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NDSU Students Discover that Studying the Past Leads to Their Future: Group's Research Uncovers Rare Artifact in South Pacific

March 8, 2011, Fargo, N.D. — Summer on a tropical island in the Pacific sounded like a great idea to eight undergraduate and two graduate students from North Dakota State University studying anthropology. Led by Dr. Jeffrey Clark, professor of anthropology at NDSU, the students gain valuable knowledge in their field, experiencing both adventure and a few surprises during their month-long field research in American Samoa. Some of the students, along with a new group of students, are returning to the islands in 2011.

More than 6,000 miles from Fargo, N.D., American Samoa includes a group of five islands in western Polynesia in the South Pacific.  For Allison Aakre, a senior from Hawley, Minn., majoring in anthropology, the research experience provided valuable hands-on learning. “Not only did I learn proper field research techniques, but I learned a lot about myself on this trip.”

PHoto of students walking a trail in American Samoa

Worth the Wait
For Dr. Clark, who hadn’t been back to American Samoa since 1999, the trip with his students was worth the wait. The NDSU research group unearthed ancient stone tools, ornaments, fishhooks, shells, rocks and one very unexpected find. “I’ve never excavated anything like it,” said Clark, an archaeologist for more than 30 years.

What the NDSU student researchers discovered was a single large clay pot used for cooking, completely intact. “Nothing like that has ever been found in that region of the world,” said Dr. Clark.

“We conducted the excavation of the pot with dental picks, a 2-inch soft brush and a small wood splint until it was completely exposed,” said NDSU student Clayton Knudson, of Harvey, N.D.

The moisture-saturated clay prevented removing the pot as one solid unit, as it began to fragment. All pieces, known as sherds, were carefully removed, numbered and shipped back to Fargo, N.D., with 18 boxes of artifacts for further study. Students in the archaeology lab at NDSU are working painstakingly to reconstruct the pot, but the poor condition of the sherds will limit what can be done. Clark will use a laser scanner in his lab to create 3-D models of the intact sherds that will allow creation of a digital 3-D model of the pot. Though radiocarbon dating has yet to confirm the age of the clay pot, Clark estimates the rare artifact may be as much as 2,500 years old, placing at about 700 B.C.

For NDSU graduate student Seth Quintus of Dickinson, N.D., the field research in American Samoa provides the basis of his master’s thesis in anthropology. “The most striking thing you learn when on these islands is the adaptability of the people,” said Quintus. “The second thing I learned is how important the modern day people are to any archaeological study, especially in Samoa. They not only can serve to help in interpreting some of the data, but their enthusiasm can encourage and motivate you as a researcher,” said Quintus.  He and other students know that it is also important to share their research findings with the Samoan people, who may learn more about their cultural heritage as interpreted from archaeological data.

Photo of students working an excavation

Dr. Clark agrees that such appreciation and understanding of another culture are benefits of this type of educational experience. “They get, I think, a little more understanding of the human connection, what we share, as well as the ways in which we’re different. That’s the heart of anthropology—how people are different and how people are similar over time and space.”

Jamie Pullen, a senior from Fargo majoring in anthropology, appreciated the experience. “The society is similar, yet so different from our own, and the people and their culture have had to find a delicate balance between progress and respect.”

Students’ Journeys Just Beginning
Though they are back from last summer’s field research in the South Pacific, these students’ journeys are just beginning. Lab work, scientific papers and presentations to announce the group’s research findings follow the field experience in American Samoa.

Allison Aakre is working in Dr. Clark’s lab recording, cleaning, measuring, and photographing artifacts to build a database of the group’s discoveries from last summer. She says the field research taught her proper excavation techniques, how to survey a large area and the importance of interacting with local populations. Aakre will graduate in May and is interested in pursuing her master’s degree in anthropology, with a focus on Pacific archaeology.

Clayton Knudson graduated in December and will be working in Yosemite National Park starting this summer, doing archaeological survey. He’ll hike into the park interior for days at a time, searching for and recording archaeological sites. Knudson, who previously served eight years in the U.S. Army with tours of duty in Iraq, South Korea and Egypt, provided valuable navigation and medical first aid skills while in American Samoa, along with an ability to improvise to get things done. All are skills that Clark calls extremely valuable to the group of students while conducting research on remote islands.

Jamie Pullen says the experience added to his global outlook. “It opened my eyes to a much larger world beyond my immediate environment and sparked my interest to travel further.”

Seth Quintus and Dr. Clark will attend the international 2011 Lapita Pacific Archaeology Conference in Samoa in June after the upcoming field research in American Samoa this summer. Quintus will then continue traveling to a remote set of islands known as the Tokelau group for additional field research. He hopes to pursue a doctorate degree in anthropology, eventually working in higher education.

Most of the students have worked in the archaeology lab at NDSU before or after the field research project.

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