No one invited us to the party but we’ve stayed for over nine years. And the desserts keep getting better. Not that what we do would come under the category of party. What should be obvious to readers of this blog is that I am talking about what it is like to volunteer at the Peabody Institute. First of all, who can volunteer? Being a graduate of Phillips Academy helps in passing the rigorous entrance examination but there are exceptions, such as my wife, Susan, whose qualifications, while many, started with marriage. This automatically reduces the interview process (but does not eliminate the background check.) And what do volunteers do?
Some of you might get the wrong impression that all we do is what the staff shy away from. Far from it. There have been plenty of occasions where it was all we could do to pry staff apart from a project to allow us to either dig into the unknown (such as categorizing about one hundred yards of unclassified photos) or finish it off (such as one hundred yards of labels.)
Of course, I am exaggerating. (No point in frightening you.) I have handled (and often read) documents from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; paleolithic artifacts from 10,000 B.C.E; ledgers with tens of thousands of entries. I can picture specific bifaces, sherds and feathers.
What my wife, Susan, and I have been doing has varied considerably over the years as staff have come and gone, priorities have shifted, and time frames have expanded. I like to think that volunteering has allowed the Peabody to think in terms of decades, not centuries. This might come as a surprise until you consider that the Peabody is home to somewhere in the vicinity of 600,000 artifacts.
For quite a number of the past nine years, Susan and Leah (another spectacular volunteer) have been inspecting, vacuuming and protecting textiles from Guatemala. Although the end of the project has been in their sights for the past year, Einstein’s theory of special relativity keeps getting in the way (time slowing, distances shortening…easy stuff.) Eager to try my own hand at a multitude of projects, my time has been slowed as well. Despite Einstein’s slowing of time as we operate at the speed of light, sadly, all of us working as an extended family inside the Peabody’s walls have grown somewhat older (but not by much and not at the same rate.)
Most recently, I had the task of filling out labels to put on a few of the 1,500 drawers containing a variety of artifacts. It was a matter of necessity, not just my dexterity and eye coordination. When I completed that task, it was my honor to look for the “absence” of items. It all started with the discovery that an item had been “mislabeled.” That’s akin to looking through a haystack and saying you didn’t find the needle. And winning means you did not find the needle.
Sometimes I write blogs. I’ll stop here because my limit is 500 words. (Only staff can do more!)
In addition to working on the Inventory Rehousing Project, I survey the artifacts and ethnographic materials held in our flat file storage units. While all artifacts at the Peabody Institute require special attention, the objects stored in our flat file storage need extra TLC, such as pest protection, monitored temperature, and custom storage mounts.
Let’s take a journey through the process! Each drawer in our flat file storage is first emptied for an inventory and inspection of objects. Once emptied, the drawer is vacuumed and relined with clean Volara® foam. Volara® is a closed cell polyethylene foam that has applications in medicine and museums. Objects that are particularly susceptible to movement or damage in storage are measured for custom mounts. Custom cavity mounts provide a rare opportunity to do work outside, to enjoy the weather while carving foam with a hot knife. Next, I assess each item’s condition and photograph it for our database records. Once complete, the artifacts are returned to their newly created foam padding and/or mounts for safe resting. My most recent work includes this small cavity mount for a Thule ivory figurine of a polar bear.
It is important to revisit these objects, not only to make sure all are accounted for, but to bring them up to today’s standards in terms of care and condition. After all, one of the most important goals of collections management is to preserve these objects to the best of our ability for future generations.
I recently had the opportunity to create a cavity mount for a double cylinder jar that is from Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. This artifact is very special because only one double cylinder jar has ever been recovered from Chaco Canyon.
Chaco Canyon is a large archaeological site located in northwestern New Mexico. It is believed that people have inhabited the region for over 10,000 years, with large scale occupancy occurring between AD 700 and 1300. This period is known as the Pueblo period. Architecture at Chaco Canyon ranged from domestic dwellings to large, multi-story complexes. These multi-story buildings are known as Great Houses, the largest of which is Pueblo Bonito. In addition to these structures, Chaco Canyon also contains large subterranean rooms called Kivas. Kivas were typically used for ceremonial purposes, and the largest kivas could hold hundreds of people. Eventually Chaco Canyon was abandoned by its inhabitants for reasons that remain unknown. It is believed that drought was a significant factor in its abandonment.
