By Daniel Dunaief
Last summer, the Anthropology Department at Stony Brook University brought 13 students to the south of France to help gather information from a rich archaeological site called the Grotte Mandrin.
The trip with the Field School through SBU Study Abroad enabled the students to work in the field and gather information from a site that has provided a treasure trove of information about Neanderthals and Homo sapiens from 54,000 years ago.
The students found the trip successful, inspirational and, at times, exhausting.
“I did archeology all summer,” said Asa Wong-Gómez, a senior anthropology major at Stony Brook, who spent time in Kenya before joining the team in France. “It was really cool.”
Wong-Gómez recalled the thrill of finding teeth and stones in the dirt. “The first day, everyone’s first find was super exciting,” he said.
The field expedition, which was the first Stony Brook ran at this site, enabled students to forge connections with each other and with the site’s leaders, including Stony Brook Lecturer Jason Lewis, Ludovic Slimak, cultural anthropologist at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, and Laure Metz, an archaeologist at Aix-Marseille University.
“Working with everyone so closely for that month definitely builds really strong connections that have lasted since,” said Victoria Greening, who graduated from Stony Brook in the winter and is planning to start a Master’s program in the fall at the University of Oxford.
She appreciated the opportunity to be a part of new discoveries.
“Working with something that’s not in the written records and discovering it yourself was a privileged feeling,” said Greening, who grew up in Yaphank.
A happy grown up
Echoing Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” series, Slimak would look at something a student found and say, “my precious, this goes in a special bag,” Wong-Gómez recalled.
Slimak reflected the joy he took in discovering compelling finds. “It was amusing, watching a grown adult be so happy,” Wong-Gomez said.
Eva Marsh, who is a senior at Stony Brook in the anthropology department, appreciated the excitement of finding flint. A couple of students, she recalled, also found teeth, including a horse’s tooth. The group discovered a massive core, from which early Homo sapiens would chip off pieces to construct arrows they would shoot from a bow to bring down buffalo or horses.
On the first night gathering at their summer accommodations, Marsh said the group looked up at a star-filled sky.
“There was not a lot of pollution there” or other lights, which was “really amazing,” Marsh said.
Marsh was nervous on her first day, as she didn’t know what to expect. The team played games for the first few nights and discussed why they all signed up for the field experience. Each night at dinner, they discussed the events of the day, Marsh recalled.
For Svenya Drees, who grew up in Port Jefferson and is a Master’s Student in Lewis’s lab, the experience was familiar, as she had conducted field work during the summer of 2021. “I knew what to expect,” she said. Still, she found the discovery of pebbles from a distant river intriguing.
“There’s this whole mystery at the site about pebbles that made it into the assemblage,” Drees said. “These rocks were brought there from the local river. I thought that was pretty awesome.”
The theory about the pebbles is that Neanderthals or Homo sapiens, who had lived in the cave at different times, deployed the pebbles to help remove flakes from the rock cores these ancient ancestors used to create weapons.
While the students enjoyed the experience, with many of them planning to continue in their anthropological studies, the summer included some challenges.
The students stayed in a house at the top of a hill. At the same time, the cave was also on a hill. Each morning, they walked down the hill to a car that drove them to the bottom of the Grotte Mandrin site, where they walked about 15 minutes up to the field station. At the end of the day, they had to climb back up to their temporary home.
“After digging holes all day, walking up the hill was not my favorite part,” Wong-Gómez said. Greening suggested that future participants in the program, which will also run this summer, bring sturdy shoes.
The students also sometimes carried heavy containers filled with sand. The physical challenges notwithstanding, most of the students eagerly anticipate future such explorations.
“It’s definitely the right field for me,” said Greening. “Working at Mandrin solidified that for me.”
Wong-Gómez hopes to continue his field work at the University of Florida. The university has accepted him as a PhD student, although he is awaiting word on whether he gets funding.
“When I got the email that I was accepted, it didn’t feel real,” Wong-Gómez said. “I really want to do this.”