Meet MMM: Trish Biers — Mors Mortis Museum

More about Mors Mortis Museum this week! Read more about my amazing co-conspirator in all things death, museums, and human remains – Dr. Trish Biers!

I remember the night so vividly, my father and I stood behind a burgundy velvet rope waiting to go into the cinema. I didn’t know what to expect, it was quite a grown-up movie for me and the excitement around opening night was a big deal for a little girl. Seeing Raiders of the Lost […]

via Meet MMM: Trish Biers — Mors Mortis Museum

Pseudoarchaeology and History in Media: The Danger of Inaccuracy in Pop Culture — CCU Public History Fall 2018

This is part of a series of re-posts of student blogs from Coastal Carolina University’s Intro to Public History course in Fall 2018. Please visit the class website, https://ccupublichistory18.wordpress.com, for more information. 

By Sydney James

Channels such as the Travel Channel and the History Channel are notorious for creating shows that appear to be historical in nature, but are often filled with inaccuracies for the purpose of raising public interest and viewer counts. These shows include some form of historical or archaeological background, an amateur “expert” in the field, a celebrity for show, and a whole lot of wild speculation. For good measure, some wandering through the woods or crawling through “undiscovered” tunnels is included. Magic or aliens are probably mentioned somewhere as well. (For more laughable but infuriating examples, give@DSAArchaeologya follow on Twitter – he talks about this quite a bit!)

This, of course, raises an important question: why are television shows so insistent on spinning archaeological and historical fact into wildly inaccurate tales? Is it because archaeology or history are not interesting enough on their own (obviously false)? Could it be that people are skeptical when it comes to believing in science and reason? Were ancient civilizations really incapable of creating megalithic structures without the help of extraterrestrial beings (probably not)? Most likely, maybe these media forms find it necessary to alter the facts to gain more viewers?

Whatever the reason, pseudoarchaeology has been detrimental to how much of the general public views the history of ancient civilizations. (For these purposes, wikipedia actually provides a great definition of the term – “Pseudoarchaeology- also known as alternative archaeology, fringe archaeology, fantastic archaeology, or cult archaeology – refers to interpretations of the past from outside of the archaeological science community, which reject the accepted data gathering and analytical methods of the discipline.”)[1]Some of the more popular claims, for example, are blatantly racist. As an example, we can look at Ancient Aliens (a show on the “History” Channel). This show looks most primarily at large scale structures erected by the ancient Egyptians or Mayans, for example. The show claims that because we do not know how structures such as the pyramids were built, alien beings must have been involved in the creation of these monuments. In a recent article[2], Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond) talks more in detail about the shows racist implications, discussing how people have gone so far as to remove parts of Khufu’s pyramid in an attempt to validate their claims of alien origins.

Not only does this discount the accomplishments of these civilizations, the focus of the show on regions of minority ancestry also paints a picture that depicts ancient people of color as incompetent and incapable of applying science or mathematics to their architecture. And, as Bond points out, it is not the British that stand to lose anything in these claims – rather, it is non-European cultures that are subject to have their abilities questioned as a result.

Despite this, people continue to consume television that feeds into wild fantasies about magic, aliens, folklore, spirits, and so on. More often than not, some of these shows are based on the fears and legends that have appeared throughout time. More people believe in the extraterrestrial and paranormal than one might initially think, and feeding into those beliefs is a sure way to make profits. Of course, it is not surprising that people are fascinated by that sort of subject matter. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones are all classic examples of extremely popular stories that involve fantasy to capture and mesmerize an audience. The issue here is not with fantasy itself – on its own, fantasy can be an excellent break from reality. The issue is when these beliefs are spun into historical and archaeological fact, where the twisting of history demeans ancient civilizations and peoples and provides an unknowing public with false information – information which then spreads rapidly and becomes a regular part of public understanding.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoarchaeology

[2]Bond, S. E. (2018, November 13). Pseudoarchaeology and the Racism Behind Ancient Aliens. https://hyperallergic.com/470795/pseudoarchaeology-and-the-racism-behind-ancient-aliens/

via Pseudoarchaeology and History in Media: The Danger of Inaccuracy in Pop Culture — CCU Public History Fall 2018

Leicester and Richard III

Saturday began our last full day in England, and we caught the train to Leicester on the way back to London so I could see my favorite monarch of English/British history: Richard III. If you follow my Instagram you may have seen my epic r3 Halloween costume, and if you’re on Twitter, you’ll know fake r3chard has retweeted me like 3 times now. We’re basically best internet friends.

