How many undergrads get to see current archaeological research up close—as in, under a microscope? The 15 Penn undergraduates taking Dr. Marie-Claude Boileau’s new Spring semester course “Archaeology and Science” got to view samples of ceramic and metal objects from Ban Chiang, a site excavated by Penn Museum in Northeast Thailand. One year after the Museum’s Archaeological Ceramics Lab opened, it is bustling with classes, students, and researchers.
Students in Dr. Boileau’s course are looking at ceramics and clays from Ban Chiang in the Museum’s Ceramics Lab. This hands-on experience with thin-section petrography, using the Lab’s transmitted-light microscopes, helps demonstrate if pots were made locally or in another village far away. Petrography is also a powerful tool for technology-related questions, such as how potters processed the raw materials (clays and tempers) and how pots were made and fired.
Annie Chan, a student in the course, is examining hand specimens with matching thin sections from the Ceramics Lab rock collection.
Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton, guest lecturer in the course, shares her knowledge of archaeometallurgy with the undergrads. One of the microscopes in the Ceramics Lab can also be used for metallography, the microscopic observation of metal objects. Here, Dr. Hamilton, the metallurgist for the Ban Chiang Project, is showing students the steps to identify how a metal object was made, using reflected-light microscopy. Analysis of this sort helps to demonstrate how different cultures manufactured metal objects, such as ornaments, tools, and weapons. This study can also show the level of sophistication of past technologies and how metal artifacts were used.
A photomicrograph from a Ban Chiang metal droplet. The large blue shapes show that the object is a droplet of tin bronze, probably splashed out during casting, and was allowed to cool.
About the author: Beth Van Horn has volunteered with the Ban Chiang Project since 2004. She retired from Verizon in 2003, where she was a new product manager in the Marketing department. Beth was responsible for the MMAP 2005 website and the blog that followed the team’s progress. She returned to Laos in 2009 and wrapped up the season by participating in an ambitious exhibit in Luang Prabang that summarized 5 years of MMAP work in Laos.