All posts by Marla Taylor

Summer time = Research time

The collections team remains busy at the Peabody during the summer time, following an already packed school year. Instead of working with PA students, we spend much of our time working to catalog the collections and hosting outside researchers.

The summer has started off strong with one of the Linda S. Cordell Memorial Research Award recipients , John Andrew Campbell.  John is documenting artifacts from the period of first contact between Native Americans and European settlers along the maritime region of eastern Canada and northern New England.  ”What does that mean?,“ you may ask.

Basically, John is identifying copper, glass beads, and glazed ceramic artifacts that were found intermingled with traditional native tools and artifacts.  The first appearance of these ”foreign” materials indicates that contact between the cultures had been made.  Their use and modification by tribes is the direct result of trade with the European settlers and can be revealing of those early interactions.

The Peabody is John’s first stop for collections research as he begins to build data for his dissertation work at Memorial University in Newfoundland.  He will be visiting for most of June and documenting hundreds of items.

The rest of the summer is chock full of research appointments and we are happy to share our collections to contribute to the field of archaeology!

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!

To Vancouver and Back Again

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Most of the Peabody staff recently traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia to take part in the 82nd annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA).  While at the conference, we each had our own role.  In addition to helping to staff the Peabody table in the exhibitor hall, collections assistant Samantha Hixson and I had the privilege of a collections tour at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) and the Laboratory of Archaeology (LOA) at the University of British Columbia.

The MOA is a unique institution that houses ethnographic objects from around the world, with an emphasis on material from the Pacific Northwest. The vast majority of these pieces are on display in open storage. That means the galleries are essentially storage spaces with thousands of objects presented to the visitor with little interpretative text.

Collections storage at the MOA is impressive and elaborate. Each object has its own individually crafted mount and locations are tracked with barcodes. The Laboratory of Archaeology on the other hand has very little to no exhibition space. They carefully photograph every object for inclusion in their online catalog and individually bag and label each artifact. Their storage is no less impressive as artifacts are arrayed on compacting storage shelves with room for growth. This is the type of collections storage that I aspire to – but we have a long way to go!

Touring the storage spaces at these institutions was incredibly helpful as Samantha and I brainstorm to reimagine collections storage at the Peabody.  We are very grateful for the time spent and information shared with us – well worth the trip!

Macaw feather from the Peabody collection

The Macaw Factor

Contributed by Quinn Rosefsky

This blog represents the sixth entry in a blog 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!

Overview of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Overview of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

At the Robert S. Peabody Museum, it seems as though there is almost no limit to the range of phenomena one can explore. When the topic Chaco Canyon was suggested, I thought looking at trade routes would be interesting. It quickly became clear that what I was about to enter was the world of a great culture which I thought had mysteriously “disappeared” about 800 years ago. What I quickly learned was that these people, the “Ancestral Puebloans,” had not disappeared. Research has shown that the Puebloans had adapted to climate change in the area by dispersing. “Today, twenty Puebloan groups in New Mexico, as well as the Hopi in Arizona, claim Chaco as their ancestral homeland and are tied to this place through oral traditions and clan lineages. A number of Navajo clans are also affiliated with Chacoan sites through their traditional stories.” (National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/chcu/faqs.htm)

Chaco Canyon, located on a section of the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico, was home to the Chacoan culture which flourished from AD 1000 to 1150. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the people who lived there were very sophisticated. They used astronomical alignments, geometry, and impressive building techniques, allowing for multi-storied masonry houses.  They had a complex road system stretching hundreds of miles, linking Chaco to other communities. One of their buildings, four or five stories high, Pueblo Bonito, contained about 650 rooms.

Plan view of Pueblo Bonito
Plan view of Pueblo Bonito with the earliest construction highlighted in red. The locations of the elite burial crypt, room 33, and the three rooms with dated macaw samples are highlighted. From Adam Watson and colleagues’ article on Chaco macaws in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 112(27): http://www.pnas.org/content/112/27/8238)

The Chacoans traded with people in the Mongollon and Hohokam regions to the south and with people from Mexico and Central America.  Long-distance travel by Ancestral Puebloan people was common and among the goods they acquired were turquoise, seashells, copper and chocolate, none of which were found locally. They also traded for scarlet macaws, a bird with a natural habitat 1000 miles to the south.

 

The Robert S. Peabody Museum has several “modern” macaw tail feathers in its collection, one of which is shown below. Preserved feathers  from 1000 years ago would be quite rare.

