Inked Histories

Inked Histories: Tattooing Around the World


 Advertisement for a "tattooed lady" in a circus sideshow. 

Advertisement for a "tattooed lady" in a circus sideshow. 

Tattoos are painful (I know from firsthand experience.) They're sometimes regrettable. And yet, they've been part of our bodies for thousands of years. Why? Why do we ink our bodies? Why is it such an ingrained part of our history? Why is it forbidden to some? Why do so many cultures around the world tattoo?

 A closer look at some of Iceman’s tattoos.  (Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)

A closer look at some of Iceman’s tattoos. (Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)

The History of Tattoos

Tattoos have been around as early as the Neolithic Period (and possibly as early as the Upper Paleolithic). The earliest evidence for tattoos are artistic depictions. Our first direct evidence for tattoos comes from 3000 BCE. Otzi the Ice Man, who lived sometime between 3370-3100 BCE, is a preserved early man found in Europe. His skin still has tattoos. Is it exciting or terrifying that your tattoos could last for 5,000 years? 

The word "tatau" comes from Samoan (a language of the Samoan people who live in the Pacific Islands). It was brought back to the Western World by James Cook. However, tattooing was not unknown to Western culture before this. It was known by other names. 

Tattooing Around the World

 Tattooed Japanese man ca. 1875. 

Tattooed Japanese man ca. 1875. 


Ancient China. Peoples in Ancient China considered tattooing to be barbaric, a punishment and identity marker for slaves and criminals. The word "prisoner" was tattooed on the faces of those who committed crimes. Despite these outward signs of derision, many heroes in Ancient Chinese prose were tattooed. One story tells of a mother who tattooed a pledge on her son's back when he went away to the army. Southern China was closer to cultures that tattooed and was home to talented tattoo artists. People would come from Southeast Asia and India to be tattooed by artists here. 

Japan. In great contrast, Japan has been tattooing since the Paleolithic. Tattoos were indications of social status before the Meiji Era of Japan and before direct contact with Europe. Later influenced by westernization, tattooing sharply declined in Japan. From 1603-1868, tattooing was done only by prostitutes, manual laborers, and firemen to denote their status. Eventually, tattooing was banned for being barbaric, leaving heavily tattooed people in a state of limbo. Their very bodies became a crime. Some speculate that the yakuza (the Japanese mob) arose from this state of limbo. 

The Philippines. The Philippines were also once pro-tattoo. Tattoos were believed to be magical. They were also markers of rank and accomplishments. Christianization, however, put a damper on tattooing, spreading the idea that tattoos were heathen or lower-class. 

Taiwan. Facial tattoos are of significant cultural importance among the Atayel ethnic group in Taiwan. Men get their faces tattooed in a coming of age ritual. A man earned these tattoos by bringing back a human head, thereby proving he can protect his homeland. Women, similarly, had to prove they could weave to earn their facial tattoos. Only people with tattoos could marry and pass into the spirit world. Male tattoos were simple compared to those of women. Female tattoos could take up to ten hours to complete. Among the traditional Atayel people, only women were tattoo artists. 

Thailand. Still to this day, people in Thailand tattoo themselves with symbols for luck and protection. These tattoos must be given by monks or priests to be imbued properly. 

Myanmar. In Myanmar, one ethnic group, the Chins, had a significant tattooing practice. Boys were tattooed from their waist to their knees. In Burmese culture, boys had to enter temporary monkhood. The waist tattoos were usually done during or after this ordination. These tattoos were painful and were given over a period of 3-6 days. Boys used opium to endure the pain. Women in the Chin culture also tattooed, though their reasons were different. It is said that Chin women tattooed their faces around 15-20 years old to discourage kidnapping by invaders. However, traditional tattooing fell into decline when the Socialist party banned the practice. Later, as many Chins converted to Christianity, tattooing nearly died out. 

 Tattooed Egyptian figurine. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tattooed Egyptian figurine. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Rome/Greece. In the Mediterranean, primarily slaves and criminals had tattoos. Tattoos were punishment for crimes. Romans tattooed soldiers and arms manufacturers to identify them. Religious tattooing was practiced in other Mediterranean regions, such as Egypt and Syria. Christianity may have forbidden tattooing (in Leviticus) to differentiate itself from these religious groups. 

Classical Persia. In Classical Persia, only slaves and prisoners of war were tattooed. Later, Islam would spread to the region. Some branches of Islam forbid tattooing. However, Islamic cultures in the Middle East have practiced tattooing alongside Islam with no issue. 

Ancient Egypt. In Ancient Egypt, very little evidence exists for tattooing of men. It is believed that there was religious significance to tattooing. Until 300-400 BCE, evidence only exists for tattoing on women. Women in Egypt were tattooed since at least 2000 BCE and may have been a signifier of a priestess or other religious figure. 

 Tattoo on the mummified body of the Siberian Ice Maiden, image courtesy of the Siberian Times.

Tattoo on the mummified body of the Siberian Ice Maiden, image courtesy of the Siberian Times.


Siberia and Eastern Europe. The Scythian Culture of Siberia and Central Asia has some of the most impressive preserved tattoos from ancient times. The Siberian Ice Maiden has significant tattoos on her body. It is believed that the people of the Pazyryk culture used tattoos as markers of identity. 

Germanic/Celtic/Nordic Peoples. These groups are the only early European peoples for which we have evidence of tattooing. Western and Central Europeans didn't appear to have significant tattooing practices. Even for these peoples, most of our evidence comes from secondhand accounts and artistic depictions. We have no direct evidence that any of these people tattooed. People from other cultures recorded Vikings having tattoos, but this could have been temporary paint. 

 Maori Woman in the 19th Century, showing off mojo tattoos. 

Maori Woman in the 19th Century, showing off mojo tattoos. 


Polynesia has some of the richest tattooing traditions in the world. This is where we get the word for tattoo. The exploration of Polynesia is what brought tattooing back into popularity in the Western World. 

Maquesas Islands. Both men and women receive their tattoos as symbols of lineage, denoting rites of passage, and marking accomplishments. 

Maori. The Maori have some of the most unique tattooing traditions of any culture - moko. Rather than administered by needles, the skin is carved by chisels. This leaves grooves in the skin. Moko were tattoos on the face, denoting high status. It was a rite of passage and to make people more sexually appealing. Men had full face tattoos. Women only had their lips and chins tattooed. Tattoo artists were considered sacred. Today, moko has experienced a resurgence as a marker of cultural identity. 

Samoa. There are two types of tattooing in Samoa - pe'a for men, malu for women. Pe'a is a tattoo which goes from the waist to the knees. The process is extremely painful and can take anywhere from a week to years to complete. If one does not complete a tattoo for reasons of money or pain, it is a mark of shame. Those without tattoos are called "naked." The family joins the tattooed person to offer words of encouragement through the process. Malu is a smaller tattoo on the backs of thighs of women. It used to only be worn by the chief's daughters after they reached puberty, but later many other women practiced Malu. 

 This pot depicts a woman with ornate tattoos on her body, arms, and face; filed teeth, and a deformed head. It dates to AD 1300 - 1520.  Copyright © 2010 Tom Gidwitz

This pot depicts a woman with ornate tattoos on her body, arms, and face; filed teeth, and a deformed head. It dates to AD 1300 - 1520.

Copyright © 2010 Tom Gidwitz


Southeast U.S. Tattoos were a maker of rank and accomplishments. They could be blue or red and were given to males and females. If an individual had tattoos they were not entitled to, they must get them removed. 

Mesoamerica. There has been much debate as to whether groups like the Aztecs tattooed or painted their bodies. Spaniards who came in contact with the Aztecs say they tattooed, but most of our evidence is secondhand. It is fairly certain, however, that other groups, such as the Huastec, tattooed. 

 This young Fulani woman has "tchoodi," a tattoo around her lips that makes her more attractive to men. 

This young Fulani woman has "tchoodi," a tattoo around her lips that makes her more attractive to men. 


Unfortunately, little research has been done on tattooing in Africa (outside of Egypt). It seems that while present, scarification (the process of making cuts on the skin to create patterns of scars) was more prominent among most ethnic groups in Africa. Scarification was believed to cure disease, protect against evil, reflect personality, social status, and tribal identity. In some groups, such as the Hausa, tattoos came from scarification. Ash or charcoal is rubbed into the wounds to stall healing and create a more raised pattern. This had the side effect of creating tattoos. This process is called cicatrization. For cultures like the Fulani, mothers and grandmothers made small incisions on a child's lips and face. 

 A "tattooed lady" in the early 20th century. 

