Collections are the Heart of Hands-on Learning
It’s a small, simple weaving, warmly earth-toned, looking like something my grandmother might have made a few years ago. Only this sample, tucked away in a safe in anthropologist Melinda Leach’s laboratory, was woven from cotton fibers spun in an Andean village 1,000 years ago or more by a craftsperson who really understood fabrics.
This ancient cultural artifact is part of an irreplaceable collection, one of several in the care of Leach, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Dakota. She was called on by the federal government to help protect an ancient indigenous site from artifact poachers and “pot hunters.”
“We basically use three kinds of collections here,” said Leach, a practicing archaeologist. There are small teaching collections used for hands-on work in archaeology and anthropology analysis labs. There are limited-access research collections. And there are collections of materials used for comparison or identification of objects.
“Hands-on collections, the kind we use in teaching, are absolutely vital in our business,” said Leach, who, besides her role as custodian of collections loaned to the University for research by agencies such as the Department of Interior, also has built several of her own collections. “Collections are very relevant for teaching because students need to touch, and turn, and feel artifacts to understand something about the cultures that created these objects.”
The Anthropology Department also has several collections from generous private donors.
“These are donors from decades past who are eager to transfer some of their collections of artifacts to us for teaching,” she said. “Many of those collections have become increasingly important in our courses because some of our research materials are too fragile or rare for student handling.”
“For example, I have a collection of delicate textiles which I have under research agreement with the Nevada State Museum,” Leach said. “I can use those to demonstrate a few things to individual students who are interested in textiles research, but I cannot use them in class. Those of us who do handle them do so on a very restricted basis, and then only with special gloves and masks.”
The temporary collections are from federal and state agencies. These are collections directly involved with contracted work being done by the department faculty and researchers.
“The University doesn’t own those collections,” Leach explained, “but we are custodians of those collections while they’re here — sometimes for several years — while we’re completing analysis of those materials that were excavated from archaeological sites.”
A couple of comparative collections have been built up over the years by faculty members for both research and teaching purposes, she said.
“Thus, we have a small geological specimen collection available to compare with artifacts to see what rocks and minerals were used in making them,” she said. “And we have a small, but growing, collection of modern animal bones, also for research and teaching purposes. Sometimes we’ve had donated animal skeletons from people on farms; sometimes we’ve prepared skeletons from road kill or carcasses found, with permits, on federal lands where we’re doing archaeological work.”
Why do scientists such as Leach value the collecting process?
“As an archaeologist, I’m really into what’s tangible,” she said. “There are so many things that you can do with digital media, but even if I were to use them for research, there are some things that you have to feel. There’s a fine level of detail on cultural artifacts that has to be examined with lenses and teaching scopes. For example, I turn the warps and wefts of a piece of textile over, and look inside woven portions to examine the nature of the weaving technology used. I think it makes it more vital, more real, to know you’re handling something really ancient.”
The digital revolution has made a lot of research easier, she said.
“Of course, I do reference items online. I review the digitized records of artifacts from museums, and go online to find out if there’s a particular piece at a museum at Berkeley, for example, or to discover which museums are going to have the holdings that I need to visit for analysis,” Leach said.
“You can see a thousand pictures of an ancient artifact, an old pot or textile,” she observed, “but to know you’re actually touching something that people handled thousands of years ago, that’s still romantic and exciting.”
Juan Pedraza | Staff Writer