In order to make a mount for this vessel, I needed to find a block of archival ethafoam large enough to hold the vessel. Once this was located, I carefully traced the shape of the jar into the foam. I then used a hot knife to essentially melt and cut the foam out, forming the cavity in which the vessel would rest. This part was awesome, and I got to work outside so that the smoke and fumes of melting foam didn’t set off the fire alarms. Once the cavity was made, I lined it with Tyvek paper, which is an archival material that will not damage artifacts while providing a smooth surface on which to rest. Once the Tyvek was in place, the vessel could rest inside its new home. To see a video of cavity mount making check out this link . It’s not a video of me making this mount, but the process I used was exactly the same. Now this one of a kind vessel is happily resting in a mount instead of just in a cardboard box.
The double cylinder vessel is housed in one of the drawers from our Adopt A Drawer program. If you are interested in adopting a drawer at the Peabody feel free to contact us!
Artifact collections are not meant to stagnate – museum collections are meant to be researched, examined, and shared. In a perfect world, all loans are returned promptly and paper-work is meticulous. But, let’s be real, in an institution with 100+ years of history, this is not often the case. Fortunately, some past researchers remember you when it is time to relocate collections.
Circa 1972, Scotty MacNeish sent faunal material from the Ayacucho Valley of Peru to Dr. Kent Flannery of the University of Michigan for analysis. Dr. Flannery is a prominent zooarchaeologist who specializes in investigating the origins of agriculture in Mesoamerica and the Near East. Many know Flannery from his 1976 book The Early Mesoamerican Village and his 1982 article The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s. Dr. Flannery completed the Ayacucho faunal analysis and sent data and a written chapter (for Volume I of the Prehistory of the Ayacucho Basin) back to MacNeish. But the artifacts were not returned until July, 2018.
Dr. Flannery, and the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology at the University of Michigan, shipped us 493 bags and 11 small boxes of faunal material. A loan from 45 years ago, of course, did not have much paperwork, though we did locate the original Peruvian export permits and customs documents. But, all bags and boxes are now inventoried and part of the Peabody collection. The material is from Jaywamachay Cave, Ruyru Rumi Cave, and Chumpas Cave in the Ayacucho Valley.
Boxes returned bones find a new home
The material was largely returned in bags like these
An example of the faunal material from Ayacucho
Why does this matter? These collections can now be made available to a new generation of researchers and are reunited with other materials from MacNeish’s Ayacucho work.
On Thursday September 13 just after 5pm we received text, email, and phone alerts to evacuate all campus buildings. Phillips Academy responded quickly to evacuation orders, due to gas fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. Reports from town officials at the time stated that in Andover a total of 35 fires were reported with 18 fires burning at the same time. Significant damage was being reported from surrounding communities as well, and sirens and emergency vehicle were regular sights on Main Street. Subsequent reports indicate that older gas lines had been over pressurized, resulting in gas accumulation, fires, and explosions. Officials and first responders described the scene as a “war zone” and “Armageddon.”
Quiet study night at the Peabody had just begun when we received the evacuation order and several students were already in the building. They evacuated and joined their peers on the Great Lawn. All students were well cared for by their house counselors, faculty, and administrators and ultimately were able to get back into their dorms around 11:00pm. Classes were cancelled on Friday at Phillips Academy and in the other affected towns.
I remained at the Peabody until just after 7:00pm to ensure that there was no immediate danger to our collections. Rachel Manning arrived and kept an eye on things for another hour. Curator of Collections Marla Taylor was in touch with both of us. By this time utility workers had depressurized the gas lines in our vicinity and all electricity had been shut down to the towns.
