College of Wooster students sift through a 2x2-foot area of an excavation site near Lexington, Ohio, where fragments of an ancient mastodon have been discovered.

College of Wooster students sift through a 2x2-meter area of an excavation site near Lexington, Ohio, where fragments of an ancient mastodon have been discovered.


Mastodon Mystery Intrigues Young Researchers

College of Wooster students and faculty seize valuable opportunity at nearby site

22 September, 2014 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Scattered remains of an ancient mastodon some 50 minutes west of campus have young researchers and their faculty mentors from The College of Wooster buzzing.

The long-extinct species, which roamed this part of Ohio between 12,000-15,000 years ago, is similar in size and stature to the elephant. Morrow County farmer Clint Walker discovered the remains while digging a trench on his property.

"When he saw the first item, he knew it was significant," said Nick Kardulias, professor of sociology, anthropology, and archaeology at Wooster. "He notified the Ohio Historical Society and several others, including a colleague of ours, Nigel Brush, who heads an archaeological consortium in Ashland, Columbus, and Wooster."

Items uncovered so far include a seven-inch tooth and a four-inch vertebra from the neck area, which is of particular interest to Kardulias because it has a series of marks, perhaps made by stone tools, which may indicate that it was slaughtered by humans or died of natural causes and was later butchered. Kardulias specializes in the study of early stone tools, and he is hoping to find some of them — or at least fragments thereof — at the site.

A number of other scientists are involved, too, including Brian Redmond from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, as well as a variety of curious onlookers and amateur archaeologists.

Also participating in the project are eight students from Kardulias's intro to archaeology class, and 14 students from Professor of Geology Greg Wiles' climate change class. Both groups are benefitting from this fascinating field experience. "The students are heavily involved in the field work," said Wiles. "It has been a great opportunity for them."

Indeed, the value of such a field experience for an undergraduate is immeasurable, regardless of geography or chronology. "I'm a Medievalist (one who studies the Medieval Period), so this particular project is a little outside my area of expertise, but I still found it to be very interesting," said Megan Shirley a senior archaeology and art history double major from Hagerstown, Md., who plans to attend graduate school in the UK next year with the ultimate goal of becoming a professor or museum curator "It has been great to work with Prof. Kardulias, who is my adviser. I have been on digs in Maryland and London, but I did not have a chance to participate in his field school in Cyprus over the summer, so having the chance to work with him at a nearby location has really been helpful."

Kardulias and his students are marking 2x2-meter quadrants at the excavation site to screen the soil and search for more fragments. "This gives our students an opportunity to get out in the field and practice the things we talk about in class," said Kardulias. "It teaches them the proper methods for systematically excavating in the field, and exposes them to materials that are not commonly found."

Wiles and his students are coring a nearby bog, digging small cylindrical holes about 6-7 meters deep in an effort to obtain data about the age of the site and the environmental conditions over the years. "This is a real interdisciplinary project," said Wiles. "It is interesting for our students but also for us as scholars."

What will they learn? Hard to say for sure at this point, but one possible outcome is a better understanding about what happened to the mastodon. Did humans bring about its demise, or was it something else?

For now, however, it's all about the research process. "This is an ideal field lab for archaeology and geology," said Kardulias. "It's an amazing experience for our students. It may lead to I.S. topics as well as presentations at conferences and publications down the road."

For more about the core work and excavation process at the mammoth site, visit the Wooster geologists' blog.