Coins, tombstones, and historic artifacts: independent research topics in the collections

For the first time in recent history, the Archaeology Program is offering interested students the opportunity to work on hands-on research projects and lab work within the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. With the 35,000 in the collection, one can only imagine the wealth of original research topics! In this blog post, hear from three students who are currently conducting work on their research projects. Find out what they’ve learned so far and what directions they plan to take in their ongoing projects.

Itai Klaidman-Rinat, class of 2021

The research that I have been conducting for Wesleyan’s Archaeology Collections revolves around an individual named Karl Pomeroy Harrington. Harrington was a Wesleyan alum and later taught here as a professor of classics. His vehement interest in Roman history coupled with his expansive travels led to his acquisition of a significant number of ancient Roman artifacts many of which have found their way into Wesleyan’s collection.

Karl Pomeroy Harrington

The artifacts include figurine heads, shards of mosaics, architectural debris, oil lamps, vases and a collection of coins numbered in the thousands. My research aims to provide context for the Harrington collection in a number of ways. First, what are the origins of the artifacts themselves? Where do they originate chronologically and geographically within the Roman Empire? Secondly, how were the various items acquired by Harrington, and in turn end up in the collection here at Wesleyan? Luckily, Harrington himself provides clues pertaining to both questions within his autobiography; Karl Pomeroy Harrington: The Autobiography of a Vigorous and Versatile Professor.

Following Harrington’s graduation from Wesleyan in 1882, he spent a number of years furthering his education. He taught at Westfield and Wilbraham before studying in Europe at the University of Berlin. He spent two years in Europe from 1887-1889 in which he not only studied in Berlin, but also traveled to Greece and Italy. Although there is little evidence that Harrington actually acquired any artifacts during these two years (however it is possible), it certainly exposed him to the world of archaeology and wet his appetite for exploring Roman antiquity in person. He describes his growing interest in archaeology, “I continued my archaeological studies in the great museum there (Naples) and at Pompeii, Herculaneum, the ruins at Baiae, ancient Cumae, and the temples of Paestrum” (Harrington 82).

Following his two year stint in Europe, Harrington was a Latin tutor at Wesleyan for two years before a year of graduate school at Yale. Afterwards, he taught Latin at the University of North Carolina, and University of Maine before being hired by Wesleyan in 1905. In 1912 he had his first sabbatical year, which clearly yielded many of the artifacts in Wesleyan’s collection today. He traveled with his family and they were based in Rome. He made connections with the American School in Rome and was thus allowed to accompany Professor Van Buren on many archaeological excursions. Over the course of the year, Harrington traveled throughout Italy’s mainland as well as Sicily and Roman Africa. Often he literally describes finding artifacts that are in the collection, such as when Etruscan tombs in Cerveteri “yielded a number of pottery fragments” (Harrington, 184). However, it isn’t always so simple to figure out where he came into possession of certain relics, for some of which the origins will remain a mystery. For example, there is no mention of the coins throughout the book which is hard to believe considering the magnitude of the collection.

Caesar Augustus coin, unknown mint date

It is important to note that the coin collection is actually called “The Calvin Sears Harrington Coin Collection,” which is the name of Karl’s father who also was a professor of classics at Wesleyan. The coins were donated by Karl, but they may very well have been collected by his father who is known to have also traveled in Europe during his lifetime. Harrington also traveled around the world, beginning in the San Francisco Bay (where his daughter and her husband, who taught at UC Berkeley, lived), traveling through Asia and Europe before ultimately returning to Middletown. During that trip he continued to obtain valuable historic artifacts and explore the wonders of the world.

Harrington, having been exceedingly knowledgeable about Roman history, often muses in his writing about what occurred in the places to which he traveled. However, he writes with a vagueness that suggests he assumes the reader possesses the same knowledge that he does. The ultimate goal of this research project is to write an academic paper in which I provide context for the Harrington collection by describing his travels and acquisition of artifacts including a detailed map of everywhere he went and specifically marking places where he obtained objects. I also intend to research the historical events and figures from Roman history that he mentions in relation to the places that he travels to in order to enrich the narrative between the present, Harrington’s time, and Ancient Rome.

