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Week of 13 February 1998

Vol. I, No. 20

Feature Article

Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program

Faculty-undergraduate project unearths New England's prehistoric past

by Brian Fitzgerald

Most kids collect something: baseball cards, dolls, stamps, or coins. Maria Brady (CAS'99) gathered rocks. "I used to stuff my pockets with them," she laughs. When she ran out of room in her pockets, she tucked the smaller stones in her coat sleeves.

Not surprisingly, Brady has a passion for geology. But at Boston University she has also developed an interest in archaeology. Now, thanks to BU's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), she is combining the two disciplines in a groundbreaking research project that could provide new insight into the trading patterns of New England's prehistoric inhabitants.

Brady is one of 17 students who were awarded UROP funds in support of research projects that they will undertake this spring. UROP, established last fall to foster research relationships between undergraduates and faculty, is doing just that. But as Brady has discovered, the program is also paving the way for interdisciplinary efforts that can lead to important discoveries.

In the new CAS isotope geochemistry laboratory, Maria Brady (CAS'99) holds a sample of material taken from a prehistoric tool-making site. From the left are Assistant Earth Sciences Professor Drew Coleman and Associate Archaeology Professor Paul Goldberg. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

CAS isotope geochemistry laboratory

"Last year I took a course in igneous and metamorphic petrology that was taught by Geology Professor Drew Coleman," says Brady. "The end-of-semester project was to write a term paper dealing with a problem in petrology." She explains that archaeologists studying prehistoric quarry sites in the southern New England are faced with a common predicament: accurately matching debitage samples (discarded chips from the tool-making process) to the exact mine they were taken from. They traditionally rely on overt visual characteristics, such as color, the presence of certain minerals, and weathering patterns. "But rocks from the different volcanic complexes in New England often look similar," she says, "so errors have been made in assigning sources to the samples."

However, Brady learned about recent advances in geochemical analysis methods that could help identify the exact sources of debitage samples when she read an article in the Journal of Geoarchaeology detailing the work done in this area by University of Rhode Island archaeologist O. Don Hermes, who uses microscopic analysis of the stone flakes. "Hermes was among the first to use geochemistry to match stone tool debris to its source in the region," she says. "He was able to assign a source to most samples, but there is still room for improvement. There were some samples that couldn't be pinpointed to specific sources."

Brady and Coleman, her adviser, will use strontium isotope analysis, a new method for ultra-sensitive elemental examination of rock samples. "Its application to archaeology is fairly recent," says Coleman. "Still, this is at the end of my specialty -- I have no specific archaeological experience. For a long time BU's geology and archaeology departments have talked about doing more interdisciplinary work, but in this case, without UROP funding we wouldn't be able to do this type of research."

BU Associate Archaeology Professor Paul Goldberg, who is helping with the project, agrees. "There's a lot more interchange between our departments of late, and Maria's research is definitely helping forge a stronger link between the two disciplines," says Goldberg, editor of the Journal of Geoarchaeology. "We're hoping this will lead to even more collaboration."

The research could also lead to a better understanding of prehistoric stone procurement patterns, possible preferences for tool-making materials, location and sizes of territories, and preferential access to certain materials based on social status.

"It's hard to imagine volcanoes in the Boston area, but there were some about one billion years ago, and then again between 300 and 500 million years ago, including one in what is now Mattapan," says Coleman. "And about 9,000 years ago human beings quarried these sites to make hand axes and projectile points."

Debitage samples from these tools and weapons, donated by Hermes, will be dissolved in hydrofluoric acid and nitric acid and prepared in the College of Arts and Sciences' isotope geochemistry laboratory, which was built last fall. Strontium isotope analysis will be performed later on a thermal ionization mass spectrometer at MIT. Brady has become familiar with the techniques of obtaining isotope ratios, and has taken additional courses, such as Mineralogy, History of the Earth, and Archaeology, which will help her interpret the results of the tests.

"Dr. Hermes has expressed an interest in expanding this research to other archaeological sites if our results are promising," says Brady, whose final report will be a published research paper (evaluated by external journal reviewers) and an oral presentation at a regional meeting of the Geological Society of America. She adds that success in this experiment might also be expanded into a senior or master's thesis.

Brady has received funding for both research supplies and a student salary. "Her proposal was among the best of the group," says UROP director Sharon Prado. Proposals and applications for UROP funds come from a variety of departments, from psychology to chemistry to earth sciences, and are reviewed by Prado and an 11-member faculty group.

At BU there have always been numerous opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research projects with professors prior to the establishment of UROP, but the entire process usually took place within a specific school or department, according to Prado. "UROP is a University-wide effort," she adds, noting that the program "is not simply a funding machine." In fact, membership in the UROP Research Society entitles students to receive invitations to special events and workshops, to participate in the Undergraduate Research Symposium every fall, and to publish an abstract in the UROP electronic journal.

Students can submit applications for summer research stipends by March 15. Also available is the Mark W. Riemen Research Prize competition for majors in chemistry, biology, and biochemistry- molecular biology, a $2,500 award in memory of research scientist and CAS alumnus Riemen, who graduated in 1975. In addition, BU hosts three National Science Foundation research experiences for undergraduates and summer research programs in biology and biomedical engineering, along with programs at the Boston University Marine Program in Woods Hole, Mass.

"I remember hearing about UROP at a faculty meeting around the same time that I was reading the end-of-semester projects," says Coleman. "I thought that submitting a student proposal would be the natural thing to do. We were very excited when Maria got the funding. I'm learning a lot from this project as well."