History and Art History: A Match made in the Past


This past week my students learned about Ancient Egypt. If you think about Ancient Egypt, chances are you will conger up images of pyramids, sphinxes, and hieroglyphs. Where is the line between History and Art History? For me, it is a gray area rather than a line as so much of the History I love can be considered Art too. When you study people that don’t have a written language, all you have from them is their artistic creations and the archaeological evidence they left behind. I’ll discuss History and Archaeology in another post. For today, here are some thoughts on Art, History, and Art History. Also, I’ll show you some examples of Art I use in my own research.

What is Art? The cop out definition is that Art is subjective, and it can be anything. In that case, what is History? The discipline of History has changed a lot since the 1960s and 70s when historians started to emphasize non-literate peoples and peoples who did not leave any written evidence of their own. Studying these peoples is difficult, but certainly not impossible. Often, like in my own research, a different group of people wrote about the non-literate people. Reading these second-hand documents is called “reading against the grain” and poses interesting conundrums for historians. How can we make assertions about a people from the observations of another group? Can we scrape away the subjective nature of a colonizer writing about the place he colonized and the people he enslaved? We can try. One of the most interesting ways to isolate this subjectivity is through Art and critiquing the art of one people that they made about another group.

Below are four images from a Spanish book of Costumes from the New World. I took photos of these pages at the Getty Institute in 2010. The book was created by an author who, as far as I am able to tell, never set foot in the Americas. His book illustrates costumes of indigenous peoples of the Americas where the Spanish colonized and enforced conversion to Christianity in Missions. These pictures demonstrate not the legitimate dress of Native Californians in the colonial period, but the Spanish ideal of how they looked before and after conversion. Look closely at the pictures and see if you can spot the differences between the figures. What is the artist trying to show? Why does he portray the women and men of California so differently before and after contact with the Missions? Do you think this is how these men and women would show themselves? Consider their postures, clothing, facial features, and the backgrounds of the pictures. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

“Muger Salvage de la California” (Female Savage of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
“Muger de las Misiones de la California” (Female of the Missions of of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
” Salvage de la California” (Savage of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
“Hombre de las Misiones de la California” (Male of the Missions of of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall

Gamification in World History

Image from the University of California. The Mammoth group won the game, but I gave everybody extra credit for participating.

Hello All,

As you know from the last post, this is JoAnna, Matt’s wife. My world history course at Sierra college is going well. This week I designed a game for the students to play about life in the Neolithic period. It was pretty successful, despite not having enough class time to really explore the whole game.  In this post I’m going to look at gamifying education and how it specifically relates to the discipline of History.

According to Webster’s dictionary, gamification is “the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.” Although the definition gives an example of use in marketing, gamification is gaining traction in education. Students of all ages enjoy playing games, but many of the popular examples of gamification in education are for younger students. However, in my experience, older students can find even more joy and explore deeper themes in educational games. Many of my students in the World History course want to be educators themselves. By using educational games in class, I urge them to think about new methods when they go on to be teachers too. 

Lectures can be boring, I know. There are only so many things a teacher can do with PowerPoint. Listening to someone talk and staying engaged in actively learning is an important skill for students. But by injecting a little activity and lively fun into my course, I hope that my students can retain and understand even more information about a historical period. My games also encourage students to sympathize with people from the past. Modern struggles like charging your iPhone and checking your email can make the struggles of ancient peoples seem so distant. In a game, students can assume the roles of people from a past time and understand their daily lives in a way I simply can’t deliver in a lecture.

This week, my students learned about the evolution of humanity and how we came to settle in all of the habitable landmasses on our planet. Gathering resources, protecting them, and coming to terms with the rhythms of the natural world were big parts of how we progressed as a species. I had my students play a game modeled on life in the Neolithic period. I asked for four volunteers to be the deities in charge of some major resources (agriculture, meat, fresh water, and building materials) and I broke the rest of the class into four groups (the cave bear group, the mammoth group, the giant sloth group, and the sabre-tooth cat group.) Each group picked a leader and 3-4 members of the group to represent them at the start of the game. Each group sent their leader and representatives around to the four deities to collect resources the could use for survival and growth. At the end of each in-game year, I, as the head deity, collected resources from the groups for the survival for the members and to see if they had enough to grow their group (add new players.) If they didn’t have enough resources to sustain their numbers, a group member died (player had to leave the game.)