Harrington, Eliza C. Chase. Memories of the Life of Calvin Sears Harrington, D.d. General Books, 2012.

Potter, Mabel Harrington. Karl Pomeroy Harrington: the Autobiography of a Versatile and Vigorous Professor. Publisher Not Identified, 1975.

Constantinos Koufis, Art Studio and Archaeology major, class of 2019

My internship in Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology collections began with cataloging ceramics and glass–mostly pearleware shards.  Excavated from Middletown’s Main Street from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the objects are recorded only in the field notebooks from the original dig.  Most of the objects that I have entered into the digital table that I am creating are in bags with labels.  The labels vary in specificity; the most specific labels have a number preceded by the letter “S” (eg. S24).  The less specific bags only have sector coordinates (eg.  So 1 SW II).  Some bags don’t have labels at all; in those cases I am only able to enter into the table what I observe myself.  So far I have cataloged five boxes of objects excavated from the Southmayd family house site, once located on the southeast corner of Main Street and Martin Luther King, Jr Ave, north of the Inn at Middletown.  The original house was moved across the street with several other historically significant houses.  Because of the monotonous nature of cataloging items, I have also been doing research into a completely different subject.

Excavated artifacts from 19th century Middletown, CT locales

There are an abundance of woven artifacts in the collections but there is no space for them to be displayed.  Likewise, there are not many items on display on the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology highlights website.  My plan for the next half of the semester is to compile a selection of different woven items from around the world and to create a page for them in the highlights section of the collections’ website.  Right now, the highlights are of highly specific groups; what I am researching covers a broad range of times and cultures and presents an opportunity to give some items more exposure than they would normally have.

Photography session of woven materials

Carson Horky, History major, class of 2020

Connecticut gravestone, object ID #172, Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections

One of the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collection’s most unique objects is a gravestone that at first glance may look like a relatively common example of a Puritan stone. However, the inscription tells a different, more enigmatic story. It reads, “Here Lyeth [?] Body of Sipi Indian Who[?] Died Feb [?] 1731 Aged 6 Years.” There are almost no other contemporary examples from New England of Native American gravestone burials. If this stone does prove to be an example of a Native gravestone burial, it could have important implications for our understanding of Native death culture. Additionally, it may make this object a candidate for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

The history of the stone at Wesleyan is also a mystery, having been brought to the Wesleyan Museum in Judd Hall in 1872. Other than its date of arrival, we know practically nothing about its origins. After the museum closed in 1957, the stone was moved to an office on campus and it eventually made its way to the collections. The Middlesex County Historical Society also has no record of the stone or any individual named Sipi.

The stone itself is made from sandstone which may have been quarried in the Portland area (located just across the Connecticut River from Middletown). Assuming that the date of death on the stone is an accurate indicator of when it was made, we can approximately date it to 1731. Though definitely weathered, most of the inscription is readable and the symbols at the top of the stone are relatively clear.

The top of the stone features a human face flanked by two six-pointed rosettes. The face has a blank expression, long nose, small mouth, and puffy cheeks. We originally thought that it could be an example of a “death’s head,” a common image on Puritan graves. Most of the contemporary stones found in Haddam cemeteries feature death’s heads, so matching them with the Sipi stone would have been a potentially fruitful find. However, whereas death’s heads almost always have serrated teeth and wings, the plainness of the face on the Sipi stone seems to disqualify it from being a death’s head.

1756 gravestone with a death’s head, Thirty Mile Plantation Cemetery, Haddam, Connecticut

Alternatively, the face on the stone seems to look more like a “soul effigy,” found on some contemporary stones in the Portland area. Soul effigies, when paired with six-pointed rosettes, are often found on the gravestones of children, indicating that such a symbol would be a good match to the Sipi stone, as its inscription says that the person was six years old when they died. However, Puritan children were usually buried with or close to their parents. The Sipi stone, however, does not have any indication of parental presence. This is yet another example of the stone’s uniqueness.

