In the Name of Science? A Tale of Exploration, Conquest, and Collecting Aboard the Wilkes Expedition

Map of the Wilkes Expedition route. (Image from Northwest History,

On August 18, 1838, six ships departed from Hampton Roads, Virginia with 346 men, including nine naturalists. This voyage would become known as the United States Exploring Expedition, or in short, the Wilkes Expedition. Led by Charles Wilkes, the voyage was the first U.S. government funded scientific expedition, spanning from 1838 to 1842. Surveying parts of Africa, South America, and the Pacific, the journey amassed nearly 4,000 natural specimens and cultural objects were collected for future study. Some of these objects have become a part of Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. This blog post will explore the complicated history of the Wilkes Expedition, contextualizing the acquisition of these objects in order to better engage with them.

The expedition was an endeavor of massive proportions and required significant preparations. It took ten years to win Congressional approval, but when it was finally approved in May 1836, an additional two years were required to adequately prepare for the voyage. It was difficult to recruit sailors, for the long three-year voyage would prevent them from accessing promotional opportunities, and certain ships had to be reconstructed or replaced. The difficulty with the ships meant that the civilian naturalist corps had the be reduced from 21 to 9. The appointment of Charles Wilkes as captain of the expedition was not without controversy either. Wilkes was merely a junior lieutenant, and was appointed as captain over several more experienced candidates.[1]

While we now consider this voyage to be one of the major scientific expeditions of the nineteenth century, its primary motivations were commercialistic and militaristic. In November 1837, it was written that “the primary object of this expedition is the promotion of the great interests of commerce and navigation. The advancement of science is considered an object of great, but comparatively of secondary importance.”[2] The inclusion of two sloops of war and a gun brig, out of six ships in total, reflects an unstated focus on projecting military might. The reduction of the scientific corps also suggests the expedition’s true priorities. The scientists on board lacked sufficient assistants, as well as the space to both research and store specimens.[3]

Scientists were quick to take advantage of their military resources to complete their scientific objectives and studies. For example, the Expedition utilized a ‘‘running survey’’ technique in order to chart the islands visited, which used gunfire to chart an island’s geography. Anthony Adler explains: “by observing the time between the flash and report of gunfire, officers could measure angles between the ships and the shore in order to calculate distances.”[4] While not explicitly utilized for violent ends, Wilkes was firing upon the entire circumference of an island solely for mapping purposes.

In a number of recorded instances, the expedition exerted extreme brutality on the residents of Fiji. After one of their boats was stolen, Wilkes ordered a village’s structures, canoes, and crops burnt. After two crewmen, including Wilkes’ nephew, were killed while surveying the island, Wilkes burnt down one village, and massacred another.[5] For this brutality he was subjected to court martial. But while eleven charges were brought against him, Wilkes he was only found guilty of illegal punishment of seamen.[6] Wilkes also arrested the chief Ro Veidovi, who was responsible for the murder of five crew members on the Charles Daggett, a whaling vessel that had arrived in Fiji in 1833. Ro Veidovi was forcibly transported back to America, likely to be displayed as a curiosity. However, he died before the voyage was completed. His skull was separated from the rest of his body, and displayed in the Patent Office, which later became the National Gallery.[7]

While we may never know the means and methods by which these objects were collected, these acquisition efforts were certainly conducted within these militaristic and violent contexts. Over the four year journey, the expedition amassed nearly 4,000 ethnographic objects. It was traditional on such voyages that individual crewmen would negotiate and trade with the indigenous peoples for curiosities. However, the government prohibited the collecting of curiosities, ruling that all objects amassed would become part of a public collection, which eventually became the foundation of the Smithsonian Collection.[8] A small number of these objects were deaccessioned, and made part of Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. They now form part of our Oceanic Collection, an assemblage of approximately fifty artifacts from cultures throughout the Pacific.

Shell Armband

Shell armband, Object ID: 1874.569.1

This shell armband is made from the shell of a large sea snail (genus Trochus). This bracelet is created by first placing the lower part of the shell into a fire so that it becomes brittle enough to be chipped with a stone. The bracelet is then polished on the outside using a stone slab and on the inside with a branch of coral. Trochus shells are white with red stripes, and this coloration has evidently been preserved in the creation of this bracelet.[9] The armband is commonly associated with Papua New Guinea, but it is likely to have circulated through Melanesia (Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji) via extensive pre-contact trade networks. From our records, we know with good certainty that this object was collected from the Wilkes Expedition in Fiji.

Fish Hook and Line

Fish hook and line, Object ID: 2014.7.1

This fish hook and line is believed to originate from Samoa, another one of the islands explored by the Wilkes Expedition. The hook is made from “mother of pearl” mollusk shell, a popular material for fish hook. It also has a tortoise shell point. The line is made from plaited plant fibers. This type of fish hook and line was used while canoe fishing to troll fish, a process where multiple fishing lines are drawn through the water at once. Both the shell armband and the fish hook were made from biological specimens, which is symbolic of the ecological diversity of the Melanesian area. Due to their geography, fishing was an important component of Melanesian people’s culture, economy, and foodways.

At first glance, these artifacts shed light on indigenous cultures and offer insight into the daily lives of people in the past. However, when analyzing objects it is important to be conscious of the ways in which they were collected. The Wilkes Expedition was plagued with a number of violent instances that both disrupted and actively sought to destroy the lifeways of indigenous people, all under the guise of scientific exploration and commercial enterprise. The history of an object’s acquisition can tell a story of its own.

By Ilana Newman ’18 and Steven Chen ’18


[1] Patrick Strauss, “Preparing the Wilkes Expedition: A Study in Disorganization” Pacific Historical Review, 28, no. 3 (1959): 224-229

[2]  “Preparing the Wilkes Expedition: A Study in Disorganization” 223

[3] Antony Adler, “From the Pacific to the Patent Office: The US Exploring Expedition and the origins of America’s first national museum,” Journal of the History of Collections 23 no. 1 (2011): 54.

