Hands-on history

Archaeological exhibit digs up Chico’s past

Chico State anthropology student Jennifer Rogerson Jennings preps an artifact from Chico’s one-time Chinatown for the upcoming exhibit she curated for the Valene L. Smith Anthropology Museum.

Chico State anthropology student Jennifer Rogerson Jennings preps an artifact from Chico’s one-time Chinatown for the upcoming exhibit she curated for the Valene L. Smith Anthropology Museum.

Photo by Ken Smith

Reimagining Chico: The Archaeology of Our Neighborhoods, on display Sept. 5-Dec. 5. Opening reception, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 4:30-6 p.m.
Valene L. Smith Anthropology Museum
Meriam Library Complex, Chico State

When charged with curating her own museum exhibit, Chico State anthropology graduate student Jennifer Rogerson Jennings was determined to make it something markedly different, beginning with the name of the presentation.

“It’s called ‘Reimagining Chico: The Archaeology of Our Neighborhoods,’ and that title was really important to me,” Rogerson Jennings said recently, on a brief break from installing the upcoming exhibit at the university’s Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology. “I find that typically when you go to a museum, you’re told what each piece means and how it represents a particular time in history. But a lot of my graduate work focuses on empowering people to find out this information for themselves and then determine what it means to them.

“I hope it triggers people to ask, ‘What does this mean to me? What do they think this is? What could this mean for the future, and what else could be under your streets?’”

The exhibit is centered around artifacts found during relatively recent archaeological digs at two Chico sites—a parking lot built in the mid-2000s at 500 Orient St. in an area that was once known as Chinatown, and the other at Second and Ivy streets where Chico State’s current Student Services Center was completed in 2008. In the early 1900s, that area was home to several boarding houses that primarily served Chico State Normal School students, relics from which were uncovered during the dig.

The Chinatown artifacts include broken ceramics and animal bones that show evidence they were butchered for food. And a collection of mostly intact bottles—including those to hold ink, salad dressing and other materials—was found in an abandoned cistern at the Second and Ivy site.

Another part of the exhibit focuses on results of surveys done in recent years by Chico State students—under the direction of professor David Eaton and graduate student Alexander Ryll—on the south-campus neighborhood, Chico’s oldest residential area that is now densely populated with university students.

The curator’s efforts to make the exhibit more unique and interactive include the use of 3-D printing to replicate some of the artifacts, including bones and a broken ceramic bowl found in old Chinatown. These objects will be buried in aquarium rock, allowing visitors to dig for and find the materials, and come up with their own conjectures about their historical significance. The replica ceramic pieces will be magnetized so visitors can try to piece them back together, which Rogerson Jennings hopes will provide a completely new and tactile experience for museum-goers.

Rogerson Jennings said using 3-D printing for this purpose pushes the envelope more than one might assume. “The idea of adding technology into cultural practices is somewhat taboo depending on what the technology is. There’s ethical obligations and some things can go wrong. But I feel like we created technology to help us. And I believe it could help us this way, too, by making stuff accessible and available and so you can physically touch it.

“So this technology is not not widely accepted [in my field], but as it becomes more so, people are coming to question some of the early Eurocentric ideas of anthropology and archaeology.”

Rogerson Jennings’ opportunity to curate the exhibit comes via the school’s museum studies graduate program. It’s the latest in a string of accomplishments, which includes a bachelor’s in anthropology through the University of West Florida’s maritime studies program. Her field work there included diving for shipwrecks off the coast of Emmanuel Point in Pensacola, Fla., where her team proved a Spanish colony predating St. Augustine (which is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in what is now the United States) existed, and discovered the third of six ships suspected to lie offshore.

“[When] you fan away dirt and work your way down and actually find a piece of hull structure and realize you’re the first person to see and touch it since 1559 … it reminds you of what you’re doing and why you do it.”