1730 gravestone with a soul effigy, Portland, Connecticut

Another aspect of the stone that makes it difficult to study is that it was likely carved by an amateur. The symbols at the top of the stone are not well-defined or precisely carved. For example, the inner lines of the rosettes are not uniform in size or depth of impression, something not typical of more traditional stones. Additionally, standard examples of Puritan stones feature lettering that looks rather exact—text that resembles something similar to the level of accuracy expected from modern laser inscription. The lettering on the Sipi stone, alternatively, is off-center and not uniformly sized. These features indicate that the stone was likely not done by a professional carver. With more typical examples of Puritan gravestones, specific styles and aesthetics can often be traced to individual carvers. This avenue of research is not particularly relevant to this stone, though it may be a compelling way to determine artistic influence.

One of the main questions that must be answered in order to better understand the significance of the stone is that of its original location. Professor Katherine Hermes and Alexandra Maravel from Central Connecticut State University already did some groundwork on attempting to determine the stone’s origin. They looked through records and cemeteries from Middletown and some surrounding areas, but unfortunately did not find anything relevant to the stone.

Based on word of mouth from Wesleyan faculty familiar with the stone, we have some reason to believe that it may have originally come from the confluence of the Connecticut and Salmon rivers. From this, we have focused most of our work on the Haddam area. Having surveyed the Thirty Mile Plantation and Higganum cemeteries, we have been unable to identify any similar contemporary stones. We are now looking into a place called “Graveyard Point” on the bank of the Salmon River, near its confluence with the Connecticut River. Graveyard Point no longer has any graves, but the name itself makes it seem promising as an original location for the stone.

As the semester continues, we will continue to look into Graveyard Point, specifically going through archives in Haddam to try to find out more about the history of the site. We also hope to look into more records, including death records, church records, and family plot records. We also would like to learn about possible Native etymologies of “Sipi,” as well as the history and archaeology of the Wangunk Meadow area. We are additionally doing some work with the political and cultural contexts of the Wangunk people, seeing as the Early Reservation period ended in 1732, meaning that the individual buried with the stone probably lived within a period of cultural transition.

1765 Connecticut stone with soul effigies and six-pointed rosettes. Here, the main effigy represents a child who died, while the smaller effigy to the right of the stone represents a second deceased child

Dethlefsen, Edwin, and  James Deetz. “Death’s Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries,” American Antiquity 31, no. 4 (1966).

Grant-Costa, Paul. “Wangunk,” Yale Indian Papers Project. Yale University.

Ludwig, Allen I., Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815. Hanover: University Press of New England (1999).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shell Armband

Shell armband, Object ID: 1874.569.1

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

Fish Hook and Line

Fish hook and line, Object ID: 2014.7.1

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

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

By Ilana Newman ’18 and Steven Chen ’18


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Update from the Numismatic Depths

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

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

The current state of our numismatics collection

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

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

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

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

Obverse and reverse of our 1000th coin

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

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

Back into the numismatic depths I go.

By: Sophia Shoulson, ’18


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

Collections Highlight: The Oceanic Collection

The Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections (WUAAC) contain over 35,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects from around the world. This is the first installment in a series of blog posts that will highlight some of our “collections.”

The term “collection” can be defined in a variety of ways. One could consider a collection as a group of artifacts connected along some parallel including theme, region, culture, time period, and/or the identity of the collector, among others. Some of our collections were intentionally assembled, and reflect the specific motives and aesthetics of their collectors. Other collections are groups of objects with a shared place of origin or cultural affiliation, or that have similar narratives of production, use, or discovery. Neither a comprehensive list nor a representative sample, “collections” offer diverse windows into various cultures and their histories.

