ECWG grantees describe work in Africa, Middle East

Two graduate students, who were aided by Explorers Club Washington Group Exploration and Field Research Grants, described their work at the ECWG’s annual students dinner on April 17, 2010 at the Cosmos Club in Washington.

They are among the 88 students awarded ECWG grants since the program began in 1997.

From left, Meredith Muth, Polly Penhale, the ECWG chair, and Sarah Yukich. at the April 17 ECWG students dinner. Photo by Darlene Shields

Meredith Muth was a University of Virginia graduate student in environmental sciences when she applied for the grant and did her field work. On May 7 she defended her PhD dissertation based on her grant project, “The response of tropical seagrass communities to disturbance in Mozambique in east Africa.”

Sarah Yukich, who has a maters of arts degree from John Hopkins University and who is working on her PhD in Near Eastern studies at Hopkins, used her ECWG grant to help support her archaeological field work at The Johns Hopkins-University of Amsterdam Joint Expedition to Tell Umm el-Marra, Syria.

Below are answers to questions by the two grant winners about the importance of the ECWG grants in advancing their scientific careers.

Meredith Muth: Questions and Answers

Q: What was the importance of the ECWG grant to your work?

A: The ECWG Exploratory and Field Research Grant served it’s purpose exactly as intended. It allowed me to explore a potential research site in Mozambique, to develop a research design, and to begin data collection that allowed for the acquisition of preliminary data. This preliminary data was invaluable in applying for, and receiving, other funding sources including an EPA STAR Fellowship.

Q: What were the most important one or two things you learned from your projects that the ECWG grant helped support?

A: My early research efforts the ECWG grant supported allowed me to not only collect data, but to also gain insight on conducting research in foreign countries. One of the most important things I learned from this early stage of my dissertation research was the importance of establishing collaborations with the local scientists in Mozambique, as well as creating relationships with the local population on Inhaca Island so that they understood what I was trying to investigate.

Q: What are the most important questions that remain for you or others to answer after your work?

A: My research built upon existing components for marine plant ecology in general, and provided useful data to fill in some of our knowledge gaps, especially with respect to poorly-studied areas in East Africa. Many questions still remain  (as there should be!) and are worth pursuing.

For example, both I and local resource managers would be interested in addressing more explicitly the role of disturbance on associated fauna. Local human populations in coastal villages rely directly on these organisms (bivalves, crabs, and fish) for food security and income. Understanding how different types of disturbance affect the density and diversity of these organisms can be useful in deciding where to build infrastructure, as well as predicting how these critical ecosystem services will be affected by changes in disturbance regimes, such as storm events.

Q: Where do you go from here?

A: I am currently in a one year Knauss Sea Grant fellowship within the Climate Program Office in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The goal of this fellowship is to provide young scientists an opportunity to work on policy and management. Specifically, I work on range of international climate change issues that include global food security, bilateral agreements with other countries, and international science assessments such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). My dissertation research in Africa, which was partly funded by the ECWG grant, prepared me for this realm of science policy by increasing my appreciation for both the role of science and of cultural sensitivity.

Sarah Yukich: Questions and answers

Q: What was the importance of the ECWG grant to your work?  That is, did it help you win other grants, do something you might not have otherwise been able to do, or something else?

A: The ECWG grant really was essential to my work in Syria. Without the support of the Explorers Club, I would not have been able to travel to Syria and to excavate the archaeological site of Umm el-Marra. In addition, the experience and confidence I gained from writing the ECWG grant proposal has been invaluable to me as I look ahead to applying for other grants and fellowships.

Q: What were the most important one or two things you learned from your projects that ECWG grant helped support?

A: My excavations at Umm el-Marra provided exciting new data on the elite ritual activities occurring at the site during the late third millennium and the early second millennium BCE. The archaeological finds that I made provided new insight into the social changes that seem to have been occurring at Umm el-Marra and at sites all over the Near East at the end of the Early Bronze Age.

The most significant discovery that my excavation team made was that of an elite “royal” tomb dating to the late third millennium (Tomb 9) located underneath the outer edge of a monumental stone platform dating to the early second millennium monument, known as Monument 1. Most importantly, the location of Tomb 9 is evidence that the builders of Monument 1 knew about the existence of the earlier elite cemetery, and deliberately built their monumental stone platform on top of it. In addition, I learned that Tomb 9 was probably looted and deliberately desecrated at the same time as the cemetery was still considered sacred ground, perhaps as a political act.

Q: What are the most important questions that remain for you or others to answer after your work?

A: One key question that remains unanswered is why the builders of Monument 1 placed it above the earlier elite cemetery. We now know that they did so intentionally, but we don’t yet know if it was an act of reverence, because of the cemetery’s perceived sanctity and connection to elite power, or if it was a deliberate attempt to obliterate the memory of the earlier cemetery.

It is not yet clear how the new rulers of Umm el-Marra in the early second millennium related to their late third millennium BCE predecessors. In addition, I was not able to excavate the entirety of Tomb 9. In particular, an unusual short wall attached to the outside of the tomb might be part of a subsidiary structure or another monumental tomb. Further excavation of the area to the south of the tomb will be necessary to explore these possibilities.

Q: Where to you go from here?

A: This coming year I will be completing an analysis of ceramic data from almost 150 sites that are located in the region around Umm el-Marra. The results of this analysis should provide us with a much better understanding of settlement patterns in this region from the third millennium to the second millennium BCE, and thus a better understanding of the broader socio-political changes occurring around Umm el-Marra at the same time as the elite tombs and Monument 1 were being built.

On the Web: The Johns Hopkins/University of Amsterdam Joint Expedition to Tell Umm el-Marra, Syria

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