Tag Archive for archaeology

Students Catalog Wesleyan’s Lost Fossil Collections

Research fellows Sajirat “Bright” Palakarn ’20 and graduate student Melissa McKee ’17 are discovering and cataloging thousands of fossils at Exley Science Center. The fossils were once housed at the former Wesleyan Museum, a natural history museum that occupied part of the Orange Judd Hall of Natural Sciences from 1871-1957. Once the museum closed, the fossils and other objects were displaced at various locations on campus. “We’d love to make these fossils accessible to Wesleyan students, faculty, classes and the general public,” McKee said. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Research fellows Sajirat “Bright” Palakarn ’20 and graduate student Melissa McKee ’17 are discovering and cataloging thousands of fossils at Exley Science Center. The fossils were once housed at the former Wesleyan Museum, a natural history museum that occupied part of the Orange Judd Hall of Natural Sciences from 1871-1957. Once the museum closed, the fossils and other objects were displaced at various locations on campus. “We’d love to make these fossils accessible to Wesleyan students, faculty, classes and the general public,” McKee said. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Scattered throughout campus are remnants of not only Wesleyan’s history, but world history. After the closing of the Wesleyan Museum in 1957, thousands of specimens in many collections were displaced, often haphazardly, to nooks, crannies, tunnels, attics, storage rooms, and random cabinets at Exley Science Center, Judd Hall, and the Butterfield and Foss Hill residence complexes.

A fossilized bee was discovered in the fossil collections.

A fossilized bee was discovered in the fossil collections.

Many of these specimens haven’t been accessed in 60 years.

“Sadly, few people are aware that Wesleyan has these unique resources,” said Ellen Thomas, the University Professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and research professor of earth and environmental sciences. “The collections have not been well curated, and not much used in education and outreach. We are discovering beautiful fossils, but the knowledge that they are at Wesleyan has long been lost.”

This summer, Thomas, along with two student research fellows, began the painstaking process of not only locating and organizing collections, but digitally cataloging their finds.

Sajirat Palakarn ’20 and earth and environmental science graduate student Melissa McKee ’17 work 40 hours a week on the project and have created a “fossil assembly line” in Exley Room 309. The students take turns sorting trays of fossils by class and phylum, and then match the fossils with identifying hand-written cards or books from an archaic card catalog, entering the information, piece by piece, into a spreadsheet. They’re expecting to itemize more than 15,000 fossils this summer.

“Look here,” Thomas says, while opening a wooden cabinet at random in Exley’s specimen storage room. “We’ve got shells, fossils of shells, one after another with no labels. They are all disorganized. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make these accessible to the students?”

Melissa McKee holds a plant fossil from Greenland, collected during the second relief expedition for a Peary Arctic Expedition. The leaves were then thought be by Miocene (~20 millions years old), but now they've been identified as being much older at ~ 60 million years.

Melissa McKee holds a plant fossil from Greenland, collected during the second relief expedition for a Peary Arctic Expedition. The leaves were then thought be by Miocene (~20 millions years old), but now they’ve been identified as being much older at ~ 60 million years.

So far, the students have discovered dozens of fish fossils from the Jurassic Period (99.6 to 145.5 million years ago) and Triassic Period (251 million and 199 million years ago). They’ve encountered fossils of preserved leaves and insects from what is today Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, dating back to the Eocene Period, when the world was much warmer (40-45 million years ago). They’ve also found fossilized plants from coal deposits in Illinois (about 300 million years old), as well as fossil sea lilies (crinoids), which lived in shallow warm seas in what is now Indiana. Many of these fossils were collected by S. Ward Loper, who was curator of the Wesleyan Museum from 1894 to his death in 1910.

They’ve even discovered a plant fossil from Greenland, donated to the Wesleyan Museum in 1895 by A.N. Varse, who was on the second relief expedition attempting to assist Robert Peary on one of his early expeditions to explore Greenland and reach the North Pole.

