Science + Technology

Dig in, archaeology fans!

UCLA blogs to offer front-row seat at archaeology digs

If tackling that broken sprinkler head is as close as you're going to get this summer to an archaeological dig, UCLA has you covered.
Beginning Monday, July 7, and running throughout the month, undergraduates on UCLA archaeological digs in seven exotic locations all over the world will file blogs, providing ample opportunity for armchair Indiana Joneses to, well, dig in!
"You only go through the experience of discovering that cultures are different from your own once in a lifetime," said Ran Boytner, director of international research at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and head of the field studies program. "After that, a lot of the surprise is gone. For most of these undergraduates, this will be their first encounter. We are expecting them to convey that enthusiasm."
Undergraduates will blog from — among other places — the world's richest collection of rock art, a mass burial site for people mentioned in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and a tropical village possibly spotted by Christopher Columbus' crew on his fourth voyage to the Americas.
Four of the seven featured sites are in Spanish-speaking countries, and at least some of the blogs will be filed in Spanish. In all, 24 blogs are scheduled to appear between June 30 and July 28 at Featured countries include Albania, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and the U.S.
The blogs are designed to showcase UCLA's new field studies program, which this summer is taking 140 undergraduates to 13 different sites in 11 countries. Typically, archaeological digs are run with the help of professionals and graduate students. But participants in UCLA's new field program are much less experienced. In fact, they aren't necessarily archaeology or even anthropology majors — just students intrigued by archaeological fieldwork.
Boytner will take 17 undergraduates to Chile's Atacama Desert, the second driest spot on earth, where rain last fell 17 million years ago. In the morning, the students will help map and record the spectacular and mysterious petroglyphs and rock formations that dot the desert floor and will build on maps of the region, which, against all odds, has been inhabited for the past 8,000 years. In the afternoon, they will head to the lab, where they will sort bones excavated last year and pottery shards collected there since 2005.
"Figuring out how people adapted and interacted with their environment — especially one this harsh — is truly compelling," said Boytner.
In contrast, the 11 undergraduates studying in Panama under veteran archaeologist Thomas Wake will ply their trade in a much more hospitable climate. Located next to a sandy beach lined with coconut palms and frequented by monkeys, Panama's Sitio Drago holds the remains of an Indian village that flourished between the years of 800 and 1200 before being swallowed up by the jungle. Columbus' own son reported seeing indigenous people nearby as the expedition sailed along the coast in 1502. Nobody had found the remains until Wake stumbled upon them five years ago. The students this summer will help conduct an analysis of tens of thousands of pieces of pottery already collected on the site, dig around a tomb that was excavated last year and comb the jungle for undocumented archaeological sites.
"It's a fantastic adventure," said Wake, who also serves as director of the Cotsen's zooarchaeology lab.
No less exciting will be John Papadopoulos' dig in southwestern Albania, near the Adriatic coast. In 2004, the UCLA classics professor and his wife, Sarah Morris, also a UCLA classics professor, discovered the graves of 150 people they now believe to be Illyrians, neighbors of the ancient Greeks who were mentioned not only by Aristotle but also by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. By day, the students will learn to use GPS mapping technology and methods for classifying and conserving all kinds of artifacts, including delicate bronze crowns discovered in the graves of adolescent girls. At night, they will sleep among the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Apollonia, where the Roman Emperor Augustus attended a school of philosophy and his great uncle Julius Caesar was once stranded on the way to a key battle.
"It's a unique opportunity," Papadopoulos said.
Other blogs will describe archaeological work at the largest concentration of pre-Columbian forts in the New World, in Ecuador; a 19th-century village in British Columbia that illuminates contact between newly arrived Europeans and indigenous peoples who had occupied the area for thousands of years; remains of a Native American culture on Catalina Island that was part of an extensive trade network throughout Southern and Central California and the Southwest; and a Peruvian valley inhabited first by Inca emperors and later Spanish conquistadors.
"We want to create the next generation of archaeology fans," Boytner said. "We want people to develop a warm spot in their heart for archaeology. Once you're in the field doing archaeology, it's like falling in love."
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