Q: How many summers have you taken students to Zambia?
A: This is the first summer I have taken undergraduate students to Zambia, and only my second season doing archaeological research there. This season, however, was just the latest offering of the Rice University Archaeological Field School that the Department of Anthropology has been offering since 2005. Previous locations for the field school, which has trained dozens of Rice undergraduates, include Senegal and Tanzania.
Q: How many students do you take?
A: This past summer, I took five Rice students and normally do not take more than six. These students come with a range of interests: some with plans to become archaeologists, others to gain ethnographic experience, and others with broader interests in African Studies. Many alumna of the Field School have gone on to graduate school in Anthropology/Archaeology as well as other amazing careers.
Q: What kind of artifacts are you looking for?
A: The field school this year was focused on a region in western Zambia, a couple of hundred kilometers north of Victoria Falls. This was an area into which people migrated more than 1500 years ago, part of a larger expansion of Bantu-speaking people throughout the entire sub-continent of Africa. Our region of study includes a series of mound sites that were once villages occupied over a 600 year period, from approximately AD 800-1400. The mounds developed over time, as the community lived there and rebuilt houses and other parts of the village. Today, the archaeological deposits are more than 15 feet deep, with layers and layers of houses, trash pits, production areas, and other features. Our excavations reveal evidence of these places and activities; artifacts include locally-made pottery, beads of glass and ostrich eggshell, iron tools and iron-working debris, copper bangles, and bones of animals that they hunted and those they kept in the village (like cattle).
Q: How do the students benefit from this experience? How do you and your work benefit?
A: For students interested in pursuing a career in archaeology, an archaeological field school is a crucial part of their education. Through this experience, they learn the foundational techniques of archaeology: surveying, excavation, analyzing and describing soils, artifacts, and site stratigraphy. During this field school, the students also were involved in ethnographic projects, working with and learning from local potters, ironsmiths, fishers, basket weavers, and healers to study how they used materials objects in their work. This knowledge then provides clues to archaeologists as they seek to interpret the material objects they find in their research. Having students work on my research projects is wonderful—their excitement and hard work are key to the success of the research. Although the work is challenging (as are the conditions of our camp with no running water or electricity!), the students never cease to amaze me with their good humor and the remarkable insights they offer into our research questions.
Q: How did you pick Zambia?
A. I began working in Zambia as a collaboration with two of my colleagues, Dr. Kathryn de Luna (Georgetown U.) and Matthew Pawlowicz (Viriginia Commonwealth U.). Zambia offers a unique context for us to explore a new methodology that we are pioneering, as well as address our research questions. Our questions concern the nature of human mobility at a regional scale: given the large-scale expansion of people into and through this region, how did forms of mobility endure after people began to settle in the region? We are examining this by locating archaeological sites across the region, tracking the movement of particular goods (like beads and metals) from their place of production to locations of use, and exploring the mobility of animals (those that were hunted but also domesticated ones like cows that required seasonal movements). Our novel methodology, however, involves not only archaeology but also historical linguistics, and we have been working to address our questions with both types of data.
Q: What advice do you have for students looking to go into archaeology?
A: I always urge my students to get as much practical experience as possible, through participating in excavations in a field school, or volunteering on more local projects. We also offer a spring semester course in Archaeological Field Techniques, in which students work on a field project in Houston. Our program also focuses on providing students with many opportunities for hands on experiences, taking courses in which students learn to analyze and interpret many types of archaeological materials, such as animal bones, ceramics, and spatial data. Students that want to pursue an advanced degree often work on an honors thesis, in which they work with archaeological materials directly. This year, one honors student is analyzing isotopes from human teeth excavated in Mali, to examine their life histories, and another is working with archaeological data from a project at a WWII Japanese internment camp to explore children’s lives at the camp.
Q: What were the highlights from the summer 2018 trip?
A: There were so many amazing moments from the summer. It was wonderful to see the students engaged with our Zambian friends and colleagues, and to be learning about how people produce objects locally and the meanings they hold. One day that stands out is when I drove to pick up two of the students from an afternoon of ethnographic research; they had spent the day in a fishing village, learning how to spear, trap and net fish, as well as process and dry them. I stood on the banks of the river and watched as they came across it in a dugout canoe—they were excited and happy from a day of learning new things in a remarkable place. In terms of archaeological finds, we recovered an incredibly diverse assemblage of animal bones that included not only domesticated animals but also wild ones like zebra, anteater, monitor lizard, and some truly enormous fish. We also found a particular type of glass bead, called a ‘garden roller,’ that we know was made at a site in South Africa more than 600 miles away, thus attesting to the remarkable long-distance trade relations of the inhabitants of our region.