Constructing Narratives: The Display of Lynching Artifacts and Remains

The legacy of racial violence through an archaeological perspective, specifically lynching, perhaps is one of the most relevant examples of how to present the idea that the discussion of how to ethically present histories from our past is intensely relevant today.

The ways that artifacts are presented create narratives that either fetishize or humanize the archaeological remains of such atrocities. For example, after the 1901 public murder of George Ward in Terre Haute, Indiana, the crowd immediately fought amongst one another in order to obtain any part of Ward’s body. His extremities were broken off and kept. His toes were auctioned off to the highest bidders (Young 168). The remains of lynching victims became a memory of the ritualistic murders to those who commoditized the black body. In contrast, the families and friends of the lynching victims would scour sites to find any remains, so that they could bury them (Young 183).

The infamous lynching postcards that were and are insensitively displayed in family photo albums bring this hate crime to life (Simon 1:Without Sanctuary). Postcards portraying lynching victims continue to circulate within the market, perpetuating a sort of looting that represents the way that we still view the victims of these violent acts. It evokes visions of the colonial past, creating a modern ‘cabinet of curiosity’ that continues to other and fetishize the secrecy and yet loudness of racial violence. It is obvious that systemic and violent dehumanization, social or physical, of black and brown bodies is not something that is limited to the past.

Figure 1. Rope used in the lynching of Matthew Williams in December of 1931. It is currently displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

This is not to say that archaeological remnants of lynchings should not be displayed in any circumstances.  Emmett Till’s family donated his casket to the Smithsonian Museum. A piece of the rope used to murder Matthew Williams is at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. James Allen and John Littlefield’s collection of lynching postcards and photographs literally take these artifacts from people’s collections and turn them into a condemnation and remembrance of the victims. All of these artifacts are intended to become materials for teaching and remembrance by those descended from victims and by allies, and this is what we must hope happens to as many cultural remains as possible.

But we must remember that certain voices must be put at the forefront. James Cameron, a victim of a botched lynching, founded a museum based on this black genocide. He is a living testimony to the remains that have become ecofacts to museums and collectibles to many others. America’s Black Holocaust Museum had wax figures of lynching victims on display, as well as rope used to lynch a man. It evoked such negative reactions that the exhibit was taken down. The Museum shut down in 2008, and although it reopened this year, its temporary failure serves to show which narratives continue to dominate and gain support. Archeology must be collaborative, because only those who have lived the repercussions of such horrors can adequately help to create the ethical narratives that such remnants deserve.


Figure 2. Emmett Till’s casket, donated to the Smithsonian in 2009.


Evidence of Things Unsaid

Simon, Roger I. “The Public Rendition of Images Médusées: Exhibiting Souvenir Photographs Taken at Lynchings in America.” Presence: Philosophy, History, and Cultural Theory for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Ranjan Ghosh and Ethan Kleinberg, Cornell University Press, Ithaca; London, 2013, pp. 79–102. JSTOR,

Young, Harvey. “Housing the Memory of Racial Violence: The Black Body as Souvenir, Museum, and Living Remain.” Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body, University of Michigan Press, ANN ARBOR, 2010, pp. 167–208. JSTOR,


Image Sources:

Figure 1.

Emmett Till’s Casket Donated to Smithsonian

Figure 2.

Rope Used to Lynch Michael Brown

Further Reading:

Lynching Site Still Stands in Mississippi

Postcards of Lynchings by James Allen and John Littlefield

Example of Exploitation of Cultural Property: Postcards of Racially Motivated Violence for Sale Online

The Archaeology of Immigration in Ancient Teotihuacan

When we think about ancient civilizations, it can be easy to think of them as being homogenous. However, migration has always been present in human history, and evidence of the transfer of ideas and people between settlements is often found. Still, evidence does not stand on its own and it must be supported by its context. Migration especially can only be theorized upon when the artifacts, ecofacts, and features of sites are considered as a whole. For example, the ethnic composition of Teotihuacan has been analyzed by taking all of these site features, understanding their relationship to each other, and comparing these findings to other sites in the Mesoamerican region.

Figure 1. Layout of Teotihuacan, including the locations of the Oaxaca Barrio, Michoacán Enclave, and Merchants’ Barrio.

