University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Hands-on Learning: Artifacts, Microscopes, X-Rays, and Chicken


By: James Moss

January 12, 2015

This past fall, Professor Kate Moore’s freshman seminar Food & Fire: Archaeology and the Laboratory was the first course taught for the Penn Museum’s new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM). During the course of the semester, students had the opportunity to examine some of the Museum’s extensive archaeological collections, which have been excavated and collected over the past 127 years. The students not only had access to Museum objects, but they created their own cultural artifacts using experimental archaeology techniques. These opportunities allow further insight into the creation and utilization of prehistoric technologies, and provide a comparison point to excavated materials.

Experimental Archaeology on an overcast October day outside the Museum's Rotunda.
Experimental Archaeology on an overcast October day outside the Museum’s Rotunda.

In October recent Doctoral graduate Sam Lin gave a brief lecture on archaeological lithics and flint knapping (the process of manufacturing stone tools). The students then proceeded outside to try their skills at making their own stone tools.

Doctoral candidate Sam Lin demonstrates how to strike an obsidian nodule in order to produce a sharp tool.
Lithics expert Sam Lin demonstrates how to strike an obsidian nodule in order to produce a sharp tool.

Each student created their own cutting tool by striking a hammerstone into an obsidian nodule, which, when done correctly, drives off a sharp flake.  These flake tools were then used to cut the meat off of a chicken bone.

Butchering chicken with obsidian tools.
Butchering chicken with obsidian tools.

Meanwhile several larger stones were used to smash open cow long bones, in an effort to get at the tasty and high fat (i.e. high energy) bone marrow within, much like humans and their ancestors have been doing for the past two million years.

Breaking open a cow long bone to extract the tasty and high-energy marrow inside.
Breaking open a cow long bone to extract the tasty and high-energy marrow inside.

Once equipped with their now trusty stone tools and newfound appreciation of just how sharp a stone can be, the students returned to the lab. They first recorded their flake tools, as they would an archaeological specimen, drawing, measuring, and describing their artifacts. The cutting blades were then examined under a microscope, to inspect the use-wear damage which occurs along the edge, as the blade is dulled and scratched.

Students record measurements and describe the color of the stone with the help of Dr. Moore and a Munsell color book.
Students record measurements and describe the color of the stone with the help of Dr. Moore and a Munsell color book.
Students examine their obsidian tools for signs of use-wear.
Students examine their obsidian tools for signs of use-wear.

Finally, the material of the stone was analyzed with a portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) gun, which provides an analysis of the elemental makeup of an object by exciting the atoms with X-rays and reading the energy signature given off by the escaping electrons. With this technique, it is possible to determine where the raw material came from.

Lithics expert Sam Lin demonstrates using a portable X-Ray florescence unit to students.
Dr. Lin demonstrates using a portable X-Ray florescence unit to students.

These are just some of the unique opportunities that students in the Museum’s new CAAM program will be afforded in this collaboration between the Museum and the School of Arts and Sciences. The second CAAM class to be taught this Spring will be Living World in Archaeological Science. This course will explore the archaeological remains of animals, plants, and humans, which will be taught by a team of experts in each subject: Kate Moore, Meg Kassabaum, and Janet Monge.


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