A "tattooed lady" in the early 20th century. 


Tattooing was reintroduced to the Western World by sailors to Polynesia. In America, sailors initially used tattoos as a means of differentiating themselves from others on their I.D. cards. Later, they began to use tattoos as a means of self expression. In Britain, tattooing was associated with sailors and the wealthy. Sailors received tattoos on their journeys and only the wealthy could afford the expensive process of tattooing outside of those voyages. The idea of tattoos being a marker of wealth began to die out in the late 19th century. Heavily tattooed women "tattooed ladies" became featured in circuses. Until the 1920s, these women were popular sideshow acts. 

Today, 23% of American women are tattooed, compared to 19% of men. It is the first time in U.S. history women have outnumbered men when it comes to tattoos. Despite the historic forbidding of tattoos in Christianity, many Christians today use tattoos to identify themselves with their faith. 

Reasons for Tattooing

If there is one singular word to sum up all the reasons behind tattooing, it would be "identity." They can denote status, group affiliation, or accomplishments. Many people tattoo for aesthetic purposes. Some women in the Western World practice tattooing as permanent makeup. Some people use tattoos to cover up scars, stretch marks, or other flaws. They can be an indication of spiritual devotion or loyalty to one's family. They can be done for luck, for protection, or for an expression of individuality. 

Why do archaeologists hate fun? [Mini Blog]


And historians, and scholars in general. Why do they all hate fun? Or perhaps, more accurately, why do they lack imagination? Why do we dig our heels in and insist that anything that challenges our views couldn't possibly exist? And if an academic is open to a non-mainstream thought, they're immediately black-balled by the academic community. I think more than many other disciplines, archaeology and history are inundated with amateurs who wish to partake in the field without the "proper educational background." But this lack of an educational background actually creates a much more open-minded interpretation of the evidence. 

  The Maine Penny - Hoax or Real?  Photo courtesy of Maine State Museum. 

The Maine Penny - Hoax or Real? Photo courtesy of Maine State Museum. 

Or it makes them gullible enough to believe hoaxes. But even the most educated minds have been fooled before. 

I remember a paleontology professor - a man with a doctorate and one of the smartest people I've ever known - saying there was IMPOSSIBLE for anything other than carbon-based life to exist. He gave his very well-thought-out evidence for this assertion. But haven't we discovered life we insisted couldn't be possible before? Why do scholars keep shutting down a universe that has proven to be full of infinite possibilities?

The world went insane when it was discovered that Columbus wasn't the first European to step foot on the American continent - it was the Vikings, nearly 500 years prior. "There must have been a mistake!" But, no, we are still discovering more Viking sites in North America

This is not to say that aliens built the pyramids. This is not to say that scholars are uptight. I'm an archaeologist myself. And always be skeptical. Certainly, question. And question again. And again. Never stop questioning. But denying possibilities could be denying real evidence that revolutionizes our knowledge of the world we live in. 


Can Feng Shui be Applied to Exhibit Design?


Anyone who knows me knows that I’m open-minded and willing to give just about anything a try. I’m also a chronic insomniac. I’ve had trouble getting sleep since I can remember. If I’m not taking 2+ hours to fall asleep, I’m waking up at 3am and unable to fall back asleep. And I have tried everything. I’ve tried every combination of everything. I’ve tried aromatherapy. I’ve tried proper diet, exercise, no caffeine, turning off electronics an hour before bed, not using the bed for anything but sleep, etc. And, of course, the list includes Feng Shui. Did it work? I can’t be sure. I definitely slept like a baby that first night. But whether it was from Feng Shui or exhaustion from pushing furniture around, I can’t say.

For those that aren’t New Age Hippies like me, Feng Shui is a Chinese philosophy of harmonizing with your environment. Calculations and formulas balance the invisible force of the universe (or qi). Feng Shui has been used to orient buildings and design homes. Even the Skeptic Encyclopedia concedes it is rational to wish to harmonize with your environment. And my philosophy is: what could it hurt?


Shapes and Layout

There are certain aspects of Feng Shui that can be helpful to exhibit design. Feng Shui encourages a variety of shapes in your environment to keep your Feng Shui elements balanced. From a more practical standpoint, the mixture of shapes will keep the eye engaged. If everything is rectangular, the design will become monotonous. Feng Shui also emphasizes the importance of flow. This is definitely important in exhibit design. There has to be a clear pathway through the exhibit space.


Colors and Elements

Plenty of research has been done on the psychological effect of colors. And these effects are not much different than the color meanings in Feng Shui. Marketing and branding uses color to influence our purchasing decisions.

The interior of our museum is dominated by wood and metal elements with a touch of earth elements. In our permanent exhibit, the area is dominated by wood elements in materials and shape. (The element of wood is connected with rectangular shapes.)

Our walls in our exhibit are gray and light blue. Psychologically speaking, light blue calms the mind and aids in concentration. But it can be perceived as unemotional and unfriendly. It is not an inviting color, but may aid the audience in learning. Gray is a psychologically neutral color, which is why it is used in our changing exhibit area. It is supposed to be an unseen backdrop. But the question is, do we want an unseen backdrop of color or do we want to affect how people feel when they are in the space? (Unfortunately, in the temporary exhibit space, how we want them to feel may be ever changing.) In Feng Shui, blues invite wisdom and calms the mind. Not so different from proven color theory. Gray, however, is not a neutral color in Feng Shui. Instead, it is considered a helpful color as it balances black and white.


Controlling Our Exhibit Elements

Our overabundance of the wood element is counteracted by the metal element. Metal helps to control wood. The color gray and the metal light fixtures help combat the wooden display cases. However, according to Feng Shui, we would he helped by having more circular items. (Circles are connected to metal). In this aspect, I agree with Feng Shui. We could definitely soften up our exhibit.

However, we have only ‘controlled’ our wood element. We have not tried to ‘reduce’ it, which would be done by adding the fire element to the mix. Fire is associated with the color red, which is a powerful color psychologically. Red makes a statement, that’s for certain. Colors also include yellow, orange, purple, pink, and magenta. Fire is associated with triangle and star shapes. It is meant to enhance fame, reputation and public attention. Not a bad addition to a museum’s Feng Shui. Maybe I can look into adding fire elements as we move forward with updating our permanent exhibit.

Holy Hillbillies!: The Unique Religion of the Appalachias


For much of the past week, I’ve been sitting on my office floor, mapping out Christian branches and denominations in magic marker on giant paper. It is a much more significant task than I expected. With estimates of Christian denominations ranging from 200 to 33,000, I had no hope of making sense of it all. (This was done for our “Our Beliefs, Our Faiths” mini exhibit running now. I’m not actually crazy.) I sat on the ground with my papers realizing I’d just fallen into the deep end. No, I’d fallen into Mariana’s Trench. And I was being eaten alive by anglerfish.

 Artist's rendering of me trying to understand Christian denominations. 

Artist's rendering of me trying to understand Christian denominations. 

Narrowing my focus, I decided to research denominations that emerged in our region, which led me to Church of God. A few of the beliefs of the Church of God that differ from mainstream Christianity are speaking in tongues and faith healing. To this yankee, lay on of hands was a cleric’s spell in Dungeons and Dragons and Glossolalia was the word that makes you lose the spelling bee. (And Appalachia is pronounced App-uh-lay-shya.) When I met people who believed in these things, I had to learn more. I had to understand.

And I learned that my grandfather (now passed) apparently had the gift of tongues.


The Gift of Tongues

Speaking in tongues is considered a signal of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. People may also have the gift of interpreting tongues. Some may have convulsions or faint when experiencing the gift of God. Speaking in tongues goes back to Ancient Greece, to the priests of Apollo. It goes back to the Ancient Israelites. Today, it is primarily found in Pentacostal/Charismatic churches. Scientifically speaking, during these episodes, the part of the brain that oversees inhibition and self control essentially shuts down. For believers, this may be an indication of the Holy Spirit taking control of a person. For skeptics, this may be a purely psychological phenomenon.

Then there is faith healing. I will not comment on whether or not this is real or a fraud, as I am not qualified to take on such a complex topic. However, faith healing and speaking in tongues can be found in many different churches across the world. What about practices unique to Appalachia?


Signs Following

This brings us to the Holiness Movement and (more locally) the Church of God with Signs Following. Like the Galapagos Islands’ isolation bringing us so many unique and interesting endemic species of animals, Appalachian isolation brought on unique culture and beliefs. (Appalachian Isolation sounds like a School House Rock song.) Endemic practices such as snake handling arose from interpretations from the following biblical verses:

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
— (Mark 16:17-18)

These are called the “Signs Following,” and are a critical component of Appalachian Pentecostal practice. It is not found in some translations of the Bible, but it is present in the King James Version, which is the preferred version of most of these churches.

