Student embarks on a modern, geologic odyssey in land of ancient ruins © Sept. 25, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Geology major Ethan Thomas gathers data about geologic faults and crustal blocks on a rocky coastline in southern Greece.

photo courtesy of Richard DunnGeology major Ethan Thomas gathers data about geologic faults and crustal blocks on a rocky coastline in southern Greece in the summer of 2009.

A Norwich University geology student spent the summer learning that the countryside that gave rise to the Mycenaean civilization and Homeric epics still may have tales to tell.

While studying the lay of the land near a coastal fishing village on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece, Ethan Thomas learned this cradle of human history still offers many opportunities for researchers.

“There’s no [geological] research in this area at all,” said Thomas, a member of the Class of 2010 and a civilian student at Norwich, the oldest private military college in the U.S. “All the information on the Gulf of Corinth ends where my study began.”

Thomas, accompanied by Norwich geology Prof. Richard Dunn, spent three weeks in Greece mapping the faults and orientation of surface crustal blocks in an area surrounding a fortified city and partially submerged harbor dating from the Bronze Age. Their research will support a larger, primarily archaeological study of the area that began several years earlier with the discovery of what is believed to be a fishing village and outpost town for ancient Mycenae. The study, the Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project [SHARP], was spearheaded by Florida State University and the University of Pennsylvania, who maintain a crew of graduate students and scientists working in the main archaeological site.

Thomas, one of just two undergraduates on the team, was tasked with mapping the geologic structures to help determine how the landscape has shifted and changed since the Mycenaean Age, approximately 1,600 to 1,100 B.C. Scientists are hoping, in particular, to determine how the limestone “block” that housed the harbor and portions of the coast dropped away from the rest of the landmass.

“That will help us when we try to reconstruct the shape of the submerged harbor,” said Dunn, who has visited the region six times, always bringing a Norwich student along for the research opportunity. If confirmed, the harbor may be the only one found from the Bronze Age, Dunn said. The ruins, called Korphos-Kalamianos by scientists, were largely unexplored until recently due to the ruggedness of the surrounding territory, even though building walls remained standing and uncovered.

“It’s really desolate out there on the coast,” said Dunn.

What this meant for Thomas was a lot of scrambling over sharp and barren rocky coastline and through the dense brush of mountainsides, measuring the orientation of sedimentary rock beds and mapping the potential location of faults.

“The ancient Greeks were very rugged to live in that countryside,” he laughed.

The heat, Thomas said, was enough to sap your strength. He and Prof. Dunn generally tried to finish field work before lunch. In six hours, he would drink four liters of water.

“You got out in the field at 6:30 a.m., and you’re already beginning to sweat,” said Thomas.

After field work, they would travel several kilometers back to the town of Korphos, where they lived comfortably with the other members of the research team. They spent afternoons entering and analyzing data, and then retired in the evening to a local seafood restaurant. On weekends, they would go sightseeing and swimming.

“You couldn’t ask for a better place to stay,” said Dunn, who has brought Norwich students to Korphos-Kalamianos to work on several projects. He considers SHARP’s willingness to help fund a student part of the compensation for his own contribution.

In addition to the opportunity to take a working trip to Greece, Thomas learned some of the skills necessary for research out in the field. He mastered the art of making “strike and dip,” three-dimensional measurements of rock formations quickly, and learned the necessity of good notes. More importantly, he had the chance to conduct a real research project on his own, and not merely serve as assistant to his professor. If you want to learn about research, said Thomas, who plans to go on to graduate school with the hope of becoming a volcanologist, you’ve got to get out in the field.

“I would highly recommend that to anyone who wants to do [research]. And do it early,” said Thomas, who will present his results in the spring of 2010 at the Northeastern section of the Geological Survey of America’s annual meeting, and may try to get his conclusions published.

Dunn agreed that a great benefit of summer research is not only the chance to take on a long-term project that involves building hypotheses, analyzing data and revising conclusions, but it lets you see and learn how professionals operate.

“He’s immersed in a Greek village. ... He’s immersed in a research group,” said Dunn. “He’s right in the thick of it.”