[4] Antony Adler, “The Ship as Laboratory: Making Space for Field Science at Sea,” Journal of the History of Biology 47 (2014): 336

[5] Roberta Sprague, “The United States Exploring Expedition to Fiji,” Wansalawara: Soundings in Melanesian History, (1987): 37

[6] Constance Bordwell, “Delay and Wreck of the Peacock: An Episode in the Wilkes Expedition” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 92, no. 2 (1991): 197

[7] Antony Adler, “The Capture and Curation of the Cannibal ‘Vendovi’: Reality and Representation of a Pacific Frontier,” The Journal of Pacific History, 49, no. 3 (2014): 274

[8] “From the Pacific to the Patent Office: The US Exploring Expedition and the origins of America’s first national museum,” 58

[9] “Bracelet: Cook-Forster Collection,” National Museum of Australia,

Works Cited

Adler, Antony. “From the Pacific to the Patent Office: The US Exploring Expedition and the origins of America’s first national museum,” Journal of the History of Collections 23 no. 1 (2011): 49-74.

Adler, Antony. “The Ship as Laboratory: Making Space for Field Science at Sea,” Journal of the History of Biology 47 (2014): 333–362.

Adler, Antony. “The Capture and Curation of the Cannibal ‘Vendovi’: Reality and Representation of a Pacific Frontier,” The Journal of Pacific History, 49, no. 3 (2014): 255–282.

Bordwell, Constance. “Delay and Wreck of the Peacock: An Episode in the Wilkes Expedition” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 92, no. 2 (1991): 119-198.

“Bracelet: Cook-Forster Collection,” National Museum of Australia,

Isaac, Gwyneira and Barbara Isaac. “Uncovering the demographics of collecting: A case-study of the US Exploring Expedition (1838–1842),” Journal of the History of Collections 28 no. 2 (2016): 209–223.

Sprague, Roberta. “The United States Exploring Expedition to Fiji,” Wansalawara: Soundings in Melanesian History, (1987): 12-49.

Strauss, Patrick, “Preparing the Wilkes Expedition: A Study in Disorganization” Pacific Historical Review, 28, no. 3 (1959): 221-232.

An Update from the Numismatic Depths

Last semester marked the beginning of the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections’ great numismatic undertaking—this semester, the project is in full swing. With the additional help of two new intrepid student workers, the collections staff has been making some serious headway in the long and arduous process of cataloging all four thousand or so of the coins recently recovered from Earth and Environmental Sciences. A few weeks ago, we reached an important milestone: We cataloged our 1000th coin!

The event was (un)surprisingly anti-climactic. It didn’t happen during my shift; the coin was researched, labeled, acceded, placed into a box and dropped into a drawer, and the moment passed without a hint of pomp and circumstance. But celebrating these occasions is crucial for maintaining commitment to and enthusiasm about enormous projects like this numismatics catalog, and the more I learn about these coins, the easier it is to notice interesting and unique elements in all of them. So here is a love letter to the 1000th entry in our spreadsheet.

The current state of our numismatics collection

Our coin #1000 is actually coin #665 in the antique-looking coin accession book from the old Wesleyan Museum. Although we do encounter groups of coins with contiguous accession numbers, there are often large gaps between those groupings within the same drawer, and there was no way to predict which section of the accession book would house our 1000th coin. It so happens that this coin comes from a series of 18th and 19th century French numismatics. Already, this particular time period makes the coin interesting, because the century between 1770 and 1870 saw an enormous amount of political turmoil and turnover in France. Without wasting too much time on a history lesson I am not qualified to give, here is a brief chronological rundown:

  • 1715-1774: The reign of King Louis XV
  • 1774-1791: The reign of King Louis XVI, who was executed in 1793
  • 1789: The outbreak of the French Revolution
  • 1792-1804: The First Republic
  • 1804-1814: The First Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte
    • In 1814 Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, but he returned to France in 1815 and briefly resumed rule for a period known as the Hundred Days
  • 1815-1830: The Bourbon monarchy was restored
    • 1815-1824: The reign of King Louis XVIII, following the Hundred Days and his second restoration to the throne
    • 1824-1830: The reign of King Charles X
  • 1830: The outbreak of the July Revolution
  • 1830-1848: A constitutional monarchy was established under King Louis Philippe I
  • 1848: Outbreak of the February Revolution
  • 1848-1852: The Second Republic, with Louis Napoleon as president
    • 1851: Louis Napoleon staged a coup d’état
  • 1852-1870: The Second Empire under Louis Napoleon, now Emperor Napoleon III

In our collection, we have encountered coins from nearly every period of this eventful historical moment. The coin in question, number 1000, comes from one of the shorter chapters—the Second Republic—but its story begins five decades earlier. As a part of an effort to redesign all forms of measurement in base-10, the First French Republic introduced the franc as the primary unit of currency in 1795. The franc was, in turn, broken up into 10 décimes and 100 centimes. Although coins of various denominations were minted and discontinued in the decades between the First and Second Republics, the denominational structure remained until the 1960s and the introduction of the new franc.

Coin #1000 is a 20-centime piece from the year 1850. Its obverse depicts a bust in profile facing left below the phrase “Republique Française” and its reverse displays the value and date within a wreath, surrounded by the familiar phrase “Liberté Égalité Fraternité.”

Obverse and reverse of our 1000th coin

The Second Republic lasted a scant five years, and its inception essentially marked the beginning of its downfall—yet, even in those five years, French coins were minted. Louis Napoleon, grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte, staged a coup d’état in 1851, a mere three years after being elected president of the new republic, then retroactively held a plebiscite in which voters were asked if they agreed with his seizure of power. He declared himself Emperor Napoleon III a year later, in December of 1852, after which the phrase “Republique Française” was no longer minted on French coins. But in 1850, even as Louis Napoleon was planning his coup, this 20-centime piece was minted. And, over 150 years later, it found its way to Wesleyan.

