Cutting Edge Archaeology
The Eren Lab is Digging Up Artifacts, Breaking Literal and Figurative Molds, and Teaching Students the Finer Points of Scholarship
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the classic first film of the Indiana Jones franchise, Harrison Ford’s legendary character steals a Peruvian idol and makes a daring escape as angry natives launch spears and arrows at him.
Metin Eren, Director of Archaeology and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, 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.
Along with Ph.D. student Michelle Bebber, British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow Alastair Key, and a host of talented undergraduates, Eren’s lab is covering — and uncovering — nearly every facet of ancient prehistoric technology.
“Our goal is to make this the premier archaeology lab in North America,” he said. “A lot of labs have the artifacts and material science equipment, but I think what makes Kent State so unique is that our approach is experimental. We re-create artifacts to test them.”
Through learning the craft of “flint-knapping” — 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 generates an endless supply of test materials.
“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.”
In February 2017, Eren landed a $215,000 National Science Foundation grant for a three-year collaborative study with Southern Methodist University and the University of Tulsa 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 SMU and Rogers State University (Oklahoma), the lab also just finished up its second year of digging at Paleo Crossing in Wadsworth, one of the oldest excavation sites in North America, and home to a treasure trove of relics from the Clovis culture. They’ll conclude their work there this summer. Countless samples have been sent off for radio-carbon dating and micro-wear analysis. The dig also provided plenty of on-site experience for Kent State undergraduates and graduate students.
While Eren’s lab is full of spear points and arrowheads, though, it’s also full of prolific scholars. The lab published 10 articles in 2016, another nine in 2017, and Eren said his researchers are on track to publish a full 20 in 2018.
Bebber, who hails from the University of Akron with an art background, adds another layer to the lab through her passion for pottery.
“It’s huge for Northeast Ohio. We already have faculty from other institutions asking to use it.”
“I mostly focus on how Ohio native pottery changed over time and what the cause of these changes might be,” she said. “We look at the speed of manufacturing and the strength of the finished product compared to hand-made pottery.”
As a first-year graduate student, Bebber recently published a solo paper in the field’s top journal, The Journal of Archaeological Science, which approached ancient ceramics from an engineering perspective.
“I cannot tell you how rare that is,” Eren said. “So it’s a huge achievement.”
Key, from the University of Kent in England, also recently published in the same journal, with Eren and Kent State University engineer, Michael Fisch.
He analyzes flakes and hand-axes from the Lower Paleolithic period — 3.3 million to 350,000 years ago, before the age of Homo-sapiens. Used by our ancestors, Australopithecus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus, these tools come in a variety of forms, from larger, blunter 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 to compensate for that lack of sharpness, and actually makes the tool more efficient up to a certain point.
Two undergraduates also have papers out for review right now, on which they are first authors, Eren said. Undergraduate research archaeology isn’t about to stop any time soon, either. Kent State just received a gift from Laurey Patten, wife of Eren’s close collaborator and friend, the late Robert J. Patten, for a Student Research Endowment in Eren’s lab.
Mrs. Patten last year gave a gift to Eren’s lab of her husband’s books, flint-knapping tools, casts, rocks and other resources, valued at $19,000. The $25,000 Bob Patten Endowed Anthropology Program will fund student research into experimental archaeology, lithic technology, and replicating techniques.
The lab continues to add to its impressive repertoire of research devices and equipment as well, including an Intron Materials Tester — a giant crushing machine with a top-of-the-line touch screen monitor for reading and processing data.
“This is a huge thing for the university to have,” Eren said. “It’s huge for Northeast Ohio. We already have faculty from other institutions asking to use it.”
Eren has also acquired the best cross-bow in the country, which can fire an entire cluster of arrows with sub-inch accuracy at distances up to 100 yards.
Bebber also conceived of the lab’s new forge, which allows it to recreate any type of weapon or tool — stone, metal, or otherwise — used by humans and our ancestors over the last 3 million years.
Eren said it’s all an investment in living up to what he believes is the university’s standard for his lab.
“If there’s a philosophy for this lab, it’s what John F. Kennedy once said: ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ Kent State has given us a lot, and we’re doing everything we can to fulfill those expectations and make the Kent State community proud.”