Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Greek Bird

This blog represents the second entry in a blog new series – Peabody 25 – that will delve into the history of the Peabody Museum through objects in our collection. A new post will be out with each newsletter, so keep your eyes peeled for the Peabody 25 tag!

We don’t know much about the relationship between our institution’s founder Robert Singleton Peabody and his son Charles, the museum’s first director. In fact both men remain a bit of a mystery as they were intensely private and left little in the way of memoirs, notes, or archives. Robert’s rather substantial gift to the Academy, for example, was to remain anonymous until well after his death. For years we assumed that Charles, like Robert, had attended Phillips Academy. We found recently, however, that he stayed a bit closer to home and completed his high school education at the Germantown Academy—a venerable day school not far from the Peabody home in Philadelphia. In one of the few pieces of correspondence that we have between the two Peabodys, Charles exhorts his father to help him secure a position at the new Phillips Academy Department of Archaeology and asserts that he will not be the architect of his own undoing. Charles was on hand for the grand opening of the Archaeology Building in 1903, as he had been appointed the “honorary director.” One object in the Peabody’s collection provides a little window into what may have been a fraught and complicated relationship.

Image of the note from Charles Peabody explaining the origin of the little ceramic bird with Robert Peabody's appended note.

Object 19661 in Robert Peabody’s original collection is a small terracotta bird, perhaps a swan or goose. A handwritten note in pencil on lined paper tells us part of the story. Charles, during his tenure at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, received the terracotta figurine from the school’s factotum Nikolaki. Charles muses in the note that Nikolaki had “hooked” it from one of the American excavations, perhaps at Argos or Eretria. Excavation reports can be found for both sites. For example, Charles Waldstein excavated at Argos from 1892 to 1895, with some focus on the Sanctuary of Hera. During the same time, Theodore Woolsey Heermance worked at the theatre of Eretria. Some quick poking around suggests that the little figurine, handmade of attic clay and covered with a white slip, is likely a votive offering. Similar offerings, representing an array of animals and birds, have been found at many Greek sites. Waldstein’s report on the Argos excavations mentions a number of terracotta figurines—some human and others animal. These offerings would have been placed in a temple for some set period and then discarded as ritual debris. Many similar examples can be found in auction catalogs and in the extensive collections exhibited at the Met.

Image of the terracotta bird--likely a swan or goose--a typical votive offering from a Greek temple.

The elder and younger Peabodys did have a lot in common, beyond their interest in discretion and privacy. Both were united in a passion for archaeology. Robert’s interests were more antiquarian—during his life he amassed some 38,000 archaeological specimens, principally from North America, while Charles was devoted to the French Paleolithic and dabbled in stratigraphic excavation, when horizontal and vertical control was a new concept. In many ways the two men represented archaeology’s past and future. Robert’s interests as a student had leaned toward the classical and he was named the valedictorian of his class. His correspondence with his curator Warren Moorehead and the administrators of Phillips Academy are filled with Latin and classical references. Charles received his PhD in philology—sort of a combination of classical languages, Biblical studies, and archaeology—from Harvard in 1893. After this he spent some time in Athens at the American School where he picked up the little votive bird. Robert appended his own note—in blue pencil—to Charles’s, indicating that he had received the bird from his son in 1897. Not long after this Charles was becoming established as an instructor in European archaeology at Harvard. With the creation of the Phillips Academy Department of Archaeology in 1901 Charles spent more time in Andover, helping to make decisions about the construction of the archaeology building and ultimately teaching classes as he could. The little votive bird was shipped from Philadelphia to Andover as part of Robert’s burgeoning collections, forming the core of the Museum that we know now. With Robert’s death in 1904, Charles pursued his passion for prehistoric European archaeology, participating in and leading a number of expeditions during his career before ultimately moving to France permanently in 1924.

We can only assume that both men, well versed in classical languages and archaeology, knew exactly what that little ceramic bird was—an offering from a votary to a god.

