You have probably heard of radio-carbon (C14) dating. An invaluable tool for contextualizing the past, C14 dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by measuring stable and unstable (radioactive) isotopes of Carbon. Developed by University of Chicago physical chemist Willard Libby in the 1940s, C14 dating was a game-changer for the field of archaeology. Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960.
Instead of relying solely on relative dating – the basic concept that an object found below another is older than one found closer to the surface – archaeologists gained the ability to specifically identify a year range for organic artifacts. The Peabody Institute was a contributor to this work through past curator, Frederick Johnson, but that is a story for another blog.
Lately, I have been working to facilitate C14 dating on bone artifacts from Pikimachay Cave in the Ayacucho Valley of Peru at the request of the 2019 Cordell Fellow, Juan Yataco. Juan is revisiting work done in the Ayacucho Valley by Scotty MacNeish. Back in the 1970s, MacNeish made some pretty bold assertions about the dates of human occupation in that region. At the time, the C14 dates from animal bones supported his claims, but other archaeologists doubted whether those bones were associated with human occupation.
While Juan’s specialty is stone tools, he also wanted to use improved technology to obtain an updated date for Pikimachay Cave. Unfortunately, the first bone sent for testing failed to yield an appropriate collagen sample and could not be tested. A second bone is on its way now. Both bones were modified by humans and will provide a fascinating glimpse of the past. Fingers are crossed for a better outcome this time around!
As children who anxiously wait for the first snowfall each winter season, we find ourselves looking forward with anticipation to a brand new year. The winter months begin to take hold, bringing not only cold weather, snow storms, and shorter days, but also the excitement of snow days, fresh snow landscapes, and winter activities! In the spirit of the winter season, I would like to highlight some winter artifacts in the Peabody’s collection. I included each object’s ID number for you to find in our online collections catalog. As you explore these objects, think about whether you have seen or used anything similar to these objects in your life and during your winter activities. How have some of these objects changed through time? You may be surprised by what you discover!
Snowshoes are a classic winter activity, but also a necessity for survival and travel in Arctic regions. Historians believe snowshoes were created about 4,000-6,000 years ago, however the exact origin and age of snowshoes is unknown. The invention of snowshoes may even be inspired by animals such as the snowshoe hare and the Canadian lynx, whose oversized feet give them the ability to move quickly through the snow. The snowshoes pictured here are made of wood, sinew, rawhide, cloth, and yarn. The tear drop shape makes these snowshoes well suited for distance travel in more open environments, especially in deep snow.
Boots are an essential accessory for winter wear and many who have experienced a snowy climate have owned more than one pair of winter boots. Mukluks are a soft, watertight boot traditionally made of seal or caribou skin. The sole of most mukluks are made of sealskin, which is sewn to tops of caribou skin with sinew thread to produce watertight seams. Mukluks are worn by Arctic native cultures such as the Inuit,Iñupiat, and Yupik. The term “mukluk” is of Yupik origins (from maklak), meaning “bearded seal.” The Mukluks pictured here were made by Inuit seamstress Anna Etegeak, from Unalakleet, Alaska.
Snow knives were designed as a multi-purpose tool between 1800 and 1925 by the Inuit, a cultural group inhabiting Arctic areas of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. These knives were made of ivory, horn, or bone. Snow knives are used for cutting and trimming blocks of snow for building Inuit snow houses known as igloos. Snow knives were also used to cut snow for drinking water.
The Ulu or “woman’s knife,” was used by Inuit women as an all-purpose tool. Ulu’s could be used to skin an animal, cut food, trim ice blocks for igloos, or to give a haircut. Early Ulu’s were made from flat, thin rock or slate. Handles were made out of wood, ivory, or bone. Later, as whaling became more common in Alaska, the Inuit took advantage of steel to make their Ulu’s sharper and more varied in design. Ulu’s are still made and used today – there is even an Ulu factory in Alaska! This particular Ulu is of a later design from the Nuwuk site, an unincorporated Inuit village known as “Kokmullit.” This site is located in Point Barrow or Nuvuk, a headland on the Arctic coast of Alaska.
