Digging up Knoxville at the McClung Museum

Well, my fellow East Tennessee history aficionados, the wait is over.  The McClung Museum’s special exhibit Knoxville Unearthed: Archaeology in the Heart of the Valley opened last Friday night, and it’s quite spiffy.  Kudos to the co-curators, archaeologists Charles Faulkner and Tim Baumann (bonus points to the latter because he’s a fellow Marble Springs board member), exhibits preparator Christopher Weddig, and all the other folks who helped make it happen.  It’s a fantastic 225th birthday present for the city.

The exhibit covers Knoxville’s transition from a rough frontier settlement into an industrialized city, but being an eighteenth-century guy, I’m most excited about the early stuff.  Let’s take a look at some highlights.

Before there was a State of Tennessee, Knoxville was the capital city of the Southwest Territory.  This English-made teapot was found at the site of the office Col. David Henley occupied after his appointment as agent of the Department of War in 1793.  It was the same location where, in 1796, a convention met which drafted Tennessee’s first constitution.

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Remember our visit to Tellico Blockhouse back in July?  Here’s a pearlware teacup recovered from the site, dating to the period when the fort was an active frontier post.

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East Tennessee’s original historic inhabitants are represented in the exhibit, too.  The archaeological record contains traces of items they obtained in trade with Anglo-Americans, like this eighteenth-century brass bucket fragment from the Cherokee town of Tomotley.

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Trading with whites didn’t mean the Cherokees slavishly adopted whatever products they obtained, however.  Sometimes they repurposed Anglo-American goods into something new.  A brass kettle from England might end up as ornamental tinkling cones, like these examples from Chota.

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James White was the first Anglo-American settler to take up residence in Knoxville, moving here with his family in the mid-1780s.  These bones belonged to a pig that ended up on the White family’s table.  Pork was an important staple of pioneer diets in the southern backcountry.

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Hey, speaking of pioneers, I think I know this guy…

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I’m delighted that artifacts from Marble Springs figure prominently in the exhibit.  Teams of archaeologists from UT conducted excavations at the site in the early 2000s, but this is the first time their discoveries have been on display for the public.

 

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Items dating from John Sevier’s occupancy of the site include this English bowl fragment…

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…and a small piece of a pepper shaker.  Perhaps Nolichucky Jack used it to add a little flavor to his food while mulling over how much he hated Andrew Jackson.

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Ceramics recovered from Marble Springs indicate that while Sevier lived pretty well, he wasn’t using the finest dinnerware available on the early frontier.  But he was wealthy enough to have other people doing his work for him.  This hatchet head and knife were recovered from the location of one of the slave cabins.  They offer a tangible link to men and women we know mostly from brief, passing references in Sevier’s journal.

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Artifacts excavated from the slave quarters of Blount Mansion, the 1790s home of the Southwest Territory’s governor, provide another look at the lives of enslaved laborers in early Tennessee.  One of them wore this good luck amulet…

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…while fragments of English and Chinese ceramics indicate that slaves used hand-me-down dinnerware from their owners.

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About a year ago, as you may recall, we paid a virtual visit to Ramsey House.  When Francis Ramsey took up residence in the Knoxville area in the 1790s, he initially lived in a log cabin.  Later, after completing the impressive stone house that is still standing to this day, he seems to have used the log building as an office.  In the nineteenth century, the log structure changed functions again, this time to a slave quarters.  Here are a few bits and pieces recovered from the site, including another amulet.

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Finally, this may be the most poignant item featured in the exhibit, a neck restraint dating from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century excavated from the Tellico Blockhouse site.  Little wonder the enslaved inhabitants of early Knoxville carried those amulets; they needed all the good fortune they could get.

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And we haven’t even gotten to the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts yet.  Knoxville Unearthed runs until January 8, 2017.  Admission to the museum is free, so stop by and check it out.

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

When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory

Object lessons in museums and the humanities

Last week I got an object lesson—quite literally, since it was a lesson with objects—in how valuable university museums and the humanities can be.

As you may recall, this semester I have the tremendous good fortune of doing my graduate assistantship at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture.  I’m helping out with the museum’s academic programs, which means I get to work with university classes that use the collection and exhibits as teaching tools.  One of the neat things about working at the McClung is the fact that the collection is so eclectic: Native American archaeology, Egyptian artifacts, fossils, early modern maps, firearms, malacological specimens, decorative arts from every corner of the globe, you name it.  The possibilities for teaching with the museum’s holdings are pretty much endless.

Which brings me to last week’s object lesson.  My supervisor, who’s both an art historian and an extraordinarily gifted museum educator, hosted a group of graduate students for some critical examination of the McClung’s most impressive pieces, like this Buddha statue dating from the Ming Dynasty.

