Webs of wire line the walls of UCLA’s Pasarow Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, a brightly lit room stuffed with chemical machines. An archaeologist in a pinstriped lab coat stands in the middle of the room, cradling his homemade Egyptian pot in one hand and test tubes of finely ground pottery in the other.
Hans Barnard tilts the bowl to reveal a shallow inner groove spiraling from the pot’s rim to the center – a design of his own. After cutting fibrous streaks along the outside with a fine-toothed saw, he forged his hand-sculpted creation at a beach fire pit years ago.
Barnard, an assistant adjunct professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, has crisscrossed the globe to analyze ancient societies in locales such as Chile, Peru and Tunisia. His current research projects draw on his extensive scientific background – namely, his past career as a doctor.
Barnard grew up in the Netherlands surrounded by medical professionals and graduated from Leiden University’s medical school in 1990. When his wife, UCLA professor Willeke Wendrich, accepted a job in Cairo, he packed up his belongings to work as a doctor for the Royal Netherlands Embassy there. He first discovered a personal interest in archaeology after accompanying Wendrich on an expedition.
After picking up pottery analysis and survey work as side hobbies, Barnard decided to leave medicine for archaeology when UCLA hired his wife to the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department. He moved to Los Angeles in 2000.
“I said, ‘I will never work as a doctor again. I did so much work in archaeology, I’d better get a Ph.D.,’” he said.
Barnard’s favorite class to teach at UCLA, “Science in Archaeology,” draws on his background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. He uses archaeology concepts, such as carbon-14 decay, as doorways to teach the physical sciences to students with humanities-oriented majors.
“They say archaeology is the most scientific of the humanities and the most humane of the sciences,” he said.
Barnard said he is attracted to archaeology because of the social interaction he experiences in the field. Because students and faculty spend 24 hours a day sitting, eating and talking with one another, he thinks the opportunities to teach students in the field are rewarding.
Barnard, who also teaches a graduate student seminar in ceramic analysis, frequently employs science to decode the layers of pottery unseen by the naked eye. Currently, he is working with the Pasarow Mass Spectrometry Laboratory and the Institute for Field Research, a nonprofit organization outside UCLA, to analyze Mayan ceramics for traces of cacao and fatty acids. In another lab project, he will dissolve the organic dye in scraps of thread to reveal clues about the technological development or social strata of ancient Peruvian civilization.
“Archaeology is a destructive science. We destroy our own evidence,” he said.
Barnard is also preparing to co-direct an annual student expedition to Tunisia, one of numerous trips offered through the institute to aspiring archaeologists 18 years and older. This summer, the team will continue excavating a Roman city named Zita that was occupied from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 300, focusing on its physical and chemical environment.
“Education is based on teaching students those research skills as well as documentation, heritage conservation, learning about new cultures and being amicable with colleagues all over the world,” said Brett Kaufman, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University who founded the trip in 2013 with Rayed Khedher, a UCLA graduate student, and Ali Drine, a Tunisian archaeologist. The group will test soil samples for high levels of pollution and analyze suspected human remains found within Zita’s sacrificial precinct, which Barnard calls a “tophet.”
In times of hardship, the Phoenician people would sacrifice a child, then seal its remains in an urn and bury it in an area called a tophet, he said. Of the entire site, the tophet impresses Barnard the most because of its excellent preservation.
Dylan Guerra, a fourth-year anthropology student, joined the expedition in summer 2014. Every day, he alternated between digging with Kaufman to surveying with Barnard, using tools such as a total station to create maps.
“(Barnard) made the trip 10 times better,” Guerra said. “He’s very humorous and a favorite among students.”
In 2011, Barnard made national headlines with his pottery research when his team discovered 6,000-year-old wine residue in an Armenian pot. He said a pot’s history is rich because humans can irreversibly change a lump of clay, tempera and water to ceramics in an entirely man-made process.
From within a paper-lined box, Barnard pulls out another pot he made in 2006. The smooth terra-cotta vessel fits perfectly in his hand, reflecting a subtle sheen under the laboratory lights. Imitating the craft of Egyptian pot-making gives Barnard insight to the difficulty of the process, allowing him to gauge how much time and fuel pot-makers expended to craft an object.
“Pots are the first objects humankind started making,” he said. “A nice pot is beautiful.”