Paul Revere House in the North End, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, the Boott Mill boardinghouse in Lowell, Mass., and the Boston Common. She began working with artifacts unearthed on the Boston Common years after they had been discovered (a common occurrence in the field) and the collection came to be housed at BU. Bagley says that thousands of BU students over the years who took the department’s Introduction to Archaeology course have used these artifacts and Beaudry’s scholarship as part of their classwork.
“Her contributions to the Archaeology Program were transformational,” Marston says. “She taught and advised the next generation of professors in the field. For years, she was the archaeologist of colonial Boston and greater New England.” Mention archaeology, food, or the Red Sox, and “you could get her going for a long time,” he says, adding that she was known for her great dry sense of humor.
Karen Metheny (GRS’02), a Metropolitan College senior lecturer in gastronomy, studied under Beaudry as a PhD student and the two became colleagues and friends. They published The Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and had been working on another book at the time of Beaudry’s death.
“She was always supportive of the work that I was doing, understanding when there were kids to raise, and also helped me find opportunities for teaching, which was what I wanted to do,” Metheny says. Beaudry was a leader in gastronomical archaeology, she says, a fairly new field of study that encourages scholars to analyze the sensory aspects of dining in the past and present day. Beaudry also spent a lot of time and effort increasing and supporting the number of women in the field, Metheny says, and encouraged them to “publish and give presentations and challenged us to be more than the traditional expectations for women.”
Former student Jade Luiz (GRS’18), now curator of collections at Plimoth Plantation, describes Beaudry as someone dedicated to her students and willing to help them pursue opportunities whenever they became available. Luiz says she was a phenomenal cook and would treat students to dinners when a visiting scholar was in town.
Beaudry was a “terror” on grammar mistakes, she recalls, and could eviscerate a sentence, but she also made it a point to use purple or blue pens because she felt it was friendlier. And at the end, students knew their final product would have “watertight research and clear prose,” she says.
“She was my advisor for eight years, but she was so much more than an advisor,” Luiz says. “I often feel like she was my greatest champion, and I never questioned that she was a devoted friend and ally. I am dealing with her loss in the same way that I would deal with the loss of a family member.”
The CAS Archaeology and Anthropology Programs and the MET Gastronomy Program are planning memorial services for Beaudry in the near future, and BU Today will publish more details when they are finalized.