Mom and I got into Leicester and decided to try to find a place to leave our luggage. If anyone is looking for a lucrative business to open: start a found luggage in Leicester. We carried our giant bags all over the town with no luck. The Visitors Center couldn’t help us; the museum couldn’t store bags for insurance reasons (fair). We had already bought our tickets, I was tired and hangry, and nothing was going our way. My mom, saint that she is, decided to hole up in a café with tea and cake and babysit our bags while I went to the museum. Not ideal, but at least I got to see what there was to see.

The Richard III Visitor Center is built around the archaeological site where in 2012, archaeologists found the remains of the last Plantagenet. The archaeological story itself is fascinating, because it is not at all usual for an archaeological investigation to find exactly what it is looking for on the first try; but that’s just what happened in this case. There is a Smithsonian documentary all about the discovery available on YouTube here.

The visitor begins in a display about the history of the War of the Roses, family lines, and the reasons for the turmoil that surrounded Richard III’s reign. From there, you travel through the War of the Roses, RIII’s short reign, and his burial at Grey Friar’s Priory. Heading upstairs, visitors encounter a display that discusses the portrayals of Richard as a villain throughout popular culture, from Shakespeare to the recent Benedict Cumberbatch portrayal.

Next, the display walks the visitor through the entire story of the dig from its beginning through to the discovery and analysis of the Richard’s remains. This was great! The timeline included artifacts from the dig, video interviews with the archaeologists and others involved in the venture, and diagrams. The exhibit then represents scientists’ analysis of Richard’s bones through medical testing and forensic recreations. One controversy was that of Richard’s scoliosis; many proponents of R3 have relegated the story of the hunchback king to a tale made up by Shakespeare and other detractors to vilify and lessen the monarch in some way.  When the skeleton was uncovered, it was obvious that the scoliosis was a fact after all.

The visitor center experience ends with a visit to the site where the bones were found in the parking lot that used to house the church. The websitedescribes it as, “the site of King Richard’s burial, preserved in a quiet, respectful setting and with a contemplative atmosphere, fitting for the last resting place of a slain warrior and anointed monarch.” The room is quiet and simple, and a hologram shows where the bones were found within the unit. The volunteer in the room when I visited was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, pointing out features in the dig that helped to date the remains.

Across the courtyard from the visitor center stand Leicester Cathedral, where the remains of Richard are interred. The church also has a display about Richard and his discovery and subsequent reburial (and a giftshop, too!).

Behind the church another gem is hidden: The Guildhouse. This is a medieval timbered building dating back to 1390 in its oldest part. The architecture and features throughout are gorgeous, from the soaring timbered ceiling to the mantels to the upstairs library. The site is also supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Britain, as the helpful museum employee told me as I walked through the building on my own. I managed to scare myself nearly to death when I looked into an old jail cell and saw a mannequin in the darkness.

Through hordes of football fans on their way to a match, we made our way back to the train station and headed back to London, content with our few days in Yorkshire and our day in Leciester. We were back to London for one more night, a classy McDonald’s dinner, and a trip to the Sainsbury for a literal duffel bag full of candies and presents (yet I still managed to forget a can of treacle). Mom and I made it back to South Carolina with no issues, and are already planning our next trip together!

Café In the Crypt and The Roman Dead @ Museum of London: Docklands

IMG_20180904_133032_729From the British Museum, mom and I headed back to Trafalgar Square to finally visit the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin’s in the Field. I previously visited the café on my New Years trip to London and loved it. The café is located, as the name implies, in the old crypt of the church. The space and all of its associations truly deserve a blog all their own on death tourism and dark histories. Tables are located on top of grave stones and the crypt is surrounded by memento mori and memorial stones. Income from the café helps fund preservation and outreach programs at the church. When I told my students about this café, they were horrified at the thought of eating on graves and saw it as disrespectful, yet they were all about some ghost tours… as I said, lots more for another blog. All in all, the cafe made a mean scone and pot of tea, and the cakes looked to die for (lol see what I did there?).20180904_151621

We ubered on over to the East Side of London, which I was visiting for the first time, to the Museum of London: Docklands to see the Roman Dead exhibit that I had been looking forward to for months. The museum is located in the industrialized docks of the East End on Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. The landscape is an interesting mix of industrial, commercial, and new sleek business buildings along the high-tech docks.  As a huge fan of Call the Midwife, set in this area of London, it was a bit shocking to see modern Poplar compared to 1950s and 1960s Poplar of the TV show.