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Now, here’s the cool part.  This wasn’t a class in art history, Chinese civilization, or religion.  It was a nursing class, and the students were there to hone their observational and communication abilities.  A lot of the same skills involved in learning to evaluate works of art and articulate what you observe when you examine an object are the same skills physicians use in diagnosis and other aspects of patient care.

Art museums, it turns out, are great places to train physicians.  When university museums like the McClung or UVa’s Fralin Museum of Art team up with medical schools, the results are both real and measurable:

The Clinician’s Eye Program—using art exposure to help medical students build their observational and diagnostic ‘toolkit’—was launched in 2013 in partnership with U.Va.’s School of Medicine. Based on similar programs at leading medical schools, the program includes interactive tours of objects in the Museum, as well as drawing exercises that strengthen communication skills. Pre- and post-testing demonstrated a measurable impact; 90% of participants reported improved observational skills, increased tolerance for ambiguity, or heightened communication skills, and corresponding testing revealed a marked improvement in these abilities after one 2-hour workshop.

So when the rubber hits the road, when everything is about the bottom line, and when every academic and cultural endeavor must justify its own existence, what good are museums, the humanities, art, and all that other squishy stuff?  Well, for starters, they just might end up saving your life.

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It’s almost time for the Sevier Soirée

Marble Springs State Historic Site’s annual fundraiser has gotten more and successful every year, and the 2016 Sevier Soirée is shaping up to be our best one yet.  If you’re in the Knoxville area, I hope you’ll join us on Friday, Sept. 2 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. for a southern dinner, music, a silent auction, and an evening stroll through the historic farmstead of Tennessee’s first governor.

Tickets are $50 per person, and are available through our website or by mail at P.O. Box 20195, Knoxville, TN 3794.  Make your reservation by August 26th.  If you’d like some more information, shoot an e-mail to info@marblesprings.net or call (865) 573-5508.

This is a great opportunity to see Marble Springs if you’ve never paid a visit before, and for those of you who have been, it’s a wonderful way to enjoy the site after hours.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

On the advantages of being a (somewhat) older grad student

A few days ago #firstsevenjobs was a trending topic on Twitter.  It prompted an interesting conversation among some historians about the diverse paths people have pursued before grad school, and the pros and cons of entering a graduate program later in life vs. the “traditional” route of going straight through from college to Ph.D.

This is actually a subject on which I can speak with a certain degree of authority, because I’ve experienced grad school as both a traditional student in my early twenties and as an older student hitting the books again after a hiatus.  I was more or less fresh out of college (but for a year’s employment) when I did my M.A., but I worked in public history and picked up adjunct gigs for a while before heading back for my Ph.D.  Granted, I’m not that much older than a “traditional” graduate student, but I’m not exactly a spring chicken, either.  My baseline movie version of Batman is still Michael Keaton.

So which was harder, being a younger or older grad student in history?  Personally, I’ve found the Ph.D. experience to be less stressful, even though I’ve had a higher class load as a doctoral student than I ever did while working on my M.A.  And the decisive factor has been the time I had to simmer after finishing my master’s degree.  I’ve read more, I’ve thought about my interests more, and I have a much better idea about how to integrate those interests into the historiography and contextualize them than I did in my early twenties.  It’s made a world of difference.

I’ve also had more time to develop my skills as a communicator and writer.  Practice is everything when it comes to sharpening your prose, and being older means you’ve had more time to practice.

Some people say that you don’t have as much capacity to do coursework and absorb information after you get older, but my experience has been the opposite.  A graduate education in history isn’t really about learning new “facts.”  What counts is breadth, depth, and maturity of thinking, not how many terms you can memorize in a night of cramming.  It’s a form of learning that favors perspective more than plasticity.

Now, all this comes with two important caveats.  First, I’m an older student, but I’m also a bachelor.  That means I can’t speak to the difficulty of balancing grad school with family responsibilities, which would be an issue a lot of older grad students have to deal with.

Second, the age difference between my younger classmates and I isn’t substantial enough to be generational, so the issue of being so much older than my peers that I have nothing in common with them is not something I’ve had to deal with.  But I can say that there are a few students in my department who are old enough to have adult children, and age differences haven’t kept any of us from becoming a very close-knit group.  The common experience of going through the program more or less overrides whatever distinctions of age, background, and religion we have.

The upshot is that if you ask me if it’s hard going back for a terminal degree after ten, fifteen, or twenty years out of the classroom, I’d say this: Grad school is tough on anybody, but the nature of the historical discipline is such that being long in the tooth can actually give you a bit of an edge.

All this is assuming, of course, that you’ve put some of those years out of the classroom to good use.  Your age in and of itself is less important than your mastery of content, the perceptiveness of your conclusions, and the willingness to work hard.  And that’s true whether you’re a retiree or Doogie Howser.

