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Anthropology’s Neff Receives $292,226 NSF Grant

Published: November 16, 2009

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences recently awarded a grant of $292,226 to a research team led by Anthropology’s Hector Neff to fund collaborative research at CSULB’s Institute for Integrated Research in Materials, Environments and Society (IIRMES).

With Neff as principal investigator, co-PIs for the project include Geological Sciences’ Lora Stevens-Landon and Gregory Holk as well as Anthropology’s Carl Lipo. The project runs through July 2012.

The award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The NSF funding will support research on ancient technology and diets, economic interaction and past environments. “These investigations will be implemented through an outreach program that makes IIRMES instruments and expertise available on a collaborative basis to researchers from the U.S. and abroad,” said Neff, who joined the university in 2002.

IIRMES embraces and extends existing interdisciplinary research collaborations between faculty and students from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the College of Liberal Arts at CSULB. The principal goal of IIRMES is to enhance the educational and research opportunities of students and faculty members who want to pursue interdisciplinary studies that integrate the physical, natural and social sciences.

IIRMES houses a variety of state-of-the-art analytical instruments, including three inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometers (ICP-MS), one coupled to a New Wave UP213 laser ablation system; an analytical environmental scanning electron microscope, and a luminescence dating laboratory. “The ICP-MS instruments and the ESEM are useful to archaeologists for analysis of their materials,” Neff explained. “They are sensitive to a wide range of trace elements as well as major and minor elements. The equipment allows archaeologists to perform chemical profiling in order to match artifacts with source raw materials. That way, archaeologists can investigate things like human mobility patterns, trade, technology and other aspects of the human past.” Neff explained that once sources are identified, patterns of human population movement and economic interaction can be reconstructed by comparing where materials were found to where they were made.

Neff believes the project is an efficient use of scarce research funds available in archaeology since it makes high-end instrumentation available to researchers from multiple institutions. “It’s an alternative to trying to put instruments in everybody’s labs,” he said. The collective expertise of the co-principal investigators on the project is another unique feature of the IIRMES archaeometry program. Said Neff, “We have the expertise to define archeological problems, to run the instruments, and to analyze the data they produce.”

Collaborating researchers participate in the program in two ways. First, they submit a short proposal to gain eligibility for subsidized analyses on one or more of the IIRMES instruments. A fully subsidized short-term visiting researcher program is available as well. Participants in this program spend one to three weeks at CSULB during which they work closely with the project PIs.


Neff looks forward to the opportunity offered by the NSF grant to pursue his research into the interaction between climate and human occupation in southern Mesoamerica. “This year marks the 10th year of my work with coastal wetland sediment cores,” he said. “With the elemental analyzer (funded by this project) connected to the IIRMES isotope-ratio mass spectrometer (funded by an earlier NSF grant to co-PI Holk), it is possible to create a record of landscape changes that complements other records, such as pollen.

“How much of the environment was grass versus forest at a particular time? We’ll be able to look at the impact of human activity.” The current grant also funded a portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, which extends IIRMES capacity for provenance studies of artifacts, such as obsidian, pottery and metals.

Neff believes the project offers CSULB’s diverse enrollment the chance to use state-of-the-art analytical instruments in geology, biology, chemistry and archaeology as well as participate in research projects that join these fields. “This support will help to populate CSULB with committed researchers from a range of disciplines, which furthers IIRMES’ interdisciplinary mission,” Neff said.

Neff is an expert on archaeological chemical analysis. He worked on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for four years before joining the University of Missouri, where he served as a senior research scientist for 12 years. He received his A.B. from Stanford and his M.A. and Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara. His work earned him the 2003 Award for Excellence in Archaeological Analysis from the Society for American Archaeology, and he has also been named a member of Guatemala’s Academy of Geography and History.

While much of his work is lab based, Neff also enjoys archaeological fieldwork. During January 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, he led CSULB students to Guatemala’s Cotzumulguapa region to use geophysical survey techniques to map buried structures at the Classic Period city of El Baul.

Neff is pleased by the chance offered by the project to demonstrate the interdepartmental cooperation that has become a byword at IIRMES. “IIRMES itself is an interdisciplinary institute. It is based on the principle that the same instrument can be useful in multiple disciplines,” Neff explained. “For instance, the isotope-ratio mass spectrometer is not only useful for geological research but for dietary reconstruction based on the analysis of skeletal materials and for paleo-environmental reconstruction. IIRMES is fundamentally an interdisciplinary institute. That’s why it was founded. We work together quite well. In my view, interdisciplinary collaboration is the direction science is moving.”

–Richard Manly