Anthropology department hosts West Mexican lecture

A lecture on west Mexican artifacts and determining authenticity of archaeological artifacts was held during x-period Nov. 14 in Irby Hall 315.

Alison Hall, anthropology professor, introduced the lecture.

“I can’t take credit for inviting Dr. [Robert] Pickening,” Hall said.

“A student of mine has worked on bringing him here for awhile. We are all excited about this opportunity.”

Pickening, curatorial affairs and public programs director for the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., presented the keynote speech with a PowerPoint presentation.

Pickening said he worked for armies in southeast Asia examining human remains.

“I am primarily interested in the human skeleton and mortuary behavior,” Pickening said. “The environment, biology and culture all have profound effects on the human skeleton.”

The west Mexican archaeological artifacts Pickening discussed in the lecture were 2,000 years old; older than both the great Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Latin America. The area the civilization occupied is known as the Occidente.

“This is an extraordinary volcanic area and it is mineral-rich,” Pickening said. “It’s fifty-sixty degrees Fahrenheit year-round. I always tell people to pick their research area by climate and cuisine.”

Pickening described some of the tombs in which the objects were located in as being beneath houses. He said they could be anywhere from 3 to 4 meters to 19 to 20 meters below the ground.

“Why might you have them connect? Mesoamerican ancestors had a lot of power; there were still a big part of the family after they died. This is representative of the family both above and below,” Pickening said.

Pickening showed the audience a picture of an obsidian mine in which the entire ground was covered in obsidian, volcanic glass that ancient people of the Occidente area used to create tools.

The Occidente people searched for high grade obsidian, so they would break off a piece of obsidian to test it. If it was not high enough quality, they would discard it onto the ground.

Pickening said examining ceramics and other artifacts of the region reveal a great deal of information about the people who created them.

“The ceramics provide snapshots of ancient life; their social structure, gender and age differences and their uses of objects,” Pickening said.

Pickening discussed authenticity and the struggles many anthropologists and archaeologists have with verifying artifacts.

“Sadly, there is a market for antiquities,” Pickening said.

He explained how several people make a career out of creating fake artifacts. Some people create the fake artifacts to sell to people as fakes, just to decorate their homes with. Other people create them and claim them to be real artifacts, and even sell them to museums and collectors.

Pickening said many problems revolving issues of fake artifacts included museums purchasing items from uncontrolled excavations, fabricators continually sharpening their skills and that reliable analysis requires a “clean” collection.

“We look at every figure one-by-one to see if they’re authentic, have been highly repaired or if they’re absolutely fake,” he said.

Pickening told a story of excavating a certain tomb and finding the remains of insect puparia on relics. He said he then came up with the idea of examining artifacts’ authenticity through the presence of such insect puparia.

“The presence of insect puparia on artifacts found in tombs is a high indicator of authenticity,” Pickening said. “The insects feed on rotting corpses, then molt into different stages on nearby objects.”

Pickening and his team said they were going to use a lab at UCA later that day to examine authenticity artifacts in possession of UCA.

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