The Liberal Arts Advantage 2012-2013
The Annual Report of the College of Letters & Science

Gift Grows Advances in Molecular Archaeology

It is not every day that a $40,000 check lands on the dean’s desk — and rarer still when the gift comes with a note like this:

“Please use this in whichever manner best meets the current needs of the university. If possible, use [the money] to continue an integrated program that blends the humanities with the sciences in one seamless curriculum.”

The donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a California physician who remembered the quality and breadth of his undergraduate education at UW-Madison.

Unrestricted gifts like this make the difference in the dean’s ability to invest in people and programs that help the College of Letters & Science to provide a world-class liberal arts education.

In early 2012, Dean Gary Sandefur awarded a significant portion of the gift funds to William Aylward, an archaeologist and professor of classics who is leading an ambitious research project at the ancient city of Troy in modern-day Turkey.

Aylward’s team is working with UW-Madison biologists, chemists, and physicists to deploy powerful, new techniques to reveal the hidden history of Troy. The unrestricted gift funds enabled Aylward to lead a reconnaissance team to Troy in 2012 to develop research questions for future exploration. He also created opportunities for undergraduates to participate in the project; several of them joined the team and presented their discoveries at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in April 2013.

By analyzing chemical residues from Bronze Age ceramic storage jars (called pithoi) and Roman tableware, the group hopes to discover the diet of Troy’s inhabitants and the ancient ecosystem on which they relied for food. By studying human skeletal remains from the Byzantine era, which contain traces of mycobacterium tuberculosis, scholars are searching for the origins of that disease. And by identifying biomarkers preserved in organic matter, geographers will measure human and animal legacies at Troy.

Discoveries in this new field of molecular archaeology will inform future questions asked by humanities scholars, such as: How did disease, travel, diet, and conflict shape nearly 5,000 years of uninterrupted settlement history at an ancient city on the boundary between Europe and Asia?

“The gift has been a profound catalyst for intensified exchange between the humanities and science,” says Aylward.