Researchers learn more about an ancient Iowa culture and lead levels in soil

A Cornell College student and a chemistry professor are gathering data on two topics using an X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer—an ancient Iowa culture and lead levels in soil.

Senior Lizzy Davidson and Professor Cynthia Strong are working together on both research projects over the summer.

The soil samples come from a small tributary near Mount Vernon, called Indian Creek.

“The main element we are specifically looking at is lead, and lead is very toxic,” Davidson said. “You don’t really want it in the environment. So, it’s important to be able to monitor where lead levels are high, so you can do something about it.”

The second project involves examining pottery samples from the State Archaeologist’s Office in Iowa City.

“The pieces that we are looking at came from the Mill Creek culture, which was in northwest Iowa about a thousand years ago,” Professor Strong said. “There are questions about how much those people traded with other cultures at the same time. The idea is—if the clay that was used to make the pottery came from a different location, then it could have different trace element composition that we would be able to detect.”

While the two projects are different, they both involve using the same instrument to gather data—an XRF.

 “We are using an X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer to look at both kinds of samples, and the X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer is our only portable instrument,” Professor Strong said. “We can take it out in the field and look at soil or stream sediments, and we can take it down to Iowa City and look at the pottery samples. In both cases, we are interested in the trace element composition.”

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