Archaeologists in Action: Michael Moore

This collaborative interview of the Oberlin Biology Department’s Michael Moore was conducted and co-written by Rachel Vales and Clara Carlson-Kirigin.

Professor Moore joined the Oberlin faculty in 2007 after receiving a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Texas at Austin. He studies the evolution of plant diversity, working in the field known as plant systematics. Moore is also a member of the Archaeological Studies Committee, representing one of the scientific sides of this interdisciplinary department.

While Professor Moore is not technically an archaeologist, his position on the Archaeological Studies Committee makes him a part of the Archaeological community at Oberlin. While archaeology classes at Oberlin are generally taught by anthropologists and classicists, other relevant fields such as biology and geology are represented on the Committee. Moore’s contribution to this group lies in the similarities between his own research interests and those of archaeologists, as well as his enthusiasm for both archaeology and interdisciplinary collaboration. “I don’t have any formal training [in archaeology],” Moore tells us, “but I’d consider myself an informed amateur”. We chose Moore as our next Archaeologist in Action because he can provide an often overlooked perspective that is still very much in line with Archaeological study.

Moore (right) with his students in New Mexico, collecting plant samples for his research

Moore’s involvement with the Archaeological Studies Program began three years ago when he was asked to become an internal reviewer. During this program review, he made a decision to continue working with them, volunteering to become part of the program committee. Looking back on the decision, he tells us that when he first got involved “It was honestly just for fun!”

It turns out that Moore’s interest in archaeology harkens back to his own college days. “I started off as an undergrad with a very strong interest in archaeology and thought that’s what I was going to major in”. Although his love of Biology has drawn  him away from being an archaeologist, his work retains part of his former passion. . He explains to us that “all of my interests have involved how things change through time”, and that “Archaeology fits right in”. His research examines the same basic structures as archaeology, explaining that “I think that intellectually it’s the same thing…whether it’s a human system or a plant system”. His work in biology is simply an examination of this fundamental question from the plant side of the equation.

Moore (front left) and the students of his lab, Spring 2013

While Moore has never himself worked in archaeology, scientists like him are essential to this field. As is demonstrated by the representation of various departments on the Archaeological Studies Committee, the field of archaeology includes elements from many areas of study. “To me,” Moore tells us, “archaeology is half science and half history.” He addresses the collaboration that exists between experts of different disciplines, stating that “it’s almost impossible to work alone in biology.” Some of these biologists work alongside archaeologists in the field, as one of our previous Archaeologists in Action has told us.

Professor Wueste’s discussion of the place of science within archaeology did not make it into our first Archaeologists in Action post, but during her interview she did emphasize its significance. As a field archaeologist, she was able to explain the crucial role held by the scientists she worked with at the Morgantina excavation, calling them “essential to what we do”. There is much more to archaeology than field archaeology, and many different people with varying areas of expertise often collaborate to find, extract, and study artifacts in order to gain information about past cultures.

Scientists like Moore are a great asset to archaeological work. “All human cultures directly interact with nature” he points out, “we interact with biology every day.” Biological matter present at an excavation site can give archaeologists information about how ancient societies lived. As Moore tells us, “plant remains are an important part of any excavation”. They can tell us about diet, geographical climate, and inform our interpretations in many other areas as well; but not until biologists have analyzed and identified them.

“The fun part about science and the science of archaeology” Moore explains, “[is that] the amount of information we can glean from an archaeological site is far more than it used to be.” Similar to Professor Wueste’s descriptions of modern technological advances allowing superior recording of data at an excavation, the work biologists are able to do coupled with advances in biology are adding much to what archaeology is able to teach us about societies of the past.

Moore has done his share of fieldwork in the biological realm. Though his research is not connected to an archaeological study, he handles biological material in the same way a biologist might on an archaeological dig. From collecting plant matter for molecular analysis, he is able to draw conclusions about the evolutionary relationships and diversification of plants. His work in plant systematics has led him to the American Southwest, where he conducts research into the origin and evolution of plants endemic to gypsum in the Chihuahuan Desert. By studying the plants which make their home on or near these rocks, he hopes to answer the questions which plague biologists and archaeologists alike; how and why have these organisms come to exist in this environment, and what makes them unique?

Gypsum exposures in Central Chihuahua

Moore’s research interests and goals closely parallel those of archaeologists. Regarding his work in Chihuahua he tells us: “I’m interested in why [these plants] came to grow on gypsum, what their adaptations for living on them are, and how has this changed through time.” Archaeologists strive to answer these same questions, investigating the origins of human culture and civilization, and the way its many variations have adapted and evolved over time to create the societies that exists today. Though Moore uses biology to learn about the history of plant communities, the same ideas and biological analyses can be used to learn about the history of human communities. The specific type of biological research Moore conducts makes him an important asset both to the Archaeological Studies Committee and to Oberlin students who are interested in the ways in which archaeology and natural science coincide.

Moore studies the many species endemic to gypsum, including Tiquilia turneri

For students who are interested in both archaeology and the natural sciences, Moore’s advice is to reach out to as many people as possible. There are people from many different departments in the Oberlin archaeological community, “all of whom” Moore says, “have some direct or tangential interest in archaeology, and theoretically we all have a lot of contacts”. We at the Oberlin Archaeology Society hope to aid students who are interested in this field find a greater community of people who understand their love of archaeology while still being dedicated biologists, geologists, classicists, art historians, anthropologists, and more.

For more information on Mike Moore and his research, check out his faculty website.

Rachel is a 2nd year at Oberlin College and a Co-Chair of OAS. Clara is a 4th year at Oberlin College and the Scribe of OAS. Read more about them and the other board members on the About OAS page.
All images used here are the copyright of Michael J. Moore

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