Following in the wake of the recent conflagration and near total loss of the Brazilian national museum, we were extremely concerned about possible threats to the Peabody building and collections. The Brazilian fire illustrates just how susceptible cultural collections are to loss. In that case officials estimate that nearly 20 million objects were destroyed, including recordings of now-extinct Native languages, paintings and decorative arts, and other significant archaeological and ethnographic collections.
Happily the Peabody has never had gas service, so we were relatively safe, though gas can travel through the soil and invade basements. Gas lines do exist in the area and provide service to many of the homes and apartments on campus and in the vicinity. There is an access point to one line–a vault–just outside our building and I watched the utility worker depressurize this and shut it off. This site has continued to attract the attention of utility workers over the subsequent days. On Wednesday September 26 workers purged old gas from these lines in anticipation of line replacement.
This was a pretty scary emergency, especially considering the scale and scope. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see the loss of homes in our Merrimack Valley community, as well as learning about the injuries to dozens of people and at least two deaths. Many homes and businesses in the area remain without heat and considerable numbers are out of work.
Before I officially became a staff member here at the Peabody, I was a volunteer and work duty student. I started volunteering at the Peabody about nine years ago, and when I came to Phillips Academy as a student I immediately signed on to do work duty. As a volunteer and work duty student, I worked to catalogue and inventory returned artifact loans, set out class activities, digitize records, and photograph artifacts. Since going to college out of state about two years ago, I have not been back at the Peabody, other than for brief visits. Reflecting on my time working here, it is fascinating, and somewhat nostalgic, to look back at what the Peabody was like when I started all those years ago and how it has changed so much since then!
When I started volunteering here, the Peabody was still officially a museum and still had standing exhibit space on the first floor. Some of those exhibit cases displayed artifacts, others dioramas or archaeology-related activities done by some Phillips Academy classes. Down in the collections, we used white cotton gloves to handle artifacts, rather than the purple nitrile gloves we use now. The reboxing project had not begun, so much of the work I did was cataloguing and inventorying in preparation for when that project might get funding. While I was doing work-duty, I sat in on some meetings about how to make the Peabody more accessible to Phillips Academy students, both in terms of the collections and the building space as a whole. Since then, the Peabody has initiated student study hours, during which the building is open to students as a study space, and renovated the first floor to make it more class-friendly!
It has been just over two years since I graduated from Phillips Academy, and I am so happy to be back working here! I study archaeology in college, and so working here, albeit temporarily, is an opportunity not only to continue learning how to preserve archaeological collections, but also to put into practice what I have learned at school, namely how to make archaeology more accessible for everyone.
Human Origins at Phillips Academy began in 2007 and represented one of the early collaborations between faculty and the Peabody. In its initial incarnation the course was led by Jerry Hagler, science faculty, and co-taught by personnel at the Peabody. The content was strongly interdisciplinary, mirroring the reality of archaeology and anthropology, which draw heavily on science, history, historiography, psychology, and other fields. Three years ago I began leading the course solo, but have endeavored to maintain the strong interdisciplinary flavor. The course is now among those offered by the Academy’s new Department of Interdisciplinary Studies. The course description states:
This interdisciplinary science course uses insights drawn from history, art, archaeology, and other disciplines to chart the human journey from hominid to the first civilizations that forecast the modern world. Hands-on laboratory exercises emphasize use of Peabody Institute of Archaeology collections and challenge students to apply ancient techniques to solve daily problems of survival.
In the fast paced world of human evolution, I’ve found it imperative to focus on some of the big questions and issues, rather than on the details, as new finds and discoveries rewrite our evolutionary history nearly monthly. In June 2017 a new discovery in Morocco pushed back the antiquity of modern humans (us!) by nearly 100,000 years and called into question the predominant view that our earliest ancestors first appeared in eastern and southern Africa. We also only have 10 weeks to cover some 7 million years of human evolution, so judicious pruning of the syllabus is necessary.
On the first day of class some students are surprised to learn that we will spend a great deal of time talking about race. When you understand that the scientists who first studied fossil humans were also the scientists that were interested in human diversity this connection becomes clearer. We encounter ideas like polygenesis, which suggests that so-called races today had different evolutionary origins and trajectories. Despite the widespread adherence to the “Out of Africa” hypothesis, polygenism casts a long shadow and continues to crop up in new guises.
