Monthly Archives: May 2017

Thank you, Irene

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Next Thursday  marks the final day at the Peabody for Temporary Archivist, Irene Gates.  Irene was hired for a year to tackle the organizational challenge that was the Peabody archives and she has succeeded beyond our expectations.

Irene carried out a full collections survey and created 65 collection level catalog records – 33 of which are now available via our collection online.  She wrapped her arms around the archives of previous director (and the man who saved everything) Richard ‘Scotty’ MacNeish and processed 92 linear feet of material.  You can see the incredible finding aid for MacNeish’s material here.

In total, Irene has processed 140 linear feet of material, developed 3 finding aids, and written policies and procedures.  Her work has directly benefited the accessibility of collections, the efficiency of current museum functions, and our transparency as an institution.

Irene’s quiet and steady presence will be missed around the Peabody and we have been incredibly fortunate to call her colleague and friend over the past year.  Wishing her the best of luck in her next adventure!

Irene Gates
Irene Gates

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.

Fossilized Feces

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Did you know that the Peabody curates ancient poop?

Coprolites are the fossilized remnants of excrement – animal or human.  While it may sound gross, curating these materials is invaluable for the archaeological community.  You may be asking yourself ‘what could you possibly learn from poop?!’ and while I understand your incredulity, allow me to share the incredibly fascinating information that you can learn.

A coprolite from an unknown site in Arizona.
A coprolite from an unknown site in Arizona.

Coprolites are the snapshot of one day of one individual’s life thousands of years ago.  They can reveal what that person ate – whether or not that food was cooked first, was that food local to the area or the product of trade, what time of year that food would be available.  Is there evidence of disease or illness?  Did different individuals from the same site have radically different diets?  If so, what does that say about social status?  Coprolites are also viable sources of ancient DNA!

The Peabody curates only a couple dozen coprolites in the collection.  And we are always thrilled when researchers come to get the scoop on the poop!

Craft Day!

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

There were no classes on Tuesday May 9th to allow students to take AP exams and to give faculty dedicated time to meet within their departments. Knowing that we would not have students in the Peabody for classes or work duty I took that day as an opportunity to spread my crafting chaos throughout the museum.

I began by painting some of the fabric squares that will serve as mock excavation units for our Privy to the Past lesson about Katherine Nanny Naylor.  The excavation was of her privy, or outhouse, and so I painted the brick wall that enclosed it, as well as the darker night soil.

In addition to the squares, I have created bags of artifacts that represent objects that were found during the original excavation. Later this summer I will be collaborating with Liza Oldham of the OWHL to create a multi-day lesson for older students to further their historical literacy, as the archaeological and documentary records related to Katherine Nanny Naylor seemingly contradict one another.

If the idea of privies intrigues you, please check out the Iowa State Archaeology program as they have some excellent information about why archaeologist just LOVE privies!

The other crafting project that I undertook was some paper repair work. After numerous classes and events our models of the Royall House and Slave Quarters site has begun to show its age (3 years!).  Using double sided tape, an x-acto knife, and hands that a surgeon would envy, I managed to make all the necessary repairs to ensure the longevity of the models.

It was a very fun and messy day!

Stone Soup

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

I’ve been interested in indirect cooking technology since the early 1990s when I worked with archaeologists Barbara Purdy and Ray McGee in an excavation of an Archaic period site in central Florida where we found evidence of this ancient American Indian culinary technique. At the site, submerged beneath the waters of Lake Monroe and not too far from Orlando, in levels pre-dating ceramic pottery, we found fragments of fired-clay objects. Ray and I were fascinated by the shapes—balls, patties, cylinders, and biconical forms—and speculated about their purpose. They were similar to clay and stone objects found at other early sites and thought to be used in a variety of indirect cooking, either for boiling or steaming. Ray ultimately studied the clay objects for his 1994 University of Florida master’s thesis, which combined aspects of experimental archaeology and materials science. I was lucky enough to be around to help with his study, which began with replicas of the Lake Monroe clay objects. We dug clay from near the site, it was processed to remove impurities, and used to make numerous clay object replicas, which were then subject to extensive experimental trials. Ray demonstrated that not only could the clay objects be used for boiling, but that the different shapes had different thermal properties. And, not only did the clay objects survive successive heating and drenching cycles, the objects fragmented to closely match the fragments we had found in archaeological deposits. Thousands of years before the first pottery was made and used in the Southeastern United States, the clay ball chefs understood how to manipulate clay into ceramic objects and the distinct differences between shapes with greater and lesser surface area and other details. In a final experiment Ray and I tried to cook with the clay objects, heating water in wooden bowls to boil shrimp and corn meal. The meal was successful!