The practice of snake handling began when George Went Hensley introduced it to the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. This is almost exclusively practiced in the Appalachian region. The practice is outlawed in all Appalachian states except West Viriginia. However, adherents still practice despite the illegality and the danger posed to snake handlers. According to Pastor Jamie Coots: “Handlers get bitten all the time, and every few years someone dies.” Sadly, Coots was one of the ones to die from a snake bite after being bitten nine times during his life. Family refused medical treatment for him, as it went against his religious beliefs. Coots wished to have snake handling protected under religious freedom.

On the one hand, observers are kept at a safe distance from those that wish to handle the snakes and there has been no documented cases of a snake biting a non-handling believer. On the other, the snakes are often captured from the wild and kept in poor health. For those who do die of a snake bite, it is believed that it was simply their time to die.

Adherents also drink poison - usually strychnine. 

You can’t go to the hospital. There is not a lot they can do. But [seeking medical help] means you’re already starting to lose faith.
— Mack Wolford

These are deadly religious practices and I cannot say whether they should be legal or not. But they are unique. They are part of our history as a region. And we need to preserve these traditions through writings as the practice begins to die out.

Fun Post: Writing Historical Fiction


In addition to being a museum curator, I'm also a budding novelist. Budding novelist sounds better than wannabe writer. It all boils down to writing novels in my spare time, just for fun. You can probably guess what genre they usually are. Yeah, historical fiction or historical fantasy. If I do write pure fantasy, it's got a heavy basis in real history. (Currently I'm trying to branch out and tackle the exact opposite genre: Science Fiction. I can't even decide on the main character's name.) 

Why am I babbling about this? Because once every couple of months, I get to write a post on whatever I like. (Every month that we have a fifth Thursday). And I want to talk about my other great passion. 

Although I'm more curator than author, I do have some tips on writing any fiction with a strong historical base. 


1. Set the mood

One difficult with writing historical fiction is getting tone mixed. History is jumbled together as a monolith in our minds and it can actually affect the mood of your book. Music and sound (even without words) can affect your verbiage and the way you tackle the scene. If I want two characters to have a discussion about the meaning of life on a bench in a park, I could get two very different things depending on if I listened to Medieval festival music or Soviet propaganda anthems. 

My favorite website is for atmosphere, ambience, and music. Try out 1920s Speakeasy. It's one of my favorites. This site can also be used for just about any genre. If you want something specific, you're likely going to have to go digging. You don't need to be specific down to the very minute in history. This is one thing you can brush with broad strokes because it serves as inspiration for tone. 


2. Move from the library to the typewriter

At least under-researchers get something written. Many a writer spends more time researching than writing. I won't give you an arbitrary length of time that you should research, since everyone absorbs information at varying degrees. But no wishy-washy nonsense. You want to have a solid foundation to stand on. Read a full Wikipedia page's worth of research for every priority topic you want to tackle. For example, if you want to write a fantasy based on Aztec gods, make sure you research the Aztec mythology and the general overview of Aztec history and culture. You don't need to read all the codices and learn the exact hairstyle a lowerclass woman would wear. 

Build the solid foundation for a house, but you don't need to worry about the style of the faucets just yet. 


3. Anachronism? Is that like an aneurism? 

Sit down to write and don't let anything but fundamental historical accuracies get in your way. Yes, you likely need to know the basic tenets of Islam if you're writing a novel set in Ottoman Turkey. But, no, you don't need to know on what day the garbage truck came through in 1947 in Chicago. If you don't know how your main character would have worn their hair or what food they would eat, mark it to research it later and keep going. Put a placeholder if need be. This is all about putting up the frame of your house. Take liberties. Mark anything you're not sure of. 


4. The Antikythera Method

History itself has its own anachronisms, like the above Antikythera mechanism. We're continuously discovering new things that reshape our theories of the past. When examining your story afterwards, handle the historical accuracy. Do your tedious research now that you know exactly what you need to discover. Pick and choose where you want to be accurate. And keep the cool anachronisms. Leave out the too-weird accuracies. The most important rule: don't break your story. If making something historically accurate will harm your story, don't do it. Unless... Rule two: don't write something that will take 90% of readers out of the story. Whether its an accuracy or an anachronism, eliminate anything that distracts too much from the story. There will be a small percentage of the population who know far too much about history and will be taken out of a story by an inaccuracy. And then there will be a part of the population so fascinated by an accuracy, they'll stop reading to research. Don't worry about either of those guys. 

If you don't have anything else to do tonight, look up these out of place artifacts: (I plan on doing an artifact about these seeming anachronisms in the future.) 

Educating All Y'all: Islam


As you can tell from the title, I want to keep this post as light-hearted as possible. Religion is a touchy subject, which I’ll be discussing in my next blog post. So keep an eye out for that. Some of you, like me, will have a  simple rule when making conversation: No politics and no religion. That is my one rule in nearly all interactions. However, another portion of the population asks “what church do you go to?” or “what denomination are you?” as often and as easily as asking someone’s name. (My answer to that is usually awkward laughter.)


But, if we are going to talk about religion, let’s talk about Islam. Once again, the population is split. There are those that misunderstand Islam and those that know Islam is misunderstood. If you’re here to fight instead of learn, then go to a boxing ring instead of an educational blog.

Here are a few misconceptions about Islam:


Islam is misogynistic

People are misogynistic. Islam is not. The relatively new (as in the 20th century) fundamentalist movement twists the words of the Quran.  It mutates the life of the Prophet Muhammad to suit its own needs. You can make something say whatever you want. These fundamentalist “Muslims” create their own meaning and interpretations of the Quran. They put themselves in a place of power and manipulate women how they want them. “Scholars” of Islam often insert their own meaning and interpretations into the Quran. They will issue fatwas (or rulings) based on their own interpretations of the Quran. This leads to fatwas such as: 

  • women do not need to be educated past elementary school
  • women can marry as young as 11
  • women should not wear bras
  • women can only be truly connected with God if she serves her husband’s physical needs first. 

It seems that these male “scholars” have written their own rules to give them power over women.

Why do I say they are writing their own rules? It comes from the Quran, doesn’t it? No. While women were not completely equal to men in the Quran, the book was feminist for its time. Women were entitled to property. Women kept their own last names. Women selected their own husbands and could initiate divorce. How do these Quranic verses compare with the fatwas issued above?

The Prophet Muhammad himself lived a life surrounded by strong women. His first wife was forty years old when she hired the twenty-five year old Muhammad. She was the leader of a trade caravan - a business owner. She was quite taken with Muhammad, so she proposed to him.

After Khadija’s death, we have Muhammad’s second wife, Aisha. She rode into battle on the back of a camel. Women at the time were freer in the Islamic world than in the Western world. They were generals and soldiers. They were entitled to divorce and kept their own name and inheritance. 


Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab (headscarf)

What does the Quran really say about a Muslim woman’s hijab?

The answer to this misconception is yes and no. Some Muslim women ARE forced to wear it. By laws. Or family. Or societal pressures. But other Muslim women wear it by choice. And their reasons are as varied as humanity is. Some read Quranic passages and hadiths as requiring the wearing of the headscarf. Others do so to rid themselves of oppressive beauty standards. For some women, the hijab is a symbol of their oppression. For others, it is a symbol of her freedom.

Hijab is a term meaning barrier. In the Muslim world, it refers to a code of dress for men and women. In the Western World, it means the headscarf. But once again, there are many interpretations on the few select passages in the Quran that speak about how women dress. Watch the above video for more detailed information.


Islam is incompatible with Western values

The Muslim on the Airplane 

Only in the way that Christianity or Judaism are. These three religions are more alike than they are different. They follow many of the same moral codes. When it comes down to it, Islam is held up by the Five Pillars of Islam:

  • The shahadah - or declaration of faith saying you believe in one God and that Muhammad is his messenger
  • salat - prayer
  • sawm - fasting during the holy month of Ramadan (if able)
  • hajj - the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca (if able)
  • zakat - charitable donation based on income.

Freedom of speech, prayer, fasting, travel, and charity hardly sound incompatible with Western values.

We’ve already tackled the myth of Islamic misogyny, so let’s tackle the other one: Islamic homophobia. Studies have shown that LGBT individuals believe Islam is more intolerant of homosexuality than any other religion. And they have a good reason. With so many Islamic countries punishing homosexuality with the death penalty, it doesn’t look good.

