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Millsaps Group Conducts Research in State-of-the-Art Lab at MURR

by Web on June 14, 2018

Two Millsaps students, a post-graduate research associate, and a Millsaps professor visited the internationally recognized University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR), the most powerful among the dozens of research reactors located on university campuses across the country, in spring 2018.

Millsaps students Matthew Brown and Nathan Brownstein, along with Betsy Kohut, a post-graduate research associate, and Dr. Véronique Bélisle, assistant professor of anthropology, met with Dr. Michael Glascock and Dr. Jeff Ferguson, two leading world experts who use chemical analyses to determine the provenance of archaeological artifacts and understand ancient trade.

“This was an incredible research opportunity for our students, since undergraduate students do not normally have the chance to visit MURR,” Bélisle said. “Dr. Glascock and Dr. Ferguson were instrumental in making our trip a success. Not only did they allow us to conduct research in their state-of-the-art lab, but they also helped us every step of the way and guided us through data processing.”

The group worked with Glascock and Ferguson for three days with Millsaps’ two new portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) spectrometers. One of the pXRFs is in the Millsaps Archaeology Lab, which is part of the Sociology-Anthropology Department, while the other is in the Keck Lab, which Dr. Tim Ward directs.

A pXRF is an instrument that allows archaeologists to scan artifacts with an X-ray to define the chemical composition of different objects. The instrument is portable, can be used in the field, and does not destroy artifacts in the process.

“Our interest lies in a volcanic glass called obsidian,” Bélisle said. “Since each volcanic eruption has a specific chemical signature, each obsidian outcrop will have unique chemical properties. By comparing the elements present in the obsidian artifacts from archaeological excavations to those of known obsidian sources, archaeologists can determine where artifacts came from. From there, we can understand ancient trade networks and interaction between different groups in the past.”

The group scanned 570 pieces of obsidian from 62 different sources in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. “We will now be able to compare these chemical signatures to those of artifacts recovered in our excavations in Peru by myself and in Yucatan by Dr. George Bey (professor of sociology and anthropology and Chisholm Foundation Chair of Arts and Sciences) and Kohut,” Bélisle said.

Brown, who is majoring in sociology-anthropology, assisted Bélisle in Peru in the summer of 2017, where he scanned hundreds of artifacts from different archaeological sites. Brownstein, who is majoring in geology with a minor in archaeology, plans to travel to Yucatan with Bey this summer to scan obsidian artifacts as part of his honors thesis.