A touch of the past: Assistant professor John Chenoweth excavates artifacts to shed light on religion, social identity

John ChenowethA cracked ceramic plate lies beneath a pile of sand and sticks.

To many, it’s simply garbage.

To John Chenoweth, it’s a glimpse into the past.

“This is a kind of ceramic that was made from about 1760 to about 1790,” said Chenoweth, as he points to a cracked white plate in his lab. “It was probably made in Staffordshire, England, then put on a boat and shipped to the Caribbean.”

Chenoweth, an assistant professor of anthropology at University of Michigan-Dearborn, has spent years studying sites in the British Virgin Islands. His mission is to excavate ancient artifacts to better understand how these unique objects can shed some light on religion and social identity.

“The way a lot of folks think about archeology is that it’s about a bunch of old stuff,” said Chenoweth, who received a doctoral degree in anthropology from University of California-Berkeley. “It’s true that we use old stuff and we’re interested in old stuff, but the thing that gets missed a lot of the time is what we’re actually doing with that stuff is studying people. We’re interested in learning about how people, in a particular place and time, lived and saw the world.”

Chenoweth recently began establishing UM-Dearborn’s first archeology lab in one of the campus cottages, located along Fairlane Drive.

The cottage, outfitted with antiquated appliances, hosts its share of unique artifacts loaned to Chenoweth by the government of the British Virgin Islands and landowners for research purposes. One tray contains ceramic pipe stems from the 18th century, while another tray holds gunflint.

“This lab provides our students with an incredible opportunity to interact directly with the past and to engage with the archaeological record to make sense of the ways that people in a very different time and place ordered and lived their lives,” said College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters Dean Martin Hershock. “Where else can people literally touch the past? The skills learned by students engaging with this material go well beyond the past alone. Indeed, engaging with this material fosters critical and analytical thinking, and it invites students to think more broadly about the world around them and the people that live in that broader world.”

Chenoweth plans to return to the British Virgin Islands this summer to lay groundwork for long-term projects that will involve UM-Dearborn students. These projects have several different goals, but some include learning more about a particular section of the area that once was inhabited by Quakers. Commonly known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers based their movement on equality, simplicity and peace.

Chenoweth, however, argues these ideas are not as straightforward as they sound, and studies how this particular group of Quakers held weapons and used them to keep enslaved Africans on their sites.

His research, “Practicing and Preaching Quakerism: Creating a Religion of Peace on a Slavery-Era Plantation,” recently was published in American Anthropologist.

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