It’s been tough getting ZANBA off the ground in the middle of a pandemic, but I’m delighted to announce that things are finally moving. It’s especially exciting to welcome Sardinian archaeologist Davide Schirru to the team! Davide’s ongoing research is based in the ZANBA study area, giving him the opportunity to collect plants from across the landscape of central Sardinia. Davide will send these plant samples to Cardiff University, where I will process them and analyze their strontium isotope ratios. Let’s hear it for the incredible power of networks to overcome obstacles and promote resilience!
Davide’s previous research has focused on landscape archaeology in Bronze Age Sardinia. The well-preserved prehistoric landscapes of Sardinia provide an exceptional opportunity to explore settlement systems and conduct a thorough study of the human-environment relationship. Davide is particularly interested in the development of GIS (Geographical Information Systems), statistical, and quantitative analyses of the spatial properties of archaeological landscapes, leading him to develop further interests in scripting and programming languages. Davide is currently completing his PhD in prehistoric archaeology at La Sapienza University of Rome.
In my last post, I highlighted archaeological research that showed that strong communities – local-level groups that worked together and maintained social ties – helped past societies weather major disruptions, delivering better outcomes for human health and prosperity and even helping sustain institutions above the local level. These are promising results for us, pointing to at least one practical way we can combat the effects of the pandemic. Working to support and maintain our communities now will help us come out of this pandemic in the strongest way we can. But the researchers’ conclusions also raise an obvious question – what are local communities doing or providing that contributes to their larger societies being resilient to a crisis?
There are dozens of books on resiliency from the past decade alone, but most focus on recent societies and institutions. Resiliency is a popular topic in archaeology as well, but many studies of resilience in the past focus on just one culture or time period. Here I will highlight an excellent cross-cultural study by Peter N. Peregrine, an anthropologist and archaeologist at Lawrence University. Peregrine examined 33 archaeologically known societies that weathered 22 environmental crises to test two hypotheses: did either local participation in decision-making or rigid social norms help human societies weather environmental crises? These two strategies have both been identified as sources of resilience in contemporary societies, but archaeology can test their utility in a broader range of cases. Again, the strength of Peregrine’s study is that it analyzes completely unrelated societies across large spans of time and space. As Peregrine puts it: “If a predictor of social resilience to climate-related disasters can be identified and applies to societies of varying scales and complexities throughout human history, then there is good reason to believe that it can be used to create interventions applicable today.”
Peregrine trained research assistants to code ancient societies that faced severe environmental crises according to where they fell on scales of “corporate-exclusionary” (level of participation in decision making) and “looseness-tightness” (enforcement of social norms). They also coded how resilient the societies were by evaluating seven variables – population, health and nutrition, conflict, household organization, village organization, regional organization, and communal ritual – both before and after the environmental crises occurred. You’ll notice how many of these variables are similar to those used by the LTVTP-NABO collaboration I highlighted in the previous post, reflecting the basic kinds of human well-being we hope to be able to maintain even in crisis situations.
Peregrine found a positive relationship between resilience to environmental crisis and high levels of participation in decision making*. When leadership was more fluid and open to input and action at local levels, societies were more resilient, maintaining higher levels of well-being throughout the crisis. Peregrine found the opposite for enforcement of social norms, however; societies with strict enforcement of social norms were less resilient to environmental crisis. For the diversity of cultures and over the long time scales studied by Peregrine, rigid codes of behavior were detrimental.
A pandemic doesn’t pose the same challenges as an environmental crisis, but the importance of Peregrine’s findings is still apparent. One factor in creating resilience is broad participation in local decision making and a willingness on the part of higher levels of government to listen to local voices. It makes sense that local people are the often the first to recognize how a crisis is affecting their particular community and that they are likely to have useful ideas for how the crisis needs to be handled to maintain well-being in their area. The current pandemic poses unprecedented hurdles for average citizens trying to participate in governance, but it is essential that we find ways. Making local decisions based on local input is key to maintaining our well-being.
