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Undergraduate Research

Anthropology Undergraduates Participate in Exciting Research

Laura Labbe Peruwork

Laura Labbe studied soil samples in Peru. Jessica Sleeth searched for archaeological remains in Machias Bay. And Jamie Wren separates animal bones in the University of Maine Zooarchaelogy Lab.

Research opportunities are keeping UMaine anthropology students busy and happy, enriching their classes, allowing them to see how anthropologists work, and helping them decide on a career.

Students said they are grateful to UMaine for providing these unique and exciting activities to them as undergraduates. They were pleasantly surprised at how accessible the opportunities were.”All I had to do was ask,” said Laura Labbe ’10 who spent a month in the summer of ’08 in Ilo, on the southern coast of Peru, working with anthropology Professor Gregory Zaro. Their job was to test the soil for metals associated with copper smelting to see whether there had been industrial activity in the area during the last 1,000 years and whether that activity may have had an impact on the desertification of the region.

“People at the anthropology department were very enthusiastic and went out of their way to help me find a research opportunity that would allow me to experience first-hand the entire scientific process, from data collection to write-up,” said Labbe.

The work was hard, but fascinating.”Each morning at 7 a.m. we’d get in our old Datsun truck and then drive 30 minutes to an hour on a bumpy dirt road. We’d hike up to summits so high into the fog that I couldn’t see the coast even though it was less than a mile away. We collected soil samples along the stretch of coast at three different elevation levels. Back at the apartment we separated the samples and weighed and labeled them. We had to bring all this dirt back into the U.S., so we had to make sure everything was properly recorded.”

When Labbe returned to UMaine she learned how to separate the soil samples in the Sawyer Environmental Chemistry Research Lab. She and Professor Zaro plan to write a paper about their research and subsequent results.

“This opportunity opened up so many doors for me and helped me grow as a person,” said Labbe “I got to see first-hand the work of anthropologists and be part of a great team. I gained a level of independence that I know I only could have gained by working in a foreign country alongside professionals.”

After participating in UMaine’s Machias Bay Archaeological Field School last summer, Jessica Sleeth ’11 said she is “more sure than ever that archaeology is something I really can do as a career.”

Held at sites associated with prehistoric rock engravings, the field school is directed by professors Brian Robinson and Lisa Neuman, and conducted in cooperation with the Passamaquoddy Petroglyph Project.

“We looked for remnants of weapons and tools, trying to see if there was evidence of native American and European cohabitation in the 17th century,” said Sleeth, who was among about a dozen students who participated in the field school based at the University of Maine at Machias.

“Each of us had our own assigned area to excavate with trowels. We’d lie on our stomachs, digging down around two feet. We found a number of ‘flakes’, which are basically chips of stone that come off when people were trying to make a projectile point. We also found a number of bifaces – preformed blades with two worked sides.”

One of the reasons she chose to attend UMaine was because it offered a variety of hands-on research opportunities to undergraduates, said Sleeth. “The anthropology department is really good about getting the word out both in class and through email. It’s a fantastic opportunity. You get college credit and it’s free, so that was another bonus.”

When he first came to UMaine, Jamie Wren thought he wanted to teach high school history.

“Then I took an introductory course in anthropology with Dr. Kristin Sobolik, and I ended up falling in love with the subject,” said the sophomore who promptly changed his major to anthropology. He spends 15-20 hours each week in the zooarchaeology lab in South Stevens Hall, helping catalogue animal specimens brought in by professors, archaeologists, researchers, law enforcement officials, community residents, and others.

“I take the animal remains, boil them down, and remove their bones which I then clean, label, and catalogue, so that they may be accessioned to the collection. We’ll use them when we need to identify bones and animal remains from archaeological sites.”

“I feel really lucky that I have this opportunity – it will help me carve out my future career,” said Wren, who has been enlisted to help UMaine’s forensic anthropologist Professor Marcella Sorg open a new lab in South Stevens Hall for teaching and for work she does as a consultant for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

“I’ll help organize the lab, make it functional for everyday use, and develop a system to catalogue skeletons,” Wren said.

MAPI Field School Makes Summer Plans

MAPI Field School

The University of Maine’s Summer Archaeological Field School is making plans for its fourth summer research experience on the coast of Maine.

Created through a Maine Academic Prominence Initiative (MAPI) grant, the four-week field school provides hands-on archaeological opportunities for students, contributes to an understanding of Maine’s past, and strengthens the relationship between the University of Maine and the Wabanaki Tribes.

Field school participants, who are focusing currently on the Machias Bay area, bunk at the University of Maine at Machias residence halls and eat most of their meals at UMM. They spend the month of June excavating shell middens for bits of animal bones, clam shells, stone flakes and plant remains. In the same area, the Passamaquoddy are directing research on the rich rock art – or petroglyphs. These petroglyphs include shaman representations of humans, animals, and even 17th century depictions of European ships. The goal is for students and the Passamaquoddy to learn together about past activities and lifestyles to increase connections with the present.

The decision to work on coastal shell middens is influenced by climate change and the loss of coastal sites to collecting and development, according to anthropology Professor Brian Robinson, who directs the field school along with Professor Lisa Neuman, an expert in Native American Studies. “Because of the rising sea level, the shell middens are being washed away and the petroglyphs – which comprise the largest collection of rock art on the east coast – are eroding. We’re quickly losing this part of Native culture.”

