Dr. William Lovis showcases new research in archaeological chemistry journal

Professor Emeritus Dr. William Lovis from the Michigan State department of Anthropology recently coauthored a chapter in the journal Chemistry in the Service of Archaeology: Dating and Materials Analysis, part of the American Chemical Society Symposium Series. Lovis and his team of researchers from Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Eastern Michigan, Sherbrooke (Canada) and Muhlenberg College presented their findings from recent analysis done on beads found alongside an ancient Andean funeral site.

Funerals have existed for centuries as an opportunity to celebrate and memorialize someone’s life, and the ancient world is full of examples of the cultural practice of individuals being buried alongside objects that were sacred or important to them during their lives. Some believed including these special items would bring the individual comfort in the afterlife and, in some cases, would be of use to them in the next world. Common funerary objects included in these burials were items such as jewelry, weapons, figurines and tools. These items are extremely valuable to anthropologists in piecing together the story of a person’s life and culture at that given time in history.

The researchers took a specific look at red and black beads found in the funerary assemblage of a young Andean girl. Through the use of chemical analysis, they hoped to discover information on the manufacturing and origin of the beads, such as whether they were made of European glass or a different material. 

“Analysis of the raw materials used for beads found in Andean funerary assemblages employing advanced chemical and imaging characterization techniques is becoming more common,” Lovis explained. “In this instance, our approach employed a large battery of such techniques to independently evaluate and corroborate individual results, and refine our interpretation.”

The team found that the beads were made of stone, likely shale or slate, and had been locally manufactured. They had also apparently been treated with coating oils either during their production and use, for their use as funerary objects, or at some point during museum curation. The researchers were able to share their findings with the National Archaeological Museum (MUNARQ) in LaPaz, Bolivia, benefitting archaeological research across the globe.

Images of the black (left) and red (right) beads as viewed with light microscopy. 

“In some respects this paper acts as a primer in how such approaches can be used in tandem, and how multiple individuals and institutions with different disciplinary capabilities can coalesce on a problem and collectively solve it. I certainly hope our colleagues engaged in archaeological materials analysis find this a useful contribution.”

The chapter may be accessed at: doi 10.1021/bk-2023-1446.ch003, by ACS subscription, or by contacting the authors.