“The Origin of Barbadian Ceramics”–an introduction

As this is my first blog entry, I would like to both give a short blurb about myself, as well as briefly outline my research for this summer. I plan to use the subsequent blog entries during my research itself.

Like many undergraduates conducting research at The College, I am a senior, however I have an extra semester and plan to graduate in January of 2013. While many would see this as being a pain, I am grateful to have a semester that I can devote almost solely to research. I am currently a double major in Chemistry and Anthropology. While there are four fields in anthropology (sociocultural anthropology, biological anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology), I tend to focus more on archaeology and have a interest in integrating the fields of chemistry and archaeology. This integration is often referred to as “archeometry” or, “archaeological science” and is a relatively young field with respect to archaeology as a whole. After graduation, I hope to continue exploring my interests in archaeological science, and aspire to get a Ph.D. in the subject.

My research represents an application of archaeological science. Basically, I am analyzing pottery sherds via x-ray fluoresence (XRF) spectroscopic analysis. This type of analysis will allow me to calculate the chemical structure of the clay in terms of the relative amount of trace elements present. From this data, I hope to find a unique chemical fingerprint of what true Barbadian pottery looks like. If the pottery sherds found are from Barbados then they should: 1) share a unique chemical fingerprint among the samples, and, 2) share a unique chemical fingerprint to either a clay source on Barbados, or to the island itself as a whole. In this way we can categorize pottery found and conclude if it was either made in Barbados, or imported into Barbados. There is a wealth of information that this type of knowledge can provide in addressing various human phenomena, such as: 1) the recreation of trade routes from Pre-Columbian times; 2) investigations of whether or not there is a change in the pottery manufacturing traditions of the Pre-Columbian era with the advent of rule of the British Empire; and 3) investigations of possible reasons for any change in traditions.

In any study where elemental analysis is a concern, there is the inherent issue of selecting the correct instrumentation to utilize in the analysis. This issue mainly arises from the sensitivity that is required to perform the analysis. For trace elemental analysis, which this project is largely concerned with, there is a need for a high level of sensitivity in order to produce useful data. This problem was solved through the selection of the XRF over other instrumentation, such as scanning electron microscopes (SEM) with energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) capabilities. While the SEM-EDS can be used for preliminary results, it does not possess the sensitivity required for a study such as this. The XRF instrumentation, on the other hand, is capable of achieving accuracy down to the parts per million (ppm) level. This extreme sensitivity is the cornerstone of my research, and, without it I will not be able to continue, or even start, my research. A similar study by a undergraduate at The College this past fall on Native American ceramics in the Greater Williamsburg Area (namely the Powhatan village of Kiskiack), revealed that the XRF can indeed give the necessary trace elemental analysis required to set up patterns in ceramic sources. This is extremely good news for me as I would like to do the same thing in Barbados.

I would also like to use this first blog post to thank the professors and organizations that have helped my research get started. These are: Dr. Frederick H. Smith of the W&M Anthropology Department; Dr. Michael Kelley of the W&M Applied Science Department; The College of William & Mary Anthropology Department; the W&M Parent’s Association; and the W&M Roy R. Charles Center.

–Ben Kirby