Bear Grease in the Bear State & The Power of Artifacts in Context

Its that time of year again…I’m getting together stuff for the next Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) meetings…this year they will be Jan 8-12 in Quebec City.  I am revisiting a topic at this year’s conference that I’ve taken a stab at before—a session on the interpretive power of a single artifact in a specific context…

At the SHA 2011 in Austin, Texas I chaired a session entitled “The Revelatory Power of an Artifact in Context”… I put it together after noticing that many of my colleagues and I have been finding single artifacts that (because of their contexts) were touchstones for larger, deeply cultural stories about the artifacts, the sites where they were found, and the people that used them.  Now I am not a huge proponent of focusing analysis on single artifacts at the expense of the 99% of the material culture that we recover from excavations, but many of us have come to accept that archeology is a balancing act between creating generalized understanding of what is going on at our sites using quantitative summaries of artifact classes and their distributions on our sites and the qualitative interpretations of individual artifacts.  However, on rare occasions, a single artifact (or a relatively small number of a particular class of artifacts) can hold incredible explanatory power because of their particular context.  This session explored some examples of this phenomenon—single artifacts which, because of what they are and where, when, and how they were found, unlock powerful interpretive information about the site, past actors and their relationships.

I thought the 2011 session was useful…with great papers: Fred Smith’s “Music and Sound at a Marketplace for Enslaved Peoples in Bridgetown, Barbados”; Rebecca Graff’s “Remnants of the White City: The Potential of Plaster at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition”; James Davidson’s “The National Industrial Council and the National Liberty Party: A History of Early 20th Century Slave Reparations Movements from the Grave”; Carl Carlson-Drexler’s “Small Finds on a Bloodied Landscape Placing Landis’s Battery on Pea Ridge Battlefield, Arkansas”; Clete Rooney’s “Madness and Death: Status and Identity at the Alabama Insane Hospital”…and several others.

The polychrome hand-painted over transfer print pot lid Recovered from the Royston detached kitchen.

The polychrome hand-painted over transfer-print pot lid Recovered from the Royston detached kitchen.

My own paper was on a polychrome hand-painted over transfer-print pot lid that was recovered from the remains of an 1840s detached kitchen that had once served one of the most active political families on the remote cotton frontier of Southwest Arkansas– The Royston House in Historic Washington State Park .  General Grandison Delany Royston came to Arkansas by the 1830s (pretty early on by our standards) and served as a circuit riding prosecuting attorney alongside such Arkansas notables as David Walker and Albert Pike…His title “General Royston” stems from his being appointed “Adjutant General of the Arkansas Militia” by the governor during the War with Mexico…he was by no means a professional soldier, but he was a professional politician.  Royston served in our state’s 1836 constitutional convention and as the next year he served as a state representative and Speaker of the House in Arkansas.  He served as a Senator in the Confederate Senate during the war, and was the President of the second constitutional convention that brought Arkansas back into the Union during Reconstruction (that gives you some idea about how much political power really changed hands after the war in Arkansas, eh?).

In March of 2009, the fragments of the pot lid were recovered from the very bottom of a large, rectangular pit that was used to dispose of a partially burned detached kitchen that seems to have been in service between the 1840s and latter half of the nineteenth century. The fragments were noticed briefly in the field—but only as fragments of a polychrome painted over transfer printed porcelain vessel.  We did not recognize it as a pot lid, or puzzle over its subject matter, until we got the material back into our lab at Southern Arkansas University.  The subject matter is a colorful crowd of proper Victorians in what appeared to be a zoo engaging in that wholesome, family-oriented Victorian pastime of baiting a bear in captivity.

What the entire potlid would have looked like.

What the entire pot lid would have looked like…doesn’t baiting bears look like fun?

Pot lids were one of the earliest forms of marketing and visual packaging, using attractive pictures printed on pottery to sell the products in the pot beneath—almost from their inception the lids appear to have been collected or kept as items of decorative merit.  Pot lids can be considered standard products of British potteries by the 1830s…amongst the earliest colored lids were the bear subjects which were almost entirely used to sell bear’s greaseA glance at the collector’s literature and websites will show you an almost endless variety of bear subjects…these alerted potentially illiterate consumers as to the contents of the jar, and provided an attractive, collectable diversion—adding an addition dimension to the consumption of the item.

