Coins, tombstones, and historic artifacts: independent research topics in the collections

For the first time in recent history, the Archaeology Program is offering interested students the opportunity to work on hands-on research projects and lab work within the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. With the 35,000 in the collection, one can only imagine the wealth of original research topics! In this blog post, hear from three students who are currently conducting work on their research projects. Find out what they’ve learned so far and what directions they plan to take in their ongoing projects.

Itai Klaidman-Rinat, class of 2021

The research that I have been conducting for Wesleyan’s Archaeology Collections revolves around an individual named Karl Pomeroy Harrington. Harrington was a Wesleyan alum and later taught here as a professor of classics. His vehement interest in Roman history coupled with his expansive travels led to his acquisition of a significant number of ancient Roman artifacts many of which have found their way into Wesleyan’s collection.

Karl Pomeroy Harrington

The artifacts include figurine heads, shards of mosaics, architectural debris, oil lamps, vases and a collection of coins numbered in the thousands. My research aims to provide context for the Harrington collection in a number of ways. First, what are the origins of the artifacts themselves? Where do they originate chronologically and geographically within the Roman Empire? Secondly, how were the various items acquired by Harrington, and in turn end up in the collection here at Wesleyan? Luckily, Harrington himself provides clues pertaining to both questions within his autobiography; Karl Pomeroy Harrington: The Autobiography of a Vigorous and Versatile Professor.

Following Harrington’s graduation from Wesleyan in 1882, he spent a number of years furthering his education. He taught at Westfield and Wilbraham before studying in Europe at the University of Berlin. He spent two years in Europe from 1887-1889 in which he not only studied in Berlin, but also traveled to Greece and Italy. Although there is little evidence that Harrington actually acquired any artifacts during these two years (however it is possible), it certainly exposed him to the world of archaeology and wet his appetite for exploring Roman antiquity in person. He describes his growing interest in archaeology, “I continued my archaeological studies in the great museum there (Naples) and at Pompeii, Herculaneum, the ruins at Baiae, ancient Cumae, and the temples of Paestrum” (Harrington 82).

Following his two year stint in Europe, Harrington was a Latin tutor at Wesleyan for two years before a year of graduate school at Yale. Afterwards, he taught Latin at the University of North Carolina, and University of Maine before being hired by Wesleyan in 1905. In 1912 he had his first sabbatical year, which clearly yielded many of the artifacts in Wesleyan’s collection today. He traveled with his family and they were based in Rome. He made connections with the American School in Rome and was thus allowed to accompany Professor Van Buren on many archaeological excursions. Over the course of the year, Harrington traveled throughout Italy’s mainland as well as Sicily and Roman Africa. Often he literally describes finding artifacts that are in the collection, such as when Etruscan tombs in Cerveteri “yielded a number of pottery fragments” (Harrington, 184). However, it isn’t always so simple to figure out where he came into possession of certain relics, for some of which the origins will remain a mystery. For example, there is no mention of the coins throughout the book which is hard to believe considering the magnitude of the collection.

Caesar Augustus coin, unknown mint date

It is important to note that the coin collection is actually called “The Calvin Sears Harrington Coin Collection,” which is the name of Karl’s father who also was a professor of classics at Wesleyan. The coins were donated by Karl, but they may very well have been collected by his father who is known to have also traveled in Europe during his lifetime. Harrington also traveled around the world, beginning in the San Francisco Bay (where his daughter and her husband, who taught at UC Berkeley, lived), traveling through Asia and Europe before ultimately returning to Middletown. During that trip he continued to obtain valuable historic artifacts and explore the wonders of the world.

Harrington, having been exceedingly knowledgeable about Roman history, often muses in his writing about what occurred in the places to which he traveled. However, he writes with a vagueness that suggests he assumes the reader possesses the same knowledge that he does. The ultimate goal of this research project is to write an academic paper in which I provide context for the Harrington collection by describing his travels and acquisition of artifacts including a detailed map of everywhere he went and specifically marking places where he obtained objects. I also intend to research the historical events and figures from Roman history that he mentions in relation to the places that he travels to in order to enrich the narrative between the present, Harrington’s time, and Ancient Rome.

