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Researcher of the Month
Anthropology major, Class of 2014
URECA Summer 2012
Research Mentors: Dr. Elisabeth Hildebrand & Dr. John Shea, Anthropology
Benjamin Smith is a junior majoring in Anthropology who works under the mentorship of Dr. Elisabeth Hildebrand and Dr. John Shea of the Department of Anthropology. As a freshman, Ben participated in the inaugural Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) field school in Northern Kenya (January 2011) where he developed a serious interest in the barbed bone harpoons used by Hunter Gatherers near Lake Turkana.
After returning to SB, Ben served as an intern for TBI offices; and also continued to explore the topic of bone harpoon artifacts, by doing advanced coursework on ancient technologies that involved authentic replication of barbed bone points and other tools. In summer 2012, Ben was one of two undergraduates invited to participate in Dr. Hildebrand’s NSF-funded field project in NW Kenya— a central focus of which is the spread of herding south from the Sahara ~4000 years ago and the construction of megalithic “pillar sites.”
In addition to participating in survey and excavation activities on the field project, Ben also continued to develop his independent research project on “Bone Harpoons: 10,000 Years of Fishing on the Shores of Lake Turkana” with support from URECA (Summer 2012). He collected ethnographic data by observing local fishing practices, and studied collections of barbed bone points curated at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi.
In spring 2013, Ben will be studying abroad at University College of London’s Archaeology Institute. Benjamin plans to pursue graduate (PhD) work in the field of archaeology following graduation from Stony Brook in May 2014.
Benjamin was born in Albany, NY and is a graduate of the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs; his hobbies include running, camping, hiking, ceramics, writing and theater. Ben points to an early involvement in a wilderness tracking/campprogram as a factor in becoming interested in archaeology, and has participated to the Fort William Henry and the Fort Edward Archaeological Field Schools (Summers 2011 & 2009, NY), as well as TBI (Spring 2011, Kenya). Ben is also president of the Undergraduate Anthropology Society at Stony Brook. Below are excerpts of his conversation with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Tell me about your research topic: what have you been working on this past summer?
Ben: By a combination of experimental reproduction and studying museum collections and archaeological samples, I’m looking at projectile technologies — particularly bone harpoons— in northern Kenya that were used in fishing activities 6000 to 9000 years ago around Lake Turkana and other places across sub-Saharan Africa where people were intensifying fishing activities and adapting to the increased moisture in that time, as well as other shifting environmental pressures. In addition, my project aimed to reconstruct the behavior of those who used these technologies, by reproducing the bone harpoons. I manufactured them using all authentic methods (grinding stones, sand abrasion, etc) and compared them to archaeological finds (both ones that were found during the field season and ones that were curated at the National Museums of Kenya). Doing this allowed me to piece together parts of the operational sequence or “Chaîne Opératoire” of the tools & technology. . . Another aspect of the project was to investigate how exactly the harpoons could be used by talking with the local Turkana fishermen.
What fishing practices are evident in Turkana now?
There are large scale fisheries now. And a lot has changed recently. But I was able
to meet some people who remembered the way they used to fish. I met one gentleman,
Epou, a community elder, who still fished with harpoons and spears— methods analogous
to more ancient fishing practices, and that are practiced in similar ecological zones.
He brought his metal spears out, and talked about how they used to do it with bone-tipped
spears…He was very interesting to talk with. I was really fortunate to be able to
Did your research project develop out of a paper or project for a particular course?
My initial interest in the particular technology itself— the harpoons and fishing
in general— came from when I studied abroad at TBI. We went out on field trips, and
would see these bone points (~6000 years old) at the archaeological sites we visited.
So I became really interested in how exactly these tools were made, how they were
used, and what this said about the people using them.
So these tools are just out in the open?
Yes, it's something to see...Erosion and geological processes have exposed many archaeological sites, in addition to the fossils that the region is so famous for. These processes remove the topsoil and artifacts are then visible on the surface. This is where survey becomes important. In order to find these sites, a surveyor will go out and look for telltale artifacts features that have been exposed.
So TBI got you "hooked" on the topic.