DSC03390~2Our welcome at the museum was superb, and the FOH staff member we spoke with was a graduate of UNC, just a few hours from home; small world! We first went to see the Roman Dead exhibit before exploring the rest of this excellent museum. According to their website,  “Last year, a Roman sarcophagus was found near to Harper Road in Southwark. What does this unique find tells us about the ancient city that 8 million people now call home? We’ve displayed the sarcophagus alongside the skeletons and cremated remains of 28 Roman Londoners found during archaeological excavations of ancient cemeteries. The exhibition also features over 200 objects from burials in Roman London, exploring how people dealt with death in Londinium. Many items were brought here from across the Empire, showing the extent of London’s international connections, even at this early time in its history.”DSC03401~2

The exhibit also, “uses these grave goods and the results of scientific analysis of ancient Londoners’ skeletons to explore who Roman Londoners were, and show the surprising diversity of the ancient city.”One of the coolest aspects is an online interactive display available here: “Take a closer look at the exhibition’s most fascinating objects by exploring our interactive display.”

DSC03405~2I loved this exhibit. From the warning at the beginning about he display of human remains, to the treatment and interpretation of remains and funerary objects including cremated remains, full skeletons, childrens’ remains, and even animal and pet remains.

One of the best parts was the diversity (sex , age, and race/ethnicity) of these skeletons, all found in London from the Roman periods of history.   The museum did a great job of connecting the diverse history of London to its current status as one of the most diverse cities in Europe. Additionally, the connection between people 2000 years ago to modern people was presented with ease; people cared about their pets as family members, were sometimes buried with treasured belongings, and worried about the afterlife and what comes next, in many of the same ways that people do today.

DSC03393~2Soft lighting, quiet space, and layout of the exhibit seemed respectful and somber as was fitting for a room full of human remains. The interpretation of these people and their funerary objects, as well as the context of Roman Britain was explained well through text panels and multimedia displays. While I was in the exhibit, several families with children came through, and the children all seemed very engaged by the video, and also the remains themselves.

There were interactives, multimedia, opportunities to find more information, and all the things that make a modern museum exhibit great. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I’m only sad to report that it closed in October of 2018.

DSC03411After some time spent with the dead Romans, I had some time to visit the rest of the Docklands museum to learn the history of the area and people of the East End. This museum is awesome. Not only is it housed in a historic building that shows the connection of the location to industry and the local communities, but they have some very progressive interpretation (especially on colonialism and a surprisingly critical view of the UK’s role in the slave trade) and great interactive opportunities.

20180904_155650One of my favorite parts was the hamster-wheel like recreation of a pulley system from ye olde dockland days (see the photo my mom captured here), and the recreation of a London dock street, “Sailortown” was way too much fun. There were also myriad opportunities for children to play and learn throughout the museum from dress-up corners, to a mining set-up, and interactive recreated living spaces from throughout the decades. I started to get museum fatigue towards the end of our visit, but I really plan to make it back here for another visit on my next trip to London (and the regular Museum of London, too!). From the museum, mom and I headed back to Covent Garden where we ended the night with the traditional cheeky Nandos chicken and British television.

Next: Platform 9 ¾, York, York’s Chocolate Story, and more!

Fall 2017 Student Blogs: REARC

This is the second in a series of Tuesday re-blogs of my student work from our HIST395 course. Please enjoy these blogs written by Coastal Carolina University students.

This blog is by student Tori Peck about the student trip to REARC in Williamsburg. 

By Tori Peck Earlier this month I attended the academic conference called REARC at Colonial Williamsburg, VA. It was about Reconstructive and experimental archaeology. It was a two day conference consisting of two parts. Friday was the formal lecture day where presenters gave presentations on the work they have been doing in the experimental/reconstructive archeological […]

via REARC Conference — Journey into Public History

The British Museum: Elgin Marbles, Cabinet of Curiosities, and Overwhelming Spaces

British Museum front facade

British Museum front facade

On the best day in London ever, I had a chance to visit the British Museum, which was a dream come true.  For years, I’ve read about the museum, longed to see the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone, and I even used the museum in my dissertation as an example of the old paradigm of museums.

