Move over Indiana Jones — Archaeology has some fresh new faces. Metin I. Eren, Director of Archaeology and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the College of arts and Sciences, joined Kent State University in June. And while he may not be swinging across lava-filled gorges and duking it out with bad guys, he already has secured federal funding for his cutting-edge laboratory, where he’s quickly carving out a niche in his field.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the classic first film of the iconic franchise, Harrison Ford’s legendary character steals a Peruvian idol and makes a daring escape as angry natives launch spears and arrows at him.
Eren might well have stayed to ask the “Hovito” people how they shaped the rocks they used for their spearheads, and why they shaped them that way.
In February, Eren landed a $215,000 National Science Foundation grant for a three-year collaborative study with Southern Methodist University and the University of Tulsa, on which he is the lead investigator.
The grant allows Eren and his team to analyze the weapons technology of some of North America’s earliest inhabitants, the Clovis culture, dating back 11,000 to 12,000 years.
Along with Ph.D. student Michelle Bebber, and British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow Alastair Key, Eren’s lab is covering — and uncovering — nearly every facet of ancient stone technology.
“Our goal is to make this the premier archaeology lab in North America,” Eren said. “A lot of labs have the artifacts and material science equipment, but I think what makes Kent State’s so unique is that our approach is experimental. We re-create artifacts to test them.”
Through learning the craft of “flintknapping” — chipping away at the edges of rocks to shape them into weapons and tools — and creating weapon and tool replicas from composite materials, Eren’s team generate an endless supply of test materials.
“As they spread, Clovis spear points start to change,” he said. “What we don’t know is if they intentionally designed them to adapt to different environments or prey.”
“We test them, use them, shoot them, crush them, all to see if there are functional differences between the technology,” Eren said. “We’re trying to learn how they work to understand the evolution of technology.”
They put them into arrows which they then fire at clay targets with a high-tech projectile launcher, testing the velocities of different shapes and materials with a speed-timer.
“We can test the weight, speed, velocity,” Eren said. “We shoot moose antlers to test durability. We can test nearly anything about prehistoric weaponry in this lab.”
Bebber, who hails from the university of Akron with an art background that evolved into a focus on archaeology and anthropology adds another layer to the lab’s resources and the insight into ancient artifacts that it promises to bring. She spends a significant part of her time working with her primary passion — pottery.
“I mostly focus on how Ohio native pottery changed over time and what the cause of these changes might be,” she said. In addition to hand building as was done in prehistoric Ohio, Bebber also uses a pottery wheel but with a specific purpose in mind. “We look at the speed of manufacturing and the strength of the finished product compared to hand-made pottery.”
Like the arrow heads and spear tips her colleague makes, though, many of Bebber’s works end up in pieces.
Perhaps the most significant piece of equipment her work brings to the weaponry research is the kiln.
For Bebber’s pottery, the kiln allows her to control the temperature to see how it affects the quality of the finished product.
“Various firing strategies evolved over time creating different temperatures and atmospheres, so we’re able to see how that would have affected the production process and the vessel quality,” she said.
For Eren, though, the kiln serves another purpose.
“We can also check out copper, stone, how heat-treating flint could cause a purposeful shrapnel effect,” he said. “We haven’t tried it yet.”
Eren and his team also want to know about how sharp the tools were, and the relationship between force, function, and design. To do that, they run the weapons and stone flakes through various cutting tests, Key’s specialty.
“When we know the relationships between tool forms and the forces required to use them, we can start to reconstruct why past populations may have made specific designs” he said.
Key, also a University of Kent alum, is researching tools from a much earlier age than those on which Eren and Bebber focus. He analyzes flakes and hand-axes from the Lower Paleolithic period, from 3.3 million to 350,000 years ago — before the age of Homo-sapiens. These tools, used by our ancestors, Australopithecus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus, come in a variety of forms, from larger, more blunt weapons that might have been used to butcher large game, to smaller, finer stone flakes that could be called the “filet knives” of their era.
“I’m studying the morphology of the edges as it relates to function from an engineering perspective,” he said. “I try to determine if our ancestors were manufacturing tools with specific forms intended.”
He’s found that in hand-axes slightly duller edges may have been designed on purpose to act as a ‘handle’ because it allows muscles to generate greater cutting forces, compensate for that lack of sharpness and actually makes the tool more efficient up to a certain point.
“But you’d only use this for something like a zebra leg,” he said. “It wouldn’t do you any good if you’re trying to cut up a rabbit — there’d be nothing left.”
Key said his work builds on engineering practices and ergonomic philosophies that have been applied to steel tools for ages.
“It’s common sense in a way, but identifying whether the same rules apply to stone tools has never been attempted before” he said.
Key brings more than engineering perspectives to the lab, though.
“I couldn’t do what I do without collaborating with people in engineering sciences, biological anthropology and fields like that,” he said. He said the same collaborative spirit is what makes his work in Eren’s lab so rewarding. “To be able to come and work with Metin, and add to his lab even for a brief time, has been really a worthwhile experience.”
The collaboration also provides a different perspective in the lab. Eren believes that the engineering and biological can be integrated into evolutionary studies of human culture.
“I think culture is a very powerful influence on the development of technology,” he said. “If we show what I think we’ll show, it should illustrate how culture influences everything. But that’s why we’re testing them. I could be wrong.”
When Eren’s team has done everything they can to understand the function, they ship the tools to Tulsa or SMU.
“SMU and Tulsa have some resources we don’t have,” Eren said. “We test the weaponry and butchery aspects, then send it to them, so they can break it to test durability.”
The team’s hard work continues to pay great dividends.
On March 1, Ohio History Day, Bebber received an award from the Ohio History Connection — formerly the Ohio Historical Society. The $2,500 grant will allow the team to fund field research at Berlin Lake in Mahoning County, where archaeological sites uncovered in the 1980s are now at risk for erosion and artifact looting.
“This expands the scope of our lab to fieldwork for conservation, which is an entirely new dimension of archaeological research for Kent State,” Bebber said.
Eren and Bebber said the stone tool artifacts at the Berlin site are from the late Archaic period — 3,000 to 5,000 years old.
“I think what’s exciting is that there we have more than 70 miles of shoreline,” Eren said. “We’re protecting what’s there, but we could also find a whole series of new sites with older or more recent artifacts.”
That work will take place this summer and create opportunities for undergraduates to gain real fieldwork experience, Bebber said.
Neither archaeologist nor their students are short on materials for study, though. The lab came with a room full of unexplored Ohio Hopewell artifacts from as far back as 11,000 years ago.
“We’re making discoveries just in this room,” Eren said. “There are hundreds of thousands of artifacts here already, and now we have grads, post-docs and undergraduates all doing independent studies and publishing papers.”
Eren himself recently co-authored an article about pleistocene weaponry that was just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.