Another year, another dig for Dillianby Alexandra Morris
During the summer on the northeastern shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya, the temperature reaches 110 degrees, the African terrain is vast, and Carolyn Dillian, Ph.D., is digging up 4,000-year-old stone tools with students from Coastal Carolina University. It’s just another day on the annual archaeological excavation. When night falls, they retire to their nylon tents.
“We are studying culture and the transition humans made from hunters and gatherers to pastoral farmers by analyzing the tools they left behind,” says Dillian, an assistant professor of history in the Department of Anthropology at CCU.
This will be CCU’s fourth year with the Koobi Fora Field School and Dillian’s eighth year in Kenya. The well-known and prestigious program is a collaborative partnership between the field school, George Washington University and a research affiliation with the National Museum of Kenya. CCU students enroll in the course through George Washington University, take exams and then are able to receive college credit for the six weeks.
This summer, Dillian is taking 2013 CCU graduate Ashley Hovis, who is continuing her studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she will receive a master’s degree in anthropology in May of 2015. She is focusing on bone tools and how the ancient pastoralists learned to construct them so many years ago.
“I am focusing on the early Holocene time period for my M.A. thesis, and am particularly interested in African archaeology,” says Hovis. “My ideal career would be working as an archaeologist in cultural resource management or in a museum. I went on my first excavation through CCU at Cat Island in Georgetown, S.C., on the Hume Plantation. It all has prepared me for what’s to come in Kenya.”
Dillian’s academic interests are similar: prehistoric archaeology, environmental change and cultural adaptation, archaeological geochemistry, stone tools, trade and exchange, and cultural resource management. And they are all explored during the Kenya excavation. The program started June 13, and the two of them will return on July 29.
In fact, the way the ancient people lived 4,000 years ago is not much different from how the people live in that area now, she points out.
“The drive to the digging site is four hours outside Kenya’s cosmopolitan city, Nairobi, and the cultural differences are wide,” says Dillian. “Not much has changed in 4,000 years. People live simply on the city outskirts—herding animals, farming, living as a community.”
Dillian tells about the seemingly mundane questions the Kenyan tribe asks of them. “We see some of the same villagers, and they pick up the conversation right where it was left off a year ago,” says Dillian. “They’ll ask about how many animals we have, and I’ll tell them I have two cats. With confused eyes they look at their robust cattle and back to me. That’s the culture difference.”
For Dillian, acclimating to cultural differences isn’t really new. Growing up in Pennsylvania, she always had an urge to dig up pottery to learn about the past. Then, at 13, she was part of the Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth where she participated in an excavation on Native Americans in Lancaster County. It was then she says she found her path.
Dillian received her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and holds master's and bachelor's degrees in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the Register of Professional Archaeologists.
“CCU students are competitive,” says Dillian. “And I know that drive, because I have it, too. We want to find the missing piece, and that’s what Ashley and I are going to do.”
When they return, Dillian and Hovis will share everything they’ve learned.
“I use my ongoing research in my classes,” says Dillian. “The artifacts from our excavations will go into the collections at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, where they will be studied and analyzed. It is not permitted to bring Kenyan artifacts out of the country, but we do have casts and replications that my classes will work with.”
Dillian incorporates her findings into the classes, Anthropology 101 (Primates, People and Prehistory), Anthropology 410 (Advanced Archaeological Methods) and Anthropology 427 (African Prehistory).
“I remember that my first class was Anthropology 101 and that’s when I became fascinated,” says Hovis. “Now my interest has became a passion that I’ll be pursuing in Kenya.”