Old paradigm, indeed.

1553456_10101541567733085_1306608807_o

In the entryway

I’ve recently come to realize that I just don’t love huge museums.  I didn’t really like the Met, I really didn’t like the Tate (next blog coming soon), and the Natural History Museum in NYC was just ok for me.  Why is this?  I’m a museum person! I’m still thinking it all out, but I think it might have to do with the exhaustion of vacation, the sheer size of the places, my feeling that I NEED to see everything, and the amount of people there.  Also, they seem like spaces for rich, old, white people most of the time.  It’s kind of like that feeling I get sometimes at big parties, where I’d rather talk to the wait staff.  Maybe I’ve just built them up so big for so many years that they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype in my mind.

Regardless, the British Museum was still impressive, and again, the Day of the Feels continued.

We walked up Drury Lane to Museum Lane, and rounded the corner to find the great British Museum.  I got really excited about what was going to come next – I mean, this is THE place!  Home of the Rosetta Stone, countless Egyptian and Middle Eastern artifacts, and bane of every museum professionals’ ethical and reasoning mind powers – the Elgin Marbles.  I had a bit of the vapors as we went in, saw the entrance, and walked through some of the Egyptian rooms – but the real feels didn’t come until…

EMOTIONS!

EMOTIONS!

We got to the room filled with the Elgin Marbles.  They were huge, and beautiful, and amazing… and I was so sad that here they were in the middle of London, instead of in Greece still on the Parthenon.  Of course, there are many pros and cons to this situation, which is why its a perfect Museums Studies class discussion.  But the current ethnic Greeks aren’t the same ones who are there now – but the Turks sold them to that British guy – but otherwise they would be destroyed – but but but – I really can’t decide what is right or wrong in this case.  All of that aside, they were astounding to see.

Elgin Marbles!

Elgin Marbles!

Charles dragged me along, I saw the Rosetta Stone and felt/got felt by a ton of people trying to do the same thing, and the rest of the museum is kind of a blur.  I remember seeing some goat mosaics, and the large library-esque room.

I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.

I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.

The British Museum also seemed a bit, like most huge museums, to be a Cabinet of Curiosities gone wild.  There is a hodge-podge of  anything and everything there.  Some of it was thrilling to see, and some of it seemed to be a testament to colonial conquests.

We saw all the things and stuff,  as you can see in the pictures below, but by the time we got to the more modern exhibit of watches and timepieces, I grabbed a small stool and sat in a hall while Charles explored some more.

Final thoughts – I am an expert spotter of goats, both in the wild, and especially in museums.

Also, I can’t decide if I have memory fatigue from that day because of the sheer size of the collection and space, or if it was because of the reasons raised in this fantastic article on the Huffington Post called “Why Taking Photos At Museums Is Hindering Your Memory. “When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences,” Henkel explains in a description of the study.”

It was nice to get back into the fresh air as we walked on to the Richard II performance.  I’m still processing the whole visit to the British Museum, but I wouldn’t say I DIDN’T like it.  It was just a little overwhelming.  I also can’t say I’d particularly want to go back to it, either.

Hopefully someday, I’ll think some more about the visit and update this blog with more thoughts and feels…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Katie’s Khronicles: A News Roundup: 3/30/13 – 4/7/13

I’m going to start a regular Sunday feature on this blog that will collect some of the news around the inter webs related to current events in: history, museums, public history, historic preservation, and other similar topics.   Sometimes there might even be the occasional goat or popular culture reference.

Slide1

Here is the first attempt at a news round-up, but please let me know if you have any suggestions or heard anything else exciting, scary, weird, or awesome during the week!  Also, if you know of any website feeds with similar information, let me know.

Museums Join U.S. Tribe to Oppose Paris Artifact Sale” from Naharnet.com — Kachina spirit figures are fundamental to the faith and heritage of the more than 18,000 members of the federally recognized Hopi tribe who mainly live in northeastern Arizona.  A French auction house says “it will be putting 70 kachina visages — mask-like representations of spirit characters used in Hopi ceremonies — on the block. One of them is valued as high as 50,000 euros (more than $64,000). Robert Bruenig, director of the Museum of Northern Arizona, appealed for the objects’ return to Arizona, in an open letter to the auctioneers posted on the Flagstaff institution’s Facebook page.  He said, “For them, katsina friends are living beings. … To be displayed disembodied in your catalog, and on the Internet, is sacrilegious and offensive.”