Baskets Explored

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Thanks to Catherine Hunter, Peabody Museum research associate, our full basketry collection of 329 is inventoried and described.  In September, Catherine turned over 7 binders of material including research into known artists, glossaries, information on weaving techniques, and a basic description of each basket.  This massive project took Catherine nearly a year!

The next phase is to photograph each of these gorgeous baskets and improve their storage and accessibility.  Last week, Marla Taylor, Samantha Hixson, and Catherine took a trip to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University to examine their basketry storage.  The visit was full of inspiration and incredibly helpful as we continue to work on this project.

Keep your eyes peeled for the inclusion of these amazing baskets in our online collection database!

Welcome Samantha!

Contributed by Samantha Hixson

Hello everyone,

My name is Samantha Hixson and I am the new collections assistant here at the Peabody. I come to you from New Mexico where the weather is warm and has left me completely unprepared for New England winters (although Marla and Lindsay promise that they’ll get me through it).

I have previously worked at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico as well as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. It’s these places that got me excited to work within museums, focusing specifically on Native American collections. So you can imagine how excited I was when I was hired to work at the Peabody, it’s the perfect job for me! I’ve also had some other very interesting archaeological/ethnographic experiences, but those are for other posts.

I’ve started getting my feet wet in a couple projects already (with the promise of a lot more to come) and am most excited about the re-housing of the collection as well the Adopt A Drawer program. I think it’s great that these collections are getting new homes and more personal interactions, however brief.

If you’re in the neighborhood of the museum, come stop by; I’d love to meet you!

The new Peabody Collections Assistant, Samantha Hixson
The new Peabody Collections Assistant, Samantha Hixson

Processing the Richard S. MacNeish papers

Since October, I’ve been focusing on the largest collection at the Peabody, the Richard S. MacNeish papers. MacNeish donated about 220 linear feet of his papers and books to the museum in 2000, soon before he died. These papers span the length of his life and career, from childhood scrapbooks on the Maya to his MA and PhD theses, to field records and administrative files from his Tamaulipas, Ayacucho, Pendejo Cave and China projects, to research files on a variety of geographical regions and subjects, to records from his positions at Boston University, as head of the Andover Foundation for Archaeological Research (AFAR), and as director of the Peabody Museum itself. MacNeish, known as Scotty, was such a significant figure in American Archaeology in the 20th century that his papers are likely to have a high research value.

Color photograph of Scotty MacNeish, taken around 1980
Scotty MacNeish, around 1980

An extensive amount of work was already carried out on this collection since it arrived at the museum. An item-level inventory was done, and about half of the boxes had their contents rehoused into acid-free folders (papers) and mylar sleeves (photographs). More recently, the museum decided to separate out the large number of books from the papers, many of which will be added to the Peabody library. Volumes that were annotated by MacNeish or bear a personalized dedication to him are being retained in the archives. After separating books from the archival materials the remaining papers now measure only 90 linear feet – a huge difference in terms of storage space.

I’m now working on a few remaining steps: foldering loose items in boxes, determining date ranges for folders, updating the inventory to reflect those changes as well as the removal of the books, rearranging the materials into logical groupings, and rehousing contents into acid-free record cartons. Lastly, I’ll integrate within the guide to this collection the other Scotty MacNeish materials we have at the museum, his director’s records. MacNeish left about 20 linear feet of material at the museum at the end of his directorship in 1983. To preserve the provenance of these two groups of material, we decided to process them as separate collections – even though there is a lot of overlap between the two. I’m looking forward to having all of this material be easily accessible to researchers soon, and anticipate that this work will be completed and the collection guide available by mid to late January 2017.

The Temporary Archivist position is supported by a generous grant from the Oak River Foundation of Peoria, Ill. to improve the intellectual and physical control of the museum’s collections. We hope this gift will inspire others to support our work to better catalog, document, and make accessible the Peabody’s world-class collections of objects, photographs, and archival materials. If you would like information on how you can help please contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler at rwheeler@andover.edu or 978 749 4493.