The artifacts are like pieces of a puzzle, Professor Robinson said. “In the 17th century, Machias Bay was occupied by French fur traders as well as the Passamaquoddy Indians. In the remains of houses, we found pipe bowls, European and Native pottery, stone tool workshops, lead bullets, gun flints, iron knives, and beads. This indicates that the two peoples lived near each other and traded, but it is a considerable challenge to sort out the precise kinds of interactions, what activities occurred at the same time, and how long a period of time the activities span.”

While all the discoveries are important, some are particularly exciting. “We found spearheads made by the Passamaquoddy that are of excellent quality – they’re large and exceedingly thin. They’re some of the finest stone work I’ve ever seen, and it’s possible they were made as late as the 17th century,” said Professor Robinson.

“The MAPI field school is an innovative model of how partnerships can be built between the University and Maine’s Wabanaki communities for mutual benefit,” said Professor Neuman. “It is vital that these kinds of models exist so that Native and non-Native students, scholars, and community members can work together to better understand Maine’s past and to help train culturally-sensitive archaeologists for the future.”

“It’s not just about hard work,” she pointed out .”It’s a lot of fun, too! One of my favorite memories from the 2009 season was seeing students greet one of the pods of playful seals that came close to one of the dig sites located right at the ocean’s edge.”

Student Heather Omand ’10, who participated in the 2009 field school, called the experience “amazing”.

“We found projectile points, ceramics… something new every day. It was really incredible.”

The field school was one of the highlights of their time at UMaine, participants said. They appreciated the opportunity to obtain hands-on archaeological experience and to work closely with members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and learn more about Maine’s Native people. They made new friends and came away with a better understanding of Maine’s history. Their field school experience even prompted some to decide they wanted to be archaeologists! They were grateful that their expenses were covered and that they were able to earn academic credit. And they enjoyed the side trips to Bar Harbor’s Abbe Museum, which features extensive collections of Native artifacts, and to the visitor’s center at St. Croix Island, one of the earliest European settlements in North America.

“It’s great when students can visit collections which house artifacts similar to the ones they’re finding at the site,” said Rob Ingraham, graduate student and teaching assistant. “They recognize forms and patterns in the artifacts and get all fired up again. Next day, they’re chomping at the bit to get back to the site.”

Field school participants, who make sure to stay away from sacred sites and human remains, work hard and learn to keep meticulous records. “After a half hour walk into the site, we spend from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the field,” said Professor Robinson. “Then we process the materials at night. The students do all the excavating with a trowel, lying on their stomachs or hanging over pits which can be one or two feet deep. They have to quantify in a detailed way the distribution of all the tiny remains. We excavate in 50-centimeter units and we keep track of everything in each unit at every 5 centimeter level. The artifacts then are separated into brown paper bags, labeled, and brought back to South Stevens Hall at UMaine.

” Rebecca Morton ’10, said her 2009 field school participation “allowed me to actually experience what I had been learning about in the classroom.”

“Most people don’t get that opportunity until they graduate. For me, that was priceless.”

Students’ work doesn’t end when the four weeks are over. Participants spend the next academic year examining the bucketfuls of soil they brought back from Machias Bay. They sift the soil through fine screens and then record their findings.

The lab work is part of the fun, Heather Omand said. “I examine the soil under a microscope and separate the rocks from the good stuff. I take out the burned animal bone, charcoal, and flakes from projectile points. I count the items and then I weigh them.”

Machias Bay Field School research is prompting archaeologists and historians to see early Maine settlers in a whole new light, said Ingraham.

“It’s changing what we knew about the interaction between the Passamaquoddy and the European settlers. And it’s changing the way we understand animal remains in the northeast and the way we study them. It’s a long string of small discoveries that enhance the larger picture. The best feeling is working on something for a couple of weeks and then having that aha! moment where it all comes together.

“I’m absolutely blown away by the work the students do,” he continued. “We tell them what to look for and why everything has to be carefully recorded, and everyone puts in their best efforts and manages to produce some fantastic work. They do a great job digging in flat, square segments, trimming the roots, and making sure the walls are perfectly straight and the corners are sharp. They do most of their work simply by eyeballing the area. It’s a real skill to be able to shape the dirt in this way.”

Making sure her excavation site was in good shape became a source of pride for Rebecca Morton. “Photographic records are very important in archaeology so we needed to make sure the pits were in the best possible condition,” she said. “It was very labor intensive, but it was one of those tasks that was really worthwhile.”

Students are well prepared for a real world field situation thanks to classes such as “Lab Techniques in Prehistoric Archaeology” and “Fundamentals of Archaeology,” which provide a solid base for the student archaeologist going into the field for the first time, said Sam Belknap, graduate student and teaching assistant.

“In these classes students not only learn to think like an archaeologist but to work like one. They learn proper excavation and record keeping techniques, how to interpret archaeological materials, and what to do with the material after it is excavated.”

Students’ enthusiasm is contagious, he added. “People get really excited and it re-invigorates you! There’s something special about holding an artifact in your hands that no one has touched in thousands of years.”

One of the most important aspects of the field school is the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from the Passamaquoddy, said Professor Robinson. Some of the UMaine students who participate in the field school are members of the tribe. And experts from the Passamaquoddy community present lectures about the history and the significance of the petroglyphs.

“It’s always more fun working on problems with the people you’re actually studying,” he said.