Future Reflections        Winter 2013

(back) (contents) (next)

Sifting through the Past

by William Nutt

William Nutt and his wife, Hannah, at the Piazza del Popolo in RomeFrom the Editor: In October 2011, the story of a remarkable archaeological discovery flashed over the media. William Nutt, a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Texas/Arlington, had unearthed the earliest known Etruscan depiction of childbirth. William is earning dual degrees in business and anthropology/archaeology. In 2005 he won a national scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind.

I grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas, not far from Arlington and Dallas. My older sister and I both were born with an eye condition called cone-rod dystrophy. I am blind with a small amount of functional vision. I cannot read large print as my sister can.

My parents were remarkable advocates, always encouraging my sister and me to surpass our own expectations. At school I became adept at using Braille, audio materials, and screen-reading software. Through these experiences I learned to use whatever worked best in a given situation. The opportunities that my parents helped to create and my drive to succeed led me to graduate tenth in my high school class, while still maintaining a healthy involvement in extracurricular activities.

When I went to college, I had no real idea what I wanted to do with my life. I considered everything from work for the government to cultural anthropology. After some hesitation, I became an English major. I thought I might like to study Old English literature, or possibly become a writer, inspired by my sister, who writes professionally. My fiancee, Hannah, was struggling with the same issues.

In the spring of 2009, I took an elective course in archaeology, Aegean Prehistory. It was taught by Dr. Karl Petruso, a fantastic and erudite teacher, who had dug extensively in Greece and around the Mediterranean.

His class resonated deeply with those passions for the exploration of the past that Hannah and I share. We both decided to change our majors to anthropology. I graduated a year later with a major in anthropology and minors in English, history, and Latin. Our interest in archaeology led us to enter graduate school and further our knowledge of the discipline. In 2010 the National Science Foundation awarded me a graduate research fellowship with funding for three years, which helped make this dream possible.

In the summer of 2011, as graduate students in anthropology and archaeology, Hannah and I signed up to go on a dig at the Etruscan site of Poggio Colla. The Etruscans flourished in northern Italy before they were conquered by the Romans. Poggio Colla is a hilltop sanctuary that lasted for several centuries before it was destroyed by Roman troops.

Dr. Gregory Warden, the lead archaeologist at the site, was eager to help Hannah and me adapt excavation methods for me without compromising their effectiveness. Before we left the States, we brainstormed with him about nonvisual techniques for the field, which could be modified if necessary.

The dig was a very intense experience for me. I had the pleasure of working with some wonderful people, especially the heads of the dig, Dr. Warden and Dr. Michael Thomas, as well as my trench supervisor, Cameron Turley. Hannah (now my wife), several other students, and I were excavating a trench beneath the earliest architectural foundations of the sanctuary complex. Each of us worked in a small area, using a sharpened trowel. We removed soil in very thin layers, taking great care not to disturb any artifacts we uncovered. Each bucketful of loose soil was sifted through a screen to find any bits of pottery or bone. If an artifact such as a sherd of pottery was found, we mapped and photographed its precise location.

I glided one hand lightly in front of my trowel to feel as I dug to avoid disturbing artifacts. I learned to distinguish the various soil types by touch. At the site I used an iPad for notetaking, inspired by their use at the excavations at Pompeii. Back at headquarters I used a laptop for recording the day's notes.

My work at the dig brought some frustrations. To record his/her work, an archaeologist must draw diagrams of the trench where the digging takes place. The diagrams must show the layers of soil and pinpoint where objects were found. Although I knew the layout of the trench and could describe the soil layers in detail, I had no way to make an accurate drawing. Perhaps emerging technologies in the field of tactile graphics will help obviate this problem; however, easy solutions are not likely to arise for years to come.

By a fortunate chance I was assigned to clear a corner of the trench early in the season. Our trench was full of sherds of a glossy black pottery called bucchero. I found several pieces incised with images. The most notable was a sherd with an image that was unlike other fragments. The excellent conservators at the site cleaned the piece. The site's expert on bucchero, Dr. Phil Perkins, identified the image as a woman giving birth. Based on the age of the fragment, the pottery appears to contain the oldest Classical birthing scene currently known. The sherd was less than three inches long and under an inch wide, but it contained the image in its entirety. As news of the discovery spread later that year, I had my "fifteen minutes of fame." However, although I excavated the piece, Dr. Perkins and staff responsible for its analysis did the hardest work.

During the summer of 2012 I had the privilege of working at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, studying the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the Near East as part of my NSF fellowship. The Oriental Institute has an extensive collection of artifacts from this period, and the staff was welcoming to my wife and me, making sure that I could do my work regardless of my disability. Some of the artifacts I analyzed had not been examined in decades. We have many new techniques for analysis today, and it was invigorating to apply new methods to the older collections we studied.

When I examined the artifacts, I generally wore very thin gloves. The gloves enabled me to get tactile information without the danger that oils from my hands would damage the artifacts. I was permitted to handle some flint pieces without gloves, a privilege I greatly appreciated. Hannah helped photograph the pieces and handled the microscopic examination of relevant artifacts.

A blind archaeologist, like a blind person in any field, has to work as independently as possible. It's important to be creative, to have good problem-solving skills. It's also crucial to recognize when you need help. I am very grateful to all of the people who have helped me along the way, especially to Hannah. Without her I would not be where I am today.

I am not sure where I will go with my training in archaeology and anthropology. Working with museum collections is an area that interests me very much. Since I will also have a business degree, I might get involved in cultural resource management. Anthropology/archaeology is a very diverse field that offers myriad possibilities if one knows how to leverage the training.

Whatever I do professionally, I am dedicated to making a positive difference in the world. As an Eagle Scout, I am serious about improving myself and the world as a whole. As long as each of us can find ways to adapt and grow stronger, a disability is merely a hurdle rather than a barrier.

For a news article with a photo of the sherd, go to <http://io9.com/etruscan-civilization>.

Media Share

Facebook Share

(back) (contents) (next)