Scarlet macaws measure about thirty-two inches long, of which more than half is a pointed tail. They can live up to seventy-five years and eat mostly fruits, nuts and seeds. We know macaws, essentially large parrots, as intelligent birds that are quick to echo our deepest secrets using speech, a magical quality, especially because macaws have no vocal cords. That parrots are rated among the top five in the animal world for intelligence and cognition should come as no surprise. It is likely that the people of Chaco Canyon would have been awed by such an animal.

Scarlet macaws are native to the gulf coast of Mexico, Central America, and South America. The question to ask is for what purpose macaws were brought back to Pueblo Bonito?

Thirty four macaws were recovered from Pueblo Bonito and other sites in Chaco Canyon. Room 33 (see illustration above) was used as a burial crypt for 200-250 years. Macaws were found in rooms 38, 71, and 78. Archaeologist Adam Watson and his colleagues postulated that scarlet macaws were a powerful cosmological symbol and that their presence from the early tenth century reinforced and stimulated a rising social inequality. Those who possessed the birds had access to key cosmological beings and forces as well as links with far distant cultural groups. There is little doubt that the ability of the birds to speak played into this perception.

What is currently exciting is how recent radiocarbon dating of scarlet macaw skeletons from Chaco Canyon has given further insight into the question of their presence. What has been shown is that, based on acquisition and control of valued items such as chocolate and macaws, an elite class at the top of a social and political hierarchy dominated Chacoan life. (Watson et al. 2015)

What the elites achieved and their importance is amply demonstrated in their “great houses” and the acquisition of “exotic” goods from distant regions (ibid.) Included in these exotic goods were macaws. Feathers from macaws were found on prayer sticks, costumes, and masks. According to Watson and his colleagues,“…the flight of or just the appearance of certain birds or the use of their feathers is believed to motivate the fall of rain or snow, as well as the seasons, the sunshine, and the heat.”

Originally, it was believed that trade in items such as macaws at Chaco dated from around AD 1040. With radiocarbon dating done in 2010 on skeletal remains of the macaws from Pueblo Bonito, the dates of the florescence have been moved back to AD 775-875.

Whether or not the macaws were brought back to Pueblo Bonito in single journeys or in successive stages has been debated extensively. Some have raised the possibility that macaws were also bred locally in Chaco Canyon itself, although the arid region is not a natural habitat for such birds. The discovery of breeding pens, perches, bones, and eggshell fragments has led to speculation about on site breeding, but evidence suggests such macaws did not reach maturity.

“There are no indications that the people of Pueblo Bonito bred scarlet macaws. Only one of the sample birds was of breeding age and none were exceptionally young. There is also no mention of eggshells in any of the excavation notes, although one room where many of the bird remains were found was probably an aviary.” (“Scarlet macaws point to early complexity at Chaco Canyon.” A’ndrea Elyse Messer, 2015: http://news.psu.edu/story/361255/2015/06/22/research/scarlet-macaws-point-early-complexity-chaco-canyon).

One of many phenomena to explore at the Peabody, the scarlet macaw feathers represent a tangible example of extensive trade routes present in the New World prior to European contact.

A storage bay with a mixture of drawers and boxes

Updated Collections Online

The Peabody is excited to share our updated collections website!

Curious about the scholarly depth of the Peabody collections?  Looking for material from a particular site for your research?  Interested in simply browsing through the artifacts?

The site’s new and improved format is more user-friendly and provides easier access to our object records.  Enter a key word to search, browse a full list of sites, and click through random images of artifacts.

In addition to a streamlined interface, the updated website also includes information about the archival collections housed at the Peabody.  Temporary Archivist Irene Gates’s recent blog post  highlights the completion of the first step in processing our archives.  Or, explore the archival collections here.

While we do not yet have our full collection online, we add new records regularly – so come back often.  I hope that you enjoy exploring the Peabody’s collections as much as I do!

The Peabody Collection Online is made possible in part by a grant from the Abbot Academy Association, continuing Abbot’s tradition of boldness, innovation, and caring.

Dr. Steeves examining the collection

Dr. Paulette Steeves is ‘decolonizing the past and present of the Western hemisphere’

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Last week, the Peabody had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Paulette Steeves as she examined portions of the MacNeish collection.  Dr. Steeves is currently a Lecturer of Indigenous archaeology and anthropology and the Interim Director of the certificate program in Native American Studies at UMass Amherst.  Her research focuses on the peopling of the Western hemisphere, but not through the traditional Bering Strait theory.