* I prefer to feature open access research so everyone can read and evaluate the work for themselves, but if you happen to have access to academic journals, I recommend the following archaeological and historical study. It reaches conclusions similar to Peregrine’s regarding the role of local-level knowledge and participation in decision making for achieving sustainable soil use in case studies of ancient Mediterranean agriculture.
Butzer, K (2005) Environmental history in the Mediterranean world: cross-disciplinary investigation of cause-and-effect for degradation and soil erosion. Journal of Archaeological Science 32: 1773-1800.
Last week, I argued that archaeology has something useful to say in this time of Coronavirus. This may seem like a bold assertion, even to other academics. I wonder how many of my colleagues in economics, sociology, and psychology see archaeology as a social science like their own disciplines. I wonder how many people in general look at today’s problems – be they Coronavirus or climate change – and think “let’s ask the archaeologists.”
I’ll be the first to admit that my argument needs to be supported by evidence before anyone should take it seriously. So that’s what I intend to do: provide evidence that the broad human past gives us valuable insight into what we can and should do now. I’ll focus on open access studies that anyone can read, and I encourage everyone to read the originals and assess for yourselves whether these are good evidence for the contemporary relevance of archaeological insight.
My first piece of evidence is an article* by Michelle Hegmon and Matthew Peeples on behalf of the LTVTP-NABO collaboration. The Long- Term Vulnerability and Transformation Project (LTVTP) focuses on archaeological cases of social transformation in the arid and semi-arid United States Southwest and northern Mexico. The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) focuses on cases that took place in the subarctic and arctic North Atlantic. Together, the LTVTP-NABO collaboration examined 18 examples of major social transformations as varied as the end of the Norse occupation of Greenland and the depopulation of the Mesa Verde region. The geographical, environmental, chronological, and cultural diversity of the cases studied suggests that any strong patterns probably hold true for human societies generally: that is, they point to specific ways that all human societies tend to respond to stress.
The researchers coded a broad set of variables, from institutional breakdown and depopulation to human securities**, migration, household organization, and changes in material culture (the archaeological catch-all term for “stuff”). The researchers then performed correspondence analyses among these different variables to identify meaningful relationships.
Their results are fascinating and the paper is worth a detailed read, but some of their conclusions feel particularly relevant in the current crisis. First, there is a strong relationship between the breakdown of institutions and a decline in human securities. No one is an island: nobody thrives when we let our sustaining institutions crumble. How we get food, how we receive medical care, and how we keep interpersonal violence in check are all embedded in institutional systems. If those systems fail, we’re likely to suffer. We’re witnessing severe stresses on some of our systems right now as they struggle to keep up with the demands created by the current pandemic.
The hopeful part of the study is that the researchers identified communities and community security as strong predictors that social transformation would be less painful. If communities remained strong – if they didn’t disintegrate under the weight of social transformations – people experienced less food insecurity, less interpersonal violence, and less death. The researchers also found a positive feedback loop – strong communities could bolster institutional security, preventing or dampening the major institutional collapses that were found to be disastrous in the less fortunate cases. The authors conclude: “We must consider the people’s experiences because what happens at the local level can stabilize society, can augment people’s capabilities for contributing in positive ways, and thus can help avert disaster.”
I’m probably not the only one who’s found herself reaching out to friends she hasn’t talked to in years to check on how they’re doing in this crazy situation. It turns out this normal human impulse may have a practical benefit. Cross-cultural, cross-temporal evidence reminds us that our communities make us resilient. Strong communities protect and provide and care for us when larger institutions falter and can even prop up those institutions until they recover their footing. Community-building in the time of Coronavirus may not look like it used to, but it’s one of the smartest things we can do.
* Hegmon M, Peeples MA, on behalf of the LTVTP-NABO collaboration (2018) The human experience of social transformation: Insights from comparative archaeology. PLoS ONE 13(11): e0208060. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0208060
** The researchers followed the United Nations definition of seven types of human securities to assess human security broadly: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, political.
