Written by Andrea Lloyd
Up a flight a stair and down the hall, you’ll find the Center for Study of the First Americans, working to understand how the first people (PaleoAmericans) came to America through scientific research and processes. Right before you enter the office for the Center, a quick jab to the left reveals one of the anthropology department’s labs. You peer through the window provided at the door. Across several tables are bags of dirt or boxes—in those boxes more gallon bags of dirt. You open the door and take a step into the lab.
“Wait a second,” you’re saying. “I thought this month was DINOSAUR month.” Have you been tricked? There’s a lot of confusion about that amongst the public, actually. Paleontology—think Jurassic Park—focuses on dinosaurs and the study of fossilized animals and plants. Archaeology—think Indiana Jones—research the study of people in prehistoric times. Ergo Paleontology is never Anthropology or Archaeology.
“Hold on—you can’t fool me! What’s Anthropology? I thought we were talking about Archaeology.” You’re right, they’re different, like squares and rectangles. Anthropology, or our square, involves the study of humans’ diversity across space and time. Archaeology, or our rectangle, studies the human activity, particularly during prehistory through recovering material items.
What are Artifacts?
These material items, or artifacts, manifest themselves in many different forms: pottery, cave drawings, tools, buildings, and structures. The artifacts you see around the lab comes from what scientists affectionately refer to as “the field.”
The field is simply the location from which artifacts come from. Not all of them are open prairies, as “field” might suggest. Some are in caves, some are underwater in rivers, some are in the middle of cities. Artifacts can come from anywhere. However, working in the field and collecting artifacts are only the first steps. In field locations, archaeologists dig through layers of sediment, or dirt, to collect information and artifacts. The step after that, where we’ve stumbled into, is the laboratory. In laboratories archaeologists process the information that they’ve collected.
This archaeology lab, run by geo-archaeologist Dr. Michael Waters, focuses on how the people adapted to the environments they encountered. The majority of these boxes lining the walls are from the Debra L Friedkin site, a stone’s throw North of Texas’ Buttermilk Creek. Some of the oldest artifacts and tools are from 15,500 years ago.
Meeting a Scientist
Morgan Smith, one of Dr. Waters PhD students, was typing at his desk. His interests lie in PaleoAmerican lithic technology across the Southeast United States, particularly researching first American sites in Florida. His research could help scientists understand how humans can adapt to climate change today by learning how prehistoric humans adapted to climate change during the last Ice Age. You’re interested in learning more about anthropology, so what’s better than talking to an actual scientist? You ask Morgan for some of his time to help you learn more about anthropology and archaeology.
Others work in the lab too besides Masters and PhD students. Some are undergraduate volunteers or student workers looking for more experience. Some workers enter numbers into data sheets, others are washing what appear to be small rocks, and others are sorting bags in boxes. You peer across the room, finding more rocks on the tables.
Volunteering in the Lab
“Flakes,” you hear one of the student workers says.
“Flakes?” You reply. There are lines of lunch trays with flakes, sorted and sectioned off in different ways.
“A flake is just a type of artifact. So you got your points, ground stones, scrapers, and whatnot and flakes are just the bits of rock that come off when peoples were trying to make tools.” Osbaldo Alvarez, a student worker in the lab, explains. “These bits aren’t necessarily useless though, some would even get reworked into a new tool.”
Osbaldo sits at a desk next to Morgan, entering numbers into a dataset spreadsheet. He’s been volunteering and working in the lab for three years now, gaining practical experience in his major coursework. Volunteering in the archaeology lab during his second semester at Texas A&M helped him decide his major: anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life and so I had a semester where I essentially took a bunch of core course work in a bunch of different fields that I thought was interesting,” he says, reflecting on the experience. “Archaeology peaked my interest a lot and I thought, ok, well I’ll take the next step to see if this is what I want to do, and so the next step was to volunteer, and to see whether the things I would be doing would be interesting later down the line.”
Volunteering and working in the lab allow Osbaldo and other students to gain exposure to applied methodology and theory, laboratory procedures, experiments, and databases. The experience gained from the lab better arms those interested in archaeology and anthropology with the knowledge and skills that they can bring to future careers and even other laboratories.
While not the same as a fedora treasure-hunting across the world and finding artifacts in the field, work done in the lab allows archaeologists to process the information they’ve gathered and provide further analysis of the artifacts.
Excited about your new interests in anthropology, Osbaldo pulls out his phone and types in “archaeology” into the Twitter search bar. He tells you about how just searching for archaeology and anthropology into any social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) will yield institutions that share information about happenings in the archaeology world.
Volunteering in the lab is always an option, he reminds you. Archaeology and anthropology labs are always looking for new volunteers to help sort through field data. Some of the best things a person can do to be involved with anthropology is reading and learning about it, then sharing what you’ve learned with other people.
You thank Morgan and Osbaldo for their time, and exit the lab. The world outside the Anthropology Building awaits you, but you won’t forget the new things you’ve learned while in the lab.
About those Featured
Morgan Smith is a PhD candidate with Dr. Michael Waters. He received his BA in Anthropology at the University of West Florida in 2013. His professional interests include geo-archaeology and underwater archaeology.
Osbaldo Alvarez is a Senior Anthropology Major at Texas A&M University. He has worked in the archaeology lab for over three years. He has an interest in PaleoAmerican Studies and plans on working in CRM after graduation in the spring.
The Center for the Study of the First Americans is located in the Anthropology Building at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Its purpose is to pursue research, train students, promote scientific dialogue, and stimulate public interest in the Ice Age peopling of the Americas. To learn more, visit the CSFA website.
Andrea Lloyd is our Senior Communications Lead at The Urban Interface. Interested in science public relations and journalism, she looks forward to graduating with a BS in Communications this December from Texas A&M University. If you were to ask her what her favorite ambassador is, it would be our Great Plains Rat Snake, Ophion. You can follow her (@learnloudly) on Instagram and Twitter.