Historic Bottles Offer Collaborative Opportunities
The clear glass bottle contained a few drops of yellow, oily liquid. And “SPERM” was the only legible word on the side.
Upon testing the residue, University of Idaho junior chemistry major Lilian Bodley concluded the bottle, which was uncovered during an archeological excavation in Fort Benton, Montana, originally contained sperm whale sewing machine oil.
For Bodley, learning how to identify chemical residues from historic artifacts is about solving mysteries. She joined Ray von Wandruszka’s chemistry lab as a freshman to prepare for a career in crime scene investigation. Undergraduates in the lab test artifacts from archaeologist Mark Warner’s excavations and from numerous other archaeological sites and museum collections from across North America. This service provides archaeologists the opportunity to delve further into the background of artifacts than time and resources generally allow.
Analyzing the Past
The 10-year collaboration between Warner, professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and von Wandruszka, chair of the Department of Chemistry, started in 2007. Warner and others unearthed more than 600,000 artifacts including discarded 100-year-old glass bottles on a large archaeology excavation in Sandpoint. Warner reached out to von Wandruszka, whose lab found the bottles contained many products including medicine, food products and cleaning supplies.
For any artifact, the students — between four and six a semester — try to predict what the substance might be and then provide archaeologists with the most likely identity of the substance, von Wandruszka said. The students run the instruments used in the analyses, a bonus for Bodley since many of the instruments can also be found in crime labs.
I’m understanding the past through material culture while Ray is training up the next generation of analytical chemists.Mark Warner, professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology
“Archaeologists love us because regular labs can never tell you what is in a bottle. They will only look for what you ask them to look for – lead, iron, whatever,” von Wandruszka said. “There is no one I know like us — a group you can take a sample to and ask, ‘What is this?’”
Von Wandruszka has his students generate laboratory reports on each of the artifacts. The archaeologists fold the students’ findings into their excavation reports and research articles.
“The whole experience — the lab work, the reports and even presenting at conferences — has really helped raise my confidence in my school work, in doing lab work and my work in science,” said Bodley, a 20-year-old from Caldwell.
Message in a Bottle
To keep up with the students’ appetites for samples to test, Warner found fellow archaeologists, who provided many different samples including tooth fillings, tin cans, fabric and gun powder.
One Chinese coin arrived coated in a dark brown substance. Von Wandruszka’s lab discovered it likely contained human cells and deduced that the object had probably been used for coining, a Chinese medicinal practice in which a coin is scraped across the skin hard enough to raise welts.
For their work together, the University of Idaho awarded Warner and von Wandruszka the Excellence in Collaborative and Interdisciplinary Research Award in 2018.
“I’m understanding the past through material culture while Ray is training up the next generation of analytical chemists,” Warner said.
Published in August 2018.
Article by Leigh Cooper, University Communications & Marketing