Culture, Society & Family Fossils & Ruins Student researchers

Digging the Etruscans: Students unearth treasures in Italy

Senior art history major Jayme Clemente was working in trench No. 35 in July at an archaeological dig 20 miles northeast of Florence, Italy, when something caught her eye.

“I saw something green in the dirt,” she recalls. Green is the color of oxidized bronze.

Oxidized-green bronze Etruscan coin.

“When you’ve been staring at this light brown mixture of dirt and you see something that is not in the same color palette — it was just an exhilarating feeling to know that there was something in the ground.”

Her trench supervisor raced over and confirmed the first coin discovery of SMU’s 2008 Poggio Colla Field School season in the Mugello Valley. Clemente then worked as slowly as she could to extract the item from the dirt because bronze coins are very fragile after being buried for 2,000 years.

“Your first reaction is to get it out as fast as you can, but you have to take your time and be very patient” to deliver it to the dig conservator in one piece, Clemente says. She is fascinated by the coin’s ability to reveal so many details about the culture in which it was used. Through her research she learned this particular coin was struck far to the south, somewhere between Rome and Naples, between 275 and 250 BCE.

Jayme Clemente digs at Poggio Colla.

As the site’s field manual says: “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”

Clemente learned her lessons well, says P. Gregory Warden, University Distinguished Professor of Art History. He also serves as the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project’s (MVAP) principal investigator and co-director of its Poggio Colla Field School, an internationally recognized research training center in which SMU has participated since 1995.

Clemente was one of a dozen SMU students who were joined at the field school last summer by students from Dartmouth, Princeton and other universities.

The Poggio Colla site spans most of Etruscan history, from 700 BCE to the town’s destruction by the Romans around 178 BCE, which makes the site very rare. It also is distinctive because of what is not there. The Etruscans picked beautiful, easily defended hilltops for their settlements. As a result, generation after generation built new cities on top of their sites. That means many have 2,000 years of other civilizations on top of Etruscan artifacts, Warden says. Not so Poggio Colla, which is all Etruscan.

The oxidized-green bronze Etruscan coin discovered by Clemente features the head of Athena on one side, a rooster on the reverse.

No one knows why the Etruscans disappeared. Most of what archaeologists have learned about the culture in the past 40 years comes from funerary remains that represent the death rituals of the wealthy. Poggio Colla is different, Warden says. It represents an entire settlement, including tombs, a temple, a pottery factory and an artisan community. Excavations of workshops and living quarters are yielding details about Etruscan life to scholars from SMU and its partners, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Recent finds included a large stone column base that probably belonged to the temple and a ritual pit within the sanctuary where the Etruscans placed a series of sacred objects such as gold thread, two statue bases and two bronze bowls. One of the bowls rests atop the bones of a suckling pig that was sacrificed as part of a purification ritual.

The temple is revealing new information about the Etruscans, who had a theocratic social structure and were considered “the most religious peoples of the ancient Mediterranean,” Warden says. “We can show where the priest was standing and how the objects were placed in this sacred pit with attention to the cardinal points of the compass, reflecting Etruscan religious beliefs and their idea of the sacredness of space.”

The findings are so striking that the British Museum invited Warden to deliver a lecture there in December 2007 on “Ritual and Destruction at the Etruscan Site of Poggio Colla.”

The Italian government long had planned to create a regional archaeological museum in the area. The many discoveries at Poggio Colla moved that plan along, and Warden was a special guest at the museum’s opening in December.

All the artifacts found at Poggio Colla are the property of the Italian government and remain in that country. Because of connections created through the MVAP, more than 350 Etruscan artifacts from Italian museums and 100 artifacts from the field school site will be on loan to the Meadows Museum starting in January for the largest and most comprehensive Etruscan exhibits ever staged in the United States. Warden also will teach a course on “Etruscan Art and Archaeology” for the SMU Master of Liberal Studies program in the spring.

The coin that Clemente found is expected to be part of the exhibit.

