POUGHKEEPSIE, NY—While Curt W. Beck taught in Vassar’s Department of Chemistry from 1957 to 1993, he also developed innovative methods for the analysis and dating of archaeological artifacts that helped usher in the new field of archaeometry. Beck came to be regarded worldwide as a leading authority on amber and on the use of chemical analysis to determine the provenance of amber specimens, earning him the Archaeological Institute of America’s highest accolade, the Pomerance Award, in 2001.
As an emeritus Research Professor at Vassar until his death in 2008, Beck continued to involve students in his work on fossil resins, with the databases he amassed in the Vassar Amber Research Laboratory now routinely used by museums and researchers.
The upcoming symposium “Remembering Curt Beck: 50 years of Teaching and Research Excellence at Vassar College”, to be held on campus on Saturday, October 29, will provide colleagues, Vassar alumnae/i, family, and friends an opportunity to celebrate an extraordinary teacher, researcher, colleague, mentor, and comrade. Participants will include a Vassar alumna selected for the MacArthur Fellowship, and senior researchers at the American Museum of Natural History and the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Carbon-14 radio isotope dating of materials began in 1949 as one of the earliest examples of archaeometry, the multidisciplinary field that uses chemical analytical techniques to aid archaeological investigation. About ten years later Curt Beck discovered the usefulness of infrared (IR) spectroscopy to characterize amber from a specific European region, establishing the technique to determine the provenance of specimens. Among the other most notable techniques Beck developed were uses of chromatography and mass spectrometry to characterize archaeological samples.
Beck’s expansive body of research exceeded 170 scientific papers, and he included many of his Vassar student researchers as co-authors. “Curt Beck’s influence on his students, both in the classroom and in the research laboratory, was profound,” said Christopher Smart, an associate professor of chemistry who studied with Beck as a Vassar undergraduate before becoming his faculty colleague.
Smart and Associate Dean of the Faculty Marianne Begemann -- also a Vassar graduate and chemistry professor who was both Beck’s student and colleague -- will provide the opening remarks at the symposium honoring Curt Beck, which will be held from 1:00-5:00 pm in the Spitzer Auditorium of the Sanders Classroom Building. Three presentations will follow their remarks:
-- Amber: Window to the Very Ancient Past, by David Grimaldi, curator of Diptera, Fossil Insects & Lepidoptera for the American Museum of Natural History in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology. Grimaldi was the lead curator of the museum’s recent exhibit Amber: Window to the Ancient Past, and he is also the author of over 150 scholarly articles in the fields of entomology and paleontology. Grimaldi received his Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University, and holds adjunct faculty positions at the City University of New York, Cornell, and Columbia University.
-- The "King Midas" Funerary Feast: Biomolecular Archaeology and Beyond, by Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. McGovern’s research on the chemical and biochemical analysis of archaeological artifacts has shed light on the food and drink of ancient cultures. Also an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, McGovern has authored over 100 scholarly articles, contributions to books, and reviews, spanning subjects from the photochemistry of the Tyrian royal purple dye to an analysis of ancient fermented beverages for possible anti-cancer activity.
-- Technologies of Power: The Andean Case, by Vassar alumna Heather Lechtman,
a Professor of Archaeology and Ancient Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lechtman combines materials science with archaeology in her investigation of ancient Andean culture, and her research distinctly investigates metallurgy in ancient cultures from both technological and comparative ethnographical perspectives. Lechtman was chosen a MacArthur Fellow (the so-called “Genius” Award) in 1984. She graduated from Vassar with a physics degree, and then studied the History of Art and Archaeology as well as Archaeological Conservation at New York University.
The symposium “Remembering Curt Beck: 50 years of Teaching and Research Excellence at Vassar College” is sponsored by the Department of Chemistry and the Office of the Dean of Faculty.
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