Sometimes, this numismatics collection feels like a map of the world. I’ll put down a coin from Brazil and pick up the one sitting right next to it, only to discover that it’s from Korea, or Great Britain. But these French coins have reminded me that numismatics can also tell the story of a single place over a long period of time. France’s economy has a tangible historical record built into its framework, and this coin is a part of it. But it’s also coin #1000 for us, coin #665 for the Wesleyan Museum, and, in a day’s work, it’s kind of just another coin.

Back into the numismatic depths I go.

By: Sophia Shoulson, ’18


Sourcing Native-modified Stone Objects

The Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections contain around 35,000 objects, of which approximately 60% have a Native American origin. Of those in the collection, we have many objects that were collected or recovered from sites in Connecticut. In an effort to repatriate these objects, it is important to find out from where the artifacts originate. For the past few months, I have been sorting through the stone artifacts in the collection, trying to determine their stone type in an effort to understand where they may have been created.

One object in the collection is especially interesting. A soapstone mortar supposedly from Connecticut with evidence of modern tool use on the exterior sides that was originally added to the collection during the years of the Wesleyan Museum (1871 – 1957). After the Museum closed the mortar went “missing” on campus until 2006 when it was located and added back into the collection. The only sourcing information that the collection had said that it was “likely from Connecticut.” However, we learned from a member of the Earth and Environmental Sciences staff that a professor researched the source and found a site – possibly Ragged Mountain Rock Shelter in Barkhamsted – that the mortar may have been from in northern Connecticut. With this information, I followed up more on the site and found that Yale University conducted a series of excavations at this site, and still held most of the artifacts in their collection.

CT mortar
Soapstone mortar, Object ID: 1973.1.1

After learning that Yale had other artifacts from this site, I contacted their NAGPRA coordinator hoping to see the artifacts in their collection. We communicated for a short period of time before arranging a time that Jessie and I could travel to New Haven to visit. On March 23rd we made the journey south (45 minutes is a long way!) in the pursuit of knowledge.

When we arrived at the Peabody we were greeted by Erin Gredell, the NAGPRA coordinator for the Peabody Museum, who took us to the room where the artifacts had been collected. While there we took pictures of the artifacts and compared them to the pictures of the mortar in our collection. The pictures seemed to match, but without more conclusive chemical evidence it will be difficult to know. This part of the project will be ongoing and with the help of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Archaeology Program we will hopefully determine the chemical signature of both pieces and know whether or not they match.

Rounded Steatite (soapstone) Shard
Rounded Steatite (soapstone) Shard

After spending time taking pictures and examining the artifacts, the three of us looked at other parts of the Peabody collection. It was fascinating to see that the practices that we had in our collection carried over to much larger collections. After saying goodbye to Ms. Gredell, Jessie and I explored the museum before making our way back to Middletown.

by Jack Sheffer, ’19

Meet the Student Collections Staff

From left to right: Sophia Shoulson, ’18, Jessie Cohen, Archaeological Collections Manager, Steven Chen, ’18, Isabel Alter, ’17, Jack Sheffer, ’19

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.

unnamed-2Favorite 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.

Deciphering an 18th century Middletown, CT Gravestone


18th century Connecticut tombstone, object ID # 172, Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections


Here Lyeth ye /

Body of Sipi[?] /

Indian Who[n?] /

Died Feb [?] y [2] /

~1731~ /

Aged [6?] years

** The top of the stone is carved with a simplified head with decorative circles on either side. The accession records only tell us that it is from “Middletown (?).” **

When I started researching this tombstone, I could only make out the first five lines of writing. Some of it can be read visually but some of the letters are so worn that they can only be made out by feeling their outlines. Figuring out the letters was only half the battle. A lot of the language is archaic and is difficult to fully interpret, especially in the tombstone’s weathered state. What does the inscription mean? What can it tell us about the carver and the memorialized?

The carvings at the top show two patterns. At the center is a “death’s head”- a skull-like carving that serves as a reminder of mortality. Death’s heads were often winged (though this one is not), and reminders of mortality that “derived from the strong and stern religious beliefs of the Puritans” (Farber 2003, p. 20). The other carvings on the stone are a simple version of a rosette motif. These secondary motifs were common for the shoulders of simple gravestones in this period. This particular stone is fairly simple and could have been carved by one of the local carvers (although I was not able to identify one by the style) or by an amateur, as was seen occasionally in historical Connecticut cemeteries (Duval 1978, p. 37).

To understand the writing, I examined scholarship on gravestones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Inscriptions on these tombstones often “opened with ‘Here Lyeth ye Body of’ or variations such as ‘Here Lyes Buried [or interred] ye Remains of,’ which evolved to the even more straightforward ‘Here Lies the Body of.’ ” This inscription was similar to the opening lines across a significant historical period in this region (Farber 2003, p. 24).

Wesleyan student and Central Connecticut State University professors view the tombstone in Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. From left to right: Professor Alexandra Maravel, CCSU history professor; Isabel Alter, Wesleyan University, class of 2017; Professor Katherine Hermes, CCSU history professor.

The rest of the inscription gives us some information about the individual, when they died, and some part of their name but poses more questions than it answers. The name,“Sipi,” piqued the interest of Katherine Hermes and Alexandra Maravel, history professors at Central Connecticut State University. They have been working on a long term project about a Native American man with a similar name who lived in the area around that time. Could there be a connection between the individual commemorated on this stone and the subject of Hermes and Maravel’s research? Once we were able to read the final line of the inscription, indicating that the person was either a child (aged “6” years) or an individual in their 60s, it became clear that it was most likely not the same person but it certainly does not rule out the possibility of a connection. One thing that is unusual about the inscription, if it is indeed for a child, is that most other gravestones from this period for children as young as six tended to note who the parents were or shared a stone with their parent(s).

Central Connecticut State University professors view the tombstone in Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. From left to right: Professor Alexandra Maravel, CCSU history professor; Professor Katherine Hermes, CCSU history professor.

