A Senior’s Testimonial – Carter Wilcox (Harvard College ’20)

Joining the SoHP was the single best decision I made at Harvard. From an academic perspective, the cross-divisional faculty taught me how to combine qualitative and quantitative techniques to perform cutting-edge research: an interdisciplinary approach that I struggled to find elsewhere. Whether we were coring trees in the Arnold Arboretum, scanning pottery with a hand-held X-Ray, examining 2,000-year-old golden coins, or extrapolating hidden patterns in archaeological datasets, I was continually engaged in class and developing new skills in the process. Furthermore, even as we worked with data from the past, we almost always discovered insights that applied to the present day: a direct applicability that frequently sparked after-class conversations and late-night, dining hall debates. Some of those insights also led to never-before-seen findings, an experience that felt like discovering buried treasure.

Since the SoHP was such an incredible and rewarding home for me, I hope that this testimonial helps other students find it earlier in their college careers. As a freshman, I was desperately searching for a concentration just like the SoHP; and, though I learned a great deal from studying history with a computer science secondary, I wish I could have spent more time in classes that combined quantitative and qualitative approaches, rather than addressing each in isolation. In hindsight, I have also realized that the SoHP–at its core–is about using data to identify and communicate truths about the world. Of all the skills that one could learn in college, this one seems especially critical for navigating the increasingly technical and data-driven world of the 21st century.

In sum, to my peers who still have time on Harvard’s campus, I strongly recommend that you explore the SoHP. If you have always felt drawn to both “left-brain” and “right-brain” thinking, but have not found a way to pursue both at the same time, this is the group for which you have been searching. And if you still aren’t sure if the SoHP is for you, I ask: does your adrenaline surge when you think about discovering forgotten aspects of the past that lead to new understandings of our world as we know it? If the answer is yes, then once again, emphatically, the SoHP is for you.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My research experience at MPISHH in Jena, Germany — by Sonja K. Eliason (Harvard College ’19)

As I described in my last post, the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard allowed me to develop my thesis question concerning the gap in the historical record for when we know fully-virulent plague to have existed in human populations and when we first see any evidence for a major pandemic.  There are two components to my question, cultural and genetic.

The cultural component consists of a literature review of three populations–the Srubnaya (19th c. BC), EIA Armenia (9th c. BC), and Constantinople (6th C. AD).  All three of these populations have genetic evidence for plague infections, but only Constantinople shows any evidence for a fully fledged epidemic (the Justinianic Plague).  By investigating the different cultural behaviors of these populations, I’m working to understand what could have played a role in limiting the pathogenicity of plague for the Srubnaya and EIA Armenia, who didn’t appear to suffer from an epidemic as Constantinople did despite the presence of plague in the population.

The genetics component of my thesis involves screening 330 deep shotgun sequenced genomes from ancient Europeans to investigate the presence of any of eleven “common” European genetic diseases, to see if the appearance and spread of those mutations correlates at all with the spread of plague throughout Europe.

While working on my research throughout the fall, I was offered the chance to spend a month at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the partner organization for the MHAAM project.  This was an unbelievable opportunity for someone working on my research question because the Archaeogenetics group of the Institute has published many of the most significant genetic findings on Yersinia pestis in the last few years, including the papers that allowed me to determine the three cultural populations I intended to compare for the cultural review.

Since arriving at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany three weeks ago, I’ve had the opportunity to not only discuss my research processes with leading scientists in the field but also observe the data collection and analyses of a leading aDNA laboratory.  Through my discussions, I’ve gained further insight on the leading theories for differential observed virulence in specific populations and the cultural factors are frequently at play. I’ve learned about new analysis tools that could hypothetically be applied to my data (such as MALT) and geographic models that will benefit the presentation of my work.

I’ve spent a few days in the lab itself–all suited up to avoid contaminating the ancient DNA samples!–and observed the process of drilling and sampling dental pulp in an attempt to retrieve DNA.

