Claire Heckel gave a Brown Bag Lunch presentation on Monday, November 13, at 12:15 pm. Her talk was entitled “Archaeological Science in Museum Collections: Re-examining Ethnological Materials and Ethnographic Accounts.”

The American Museum of Natural History holds an exceptional collection of Native American artifacts from the Great Plains region, many of which were collected by ethnographers in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Collecting was especially intensive between 1900 and 1915, when the identification of culture areas and the diffusion of cultural traits (as isolated features) were chief among the concerns of collecting anthropologists. Such processes of collection, categorization, and curation have since been criticized as reflections of imagined, rather than real, social categories and for their role in the ordering, partitioning, and presenting of the colonized world by/for the colonizers. A critical, objects-centered re-examination of museum collections and related ethnohistorical accounts, undertaken in dialogue with source communities, reveals tensions and discrepancies that widen the discursive space for revised accounts of culture change and cultural survival that emphasize agency over passivity and resilience over victimization. Beginning with the reasons for revisiting the collections, this talk will highlight some of the approaches, drawn from prehistoric archaeology and archaeological science, that have been recently applied to Plains objects of dress and adornment at the American Museum of Natural History and the particular insights, challenges, and opportunities that this process has presented.

Claire Heckel’s research is centered on human investment in social-symbolic technologies, ranging from the evolution of personal adornment practices in the Early Upper Palaeolithic of Southwestern Europe to dress and adornment practices of ethnohistorical Native American populations of the Great Plains. Her approach to these objects is grounded in an anthropology-of-technology framework that emphasizes the intersections of identity, social organization, economic systems, environments, and technological choice. Methodologically, Dr. Heckel’s study of artifacts and ornaments from archaeological and ethnological contexts combines qualitative observations, morphometric and attribute analysis, physico-chemical analyses, materials science, microscopy, and experimental reproduction.