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CMRAE scientists at MIT bring engineering to liberal arts

Left to right: Professors Linn Hobbs, Dorothy Hosler, Samuel Allen and Heather Lechtman have announced a new summer institute to teach materials science relating to archaeology to humanities professors from other colleges.
Left to right: Professors Linn Hobbs, Dorothy Hosler, Samuel Allen and Heather Lechtman have announced a new summer institute to teach materials science relating to archaeology to humanities professors from other colleges.
Photo / Donna Coveney

For more than 30 years, researchers in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology have forged anthropology, archaeology and materials science into a powerful and unique tool for investigating ancient societies.

Now, with a $750,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation's Division of Materials Research (NSF/DMR), the MIT faculty members will use their experience in research and education to introduce materials science and engineering to the curricula of liberal arts colleges. Their vehicle for doing this is archaeological science.


Dorothy Hosler and Heather N. Lechtman, both professors of archaeology and ancient technology; Linn W. Hobbs, professor of materials science; and Samuel L. Allen, the POSCO Professor of Physical Metallurgy, all are faculty in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) and members of the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology (CMRAE). In response to the invitation from the NSF/DMR for proposals of novel ways to launch graduate students toward careers in materials, this team will establish the MIT Summer Institute in the Materials Science of Material Culture.

This fall, the team will select 15 faculty members from liberal arts colleges around the country to come to MIT in June 2002. During the two-week summer institute, these faculty, representing a variety of disciplines from art history to physics, will be introduced to the science and engineering of materials as they examine the relations between early societies and their materials technologies.

The goal of this educational experiment is to reach out to faculty members of liberal arts colleges that rarely offer engineering to encourage their students to pursue careers in materials-related areas. The effort could ultimately reach students studying art history, history, archaeology, environmental science, biology, chemistry, geology and physics.


CMRAE is an internationally recognized consortium of Boston-area institutions that promotes the use of science and engineering in the pursuit of archaeological, anthropological and art historical knowledge.

The center was created in 1977 by a small group of faculty in MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering together with colleagues from other consortium institutions to teach archaeological science at the graduate level with a heavy emphasis on materials engineering.

"This is a unique program," said Lechtman, director of the CMRAE. "Ours is the only department of materials science and engineering in the United States that embraces an intellectual focus in archaeology and anthropology. Only here at MIT are archaeologists working from an engineering platform."

Recently, DMSE established a new undergraduate major, Archaeology and Materials, and a new Ph.D. program in archaeological materials.

"We are archaeologists/anthropol-ogists, a part of whose method of research is grounded in the properties of materials so that we can determine how people processed and engineered materials," Lechtman said. "We have 30-plus years of experience in carrying out this kind of research and in teaching graduate students how to incorporate materials engineering into their archaeological tool kit. We know how to do it."


Hosler and Lechtman are credited with creating the archaeology subfield known as the materials science of material culture.

By investigating the properties of prehistoric artifacts, the researchers learn about decisions and choices people made in the process of manufacturing their material inventory. Because each material presents to the artisan or the engineer an invariant spectrum of properties that influence the way the material can be used, an object reflects the attitudes of specific peoples and cultures in their management of the material world.

This perspective shows up in their own work. Hosler and her students recently determined the ingredients--natural latex and the juice from morning-glory vine--that the Olmec and later Mesoamerican peoples mixed to produce rubber, the elastic material essential to the pan-Mesoamerican ritual ball game. This polymer technology predated Goodyear's vulcanization process by 3,500 years.

Lechtman has established Andean South America as a primary locus for development of sophisticated metallurgical technologies in prehistory. Her research demonstrates that Andean peoples placed heavy emphasis on the physical properties of metals and alloys such as color. These cultural attitudes resulted in processing techniques and resulting objects quite different from those produced in the ancient Near East.

Hosler's work in Mesoamerica shows that there, both color and sound were the properties chosen as essential to the appropriate cultural performance of metals. The Andes and Mexico shared a pan-American approach to the management of these materials.

Allen's research includes alloy and process design for rapid manufacturing of metal-molding tools by three-dimensional printing, and research and development on a new class of high-strain metallic actuator materials. He also is an experienced blacksmith and has studied with one of this country's leading pattern-welded steel bladesmiths.

Hobbs' research includes the study of high-temperature corrosion of metals, the radiation effects in nuclear waste materials and the bone-implant interface in orthopedic prostheses. He restores 17th and 18th century clocks and studies the history of horological technologies.


Liberal arts faculty members will participate in four modules that use case studies as examples of ways to integrate materials science and engineering into social science curricula. They also will explore how to add laboratory work on the chemical and microstructural analysis of materials to their courses.

Lechtman will lead a module on "The Power of Metal in the Ancient Andean World," which will focus on the differences in the ways in which early metallurgies developed in the Old and New Worlds. Hobbs' module, "Building Bricks and Monumental Glue," will explore the materials science and engineering of mortars, the "glue" that helps hold together monuments and the civilizations they represent. Hosler's module, "Rubber Processing in Ancient Mesoamerica," will address the technology and social context of rubber processing in ancient Mexico 3,500 years before the discovery of vulcanization. Allen will lead a module on "Damascus and Pattern-Welded Steels" about the legendary Damascus steel that awed Western cultures with its toughness.

Archaeologists and art historians, for instance, can use these case studies to consider the physical properties as well as the cultural dimensions of materials. Chemists and geologists might explore how to incorporate into their courses a materials or material culture module to help students explore the cultural implications of objects.

The beauty of the program, Lechtman said, is that because the subject is so broad--any type of human-made or natural material, from any era in history, any place on the globe qualifies--faculty can pick and choose an approach that will best serve their needs.

"We focus our attention on the people and cultures [we are studying], not just the materials," she said. "This approach will give college professors a lot of leg room to figure out how to introduce an engineering focus in their curriculum in a way that works for them."


Lechtman, who graduated from Vassar with a degree in physics and later studied art history, noted that there is an ever-widening gap between the sciences and the humanities, with few students these days immersing themselves in both.

She and her colleagues hope to help bring the two back together. "In a very small way, we may make a difference by opening doors, opportunities and ideas to young people," she said. "This is a modest way of incorporating engineering into their studies and pursuits in a way that is natural, accessible and challenging."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 12, 2001.

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