2020 Rip Rapp Archaeological Geology Award

Presented to Gail Ashley


Citation by Lisa Park Boush, University of Connecticut

It is my distinct pleasure to present this citation for Gail Ashley’s receipt of the 2020 GSA Archaeological Geology Division Rip Rapp Award. Gail’s career has been exceptional in so many ways—exceptional scholarshipexceptional mentoring and teaching—and exceptional leadership and service. In all aspects of her long and storied career, she has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary research, particularly with respect to her trail-blazing work developing the critical nexus between the geosciences and archaeology.

For over 50 years, Gail has been a field geologist, working in places as far as Alaska and the East African Rift. This work has translated into over 160 publications and 6 edited books of the highest quality. Her collaborations over the years have been with a diverse range of researchers—many of whom, women and young investigators, have been encouraged and mentored by Gail.

Gail started working in East Africa in the 1990’s, and it is here that she made some of her most significant scholarly contributions, helping to lay the foundation of our understanding of ecosystem variability and early human habitats. Her 20+ years in East Africa has yielded over 57 publications, many of which have been landmarks in terms of our understanding of wetlands and springs and how they relate to hominin paleoenvironments, most notably in records associated with Olduvai Gorge and other sites in Kenya.

Gail’s wetland and springs work has been complimented by her impressive paleosol investigations. Her work on the paleopedology of Olduvai Gorge yielded new insights on how soils formed in these environments and are related to climate change.

As a scholar, educator, mentor and community leader, Gail Ashley is without peer. She has blazed trails, influenced a new generation of archaeological geologists and has done so with generosity, sincerity, humility and integrity. She is very deserving to be recognized for her lifetime dedication of excellence in the field and with the Rip Rapp Award.


Response by Gail Ashley

Thank you so much, Lisa, for that very flattering nomination. I thank Dan Deocampo for his support and to the award selection committee! I particularly want to acknowledge George “Rip” Rapp for his generosity in setting up the award and providing the monetary support that goes with it. I was truly surprised by this nomination. I have not always self-identified as a “geoarchaeologist”. I thought of myself as a geomorphologist/sedimentologist and climate scientist who just happened to be interested in archaeology. Archaeological sites present a challenge to reconstruct, to breathe life into the remains of the record of humans. I have always found sites to be a puzzle to be solved. Were these locations revisited seasonally? or were they a onetime encampment? Are these the remains of someone’s knapping site? vestiges of a group’s livelihood?; or palimpsest records, which are very difficult to unravel.

My first experience was in the 1980s, in the Brooks Range, northern Alaska….at Epiguruk in the Kobuk River valley. We were quite near the Onion Portage site. When the permafrost melted, the exposure smelled like a barnyard. The outcrop was a cut bank, a stupendous, organic-rich record chocked full of mammoth skeletons (youngest dated at 14 k) which just pre-dated the arrival of hunter-gatherers (10 k).

I was fortunate to go to Africa and work at sites in Tanzania and Kenya. Mary and Louis Leakey had made history at Olduvai Gorge in 1950s with the discovery of two species of hominins (1.8 Ma) and thousands of stone tools and bones in numerous sites. Starting at Olduvai in 1994, I was privileged to be in the field with Richard Hay, who wrote the book “The Geology of Olduvai Gorge”. Hay was an outstanding geologist, insightful mineralogist and an incredibly modest man. I learned much from him. There were plenty of challenges of hominin site reconstruction at Olduvai, trying to determine what water and food resources were available. Paleoenvironmental reconstruction revealed that most archaeological sites were associated with groundwater-fed springs and wetlands. A number of Rutgers students conducted research there…adding to our understanding of the paleoenvironment with each study. I am quite sure that I learned more from them than they ever learned from me. Now successful in their own careers, they are Daniel Deocampo, Godwin Mollel, Cynthia Liutkus, Lindsay McHenry, Emily Beverly, and Kevin Garrett.

Springs were also found to be important at Homo erectus archeological sites in the Kapthurin Fm. (~0.5 Ma) Lake Baringo, Kenya and Holocene hunter-gatherer sites near Lake Turkana. These paleo examples spawned studies of modern groundwater with students Andrea Shilling at Lake Eyasi and with Monica Norton in the Ngorongoro Volcanic Highland. Finally, my most recent venture to understand water resources in the rift valley was to talk to modern hunter-gatherers themselves, the Hazabe (via translator). They too rely on groundwater in the dry season. In closing, I am truly pleased with the recognition that comes with this award for doing what has turned out to be a long, rewarding, enjoyable career.