What is ARCHEM?
First and foremost, ARCHEM is a transdisciplinary endeavor that seamlessly integrates the latest scientific techniques with traditional archaeological methods and theories in order to answer elusive questions pertaining to the human experience, both past and present.
One of the ultimate goals of the project is for science-infused archaeology to reach its full potential by contributing in areas where traditional methods have been unable to overcome obstacles in material culture and socio-cultural interpretation.
To accomplish this, the ARCHEM project generally utilizes archaeochemistry, primarily via the comprehensive and non-destructive field extraction of organic residues from freshly-excavated artifacts for preservation and analysis. In recent years, ARCHEM has expanded to include other types of analyses including, but not limited to: pXRF, FT-IR, and non-chemical analyses such as GIS, 3D modeling, and LiDAR.
What is archaeochemistry?
Archaeochemistry, as we define it, is the seamless and transdisciplinary study of ancient material culture from initial discovery to final interpretation through the analytical lens of chemistry, spearheaded by one person trained and experienced in all the relevant disciplines (e.g. field archaeology, ethnobotany, phytochemistry, ethnohistory). Each step in the process informs the others. This, in our opinion, separates archaeochemistry from the characterization of artifacts using chemical analyses in a strictly lab-based process that generally disregards both the broader archaeological and ecological contexts at hand and the overall research design of the archaeological project, leading to a more traditional siloed and multidisciplinary approach that we call “archaeological chemistry.”
ARCHEM has its roots in the dissertation research of founder and director Dr. Andrew Koh. Not surprisingly, Koh’s training as a scientist, archaeologist, and ancient historian creates advantages over more traditional collaborations between individual scholars representing each field.
Founded in 2003, ARCHEM was originally an acronym for “Archaeochemistry Research in the Eastern Mediterranean,” an initiative that sought to advance archaeological research through the integrated, comprehensive, and non-destructive field extraction of organic residues from artifacts. By extracting thousands of fresh samples in the field for future study, the hope was to make organic residue studies more broadly applicable and accessible for all scholars through a reiterative and comparative process. The compiled library of over 5000 residue samples now allows for selective qualitative and quantitative analyses to conduct transdisciplinary research tailored to answer specific questions pertaining to broader concepts such as pharmacology, ecology, environment, socio-cultural complexity, and human behavior.
Initial research focused on the East Cretan island site of Mochlos with extensive remains from the Minoan Bronze Age and Greek Hellenistic period. Using ARCHEM’s integrated archaeochemical approach, the characteristics of a Late Minoan I aromatic workshop and Middle Minoan II kitchen were revealed with the help of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and geographic information systems (GIS). This, in turn, produced further scholarship related to the ecology of the greater Mochlos region during the Bronze Age (i.e. environmental archaeology) and pharmacopoeia (i.e. ancient pharmacology), two research topics of special interest to Koh. Today, research has expanded beyond the Mediterranean and has formed collaborative alliances through the OpenARCHEM archaeometric database.
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