September 11, 2018

Students Travel to Zambia for First-Ever Field School

Students interested in the intersection of environmental change, history, and anthropology traveled to Livingstone and Basanga, Zambia, this summer to participate in the newly launched Georgetown in Zambia: The Africa Field School, led by Professor Kathryn de Luna.

Students and researchers stand as a group in their excavated site
Students and researchers stand as a group in their excavated site

Over the course of five weeks, students studying different disciplines conducted field research with scholars from around the world. At the end of the program, they presented their findings to community partners, which they will be able to use for future senior theses or capstone projects. 

“At its heart, the program is interdisciplinary and international,” said de Luna. “Students and even the researcher involved benefit from the diversity of the team involved.”

Archaeology as a Tool

After his experience interviewing Holocaust survivors in Moldova and Poland with the Center for Jewish Civilization, Andrew Sedlack (C’20) applied to the field school to further his understanding of on-the-ground research. 

“I was curious about historical fieldwork and wanted more exposure to how history research could be conducted outside of an archive,” said Sedlack. “I learned a lot about the practical facts of archaeology and historical research, more than I had expected to learn.”

While in rural Zambia, Sedlack helped dig a trench for archaeological survey from which he excavated pottery sherds and artifacts. Sedlack then interviewed residents of the area on the significance of his findings.

“I focused on understanding the use of lithic tools in the area and how grindstones at some point developed a cultural and spiritual significance beyond their utilitarian function,” said Sedlack. “Technically what I did was look at different soft rocks for a month, but it would not be an understatement to call that experience life-changing.”

Uncovering Sociolinguistics

Driven by a desire to learn outside the classroom, Peri Beckerman (C’20) devoted her summer to linguistic and historical research on medieval-era Zambia.

“I thought it would be interesting to know how to conduct linguistics research without the help of written documents from the time period,” said Beckerman. “What I experienced throughout the field school was that discovering history without a written record is filled with much more guesswork than I imagined, which is not a bad thing to learn. This allows for flexibility in assumptions.”

By interviewing locals about their traditions and taking part in an archaeological dig, Beckerman was able to conduct her own research project on language policy in Zambia. She also had the opportunity to partake in traditions herself, learning how to make salt, weave baskets, and spear fish. In addition to this cultural appreciation, Beckerman returned home with a new understanding of sociolinguistics. 

“Linguistics research tells us how material traditions have changed throughout time, what languages were in contact with one another hundreds of years ago,” said Beckerman. “The Zambian field school helped me realize what I want to focus on in my linguistics major: sociolinguistics. I like talking to people and figuring out what is important to them and why.”

Continuing the Field School

After a successful first year, de Luna expects the program to be offered every two years, partly thanks to the project being awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research grant. She hopes the field school can continue to challenge students.

“Students work hard physically, walking kilometers for survey or screening hundreds of buckets of excavated soil,” said de Luna. “We are living in a different culture and eating the food and observing the customs of that culture.”

Though he considers himself to have gone outside of his comfort zone, Sedlack is now considering making history his academic focus.

“I went out on a limb [in going to Zambia], but yes I'm definitely considering sort of devoting my life to what I learned to do in Zambia,” said Sedlack. “I have learned a lot about life and there is still a lot of globe I don't have outlook on.”