Ask an Archaeologist: Dr. Emily Holt, Zooarchaeologist and Oberlin College Assistant Professor

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For this week’s episode of Ask An Archaeologist we sat down with Dr. Emily Holt, Visiting Assistant Professor at Oberlin College.  Dr. Holt is an environmental archaeologist and zooarchaeologist who studies the Nuragic culture, which is the ancient culture of Bronze Age Sardinia, an island off the Western Coast of Italy. These are the viewer-submitted questions we asked this week:

  1. Recently, Geologist Barbara Sherwood Lollar famously drank some 2.6 billion year old water when she was in a mine in Canada.  Have you or a colleague ever, or at least been tempted to, “sample” the work?
  2. As an archaeologist you get to see the remains of cultures that have either perished or adapted to change in the face of challenges. Have you seen evidence of past cultures overcoming climate changes in their respective eras, or failing to adapt? Which is more common and how do you feel we are prepared to adapt to climate change today?
  3. It seems like most “dig sites” take place in hot, arid places. How important is sunscreen to the archaeology community?

“Archaeologists frequently use all of their senses when they are conducting projects,” Dr. Holt told us.  Archaeologists can listen to the different sounds soil makes when digging and some even claim to be able to smell differences in soil, and they do sometimes have to use their sense of “taste.”

“When we’re excavating, we have to tell the difference between different types of artifacts,” Dr. Holt told us.  Most of the things archaeologists find when they are excavating are animal bone, pottery, and as you can imagine, rocks.  The rocks are usually found naturally in the soil and can often be thrown away if they are not culturally significant.  So how do archaeologists tell the difference between what to keep and what to toss, especially when they find very small objects?  They use their tongues! “Archaeologists will often tap [an excavated object] to the tip of their tongue to see how much it sticks.  Animal bone sticks a lot, pottery sticks less than animal bone and rocks stick less than pottery,”  Holt told us in a mini-lesson on using all of your senses while digging.

Being an environmental archaeologist, we thought Dr. Holt would be a good guest to ask one of our toughest questions about archaeology:  how did ancient cultures adapt to climate change? And how do you think we are prepared to adapt to climate change today?

“There have been lots of examples of climate change in the past,” Dr. Holt told us.  “Examples of successful adaptation are actually more common than outright failure to adapt, humans are very adaptable.”  In he research in Bronze Age Sardinia, Dr. Holt has found that the Nuragic people where changing where they live to better adapt to a changing climate.  She also explained that many cultures make big changes and can appear differently in the archaeological record once they have adapted.  “I really feel very positive about our ability to adapt to contemporary climate change…but I think we need to keep in mind [that] might mean making some very big cultural changes.”

We had a really interesting conversation with Dr. Holt about tasting artifacts, how the past may reflect the future of human history and of course, the importance of protection from the elements when on an archaeological dig!

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