Harrington, Eliza C. Chase. Memories of the Life of Calvin Sears Harrington, D.d. General Books, 2012.

Potter, Mabel Harrington. Karl Pomeroy Harrington: the Autobiography of a Versatile and Vigorous Professor. Publisher Not Identified, 1975.

Constantinos Koufis, Art Studio and Archaeology major, class of 2019

My internship in Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology collections began with cataloging ceramics and glass–mostly pearleware shards.  Excavated from Middletown’s Main Street from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the objects are recorded only in the field notebooks from the original dig.  Most of the objects that I have entered into the digital table that I am creating are in bags with labels.  The labels vary in specificity; the most specific labels have a number preceded by the letter “S” (eg. S24).  The less specific bags only have sector coordinates (eg.  So 1 SW II).  Some bags don’t have labels at all; in those cases I am only able to enter into the table what I observe myself.  So far I have cataloged five boxes of objects excavated from the Southmayd family house site, once located on the southeast corner of Main Street and Martin Luther King, Jr Ave, north of the Inn at Middletown.  The original house was moved across the street with several other historically significant houses.  Because of the monotonous nature of cataloging items, I have also been doing research into a completely different subject.

Excavated artifacts from 19th century Middletown, CT locales

There are an abundance of woven artifacts in the collections but there is no space for them to be displayed.  Likewise, there are not many items on display on the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology highlights website.  My plan for the next half of the semester is to compile a selection of different woven items from around the world and to create a page for them in the highlights section of the collections’ website.  Right now, the highlights are of highly specific groups; what I am researching covers a broad range of times and cultures and presents an opportunity to give some items more exposure than they would normally have.

Photography session of woven materials

Carson Horky, History major, class of 2020

Connecticut gravestone, object ID #172, Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections

One of the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collection’s most unique objects is a gravestone that at first glance may look like a relatively common example of a Puritan stone. However, the inscription tells a different, more enigmatic story. It reads, “Here Lyeth [?] Body of Sipi Indian Who[?] Died Feb [?] 1731 Aged 6 Years.” There are almost no other contemporary examples from New England of Native American gravestone burials. If this stone does prove to be an example of a Native gravestone burial, it could have important implications for our understanding of Native death culture. Additionally, it may make this object a candidate for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

The history of the stone at Wesleyan is also a mystery, having been brought to the Wesleyan Museum in Judd Hall in 1872. Other than its date of arrival, we know practically nothing about its origins. After the museum closed in 1957, the stone was moved to an office on campus and it eventually made its way to the collections. The Middlesex County Historical Society also has no record of the stone or any individual named Sipi.

The stone itself is made from sandstone which may have been quarried in the Portland area (located just across the Connecticut River from Middletown). Assuming that the date of death on the stone is an accurate indicator of when it was made, we can approximately date it to 1731. Though definitely weathered, most of the inscription is readable and the symbols at the top of the stone are relatively clear.

The top of the stone features a human face flanked by two six-pointed rosettes. The face has a blank expression, long nose, small mouth, and puffy cheeks. We originally thought that it could be an example of a “death’s head,” a common image on Puritan graves. Most of the contemporary stones found in Haddam cemeteries feature death’s heads, so matching them with the Sipi stone would have been a potentially fruitful find. However, whereas death’s heads almost always have serrated teeth and wings, the plainness of the face on the Sipi stone seems to disqualify it from being a death’s head.

1756 gravestone with a death’s head, Thirty Mile Plantation Cemetery, Haddam, Connecticut

Alternatively, the face on the stone seems to look more like a “soul effigy,” found on some contemporary stones in the Portland area. Soul effigies, when paired with six-pointed rosettes, are often found on the gravestones of children, indicating that such a symbol would be a good match to the Sipi stone, as its inscription says that the person was six years old when they died. However, Puritan children were usually buried with or close to their parents. The Sipi stone, however, does not have any indication of parental presence. This is yet another example of the stone’s uniqueness.