“It’s really incredible to hold a piece of history like this in our hands,” McKee said. “Not only can fossils tell us what an organism might have looked like and how it lived, but fossils also give us clues about ancient environmental conditions. We can use fossils to understand how the Earth has changed over time.”

While most of the fossil finds are located in locked drawers in the hallways of Exley Science Center, the students also are cataloging fossils in the Joe Webb Peoples Fossil Collection, located on the fourth floor. The museum is named after the late Professor Joe Webb Peoples, who was chair of the Department of Geology from 1935 until his retirement in 1975.

The students not only catalog the artifacts, but they also write about their finds, and the museum, on a blog and on Twitter.

McKee and Palakarn, a College of Social Studies major, are constantly learning on the job. “I don’t have a science background, but here I am learning about unicellular microorganisms, sponges, coral, arthropods, trilobites and sea urchins,” Palakarn said.

“I know by the end of this summer you’re going to change your major to earth and environmental science,” McKee said. “I’m sure of it.”

Sanjirat "Bright" Palakarn '20; Ellen Thomas; and graduate student Melissa McKee '17 hold fish fossils inside the Joe Peoples' Museum in Exley.

Sajirat “Bright” Palakarn ’20; Research Professor Ellen Thomas; and graduate student Melissa McKee ’17 hold fish fossils inside the Joe Webb Peoples’ Fossil Collection in Exley.

While rummaging through drawers in Exley's Specimen Storage room, Ellen Thomas discovered large collections of old coins including miniature intaglios and ancient Chinese coins collected by the Methodist missionaries who started Wesleyan. The coins are documented in an accompanying booklet.

While rummaging through drawers in Exley’s Specimen Storage room, Ellen Thomas discovered large collections of old coins including miniature intaglios and ancient Chinese coins collected by the Methodist missionaries who started Wesleyan. The coins are documented in an accompanying booklet.

Melissa McKee holds polished halves of a Perisphinctes species found in Madagascar.

Melissa McKee holds polished halves of a cephalopod found in Madagascar. This species lived during the late Jurassic Period.

Sanjirat Palakarn '20 displays a fossil of Diplomystus dentatus from the Eocene Period. The fossil was discovered in what is now Wyoming. Diplomystus is an extinct freshwater fish distantly related to herrings and sardines.

Sajirat Palakarn displays a fossil of Diplomystus dentatus from the Eocene Period. The fossil was discovered in what is now Wyoming. Diplomystus is an extinct freshwater fish distantly related to herrings and sardines.

The students transcribe hand-written records into electronic form. Pictured is the record of A.N. Varse's fossil discovery in 1895.

The students transcribe hand-written records into electronic form. Pictured is the record of A.N. Varse’s fossil discovery in 1894. It was donated to Wesleyan in 1895.

The research team also found dozens of coral samples stashed away above these cabinets in Exley Science Center.

The research team also found dozens of coral samples stashed above these cabinets in Exley Science Center. “Some of these are now extinct. We will want to catalog these too, but this will be a project for another time,” Thomas said.

Faculty Re-Create Ancient Roman “Pork Clock” at Wesleyan

A model of the "pork clock" sundial shows the time as 9 a.m. (Photo by Christopher Parslow. 3-D print by Christopher Chenier)

A model of the prosciutto sundial shows the time as 9 a.m. (Photo by Christopher Parslow. 3-D print by Christopher Chenier)

The Ancient Romans relied on a curious object to tell time: a sundial in the shape of an Italian ham.

National Geographic has featured the work of Wesleyan’s Christopher Parslow to re-create this ancient “pork clock” through 3-D printing, which is helping researchers to better understand how it was used and what information it conveyed.

“It does represent a knowledge of how the sun works, and it can be used to tell time,” said Parslow, professor and chair of Classical studies, professor of archaeology, professor of art history.