Image of fired-clay objects used in cooking experiment.
Several shapes of fired-clay cooking objects: balls, patties, biconical forms, and cylinders.

During spring term 2017 I’ve been fortunate to mentor a senior independent research project, or IP. The student’s spring project is a continuation of a project begun in winter term, which investigates ancient pottery making technology, with a particular focus on temper—additives to clay that help with making pottery vessels, firing survivability, and use life after firing. I shared Ray McGee’s thesis with the IP student, who was equally fascinated by the clay objects and their use in cooking. Much of the student IP focused on collecting and using native clay sourced from West Newbury, MA, and then experimenting with firing vessels made using a variety of traditional tempers, including sand, crushed shell, and decomposed granite, as well as untempered clay. The almost innumerable variables have presented some real challenges, but also open a tiny window into pottery making thousands of years ago. We agreed too that part of the project this spring would include making, firing, and using replicas of the fired-clay objects, using the varying tempers and shapes described above. An article in Indian Country Today indicates that hot stones were used by American Indians in the Northeast in both steaming pits and boiling.

Our attempt today to use the fired-clay objects in boiling followed much like the experiment that Ray McGee and I conducted during his thesis research in the early 1990s. The clay objects had been prepared, dried, and pit fired several weeks earlier. We noted that the cylinder-shaped objects were rather delicate, and many of the objects had small cracks. In general, the ball and biconical forms were intact, while the patties had more cracks. A supply of the fired-clay objects were added to a small oak wood fire, which quickly climbed in temperature, ultimately leveling off around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. After objects had been in the fire a small number were cycled through a wooden bowl containing about a quart of water. The water temperature rose quickly, though it got a bit murky from charcoal. We decided that we had the capability to boil water. We prepared a fresh bowl of water and corn meal grits—three cups of water and one cup of grits—as directed by the package. We cycled fired-clay objects in and out of the bowl until the water was absorbed and the grits were cooked—about five minutes. A little salt and butter made the grits a tasty treat. Next we replicated the experiment with about half a pound of shell-on shrimp. More water was used and by this point we had become more proficient at cycling the clay objects from the fire to the bowl and back. The water boiled and shrimp were quickly cooked. Lemon and butter completed this course. For the most part the clay objects were holding up, though more of the cylinders broke and some of the patty shapes also cracked and split in the fire. Some broke while they were in the wooden bowl. The ball and biconical shapes seemed to hold up the best and were perhaps best suited to our purpose—getting the water boiling quickly. After the shrimp, we were a bit more ambitious and agreed to try a handful of spaghetti pasta. This would be a real test, since the water would have to boil continuously for 9 to 10 minutes. We added more clay objects to the fire, recognizing that we might need more to keep the water going. Quickly cycling the clay objects in and out of the fire produced a rolling boil that easily cooked the noodles. Our wooden bowl, however, suffered, and we had two pretty substantial cracks that developed on either side. Adding more water and fewer cooking objects may have helped—it seemed like 2 or 3 at a time in the wooden bowl were enough to keep the boil going.

Image of Phillips Academy senior cooking with fired-clay objects.
Phillips Academy senior adding heated fired-clay objects to his cooking pot.

Data crunching and correlating is ongoing in this student project, and at least one additional outdoor firing is planned in order to test a few additional variables and observations gleaned from experiment and research. The fired-clay cooking objects, however, are evidence of indirect cooking in antiquity, long before the creation of pottery vessels. It’s not clear if fired-clay cooking objects were made and used in the Northeast in the long distant past, and the more recent accounts mention cooking with hot stones. Pottery was adopted in the Northeast around 3,000 years ago, perhaps introduced from neighboring areas. In Florida and other parts of the Southeast, pottery is much older—made and used at least 5,000 years ago—and appears to be an in situ development. Perhaps the fired-clay cooking objects were precursors of pottery and gave people insights into manipulating clay and the properties of fired-clay. As this student project has demonstrated, making pottery by hand and firing it in the open air presents considerable challenges that could only be overcome with significant knowledge of clay, temper, fuel, weather conditions, and more.

