Category Archives: Archaeology

Two items of note from here in Tennessee

Eight Tennessee sites have joined the National Register of Historic Places, including Crockett Tavern in Morristown, just down the road from my hometown.  Davy Crockett’s family moved to the site when the famous frontiersman was still a boy.  The present structure is a replica built in the 1950s, during the Crockett craze whipped up by the Disney series.

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t been there yet, but I’m going this year, as soon as they re-open for the spring.  It’s not that uncommon for history buffs to spend years driving all over the country to visit sites and let the ones in their own backyards fall through the cracks, but the fact that I’ve gone this long without crossing Crockett Tavern off my bucket list is downright scandalous.

Also, the East Tennessee Historical Society is hosting a Brown Bag Lecture on Jan. 16 at noon about an interesting archaeological site in downtown Knoxville: the home of Peter Kern, a remarkable guy who turned a run of bad luck into a fortune in the food business.  Kern was a German immigrant who settled in Georgia and signed up to fight for the Confederacy.  Wounded in Virginia, he went back home to recover.  While returning to the front by train, he ended up in Knoxville just as the city fell into Union hands.  Stuck in town for the duration of the war, he made the most of his situation and established a bakery and ice cream parlor.  Kern’s bread business was quite a success (you can still buy baked goods with the Kern’s label here in East Tennessee) and he stayed in Knoxville, running successfully for mayor in 1890.

So on behalf of my fellow East Tennesseans to whichever Yankee soldier managed to knock Kern out of the action—thanks for all the awesome sandwiches.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

A slave cemetery study and a TSM exhibit

Next year the Tennessee State Museum is mounting an exhibit on slavery at the Wessyngton plantation, which at one point was the largest farm in the entire state and the biggest tobacco-producing plantation in the country.  Archaeologists from UT have been studying the plantation’s slave cemetery, site of some 200 burials, as part of the preparation for the exhibit.  USA Today has the details.  Looks like it’ll be an interesting display.

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Filed under Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Lunchtime lecture tomorrow on Cavett’s Station massacre

If you’re free at noon tomorrow, pack your lunch and head over to the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville for a brown bag lecture on the 1793 massacre at Cavett’s Station.  The speaker is Dr. Charles Faulkner, who’s spent years studying Tennessee archaeology.  Admission is free.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Tennessee History

“Television’s not about information at all.”

An archaeologist was kind enough to share his thoughts on the brace of new artifact-hunting TV shows.  His whole comment is worth reading (click on yesterday’s post to see the whole thing), but take note of this excerpt:

I don’t know what the answer is to balancing the need for professionalism with the desire for people to be involved and the reality that if only archaeologists dug sites, most would never get dug…but these shows are certainly not it. I’d much rather see a show where professional and avocational archaeologists and community members all worked together to both dig and interpret sites, but I guess that wouldn’t fit with the current fascination with pawn shops, storage lockers, and antiquing, where one in a thousand items will net that lucky person with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The story that can be woven from one out-of-context item is engrossing, but it’s also inherently tied to it’s rarity and economic value in these shows.…Of course, doing the actual archaeology would take a lot longer than bulldozing a backyard for a cannon. le sigh.

That sums it up pretty well, I think, it and echoes what I’ve been saying quite a bit lately—the media saturates us with “the past,” but generally does little to foster a real historical consciousness or understanding.

One of my all-time favorite authors is the late Michael Crichton.  Longtime dinosaur nut that I am, I’d probably find it hard not to be a fan of the man who brought Jurassic Park into the world, but it wasn’t until I’d been reading him for several years that I came to appreciate him as an intellectual force to be reckoned with.  Here was a guy who had modern civilization’s number.

One of his most overtly issue-driven books is Airframe, a story about an investigation into a commercial air disaster pitting an employee of a plane manufacturing company against an ambitious TV news producer.  On one level, it’s a thriller; on another, it’s an indictment of the media in this so-called Information Age.

