Montana State University

Ancient Artifacts on Display in MSU Library Exhibit

March 26, 2012 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Archeology students Betsy Garten and Meghan Forney helped research, write and design an exhibit featuring ancient artifacts excavated by the famous archeologists Mary and Louis Leakey. The exhibit, which will be on display at Montana State University's Renne Library until April 6, includes a number of replica skulls from early human ancestors. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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If they were sitting among the stones of a dry East African riverbed, the million-year-old obsidian hand axes might look like ordinary rocks to the untrained eye. But inside the glass-enclosed archeology exhibit near the front entrance of Montana State University's Renne Library, these remarkable relics now lay in full historical context as students, faculty and community members stream past.

Those who take a moment in time to stop are treated to an up-close look at tools worked by the hands of prehistoric hominids, our ancestors Homo erectus. The tools, which are likely between 700,000 and one million years old, were discovered during excavations in Kenya by the famous archeology team of Louis and Mary Leakey between 1925-45.

"The fact that these incredible pieces of history are displayed here is just amazing," said Nancy Mahoney, an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the College of Letters and Science who spearheaded the exhibit. "Louis and Mary Leakey were able to show that humans originated in Africa more than a million years ago and these artifacts represent a critical moment in our understanding of how we evolved as a species."

The move to mount the exhibition came after Mahoney learned from Jack Fisher, associate professor of anthropology, that there were Acheulean Age hand axes in a box that had been sent to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 2004 as a gift for its teaching collection.

"When Jack told me that my response was: 'Real ones?'" Mahoney said. "Then, because I still have this childlike enthusiasm for archeological artifacts, I immediately headed for the basement."

Once Mahoney began to pick through the box - finding tools unearthed by the Leakeys was essentially a second excavation of discovery - a picture began to emerge of historical importance of its contents.

She showed them to one of her classes, producing the "wow effect" for which she'd hoped.

"Nancy passed the stone axes around in the middle of her lecture and I was completely mesmerized," said student Betsy Garten. "It was hard to keep taking notes. Here you're actually in touch with ancient, ancient, ancient time."

With the help of Garten and Meghan Forney - the pair of undergraduates took on an independent study to prepare the exhibit - Mahoney said a picture also emerged of the serendipity that landed such an important find in MSU's teaching collection.

"Turns out these things have been on a really weird journey for a very, very long time," Mahoney said.

Working backward with the help of Leakey's letter, Forney began to research Irving Friedman, MSU's benefactor in bringing the items to Bozeman.

A pioneering geochemist who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, Friedman received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from MSU, moved on to a master's degree at Washington State University, a doctorate at the University of Chicago, and post-doctoral work at Chicago's famed Institute for Nuclear Studies. While there, Friedman built the first mass spectrometer for the measurement of the hydrogen isotope composition of water, which can be used to estimate the age and origins of water molecules.

At the USGS in 1958, Friedman put out a call to archeologists around the world to send obsidian stone-age tools for dating with a new technique he had developed based on his work on isotope hydrology. Called obsidian hydration dating, the method measures the rate at which water was absorbed over time into the mineral's surface.

Since obsidian axes and points are made by fracturing the stone to create sharp edges, the degree of hydration on that once-freshly exposed mineral surface offers an estimate of a tool's age.

Leakey had come upon a number of rich deposits of obsidian tools in now famous Kenyan archeological sites, among them Olorgesailie, Kariandusi, the Kinangop Plateau and Gamble's Cave. He wrote enthusiastically to Friedman, saying if Friedman had success in dating the artifacts from the six sites he included in his shipment, he had "specimens from many other sites I should like very much to submit to you."

Leakey's letter is on display at Renne Library alongside the artifacts, a number of reproduced skulls of prehistoric humans, a history of the Leakey family's archeological pursuits, and a description of obsidian hydration dating. The letters describing the excavation sites he and Mary Leakey found spread along the desert floor of the Great Rift Valley are enough to give archeologists goose bumps, Mahoney said.

"These specimens were excavated from an old land surface, and they had not been exposed to weathering except for a very short time after stone-age men had dropped them," Leakey wrote of the Kariandusi site. "They lay on an old lake beach, which had subsequently been sealed in by a very considerable amount of Middle Pleistocene sands, silts and grits, and they were accompanied by Middle Pleistocene fauna."

Beyond their time in the limelight of the library's glass case, Mahoney said they were invaluable as teaching tools.

Forney agreed.

"It's been really exciting to be involved with this exhibition, especially as an undergrad," Forney said. "We've been able to be involved in the whole process, from researching the finds and the history of the Leakey family to following up on the published results of Dr. Friedman's dating work to writing and designing the exhibit. That's pretty good considering in a lot of archeology programs, undergrads don't get to handle important Old World prehistoric artifacts."

For his part, Fisher, who is in South Africa pursuing research, said via email he was sorry to miss the exhibit.

"Nonetheless, I'm pleased that these fascinating artifacts from East Africa are being displayed to the public," Fisher said.

Both Fisher and Mahoney stressed that they were committed to returning the artifacts to Kenya if Kenyan museum officials thought they belonged back in Africa. In the meantime, Mahoney said she and her students were cataloguing the items for inclusion in an international database on Paleolithic artifacts from Kenya now held in collections worldwide.

That is a significant undertaking, Mahoney added, since the Leakey artifacts mark such a major milestone in human understanding of the distant past.

"He's such a huge figure for archeologists," Mahoney said. "It's just such a thrill to have both the artifacts he collected and a letter documenting his thinking about them, and on top of it all that, the documentation has his signature attached."

Standing beside the exhibit that officially went on display on March 16, Mahoney paused as several people stopped to peer into the glass case.

"It's also just amazing for us to have a chance to teach more people about why archeology is such a fascinating area of study," Mahoney added.

The archeological display at Renne Library will be up until April 6.

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, or