Romancing the Stones

    Ethiopia is home to the oldest and some of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. On January 30, Professor of Anthropology Michael J. Rogers and three Southern seniors — Jeff Banks, Travis Rohrer, and Patrick Whitney — traveled to the Afar region of the country to become part of a scientific expedition at the Gona Palaeoanthropological Research Project. Working through early March, they joined a group of about 30 scientists, local crew and Afars. The accompanying photos capture their journey — a quest to uncover fossils, artifacts and clues to mankind’s evolutionary history.

    “I don’t know of any other research project in East Africa that incorporates undergraduates to this extent. Usually, graduate students are lucky to be able to work at one of these famous paleoanthropological sites,” says Rogers.

    Rohrer, an anthropology major, says the experience was one he’ll never forget. “Not only did it help me fulfill my anthropology internship requirement, it also gave me the opportunity to work in a completely unique archaeological context,” he says.

    The group also worked at the Ethiopian National Museum in Addis Ababa with the Gona collection. While in the field, they divided their time between surveying and excavation, during which they uncovered several artifact horizons [areas that yield a high density of artifacts] and associated fossil bones.

    “While surveying we saw archaeological sites spanning almost the entire Lower and Middle Paleolithic — from 2.6 million years ago to around 150,000 years ago,” Rohrer says. “We also had the pleasure of working with the local Afar tribesmen who served as our guides, but also became our good friends.”

    Rogers has been bringing undergraduate students to Gona since 2007, working alongside his friend and colleague Sileshi Semaw, a scientist at the Spanish National Research Centre for Human Evolution (CENIEH), who directs the project. Rogers brings extensive experience to the task, having conducted fieldwork in East Africa since 1990 and working specifically at the Gona Project since 1999.

    Living conditions at the remote field site are basic — tent camping with no bathrooms or electricity. “But all the Southern students who have gone with me over the years adjusted well,” says Rogers, “and perhaps learned a bit about themselves and what they are capable of.”

    Read more about “The Big Dig” in the Spring 2013 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.