After the first year, I changed the rules a bit. The deities received fewer or more resources based on a die roll to represent famines or a bumper crop season. I also allowed groups to steal and trade resources and I allowed the deities to be capricious and withhold resources or grant extras. The arbitrary nature of the game was supposed to represent the whims and natural changes during the Neolithic period. Obviously, they could not actually fight wars. But, things did get exciting and most of the students really got into the game. It helped that I gave them the incentive of a little bit of extra credit for the group that had the most people and resources at the end of the game. Sadly, we ran out of time before we could play more than two in-game years. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and I know the activity would have gone even better if we had had more time.

Overall, I believe gamification can be beneficial to students. Some of my fondest memories were playing games in history classes. In middle school we played a medieval life game where we took on roles of serfs and landowners. I learned what a bailiff was and how much how important agriculture was to the foundations of medieval Europe. In college I took a course where we took on the roles of historical figures and wrote argumentative papers from their points of view. I still use what I learned about those figures in my classes today and it greatly improved my writing and researching skills. I don’t know if my students will remember this game, but I believe they will look fondly back on the day they got to run around in class and collecting little pieces of paper and acting out life in the ancient world.

The Guest Begins

Portions of Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. This cuneiform writing depicts Gilgamesh and Enkidu meeting Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest. The tablet dates to the Old Babylonian Period, 2003-1595 BCE. Photograph by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, FRCP; Wikimedia, open access.


For those of you who don’t know me, I’m JoAnna Wall, Matt’s wife. I’m taking over his blog while he is working on his book this month. My posts will be a bit more varied than Matt’s have been, but all he specified was that the posts had to be historical. So, send any complaints to him.

My first post is going to be a bit introductory, historiographical, and pedagogical. After a hiatus from teaching, I am now an adjunct professor at Sierra Community College in Rocklin, CA. I have one section of World History to 1500 C.E. to teach this semester. In this post, I’ll let you know a more about me, my research, and my teaching methods. The last part of the post will give you a taste of what my students are reading for the class and some discussion points.

Although Matt told you that I am finishing my PhD at UCLA, I am strongly considering leaving the program. After a lot of thought I have found that being in the Latin American History field was not the best place for me. Not only do I regret going straight from undergraduate to graduate school, I should have taken more time to consider advisors and my field of choice. However, I will never regret my time at UCLA as I learned so much and met Matt. Without him and our daughter Clementine, my life would be much less fulfilling.

History is still my passion. Even if I end up leaving UCLA without a PhD in hand, I have done work I am proud to share. This month I’ll post some of my research on indigenous women’s dormitories in the California Missions as well as some other work I have done on Americans who were marooned in Colonial California and their journeys home.

In this post, I want to focus on my teaching. I emphasize primary sources in my courses. Like Elmer’s letters, primary sources give us a window into a time and place that a secondary source just can’t capture. I think it is vital to students without a History background to read an analyze primary sources themselves, rather than only accessing them through a source like a textbook. Context is important, so I still give my students secondary sources to read about the period we are studying, but I mainly want them to focus on thinking about the primary sources and coming up with their own original thoughts about them.

For example, this week my students will read selections from the Epic of Gilgamesh. This poetic epic from 2700 B.C.E. tells the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk. Uruk was a Sumerian city state in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and is one of the oldest literary works in existence. To start with this primary source is kind of pushing my students into the deep end and seeing how they swim, but it is a fascinating mythological work that epitomizes Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth. The Hero’s Journey from Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) ties myths from across History together to show how we as humans see our legends. Although the Epic of Gilgamesh was written almost 5000 years ago, we can still see parallels in our favorite stories from today.

