UCF Anthropology Blends High Tech, World Experience

Story by Aileen Perilla, UCF Today

DSC_0597-548x363A small group of UCF students is heading to Turkey this month to put what they learned in the classroom to work at an anthropology dig in an area once ruled by King Midas.

Anthropology assistant professor Scott Branting, Ph.D., and his team of students will be working 10 weeks at the Kerkenes Dag Project, a new destination for UCF’s anthropology program.

The site holds a former enormous city that was built around 600 B.C. by the inhabitants of Phrygia and was ruled by Midas. Branting and others who work on the site hope to understand the ancient city that was destroyed during the rise of the Persian Empire.

The new site is just one of many options students have when they major in anthropology at UCF. Students get big opportunities by working with cutting-edge technology to help uncover layers of artifacts and learn how to use the basic tools at mock dig sites on campus and real sites throughout the world.

Other students will head to the island of Providenciales in Turks and Caicos for three weeks this summer while earning credit for a course. Professor Peter Sinelli, Ph.D., worked in conjunction with Study Abroad at UCF to come up with this field experience for undergraduate and graduate students who want a more hands-on approach to learning the essentials of archaeological field methods necessary for excavations.

J. Marla Toyne, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology, is in the process of selecting a student to join her at a research site in the Andean region of South America. In the past, students at this site have used rappelling techniques, such as ropes and harnesses, to access the site as part of a collaboration with the Ukhupacha Project in Chachapoyas, Peru. Students were able to gain practical experience photographing, mapping and collecting bio-archaeological evidence of ancient burial practices in that area.

In all, UCF students have participated in 21 dig sites outside the United States in the past two years alone. They include sites in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Eygpt, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea among others.

It’s the combination of these opportunities and faculty expertise that has drawn students to the UCF program. The faculty has some nationally known researchers, such as John Schultz, Ph.D., an associate professor who has appeared on televised shows and served as an expert witness on several high-profile court cases in Central Florida, and there also are up-and-comers who are pushing the edges of the field.

To see a short video about why students select UCF for anthropology click here.  

Erin Martin, a sophomore anthropology major from Oviedo, always had an interest in science and reading a good mystery. When she saw Dr. Schultz on the History Channel describing a case, she knew UCF was the place for her.

“Whenever they had an interview with the forensic anthropologist I always thought that was really cool,” Martin said. “They had an episode where they had a skull that was shattered and they had to put it together like a puzzle.”

She hopes to one day work for the government in a large city where she will put her degree to use solving cold cases.

Student Kimberly Batres gives her sixth-grade teacher credit for getting her interested in history. He showed her how artifacts can help write a people’s history – the study of anthropology. Her family is from Guatemala and she realized that there were huge gaps in the historical record when it comes to her homeland.

“What I want to do is to go to Latin America and excavate in order to find artifacts in order to fill in the holes of history and provide more information on Latin America,” said the second-year anthropology student.

Students work practice digs at the UCF Arboretum as part of a blended anthropology course Batres took this past spring, which included online instruction and field work. The curriculum includes how to set up a proper dig site and the basic necessary tools to sift and scrape soil when they are diving into layers of history. As students progress in the curriculum they also learn about some high-tech tools for field work.

Dr. Branting, who is leading the trip to Turkey, uses traditional tools along with state-of-the-art satellite technology to monitor cultural-heritage sites from space via satellites as part of his field work. He also is one of the co-directors of the Cultural Heritage Initiative, an agreement between the American Schools of Oriental Research and the U.S. Department of State to document, protect and preserve the cultural heritage of war-torn Syria and northern Iraq.

Hundreds of significant heritage sites have been damaged since fighting began in the region in 2011. The group protects culturally significant property by documenting damage, promoting global awareness and planning emergency and post-war responses.

Field work, especially early in a student’s educational career, is important. Students gain valuable experience in archaeological excavation and documentation techniques, as well as teamwork. While they will learn a number of those skills through their classwork at UCF that may involve simulated excavations and/or mapping activities, participating in fieldwork allows the students to apply what they learned in the classroom to a real-life excavation.

“I still have fond memories of my first field experience that involved a paleontology project in Montana as an undergraduate,” Dr. Schultz said. “While fieldwork can be rather rigorous, it is generally…one of the highlights of their overall undergraduate experience.”

For Tom Lee, a senior anthropology and environmental studies major traveling to Turkey with Dr. Branting, there’s a much more practical reason for making sure to get hands-on experience.

“I was thrilled to be selected for the project,” Lee said. “I need field experience that will set me apart when applying for graduate programs.”

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