By Elise Jakoby Laugier
This past fall I had the opportunity to join the Rutgers University Department of Anthropology Lab for MicroArchaeology (ALMA) as visiting scientist. I worked directly with ALMA PI, Dr. Dan Cabanes, one of the leading world experts in phytolith analysis and FTIR, to learn both of these key methods as well as a range of other (micro)archaeological science methods.
For me, working in the ALMA lab was a deep dive into archaeological science and the principles of site formation processes. I learned even more than I expected, gained both wet and dry lab experience, and processed enough data from my field site in Iraq for a dissertation chapter (although I now cannot wait return to Iraq to collect more data!). The time I spent in the ALMA lab has not only transformed my research on Mesopotamian agriculture but has also changed how I think about past human-environment relationships.
Specifically, I learned that the microscopic archaeological record offers insights into past human behaviors and their relationships with local environments that are not readily accessible at larger scales. Phytoliths (inorganic siliceous bodies that form in plants) found in archaeological sites indicate a range of past human behaviors including diet, agricultural practices, animal management strategies, and use of the local paleoecology. FTIR allows us to assess the mineral composition of different contexts, the completeness of the archaeological record, and whether archaeological contexts were burned (and at what temperature). Together, these methods can be leveraged toward understanding the complex interplay between ancient economies and local ecologies.
Finally, in the lab, I had the invaluable opportunity to learn alongside graduate and undergraduate students conducting research on ancient pyrotechnology dating from the Pleistocene to the late Roman period. Outside of the lab, I was able to spend time interacting with these and other Rutgers students and faculty at the Center for Human and Evolutionary Studies (CHES) where ALMA is housed—attending guest lectures, journal clubs, and informal department events. I cannot speak highly enough of the ALMA/CHES community!
My time at Rutgers was made possible by both the EEES Course Award and the Anthropology Department’s Claire Garber Goodman Fund. I am extremely grateful to both these sources for facilitating these learning and research experiences.