In a Boston University science lab a student trims the top of a clay pot with a chip of volcanic glass made razor-sharp by striking rock on a deer antler. At the other end of the long table, another undergraduate struggles with a length of sinew to reinforce his beer-can holder made of a vine.
Another student is making a spear-throwing device, called an atlatl, used by early man to obtain dinner.
It’s all part of Curtis Runnels’ archeology course, “Prehistoric Technology and Culture,” in which few concessions to modern ways are permitted.
The general idea is to make technology students understand that the evolution from flint-knapping to computer processing was neither rapid nor simple.
“We’re more or less learning how it started,” David Cowan, a 19-year-old psychology major from Los Angeles, said.
‘Takes More Thinking’
“It takes a lot more thinking to understand the basic stuff than it takes to understand the modern technology,” he said.
Runnels, an assistant professor of archeology, developed the course four years ago at Stanford University. Students learn to make arrowheads and clay pots, start fires and speculate on how, 3 million years ago, primitive man figured out how to kill a deer and use an antler in making the volcanic-glass cutting tool.
On the first day Runnels tells his charges something they probably already knew but never thought about: that they are dependent on technology.
“If you were to be thrust down on some desert island somewhere,” he tells them, “you guys would be dead in a day.”
“We’re so dependent on this division of labor and other people doing our technology for us that most of us cannot manipulate our technology,” he adds. “You can use a computer but you can’t make one. In fact, you can’t even make your dinnerware, metal or plastic.”
The basic premise is to teach how modern technology was derived from ancient technology --the connection between “pre-tech” and “high-tech.”
Stone Age to Metals
Runnels starts with stoneworking skills developed millions of years ago in Africa. Metallurgy is studied next, then pottery, basketry and the architecture of ancient monuments such as Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids.
“There’s a logic to this progression, because what happens is, as technology changes, society changes,” Runnels said. “There’s a complex feedback relationship between these two things.”
As an example, Runnels cites the “prehistoric arms race” that some historians believe developed about 5,000 years ago, when someone discovered that weapons made of metal were more effective than wood or stone.
“All of a sudden, there are new offensive and defensive weapons in the world,” Runnels said, sitting in an office decorated with a bronze sword, a basketful of spears and sticks and a tray holding fossilized Greek acorns from 2800 BC.
“Now, new fortification walls are necessary. Now, you’ve got to have those weapons if those guys have got them. A whole new ballgame opens up because the specifics of the technology make it possible to control it.”
Runnels approaches technological advances such as metallurgy, developed 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, by comparing the techniques of prehistory to those of today.
Copper Ore as Key
He grabs a multicolored rock from the edge of his desk. “You know what that is? One of the most fundamental building blocks of our whole electric civilization is copper, and that’s the source of copper.
“All of our metallurgy, including super-sophisticated alloys, have arisen out of essentially the same metallurgical techniques that were used in prehistory. The iron beams that support this building--that technique was invented in prehistory. The glass in the windows and in the computer screen are right out of the glass technology.
“All of this was done without any record. People didn’t come down from their mountain where they were recording the great deeds of political and military history to talk about what was going on down at the factories.”
Runnels has his students build a fire and make their own cutting tools so they can appreciate how ancient skills led to more sophisticated ones, and also how they fell out of use.
“It really gives you a sense that they were not idiots, they were not nincompoops,” said Joseph Bloch, 21, a senior from Morristown, N.J., majoring in ancient and medieval history. He made an arrowhead he is quite proud of.
That Ancient Look
“It really looks like something you’d dig up,” he said. “It’s amazing that you can make something that was made millions of years ago.”
Most of the dozen or so students who take Runnels’ class each semester are not majoring in archeology, but were attracted by the hands-on teaching methods and the professor’s animated style.
The class first-aid kit is used often, when students nick their fingers with antlers or obsidian, the dark-colored volcanic glass that is used to cut everything from clay to twine.
One of the few modern tools they use is a kiln for firing clay pots at temperatures up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Runnels said that an open fire would do just as well, “but for some reason, they won’t let us build a fire in the parking lot.”
When he taught the class in slightly more bucolic Palo Alto, Calif., Runnels did have the class build a fire in the woods. They roasted wieners and marshmallows.
“Making fire is a lot harder to do than you’d think,” said Lara Prihodko, 20, a sophomore archeology major with a new-found appreciation of matches.
“It took, like, five people to do it.”