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.

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).

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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

Around the World in 11 Objects


This first post was supposed to be titled ‘Around the World in 10 Objects,’ but we couldn’t decide on which object to leave off the list! An extra object, then, for good luck! All objects in this post are part of the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections.

coinsCoin, Object ID 2003.1.234, Dahl Coin Collection

Place of origin: London, England

The Dahl Coin Collection consists of 262 coins mostly of Greek and Roman origin along with a few miscellaneous items. Winthrop Dahl (Wesleyan Class ’84) started his coin collection when he was in high school and continued collecting up until close to his death. Dahl was a Classical Studies major when he was a student as Wesleyan, and looked back so fondly on his years here that in his will he left his coin collection to the University. His mother, in his memory, also donated several Greek vases and terra cotta items. After graduating from Wesleyan, Dahl became a Latin teacher at a high school in Massachusetts and built up a thriving Latin program.

The Cnut coin (pronounced and sometimes written as Canute) is an AR penny from a London mint and was made by a moneyer named Edgar between ca. 1016 – 1035 CE. Cnut the Great was king of Denmark, England, and Norway during the early 11th century until his death in 1035 AD.

gourd bowl 1Gourd bowl, Object ID 1870.273.1, Missionary Lyceum Collection

Place of origin: Monrovia, Liberia

This painted gourd bowl was collected by Reverend Mr. John Seys in the 1840s. Seys was a member of the Missionary Lyceum started by then University President Rev. Dr. Willbur Fisk. The purpose of Lyceum was to

promote a missionary zeal among its members by way of debates, addresses, collection of artifacts and literature from foreign missions, and the exchange of correspondence with various missionaries.”

Information was gathered through correspondence with missionaries who were stationed in different places around the world. In 1840 Seys sent some collected material back to Wesleyan, including

“…a box of shells, &c, which I beg the gentlemen of the Lyceum to accept of, and to place, if they consider them of sufficient value, among the other curiosities of their cabinet.

The Lyceum is of significant importance to the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections as Lyceum missionaries became the original collectors and contributors to the artifact collection. Missionaries were asked to collect artifacts and send correspondence regarding said artifacts back to Middletown in an effort to begin a “museum.” Missionary and University gourd bowl 2President, Rev. Dr. Willbur Fisk wrote

This society will aid the [missionary cause] . . . by . . . its Missionary Cabinet or Museum. In this you have already a good beginning; but we hope that the members of the society, both the graduates and undergraduates, will exert themselves to enlarge this museum.”

Denticulate tools, Object ID 3186 KB, Mount Carmel Collections

denticulate 2Place of origin: Mugharet el-Kebara, Mount Carmel, Israel

These denticulate, or serrated, tools were excavated from the Natufian levels at Mugharet el-Kebara (Cave of the Valley), Israel. This cave is located near the Wadi el-Mughara (Valley of the Caves). The excavations were carried out in 1930-31 by the American School of Prehistoric Research (ASPR) in conjunction with the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. The Natufian culture corresponds to the Mesolithic period and ranged from 12,500 to 9,500 BCE. They were a sedentary or semi-sedentary people – even more interesting is that this occurred before the advent of agriculture. These tools belong to the Lower Natufian level, meaning their creation and use are limited specifically to 12,500 to 10,800 BCE!

Chipped stone tools are made in one of two ways: they can be the objective piece or the detached piece. Objective pieces are those from which material is removed in order to create a tool. Detached pieces are those which are taken off of an objective piece. Chipping of stone is also done in one of two ways: percussion flaking is the practice of hitting the objective piece with a hammerstone (usually made from stone but also can also be antler, bone or wood). Pressure flaking is a slightly more accurate technique consisting of applying pressure with a sharpened point, normally antler or bone. Retouching is done after this in order to create the serrated edge that is visible on the objects.