This is my first post about my new research project ZANBA: zooarchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age. This isn’t the post I expected or wanted to write. But none of us are doing what we expected or wanted right now. Fighting the pandemic is rightly taking precedence over our plans. So these days I’m sitting on my couch or looking out my window at empty parking lots and wondering – how do I “do” archaeology in the Time of Coronavirus?
I expected to be in the field right now, getting ZANBA off the ground: meeting with the Soprintendenza, discussing permits, reestablishing lab access, taking a look at the bags of animal bones I haven’t touched since fall 2018. I was hoping to revisit some of the monuments where I work so I could finish an article that’s 90% written. I was going to see my friends. The trip was going to be low pressure and exciting. It was going to be fun.
Obviously, that trip has been cancelled. I’m still seeing my friends, but it’s for virtual cocktails over Zoom. Our conversations only occasionally touch on work. They focus on concern for each other’s safety and heavy doses of encouragement.
I arrived in Wales to begin my new project in early January, just days before the novel coronavirus was identified. In January, the feeling around me was of an emergency happening somewhere else. In February, the feeling was of a concern that would only seriously affect a few. In March, the feeling went from “this is probably overreacting, but…” to “this is a national health emergency” in a matter of days. On Friday, March 13, my university announced that in-person teaching would end after one more week. The following Monday morning, it announced that in-person teaching would end after Wednesday. By that Monday evening, in-person classes were cancelled and staff were encouraged not to return to the building on Tuesday. The world was changing fast.
The world is changing fast, and it can be hard to grasp what a slow-moving discipline like archaeology has to contribute in a crisis. The logistics of excavation and survey mean it can take years to gather our primary data. The constraints of collaborative research, shared labs, and intermittent funding mean it can be years again before we publish our findings. Most of our work investigates people who died a long time ago. Realistically, should the public care at all right now what the archaeologists have to say?
YES. Archaeologists can answer some of the most important questions people are worried about right now. Not about how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus (stay home, wash your hands!) but about what things might look like after. How do societies respond to crises? How do crises differentially affect cities, towns, and rural settlements? What happens after a crisis? How do societies recover – or not? How long does recovery take?
Archaeologists have experience interpreting a global dataset that stretches back 250,000 years. We’ve studied how a lot of human systems have contracted and collapsed, as well as how they’ve adapted and been reinvented. It may feel like archaeological information can’t be comparable to what we’re going through today – ancient people didn’t have jets and stock exchanges and the internet. But most archaeologists will tell you that the roots of resilience in the past are the same as those in the present: maintaining the flow of accurate information, good decision-making, robust supply chains, and a willingness to do things differently when necessary.
Many archaeologists are trained in an anthropological framework that encourages us to see ancient people as culturally different, but cognitively and biologically the same as we are today. This perspective means that archaeologists can’t fall back on the comforting but false idea that real crises won’t happen to us because we’re too smart, scientifically advanced, or technologically capable. Archaeologists know that ancient people were just as smart as we are, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence that – no matter how smart we are – our human trajectory never goes endlessly up.
But we’ve also seen that dips in human trajectories vary widely in their aftermaths. Sometimes large-scale projects and long-distance communication all but disappear for centuries, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes people respond quickly and there’s a new period of growth. Sometimes the dissolution of sweeping hierarchies leads to more successful local systems. All kinds of outcomes are possible. Both individual and institutional responses matter, and adaptation is key.
The archaeologist who is my coauthor on the article that’s 90% finished is a specialist in photogrammetry. He’s currently adapting his skills to 3D print face shields for medical workers. We all have skills that can be adapted to the current moment. They may be as simple as the ability to keep ourselves entertained while staying inside, but these skills are saving lives.
We also have skills that will help us adapt to whatever future emerges from the current crisis. None of us knows right now how long this will last or what the long-term effects will be on our social networks, our economies, and our way of life. We’re taking this one day at a time. But as we move forward, consider talking to the archaeologists. Our case studies are different but relevant, and we’re trained to take the long view.
