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Anthropological Finds at ID Day

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Glen Taylor came because he was being plagued by spirits. While his two daughters wandered the stations set up for Identification (ID) Day in the Grand Gallery of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), Glen waited in line for Anibal Rodriguez and Nell Murphy, who were staffing the anthropology table. He cradled an ornate wooden box protectively wrapped in a towel. “There’s got to be more to this than meets the eye,” he told fellow visitors—and me—while he waited for his turn. “I bought this on the street, but look how old it is!” Since he had acquired the wooden box—which looked to be a backgammon board—Glen said he had increasingly felt the presence of spirits, and it was becoming disruptive. He had taken the box to psychics who told him that it came from Egypt and had once contained the spirits of Nefertiti and Ramses. He had come to ID Day with the hope of getting to the bottom of the matter and determining next steps for cleansing the box—and his life.

Identification Day at AMNH is a chance for the public to talk to museum scientists about artifacts and specimens that they may have collected and or found by chance over the years. Scientists attempt to identify the items and showcase selections from the museum collections that are relevant to their speciality. From shells and plants to insects and fossils to cultural artifacts and even rocks, there was a station for every interest—and just about every story.

Glen handed over his box and leaned over the table to recount his story. “There’s got to be more to this box than meets the eye,” he insisted. And he stood back expectantly. Anibal turned the box over in his hands and peered at it. “It’s a backgammon or chess board,” he announced to the crowd that had gathered. He traced the ornate designs with his fingers while Glen told him again about the spirits of Ramses and Nefertiti. Anibal listened and said, “Well, these are cartouches,” he explained. “They would have had the names of royalty inscribed in them, but unfortunately these are generic.” He went on to explain that the box wasn’t very old at all, and on a cultural level, probably not that important. Glen was obviously disappointed, but undeterred. “I’ll just have to keep looking,” he said as he wrapped up his box and moved on to find his daughters.

“It’s hard to know what people are looking for,” Nell told me afterwards. Many people come with the hope that they’ve found something of value or because they have an artifact that’s been handed down in the family and they want to validate its history, so it can be a tricky and sensitive discussion. After all, not everyone can be as fortunate as the man who brought in a pot that had been picked up by his great-grand father when he served as a ship’s captain in the Caribbean. Anibal believed the pot was from Peru and directed the man to visit a gallery where he could view similar items. He left anxious to hold on to this piece of history—and with a handy certificate to share with doubters.

But is a certificate enough? “Sometimes it comes down to what you want to believe,” Anibal explained to social science teacher Lee Karlin who had brought several bags of cultural artifacts which he’d collected during his world travels. “You can either believe it’s real or have it tested. But ask yourself what having it testing will mean to you.”

Lee laid out an assortment of artifacts including, pottery, statues, and jewelry from South America and southeast Asia. Turning a small figurine over in his hands Anibal asked, “When did you bring this over?” Lee shrugged. “Years ago,” he said. “I’ve picked these up during my travels. Anibal acknowledged that he had no reason not to believe some of these pieces were real. Lee was hoping for a more definite confirmation, but Anibal’s hesitation allowed for a brief discussion on the importance of context and manufacturing of tourist goods meant to evoke historic artifacts. Lee left with information on how to have his pieces tested, and an invitation to pose for the museum’s Flickr gallery.

In between identifications, there were real teaching opportunities too. During a lull, Anibal demonstrated how his microscope worked to an small crowd of adults and children, highlighting how different light can reveal different features and help him make identifications. It was a theme that was common throughout ID Day. When I wandered over to the botany station, James Miller took the opportunity to show me how he uses reference guides to identify plant specimens. In some ways, it’s a matter of a process of elimination—you identify the family you believe the plant belongs to and find it in the reference guide, and then try to match identifying traits to a genus. Once a genus has been established, you can then try to match the specimen to a photo. It’s a time consuming process, yes, but the tomes(1) that James had at his disposal were impressive and gave a concrete sense to the wealth of knowledge that we’ve acquired through the ages—something that isn’t always communicated as pointedly through digital means.

Stations did not operate in isolation. For example, James sent a visitor who brought in a leaf with insect holes to the entomology station. And on several occasions, Anibal suggested visitors see Kennet Flores at the earth and planetary sciences station. With overlaps like these, ID Day did much to promote a multidisciplinary experience of science by showing visitors how scientific exploration can begin in their backyard —and grow with the willingness to consider different questions.

(1) Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Henry Gleason. And Manual of Cultivated Plants by Liberty Bailey. And associated illustrated guides.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Hasufin 11:31 am 07/26/2012

    It can be pretty tough when people have a personal investment in an item.

    I have a shin-gunto – it’s an army-issue WWI “katana” (I use the term in quotes because it’s really NOT a katana, it’s a piece of metal shaped and styled to look like a katana). I picked it up in SF about 12 years ago, and at the time I tried to contact a supposed expert to determine if it was real.

    Unfortunately, the exchange rapidly became rather acrimonious. From his perspective, I suppose was pestering him about an obvious fake; from my perspective he was rude, dismissive, and his criteria had nothing to do with the piece (the reason he cited for it being a fake was that it wasn’t a true katana, having not been forged in the proper method, etc. – a fact which I knew from the beginning, and if it HAD been a true katana it would have clearly been a fake, since shin-gunto aren’t true katana…)

    At any rate, it’s a matter of knowing what the actual question is, and both sides have to be cautious and know what agenda the other brings to the table.

    I am curious as to what people bring for ID day. IS it mostly man-made things like family heirlooms, or are there more plants, or what?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 12:05 am 08/2/2012

    Hey Hasufin! Sorry for the delay. All of the scientists I spoke with also discussed being able to sense agendas, and Anibal asked people outright, “What do you hope to learn today?” And sometimes had to make it clear he couldn’t meet those expectations.

    This year at ID Day there were stations for plants, seashells, rocks, and insects! It was a mix of touristy items, family heirlooms and things found in the park :)

    Link to this

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