St. Olaf College | News

An interdisciplinary approach to archaeology

“You can apply the things you learn in archaeology everywhere,” says Leif McLellan ’16.

What do ancient history and chemistry have in common? The unlikely answer is found in the trenches of an island off the coast of Sweden, and in the academic interests of Leif McLellan ’16.

A classics and ancient history major, McLellan may at first appear an odd candidate for archaeology. But he maintains that a student of any discipline can find something of interest in archaeology.

“You can apply the things you learn in archaeology everywhere,” he says. “There are so many different aspects to archeology — there’s chemistry, there’s biology, there’s environmental science, philology, computer science, anthropology, sociology, religious studies — all of it. It’s all there.”

This summer McLellan was part of a five-week archaeological field school in Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden. He worked for the company Arendus, excavating a Viking trade and harbor site called Paviken. McLellan and the other members of his team learned the basic skills by working in trenches — they would remove a section of grass and dig down layer by layer, 10 centimeters at a time, sifting through the soil to see what ancient revelations they could find.

McLellan, a veteran of St. Olaf Associate Professor of History Tim Howe’s annual summer archeology class in Turkey, was inspired to further pursue archeology in Scandinavia because, like many Oles, he has Scandanavian heritage — namely, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish.

“After Turkey, I wanted to explore other realms of archeology, and to explore my roots,” McLellan says.

The most common find in McLellan’s site was a great quantity of burnt bone, which may have been used for glue-making, metal-working, or making pigments, although these are all just theories. There was a saying around the camp: “It’s not about what you find, it’s what you find out.”

Among the more exciting finds was a second-century Roman coin.

“The coin we found was either brought through trade or plunder, but it is near impossible to tell exactly how it wound up on Gotland. You don’t expect to find that in Sweden,” McLellan says. “That made the classicist inside me very giddy.”