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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

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.

Notes:

(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.

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

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