My time in Jena has given me significant additional context on my research.  My ideas and analysis are substantially more developed thanks to the feedback and suggestions I’ve received from the experts in this field.  I have a lot more appreciation for the labor-intensive process required to sample aDNA and the myriad of techniques required to assemble the data and account for the complexities of degraded samples.  I have also seen the passion with which people enter this rapidly growing field to investigate questions we could not have imagined being able to answer before modern genetic technology. I am excited to be making my own small contribution to this-ever growing field, and I’m honored to have had the opportunity to see the work that’s redefining human history firsthand.  

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In Pursuit of Plague: Developing a Senior Thesis with SoHP

In my last blog post, I described my decision to concentrate in Human Evolutionary Biology while remaining closely connected to my historical interests through SoHP. In particular, I was able to study pathogens and their impact on human migration patterns, genetics, and societal development. This past semester (my junior spring) was the beginning of a deep dive into my personal research: the potential for co-evolution between Homo sapiens and Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for the Black Death.

I, like many people, was not aware that the Bubonic Plague had existed before or after the famous outbreak that killed around 50% of Europe in the 1340s.  But Plague actually maintains a much deeper history.  It has now been proven responsible for the Justinianic Plague of the 6th century as well as for continuing pandemics such as the recent outbreaks in Madagascar.  In the last few years, new research has shown that Y. pestis is much older than we previously imagined and was in fact present in Bronze Age populations as early as 5000 BCE.

Given this dynamic research about what is perhaps the most historically feared disease, I became naturally interested in learning more and seeing if I was capable of contributing anything to the growing field.  I had been invited to attend a previous workshop hosted at Harvard in the fall discussing Y. pestis, which provided me the opportunity to hear globally leading researchers discuss their current questions and hypotheses and to better understand the field at large. It became increasingly clear to me that I was in the best place to be asking questions about Plague: the MHAAM partnership between Harvard and the Max Planck Institute meant that I had front row seats to the developing ideas. And thanks to the encouragement of Professor McCormick and the history department, I was welcomed at the research discussions. And so, I decided to pursue an independent study throughout my junior spring—working closely with both Bridget Alex in the Human Evolutionary Biology and Michael McCormick in the History department—first to educate myself on all existing research concerning the evolution of Yersinia pestis and second, to determine a suitable question for a senior thesis.  Since beginning my research, my question has developed from comparing the outbreak patterns of the Justinianic Plague and the Black Death, to the potential impact of the migrations out of the Eurasian Steppes about 5000 years ago on the virulence of Y. pestis, to now looking at the mismatch between the appearance of virulence factors of Y. pestis and the thousands-of-years gap between that appearance and the historical record for Plague pandemics.  This development of my thinking has been made possible not only through the dedicated support of my faculty advisors but also the access to cutting edge research that allowed me to refine my question repeatedly and realize where my individual interests aligned.

My research this semester culminated in having the opportunity to attend a workshop that recently took place at Harvard concerning potential host vectors for Y. pestis.  The workshop brought together a collection of historians, microbiologists, evolutionary biologists, and more.  As a student between two disciplines, it was so encouraging to see people from such diverse backgrounds come together to add different perspectives to answer the same question.  At this conference, I was also able to propose my thesis idea to multiple different specialists who all offered suggestions and support that has validated as much as refined my question.  I left the workshop feeling extremely empowered about my research and energized by the ongoing work.

Throughout my senior year, I will continue this line of research to complete a senior thesis.  I will do so in conjunction with the Human Evolutionary Biology department, the Department of History, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, and and the Max Planck Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM).   It was thanks to the possibility of interdisciplinary work that I selected my major, and it will be these same interdisciplinary programs that culminate my undergraduate academic work.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Finding a concentration, with SoHP – by Sonja K. Eliason (Harvard College ’19)

I remember walking into Professor McCormick’s office hours in the fall of my sophomore year, more than a bit distressed, to tell him that I could not decide between majoring in History or Human Evolutionary Biology.  To most people, that probably sounded completely bizarre; those subjects aren’t even remotely related, how could I be equally passionate about both?  But I was walking into the office of the person who I knew would understand my dilemma better than anyone else.  And thanks to that conversation, I never really had to choose.