If this enterprise is not to be accomplished, why did you move me, Shamash, with the restless desire to perform it?

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Saunders trans. (1960) pg. 7

This quote illustrates the call to action. Heroes don’t just decide out of the blue to be heroes and go on an epic adventure. The ambition, whether God-given or innate, drives the hero to go on their quest. Gilgamesh’s “restless desire” can be seen in stories like The Aeneid to “Star Wars.” Although The Epic of Gilgamesh is sometimes difficult to parse for modern audiences, the comparisons to our own favorite stories help students connect with the distant past and see that even people who lived almost five millennia ago, in a place that is now best known as a war zone, are not that different from us after all. Once you can get over that mental hurdle, History becomes a lot easier to relate to our own lives. It’s one of the things I love most about History.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me. Here are a few more of my favorite lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh and some of the questions I will ask my class this week.

“He (Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s enemy and then friend. A wild man from the wilderness) was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.”

“So he returned and sat down at the woman’s feet, and listened intently to what she said. ‘You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god. Why do you want to run wild with the beasts in the hills? Come with me.”

“Ishtar opened her mouth and said again, ‘My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.’ Anu said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle?’ Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years of seedless husks there is grain and there is grass enough.’”

-Women play important roles in The Epic of Gilgamesh. What traits to women represent in the story? How do they help and hinder Gilgamesh and Enkidu? What do their parts in the story tell us about Sumerian views of women and gender?

-Enkidu begins his life in the wilderness, the opposite of city dwelling Gilgamesh. Looking at these opposing characters, what can we learn about Sumerian culture? How did Sumerians reconcile urban life and nature? What was most important for them economically and culturally?

-The gods and goddesses of Sumeria are very active in The Epic of Gilgamesh. How do these supernatural forces compare to those in other legends, mythologies, and religions?  

February Guest Blog

Hi folks,
Thank you for reading, commenting on, and following my blog over the past several months. I have really enjoyed sharing these letters with you and taking this opportunity to not only share this project with the public, but to hopefully honor my grandfather’s memory as well.

However, I need to take a few weeks off from the blog in order to make progress on some other projects. For one, I am scheduled to complete the copywriting and editing process for my forthcoming book Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing and Culture in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, which is due out sometime late this summer or early in the fall. So I will need to think about horse stealing again for a few more weeks while I complete this process with my publisher. I am also going to use this time to begin a major grant application for my documentary, Earthshaking. If I have any time left over after that, I am going to read a couple of books to review for this blog.

Therefore, this February I am going to take the month off from blogging and hand the reins over to my wife, JoAnna Wall. She is completing her PhD in history and studies the California missions. She also teaches world history at Sierra College. She has carte blanche to write about whatever she wants, so long as it is history-related somehow, and mind the store until I come back in March. Hopefully she will enjoy the experience enough to become a regular contributor here and, perhaps, eventually start her own blog.

Thanks again for reading, and I look forward to sharing more of these letters (we will start reading about 1943) and this project with you in March!


A Post about Pat

One of the more mysterious characters we’ve read about over the first two years of Elmer’s correspondence is his old flame, Pat. I had a great deal of difficulty locating her – mainly because I didn’t have a last name, and she doesn’t appear in some of the usual suspect places (Elmer’s Cleveland High School yearbook, his neighborhood according to 1940 census data, etc). However, Elmer’s December 27, 1942 letter to his parents contained two important clues: her last name (O’Donnell) and the date she was married (November 28th, 1942).

With that information on hand, it did not take long at all to find her. Doris Patricia (Pat) O’Donnell (born 1922 – two years younger than Elmer) married Ridgley Reichardt at the Trinity Evangelical Church (that should sound familiar – it is Elmer’s mother’s church) on November 28, 1942. Pat’s father, Cornelius E. O’Donnell, once worked as a printer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A cursory newspaper search turned up a lot of information on Ridgley, who was by no means an inferior suitor. Reichardt was a champion speed skater, and by 1943 he and his bride were living in a beautiful house on Longfellow Boulevard. After the war he became a professional dog breeder and show judge. He and Pat won a Best of Breed award for one of their Golden Setters at the Heart of America All Breed Show in 1961.

