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

Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown

At the Center for the Americas, the students from the Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown course taught by Professor Kauanui gather around the seminar table. At the head is Gary O’Neil, a Wangunk descendant of Jonathan Palmer. Beside him is Jessie Cohen, Wesleyan’s Archeology Collections Manager and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) compliance officer. Gary is here to present his family’s oral history and teach the students how to make pinch pots and Jessie is here to present local Connecticut pottery sherds from the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. Due to their fragmentary nature the sherds can be difficult to date; that said, some of the markings and impressions on the pottery are demonstrative of dates ranging to over a thousand years ago.


(Pictured above from left to right: Jessie Cohen, Gary O’Neil, Lauren Burke (student), photo taken by Professor Kauanui.)

The Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown course took a decolonizing methodological approach to the scarcely documented Wangunk history and included a service-learning component. The Wangunk people, part of the Algonquin cultural group, historically resided over Mattabesset, presently known as Middletown and Portland, which reached as far as Chatham and Wethersfield. Students logged approximately three hours a week at the Middlesex County Historical Society (MCHS), where they looked at documents in search of any mention or reference to Wangunk people in the English colonial period of Middletown. The class took field trips to different colonial historical sites that serve as examples of the erasure of Wangunk presence. Those sites included Indian Hill Cemetery, Founders Rock, and a sculpture at Harbor Park on the Connecticut River. The class also visited the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, CT.


(Pictured above: students, Lauren Burke, Ari Ebstein, and Emily Hart, and Jessie Cohen presenting the pottery sherds, photo taken by Professor Kauanui)

The course took advantage of the Archeology Collections by looking at local Connecticut pottery sherds. The sherds are of Native origins and were excavated and/or collected throughout sites in Middletown and surrounding towns. This brought to discussion the role that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, or NAGPRA, plays in the course and the collections, not only at Wesleyan but also at every other NAGPRA complying institution.

In compliance with the federal law enacted on November 16th 1990 (NAGPRA), all publicly funded institutions or establishments are obligated to repatriate human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Native tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. With the 2014 appointment of Jessie Cohen as the Archeology Collections Manager and the NAGPRA compliance officer, Wesleyan administration has committed to compliance.

The pottery sherds from the collection sparked the discussion of what and how objects are considered sacred or culturally patrimonial objects. So then how do collection managers maneuver through collections and categorize objects as falling under the NAGPRA category, or falling under the general collections category?


(The local Connecticut pottery sherds from Wesleyan’s archeology collections, photo taken by Professor Kauanui)

After discussing NAGPRA and the archeology collections’ compliance with NAGPRA, the class shifted gears and prepared to listen to O’Neil present his family’s oral history and take part in pinch pot artist module, supported by the CFA Mellon Faculty Creative Campus Module.


(Pictured above: students, Taina Quinones, Iryelis Lopez, Yael Horowitz, Abigail Cunniff, Maia Reumann-Moore, and Sophie Sokolov, with Gary O’Neil standing at head of table, photo taken by Professor Kauanui)

O’Neil began by tracing his archival journey, starting with the oral histories of his family. He spoke about his great-grandmother and his grandmother, and how they both influenced him through their story-telling and their strength as matriarchal figures in a large extended kinship network. He spoke about how their stories, and the histories they told him, were starting points in his archival research. He recalled names and places, and used those as guiding points in tracing his family’s line back to Jonathan Palmer, a Wangunk; O’Neil is now the genealogist of the remaining Wangunks. Jonathan Palmer was a Wagunk, who in Carl F. Price’s Yankee Township, is referred to as the Jonathan Indian, the last “full-blooded” Wangunk. This “lasting” of Jonathan Palmer, and Indigenous peoples in general, is a tactic used to discount Native American presence presently and throughout history.

The artist module portion of the course, where Gary brought clay and tools to the classroom, taught the class methods of making pinch pots and immersing oneself in the process. Pinching the pots was where body and earth met, where Gary said his past and his present merged and took the form of pottery. This portion of the course brought together the archeology collections’ clay pottery sherds, and the present work being done on unearthing the hidden archival history of the Wangunk people of Mattabesset, the place now known as Middletown.


(Pictured above: Gary O’Neil holding the student’s clay pinch pots, photo taken by Professor Kauanui)

The process of O’Neil teaching the history of his relationship with clay, the relevance of the pottery within the collection, and the class members’ hands-on learning, was a culmination of the intentions of the course. The archeology collection sherds, side by side with our contemporary pinch-pots, all contribute to the unearthing and decolonizing of Wangunk history. The archival work done by the students and the current contributions by O’Neil, represent the engagement with the past and the present.

At the end of the fall semester, there was the Indigenous Middletown: Settler Colonial and Wangunk Tribal History Panel held on Saturday December 5th, which culminated a semester’s worth of research and work. The panel consisted of Lucianne Lavin Ph.D, author of Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples: What Archeology, History, and Oral Traditions Teach Us About Their Communities and Cultures, Timothy Ives Ph.D, Principal archaeologist at the Rhode Island State Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission and scholar of Wangunk history, Reginald W. Bacon, Editor of The Middler, the newsletter of the Society of Middletown First Settlers Descendants, and Gary O’Neil, Descendant of Jonathan Palmer and genealogist of the remaining Wangunks in Middlesex County. ***Watch a recording of the panels speakers and following Q&A session here!*** As a follow-up to the fall semester’s panel, on March 26th, at the Russel Library, four students from the Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown course presented their final papers at the Looking for Indigenous Middletown in Colonial Archives: Settler Erasure of Wangunk Indian Tribal History event.; the student presenters were: Iryelis Lopez ’17 American Studies major , Maia Reumann-Moore ’18 History and Religion major, Abigail Cunniff ’17 American Studies major, and Yael Horowitz ’17 African-American Studies and Film major.

Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown: Native Histories of the Wangunk People, as a course produced a Wikipedia page on the Wangunk. The students combed through the Middlesex Historical Society’s records in search of Wangunk history, and successfully began to decolonize Wangunk history, but this is only the beginning. The pottery sherds from the archeology collections contributed to the course by allowing for there to be a conversation on the past and the present of the Indigenous people of this region. The pottery sherds allowed for history to meet contemporary, and for the conversation of theoretical unearthing of Wangunk history, and literal unearthing of pottery from the region.

Posted by Iryelis Lopez ’17