Re-cre­at­ing old weapons for new dis­cov­er­ies of hu­man his­tory

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Metin Eren wasn't sat­is­fied just dig­ging up an­cient ar­row­heads to learn about the past. He wanted to use them for their in­tended pur­pose. But shoot­ing and shat­ter­ing price­less mil­len­nia-old tips is out of the ques­tion, so in­stead, the ar­chae­ol­o­gist chips repli­cas of the stone-age weapons by hand. "We can break 'em and throw 'em," he says. "Our imag­i­na­tion is the limit." The 34-year-old Kent State Univer­sity pro­fes­sor spe­cial­izes in ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chae­ol­ogy re-cre­at­ing an­cient pots, knives and ar­rows. By test­ing the repli­cas in ways im­pos­si­ble with the orig­i­nals, ar­chae­ol­o­gists study how tools found in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs were ac­tu­ally used.

"The stuff that we find, it's just stuff," says Brian An­drews, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at Rogers State Univer­sity. "Stuff's cool, but we're not in­ter­ested in stuff for the sake of it­self. We're in­ter­ested in the hu­man be­hav­iors that went into mak­ing it." Eren's ex­per­i­ments fo­cus on mak­ing sense of an­cient weapons lit­tered across the Amer­i­cas, il­lus­trat­ing how hu­mans first set­tled the Western Hemi­sphere: through care­ful prepa­ra­tion, long-term plan­ning, and re­fined tech­nol­ogy. "Even though it's the Stone Age, they're still think­ing in a very mod­ern way," Eren says.

Al­ready he has cracked one long­time mys­tery. In the early 1900s, ar­chae­ol­o­gists found un­usu­ally shaped ar­row­heads in North Amer­ica, with grooves carved from the base half­way to the head's tip. They first ap­peared over 13,000 years ago and spread rapidly across the con­ti­nent, but ex­isted nowhere else. Re­searchers were puz­zled why the grooves were carved, with spec­u­la­tion run­ning from re­li­gious rit­u­als to mere dec­o­ra­tion. That's where ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chae­ol­ogy came in.

By test­ing the pres­sure at which the ar­row­heads would crack us­ing a $30,000 crusher and com­puter mod­els, Eren dis- cov­ered the grooves act as a shock ab­sorber. It al­lows the ar­row­head's thinned base to crum­ple slightly and ab­sorb en­ergy upon the ar­row's im­pact, mak­ing the head less likely to break. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists call it the "first truly Amer­i­can in­ven­tion." Sci­en­tists from Brazil to Bri­tain pre­vi­ously con­ducted many kinds of ex­per­i­ments with re-cre­ations, and bor­row­ing tech­niques and tech­nolo­gies from other sci­en­tists has been long­stand­ing prac­tice.

Still, Eren's lab, only a year old, stands out for its cut­tingedge equip­ment and sin­gu­lar fo­cus on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, says Briggs Buchanan, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Tulsa. "Metin's lab is set­ting an ex­cep­tional ex­am­ple by con­duct­ing rig­or­ous con­trolled ex­per­i­ments," said Buchanan, who has co-au­thored pa­pers with Eren. "Ear­lier ex­per­i­men­tal stud­ies suf­fered from be­ing of vari­able qual­ity and rarely built on pre­vi­ous stud­ies." On a Thurs­day morn­ing, Eren hunches over a pile of flint shav­ings. Don­ning gog­gles, he grips a chunk of ob­sid­ian the size of a large pickle jar and cracks a moose antler down on one edge. With a re­sound­ing snap, a blade of ob­sid­ian chips off. He ex­am­ines it gin­gerly. Ob­sid­ian blades are "sharp to the mol­e­cule," he says, and one nearly sliced off his left pinky in grad­u­ate school.

In his hand, he's hold­ing a piece of the puz­zle of how hu­mans came to rule the world. By refin­ing their weapons, an­cient Amer­i­cans learned how to adapt to all sorts of con­di­tions. "They knew they were go­ing into un­known ter­ri­tory, and be­cause of that they ac­tu­ally pre­pared ex­tremely well tech­no­log­i­cally," Eren says. "Un­der­stand­ing this process of col­o­niza­tion is im­por­tant to un­der­stand­ing how we are to­day."— AP

Michelle Beb­ber, a PhD arche­ol­ogy stu­dent at Kent State Univer­sity, loads a bow with a recre­ated an­cient ar­row in Kent, Ohio. — AP pho­tos

Metin Eren, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at Kent State Univer­sity, ex­am­ines an im­i­ta­tion of an an­cient ar­row in Kent, Ohio.

Metin Eren, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at Kent State Univer­sity, flakes ob­sid­ian.

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