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She digs history's mysteries

When you think of archaeologists, chances are you summon up an image of a tweedy old guy in a pith helmet, poking around a curse-encrusted tomb ... or maybe you have Indiana Jones in mind, scurrying through the jungle with a golden idol in hand and the natives in hot pursuit.

Well, how about a thirty-something woman in a cowboy hat, digging up everyday artifacts in the Old West? This week on PBS' "Nova ScienceNow," Oregon archaeologist Julie Schablitsky has her turn in the spotlight, with nary a mummy or an idol in sight.

University of Oregon

University of Oregon archaeologist Julie Schablitsky examines a ceramic fragment found at a dig.

Schablitsky is the first to admit that she became interested in archaeology as a girl because of the profession's more exotic tales.

"Whenever I went to the library to check out the books, that's all you'd see ... books about mummies and the gold statues with the ruby eyes," she told me last week. "That's how my interest was piqued in the subject."

But when she became involved in actual digs, she found that she didn't need to go to Egypt or the Yucatan to experience the thrill of discovery and the flush of fame.

Her most newsworthy work had to do with the saga of the Donner Party - a group of California-bound pioneers who got stuck in the mountains during the winter of 1846-47. The story goes that some of those unfortunates had to eat the flesh of others who died in order to survive.

Three years ago, Schablitsky and her colleagues went back to the site where the Donner family was trapped to learn more about how the pioneers lived and died. Intriguing fragments of  bones were unearthed from the campsite - but when the fragments were analyzed, using techniques that Indiana Jones never had at his disposal, the archaeologists found that the bones were primarily those of animals (apparently including the family dog).

To be sure, there could have been some cannibalism at a different site nearby, but Schablitsky's work went a long way toward removing the century-old stain of scandal from the Donner name.

Schablitsky said the key technology involved in the case didn't have to do with DNA - the bones were too degraded for genetic testing - but rather with a microscopic assessment of the bone structure, known as osteon analysis.

"It's as if each species has a unique cellular fingerprint, if you will, in their bones," she explained. "Before the Donner Party project, I had no idea this technology was even out there."

Schablitsky said she and her fellow researchers are wrapping up their work on the project. The results are slated to come out in a peer-reviewed, scholarly volume as well as a book for general audiences that will tell the story of the investigation as if it were a "C.S.I." mystery - which, in a sense, it was.

The book's working title is "The Fifth Relief," which alludes to the fact that four relief parties were sent out to rescue the Donners. More than a century afterward, the archaeologists went out as a fifth relief party, to rescue the truth behind the legend.

The Donner Party saga isn't the only thing that's occupying Schablitsky's attention: She recently helped put together a book titled "Box-Office Archaeology," which digs into the truth behind Hollywood's portrayals of pirates, mummies, Vikings and other bits of archaeological and historical lore.

She's also been digging up everyday items that tell a lot about how Chinese immigrants lived in the Old West, or how slaves and freed workers lived together on middle-class plantations before the Civil War. Schablitsky says this kind of work can help fill in huge gaps in the history books.

"The big events like the Civil War and the great discoveries don't get lost," she explained. "What gets lost is the details, and sometimes the people who don't really figure in those big events. ... They didn't write books about their experience, they didn't leave journals. That's why archaeology is important: It does try to give the voiceless a voice, and try to illuminate the past of the people who have been forgotten about."

She's interested in using DNA analysis for learning about the people who used everyday objects. In one case, she extracted enough DNA from a syringe traced to the 1870s to figure out that at least four people had used it - perhaps including a person of African descent. The saga touches upon sex and drugs in the Old West. This article from Archaeology magazine goes into the details, as does this news release from Portland State University.

Carla Denly / Nova

Julie Schablitsky digs at an Oregon site.

Speaking of sex, the "Nova ScienceNow" touches upon the idea that Schablitsky is a woman in what some might consider a male-dominated field.

Schablitsky herself doesn't make much of the gender issue, however. "If you look in the field today, there are pretty equal numbers of men and women," she told me, although she acknowledged that "you still do see more men in leadership positions."

To Schablitsky's mind, archaeology carries the same kind of romance for women as for men. But if you're starting to think that the life of an archaeologist is all about gleaming artifacts and glamorous locales - Schablitsky would be only too willing to bring you back down to Earth.

"You do have to be able to endure 90-degree heat, plucking wood ticks off yourself and battling poison ivy," she said. "It's not a glamorous situation, but at the end of the day, you can go home and settle back into your femininity again. My closet is full of hiking boots as well as high heels."

In addition to the segment about Schablitsky, this week's installment of "Nova ScienceNow" touches upon these topics:

  • Sleep and memory: Exactly why do we need to sleep, anyway? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host of "Nova ScienceNow," plays video games and takes a snooze - all to help scientists find out how sleep solidifies our memories and facilitates learning. Tough duty, Neil.
  • Emergent behavior: What makes it possible for schools of fish and flocks of geese to travel in tight formations? Scientists explain how simple rules of behavior can lead to the "bottom-up" emergence of order, even if no single leader is in charge.
  • The biggest science machine: "Nova" explores the Large Hadron Collider, a huge particle accelerator that should already be familiar to anyone who was following last month's Big Science Tour

If you miss the public-TV show - or if it's not available in your area - never fear. Starting Wednesday, all the segments will be available for viewing online.