Snow goggles functioned as sun glasses for the Inuit. These were used to protect the eyes against the harsh Arctic sun that would blindingly reflect off a landscape of snow and ice.
Below are some examples of snow goggles within our collection. One is an incomplete pair of snow goggles made from walrus ivory. The eye and nose areas have been carved, but no slits were cut for the eyes. The other is a complete pair of snow goggles made by contemporary indigenous artist, Sandy Maniapik, from Pangnirtung, Nunavut on Baffin Island. These snow goggles were purchased in Vancouver at the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver to be used in our teaching collections where students examine the Peabody’s arctic collections to support their learning about northern societies. Check out more of this lesson here.
Inuit men in the western Arctic often wore labrets, also known as lip plugs or lip gauges. Inuit boys and men would pierce below their lips and place a large ivory labret inside the lip where it would rest against the lower teeth. Labrets were removed for long-distance travel in the cold to protect them from frostbite caused by cold conducted through the labret.
This form of body modification was designed to make the men look like a walrus, an important animal to the Western Inuit. This form of adornment represented the sense of spirit or “Inua” possessed by every living or natural thing. “Inua” facilitates the transformation of man into animal and animal into man, a common theme in Inuit belief. (Source: Peabody Exhibit Label, 2005, Past Perfect Database.)
In the mid-1800s, beaver pelts were a unit trade, prized for their water repellant fur and warmth, and material longevity. After being cleaned and stretched (see image below), beaver skins were transformed into beaver pelts. Furs have played a large role in clothing across human history. Beaver pelts were popularly used in the production of outerwear such as coats, hats, garment and shoe lining, and ornamental adornment. Explore a brief history of the beaver trade and beaver pelts here.
Carvings of human figures served many purposes in traditional Inuit culture. They could possess curative powers when used by shamans. Sometimes they ‘stood in’ for someone missing an important social or religious event. Fathers also carved figurines for their daughters for play. Dolls for play were armless or had their arms close to their bodies so that their clothing could be easily changed. Both male and female figurines were made and dressed in clothing appropriate to their social group and gender.
Inuit girls would dress their dolls in clothes that they made. This was how many young girls learned to make water and wind proof clothes, a very important skill for survival in Arctic regions.
In some regions, such as the Bering Sea area, girls could not play with figurines inside the house or during winter. It was common belief that the return of geese in spring represented a period in which it was safe to play again and girls were allowed to play with their dolls. If a girl did not wait, she risked causing the geese to fly by without stopping and spring would pass directly into winter. (Source: Peabody Exhibit Label, 2005, Past Perfect Database.)
Animal effigies carved from ivory such as this polar bear may be linked to “hunting magic” or “sympathetic magic” in which effigies were used in rituals to increase the number of animals before a hunt or influence reality. Hunting is one of the oldest and most successful human adaptations, and is necessary for survival in the Arctic. The French priest and archaeologist, Abbe Henri Breuil, is an important figure in the history of cave art interpretation. Breuil believed many Paleolithic cave paintings were evidence of hunting magic. For more on Abbe Henri Breuil and hunting magic click here.
This particular polar bear effigy and style is suggested to be Thule, a culture that migrated throughout Alaska, Canada, and Greenland about 1000 years ago. (Source: Peabody Exhibit Label, 2005, Past Perfect Database.)
To learn more about the history of these artifacts, check out these sources:
This winter I have been exploring and learning a new online platform – PowToon.
PowToon is a digital platform that is used to create fully customized videos for a variety of audiences. The videos can be short or long (max 20 min) and can include cartoon elements or real images and video.
My first video is targeted toward new faculty at the school who may not know how they can work with the Peabody. An engaging, fun video – in addition to our course catalogue – will hopefully bring new collaborations and faculty to the Peabody.
I am excited to continue learning this program and producing videos to highlight and augment our educational initiatives and digital programs such as Diggin’ In.