“I never knew that it would be put into a museum,” she says, “but I feel pride in knowing that I was a part of the process.” — Deborah Wormser

Related links:
Research blog: Archaeological dig marked by landmark Etruscan exhibit
WSJ: Etruscan treasures from Tuscany
USAToday: Ancient Etruscan treasures go on display in Dallas
Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Review of the exhibit
P. Gregory Warden
Meadows: “From the Temple and the Tomb”
Meadows: “New Light on the Etruscans”
Poggio Colla Field School
Student research projects
2008 field school student diaries
2008 field school directors’ diaries
Mugello Valley Region

Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins Learning & Education Plants & Animals Researcher news

Louis Jacobs co-writes, consults for international paleo video

Vertebrate paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs is scientific consultant and co-writer of a new 33-minute video just released by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

A professor in Dedman College‘s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Jacobs introduces the “We Are SVP” video. An internationally known vertebrate paleontologist, he is a former president of the society.

lou-jacobs-we-are-svp-300.jpgThe video features many other respected paleontologists from around the world, all of them talking about the work they do and its importance to science and society. The goal of the video is to educate students, teachers and the public about vertebrate paleontologists and the importance of their work.

“Because we study fossils, especially dinosaurs, we capture the imagination of children, and that makes vertebrate paleontology a gateway for all science,” Jacobs says in the video.

Also appearing is SMU geology student and SMU President’s Scholar Karen Gutierrez.


The society’s 2,300 members in 54 countries are scientists who study fossils of animals with backbones and complex brains, including dinosaurs.

Vertebrate paleontology’s findings provide the evidence for environmental change and contribute to understanding everything from climate change and evolution to ecology.

“Our field expeditions and our laboratory work provide the evidence for environmental change, including its most serious consequence — extinction,” Jacobs says in the video.

Jacobs joined SMU’s faculty in 1983. Currently he has projects in Mongolia, Angola and Antarctica.

His book, “Lone Star Dinosaurs” (1999, Texas A&M University Press) was the basis of an exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History that traveled the state. He is consulting on a new exhibit, Mysteries of the Texas Dinosaurs, which is set to open in the fall of 2009.

Jacobs is also known for his work documenting changes in fossil mammals in Pakistan, which helps scholars correlate climatic changes with evolutionary changes seen in animals, and which helps calibrate the rate of DNA evolution in mammals. He’s also credited for discovery of what’s now known as Malawisaurus, a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in Malawi, Africa, 115 million years ago.

In the early 1980s, Jacobs worked for paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey as head of the division of paleontology at the National Museums of Kenya.

The SVP video is narrated by “Law & Order” television star Sam Waterston. The video was produced by longtime New York theater producer Steve Cohen. Executive producer was Ray Marr of Shade Tree Studios in Dallas. Portions of the video were shot at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas.

Related links:
Louis L. Jacobs
Video: We Are SVPvideo.jpg
Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Karen Gutierrez
Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Culture, Society & Family Fossils & Ruins

Taos: Modern archaeology goes beyond digging

SMU-Picture.gifFor hundreds of years the beauty and mystery of Taos, New Mexico, have lured thousands of settlers and visitors, from the ancestors of the Taos and Picuris Indians and Spanish settlers to skiing enthusiasts and artists.

Now students participating in SMU’s Archaeology Field School have answered the call of Taos in their own way. In summer 2007 they began work on the first phase of a research project that will bring together University faculty and students, Taos community leaders, private landowners, and local, state and federal government agencies.

Sunday Eiselt

The multifaceted undertaking will involve surveying on foot and through satellite and Google Earth images, as well as archival research and excavation. The collaboration marks the first time archaeological exploration has been conducted on the Ranchos de Taos Plaza.

The project was made possible because the Field School, part of SMU’s Department of Anthropology in Dedman College, has established trust in this traditional community that in the past has regarded such efforts with suspicion.

“Modern archaeology involves a lot of soft skills, including cultural sensitivity and the ability to interact respectfully with communities,” says Sunday Eiselt, visiting assistant professor of anthropology and acting director of SMU’s Archaeology Field School. “You can’t just go in, put holes in the ground and leave.”

The Field School’s first project in the Plaza began last year as a volunteer effort. Taos native Lupita Tafoya’s adobe house has been in her family for 11 generations, and the original structure dates to about 1800. Field School students offered their labor to lower Tafoya’s packed-earth floor to create a step-down living room area. In the process they found a midden, or kitchen garbage area, dating from the early 1800s.

Digging the midden
The SMU students’ 2007 project focused on investigating the midden, as well as deposits in Tafoya’s dining room and front yard.

A total of 14 SMU students, 12 undergraduates and two graduate assistants, joined forces this year with two new high school graduates from Taos Pueblo.

Pipad Krajaejun, Silpakorn U., Bangkok, and Allison McCabe, Taos Pueblo, excavate in Tafoya’s house.