Once again, it comes down to scholars and interpretation.

There is no one Muslim perspective on anything.
— Kecia Ali with regards to homosexuality in Islam.

Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam has the story of Lot. And like Christianity and Judaism, there are many different interpretations among Muslims as to what exactly the passage is referring to. Is it condemning inhospitality? Homosexuality? Rape? The punishments cited by homophobes are not in the Quran. They are in unauthenticated hadiths (these are recorded sayings from the Prophet Muhammad.) However, some were written centuries after his death with no evidence  other than the word of one person. (Therefore called "unauthentic.”)

While most Muslims are homophobic (as are most evangelical Christians, for perspective), some Muslim scholars argue that homosexual feelings are not haram (meaning forbidden). Only the acts themselves are haram. For the majority of Islamic history, homosexuality operated under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In early Islamic history, there were Islamic scholars, poets, and artists who were openly homosexual. Arabia had no significant taboos against homosexuality. However, when the Persian Empire became the powerhouse in the Islamic world, we began to see a lot more discrimination against homosexuality.

If we are going to say that Islam conflicts with Western values (which are what? exactly?), Christianity would as well. Western society values personal freedom. It values women’s rights. It values diversity. In the Islamic holy book, women are given more personal freedoms than in Christianity. In Islam, converting must be a choice. Islam is more racially and ethnically diverse than Christianity. (I know what image you must have in your head, but only 15% of Muslims are Arab).


So what is Islam like?

There is no one answer. Islam is as diverse a set of beliefs as any other religion. Alcohol is considered “haram” by almost all Muslims, but I’ve known Muslims who drink. Muslims can be gay, feminist, fundamentalist, and everything in between. Some Muslims don’t even follow the Five Pillars of Islam and are often referred to as “non-practicing Muslims.” But Muslims nonetheless. One unique aspect of Islam is that you can’t excommunicate anyone (once again, there is debate as a small minority of Muslims believe you can.) And you only leave the Islamic faith by your own choice. You are the one who decides whether you are Muslim or not.

Islam in the United States is feeling like an outcast. Feeling unwanted. Fearing you will be forced to register yourself in a database. Fearing your family and friends will be exiled. Being forced to compensate with overt friendliness lest someone think you are evil. Removing your hijab so you don’t make other people feel uncomfortable. Not performing all five daily prayers in public because you don’t want to be caught. Trying to look less Muslim because you want to make it home tonight to your cat (who is eagerly awaiting her Fancy Feast).

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Education is the best weapon for battling hate. That’s why I’m educating all y’all.

Quilting in Tennessee

FTB Logo Foundation.JPG

Hello, everyone! I've been quite busy with the Quilt Show, so this week's blog post will be a combination of the blog I was supposed to write and this week's upcoming post. On the first Monday, I usually write up something related to the museum and museum events. On the second Monday, I usually write up a local history piece. This week, I'm combining them. So let's take a quick look at Quilting in Tennessee! 

Quilting History

Quilts were introduced in America when colonists arrived from Europe (though Europeans were not the inventors of the quilt - it has been found in many different cultures all over the Old World). Wholecloth quilts gave way to the rising popularity of patchwork quilts. Patchwork quilts are considered quintessentially American and is usually what is pictured when one thinks of a quilt. 

Major events became reflected in quilting, as evidenced by the increasingly popularity of scrap quilts in Tennessee during the Civil War. Women would often work together to create quilts for soldiers of the army they supported. Myra Inman of Cleveland, TN mentions Federal soldiers taking a quilt off her slave's bed as they moved through the area. 

Regional Differences

Before regions became more cohesive and mixed (due to inventions like the car, the printing press, the dissemination of national newspapers and magazines, etc.), there were more significant regional differences in quilts. Even across the state of Tennessee, one could see different trends. In East Tennessee, quilters favored appliqué, lighter tones, and more white fabrics incorporated into quilts. In Middle Tennessee, darker, more somber tones were used. And in West Tennessee, they preferred strong colors and used a variety of prints and solids. This does not hold true today as quilting patterns can be had from anywhere on the globe. 


To learn more about Quilting in Tennessee, stop by our exhibit: A Patchwork of American History, sponsored by the First Tennessee Foundation. 

Genocide, Colonialism, and Museums

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

The Black Panther hype continues and I want to highlight one very important scene in the movie (minor spoilers ahead).

The reaction at the end of this video was mine. I nearly jumped up and applauded in the movie theater, but didn’t because I’m a decent person and didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s experience.

Here’s the thing, all of my fields have a dirty history. I have a BA in Archaeology, an MA in Anthropology, and I work as a museum curator. Our work is historically built on racism, colonialism, theft, and genocide. We were grave-robbers. We were colonists. We claimed it was our divine right to subjugate and oppress other cultures and take their things for our own education and study. We even took people, putting them in our human zoos to gawk at.

Doesn’t help that I’m white. But I’ll leave that for another day.

When I talk about we, I’m referring to those traditionally of my profession - the anthropologists and historians. As archaeologists we dug up African countrysides and left nothing but holes in the ground as we carted off their greatest treasures to our museums. As anthropologists we used human samples to make determinations about racial differences (which, to the surprise of no one, suggested that whites were the superior race). As curators, we put those relics from other nations behind glass and profited off them while those nations suffered.

I know after those paragraphs, I’ve lost half of my readers. So, to the remaining two who are still here, I want to tell you how we should move forward.

From here on, this is my opinion. It is not an opinion that Europeans and Americans profited off exploitation of other cultures. But I do have an opinion on how I believe museums should move forward.

 (c) Pixar

(c) Pixar


  1. Negotiate the return of items. It’s a lot of work to put items back in the hands of their rightful owners, but we’ve taken steps towards it in the past. NAGPRA has helped negotiate the return of Native American burial artifacts to the Native American tribes to which they belong. This process would involve reaching across the aisle to negotiate with other countries. It would be a long, drawn-out, diplomatic process, but it would facilitate new bonds and partnerships. But what about OUR museums? Won’t they be empty? In this beautiful day and age, there are items called replicas. It’s amazing what we can do nowadays. And, really, with 3-D printing, this could be a fantastic method of replacing returned items.

  2. Negotiate the proper transfer of ownership. Many of the places the Western World has ripped items from are still struggling from the legacy of that colonialism. In most cases, the Western World stole the items, did not pay a fair price for them, or took advantage of a less-privileged nation. So what do we do? We go back, and we decide how to handle this past. We can offer a fair and final price. We can accept these items as a gift or donation from another nation (if the nation offers the item as a gift) and label it as such. We can offer a donation for our continued use of the item. We could offer a percentage of the profits we make off the item. No matter which way it is decided to be placed in our care, we should be making amends and we should be consulting the peoples these items were taken from.

Yes, it is a complicated process. It will be painful acknowledging the dark past of anthropology. It will not be financially in our best interests. So why do it? Because it’s the right thing to do.

 (c) Disney

(c) Disney

(How much did you love Black Panther?)




 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

Two things you need to know about me during this blog post: 1. I have a vicious cold. 2. I am hyped up on Black Panther.

Last week, I missed putting up a blog post. To my entire four readers, I apologize. (Who am I kidding? My only readers are Mike and myself.) Today I will be posting two blog posts, though both will be slightly shorter than usual. For today, my plan had been to examine Afrocentrism, Pan-Africanism, and the Diminution of the African continent. After watching Black Panther, I decided my readers would be better off watching Black Panther, as it tackles those issues in a much more entertaining way. And, also, while I did extensive research on those topics prior to seeing the movie, I couldn’t manage to string two coherent sentences together about the topics.

Between the cold medicine and the mucus filling my sinus cavities, I will not be managing to create neither a knowledge-sharing or thought-provoking blog post today. (If I ever manage to do so). So let’s talk about Afrofuturism. Or rather, please read my almost-nonsensical rant on Afro-futurism.

I have four primary passions that drive my life: history, costuming, writing, and my cat. Let’s talk about a subject encompassing the first three. I’ll save the topic of my cat for another day. Afrofuturism is a term relating to science fiction - it’s the genre seen in Marvel’s Black Panther. A science fiction aesthetic rooted in the black experience – both in Africa and around the world. It also combines elements of fantasy and history as well. Usually afrofuturism has the goal of reframing a political narrative.

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

Afrofuturism is a necessary term to identify specifically because most science fiction is rooted in European or Asian culture (the latter has become more prominent in recent years with shows like Firefly, movies like Pacific Rim, or many anime live-action remakes.) It tackles topics faced by African and black communities all over the world like colonialism and oppression. It is, in its nature, a politically charged genre.