Neither the collection records nor Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives have information regarding the gravestone. The only records we have within the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections describe the object as a gravestone and tentatively suggest that it came from Middletown. The papers from the Wesleyan museum, which was established around the same time the gravestone came into the collection – 1871 and 1872 respectively – do not include any mention of it. The Middlesex County Historical Society similarly does not have any records of the stone.

After researching the gravestone for several weeks a few questions remain. How did the gravestone end up at Wesleyan? Evidence suggests that it originated nearby given that the records say “Middletown (?).” Substantiating that claim is that the tombstone is made out of brownstone, which was quarried in this region of Connecticut, especially just across the river from Middletown in Portland. However, this doesn’t bring us closer to explaining why someone collected a gravestone marking a grave that would have already been around 150 years old at the time of its collection. The other question remaining is whether this stone can be subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). I looked for evidence of previous NAGPRA cases applied specifically to gravestones – a Christianized burial practice – but was unable to find information on how the law might be applied.

There is still more to learn about this object. We can widen our search of cemetery records and continue to work with experts on Connecticut history who might know more about burial practices in the area and/or individuals who might have been connected to this stone. It is also important to think about how to best incorporate it into the collections, considering factors like the lack of historical records, NAGPRA implications, and general preservation. Preservation, of course, of the utmost importance given that ultimately an ideal ending to this story and research project would be to return the gravestone to its original location.

For their research suggestions and assistance I would like to thank Debby Shapiro at the Middlesex Historical Society, Professors (history) Alexandra Maravel and Katherine Hermes of Central Connecticut State University, and Wesleyan University Professor (American studies and anthropology) J. Kehaulani Kauanui.

by Isabel Alter, ’17


Reference Sources:

Duval, Francis Y., and Ivan B. Rigby. 1978. Early American Gravestone Art in Photographs. New York: Dover Publications.

Farber, Jessie Lie. 2003. “Early American Gravestones: Introduction to the Farber Gravestone Collection,” American Antiquarian Society,

Ludwig, Allan I. 1999. Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815. 3rd ed. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Revisited: Negotiating Culture, Legalities, and Challenges

The Wesleyan Collections, like many other anthropology and archaeology collections around the country and world, have a legacy of exploitative collecting practices – particularly relating to Native Americans. In 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed by Congress, drastically changing the relationship between museums and other collecting institutions – including Wesleyan – and Native tribes.

On Friday November 4th the collections co-sponsored an event titled “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Revisited: Negotiating Culture, Legalities, and Challenges” to explore the intricacies of the law as well as its specific implications at Wesleyan. In the keynote address Suzan Harjo talked about the history of how NAGPRA came to be, and her own involvement in its development, starting in 1967. Her talk was followed by a panel, moderated by Professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, and including Jessie Cohen, Barker Farris, Elaine Thomas, and Marissa Turnbull (see below for speaker affiliation and credentials).

FullSizeRender (006)
Jessie Cohen, Archaeology and Anthropology Collection Manager and NAGPRA Coordinator; Barker Farris, Repatriation Coordinator and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass); Suzan Shown Harjo, policy advocate, curator, writer, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Elaine Thomas, Deputy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, The Mohegan Tribe; and Marissa Turnbull, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation; Professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, Wesleyan University.

The audience included many students in classes related to this topic including Professor Kauanui’s students from her Colonialism and Its Consequences and Indigenous Politics classes. Here are some of those student’s thoughts on the event and how it relates to their studies.

Mira Klein ‘17:

“Suzan Shown Harjo’s keynote again reminded me of a major (if not the major) theme discussed in our course so far in analyzing U.S. Indian law: inconsistency. Specifically, inconsistency as fostered through groups and individuals who interpret, enact, and bend the law to fit the desires of the State or other related actors. The moments when this inconsistency stood out the most were in discussing the language of “human remains” for NAGPRA and the transfer of Smithsonian collections to the Museum of the American Indian.

In the NAGPRA case, as Harjo emphasized, changing the lexicon embedded in the law was really important so that this language would also be necessarily incorporated into the language of potential adversaries. In the “human remains” discussion, which was fraught with controversy, it was pushed through Congress because there happened to be a critical mass of people at the time who claimed to support human rights. In the museum case, Harjo details how the process of transfer was shaped in part by the fact that the new Smithsonian director happened to be somebody she got along with. In both of these cases, the individuals involved played a big part in how the situation played out. Similarly, in many of the court cases we have discussed, the seemingly wildly inconsistent decisions have been wrought by small groups of individuals. How much must individuals or climates of individuals be considered when pushing for new legislation and regulation? Or is this a false amount of agency to embed within these individuals?”


Harjo giving the key note address.

Brenda Quintana ‘18:

“The speakers for the event were really incredible and it really helped me understand repatriation as a process interdependent on many institutions and people. The process is very complicated and long, and while this is to make sure every party involved is fully informed, to an extent the same process treats ancestors like simply being part of a collection. However it is obvious that the people working on NAGPRA compliance have a very serious commitment to the people and tribes.

One thing that struck me was the reburial of almost 100 ancestors during the repatriation at UMASS. Particularly after learning about the grave diggers who would wait by mourners before they invaded the graves and decapitated the corpses, it made me think about the right of burial. I think one important thing that I had originally overlooked about NAGPRA was that it wasn’t just about returning stolen items to tribes, but about returning bodies who had been displaced after death. Even in death, their bodies were seen as inconveniences to building projects, or treated as archaeological treasures to “learn from.” Value was given to the bodies because indigenous bodies are placed in this ancient past, despite that not often being the case. Reburial is a powerful thing, but I can only imagine how many more bodies need to be reburied to bring a degree of peace to the dead.”

