Using new science to reconstruct an ancient past
Dr Sophia Aharonovich is using cutting-edge science to create a complete portrait of life in Biblical times.
She is a scientific archaeologist, a job that uses her training in organic geochemistry and passion for ancient history. And she has pioneered a new technique to analyse ancient residue inside artefacts to help reconstruct history – from items in museum collections to freshly excavated finds.
“An archaeological dig is a jigsaw puzzle, and when you do the analytical work, it opens up their lives,” said Dr Aharonovich. “These people were like us – they had their daily jobs, they raised families, and had food and celebrations that brought them together.”
Her work brings taste, feel and colour to archaeological research, allowing a detailed reconstruction of daily life thousands of years ago.
Instead of the vast palaces and temples that often capture the public imagination and dominate the history books, her focus is domestic life – she wants to know what people ate, what their homes looked like and what they wore.
“Step by step, we’re trying to reconstruct a kitchen from 3,000 years ago – and maybe one day write the recipe.”
A delicate job
Dr Aharonovich is one of the pioneers in the field of residue analysis, which involves interpreting organic molecules preserved in different contexts, from geology to archaeological artefacts.
Technological advances have allowed scientific archaeologists like Dr Aharonovich to re-analyse old samples with new equipment.
She has been working with museums around the world to analyse objects in their collections, from the Dead Sea collection at Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum to artefacts from the famed pyramids of Giza at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
“I have developed a protocol which is virtually non-intrusive,” she says.
Dr Aharonovich looking into history.
“Up until now, many museums have been afraid that any analysis may potentially destroy priceless artefacts, because it used to involve drilling holes and taking the objects into the lab.
“My work in archaeology gave me great insight into how important it was to care for these objects and preserve them. So, I developed a technique that allows us to take the sample and leave the artefact in the museum.”
Passing on knowledge
Dr Aharonovich is passing on her pioneering techniques to ACU students, running an on-site chemistry lab at the recent ACU-led dig at Tel Lachish in Israel.
The field laboratory allowed her to teach students the basics of material culture sampling and real-time chemical analysis of archaeological sediments.
“This is the first laboratory of its kind in Israel and probably the only one in the world on a biblical period site,” she says.
“We have developed an analytical chemistry fieldwork concept that allows us to produce same-day results of the sedimentary analysis.
“By analysing the forensic footprint of the archaeological finds in the laboratory we can understand everything from city planning to the cooking and drinking habits of its people.”
Dr Aharonovich’s work will help answer bigger questions about the movement of people across the Middle East, the foundations of major cities, the rise and fall of empires and even the influence of climate change on ancient civilisations.
“It’s an amazing place,” Dr Aharonovich says. “You could dig there for 100 years and still probably not uncover even 10 per cent of what it's hiding.
“We can reconstruct the walls and see how the houses were built, and you find everything from pottery to flint tools.”
Dr Aharonovich said archaeological digs required physical stamina and an eye for detail.
“Our students see that archaeology is a magic that comes with a lot of work,” she says.
“The historical artefacts aren’t sitting on the surface – they have been dragged down and covered with layers of sediment and soil that you need to carefully clean away.
“A lot of stuff you put in the bucket, but you can’t really understand until you take it to the laboratory.
“It’s that painstaking work that makes the people who lived thousands of years ago more alive to us.”
Each year, ACU’s Ancient Israel program offers students the chance to join an annual archaeological dig at the ancient site of Lachish, 50 kilometres outside Jerusalem.
Passionate about archaeology? Learn more about studying at ACU.