If you’ve ever Googled Sardinian archaeology, you’ve probably run across the idea that Sardinia was Atlantis. The idea is common on the island itself due to a popular work of pseudoarchaeology. The claim that Sardinia was Atlantis has now been picked up by English-language sources, including a recent National Geographic special.
Now there’s pretty much nowhere on earth that someone hasn’t claimed is Atlantis, so in that sense, Sardinia isn’t special. But in case there was any doubt in your mind, in case you thought maybe Sardinia was the one place on earth that really was Atlantis, let me just tell you:
Nevertheless, the idea that Sardinia was Atlantis is persistent, and it’s being actively promoted. There are many problematic layers to this misinformation, one of the most insidious being that it’s being promoted using a lot of gorgeous images of Sardinia’s real archaeology, which is genuinely mind-blowing.
How could you not be impressed by the cultural patrimony of an island that includes literally thousands of towers like Is Paras?
This juxtaposition of archaeological imagery with fantastic claims blurs the lines between reality and fiction and draws people into accepting the misinformation because it appears to be supported by evidence. Unfortunately, like most pseudoarchaeology, the links between the fantastic claim and the real archaeology are cherry-picked and superficial, and the evidence that proves the fantastic claim is wrong is never presented at all.
The claim that Sardinia is Atlantis has been well and thoroughly debunked by many Sardinian archaeologists, historians, and geologists and you can read their Italian-language response here. But if English is your thing, you can also listen to me discuss these issues on the podcast Archaeological Fantasies.
Many thanks to Sara Head, Jeb Card, and Ken Feder – the hosts of Archaeological Fantasies – for having me on the show! You can check out Ken’s work on frauds and myths in archaeology here and here, and Jeb’s work on pseudoarchaeology here.
My first weekend in Paris, I marched with the Gilets Jaunes. It started by accident. I’m sympathetic with anyone who’s frustrated by the unholy marriage of wealth and politics anywhere in the world, but I hadn’t set out to march with them. I hadn’t even known they were marching. I’m in Paris right now to work on my research at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, and I was taking my Saturday to visit the Musée d’Art Moderne.
But as I approached the Quai Saint-Michel in front of Notre Dame, I met with a line of yellow-vested protesters. I’d read about the Gilets Jaunes in the news. I’d discussed them with my friends in the anthropology department. I’d even seen some of the damage they’d caused when I celebrated New Year’s Eve at the Champs Elysée. Somehow, it never occurred to me that I might actually run into them. But here I was, watching the march go by.
I joined for several reasons. First, it seemed convenient. They were going my way – following the route along the Seine that I was taking to the art museum. I could have crossed the river or taken the metro, but I joined because I was curious. I wanted to do more than glance at their signs as they walked by. I wanted first-hand knowledge of what it was all about, to read the messages on their hand-decorated vests, to eavesdrop on their conversations. As an anthropologist, I study humans. As an archaeologist, my work is full of the power dynamics of the past. How could I not at least observe?
Later, I read more about those marches. I read about a ministry break-in and vehicles, dumpsters, and a river barge burned. I can’t speak to any of that, because I didn’t see it. All I can do is tell what I saw.
What I saw was a very different picture from what I’d seen in the news before arriving in Paris. The atmosphere among the group I joined was defiant – chants of “Macron démission!” (Macron resignation) sprang up frequently – but it wasn’t violent. The protesters were of all ages. Many seemed to be alone, some were in small groups that chatted between chants. Some were parents marching with their young children. Many had decorated their yellow vests with drawings and slogans, some quite artistic, many poignant. People identified themselves as retired, as fathers, as women, as religious – the unifying thread was anger at runaway greed that would blithely harm others to further its own ends and at a government perceived to be complicit.
I saw no violence that was started by the protestors, though there could have been some that was out of my line of sight. I did see a few young men wearing masks – a gold Guy Fawkes mask sticks out in my mind as overly Hollywood – but I never saw them do anything. Many shops along the route had been closed, and some anxious proprietors stood at their doors and watched, but I saw no windows smashed or property destroyed. What I saw was a peaceful protest.
