Vessels, and Paddles, and Lasers, Oh My!

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Recently I have been interested in expanding our programming around the methods used by indigenous people to create and decorate ceramic vessels. While at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in April 2016 I saw Florida’s archaeology month poster, which features “Artisans of the Woodlands.” The poster described how Swift Creek Complicated Stamped pottery was decorated with intricate designs stamped on the surface of the vessel with a carved paddle; the poster even featured a replica paddle.  Ah ha!!!!! Genius! Now I knew what I wanted to do and I knew just who to contact.

Image of Florida's 2016 Archaeology Month poster titled Artisans of the woodland
The 2016 Archaeology Month poster from Florida.

When I arrived back on campus I contacted Claudia Wessner, OWHL Makerspace Coordinator, and asked if the library’s laser cutter could reproduce one of the complicated stamped paddles. She was sure it could and was excited to collaborate on such an interesting project. I just had to find JPEG images of line drawings that could be uploaded.

With that in mind I began looking through the book A World Engraved edited by Mark Williams and Daniel T. Elliott. The book focuses on the Swift Creek culture, which is centered in the Southeastern United States. The Swift Creek people are famously known for their pottery which features intricate paddle stamped designs. It is believed that by gaining insight and knowledge about these designs that archaeologists might be able to begin to understand more abstract aspects of the culture, such as religion and world view.

This vessel is from the Peabody Museum collections and was excavated by Clarence B. Moore from a site in Florida. The vessel dates from 100 AD – 300 AD.

One of the designs that Claudia and I selected was a Late Swift Creek design (circa AD 580) which is a mask-like image with slanting eyes, furrowed brows, and a frowning mouth. The image that we used as a starting point for the laser cut design can be found on page 63 (Figure 6-1) in the chapter Swift Creek Design Investigations: The Hartford Case written by Frankie Snow in A World Engraved.

Image of the mask-like motif in clay
Image of the mask-like motif impression in clay

We also picked a design that was used in another type of pottery called Irene Complicated Stamped. The name for this pottery is only used for specific pottery found on the Georgia coast. To be honest I only picked this because we had just hired Irene Gates as our temporary archivist and I thought it was so fun that there was a stamped design that shared her name!

The five paddle designs that we created. The Irene Complicated stamp design is the farthest on the left, made from 4 swirls that join in the middle.

Claudia and I spent an entire day testing out depth and paddle handle width and have finally settled on what we believe will be the best paddle type for the large variety of people who will be using them.  This has certainly been a fun and educational project!

The laser cutter hard at work!



Boxes and boxes of boxes

They’re here!

Fifteen-hundred custom archival boxes were delivered on Monday, July 25 to initiate the Peabody’s collections rehousing project.  Unloading the truck and storing the boxes was hard work, but was an important first step toward completely rehousing and inventorying our large collection. The boxes were assembled to our specifications by Hollinger Metal Edge and are archival quality.

These boxes are made possible by a grant from the Abbot Academy Association, continuing Abbot’s tradition of boldness, innovation, and caring. They will be used to replace the old wooden drawers that have supported our collection for decades, and will provide protection and a long-term home for our artifacts.

A special ‘thank you’ goes out to Will Shahbazian and C. Woodrow Randall for their helping hands (and paws).

Summer work duty students begin rehousing inventory

Work duty student inventorying a drawer

Embarking on a full inventory and rehousing of your museum collection is a daunting task.  Transferring approximately 1,700 drawers into 3,000 archival boxes will take years of work.  Fortunately for me, I have access to an invaluable resource – Phillips Academy students.

For a week in July, two Lowers (10th graders) came to the Peabody every day for four hours to fulfill their work duty commitment for the school year.  I gave them a crash course in artifact identification and object handling techniques before they got down to business.  As they worked through the meticulous process of inventorying everything in the collection, they made crucial observations that will improve my workflow.  Together, these two students recorded the contents of twenty-nine drawers!

Work duty student inventorying a drawer
Work duty student inventorying a drawer

Work duty students will continue to be an essential work force as we move through the collection.  I will share their progress and successes in the months and years to come.

Curator of Collections Marla Taylor and work duty students stand behind the empty boxes
Curator of Collections Marla Taylor and work duty students stand behind the empty boxes

Students Interogate the Peabody Dioramas

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Ann Wilkin asked if she could bring her two sections of Writing for Success students to the Peabody during summer session, July 2016. Ann said in her e-mail, “This week’s theme is ethics and responsibility, and I recall a particularly exciting experience another one of my classes had with you guys (possibly with you?) two years ago, as we discussed what it meant to put all kinds of artifacts of other cultures (particularly colonized cultures) in gallery spaces.”  She related too that her students had been reading Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” as well as excerpts from Susan Sontag’s 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others.

Image of the Peabody's Pawtucket village diorama circa 500 years ago.
“A Pawtucket Village on the Merrimack River, 500 Years Ago,” diorama built by Guernsey-Pitman Studios of Cambridge, Mass., 1939.

As I reflected on what we could do I thought it might be interesting to have the students conduct their own critical reading of one of the Peabody’s dioramas. The Peabody houses two dioramas of American Indian life.  The oldest, built in the 1930s by the Guernsey-Pitman Studios, illustrates life at the Shattuck Farm site in Andover, Mass. circa 500 years ago.  The scene is a bustling village, with a variety of daily activities depicted, from the construction of a birch bark canoe to firing pottery.  We understand that the scene was heavily influenced by curator Fred Johnson’s ethnographic work in Canada.

Amy Lonetree, in her 2012 book Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, explains that “many critics have argued that this form of representation (dioramas) reinforces commonly held belief that Native cultures were static and unchanging and that they have since disappeared….” Further, an issue with many museum exhibits about American Indians is that they lack contemporary Native voices.

I asked the students to spend some time looking at the diorama and to do some writing—specifically to answer a few questions which we would then discuss.  The students wrote about the following:

Who are depicted?

When is the diorama depicting?

Whose perspective is shown?

What is shown?  What isn’t?

What are we supposed to understand by looking at the diorama—in other words, what’s the message?

Image of students looking at the Pawtucket diorama
Ann Wilkin’s students examine the Pawtucket diorama.

The answers to these questions were quite interesting, and as our conversation about the diorama unfolded we gained a greater appreciation of some of the inherent biases built into the exhibit.  Several students pointed out that there were a disproportionate number of men depicted and we discussed demographics and talked about why so few women and children were shown. The question of perspective was interesting and we noticed that it depended on whether one was standing or kneeling.  We also kept returning to the question about when was depicted.  Most students wrote that it was 500 years ago (after all, that’s what it says on the diorama’s title), but we talked about what was happening 500 years ago and also about how there are many ways to answer that questions—the time of year, the day, the time of day, etc.  We talked about how many “whens” seemed to be collapsed into one single moment and that it was unlikely all of these things would have happened at the same time.  One student ultimately observed that the diorama might say more about the archaeologists and artists that constructed the model than the Native people being depicted.

The exercise produced some interesting dialogue and gave us an opportunity to talk about contemporary American Indians in Massachusetts and exercise our critical thinking skills when confronted with a museum exhibition.