The Oceanic collection includes approximately fifty artifacts from cultures throughout the Pacific, such as Hawaii, the Cook Islands, the Tubuai Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and Kiribati. Much of this collection was amassed during the mid-19th century by Wesleyan’s Missionary Lyceum, which encouraged their members in the field to obtain objects for a planned museum – the irony being that, in many cases, the very objects valued as display items were tied to lifeways that American and European missionaries disrupted or actively sought to destroy. There are also objects from the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-42) obtained from the Smithsonian, and objects obtained via exchange with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu on the advice of Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter H. Buck), who examined the Oceanic collection in 1939.

Examining a handful of select objects from a collection such as the Oceanic one demonstrates how collections can provide a wide array of insight into things such as food and cultural practices and craftsmanship and technology. They can also reveal undertones in class, gender, spirituality, and even relations between people.

Hawaiian Chief Necklace

Hawaiian Chief Necklace, Object ID: ethcat #306

The Lei Niho Paloa is a necklace that originates from Hawaii. This necklace was created in the late 19th century, using single strands of braided human hair bound together into two coils with plant fiber cordage, with a hooked ivory pendant carved out of the tooth of a sperm whale. The Hawaiians believed that hair was “the most supernaturally powerful part of the body… a sacred substance whose presence enhanced the mana of the necklace and its noble wearer” [1]. Hawaiian chiefs wore these necklaces as a status marker and during battle, distinguishing those of higher status and noble birthright. Females also wore these necklaces on important occasions as a form of formal regalia. Therefore, the ivory pendant may have served a ritual purpose as a “vessel for supernatural power (mana)” [2]. Through its use of sacred materials, this necklace was a class marker for elite chiefs, warriors, and women. Also significant is the the labor that was invested into its creation. Of course, collecting and braiding 1700 feet of hair requires large amounts of time and skill, and it is important to consider the individual craftsmen who dedicated their time to create these necklaces for the elite chiefs.

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, not only does this object provide insight into cultural food practices, but also the care and respect in the process of growing, making, and eating poi 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. Read more about the cultural significance of poi to Hawaii’s indigenous peoples here.

Wooden Headrest

Wooden headrest, Object ID: 1870.334.1

This object originates from Fiji and is an object that was collected by the Missionary Lyceum and held in the Wesleyan Museum. So, we know it was created before 1870! The legs of this headrest are attached to the body via carved joints secured with plaited plant fiber lashings. They are broken off at the bottom, so it is unknown whether the piece originally sat on four feet or had a flat base. Headrests, as opposed to pillows, have been and continue to be used by many cultures around the world. They are useful in preserving elaborate wigs or hairstyles during rest. In Fiji, they were also important in preventing the head – considered the most sacred part of the body – from coming into contact with the ground. This object is significant not only because it reveals class, gender, and spiritual implications of the Fijian culture in the nineteenth century, but it also provides a social history into the daily lives of the people that used it.

Of course, there are many other objects in the Oceanic collection. Some of these include: textiles, weapons, fish hooks, and paddles (see below for more pictures). However, just the three artifacts highlighted in this post reveal how each artifact is infused with meaning. There is a story behind each object that reflects the culture from which it originates. The Oceanic collection as a whole can even tell a story when considering the identity of the collectors and how each object arrived at Wesleyan.

Ceremonial wooden paddle, Object ID: 1870.370.1; Austral Islands, circa mid-19th century


Model war canoe, Object ID: 1870.348.1; Sandwich Islands, circa mid-19th century


Pear shell fish hook and lure, Object ID: ethcat #1786; Micronesia, circa late 19th century


If you are interested in learning more about any of the objects in this collection, or if you want to work with any of the artifacts in the collections for a paper, project, or even a thesis, please visit the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections in Exley, room 301 or check out our website for more contact info!

By: Steven Chen ‘18

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whale-tooth Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa) (1979.206.1623). New York. Electronic document.

[2] Ibid.