They participated with the help of scholarships from a fund established by former Texas Governor Bill Clements and his wife, former Texas First Lady Rita Clements.

“It’s a big house with several later additions, so the students will recreate the construction history of the house as well,” Eiselt says.

At one time, archaeological exploration of historic cities was confined largely to abandoned areas that provided space for open-area excavation. That changed after World War II, when bomb craters left areas of large, old cities such as London and Warsaw open for investigation.

Researchers developed new techniques to cope with the logistical difficulties of doing archaeological digs in places where people lived and worked. As historical archaeology evolved, new skills were needed to address the often-divergent needs of individual communities.

Taos is an especially complex challenge, says Eiselt, who received her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and has been conducting archaeological research in Northern New Mexico since 1998.

A remote and historically close-knit community, the area has experienced a rapid influx of outside investment in recent years, from tourists drawn to its natural beauty and culture to investors seeking to capitalize on them. About 180,000 visitors a year converge on the town, which has a permanent population of just over 5,000. Tourism accounts for nearly 85 percent of an economy that also consistently maintains a double-digit unemployment rate and a cost of living nearly 14 percent higher than the U.S. average, according to the Taos Economic Report and other indicators.

Mike Sandoval, Taos Pueblo

Impact of modernization
The tension between tradition and modernization in the community of Taos, between preservation and gentrification, is palpable, Eiselt says.

“Many former households just off the Ranchos de Taos Plaza are in ruins,” she says. “And with Plaza lots going for $400,000 each, the property taxes have created a situation in which residents whose families have lived there for generations cannot afford to do so now.”

The collaboration between the SMU Field School and the Taos community is creating an oasis of cooperation in the midst of this upheaval, Eiselt adds.

“It’s also a model of how to accomplish goals that serve the people and their interests, as well as our scientific and educational objectives,” she says.

As part of that model, each Archaeology Field School project begins with a volunteer component and follows the example set at Tafoya’s home. This year, the Field School students also helped with the annual cleaning and re-mudding (enjara) of the much-photographed San Francisco de Asis church, an adobe landmark whose earliest construction dates to 1772.

The Taos Plaza community is setting guidelines and providing context for the archaeologists’ work, Eiselt says.

“Many of the people who live here are accomplished scholars of the area’s history in their own right,” she says. “Interacting with them is another great learning opportunity.”

Leslie Reeder, SMU Ph.D. candidate,
making pottery in La Madera, 2007.

Students measure the layers of flooring in Tafoya’s dining room to reconstruct the history of the house.

For example, it was Lupita Tafoya who told Eiselt that the social universe of Taos Plaza was too small for the proposed study, Eiselt says.

“She let us know that we needed to explore not only the Plaza, but all of San Francisco de Asis parish. So much of the community’s activity centers on that church; if we want to understand what we find, we need to understand that larger context,” she says.

As a result of that conversation, Eiselt has created a multiyear research plan. The plan’s three components, the oral history, archival work and general archaeology, will be carried out in consultation with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, the Taos Archaeological Society and residents and archaeologists from the area.

One of the study’s major features is its emphasis on mapping rather than digging.

“Excavation, which is intrusive and destructive, will be avoided as much as possible, with most activities focusing on non-intrusive pedestrian or surface survey, including remote sensing, aerial photography and historic maps,” Eiselt wrote in her introduction to the research plan.

The study’s other highlight, a focus on community interaction, also helps the Archaeology Field School achieve one of its primary educational goals: to teach how to work as partners in places like Taos.

“We’re teaching students not to go in with an attitude of ‘Here’s your past. We know because we’re scientists,'” Eiselt says. “This work is about the people, not the objects.” — Kathleen Tibbetts

Related links:
Sunday Eiselt and her research
Sunday Eiselt brief bio
SMU Archaeology Field School
SMU Department of Anthropology
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Culture, Society & Family Fossils & Ruins

Neanderthals: “Don’t call me stupid!”

Lanceolate-medium.jpegNew research by a U.S.-U.K. team that included SMU archaeology student Metin Eren assaults the long-held notion that Neanderthals went extinct because their stone tools were inferior to those made by Homo sapiens.

Researchers at Southern Methodist University and the University of Exeter report in the “Journal of Human Evolution” that the early stone tool technologies of Neanderthals were as good as, and sometimes even more efficient, than those of Homo sapiens.

