UIC STUDENTS CULTIVATE ALABAMA SUMMER DIGS
Twelve students from the University of Illinois at Chicago are working from dawn until dusk this summer on a farm near Montgomery, Ala. Rather than tending crops, they are combing through excavated debris and artifacts, searching for evidence of plant cultivation by those who inhabited the area some 2,000 years ago.
"It's hard work, but fulfilling as well," said Cameron Wesson, assistant professor of anthropology and director of UIC's Archaeological Field School in Alabama. "The work day begins at 5 a.m. and isn't over until the last of the day's artifacts are processed in the field laboratory around 9 p.m."
Students earn eight credits during the summer semester for taking two advanced-level courses, "Field Methods in Archaeology" and "Laboratory Methods in Archaeology." Wesson and his students work every day except Sunday.
The program, now in its second year, focuses this summer on a central Alabama farm where a number of excavation programs are under way. Wesson believes a unique aspect of the current dig site is that it appears to have been occupied for only a short period-perhaps 50 to 100 years-by a single, extended family.
"Since the time period during which the site was occupied coincides with a shift from hunting and gathering to plant cultivation, we believe this site can reveal the effects of this shift on the lives of a small group of early farmers," said Wesson.
"The transition from hunting and gathering to farming is considered by some scholars to be the most important development in human history," he said. "Plant production often coincides with increased social complexity, sedentariness, ceramics and other important technological innovations."
Wesson and his students sift through their daily findings looking for microscopic plant remains, such as seeds, pollen and phytoliths, for evidence of plant cultivation and domestication. They then compare this material to food derived from other sources, such as wild plants and animals, to assess how cultivated plants contributed to the local diet.
The work adds to the findings of ongoing research Wesson is conducting in the region, plus gives young students hands-on professional experience in field archaeology.
"All of our undergraduate students are from the Chicagoland region," said Wesson. "None have ever done archaeology. Several are planning careers in archaeology, with some interested in future projects in Mexico, China and Scandinavia, among other exotic places."
Wesson believes the methods and teamwork approach to excavation the students learn during their summer at UIC's Archaeological Field School will serve them well, no matter where they work in the future.
"Although Alabama may not seem like an exotic place to do archaeology," said Wesson, "anytime you venture 2,000 years into the past, you have found the exotic!"
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