We were getting close to the Musée d’Orsay when I decided I had seen enough and was ready to head on to the art museum. I started to speed up to break through the crowd when I noticed smoke on the bridge up ahead. The crowd was getting thicker. I kept pushing until there were too many people to push through, which was when I realized we were blocked. A line of police in riot gear blocked the bridge, and I assume there was one in front of us blocking the Quai Anatole-France. This is also when I realized the smoke was tear gas. The police on the bridge had already used a canister or two and were now deploying several more. The marchers called for the protestors on the front line to push. They did. The police used their batons.
A cloud of tear gas came toward those of us who were backed up against the wall surrounding the Grande chancellerie de l’ordre de la Légion d’honneur. It wasn’t bad where I was, but it was at this moment that I realized why several people had been marching in surgical masks. I turned away from the cloud and noticed a small woman in her sixties pressing into the wall with her eyes squinted and her glove to her face. I had nothing to offer her, and I felt foolish and unprepared.
My own glove over my face, I decided it was time to turn back. I retreated to the Musée d’Orsay, where police stood ready to block the protestors who would inevitably come that way. It was disconcerting to see the shields and helmets and batons lined up outside that elegant building with its trove of Monets and Van Goghs. I didn’t stay to contemplate, however; the marchers were already coming my way and I was quite satisfied with my first experience of tear gas. I politely asked the police if I could pass. I spoke in French, but with my American accent and lack of a yellow vest, they barely looked at me as they waved me through.
Politicians are confounded by the Gilets Jaunes because they have no real leaders and no clear demands, but that makes sense to me. How can you list your demands when it isn’t a single policy, but an entire system you feel has failed you? Why should there be a leader when it isn’t one person’s agenda but a whole people’s frustration that’s being expressed? I said I joined the march because it happened to be going my way. The phrase sticks with me, and I wonder how true it might be.
It’s been a busy few months! I just wrapped up teaching an intense semester, and I have one day to pack and prep my apartment before I leave for the holidays and – immediately afterward – a month-long research trip to Paris. I plan to be blogging again soon, but in the meantime, I had the pleasure of being a guest on Paul Sutter‘s podcast Space Radio. Paul Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and a brilliant science communicator (definitely check out his new book if you’re interested in astronomy). He asked me to join him on Space Radio to explore how ancient cultures understood astronomy.
The students in my Ancient Cities course recently encountered an insightful but challenging reading, a chapter in a book dense with that most hated of academic discourses: theory. Just say “theory” at someone – and I don’t mean only undergrads – and their eyes will glaze over as they visibly fight the urge to check their Twitter notifications.
Unless they’re like me. I love theory. Theory is my favorite thing in all of archaeology to teach. Understanding theory means deciphering the tangled logic puzzle of “how do we know what we know.” Understanding theory means making clear – and then criticizing – all the unstated thought processes that archaeologists go through in making sense of our information.
For example, take a string of numbers: 17351. You can observe the numbers written here, but if someone made you stop reading this post right now and asked you what those numbers meant, you’d probably say “who knows.”
But what if you kept reading and saw that I added some symbols in with the numbers: 17 x 3 = 51. Suddenly you can say something about the numbers. They’re a multiplication problem. There’s a relationship that makes the first three numbers equal to the second two numbers. The first two numbers should be considered as a unit, the third number is a unit on its own, and the last two numbers are also a unit.
We’ve applied theory to the numbers. Now we can say what they mean.
Archaeological theory works with artifacts like mathematical operations in a string of numbers. Theory structures the relationships among artifacts and other archaeological data, allowing archaeologists to understand how they interact. Without theory – and the application of theory, which we call method – archaeologists would endlessly collect old things without actually adding to our knowledge of the past. We would dig up artifacts, document architecture, maybe even identify some campfires and postholes, but we wouldn’t know what any of it meant. It would just be a string of numbers… er… artifacts.
