Introducing the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab

old lab

Chucalissa Laboratory, July 2007

by Robert Connolly

In July of 2007 I began work as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Over the previous 15 years I had worked as an archaeologist and educator.  I particularly enjoyed my classroom presentations with prehistoric artifacts that give students a hands-on experience with the cultural materials.  Before passing a projectile point or ceramic sherd around the classroom, I would always say:

“These artifacts have lasted for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years.  It is a real privilege that we can to handle them today.  I want you all to be very careful with these artifacts so that the next time I go into a classroom those students will have the same opportunity as you do today.”

After giving that brief introduction, I was always impressed with the care that students would hold and then pass the artifact to their classmate.  I am pleased to say that in all of those years of classroom presentations, no student dropped (or pocketed) a single artifact.

With those classroom visits in mind, when I came to the C.H. Nash Museum in 2007, I had a vision to create a similar hands-on experience.  At that time, there had not been much in the way of research or analysis of cultural materials at Chucalissa, as demonstrated by the photograph of the laboratory in 2007.  The unused portion of the museum seemed an ideal space to repurpose as a hands-on lab.

today lab

2008 Opening of the Hands-On Archaeology Lab

At Chucalissa we have an abundant “educational collection” of ceramic sherds, stone tools, and historic artifacts.  These materials are from the many thousands of artifacts left at the Museum by collectors for over 50 years.  Although the C.H. Nash Museum has not accepted such collections for many years, the accumulation of artifacts that these unknown donors collected from equally unknown plowed fields have little research value, but are of tremendous educational value.  The educational collections were the materials destined for our hands-on lab.

In December of 2008, one of our graduate assistants Jenn Graham (Dearman) and I initiated the project.  Over the next few months, the cluttered storage space was turned into the Hands-on Archaeology Lab.  I worked with Jenn and other students at the University of Memphis to create the displays.  For example, Anthropology graduate student Nora Bridges created the ethnobotany exhibit as part of her graduate work in a Native People’s of North America class I taught that semester.  The lab opened in April, 2008 to coincide with the Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Meeting held that year in Memphis.


Part of Traditional Dye Exhibit created by Jessica Hale, Anthropology Intern

Over the next few years, we added an exhibit or display to the hands-on lab every now and then.  For example, Department of Earth Sciences graduate student Emily Hassler completed a Museum Studies internship by creating three banner exhibits on lithic raw material trade and exchange.  Anthropology undergraduate Jessica Hale’s internship developed an exhibit on using natural dyes to color fabrics.  The list goes on . . .

Since the 2008 opening, the Hands-on Archaeology Lab has been a highlight for visitors, young and old alike.  As I always ask children when entering the lab “What do your parents usually tell you when you walk into a room like this?” and with few exceptions the response is “Don’t touch anything!”  I then let them know that in the Hands-on Lab they can touch everything, they just can’t take it home with them.  Like my classroom experiences in the past, particularly the younger visitors recognize how special the opportunity is and they treat the artifacts with great respect.

HD 08 lab2After five years of use, the exhibits are starting to look a bit shabby from wear.  We also have lots of new ideas we want to try out in the lab.  Over the past year we met with several focus groups of educators, visitors, community members, archaeologists, Native Americans, students, and others to get their input on the redesign of our facility.  Flowing from those discussions, we are very pleased to announce plans for the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab, named to honor the nearly 50 years of contributions by Ron Brister to the C.H. Nash Museum.  For a quick peek on what the lab will contain click here.  Watch for details soon on the plans the new Discovery Lab and how you can become involved!

About C.H. Nash Museum

The mission of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, a division of the University of Memphis, is to protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site’s cultural and natural environments, and to provide the University Community and the Public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities on the landscape’s past and present Native American and traditional cultures.
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