Raiders of the Prehistoric: BYU Grad Students to Present at the Utah State History Conference

“Archaeology is the search for fact … not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall. So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and “X” never, ever, marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library.”

―Indiana Jones

As children of a great film period, many of us dreamed of one day growing up to become Indiana Jones. But as kids, we also missed this famous quote shared by all archaeology professors at the beginning of a semester. For most of us, the dream eventually simmered down to a simple Halloween costume, or a vague wish to explore. But, this dream never died for BYU FHSS graduate students Daniel King, Joseph Bryce, and Madison Pearce, who made presentations at the recent Utah State History Conference.

Daniel King’s presentation on the use of fossils suggests that a collection of fossils may have just been a prehistoric form of pop culture. “My findings suggest that fossils were viewed as talismans, by some,” he says, “to offer physical protection and healing.” His presentation focused on the use and interpretation of fossils by various peoples living in the prehistoric Utah region. “Others are known to have curated fossils, keeping them…within their homes.”

In King’s own personal time as an undergraduate here at BYU, he had the opportunity to work at the Museum of Peoples and Cultures with fellow conference presenter, Joseph Bryce. Part of their work at the museum was organizing the museum collections. “We stumbled upon a prehistoric Fremont collection that contained fossils and our curiosity got the best of us,” said King. And the rest is history.

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Grad student Joseph Bryce’s curiosity led him down a different path. Determined to dip his toes in the waters of the scholarly community, Bryce is a Utah State History Conference veteran. While attending the conference a few years ago, Bryce was intrigued by a presentation discussing basketry impressions that had been found on the backs of Fremont figurines.

A week later, Bryce was back at BYU analyzing pottery from a Fremont site here in Utah Valley when he spotted a basketry impression on the bottom of a bowl. His team has now identified over a dozen examples of basketry impressions from that site alone.

“Finding the basketry impressions started me thinking about how to find out more about the artifacts that don’t survive in the archaeological record,” said Bryce. Artifacts, particularly those made out of plant materials, decay long before archaeologists get digging, leaving behind lots of literal holes in the cultural makeup of a prehistoric society. “[These] impressions that are found in clay are one way that [to] get information about artifacts that we would otherwise have no information about,” said Bryce.

From a grain of salt, Bryce was able to take this concept of basket impressions on clay figurines a step further. “Right now I am researching the basketry impressions as well as the impressions left by the beams of their houses when the houses collapsed,” said Bryce. “I am also interested in fingerprints that can be found on some of the artifacts.” The information that small historical fingerprints like this can give us provides those missing pieces of the puzzle, helping us to put together a fuller picture of the past.

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Also searching for lost puzzle pieces, grad student Madison Pearce focuses her studies on the ethnographic records of prehistoric peoples. Her goal is to discover if, how, and why prehistoric peoples in today’s Utah Valley were using plants. To do this, Pearce was required to get down and dirty, quite literally, by analyzing the preserved seeds found in prehistoric coprolites, or old feces. In making this sacrifice, Pearce was able to determine which plants were being consumed by the inhabitants of the Spotten Cave near Goshen, Utah.

Her findings combined with the historic cultures’ application of plants were able to develop an understanding of plants as a source for food and medicine. “While I cannot make the claim that how prehistoric peoples used plants was the same as historic peoples, I can at least provide possibilities for if, how, and why plants were being used in the past,” said Pearce. The use of plant life obviously changes according to time, season, and place. But with an understanding of historic cultures applied to the basic information they had discovered in prehistoric remains, Pearce was able to piece together another crucial part of the puzzle.

“The notion that prehistoric peoples were able to walk outside of their homes and find plants that they could eat or use to help cure colds and fevers is really attractive to me,” said Pearce. “I often find myself looking out my window wondering, ‘Could I eat that? Or would that cure a disease? And if so, which one?’”

As a stay-at-home mom, Pearce doesn’t get as many chances as she’d like to be out in the field but her interest in ethnobotany isn’t going away anytime soon. “[It’s an interest] that I hope to continue to cultivate throughout my life,” said Pearce, glad of the conference as an opportunity to test her knowledge and her ability to share that knowledge.

While these three are not collecting golden idols and racing to discover the ark of the covenant, their research brings us a few steps closer to discovering the past. The Utah State History Conference was held Oct. 2 and featured a variety of professors, scholars, and students presenting their research on the history and archaeology of Utah.

What do you think will be the fossils we leave behind for future generations?

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