Its mission is to:

– Introduce and train undergraduate and graduate students in the analysis of archaeological materials

– Foster and mentor undergraduate and graduate student research

-Support Penn research, particularly archaeological fieldwork, by training students in the collection and analysis of specimens and data

What is CAAM?

CAAM’s main teaching and research laboratories are located in the  renovated West Wing of the Museum. The laboratories offer facilities for sample preparation, examination, and analysis of samples, and include, a Ceramics Laboratory dedicated to thin-section petrography, an Archaeobotany Laboratory, an Archaeo metallurgy Laboratory, a general-purpose Wet Laboratory, a Zooarchaeology Laboratory, a Digital Laboratory with equipment for aerial, terrestrial, and geophysical surveying in the field, and a Classroom for lab-based teaching to classes with up to 25 students. Along with specialized instruments and tools, these laboratories also house extensive teaching and reference collections of a range of materials in hand specimens and samples. Located within the Penn Museum, with an extensive worldwide collection of both archaeological and ethnographic objects, artifacts and biological materials, CAAM specialists integrate many of these materials into the classroom, student projects and in hypothesis-driven research.

In addition to regular courses, CAAM provides a mentoring environment in which students are able to carry out research-oriented independent studies, honors theses, and graduate work. Since opening in 2014, more than 20 courses have been created or adapted for CAAM’s curriculum, and more than 2,000 students have attended CAAM classes, labs, and recitations. In 2016, CAAM established a 6-credit Minor in Archaeological Science, and in 2018 we added a 4-credit Graduate Certificate in Archaeological Science.

The Center is staffed by Teaching Specialists who are domain experts in one or more of the following eight areas of specialization: ceramics, digital archaeology, archaeobotany, archaeozoology, , lithics, archaeometallurgy, and conservation.

What is Archaeological Science?

Archaeological science involves the application of scientific techniques to the study of archaeological sites and materials. Archaeological scientists work at the interface of humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences such as biology, physics, geology, chemistry, botany, and materials science. In the field, some archaeological scientists collect organic (e.g., plant and animal remains) or inorganic (e.g., metals, ceramics, stone) materials for study. Others reconstruct the environmental context of archaeological sites using the techniques of geomorphology, or apply geophysical methods (e.g., radar, magnetometry) to “see beneath the soil” to detect subsurface anomalies that might be buildings, tombs, or other features. Back in the laboratory, archaeological materials can be examined both macroscopically and microscopically to address a wide range of questions; just a few of these include: the geographic origin, manufacturing techniques, and use of commodities like pottery, metals, or stone tools; human exploitation of plants, trees, and animals; and pathologies and other characteristics of human populations. The materials themselves are carefully conserved as needed, and various digital methods are used for reconstructing archaeological sites and features, and for safely storing and disseminating the massive amounts of data that these analyses typically produce. Like all archaeologists, the highest priority of archaeological scientists is to contribute their unique skills to reconstructing the lives of people in the past.

Brief History of Archaeological Science at the Penn Museum

The Penn Museum has a long history of laboratory-based analysis of archaeological materials, due in good measure to its unique status among peer institutions in possessing extensive collections of objects with good provenience from well-documented excavations. Scientific approaches to materials analysis were first organized in the Museum with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Ceramics Laboratories, 1935-1942, and continued with the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA), initiated in 1961 by Elizabeth Ralph to advance the then-emerging techniques of radiocarbon and dendrochronological dating. In subsequent years, the scope and expertise of MASCA expanded to apply a range of scientific approaches and techniques to anthropological and archaeological questions. Among these were archaeobotany, archaeozoology, archaeometallurgy, biomolecular archaeology, analyses of ceramics and glass, and landscape studies from a variety of perspectives. MASCA closed in 2009, but many associated scholars continued their work independently in laboratories around the Museum.

Conceiving and Launching CAAM

The rebirth of a free-standing center for archaeological materials analysis in the Penn Museum dates back to 2010, when Joyce White obtained a grant from the Luce Foundation to support a year-long course focused on the archaeological ceramics from the Ban Chiang site in Thailand. With a timely gift from a private donor, co-instructors Tom Tartaron and Marie-Claude Boileau opened a petrographic laboratory in support of the course in January 2011. This lab became the proof-of-concept of a new model for archaeological materials laboratories.

In 2011, with strong encouragement from then-Director of the Penn Museum, Richard Hodges, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Rebecca Bushnell convened an ad-hoc committee, chaired by JosephFarrell of Classical Studies, to explore archaeological science education in the Penn Museum. The committee included stakeholders from a range of departments, programs, and the Penn Museum. The outcome of those deliberations was a partnership between the School of Arts and Sciences and the Penn Museum to open a set of archaeology laboratories under the umbrella of a Center, with the important distinction that the mission of the Center would be primarily to teach and mentor students, both undergraduate and graduate, and to support their research and that of the CAAM staff. In support of this mandate, CAAM would create a curriculum of courses and research opportunities. By contrast, MASCA had been more oriented to research and service, and did not include a dedicated academic program.

With the Ceramics Laboratory already in operation, new laboratories and specialists were steadily brought on line, and CAAM officially opened as a Center in 2014. It is no exaggeration to say that CAAM has been a resounding success, exceeding our expectations, and we anticipate continued growth as we develop new programs and relationships within Penn and beyond.

For further reading on the Center’s mission in action, CAAM has been featured in the Penn Museum’s popular magazine Expedition: