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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Steven Chen ‘18