The early days of European curiosity about the past were full of “strings” of artifacts – in reality, these were drawers, boxes, cabinets, and rooms that housed jumbled assemblages of ancient objects. Antiquaries1 of the late Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment collected these objects – sometimes digging into barrows or other monuments to find them – and documented the existence of ancient sites. But they found themselves trying and failing to describe relationships among the sites and artifacts. They hadn’t developed any archaeological theory, so they couldn’t interpret what their finds meant. The problem was so acute that the Danish antiquary Rasmus Nyerup (1759-1829)2 complained that “Everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog.”3
Fortunately, antiquaries began developing foundational theory that allowed them to start organizing finds. Ideas like the Three Age System – which was proposed in 1816 and divided European prehistory4 into Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages based on the primary materials used for tools – allowed antiquaries to begin recognizing relationships among their materials. Other types of theory like the concepts of typology and seriation – the idea that artifacts that looked similar probably came from similar time periods and that these time periods could be arranged chronologically – moved the study of the past from antiquarian collecting into the budding discipline of archaeological explanation.
Great, you say. Antiquaries formulated theory, applied it to artifacts, established archaeology, and now we know what the past means. But not so fast – let’s return to that string of numbers. What if instead of making it a multiplication problem, I use different symbols: |1 x 7 – 3 – 5| = 1. This way of interpreting the numbers is equally consistent and so equally valid as the first.
Archaeology works like this, too. Often, multiple ways of applying theory give us internally consistent understandings of the past. What if I asked you for an ecological explanation of why I wore my orange sweater today? You might say I wore it because the weather turned cold and I wanted to stay warm. But what if I asked you for a postcolonial interpretation of why I wore my sweater? Then you might say it relates to my position within a historic system that channels global resources toward the west, making it possible for me to own a (probably excessive) number of warm sweaters. Both these ways of applying theory to my sweater produce perspectives that are true and useful for understanding my experience.
Now don’t get me wrong: the past is not all relative. Archaeologists can demonstrate that many ways of understanding the past are straight-up false, and it is not the case that every interpretation is as good as any another. For example, what if I ordered my numbers like this: 1 + 7 + 3 + 5 = 1. That’s simply wrong. Unlike my first two proposals, this interpretation of the numbers does not show a logical relationship. Or what if you claimed that I wore my orange sweater because I always wear orange on Wednesdays. Examining my previous Wednesday wardrobe choices would show you this is not an accurate explanation (I mean, last Wednesday I wore plaid!).
Even though not all understandings of the past are true, it is true that the past was as rich and varied as human life today, so it shouldn’t surprise us that multiple ways of understanding the past can be accurate and provide insight. And thanks to a long history of archaeological thinking, we’re not at a loss to distinguish the good explanations from the bad. Robust archaeological theory provides the tools we need to tell the difference between rigorous interpretations of the past and ones that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The term “antiquary” refers generally to a person who studies the past and is especially used to describe people who collected ancient artifacts and documented sites in the period before archaeology became a field.
(2009). Nyerup, Rasmus. In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, 2nd edition (online). eISBN: 9780191727139 DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780199534043.001.0001
Page 51 in Fagan, B. M., and Durani, N. (2016). A Brief History of Archaeology. Classical Times to the Twenty-First Century, 2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 9781138657076
The Three Age System was specifically applied to Danish prehistory when it was first proposed, but it was found to be broadly useful and adopted for European prehistory in general.
If you’ve read my post about Archaeology in the Off-season, you know I’ve been busy since I returned from Paris last November. Archaeologists always are. The time when we’re not in the field is when we read the latest scholarship, learn new skills, and write our own books and articles. It’s some of the busiest time we have.
These last two months have been no exception. I’ve been intensely busy settling into my new job as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at Miami University of Ohio. I’ve also been preparing an application for a Marie Curie fellowship at Cardiff University, and writing a major fellowship application is almost as much work as an article. But I submitted the Marie Curie in mid-September – fingers crossed! – and I’ve found my footing teaching Greek Civilization, Ancient Cities, and Discoveries of Archaeology. I even got word that another of my book reviews is out in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. It feels like a lot of old projects are wrapping up, and you know what that means:
It’s time to dive back into a couple of things I’ve kept on the back burner for too long, as well as decide on new directions for the coming academic year. It’s an exciting prospect, almost heady: I’ve been working on a backlog for so long, I barely remember what it’s like to have a front-log.
