Enter a search request and press enter. Press Esc or the X to close.
Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Matthew Gailani
Hello Junior Curators! My name is Matthew and it’s September, which means archaeology month in Tennessee! This week we are going to learn all about archaeology and some of the oldest artifacts in our collection. But what is archaeology? What do archaeologists do? Why should we care about archaeology? To answer these questions and more we’ve brought in an expert to interview. Her name is Debbie Shaw and she is not only a curator at the Tennessee State Museum, but she is also an archaeologist.
Matthew: Debbie, let’s start with the basics, how is what an archaeologist does different from a historian?
Debbie: While both, archaeologists and historians, study human history, I think the main difference between the two is going to be the materials that they use. Historians will use mostly written sources. Archaeologists use the material culture. This is the stuff that people leave behind. Of course, historians will use archaeological evidence. Archaeologists will also use written sources to help their research.
Matthew: Interesting! Archaeologists focus on objects to tell us more about human culture. The museum has a lot of those in our collection. Some are even prehistoric. As an expert, you can help us identify some of the museum’s artifacts and answer questions archaeologists need to answer. Let’s start with this artifact below. What does it tell us about how people lived hundreds of years ago?
Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Debbie: This artifact gives you a glimpse into the daily life of a person living during the Mississippian time period. This spade helps to illustrate that these people relied on farming and needed well-crafted tools to carry out that work.
Matthew: Wow! This spade is from the Mississippian time period. That means it is hundreds of years old. Is it difficult to tell the difference between this artifact and a normal rock? How do you do it?
Debbie: Native Americans used a technique called knapping to shape the chert that they had into tools. They would start with a main piece of chert and remove flakes from it by striking it with another stone or tool. They would continue shaping it until they had the final spade completed. As you look at this spade, you can see the flaking. It is easy to see that this was done by a human hand and not an accident.
Matthew: It must take a lot of studying to be able to tell the difference! What were spades like this used for?
Debbie: Spades were tools used for digging. Spades were mainly used to plant and harvest crops like maize (corn). They would have been attached to a long handle and used like a modern gardening tool.
Matthew: That’s amazing! Here is another artifact for you. How does an artifact like this survive for thousands of years and what is it?
Debbie: This artifact is a mortar and pestle. It could have been used for many things. The pestle would have been used against the mortar to grind up different nuts, seeds, grains, or corn for cooking. It could have been used to crush up various plants or herbs to make medicines. These two artifacts are made of stone. Stone lasts a long time. Some mortars have been found that were made of wood. These are less common since wood breaks down much quicker than stone.
Matthew: Wow! I’m learning so much. Here is one last artifact for you, Debbie. What is this artifact and why would someone have taken the time to make it?
Debbie: The first two artifacts were made to help grow, harvest, and process food. This human effigy has more of a spiritual purpose. This type of statue was often made in pairs. A male and female statue. These sacred pairs were placed in the center of the towns or in shrines. These statues helped to represent the spiritual and political belief systems within these complex Mississippian societies.
Matthew: I can’t believe someone took the time to carve this out of stone! It’s very well done. Last question. As an archaeologist, what questions do you ask when you find artifacts like these?
Debbie: Honestly, I would ask many of the same questions that you asked earlier – What is the purpose of this? Why would people take the time to make this? Where was it found? What type of material is it made of and is it a local material? Is there another statue that is paired with this one? Often, the answers you find will lead to more questions!
Matthew: Thank you so much for your time, Debbie! I know I learned a lot and I hope our Junior Curators did too. Make sure too keep an eye on our Junior Curators Blog for more posts about archaeology in the future!
Material Culture: Objects that help make up a group’s culture or way of life.
Prehistoric: A period of history before written records were kept.
Mississippian Time Period: A late prehistoric culture found in the southeastern United States. They lived roughly from the years 900-1600 CE.
Chert: A type of rock.
Effigy: A sculpture or model of a person.
Sacred: Having religious importance.
Name one difference between an archaeologist and a historian.
Name two artifacts that Debbie talked about in the interview.
What are two questions you would ask about the artifacts Debbie talked about?
Look at items in your home or room today. It can be a toy, a piece of furniture, or a tool. What questions do you think archaeologists will have about them in two thousand years? What do they tell about your life?
To see more artifacts visit our Search Our Collection page online here. Type in some of the terms Debbie used during the interview to find out more about your collection at the Tennessee State Museum.
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.