There are many paths to knowledge about our past and you never know which path will lead to a key insight. So archaeologists work with scientists in a variety of disciplines, from astronomy to zoology and just about everything in between. On various projects I have worked closely with geologists, geochemists, soil scientists, paleontologists, microbiologists, paleobotanists, biological anthropologists, geographers, physicists and, yes, astronomers and zoologists. This is what we mean when we say that archaeology is an interdisciplinary science. Dale Gnidovec, Curator of the Orton Geological Museum at the Ohio State University, provides a good example of this in his Sunday column in the Columbus Dispatch. He discusses a new technique for identifying the chemical “fingerprint” of obsidian developed by physicists, which is allowing archaeologists to know where the prehistoric people of Turkey and Syria obtained the obsidian they used to make their stone tools.
Selection of obsidian artifacts from Ohio Hopewell sites. Image from the Ohio Historical Society’s “Virtual First Ohioans” online exhibit.
This technique also could be used in Ohio. The Hopewell culture brought a wide variety of exotic raw materials into Ohio, which they shaped into wonderful works of art. One of these was obsidian. Geochemical studies performed so far on Hopewell obsidian artifacts indicate that most of this shiny black glass was brought here from Obsidian Cliffs in Montana, but some also came from Bear Gulch in Idaho. Dale writes that the new technique is “faster, cheaper and less destructive than geochemical sampling.” This means that we might be able to test a larger number of specimens and determine if the Hopewell got obsidian from other sources as well. Dale also noted that this technique also allows scientists to narrow “the source of the artifacts to within a few meters; that is, the actual quarries the obsidian came from.” The idea that some day you’ll be able to go to Yellowstone Park and stand in the actual quarry pit used by Hopewell obsidian miners, or the local folks that mined the obsidian on behalf of the Hopewell, is incredible. Brad Lepper