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Professor combines classics and chemistry to unravel ancient mysteries

Published: October 4, 2013
Section: News, Top Stories


Researchers at Brandeis University are unique in both their discoveries and backgrounds. Professor Andrew Koh (CLAS) unearthed an unusual find in Tel Kabri, Israel, this summer, with classicists, archaeologists and laboratory scientists. In a palatial complex, 40 large perfume vessels were found largely intact, creating great mystery as to their survival and importance.

Beginning his college career as a pre-med student who volunteered in the coveted ER, Koh originally thought he would become a doctor. But after seeing how unhappy and dissatisfied doctors were in the hospital, he pursued a degree in biophysics. Despite the heavy course load, he remained interested in the classics—Latin, Greek and Roman civilizations—and continued to take classes in the humanities.

Koh attended the University of Pennsylvania for a graduate program in archaeology, distancing himself from science until a professor approached him. This professor was pioneering a new method for archaeological analysis: organic residue analysis. Although hesitant to go into a new field, Koh had the right blend of backgrounds in science and humanities to make the project a success.

Chemistry and archaeology can combine to provide clearer insight into how the world once worked. “I’m interested in cross-culturalism. I’ve always been interested in the end process, too,” Koh said. “How do you store it? How do you market it? How did it affect the way people lived? In that sense, it’s very applicable to people today.”

Veronica Saltzman ’16, who was part of the summer dig at Tel Kabri, expanded on how the classics are still relevant today. “The humanities is a means of searching and discovering humanity and the bonds that have held people together since the beginning of time. It is the pursuit of understanding the human condition,” she wrote in an email.

Archaeologists have difficulty identifying rooms because artifacts disappear or disintegrate. At a dig, Koh expected to find a kitchen. “Then we got the residues. They were totally different. It’s not like wine. These were aromatics referenced by [Roman] authors like Livy, Pliny,” Koh said. Organic residue analysis proved it could have been a perfume workshop, as discussed in Roman literature.

At Brandeis, Koh combines his loves of science and the classics. When he isn’t teaching, he works with students who have an interest in science, conducting sample analysis in the lab. Professors Christine Thomas (CHEM) and Barry Snider (CHEM) allow him to use the GCMS (gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer) to analyze samples found in ancient artifacts.

“Any time a humanist comes to them and knows what’s going on … we’ve been getting significant help,” Koh said. “We’re preparing and running the samples ourselves.” This analysis determines which organic compounds, those containing carbon, were once held in jars and vessels. Two posters have already come out of this mutually beneficial agreement, and undergraduate students, including Alison Crandall ’13, are scheduled to present them at upcoming prestigious scientific conferences.

This summer, students and faculty from the University of Haifa, George Washington University and Brandeis excavated a site in Tel Kabri. The site has been excavated since the 1990s, but was abandoned for a few years before it started up again in 2003, using new techniques. Saltzman discussed her interest in the dig even though she does not intend to pursue archaeology as a career. “The experience of being outside, working hard, learning about the process and meeting the people is so special. You really become part of the family,” she said.

The room they chose was a lucky one. Once the archaeologists reached the floor, they found ancient vessels. These were not just tiny scraps of vessels but 40 almost fully-complete, large vessels, each more than one meter tall, scattered across the floor.

In this region, earthquake activity destroys many ancient ruins. Ruined buildings were usually filled in and leveled, crushing any items inside. This room was exciting because although it had been filled in, it was never leveled, and intact items still existed. There were even vessels in the entryway of the room, indicating no one had entered to steal items or consume the contents of the jars.

Initial analyses reveal that the vessels contain perfume. Although it can’t be proven, even with scientific evidence, Koh hypothesizes that the room used to be a storage space for perfume production.

It remains unknown why the room was filled in but then abandoned. “It’s an unusual site that way … we don’t know why they never built another structure. It’s one of those mysteries.”

There may also be other exciting discoveries to be found in Tel Kabri, particularly if researchers find evidence of fire. “If you have fire, then you could have produced tablets. They’re sunbaked [mud] tablets, and if there is no fire to bake them, then we don’t have them.” As both archaeologists and scientists continue to investigate the site, more artifacts and scientific evidence may allow us to better understand how ancient society lived.