I first met Prof. McCormick my freshman fall when I took his survey course on Medieval Europe.  It is to date one of the most fascinating courses I’ve ever taken.  You may think history is a static subject, but not when it’s taught by McCormick and his Teaching Fellows.  They brought in all the newest technology that was revolutionizing how we thought about climate, trade routes, plagues, agriculture; everything that impacted our understanding of history was infinitely more complex and diverse than we could give it credit for.  The major takeaway—at least, for someone as human evolution focused as I was quickly becoming— was that we have to remember that for as infinitely complex as we consider our own lives to be, we must also realize that history is equally so.  We search for trends and patterns, while acknowledging the individuals whose lives we can never truly comprehend.  And it was this intersection of people and history by which I became immediately fascinated.

I decided to major in Human Evolutionary Biology, and to additionally join the SoHP team.  The Initiative allowed me to use my background in human evolution to approach history; specifically in relation to studying pathogens and their impact on human migration patterns, genetics, and societal development.  Imagine the feeling: an undeclared sophomore who knows she has a passion at this intersection of biology and history but is completely unsure how or if she can even go about it, suddenly having access to the cutting edge resources and information of world-class scholars who are redefining the field as I write.  And the most amazing part is, no one once questioned my right to be there (except me!), even though I was comparably completely inexperienced.  Everyone in the initiative is so passionate, they are excited as long as you are excited.

While I’ve done work for DARMC on cataloguing plague outbreaks in the late-Roman, early Medieval eras, I’ve also had the pleasure of attending conferences and listening to the incredible minds at work on this project. The interdisciplinary nature of this field is what makes it so fascinating, and its willingness to incorporate undergraduates in the process has been the most fulfilling aspect of my academic career at Harvard.  Without SoHP, I may never have been able to fully realize my academic passion; thanks to SoHP, I now have the resources and support to pursue it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Search for Tephra Continues… Updated August 2016: Next Steps Alpine Tephra

August, 2016
Quite a bit of progress been made in our search for and identification of Alpine tephra in the Colle Gnifetti ice core since my last post (below)!
Over the past year, after determining that the 1875 Askja eruption in Northeast Iceland was indeed our suspected tephra source, I spent quite a bit of time plotting our particles’ chemistry against numerous reported chemical compositions for Askja tephra. To our pleasure, the data matched exceedingly well with published Askja chemistry and was markedly different than the published values of the only other realistic candidate, the 1845 eruption of Hekla in Iceland.
Confident that we had found something worth reporting, I dove into the process of writing a scientific paper for the first time. Guided by Dr. Kurbatov, from University Maine, and Dr. Pascal Bohleber of the University of Heidelberg, I spent the better part of spring 2016 creating figures and writing the various parts of our paper. This endeavor was certainly a new experience for me, as a scientific paper is not particularly similar to the type of papers that we learned to write in Expository Writing freshman year at Harvard. It truly was a collaborative experience, as I received discrete input from all co-authors and cohesively incorporated it into the final form of the paper.

As of now, our small tephra paper has been submitted to Jökull—a journal that specializes in topics in earth science that pertain to Iceland—and is awaiting revisions. I am very thankful to the Initiative for Science of the Human Past at Harvard for providing me with this opportunity to really dive into an area of research that was wholly new to me and through hard work eventually end up as lead author on a scientific paper as an undergraduate.

Matthew Luongo, ’17, presenting his findings at the SoHP public lecture “2,000 Years of European Climate,” Harvard University, November 11, 2015 (full video available here)
Moving forward, our paper will hopefully show other glaciologists that tephra has indeed made it to the Alps in the past, so that future work can proceed with the goal of saving ice for tephra searches. Identification of tephra and its originating eruption will go a long way in creating absolute dating for paleoclimate proxies, such as alpine ice cores, which should allow us to gain a better understanding of the deposition timelines. Particularly important to SoHP, a more accurate timeline can allow us to synchronize our scientific data with historical data and gain a better understanding through the comparison of the two disciplines. This is a topic I will be exploring in-depth in the next year in my senior thesis.

