Revising Native American history with radiocarbon dating

Well, all hell broke loose in the nation’s capital between the time I typed this post and the time I intended to publish it. But for what it’s worth, here it is.

Archaeologists have relied on the presence or absence of European trade goods to estimate dates for Native American sites. Turns out some of those dates are wrong. Sturt Manning explains how the Dating Iroquoia Project is rearranging the chronology of colonial America:

Our radiocarbon tests came up with substantially different date ranges compared with previous estimates that were based on the presence or absence of various European goods.

For example, the Jean-Baptiste Lainé, or Mantle, site northeast of Toronto is currently the largest and most complex Iroquoian village excavated in Ontario. Excavated between 2003–2005, archaeologists dated the site to 1500–1530 because it lacks most trade goods and had just three European-source metal objects. But our radiocarbon dating now places it between about 1586 and 1623, most likely 1599-1614. That means previous dates were off the mark by as much as 50 to 100 years.

Why was some of the previous chronology wrong?

The answer seems to be that scholars viewed the topic through a pervasive colonial lens. Researchers mistakenly assumed that trade goods were equally available, and desired, all over the region, and considered all indigenous groups as the same.

To the contrary, it was Wendat custom, for example, that the lineage whose members first discovered a trade route claimed rights to it. Such “ownership” could be a source of power and status. Thus it would make sense to see uneven distributions of certain trade goods, as mediated by the controlling groups. Some people were “in,” with access, and others may have been “out.”

Fascinating stuff, and a great case study in how assumptions can blind us to misinterpretations.

Wikimedia Commons

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Financial support for struggling museum workers

COVID-19 has been hard on museums–and especially so for museum workers who were already financially vulnerable when the pandemic hit. The folks at Museum Workers Speak are putting a fund together to help out folks in the profession who have been furloughed, laid off, or otherwise impacted. Click here to donate, and here to learn more or apply for support.

Please chip in a donation if you can. Thousands of dedicated, talented professionals keep American museums going, and too many of them work for low wages and without benefits. We can’t just toss them out and leave them and their families to ride out this crisis on their own with no income.

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Help save three Rev War battlegrounds in the South

Here’s a fantastic preservation opportunity from the American Battlefield Trust. Land from three Rev War sites is in play, including a crucial acre at Great Bridge, VA–site of the Patriot militia’s 1775 victory over Lord Dunmore’s forces. Every dollar you give will net an 80-to-1 match!

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Ship of Theseus, shark of Spielberg

You know that old thought experiment about the ship Theseus used to sail back to Athens from Crete? The story goes that the Athenians kept the ship as a relic, and as the original planks rotted they replaced them with new ones. This being Athens, it became the subject of a philosophical debate. If the ship kept deteriorating to the point that all the planks had to be replaced and none of the original wood was left, was it still the ship of Theseus?

For museum professionals, this question becomes practical. One of the things that draws people to history museums and historic sites is authenticity. Visitors want to have a firsthand, genuine encounter with the past. You’d think this would be a pretty straightforward matter. Either an object on display is real or a replica. Either something is the original or it isn’t.

But sometimes it gets complicated. An object might have undergone so much restoration and replacement over the years that you run into the same question as the Athenians. Is it really the room Washington slept in when the whole building has been gutted, restored, and stocked with reproduction furniture? Is it Billy the Kid’s original gun if the cylinder, grips, and trigger have been replaced?

And even when the materials or components are all original, the question of whether the object itself an original can be difficult to answer.

Take Bruce, for example. He’s the Jaws shark that just took up quarters above the escalator in the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and the only surviving model cast from the original molds used to make the sharks in the movie.

The provenance is as solid as it gets. It’s undeniably an authentic object.

But it’s not from the film’s production. All three of the sharks that appeared in the movie had deteriorated by the time Universal Studios realized they had a hit on their hands. After the film’s release, they used the molds to cast a more durable shark in fiberglass and set it up as a photo op for studio visitors. This fourth Bruce is the one at the Academy Museum. After his tour of duty at Universal ended, he ended up in a junkyard for twenty-five years before getting trucked to the museum and hoisted up over the escalator.

The fiberglass Bruce never appeared in the movie, and played no role in the production; indeed, it didn’t even exist when the movie was made. But since it’s cast from the original molds and all the screen-used props are gone, it’s as close as you’re going to get. And it does date from that initial rush of Jaws mania following the movie’s release.