Contributed by Marla Taylor and John Bergman-McCool
Every museum is full of stories and story-tellers. Our recent work in the inventory process has uncovered an old story that always gets my attention (Marla’s). But, before I begin, I must give credit to Eugene Winter, the Peabody’s late Curator Emeritus, who was a story-teller extraordinaire – I am sharing a shortened version of his memories. (Another time, I will tell you about the time Gene cooked his lunch in an active volcano or walked on a whale. The man was full of stories!)
In 1986, Gene welcomed a man named George McLaughlin into the Peabody. McLaughlin claimed to be creating a handbook on archaeology for the local Boy Scouts and was looking to photograph objects in the Peabody’s collection. As a teacher himself, Gene was happy to encourage this project and made arrangements for McLaughlin to return a couple weeks later to access the collection.
However, McLaughlin instead returned the next day and told the administrative assistant, Betty Steinert, that Gene had authorized him to examine the collection – alone. Over the next three days, McLaughlin helped himself to an unknown number of objects from the collection.
Less than a week later, Gene received a call from security at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. A man matching McLaughlin’s description had stolen artifacts from a grad student’s work area and ran out of the museum before he could be caught. Because McLaughlin had now crossed state lines, the FBI became involved.
Gene and Betty remembered that McLaughlin had used the Peabody’s phone to call his wife about being late for dinner. This crucial piece of information allowed the FBI to locate McLaughlin’s home. Fortunately, McLaughlin was arrested soon after these incidents and all materials in his possession were seized.
In total, McLaughlin victimized six institutions in New England and stole thousands of artifacts valued at over $800,000 in 1986 ($1.9 million in 2020 dollars). He intermingled the artifacts based on his own system and systematically removed their catalog numbers (often the best clue to their original home). By so drastically removing the objects from their context, it was a challenge to return the objects to their appropriate homes.
McLaughlin had kept his own version of a ledger identifying the objects and where they came from. And fortunately, Gene was able to recognize a dozen or so very specific objects from the Peabody’s collection. The FBI left it up to the victimized institutions to divide the material in McLaughlin’s collection. The Peabody ended up with nearly 1600 objects from McLaughlin.
Ultimately, McLaughlin was sentenced to a three year suspended sentence and four years of probation. He was also fined $10,000 and ordered to pay a small restitution to each institution.
And therein lays the origin of the Peabody’s FBI collection.
Having come across these materials during our inventory and rehousing project it was time for them to be cataloged by myself (John). One challenge confronted us: McLaughlin had removed any identifying numbers applied by the museums and applied stickers with his own numbers. As the objects were cataloged, a careful inspection was made for remnants of original numbers not completely obliterated during the removal process. There were many with tantalizing hints of legible numbers. In the end though, there were just a few objects with numbers clear enough to associate with our museum’s ledger.
The remaining majority of objects needed new numbers. As mentioned above, McLaughlin had organized the objects and transcribed them into a ledger of sorts. His ledger was too general to make a one-to-one comparison with our own museum’s ledger, but it served as the outline of our numbering system. We added our own prefix, indicating that these objects were stolen and returned by the FBI and followed that with the McLaughlin number. In that way the objects will always carry that part of their strange history.
We are tremendously excited to announce the continuation of Diggin’ In: Digital Conversations with Archaeologist. Co-hosted by the Peabody Institute and the Massachusetts Archaeological Society the lecture series brings leading experts and their work directly to our viewers. All lectures are free and open to the public.
Building on the success of the inaugural season of Diggin’ In, which reached over 1000 individuals, Season 2 promises to continue to be especially robust. Outstanding scholars such as Dr. Whitney Battle-Baptist, Dr. Lindsay Montgomery, and Kimberly Smith will cover fascinating topics ranging from Black feminist archaeology, to Comanche rock art, to the artifact patterning of the Victorian practice of picnicking in cemeteries.
Join us on Wednesday January 27, 2021 for the launch of the new season with Joe Bagley, Boston City Archaeologist for his talk Privy to the Past: The History of (and in) Privies. All lectures begin at 1:30 pm.
