The story of us in fingerprints: A recent visit from Professor July Hruby

In 2015, on a particularly hot day in Hollywood, I placed my hands on the handprints of Clark Gable in the cement tiles outside of the famous Chinese Theatre and smiled for a picture. Since the dawn of time, humans have always had an intrinsic desire to leave behind their “mark,” whether it be hand prints in fresh cement or initials on a park bench.

On that day in Hollywood, I was surrounded by the “marks” of some of Hollywood’s most beloved — a moment that meant the world to a young film-lover. Whether it be the hand prints of Judy Garland on a tile, or initials carved in wet cement, or graffiti on a freight train, seldom do we think that these “marks” could become ground-breaking fossils in the far off future.

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Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling leaving their handprints for the Chinese Theatre

In a recent visit from Julie Hruby, a professor of archaeology at Dartmouth, audience members were reminded that a simple fingerprint, the pottery of an ancient civilization from thousands and thousands of years ago, can provide meaningful information about its demographic.

Hruby’s fascination with fingerprints started in an archaeological excavation in Greece between her sophomore and junior years at college. As she was cataloging excavated artifacts one afternoon, she came across a fingerprint on one of the ceramic pieces, something she realized would often go unrecognized but carried more information than we know.

We all know that nowadays, police can use a fingerprint to identify just about anybody, but recently archaeologists are also turning to fingerprints to study ancient civilizations. Hruby says that fingerprints from ancient artifacts can identify a person’s age, gender and region of origin through an articulate process called Print-Matching. Through her studies, she recognized that gender correlates with broader ridges––the broader the ridge, the more masculine a fingerprint is.

The Ridge to Valley Thickness Ratio is also thicker in males, while women have a greater White Line Frequency, lines in a fingerprint that disrupt the overall shape of the print. The white space between each dark line in known as Interpapillary lines, and these are commonly seen in male and elderly fingerprints. Child fingerprints also differ in appearance through smaller ridges and pores that make the fingerprints appear rougher. Hruby also noticed that prints can identify a population group as different frequencies of different shapes correlate with different regions. For example, civilians of Mycenae in Ancient Greece tended to have more arches in their fingerprints. Other civilizations can have higher frequencies in other shapes such as loops and whorls.

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Julie Hruby

While this process is very useful, Hruby cautions us that sometimes these fingerprints can produce inaccurate data. For example, seldom do prints ever come in clear sets of ten. Therefore, archaeologists are required to pull from several other fingerprints found in other artifacts. Clay also tends to shrink with time and thus, a female fingerprint can become easily confused with a child’s fingerprint.

When these fingerprints are easiest to read, Hruby applies data collected from ancient fingerprints to disprove historical theories or to discover daily routines of certain cultures. The Dolon Painter is known for his vase-painting just south of Italy. Through a study of his fingerprints left on discarded vases, however, it was discovered that the Dolon painter was actually a group of four artists working together in the same workshop. Hruby also mentioned that if we can understand who the artists were behind the oldest figurines of women, otherwise known as “venuses,”we would be able to understand their purpose ­­–– if these figurines were a type of votive, toy, or a symbol of fertility, for example. Minoan administrative documents are written in several unknown languages, but studying the fingerprints on them can provide information on who the authors were and where they came from. In ancient Roman pottery, a study of fingerprints showed that a lot of potters were women, and it also showed how often they left their homes since pottery-making was a house-hold chore.

After hearing Hruby’s discussion, I was reminded of that day in Los Angeles and I could not help but wonder if those handprints would still be around by the year 5000. What would the handprints of our most distinguished celebrities say about our culture today? Should our own civilization fall, would they be able to provide information as useful as ancient fingerprints from Rome?

So, the next time you come across wet cement on a sidewalk, think about what kind of mark you would put in a time capsule such as this. What would you write? What would you draw? Perhaps, all you need to do is leave behind a single fingerprint.

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