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Fall 2000 The Big Dig
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We are living in the Golden Age of archaeology, and UCLA's researchers are making the most of modern tools and techniques to unlock the secrets of our shared pasts and cultures.

By Dan Gordon '85
Illustration by Terry Miura

The basement of UCLA's Fowler Museum, home of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, is typically quiet on a summer afternoon. It is a time when many of its occupants - faculty and graduate students at the institute - are fanned across the globe. Armed with shovels, brushes, notepads and questions, teams of UCLA archaeologists are spread from the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast to Togo, West Africa and beyond. They're spending long days in the hot sun, sifting through materials left behind by societies that in some cases span tens of thousands of years. They are detectives of the past, uncovering objects they will use as clues to flesh out - if not write anew - portions of the historical and prehistorical record.

Back on campus, what activity there is yields clues of its own. In the Zooarchaeology Laboratory, researchers are compiling a reference library of mammalian, bird and fish skeletons used to identify the animal bones recovered at archaeological sites. With this resource, UCLA archaeologists are able to describe the dietary practices of ancient populations, a notion that would have been uncommon just a quarter-century ago. In the Ceramics Laboratory, modern analysis of prehistoric pottery reveals information about everything from status, wealth and ideology to patterns of movement and trade. And in the Digital Archaeology Lab, researchers are engaged in the most modern activity of all, using new media to take visitors on virtual tours of digs around the world, and creating a CD-ROM designed to engage children in the process of studying past societies.

From the satellite imagery they're using in the field to the DNA analysis in the lab and the digital technology that is revolutionizing the way they can share their findings, archaeologists at UCLA are employing the most modern methods to tell us about the most ancient peoples.

With the announcement earlier this year that a $7-million pledge had been made by Lloyd E. Cotsen and his family foundation, the institute also has something that, as a general rule, U.S. archaeology programs have lacked: ample resources. The gift, sizable for any university field of study, is particularly remarkable given that archaeology historically has not been well-funded. It is the largest donation ever received by a UCLA social-science program, and among the largest for any university archaeology program.

"This will completely transform the study of archaeology at UCLA," says Richard M. Leventhal, director of the institute. Seed money from the Cotsen gift will help projects get off the ground, to the point where they can attract larger outside grants. An annual conference will bring top scholars from around the world to examine critical issues in archaeology. Each year, a visiting scholar will be in-house to add to the exchange of ideas. Moreover, says Leventhal: "Instead of having to scramble for dollars all the time, we can look at the bigger picture, plan ahead and develop strategies for research."

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