Image from Landmark Society of Western New York

Image from Landmark Society of Western New York

April Fools’ Tour at Stone-Tolan” from Landmark Society of Western New York — Now this sounds like fun!! This historic site has special tours for April Fool’s day.  Their website says, “For one day only, The Stone-Tolan House Historic Site will once again be forced to suffer the indignities of sushi, lava lamps, and a number of other inappropriate items on display in its venerable rooms.  On Saturday April 6th come to Stone-Tolan, and see what you can find that is out of place in the tavern room, kitchen, parlor bedroom, hallway and pantry. Some may be obvious – like the sushi. Others will be a bit more challenging (hint: what is the date on that coin?) There will be prizes!”  This sounds like a fun way to get new visitors out to a site for something new.

University Museum at SF State preserves ancient artifacts” by Nena H. Farrell for the Golden Gate Xpress — Two of my favorite things: ancient stuff and museums.  The San Francisco State University Museum has the only mummy in the Bay area, and students were behind this exhibit on campus.  The article says, “Tucked away on the fifth floor of the Humanities Building is the University Museum. Students from various classes put together the museum exhibits, oversee volunteers and field trips, catalog objects and take on other tasks that maintain the museum.  The whole operation is run completely by students, under the direction of the museum studies faculty.  The current exhibit in the museum is called “Fearless Women Voyagers: Women Who Challenged the Middle East, 1870-1940.” The exhibit, put together by the museum curatorship class in the fall, was created with the help of Linda Ellis, curator of the museum.”

A digital illustration shows the ancient Plutonium, celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology. From: FRANCESCO D'ANDRIA, Discovery News

A digital illustration shows the ancient Plutonium, celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology. From: FRANCESCO D’ANDRIA, Discovery News

Pluto’s Gate Uncovered in Turkey” by ROSSELLA LORENZI for Discovery News — A “gate to hell” has been found, and surprising to all MTSU students, it wasn’t in Peck Hall.  “Known as Pluto’s Gate — Ploutonion in Greek, Plutonium in Latin — the cave was celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology and tradition. Historic sources located the site in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, now called Pamukkale, and described the opening as filled with lethal mephitic vapors.”  According to the Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BC — about 24 AD): “This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.” Early tourism was even at work at the site: “According to the archaeologist, there was a sort of touristic organization at the site. Small birds were given to pilgrims to test the deadly effects of the cave, while hallucinated priests sacrificed bulls to Pluto.”

What interesting news did you read in the past week?

What can you learn from watching History’s “Ancient Aliens”?

I often wondered about this very question while watching this show (before I gave up watching because it almost gave me a stroke to watch it).  I decided to assign my students in World Civilizations 1 a homework assignment revolving around this very question.

The assignment was basically this:

Watch an episode of Ancient Aliens either on the History Channel or online. ***Be sure to watch an episode that is about ANCIENT aliens (despite their name, they have had shows on about the American Founding Fathers and the Third Reich). I would prefer you watch something from Season 1

1. Choose three claims or ideas that are presented in the show.

2. Using critical thinking and deductive reasoning, and some research if needed, come up with an explanation for these claims using historical sources and what you have learned in class or from the book about ancient civilizations.  CITE YOUR SOURCES!

3. What things did we talk about in class that are also discussed in this show?

4. Do you think this show fairly represents history?

5. Why do you think the history channel would show this?

6. Is this a show about history?

7. Who are the “experts” that present the evidence, and what are their backgrounds?

8. What are alternate explanations to theories presented in this show?

9. What is your opinion of this show? (Honesty is fine, as always!)

I hoped that this would help spark some ideas about questioning sources, thinking both critically and historically, and questioning bias and motives that are always present in historians and all people.

I was pleased to get plenty of well thought out and reasoned papers!

Students brought up ideas such as:

–          Maybe the “radioactive bones” at Mohenjo-Daro were exposed to the sun for a prolonged period of time.

–          Even if there are aliens, why do we give them credit for everything?

–          We can’t assume aliens exist from something like a cave drawing that is similar to another one on the other side of the world.

–          Aliens didn’t build massive structures for us – today we are too lazy to imagine something like that being possible.  Instead the ingenuity of ancient man isn’t given enough credit.