Looking glass, Object ID 907looking glass

Place of origin: Bareilly, India

This looking glass was collected by M.L. Bannerjea and donated to Wesleyan University in 1881. The looking glass was recovered recently when another department was cleaning out their storage space in Exley Science Center. A box of artifacts, mostly collected by missionaries stationed in various parts of Asia, was found and returned to the Collections. Some of the artifacts are listed in the old museum inventories (read more about the Wesleyan Museum, 1871-1957), but others may have been in storage since the 1970s.

tea brick 2Tea block, Object ID 2355

Place of origin: Foochow, China

Too bad your screen isn’t scratch and sniff right now, because this brick of tea smells amazing! Dr. John Gowdy donated three tea blocks to Wesleyan in 1914. As with the looking glass, these bricks were found recently in another department’s storage space. The tea blocks are engraved with Russian lettering – something that may at first seem surprising. With the generous help of Irina Aleshkovsky, Adjunct Professor of Russian, Eastern European Studies, we had a tea block translated. It reads,

“Pu Chzhou and Company in Hankou China
Recommended to the revered public tea under this label of a superb quality of the first crop gathering from the best plantations”

Interesting grammatical choices aside, this translation illuminates the origin and usage of the tea. Tea made in this manner was cheaper because it was from poorer quality leaves mixed with herbs and ox blood. The tea was then sold to Russian peasants because it was more affordable than regular tea leaves. Believe it or not, tea also served as a form of currency. Stuart Mosher, former Curator of Numismatics at the Smithsonian explains,

In Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet and Chinese-Asian marts, cakes of compressed tea resembling mud-bricks circulate as money. This “money” which is manufactured in Southern China, is made of leaves and stalks of the tea plant, aromatic herbs and ox blood. It is sometimes bound together with yak dung.

Tea is compressed into bricks of various sizes and stamped with a value that varies depending upon the quality of the tea. It usually increases as the bricks circulate farther from the tea producing country. The natives of Siberia prefer tea-money to metallic coins because of lung diseases prevalent in their severe climate, and they regard brick tea not only as a refreshing beverage but also as a medicine against coughs and colds.

We love these tea bricks for a variety of reasons. They are so different than many of the other objects we have in the collections. Additionally, their mere existence has the ability to express a variety of cultural practices. They also demonstrate the intersections of many cultures during the early 20th century.

Fishing line with pearl shell sinker, Object ID 1874.570.1, Oceanic Collections

Place of origin: Fijifishing line

The fishing line was collected by Captain Charles Wilkes on the US Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. This expedition was initially requested by President John Quincy Adams, and then finally funded by the government at the request of President Andrew Jackson. Wilkes set off in 1838 with 6 ships and 346 men. One of the targeted areas of the expedition was the South Pacific. In general the purpose of the US Exploring Expedition was to develop the field of science, particularly oceanography, in the United States.

Captain Wilkes was not a well-liked man but “there was something quintessentially American about Wilkes and the brash, boisterous, and overreaching expedition that he managed to forge in his own makeshift image” (Phillbrick 2004). Wilkes’ Expedition often saw armed conflict between indigenous Pacific Islanders.

Many of the natural history specimens and ethnographic objects collected during the Wilkes Expedition became the basis for later Smithsonian Institution collections. This particular object – the fishing line with netsinker – came to Wesleyan by way of the Smithsonian in 1874. Often time collectors and museums exchanged artifacts and whole collections amongst each other. For instance, we know from the Wesleyan Museum records, that the Smithsonian traded with Wesleyan some Native American pottery for mineral and beetle collections!

snow knifeIvory knife, Object ID 1890.1031.1, Pacific Northwest/B.C./Alaska Collections

Place of origin: Big Lake, Alaska

Edward William Nelson obtained this ivory knife while living in Alaska for about 5 years. Nelson observed children using the knife to sketch in the snow and gave it the name “snow knife.” The name in Central Alaskan Yup’ik is yaaruin, translating to “story knife.” Children, mainly girls, in fact used these knives to “sketch pictures on the ground to accompany a story or song.”