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

Beyond the political topics it tackles, it is also an outlet for an expression of black excellence. It is a place in which black contributions to the world can be highlighted. When the world wants to use a black narrative, it focuses on their oppression - we clamor to read books about the experiences of a black slave, we run to the theaters to see movies showing blacks fighting for their rights. But does it always have to be about struggle? Why is it that the only story of blacks in the Western narrative is about romanticizing how they overcame obstacles placed upon them?

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

Our stories set the bar far too low. Blacks excel by achieving equality to whites. But whites excel by becoming superhuman. Afrofuturism tells us that blacks can be amazing. Period. No need to compare them to whites. Black narratives don’t always have to dwell on racism. Afrofuturism shows us the value of non-white culture and its potential for advancing all societies. It brings African cultures to center stage.

In the future, I want to see more than Afrofuturism. I want science fiction rooted in the hundreds of other cultures that fill our world. I want to see sci-fi steeped in ancient Mesoamerica, based in Japan (but with actual Japanese characters), based in Mongolia, based in Cambodia, based in India… I could go on. Our science fiction needs diversity that reflects the world we live in.


Race Wars and Peaceful Protests: an Intersectional Profile of Social Change

I apologize. The second Thursday of the month is usually dedicated to local history topics. Today’s planned topic was segregation and civil rights in Tennessee. However, this topic is more thoroughly reviewed here and I feel I couldn’t do a much better job than they’ve done.

Today’s post is instead inspired by the patterns I noticed while researching for this article. This is not meant to be an endorsement of any sort of method of social change. Simply, it is an examination of the differing methods whereby social change has come about.


The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.
— Booker T. Washington
By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creater with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
— W.E.B. Du Bois

My first thoughts on the differing ideologies for social change came when studying Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Both strove for the betterment of African-Americans after Emancipation. However, they had different methods for doing so. Washington believed that the appeasement of white men would, over time, earn the black man an improved status. If the black man could prove himself as a civilized member of society… if he could “play ball,” then he could be granted rights by the white man. (During this time, civil rights were primarily pursued for black men as women’s rights were still far away.) He called for compromise, which would, realistically, earn black men more opportunity. He offered the acceptance of white superiority in exchange for white support of black education. Safe. Peaceful. Realistic.

W.E.B. Du Bois did not want the future of the black race placed into the hands of the whites. Du Bois did advocate for peace, but he wanted power over black men firmly in the hands of black men. While Washington encouraged African-Americans to compromise, Du Bois eschewed it. Washington believed small changes would lead to changes in society, given time.  Revolutionaries like Du Bois, however, are idealistic. They look at the big picture. They cannot toil in progressive, but almost insignificant, actions. They cannot accept anything short of their visions for the future. 


I am not guilty. I am going to die and I have no fear to die. God bless you all.
— Ed Johnson, just before he was lynched.
We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.
— Malcolm X

I don’t like the word militant. It has a negative connotation. I’ve seen it used to describe W.E.B. Du Bois because he wasn’t willing to bow his head and accept compromise. I reject that resistance is militancy. I also reject that notion that nothing is won through militancy. Here I use pacifist to mean “passive resistance.” Activists resist, yes, and prove their point through action. But these actions are non-aggressive in nature. Pacifists may fast in protest. They may participate in sit-ins. They are the activists who don’t move to the back of the bus, who march through the streets, who sit at a whites-only lunch counter. They resist, but they don’t fight back. These are the actions of the pacifist. The ideology of a pacifist is also non-aggressive in nature and probably the most important identifier of a pacifist. Pacifists argue for equality. Pacifists wish to enact social change by elevating the unequal to become equal.

Militants make their point through a show of force and aggression. This doesn’t necessarily mean they take up arms and participate in acts of violence. Many times, this militancy is a militancy of thought. Militants use aggressive ideology, such as black supremacy. Militants wish to enact social change by elevating the unequal above the other and by pushing the oppressor down. Militant ideology is to argue for the opposing ideology of the current social environment. In action, militants are willing to meet aggression with aggression. Militants are more willing to use a show of force. Race riots and the like are results of militant thinking, but that does not mean all militancy is violent.

Incremental Pacifist: One Step at a Time

Incremental Pacifists believe change comes about through changing minds – even if it is only one at a time. It’s an internally-focused revolution: show them why you deserve to be equal through your actions. It is a change of accepting compromises and it has its place in social change. It is more slow and submissive and puts the power primarily in the hands of the oppressing power. 

Incremental Militant: Breaking Barriers

Incremental Militants are usually the holders of aggressive ideologies and are willing to be confrontational in daily pursuance of rights. They may carry guns for protection, expecting violence to be carried out against them. Or they may react in violence to infringement on their safety or rights. They may believe in supremacist ideas (with regards to the Civil Rights Movement, black supremacy).  Through incremental militant actions, one makes it clear to those around them that they will not be silenced. 

Revolutionary Pacifist: Peaceful Protest

Revolutionary Pacifists are usually regarded as martyrs. (Unlike Incremental Pacifists, who are usually forgotten with the passage of time, if they were ever noticed at all.) They demonstrate their beliefs in non-violent ways so as to reveal the oppressive force they rally against. Non-violent protests can be self-sacrificing particularly when the oppressive force reacts with violence. 

Revolutionary Militant: Forcible Change

Where Revolutionary Pacifists believe in “turning the other cheek,” Revolutionary Militants believe in “an eye for an eye.” They are aggressive in their pursuit of their oppositional ideologies and this sometimes leads to violence. 


Bottoms Up!: Snippets in the History of Beer


Beer. It’s the third most popular drink in the world. If you're wondering, water and tea are first and second.  Beer is made from fermented malted barley, wheat, corn, rice, or other cereal grains. Hops, when added to beer, is a natural preservative and stabilizer. It's a shared experience amongst people from all cultures and all walks of life.

Beer Consumption per Capita

1.     Czech Republic (Europe)

2.     Seychelles (Africa)

3.     Austria (Europe)

4.     Germany (Europe)

5.     Namibia (Africa)

6.     Poland (Europe)

7.     Ireland (Europe)

8.     Lithuania (Europe)

9.     Belize (North America)

10. Estonia (Europe)

The U.S. ranks at 17th.

Alcohol Consumption per Capita

1.     Belarus

2.     Moldova

3.     Lithuania

4.     Russia

5.     Romania

6.     Ukraine

7.     Andorra

8.     Hungary

9.     Czech Republic

10. Slovakia

The U.S. ranks at 48th.

Islamic countries rank at the bottom due to religious prohibition of alcohol consumption. Often, there are also laws against the consumption of alcohol in these countries. In some, the law only applies to Muslims, so religious minorities or visitors may partake.

The Quran says: "They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: 'In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.'" (Al-Baqara; 2:219)

The Bible speaks of alcohol similarly: "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: ... drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Galatians; 5:19–21)

Religion, including both Christianity and Islam, is frequently the reasoning behind alcohol prohibition. Counties and cities in the U.S. are dry. These places are usually in predominantly Christian areas. 

 A receipt for beer in Sumerian. 

A receipt for beer in Sumerian. 

Origins of Beer

It is interesting, then, that the first known instances of beer appear in Iran in 7000 BCE. We know beer was in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) by 6000 BCE, China by 5000 BCE, and Europe by 3000 BCE. Some determinations are based on residue analyses of pottery. Others are based on depictions and recipes from these civilizations. Sumeria, a civilization in Mesopotamia, honored Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing. Because she was female, the majority of brewers were women. Later in the region, the Bablylonian Code of Hammurabi (1754 BCE) refers to beer.

 A 19th century cartoon in favor of the temperance movement. 

A 19th century cartoon in favor of the temperance movement. 

Beer in the Old World

The Old World refers to Europe, Asia, and Africa. In Ancient Rome, wine replaced beer in popularity, though beer was not forgotten. It was simply relegated to lower classes. In Medieval Europe, beer was a drink for all classes. It was during this time that the beneficial addition of hops was discovered. It was noted by a Frankish Abbot (head of a monastery) in his writings in the 9th century. Indeed, beer wasn’t wholly disdained by religious Christians at this point in time.

Wine continued to be a more popular drink in Southern Europe due to its abundant grape production. However, beer was more popular in the working class.

 Chicha Morada 

Chicha Morada 

Beer in the New World

The Americas were not left out of discovering the enjoyable effects of fermented grains. In the New World, however, it was usually a combination of fermented grains and corn to create chicha. Chicha was in the stomachs of people from Mesoamerica to South America. They offered it to gods and their ancestors like many civilizations across the ocean.

