Resources for the Teacher - Relics
Geology and Geography:
1. Great Tiger Bluff is a geological feature that figures largely in several scenes in Relics. There is not, to my knowledge, a Great Tiger Bluff in Alabama, but it is modeled on a real place near my hometown called Red Bluff, sometimes called “Mississippi’s Little Grand Canyon.” If there is a better place to see the geological effects of erosion, I don’t know about it. (Well, okay. Maybe the Grand Canyon would be better. But Red Bluff is pretty good.) Years of rainfall and the action of the Pearl River have carved a semi-circular canyon out of bright red and orange soils. The contrast with the surrounding piney woods is spectacular.
Red Bluff overlooks the Pearl River near the town of Columbia. It is on private land, but nobody cared much about that back when I was a kid. Girl Scout troops and churches would load up buses full of kids and haul us way out in the woods to the spot where a tremendous (for Mississippi) canyon dropped away from the side of a country road. It was easy to spend a full day climbing the cliffs and wading down the spring-fed creek that led to a sand bar on the Pearl River. I have such indelible memories of the place that the thought of picking it up and moving it to my imaginary Alabama county was just irresistible.
A very dry and scientific description of the geology of Red Bluff can be found at: http://www.osti.gov/energycitations/product.biblio.jsp?osti_id=6536080
A more readable description, with a photo, was posted at this site by a private individual who was quite taken with the bluff’s colorful soils and precipitous 200-foot drop. Be aware that this is a small portion of a panoramic view: http://www.phototour.com/echtml/smissredbluff.html
Here’s a photo that does a better job of communicating the scope of the geological feature. Be aware that this photo was probably taken by someone standing in the road passing the bluff. The road has been moved twice, and it needs to be moved again. http://www.geocities.com/lamsar_pictures/My_Mississippi_Mardi_Gras_Page_5.html
And, finally, a personal website with quite a few shots of the bluff, including the unfortunate stretches of roadway that were destroyed by erosion: http://home.comcast.net/~jmcarlock/ride5.htm
1. Everybody wants to know why there’s a photograph of a solar eclipse on the cover of Relics. It seems like an unusual image for a book that focuses on history and archaeology and rural life. Well, much of the work in archaeology involves dating artifacts and putting them in the context of the lives of real people who lived in the past. This is usually done by laboratory testing or by making judgments based on where an artifact is found. Faye uses these more common methods in Relics, but I was particularly intrigued by the plot possibilities of archaeoastronomy, the branch of the science that uses the great starry clock in the sky.
If you haven’t read Relics yet, you might want to skip the next paragraph, which explains how astronomy helps Faye answer an important question.
She would like to know when a group of immigrants reached the New World and, eventually, Alabama. She would also like to know where in the Old World they originated. As I plotted the book I got to thinking about that clock in the sky. If I took a photo of the night sky tonight, could an astronomer tell me when and where that photo was taken? What if I wanted to put a date and location on something that happened before photography? With the help of some historical astronomers, I formulated just such a scenario. A long ago artist had painted the sky, capturing something that doesn’t come along every day—a solar eclipse—and Faye has found that old work of art. When the sun hides behind the moon, the brighter stars and planets come out in midday. The pattern of those stars and planets would be enough to tell an astronomer where and when the painting was made. Imagine the value of a single artifact that held that much information!
A program that will show your students what the night sky looked like at any given time in any given place can be found at http://www.fourmilab.ch/yoursky/ . A similar program would be used by an astronomer who wanted to help Faye interpret her historical star painting.
2. NASA’s website is, as one would expect, full of useful astronomical information. Particularly useful for school projects is their image gallery, which is not copyrighted. Be sure to read their image use guidelines to make sure you’re working within their requirements, but educational use is generally permitted. Our tax dollars paid for these awe-inspiring images. How cool that we actually have access to them! http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/index.html
3. There is a website called BadAstronomy that devotes itself to debunking popular astronomical myths. (It isn’t really easier to stand an egg on end on the day of the equinox, for example.) Curious kids could probably spend hours reading this stuff and learning a whole lot of science while they’re having fun.
1. The Sujosa, the fictional ethnic group featured in Relics, are firmly based in fact. Faye believes them to be a triracial isolate group, a polysyllabic anthropological term that means pretty much what it says: a group of people who have been isolated to some degree who show physical features of all three of the major human races. These groups are quite common in the New World, where the events of 1492 brought Europeans and Africans and Native Americans together in a historical cataclysm that still reverberates.
Most triracial isolate groups have been around for so long that no irrefutable history exists. No one knows where they came from or who their ancestors were. Many of them have suffered racial discrimination similar to that experienced by African Americans and Native Americans. Because I needed to create a history for the people in my book, I decided to create a fictional group, rather than mucking about in the heritage of real people. I read extensively about real groups, particularly the Melungeons of Appalachia, then used what I learned to create people who could have been real.
The history and origin of the Melungeons is hotly debated. A simple web search will reveal books and websites touting theories that range from the simple—they are the descendants of runaway slaves who intermarried with Native Americans and European-Americans—to the romantic—they are descended from shipwrecked Portuguese sailors or the Lost Colony of Roanoke. For simplicity’s sake, I will provide a link to a site maintained by Melungeons, although do not take this to mean that all Melungeons agree with each other on these issues. http://www.melungeon.org/?BISKIT=2712274068&CONTEXT=cat&cat=10005
2. In Relics, you will find a collection of oral histories “collected” by my fictional oral historian, Carmen Martinez. One of these stories tells of a Creek tribe that once lived near the Sujosa, but was eventually removed to the Indian Territories by the U.S. government. The dramatic story of the Indian Removals would make an eye-opening unit for any classroom. Some useful books include:
Brown V. and Owens, L. The World of the Southern Indians: Tribes, Leaders, and Customs, from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Leeds, Alabama: Beechwood Books, 1983.
Jahoda, Gloria. The Trail of Tears: The Story of the American Indian Removals 1813-1855. New York: Wings Books. 1975.
As a taste of what you will find in your research on the treks west that are commonly called The Trail of Tears, here are some historical quotes:
“That those tribes can not exist surrounded…in continual contact with our citizens is certain....Established in the midst of another and superior race…they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” President Andrew Jackson
“Death is hourly among us. The road is lined with the sick. Fortunately, they are a people that will walk to the last, or I do not know how we would get on.” Army Major F.W. Armstrong, one of the officers charged with the removal of the Choctaw Nation.
1. Archaeology threads through all of my books. I used a number of sources in my research, particularly this one:
Purdy, Barbara. How to Do Archaeology the Right Way. Gainesville. University Press of Florida,1996.
2. Young people love archaeology. Well, actually a lot of not-so-young people do, too. Digging up the past is the ultimate treasure hunt. If you can find a way to observe a real archaeological team in process, try to do it. If not, I’ve known teachers who devised their own projects, burying things in a sandbox and letting the kids experiment with tools and techniques.
I have a particular fondness for low-tech, low-cost experiments, so here’s a quick and fun idea. The concept of stratigraphy, where archaeologists use an artifact’s underground position to determine its age, is a cornerstone of the science. In general terms, if a given object is found beneath something that can be dated (like a coin that says “1982”), then the deeper object is older, assuming that the soil has been undisturbed since the two items were buried. Now most people (except those who are obsessively neat) use this concept every day. The clothes in the bottom of the hamper have been dirty longer than those near the top. If a letter is beneath a bill dated December 2, 2003 (Let’s hope the bill has been paid!), then the letter was probably received before that date. Send your students home with instructions to find examples of stratigraphy in their homes, their trash cans, their mothers’ pantries. There’s no telling what they will find.