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Old Digs, New Tricks
In honor of archaeologist Elizabeth Alden Little, an aging lab gets a makeover

—Carol Cambo

Elizabeth Chilton
When archaeology professor Elizabeth Chilton ’96G was a grad student, she logged plenty of time in this “dirt lab,” sifting through New England’s past. Now she’s helping direct efforts to update the space in Machmer Hall.
THE GRAD STUDENT ARCHAEOLGY LAB in Machmer looks like a time capsule. Normally anything so well preserved warms an archaeologist’s heart, but in this case, it’s time to embrace the future.

Associate anthropology professor Elizabeth Chilton ’96G, shows me around the room, known as a “dirt lab,” a place where objects are brought in from fresh excavations to be cleaned and sorted. Chilton points out a bumper sticker on the wall that reads: “Love is fleeting: Stone tools are forever.”

“I put that there when I was a grad student,” she says. “My desk was in the corner. I finished my master’s thesis in this very room.” And now, thanks to a gift in honor of Elizabeth Alden Little ’85G, she’ll take a lead role in bringing it up to date.

It’s fair to say the grad student lab in Machmer Hall needs a little TLC. There are cosmetic issues, like hospital-green walls, cracked floor tiles, and ancient, dusty blinds. There are equipment issues, such as out-of-date computers and microscopes. But most important, the lab isn’t adequate to house the department’s collections; deer antlers, stone tools, and pottery shards poke out from old soda boxes on open ,shelving. “Hardly acid-free or secure,” says Chilton. She co-directs the UMass Archaeological Field School, which serves as both an undergraduate course and professional training, “and we are also a state repository. We don’t have Indiana Jones–level stuff in here, but we need to able to lock things up. We need inert storage and ventilation. Climate control.”

A make-do attitude pervades the department, so the tired condition of the room doesn’t deter students from their work. A radiocarbon dating project sprawls across an old tabletop. Chilton explains that the student is using a comparative botanical collection of seeds to determine the origin of bits of charred wood and plants excavated from what was once a fire pit. Finding out, for example, if Native Americans stoked their fires with pine or oak, or whether they were cultivating maize or wild goosefoot, helps reconstruct past lifeways, as well as the environmental landscape of the time.

“This kind of work was close to Betty’s heart,” says Chilton. After Elizabeth “Betty” Alden Little ’85G lost her battle with lung cancer in August 2003, her family looked for a way to honor her life’s work. Little had been the preeminent archaeologist of Nantucket and southeastern Massachusetts, internationally known for her applications of physics to New England archaeology. (She received her PhD in physics from MIT in 1954, one of very few women to do so at the time.) In other words, Little knew her way around a dirt lab.

Renovating this hard-working space seemed a fitting tribute; the family established a fund for the laboratory renovation with a gift of $100,000; the state matched that gift with an additional $50,000. When the renovations are completed in fall 2006, the lab will be named the Elizabeth Alden Little Archaeology Laboratory.

For Chilton and many others in the department, the Little Lab will have personal significance as well as professional impact.

“When I was a grad student here in late 1980s through the mid-1990s, Betty was statewide editor of The Massachusetts Archaeological Society Bulletin,” remembers Chilton. The women met and spoke on a number of occasions; their areas of study intersected. Little studied maize in the Native American diet, while Chilton’s focus on the culture of precontact Native Americans caused her to examine the role of farming in their lives.

“My view is that Native Americans in New England were mobile farmers before European colonization,” says Chilton. “Maize started to appear in significant quantities around 1300-1400. They still hunted and gathered, but they tacked on maize agriculture. So we are finding that farming probably wasn’t the transformative event we once thought.”

Chilton says this mobility has implications for contemporary Native American issues. “Their pre-contact way of life makes it more difficult to demonstrate antiquity and continuity, in terms of land use,” explains Chilton. “It doesn’t look like our contemporary American ideas of ownership, and that makes it difficult for Native groups in the region to gain federal recognition or make land claims.”

Little and Chilton also shared a friend and mentor, Dena Dincauze, professor emeritus of the Department of Anthropology, and the preeminent archaeologist of precontact New England. Dincauze and Little were close friends and colleagues for many years. Chilton studied under Dincauze from 1988 to 1996, taught at Harvard University for five years, and then filled Dincauze’s post when she retired.

“The skills Betty brought to archaeology allowed her to embody the ‘two cultures’ of scholarship: The literary and historical style of the social sciences and the computational/statistical style of physics,” says Dincauze. The physicist in Little responded to the potential of isotope analyses of organic materials for deeper understanding of the human past, says Dincauze, and as a result, her work had far-reaching impact. “Betty’s work on the marine radiocarbon reservoir was original in North America and relevant worldwide, while her research on ancient diets sparked new interest within and beyond the Northeast.”

Chilton hopes the lab renovation will also strengthen the department’s chances of being awarded an $800,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to be submitted this summer. The potential monies are earmarked for creating a digital catalog—a virtual museum—of the UMass Amherst collections, searchable via the Internet. For now, Chilton is thrilled to be shopping for new microscopes, tables and chairs, and storage cabinets with slide-out trays. The renovation will breathe new life into the venerable dirt lab where fragments of the region’s history are sorted and studied.

“New England archaeology is elevated by virtue of our small finds,” says Chilton. Similarly, the archaeology program will be elevated by virtue of the Elizabeth Alden Little Laboratory.


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