We know a lot about Incan chicha consumption. In the capital of Cuzco, the king poured chicha into a bowl at the “navel of the universe” to feed the sun god. Human sacrifices were rubbed with the dregs of chicha, then tube-fed more chicha through a hole in the ground as they were buried alive.

 Disposal of liquor during Prohibition.

Disposal of liquor during Prohibition.


Alcohol was banned in the United States from 1920-1933 by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. This legislation was pushed by the “drys” (pro-prohibitionists). The drys were predominately Evangelical Protestants in the South. They believed that alcohol was the source of many evils befalling the United States in the early 20th century. However, this outlook was not popular among the general American public, who found many ways around the law.

The amendment banned the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol, but not consumption. Many people stockpiled alcohol prior to the act going into effect. During this time, physicians and pharmacists prescribed alcohol for medicinal purposes. They fought with the government to allow medicinal alcohol. Within six months, the government issued 72,000 prescription alcohol licenses to doctors and pharmacists. Even if you didn’t stockpile alcohol or get a prescription, there were other ways to get alcohol. There were speakeasies, moonshiners, and even your local grocery. Grape juice fermented into wine with 12% alcohol content after 60 days. There were no restrictions on grape juice.

Unfortunately, the laws unfairly targeted the working class. In the beginning, the working class was unable to amass the same stockpiles as the wealthy. When enforcement of the laws began, the working class was penalized more harshly in comparison to their upper class counterparts. More often, they were subject to raids and arrests.

The 18th Amendment was later repealed by the 21st Amendment. However, states, counties, and cities were allowed to create their own prohibition laws. Mississippi was the last dry state, repealing the law in 1966. Still today, there are dry counties and municipalities. 


Do you love beer and wine? Then you should toddle on down to the Brew-Ha-Ha at the Museum Center at 5ive Points! Get your tickets here: 

Museum Minimalism

 A view of one of our storage spaces. Space is becoming very precious. 

A view of one of our storage spaces. Space is becoming very precious. 

Minimalism. It’s a concept often used in interior and lifestyle design. Minimalism frees your space. It is intended to help you live a life without physical and emotional clutter.

It seems like a concept diametrically opposed to the purpose of museums. After all, the purpose of museums is to hold items in the public trust. Our purpose is to preserve and display history through artifacts. But is our current practice the best way to do so? Is there a better way to approach museum collections?

 One of our many boxes of Civil War Era bullets. 

One of our many boxes of Civil War Era bullets. 

Minimalist Accessioning

A common practice among new museums is accepting any items offered up for donations. This seems like a good idea at the present, but is short-sighted. Down the road, this will be a disaster. Even the most organized museum with solid accessioning procedures will create clutter for its future. In ten years or so, these museums will be inundated with artifacts. Most likely, many of these artifacts have never been removed from storage. Later curators will sift through these items during inventory and wonder why we’re wasting valuable space on it. These items seemed like a good idea at the time, when there was hundreds of square footage for it. But when your collections are bursting at the seams, you have to be more cognizant of the items you accept.

So what do we do? We need to approach accessioning with a minimalist mindset. Pretend your collection is already bursting at the seams, no matter what space you have. Is this item ever going to see the light of day? Is it important enough to take up precious space? After all, keeping that unknown hunk of metal now might well keep out a game-winning football years later. Why? Because deaccessioning is a much harder process. It is so mired in conflict that many museums fear deaccessioning.

 Some of the typewriters in our collection. 

Some of the typewriters in our collection. 

Decluttering through Deaccessioning

Many museums are not in the privileged space of early accessioning. Most are facing the problem of shrinking space. Most are looking at the bag of dozens of pencils that once belonged to a prominent local figure. Who thought these were worth keeping in the first place? Are we planning on having a pencil exhibit in the future? And, if we are, did we need every single pencil this person ever touched? The answer is likely no. We don’t need to keep the tissue a governor once sneezed on. This is not an episode of hoarders. So, why did we keep them? Perhaps we were taking anything to fill the space in our museums. Perhaps we felt bad telling donors that their generous donations were not accepted. Whatever the case, we are now faced with having to get rid of it. 

I’m not going to go too in-depth into deaccessioning, since it is a difficult process. It is a complicated procedure with several legal hoops you have to jump through. However, doing so is important to the well-being and the future of a museum. As a general rule, here’s what to deaccession.

  • Duplicates 
  • Unimportant items. You are a professional, and you have a valuable opinion on what is important. You have a pretty solid idea on what needs preserved and what can be displayed. Do you really need an antique eraser? Are you a historic stationary museum? Then probably not. Ask yourself if this item is worth channeling funds into its preservation. If this item was the only thing in your storage space, would it be worth the upkeep of temperature and humidity control? Is it worth the cost of the acid-free containers and bags it is kept in?
  • Unprovenanced items. These items might be better served in an education or teaching collection. They offer very little in the way of valuable research, but would be much more helpful for use in lessons. Have you tried writing exhibit labels for these items? It’s not easy. This is a chair probably from the 1950s. Does it serve your audience by teaching them something about their history? If not, it belongs somewhere else.
  • Items that don’t fit into your museum’s mission. Ours is: Telling the story of the Ocoee Region. This means non-local items, which might be cool, do not belong here. 
 One of my favorite impactful exhibits at the Customs House Museum. 

One of my favorite impactful exhibits at the Customs House Museum. 

Impactful vs. Immersive Exhibit Space

Minimalist exhibits are impactful. They highlight one or few artifacts, allowing the viewer to marvel at and examine this item. This item draws the viewer in, begging to be scrutinized. Minimalist exhibit spaces are to feature your crown jewel(s). They are inevitably what people will be drawn to. Don’t hide your best items amongst clutter, especially if they’re small. They will be drowned out by quantity.

 An impactful exhibit space highlighting one item. 

An impactful exhibit space highlighting one item. 

Cluttered exhibits have their place as well. Cluttered spaces are immersive. They give the viewer a sense of place. They see the antique bed, the end table overflowing with artifacts, the items all clamoring for attention. It gives the viewer an overall picture rather than an opportunity to examine detail. Those items that only need a cursory view should be amongst other items of similar ilk. There are many items in our collections that are better to be seen as part of a whole, not examined.

 An immersive exhibit space filled with dozens of objects. 

An immersive exhibit space filled with dozens of objects. 

As museums begin to learn that more is not always better, that more means drowning out invaluable artifacts (or worse: rejecting invaluable artifacts), we need to be more aware of clutter. We need to embrace some of the tenets of minimalism to better serve the public. Rejecting or deaccessioning single items might not serve the individual donor, but it serves the community as a whole. Displaying a singular item as a focal point might not serve the boxes of artifacts we have in storage, but it better serves the community by highlighting an important aspect of history. And, as Spock said, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”  



For more on minimalism and decluttering, check out these blogs: 

The Minimalists

Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Becoming Minimalist

Be More With Less

History's Warrior Women

 Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess

Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess

I could fill dozens of books with the stories of female warriors and fighters. But it seems a common misconception that only men lay down their lives for their causes. This is maliciously untrue. Below are just a few of my favorite women warriors.

 Tomoe Gozen (center) at the Battle of Awazu

Tomoe Gozen (center) at the Battle of Awazu


“Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.” from The Tale of Heike

Tomoe was a female samurai married to Yoshinaka of clan Minamoto. During this time there was a battle of clans called the Genpei War between clan Minamoto and clan Taira. Tomoe’s husband saw this as an opportunity to attempt a takeover of the Minamoto clan. He broke off and consolidated a group of rebels to fight against the Minamoto. Tomoe was the leader of the samurai in many of the battles during the rebellion. Word spread of this fierce female samurai and an enemy attempted to capture her at the Battle of Awazu. She evaded capture and killed the opposing samurai with her katana. She continued slaying and beheading her enemies until she was the last one standing. Her husband lay dying and told her to flee from the battlefield. It is unknown what happened to her after she fled.

 Artist's depiction of Freydis Eiriksdottir.

Artist's depiction of Freydis Eiriksdottir.


"Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon; I think I could fight better than any of you." - Freydis Eiriksdottir to her fleeing allies.

In the 10th century, Leif Erikson was exiled from Iceland. Gathering his family and allies, he moved to settle West, into Greenland and Canada. With him, he brought his half sister, Freydis. When the group settled in Canada, they were attacked by Native Americans. The men of the village fled in terror, but Freydis came out of her tent, eight months pregnant, and berated the men for their cowardice. She picked up a sword of her fallen brethren. She exposed her breast to the attacking natives, beat it with a sword, and screamed a battle cry. Confused and frightened, the enemy retreated.

