Dr. Mary Malainey

Research Involves

Analyzing lipid residues of archaeological materials.

Research Relevance

The research is providing fresh knowledge about the Aboriginal peoples who lived in North America prior to European contact.

Opening a Window on the Post: Applying Lipid Residue Analysis to Ancient Artefacts Discovered in Western Canada

Well before Europeans first made contact, Aboriginal peoples in Canada had mastered the art of making pottery. Today, with the help of up-to-date scientific techniques, archaeologist study the pots to learn how these ancient people lived.

In her research on Western Canadian Late Precontact pottery, Canada Research Chair Dr. Mary Malainey draws on techniques associated with chemists and engineers to recover information from Aboriginal pottery and other artefacts. She analyzes ancient fat (lipid) residues that were absorbed into pottery, cooking rocks, food-processing tools, and other materials to learn about the diet and activities performed by the previous inhabitants of archaeological sites. By extracting residues from archaeological materials and studying the lipid components using gas chromatography, she is able to characterize the former contents of the pots: foods prepared using hot rock cooking techniques or ground with milling stones.

Most vessels recovered from archaeological sites are highly fragmented. With the assistance of a computer engineer, Dr. Malainey has developed a method that uses a computer-assisted design program to generate three-dimensional (3-D) reconstructions of whole vessels from pot fragments. She then studies the “whole” vessel using conventional techniques for examining pottery shapes. By combining traditional descriptive analysis, morphological analysis, and residue analysis, she hopes to better understand how Aboriginal peoples used their pottery prior to European contact.

Dr. Malainey’s primary research involves Western Canadian Late Precontact pottery, its function, and implications for settlement and subsistence patters. She also works with a number of American archaeologists to determine the function of burned rock features found throughout the Central and Southern Plains states, and in the past, has had the opportunity to analyze material from other parts of the world including South Africa, Tunisia, and the Balkans.