A small team of University of Tulsa researchers will soon purchase a Barrett WAM® robotic arm thanks to a $137,446 grant from the National Science Foundation. Joining Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Joshua Schultz, the group’s principal investigator, are Professor of Mechanical Engineering Steve Tipton and Associate Professor of Anthropology Danielle Macdonald. The title of their project is Major Research Instrumentation: Acquisition of a Lightweight 7-Axis Robotic Manipulator with Force Sensing for Archaeological and Engineering Research and Education.
The Barrett WAM® robotic arm is one of the most sophisticated robot manipulators in existence, used by many of the world’s leading robotics research groups. While TU has had a robotic research group for nearly a decade, the lack of a robot arm has limited the types of experiments that could be performed and required extensive time and effort to build fixtures and jigs. “This arm will be a creative tool that allows TU researchers to conduct novel experiments that advance our understanding of robots and autonomous systems,” noted Schultz.
The new arm is capable of moving a tool attached to its end to any position it can reach, at any angle. “We will use this arm to do experiments that move something over and over thousands of times, possibly changing it a little bit each time,” explained Tipton. One example he points to involves bending metal tubes back and forth to determine how many times they can bend before they break, knowledge of which is critical for determining when, for example, critical tubing systems should be removed from service.
The arm will also be used to position TU’s robotic hand so that researchers can study how to pick up and move objects with that hand. It will also be deployed to bump and push soft robots to see how they behave when they collide with other objects.
Outside of its applicability for engineering research and teaching, the Barrett WAM® arm will be a boon for researchers in archaeology. “In this regard,” commented Macdonald, “we can program the robot to use stone and bone tools the way prehistoric people did. The wear traces on experimental archaeological tools used by the robotic arm will be compared to wear traces on artifacts, which will allow us to gain deeper insight into the lives of ancient people.”
“Ancient Homo sapiens and their relatives, including Neandertals, left behind countless Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) artifacts,” Martisius said. “These remains – primarily of stone but also of bone – provide ample information into the lifeways of these early people. They help us to figure out what it means, in fact, to be human.”
“We are thrilled to have Naomi joining us as a postdoctoral fellow,” commented Assistant Professor of Anthropology Danielle Macdonald, who first met Martisius in 2018 at an archaeology conference in France. “Her innovative research on bone tool technology, quantitative microscopy and paleolithic cultures is reframing how we understand peoples’ tool use in prehistory. As well, her work on experimental archaeology will provide a wonderful opportunity for TU students to participate in archaeological research by learning how to make and use bone tools as well as help with Naomi’s experiments.”
Experimental archaeology and microscopic analysis
While at TU, Martisius will undertake experimental archaeological research. This will see her making and using bone tools for a variety of tasks, such as cutting, scraping and sewing. Martisius will then use the Department of Anthropology’s Sensofar S Neox confocal microscope, which is housed in the department’s Surface Metrology & Tribology Lab, to identify traces of use. These she will then compare to similar archaeological artifacts.
This powerful 3D microscope will allow Martisius to study tiny details of a bone’s surface quantitatively. In recent years, archaeologists have become increasingly drawn to 3D microscopy because of its ability to measure microscopic surfaces and look for patterns using statistical analyses rather than individual archaeologists’ interpretations.
According to Martisius, “this field, especially for the study of bone tools, is in a preliminary state and requires thorough methodological development before it can accurately inform our archaeological interpretations.” Once Martisius has figured out all the details of the method, she will transfer what she has learned to her study of ancient bone artifacts.
Really old European bones
Following her doctoral research, which focused on Neandertals’ specialized bone tools from two sites in France, Martisius spent five months in Bulgaria on a Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship studying bone tools and animal teeth pendants from Bacho Kiro Cave. Dating to about 46,000 years ago, the people who made those artifacts were among the first Homo sapiens in Europe. Once Martisius’s Fulbright concluded, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig hired her as a postdoctoral researcher to continue working on the Bacho Kiro assemblage.
“This corner of Europe is really exciting for archaeologists who study ancient people,” Martisius commented. “It’s here that the first modern humans migrated into Europe and, quite possibly, encountered Neandertals. Not long after, our Homo sapiens ancestors had replaced Neandertals in Europe.”
Martisius’s entryway to this long-gone world are artifacts made from bone or teeth. She explained: “Early humans would hunt an animal for its meat and other resources, such as marrow and organs. Then, they would use the animal’s bones to make various types of tools to help with everyday activities, such as working hides. It’s not uncommon to hear prehistoric people caricatured as oafish or barely surviving. But our study of their tools reveals they had an excellent grasp on the resources in their environment and knew exactly how to use them.”
The evolution of human ingenuity and technical skills
In addition to her work in France and Bulgaria, Martisius has spent time excavating in Israel and has conducted research in South Africa. “I am most interested in comparing what early humans were doing in different parts of the world during the Paleolithic and assessing how their technologies changed over broad time scales.”
By taking such a long and global view of time and technology, Martisius hopes to expand scientific understanding of when and how human capabilities developed. “Over the last 3 million years or so, our ancestors became increasingly human. Their tools help us to tease apart questions regarding — and find answers to — the changes in their ingenuity and technical skills.”
Does digging up and studying the remains of long-dead people and cultures interest you? If so, consider undertaking your explorations at TU through a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a major in archaeology and a minor in history.
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