 Artist's depiction of Sayyida Al Hurra.

Artist's depiction of Sayyida Al Hurra.


Sayyida Al Hurra means “noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”

Governor. Queen. Pirate. Sayyida Al Hurra was exiled from Granada as a child by Christian forces and forced to move to Morocco. She grew up and married a governor in Morocco. After the death of her husband, she ruled as governor instead. She later married the King of Morocco, but refused to leave her home and still intended to govern it. In order to seek revenge for her banishment from Granada, Sayyida Al Hurra took up piracy. She allied with Barbarossa of Algiers. Under their agreement, he controlled the Eastern Mediterranean and she controlled the West.

 Claudia Kim's portrayal of Khutulun in the series  Marco Polo . 

Claudia Kim's portrayal of Khutulun in the series Marco Polo


“Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.” - Marco Polo.

Khutulun was the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, but she earned fame in her own right. One daughter amongst many brothers, she was the one who stood at her father’s side. She was his main military advisor and his choice for his successor. She was also an undefeated wrestler - no matter the size or gender of the opponent, she was always the victor. She claimed she would only marry a man who could defeat her in wrestling. As the daughter of the Great Khan, there were many suitors. These were the rules: if you defeated her, she would marry you. If she defeated you, you must give her 100 horses. After many matches, she ended up with 10,000 horses and no husband. 

 Ai Keita's portrayal of Sarrounia (center) in the 1986 film  Sarraounia . 

Ai Keita's portrayal of Sarrounia (center) in the 1986 film Sarraounia


Sarraounia was the “panther queen” of Azna people. During the late 19th century, French ambassadors trumped through the region of Niger. They raped and pillaged, and burned the villages to ash when they finished. Sarranounia tried to ally with her former enemies to push them back, but was refused. Instead, her people defended their fortress until they, for an unknown reason, retreated. The French entered the city and found no people, no grain stores, and no animals. The French occupied the town, but Sarraounia and her people begin a guerilla war against them. Sarranounia led her people on nightly raids and disappeared without a trace. Her techniques were so effective she was called a sorceress queen. Many of the African conscripts in the French army deserted for fear of her. The French ambassadors were later killed by their own men.

 Nancy Wake ca. 1944

Nancy Wake ca. 1944


Summed up by a male comrade as: “The most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. And then she is like five men.”

Nancy Wake was a secret agent during World War II, nicknamed “White Mouse.” She was a resistance leader with the French, working to defeat the Nazis. She quickly became the most wanted person by the Gestapo, with a 5 million francs bounty on her head. Wake described her tactics: "A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their (German) posts and wink and say, 'Do you want to search me?' God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.” She would also shoot through any roadblocks and installations as necessary. She delivered radio codes to the allies by biking 120 hours through Nazi checkpoints. To prevent a German guard from sounding the alarm on her troops’ presence during a raid, she killed him with a single judo chop to the neck.

For more warrior women, you can visit:

Southerners Flirtin' with Disaster

 Map of the Dixie Highway

Map of the Dixie Highway

I once traveled a similar path as the Dixie Highway. As a Midwestern yankee, my family moved down South when I was about ten years old. We drove from Ohio to Chattanooga, Tennessee, a trip I make at least once a year to visit family up North. Dixie Highway may be an unfamiliar name for some of you. Dixie Highway was a collection of paved roads made in the early 20th century. It was created so those in the Midwest area could easily travel to Florida to vacation. The highway also has the added effect of opening up the South to tourism.

 Part of the Dixie Highway in Florida

Part of the Dixie Highway in Florida

The idea first came to Carl G. Fisher in 1914 in Chattanooga, TN. After several meetings, it was decided to create two routes. One route would go from Chicago to Miami (the Western branch). The other would go from Michigan to Miami (the Eastern branch). Both branches met in Chattanooga, TN before splitting once more through Georgia and parts of Florida.

 Construction on I-55 in 1972

Construction on I-55 in 1972

In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower instituted the Interstate Highway System. Attempts were made to improve America’s roadways previously, with the passage of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. But this act was usurped by the U.S. intervention in World War I. Funds were deferred to the war and this act was allowed to expire. New legislation was passed in 1921 for federal aid and, this time, many new roads were constructed. However, it wasn’t until Dwight D. Eisenhower took office that we saw our landscape significantly change. Inspired by the Autobahn network in Germany, Eisenhower envisioned an interstate system for the United States as necessary part of its defense.

 Dixie Highway marker

Dixie Highway marker

Parts of Dixie Highway were incorporated into the interstate and highway system. My own route down I-75 from Ohio to Chattanooga paralleled and, at places, replaced the Dixie Highway. However, I was not, as many who drove the Dixie Highway were, a Midwestern tourist looking for the warmer temperatures of Florida. Rather, I was an immigrant to the South. I was drowning in the muggy heat and, to my understanding, overly-friendly attitudes of my new neighbors.

Even before the Dixie Highway, Southeast Tennessee had Old Copper Road. The Old Copper Road was built between 1851-1853 for the purpose of hauling copper from Ducktown, TN to Cleveland, TN. Copper had been discovered in Ducktown in 1843. This route ran 40 miles alongside the Ocoee River and through the Appalachian Mountains. Unfortunately, the road fell into disrepair. It was later flooded by the Lake Ocoee reservoir in the early 1900s, and only parts of this road exist today. 

If you wish to learn more about Dixie Highway or Old Copper Road, come visit our exhibit until Saturday, February 10th. 

On Thursday, January 18 at 6pm, we will be having a History Happy Hour Exhibit Opening with a talk from Calvin Sneed, author of "Building Bridges: From Our Past to the Future." 

Our Dixie Highway exhibit was created and designed by the Bandy Heritage Center. The exhibit is proudly sponsored by Wright Bros. Construction.

The Ducktown Basin Museum and the Museum Center at 5ive Points have formed the Old Copper Road Preservation Alliance to recognize and preserve this symbol of our local history for future generations.

History Happy Hour with Calvin Sneed is proudly sponsored by Edge Billboards and Impressions Catering. 

Fun Fact: Until I was about 22, I thought Molly Hatchet was a female singer. 


Old Christmas

Practiced by Orthodox Catholics and Appalachian churches alike, Old Christmas is a 2000 year old tradition. Fewer and fewer Christians observe this holiday, so its practices are disappearing.

What is Old Christmas? Well, to explain it, we’re going to have to go back. Way back. To 46 BCE.

 Julius Caesar and his senators

Julius Caesar and his senators

For much of ancient history, Europe operated on a lunar calendar. That is, until a Roman Emperor you may have heard of – Julius Caesar – decided it needed reform. Under advisement of his astronomers, Caesar decided to switch Rome to a solar calendar. The year would now be comprised of 12 months and 365 days, including a leap year. Of course, Caesar’s ego dictated that one month would now be named after him – July.

Unfortunately, there was one tiny flaw. Caesar’s astronomers calculated the year was 365.25 days long. The year is actually 365.2425 days long, a difference of 11 minutes and 14 seconds. This may seem like an insignificant difference, but over centuries, the minutes accumulated to days. By the 1500s, the calendar was ten days off.

 Pope Gregory XIII

Pope Gregory XIII

The most powerful man in Europe, Pope Gregory XIII, sought to repair this error. Christopher Clavius and other intellectuals of the time advised the Pope on the steps to fix the calendar. The corrected calendar is the one we use today, called the Gregorian calendar. In addition to using a new calendar, Pope Gregory fixed the extra ten days. Now the calendar was back on the proper solar date.

The Gregorian calendar was adopted by the Catholic countries in Western Europe. These countries were France, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, Poland, and Portugal. However, Eastern Europe, the Germanic countries, and the Protestant countries resisted this change. The Eastern countries were Orthodox Christians and believed the change challenged their way of life. The Protestant countries were defiant in adhering to proclamations of the Pope. However, over the next four centuries, countries began to adopt the new calendar. In the 1600s, the Germanic Catholic countries began to adopt the calendar. They were followed by Germanic Protestant countries in the early 1700s. Great Britain and the American colonies adopted the calendar in 1752. Many Eastern European countries didn’t adopt the calendar until the 1900s.

On the old Julian calendar, Christmas was celebrated on January 6th. Many groups in the U.S., including more secluded areas in the Appalachians, continued to celebrate Christmas on the 6th. They also began celebrating Christmas on the 25th. The 12 days between the 25th and the 6th became known as Breakin’ Up Christmas in the Appalachians.

