Containing the Past

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Archaeologists are known as a creative and frugal bunch, and this is evident in the many ingenious ways that we have found to store artifacts and samples from recovery in the field to processing in the lab to long term storage on the museum shelf. Prior to the plastic bag, soil samples were housed in everything from feed sacks to paper bags. Glass food and condiment jars were a great way to keep charcoal samples, especially if you didn’t have a ready supply of tin foil. Metal, and then plastic, 35mm film canisters were highly prized for retaining tiny objects, like beads (the slightly opaque Fuji film canisters allowed a peek at the contents, unlike the black and gray Kodak canisters).

Image of cigar boxes.
A selection of cigar boxes once used to house Peabody Institute collections. Note the site information and catalog numbers visible on some boxes.

Nothing, however, is more ubiquitous for storing artifacts than the classic cigar box. These sturdy wood or cardboard boxes with a built-in hinged lid were highly prized by generations of kids for storing marbles, coins, arrowheads, and other treasures. Perhaps it’s not surprising that as adults these boxes remained as the go-to storage solution. The Canadian Museum of History has a great interactive website about cigar boxes that explores the significance, history, art, and general usefulness of these containers. Much has been written too about cigar box guitars, which apparently go back to at least the 1840s through 1860s when cigars were first being stored and marketed in wooden boxes—see, for example, http://cigarboxguitars.com/about/history.

The collections of the Peabody Institute are no exception, and vast numbers of stone points, tools, and pottery fragments were once kept in legions of cigar boxes. Most, if not all, our artifacts have been rehoused in cardboard boxes and now we are working on a massive rehousing and cataloging endeavor that will improve our intellectual and physical control over our collections (museum-speak translated as “we will have a better idea what we have and where it is”). Our current strategic plan, developed in 2014 and 2015 identifies this as one of our most important objectives, and one we plan to accomplish in the next few years.

Image of new storage cartons and old wooden storage drawers.
Side by side comparison of new archival storage cartons and older wooden drawers. Peabody collections personnel are transferring the collections to the new boxes with the help of students and volunteers.

There are, however, still a small collection of cigar boxes and other biscuit, cereal, and medicine boxes and tins that were once used to house objects and photographs. Handwritten labels, pasted over the decorative and distinctive cigar box art, identify sites and catalog numbers. A small collection of these boxes has been retained.

Image of 1970s-1980s shoe box with purple and orange mid-century design.
A groovy Zodiac shoe box from the late 1970s or early 1980s once housed a small, woven bag donated by Dorothy Byers. Note the two part accession/catalog number and other notes written on the lid.

A recent effort to address a backlog of objects awaiting cataloging turned up a groovy mid-twentieth century shoebox that contained a woven bag, apparently given to the Peabody by Dorothy Byers, widow of former director Douglas Byers (1903-1978). Byers worked at the Peabody from 1933 until his retirement in 1968, and served as director from 1938 through 1968. Zodiac was a brand of Encore Show Corp. and first debuted in the late 1970s and has had a recent revival. The woven bag—unfortunately bearing little information—has been rehoused and is now in storage. The shoe box is in my office.

The Peabody’s cataloging and rehousing project is made possible through a grant from the Abbot Academy Fund, continuing Abbot’s tradition of boldness, innovation, and caring, and the generous support of the Oak River Foundation, and Barbara and Les’ 68 Callahan. For information on how you can contribute to this project, please contact Peabody Institute director Ryan Wheeler at rwheeler@andover.edu or 978.749.4490.

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