Introduction – Winter 1986

By: Robert H. Dyson, Jr.

Originally Published in 1986

View PDF

Wooden Raven rattle made by the Tlingit Indians, collected by Louis Shotridge in 1923.
Museum Object Number: NA9466

For many people, a museum is a place where interesting “things” can be accumulat­cd. displayed, and stored. In the case of The University. Museum, the range of items collected and cared for is particularly diverse. As a museum of archaeology and anthro­pology, it contains weaving tools from pre-Columbian Peru, bricks and drainpipes made by the ancient Sumerians. wooden drums from cen­tral Africa. and images of Buddha made in 20th century Japan. As this list implies, the artifacts are of inter­est for many reasons. A few are great works of art, assuming import­ance because of their aesthetic quali­ties. All are of value as tangible records of human history and achievement: they help to document the development of technology, of social and economic systems, and of belief systems. The full significance of each object can be understood, however, only if it has a context. This context is provided by anthropological and archaeologi­cal research that relates an artifact’s manufacture, use, and meaning to the society that produced it.

In the case of ethnographic mater­ials, such records are in the form of interviews, diaries and notes of observers, historical documents, drawings, photographs, and video­tapes. When the ethnographic record is relatively complete, the cultural context of artifacts may be obvious. For example, the ethnographic sources for the objects in the Museum’s newest exhibition, “Raven’s Journey,” are unusually rich. Within the exhibit, these arti­facts from Alaska can be looked at in two different ways: as superb pieces of craftsmanship they van he appreciated in themselves; through photographs and labels, they can be understood as pieces of equipment being used by the Indians and Eskimos who created them.

The Raven rattle in context. In this photograph of three men taken in front of their clan house around 1900, the rattle is held by the man in the middle as one of the symbols of his chiefly rank. (Vincent Soboleff Collection, Alaska State Library [neg. PCA 1-19])
In the case of archaeological materials, two steps are needed to supply a meaningful cultural con­text. An initial record of associated materials is obtained during excava­tion in the form of field notes, photos, and scale drawings. Au artifact is thereby placed in context within the “site”: its relationship to other artifacts, debris, architectural remains, and any other features, such as hearths or pits, is defined. The second step, the reconstruction of cultural context, relies on prin­ciples derived primarily from anthro­pology but also from other social and natural sciences. These prin­ciples specify the relationship between characteristics of the arti­fact (e.g. form, use, archaeological context) and patterns of human behavior. Understanding the function and meaning, of archaeologically recovered artifacts may be relatively simple. For example, the presence of an iron spear next to the body of a child in a city destroyed in warfare communicates a message to every member of modern society. With less Familiar kinds of artifacts, how­ever, interpretation may w difficult. Archaeologists studying our remote ancestors disagree as to whether it is even possible to know the way in which specific kinds of stone tools were used.

In each of the articles in this and the next issue of Expedition, the author describes an artifact (or group of related artifacts) from the Museum’s collections, traces its history, mid discusses its role in the society that created it. They. serve to remind us that a museum consists not only of inanimate objects and the building that houses them, but also of the scholars who bring the artifacts and their documentation together to interpret them. thereby making them meaningful to you, the visitor.

Robert H. Dyson, Jr.

Cite This Article

Jr., Robert H. Dyson,. "Introduction – Winter 1986." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 3 (November, 1986): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to