Archaeologists Show How ‘American Treasures’ Illuminate Country’s Past

Whether it is a projectile point picked up behind a plow or a gun purported to belong to a Wild West bandit, physical artifacts tell the history of the people who lived before us. “American Treasures,” a half hour television show on the Discovery Channel on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST, takes viewers into the field with two archaeologists as they try to uncover the truth behind human-made objects presented to them by people across the U.S.

Kirk French, lecturer in anthropology, Penn State, and Jason De León, assistant professor of anthropology, University of Michigan, met at Penn State as graduate students where they received their doctorates. Remaining friends afterward, the pair traveled across the U.S. in a beaten-up pickup truck, looking at a steam whistle claimed to come from Pearl Harbor, a brass trumpet purported to belong to Louis Armstrong and other artifacts.

“A common misconception the public has of archaeologists is that we look for treasure,” said French. “Archaeologists do not look for treasure and we do not place monetary value on artifacts.”

He hopes that the 10 episodes of “American Treasures” will underscore the idea that “no one owns history. That it is our American past.”

Not all potential artifacts are what they seem to be, according to French. In Massachusetts, French and De León investigated a series of stone faces along a river. While they looked at the carvings microscopically, it was difficult to tell whether they were old or modern.

“They looked old,” said French. “Except they looked goofy, like smiley faces on acid.”

The final determination on these stone faces was something completely unexpected, but interesting and enlightening nonetheless.

Sometimes their investigations, while remaining inconclusive, where still interesting. In Texas they looked at a Mexican musket ball found on the San Jacinto battlefield. At San Jacinto, Sam Houston defeated Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana in a battle that gave Texas its independence. This 175-year-old musket ball had a tiny portion of material embedded in it.

“Only 30 Texans were wounded during that battle,” said French. “Including Sam Houston.”

To see a trailer about the TV show, visit online.

For a video about French’s work, visit online.

Andrea Messer, Penn State University

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