Carl Lipo, an archaeologist in the College of Liberal Arts, recently received $100,000 in funding through 2010 from the National Science Foundation to research the cultural transmission of ceramic technology among hunter-gatherer populations of the Owens and Death Valleys in collaboration with UC Davis faculty member Jelmer Eerkens.
Together, the archaeologists will make laboratory measurements for prehistoric ceramics collected from the two valleys so that each broken piece can be placed in time. “The funding primarily supports graduate and undergraduate students to conduct research in the lab and gives them hands-on experience making luminescence measurements and calculations,” said Lipo, who joined the university in 2002.
CSULB brings to the project the resources of the Institute of Integrated Research on Environments, Materials and Societies (IIRMES), a jointly supported facility funded by the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Natural Science and Mathematics. “We have the only lab in California doing this,” said Lipo, known for his landmark research in establishing a new chronology for the raising of the mysterious statues of Easter Island or Rapa Nui. “We will use luminescence dating to determine the timing of new pottery types, instrumental neutron activation analysis to examine how the composition of the pots changed and measurements of form to study how pot shapes varied in the study areas.” These analyses will enable Lipo to measure fine-scaled changes in prehistoric pottery technologies, from their introduction about 1300 AD to their abandonment around 1840.
Luminescence dating involves the extraction of crystalline minerals from ceramics that are subsequently exposed to bursts of energy. “When these minerals are exposed to energy they give off light. The amount of light that is given off is a function of age,” he explained. “We have a unique assemblage of instruments in the IIRMES lab to make these measurements. When we compare dates obtained from samples within a single archaeological deposit, our margin for error is between two and five percent, which is better than radiocarbon dating.”
Their research is innovative in several ways. First, relatively little is known about the pottery made by prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Their research will highlight the earliest contexts of pottery use, providing hints as to why Paiute and Shoshone societies began making and using ceramic pots and how they developed the technology over time. Second, the research should generate high-resolution temporal data that is not possible using other dating techniques, such as radiocarbon or obsidian hydration. Third, using a cultural transmission model, Lipo will provide important details on how people transmit technological knowledge in small-scale social settings. Fourth, the research will encompass a time scale few other studies have used.
“The more dates we generate, the better a description we have of the temporal distribution of events represented in the deposits,” he said. “Most archaeologists aren’t that sophisticated. They don’t have the kinds of tools we do at the IIRMES lab.”
The research is good for the campus’ intellectual climate as well. “Our program serves large populations of underrepresented students in the sciences and this project will help to introduce these students to careers in archaeology,” he explained. “Getting lab skills is huge for students. Knowing when something was made represents the most fundamental knowledge about prehistory that you can get. This is the kind of collaborative project that puts CSULB and the College of Liberal Arts on the main stage of California archaeology. We have a facility here that no one else in California does. We are well situated to make a big difference.”
Lipo received his B.S. and M.A. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison before acquiring his Ph.D. in 2000 from the University of Washington. He served as an instructor at the University of Washington and worked on an archaeological dig in Pakistan from 1987 to 1990.
“It’s a great grant that will re-shape the chronology of these late prehistoric hunter-gatherers,” he said. “We’ll know much more about how people used the landscape and how these deposits are related to each other in time.”