Behind the Scenes: Moving On, a student-curated exhibition

***This short essay offers a behind the scenes account of the development of our exhibition: Moving On. The exhibit is on display in the main reading room of Olin Memorial Library through Fall 2017.***

One year later and another post from the “Museum Collections” course (ARCP 267 Spring 2017)! We see ourselves as museums lovers who are interested in learning collections management, exhibition development, and the socio-historical implications of displaying artifacts. During the semester, we studied the historical and ethical complications within American museums. By combining museum theories and case studies, we identified the ways the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collections deal with those complications, and curated our own exhibition –  Moving On – located on the first-floor main reading room in Olin Library.

The word “museum” is nothing new. We’ve all visited many art galleries, natural history museums, science centers, zoos … since childhood. However, when we start to think about topics behind a museum, like its role in the community, acquisition procedures, and issues with cultural heritage, museum studies becomes a larger discipline that involves considerable discussions and cooperation between fields. As we kept reading, researching, and talking with others during the spring semester, we all obtained some solid ideas about particular areas of museum studies for our final research paper. Besides regular readings and writing assignments, our instructor, Jessie Cohen, designed engaging material culture activities for us to do in class. We visited University Archivist, Leith Johnson, Collections Conservator and Head of Preservation Services, Michaelle Biddle, and Digital Projects Librarian, Francesca Livermore in Olin Library. We discussed everything from how to manage large collections and how to deal with redundant objects, and we also had an Ethics Bowl based on museums in varied situations.

Throughout the semester, we got to know the importance of communication. In museums, curators, educators, and boards of trustees will sit down and discuss upcoming exhibits and events. The course mimicked this process and as a class we all had to consider our roles as curators and actively participate in the design of our exhibition. Towards the end of the semester, we had the opportunity to meet with the students and professor (Corinna Zeltsman) of HIST 321 (“Media and Power in Latin America: From Quipus to Twitter”) for a workshop where we peer-edited each other’s exhibition labels. (For a look at the “Media and Power in Latin America: From Quipus to Twitter” class pop-up exhibit, click here!)

ARCP 267 and HIST 321 students workshop their exhibition labels
ARCP 267 and HIST 321 students workshop their exhibition labels

The students in HIST 321 contributed their thoughts on the effect of an object’s history in the present, while we were worked to combine all ideas and made them applicable to our exhibition case themes. Just like museum staff members collaborating prior to the opening of an exhibition, our class had to consider and agree upon text that would be limited to 80 words or less for our exhibition labels. Another important element of communication happens between the museum and the visitor. So, HIST 321 students were able to act as our visitors, and provide us with unbiased feedback. As the curators, we strove to write labels using a reader-friendly narrative that would excite our visitors. This was the hardest part because we had to find a balance between telling a captivating story while also stating the facts and history of the object. In the end, we feel that we were able to provide the visitor with all of the facts by way of an engaging and story-like narrative!

Photograph of Wesleyan Museum (Interior), Wesleyan Museum Records, Collection, Special Collections & Archives, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA


Inspired by the former Wesleyan Museum collection (1871-1957), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and the graduation of seniors, we came up with the theme of our Olin exhibition: that is, Moving On. We divided our objects into three parts: Moving On by Re-contextualizing, Moving On by Returning, and Moving On by Looking Forward.

Case 1: Moving on by Re-contextualizing; photo taken by Venus Cai
Case 2: Moving On by Returning; photo taken by Venus Cai
Case 3: Moving On by Looking Forward; photo taken by Venus Cai

Our goal was to have the exhibition play out like a timeline allowing the visitor to rethink the past of Wesleyan’s collecting history within the context of 18th colonialism. We also sought to inform the visitor about what’s happening now with the more than 30,000 objects that comprise the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections, and how students and faculty can utilize these objects by integrating them into coursework, thesis research, and other interdisciplinary methods. In general, this exhibition is an exploration of the changing practices of our collections and their educational value in a university. The story behind each individual object in the exhibition is really fun to read, and just a small glimpse into the array of historical, cultural, and natural specimens that make up the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. (See here for a closer look at some more collections highlights!)