At one point in the story, as the main character is about to be interviewed for a major investigative news program, her company dispatches a media expert to prep her for the experience.  “A lot of people complain that television lacks focus,” the expert tells her.  “But that’s the nature of the medium.  Television’s not about information at all.  Information is active, engaging.  Television is passive.  Information is disinterested, objective.  Television is emotional.  It’s entertainment.”  The reporter who will be interviewing her “has absolutely no interest in you, or your company, or your airplanes.…He wants a media moment.”  Crichton, of course, didn’t originate the practice of critiquing TV along these lines, but he made the case more powerfully and in a more articulate manner than most.

Hence the way in which TV handles the past.  The complex, detailed, and messy business of reality is not very congenial to the medium of television, but making sense of that reality is what historians, archaeologists, and scholars in related fields do.  Their work requires the assimilation of lots of complicated information and a carefully constructed presentation of their findings.  The issues with which working historians and archaeologists grapple—the need to determine what happened, why it happened, and what it all means—are not subject to the quick, neat solutions that characterize so many TV shows.

The problems with which the characters on reality shows deal, by contrast, are generally pretty simple and straightforward.  Some guy has brought an old musket into my pawn shop, and I need to know what it is and how much it’s worth.  This is the stuff of “the past,” but it’s not really the stuff of history.

Of course, there are exceptions to what I’m saying.  I’m sure we could all come up with examples of solid and scholarly TV shows that make a real contribution to our understanding of the past.  But those examples serve only to demonstrate the culpability of the media in general, because they show that the trifling nature of so much of our “historical” TV programming is not an inevitable result of the medium’s inherent limitations.  As for those of us in the audience, it demonstrates our culpability, too, because the people in control of the lineup are ultimately just giving us more of what we already watch the most.  We shouldn’t be too eager to blame the producers of culture for our predicaments, because culture is simply an expression of our collective appetites.

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Filed under Archaeology, History and Memory

Dirt flying

Gordon Belt recently directed my attention an online petition directed against Spike TV’s upcoming reality series about artifact hunting. You can read it (and sign it, if you so desire) by clicking here.  There’s also a petition in support of the show, hoping that the program will “correct the false impression that relic hunting is unethical.”

Coincidentally, the president of the Society for American Archaeology is protesting a similar show which is about to premiere on the National Geographic Channel, and has written a letter of complaint to the National Geographic Society’s CEO.  Critics of this show have an online petition, too.

Personally, I’m not opposed to relic hunting on principle, at least within reasonable limits.  If somebody wants to take a metal detector and look for Minié balls or buttons on private land, that’s fine with me, as long as they have the landowner’s permission and the site isn’t particularly significant.

From Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to historically sensitive ground, that’s another matter.  Battlefields, the sites of prison camps and hospitals, burial sites, and things of that sort are best left to the pros, even if the land in question belongs to private parties who don’t object to relic hunting.  In archaeology, context is everything.  Indeed, the information about an artifact’s context is as valuable as the artifact itself.

Since the shows haven’t aired, I don’t know what sort of digging we’re dealing with.  If we’re talking about sites and finds that merit a systematic approach, I’d rather see them left alone than get picked over by relic hunters, even if a full-scale excavation in the near future is unlikely.

If this sounds snotty, let me point out that when it comes to archaeology, I’m not a professional, either.  History and archaeology are two completely disciplines, with their own separate methodologies, programs of study, professional associations, publications, and so on.  Historians and archaeologists draw frequently on one another’s expertise, of course, but even a terminal degree in history won’t prepare you to run a large-scale excavation.

A few years ago, I got the chance to work with a professional team of archaeologists for a few days, when they came to campus to do some shovel tests for a survey of the area.  It was fun and interesting, and I learned quite a bit, but by no means am I under the impression that I’m competent to interpret a site just because they showed me how to classify soil samples and screen for artifacts.

If it turns out these shows are promoting irresponsible behavior, then I’ll add my voice to the chorus of protest.  Until then, I’m going to wait and see what they’re digging up and where they’re doing it.

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Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Glenn Beck’s Excellent Pseudohistorical Adventure Continues

There was a time when I thought that Glenn Beck’s history lessons couldn’t get any weirder than his invocation of the Washington prophecy.

That was before August 18, when he left the shallows of pseudohistory behind him and plunged headfirst into the deep end.

First, he pointed out that American history didn’t start with Columbus.  Indians had their own civilizations, some of them quite impressive by any contemporary standard.  No argument there, although Beck did his customary routine of arguing that he was imparting some type of arcane, forgotten knowledge.  (Ever read any history books published in the last thirty years, Glenn?)

