May 7, 1996 Vol. 25 No. 32

Students discover campus' past

By A'ndrea Elyse Messer
Public Information

If you happened to see students crawling around the foundations of buildings this winter, have no fear, it wasn't some new student ritual, but an assignment for Ken Hirth's undergraduate laboratory in archaeology. The students were looking for cornerstones or other indicators of when the buildings were erected.

"We were trying to retrieve the construction pattern from the information available and reconstruct how the campus was built," said Amy J. Vonarx, first-semester senior in anthropology. "What was surprising is that not all of the buildings had cornerstones."

Instead, some of the buildings had commemorative plaques mounted inside, frequently near fireplaces, the students noted.

"The problem with commemoration plaques is they don't necessarily provide the date the building was erected," Vonarx said. This is not unlike dated materials found at archaeological sites throughout the world. For example, the date when a tree is cut down might be known, but when that tree was used to construct a house or when the house was abandoned is not known.

The students were looking for patterns in building construction -- possibly growth outward from a central point, concentrations of buildings erected during one time period or random building events.

"It seems there were a lot more buildings built in the '60s," Joshua Borstein, graduate student in anthropology, said. "There are periods of time when construction increased and also times when it decreased or stopped completely."

One significant period of increase was just after World War II. Overall, however, the students found that construction was generally random. While clumps of residence halls were all built at the same time, buildings seem to be placed wherever space was available.

Reconstructing building patterns was not the only goal of the outdoor laboratory experiment. Recently, students took newly made stone tools in the form of prismatic obsidian blades (volcanic glass commonly used as tools throughout prehistoric times) -- and trampled them in various locations on campus. The goal of this exercise was to try to create use-wear patterns that signified trampling rather than wear from cutting or scraping.

"I think the blades will break across rather than nick at the edges or break on the long axis," Gerry Wagner, a junior in anthropology, predicted.

The groups tested trampling on grass, dirt and concrete -- the closest thing on campus to the plaster floors found in many ancient civilizations -- by placing the blades on the ground and walking on them.

"Each group had to create its own research design," Vonarx said. "Our group decided to use moccasins for trampling to try to keep as many variables the same as they would have been in prehistoric times."

"This class is experiential," said Hirth, professor of anthropology and manufacturer of the prismatic blades. "The students are exposed to a variety of ways to analyze materials and artifacts."

The class spent long hours categorizing pottery and lithics -- stone tools. After their analysis and drawing, they checked their results against the actual archaeological site reports. They could then judge how closely their work mirrored the actual results and gauge how accomplished they had become.

"Frequently, undergraduate laboratories consist of students working with a professor on research," said Hirth. "While this is valuable, it often covers only a single aspect of analysis. Students need to have exposure to all the types of materials they will need to analyze -- ceramics, flaked stone, plant remains -- as practicing archaeologists."

Back to special features index

Back to Intercom home page

Back to University Relations home page

Back to Penn State home page

This page was created by Annemarie Mountz.
Last updated May 3, 1996.