Find Your Passion: Making Lives Bigger

Pre-med student unearths ‘new piece of the world’ in honors class

Allison Garstecki

By Chris Bryant

“The kind of education I like best is one that shows students a new piece of the world they didn’t know existed,” says Dr. Robert Halli, dean of The University of Alabama’s Honors College. “Their life’s gotten bigger because of it.”

UA junior Allison Garstecki can relate to Halli’s comment. It was she who unearthed a key sandstone artifact, some 800 years old, during the final days of an archaeological expedition in which she and her 11 fellow classmates participated.

While Halli’s comment about showing students a previously unknown piece of the world wasn’t in direct reference to Garstecki’s find, it’s certainly applicable. In the fall 2007 Honors College class taught by Dr. Jim Knight, professor of anthropology in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, Garstecki and her classmates excavated portions of a small Mississippian Indian settlement occupied about 800 years ago.

At least two residences once stood at the site, located on the banks of the Black Warrior River. Those residents were, Knight said, part of the same tribe that built Moundville, the former bustling economic and ceremonial center some 14 miles away and which was once the largest city north of Mexico.

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Garstecki, a biological sciences major and Mobile native planning for medical school, says she was surprised how much field work was involved in the class, which was geared toward non-anthropology majors within Honors College. “I thought it would be a classroom thing and every now and then we would excavate,” Garstecki says. “It turns out, we went to the site every day. It was a lot more based on precision and technique than I ever would have thought. It was something I knew I would never do again in my life, something completely different to give me another perspective.”

And, as it turns out, one of Garstecki’s discoveries during the dig is adding to Knight’s and other professional archaeologists’ perspective, as well as her own.

Prevalent at the site is a particular type of sandstone that was frequently used by the Mississippian Indians in constructing paint palettes, an important craft item largely associated with Moundville. Prior to the class beginning, Knight said it was possible that the site had something to do with procuring the sandstone that was transported to Moundville for the palettes. Near the end of it, Garstecki added validity to the theory.

“I found a piece of sandstone that was being shaped for a palette to be painted,” Garstecki says. “It must have broken in the process, so they didn’t end up finishing. This pretty much confirmed that at this site they were doing palette production. It helped tell us more about the site. A palette would have been a really holy piece that only a priest would have had.”

Allison Garstecki

Results from each day’s excavations
are carefully recorded.
(Photo by Laura Shill)

Knights says an Honors College class like this one can be an exciting once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students like Garstecki.

“It’s pretty enjoyable to a lot of people who have never personally excavated something that’s a thousand years old,” Knight says. “They pick up something and ask you, ‘how old is that?’ And you say, ‘it’s a thousand years old,’ and … it’s kind of hard to believe. No one has seen that in a thousand years. It’s a little bit of a thrill.”

Halli says if given the chance to start over as a student, such classes would be thrilling to him.

“If I were here as an undergraduate, I would have to go and take this class,” Halli says. “I think that is one of the most important things that we can do in Honors College is offer students a life experience. I’m in favor, more and more, of education that gets you outside of the classroom. All education is, is experiences. All we do at this university is package it.”

Allison Garstecki

Garstecki’s future plans include
medical school. (Photo by Laura Shill)

The mission of the UA Honors College is to recruit, educate and promote the best and brightest students at The University of Alabama. The creation of Honors College in 2003 affirms the University’s commitment to empower students to achieve the very top of their potential, and then be rewarded for their achievement.

“One of the things that we try and get students to do is to try and realize their passions,” Halli says. Garstecki’s passion is geared to medicine, with a possible dermatology focus. “I like working with people and helping people,” the UMS Wright graduate and UA presidential scholar says.

Her initial steps toward med school are routed through the preparatory path of UA’s biological sciences department. It’s a path enlightened, in some unexpected ways, by new pieces of the world along the way.

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.