Blog posted by Alyssa McGrath

A BAKOTA CheMystery

Not everyone gets to spend their summer off-roading through rural Hungary. Thankfully, since I am part of the BAKOTA project, I do. So why am I off-roading through Hungary? It has to do with my project here, where I am working with my mentor, Dr. Mark Golitko. His work centers around finding out where the ceramic vessels at the Bekes 103 site originate. To do this, he needs to sample and chemically analyze clays from throughout the Great Hungarian Plain to compare to the ceramics that the BAKOTA team has excavated over past seasons. However, none of the clays samples that Dr. Golitko has collected over the past two field seasons chemically match the chemical composition of the vessels at Bekes 103.

This is where my project comes into the picture. There is a white encrustation on some of the sherds from the site, and no one knows exactly what it is. It could be chemicals that have transferred from the soil after the burial urns were placed in the ground, bone from inside the urns, or something else entirely. To determine the chemical composition of the white encrustations on the sherds of pottery, Dr. Golitko and I first located sherds that had the crust from both this year’s and past season’s excavations. We also took a soil sample from the dirt right next to the sherd with the crust. Once we’re back at Notre Dame this fall, we can chemically analyze that sherd, the dirt, and the other sherds we selected. To do this, we will use a variety of methods that include XRF and LA-ICP-MS. XRF stands for X-Ray Flourescence, which uses an x-ray to excite electrons in the atoms of the sherd and then reads what element it is from the energy the electron emits as it falls back into orbit. LA-ICP-MS stands for Laser Ablation-Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry, which is a highly sensitive machine able to read very small traces of each element in the sample. No matter what the results are, I’m excited to work in the lab this coming year. The results of my project will help both Dr. Golitko find out more about the origins of the BAKOTA ceramics as well as help the other directors of the project as they run future tests on the sherds to learn more about what they were used for.

While I have had the time of my life off-roading to paleomeanders around Hungary, I have also immensely enjoyed other aspects of the project. During the first week in the lab, I had the opportunity of working with “bone team” curating the Csanytelek Pale burials by separating identifiable bone fragments and then taking a 20% sample of the remaining cranial and post-cranial bones. Having no prior knowledge of human anatomy, the learning curve was steep for me, but I enjoyed learning about bones nonetheless. I also worked with “ceramic team” on coding decorative attributes of the previously excavated ceramic vessels of Bekes 103. Working to synchronize the measurements on every channel, prow, and node of the reconstructed vessels was another highlight of the lab for me. For a couple days of every week, I have worked in the field helping excavate the site. Whether it is helping with the RTK, screening buckets of dirt, or excavating the burials themselves, the field has also been a blast!

My weeks in Hungary this summer have been some of the best of my life. Having the opportunity to gain experience in the field I want to join when I graduate, learning from each mentor, spending time with students who share my passions, and exploring Hungary have all made this a field school that I won’t forget!


To see what previous students have done look here!

Getting to the Core of Archaeology Clay and Ceramics Reveal Bronze Age Trade Routes

To learn more about ICP-MS check here!