1730 gravestone with a soul effigy, Portland, Connecticut

Another aspect of the stone that makes it difficult to study is that it was likely carved by an amateur. The symbols at the top of the stone are not well-defined or precisely carved. For example, the inner lines of the rosettes are not uniform in size or depth of impression, something not typical of more traditional stones. Additionally, standard examples of Puritan stones feature lettering that looks rather exact—text that resembles something similar to the level of accuracy expected from modern laser inscription. The lettering on the Sipi stone, alternatively, is off-center and not uniformly sized. These features indicate that the stone was likely not done by a professional carver. With more typical examples of Puritan gravestones, specific styles and aesthetics can often be traced to individual carvers. This avenue of research is not particularly relevant to this stone, though it may be a compelling way to determine artistic influence.

One of the main questions that must be answered in order to better understand the significance of the stone is that of its original location. Professor Katherine Hermes and Alexandra Maravel from Central Connecticut State University already did some groundwork on attempting to determine the stone’s origin. They looked through records and cemeteries from Middletown and some surrounding areas, but unfortunately did not find anything relevant to the stone.

Based on word of mouth from Wesleyan faculty familiar with the stone, we have some reason to believe that it may have originally come from the confluence of the Connecticut and Salmon rivers. From this, we have focused most of our work on the Haddam area. Having surveyed the Thirty Mile Plantation and Higganum cemeteries, we have been unable to identify any similar contemporary stones. We are now looking into a place called “Graveyard Point” on the bank of the Salmon River, near its confluence with the Connecticut River. Graveyard Point no longer has any graves, but the name itself makes it seem promising as an original location for the stone.

As the semester continues, we will continue to look into Graveyard Point, specifically going through archives in Haddam to try to find out more about the history of the site. We also hope to look into more records, including death records, church records, and family plot records. We also would like to learn about possible Native etymologies of “Sipi,” as well as the history and archaeology of the Wangunk Meadow area. We are additionally doing some work with the political and cultural contexts of the Wangunk people, seeing as the Early Reservation period ended in 1732, meaning that the individual buried with the stone probably lived within a period of cultural transition.

1765 Connecticut stone with soul effigies and six-pointed rosettes. Here, the main effigy represents a child who died, while the smaller effigy to the right of the stone represents a second deceased child

Dethlefsen, Edwin, and  James Deetz. “Death’s Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries,” American Antiquity 31, no. 4 (1966).

Grant-Costa, Paul. “Wangunk,” Yale Indian Papers Project. Yale University.

Ludwig, Allen I., Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815. Hanover: University Press of New England (1999).


Pennies in our thoughts (and on our shelves)

While cleaning out my room over the summer, I found a box containing my old collection of Wheat Pennies. Minted between 1909 and 1956, Wheat Pennies represent US coin collecting at its most basic level. The obverse of a Wheat Penny is identical to that of a penny minted in 2017, while the reverse bears the phrase “One Cent, United States of America” in the center, flanked by two stalks of wheat along the edges. Many Wheat Pennies are still in circulation, so the task of collecting them often comes down to inspecting any pennies received as change at the grocery store.

Wheat penny circa 1937

At around the same time I was rediscovering my collection of old coins, Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections (and follow us here!) was making a similar discovery: an enormous numismatic collection tucked away in the back of the Earth and Environmental Science storeroom. (See this News @ Wesleyan story for more information on the project which yielded this coin discovery!) Most of the coins in this collection did not originate in the United States, and those that did are well over 100 years old, and would be unlikely to surface in a cash register in 2017; thousands of coins, spanning at least three continents and at least 1000 years, waiting patiently for someone to do some spring-cleaning.

