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Analyzing a Visit to Penn Museum Essay

Analyzing a Visit to Penn Museum Essay

Question Description

The paper for this course is supposed to be more of a “thought” piece than a research paper. The idea is to get you to think critically about archaeology and archaeological knowledge in today’s world, and how our particular cultural perspectives are included in archaeological analysis and its presentation. You can approach this topic any way you like. However, I want you to do this by analyzing something specific, such as a TV show, a social media site, a museum exhibit (virtual is fine), a book, a survey, a site, etc., and use that analysis as the center of the paper. The basic questions you are attempting to answer are how does archaeology work, how is archaeological knowledge acquired and conveyed, and what is its impact? Papers that receive As are ones that do an analysis of something specific that stems from an understanding of archaeological issues and avoid superficial discussions of how great archaeology can be or simply summarize movie plots or exhibits. If you are still describing the exhibit or the show or whatever at the end of page two, then you are summarizing, not analyzing! If you want to talk about the difference between analysis and summary, please come and talk to me.

If you want to discuss any details about this paper with me, please come to my office hours. Also, I would be happy to read a draft version of your paper and make comments on it before you turn the final version in. Just go ahead and email it to me. If you want me to read a draft, please give it to me no later than ten days before the paper is due.

Suggested topics:

Visit a museum or historical site and look at a specific exhibit. Online (virtual) exhibits are fine. This should be an exhibit with archaeological things in it; archaeological things are objects produced by humans or their immediate (hominin) ancestors, and have been excavated. It does not include dinosaurs, fossils, or other non- human animal ancestors. Note that many things made by Native Americans that are in museums are from the 19th or 18th centuries, and so were probably collected from living people and not excavated! These would not be acceptable for the paper—you can’t use it if it wasn’t dug up. While the exhibit may include documents, you should not focus on these unless you are considering them as objects rather than in terms of their content (historical analysis is related to archaeology but it is a different skill set). You should then analyze the exhibit. What does the exhibit tell you about the past? What choices did they make when they created the exhibit and what is left out? Is the exhibit slanted in a particular way? What is the specific content of the exhibit and does this have an impact on the general ideas being represented? Why is this information useful/interesting/educational etc.? Is it important or valuable? Is it worth using taxpayers’ money to support it? Why, specifically? Does it matter if it is virtual and not physical? Does that affect your experience of it, and if so, how? Be sure that you analyze the exhibit, not just summarize what is in it and then conclude that it was really great. It may have been, but I want to know why. Also, be sure to tell me what museum you visited and what the exhibit was called.

Watch a TV show or movie, or read a novel or nonfiction book about archaeology (NB: the textbooks for this course don’t count!!), or visit a social media site (e.g. YouTube, websites, blogs) and analyze how archaeology is presented. Are there actual archaeologists present, how are they portrayed, and how can you tell they are archaeologists? If there aren’t real archaeologists, should there have been? How is the past being represented in this case? Is evidence being presented to support whatever interpretations are offered? Do the interpretations make sense? Are they slanted in any particular way? Is there anything obvious left out? Why is this information useful/interesting/educational etc.? Is it important or valuable? Be sure that you analyze the show/book/movie/site, not just summarize what is in it and then assume I know what is important. PLEASE NOTE: YOU MAY NOT DO INDIANA JONES FOR THIS CHOICE. We will be talking a little about this film in class so I want you to do something different. Again, this should be about archaeology (objects produced by humans or their immediate ancestors that have been excavated), not written history, dinosaurs, or biological anthropology of human ancestors (unless there is a significant component about material culture).

