Coins and Chemistry: Students Analyze an Ancient Artifact

Mary Kate with Bedford High School Students

Students from Bedford High School, 45 in all, used the beakers, solutions and instruments of Professor Mary Kate Donais’ chemistry lab to travel through time. Sophomores, juniors and seniors in the high school’s forensics and archaeology classes took a trip to the Syrian mints of the ancient Roman Empire in December, as they cut, dissolved and analyzed an unmarked ancient coin.

The coin was unearthed by Saint Anselm students, who each summer travel to Italy to work at the college’s archaeology site near Orvieto. By analyzing the metal content of coins, archaeologists are able to date them and even determine by their recipe which ancient mint produced them. Professor David George, chair of classics, manages the Orvieto site and spoke to the students about what they could learn from the artifacts.

The collaboration started with a request by Bedford High archaeology teacher Laura Dreyer that Donais speak to her class. Instead, the chemistry professor offered something better: to lead students through an experiment that she had already devised for non-science majors at Saint Anselm.

"I hope the students learned that science can help provide information for many disciplines, even in the social sciences and humanities," she says.  "As well, I hope they learned that science can be done by anyone with a little guidance – they shouldn’t be intimidated by it."

Even criminal justice majors might find the results of this experiment relevant. Donais says she is confident that the coin the students analyzed was an ancient forgery, referred to as a foure.

Caitlin McGee '10 Travels to Italy with Research Grant

Caitie Digging in Trench

Caitlin McGee'10, classics major from Nashua, N.H., traveled to Orvieto, Italy this past summer for her third consecutive archaeological dig. However, this summer was unique for McGee. With a $3,500 stipend she won through Saint Anselm's Undergraduate Research Scholar Program (URSP), McGee was able to conduct archaeological research at the college's Coriglia excavation site, about 150 miles northwest of Rome.

"My first year on the dig was my first time in Europe. Italy has allowed classics to come alive for me," said McGee, who discovered her passion for classics on the five-week annual excavation, led by professor David George, Ph.D.

McGee, who intends on attending graduate school, has always been curious about the different kinds of research related to her field of study (classics). Her hopes of taking part in the dig for a third time were high but with her busy schedule during the year, including being a resident assistant, she was unable to work to fund it. The aid from the URSP scholarship has allowed her to literally, dig a little deeper…She returned to Orvieto this past summer with not only the knowledge and understanding from her past two excursions but the will to theorize about her discoveries through a mix of archaeological field work and trips to museums to gather information.

McGee's research was centered on pottery found at the Coriglia site. "I found pottery interesting because of the implications of art, culture, and economy…it is what first caught my eye on the initial dig," said McGee.

McGee spent five weeks at the site, accompanied by 10 other students, all but one from Saint Anselm. The dig began in 2006 with seven Saint Anselm College students. Saint Anselm Classics professor David George, served as McGee's mentor. Dr. Claudio Bizzari, faculty of science and archaeology at the University of Camerino, in his role as co-director of the dig, provided additional guidance in Italy. McGee spent these days digging, photographing the pottery findings, putting it into catalogs with corresponding information, and conducting her own additional research at the end of the day.

In addition to the trip's day-to-day activities and completing her research, McGee was given more responsibility this third time around. She was appointed leader of a trench on site, meaning she was in charge of a particular digging area, given her experience. To her surprise, it amounted to more than just a leadership position. "It aided my research because I became more aware of the locations where certain pieces of pottery were found," said McGee.

This experience gave her the ability to have in-depth conversations with expert staff members about the workings of the site and particular findings. "I learned a great deal about archaeology and envisioning how the site works," she said.

McGee is in the process of turning her research into a paper to be presented to the college and hopefully extended to other venues. McGee believes that this opportunity will give her a competitive edge in graduate admissions. She hopes to attain a Ph.D. in classics where she can incorporate archaeology with an emphasis on language.

The URSP seeks to promote scholarly undergraduate research, inter-institutional mentoring, and increase the number of successful admissions to graduate school for students attending a small, four-year liberal arts college.

Saint Anselm Students Dig for History in Italy

Saint Anselm students and faculty in Italy

Saint Anselm students and faculty in ItalyAbout 75 miles northwest of Rome, a group of 20 Saint Anselm College students and faculty are braving heat and snakes to excavate what they believe is an Etruscan religious sanctuary. [Read more...]