Nelson was an explorer, naturalist, and science administrator. He began his career within different facets of the United States government in 1877 as a weather observer in the Signal Corps of the United States Army, stationed in St. Michael on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska. During the next several years he made many excursions throughout the area compiling data and artifacts and observing the customs of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. The natural history and ethnographic materials that he collected became some of the early collections of the Smithsonian. Like the fishing line from Fiji, this ivory knife came to Wesleyan by way of the Smithsonian. For more information on the Nelson’s expeditions and related collections see this information from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Moccasins, Object ID 1911.2264.1, Neff Collection

Place of origin: Canadamocassins

Charles H. Neff donated this pair of children’s moccasins to Wesleyan upon his death. Neff was an amateur archaeologist and mostly a collector of Native American material in the Middletown, CT area. He even published volumes regarding his collections. One such volume details the many Native American materials that he collected throughout the greater Middletown region between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of those Native American materials – primarily pottery and stone tools – were donated to the Wesleyan University Museum and now are a part of the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections.

Neff also accrued a small ethnographic collection, including these moccasins from Canada. Little more is known about the moccasins. Unfortunately, that was simply the nature of collecting in the 19th and early 20th century: the object was more important than recording its contextual information. Much can still be learned from these objects though, including what types of materials were used.

feathered staffFeathered staff, Object ID 1974.4.1

Place of origin: Rio Negro or Rio Tapajos region of Brazil

This feathered staff consists of a wood handle and parrot and macaw feathers. The staff was collected by Reverend D. P. Kidder in 1839 during a Missionary Lyceum expedition. Kidder donated the staff, along with other materials collected in South America, to the Wesleyan University Museum in 1870. Little else is known about the object or its original use. Although we do not have any documentation that states specifically where the staff comes from, given the materials, it’s likely from somewhere in the Amazonian region of Brazil.

Based on folklore, anthropological studies, and research conducted by various museums we know that feathers have the ability to tell a lot about an object. Their mere use may indicate an affiliation to a particular tribe. Some tribes preferred feathers of one color while other preferred feathers of another color. Objects that included larger feathers were likely objects used by the males of the tribe while females would use or wear objects with smaller feathers.

Hopi bowl, Object ID 2003.5.41, Melville Collection

Place of origin: Polacca, Arizonahopi bowl

Objects within the Melville collection are significant for a few reasons. The collection is supplemented by archival documentation. This is often rare when looking through 19th and 20th century collections. At that time, the contextual information surrounding the object – where it was found or purchased, who made it, what other objects it might be related to – was less important than the actual object itself. A lack in contextual information can make understanding the object difficult. Luckily, the Melville collection, comes with lots of contextual information!

In 1927 Carey E. and Maud Melville and their three children set out from Worcester, MA, to see the country in their new Ford Model T. Their trip included a three-week stay on Hopi lands in northeastern Arizona. There, through missionary friends at the First Mesa Baptist Church in Polacca, they became acquainted with local Hopi and Tewa artists. They collected, not as professional art dealers or ethnographers, but as tourists. However, they didn’t mindlessly acquire objects as souvenirs; the Melvilles were clearly interested in the objects’ perceived function and aesthetic, in who made them (and how), and in the experiences to be had and the relationships created via their acquisition.

This particular bowl is an example of Hopi-produced Polished Red Ware. The red surface is typically highly polished and sometimes slipped red. Polished red ware vessels will also typically include black pigment designs as well as, occasionally, white designs. Object 2003.5.41 is signed on its base by the maker, Ruth Takala.

toothbrushBone toothbrush, Object ID B21

Place of origin: Middletown, Connecticut

Wesleyan professors and students excavated in the Main Street Historic District in Middletown during the 1970s and 80s. Like most historic archaeology collections, this assemblage consists of glass, ceramics, building materials, and personal items. The local area of Middletown, particularly Main Street and its adjacent area, were a thriving and bustling port-city community during the 18th and 19th centuries. Main Street buildings housed either significant businesses or families with connections to significant and prosperous local businesses.

This is one of our favorite items to show and have people guess what it is. Many people guess that it is some kind of game. Despite its ability to stump people, bone toothbrushes are pretty common on historical archaeology sites. The bone used to form the actual handle and head of the toothbrush typically came from cow femurs. The bristles came from some type of coarse animal hair, such as boar, horse, or badger. The coarseness of the animal hair bristles actually often did more harm than good as the hair was prone to puncture the brusher’s gums, leading to infection. Hopefully this makes you thankful for the modern advances in toothbrush design as you brush your teeth later today!

Posted by Sarah Hoynes ’16