Geologist Rick Dunn, Unearthed

smarkeyAcademics, Faculty & Staff, Front Page, News, Top Story

Norwich’s newest Dana Professor of Geology sees ancient worlds with fresh eyes
By Sean Markey | 2015 Annual Academic Research Report

 
December 18, 2014

Early one morning in late August, Richard Dunn prowled the grassy expanse of Groningen Garden, a large public park in downtown Tel Aviv. Part of an international research team, the geologist was in Israel to look for a pre-Roman harbor in the ancient city of Jaffa, the storied Biblical port of Solomon. With a coring rig due later that morning, Dunn and his colleagues opted to canvass the site with ground-penetrating radar in the predawn light. Less than an hour into their survey, air raid sirens wailed to life. Dunn, who played semipro baseball in college with an eye on the majors, scrambled for the nearest air raid shelter, hitting the dirt with his colleagues when they found the door padlocked. Overhead, Israeli Defense Force missiles intercepted a Palestinian rocket. As the team dusted themselves off after the attack, they decided it might be a good time to retreat to a local café.

That day in Tel-Aviv stands out in Dunn’s memory as a dramatic moment in the midst of a busy, semester-long, research sabbatical. Earlier that summer, Dunn had visited several sites in Greece, where he is currently involved in four distinct projects with colleagues from UCLA, Vanderbilt, the Field Museum of Chicago, and other institutions.

Deep Geologic Time

An expert at reconstructing ancient landscapes and environments, Dunn chairs the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at Norwich University. In 2014 he was named the University’s 21st Charles A. Dana Professor. The author of more than a dozen papers (with a half-dozen more in press), several book chapters, and scores of conference presentations, Dunn majored in geology and anthropology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, which housed a leading archaeometry lab at the time. It was an era, begun in the 1970s and continued in the 80s, when geology and archaeology began to overlap, converging into a dedicated field known as geological archaeology.

Hooked, Dunn earned a master’s in geology from Wichita State University in Kansas and a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Delaware. Fieldwork in Florida, Belize, Cyprus, and Greece helped him hone his expertise at reconstructing ancient coasts. Combing geologic fieldwork and mapping with lab analysis of ancient pollen and marine organism microfossils from core samples, he teased out clues about previous landscapes and environmental conditions.

Today, his research follows a transect of deep geologic time, informing the work of archaeological projects throughout the Mediterranean and, more recently, Easter Island. His recent and current projects include a Neolithic cave site and archaeological sites of the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, and ancient Greeks. Providing geologic insight, Dunn seeks answers to important questions, such as the best place to dig for Roman tombs in a dynamic coastal zone, or where the former inhabitants of a long-ago vanished city may have found a plentiful source of freshwater.

Solving Puzzles

The city in question is Korphos-Kalamianos, a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age site on the Aegean coast of Greece. “According to archaeologists, this was one of the sites named by Homer as having sent ships to Mycenae that then went to Troy to get back Helen,” Dunn says. The site was unusual because the walls of its many buildings were exposed, as if archaeologists had abandoned it after 25 years of digging. Dunn was enlisted, in part, to explain why. “It had been covered in this really thick bramble,” Dunn says. “There had been a fire, and it burned off, revealing the ancient port city.”

Korphos-Kalamianos clings to a rocky coast backed by hills and mountains. There is no stream, river, or other obvious source of freshwater. Archaeologists had assumed residents stored rainwater in large underground cisterns, but had yet to unearth any of note.

“That was kind of problematic,” Dunn recalls. He had mapped the site’s basic geology with Norwich undergraduates Devin Collins ’09, Greg Miller ’10, and Ethan Thomas ’11. “We realized that the bedrock had this pattern of fractures in it.” A chat between Dunn and a Greek fisherman hinted at places where freshwater flowed from the seafloor. “Springs, right? Aha!” Dunn hypothesized that groundwater was moving underground from the hills down through the fracture system to upwell at Korphos-Kalamianos. The archaeologists were skeptical, believing that the site’s rocky fissures carried salt water from the Aegean Sea, whose waves crashed ashore just 10 yards away.

A quick taste test proved he was right. Once the team mapped the site, they saw a pattern to the buildings: two rows separated by a blank zone. “Those lines of buildings were situated right on top of these two big fractures. Basically people didn’t want to walk very far to get their freshwater,” Dunn explains, “so they built their homes along this sort of artesian well system.”

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

More recently, Dunn has upended the conventional wisdom at an archaeological site on Easter Island, where a team co-led by Jo Anne Van Tilburg from UCLA is investigating Rano Raraku, the ancient quarry that supplied the stone for the islanders’ iconic moai statues. The team is the first to investigate the site since a 1955 Norwegian archaeological dig.

“His work is fundamental in establishing the probable location of those quarries and helping us to pinpoint the location of the next phase of our investigations,” Van Tilburg says, from Easter Island.

One task Dunn undertook was to produce the first-ever geologic map of the quarry, steep slopes that flank a freshwater lake in what was believed to be a collapsed volcanic cone. Yet Dunn’s fieldwork pointed to a different geologic story altogether—namely, that the site occupies the collapsed basin on the flank of a much larger, older volcano, now nearly completely eroded away. Dunn presented his findings at the Geologic Society of America conference to wide acclaim.

“Things like Easter Island, we think we understand—or the Grand Canyon, or something. It turns out that often not as much work has been done as we think, and we’re still trying to figure these things out,” Dunn says.

“[Easter Island] was a classic example of falling back on literally the things I learned as an undergraduate. The most basic tools, you know… Taking the puzzle pieces from that and putting together the right story. Rather than starting out with what I thought the picture already looked like, [asking] does that make sense?”