If you want to attend one or all of these lectures, please sign up at email@example.com to get on the ZOOM invitation list.
Each episode will be recorded and uploaded to YouTube afterwards.
Sometimes it can take years to repatriate ancestors and funerary belongings back to Native American tribes. And sometimes, it can take just a few weeks.
On November 9th, the Peabody partnered with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (PMAE) of Harvard University to repatriate ancestors and belongings to representatives of the Wampanoag Confederacy. From start to finish, this process took about six weeks – a credit to the partnership work with the PMAE and our established relationship with the Wampanaog.
We are always happy to see ancestors return home and have the opportunity to share that with so many wonderful partners.
Most of my time lately has been spent on repatriation work. This work isn’t something that I can share lots of details about, but it is probably both the most challenging and rewarding part of my job.
The Peabody has always had a commitment to working with tribes and Indigenous peoples to ensure that ancestors, funerary belongings, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony are repatriated in a respectful and timely fashion. I am fortunate to inherit that past work and a strong institutional reputation for fairness and responsibility. It is a high standard that I constantly strive to uphold.
In late October, I was able to take part in the 6th Annual Repatriation Conference sponsored by the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA). This conference was a focused on the 30th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It was fabulous to learn about the work of other institutions and tribes, share strategies to overcome challenges, hear about success stories, and be inspired by so many other dedicated professionals.
I was the most impacted by a wonderful presentation on decolonization by the Director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, ME and the staff of the Museum of Us in San Diego, CA. The incredible work they have done, and continue to do, to address the inherently colonial nature of a museum interpreting the material culture of minority and Indigenous communities is inspiring. Listening to their presentation and thinking about the work we do at the Peabody, I was pleased to identify so much overlap. The thought we have put into the decolonizing process manifests itself in our collections policies, NAGPRA policy, how we approach education, and approach research inquiries.
I take this part of my job very seriously. My work can’t erase past mistreatment of these ancestors and belongings, or redress colonial wrongs, but I can make progress. The changes that I am part of will hopefully become the foundation of a stronger reputation for caring, meticulousness, and a progressive attitude toward repatriation. Decolonization work is anti-racism work.
In mid-November, a colleague and I will be presenting to the NAGPRA Community a Practice (a group of scholars and NAGPRA practitioners from museum and tribes) on the topic of decolonizing collections care. I am excited to share my ideas with this group and get feedback.
The process of decolonization will probably never end and there will always be more to learn. I look forward to the challenge!
Nekole Alligood, independent consultant, is a member of the Delaware Nation and has served as the NAGPRA Officer for the Nation. Alligood is a cultural anthropologist who has worked in museums and in Section 106. She has conducted NAGPRA repatriations in collaboration with the Delaware Tribe of Indians and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community and a non-NAGPRA reburial teaming with the National Forest Service in West Virginia. She currently is a scholar on the development of a traveling exhibit with Ball State University and Ohio History Connection focused on St. Claire’s Defeat (Battle of the Wabash). She also is working with Ohio History Connection on a reinterpretation of Schoenbrunn Village in Ohio. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jaime Arsenault is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO), Repatriation Representative, and Archives Manager for the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Ms. Arsenault has worked with Indigenous communities for over 20 years. Currently, she is a member of the Minnesota Historical Society Indian Advisory Committee and the Repatriation Working Group with the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) and a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History Repatriation Review Committee. She is a Community Intellectual Property Advisory Board Member for the Penobscot Nation and sits on both the Advisory Committee and the Collections Committee of the Peabody Institute of Archaeology. Ms. Arsenault also serves as a MuseDI Partner on decolonization practice for the Abbe Museum. E-mail: Jaime.Arsenault@whiteearth-nsn.gov
David Goldstein is an anthropologist with the National Park Service currently serving as the Tribal and Cultural Affairs Specialist in the Northeast Region. David works to bring the region’s tribal and community partners into the NPS stewardship programs through sharing capacity and ongoing consultation. The goal is to support self-determination and resource protection, acknowledging that tribal and community partnerships provide long term sustainability to stewardship. E-mail: email@example.com
