EMU professor mixes adventure, science to uncover secrets of Nicaraguan cave

by Ward Mullens, Published March 18, 2009

YPSILANTI —Eastern Michigan University Professor Ruth Ann Armitage has heard the comparisons to Indiana Jones before.

They are not surprising, considering she just returned from a trek via mule across rivers in the remote jungle of Nicaragua to explore a cave that may hold the secrets of a long-lost civilization.

“It sounds like a bad Raiders movie,” said Armitage with a laugh. “For most chemists, it’s all about the lab. We hang out and make stuff.”

Armitage said that most people who know about her travels are surprised to find out that she is a chemistry professor, not an archeologist like Dr. Jones.

“I’m an analyst,” said Armitage, who is one of only three scientists to work on the cave project.

And the only way to insure the integrity of what she analyzes is to obtain the samples and bring them back to the lab.
Armitage and her husband, Dan Fraser, a professor at Lourdes College in Ohio, traveled to the cave in January 2009 to take samples of the paintings on its walls.

The cave art included the red outline of a hand and some faces carved in flow stones.

“It’s the only known cave (in the entire country) with paintings (on the walls),” said Armitage. “We want to find out what the drawings are made of and try and figure out how long they have been there.”

To do that, Armitage said that they took several samples about the size of a quarter or smaller. The process entails taking the samples back to her lab at EMU and burning the paint sample to separate the organic material in the “paint” from the inorganic wall. A chemical analysis reveals what was used to stain the wall.

After that, the sample is sent as a tube of gas to another lab to be radiocarbon dated.

“No one has ever radiocarbon dated this particular rock art!” Armitage said.

Armitage said that the first results should start to come back during the summer.

“We want to get the information published so that archeologists can benefit and that will help drum up funding to do real in-the-dirt archeology,” said Armitage.

There are many theories about what the cave art could be, said Armitage.

“We don’t know that it’s not graffiti,” she said. “But it could be some kind of ritual cave. Caves had connections to death and fertility and things ancient civilizations didn’t understand.”

Don’t look for Armitage’s exploits on the National Geographic Network anytime soon.

“There is practically no money in this and science is about the funding. There is so little money available for projects right now,” said Armitage, who helped fund her trip with a faculty fellowship from EMU.

There is a reward, though.

“This was a cultural experience. To see the past and the present, and trying to connect the two is exciting,” Armitage said.

Ward Mullens

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