Rooms of Their Own

New center lets students get hands-on with Penn Museum’s vast collection

Monday, June 1, 2015

By Susan Ahlborn

Three professors, 21 students, and a 6,500-year-old human skeleton fit perfectly into the largest classroom in Penn Museum’s new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) this spring. Their class, Living World in Archaeological Science, was designed specifically for CAAM, created to allow Penn students to study archaeological specimens hands-on.

The Living World class introduced undergraduate and graduate students to the scientific laboratory analysis of human, animal, and plant remains. The course was team-taught by Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Weingarten Assistant Curator for North America Megan Kassabaum; Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, Associate Curator-in-Charge of Physical Anthropology, and Keeper of Collections Janet Monge; and Mainwaring Teaching Specialist, CAAM, and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology Katherine Moore.

Each professor led a section—Monge on human skeletal remains, Moore on animal remains, and Kassabaum on plant remains—in a course designed to develop an interdisciplinary approach to excavation and analysis—something still rare in archaeology. “It was a challenge for us to put together these methods that are not routinely put together,” Moore says. “It really needed all three of us.”

Their goal was to produce students who could synthesize findings in all three areas to answer big questions—about the environment, about the production and consumption of food and its impact on labor, health, and trade.

In each section, the professors gave students never-before analyzed material to work with. “The difference between the lab work we do here and the lab work in chemistry and biology is that there are no answers on the back of the paper here,” says Moore. “The students were working with unknown, uncharacterized, totally mysterious materials. And they were giving them context and meaning.”

The skeleton used in Monge’s section had been “rediscovered” just last year in the museum basement, its identifying documentation gone. “The students took on the challenge of laying out a long-term research project framed around this individual,” says Monge. “It’s a completely unique specimen. We couldn’t blow it.” The testing, which includes X-rays, CT scanning, and DNA sampling, is still in progress, and Monge will follow up with the students over the next year to let them know the results.

The stakes were high for all three sections. When one student was worried about finding only a few seeds in her samples, Kassabaum told her that just one seed could push the date of agriculture development in the Lower Mississippi Valley back by 300 years. “This isn’t going into their final research project to never be looked at again,” Kassabaum says. “I’m going back to these sites this summer, so what they find in this class will affect my own research program.”

Graduate students in the class did a capstone project in which each examined a site using all three types of materials. The professors hope that some will turn their papers into presentations at national meetings. Kassabaum says, “If we can have a cohort of grad students who go out and present papers that integrate all three of these datasets, they’ll be on the forefront of the way people are thinking about archaeobiology.”

“It’s given me a background so that I can better examine the things I’ve found in a cohesive way,” says Megan Postemski, a first-year doctoral student who has dug in Pennsylvania and New England. “The different remains—animal, human, and plant—are all interconnected, and come together in nice messy triangles.” The best part was the chance to do hands-on work, she says. “Most other classes are theory and discussion. Here, it’s, ‘Go try it in the lab.’”

Pre-med biology major Omar Sobh, C’15, was able to incorporate some of the information from his anatomy and physiology classes in his analyses, and learned how biological data can be used to draw conclusions about society. He says the interdisciplinary and collaborative approach used in the course will be a model for him as a physician working with professionals in other fields like public health to understand context “It’s the same idea—working with individuals with different areas of expertise and unique experiences to form hypotheses and to draw conclusions.”

Because of the size of the museum’s collection—nearly one million objects from six continents—and its active research agenda, CAAM is “absolutely unique,” says Clark Research Associate Professor of Assyriology Steve Tinney, who is CAAM’s director, Penn Museum Deputy Director, and Associate Curator-in-Charge of the Museum’s Babylonian Section. The museum staff and Penn Arts and Sciences faculty are continuing to develop a range of opportunities in the center, from a freshman seminar to independent research. Tinney says, “We hope it will be interesting enough for students to take the classes and get the benefit of learning to think by combining related disciplines, in ways they might not be able to do in other areas of the University.”