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Do theme parks need preservation?

Late last month the Walt Disney Company announced the closure of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at the California park to make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy ride.  That decision upset some people.  A petition to save the attraction has racked up over 30,000 signatures.

As someone who’s both resistant to change and a theme park junkie, I can sympathize with people who want to keep the Tower of Terror open.  I’m still peeved at Universal Orlando for closing Kongfrontation even though I like the Mummy-themed coaster that replaced it, and I might never forgive them for dismantling the Jaws ride to build yet another Harry Potter area.

The original Tower of Terror opened at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1994.  The California version didn’t get up and running until 2004, so the folks trying to persuade Disney to keep it open will be harder pressed to make their case than if they were advocating on behalf of a classic attraction with decades of tradition behind it.

An aerial view of Disneyland, 1963. EditorASC at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But that’s not to say that older attractions are untouchable.  Snow White’s Adventure was one of the Florida park’s original rides, making its debut when the Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971.  You’d think the ride’s age and the fact that it’s based on Disney’s first full-length animated feature might have been enough to keep it open.  In 1994 Disney gave it a major overhaul and a name change, and then closed it completely in 2012.  And Snow White isn’t the only longstanding attraction to get the axe.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was another 1971 ride that went the way of the dodo, and Disneyland’s PeopleMover closed in 1995 after nearly three decades of operation.

When you consider that Disneyland opened more than sixty years ago and Disney World forty-five, it doesn’t seem too out of place to start thinking of them as places of potential historic significance.  The value of some of the parks’ attractions and architectural features doesn’t just stem from their age.  For example, the Enchanted Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Hall of Presidents feature pioneering examples of robotics technology.  The monorail systems at the Florida and California parks are interesting landmarks in the history of transportation and innovation.  And if a building can take on historic significance because it’s architecturally unique or an example of a particular style, maybe it makes sense to call Spaceship Earth and Sleeping Beauty Castle historic landmarks.

It’s possible that a conversation about places like Disneyland is one worth having in the historic preservation community.  But any effort to restrict Disney’s ability to demolish or modify their attractions is going to run up against the same issues preservationists face when they’re dealing with any other property owners, except this particular property owner has an army of lawyers at its disposal.  I wouldn’t want to see the Jungle Cruise get bulldozed, but I wouldn’t want to be the preservationist who has to go ten rounds with the Mouse House, either.

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A Crichton novel on the Bone Wars is coming

I’d like to apologize for that ear-piercing noise that shattered windows all over the Western Hemisphere last night.  That was me shrieking with ecstatic delight in reaction to this:

HarperCollins Publishers has acquired World English rights to DRAGON TEETH by bestselling author Michael Crichton. Harper Publisher Jonathan Burnham and Executive Editor Jennifer Barth negotiated the deal with CrichtonSun’s Sherri Crichton through Sloan Harris and Jennifer Joel of ICM Partners and Michael S. Sherman of Reed Smith LLP. The book will be published in May 2017 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Michael Crichton’s DRAGON TEETH follows the notorious rivalry between real-life paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh during a time of intense fossil speculation and discovery in the American West in 1878. The story unfolds through the adventures of a young fictional character named William Johnson who is apprenticed first to one, then to the other and not only makes discoveries of historic proportion, but transforms into an inspiring hero only Crichton could have imagined. Known for his meticulous research, Crichton uses Marsh and Copes’ heated competition during the ‘Bone Wars,’ the golden age of American fossil hunting, as the basis for a thrilling story set in the wilds of the American West.

Sherri Crichton has been working to honor her late husband by creating the Michael Crichton Archives through her company CrichtonSun. “When I came across the DRAGON TEETH manuscript in the files, I was immediately captivated. It has Michael’s voice, his love of history, research and science all dynamically woven into an epic tale.” She traced its genesis back to correspondence between Crichton and Professor Edwin H. Colbert, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “DRAGON TEETH was clearly a very important book for Michael. I’m so pleased to continue the long relationship that he shared with HarperCollins with its publication.”

The “Bone Wars”—the bitter feud between rival naturalists Edward Cope and O.C.Marsh—pretty much defined vertebrate paleontology in the United States during the late nineteenth century.  As ugly as the Cope-Marsh spat was, it played a large role in bringing to light the fossil riches of the American West, since the two men financed prospecting and excavation in some of the country’s most important bone beds.  A lot of the “classic” dinosaurs that are household names first came to scientific attention in the papers they published.  Their rivalry has fascinated me since I was a kid; in fact, when I was an undergrad, I did my capstone research project on it.

Anyway, it’s Crichton. It’s dinosaurs. It’s American history.  As they used to say in the beer commercials, “Boys, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

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