I have two main goals for the coming academic year: submit some articles and step up my public outreach. I’ve already started on both. I’ve actually been surprised how easy it is to get back into scholarly writing. It turns out all the thoughts that were kicking around in my head while I was updating my encyclopedia article and finalizing my edited volume just can’t wait to get onto the page.
I’m also really excited to try out new methods for communicating archaeology to the public. I bought some materials from Forestry Suppliers – that mainstay of archaeological equipment – and I’m looking forward to putting them to use. Stay tuned to see where my new photographic scales turn up!
I’ll write more about specific projects as the semester progresses, but for now, a draft of an article is calling.
When I was little – five? maybe six? – I told my mom I wanted a dead mouse collection. I had found a few around our large back yard (probably the cat’s fault), and they looked so cute and soft and furry, I figured I’d bring them home.
Fortunately, my mom was used to my strange ideas. She stalled for time.
“Where would you keep your collection?”
I said I’d keep the mice in a fish bowl so people could see how cute they were.
“I don’t think they’d stay cute in a fish bowl.”
I offered to throw them out when they weren’t cute anymore, but my poor mom put her foot down.
“Honey, I don’t think dead mice are something people collect.”
My mom swears she doesn’t remember my aborted dead mouse collection, but I do – and props to my mom for constructive handling of my weird childhood enthusiasms. But what occurs to me most when I think about that story is the old plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: after fourteen years of higher education, I’m pretty much the same person I was when I was six.
I had another full circle moment yesterday. Back when I was fifteen, I attended the National Junior Classical League convention, which was being held at Indiana University Bloomington. While at the convention, I heard about the Lilly Library – IUB’s rare books, manuscripts, and special collections – and I learned that anyone – anyone! – could make an appointment to see the rare books. It blew my teenage mind. I could walk into this library and ask to hold a book that was hundreds of years old – and they would let me.
I put it to the test. Lo and behold, they sat me at a desk, set up props to hold the book, and brought me one of the first folios of Shakespeare, published in 1623. I remember hesitating to touch it, worried it would fragment, worried I would tear it if I turned a page. But the paper felt surprisingly resilient for a book over 350 years old, and I slowly gained confidence. For the next two hours, I sat in the quiet of the library reading Macbeth, my favorite play.
That first folio of Shakespeare was not the first artifact I had ever touched, but reading it in the Lilly Library was one of my first experiences entering the world of artifacts – that place where people valued and studied and worked to understand the past through its material remains. I had wanted to be an archaeologist since I was eight. Being treated like a researcher and trusted with a rare book made me feel like it was possible.
Yesterday, I took the students from my Discoveries of Archaeology course to the Walter Havighurst Special Collections of the King Library at Miami University of Ohio, where I am currently a Visiting Assistant Professor. Guided by Head of Collections William Modrow, my students handled dozens of objects: cuneiform tablets, medieval books of hours, Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte, and late 19th century stereoscope images of archaeological sites to name a few. Cautious at first, as I had been, by the end of the visit they were picking up volumes and replacing them on their props, turning pages, switching out the stereoscope images, running their fingers over the tiny pressed symbols of the clay tablets. With plenty of time to explore, the students gravitated to what most interested them, and it seemed to be different for everyone.
I have no idea what particular interests drove each of my students, what their own personal curiosities and ideas and hopes might be. And I have no idea what the experience of the special collections will end up meaning to them. It may mean nothing particular, or end up just a curious memory, or be one of those cool ways college was broadening before they settle into something totally unrelated. For most, it probably won’t be formative. But we never know what experiences are going to matter to people. They may not know themselves until it’s twenty-two years later and they’re holding a first folio of Shakespeare.