Human Origins–innovation & transmission

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

As the fall term wraps up this week it’s a great time to reflect on some of the big ideas that we have discussed in the multidisciplinary science course Human Origins, taught here at the Peabody. In many of our extended period labs we have replicated ancient technologies like chipped stone tools, fire making, the atlatl or spear thrower, and more. As we try launching a spear with a simple lever—the atlatl, or use a bow drill to produce heat, smoke, and (hopefully) fire, we wonder about whom first thought of and tried these things. In other words, who was the first innovator who discovered a technique to make fire or launch a dart? Innovation is a popular word today. In fact, it’s easy to find blogs, news stories, and more that suggest this word is a bit overused. Some writers have tracked the history of the term innovation and its divergence from invention, often indicating that innovation has economic and market implications.

Student in Human Origins course tries to make fire with a bow drill.
Human Origins students experimented with fire making two ways–the bow drill and percussion. Notice a few wisps of smoke rising from the fire board.

One piece that seems to be missing from many of these stories about innovation is that it doesn’t amount to much without a means for transmission. The ability to put the innovation into production, to teach and train others, to demonstrate and sell the new idea may, in fact, be even more important than the act of discovery or invention. Now some ideas—like fire—might sell themselves, but there are different methods and techniques. In Human Origins we experimented with two very different approaches: friction—using a bow drill and fire board, and percussion—essentially banging two rocks together. There are, however, lots of opportunities for innovation here, large and small. Which rocks will work best? Which wood makes the best fire board? How does one direct a spark or ember into a nest of kindling?

Student in Human Origins course experiments with the percussion method of fire making by banging two rocks together.
Making fire by percussion–banging two rocks together–isn’t so easy! This Human Origins student uses flint and iron ore. Lots of sparks and smoke, but no fire. The earliest evidence for control of fire comes from a Homo erectus site in Africa and dates to 1 million years ago.

Archaeologists—intent on the exploration of culture change through time—often claim that thinking about innovation and transmission of new ideas falls well within their province. But others have famously weighed in as well. Perhaps best known is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins notion of the “meme,” introduced in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins styles the meme—“an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture,” in evolutionary terms, subject to natural selection, mutation, and the like. This idea has been popular, but has its detractors. One problem in the application of evolution to culture is that there is always an explanation, but sometimes at the benefit of understanding. Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin tackle this in their 1979 article “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm,” another staple of Human Origins. Here Gould and Lewontin argue that some features—both natural and cultural—are merely spandrels, or by-products of other evolutionary processes. The interpretation of these spandrels as adaptive will lead to erroneous conclusions.

Student in Human Origins course throws a spear using an atlatl or spear thrower. The target in the distance has already been hit with other darts.
The earliest atlatls or spear throwers date to around 20,000 years ago in France. The simple lever allowed a hunter to throw a dart with more power and precision. In many places the atlatl was replaced by the bow and arrow, but in some areas both coexist.

So, does archaeology offer another approach to understanding innovation and transmission of ideas in our distant past? Archaeologist Michael Brian Schiffer would answer affirmatively. Schiffer helped define behavioral archaeology, which is predicated on the idea that people in the past made decisions in ways that parallel present-day decision making. This model points out that people often make choices that are seemingly contrary to common sense, but take into account a variety of factors including tradition, peer pressure, social and political alliances, and the like. The atlatl or spear thrower is a good example. As far as we know, the earliest atlatls were made in France some 20,000 years ago. Within a few millennia we find highly decorated examples. It’s unclear if there are separate centers of innovation, but atlatls are known over much of the world, including the Americas and in Australia. In many places the atlatl is replaced by the bow and arrow, which offered several distinct advantages, but in some places both technologies coexist, suggesting that processes of innovation, transmission, adoption, and discontinuation may have varied considerably. Overall, however, our attempts to replicate ancient technology gave us new respect for the first innovators and some insight into the complexities around transmission of new ideas.