Body Modification Adventures in the Museum

Sometimes within our discipline of archaeology and anthropology we are so caught up in they “why’s” of a situation that we sometimes take for granted the “how’s.”

In 1891 and 1892 Warren K. Moorehead (former curator and director of the Peabody) was tapped to lead an excavation of mound sites in Ohio by Frederic Ward Putnam, director of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. These sites, which Moorehead would later name after the land owner Mordacai C. Hopewell, became benchmarks in archaeology, not only for the number of objects found but their scope as well.

In looking through our collection for this installment of Peabody 25 I gravitated towards two copper ear spools from the Hopewell sites.  I had seen them used in classes here at the Peabody, including Race and Identity in Indian Country and Trade Connections, respectively, and thought they would be a good starting point for delving into the Hopewell culture complex for this blog entry.  What I didn’t anticipate was the interesting rabbit hole these two seemingly innocuous objects would send me down.

Being a metal worker myself, I was mystified by the complex steps needed to create these ear ornaments–indeed, I was not alone as there are quite a number of articles out there that investigate ear ornaments.  But from this question of “how were they made” I quickly jumped to my next question, “how were they worn?”

This question was triggered by the unusual form of these two ear spools. The objects themselves are what is termed “bicymbalic” and are interesting because of their thin inner taper.  Typically, one finds “pulley” style ear spools or even “ear flares” if you’re down in Mesoamerica.

But what really got my gears working was a passing reference that stated that these bicymbalic versions were easier to wear because the hole in the earlobe did not have to be as large as other versions.  Upon reading this I was flabbergasted, I just couldn’t get my mind around how one would wear these without having an impressively large hole to fit over them (the diameter measures over an inch!!).  So I set about contacting experts.  I talked with curators and collections staff charged with housing significant Hopewellian collections around the country about this question, and surprisingly, we were all stumped!

Then I thought outside the metaphorical box.  In my youth I dabbled in the piercing arts and once upon a time even had my ears stretched.  I decided to reach out to a professional piercer (Noah Babcock of Evolution Piercing in Albuquerque, NM) who had once poked holes in my very own body, to see if he could give me any insight.  The turnaround was amazing.  Once I sent pictures of the objects he got back to me in a matter of minutes describing in detail how these were worn, and the effect they would have on the wearer as well.  For this style of ear ornaments the wearer would have had to have impressively stretched ear lobes that would then be able to fit around the outside flare.  Noah went on the explain to me that the unusual taper would have acted as a weight, allowing for further stretching to occur naturally should the individual wear them over an extended period of time.  Mystery solved!

While going on this adventure, one started by some of the smallest artifacts in our collection, it really occurred to me how beneficial it can be to look beyond our own institutional boundaries.  By opening up dialogues with groups that we normally wouldn’t associate with archaeology or ancient Hopewellian communities, we are able to answer some questions that might have historically been over looked.  Is finding out how ancient Native Americans once wore earrings a ground breaking moment in archaeology? Not at all, but was it awesome feeling like Sherlock Holmes for a little bit? Absolutely.

Tune in for our next installment of Peabody 25!

P.S. These mound sites, including Hopewell have been extensively written about.  Below you’ll find some great references for not only Hopewell, but research that has been done on ear spools as well.

  • Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interaction, edited by Carr, Christopher & Case, D. Troy, 2005. New York (NY): Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
  • Ruhl, Katharine C. “COPPER EARSPOOLS FROM OHIO HOPEWELL SITES.” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, vol. 17, no. 1, 1992, pp. 46–79., www.jstor.org/stable/20708325.
  • The Hopewell Mound Group of Ohio; Field Museum of Natural History Publication 211, Anthropological Series Vol. VI, No. 5, 1922, Chicago (IL).