Julia Lejeune ‘18:

“I found it really interesting to hear the perspectives of the NAGPRA coordinators on the panel, especially Jessie Cohen’s Wesleyan-specific experiences. I especially liked hearing Jessie describe the “spirit” versus the “letter” of the NAGRPA law. The spirit of the law is to right the wrongs of collection processes that treat the human remains and cultural objects of indigenous people as sub-human, and the property of museums/archaeologists rather than the families and tribes to which they were stolen from. Jessie Cohen described how the actual “letter” of NAGRPA was more difficult to follow, and that repatriation processes can take years to complete. Jessie Cohen told a story1 of finding a box of indigenous remains and associated funerary objects, and how instead of going through the whole repatriation process, she simply contacted tribal officials directly and made the return. This was an example of following the “spirit” of the law rather than strictly the letter.”

Read the Argus’s coverage of the event here.

1 This example relates to work that took place at another institution prior to Cohen’s hiring at Wesleyan.


Posted by Isabel Alter ’17

Photos courtesy of J. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui

Collections and Food Part I: What can anthropology tell us about the preparation of food?

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

From extravagant White House state dinners to family gatherings during the holiday season, food is simultaneously a performance, an expression, and a place where people can find common ground. Food is a powerful social and political tool that brings people together, a symbol that defines and distinguishes cultural identities, and something that can hold profound meaning for individuals and societies. For this month’s blog post, we selected objects from the collections that were used in the preparation and presentation of food. Examining this material evidence reveals the significance of food to the customs and identities of the cultures that used each object.

Poi Pounder

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, care and respect in the process of growing, making, and eating taro 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. Not to mention, poi is also delicious! Read more about the cultural significance of poi to Hawaii’s indigenous peoples here.

California Cooking Basket

Cooking basket, Object ID 2004.13.29

This woven cooking basket originates from one of the Northern California indigenous tribes (Hupa, Yurok) and was most likely created between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century. Because acorns were easy to grow and store, California tribes relied on them as a staple carbohydrate in their diet. To prepare acorns, they first had to be pounded into a meal, or fine flour. Cooking baskets were covered in acorn gruel so nothing would leak out while cooking and placed over hot rocks. Acorn meal and water was combined and boiled into a thick soup, or a version of porridge. Hungry for a quick snack? Before you run outside to grab a couple of acorns that the squirrels left behind make sure that you take the proper precautions to remove the natural tannins found in acorns! Wesleyan acquired this particular basket in 2004 as part of the Burford collection. Professor Gilbert Burford (1911 – 2002) was the E.B. Nye Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Wesleyan University (and a Wes alum, class of 1932) where he started teaching in 1936! Professor Burford  also held a passion for Native American Indian culture and artifacts. Not only does this cooking basket provide insight into the culinary practices of Northern California indigenous tribes, the intricate weaving patterns of the basket also reflect the tribes’ faculties for technology and innovation.

Cooking Vessel

Niantic cooking vessel, unnumbered

This ceramic cooking vessel was created during the Proto-Historic period, between 1400 to 1500 A.D. This particular object was excavated near Millstone, CT in 1959 and was most likely manufactured by the Nehantic or Niantic Indians. Ceramic vessels of this type were generally made out of a mixture of clay, wood ashes, and pulverized shells. This wet clay mixture was then used to line a woven basket that was dried, placed into a fire, and baked in the sun. The basket part of the vessel burned off in the fire, leaving the ceramic pot imprinted with the criss-cross design of the basket. While it is unknown exactly what kind of food was prepared in this particular cooking vessel, Native American diets consisted primarily of maize, squash, and beans. While this cooking vessel has seen better days, it is indicative of the staple foods that constituted indigenous diets and the craftsmanship of the indigenous tribes that created ceramics.

Rabbit Stick

Rabbit stick, Object ID 2003.6.64

This wooden throwing stick was used by Native American tribes to hunt rabbits, squirrels, prairie dogs, fowl, and other game. This particular object is part of the Melville Collection, collected from the Hopi Mesas in Arizona. On a road trip across the country, the Melville family became acquainted with the local Hopi population and collected objects they believed provided insight and understanding to the Hopi culture. Along with plants that constituted a large part of indigenous diets, meat was also an important part of sustenance. The red and black design on this particular throwing stick represented a rabbit’s feet. This object is significant because it provides insight into Native American spirituality that respected animals and believed in asking permission to take the spirit of an animal before hunting. Additionally, hunting allowed members of the community to hunt together for the needs of the community as a whole. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly imagine the skill required to hunt with such an object!

It’s amazing how much one object can tell us about the different histories, cultures, and practices of people around the world! The objects in this blog post are among some of the food-related artifacts that are housed at the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. We hope that they provided a glimpse into the past (and perhaps will spark a conversation at your next holiday gathering)!

…and stay tuned for Part II that will focus on actual “food” from the collections!

Further Reading:

Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia edited by Karen Bescherer Metheny & Mary C. Beaudry (2015)

Daily Life of Native Americans from Post-Columbian through Nineteenth-century America by Alice N. Nash & Christopher Strobel (2006)

Hopis, Tewas, and the American Road edited by Willard Walker & Lydia L. Wyckoff (1983)

The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage by Rachel Laudan (1996)

Posted by Steven Chen ’18

Preserving Middletown: One artifact at a time

In the years between 1974 and 1985, Professor Stephen Dyson of the Wesleyan University Classics Department led his Introduction to Archaeology classes in the excavation of upwards of 11 sites around Middletown. Most of these sites corresponded with properties in the region between Main Street and the Connecticut River; during the late 18th century, this area was chiefly inhabited by families associated with Middletown’s short-lived but very successful shipping industry.

A historic map reproduction of Middletown, CT, published by Hughes and Bailey in 1915
A historic map reproduction of Middletown, CT, published by Hughes and Bailey in 1915

Professor Dyson’s excavations were often conducted under severe time constraints. As he discusses in his articles on the subject, Dyson’s primary goal was to preserve the historical integrity of these sites as the structural integrity became increasingly compromised. Beginning with the construction of Route 9 across the river and culminating in an enthusiastic urban renewal effort in the 70s, buildings that had been left relatively untouched for decades were in danger of being torn down and forgotten. With the help of his students, and occasionally mere days before the scheduled destruction of the buildings, Professor Dyson collected and analyzed the remnants of the lives of Middletown’s historical families—paying particular attention to ceramic artifacts—in an effort to reconstruct and tell their stories.

