Archaeology Undergrads Gain Research Experience Through Calit2, Faculty Mentor Program

By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

San Diego, Calif., Aug. 9, 2010 — Julia Prince has her future all planned out. A recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego's Anthropology department, Prince (who specialized in archaeology) plans to pursue her Master’s degree and perhaps go on to earn a Ph.D., with a combined emphasis on pottery and paleopathology, or the study of ancient diseases and bones. Her eventual goal is to become an expert on ancient mortuaries.
Last fall, undergraduate students assisted in the excavation of Khirbat en-Nahas, the largest Iron Age copper production site in the Holy Land.
Last fall, undergraduate students assisted in the excavation of Khirbat en-Nahas, the largest Iron Age copper production site in the Holy Land.

But to get there, she needs research experience —  and for the modern archaeologist, that means experience working both below ground and behind the computer screen.  In that regard, Prince is ahead of the game thanks to UC San Diego's Faculty Mentor Program (FMP) and the mentorship of UCSD Anthropology Professor Thomas Levy.

This year, Prince and five other anthropology students served as research assistants to Levy via the FMP, which grants the students a total of 8 units of Independent Study credits provided they work under their mentor for at least 10 hours per week for two quarters. Research projects are designed and supervised by a faculty mentor in conjunction with the students' research interests. Through the program, students also learn how to write a research proposal and paper, receive graduate school and fellowship information and present their research at the annual Faculty Mentor Program Research Symposium at the end of the academic year.

Levy, who is also the associate director for the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), said Prince's work conducting 3D scans of pottery found at Bronze Age excavation site Khirbat en-Nahas "tells us something about the social status and foodways of the people who controlled metal production at this time." The fieldwork was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Calit2, National Science Foundation, the UCSD Judaic Studies Program, and private donors.

Explained Levy: "Julia's research involved learning GIS (Geographic Information Systems) from scratch after we came back from Jordan this past December, where she had been a student at our UCSD CISA3/Calit2/Department of Anthropology/Judaic Studies Program archaeology field school.  This was a challenge, but Julia mastered this computer program in one quarter.  She was able to do a fascinating spatial analysis of the ancient ceramics we recovered from a monumental building dating to the 10th century BCE at the copper production site of Khirbat en-Nahas."
To achieve this, Prince developed a typology for the pottery, which entailed assigning a specific function to different types of pottery (such as "miscellaneous storage jars") and then cross-referencing that data with the GIS data to delineate areas of the site that might have been used for specific purposes. With Prince's help, for example, the team was able to pinpoint what is believed to have been a storage room at Khirbat en-Nahas, and another area that is believed to be a former residence.

 Said Prince: "I had never done research related to archaeology, so the Faculty Mentorship Program was a huge eye opener as to what grad school would be like." As for the FMP symposium, Prince said, "I’ve never been a very comfortable speaker, but Tom pushed us beyond what we would typically do for the symposium. It was really great to get the experience."

Also participating in this year's Faculty Mentor Symposium was Connor Buitenhuys, who recently graduated with a B.A. in anthropology and a concentration in archaeology. His project focused on exploring the ways that LiDAR (light detection and ranging) 3D laser scanners can be used for archaeological research.

Connor Buitenhuys assists Calit2's Tom Wypych as they scan a 10-hectare area of Khirbat en-Nahas down to the millimeter level, collecting 1.75 billion data points to create a robust 3D immersive environment.
Connor Buitenhuys assists Calit2's Tom Wypych as they scan a 10-hectare area of Khirbat en-Nahas down to the millimeter level, collecting 1.75 billion data points to create a robust 3D immersive environment.
Buitenhuys scanned a 10-hectare area of Khirbat en-Nahas down to the millimeter level, collecting 1.75 billion data points (complete with coordinates and color values) to create a robust 3D immersive environment. He and his colleagues — who include Calit2-affiliated researchers Tom Wypych, Vid Petrovic and Kyle Knabb — then imported GIS data pertaining to various artifacts so that users could see those artifacts in their original environment, and in three dimensions. 

"Since all archaeological researchers are human, subjectivity is a constant foe," Buitenhuys said. "While these scans don't eliminate subjectivity in science, they do provide us with tools for reducing the amount of subjectivity. Any kind of precision instrument like this makes public dissemination of this knowledge less contested, whereas if a human is drawing this sort of thing by hand, he or she might get it wrong."

Said Tom Levy about Buitenhuys' work: "The LiDAR enables us to create an amazing 3D model of one of the largest 10th century BCE fortresses in the deserts of Egypt, Israel and Jordan. Thanks to Connor's processing, our team is leading the way in the application of on-site LiDAR mapping of an on-going excavation." Levy added that the results of the excavation will be published in a joint paper on "cyber-archaeology" that will appear later this year.

Levy also served as a Faculty Mentor to Karina Valenzuela, a third-year anthropology/political science undergraduate who spent two quarters editing interviews conducted by Adolpho Muniz, an anthropological archaeologist for CISA3. Muniz spent 10 weeks in Swamimalai, India, last year collecting ethnographic data about a collective of hereditary bronze-casters who continue to carry a centuries-old tradition into the 21st century.

Muniz's research is part of a larger CISA3 Archaeology effort established by Levy in 2004 and known as the Traditional Indian Technologies project. The project is aimed at using digital technologies to create a new way of researching, recording, analyzing and partnering with traditional craftspeople in India to conserve their traditions and help artisans market their works in India and to the global community.

Levy said he’s excited about this collaboration with the community and added that Valenzuela's work could “help empower local craftsmen by making their works available over the Internet.”

Valenzuela said her experience working on the project gave her new insights about the practice of ethnoarchaeology and its importance to the field of study as a whole.

"When people hear the word 'archaeology,' they think Indiana Jones, and that's just a lie," she explained. "With ethnoarchaeology, you have tangible, present-day things going on that link to the past. It's like looking at the past without having to time travel. You see the work of these bronzecasters and it's the same work with a few little tweaks that they were doing during the Chola empire,” which ruled parts of southern India, from the 3rd century BCE to the 13th century. 

"With this project, I ended up learning so much about people and places that I never even heard of or knew existed," she added. "I didn't know that these people in India had been existence for thousands of years and how difficult and extraordinary their work is. These are people with great gifts and talents, and they deserve to have more clientele for their work."

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

Related Links

UCSD Faculty Mentor Program

Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3)