News Feature

Students Date Pre-Columbian Artifacts

Anthropology Department’s work on display in Boyden Hall

How do you discover the origins of bowls and sculptures that may be thousands of years old or that might simply be modern recreations? Just ask Bridgewater State University seniors Scott Delaney and Jacob Coffey.

“It was a very big mystery and both of us are very easily intrigued by mysteries,” said Jacob, an anthropology major from Easton. “We really wanted to be able to figure out what was going on with these and where they were from.” 

Scott and Jacob assessed almost three dozen artifacts ranging from everyday objects, such as spinning spools, to figurines with ritual significance, donated to BSU by the Joan Pearson Watkins Trust. The trust had little information, leaving Scott and Jacob to scour auction house websites and other sources in a dogged search for answers.

They discovered the Pre-Columbian artifacts that date back thousands of years, some of which can now be seen in in the first-floor display cases of Boyden Hall, are generally from Central and South America. But, the collection includes a terracotta effigy from Europe and a modern piggy bank, outliers that underscore the importance of keeping good records.

“People think archeologists study artifacts. We do, but that’s so we can learn about the people,” said Dr. Michael Zimmerman, an assistant professor of anthropology working on the project with Scott and Jacob. “The vast majority of information learned about artifacts comes from their context. Objects without context can tell us very, very little.”

Through work more commonly done by graduate students, Scott and Jacob researched, cataloged, photographed and described items in the collection including:

  • Tequila Drinker (100BCE-250CE, pictured top right): “From the Nayarit culture of Western Mexico, this seated male figure has a vessel attached to his back which was once used for drinking tequila. He has many painted markings, including around his eyes, and wears armbands as a possible notation of status. A piece of his headwear has been chipped off, and there is a significant amount of impacted dirt inside the vessel.”
  • Dancing Dogs (300BCE-300CE, Colima, Mexico, pictured bottom right): “This is a reproduction of pieces found in shaft burials. The true nature of their meaning is unknown, but it is believed that the smoother dog is younger and represents youth, while the texture on the other dog represents the wrinkles of old age. Some believe that they are not dancing, but fighting, representing the fight between life (youth) and death (age).”
  • Terracotta Effigy (5700-4500BCE, pictured left): “From the Vinca culture of Neolithic Serbia and Bosnia, this piece is likely a terracotta effigy. The Vinca people generally carried out artistic production at the household level for personal consumption, with some pieces being formed with great skill and others appearing more simplistic. This piece may have been created by a young person still developing his or her skill, and represents a standing woman. From the annotations on its container, this piece passed through Enna, Sicily, before entering this collection.” 

The exhibit, on display through the end of September, highlights the capabilities of the Department of Anthropology and the importance of understanding objects’ origins.

“Part of what an anthropology and archeology department is trying to do is give a voice to these cultures and tell their story,” said Scott, an archeology major from Norton.

Scott and Jacob hope to continue that mission through their own business documenting history.

“It’s a dream we’re kicking off and it’s starting to be a reality,” Jacob said.

An exhibit unveiling will take place at 2 p.m. on March 28 in Boyden Hall. 

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