August, 2015

Since my first blog post in early July 2015, substantial progress has been made in analyzing the SEM ice core data that I gathered during my trip to University of Maine in mid-June. As a quick recap, earlier this summer (2015) I traveled to Orono on behalf of the Initiative for Science of the Human Past at Harvard, to work with Dr. Andrei Kurbatov and analyze the filtered contents from the Colle Gnifetti ice core using a Scanning Electron Microscope. The ultimate goal was to find volcanic tephra particles within the filters which could then be geochemically analyzed and tied to a specific source eruption, in order to provide a means of calibrating the dating of the ice core further. Dating is of the utmost importance, as the Colle Gnifetti ice core could become one of the most accurate records of Mediterranean climate.
When I returned to Cambridge, I spent several days writing an R script (R is a computer language designed for statistical computing and data visualization) to plot the tephra candidates on a geochemical chart. Seeing the geochemical composition of the candidate particles allowed us to immediately disregard certain data, determining they were decidedly not tephra, while also leading us to focus on the particles which held the most potential as tephra candidates. One filter in particular, roughly dated to the middle of the nineteenth century (1830s), had about ten particles with a similar composition that pointed toward potential tephra. Because we had several particles on this one filter, we were able to robustly look at the statistics of the tephra candidates and determine, much to our delight, that we most likely had the first definite tephra finding in an Alpine ice core.
Our efforts now focused in on this group of data, with the sole purpose of finding what volcanic eruption from which these tephra particles originated. After looking through the Smithsonian database of active volcanoes (freely available at http://www.volcano.si.edu) for nearby likely volcanic sources with eruptions in the mid-1800s, I created a list of possible source candidates and looked through published geochemical literature for data against which to compare our tephra composition. It was fairly easy to immediately disregard certain volcanic provinces; as an example, Italian volcanoes have a much lower silica content than our tephra candidates. We looked at volcanoes in the Mediterranean, Turkey, Azores, and Iceland.
Initially, our strongest source matches came from Greek volcanoes. In particular, the Nisyros and Santorini volcanic provinces were tantalizingly similar to our tephra. After discussion with Dr. Kurbatov, we determined that we could count out Nisyros because of differing geochemical signatures, and Santorini became our strongest candidate for a source match. However, there was a catch: the elemental composition of the Santorini tephra that matched our data so well was 3500 years old, and corresponded to a geochemical composition which had not been present in Santorini for several millennia. We obviously had a problem: how could tephra from 3500 years ago end up in an ice core layer which is only two centuries old? After brainstorming rather unlikely explanations such as tephra being blown away from tephra cliffs exposed on Santorini, we went back to the literature and focused our search for a source onto Iceland.
Thankfully, after only a short time searching through geochemical analyses on Icelandic eruptions, we discovered promising geochemical signatures from the 1875 Plinian eruption of Askja in Iceland. After a cursory glance through the elemental composition, I determined that Askja was a strong candidate indeed and plotted our tephra data against this possible source. On a geochemical chart, our data matched almost exactly with the tephra composition from 1875 Askja. Upon further research into this 1875 eruption, I learned that this event was the single largest volcanic eruption in recent Icelandic history and traces of this eruption have been uncovered many hundreds of kilometers away. Additionally, Dr. Kurbatov mentioned that atmospheric circulation patterns already established years ago by Dietmar Wagenbach make it quite possible that air from the Azores passed over Iceland and then looped back down over the Alps. This would provide a physical pathway for tephra deposition at our ice core site.
From here on out, we need to do more quality-checking and plotting of the data to ensure that 1875 Askja truly is our best candidate for the mid-nineteenth century tephra that we found. However, it seems quite likely that this is indeed our source and hopefully this will provide an impetus for future analysis of the Colle Gnifetti ice core and the search for any tephra contained within.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My experience with SoHP

by Santiago Pardo, Harvard College ’16 (History)