Then he cited the theory, tossed around in some circles during the colonial and Revolutionary eras, that Indians were descended from prominent Old World civilizations.  That’s when I started to wonder where he was headed.

That’s when things took a sharp turn toward the bizarre.  Beck pointed out some superficial similarities between ancient Native American earthen structures and Egyptian pyramids, and started arguing that Hebrew artifacts have turned up in Native American archaeological sites.  The scholarly community, he claimed, had engaged in a cover-up to hide this from the public.

I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what was coming next, and I was right.  Beck spoke three little words which descended like a credibility-shattering sledgehammer: Bat Creek Stone.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bat Creek Stone, you’re not alone.  It’s a deservedly obscure artifact, an unimpressive slice of rock less than six inches long with an inscription that looks like this:

From Wikimedia Commons

It first turned up during a Smithsonian excavation of some East Tennessee Indian mounds back in 1889.  For about eighty years, nobody gave it a second thought.  Then along came Cyrus Gordon of Brandeis University, who claimed that the inscription was actually an ancient form of Hebrew.

Now, Gordon was hardly an impartial observer when it came to this sort of thing.  He was a firm believer in the notion that there was substantial contact between the Old and New Worlds well before the time of Columbus.  The possibility of an ancient Hebrew inscription in a Tennessee Indian mound offered possible corroboration for his pet theory, the sort of corroboration which is quite scarce indeed.

As you can imagine, archaeologists, linguists, and ethnographers were unconvinced.  Eminent Hebrew paleographers have dismissed the inscription, arguing that most of the characters could not possibly correspond to Paleo-Hebrew letters of the period in question and bear only a superficial similarity to ancient Hebrew script.  Frauds of this sort were common in nineteenth-century America, and in fact the Bat Creek Stone’s inscription is similar to a speculative reconstruction of some ancient Hebrew writing that appared in a late nineteenth-century Masonic publication.  Two of the stone’s critics have made a case that the leader of the Smithsonian’s original excavation may have forged the stone and planted it in an attempt to boost his troubled career.  (You can read their analysis here.)  It’s worth noting that the stone’s most prominent modern-day proponent is actually an economist, who lacks any professional qualifications in paleography, archaeology, or ethnology.

In short, the Bat Creek Stone probably belongs in the realm of Bigfoot and the Mothman, not serious scholarly inquiry.

I was only aware of the stone because for several years it’s been residing at one of my favorite haunts.  It’s on indefinite loan to the University of Tennessee’s fantastic McClung Museum, where its display label quite rightly explains why it’s a dubious artifact.

Beck, by contrast, never mentioned that anyone doubted the Hebrew inscription at all, let alone that it’s pretty universally discounted by experts in every relevant field.  He simply stated that the inscription was in Hebrew.  Case closed.

It took me, an ordinary schmuck with no expertise in this sort of thing, a few seconds to find a slew of evidence debunking the Bat Creek Stone with a simple search engine.  Just typing its name into Google is sufficient to demonstrate that it’s a troubled artifact.  Yet Beck never gave any indication whatsoever that its status was in any doubt.  This omission bothers me much more than his belief in the inscription’s authenticity.

I don’t expect Glenn Beck to be an expert in early American ethnography, archaeology, or paleography.  I do, however, expect him to employ the most basic kind of fact-checking before he assumes the responsibility of educating millions of Americans in history.

Did anybody from Beck’s show even bother to Google the darn thing?  Who in the world is he paying to be his fact-checker, and does he have any inkling how badly he needs to fire them?

Maybe the notion of an ancient Hebrew inscription in America excited him because of his own religious convictions.  That’s fine, but since the scholarly community discounts the inscription, he has the responsibility to at least acknowledge that a controversy exists.  He didn’t, and his presentation was therefore inaccurate and misleading.

Beck omitted critical information, whether out of simple ignorance that it existed or a dishonest attempt to cover it up.  Neither possibility is reassuring, and I think the American people would be much better off if he would stop trying to educate them about their own history.  Physician, heal thyself.

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Filed under Archaeology, History and Memory, Tennessee History