The small, portable prosciutto sundial —the “pocket watch of its day,” according to the article—was first excavated in the 1760s from the ruins of a grand country house in the Roman town of Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

Chris Chenier, digital design technologist and visiting assistant professor of art, printed the sundial on 3-D printers at Wesleyan, and Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy assisted with the research. Parslow first presented his initial findings at a presentation in Wesleyan’s Wasch Center last December.

According to the article:

After Parslow was asked about the pork clock, he was inspired to build a 3-D model. He took dozens of photos of the timepiece at its home institution, Italy’s National Archaeological Museum of Naples. A 3-D printer at his university churned out the model—in plastic rather than the original silver-coated bronze—in a matter of hours.

Like the original, Parslow’s model bears a dial, in the form of a slightly distorted grid, on one side. The vertical lines are marked for the months of the year. The horizontal lines indicate the number of hours past sunrise or before sunset.

The original clock is missing its gnomon, the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, but an 18th-century museum curator described it having one in the shape of a pig’s tail, so Parslow re-created that, too.

Parslow then experimented with the sundial outdoors. The clock is hung from a string so that the sun falls on its left side, allowing the attached pig’s tail to cast a shadow across the grid.

The user aligns the clock so that the tip of the tail’s shadow falls on the vertical line for the current month. Finally, the user counts the number of horizontal lines from the top horizontal line to the horizontal line closest to the tip of the shadow. That indicates the number of hours after sunrise or before sunset.

Anthropology, Archaeology Collections Offer Hands-On Learning

At right, Ying Jia Tan, assistant professor of history, taught his class, History of Science and Technology in Modern China, in Wesleyan's Anthropology and Archaeology Collections. 

At right, Ying Jia Tan, assistant professor of history, taught his class, History of Science and Technology in Modern China, in Wesleyan’s Anthropology and Archaeology Collections. The class’s reading correlated with artifacts displayed in the collections. Pictured at left is Jessie Cohen, lab manager.

TJ Blackburn '16 listens to a classroom discussion while examining skulls from three different time periods. 

TJ Blackburn ’16 listens to a classroom discussion while examining skulls from three different time periods.

In the 1920s, a team of scientists working in the Zhoukoudian cave system in Beijing, China unearthed Peking Man, a roughly 700,000 year-old sample of Homo erectus. After the communist revolution of 1949, Peking Man became a prominent figure in bringing science and the story of human evolution to the masses.

As part of the required reading for the HIST 368 class, History of Science and Technology in Modern China, Ying Jia Tan, assistant professor of history, is having his students read The People’s Peking Man, written by Wesleyan alumna Sigrid Schmalzer ’94. The People’s Peking Man offers a skilled social history of 20th century Chinese paleoanthropology and a compelling cultural history of assumptions and debates about what it means to be human.

On Nov. 11, Tan brought his students to the Wesleyan University Anthropology and Archaeology Collections (WUAAC) to offer them a tangible and hands-on lesson to complement their reading.

Jessie Cohen, lab manager, prepared for the class by displaying fossil and extant replicas including Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”), Homo erectus (“Peking Man” and “Java Man”), and Homo sapiens. She also included several stone tools which originate from the Paleolithic era, a prehistoric period in human history that lasted approximately 2.5 million years. These particular stone tools are associated with specific dates and locations that overlap with Homo erectus production and usage.

“The juxtaposition of these widely ranging fossil replicas, modern Homo sapiens, and stone tools is representative of the changing environment, physical demands, and technological advances noted throughout human evolution,” Cohen explained.

She also displayed a Chinese newspaper / Chinese-American school brochure came to the collection by way of missionaries in the early 1900s.

“I thought it would be a great idea for the students to see the replicas of Peking Man and think about how the Peking Man was constructed by anthropologists,” Tan said. 

Wagoner Honored by American Historical Association for South Asian History Scholarship

Phillip Wagoner

Phillip Wagoner

On Oct. 5, Phillip Wagoner, professor of art history, professor of archaeology, was named a co-recipient of the American Historical Association’s John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History. The John F. Richards Prize recognizes the most distinguished work of scholarship on South Asian history published in English. Eligibility includes books on any period or field of South Asian historical studies and works which integrate South Asian history with broader global issues and movements.