Old coin cabinet discovered in summer 2017 in the Earth and Environmental Sciences storage space

Although the collection was housed in the E&ES storeroom, the coins do belong to the Archaeology Collections. We know this for several reasons: First of all, as a general rule, numismatics falls under the purview of archaeology and anthropology, not earth and environmental science. Secondly, previous collections managers have attempted to integrate the coins into the modern archival system and, consequently, a small portion of the collection already lives in our storeroom. Lastly, many of the coins possess accession numbers that correspond to the Archaeology Collections’ earliest method of cataloging artifacts dating back to the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1871 and closed in 1957. One of our ongoing projects for all of our collections is the assignment of trinomial catalog numbers to all of our artifacts, but for a long time, Wesleyan’s museum simply gave items a number as they arrived. A separate catalog was created for numismatics, but these designations were also simply numerical, beginning with 1 and ending somewhere after 3000. Many of the coins I have catalogued thus far appear to have been some of the earliest numismatics acceded into the collection; I have encountered coins with accession numbers as low as 36!

Indian head penny, minted 1802, Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections

The only complete record of these numbers lives in an accession book so old that it could belong in a museum itself. In fact, Archaeology Collections had to receive permission from Special Collections in order to keep the book in our storeroom, rather than in the archive in Olin. The entries in this book are handwritten, often in hasty scrawl that requires a bit of imagination to decipher. The descriptions are limited, but they are generally enough to confirm that the number written directly on a coin matches the corresponding entry in the book.

Coin accession book from the Wesleyan Museum (1871 – 1957); on loan from Special Collections and Archives, Olin Library

This brings us to the task at hand. One by one, each of these coins must be examined, entered into a spreadsheet, and given a place in our collection, where it belongs. I cannot stress the “one-by-one” aspect of this project enough because, again, this collection comprises THOUSANDS of coins. To put that amount into perspective, in over a month I have catalogued fewer than 250 entries. There are thousands of coins now, and when I graduate in the spring, there will still probably be thousands of coins left. Like so many of the projects I have encountered as a student worker in Wesleyan’s Archaeology Collections, including Steven Dyson’s old records and the NAGPRA process, I won’t see the end of this endeavor.

New coin storage cabinet and recently inventoried coins, Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections

I’ve learned that working on a long and drawn-out project takes patience, but working on a project I know I will leave unfinished takes a different kind of endurance. As a whole, the process has a specific end-goal, but my part of it doesn’t. It’s not depressing, exactly, but it’s not invigorating either. Setting smaller goals helps. A new cabinet was purchased for the numismatic collection—we will likely need at least one more to fit them all—and I am very slowly filling up the very first drawer in this first cabinet. Coin by coin, row by row. I’m hoping to finish that first drawer by winter break, and then next semester, I’ll start the second drawer. I think I’ll fill that one was well, but maybe I won’t. Someone will, though.

Thinking about the handwriting in the old accession book helps, too. I have encountered at least three distinct scripts in that book, which means at least three different people had a hand in maintaining the collection, holding a dialogue over time in the pages of the catalog. My handwriting isn’t in the book, but it’s on the labels I write out for each of the coins before I place them in their new case. It makes me feel like I’ve joined that dialogue because from now on, whenever someone wants to learn about those coins, they’ll start with the labels I’ve written and they’ll end with the entries in the accession book. It’s a process, of which I am now a part, and that won’t change when I graduate. And who knows? Maybe one day, I’ll visit for a reunion to find that whole case filled, top to bottom. And maybe there will be students working on a new project, with no end in sight.

By: Sophia Shoulson, ’18

Collections Highlight: The Oceanic Collection

The Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections (WUAAC) contain over 35,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects from around the world. This is the first installment in a series of blog posts that will highlight some of our “collections.”

The term “collection” can be defined in a variety of ways. One could consider a collection as a group of artifacts connected along some parallel including theme, region, culture, time period, and/or the identity of the collector, among others. Some of our collections were intentionally assembled, and reflect the specific motives and aesthetics of their collectors. Other collections are groups of objects with a shared place of origin or cultural affiliation, or that have similar narratives of production, use, or discovery. Neither a comprehensive list nor a representative sample, “collections” offer diverse windows into various cultures and their histories.

