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Melina Seabrook ’17 Digs Deep in Iraq and Kenya

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Some of us just dream about time travel. Through world-spanning archaeological research, Melina Seabrook ’17 is making it happen.

The junior anthropology major from Monroe, Washington, has experienced hands-on research into the ancient past in far-flung dig sites across the globe.  Her first such trip took place in fall 2014 when she visited Stony Brook’s Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya to help investigate one of Professor James Rossie’s Miocene primate sites. There, Melina helped excavate an elephant femur.

That prepared her for an even more groundbreaking experience: a 10-week excavation of Ur, an ancient Sumerian city-state, with Professor Elizabeth Stone, a world-renowned expert in Iraq’s archaeological sites.

“Going to Kenya helped get me ready for the desert heat and sand of Iraq,” said Melina.

At Ur, Melina worked with Stone on an excavation by British archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who had closed the site in 1934 with the realization that “only a minute fraction” had been explored.

There had been no significant excavation in Ur until last year, when Stone invited Melina, who was interested in that part of the world, to accompany her and participate in the dig.

Iraq has been a dangerous place of late, but the excavation site was well-guarded and located far from combat and unrest. Abdel-amir Hamdani, who received his PhD in Anthropology from Stony Brook in 2015 was crucial to the development of the project, joined Stone, Melina and other students on the research team.

The project’s focus is on the socioeconomic transformation of Ur from the capital of a large bureaucratic empire to one city-state among many in Mesopotamia during the early 2nd millennium BCE (Before Common Era), also known as the middle- to late-Bronze Age.

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Melina Seabrook, right, with Prof. Elizabeth Stone

Stone and Melina are examining public buildings from that period and trying to determine if the population was composed of a free people or if they were semi-slaves working for the government. Stone is challenging the notion of inequality, positing instead that the city-state afforded social mobility and that is why people wanted to live there. She determines where the digs take place and with the help of local workers, collects pottery and bone and looks for plant remains in soil samples. The best objects they collect are archived in a museum in Baghdad.

Every day except Friday, the students dig from 7:00 am to 1:00 pm. The hottest part of the day is reserved for lab work. Melina learned pottery illustration in Iraq — an invaluable skill for spotting significant artifacts. During reconstruction, photographs don’t always show important details that close examination of a stone tool or piece of pottery can reveal.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” said Melina. “You go in blind and have to be careful so that you don’t accidentally destroy something. Some days you find nothing; other days you might uncover several objects. It’s crucial to follow a schedule and be willing to do repetitive work.”

Her love for archaeology is evident: To go on the dig, Melina took a leave of absence for the semester. She will return to Iraq next spring to do additional fieldwork.

“It was definitely worth it,” she said. “It doesn’t affect my schoolwork and it can only help my future,” said Melina.

She chose Stony Brook for its highly acclaimed archaeology faculty and program. Her future will include graduate school, possibly in the growing field of biological anthropology, and may some day include museum work as a curator, researcher or teacher.

— Glenn Jochum

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