Katie Kirakosian is a trained archaeologist whose research focuses on the history of Native American archaeology. She has conducted archival research in repositories throughout New England and New York State on many NAGPRA sensitive sites, particularly shell middens, prompting recent research with co-author Irene Gates on the complex nature of archival records and digital repatriation. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Krystiana L. Krupa is NAGPRA Program Officer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her NAGPRA experience includes osteology and archival research relating to university and museum collections in addition to consultation. Krystiana’s current work focuses on tribal perspectives on the repatriation of biological samples extracted from ancestral remains, such as ancient DNA extracts. E-mail: email@example.com
Melanie O’Brien is responsible for carrying out all duties assigned to the National NAGPRA Program by the Secretary of the Interior and serves as the Designated Federal Officer to the NAGPRA Review Committee. Throughout her career, Melanie has specialized in Federal-Indian law and policy, applying her master’s degree in public history from Loyola University Chicago to the work of the Federal government. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lorén M. Spears, Narragansett, Executive Director of Tomaquag Museum, holds a Master’s in Education and received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from the University of Rhode Island. She is an author, artist and shares her cultural knowledge with the public through museum programs. She has written curriculum, poetry, and narratives published in a variety of publications such as Dawnland Voices, An Anthology of Indigenous Writing of New England; Through Our Eyes: An Indigenous View of Mashapaug Pond; The Pursuit of Happiness: An Indigenous View and From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution. Recently, she co-edited a new edition of A Key into the Language of America by Roger Williams. She consults with K-12 districts, Higher Education, museums and historical societies on Native American Cultural Competency and DEI/J training. E-mail: email@example.com
Marla Taylor is the curator of collections at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. She has worked in all facets of collections management from cataloging to conservation to repatriation. Marla currently splits her time between leading an effort to conduct a full inventory of the collection and facilitating access to the Peabody’s collection for tribal partners, researchers, and educators. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jayne-Leigh Thomas is the Director of the Office of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act at Indiana University. Her work involves active consultation with over 100 federally recognized sovereign nations across the United States to return ancestral human remains and cultural items to their rightful communities. Her research interests are NAGPRA, repatriation, bioarchaeology, ethics, cremation studies, and mortuary studies. E-mail: email@example.com
Jackie Veninger-Robert is the NAGPRA Coordinator for the University of Connecticut. In addition to her NAGPRA and collection management responsibilities for the Office of State Archaeology, Jackie advises students and provides instruction on issues surrounding Native American cultural property law and advocates for opportunities to decolonize museum anthropology. Jackie has worked for tribal governments in southern New England in a NAGPRA and collections management capacity. She is a non-member advisee of Connecticut’s Native American Heritage Advisory Council (NAHAC). Her research interests include: archaeological ethics, heritage management and conflict archaeology. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ryan Wheeler is the director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, a museum at Phillips Academy, Andover MA. At the Peabody he has advanced a strategic vision focused on collections, education, and repatriation. In 2017, Ryan co-founded the Journal of Archaeology & Education, the only academic journal devoted to the intersection of these two fields. Ryan lives with his family in Medford, MA. E-mail: email@example.com
Today’s Phillips Academy students often ask about the students of the past. Since November is Native American Heritage Month, the topic of Indigenous alumni often comes up. Happily, we are in touch with some recent alums, like Emma Slibeck ’20, who led efforts last year to create an Indigenous Land Acknowledgment, and Tristin Moone ’10, past member of the Peabody Advisory Committee. Paige Roberts, Academy archivist, maintains a list of notable Native American alumni, and we were happy to add LeRoy Spencer Jimerson Jr. (January 21, 1923 – September 28, 1991) to that list during some recent collections research.
Jimerson was the son of Seneca leader LeRoy Spencer Jimerson Sr. of the Cattaraugus Reservation, Gowanda, New York. He attended Phillips Academy for one year, graduating in 1941. The senior Jimerson was an accomplished carpenter, attended Hampton University (a HBCU in Virginia that has some PA connections in its founding), established a scholarship fund for Native students, and served in Seneca leadership positions throughout his adult life.