Early in the term we tackle pseudoscience and read a chapter from Michael Shermer’s 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things. We get to talk about Big Foot. It was with great reluctance that I dropped a reading from Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero’s 2013 book Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. They review every piece of evidence for the existence of these creatures (and more!), pointing out over and over that scientific inquiry requires falsifiability beyond all else. The importance of falsifiability in science will remain central, but the Loxton and Prothero readings were just too long!
We also spend some time talking about Neanderthals, and the incredible shifts in our understanding of one of our closest human relatives. As much as possible I try to have students read things written by the scientists on the front line of human origins research, including Svante Pääbo, who less than ten years ago reconstructed the Neanderthal genome and demonstrated that many of us carry a little Neanderthal DNA, the product of interbreeding between what most scientists had though two separate species. The recent discovery of an individual from 90,000 years ago that had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father will no doubt be front and center in our discussion. Denisovans are another recently discovered fossil human group that overlapped geographically and temporally with Neanderthals in eastern Europe and Asia. Students presenting on Neanderthals in the popular imagination will explore everything from the GEICO caveman to the Flintstones.
During our extended periods we will explore a variety of early technologies, from flint knapping to fire making. In order to contextualize these early technologies, students will read some of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene, where he introduces the concept of the “meme.” Many are surprised to find that the term meme, now embedded in the culture of social media, originated with Dawkins as he wrestled with ways to model the origins and transmission of ideas. We discuss innovation versus transmission, and how both are necessary for an idea to persist and spread. Fire and stone tool making are particularly good examples, sparking discussion of the earliest evidence for each and if they were independently invented over and over (and how one might tell).
We revisit race again with an entire week dedicated to readings and discussion of the problematical origin of the concept, and how it melds physical traits with cultural ones. We delve into paleontologist Stephen J. Gould’s campaign against the idea of race as a biological or scientific concept, and how scientists have continued to study race despite Gould’s protests. The focus here is on creating a context for future discussions of race—the cultural construct—versus biological diversity. We’ll tackle the complexities of forensic methods used to distinguish race, why these work so well, and how physical anthropologists struggle with ideas about race. Other lab days visit the Peabody’s collection of fossil human cranial casts, how to read the story of human evolution in one skeleton, and a special trip to the campus Makerspace where we will 3D print a fossil of Homo naledi, a recently discovered fossil human species from South Africa that overlaps with modern humans in space and time and blends ancient and modern characteristics.
The term will finish with some time dedicated to the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), explored through a classroom debate and using the legal documents from the Spirit Cave Man case. The Peabody has been deeply involved in NAGPRA since its implementation in 1990 and it seems appropriate to share this work with students and investigate the arguments on all sides of the repatriation debate.
Stay tuned for updates from this fall’s Human Origins course. Let’s see how new discoveries in the field and lab change our conversations in the classroom!
Another summer is nearly gone and the school year is about to begin. Sometimes, I get asked “what do you do when the students aren’t here?” Well… everything!
In the past couple of months, the collections department has inventoried and rehoused over 100 artifact drawers! This included an ambitious project (and maybe a little bit crazy) to reorganize the ceramics from the Scotty MacNeish collection. MacNeish stored the ceramics by typology – useful for analysis, but really unhelpful for collections management. Objects with the same catalog number were spread out over 8 to 12 different drawers and were not easy to locate for researcher or class use. It took over a week to empty, consolidate, and inventory 55 drawers. But now everything is easy to access!
Sherds removed from storage and placed into numerical order
Sherds spread around the room
I have also been teaching Annie Greco, inventory specialist, and Rachel Manning, our new collections assistant, the basics of pest management and mitigation. We inspected artifacts for insect activity and damage and then learned how to properly clean objects that have been affected. Fortunately, nothing serious was found and it was a valuable exercise for all of us.