The story, “Complexity of Neanderthal tools,” was posted online Aug. 26 by BBC News.

Metin Eren

Eren is a graduate experimental archaeology student in the Department of Anthropology of Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

The article quotes Eren, lead author on the study, as saying that technologically the research found no clear advantage between the tools of Homo sapiens versus the tools used by Neanderthals.

“When we think of Neanderthals, we need to stop thinking in terms of ‘stupid’ or ‘less advanced’ and more in terms of ‘different,'” Eren is quoted.


“Early stone tools developed by our species Homo sapiens were no more sophisticated than those used by our extinct relatives the Neanderthals.

That is the conclusion of researchers who recreated and compared tools used by these ancient human groups.

The findings cast doubt on suggestions that more advanced stone technologies gave modern humans a competitive edge over the Neanderthals.

The work by a US-British team appears in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The researchers recreated wide stone tools called “flakes,” which were used by both Neanderthals and early modern humans.

They also reconstructed “blades” — a narrower stone tool later adopted by Homo sapiens. Some archaeologists often use the development of stone blades and their assumed efficiency as evidence for the superior intellect of our species.

The team analysed the data to compare the number of tools produced, how much cutting edge was created, the efficiency in consuming raw material and how long tools lasted.

They found no statistical difference in the efficiency of the two stone technologies.”

Read the full story at BBC News

Related links:
Metin Eren
SMU News: Neanderthals were not ‘stupid’
Journal of Human Evolution: Article
University of Exeter: Press release
Department of Anthropology
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins

Ethiopian fossils to shed light on climate change

Crew2007-2008-sm.jpgA team of researchers led by paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs and sedimentologist Neil Tabor of Southern Methodist University returned to northwestern Ethiopia in late December 2007 to spend almost a month collecting additional plant fossils and gaining a more thorough understanding of their geological context.

In December 2006, the team collected more than 600 plant fossils, which are on loan for study in labs at SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College. All told, the team has documented more than 1,500 plant fossils, hundreds of vertebrate fossils and numerous examples of ancient soils. This year they widen their search to better understand the geology, landscape, plant and animal communities, and climate of Chilga, Ethiopia, 28 million years ago.

The project, which also is training Ethiopian students in geology and paleontology, is funded by a $300,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

In this second year of the grant period, the team will collect from a fruit and seed deposit — to compare with that collected last year — sample leaves to provide information about insect plant-eaters, and explore for new fossil sites, according to Jacobs, associate professor, and Tabor, assistant professor, both in the Department of Earth Sciences.

The 2007-2008 Ethiopia crew

The project is expected to help scientists understand the world’s changing climate, by knowing about that of the past based upon plant fossils and ancient soils.

Documenting past climate at low latitudes, including in Africa, helps researchers understand global climate change. In addition, the early origins of Africa’s flora are largely a mystery. What we know comes primarily from hypotheses generated by the modern distributions of plants rather than from the fossil record.


Angiosperms, “flowering plants,” make up nearly all living plants in today’s tropical, subtropical and temperate regions. In Africa, little is known about how they changed and adapted between their evolutionary origins 130 million years ago and recent times. Chilga fossils provide a unique view of the Earth’s plant life 28 million years ago, and fill a gap in understanding the evolution of today’s tropical floras.

The 2006 effort focused on, CH-3, which was known to produce both plant and vertebrate fossils. Until last year, only 92 plant specimens had been collected from CH-3 and these all came from the surface. These are usually bigger, less delicate specimens because they’ve been exposed to erosion and perhaps moved from their original position in the sediment.
Bonnie Jacobs, Neil Tabor and crew

The researchers excavated into the hillside at CH-3, exposing the fossiliferous deposit and, after only eight days, collected 523 specimens — mainly fruits and seeds. Their finds included some things never seen before at Chilga, such as several flowers, some very tiny seeds, and a large fruit, all of which are still being studied.

Besides Jacobs and Tabor, the 2007 team included: SMU students Dan Danehy and Harvey Herr; John Kappelman, University of Texas at Austin; and Ellen Currano, Penn State University.

Related links:
Ethiopia project home page
Bonnie Jacobs
Bonnie Jacobs’ research
Neil Tabor
Dan Danehy
John Kappelman
Ellen Currano
Why fossils matter
Bonnie Jacobs’ guide to finding fossils
SMU Student Adventures blog: Research team in Ethiopia, 2007-2008
Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Climate shift in East Africa due to geology