I first experienced the initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard through the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilization (DARMC). I joined the team through the invitation of, my then TF, Dr. Ece Turnator the summer before my sophomore year. I remember the first meeting feeling a bit out of place since everyone in the room seemed so much smarter and accomplished. My first DARMC project was a geodatabase of communications from 700 to 900 CE within Prof. McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy. This project taught me how to create an efficient database, but also, how historians use GIS for historical study.

My sophomore year I took my first class with Prof. McCormick, Fall of the Roman Empire. It was in this class where I found out about SoHP’s Harvard-Oxford Medieval Archaeology internship, a chance to learn how to excavate alongside Oxford undergraduate archaeology students in England. I ended up applying and that summer I left for England to excavate. I dug for eight hours each day, six days a week, in the blazing summer sun, but I loved every minute of it. I primarily excavated a late Roman ditch dating to the late fourth century. These were late Roman enclosure ditches that cut through the town and had some connection to the North-South Roman road that cut through the village. The ditch fill produced a lot of artifacts and so I got to excavate pounds of potsherds, mounds of animal bones, many iron nails, and the odd copper coin or two. The dig was an incredible experience. There is something incredible about doing archaeology that you will only understand once you leave the theory and do field work. I learned so much not only about Roman culture and archaeology, but also about myself and where I want to go intellectually and academically.

I continued to work for DARMC throughout my Sophomore year, but starting my Junior year, Prof. McCormick and I began a new project to geographically and temporally map the writings produced in Gaul during late antiquity. This was a great experience to plan and execute my own research projects under the mentorship of Prof. McCormick. After more than a year of work, the preliminary database and maps were presented at the “Quantifying Problems in Ancient History: Working with Numbers from the Distant Past” conference hosted by the Yale University Economic History Workshop (May 6, 2016). Attending this conference allowed me to interact with scholars on a professional level outside of the classroom. The highlight of the conference was meeting Prof. Kyle Harper, whose work inspired my senior thesis on extramarital sex in late antiquity.

My senior year, Prof. Christopher Loveluck taught in the History Department as a visiting professor of medieval archaeology. I took both of his classes: Anglo-Saxon and Viking Age Archaeology and Archaeology and History of Western and Mediterranean Europe. Prof. Loveluck’s classes were an incredible opportunity to learn how archaeologists use scientific approaches to understanding the past. He taught in a clear and insightful manner that not only demonstrated the depths of his knowledge and analysis, but also conveyed new concepts and taught them to the entire class regardless of prior experience. His remains one of the best courses I took at Harvard. I was blessed to have him be a part of SoHP during my undergraduate education.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Capstone to my Harvard education: Discovering the Buried Capital of Visigothic Spain without a Shovel in the Summer of 2015

By: Richard Rush, Eliot House, College ‘ 15.

Freshman fall when I stepped into a Sever Hall classroom during shopping period, I had no idea that in four years I would be helping create new historical data with that energetic Professor McCormick who was pacing the front of the room. I remember that over the course of the semester I was entranced not only with Romans and the Germanic 1“barbarians” he was introducing the class to, but also with the scientific methods with which he and his colleagues were able to learn so much about the past. The narratives provided by historical documents were beautifully supplemented and even explained by biology, chemistry, and geology. McCormick made it obvious that the sciences were welcome in his critical engagement with human history. I was not surprised when I learned that McCormick was heading the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past (SoHP).


