OHIO students get taste of archaeology at ancient Virginia site
A select group of professors, students and alumni traveled to Virginia to take part in an archaeological dig on a 13,000-year-old site from Nov. 4-13.
Photos and Video by Ben Wirtz Siegel, Story by Noah Wright | January 6, 2022
Joseph Gingerich, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Ohio University, and his students recently had the chance to take part in a rare experience for undergraduate students. A select group of professors, students and alumni traveled to Virginia's Roanoke River Valley to take part in an archaeological dig on a 13,000-year-old site from Nov. 4-13.
The site provides some of the oldest evidence of human activity in the Eastern United States, but due to erosion and fluctuating water levels in the area, some of that activity can be difficult to document. Gingerich said that the erosion is a mixed blessing.
"Erosion has alerted us to their presence, but it's a difficult situation as these sites are being lost so fast," Gingerich said. "Our goal is to locate areas that are still preserved, so we can understand more about past lifeways." Gingerich started working on these sites five years ago with funding from National Geographic and additional research grants that he received provide opportunities for students.
Working on this site provides a rare and valuable opportunity for undergraduate students still honing their skills. "Many of the students are using advanced mapping techniques and advanced collection techniques. So, it provides unique training and skill sets for students moving forward," Gingerich said.
In 2017, the College of Arts and Sciences renovated a new state-of-the-art lab space for the anthropology and archaeology program. Gingerich noted that students are not only gaining field experience but important lab skills that will aid them in careers in archaeology and museum studies.
Archaeological Society of Virginia (ASV) volunteers work along with students on excavations.
"Students get to see the entire process, how artifacts are collected in the field and then processed and analyzed in the lab," Gingerich said. The grants that fund the Virginia work will also be used to pay students in the lab. Many of the students who took part in the dig had just participated in the Field School in Ohio Archaeology, which provides basic training for archaeology, but according to Gingerich, the Virginia dig was a chance to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the work.
One of these students is Tori Lovelace, a sophomore studying anthropology with a focus in archaeology in the Honors Tutorial College. Lovelace said she did not expect an opportunity quite like this so early in her undergraduate career. "I expected to do some (local) digs, but I did not expect to be invited on a trip to Virginia to dig a 13,000-year-old site. Not many people in archaeology get to do that, much less an undergraduate student," Lovelace said.
When it comes to the work that was done in Virginia, Gingerich said the main goal of the work is to capture the different sites before they're lost to erosion.
Students and volunteers carry equipment to excavation areas.
"Frankly, most of these sites have eroded out. In some ways it's good, but at the same time it's been difficult to document these last few sites before they're gone," Gingerich said. "It's been an opportunity to save something that in the next few years will be absolutely gone."
Once these sites are lost, researchers will know less about the earliest human activity throughout this region of America. However, the nature of the sites does not mean there were no opportunities to unearth ancient artifacts.
Lovelace explained that the majority of the objects found are small remnants of making and re-sharpening stone tools, but some of the materials unearthed were fascinating.
"A lot of what we found were clear quartz flakes, and they were gorgeous," Lovelace said. "Those were really memorable because I had never seen material like that and we really don't have anything like that in this area."
Gingerich noted that these early people used very high-quality stone to make stone tools. Some of the materials used come from hundreds of miles away.
Ohio University student and now alumnus Jacob Carlson attempts to identify an arrowhead found by Archaeology Field School students in the Anthropology Lab.
Aside from the professional impact this work has on students in the program, it's an opportunity unlike anything Ohio University students have had in the past. David Lamp, an alumnus of the anthropology program at Ohio University, had the chance to take part in the trip with Gingerich and his students.
Lamp believes the work Gingerich is doing, and the experience it gives his students, takes Ohio University's anthropology and archaeology programs to new heights.
"In my time at Ohio University, the anthropology program was a good program, but this is not an opportunity I had as an undergraduate," Lamp said. "Dr. Gingerich is a good person to take the program where it needs to go, and opportunities like this truly elevate Ohio University."