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Interpretation of who produced or used an object can be controversial. For example, in the absence of written sources, it is tempting to identify as direct ancestors humans who left nameless artifacts in the territory where we now live. Thus, many Russians have identified as their Slavic ancestors "peoples of the forest" whose ancient settlements generally contain objects that reveal nothing about the ethnicity or language of those who made or used them. Many Chinese wish to demonstrate that areas now part of China were inhabited by Chinese from early times. Thus they have had difficulty accepting evidence of ancient burials in Western China of people whose ethnic characteristics (hair color, facial features) seem to be European. Even written sources may use vague or unrecognizable ways of naming people and rarely reflect ethnic or linguistic categories used today.


In some instances, archaeology has confirmed oral tradition. In other cases, there is no correlation or even outright contradiction. One of the most controversial recent examples is “Kennewick man,” a skeleton several thousand years old found in the state of Washington. Native American tradition claims him as their ancestor, but the skull type suggests a different ethnic origin.


As with the process of dating an object, begin to answer questions about who made or used an object with the information provided by scholars or curators. Remember, though, that they may have asked different questions, and your questions can elicit new insights. For example, if the object is an ornate, handwoven carpet, scholars may establish a date, the name of the original owner, the name of the carpet maker, and the name of its style. But your questions may center on its role in a family's history. Did ownership of that beautiful carpet cause family inheritance squabbles? Did the sale of that carpet and other family heirlooms provide the capital needed to start a new business? Was it a wedding gift and, if so, were such carpets traditional wedding gifts in that culture?

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