Over the next four years McCormick involved me in the SoHP where I brainstormed with other students and professors at Harvard and helped build a digital database of of medieval travelers. However, the highlight of my involvement in the SoHP began when Professor McCormick invited me to join an international expedition that he was organizing. A few months later, in July, I found myself under the hot Spanish sun, surveying land to be measured with the magnetometer, and surrounded by a team of crack archeologists from Germany, Spain, and the United States. To say that it was a unique –amazing– learning opportunity would be an understatement. Our goal was to explore the area surrounding the small excavated area of Reccopolis. We were quite sure that most of our areas of interest were directly in or just adjacent to the city walls and thought that stone foundations could still be present despite 1400 years of conquest, erosion, and farming. Our tool of choice was not the trowel, but a magnetometer.

The geomagnetometer detected the very small differences that soil and stone generate in the Earth’s magnetic field. Therefore, if there was a line of stones just below ground level indicative of a building foundation, it would appear in the measurements taken by the magnetometer. However, before the magnetometer could be used, we had to carefully and precisely survey the area to be geomagnetically prospected. Using a laser transit, we were able to measure out our plots to within a handful of centimeters and make sure that all of our individual plots were perfectly square with fixed local coordinates so that the image produced by the magnetometer could be fixed absolutely to their respective areas and not get mixed up.


While the expedition was filled with its challenges and charms, the best part was undoubtedly working with top notch archeologists from three different countries. Not only was everybody pleasant to work with, I learned so much from them. From using the surveying equipment and magnetometer to getting advice on how to proceed with my postgraduate education to Leovigild, the Visigothic king who built Reccopolis, there was always something new to learn. A unique experience was the odd mixture of English, German, and Spanish that our team spoke. Occasionally, simply speaking with the other team members was an adventure in and of itself. While confusing at times, this conglomeration of languages served to richen the overall experience.

Naturally, everyone was excited to learn more about Reccopolis and we did. The grayscale images that the magnetometer produced yielded wonderful results. It was amazing to see the outlines of buildings, streets, and larger avenues emerge from the old barley fields that we were working in. 2By the time we had completed our two weeks at Reccopolis we had at least quintupled our previous knowledge of the layout and street plan of the Visigothic city. While these results are very exciting and have contributed greatly to our understanding of Reccopolis, our results also serve as a stepping stone for the ongoing excavations at Reccopolis by providing a map of the buried city.

Overall, this expedition was a success in every way imaginable. Not only did we produce incredible results, we also made some wonderful friends, enjoyed ourselves in a beautiful location doing something everybody was passionate about, and proved what can be accomplished both when we cooperate with our colleagues and when are not afraid to let the sciences and humanities mix. Truly, our results were made possible largely through mixing technology, geology, and history into archeology, thus turning the study of the human past more and more into an interdisciplinary science.

To accompany this expedition and assist in the process of creating new archaeological and historical knowledge served as a most fitting capstone to my undergraduate education. For four years I studied the data that past historians, archeologists, and scientists had produced. Finally, I was able to complete the circle and contribute my muscle and brain power to the discovery of something new that will be studied by future generations.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Searching for Tephra

I first joined the Science of the Human Past initiative at Harvard because of the “S” in “SoHP.” As an earth science major, I was drawn to the possibility of being able to use the skills and lessons that I learned in my classes in order to gain a better understanding of historical events. It seemed like a great way to truly fulfill the liberal arts education that I was receiving: using science to dissect and understand records from the past.

As such, I have been involved with SoHP in every capacity that I can fit into my schedule. I have acted as a scribe at conferences, I have worked as a translator of climate events for the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations (DARMC), and most recently, I have worked as a research assistant with Dr. Andrei Kurbatov at the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine Orono. Let me elaborate a little more upon this.

In early June I received an email from Professor Michael McCormick asking me to consider a weekend trip to Maine where I would work at the CCI with Dr. Kurbatov in a quest to look for volcanic tephra hidden in the layers of the Colle Gnifetti ice core drilled in 2013 in the Swiss Alps. The goal of the trip was simple: find volcanic glass that could be analyzed and tied to specific volcanic eruptions in order to provide possible means of absolute dating for the ice core. I jumped at this opportunity to finally help out SoHP in my capacity as a scientist, and I booked my bus ticket as soon as I could.