We do encourage you to stop by the Moving On exhibition located on the first floor of Olin Library anytime during summer! We hope you enjoy the stories we are telling and we invite you to bring your unique perspectives. If you happen to be so interested in museum studies, take ARCP 267 next spring! There you can freely exchange your ideas with fellow museum fans and curate an exciting exhibition next year.

Enjoy the summer and visit more museums!

Venus (Yujie) Cai on behalf of the ARCP 267 Student Curators

Back row, from left to right: Venus Cai, ’20, Cayla Blachman, ’19, Caroline Deimer, ’18, Graham Brown, ’18, Olivia Nichols, ’17. Front row, from left to right: Ilana Newman, ’18, Lydia Tonkonow, ’17, Claudia Schatz, ’19, Krittika Roychowdhury, ’18

Venus Cai is a rising sophomore at Wesleyan University. She will major in Physics and Math in college. Her final paper for ARCP 267 discussed the relationship between science museums and adult visitors. Influenced by her mother’s careers in curation and artwork investments, Venus is interested in Museum Studies and History of Arts. As she is willing to combine her passions in both science and museum studies, she looks forward to interning in the Smithsonian next summer, especially in the National Air and Space Museum.

Sourcing Native-modified Stone Objects

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

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

CT mortar
Soapstone mortar, Object ID: 1973.1.1

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

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

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

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

by Jack Sheffer, ’19

Meet the Student Collections Staff

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

It’s hard work managing a collection of over 35,000 objects from around the world. Behind the scenes, the Wesleyan Archaeology and Anthropology Collection is managed by Jessie Cohen and a staff of four student assistants. Student research assistants help Jessie maintain artifacts, prepare objects for student and faculty use, craft social media posts, and conduct research projects on different objects in the collection! All of the student workers come from different academic backgrounds and were drawn to the collections for different reasons – a great thing about the collections is that the abundance of materials can accommodate a variety of interests. Read on to learn more about each of the collections staff, the projects they’re working on, and some of their favorite objects in the collections!


Name: Isabel Alter

Class Year: 2017

Major(s): History and FGSS

Why do you work in the archaeology collections: I started working in the collections while taking Museum Collections with Jessie in spring of 2016. That spring I made a finding aid for the Melville collection. Working here is great partially because it’s a different kind of thinking and skills than I use for most of my class work. I like the combination of hands on work and the feeling that I am helping make the collections more useful for future students and other scholars.


Favorite object in the collections: One of the first objects I saw in the collections, a scrimshaw carving on a dolphin mandible, has remained one of my favorites. The carving is of a sailing ship with three masts and (what’s left of) the sails up. Parts of the detailing on the boat are red and the waves below it are green. In contrast to this detailed carving on the far right of the bone most of the bottom is still lined with a sharp row of teeth. We don’t have a lot of information about it; the collection records estimate that it was made in the late 18th century, and if it was made locally, that would have been around the peak of the whaling industry. This object is still a favorite in part because of how detailed and bizarre looking it is. I also enjoy how little info we have about it – who was the bored scrimshander (the actual word for someone who carves scrimshaw)? How did this carving make it from the sailing ship where it was most likely made into the Wesleyan collections?


Name: Steven Chen

Class Year: 2018

Major(s): History, Government, Environmental Studies Certificate

Why do you work in the archaeology collections: I love histories constructed with material culture and the way that objects can provide physical and visual glimpses into the past and the cultures that used them. I believe there’s something very valuable in seeing or holding objects in person that can allow for a greater understanding of how they were used and in some ways, allow us to connect more closely to the cultures that used them. I was first introduced to the collections in a course I took about Pre-Columbian archaeology where we had the opportunity to use objects from the Wesleyan collections and other museum objects to create a digital exhibit with a cohesive theme. This experience sparked my interest in both in the Wesleyan collections and in museum and exhibit work.


