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Analyzing Ancient Artifacts in China

Professor Corinne Deibel and students Jiqiao Shi and Yazan Mohammad Deek analyzed artifacts at one of the largest Neolithic sites in Northwest China during a May Term research project.

An Earlham student/faculty collaboration helped archeologists in China analyze Neolithic artifacts.

In May, Professor of Chemistry, Corinne Deibel, Ph.D., and rising seniors Jiqiao Shi and Yazan Mohammad Deek joined a group of archeologists at Shimao, one of the largest Neolithic sites in Northwest China. During the four-week trip they collaborated with a group of archeologists helping them to develop a cultural context of the ancient jade artifacts.

Deibel and students worked with ritual burial artifacts that, as scientists have estimated, belonged to the late Longshan period (3000-1900 B.C.) and early Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 B.C.). “Archeologically it is one of the most important findings in China in the last decade,” Deibel says.

Opportunities for Experiential Learning

The group started the adventure at the Shimao site where they analyzed the artifacts that have just been excavated by archeologists. When they continued their research at the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology in Xi’an, they focused on jade pieces from Xinhua, as well as over a hundred jade pieces from private collectors.

The Earlham contigent brought the portable X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer to the site, a machine that allowed them to determine the chemical composition of the Neolithic artifacts.

“The XRF gives the information of the chemical composition of the elements that make up that artifact,” explains Deibel. Archeologists then could use this information to find out more about the cultural aspects of the object, as well as establish possible trade routes that existed between different communities and towns.

Deibel, an analytical chemist, says that the project was a rare opportunity for the students.

“The fieldwork that Jiqiao and Yazan engaged in is an example of the experiential education that we strive to provide to every Earlham student. They both developed critical thinking, research, teamwork, and community living skills that make them better prepared for graduate school.”

Chinese Student Hosts Fellow Earlhamites

Shi, who is from Xi’an, did a lot of networking to make the trip possible. His father helped the group to get in touch with Sun Zhouyong, Ph.D., an assistant director of Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology, who then officially invited the group to collaborate on the Archeological Chemistry research project.

Deibel also notes that Shi helped at the site with translating, as most of the archeologists did not speak any English.

“When I come to China, I have a strong feeling of being home and being a host,” says Shi. “And I also feel like I have been doing some contribution to my hometown.”

For Shi the trip to China was more than just archeological research. He thought it was a great opportunity to build the connection between Earlham and China.

“Earlham is well-known for being international and having global perspective, but there is not too much connection between Earlham and China,” he says. Shi hopes this research trip will make more students and professors from Earlham interested in doing research or travelling to China.

The support for this project was provided by Gerry Cooper '66, a member of the Earlham Board of Trustees, and by the Stephen and Sylvia Tregidga Burges Endowed Research Fund.

On-Going Project Analyzes Artifacts

Deibel and her husband Mike, who is also a professor of chemistry at Earlham, worked on a similar project in Chile in summer 2011.

By analyzing the chemical composition of the pre-Columbian pottery artifacts and obsidian projectile points, they are helping archaeologists determine the origins of the artifacts, as well as possible trade patterns and cultural interactions.

“We've established a 'signature' elemental composition for known local ceramics from the late intermediate period from the archeological sites located in Altaloa.  When we analyzed artifacts from the same period in the neighborhood town of San Pedro, we found one group of pottery artifacts with a different elemental signature, and one group of artifacts with the Altaloa elemental signature, which would indicate trading,” says Deibel.

“The elemental signature that we obtained from the analysis of 400 projectile points allowed us to classify them into multiple groupings, some consistent with known local sources, others from locations that have not previously been reported in the literature,” says Deibel.

Laying a Foundation for Future Research

Deibel believes the Archeaological Chemistry project in China has a lot of potential in the future.

“This summer, we conducted a preliminary survey of the site including soil and rocks, as well as jade and pottery artifacts, using exclusively XRF.  Using additional techniques, such as portable Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR), will help us better characterize the artifacts and the environment in which they were found,” says Deibel. “We are also interested in finding out where the jade artifacts come from.  The first step for such a provenance study is to establish a database of their composition, which we started this summer, and the next step will be to obtain some jade from known deposits and suspected sources to see if we can match them to the groups we have identified,”

Shi also hopes the project will evolve.

“Both Corinne and Mike want to do it next year too; they want to do a continuous research. And if the program goes well, we will probably want to bring more people into the program: people from the geology department and people from the history department,” adds Shi.

— written by Anastasia Vladimorova '15

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