“Bear Grease?” you ask.  This product was used by gentlemen as a pomade to give a sleek appearance to the hair, which was the fashion in the 1840s and 1850s.  The word “pomade” is French and these concoctions were used for all ailments of hair with perfumes, herbs and dyes added.  In fact, they were sweet smelling hair creams used by both sexes.  The bear’s grease was mixed with perfume to make it more acceptable as a cosmetic…by the middle of the nineteenth century the fat was imported and perfumes added.  Bear’s grease ceased to be significantly used around 1880 but pomades continued until the early twentieth century.

At this point this artifact simply points toward a class-aligned consumerism on the part of Grandison Royston (or a member of his household).  Purchasing bear’s grease pomade was definitely conspicuous consumption…it was a luxury, fashion item imported from Great Britain…and a item that showed some interest in consuming and collecting the pots in addition to using the perfumed pomade to make one fashionable and well quaffed on the cotton frontier.  But this artifact has a deeper story to tell…because of what it is (bear grease) and where it was found (in Arkansas in the 1840s)….it also tells a larger story of colonial-style trade, manufacture and consumption.

In Arkansas, the bear trade was so important that until 1923, it was unofficially known as “The Bear State.”  By the 1830s and 1840s, bears were economically important—largely because of bear grease. In addition to its use in luxury items like pomade, this grease or oil was highly prized for cooking in that it did not become rancid as quickly as butter.  Not only was bear fat used in cooking or as a substitute for butter, it was rendered and used as a hair dressing or leather conditioning for boots, belts, and the like. Thousands of barrels of bear oil/grease were shipped annually to ports such as New Orleans. Due to this commercial trade, thousands of bears were killed annually during the first half of the 19th century.  By the turn of the 20th century these settlers had decimated the population of bears in the state. Over the course of 120 years the bear numbers were ravaged by unregulated market hunting, landscape level logging, and habitat destruction through the encroachment of civilization and agriculture. Populations in the state went from 50,000 to an approximated 25-40 animals by 1940.

This underscores the conspicuous nature of Royston’s Bear Grease Pomade consumption—Royston was purchasing expensive imported pomade that was manufactured from grease that may have been (looking at the amount of bear grease exported from the state) harvested and shipped from Arkansas through ports such as New Orleans.  To be processed and packaged in the UK and shipped back (also through New Orleans) to be sold on the frontier of the Old Southwest.  But beyond the desire to show off Royston’s middle/upper-class status, these fragments of porcelain also point directly to the colonial-like nature of much trade on the Arkansas frontier…although the United States had ceased to be a actual colony by the American Revolution (or at least by the close of the War of 1812), we remained, for all purposes a colonial economy.  In the 1830s and 1840s southwest Arkansas was on the edge of Anglo-American expansion.  We were, however, large exporters of raw material products like bear grease–this grease, shipped half-way around the world where it was strained, perfumed and packaged then shipped back around the world where it was purchased and consumed in remote places like Arkansas.

Royston could have easily slicked his hair with cheap, locally available grease…in buying an imported British product—with its accompanying collectable, decorative pot—he was asserting his class identity and supporting a world economic system upon which his class-position depended…this small artifact, thus points to a larger (indeed, global) system of meaning and value precisely because of what is it and where it was found.

This go around, our SHA session on the power of a single artifact in context appears to be very large (almost 20 papers…and growing..it may be a monster!)…with contributions as varied as a VMI Cadet button that was recovered in the shed kitchen of an African American tenant family in the Blue Ridge Mountain of Virginia (Jodi Barnes), to a pocketknife with Arabic script found at a public house in Brunswick Town (Jennifer Gabriel-Powell & Thomas Beaman), to a Norse jasper fire-starter from L’Anse aux Meadows (Kevin Smith)…it should be fun to see what the most surprising and revelatory artifacts in the session are…I can’t wait until January.

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Categories: academia, anthropology, archeology, history, post

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3 Comments on “Bear Grease in the Bear State & The Power of Artifacts in Context”

  1. Story
    July 15, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    Great post!

  2. September 26, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    Reblogged this on Archeology at Historic Washington, Arkansas.

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  1. Maxine & Me… | farther along... - September 4, 2013

    […] As an archeologist, I have to admit that I believe in the authentic.  When I dig up an artifact, like the 1840s bear grease pomade jar I wrote about in July, it has power—because of what it is.  That seems authentic.  But I also have to acknowledge […]

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