When I arrived in Maine, I was greeted by Professor Kurbatov and his two graduate students, Teye and Sarah. Together, they walked me through the lab work that I would be doing throughout the weekend and explained the big picture nature of the research. The Colle Gnifetti ice core, if dated accurately, could be the most accurate measure of Mediterranean climate that we have to date, potentially reaching as far back as two millennia. In order to provide as accurate a record as possible, we needed to find some way of finding out exactly what year each ice layer corresponded to. Volcanic tephra provides the perfect dating tool, as we can geochemically analyze the tephra to see the elemental composition and then tie it to a specific volcanic eruption with a known timing. The only issue was finding that tephra.

I spent a whirlwind three days working with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) equipped with EDS detector, which shoots a beam of high-energy electrons at a solid object in order to make an image. Once we lock the SEM on the particle we are looking at, it spectroscopically determines the elemental make-up; for volcanic glass, we were looking for twelve major elements, specifically silica and aluminum content. We took ice chips that were made during drilling, melted them down, and filtered the liquid through a .4 micron polycarbonate membrane filter. The tephra that we were looking for would be about 5-10 microns and required a sharp eye to scan through the jam-packed filters. Much of my time was spent determining whether a small chip might be tephra. Often times, even pieces that had the characteristic glass-shard shape were just small flakes of feldspar dust blown to the glacier from nearby deserts. However, if we could find just one piece of tephra, we can be justified in taking the next step, which would be to use the laser to scan through the ice core and find tephra in situ.

Currently, I am analyzing the data collected during my weekend from back home in Cambridge. I have modified and written a script in R to scan through the data files we created from the SEM/EDS instrument, and then plot the particles on a mineralogical chart. I should know soon the extent and amount of tephra that we found on these filters. More to come in that regard!

I have really appreciated the opportunity to work with SoHP and be a research assistant. Not many students can claim the truly interdisciplinary nature of the work that I am doing, weaving together science and history in such a way to improve upon both fields. I find it a little funny that I got offered a position to do geochemistry from my history professor, but I think this is a perfect example of how academia is changing in the twenty-first century. We are truly entering a phase in research where historians can be informed by science, and scientists can be informed by history. The lines between disciplines are becoming much more fluid, and I count myself lucky to be in a research group that is at the forefront of this movement.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My DARMC adventures

I first started working on DARMC at the end of my junior year at Harvard, just after taking one of Professor Michael McCormick’s research seminars on Carolingian history. Our seminar included several workshops on new scientific techniques being brought to bear on historical debates, and DARMC-generated figures were a frequent feature of both seminar lectures and my fellow-students’ research projects. At the end of the course, Prof. McCormick made a characteristically energetic pitch for all of us to come on board as DARMC contributors if we so desired. The prospect of making a little extra money while doing interesting historical research was very appealing to me. It became even more appealing when, just a couple weeks later, I was forced to give up my usual end-of-term employment—cleaning bathrooms for Dorm Crew—after a freak accident during which I broke both of my feet. The story of this accident isn’t relevant to DARMC, though I will happily tell it to you if we ever meet at a party. Suffice to say, it was very nice to have a summer job I could do from a seated posture.

My involvement with DARMC also introduced me to fascinating areas of historical inquiry that I was perhaps unlikely to have pursued on my own initiative. My knowledge of science is, alas, dilettantish at best, and in my historical studies I’ve always gravitated much more towards texts and literature than archaeology or material culture. I like the intellectual intimacy of communing with vanished minds, and the warmth of individual personalities engages my interest more intensely than larger historical trends. Through DARMC, however, I became aware of the ways in which seemingly-mundane details extracted from a large number of texts can be used to create compelling visualizations of the larger world inhabited by the scribes and authors for whom I feel such affection. A data-driven approach can reveal the circumstances and assumptions that underlie historical writings, opening up new vistas for the imaginations of eager readers.

