St. Olaf College | News

Students head to Turkey for archaeological excavation

St. Olaf students (clockwise, from top left) Joe Rynasko ’16, Chance Bonar ’15, Morgan Wychor ’15, Claire Yancey ’14, Caroline Wood ’14, and Rebecca Frank ’14 (not pictured) will attend a historiography conference in Greece this summer. From there, Rynasko, Wychor, Yancey, and Frank will travel to Turkey to work on an archaeological excavation led by Associate Professor of History Timothy Howe.

Imagine walking around in a grid-like pattern, holding out a GPS while it tracks your movements, the dust kicking up at your feet and sand sneaking in between your toes. Imagine stepping carefully over a beautiful, intricately designed mosaic from the 3rd century AD — the largest one ever found — to take pictures of it from various angles.

That’s what 15 St. Olaf College students will be doing this summer in southern Turkey.

Eleven of the students are part of St. Olaf’s Archaeological Methods course taught by Associate Professor of History Timothy Howe, and the other four are working on an independent project through the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.

The students will spend hundreds of hours at the excavation site in Antiochia ad Cragum, Turkey, working in collaboration with students from the University of Nebraska. They will attempt to uncover the mosaic (see photos) and two other sites: a temple and a marketplace.

“We have two goals: to find out what high culture — big, official governmental stuff — was like and then to find out what everyday life was like. Hopefully we’ll be able to combine those two to find a pretty good picture of what things were like,” says Howe, who will also lead the excavation.

Before heading to Turkey in mid-July, Howe and a group of six students will travel to Athens, Greece, for the conference “Historiography and History: Greece, the Aegean, and the Near East, 600-31 BCE” sponsored by the Ancient History Bulletin. The conference will focus on historiography, or the literary genre of how people write history.

A multidisciplinary course
Students participating in the Archaeological Methods course will learn how to catalog, identify, clean, and conserve objects in addition to learning the rudiments of site survey, a method of mapping out large areas through a combination of a GPS and a computer program.

“The hope is that they’ll be able to take the experiential learning they do this summer and then use it in their own vocation when they graduate,” Howe says.

The entry-level course is available to all students of any major, class year, and experience level, so it allows students of diverse backgrounds to bring a different perspective to the excavation.

“Pretty much anything students study at a liberal arts college like St. Olaf provides a skill that we can apply to this process. We need Classics majors to bring a knowledge of Greek and Latin, we need physics majors to measure the light angles, we need English majors to analyze text, we need philosophy majors to know why, we need religion majors to know if there’s a religious connotation, and so on,” Howe explains.

“Everyone brings their own research abilities, their own native talents, their disciplinary focus to this because there’s something they can do and it’s something they can do better than anyone.”

Digital archaeology at its finest
Before the group leaves for Turkey, the four students involved in the CURI project led by Howe —  Seth Ellingson ‘15, Kelly Montoya ‘15, Nicole Wagner ‘15, and Rebecca Frank ’14 — will learn how to use reflectance transformance imaging (RTI). The basic idea behind this technology is that it combines many 2D pictures to create a composite 3D image.

The team’s objective is to take pictures of the mosaic in southern Turkey and then use RTI to recreate these images as a raw 3D form.

“These artifacts can’t leave Turkey, so we can’t analyze them unless we’re there,” Howe explains. “But if we take this kind of imaging, we can spend years analyzing it and never have to touch the original object again.”

The aim is to create a digital museum, with St. Olaf playing host to the website. The site would have the raw 3D images and a GPS link so people will know where it was found and how it was found. Additionally, Howe is working with a St. Olaf student majoring in computer science to develop a program that would allow users to view the object in any spectrum of light and in any angle of light.

“What we’ll have done is democratize the raw data,” Howe says.

A conference on historiography
Before Howe gets started on this excavation, he will lead a group of six students to the conference in Athens that he helped organize.

“The interesting thing about ancient people,” Howe says, “is that they didn’t care about accuracy as much as we did. What was most important was content.”

Howe says that because of this, many ancient historians often created speeches or stories to give a rationale on what happened.

“They were more writing their own assessment, their own opinion about things,” he explains. “They just didn’t tell you it was their opinion.”

The conference will investigate the differences in writing history between ancient and modern times, how this historical fiction helps us understand what actually happened, and what it means for us.

At the conference, Morgan Wychor ‘14 and Joe Ryansko ‘16 will attend a small roundtable discussion while peers Claire Yancey ‘14, Caroline Wood ‘14, Chance Bonar ‘15, and Frank will each present their own papers.