–          The show is just an opinionated crazy idea that the History Channel shows to make money and get more viewers.

–          Just because a god or spirit is shown in a different way than we think they may have looked doesn’t mean it was an alien – that’s just how followers depicted them

–          More time is spent on the ancient astronaut theorists’ ideas than those with historical research backgrounds – this shows an obvious bias.

–          People looking for alien evidence are not objective and are just trying to find the most simple explanation without using their brains.

–          Why is it so hard for us to give ancient ancestors credit for what they accomplished? This insults those ancient people and also people today.

Today we had a follow-up discussion about the assignment, and we talked about what they got out of the assignment and I also shared with them what I hoped they learned.

We talked about art and artistic representations of people.  Several students wrote about the artistic and physical representations of Akhenaten and Tutankamun.  Ancient Aliens claims that the reasoning behind this is that they were aliens.  Obviously.  We argued

Alien or artistic representation?

instead that oftentimes art is just that – a person’s own visualization of what they think.  A great modern example is Francis Bacon’s representation shown here.  Might someone in the future think that there was a person who looked like that?  Will they immediately come to the conclusion of “alien?”

Additionally, we discussed the idealization in art that is sometimes used.  Almost everyone recognizes the golden mummy mask of Tutankamun, but did he really look like?  He certainly wasn’t gold, and his features are more of a uniform look used to show Egyptian Pharaohs throughout much of the New Kingdom.   In reality, his mummy shows that he had protruding teeth, a slight cleft palate, and a slightly elongated skull.

Perhaps most importantly we discussed the idea of questioning sources and biases.  Throughout Ancient Aliens many “experts” are interviewed.  The name card graphic tells their name and part of their credentials, such as author or Ph.D.  Some of my students went the extra mile to actually look up these people, their curriculum vitaes, and their personal websites (without using Wikipedia!!!).  Most pleasing to me was the student who looked up Giorgio Tsoukalos (http://legendarytimes.com/giorgio ).  This website claims that he is the world’s leading Ancient Astronaut theory expert.  Exactly what does this mean?  Wouldn’t you think that someone who makes a living talking about ANCIENT history would have at least a minimal background in history to have the proper context to discuss this?  One would think.  Tsoukalos DOES have a college degree – in Sports Management. His website also explains, “Until 2005, Tsoukalos also functioned as a professional bodybuilding promoter; for 6 consecutive years he promoted, produced and directed the IFBB San Francisco Pro Grand Prix, an annual cornerstone event in professional bodybuilding.”  Additionally, “Giorgio enjoys a good and relaxed sit-down meal with friends, weight lifting, listening to motion picture scores, classic jazz standards, classical opera, sailing, going to the beach and the movies, and hanging out at the Legendary Times Clubhouse in Southern California” and “ 2 more things: (1) Giorgio loves listening to talk radio. Both at home, the office and in his car. Please don’t ask him to turn it off. Ever. (2) Giorgio loves to sit front and center at the movie theater (5th or 6th row). Movies are meant to be seen like this, that’s why they are shown on the silver screen first. If you want to sit in the back of the movie theater, go right ahead, but you’ll both watch the movie alone cuz’ he won’t join you in the back, and you might as well just wait until the movie comes out on DVD so you can watch it on TV.”  No further comment needed.

Additionally, a student astutely pointed out that this show DOES have some historians that appear – to give historical context and explain various stories and historical happenings.  The way this show is edited almost makes it seem that those actual historians agree with the “ancient astronaut theorists.”  Whether or not they DO agree is never addressed, but tricky editing gives that appearance.

Everyone should understand: you don’t have to have a PhD to be an expert.  Conversely, having a PhD doesn’t necessarily make you an expert.   Is a person with a PhD in 19th century American Literature necessarily an expert on chemical reactions?

OBVIOUSLY aliens are the explanation.

Another great product of this assignment was that I got my students to think critically.  Rather than just saying, “I don’t know – therefore, aliens” they started to think back to lecture and things they have read in their books to come up with other explanations than just aliens.  They also did some outside research to find out what historians think about such “mysterious” things as the building pyramids or moving huge stones for monuments.

I was pleased that many of my students were highly offended by the show’s idea that ancestors were too stupid or incapable of doing great things.  My lectures and enthusiasm for ancient and classical peoples and their abilities seems to have rubbed off on them.  Rather than giving credit to outside extraterrestrials, my students gave explanations that included our ancestor’s ingenuity and ability.