I wondered whatever happened to Pat as I read through the first two years of grandpa’s letters, and in a strange way I kind of felt bad about Elmer turning her down in not the most gentle fashion nearly 80 years ago. Even though they continued to correspond with, I’m assuming, no hard feelings (she sent grandpa a nice wallet in the fall of 1942), I hoped that it all worked out for her.

As it turns out, it did. She and Ridgley both passed away in 2013 – just eight months apart – and left behind two daughters, three grandchildren, and as of 2013 eight great-grandchildren. They celebrated their 70th anniversary the previous year. If that isn’t a successful love story, then I don’t know what is. According to her obituary, “‘Pat’ enjoyed showing and raising Golden Setters and horseback riding.” It sounds to me like she fared pretty well after grandpa.

I won’t write much more about this because we are now starting to approach that line between historical research and infringing on a present-day family’s privacy. I debated whether or not to contact her descendants, but I opted not to subject them to some weird historian in California asking them about their mother’s or grandmother’s ex-boyfriend before meeting the man she would stay married to for over seventy years. Grandpa never mentioned her to me or to my dad (as far as I know), but in fairness he was twice-widowed and had a couple of long-term girlfriends before he himself passed away. His romantic history is much more convoluted, it would seem, and frankly it’s the sort of thing I never thought to ask him about.

But if one of her descendants ever comes to this blog post after doing a Google search on either Pat or Ridgley Reichardt, my question to them would be: did Patricia ever keep her letters from Elmer? If she did, does someone have them now? And if someone has them now . . .

Can I see them?

One of my favorite scenes from High Fidelity (2000). Later Rob tries to call Alison in an effort to find out why she broke up with him. He ends up speaking with her mother, who tells Rob that Alison and Kevin Bannister only ever dated one another, that they are now married, and that Allison had no other boyfriends. Rob, feeling vindicated that he was not at fault for the breakup then triumphantly exclaims, “Alison married Kevin!”
Alison married Kevin!

Teaching Page Updated

Hi folks,
If anyone is coming here from one of my classes (or if anyone else is curious about what I teach), I’ve updated my syllabi on the “Teaching” page, as well as the office hours I’m holding for Spring 2020. The office hours include Google Map applets showing where I’ll be, so please don’t be weird stalkers or anything like that.

I did not post anything here about the HUX program, which is the MA degree program I coordinate at California State University Dominguez Hills. If you have any questions about it, please reach me at my institutional email.


December 1942: Dreaming of a White Christmas

According to Wikipedia, Big Crosby’s “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all-time, with over 50 million records sold across the world. It resonated with Americans on multiple levels during the 1942 Christmas season, with so many young American men off fighting in the War.

The Chew returned to Pearl Harbor on December 7th, a year to the day the war started. Much had changed since then. The United States had built up its armed forces and reorganized its economic, cultural, and social institutions around winning the war. Hawaii was effectively under military control. Allied armies were chasing Rommel across Africa, while the U.S. started its first major land campaign against the Japanese at Guadalcanal. With Midway won on the Pacific and Stalin on the offensive in Russia, the end of the beginning of World War II was at hand.

But one of the most inspiring differences could be seen at Pearl Harbor itself. Twelve months earlier the water was on fire; all eight of its battleships were sunk, sinking, or damaged; its air defenses were shattered; over 2,400 Americans were lost; and virtually everyone who had survived was shaken to the core. When the Chew arrived on December 7, 1942, however, the clinks and clanks of boats being repaired filled the air. The sound of hammers, drills, and saws rang out across the harbor in a steady, throbbing cacophony of noise. Within the first six months, the Navy resurrected five battleships and two cruisers from the harbor for repair, and divers busily patched what they could well into 1943.