Dyson stored his finds in Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections and published two articles on his excavations; several of his students contributed papers on the subject as well. After finishing out his work at the university, however, Dyson’s finds lost their immediate relevance and were relegated to a place of honor in the Exley Penthouse—if by “Penthouse,” one means the chaotic storage facility on the seventh floor of the Exley Science Center, and by “place of honor,” one means dilapidated plastic bags crammed into chests of drawers, shoved in a corner, and forgotten.

Archaeology and Anthropology Collections storage location in the Exley penthouse
Archaeology and Anthropology Collections storage location in the Exley penthouse


And so, from a certain perspective, Professor Dyson’s worst nightmare came to pass: the artifacts lost both their historical integrity and, perhaps more importantly, their historical context. Beyond the limited information gleaned from non-standardized tags and labels in the artifact bags, it is extremely difficult to determine anything definitive about these finds, or the people whose lives they represent. And this story is not unique to Professor Dyson’s efforts; errors of judgment and disregard occur frequently in the business of artifact preservation, often resulting in the irretrievable loss of information pertaining to the finds. And just how useful can these objects be without their context?

In Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections, we are going to try to find out, because the story of Professor Dyson’s excavations does not end here. Beginning in the summer of 2015 and due to a reorganization of the Collections’ space in the Exley Science Center, Wesleyan students such as myself have been slowly and methodically going through the finds from Dyson’s excavations, reorganizing and cataloging them so as to be compatible with our current archiving system.

I joined the effort relatively late in the game, and I can’t begin to imagine how overwhelming this undertaking must have seemed at the outset. The process is relatively straightforward: Dyson’s finds are stored in plastic bags and housed in trays or boxes in the Collections’ storage spaces on the third and seventh floors of the Exley Science Center. Our job is to go through each bag individually, sort out particularly interesting (or particularly rusty) materials, repackage the finds in new bags, use the information on Dyson’s students’ tags to label the new bags coherently and consistently, then store the new bags in standardized boxes. By the end of the ordeal, all of Dyson’s finds will be housed in neatly labeled white boxes and recorded in our computer system in a standardized form.

Working on this project has been my first exposure both to Wesleyan’s collections, as well as to the fields of archaeology and artifact preservation in general. It has been an incredibly interesting experience because the artifacts that I work with every day have been, in a sense, doubly lost. As I spread them out in front of me, it is as if I am looking at them through two distorted lenses; the first is the lens through which Dyson and his students initially analyzed the objects upon their recovery from the sites, but the second is the result of years of neglect and gathering dust in the attic. It is difficult enough to reconstruct a story through that first lens; the second makes it nearly impossible.

Our efforts have not been entirely without success, however. Professor Dyson and his students provided some information on the families who lived on the properties, which, along with historical background on Middletown, has made it possible to make certain inferences regarding some objects—in other words, it makes for an entertaining guessing game. Dyson already noted in his articles that some of the families showed a preference for certain colors and types of ceramic-ware over others—plates with blue decorations versus plates with green decorations, as well as the somewhat rarer occurrence of “mocha-ware.”


Top shelf: Glassware salvaged in front of Wesleyan's Center for African American Studies in spring of 1990 Bottom shelf: Partially reconstructed ceramic material from various archaeological sites along Middletown's Main Street Historic District
Top shelf: Glassware salvaged in front of Wesleyan’s Center for African American Studies in spring of 1990
Bottom shelf: Partially reconstructed ceramic material from various archaeological sites along Middletown’s Main Street Historic District


It is also the case that some types of artifacts will always tell a clearer story than others. For example, an artifact bag containing no fewer than four multicolored marbles is pretty strong evidence of the remnants of a child’s old game. The same can be said for the beautiful bone die that I found in a different bag from the same site. Both the marbles and the die look as if they could have come out of a game box purchased yesterday.

A sample of the marbles salvaged from the Danforth Site during Professor Dyson's excavations
A sample of the marbles salvaged from the Danforth Site during Professor Dyson’s excavations

Bone die salvaged from Danforth Site by Professor Dyson
Bone die salvaged from Danforth Site by Professor Dyson

Finds like the marbles, which paint such a clear picture of life in these houses over two centuries ago, tend to make the “interesting finds” cut and are moved to individually labeled bags in a special box for display and further examination. However, not all of the artifacts in the “interesting finds” box have such simple explanations. Some of my favorite finds are the ones that I instinctively believe to have had value, but offer no obvious explanation for their use.

One such artifact, which I find particularly interesting, is a circular object, about one centimeter in diameter, which has been carved in the shape of an owl’s head.

Owl-shaped artifact salvaged from the mysterious "E" site by Professor Dyson
Owl-shaped artifact salvaged from the mysterious “E” site by Professor Dyson

We initially believed this object to be a button, but the eyes of the owl don’t pierce all the way through from the obverse to the reverse side, and there is therefore no place to attached thread. It could be a pendant of some sort but, again, there is no visible place to attach a chain or string. We aren’t even sure what material the object is made of, but my own examination under a microscope as led me to believe it is made of some kind of stone. The only thing I can really say about this object with certainty is that I find it beautiful, which is nothing more than a subjective observation.

Another case of an interesting object with no obvious use is the mystery squares.

The "mystery squares" found by Professor Dyson and his students at both the Hall and Sumner St. sites.
The “mystery squares” found by Professor Dyson and his students at both the Hall and Sumner St. sites.

At least five of these have been found in the bags from two different sites. Each is about one square inch and each is stamped with the letter “B”. We have absolutely no idea what their use could have been, but they keep popping up so they must have been important. Right?