The Oceanic collection includes approximately fifty artifacts from cultures throughout the Pacific, such as Hawaii, the Cook Islands, the Tubuai Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and Kiribati. Much of this collection was amassed during the mid-19th century by Wesleyan’s Missionary Lyceum, which encouraged their members in the field to obtain objects for a planned museum – the irony being that, in many cases, the very objects valued as display items were tied to lifeways that American and European missionaries disrupted or actively sought to destroy. There are also objects from the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-42) obtained from the Smithsonian, and objects obtained via exchange with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu on the advice of Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter H. Buck), who examined the Oceanic collection in 1939.

Examining a handful of select objects from a collection such as the Oceanic one demonstrates how collections can provide a wide array of insight into things such as food and cultural practices and craftsmanship and technology. They can also reveal undertones in class, gender, spirituality, and even relations between people.

Hawaiian Chief Necklace

Hawaiian Chief Necklace, Object ID: ethcat #306

The Lei Niho Paloa is a necklace that originates from Hawaii. This necklace was created in the late 19th century, using single strands of braided human hair bound together into two coils with plant fiber cordage, with a hooked ivory pendant carved out of the tooth of a sperm whale. The Hawaiians believed that hair was “the most supernaturally powerful part of the body… a sacred substance whose presence enhanced the mana of the necklace and its noble wearer” [1]. Hawaiian chiefs wore these necklaces as a status marker and during battle, distinguishing those of higher status and noble birthright. Females also wore these necklaces on important occasions as a form of formal regalia. Therefore, the ivory pendant may have served a ritual purpose as a “vessel for supernatural power (mana)” [2]. Through its use of sacred materials, this necklace was a class marker for elite chiefs, warriors, and women. Also significant is the the labor that was invested into its creation. Of course, collecting and braiding 1700 feet of hair requires large amounts of time and skill, and it is important to consider the individual craftsmen who dedicated their time to create these necklaces for the elite chiefs.

Poi Pounder

Poi pounder, Object ID: 1940.2567.1

This object was used to make poi, a staple food throughout Polynesia and a common part of Hawaiian cuisine. This pounder was made of volcanic rock and stands 20 cm high. Wesleyan obtained this object in 1940 from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hi. Poi (pohaku ku’i ‘ai) is made by using a poi pounder to mash together baked taro against a wooden board and enough water to reach the desired consistency. The taro plant is culturally and spiritually significant to Hawaiians as well. Hawaiians believed that the taro plant was the elder brother to the very first Hawaiian that provided sustenance for his younger sibling. Therefore, not only does this object provide insight into cultural food practices, but also the care and respect in the process of growing, making, and eating poi symbolized proper relationships between family members, and between the people and the land. Through the performance of agriculture and the preparation of poi, Hawaiians were able to reflect their own temperament and character to the rest of their community. Read more about the cultural significance of poi to Hawaii’s indigenous peoples here.

Wooden Headrest

Wooden headrest, Object ID: 1870.334.1

This object originates from Fiji and is an object that was collected by the Missionary Lyceum and held in the Wesleyan Museum. So, we know it was created before 1870! The legs of this headrest are attached to the body via carved joints secured with plaited plant fiber lashings. They are broken off at the bottom, so it is unknown whether the piece originally sat on four feet or had a flat base. Headrests, as opposed to pillows, have been and continue to be used by many cultures around the world. They are useful in preserving elaborate wigs or hairstyles during rest. In Fiji, they were also important in preventing the head – considered the most sacred part of the body – from coming into contact with the ground. This object is significant not only because it reveals class, gender, and spiritual implications of the Fijian culture in the nineteenth century, but it also provides a social history into the daily lives of the people that used it.

Of course, there are many other objects in the Oceanic collection. Some of these include: textiles, weapons, fish hooks, and paddles (see below for more pictures). However, just the three artifacts highlighted in this post reveal how each artifact is infused with meaning. There is a story behind each object that reflects the culture from which it originates. The Oceanic collection as a whole can even tell a story when considering the identity of the collectors and how each object arrived at Wesleyan.