After Phillips Academy, LeRoy Jimerson Jr. served in the Navy and pursued interests in electrical engineering and computers. He was an instructor at the Great Lakes Naval Base and at Treasure Island, California. Jimerson, in 1949, received a scholarship to the University of Michigan. Established in 1932 by the Michigan Board of Regents, that scholarship acknowledged the 1817 Treaty of Fort Meigs, which had required tribes to cede millions of acres to the federal government, some of which ultimately went to the university. Perhaps an early version of an institutional land acknowledgment?
A profile in 1951 Boys’ Life combines quaint anecdotes and stereotypes of life on the reservation with Jimerson’s academic success and interest in computers. The story appeared shortly after Jimerson completed his studies at the University of Michigan, but includes a lot of information on his post-graduate year at Phillips Academy when he “joined the school band, ran as a member of the cross-country squad, distinguished himself as a math student, won a Latin prize, and was elected to a cum laude (honor) society.” In the Boys’ Life article, he describes general acceptance by his fellow Academy students, relating one instance where an international student wanted to know why he wasn’t wearing paint and feathers. Today we recognize this as a micro-aggression, akin to the numerous accounts found on the black@andover Instagram page.
In the 1950s, Jimerson worked for Schlumberger, an oil field services company. Here he was involved in developing a magnetic resonance apparatus with scientist and engineer Francois F. Kirchner. Nuclear magnetic resonance continues to be used in oil prospecting today.
IBM, in Owego, NY, recruited Jimerson in June 1957, where he was quickly promoted to senior engineer. In 1962, McDonnell Aircraft contracted with IBM to provide the guidance systems for Gemini. From 1962 to 1966, Jimerson worked as a computer engineer on the NASA Gemini mission, laying the groundwork for Apollo and the moon landing a few years later. In an interview, Jimerson recalled that, “It was like a blitzkrieg, people didn’t know what hit them” (Time-Life Books 1993:33). According to a document prepared in 2012, Jimerson originated the math flows needed in the computer programming for the Gemini missions. Math flows–in this context–are detailed flowcharts like the one shown here, showing the sequence of algorithms that underlie computer code. At some point in the late 1960s or early 1970s, Jimerson and his family relocated to Herndon, Virginia, though it is not clear if he continued working for IBM.
Jimerson died on September 28, 1991 in Sarasota, Florida, where he had retired with his family in the mid-1980s. The picture that emerges from the few interviews that we located, is that LeRoy Jimerson Jr. was an accomplished scientist and engineer who worked on one of the country’s early and significant space flight programs. His time at Phillips Academy was short and well spent, and a stop along an educational career that included one of the top scientific and technical programs–the University of Michigan. Until recently, LeRoy Jimerson wasn’t on our radar. We are hopeful that Phillips Academy can connect with more Native and Indigenous students–it is clear we have a lot to offer one another.
Buffalo Courier Express (1961) LeRoy Jimerson Obituary. February 23, 1961, p. 27.
Crump, Irving (1951) Indian Cum Laude. Boys’ Life (March 1951):27, 64.
IBM (1962) Putting a Man on the Moon: America’s Next Step. Business Machines (August 1962):18-19.
Jamestown Post Journal (1961) Famed Seneca Indian Leader, LeRoy S. Jimerson, 72, Dies. February 23, 1961.
One day while I was working in the basement of the Peabody, plugging away at inventorying drawers, I was listening to a podcast called Astonishing Legends. It was an episode titled “The Tall Ones” exploring the legends and lore surrounding giants around the world. It came as a surprise when I heard the hosts say the name W.K. Moorehead! My ears instantly pricked up.
