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PSU student changes the future for archaeology

Doctoral candidate and research assistant Julie Schablitsky of PSU has discovered a new way to use DNA testing for archaeological purposes. She is the first documented scientist to use DNA testing on inanimate objects, such as syringes and bottles as opposed to bones or hair.

She adds, “This technology for DNA testing has been around for a couple of years and there are people all over the world doing DNA testing. The question is have other people used DNA testing to recover DNA off of inanimate objects? Probably. Have I ever read anything about it? No.”

Schablitsky was funded by the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office to excavate a site in Virginia City, Nevada, a ’49-er gold rush town. “I chose the site because it is an area in archaeology that hasn’t been looked at that heavily: working class and immigrant neighborhoods. Most of the sites have been excavated saloons. There is so much more of there to tell than just what they were drinking,” Schablitsky said.

The site was an old home and by looking at a city directory, which indicated names, addresses and occupations of the inhabitants, Shablitsky discovered that the home belonged to a dressmaker in 1873 and in 1875 to a carpenter and his family. Unfortunately, in 1875, the town and site suffered a fire.

At the site and underneath charred floorboards, she found a glass syringe and rolled copper needles that would have been exchanged out of the glass syringe as they became dull. Within a couple of feet Schablitsky found a urethra irrigator, which would have been used to treat venereal disease symptoms.

Schablitsky wanted a clearer picture of who would have used these objects. Her next step was to the Intermountain Forensic Laboratories, where she worked with PSU graduate and forensic scientist, Raymond Grimsbo, to test the objects for drug residue and human DNA.

When asked how she came up with the idea of using DNA testing she said, “It just seemed like the logical, natural step to take. I think DNA today is a household word. I wanted to verify who was using [the objects]. I know you can get gender from DNA testing, and I thought, ‘Well maybe with this we could figure out whom it belonged to.'”

The analysis of the syringe was positive for an opium-based drug, and nuclear DNA testing revealed that both men and women were associated with the needles. “I expected to find one person, not a few,” she said.

Although not enough research has been done, Schablitsky has a hunch that the syringes were probably used by a doctor, in “a make-shift type of clinic that was down in that working-class neighborhood.”

“This is the likely scenario because you have several people on the syringe, both male and female, and the only other thing I can think of is that it may be a bunch of people sitting around injecting morphine for euphoric effects.”

Because Schablitsky is the first documented archaeologist to do this sort of work, she has received some fame. She has already been on television and in The Oregonian. Due to a lack of funding, Schablitsky will not be working on this project anymore.

“The Nevada State Historic Preservation Office paid me to go up there and excavate, but I didn’t get any money for lab work and I didn’t get any money to write it up. I took all of these artifacts with me back to Oregon. I cleaned and labeled a lot of them. PSU student and archaeology major Charlie Pletcher (Senior) helped as well.”

Because of the lack of funding, questions like what ethnic group was using the syringes cannot be answered. Yet the future for archaeology has a new road thanks to this PSU graduate student.