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I&E Graduate Fellow's Work Brings History to Life

Published: 5 months ago | 0 comments

For Katherine McCusker, a PhD student in her sixth year, the mission to make archaeology more accessible is personal.

“My little sister once said to me, ‘The past is just a bunch of broken pot shards and boring rocks,’” McCusker says. “That’s what first started me down this path of sharing the past and bringing knowledge to the public in a way that makes it engaging.”

At Dickinson College, McCusker went to Mycenae, Greece to dig with professor Christofillis Maggidis, her undergraduate advisor. “He’s the reason I stayed in this field,” she says. And when she decided to pursue a PhD, she came to Duke largely because of William and Sue Gross Professor Maurizio Forte, her faculty advisor, whom she calls “one of the most forward-thinking in the field.”

Forte’s team is working on a site in Vulci, an Etruscan Roman city on the coast. Very little has been excavated in the city’s urban center, which is where they’re using some innovative methods to learn about the past.

Instead of doing a typical excavation—which is costly and time-consuming and involves many layers of permissions—they’re using drone technology in partnership with the Duke Marine Lab, as well as using ground penetrating radar (GPR), which sends an electromagnetic signal into the ground and measures the time it takes to bounce back and its strength; this technology can provide data up to 3 meters below the surface, providing a picture of where buildings’ foundations are buried.

In the past, McCusker says, archaeology has been about “one person, usually male, who’s directing everything about the excavation or project. Nowadays it’s much more interdisciplinary. You need lots of different specialists from different fields to make up a team.”

Her dissertation synthesizes this new technology and data into a multi-perspective approach, making connections and discoveries only possible from the the combination. She seeks to create a workflow using non-invasive technology that not only enables a visualization of the site, but application to other sites.

“The goal is to make the city come alive again,” she says. “There have been a lot of excavations of tombs and necropolises because you find interesting objects there, but that doesn’t tell you much about the spirit of a city.”

Her ultimate aim is to explore the urban morphology of Vulci and then take the city’s story to people beyond scholars. She’ll present the data from her dissertation using storymaps—visual mapping tools that put together information in a narrative manner and allow people to interact with geospatial data.

“I’ve always liked mysteries and puzzles, and this is one of the biggest ones—figuring out a city.” As an example, McCusker describes what looks like an empty field between a Roman-era domos (house) and a temple. But peering below the surface, her team can see a large house they hypothesize was once two houses that were later joined, suggesting that someone had enough wealth and capital to own and develop this prime real estate in the center of the city on a busy access road.

“That’s a lot more compelling than an empty field,” she says.

In her role as I&E graduate fellow, McCusker will conduct a literature review of entrepreneurship education in order to help the research team determine what has been done and next avenues to pursue. She’ll also be making site visits to those teaching entrepreneurship in the area, supporting in symposia and conferences, and supporting institution-wide data management and data collection.

McCusker and her Bass Connections team, Smart Archaeology, will be presenting their work on Wednesday, November 20 from 12:00pm-1:00pm—learn more here.

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