 Three Wise Men

Three Wise Men

The 6th is also the day of the Epiphany in Christianity. The Epiphany marks the arrival of the three wise men to Bethlehem and the discovery of Jesus as the Christian Savior. Old Christmas and the Epiphany are two separate events. But both mark this day as an important holiday in Christianity.

On Old Christmas Eve, communities in Appalachia celebrate with bonfires, gunfire, singing, and storytelling. It is a night of partying and good company. On this night, it is said animals kneel and pray, bees hum the 100th psalm, and  elder bushes sprout and bloom. Old Christmas itself is more of a quiet celebration with family. 

To join in the Old Christmas celebration, come to the Museum Center at 5ive Points on January 5th, 2018. We will be celebrating Breaking Up Christmas with the Cleveland Storytelling Guild. Festivities will start at 6pm. 

FTB Logo Foundation.JPG

Our special thanks to the First Tennessee Foundation for sponsoring this event and keeping the old traditions alive. 

Experiencing History

One of the most difficult problems educators in the history field face is getting people interested in history. History, like math, is known as a boring school subject. Even in the Harry Potter books, the most boring class is History of Magic. It’s taught by a ghost and most students sleep through it. It seems a fitting metaphor. So how do we get people interested?



I know, I know. I get a horrified face when I see people touching artifacts, too. And I still can’t get over the initial hesitation in handling an artifact myself. However, I’m not saying you should pass fragile artifacts around. But history and math can feel like abstract subjects, and most people prefer to learn about something they can touch.

Here are some ways to interact with history.

Demonstrations/Shows – You can have supervised demonstrations of things. Try cooking on an old stove or trying on a historical outfit, and include the audience. Pick an audience member to wear the coat. Pick an audience member to try frying some bacon on the stove and then let everyone sample it.

Performances and reenactments can be fun to watch. No longer is history an abstract concept, but something that is happening right in front of you. And I am an advocate for live performances, not movies. For schools, I know field trips are difficult to organize. In this case, substitute movies or small skits performed by your students.

Interactive Exhibits for Adults – For museums, add something a little extra for teens and adults. Have them fill out replica ration booklets from WWII. Let them touch and feel some of those duplicate artifacts you have. You need to make these exhibits too boring or difficult for children. Otherwise, children will take over these interactive experiences. Brainstorm what sorts of ways you can make your museum touch- and visitor-friendly.

(c) BBC


Have a History After Dark program for 18+. We’re most interested in the parts of history we’re not allowed to see in the museum or classroom.  One of my best memories from college was my History of American Sexuality class. The professor brought a vibrator from the 1900s to class and plugged it in – it still worked! (Though the plug started smoking…) Everyone in the class was enthralled and had a fun time. As people, like to know about the dirty, gore-y, untold parts of history. The BBC had a TV show for children called Horrible Histories. This is a fun way to entertain children with history. I used this TV show in my college classes.

 (c) Elica Sparks

(c) Elica Sparks


Ever heard of LARP? LARP stands for Live Action Roleplay. It is a hobby that is most easy to explain as acting out a Dungeons and Dragons game. Everyone plays a character and they roleplay and participate in battles with foam weapons. The majority of LARPs are history-based in some way. Many are traditional fantasy - based on the Medieval period. But there are flintlock fantasy LARPs, which may be based on any time from the Revolutionary War to the Victorian Era. In these LARPs, everyone is expected to use only items from that period and act as if they are from this time periods.

I’ve never heard of a museum or history program reaching out to LARP groups, but this is a great resource. LARPers are sticklers for accuracy in historical costuming, weaponry, and activities. Get students outside for a day – have them build characters (or take on the persona of a historical figure) and interact as if they were that character. Let them shoot each other with nerf guns or foam swords.

If you are an institution, make LARP-friendly programming through classes focused on costuming accuracy. Or, you can create partnerships with local LARPs (there is more than likely one in your region). Perhaps offer them your property for a PAD (Personal Adventure Day) and invite outsiders to try the LARP. You could host a historical fashion show, as many LARPers have time-accurate clothes they would be proud to show off.


Those are a few suggestions on how to make history more fun and accessible to students and the general public. Do you have any ideas? 

Winter Solstice Around the World

It’s the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice. A phenomenon noted by cultures all over the world. Many of these cultures mark this time of the year with a holiday or celebration. Examples of some of these celebrations include: 





Germanic peoples in Northern Europe celebrated Yule. It is today celebrated by Pagans. During this holiday, observants would bring animals for sacrifices to a central building. The blood of the animals was smeared on idols and the men present. The meat would be cooked for their feast. Before the feast, the chieftain would bless the meat. Toasts of ale would be made to Odin, the chief Norse god, for victory and power to their leader. They would toast for good harvests and peace, and then toast the king himself. Other toasts would be made towards departed family and friends.  It is likely the tradition of the Yule Log in Europe stems from this holiday. A Yule Log is a specially selected piece of wood that will burn upon the hearth in the home. This holiday was later Christianized and would be combined with Christmas.





Many Christians celebrate St. Thomas’s day around the winter solstice. However, Guatemala’s indigenous Maya people have added elements of their own folk religion. During this time, they honor K’inich Ajaw, the sun god. One notable celebration is the polo voladore – the flying pole dance. Three men climb to the top of a 50-foot pole. One man plays instruments while the other two wind ropes around one of their feet. The two men will jump from the pole. If the men land on their feet, it is a signal that the sun god is pleased and the days will become longer. It is somewhat reminiscent of Groundhog Day in the U.S.





The Zuni people are a Native American people located in the U.S. Southwest. The winter solstice festival typically follows the harvest as a gesture of thankfulness to the gods. This time is also used to invoke the gods’ blessings on newly built homes. It is celebrated with ceremonies, feasts, and dances around the beginning of December. Non-natives are no longer allowed to view or participate in this holiday.


 Image (c)

Image (c)



Those familiar with Chinese thought would understand the idea of yin and yang. Moving towards the winter solstice is a marker of yang (negative) energy, as we lose daylight and the days grow darker. The winter solstice is celebrated as a change towards yin energy. The longer days and the more daylight are a signal of positive energy. China and parts of East Asia, including Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, celebrate the winter solstice as a time for family to come together. To symbolize their reunion, families eat glutinous rice balls ("tangyuan") and drink rice wine.





In Ancient Rome, people worshipped a pantheon of gods based on Greek mythology. This winter festival was a celebration that took place around the winter solstice honoring a number of Roman Gods: Saturn (the Titan of capitol, wealth, and agriculture), Ceres (the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and motherhood), and Bacchus (god of wine, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy). This festival, which would end with the Saturnalia festival, was important to the farming season. During this time, farmers would sacrifice pigs and goats to the gods to ensure a good harvest in the following year.

Saturnalia more closely resembles Christmas, though with considerably more animal sacrifices. Saturnalia was celebrated with feasts and gift-giving. The gift-giving might involve trading poems, such as our Christmas cards. Gifts were usually toys for children, and items exchanged between friends, family, and co-workers. Gag gifts were even given! Observants of Saturnalia would party continuously, drinking and gambling. So, perhaps it is more like Christmas in Las Vegas. 

From the Back Room - Puzzle Pottery

Happy Friday! I've been going back to my archaeology roots and washing the artifacts in our archaeological collections. Currently, I'm working on our bags of broken pottery. Someone should tell the archaeologists who excavated these that they are NOT Indiana Jones and they can't just throw artifacts at us without processing them through a lab! #bitterformerarchaeologist

So now I'm starting to go through and see if we can reconstruct some of this pottery. It's a good thing I like puzzles. :/

 One bag of pottery washed and ready to be reconstructed. If possible...

One bag of pottery washed and ready to be reconstructed. If possible...

From the Back Room - the Dolls

From the Back Room is our series highlighting items in our collections and the goings-on of the museums behind the scenes.

The Curious Curator got too curious this week and decided to look into a box labeled “Doll Box.” Unfortunately, it was exactly as described and I ended up face to face with the blank expressions of dozens of dolls. And this right around Halloween, too! We have no record of these dolls in our collection. They just seem to have appeared. 

What could possibly be worse? I’m continuously finding boxes of these dolls! The most recent count is five boxes! And they all get to sit in my office until I add them to our online collection log. Here’s hoping my office doesn’t get haunted.  

And that’s all for today’s From the Back Room! See you next time!

11/09/2017 Edit: We are now up to six boxes!

  Image (c) Museum Center at 5ive Points

Image (c) Museum Center at 5ive Points