Wagoner shares the prize with Richard Eaton of the University of Arizona. Together, they co-authored the book, Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300–1600, published by Oxford University Press in March 2014.

In this book, Wagoner and Eaton examine the political histories and material culture of smaller, fortified strongholds both on the plains and atop hills, the control of which was repeatedly contested by rival primary centers on the Deccan Plateau. Exceptionally high levels of conflict over such secondary centers occurred between 1300 and 1600, and especially during the turbulent 16th century when gunpowder technology had become widespread in the region.

Psychology Class Learns about Memory, Brain at Wesleyan’s Archaeology Collection

Students in the Human Memory course compared and contrasted three skulls from disparate time points in human evolution.

Students in the Human Memory course compared and contrasted three skulls from disparate time points in human evolution. (Photo courtesy of Jessie Cohen)

On Sept. 16, students enrolled in the PSYC221 Human Memory course used the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections for hands-on learning.

The class, taught by Erika Fulton, visiting professor of psychology, visited the collections to learn more about memory and the brain. Students compared and contrasted three skulls from disparate time points in human evolution and used their observations to make inferences about how different parts of the brain must have evolved.

“They had to think about the relationships among a changing environment, memory demands, and brain lobe development,” Fulton said. “I think it was a fun way for them to learn a little archaeology, anthropology and psychology, and a much more engaging way to learn brain lobes than through a lecture.”

Jessie Cohen, archaeological collections manager, encourages Wesleyan faculty to take advantage of what the WUAAC has to offer. The collection contains more than 30,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects from around the world available for hands-on teaching, she said.

Wesleyan to Host Archaeology Fair, Oct. 18

The Connecticut State Archaeology Fair, hosted at Wesleyan, will give the public a close-up look at projects happening across the state. The theme is "Creating Community."

The Connecticut State Archaeology Fair, hosted at Wesleyan, will give the public a close-up look at projects happening across the state. The theme is “Creating Community.”

Many people think of archaeology as taking place in exotic locations overseas, not in their own backyard. Yet archaeology projects are continuously being carried out all over the state of Connecticut.

On Oct. 18, Wesleyan’s Archaeology Program and Office of Community Partnerships will present the Connecticut State Archaeology Fair to give the public a close-up look at some of these projects. Part of Archaeology Awareness Month in October, the fair will feature many hands-on exhibits and activities for adults and kids. Presenters will represent a full spectrum of archaeology in the state, ranging from local tribes and community groups to educational institutions and commercial businesses.

Beman Triangle dig

Wesleyan students dig for artifacts at the “Beman Triangle” near campus.

The fair will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Exley Science Center. While it has been held elsewhere in the state in the past, this is Wesleyan’s first year hosting it. This year’s theme is “Creating Community.”

According to Sarah Croucher, assistant professor of anthropology, assistant professor of archaeology, assistant professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, “Connecticut has amazing archaeological resources, and many projects being done all around the state, but a lot of it goes under the public radar. This is a great opportunity for members of the public to learn about archaeology, and see first-hand some of the cool work going on right here in Connecticut.”

Wagoner’s Book Explores Built Landscape of India’s Deccan Plateau

Book co-authored by Professor Phillip Wagoner

Book co-authored by Phillip Wagoner.

Professor Phillip Wagoner is the co-author of Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600, published by Oxford University Press in March 2014. Wagoner is chair and professor of archaeology, professor of art history.

Focusing on India’s Deccan Plateau, this book explores how power and memory combined to produce the region’s built landscape, as seen above all in its monumental architecture. During the turbulent 16th century, fortified frontier strongholds like Kalyana, Warangal, or Raichur were repeatedly contested by primary centers—namely, great capital cities such as Bijapur, Vijayanagara or Golconda. Examining the political histories and material culture of both primary and secondary centers, the book investigates how and why the peoples of the Deccan, in their struggles for dominance over secondary centers, promoted certain elements of their remembered past while forgetting others.

