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  November 13, 2000

McBride's Lab Extends from Earth to Ocean

It is often said that the best laboratory for learning is the real world. For Kevin McBride and his students, it is the real earth.

McBride is an associate professor of anthropology and an authority on Native American and colonial history. He is also the research director at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.

Mention the Pequots and most people think of Foxwoods, the world's largest casino. But for McBride, the real jackpot on the reservation is what he refers to as a world-class museum and archeological site.

"What makes this place exciting for research is its size and its age. The reservation encompasses 1,400 acres and it is one of the few places in North America occupied continuously for 11,000 years. It's incredible," he says.

Usually, Native American records end around 1600, when Europeans arrived on this continent. But in Mashantucket, there are at least four known villages that have been inhabited only by tribal descendants. One site undergoing excavation is 9,000 years old and, according to McBride, is the earliest evidence of a dwelling in eastern North America.

He is proud to point out that the principal people in charge of this dig are UConn alumni, who began working at the site when they were students.

First-hand experience at a dig is just the beginning of the resources provided by the Pequots. Students also have access to a state-of-the-art archeology laboratory, a research library and the museum. The ongoing work at the reservation has been the basis for master's theses and doctoral dissertations, and in most cases, the work is funded by the tribe.

"They recognize the value of archeological research and they appreciate the work of our students," says McBride, whose relationship with the Pequots began in 1983. At the time, Richard Hayward, chairman of the tribal council, was thinking about building a museum and was looking for collections. A mutual friend brought the two men together. McBride had a grant for archeological work in the Connecticut Valley, but was able to switch it to begin work at the reservation.

For McBride it is a rare and convenient research opportunity and he is thrilled to bring real statistics, samples and artifacts back to his UConn classroom.

"This relationship with the Pequots is not just about the research," he says. "My role is to educate and provide training opportunities in the real world. I wouldn't want to do this without students."

McBride's expertise is the basis for another partnership of great consequence. He has teamed with Robert Ballard, the famed underwater explorer, who has uncovered many of the ocean's secrets including the Titanic wreckage and the largest concentration of Roman ships in the deep sea.

Ballard, McBride and several other scientists have formed a team to search the ocean floor for evidence of intact land surfaces Native Americans might have inhabited 10,000 years ago. This project is particularly exciting to McBride because the Ballard Institute for Exploration is credited with pioneering a new field of archeology in the deep sea. The ocean's depths present insurmountable obstacles to archeology's usual methods of investigation, but Ballard has developed technology that makes it possible.

This latest exploration began two years ago when a Navy nuclear submarine mapped 75 nautical miles of ocean floor, from New Jersey to Rhode Island. The scientists analyzed the data and pinpointed the area that seemed most promising for further investigatio n. The site is located between Block Island and Montauk Point and was exposed before water levels rose during the last ice age.

Last May, UConn's research vessel was the base of operations as the group used sidescan sonar to survey the underwater tract. The first round of soil cores extracted has yielded more information than McBride expected.

"We found evidence of streams, old levee systems, wetlands and beach lines," he says.

"We are in the process of analyzing and confirming the data, but are pleased with what we've found so far." It's a long-term project. McBride estimates it may be years before he and his colleagues are able to piece together enough information to reconstruct life as it was 10,000 years ago.

Janice Palmer