Working on Dyson’s collection has given me a unique perspective on the work of artifact preservation because it has forced me to ask myself repeatedly what “preservation” really means. We are certainly working hard to preserve the actual, physical objects; we are placing them in sturdier containers, separating out any metal objects whose rustiness might harm the other artifacts in the bags, removing anything fragile enough to require its own, separate container, and (my personal favorite) getting rid of any mold in the old bags.

But preserving an object—preserving anything, really—is just as much about preserving its soul as its body, and it remains unclear to me how successful we have been in that endeavor. It makes me wonder what future archaeologists will think when they discover modern archaeological collections such as the one located in Exley 301. How salvageable is the new context we have given to these artifacts? Will it be obvious that the proximity of these objects to one another is contrived, or will future archaeologists come up with some fantastical explanation for how ancient stone tools from a cave in Israel-Palestine, a motley assortment of animal bones from all over the world, and partially-reconstructed ceramic plates from Middletown, Connecticut all ended up in the same room?

Some of the story will always be irretrievable, and it can be difficult to accept that. But I’d like to think that the attention we have devoted to these objects, the time we have spent wiping pounds and pounds of dust off of glass shards, and the laughs we have shared while speculating on the history of these artifacts have imbued them with a second life, of sorts. Or maybe it’s a third.

Additional Information:

“Middletown Site Summaries” compiled by Thea De Armond

“Material Culture, Social Structure, and Changing Cultural Values: The Ceramics of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Middletown, Connecticut” by Stephen L. Dyson, in Archaeology of Urban America: The Search for Pattern and Process

“Historical Archaeology in Middletown, Connecticut” by Stephen L. Dyson

“The Relationship Between Social History and Historical Archaeology: The Mercantile Community of Middletown, Connecticut” by Brenda Ellen Gray

Posted by Sophia Shoulson ’18

Archiving the Melville Collection

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.

“Road up to 1st Mesa” Carey E. Melville

Despite spending most of their months on the road, moving every few days, the Melvilles spent a few weeks in Polacca, a Hopi community in Arizona, staying with friends who were missionaries in the town. After returning back East, the Melvilles stayed in touch with some of the people they met while in Polacca, especially the artists who made many of the objects they purchased and brought home.

Today the Melville collection of Hopi and Tewa objects, most notably pottery, is part of the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. In addition to the objects we also have nine boxes of documents, letters, bills of sale, magazines, newspaper clippings, photographs, and various other ephemera. Taken together the contents of these boxes paints a picture of the Melville family, their sustained connection with people they met on their travels, and their interest in American Indian life and rights in the 1930s.

Last spring I went through the 9 boxes with a few goals. The first was to write a finding aid for the collection. Previously, there was no easy way for anyone who might be interested in the collection to know what was where. Part of making it easier to navigate also required some rearranging – for example moving photographs all to one box. The other main goal was to make sure that everything was preserved in the best possible way. That mostly meant putting photographs in sleeves, removing any metal (goodbye paperclips!), and separating materials that could cause damage to other dissimilar materials.

Box 8 before reorganization
Box 8 after reorganization

Some of the most exciting things were surprising finds. In some of their correspondences I found a Christmas card from someone they had met in Arizona made out of copper, and a gag gift birthday card with a dime. Coming across each of these cards, along with many of the other strange objects led to further researching things like puns popular in the 1920’s (a birthday card with a small envelope containing a dime and a pin in reference is a joke about diamond rings).  Each of these pieces also provided the opportunity to think through the best way to preserve something unusual like a card made of copper.


The photographs are mostly either from their time in Polacca or of the objects in the collection. Of these the photos from their trip are definitely the most exciting. In some photos you can see the artists actually creating  the pottery that is still a part of the Archaeology and Anthropology Collection. Others show the family’s Model T winding its way along the narrow northern Arizona roads or in front of the dramatic views that surround Polacca.

In addition to the correspondence, bills of sale, and other things relating to the objects in the collection, the boxes have lots of newspaper clippings and magazines relating to Native American art and music. Though the Melvilles were not professional collectors or anthropologists, it is clear from the materials they collected, as well as the talks they gave to local organizations, that after their time in the southwest they became interested in American Indian rights. Their attitude about these rights and towards the Hopi and Tewa people they met, gives insight into the mindset of educated white Americans in their era. At the same time, these attitudes can also be problematical from a contemporary point of view: the Melvilles were in Polacca with missionaries and their activist work has tones of white savior-ism. The Melville documents nevertheless provide insight into attitudes of their time as well as the specific experience of this family and the people they corresponded with.

“Making Pottery” Carey E. Melville


The level of documentation we have related to the Melville collection adds meaning to the objects we have. Reading letters from the people who crafted each pot and seeing photographs of them illustrates one of the things I love most about working with anthropological material: the concrete connection it gives us to people in a different time and place.


Additional information about the Melville collection and its history:

Walker, Willard, Lydia L. Wyckoff (1983) Hopis, Tewas, and the American Road. University of New Mexico Press.

Posted by Isabel Alter ’17

The Long-Lasting Legacy of Wesleyan’s Professor Van Benschoten

Professor James Cooke Van Benschoten
Professor James Cooke Van Benschoten

Professor James Cooke Van Benschoten, affectionately known as Van Benny to his students, taught Greek at Wesleyan from 1863 until his death in 1902. His story seems to parallel that of other professors, historians, and artifact enthusiasts of the 19th century. Rules and laws regarding what could be collected and from where did not yet exist, or at least were not strongly enforced. As such, historians collected and moved artifacts from place to place in an almost Indiana Jones-like manner: provenance and provenience were less important than the object itself. These objects, however, continue to have an important place in university and museum collections. They tell the story of historical collecting trends and preservation methods.