The book also rethinks the usefulness of Hindu-Muslim relations as the master key for interpreting this period of South Asian history, and proposes instead a model based on parallel cultures of rulership grounded in different prestige languages, Sanskrit and Persian. Further, the authors systematically integrate the methodologies of history, art history and archaeology in their attempt to reconstruct the past, as opposed to the standard practice of using one of these methodologies to the exclusion of the others. The book thus describes and explains the interstate politics of the medieval Deccan at a more grass-roots level than hitherto attempted.

Birney’s Fellowships Support Research, Archaeology

Kate Birney, assistant professor of classical studies, assistant professor of archaeology, leads a student excavation team at the site of Ashkelon. The site is located in the southern district of Israel on the Mediterranean coast.

Kate Birney, assistant professor of classical studies, assistant professor of archaeology, leads a student excavation team at the site of Ashkelon. The site is located in the southern district of Israel on the Mediterranean coast.

Between 2500-1200 B.C., Ashkelon was one of the largest and most important commercial centers around the Mediterranean, and it remained a thriving metropolis under varying degrees of Egyptian control until until the Crusaders conquered the city in the 12th century. Today, the site remains preserved, as does a 3,500-year-old, two-story-high mudbrick-archway.

As a recipient of two fellowships, Kate Birney will have the opportunity to study the Hellenistic period (ca. 330 B.C. to ca 100 B.C.) for an upcoming book.

As a recipient of two fellowships, Kate Birney will have the opportunity to study the Hellenistic period (ca. 330 B.C. to ca 100 B.C.) for an upcoming book.

Since 1985, the site has been excivated by the Leon Levy Expedition — a joint project drawing students and faculty from Wesleyan, Harvard University, Wheaton College and Boston University. To date, Ashkelon archaeological digs have revealed a neighborhood of elite Philistine houses dating from the 11th-10th centuries B.C.

Every year, Kate Birney, assistant professor of classical studies, assistant professor of archaeology, leads a student excavation team at the site of Ashkelon. And as a recipient of two fellowships from the 2014-15 academic year, she will continue her research on the historic area.

Next fall, as a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, Birney will conduct research at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem; and in the spring, she’ll complete a Fellowship at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. Both fellowships are related to her present research at Wesleyan.

“Since I specialize in interconnections between ancient Greece and the Near East, I’m particularly excited about these fellowships. The fall NEH will allow me to work within a community of scholars who specialize in Near Eastern archaeology, to process the archaeological data, while the spring fellowship at the CHS will allow me to develop my ideas within a community of Classical scholars,” she said.

Summer Session Course Digs for Middletown History

Students enrolled in the June Summer Session course, Field Methods in Archaeology, participated in several excavations on the triangle of land between Vine Street, Cross Street, and Knowles Avenue, known as the Beman Triangle. Several African-Americans built homes and lived in this area in mid-19th century. Although few above-ground traces now suggest the presence of this community, material about their lives survives in the record of their trash and other archaeological features that remain beneath the backyards of the houses on this land.

The course is taught by Sarah Croucher, assistant professor of anthropology, assistant professor of archeology, and provides general training in historical archaeological field methods. Through practical work, students learn excavation techniques, field recording, artifact analysis, and how to integrate relevant documentary and oral historical sources into archaeological interpretations.

beman (1)

Roman Archaeologist Parslow Receives Residency at Institute for Advanced Study

Christopher Parslow, professor and chair of the Classical Studies Department, professor of archaeology, has been selected as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., for the 2013 fall term. Parslow, a Roman archaeologist specializing in the ancient sites buried by the eruption of Vesuvius, will spend his semester-long residency working on a book on the Praedia (Properties) of Julia Felix in Pompeii.

He was chosen on the recommendation of the faculty of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. Each year, about a quarter of the nearly 200 scholars from dozens of countries studying at the Institute receive appointments to the School of Historical Studies. The visiting scholars, known as members and visitors, interact with fellow scholars within and across disciplines and conduct research unencumbered by teaching and administrative obligations.