An expert on Ancient Aliens

Lastly, we discussed the dangers of talking in absolutes.  Many times the “experts” say words like “obviously” or “of course” without hard evidence.  Even historians may not have the absolute facts or evidence, but many times they say “possibly” or “maybe” – not fact – in those situations.  We may not know either way, but using absolutes can lead to the wrong impression.

Several people have alerted me to the South Park episode about the History Channel.  It is available to watch online at: http://www.tv-links.eu/tv-shows/South-Park_8958/season_15/episode_13/.  The synopsis is: “After watching a Thanksgiving special on The History Channel, the boys believe that aliens were involved in the original feast. But, questions remain… was the first Thanksgiving haunted? Is alien technology responsible for stuffing? The truth could change Thanksgiving for everyone.”  I personally can’t wait to watch it, and I’m glad the show’s creators are tackling this issue as well, on a level that many people may understand.  Have you seen this episode?  If so, what did you think?

Whether or not you believe in aliens is beside the point.  Why can’t we give ancient people credit for the things they did?

Now you, the reader.  I would love for you to try this assignment yourself!  I want to get more feedback from people about this show, sources, “experts”, etc.  Have you done a similar assignment in your classroom?  What do YOU think about the show?

E-Interview with the authors of Dawn Country

I just received this email from the Gears with the answers to questions I sent about their book and writing.  I will hopefully be posting about TAM and how awesome it was soon, but for now enjoy the tweets I sent and be sure to follow TnMuseums on twitter!

1. What kind of connections do you see between your popular historical fiction writing and public history/archaeology?

The two are interconnected by their very nature. That’s why we have a bibliography in the back of the novel. We’re making the best interpretation that professional anthropologists can given current data.  Keep in mind that we are anthropologists and archaeologists.  We are presenting a paper at the Society for American Archaeology and hosting a forum session at this year’s meetings in Sacramento on this very subject.  We expect the novels we write to be subjected to peer review, and we base all of our interpretations of the events, cultures, and behaviors upon the archaeological and historical records.

Why?

Educating the public about America’s prehistoric peoples is our main goal, but we strive to entertain at the same time.   So, we are very pleased that many of our books are used in college courses ranging from archaeology, history, and literature, to philosophy courses.  They’re also kept in stock at a variety of national and state parks across the country. All Americans are the cultural inheritors of American Indian ideals of democracy, referendum and recall, one person one vote, and even the notion of confederation.  The tragedy is that despite this, less than 5% can tell you that Cahokia, Illinois, was the largest urban center in North America prior to European contact. Only a handful know that Poverty Point was the first city in what would become the United States. (It was built 3500 years ago in northern Louisiana and flourished for over two hundred years.)  As a nation we’re vastly ignorant of the origins of American democratic principles–let alone the nations, cultures, and societies that flourished here.

2. What inspired you to tell the stories of these people, and how does historical archaeology assist that process?

The formation of the League of the Iroquois was our inspiration.  It fascinated us that a little-known peace movement in fifteenth century North America could shape what would later become known as “The Free World,” and change the course of world history.  Dekanawida, Hiyawento, and Jigonsaseh, the heroes of the League, established a democratic system of government that sought to maximize individual freedoms, and to minimize governmental interference in people’s lives.  They accepted as fact the equality of men and women, championed tolerance, provided for referendum and recall, assured the common good by allowing every person’s voice to be heard.  None of these principles were part of the European way of life, but no European who heard them could deny their power.  The League heavily influenced America’s founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

While historical archaeology plays a small part–mostly through comparative processes–in understanding what happened in the 1400s, we rely more on prehistorical archaeology.  Keep in mind, “historical” refers to a period with written records.  Prehistoric time occurs before written records came into existence.  There are no written records of the Iroquois from the 1400s, so we use three techniques to frame the plot:  the prehistoric archaeological record, Iroquoian oral history, and ethnographic analogy.  All of these things tell us that the warfare in the 1400s was intense.   As we explain in our non-fiction introduction to THE DAWN COUNTRY, the archaeological record contains evidence of cannibalism and extreme brutality; mutilated bodies, crushed skulls, burned villages.  Because of that, this is a war story.  But it is also the story of three brave people’s struggle for peace.