Born in 1827 to a farming family in La Grange, Illinois, it was expected that eldest child James would follow in the footsteps of his father. After the family relocated to upstate New York, James confessed that he wanted to become a scholar. James worked his way through school, serving as a doctor’s assistant, tutor, and teacher. He attended Genesee College, obtained a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College, and a master’s degree in 1857 from Madison – now Colgate – University. Following graduation, James traveled around Europe, furthering his studies in several universities, and focusing his visits on Greece and Asia Minor. James spent time in the Mount Athos region of Greece, where he lived amongst the monks reviewing their extensive manuscript libraries.

Monastery of Megisti Lavra, the oldest monastery on Mount Athos. Photo taken late 19th century - early 20th century.
Monastery of Megisti Lavra, the oldest monastery on Mount Athos. Photo taken late 19th century – early 20th century.

Upon returning to upstate New York, James became a high school principal and then a teacher of ancient languages at a nearby seminary. In 1863 James began teaching Greek at Wesleyan. It is said that “Professor Van Benschoten at once aroused a genuine enthusiasm in his classes.” While at Wesleyan, James continued to travel, incorporating his learnings from Europe and elsewhere into his lectures and teachings. And so began his decades-long collecting of various ancient relics, many of which would later be donated by James and his descendants to Wesleyan. (For more historical information on the Van Benschoten family see: Concerning the Van Bunschoten or Van Benschoten Family in America, A Genealogy and Brief History, by William Henry Van Benschoten, 1907.)

Among the many honors, fellowships, and additional titles bestowed upon James, he served as Director of the American School of Archaeology in Athens from 1884-85. During his time there, he collected many objects that he brought back to Wesleyan. One of his most famed acquisitions was a mummy. After targeted unwrapping to ensure that he wasn’t being conned into buying a mummy made of trash or another animal (which was not unusual at the time, see: here and here), James began to try to transport the mummy back to Wesleyan. During this time the authorities were trying to stop the flow of antiquities out of the Near East and they insisted that James have an exit permit for the mummy. He worked his way around to multiple offices having no luck. James was told that “greasing the palms” of government employees might help. Eventually he was tipped off that he might be able to get the mummy out of the country on a British warship. The trail goes cold here, and it’s not entirely clear how the mummy made it back to Wesleyan, though James was somehow successful in his quest. For a time the mummy was either on display or at least available for minimal viewing within the walls of the Wesleyan Museum (1871-1957). (Research conducted in the 1970s showed that the mummy was definitely a human male, 5’2”, between 20 and 25 years of age, and of middle- to upper-class means. Based on analyses, the mummy has been dated to somewhere within the 7th and 4th centuries BC. Currently, the mummy is stored in a secured location and all measures are taken to preserve the culturally sensitive nature of the individual.)

In addition to the now infamous mummy, James Cooke Van Benschoten collected and donated additional artifacts that remain within the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. James had daughters, at least one of whom graduated from Wesleyan near the turn of the twentieth century. Descendants of James’ donated even more artifacts in 2005. Included in this donation were a Chinese chest and various smaller artifacts, such as bronze figurines, coins, scarabs, and faience fragments.

Chinese Qing dynasty red-lacquered trunk (object ID: 2005.5.1) and various figurines, scarabs, and pottery. All collected by James Cooke Van Benschoten in the mid- to late-19th century; donated by his descendants in 2005.
Chinese Qing dynasty red-lacquered trunk (object ID: 2005.5.1) and various figurines, scarabs, and pottery. All collected by James Cooke Van Benschoten in the mid- to late-19th century; donated by his descendants in 2005.
Object ID 1902.722.8: Roman-style oil lamp produced between the 1st and 5th centuries; collected in Greece circa 1860-61 by Professor James Cooke Van Benschoten and donated in 1902 by Mrs. Van Benschoten.
Object ID 1902.722.8: Roman-style oil lamp produced between the 1st and 5th centuries; collected in Greece circa 1860-61 by Professor James Cooke Van Benschoten and donated in 1902 by Mrs. Van Benschoten.
Object IDs (left to right) 1902.722.18: pottery sherd with handle attached; 2005.5.47: reconstructed lekythos vessel (circa 4th century BC); 2005.5.42: terracotta bust painted to look like patinaed bronze; 1902.722.4: reconstructed lekythos vessel. All objects were collected in Greece or other unknown parts of Europe in the mid- to late-1800s by Professor James Cooke Van Benschoten. All objects were donated by relatives of Professor Van Benschoten.
Object IDs (left to right) 1902.722.18: pottery sherd with handle attached; 2005.5.47: reconstructed lekythos vessel (circa 4th century BC); 2005.5.42: terracotta bust painted to look like patinaed bronze; 1902.722.4: reconstructed lekythos vessel. All objects were collected in Greece or other unknown parts of Europe in the mid- to late-1800s by Professor James Cooke Van Benschoten. All objects were donated by relatives of Professor Van Benschoten.

The legacy of James Cooke Van Benschoten continues on today throughout campus. In fact, Van Benschoten’s name has made Wesleyan and Connecticut state-wide news in the last several years: the 2010 naming of the Wesleyan baseball field as “Dresser Diamond,” in honor of Jim Dresser, ’63, P’93, and former Cardinal, comes nearly 150 years after Dresser’s great-grandfather – none other than James Cooke Van Benschoten – named the original Wesleyan baseball team “the Agallians.” See this News @ Wesleyan article and this Special Collections and Archives finding aid for more history on the Agallians. In 2015, this legacy was touched upon again when Wesleyan and Yale celebrated the 150th anniversary of their baseball programs as well as the initial meeting of the two teams. The Yale Nine beat the Wesleyan Agallian Club September 30, 1865 in what is considered to be the very first collegiate baseball game. On September 26, 2015, the two teams faced off in a celebratory exhibition game – in which Dresser threw the first pitch … Wesleyan won.

Professor Van Benschoten’s legacy also survives through the gift of his many donated relics and artifacts collected throughout the world. Students, professors, and researchers alike can view these materials in the Archaeology and Anthropology Collection.

As for the Wesleyan mummy … we’re going to continue to keep him under wraps!