As a piece of memorabilia and an artifact of the history of cinema, it’s certainly significant and worthy of preservation. Is it an “original” Jaws shark? Is it really Bruce? Depends on how you approach the question.

And these are the sorts of questions that interpreters at history museums and historic sites face all the time. Authenticity isn’t always as simple as documentation and provenance. Sometimes it boils down to the very meanings we associate with the word “authentic.”

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WATE on historical happenings at LMU

YIKES! Has it really been that long since I’ve posted anything? I suppose it has, since we’ve been up to our eyeballs in the museum renovation at the ALLM.

Speaking of which, Knoxville’s ABC affiliate WATE came out last week to do a short piece on the museum, our reconstructed log village, and LMU’s own history. Here it is:

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The ALLM staff on the museum’s transformation

The bad news is, LMU’s Homecoming had to switch to a virtual format this year because of COVID. The good news is, since we recorded a lot of the programming, you folks can watch the ALLM staff’s panel discussion about our big museum renovation. Here it is:

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Ed Bearss tells his own war story

…and it’s as captivating and vivid as his narration of battles from 150 years ago.

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Ed Bearss, 1923-2020

It seems like we’ve lost so many towering, venerable historians over the past year or two.  On September 15, the eminent Civil War authority Ed Bearss passed away at the age of ninety-seven.

Bearss began his career with the National Park Service at Vicksburg in the 1950s, where he helped discover the wreck of the gunboat Cairo.  In 1981 he became the NPS chief historian and occupied that position until 1994.  He was the author of a number of books on the Civil War (particularly the war in Mississippi) and received nearly every accolade there is for battlefield interpretation and preservation, including the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Battlefield Trust.

His battlefield tours were legendary.  Over the course of his career, he guided thousands of visitors across the ground where the Union endured its ordeal by blood and fire, and continued to do so at an age when most public historians are decades into retirement.  His vivid, dramatic, and eloquent style of narration brought these landscapes to life, and made him one of the most memorable commentators from Ken Burns’ Civil War series.

Bearss was not only a student and interpreter of military history, but a combat veteran himself.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942 and fought in the Pacific Theater, where he was badly wounded by machine gun fire.

He inspired and influenced generations of students, scholars, and enthusiasts, and I doubt we will see his like again.

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A little spurious history at the Republican National Convention

Last night, Lara Trump carried on a venerable American tradition: misquoting the sixteenth president.

“Abraham Lincoln once famously said, ‘America will never be destroyed from the outside,’” she told viewers.  “‘If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.’”

Well, no.  He didn’t say that—at least not in those words.  But he did express the same basic idea in 1838:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

More history flubs popped up in congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn’s remarks.  “James Madison was just twenty-five years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence,” Cawthorn said. Madison didn’t sign the declaration at twenty-five or any other age.

Cawthorn also noted that George Washington received his first commission at a young age, although I’m not sure accidentally starting a world war is something one should aspire to.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, American Revolution, History and Memory

Bernard Bailyn, 1922-2020

We’ve lost another eminent scholar of early America—indeed, he was a titan of the field.  Bernard Bailyn passed away on August 7 at the age of ninety-seven.

It would be hard to overstate Bailyn’s importance to the study of colonial and Revolutionary America.  His work was wide-ranging; he wrote about New England merchants, the Revolutionaries’ ideology, Loyalists, colonial migrations and demographics, and Atlantic connections.  A two-time Pulitzer winner, he was also a recipient of the Bancroft Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He was an innovator, both methodologically and conceptually.

Bailyn’s book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was one of the most transformative studies of the American founding ever written.  It’s one of those rare historical works that makes you feel as if you’ve seen its subjects’ world from the inside out; a work so profound in its implications, so persuasive and elegant in its presentation, and so saturated with source material that you can’t help but see the past differently once you’ve read it.

He trained some of the most acclaimed American historians of the twentieth century, including Pauline Maier, Gordon Wood, Mary Beth Norton, Jack Rakove, and Peter Wood, and he was himself a student of Perry Miller, the seminal scholar of Puritanism.  For that reason, his death almost feels like a sort of trans-generational rupture, as if we’ve lost a flesh-and-blood link between the field’s modern foundations and some of the finest practitioners still working today.  But his own body of scholarship and the ongoing contributions of his students (and their students) should ensure that we’ll continue to feel his influence for a long, long time.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Historiography