While studying the ruins of Teotihuacan, archaeologists found evidence suggesting the presence of communities of various ethnic “groups, [including] the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, who lived in their own barrio [community] on the southwestern fringe of the city; the Gulf Coast merchants, who dwelled in the Merchants’ Barrio on the east side of the city; and people of the West Mexican Michoacán enclave, who lived on the western limits of the settlement” (Manzanilla 2002:59). Studying the infrastructure of these communities in themselves would seemingly only reveal differing architectural practices. But when we consider the mentioned ecofacts and artifacts within these compounds separately, along with features that are not part of the infrastructure, we can understand ritual, social, and culinary practices in themselves. Finally, when these practices are viewed in association with each other, we find that even a few small pieces of the city can actually reveal its multiethnic composition and ties to the rest of Mesoamerica. We can see that the context of excavations matter. For example, square burial tombs that had only been found in sites in the state of Veracruz were found in some barrios of Teotihuacan. Apartment compounds, especially within the Merchants’ Barrio but also in all the ethnic enclaves mentioned in Figure 1, included goods from other regions, such as distinct shells or pottery. Immigrants in the Oaxaca barrio apartment complexes, identified using strontium isotope ratios, retained what are now known as Western Mexican burial practices, but also adapted to Mexica culinary practices. This is especially interesting to note, for although some people assimilated to Mexica culture, they still retained the practices that made their identities clear. Because these discoveries deal with the differences between each barrio and with similarities to other sites, it is clear that the understanding of immigration in Teotihuacan was only furthered because the site as a whole was considered.

Figure 2. Zapotec urn found in Teotihuacan’s Barrio Zapotec, also known as Tlailotlacan.

Civilizations have always been connected, and in some ways very intertwined, something we cannot ignore in the present day. It is no surprise that Teotihuacan would attract people from other areas of Mesoamerica- not as people who were conquered, but as people who were attracted to the power and almost mythical status of the city. It parallels the reasons why some groups migrate to certain regions today, reminding us that, in a way, that we are not always so different from our ancestors.




Manzanilla, Linda, “Corporate Life in Apartment and Barrio Compounds at Teotihuacan,

Central Mexico: Craft Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity,” Memoirs of the Museum of

Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, vol. 49, 2009, pgs. 21-38, Web,



Manzanilla, Linda, “Houses and Ancestors, Altars and Relics: Mortuary Patterns at Teotihuacan,

Central Mexico” Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological

Association, vol.11, no.1, 2002 pgs.55–65, Web,


Manzanilla, Linda, “Social Identity and Daily Life at Classic Teotihuacan,” Mesoamerican

Archaeology Theory and Practice, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pgs. 124-147, Web,



Storey, Rebecca, “Teotihuacan and the Demography of Preindustrial Cities; The Tlajinga 33

Apartment Compound,” Life and Death in the Ancient City of Teotihuacan: A Modern

Paleodemographic Synthesis, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa and London,

1992, pgs.  27-70, Print.


 Image Sources 

Figure 1.

Manzanilla, Linda, “Corporate Life in Apartment and Barrio Compounds at Teotihuacan, Central

Mexico: Craft Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity,” Memoirs of the Museum of

Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, vol.46, 2009, pgs.21-38, Web,



Figure 2.

Cabrera, Veronica Ortega. “Zapotec Urn in Teotihuacan.” Museo Nacional De

Anthropología,National Museum of Anthropology, Web,


Further Reading

 Link to Post by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History Discussing Foreigners in Teotihuacan, Which Can Be Translated to English.

“Teotihuacan Hosted 1,300 Foreigners.” Instituto Nacional De Antropología e Historia,

National Institute of Anthropology and History, 28 August 2013, Web,


Link to Mentioned Study of Strontium Isotope Ratios in Bones of Individuals in Teotihuacan’s Foreign Barrios

Price, Douglas T., Manzanilla, Linda, Middleton, William D., “Immigration and the Ancient City

of Teotihuacan in Mexico: A Study Using Strontium Isotope Ratios in Human Bone and

Teeth,” Journal of Archaeological Science, vol.27, no.10, 2000, pgs. 903-913, Web,