The podcast hosts went on to cite a New York Times article written on July 14, 1916 under the headline “Find Horned Men’s Skulls: Remarkable Discovery by Archaeologists in the Susquehanna Valley”. The short article stated that Professor A.B. Skinner of the American Indian Museum, Rev. George Donehoo, Pennsylvania State Historian, and Professor W.K. Moorehead of the Phillips Andover Academy uncovered a burial mound at the Murray Farm site while conducting research at Tioga Point in the Susquehanna Valley. In the mound, they uncovered the remains of sixty-eight men, believed to have been buried around the year 1200 AD. According to the article, the average height of these men was seven feet, with many being even taller. Also found with the remains were very large stone celts and axes, further evidence of the men’s gigantic size. Perhaps most interesting of all, some of the skulls had two inch bone protuberances on their foreheads. Well, this was something to explore!
Looking through historical texts and documents, it is clear that giants have been a topic of interest for centuries. Not only are they mentioned in the Biblical story of David and Goliath, but in fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, and the legend of Paul Bunyan. One pervasive theory about giants is that they are actually Nephilim (also from the Bible), the offspring of an angel and a human. Even some historical figures such as Gilgamesh are thought by some to have been giants.
Many newspaper articles from across the country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries claim to have found giant skeletons. Some accounts even call them a lost race of giant people, but many others hypothesize that they were giant Native Americans. An eight foot tall Native American skeleton was said to be found in Towanda, Pennsylvania in 1822. A headline from The World newspaper on October 6, 1895, read “Biggest Giant Ever Known-Nine Feet High and Probably a Prehistoric California Indian.” Some, like the Cardiff Giant, which was actually a buried stone statue, were proven to be hoaxes. Yet the stories still remain popular. Even Captain John Smith, in his account of meeting the Susquehanncocks in 1608, described them as giant-like. But were there really giants roaming this land before us? Or horned giants for that matter?
After some further digging, it was discovered that the “horned giants” found by Moorehead and others at Murray Farm were not horned at all, nor were they giants. Professor Skinner wrote a corrected article for the New York Times but it was not as publicized as the original, so it is harder to find. Apparently while excavating the site, a workman shouted out “There are horns over his head!”, after discovering a bundle burial which had been covered with deer antlers. An excited visitor or reporter at the site heard this and asked another workman, who decided to play a joke and claim that the skeletons had horns growing out of their heads. Another version says that a disgruntled camp cook made up the story.
This explains the story about the horns, but what about the supposed enormous height of these individuals and the other accounts of giants found nearby? It is thought that these skeletons, as well as accounts of living “giant” Susquehannocks, were not giant at all, but just taller than average. At the time, the average height of most Europeans was about five feet six inches tall, whereas Native Americans were thought to average about six feet tall. While six inches is not that big of a difference, anyone taller than six feet may seem like a giant to the generally shorter Europeans.
Another reason for the discovery of “giant” skeletons is that these bones were often misidentified as human when they actually belonged to extinct animal species. It may seem far-fetched that anyone could misidentify a mammoth bone as that of a human, but other than the skull, human bones actually look very much like animal bones. So to someone not trained in osteology, a very large rib bone may seem like it is from a human skeleton. Many skeletal remains have been innocently misidentified this way, not only as giants, but as monsters or “Titans” as well.
Over time it seems that this giant narrative of Native Americans by Europeans was exaggerated and, coupled with misidentified animal bones, resulted in the discovery of “giant skeletons.” However, these so-called giant skeletons always seem to mysteriously disappear after being excavated, leading many to believe that they either never existed, were misidentified animal bones, or it was actually just a taller than average person.
After hearing the podcast, I did some digging of my own through Moorehead’s records, just in case I could find anything related to the “horned giants”. I found many documents related to the Susquehanna Valley expedition as well as correspondences between Moorehead, Skinner, and Donehoo. None of these documents ever mentioned the “horned giants” or the article written in the New York Times. I did find a picture of Professor Skinner holding a perfectly normal looking skull with no protuberances while at Murray Farm. Moorehead also wrote a short report of the excavation, and again, no mention of giants was found.
Even though the horned giants of Pennsylvania turned out to be nothing more than a tall tale (pun intended), it was fun to hear a story about Moorehead on one of my new favorite podcasts! I wonder what interesting stories I’ll uncover next!