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Time travelers

Remarkable journeys of the mind take off from Skidmore each summer, when student-faculty research teams get to travel deep and long into the projects of their choice. Last summer one such team set off for the Colorado Rockies, following in the footsteps of early Native Americans who quarried the high peaks for tool-making materials.

The team—anthropology professor Susan Bender and seniors Meara McNally, Emily Clark, and Rebecca Swank—worked in Bender’s lab for five weeks. Then they took to the field, a bleakly beautiful ridged basin set among mountaintops high enough to cause headaches and breathlessness for the first week. Each day they donned voluminous clothing, hats, and SPF 30 to ward off high-altitude sunburn and then hit the archaeological trail. They collected artifacts and mapped ancient sites in an area called Threemile Gulch, home to nineteen quarries where foraging bands once dug out petrified wood to be shaped into tools. They documented some thirty small campsites and deepened Bender’s previous examination of two larger ones, roughly 500 and 6,800 years old.

Back on campus, PowerPointing their discoveries for other summer researchers, McNally passes around her most treasured find: a hunk of gray-brown quartzite, slightly larger than a fist, that ancient wanderers would carry away with them, chipping off large flakes as needed to make smaller tools. “How did you know it was a tool?” someone asks. “Humans break rocks differently from how nature breaks rocks,” Swank explains; Clark points out the large gouges and sharp little scallops that identify the rock as a kind of prehistoric Swiss Army knife, good for slicing, scraping, or pounding. Back in the lab, analysis of artifacts and site data will help the team reconstruct the occupations that created these quarryside settlements.

The summer’s other student-faculty teams racked up fewer miles but did their own exploring, into differences between male and female circadian rhythms, “the new woman” in Chinese contemporary literature, political rewards for governors who attract “trophy” corporations to their states, Saratoga’s drinking-water supply, the Vermont judicial system’s offender-reentry program, and high- versus low-protein diets for weight loss. By summer’s end, every team had academic conference presentations or journal submissions in the works, with further research to follow. —BAM