Anthropology students unearth more than artifacts with research experience

For most students, the summer means spending time with family, catching up with old friends, and getting a job to save up a little money. For two Texas A&M University undergraduate students in the College of Liberal Arts, summer was an entirely different experience.

While their peers were applying sunscreen and lying on warm beaches, anthropology students Angela Gore and Tarah Marks were donning fleece jackets, rolling up their sleeves, and literally getting in over their heads in archaeological research. The two were part of a team that spent the summer excavating the remote Owl Ridge archeological site in Alaska.

Under the supervision of Kelly Graf, research assistant professor of anthropology, Gore and Marks were part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, a summer-long program open to undergraduates from across the United States supported by the National Science Foundation, with additional support from Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans and Department of Anthropology.

Owl Ridge excavations

The Owl Ridge site, part of the Nenana Complex of archaeological sites, is nestled in the boreal forest near Fairbanks, Alaska, about 20 miles from the nearest road. Owl Ridge contains three distinct layers of artifacts and human debris left behind by peoples believed to occupy the area between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago. Its remote location on a high river terrace adjacent to the convergence of a small creek and the Teklanika River has left the site relatively untouched over the years, offering a wealth of opportunity for discovery.

Gore oversaw the excavation of a manmade cobblestone structure and the area surrounding it. She led a team of other students to search for clues to the nature or purpose of the feature, addressing questions about whether it functioned as a dwelling, a hunting blind, or something else entirely. Her findings indicated that this feature was once used by people during the Younger Dryas – a period of cold climate that affected much of the Northern Hemisphere approximately 12,000 years ago – to shelter them from high winds that likely blew across the terrace top. Stone flakes and well-made scraping tools were found in the excavation area, which revealed that stone tool production and use occurred in close proximity to the cobble feature.

Marks directed an assessment of the formation processes of sediment accumulations at the site and surrounding areas. The process involved trekking through the boreal forest, digging test pits, and observing the sedimentary layers at each test site. She then charted her observations to create a composite profile of sedimentary layers at and around Owl Ridge. She found that stratigraphic profiles from off-site were similar to those on-site, and may indicate the presence of both windblown and water transported sediment over time.

“This was an amazing experience. It is important for students interested in anthropology to gain experience in their field. This program was a great way for me to take a step up from regular classes and helped me gain insight into conducting professional work,” says Marks. Both Gore and Marks are currently working on compiling their findings into formal reports, which will be presented at the 2011 Society for American Archaeology meeting in Sacramento, California.

Owl Ridge excavations

Graf says the experience is useful for both teacher and student.

“I think this was an outstanding opportunity for these students to gain the experience of managing aspects of the Owl Ridge research project and being responsible for reporting their findings,” says Graf. “It helped me show them how research is undertaken, from planning and conducting field research to preparing results in a technical, professional fashion.”

So while this may not have been the type of summer many college students envision for themselves, Gore and Marks might categorize it as priceless.

“I think the most important part of participating in programs like REU is having the opportunity to explore your field of interest, and find out if it is something that you really love doing and can commit to. REU provided me with this opportunity, and gave me confidence in my decision to pursue archaeology in my graduate studies,” says Gore.

Marks also strongly advocates the program’s importance, saying “The techniques I learned and the experience I gained will remain with me forever. After having this opportunity, I am able to not only understand the basics of archeology, but also the planning required to organize and complete an archeological project. These important lessons, along with the ability to critically examine previous research, will help me with graduate school and later to become a better professional anthropologist.”

“Participating in the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates is a must for anyone interested in pursuing their field of study past the undergraduate level,” says Marks.

 

Story courtesy of the College of Liberal Arts

Contact: Alecia Beriswill, aberiswill89@libarts.tamu.edu, 979.862.8019.

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