So far I’ve been a co-contributor on a variety of databases: I’ve filled out spreadsheets documenting weather events from monastic annals, and shipwreck coordinates from archaeological journals. My chief solo project was the construction of a database inspired by E.A. Lowe’s Codices Latini Antiquiores, a descriptive catalogue of all extant Latin manuscripts written before the ninth century. (I felt a profound empathetic connection with the monastic scribes of yore as I carefully populated several thousand spreadsheet cells with manuscript stats.) The database isn’t up on the website yet, but I’m excited to see what our GIS whizzes can do with it. Eventually, I hope, viewers will be able to track the movements of each manuscript, as it was transported, presented, purchased, and purloined across eleven or more centuries.

Even though the Codices Latini Antiquiores database is complete for the moment, I still find myself thinking about ways it could be improved or expanded. I never, for example, found a satisfactory way to treat palimpsests—texts written on top of other texts. In his catalogue, Lowe treats each script as a separate item; thus, a palimpsest with two scripts became two separate entries in the database. This format is probably ideal for most paleographers’ purposes, but I found myself intrigued not just by the scripts themselves, but by the fortunes of the individual pieces of paper on which they were written. I’d like to be able to track a piece of papyrus, parchment, or vellum across the globe—where was it first written on? When and where was it rewritten? When was it dismembered and put into book-bindings? Where did those books end up? All of this information is present in the database, but it isn’t linked up in a way that’s visualizable… yet. I’d also love to be able to track when and where particular works are being copied. At the moment, it isn’t really possible to search the database by work or author—each manuscript typically contained works by a number of different authors, which all had to be listed under a single field (for space reasons: if I had given each and every work its own entry or column, the database, already enormous, would have quickly ballooned out of control!) A purposeful database focusing on works rather than scripts would, however, be relatively easy to build using the information from the works column. A DARMC project for the future, perhaps.

My Codices Latini Antiquiores project also led me to contemplate the implications of digital tools for the future of academic research. From my own brief undergraduate foray into the study of insular paleography, I am aware that a number of scholars take issue with E.A. Lowe’s classifications of insular hands and manuscripts—and I’m sure that there must be plenty of debates raging in other areas of the field as well. I think it’s important to be very aware of the limitations of any data set: in this case, not only is the data determined by factors such as manuscript survival and discovery, it’s also circumscribed by Lowe’s individual scholarly judgments. A visualization based on a database inspired by the Codices Latini Antiquiores is thus, in some sense, a visualization of pre-C9 Latin manuscripts, but it’s also a visualization of Lowe’s paleographical theory. I don’t think this compromises the validity of the database in any way—converting a theory into a manipulable map opens up new and powerful avenues for critique. If one were to modify the existing database to reflect another scholar’s paleographical identifications, and then compare the two visualizations side by side, that could be an extremely illuminating and forceful supplement to debates hitherto conducted in articles and monographs. I think this is a pretty good example of the exciting (and perhaps slightly terrifying) ways that scholarly debate could evolve in the digital age. I’m thrilled to think that I might have contributed in some small way to the inception of a fascinating new era of paleographic inquiry, and I hope to continue making useful contributions to DARMC in years to come.

– Brianna Rennix

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment


Welcome to Scopes & Scrolls, the blog written by the community of undergraduate, graduate and professional archaeologists, classicists, historians, medievalists and scientists involved with the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard.

Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch fo

Following on the success of our inaugural conference last year, we now come together from all corners of Harvard Yard, from our institutional homes in a wide spectrum of departments from computer science and biological anthropology to classics and history.  We are freshmen, seasoned professors and everything in-between, a group of curious minds with diverse experiences and backgrounds but united in the goal of better understanding the human past through collaboration and an increasingly deep and varied multidisciplinary toolkit. In this blog, we share with you the reports of our ongoing endeavors and projects, our discoveries and surprises. We hope you will join us!

– Jakub Kabala


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment