McKenzie Bentley: Geochemical Characterizations of Early Ceramics in the Aucilla Watershed

McKenzie Bentley (Senior, Chemistry) is a 2020 IDEA Grant recipient. McKenzie’s faculty mentor is Prof. Elizabeth Murphy in the Department of Classics.

Prior to the widespread changes that our world has undergone recently, my honors thesis and IDEA Grant project focused on geochemically tracing the specific origins of ceramics from Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. However, with the restrictions placed upon international travel, my original project became unworkable, forcing my mentor, supervising committee, and I to reconsider the future of the project.

With the help of a locally accessible dataset provided by a member of my supervising committee, my project has been able to move forward with new focus on a collection of ceramic material from the Page-Ladson site located in the Aucilla watershed of northern Florida. Previous research at the site has found evidence of human activity in the region as early as 14,550 years ago. Dated to 3,500 to 1,800 years ago, the presence of ceramics implicates a transition from mobile hunter-gatherer groups to sedentary village lifeways.

The goal of my project is to better understand how the material culture of the Aucilla River Basin evolved as local communities and subsistence strategies also changed; this study will be the first to include material from the river basin and will help fill in an important part of Floridian history. Additionally, and perhaps just as exciting, the collection of ceramics is privately owned, allowing for analysis to be completed off-campus and general project progress to move forward despite the quarantine restrictions of students not being able to travel far from home or be on FSU’s campus. Recently, I completed the data collection phase of my project, in which I used a portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy device (pXRF) to conduct elemental composition analyses on the collection of Page-Ladson ceramic material. This part of the project was an especially exciting crossover between my chemistry lab experience and my more recent developing interest in the world of archaeology.

Although the methodology that I used with this project was very similar to what I had planned for Sardinia, the environment in which I conducted this project functioned much differently; under conditions agreed upon by FSU’s Office of the Vice President for Research, my mentor, supervisory committee, and I, committed to strict self-quarantine measures in the two weeks preceding our work together. In the interest of social distancing, we also set up individual tents for camping near our workspace and had a supply of masks and hand sanitizer.

            Now that the most rigorous portion of my data collection with the pXRF is complete, my next steps will include multivariate data analysis with the intention of grouping the ceramics according to chemical variability. Thus far, there have been noticeable trends in the amounts of iron, silicon, manganese, and zirconium present in each of the ceramic sherds analyzed; the presence of these elements is to be expected but further analyzing the data will give better insight into how the concentrations of these elements vary depending on the ceramic. Later, interpretation of these chemical groupings will help answer questions concerning political evolution, technological innovation, and altered scales of production within some of the earliest ceramic industries in the Americas.

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