Ceremonial wooden paddle, Object ID: 1870.370.1; Austral Islands, circa mid-19th century


Model war canoe, Object ID: 1870.348.1; Sandwich Islands, circa mid-19th century


Pear shell fish hook and lure, Object ID: ethcat #1786; Micronesia, circa late 19th century


If you are interested in learning more about any of the objects in this collection, or if you want to work with any of the artifacts in the collections for a paper, project, or even a thesis, please visit the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections in Exley, room 301 or check out our website for more contact info!

By: Steven Chen ‘18

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whale-tooth Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa) (1979.206.1623). New York. Electronic document.

[2] Ibid.

Behind the Scenes: Moving On, a student-curated exhibition

***This short essay offers a behind the scenes account of the development of our exhibition: Moving On. The exhibit is on display in the main reading room of Olin Memorial Library through Fall 2017.***

One year later and another post from the “Museum Collections” course (ARCP 267 Spring 2017)! We see ourselves as museums lovers who are interested in learning collections management, exhibition development, and the socio-historical implications of displaying artifacts. During the semester, we studied the historical and ethical complications within American museums. By combining museum theories and case studies, we identified the ways the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections deal with those complications, and curated our own exhibition –  Moving On – located on the first-floor main reading room in Olin Library.

The word “museum” is nothing new. We’ve all visited many art galleries, natural history museums, science centers, zoos … since childhood. However, when we start to think about topics behind a museum, like its role in the community, acquisition procedures, and issues with cultural heritage, museum studies becomes a larger discipline that involves considerable discussions and cooperation between fields. As we kept reading, researching, and talking with others during the spring semester, we all obtained some solid ideas about particular areas of museum studies for our final research paper. Besides regular readings and writing assignments, our instructor, Jessie Cohen, designed engaging material culture activities for us to do in class. We visited University Archivist, Leith Johnson, Collections Conservator and Head of Preservation Services, Michaelle Biddle, and Digital Projects Librarian, Francesca Livermore in Olin Library. We discussed everything from how to manage large collections and how to deal with redundant objects, and we also had an Ethics Bowl based on museums in varied situations.

Throughout the semester, we got to know the importance of communication. In museums, curators, educators, and boards of trustees will sit down and discuss upcoming exhibits and events. The course mimicked this process and as a class we all had to consider our roles as curators and actively participate in the design of our exhibition. Towards the end of the semester, we had the opportunity to meet with the students and professor (Corinna Zeltsman) of HIST 321 (“Media and Power in Latin America: From Quipus to Twitter”) for a workshop where we peer-edited each other’s exhibition labels. (For a look at the “Media and Power in Latin America: From Quipus to Twitter” class pop-up exhibit, click here!)

ARCP 267 and HIST 321 students workshop their exhibition labels
ARCP 267 and HIST 321 students workshop their exhibition labels

The students in HIST 321 contributed their thoughts on the effect of an object’s history in the present, while we were worked to combine all ideas and made them applicable to our exhibition case themes. Just like museum staff members collaborating prior to the opening of an exhibition, our class had to consider and agree upon text that would be limited to 80 words or less for our exhibition labels. Another important element of communication happens between the museum and the visitor. So, HIST 321 students were able to act as our visitors, and provide us with unbiased feedback. As the curators, we strove to write labels using a reader-friendly narrative that would excite our visitors. This was the hardest part because we had to find a balance between telling a captivating story while also stating the facts and history of the object. In the end, we feel that we were able to provide the visitor with all of the facts by way of an engaging and story-like narrative!

Photograph of Wesleyan Museum (Interior), Wesleyan Museum Records, Collection, Special Collections & Archives, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA


Inspired by the former Wesleyan Museum collection (1871-1957), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and the graduation of seniors, we came up with the theme of our Olin exhibition: that is, Moving On. We divided our objects into three parts: Moving On by Re-contextualizing, Moving On by Returning, and Moving On by Looking Forward.

