Elizabethtown College Online Magazine

Putting the Pieces Together: Archaeology Research Spans Continents, Civilizations


Fragments of a 400-year-old clay pot sit on a table in the Public Archaeology Lab at Elizabethtown College—a hidden gem of a facility tucked behind a college-owned home. Joseph Bomberger ‘13 is putting together these fragile remains as part of a summer internship. Archaeology is more than literally piecing together puzzles—such as this ancient cooking apparatus. The field also challenges its scholars and practitioners to piece together history’s mysteries, which often means collaborating with professionals in other disciplines.

Archaeology Research Spans Continents, Civilization

A European-made, metal ax head unearthed from a 17th-century Native American excavation site along the banks of the Susquehanna River in south-central Pennsylvania—this artifact might sound like an anachronism, but this is no lost-in-time lost-and-found. Discoveries unearthed during an annual Field School course illustrate this juxtaposition: native artifacts—pottery and projectiles, for example—and remnants of European craftsmanship, together, in the same pit.

According to Dr. Robert Wheelersburg, College Professor of International Studies, the connection between this long-gone primitive Susquehannock village and several European countries demonstrates a cultural shift—the introduction of European trade led to a decline in Native-American tool making. As he put it, “[The site] is where this culture went to die.”

The College has offered Field School since the late ’90s, and it’s been at the Washington Boro, Pa., site since 2006. This privately owned, hilltop was home to a Susquehannock Indian village from about 1600 to 1630. Earlier Pennsylvania sites included Ephrata Cloister, an 18th-century religious community, now a national historic landmark; an 18th-century farmstead in York; and Wheatland, President James Buchanan’s estate in Lancaster. Since 2011, a related study-tour program sends students across the Atlantic to study European artifacts.

Unearthing Evidence


A blazing sun. Bugs. The occasional summer shower. The three-week-long Field School truly offers real-world learning—students are exposed to elements that field archaeologists often encounter, from scorching 90-degree days to cooler, wetter periods.

“It’s hard, physical work … for five to six hours a day,” said Wheelersburg. Archaeology digs require a meticulous process for many reasons, including preserving the integrity of the finds. First, students dig narrow test holes to locate areas worth deeper exploration—richer, darker soil is a clue to a concentration of certain artifacts. Then, they hand-shovel deeper pits—usually 2-by-2-by-3 meters—to get down to the clay level. Every six inches or so, students stop and sift through the sediment.

This year’s dig uncovered a trash pit, or “midden,” filled with domestic items, including cooking tools, beads, animal bones and the discovery that won the annual friendly competition for “best artifact”—a well-preserved human effigy, or a sculpted human representation often found applied to pottery.

Investigating Artifacts


Bomberger does a bit of a show and tell with Field School-found artifacts: projectiles and pottery here, femurs and phalanges there. There is beadwork, an ax head and a carved antler point flaker—which was used to whittle arrowheads. This latter piece, in particular, speaks to the dying culture; flakers became obsolete in the 1630s.

Wheelersburg, his mentor, points out another find.

“That was a gentleman’s dagger; there’s a picture of Captain John Smith holding one [just like it],” he said.

Another Jamestown connection? The maker’s mark—three crowns—on the ax head implies it was made in England or the Netherlands. Others like it were discovered at the Virginia colony, suggesting trade with the Susquehannock. Historical records—including Smith’s writings—indicate the Captain visited residents of this village in 1608.

On the floor beside the artifact-filled table is a skeletal arrangement: almost an entire deer and part of a bear. Bomberger says these remains were discovered with the large, clay pot and surrounded by six ax heads, an indication they were used in a ritual—perhaps a feast to symbolize peace, burying the hatchet and all. Further evidence to support this hypothesis: charcoal remnants, a brush mat and two broken pipes—one European, one Native American. Wheelersburg explains that items were purified for ritual by the heat of the fire.

During his internship, Bomberger also prepared an exhibit, which will make a stop at the College’s High Library before it goes on permanent display at Blue Rock Heritage Center in Washington Boro. The sociology-anthropology major came to appreciate antiquities through frequent museum visits as a kid, but it was within the pages of 100 Greatest Archaeological Finds of the Century that he found his calling.

“I want to be out there getting my hands dirty; that’s always been my dream,” he said. “I see myself being in this field by entire life.”

Diggin’ Denmark

Not long after they cleaned the last bit of local soil from underneath their fingernails, four Field School students of varying majors, along with Dr. Elizabeth A. Newell, associate professor of anthropology, boarded a plane for Denmark. The group spent two weeks at the Museum of Copenhagen working alongside British, Irish, Swedish and Danish archaeologists and museum staff members. They researched the skeletal remains of 21 individuals from the 12th century, excavated from St. Clemens cemetery.

