TU anthropology team unearths human connection

Danielle Macdonald, assistant professor of anthropology at The University of Tulsa, does more than remove layers of sediment to uncover artifacts during her excavations in Cyprus and Jordan, at the site of Kharaneh IV. Her team of students and archaeological specialists discover connections to the people who made and used these tools, and to our lives today.

In Cyprus, Macdonald and her collaborators — Lisa Maher, University of California, Berkeley; Sally Stewart, University of Toronto; and Alan Simmons, University of Nevada, Las Vegas — are surveying to find new sites for the Ancient Seafaring Explorers of Cyprus project. Using maps, global positioning systems and iPads to record data, they conduct pedestrian surveys of different landscape features where members of the team walk in transects (lines) and look at the ground for artifacts. They have discovered several sites this way, some that date to the earliest occupants of the island. “Our next step in Cyprus is to apply for an excavation permit with the Department of Antiquities to excavate,” Macdonald said.

Macdonald and Maher in the Field

From Cyprus to Kharaneh IV

The Kharaneh IV project, however, is already well underway. In 2008, Maher brought Macdonald on as an area supervisor. At the time, Macdonald was still working on her doctorate; in 2013, the two became co-directors of the project.

Each day the team wakes up around 4 a.m. to head to the field. The heat is excruciating in Jordan during the summer, so they start work as soon as the sun rises. The crew usually excavates until 1 p.m. and then returns home to eat and relax. They work in the lab until 7 p.m. when the whole team has a communal meal. “Then it’s off to bed to start the whole process over the next day,” Macdonald said. The crew works six days a week and takes Fridays off to explore Jordan.

Beyond objects in the dirt

One of the most intriguing elements of anthropology is that it recognizes the diversity of human cultures in the past and present. “We are similar to our ancestors in that we all strive to live meaningful lives, constructing meaning from the world around us through our interactions with community, material culture and the natural environment,” Macdonald said. Maher adds that people have always had concerns about their daily lives. “The primary thing I better understand as a direct result of our work at Kharaneh IV is the complexities in human social life — complexities in the way people interact or engage with one another and with the natural world around them,” Maher said.

The site of Kharaneh IV was historically an aggregation site, a place on the landscape where hunter-gatherers from across the region congregated. Although Kharaneh IV is now located in a desert, when people lived there it was a lush wetland surrounded by grassland. Those conditions would have supported a wide variety of plants and animals that people could gather or hunt for food.

Macdonald in the Lab

Macdonald and Maher have found many artifacts at the site including shell beads that come from the Mediterranean and Red Seas, more than 200 miles away. “This suggests that people were either moving long distances or that there were trade networks which stretched across the region,” Macdonald said. The team also discovered the earliest evidence of architecture in Jordan at Kharaneh IV including the remains of several huts made from reeds and grasses. In 2016 and 2018, they excavated a hut that contained a human burial, suggesting associations between people and their houses and life and death.

“Kharaneh IV is forcing us to reconsider what it means to settle down, and what it means to be sedentary,” Maher said. Kharaneh IV highlights the many different ways people use places or move around a landscape that may not be living permanently in one place. “You can call all of those things home, even when you don’t live in one place for a long period of time,” she said. Archeologists have been thinking about how this relates to the concept of homelessness in today’s society and the way people think about the concept of home.

Excavation truck and camels at Kharaneh IV

Student participation

Agriculture has enabled humanity to live in densely populated areas worldwide. “Kharaneh IV is an archeologist’s dream. It is such an intensely incredible and important site because it’s from a time period that was right on the cusp of developing agriculture,” Colleen Bell (MA ‘12) said. Bell is currently working on her doctorate in anthropology at TU and was between her master’s and Ph.D. work when Macdonald asked her to join the project because of her experience with lithic technology and analysis. Bell also spearheaded several research projects, including her master’s thesis, on various Jordanian time periods. “The entire experience was amazing. I think the highlight was the team that Dr. Macdonald assembled. They were really phenomenal people,” she said.

Students like Bell gain valuable archaeological excavation and survey skills on research sites, but more importantly, they see firsthand what an archaeological researcher does in the field. “Excavation is hard work — it’s both physically and mentally challenging — but being part of an amazing crew makes it one of the most rewarding experiences you can have,” Macdonald said. Archaeology is inherently collaborative, so it is crucial that students experience the team dynamic and working toward a common goal early in the process.

The team not only included students but also local Jordanian archeologists who are now specialists on the project. “One of our goals is to incorporate local community participation,” Maher said. They have invited Jordanian school groups of all ages to help the archeologists and regularly give site tours and present their research at local forums.

Danielle Macdonald at Kharaneh IV

From the past to the present — and into the future

While all this work is put into unearthing the past, Bell notes Macdonald’s diligence of keeping the future in mind. Macdonald’s robust documentation of the work they do at Kharaneh IV is important because of archaeology’s destructive nature. “Once we’ve excavated a site, you can’t re-excavate it,” Bell said. If archeologists do not record data carefully, it is lost. The team records data in anticipation that science will progress and there might be new ways of extracting information from that data in the future so long as it’s been documented well. “That’s been incredibly useful to me to see in action. Not every researcher has that foresight, so being able to work with one that does is very informative,” Bell said. The same principle of making sure what is done today can be improved or reversed in the future applies to multiple subjects, including art conservation.

“There is so much that we don’t know,” Macdonald emphasized. “There is always more to excavate, but as our analytical techniques improve, there is also more to learn from collections in museums and universities.”

Excavation at Kharaneh IV

Laura Bryant, anthropology collections manager and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act coordinator, points out the benefits of the anthropological work that TU professors and students bring to Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum. “The relationship between TU and the museum has been mutually beneficial in many ways,” Bryant said. TU anthropology students and professors have used Gilcrease collections in their research and work, which has led to completed theses and published articles. Gilcrease, in turn, learns more about its collection from these studies and can better curate its items.

The excitement of discovery in the future or in the field is palpable for Macdonald and Maher. “There is nothing more thrilling than slowly removing layers of sediment to uncover an artifact,” Macdonald said. “There is something humbling in knowing that what you hold in your hands hasn’t been seen or touched in almost 20,000 years.” She says that this experience creates a connection to the people who made and used these tools in the past.

Maher echoes the sense of exhilaration that comes with discovery. “When you make a literal connection to the past, it makes the past very tangible. There are always more secrets to be discovered and that’s thrilling,” she said.