Pennies in our thoughts (and on our shelves)

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

Wheat penny circa 1937

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Sophia Shoulson, ’18

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

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

Behind the Scenes: A Curious Case of Collecting at Wesleyan

***This short essay offers a behind the scenes account of the development of our exhibition: A Curious Case of Collecting at Wesleyan. The exhibit is on display in the Main Reading Room of Olin Memorial Library through Fall 2016.***

Photograph of Judd Hall exterior when it housed the Wesleyan University Museum, Wesleyan Museum Records, Collection #2000-27, Special Collections & Archives, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA.
Photograph of Judd Hall exterior when it housed the University Museum, Wesleyan Museum Records, Collection #2000-27, Special Collections & Archives, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA.

This spring, students enrolled in ARCP 267, Museum Collections: Ethical Considerations and Practical Applications, had the opportunity to learn about collections management, exhibition development, and the socio-historical implications of displaying anthropological artifacts. The course was really exciting! We were given the responsibility of handling century old artifacts and  expected to research their historical trajectory meticulously. We did this all while considering the anthropological and archaeological ethics of each object, a matter we would critically examine as a team in the months to come.

The semester long project challenged us to reflect on our privileged gaze as Wesleyan students. It invited critical interrogations of our unique social position as curators of an exhibition centered on material culture.

We talked for hours, both inside and outside of the classroom, as we negotiated our political, historical, and anthropological understandings of culture, as well as the social responsibilities of a cultural institution. We agonized for weeks, asking ourselves questions like:  what is cultural patrimony? What is our intention with this anthropological exhibition? Are we actively participating in, and thus perpetuating, a gaze that appropriates the cultural values of others? Is there a way to ethically display artifacts whose means of acquisition range from colonizing missions to blatant theft to supposedly ethical trade between classical anthropologists and their objects of study?

These are the questions we asked ourselves, challenged one another with, and, after hours upon hours of critical group reflection, collectively answered.

ARCP 267 students offer constructive feedback on a campus exhibition celebrating the centennial of Wesleyan's Van Vleck observatory.
ARCP 267 students offer constructive feedback on a campus exhibition celebrating the centennial of Wesleyan’s Van Vleck observatory.

Ultimately, we decided to focus the exhibition on the history of Wesleyan’s collecting practices and the ethical implications of those practices as they developed over time. A curated reflection of our gaze, we decided, was most (ethically) appropriate.

How could we display archaeological artifacts and speak to ethical concerns in our exhibition? Well, we asked, how have curators at our peer institutions engaged with these questions in their exhibitions? To find out, we went on a field trip to the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven (see photo below). Hidden in a quiet nook among the various bird and dinosaur replicas was Yale’s response to a recent ethical controversy. That is, the Machu Picchu controversy.

A group of ARCP 267 classmates posing in front of reconstructed dinosaur skeletons at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History.
A group of ARCP 267 classmates posing in front of reconstructed dinosaur skeletons at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.

In addition to several exciting field trips, the course consisted of hands-on, experiential, and engaging group activities along with fruitful discussions of the required readings (see photo below). Topics of discussion ranged from understanding traditional collecting practices of antiquities and the the careful curation of cabinets of curiosities to the complexities of digital preservation to understanding collective methods of exhibition label writing.

ARCP 267 classmates working together on a group activity.
ARCP 267 classmates working together on a group activity.

We also had the opportunity to meet with book preservationist Michelle Biddle and digital librarian Francesca Livermore in Olin Library. They explained how the two departments complement and collaborate with one another to ensure the long-term preservation of the library’s various collections. We engaged in historical research for our own exhibition, meeting frequently in small groups with university archivist Leith Johnson. The Special Collections and Archives department was kind enough to patiently assist us as we consulted primary documents. The university archive even has an extensive collection file dedicated to the history of the Wesleyan University Museum housed in Judd Hall from 1871 to 1957 (see image below).

Old Wesleyan Museum (Interior) Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives, Olin Library.
Photograph of  Wesleyan Museum (Interior), Wesleyan Museum Records, Collection #2000-27, Special Collections & Archives, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA

All of these experiences culminated in the final opening of the exhibition. The piece, aptly titled, “A Curious Case of Collecting at Wesleyan”, is on display thru Fall 2016 in the main reading room of Olin Memorial Library. We are geekily proud to share our months of careful historical research, ethical considerations and, of course, objects from our archaeological collections with the greater Wesleyan and Middletown communities in these three centrally located cases (see below).

Case 1: Museum Origins


case 2


So, whether you’re taking a leisurely campus stroll on a Sunday afternoon, or working on a research paper at 1 a.m. in the confines of a silent carrel in the stacks, visit the main reading room and check out our display. We invite your critical eye and would love to geek out with any fellow museum bats who want to discuss the curious material history displayed in our exhibition.

Happy Museumizing!

-Jodi Almengor on behalf of The ARCP 267 Student Curators  (see us below!)

Back row, from left to right: Jess Cummings, ’17, Kristen Lynch, ’16, Sarah Hoynes, ’16, Heather Whittmore, ’17, Amanda Larsen, ’18. Front row, left to right: Isabel Alter, ’17, Ryan Moye, ’16, Jodi Almengor, ’17. Not pictured: Jessie Cohen, Archaeological Collections Manager and Instructor.
Back row, from left to right: Jess Cummings, ’17, Kristen Lynch, ’16, Sarah Hoynes, ’16, Heather Whittmore, ’17, Amanda Larsen, ’18. Front row, left to right: Isabel Alter, ’17, Ryan Moye, ’16, Jodi Almengor, ’17.
Not pictured: Jessie Cohen, Archaeological Collections Manager and Instructor

Jodi Almengor is a senior at Wesleyan University. She is an American Studies Major with a disciplinary concentration in Anthropology. Her final paper for Archaeology 267 was on the rise of conceptual museums with a central focus on the international trend of language museums such as the Museum of Portuguese Language in São Paulo, Brazil. She is interested in linguistic culture, literary translation, and is proudly fluent in three languages (English, Spanish, and Portuguese). She looks forward to studying in Madrid, Spain this fall.

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

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