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Playing with fire proves enlightening for class

A group of Lehigh students demystified the 5,000-year-old process of smelting copper during a recent demonstration that authentically replicated the method on the lawn in front of Maginnes Hall. It was all part of an exercise conceived by Aaron Shugar, adjunct professor of archaeology, to help students gain a deeper understanding of their subject matter.

“It’s all well and good to put something under a microscope to see how it’s made, but we want to go further than that,” says Shugar, who teaches the course “Scientific Analysis of Archaeological Material.”

“The students should be asking questions like `What does this activity mean to the people who were involved, and what type of social interaction occurred during the event?’ ”

Using a furnace Shugar constructed by building up coils of clay, a series of students took turns operating a pair of crude bellows that forced air into the furnace, raising the temperature inside above 1,100 degrees C. The melted bits of copper—some donated from the materials science department and some obtained at nearby Lost River Caverns—were then poured into sandcasts to create a molded, finished piece.

“We talked about this process in class,” Shugar says. “Now I want the students to understand this. The concept of archaeology is to reconstruct past societies and cultures based on the objects they left behind, and the only way the students can truly understand these processes is to physically experience them.”

The lessons learned will be used later in the course, which combines anthropology and materials science with the science, technology, and society program. The smelted copper objects will also be more closely examined using optical microscopy and a scanning electron microscope, Shugar says.

The results of the experiment will eventually be fashioned into a museum exhibit on the second floor of Whittaker Hall by students in a museum studies program conducted by Ricardo Viera, professor of art and architecture and director of the Lehigh University Art Galleries.

But it was the process that engaged the students, who took turns forcing air through the bellows, hammering out pieces of metal, and melting wax for molds throughout the day-long exercise.

“I’ve always enjoyed hands-on things,” says Joe Murphy ’04, a materials science major who spent the better part of the afternoon operating the bellows that fed the flame in the crude furnace. “Something like this really makes you appreciate the amount of work it took to create even the simplest item.”

But for anthropology major Taylor Christman ’04, the reward was more immediate.

“It’s interesting, but fun, too,” he says. “I always did like playing with fire.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, November 06, 2003

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