Also, outside research does not follow the school year patterns. I have been working with several professors to facilitate access to Peabody collections for a variety of projects.
Summer at the Peabody is a different pace than the school year, but not any slower!
In July, I once again partnered with Dr. Bethany Jay of Salem State University to teach the graduate class for history teachers that focuses on using archaeology in the classroom to teach about marginalized individuals, who are often overlooked.
Since it is now our fifth year running this class, it is always exciting when we get to experience something new ourselves. This year we added a tour of the Gedney House in Salem to our listing of sites we were visiting. One of the students in the class, Tom, is a tour guide for the Gedney House and took us all around the historic house – we even got to go into the creepy basement!
The house has gone through a lot of iterations throughout its history and they have left their marks on the building. Starting first as a single family home, for shipwright Eleazer Gedney, major renovations to the façade were added in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later it became a tenement in Salem’s Italian-American neighborhood.
What makes the house so interesting to history lovers (and archaeologists!) is that the house was originally set for total rehab in the 1960s and so the inside was completely gutted. That means that you can now see the original structure as well as the evidence for later renovations. It really sets the house apart from other first period houses located in New England. Dr. Abbott Lowell Cummings, a prominent architectural historian, once said that the “Gedney House in Salem, Massachusetts is the example par excellence which must be protected under a glass bell jar” due to the scholarly impact its raw architectural state offers to historic preservationists seeking to better understand the construction methods of these early houses so that they can more faithfully restore such structures.
Cummings was also the first scholar to suggest that dendrochronology (the study of tree rings for dating purposes) be used in New England to date the earliest colonial houses, using the Gedney House as one of the first structures on which to test this technique. After the former owner had stripped away much of the interior trim down to the frame, a beam that had been cut into at some point in the house’s history was exposed. The cut revealed an almost complete cross-section of the beam’s tree rings. Cummings used the rings to date the construction of the house to 1664-1665 based on a set of specific drought rings that coincided with the 1590s and 1615-1620.
If you happen to find yourself in Salem, MA during one of the days the house is open for limited tours (first Saturdays in April-October), I can’t recommend it enough. As you walk through the building, you can see the signs of each of the unique periods, as well as how they overlap with each other. So many people have called that house their home and their stories are literally carved into the frame of the house.
I have been working as the Inventory Specialist at the Peabody for the past year. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience and I have learned a great deal, not only about the collections at the Peabody, but about collections and artifacts from other institutions throughout the United States as well.
It is with great pleasure that I will be taking on the position of Collections Assistant at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology! With this new position comes a variety of new responsibilities that I am ready to undertake. While I will still be inventorying drawers as time allows, I will focus more on drawers that have been adopted through our Adopt A Drawer program. Through this program, donors can “adopt” a drawer housed at the Peabody! They receive updates on the progress of the inventory and rehousing of the artifacts in the drawer and pictures of what is inside. Upon completion, a write-up with information pertaining to the age, origin and various other details about the artifacts within the drawer is sent to the donor. Interested in participating? Contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Another major part of the position will be monitoring the environment in the various collections spaces. Maintaining proper relative humidity and temperature is imperative to keeping a healthy collection. Fluctuations in these variables can be detrimental to the collection and cause damage to and have other undesirable effects on the artifacts. In addition to environmental monitoring, I will also be in control of the Integrated Pest Management program. Keeping on top of pest activity in any institution is the best way to avoid an infestation. This is especially important in museums where irreplaceable artifacts can be damaged by insect activity.
A third big change will be working more closely with our volunteers and work duty students who spend time at the Peabody helping us with a few of the many tasks that need to be accomplished. Once a week groups of students from Phillips Academy assigned work duty at the Peabody will take time doing anything from inventorying drawers to digitally inputting information from catalog cards and ledgers. We also have a group of volunteers who join us once a week to inventory drawers, perform inspections of our ethnographic materials, or do other tasks as they present themselves. If this sounds like something interesting to you or anyone you know, feel free to contact us about volunteering at the Peabody!
I am very excited to be able to contribute to the Peabody in new ways!