College junior Ashley Terry wasn’t drawn to the Penn Museum’s newest classroom by its state-of-the-art fe a tures. Sure, the new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) teaching space has a digital smart-board, and tables where students can peer into microscopes instead of their laptops. But what really distinguishes it are the oldest objects in the room. The walls are lined with glass cabinets containing skulls from the museum’s skeletal collection.
“The students are outnumbered by skulls in this room,” says instructor Janet Monge Gr’91, an adjunct associate professor of anthropology and curator of physical anthropology at the Museum. “We can walk to a cabinet and pull out what we’re talking about.”
And once something’s pulled out, well, that’s where things can start to get interesting. CAAM, a joint endeavor between the Museum and the School of Arts and Sciences, features a ceramics lab, a wet lab, a human-skeletal lab, and teaching space next to the Kowalski Digital Media Center in 8,000 newly renovated square feet of the Museum’s West Wing. It launched in the fall.
“No other facility,” says new CAAM director Steve Tinney, “combines this lab environment, museum collection, and field work for junior archaeologists to be able to go to the field, bring back findings to CAAM, and run tests.”
Make that “very junior archaeologists,” at least in some cases. While part of the center’s purpose is fostering committed archaeology students, it also aims to spread the fascination of archaeology to anyone who can fit it into his or her schedule.
A freshman seminar on “Food and Fire” examines the transformation of fire and food due to climate change, economic change, trade relations, and the history of human occupation in the world. Mainwaring Teaching Specialist Kate Moore, who taught the course in the fall, says that it’s “not just a lecture or looking at provided objects, but collecting data. Once [students] know how to examine materials on a micro scale, they learn to look for interpretations on a macro scale.”
The goal of the class is to give basic training in eight areas—ceramics, digital archaeology, archaeobotany, archaeozoology, human skeletal analysis, lithics, archaeometallurgy, and conservation—and encourage independent projects. So far, the center’s classes have enrolled about 200 students a week. Students majoring in unrelated disciplines are equally welcome. Moore says that she’s had an art student make use of the lab for a visual project involving bones.
Although students typically start out working with objects drawn from teaching collections, museum artifacts also come into play. Moore notes that students are often given samples from collections that the museum has not yet had the chance to study.
“We challenge them with what’s unknown to us as well,” she says. “In the world outside their classroom and textbooks, the past is unknown. That’s what makes it fun.”
For students like Terry, there’s a big difference between simply passing an object around in class and actually getting to examine it with, say, the scanning electron microscope in CAAM’s ceramics lab.
Marie-Claude Boileau, a research associate at the Museum who specializes in ceramics, points out that it can be challenging for undergraduates to get their hands on a collection, take samples, and investigate them with proper equipment all within a three- or four-year span. That’s what makes CAAM unique, adds Monge.
“It sees the whole student experience,” she says. “If you want to do bioarchaeology, you should be here.”
And the same goes even for those who just want to dabble. After all, some dabblers have a way of becoming doers. Including, perhaps, Ashley Terry. The moment she got a chance to take her first CAAM class, she enrolled in two.