Dr. Steeves uses indigenous theory and methodology to explore sites in the Americas that date back as far as 60,000 years ago.  This is actually a big deal and an anti-establishment approach to the subject.  Dr. Steeves is looking into the materials collected by Scotty MacNeish during his work in the 1960s in Peru and Mexico for additional evidence.   MacNeish was also a proponent of the idea of early colonization and much of his collection has remained unanalyzed for decades.

Dr. Steeves was thrilled to see the collection and to meet MacNeish himself on her visit.  We look forward to hosting her again for many research visits to come!

Contractors carrying in drywall

Upgrading the storage environment

Contributed by Marla Taylor

The bulk of the Peabody’s collection is stored in the basement.  It has been challenging over the years to control the temperature and humidity in the basement – an essential factor in maintaining an artifact collection.  A small fluctuation of both temperature and humidity is normal and expected as seasons change.  However, extreme variation lead to damage – bone can become fragile, ceramics can develop weak-points, and even stone tools can become brittle.

For the past four years, I have been tracking the environment throughout Peabody and noticed these strong fluctuations.  By taking readings of the temperature and humidity in all our storage spaces once an hour (through the use of a datalogger), I determined that the influx of outdoor air through these poorly sealed windows is large contributing factor.  There is only one way to fix this.

In collaboration with the Office of Physical Plant on campus, we are implementing a plan to mitigate some of this fluctuation.  Contractors are working to seal the windows in the basement to stop outside air from sneaking into the storage.

This will stabilize the environment and lead to fewer changes in both temperature and humidity.  The first step on the road to environmental control!

Detail of breccia

Jacob’s Cavern

This blog represents the third 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!

Contributed by Marla Taylor

The unassuming and muddled looking object below is a piece of loosely formed breccia from Jacob’s Cavern in McDonald County, Missouri.

Breccia from Jacob's Cavern
Breccia from Jacob’s Cavern

Breccia is a type of rock that is composed of broken fragments of other rocks that have been cemented together by a fine-grained matrix – this process can take thousands of years. While this piece is not yet solid rock, it is on the way.  In this case, the matrix (or glue) is ash from thousands of fires that sustained life in the cavern for hundreds of years.

Acting on a tip from a local named E.H. Jacobs, Charles Peabody and Warren Moorehead traveled to Jacob’s Cavern in April of 1903 to examine the site.  Upon arrival, they found a large rockshelter of limestone with hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites, and the floor was covered with a thick layer of fine ash up to 1.5 meters (nearly 5 feet) deep! This ash is most likely the direct result of untold numbers of small fires in the cavern to keep the occupants warm over the years of use.

Peabody and Moorehead excavated the thick layer of ashes in using a careful grid system and uncovered hundreds of artifacts.  The stone tools were primarily projectile points and blades with relatively few large tools like axes.  They also found a ‘considerable’ number of bone needles and awls.  These small bone tools are essential in daily life to create, maintain, and repair clothing and other basic equipment.  The sheer volume of ash and artifacts in the cavern indicates long-term occupation.

All evidence of human occupation – stone and bone tools, food debris – in the cavern was found in the layer of ashes and intermingled with breccia.  And, most notably, many artifacts are visible within the breccia (see the photo below).  This means that they were created, used, and discarded before the formation of the breccia and were left undisturbed for possibly thousands of years.

Detail of breccia
Detail of breccia with stone tools circled in green and bone fragments circled in yellow.

Peabody and Moorehead brought samples of the breccia and hundreds of collected artifacts back to the Peabody in 1903 while excavations continued by Mr. Jacobs for another couple years.  Published in 1904, the report of their work became the first Bulletin published by the Department of Archaeology.  The entirety of this report can be found here.

The work done by Peabody and Moorehead with Jacob’s Cavern became a foundation for later work at the Peabody.  Explore and excavate a little-known site, bring the materials back to Andover for study, publish about that work, and provide invaluable new research and insight into the field of archaeology.

A storage bay with a mixture of drawers and boxes

Reboxing project – Update

Contributed by Marla Taylor

About six months in and the reboxing project is beginning to take off.  With the help of students and volunteers, 52 drawers have been converted into 86 boxes.  These first months have been spent ironing-out the kinks in the procedure and strategically identifying areas of the collection on which to focus.

The inventories produced from this project have already helped to identify areas of the collection for further attention and have made some objects available for education use.

I am excited to pick-up the pace over the winter!