Case 1: Moving on by Re-contextualizing; photo taken by Venus Cai
Case 2: Moving On by Returning; photo taken by Venus Cai
Case 3: Moving On by Looking Forward; photo taken by Venus Cai

Our goal was to have the exhibition play out like a timeline allowing the visitor to rethink the past of Wesleyan’s collecting history within the context of 18th colonialism. We also sought to inform the visitor about what’s happening now with the more than 30,000 objects that comprise the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections, and how students and faculty can utilize these objects by integrating them into coursework, thesis research, and other interdisciplinary methods. In general, this exhibition is an exploration of the changing practices of our collections and their educational value in a university. The story behind each individual object in the exhibition is really fun to read, and just a small glimpse into the array of historical, cultural, and natural specimens that make up the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. (See here for a closer look at some more collections highlights!)

We do encourage you to stop by the Moving On exhibition located on the first floor of Olin Library anytime during summer! We hope you enjoy the stories we are telling and we invite you to bring your unique perspectives. If you happen to be so interested in museum studies, take ARCP 267 next spring! There you can freely exchange your ideas with fellow museum fans and curate an exciting exhibition next year.

Enjoy the summer and visit more museums!

Venus (Yujie) Cai on behalf of the ARCP 267 Student Curators

Back row, from left to right: Venus Cai, ’20, Cayla Blachman, ’19, Caroline Deimer, ’18, Graham Brown, ’18, Olivia Nichols, ’17. Front row, from left to right: Ilana Newman, ’18, Lydia Tonkonow, ’17, Claudia Schatz, ’19, Krittika Roychowdhury, ’18

Venus Cai is a rising sophomore at Wesleyan University. She will major in Physics and Math in college. Her final paper for ARCP 267 discussed the relationship between science museums and adult visitors. Influenced by her mother’s careers in curation and artwork investments, Venus is interested in Museum Studies and History of Arts. As she is willing to combine her passions in both science and museum studies, she looks forward to interning in the Smithsonian next summer, especially in the National Air and Space Museum.

Collections and Food Part II: A History of Wesleyan’s Biological Food Samples

This blog post is the second installment of a series about food-related objects in the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections!

In our previous blog post, we looked at some objects from the collections that were used in the preparation of food. As with all material culture, these objects provided insight into the cultures that used them and allowed us to interpret the meaning that culinary practices held for individuals and groups. In a continuation of our Collections and Food series, this blog post will look at some of the ecological remains that have been preserved in the collections. To put it simply, we are going to examine some really old food!

What can food tell us about a culture? Alternatively, what can the preservation of food tell us about the meaning of a particular food to the culture? Who preserved the specimens and does the identity of the collector skew our interpretation of the previous two questions?

Food examination is used across a variety of fields and disciplines, each with different methodologies and results. Some historians might use food as way to examine wages, prices, inflation, and their connections to overall standards of living or as an explanation for major historical events. A recent text that encaptures the use of food to trace larger global trends is Robert C. Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. As a history major, I am personally interested in the way that material evidence, and food in particular, can construct histories. A project I have been working on uses cookbooks and examines particular foods and crops to trace developments of regional or national food identities, and larger food movements.

Anthropologists might use food to make specific conclusions about particular cultures. See our previous blog post for an example of how objects used to prepare food can tell us about spiritual practices, daily life, and communities. Some archaeologists perform residue analyses on objects to find traces of food that were contained in the objects. See here for an article about how ceramics from Chaco Canyon were found to have traces of cacao. What does this tell us about Chaco Canyon when cacao grew 1200 miles away? Or better yet, what does this tell us about the people who were living in Chaco Canyon? Through the use of residue analysis, archaeologists are able to infer things like cultural exchange, trade, and travel. In our own rehousing efforts of the various Middletown site collections, we came across a variety of cut animal bones.

