Two new course offerings

Mythbusting in Archaeology: New course teaches critical interpretation and evaluation of data

By Rachel Horowitz, Assistant Professor

The concept of using scientific theory to test the merits of well-known rumors and myths was the running theme behind a popular show on the Discovery Channel named “Mythbusters.”

“Mythbusting in Archaeology” (ANTH 135) is a new course that debuted at WSU in the fall of 2021. Taught by Prof. Rachel Horowitz, it fulfills the social science credit for the undergraduate distribution requirement. The class focuses on analyzing data and having students evaluate TV shows, movies, and other presentations of archaeological data. As reports of beliefs in ancient aliens, Atlantis, and other pseudoarchaeological stories are at an all-time high (in 2018, 41% of Americans believed in ancient aliens and 57% believed in Atlantis or other “lost” civilizations)–dissecting these ideas and their use in modern political contexts is an important opportunity for students to explore how disinformation spreads and how to critically evaluate data.

Topics covered in the class include Atlantis, “Ancient Aliens” (both the show by that name and its roots in early 20thcentury fiction), crystal skulls, and pyramids in Bosnia, and more well-known hoaxes, such as the Piltdown hoax. The course also covers non-hoaxes, such as the authentication of the Grolier Codex (now the Maya Codex of Mexico) as a Maya document.

Students participate in a variety of activities including evaluating pseduoarchaeological TV shows and attempting to make a replica of a Nazca line out of rope, to illustrate how these lines might have been created through cooperative activities. By combining these activities with critical evaluation of data, students can better understand how to interpret information they see outside of the classroom and understand the use and misuse of archaeological data in the present day.

Nasca lines drawn by students using ropes.

Skeleton Keys: New forensic anthropology course created to meet student demand

By Erin Thornton, Associate Professor

The public’s fascination with forensic science is reflected in the number of current television shows and popular books focused on the macabre subject. Moreover, many students who enroll in WSU Anthropology courses have requested course material covering forensic science. To meet this demand, the WSU Anthropology department has begun offering a new undergraduate course (ANTH 280) titled “Skeleton Keys: Introduction to Forensic Anthropology.” The course was designed and first taught in fall 2021 by Erin Thornton, an associate professor in the Anthropology department who specializes in human and non-human skeletal analysis. Prof. Thornton applies her knowledge of skeletal anatomy to introduce students to the field of forensic anthropology, an applied area of biological anthropology that assists law enforcement agencies to recover and identify human skeletal remains and estimate the time and cause of death. The new course taps into students’ general interest in forensics as a means to engage them in the real scientific methods used in human skeletal identification.

Through this new course, WSU undergraduates are introduced to topics including basic skeletal biology; evidence for disease and trauma on bone; methods of estimating age, sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal remains; field and laboratory methods; and ethics. Many of the methods and topics discussed are also relevant to the field of bioarchaeology (the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts), which forms a minor but complementary focus of the course. Students explore these topics through interactive exercises and activities conducted both within and outside the classroom. These include a three-hour weekend laboratory exercise in which students are asked to locate, map, document, and recover a simulated forensic crime scene at a dedicated outdoor learning center on the WSU Pullman campus (E.H. Steffen Center).

The department hopes the new course will appeal to students in many majors including Anthropology, criminal justice, biology, zoology, and Human Biology among others. The course was also designed to attract undergraduates needing to fulfill their Inquiry in the natural sciences University Common Requirement (UCORE). Throughout the semester, students are actively engaged in assessing the evidence and logic used to draw scientific conclusions in forensic anthropology. Their experience with this culminates in a final paper that asks them to critique the reality of forensic anthropology as presented in class against how it is often portrayed in the media.

WSU undergraduates collaborate in teams to recover, document, and map skeletal remains and associated evidence from a simulated forensic crime scene with the help of WSU graduate student Cameron Blumhardt