Go to Blackboard and look at the pdf called SAA Ethics Bowl Cases. The Ethics Bowl is an annual debate for students held during the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Each year, hypothetical cases are devised and teams then formulate and defend solutions to these ethical dilemmas, which are then judged. For this paper, select ONE of the cases described and devise a solution. You should note in your paper your understanding of what the ethical problem is (including how each side has a legitimate point) and why it is relevant to archaeology, how you would address this issue, and why you think this solution makes sense in terms of archaeological practice. YOU SHOULD CITE AT LEAST ONE ETHICS CODE FROM AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY IN YOUR DISCUSSION, e.g. the one for the SAA that we discussed in class or others that you may find online (e.g. SHA, AIA). I’m not looking for something superficial here, you should really analyze and consider the issue and what you would do under those circumstances. Also, be aware that these cases are intended to be complex and don’t have a single obvious answer. They all have two sides and you should be thinking in more nuanced terms than “protect archaeological resources at all costs.” Consider what the real- world consequences are and whether it’s worth it. Also, if you’re going to say that something is illegal, be sure it is! For example, ethics codes aren’t laws, and laws aren’t retroactive—if something was made illegal in, say, 2002, then it doesn’t apply to events in 1992.

Pick a space that you are familiar with and think about it archaeologically about a 1000 years from now. This should be a relatively small space and not, say, Washington, DC or the town where you grew up. Note: you can’t use any space that was discussed in class! Show some originality. Describe what has happened to make it into an archaeological site (in other words, was the site abandoned, was there a natural disaster, or what; this affects what might survive). What specific evidence would survive and under what circumstances? How would archaeologists interpret the meaning and/or use of these objects and features? What techniques might they use for the analysis of data recovered? Would they know what they were? How? What would it tell you about society and how would we know? What wouldn’t survive, and what would be lost about that society that was of value? You can do this as a semi-fictional piece if you want, e.g. as someone excavating it 1000 years in the future. Just be sure that you describe specific evidence in your analysis, and make sure you explain why someone would interpret the remains this way—don’t just guess, use archaeological thinking! Keep in mind what it is that archaeologists might or might not know from the material remains that you are describing—this somewhere between “omniscient” and “mind-numbingly stupid.” So, for example, if a photograph of your family has survived and you suggest that this indicates that people in the past valued family, you would need to explain 1) how an archaeologist would know the people in the photo were family, and 2) how they would know that the people in the photo were valued (and it wasn’t, say, a photo of a bunch of unrelated people that came with the frame or a wanted poster for local criminals). An archaeologist might infer this, but how? Also note: 1000 YEARS IS A LONG TIME. Just to give you some scale in terms of time, 1000 years ago, the Norman conquest was still decades in the future, Cahokia wasn’t yet a city, and it would be centuries before the Ming Dynasty was established in China. In terms of language, the poem Beowulf was written about 1000 years ago in the English that was spoken at the time. Here’s the opening line from it:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

‘Nuff said.


These are just suggestions. I am open to other possibilities, but if you want to explore other options you must let me know what you want to do to make sure you don’t get too far away from what I’m intending you to get out of this paper. However, the idea is to do a specific analysis of something (rather than a more general discussion), and there are certainly other ways it can be approached. For example, given that we are online, I’m open to a video rather than something written, if you would prefer that. Just remember that I will use the same criteria for grading!

As noted elsewhere, this is supposed to be a paper about archaeology. By the time the paper is due, you should know what this means—however, to be clear, it doesn’t mean living people, dinosaurs (or other ancient non- human animal species), materials collected from living people (typically from the 18th or 19th centuries), or written history (unless the focus is on the material culture rather than documents per se). If you are uncertain whether or not the topic you wish to do fits this criterion, run it by me in advance.


While this is not a research paper, you should provide references if you use a website, book, or other media presentation so that I can look it up if necessary. If you cite references, make sure that you use some consistent format. I don’t care if you use footnotes or references in the text, but whatever you choose, stick to it.

A word about Internet resources. There are lots of sources of information on the Internet about lots of subjects, and you can certainly use them for this paper. However, unless you are using a website to represent a particular perspective, PLEASE DO NOT USE A WEB SITE AS PRIMARY REFERENCE MATERIAL UNLESS YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY SURE IT IS A LEGITIMATE WEBSITE. There is a lot of, well, crap about archaeology on the web, and it’s important that you not use such, well, crap, as sources of basic information. So be aware of what you are using, and if you are unsure, send me the URL and I’ll let you know.

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