Pieces of cut (butchered) bone from the Fell Site.
Pieces of cut (butchered) bone from the Fell Site

The manner these bones were cut and the cut marks on the bones themselves suggest that they were used for food (and were once a delicious meal)! While no analysis has been completed on these bones, some of the larger bones were most likely cow bones, while the smaller ones were poultry and possibly deer. Just from an initial examination of these objects, we can begin to trace the diets of people who lived in Middletown during the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s important to note that the various disciplines I discussed use foods in many other ways not mentioned. Even within disciplines, food can be used in a variety of ways that yield different results. The food-related objects in the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections primarily consist of tools used in food preparation, and botanical and food samples. Since we already covered objects used in food preparation in our previous blog post, what can we learn from the biological food specimens in the collections?

The bulk of Wesleyan’s biological food specimens originate from Native American tribes.  In 1879, Congress established the Bureau of American Ethnology (B.A.E.) as a separate, purely research unit of the Smithsonian Institution. The Bureau was established in an effort to preserve North American Indian cultures, and included important works in ethnology and archaeology that were funneled into the Smithsonian to display and study. In the same year, Wesleyan acquired a Smithsonian collection of sealed glass jars containing various plants, foods, and medicines from Native American tribes. It is likely that these objects were obtained through trade, a common practice used by museums in the 19th century. Samples originated from around North America including California, Arizona, Utah and Idaho.

(Samples pictured from left to right) “wafer bread,” “beans,” “service berries (also known as sugarplum),” “amanranthus albus (seeds),” and “dried pumpkin, cucurbita pepo”
Pictured from left to right: “wafer bread,” “beans,” “service berries (also known as sugarplum),” “amaranthus albus (seeds),” and “dried pumpkin, cucurbita pepo”

Half a century later, the Melville family embarked on a roadtrip across the country where they became acquainted with the local Hopi population and collected objects they believed provided insight and understanding to the Hopi culture. Check out the following description of the Melville trip from one of our previous blog posts,

In 1927 the Melville family – Carey, Maud, and their three children (ages 15, 13, and 9) – got into their Ford Model T, “Hubbub,” and left Massachusetts. They were embarking on a very early version of what has become a famous American activity: the cross-country road trip. Carey E. Melville was a professor at Clark University and the trip was his sabbatical, inspired by his desire to see the geological sites of the Southwest. The family circled the entire country – often driving hundreds of miles in a day.

Wesleyan received the Melville collection in 1976. While the collection primarily consisted of pottery and correspondence (also see here), one box in particular contained biological food samples that the Melvilles collected from the Hopi community in Arizona.

Left: Samples of maize/corn, right: Peki
Left: Samples of maize/corn, right: Piki

Although the Melvilles were genuine in their efforts to collect objects that represented the Hopi people, the objects that the Melvilles collected were created by the Hopi with the intention that they would be purchased by American tourists. This makes understanding these objects particularly interesting – as souvenirs of sort, to some extent the Hopi created these objects to fit how non-natives perceived Native American people and what tourists desired to purchase as souvenirs.

The foods collected from the Smithsonian and the Hopi were representative of pre-contact indigenous food. It is clear that indigenous diets and foodstuffs evolved and expanded over the course of centuries. However, without context it would be difficult to infer that these foods originated from Native American tribes in the 19th and 20th centuries. If you noticed, the Smithsonian and the Melville collections, while separated by half a century, had shared purposes. Out of a desire to represent different cultures of people through material evidence, a clear trend emerged among museums and collectors that was based upon a white American understanding of indigenous people and groups. While there may be some overlap, an exhibit curated by members of the Hopi tribe would most likely include a different assortment of objects and construct a different type of history than the Melville collection.

Questions of the identity and motivation of the collectors are important to keep in mind when researching and analyzing collections such as the ones mentioned in this post. However, these questions should not remove from the value that material evidence can offer to various disciplines. While it is important to accurately represent the past, the freedom of interpreting material evidence is what makes constructing and studying history more exciting and exhilarating (shameless plug for people like myself). Food is just one of the many sources of material evidence that can inform histories and shape understandings of people and cultures in the past.

Posted by Steven Chen ‘18