Uncovering the truth

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

I’ve always loved history. As a little boy, I would read history books and go to museums with my parents because I wanted to see cool things and I wanted to learn about the past. Even then I realized that the past must have something to do with the present. I went to college, got two degrees in history and learned how to be a professional historian. It’s no surprise then that I ended up spending the last 27 years working in museums. But it is a little odd, or so I’m told, that I would end up being the Science and Technology Collection Manager at the Indiana State Museum. Many scientists and historians don’t think they have much in common; but they actually do because they both seek the truth. They just do it in different ways. Nor are the differences that big. If this sounds simplistic, well, it is.

To me it is simple because we all seek the same truth. Whether we’re talking about 50 years ago, 5,000 years ago, or five million years ago, both scientists and historians want to know what happened and why. One of the reasons we do it differently is because scientists, especially archaeologists, use the human made remains of the past such as buildings, pottery or personal adornments. Historians use primarily the writings of the past. So our source material is different, but there is nothing wrong in using each other’s raw material if we’re both going in the same direction. That is what I try to do here at the Indiana State Museum.

Here’s a good example of how science and history can work together. The single tray pictured above contains unwashed objects. The second photograph of the three trays is what comes out after the material inside was cleaned, sorted and dried. The single tray comprises a “field sample” and contains a bit of science and a bit of history. The science comes from how the objects were collected and the history comes from what the material tells us. Let me explain …

In 2001, the museum began excavating Dormitory #2, one of the buildings at the New Harmony State Historic Site. New Harmony was a utopian community set up in the early 19th century by a religious group originally from Germany. New Harmony was their second community; the first was established in Pennsylvania in late 1804 and lasted until they established New Harmony on the Wabash in 1814. Both were successful agricultural communities and both reflected some of the ideals of the Utopian Socialist movement that first arose in Europe in response to the effects of the Industrial Revolution. When the Indiana State Museum team began excavating at Dormitory #2, it was based on the state requirement that an archaeological survey be conducted any time there was going to be construction at a historic site. Scientific methods were used to excavate the material based on a grid pattern, usually a meter square and 10 centimeters deep. All the material within that space is pulled out and labeled according to the grid pattern. That material comprises the “field sample” I mentioned earlier. Each field sample is then listed on a log sheet and brought to me at the museum. That’s when my job begins (or one of my jobs).

Just in the last year alone there have been five different sets of field samples that cover an area on the eastern side of Dormitory #2, where a new entrance ramp is being built. All in all, that’s over 200 field samples and several hundred bags of material. It’s a lot of work to clean and organize thousands of artifacts. But it’s also fun because I am the first person to see this material in a very long time. It’s a little odd when I say that what I’m really looking at is a lot of trash. But it’s true! Much of what we find is what other people threw away. In the early and mid-19th century there was no Monday morning trash pick-up. Trash was simply buried outside. So it becomes the task of the archaeologist to recover and analyze this material to help us understand how these people lived their lives. It’s the task of the historian to place the material in context and relate it to our own time. The better we understand the past, the better we understand the present.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at what we’ve found at New Harmony and what it tells us about the past.

One Response

  1. […] [Continued from Uncovering the truth] […]

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