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Prof’s dirty work causes media frenzy

| 01 October 2003



Ronald Amundson photo

What’s so suspicious about soil study? Professor Ronald Amundson learned the answer to that question back in 1987, after he and a graduate student completed a tour of the American heartland, conducted as part of his research into the effects of climate on virgin soil.

“We were doing our research in cemeteries,” explains Amundson, “because they are some of the few sites with undisturbed natural ecosystems.”

Once back in Berkeley, Amundsen took a call from a reporter in Lincoln, Neb., about the uproar he had left in his wake. “What uproar?” asked the startled prof, unaware that his soil-sampling had stirred up such dust.

It turned out that while Amundson had cleared his work with local U.S. Department of Agriculture representatives, members of the public — including neighbors of the cemeteries in question — weren’t in on the arrangement. The researchers, who spent just one day at each site, never suspected that locals were reporting them to the police, thinking that they were grave robbers or otherwise up to no good.

Things got wilder once the national media got into the game.

The Associated Press picked up the story, and soon people as far east as Maine were reading articles with headlines like “Doctoral Student’s Digging Spurs Rumors of Supernatural” and “Soil Study Gravely Misunderstood.”

“We were one step ahead of the law as we went through the Great Plains,” recalls Amundson. Apparently even the FBI was on the case at one point. On the heels of a local kidnapping, the feds excavated a six-foot-deep site where Amundson had recently been working. To their disappointment, they failed to find the corpus delecti ... though they did wind up with a sizable hole in their case.

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