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Hannah Munro '17, left, rides in a field vehicle on the way to a research site in China.

Spotlight on undergraduate research: Analyzing rare Neolithic jade artifacts in China

November 12, 2015

John Hornak ’17 probably never thought he would develop a taste for chicken necks or handle exquisite jade pieces worth millions of dollars. In fact, he may never have considered these at all if not for the summer research he completed in China last summer.

“I loved the research, of course, but I also loved exploring the city and talking with people,” he says. “It was the best experience of my life.”

Hornak NeolithicThe research trip has encouraged him to study Chinese language and to apply for a month-long language and cultural immersion in Shanghai during summer 2016 at a time when Earlham is expanding its Chinese Studies program.

Hornak, a biochemistry major, spent three weeks in China with Hannah Munro ’17 and Chemistry Professor Corinne Deibel studying Neolithic artifacts using X-ray Fluorescence and FTIR Spectroscopy, with support from Earlham’s Professional Development Fund.

The Earlham group analyzed jade with Dr. Sun Zhouyong at the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology in Xi’an, and pottery shards from the Yangguanzhai Neolithic site, just north of Xi’an with Dr. Ye Wa from UCLA. After processing and analyzing the data, elemental concentration patterns emerged, providing sample groupings, which could eventually be used to establish provenance.

The pottery pieces are from a site that has evidence of multiple kilns, and the jade pieces are from a recently excavated field site named Shimao, which is considered one of the top 10 archaeological sites in the world.

“Shimao is a whole civilization,” Hornak explains. Shimao, which dates from 2000 B.C., is comprised of 400 hectares or about 988 acres and includes a large, 10-plus-story high, centrally located, imperial complex and an inner city with with residential areas, cemeteries and workshops, and an outer city with watch towers, turrets and gates. Excavated artifacts include jade, which has also been found inside the area’s stone walls and may indicate that people of the time thought jades would ward off evil, according to an article written by Zhouyong in Chinese Archaeology.

Munro“(It was) an incredible opportunity to be there when so few people have studied this site, and to work alongside renowned Chinese scholars” Deibel says. “ We were some of the first Westerners there, and our students learned archaeological field techniques that, as a chemist, I had no experience with. It was much more than an academic experience; it was a cultural experience.”

Hornak came to Earlham initially to study to become a doctor. His research experience and coursework have shifted his interest to computational biochemistry.

“Of course this was an extremely valuable experience for graduate school, where I will spend long hours in the lab processing data,” he says. “When you are excited about what you are doing, it is not easy to become distracted.”

Hornak agrees that the trip offered more than just academic benefits.

“I gained a great interest in China and want to learn more about the culture, language and the people I met there,” he says.

For example, Hornak continued to appreciate the favorable flavor of the food even after someone informed him that the savory crunch in the entree he was eating was vertebrae in the chicken neck.

“I also learned a ton about myself,” he concludes. “I learned to navigate in uncomfortable situations.”

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at (765) 983-1256 and



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Earlham College, an independent, residential college, aspires to provide the highest-quality undergraduate education in the liberal arts, including the sciences, shaped by the distinctive perspectives of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

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