It’s hard work managing a collection of over 35,000 objects from around the world. Behind the scenes, the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collection is managed by Jessie Cohen and a staff of four student assistants. Student research assistants help Jessie maintain artifacts, prepare objects for student and faculty use, craft social media posts, and conduct research projects on different objects in the collection! All of the student workers come from different academic backgrounds and were drawn to the collections for different reasons – a great thing about the collections is that the abundance of materials can accommodate a variety of interests. Read on to learn more about each of the collections staff, the projects they’re working on, and some of their favorite objects in the collections!
Name: Isabel Alter
Class Year: 2017
Major(s): History and FGSS
Why do you work in the archaeology collections: I started working in the collections while taking Museum Collections with Jessie in spring of 2016. That spring I made a finding aid for the Melville collection. Working here is great partially because it’s a different kind of thinking and skills than I use for most of my class work. I like the combination of hands on work and the feeling that I am helping make the collections more useful for future students and other scholars.
Favorite object in the collections: One of the first objects I saw in the collections, a scrimshaw carving on a dolphin mandible, has remained one of my favorites. The carving is of a sailing ship with three masts and (what’s left of) the sails up. Parts of the detailing on the boat are red and the waves below it are green. In contrast to this detailed carving on the far right of the bone most of the bottom is still lined with a sharp row of teeth. We don’t have a lot of information about it; the collection records estimate that it was made in the late 18th century, and if it was made locally, that would have been around the peak of the whaling industry. This object is still a favorite in part because of how detailed and bizarre looking it is. I also enjoy how little info we have about it – who was the bored scrimshander (the actual word for someone who carves scrimshaw)? How did this carving make it from the sailing ship where it was most likely made into the Wesleyan collections?
Name: Steven Chen
Class Year: 2018
Major(s): History, Government, Environmental Studies Certificate
Why do you work in the archaeology collections: I love histories constructed with material culture and the way that objects can provide physical and visual glimpses into the past and the cultures that used them. I believe there’s something very valuable in seeing or holding objects in person that can allow for a greater understanding of how they were used and in some ways, allow us to connect more closely to the cultures that used them. I was first introduced to the collections in a course I took about Pre-Columbian archaeology where we had the opportunity to use objects from the Wesleyan collections and other museum objects to create a digital exhibit with a cohesive theme. This experience sparked my interest in both in the Wesleyan collections and in museum and exhibit work.
Favorite object in the collections: My favorite objects in the collection are the birch bark, felt, and quillwork cases used to hold cigars or cigarettes. These cases were used by indigenous tribes around the Great Lakes/Northeast region and portions of Canada in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. I encountered these objects while doing research for an archaeology course before I started working at the collections, and it sparked my interest to learn more about the collections. Not only was I drawn to the aesthetic appearance of the cases and their intricate, meticulous designs, I was also intrigued at the fact that these two cases arrived at the collections years apart (Wesleyan collected one in 1971 and the other in 2004), yet are so similar in design and origin. It really makes you think about the stories and histories of the individual objects themselves and their trajectories into the collection.
Name: Jack Sheffer
Class Year: 2019
Major(s): Earth and Environmental Sciences, Archaeology
Why do you work in the archaeology collections: When I came to Wesleyan as a freshman, I knew that I was going to be interested in archaeology, and geology. So I began taking classes in the E&ES and Archaeology Departments and found that these subjects were truly my passions. This recent fall I started working here, identifying the rock types of the Native American stone tools in the collection. What I enjoy about this work is that I am able to interact with artifacts and help gather more information on these artifacts. Hopefully someday these artifacts can be repatriated to the Native American tribes they were taken from.
Favorite object in the collections: My favorite object in the collection is a pipe fragment from Tennessee that was acquired in the purchase of the Barnes collection by Wesleyan University in 1899. There are a number of interesting pieces from this collection, but this fragment seems to be made out of volcanic ash which has solidified into fine volcanic tuff. This is a little odd to find in Tennessee since, as far as I found, there are no known sources of extrusive volcanic rock in Tennessee. Since there are no known sources of this rock in Tennessee the native peoples that used this artifact likely traded for it. I really like that this artifact can show connections between tribes, even though this fragment is so small.
Name: Sophia Shoulson
Class Year: 2018
Major(s): COL and German Studies
Why do you work in the archaeology collections: I’ve always been interested in archaeology and anthropology, but I came to Wesleyan specifically because of the College of Letters program, so I’ve only been able to take a few ANTH and ARCP (Archaeology Program) courses. Working in archaeology collections has been a great way for me to get some hands-on experience and learn about the field in a practical manner, rather than in the classroom. I’ve learned a lot about our collection at Wesleyan, as well as about archaeology in general through my work here, and I encourage all students to come and check out the collection if you get the chance!
Favorite object in the collections: My favorite objects in the collection are the stone and ceramic discs from George Barnes’ “excavations” in the Tennessee River Valley. I use the word “excavations” with a hefty grain of salt, because in reality he was excavating in an effort to unearth Native American graves. As such, they are a part of the collection that could eventually be repatriated through NAGPRA. I like that this is part of the acknowledged history of these items. It represents the progress that has been made in the field of archaeological and anthropological ethics, progress which is just as, if not more important as practical advancements in the field itself.
Kathryn Hoff ’73 determined that the discs are most likely part of the game of “chungke,” which is played in a manner similar to bocce. The stone is rolled on the ground and players throw spears as close to the stone as possible, or in an attempt to knock the other spears out of the air. We know from artifacts found in the southeast that the game was popular among First Peoples in what are now Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and throughout the southeast. Other than their man-made regularity and smoothness, the discs are extremely nondescript, and I like that even an object that is so deceptively simple can have such an interesting history.
Want to learn more about the collections? Stop by the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections Open House on Friday, March 3rd from 11:40-1:20 in Exley 301. Jessie and the student collections assistants will be on hand to guide you through the collections, show off some of their favorite objects, and discuss the ethical and practical challenges of collection and preservation.