One of the battleships under repair, the West Virginia, required an almost unfathomable amount of work. Eight torpedoes blasted its port side, and another one destroyed its propeller. Despite the incredible damage it incurred during the attack, a year later the salvage operation to bring it back to life was well underway. The Navy hoped to send it to Bremerton Yard near Seattle sometime in the new year in order to fix whatever they couldn’t mend at Pearl Harbor.

In drydock at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, 10 June 1942, for repair of damage suffered in the 7 December 1941 Japanese air raid. She had entered the drydock on the previous day. Note large patch on her hull amidships, fouling on her hull, and large armor belt. Photographed by Bouchard. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Just as the ships were being restored at breathtaking speed, Elmer noticed how quickly the hours were flying by for him as well. “The days pass so fast at sea it seems that one day is gone and another almost finished before noon,” he wrote on December 4th, when they were still three days out from Pearl, in the vast blue expanse of the Pacific. “This war will be a year old soon, and yet it seems like [it started] yesterday.”

The entire world seemed to be moving so fast. December 1942 brought some good, if anticlimactic news for Elmer: his old flame, Pat O’Donnell, was getting married. “She finally hooked a man,” he reported to his parents, who expressed no small amount of interest over the past two years in his seemingly on-again, off-again long-distance romance. Still, “it wasn’t a surprise to me.” Closer to home, Elmer learned that his sister Ruth had remarried her ex-husband, Rick. He seemed slightly annoyed by the recent developments (“she should know her own mind by now”), but he wished them success all the same.

There were new developments aboard the Chew as well. Since leaving California, the Chew’s commanders were breaking their engineers into new roles on the ship. With Ozzie and Herby attaining Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class as well, Elmer began learning an important job. “[I’m] taking over throttle watch for awhile,” he wrote. “Pretty important job, too, of course. I’m as proud as a kid with a new toy!” Later, he elaborated a bit on what this entailed. “The job has a big responsibility and the turbines that control the ‘screws’ are in my hands. So much for that.” Ozzie was helping him out as his oiler, but Elmer noted that his friend “will probably get a chance on the throttle soon.”

The new jobs were a big deal, but as the holidays approached there were few telltale signs that Christmas and New Years were just around the corner. “Almost time for Christmas festivities,” Elmer wrote on December 16th. “We’ll have a good dinner for sure. And that will be the biggest distinction between a regular day and Christmas day.” The meal, in fairness, was quite good. The captain even had color menus made, and Elmer mailed his to his parents. He also received a number of cards and some sweets, plus a money order and a Reader’s Digest subscription from his brother Bud and sister in law Elsie that month for the holidays, although one of the recurring themes in his correspondence that month is Elmer waiting for a five pound box of candy his mother sent.

But nice dinners and swell gifts were not enough to change the fact that Elmer was thousands of miles from home. There was no tree, no frost outside the window, and most importantly, no family. “Have you a tree this year, Mom?” he asked on Christmas Eve. “Remember how I always trimmed it each year. It seems so long ago. I know Christmas cannot be the same while we are apart, but make it a Merry Christmas just the same.” Elmer also thought of a popular Bing Crosby tune that was sweeping the country that month, a song that vividly illustrated for so many servicemen that year fighting in Africa and Oceania, as well as those training throughout the winter months in the South and Southwest, what they were missing that holiday season. “I wonder if you having a ‘white Christmas?’ Just like the song that is popular now.” And just like, he might have added, “the ones we used to know.”

By the end of the month, Elmer had received his five pound box of candy. He also received confirmation from his mother that she had finally received his photograph, which he had taken after his promotion and with his new watch on his left wrist. She might not have been thrilled with the mustache, but it may well have been the best Christmas present she could have wished for short of actually seeing her son.

And that wish, as it happens, would be fulfilled in 1943.

This is the picture Elmer Luckett took during the fall of 1942, presumably while in San Francisco, and sent to his mother for Christmas. The original is black and white, but he had this copy tinted. Note the watch on his left wrist and his Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class insignia. He received the battle star for his service during the attack at Pearl Harbor.