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To future archaeologists, old technology is beautiful technology

August 2, 2010

A couple of dozen students sit on plastic tarps under the trees at the edge of the Eagle Heights Community Gardens, at the west end of the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. Their professor — a noted archaeologist — faces them, sitting on his own tarp, much as he would while supervising a dig in his specialty area, South Asia. Within arm’s reach, UW–Madison archaeology professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer has some raw materials of ancient technology: boxes of arrows, stone tools, horns, hunks of obsidian and flint, cords, a chalkboard and a box of Band-Aids.

The tarps rest on a jagged mass of broken stone. It’s the kind of trash heap — or midden — that attracts archaeologists as a breeze attracts sailors.

Except that this midden was produced not by the technology of ancient people, but by modern people who are studying the technology of ancient people. The class, Kenoyer says, “is designed to help students who are interested in ancient technologies to get their hands on, to experiment with material, to get over their fear of playing with things and to learn how to do it in the proper way.”

Today, the students in Kenoyer’s Ancient Technology and Invention class are learning the tools and techniques for shaping stone.

In many ways, archaeology is the study of technology. What is the significance of the spear points, pot shards and charred food found in a particular site? What do similarities and differences in technology say about ancient patterns of trade, migration and descent? In all cases, knowing how materials are transformed into objects can be key to understanding the archaeological record.

Yet to come are sessions on digging, sorting and processing clay; on making scrapers, axes, beads, drills, oil lamps and arrows; on processing fibers and attaching handles to tools and weapons. Other classes will cover beads, drills, kiln-building and metallurgy — sessions on making, in other words, almost everything that remains in archaeological sites except for the bones themselves.

The ancient technology and invention lab is intended to teach future archaeologists to make sense of the remains of ancient peoples, says Kenoyer. Today, the students are outlining their summer-long projects, and after each one, Kenoyer dives into the technical details: “The wood will be too green for that type of bow; this material is not available, but you can substitute that.”

With luck, the projects may spark enduring interest, and even some new archaeology, Kenoyer says. Former student Andrew Balkansky focused on Central America, where pottery is much more common than the remains of kilns. Balkansky learned to reproduce the ceramic ware by piling unfired pottery on the ground and covering it with wood and dung fuel, followed by a clay-straw plaster. After the fire, Kenoyer says, “only an ashy spot and some fired clay with straw impressions remains. Some of these would be dissolved by the rain, but some low-fired clay would be preserved.”

Armed with a new idea of what to look for, Balkansky began discovering kilns in Central America, helping solve a riddle of history. “Once you know what to look for, you can find it,” Kenoyer says.

Back on the tarps, Kenoyer, an expert on the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley in India and Pakistan, describes for the class how illustrations and text combine into a good journal article. Before he sets the class loose with blocks of stone and shaping tools — the time when those Band-Aids might come in useful — he reminds them to record the Paleolithic process of shaping stone.

In his studies of the Indus Valley, Kenoyer has used a detailed understanding of bead manufacture, based in part on his hands-on explorations of the technology, to trace the movement of trade goods and craft knowledge. “I have identified numerous techniques for drilling beads and processing stone that define the various workshops in different places and times,” he says. “If you can find evidence for beads made with specific technologies, you can trace them to specific regions, to specific urban centers.”

Beads made in the Indus Valley, where cities arose about 3500 B.C., have been found in Iran, Iraq and western China, Kenoyer says.

When the ancient technologies are assembled into one class, it becomes apparent that our ancestors were an ingenious lot. Of the many technologies he covers, Kenoyer says, “I like them all. Stone working is fundamental to many of the other technologies, but I also like anything relating to fire. It transforms material and is essential to stoneworking, metallurgy and ceramics. With heat, materials are transformed into something new.”