First, they washed the remains, one box full at a time, careful to wear gloves while doing so. Newell explained these bones had been in the ground about 1,000 years “through the Industrial Revolution” and, therefore, in contaminated soil. After drying for at least two days, remains were reassembled in anatomical position and, then, were studied, cataloged and bagged. Students determined and recorded the age, gender, height, pathologies and other observations. They input the data into the museum’s files so others can quickly access information later. Newell says this hands-on museum work was a direct application of what students learn in her forensic anthropology course.

Wheelersburg used Skype—an online video phone call platform—to check in with students and Newell. During a session, a few days before their departure, they discussed their research and Danish cuisine (coffee shops and open-faced sandwiches) and culture (beautiful architecture, extraordinary hospitality). Students were amazed at “how old things are” in Denmark.

“The people of Denmark love their history, and they preserve it really well,” said occupational therapy major Maria Spoerl ’14. While she was fascinated by working with a skeleton of “someone who lived during the 12th century,” equally interesting was the new cultural experience—a bustling city life in Copenhagen—smaller cars, lots of bikes.

This was the third Denmark study tour since 2011. Airfare, apartment accommodations and a food stipend was covered through a Collaborative Interdisciplinary Scholarship Program (CISP) grant. CISP is a College-administered program funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which funds multidisciplinary projects.

“The purpose [of the CISP grant] is to give real-world, international experience that helps organizations meet their research objectives. In this case, we are experimenting by adding chemistry and occupational therapy majors to see if their skills and knowledge can add another level of interpretation to the work,” said Wheelersburg, adding that the two previous Denmark trips were funded through other College grants.

Wheelersburg is pleased that the grant provides to students, who otherwise wouldn’t have the financial means to travel overseas, the ability to participate. Newell added that two of the four students had never before been on an airplane, so “the experience of travel, period,” was new.

Putting the Pieces Together


One might not immediately connect archaeology to disciplines such as occupational therapy, chemistry and biology. But bones can tell us a lot, for example, what occupations a person held or if those tasks were interrupted by disease or injury. How a person was buried—specifically the position of their arms—aids in dating remains, and chemists can contribute to preservation and conservation efforts.

Perhaps these relationships are why Newell’s forensic anthropology class reaches capacity year after year, and enrollment typically fills up for Wheelersburg’s Field School and classroom archaeology course. Wheelersburg estimates that 85 to 90 percent of students who enroll are not sociology-anthropology majors, the discipline which archaeology courses call home.

“[Students] have the opportunity to take these courses without majoring in it; that’s the advantage of liberal arts school,” he said.

For biology major Erika Klitsch ’14, the field school and museum experience confirmed her decision to become a forensic anthropologist. Her physiology and comparative anatomy courses proved helpful in identifying human and animal bones—for instance, distinguishing between a vertebrae or phalange, or between an infant and adult. The courses to fulfill her anthropology minor gave her a deeper understanding.

“… I was able to take more courses that focused on what I thought of as the most interesting part of an organism: the bones. Human Origins and Forensic Anthropology allowed me to further understand development of the human skeleton…I was also able to observe pathologies uncommon to skeletons found in the United States and from our time period,” she said.

Judy Ericksen, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy, said occupational therapists need the skills and knowledge to practice in a healthcare arena, but they also must have a conceptual understanding of how occupations evolved over time and over an individual’s own lifetime. That’s the connection to Wheelersburg’s grant. Think of items often found at digs: tools. Researching these artifacts and the time periods and societies from which they originate could reveal who made them, who used them and how and why they were used.

“Occupations are the activities we engage in that make up the fabric of our lives. [We look at] how they develop, how they evolve, what they mean…” Ericksen explained.

Newell added how biological anthropology—the study of humans in the context of evolution through natural selection—can help researchers arrive at conclusions, such as those that interest Ericksen.

“We can look at a skeleton and notice repetitive behaviors,” said Newell. To Ericken’s point about disease and injury, Newell shared that their Denmark research turned up bones indicative of rickets, a disorder that causes softening of and deformities in the bones and is linked to malnutrition and vitamin D deficiency.

Discoveries like these can further our understanding of the cultural practices, health and daily lives of populations past. Unearthed treasures aren’t just of interest to those that study them. Archaeology is relevant to everyone, said Bomberger.

“We learn a lot from history—a lot of what people did, what they shouldn’t have done and what they could have done. … People should have appreciation for where they came from, who they came from.”

NOTE: This is the first story in a five-part series highlighting real-world, signature learning experiences at Elizabethtown College.