Yes, and then when I was a sophomore at Stony Brook, I did some tests in Dr. Shea’s Primitive Technologies course. I reproduced harpoons like the ones I had seen in the field just using a grinder, and I tested them against wooden harpoons …This past summer, when I participated in the field season with Dr. Hildebrand, I continued my work on reproducing the harpoons– using authentic methods of reproduction, and relying on local knowledge to acquire materials like acacia wood, root fibers etc. My aim was to go into the field and test these — and to ask knowledgeable fishermen in the area to take me out fishing and actually test the harpoons that I made. That part — actually testing them — turned out to be infeasible, but the information I received from the fishermen was valuable and often unexpected.
How did your mentors help you with your project?
My interest in the project really began in “Primitive Technologies” with Dr. Shea. His expertise in reproducing ancient technologies, and his insight into how these technologies are used to reconstruct behavior really fueled my interest. With archaeological research, you can get very focused on a single topic of interest, often to the exclusion of valuable theoretical framework. So Dr. Shea's advice really kept me thinking about the bigger picture and the issues that that the research was meant to address. . . Dr. Hildebrand’s background as an ethnoarchaeologist was extremely helpful too. She helped me to design a project that used ethnographic data and local knowledge to aid in the overall goal of reconstructing ancient fishing.
Were there many undergrads there this summer on the field project led by Dr. Hildebrand?
Matt Rizzo, the other URECA participant, was there also. But mostly it was graduate students and other more senior specialists in fields of pottery analysis, stone tools, animal remains, etc.
What is the biggest challenge for doing the type of work you do?
You can’t predict everything. You have to be able to adapt to different situations
and to be flexible in your hypothesis testing. If you don’t get the data you expected,
or have to alter your hypothesis based on what you end up being able to test, you
need to think: how does that change the questions you are able to answer? Before you
start to collect data, you need to ask yourself, "what is relevant?" And you need
to keep asking yourself that ...!
When using archaeological material to reconstruct behavior there are theoretical frameworks that need to be understood that I’ve only just begun to study. It's one thing to look at artifacts on display, and another to try and place it in the context of the past and try to think about its larger significance. That takes a lot of time and training.
Did you come to SB knowing you wanted to do archaeology?
Yes, I always loved history and learning about ancient peoples!… It was always the subject I was most interested in High School. So in freshman year, I took Intro to Archaeology with Dr. Shea and was hooked. When he announced that TBI was starting the Field School, I didn’t hesitate to apply.
Can you pinpoint what you like about doing archaeology research/fieldwork?
I like that archaeology really stands as a bridge between the humanities and the sciences. It is the science of reconstructing behavior through material culture, but answers questions that are deeply rooted in the humanities: How are we different, and how are we the same as our ancestors and the people and cultures of the past?
Teaching archaeology is also important to me. You see bits and pieces of famous discoveries on the Discovery channel or see pictures of pyramids, but understanding why they are important and reconstructing people’s lives is more difficult. I want to be able educate people about how ancient people, often their own distant ancestors, were living.
Have you benefitted from the interactions you’ve had with grad students?
I think that it’s the best way for undergraduates to find out what graduate school is like and how it works. By talking to current grad students you learn about the substantial commitment that it entails.
Was there any one formative experience that got you interested in archaeology?
My interest in the outdoors is a big part of it. We had a huge backyard, and a big woods out back. And when I was young, I took an animal tracking course and I was part of a camp where we learned how to make shelters of branches, how to keep oneself insulated, climb a tree, stalk a deer and so on. I think that experience led me to start questioning how people would do this in the past and how one could recognize it in the present.
What was the most exciting find of the summer?
Besides the bone harpoons that I was studying, I think the most exciting objects we found on survey were the Acheulian handaxes. We were out on survey, a process I enjoyed a lot as I reached a point where I was getting good at recognizing archaeological sites, and I found one of these in a little washed-out gully. These handaxes are really significant artifacts because they are widespread across Africa, Europe and Asia, are associated with one of our ancestral species, Homo ergaster/erectus, and are very old. When we found these, we knew we were dealing with tools that were anywhere between 200,000 and 1.8 million years old. We were pretty excited ...just being able to find that thing that someone had made upwards of two or five hundred thousand years ago is sobering. That has to be the top.