Teaching with Objects in ANTH 128: “Peopling Prehistory: Archaeology of Native North America”

January 2, 2015

This course explored over 10,000 years of the North American archaeological record, investigating the unwritten histories and material evidence of Indigenous peoples prior to European contact. Throughout the class, archaeological studies of prehistory were interwoven with contemporary Native interpretations—much as they are in the Penn Museum’s Native American Voices exhibit. The students visited this exhibit at the end of the course and formed their own opinions about how successfully it dealt with some of the ethical issues that exist within anthropological and archaeological research. In addition to this gallery visit, Penn Museum objects were incorporated into the course through object handling training, three lab days in the Collections Study Room, and a final Object Profile project.

During our lab days, students examined objects made of the three material types most commonly found on North American sites. This included stone materials such as these 10,000-year-old spear points from the Blackwater Draw site, ceramic materials such as this elaborately painted Puebloan pot from Chaco Canyon, and preserved organic materials such as this haunting wooden mask from Key Marco.

Folsom Point 250804, AL1152963 Key Marco

Left: Fluted spear points from the Blackwater Draw site in New Mexico (http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/263636).

Center: Pueblo seed jar from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico (http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/279072).

Right: Wolf head ceremonial mask from Key Marco site in Florida  (http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/240549).


By seeing objects in person rather than just images of objects on a PowerPoint slide, the students were able to connect with them in a much deeper way. This was demonstrated by the questions they asked about the details of the objects’ archaeological context, the processes used to create them, and the cultures who utilized them. In addition, these labs demonstrated the skills necessary for the students to engage in their final Object Profile project.

For their Object Profiles, each student chose one object from the American Section collections and spent a week studying it in the Collections Study Room. In their papers they reported on what they learned from observing and handling the object in the lab. To encourage their deep involvement with the object, they were asked to examine it from all angles and to measure, photograph, and draw the object. Junior Ashley Terry commented that she “found handling the piece [a Puebloan ceramic ladle] extremely useful, as it allowed for the examination of its small details in a way that viewing images would not. And eventually, these small details became the most fascinating aspects of this piece.” For her, this included focusing on the interior decoration, which she illustrated for her paper.


LadleLadle drawing

Left: Puebloan ceramic ladle with broken handle, photograph by Ashley Terry.

Right: Interior decoration on the ladle, drawing by Ashley Terry.


Junior Antonia Diener also illustrated her object, a groundstone effigy, and in doing so recognized a distinct asymmetry that had never been noted before. In her out-of-class research, she focused on objects with similar forms and similar iconography (such as this boatstone from the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University). She concluded that her object likely represents an underwater panther, an important supernatural being in the religion of Native American groups across the American South. This information, along with many of her other observations, will be added to the catalog entry for the object.

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Left: Ground stone effigy from the Feltus Mounds site in Mississippi, photograph by Antonia Diener.

Right: Sketch of the effigy showing distinct asymmetry, drawing by Antonia Diener.

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Left: Horned Serpent Monster effigy from the Turner Mound site in Ohio (Rusnak 2010: 7).

Right: Image of the Underwater Panther figure (Reilly 2004: 128).


Likewise, Senior Monica Fenton made major strides in helping us to understand one of the objects in our collections. She reinterpreted her object, recorded in the catalog simply as a “sea tortoise shell plate”, as a net gauge made of turtle plastron. Her research showed that weavers would have created uniform-size holes in their nets by tying the knots around the same flat rectangle. Her discussion of the decoration on this particular net gauge draws on archaeological and ethnography analogy as well as on data from marine biology. In her own words, this research “reveal[ed] not only the history of the object, but hint[ed] at how Key Marco fit into the natural and human worlds of the late prehistoric Americas.”


net gauge 1       Plastron

Left: Net gauge carved with two dolphin-like figures, photograph by Monica Fenton.

Right: The portion of the turtle (plastron) from which the net gauge was carved.


Finally, the students were asked to reflect on what they would like to know about the object if they had the time and resources to complete further studies. This allowed them to think past their one-week timeline and consider just how much you can learn from a single object. In addition to this recognition, the students also came to understand the difficulties with object-based research. Junior Ben Reynolds, astutely observed that as archaeologists, “we must grapple with the possibility (if not likelihood) that the way we think an object could have been used or what symbolic meaning it might have held might be different from the actual reality,” thus recognizing the importance of incorporating contemporary Native interpretations into our material interpretations.


Works Cited:

Reilly, F. Kent. “People of Earth, People of Sky.” In Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South, 125-137. 1st ed. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004.

Rusnak, Michael. “Creatures of the Beneath World: Hopewell Effigies from Turner Mound: Part I – The Horned Serpent Monster Effigy.” Ohio Archaeologist 60, no. 4 (2010): 4-12.