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14 April 2009
21st century science used on prehistoric art

Last January, the Eastern Michigan University assistant professor Ruth Ann Armitage, her husband Dan Fraser, California archeologist Suzanne Baker and a team of others reached remote northern Nicaragua to date prehistoric cave paintings. Armitage is an analytical chemist who uses a process called plasma chemical oxidation to carbon-date ancient drawings. She was able to obtain samples of the charcoal and the paint from the drawings and brought the samples back to her lab at EMU. Once she's able to date the art, the scientists will have a better sense of who might have done the paintings.
     Etched in charcoal and reddish paint, the paintings show handprints, shapes and spirals, dots, an upside-down childlike figure and other images. Other art in the cave, tentatively believed to be a ritual cave, includes figures and faces carved in stalactites and stalagmites, called speleotherms. Baker has done other work in Nicaragua. She made her first trip to the cave, called Cueva la Conga, in 2006 after a Mennonite missionary living in the area contacted her about it, she said. "There is zero archaeological work that has been done in this area," said Baker. "So we're not sure prehistorically who was living there. ... This is very ground-level research we are doing because we just have zero information."
     The cave, which is situated on private land, has already been vandalized. Armitage and Baker hope their work will draw attention to the important of archeology and preservation, and will help prevent further destruction. And, they hope it adds to the body of archaeological knowledge in a country with few resources for such research, and a field in which little funding is available in the United States, either. "It comes down to funding what's more important - archaeology or people having food," she said.

Ann Arbor News (13 April 2009)

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