In the Education Building at the 2004 Minnesota State Fair, you could pick up a cardboard fan with George Washington’s face, a detail from the 1796 Gilbert Stuart portrait normally housed in Washington D.C. but then on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the perfect object to use on the first day of the introductory course on archaeology that I teach every fall semester at the University of Minnesota. Just one week later I stood in front of 100 students, waved that fan, and asked: As an archaeologist 2000 years in the future, what would you make of this?
I had to provoke them into talking. “Will you conclude that he was a god, worshipped by this society? Will the attached stick suggest that he was an object of ridicule?” I asked students to generate five interpretations, wrote their ideas on the board and then asked the pay-off question: What do you need to know in order to decide between these ideas?
They needed to know where else such pictures on a stick have been found, when this one was made, if the picture is an original or else what it was based on, and what cardboard is used for. They needed to know the date of the original image and the much later date of the object itself, the location of the original’s home museum, the year in which the portrait went travelling (one year before a presidential election, during a global conflict), and the sort of event the Fair is (traditional, communal celebration of the state’s agricultural economy). By the time they considered all of these factors, that paper fan looked less like a throw-away object and more like a cultural artifact: archaeology in a nutshell.
I teach in the College of Liberal Arts, and like many of my colleagues there, I want students in my classes to learn two big things: how to learn and why a subject matters. I hope they come to see that archaeology is not about treasure hunting but instead about understanding people, societies, and cultures via their material remains – small, casual remains as well as monuments. Learning to “read” objects and buildings is as critical as reading texts, because we cannot understand people by their words alone, whether today or two thousand years ago.
I’ve used that paper fan every fall for the past five years. It always does its job, which is to convince students that even small physical remains have a big story to tell us – if they are recovered in their original context so that all the other questions about them can be answered. About halfway through the course, I bring the fan out again. By this point in the semester, students have learned about Greek vases and Roman sculptures, honest-to-goodness archaeological remains. The fan now looks like a throw-away object again – a casual, and very new, item.
After revisiting the questions we needed answers to in order to understand the fan, I show pictures of other casual items – a drinking cup, a clay figurine, a receipt – all available for immediate purchase on eBay. The hitch? Each is over 2000 years old, was acquired by somebody illicitly digging around an archaeological site, and therefore comes without any of the context necessary to answer any other questions about them. I ask: Would you buy this?
Debate is heated and often without consensus. After all, we live in a country in which personal property rights are enshrined in the Constitution. And today, the past is up for grabs as never before. To its traditional caretakers – archaeologists, historians, and museum curators – add dealers and collectors, native cultures, religious groups, and patrimony-seeking political leaders. How to assess and adjudicate their competing claims?
One day wasn’t enough for a subject this large. So a new class was born: Who Owns the Past? Archaeology, Ethics, and Laws. I taught it for the first time this past fall, in conjunction with Professor Stephen Cribari, of the University’s Law School. On the first day of class, we asked the eBay question: Would you buy this? Why or why not? Most students said they would. A few said no but could not explain their stance. Over the course of the semester, we read, debated, read, pondered, read, discussed, read, argued, and read some more. In their final papers, they had to answer the question posed by the title of the course. Here are three of their answers.
It’s a buyers’ market: Transforming an intangible concept to a saleable item by Ameera Elrasheedy
Breaking the idols: Reconstructing the future by Paul Benjamin Cherlin
What is looting? by Kate Larson
Professor Andrea Berlin is the Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Archaeology at the University of Minnesota.