Favorite object in the collections: My favorite objects in the collection are the birch bark, felt, and quillwork cases used to hold cigars or cigarettes. These cases were used by indigenous tribes around the Great Lakes/Northeast region and portions of Canada in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. I encountered these objects while doing research for an archaeology course before I started working at the collections, and it sparked my interest to learn more about the collections. Not only was I drawn to the aesthetic appearance of the cases and their intricate, meticulous designs, I was also intrigued at the fact that these two cases arrived at the collections years apart (Wesleyan collected one in 1971 and the other in 2004), yet are so similar in design and origin. It really makes you think about the stories and histories of the individual objects themselves and their trajectories into the collection.



Name: Jack Sheffer

Class Year: 2019

Major(s): Earth and Environmental Sciences, Archaeology

Why do you work in the archaeology collections: When I came to Wesleyan as a freshman, I knew that I was going to be interested in archaeology, and geology. So I began taking classes in the E&ES and Archaeology Departments and found that these subjects were truly my passions. This recent fall I started working here, identifying the rock types of the Native American stone tools in the collection. What I enjoy about this work is that I am able to interact with artifacts and help gather more information on these artifacts. Hopefully someday these artifacts can be repatriated to the Native American tribes they were taken from.

unnamed-2Favorite object in the collections: My favorite object in the collection is a pipe fragment from Tennessee that was acquired in the purchase of the Barnes collection by Wesleyan University in 1899. There are a number of interesting pieces from this collection, but this fragment seems to be made out of volcanic ash which has solidified into fine volcanic tuff. This is a little odd to find in Tennessee since, as far as I found, there are no known sources of extrusive volcanic rock in Tennessee. Since there are no known sources of this rock in Tennessee the native peoples that used this artifact likely traded for it. I really like that this artifact can show connections between tribes, even though this fragment is so small.



Name: Sophia Shoulson

Class Year: 2018

Major(s): COL and German Studies

Why do you work in the archaeology collections: I’ve always been interested in archaeology and anthropology, but I came to Wesleyan specifically because of the College of Letters program, so I’ve only been able to take a few ANTH and ARCP (Archaeology Program) courses. Working in archaeology collections has been a great way for me to get some hands-on experience and learn about the field in a practical manner, rather than in the classroom. I’ve learned a lot about our collection at Wesleyan, as well as about archaeology in general through my work here, and I encourage all students to come and check out the collection if you get the chance!


Favorite object in the collections: My favorite objects in the collection are the stone and ceramic discs from George Barnes’ “excavations” in the Tennessee River Valley. I use the word “excavations” with a hefty grain of salt, because in reality he was excavating in an effort to unearth Native American graves. As such, they are a part of the collection that could eventually be repatriated through NAGPRA. I like that this is part of the acknowledged history of these items. It represents the progress that has been made in the field of archaeological and anthropological ethics, progress which is just as, if not more important as practical advancements in the field itself.

Kathryn Hoff ’73 determined that the discs are most likely part of the game of “chungke,” which is played in a manner similar to bocce. The stone is rolled on the ground and players throw spears as close to the stone as possible, or in an attempt to knock the other spears out of the air. We know from artifacts found in the southeast that the game was popular among First Peoples in what are now Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and throughout the southeast. Other than their man-made regularity and smoothness, the discs are extremely nondescript, and I like that even an object that is so deceptively simple can have such an interesting history.

Want to learn more about the collections? Stop by the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections Open House on Friday, March 3rd from 11:40-1:20 in Exley 301. Jessie and the student collections assistants will be on hand to guide you through the collections, show off some of their favorite objects, and discuss the ethical and practical challenges of collection and preservation.

Deciphering an 18th century Middletown, CT Gravestone


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


Here Lyeth ye /

Body of Sipi[?] /

Indian Who[n?] /

Died Feb [?] y [2] /

~1731~ /

Aged [6?] years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Isabel Alter, ’17


Reference Sources:

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

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

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

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