December 22, 2016
'I can drive along and think … I know this town'
By James F. Sweeney
Some instructors decorate their cubicles with pictures of family, windup toys or knickknacks. Elizabeth Hoag has a skull rack in hers.
Of course, the miniature, stylized skulls are not real; it’s a student’s take on a tzompantli, the wooden racks on which the Aztecs used to display the skulls of their enemies. Next to it is another student project, a glass vessel decorated with Mayan hieroglyphics.
These are examples of final assignments in Hoag’s Pre-Hispanic Civilization class, one of four that the adjunct professor and anthropologist teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art, along with Cultural Anthropology, Introduction to Archaeology, and Anthropology of Gender Roles.
Hoag is neither an artist nor an art historian, but making her class final an art project is illustrative of how she melds her passion with those of her students. “I try really hard to find ways to form connections between what we’re covering and what they’re doing. I love being able to share with them what I’m passionate about,” she says.
She realized her passion early. She was born in Iowa, but her father’s career took the family to Wales for three years when she was young. She was transfixed by the ruins in Europe. “I saw castles in England and ruins in Rome as a little girl and that was it for me. I remember telling my dad when I was six that I wanted to be an archaeologist,” she says.
She graduated from Ithaca College in New York. After a stint with an archeology company in Illinois, she earned a master’s degree in anthropology with a focus on archaeology at the University of Cincinnati.
At a dig in Veracruz, Mexico, she explored a site inhabited 2,000 years ago by the Olmec, the first major civilization in Mexico and a precursor to the Mayans.
Though the digs were under the auspices of the Mexican government, she felt uncomfortable with the colonialist aspects of excavating another culture’s history. “I never really felt it was my story to tell,” she says.
The stories she has been telling since moving to Cleveland 11 years ago belong to a past that, while recent in archaeological reckoning, has gone largely unexplored.
One of those projects involved locating the former summer home of the richest man in the world.
John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, lived on Euclid Avenue’s “Millionaires Row,” but in the 1870s built a summer retreat on what is now Forest Hill Park, straddling East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights.
The mansion, which was four stories tall and had more than 40 rooms, burned in 1917. Nearly 100 years later, no one was quite sure where it had stood. Working over the course of several years with the East Cleveland Park Association, Hoag and a volunteer crew located the foundation.
When Cuyahoga Community College built a running track at East 30th Street and Community College Avenue, it demolished houses that had been built in the 1940s and ’50s. Hoag, who also teaches at Tri-C, led high school students on a dig that, a mere two feet below the surface, turned up artifacts from the 1880s, including ceramics, glass containers and buttons.
Six years ago, the Shaker Heights resident was walking her dog near Lee Road and Parkland Drive when she noticed broken bits of tile, evidence to her that there had once been a house on the site near the south branch of Doan Brook.
Old maps indicated that there had been houses in the area, just outside a settlement of the Shakers, a religious community for which the suburb is named. In collaboration with the city, which owns the property, WVIZ/PBS Ideastream and the Shaker Heights Historical Society, she is working on two sites in the city and has found evidence of a homestead of a family that emigrated from the Isle of Man.
She credits the Shaker find to the archaeologists’ habit of looking at the ground when walking. “There might be great things overhead, but we’re all looking down,” she says. “I’m fascinated by vacant lots and what opportunities might lie under them.”
Because of projects like that and a natural curiosity, Hoag has a better grasp of Cleveland’s history than most natives do.
“I can drive along these streets and see the history and think, ‘I know this town’,” she says.
She has passed her love of history on to her two young boys, who come along on digs when they can. When they can’t, they beg her to bring back little artifacts, like the square-cut, handmade nails used in 19th-century construction.
“My kids are very well-versed in handling square nails and rusty pieces of glass,” she says.
Though her CIA students are unlikely to become archaeologists, she knows an understanding of anthropology informs and enriches their art.
“I love connecting with students, introducing them to the field and various areas of the field,” she says. “Especially at this college, I love seeing how they engage with the subject matter, and how they use the things they learn in my class in their own work, and find the intersection between anthropology and their art.”
And she makes sure the lessons are not all rooted in the past. She created the popular Anthropology of Gender Roles class in response to student interest in the topic. And, in the first semester of 2017, her students will be conducting field anthropology in neighboring East Cleveland, interviewing residents to determine what sort of art installations might be installed in the city’s vacant lots.
“I want them to take away an appreciation for cultural diversity in all its forms,” Hoag says. “To have an understanding about how and why we differ, to have an open mind to difference.”
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