Parslow has been a member of the Wesleyan faculty since 1991. As a Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Classical Art and Archaeology, he spent two years at the American Academy in Rome. His first book was Rediscovering Antiquity: Karl Weber and the Excavations of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae (Cambridge 1995), a biography of Karl Weber, the Swiss military engineer who sought to establish a more scientific approach to the study of the earliest excavations at those cities. His most recent article, “The Sacrarium of Isis in the Praedia Iuliae Felicis in Pompeii in its Archaeological and Historical Contexts,” was published this year in the volume Rediscovering the Ancient World on the Bay of Naples of the series Studies in the History of Art of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His other publications include articles on the history of the early excavations in the Vesuvian landscape and on the results of his own excavations, on which Wesleyan students have participated.

Founded in 1930, the Institute for Advanced Study is a private, independent academic institution. Past faculty members have included Albert Einstein, who remained at the institute until his death in 1955, and distinguished scientists and scholars such as Kurt Gödel, J. Robert Oppenheimer and George Kennan. It has no formal links to other educational institutions but enjoys close, collaborative ties with Princeton University and other nearby institutions.

Students Co-Curate Local Archaeology Exhibit for Middlesex Historical Society

Hyunjin "Chelsey" Cho '13, Sarah Chrystler '13, Amy Cao '15 and Sarah Croucher, assistant professor of anthropology, assistant professor of archaeology, hold artifacts collected from the "Beman Triangle" site near Wesleyan. The pieces will be on exhibit April 4-May 31 in downtown Middletown.

Hyunjin “Chelsey” Cho ’13, Sarah Chrystler ’13, Amy Cao ’15 and Sarah Croucher, assistant professor of anthropology, assistant professor of archaeology, hold artifacts collected from the “Beman Triangle” site near Wesleyan. The pieces will be on exhibit April 4-May 31 in downtown Middletown.

Between Vine Street, Cross Street and Knowles Avenue near Wesleyan, an innocuous looking triangle of land forms the “Leverett Beman Historic District,” listed on the State Register of Historic Places and part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail. This area is the site of one of the earliest planned African American communities in the United States.

Blue glass artifact from the Beman site.

Students discovered this cobalt blue glass shard at the Beman site.

During the spring of 2012, Sarah Croucher, assistant professor of anthropology, assistant professor of archaeology, led an archeological excavation at the “Beman Triangle” site. Several Wesleyan students and community members participated in the dig and unearthed dozens of materials relating to healthcare and everyday practices, such as cooking and dining.

On April 4, Wesleyan will partner with the Middlesex County Historical Society to present an exhibit featuring many artifacts from the excavation. “Unearthing Community: Archaeology of the Beman Triangle” is curated by Croucher and three students: Sarah Chrystler ’13, Amy Cao ’15 and Hyunjin “Chelsey” Cho ’13. Cho is double majoring in art history and economics and has helped curate exhibits at the Davison Art Center and Smithsonian Institution.

“Artifacts from these excavations help to build a picture of daily life in these households during the late 19th century,” Croucher explained. “Materials from one of the houses also has provided a range of artifacts which seem to relate to late-19th century pharmaceutical production, opening up conversations as to the nature of healthcare at this time.”

Multiple houses dotted the Beman Triangle landscape in the 19th century

Sarah Croucher Discusses Community Archaeology in the Beman Triangle

In this video, Sarah Croucher, assistant professor of anthropology, assistant professor of archaeology, discusses her community archaeology project in the “Beman Triangle” in Middletown, Conn. The houses built on this land from the 1840s were home to a community of African Americans living in Middletown, tied to the nearby A.M.E. Zion Church. Artifacts discovered in the area from 19th century trash pits shed new light on the lives of the community members, and the longstanding relationship between the church, Middletown and Wesleyan. Read more about Croucher’s project in this past Wesleyan Connection article.

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