3. Are you familiar with Janet Spector’s “What this awl means”, and if so, what connections can you make between her work and your own?

Yes, that’s a wonderful book.  What Janet Spector tries to do is to incorporate native perspectives and voices into her interpretations of the past, and we try to do the same thing.  That’s why we weave native oral history into our plots.  Many archaeologists would frown upon it, because obviously oral history isn’t “fact.”  Nonetheless, we’ve discovered that oral history can be very informative in helping us to understand the archaeological record.

Keep in mind that archaeology isn’t just bits of old broken pots, chipped stones, and burned bone. Those provide a fraction of the information we can garner about long lost cultures.  The true focus of anthropology and archaeology is people: human beings just like us.  They lived, loved, fought, cried, and died.  Many, though not all, of their concerns were the same as ours:  Will my children grow and be healthy?  Can I keep a roof over my head?  Is grandma’s illness curable?  Will my husband who is out traveling make it home safely?  Can I provide for my family?  Will our enemies attack us again soon?  Will this drought end in time that we can save our corn crop?  What we are able to do in a novel is make those people, places, cultures, and environments come alive in a way that simply cannot happen in nonfiction.

Thanks for the great questions, Katie.  It’s been a pleasure.

Michael and Kathleen Gear

Book Review Next Week: The Dawn Country by Kathleen O’Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear

Last week I was approached to be a part of a blog tour for a new book: The Dawn Country by Kathleen O’Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear.   The book is in the mail, so I will write the review next week.  I’ve also had e-interview access with the authors, so next week I should have answers to questions such as:

  1. What kind of connections do you see between your popular historical fiction writing and public history/archaeology?
  2. Are you familiar with Janet Spector’s “What this awl means”, and if so, what connections can you make between her work and your own? (as related to class discussion a few weeks ago in Material Cultures seminar)
  3. What inspired you to tell the stories of these people, and how does historical archaeology assist that process?

The publishers sent me the following information about the book and authors:

ABOUT THE BOOK:

The Dawn Country is the Gears’ 50th published novel, and the first North American series hit international as well as the USA Today bestseller lists.

PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE series is about the first Iroquois confederacy and the legendary heroes who founded it, the Peacemaker, Dekanawida, his friend, Hiawento, and the “Mother of Nations,” Jigonsaseh.  Set between the years of A.D. 1430-1451, this epic tale takes readers to New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Ontario six hundred years ago, when five Iroquois tribes were locked in bitter warfare. Yet the violence led to one of the most remarkable alliances in the history of America, the League of the Iroquois: a confederacy of five nations whose ideas on government would literally change the world.

In The Dawn Country, set around the year 1430 during a time of violent upheaval, Young Wrass is being held captive, along with several other children, in the legendary evil Gannajero the Crow’s camp. Gannajero profits enormously by buying and selling children to outcast warriors who subject them to brutal treatment.  Wrass knows he can’t wait to be rescued. He has to organize the children for an assault on Gannajero’s warriors.  Even if he dies, someone has to escape, to carry the story back to their people. It’s the only way to stop the evil old woman.

But Koracoo, a female war chief, and Gonda, her husband and deputy, have not abandoned their search.  They’re coming for the children, and they have allies: a battle-weary Mohawk war chief and a Healer from the People of the Dawnland.  Together, they will find the children and destroy Gannajero. But not before many of the children have been sold and carried off to distant villages— lost to their families and homes forever.

Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear have successfully provided a vital understanding of the history of North America with the latest archaeological findings and sweeping dramatic narratives and strong Native American tradition. Filled with fascinating details about ancient customs mixed  with adventure, spine-tingling action, and spiritual power that is entertaining and intelligent, The Dawn Country will gratify dedicated fans and appeal to newcomers of the series.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

W. MICHAEL GEAR, who holds a master’s degree in archaeology, has worked as a professional archaeologist since 1978. He is currently principal investigator for Wind River Archaeological Consultants.

KATHLEEN O’NEAL GEAR is a former state historian and archaeologist for Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska for the U.S. Department of the Interior. She has twice received the federal government’s Special Achievement Award for “outstanding management” of our nation’s cultural heritage.

For more, visit: www.gear-gear.com.

** Now for the fun part!!  Comment on this post with any thoughts you have on popular history or historical fiction and how it relates to public history for your chance to win a copy of The Dawn Country.  I’ll choose and announce the winners some time next week.