”As with all good scientists, archaeologist Dr. Virginia Popper’s stock and trade is asking questions. Even when she is showing schoolchildren though her lab in the basement of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, she asks the simple question that is always her baseline. What did you have to do with plants today? ”Popper’s specialization is paleoethnobotany, which means she’s fascinated by how prehistoric people used plants. Were they used for foods, fuel, medicine, exchange or fibers? Did certain plants mark status, such as chocolate among the elite in Aztec culture? How did the diets vary among distinct workers in Peru, where the fisherman, weavers and farmers consumed different foods. ”’Every aspect of life required plants,’ the Palisades resident says. ‘Ancient people spent a lot of time collecting plants.’ ”Popper is director of the paleoethnobotany lab at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, which is a research unit that promotes the comprehensive and interdisciplinary study of the human past. Established in 1973, the Institute houses laboratories for regional field research projects, presents public lecture programs, publications, and research seminars as well as field research grants to its members. The Institute also trains professional archaeologists through an interdisciplinary graduate degree program. ”Dr. Popper specializes mainly in the Americas. For her doctorate project she examined the development of the floating gardens of Xochimilco, or chinampas, the intricate agricultural system that fed Mexico’s ancient capital city. ”In California, she has studied the Presidio system, which not only served a defensive function to protect Spanish towns, ranches and friendly Indians, but also became a place where Native Americans came to settle, receive protection and get gifts of clothing, food and other items. ”In this project, contracted by the State of California, Popper examined plant material mostly from trash pits and hearths to learn more about the way of life at the time. Were the officers, for instance, eating different foods from the enlisted men? What sorts of foods were available, and what did the Native Americans eat? ”’We know that when the Presidios were established in the late 18th century, the soldiers imported beans, corn, peas, wheat and barley seeds, which they later cultivated in the area,’ Popper says. ‘They also planted vines, figs and peaches. The Natives Americans, who lived outside the presidio walls, continued with their traditional methods of collecting seeds and acorns in order to supplement their diets.’ ”When addressing these myriad questions, archaeologists collect, study and organize huge amounts of data which they then analyze in the lab. ”Under normal conditions of weathering and erosion, plant materials will decay, unless they have been ‘fixed’ by removing degradable organic compounds during the process of charring by wildfire. ”So pay dirt for Popper is found literally in the dirt. She calls her lab ‘the dirtiest of all.’ Indeed, much of the plant material she finds is hidden in dirt from excavations of one sort or another. Plant seeds have been discovered in storage pits, middens or burial sites. ”The day I visited, Palisadian Carolyn Perry, a volunteer with the Friends of Archaeology, was studying a small pile of charcoal under the microscope, and removing extraneous materials from the charred seeds’dirt, chaff and even a small white worm that had wiggled its way into the sample. Other days, she and other volunteers sort archaeological samples, enter data on the computer or help with the comparative collection. ”Popper’s lab is simple. A long work shelf runs along one wall with several microscopes in place. On the opposite wall, cabinets with long, shallow drawers store what appear to be different sizes and shapes of charcoal. Upon closer examination, recognizable items such as charred corncobs, corn kernels or juniper berries appear. ”Part of her process of identifying archaeological plant material involves comparing it with modern specimens. And she has collected several thousands of comparative types of seed and woods. To help with comparisons Popper used a low-tech method. She takes a modern sample’a corncob for example, wraps it in foil and roasts it on her home barbecue until it is charred. ”These comparisons help her to determine if the seed or grass is the same as the archeological plant, and thus assist in establishing moisture patterns, migrations, and trade. ”’The more specifically I can identify seeds, the more information I can glean. For example, I might find seeds in a desert that used to grow in a wet environment. What other clues can I discover about the site? I did some work on Santa Cruz Island and found evidence of California lilac, which a botanist had told me just doesn’t grow there, but it must have at one time because I had evidence.’ ”Popper’s enthusiasm for archaeology came early. Her father was a diplomat, which resulted in the family living overseas for a time. ”’I lived in Cyprus and went on a number of digs, but mostly studied ceramics and lithics (stone tools and projectiles),’ she says. While at Harvard University, she took a year off in Chile, where her parents were then posted. She worked on a project in the Atacama (the driest desert in the world) in Chile that excited her and focused her interest on plant remains. ‘I saw mummies, wrapped in fabric with corn cob adornments, and surrounded by baskets filled with mesquite pods, corn cobs and squash seeds. I was amazed, and went back to college and took an economic botany class called plants and human affairs. I realized that by studying plants I could learn how a culture existed, and how they marked cultural events such as contact with foreigners, or how people had to change through time as populations grew and were forced to come up with innovative ideas. I liked the questions I could ask.’ ”Graduating with a degree in anthropology, Popper went on to the University of Michigan for her Ph.D. She and her husband Greg Morgan came out to California in the early 1990s, and in 1992, she became a research associate at UCLA. She also teaches a lecture/lab seminar for the Institute where she covers theoretical issues and methodology. ”’Every archaeologist has things they like looking at,’ Popper says. ‘I like looking at different seeds. Micro remains like pollen are too small, I have to be able to turn something over.’ ”While she loves wrestling with the more complex questions, such as those presented by her work with the California missions, Popper says that the biggest challenge these days is finding research projects. The National Science Foundation has a very tight budget. ”’Archeologists are always scrounging for grants; it’s a fairly expensive kind of work and quite labor intensive. After all, there is really no faster way to study things than with a microscope.’ ”Currently she is working on a burial site dating from about 700 to 1400 A.D. in Palmdale, where she is trying to figure out what the plants were used for. ”When not burning plants, Popper enjoys growing them in her backyard in the Palisades. She and her husband have two children, Emily, a sophomore at Harvard, and Peter, a sophomore at New Roads. ”For those who are interested in the The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, the Friends of Archaeology is hosting an open house on Thursday, May 26 from 4 to 7:30 p.m. in the Fowler Building at UCLA. A lecture on the archaeology of music by Dr. Julia Sanchez will follow at 7:30 p.m. ”Guests will be able to see ongoing research in the labs from ceramics and paleoethnobotany to rock art and zooarchaeology and learn about the volunteer opportunities in all the labs.
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