Sometimes it can take years to repatriate ancestors and funerary belongings back to Native American tribes. And sometimes, it can take just a few weeks.
On November 9th, the Peabody partnered with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (PMAE) of Harvard University to repatriate ancestors and belongings to representatives of the Wampanoag Confederacy. From start to finish, this process took about six weeks – a credit to the partnership work with the PMAE and our established relationship with the Wampanaog.
We are always happy to see ancestors return home and have the opportunity to share that with so many wonderful partners.
Most of my time lately has been spent on repatriation work. This work isn’t something that I can share lots of details about, but it is probably both the most challenging and rewarding part of my job.
The Peabody has always had a commitment to working with tribes and Indigenous peoples to ensure that ancestors, funerary belongings, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony are repatriated in a respectful and timely fashion. I am fortunate to inherit that past work and a strong institutional reputation for fairness and responsibility. It is a high standard that I constantly strive to uphold.
In late October, I was able to take part in the 6th Annual Repatriation Conference sponsored by the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA). This conference was a focused on the 30th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It was fabulous to learn about the work of other institutions and tribes, share strategies to overcome challenges, hear about success stories, and be inspired by so many other dedicated professionals.
I was the most impacted by a wonderful presentation on decolonization by the Director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, ME and the staff of the Museum of Us in San Diego, CA. The incredible work they have done, and continue to do, to address the inherently colonial nature of a museum interpreting the material culture of minority and Indigenous communities is inspiring. Listening to their presentation and thinking about the work we do at the Peabody, I was pleased to identify so much overlap. The thought we have put into the decolonizing process manifests itself in our collections policies, NAGPRA policy, how we approach education, and approach research inquiries.
I take this part of my job very seriously. My work can’t erase past mistreatment of these ancestors and belongings, or redress colonial wrongs, but I can make progress. The changes that I am part of will hopefully become the foundation of a stronger reputation for caring, meticulousness, and a progressive attitude toward repatriation. Decolonization work is anti-racism work.
In mid-November, a colleague and I will be presenting to the NAGPRA Community a Practice (a group of scholars and NAGPRA practitioners from museum and tribes) on the topic of decolonizing collections care. I am excited to share my ideas with this group and get feedback.
The process of decolonization will probably never end and there will always be more to learn. I look forward to the challenge!
One day while I was working in the basement of the Peabody, plugging away at inventorying drawers, I was listening to a podcast called Astonishing Legends. It was an episode titled “The Tall Ones” exploring the legends and lore surrounding giants around the world. It came as a surprise when I heard the hosts say the name W.K. Moorehead! My ears instantly pricked up.
The podcast hosts went on to cite a New York Times article written on July 14, 1916 under the headline “Find Horned Men’s Skulls: Remarkable Discovery by Archaeologists in the Susquehanna Valley”. The short article stated that Professor A.B. Skinner of the American Indian Museum, Rev. George Donehoo, Pennsylvania State Historian, and Professor W.K. Moorehead of the Phillips Andover Academy uncovered a burial mound at the Murray Farm site while conducting research at Tioga Point in the Susquehanna Valley. In the mound, they uncovered the remains of sixty-eight men, believed to have been buried around the year 1200 AD. According to the article, the average height of these men was seven feet, with many being even taller. Also found with the remains were very large stone celts and axes, further evidence of the men’s gigantic size. Perhaps most interesting of all, some of the skulls had two inch bone protuberances on their foreheads. Well, this was something to explore!
Looking through historical texts and documents, it is clear that giants have been a topic of interest for centuries. Not only are they mentioned in the Biblical story of David and Goliath, but in fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, and the legend of Paul Bunyan. One pervasive theory about giants is that they are actually Nephilim (also from the Bible), the offspring of an angel and a human. Even some historical figures such as Gilgamesh are thought by some to have been giants.
Many newspaper articles from across the country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries claim to have found giant skeletons. Some accounts even call them a lost race of giant people, but many others hypothesize that they were giant Native Americans. An eight foot tall Native American skeleton was said to be found in Towanda, Pennsylvania in 1822. A headline from The World newspaper on October 6, 1895, read “Biggest Giant Ever Known-Nine Feet High and Probably a Prehistoric California Indian.” Some, like the Cardiff Giant, which was actually a buried stone statue, were proven to be hoaxes. Yet the stories still remain popular. Even Captain John Smith, in his account of meeting the Susquehanncocks in 1608, described them as giant-like. But were there really giants roaming this land before us? Or horned giants for that matter?
After some further digging, it was discovered that the “horned giants” found by Moorehead and others at Murray Farm were not horned at all, nor were they giants. Professor Skinner wrote a corrected article for the New York Times but it was not as publicized as the original, so it is harder to find. Apparently while excavating the site, a workman shouted out “There are horns over his head!”, after discovering a bundle burial which had been covered with deer antlers. An excited visitor or reporter at the site heard this and asked another workman, who decided to play a joke and claim that the skeletons had horns growing out of their heads. Another version says that a disgruntled camp cook made up the story.
This explains the story about the horns, but what about the supposed enormous height of these individuals and the other accounts of giants found nearby? It is thought that these skeletons, as well as accounts of living “giant” Susquehannocks, were not giant at all, but just taller than average. At the time, the average height of most Europeans was about five feet six inches tall, whereas Native Americans were thought to average about six feet tall. While six inches is not that big of a difference, anyone taller than six feet may seem like a giant to the generally shorter Europeans.
Another reason for the discovery of “giant” skeletons is that these bones were often misidentified as human when they actually belonged to extinct animal species. It may seem far-fetched that anyone could misidentify a mammoth bone as that of a human, but other than the skull, human bones actually look very much like animal bones. So to someone not trained in osteology, a very large rib bone may seem like it is from a human skeleton. Many skeletal remains have been innocently misidentified this way, not only as giants, but as monsters or “Titans” as well.
Over time it seems that this giant narrative of Native Americans by Europeans was exaggerated and, coupled with misidentified animal bones, resulted in the discovery of “giant skeletons.” However, these so-called giant skeletons always seem to mysteriously disappear after being excavated, leading many to believe that they either never existed, were misidentified animal bones, or it was actually just a taller than average person.
After hearing the podcast, I did some digging of my own through Moorehead’s records, just in case I could find anything related to the “horned giants”. I found many documents related to the Susquehanna Valley expedition as well as correspondences between Moorehead, Skinner, and Donehoo. None of these documents ever mentioned the “horned giants” or the article written in the New York Times. I did find a picture of Professor Skinner holding a perfectly normal looking skull with no protuberances while at Murray Farm. Moorehead also wrote a short report of the excavation, and again, no mention of giants was found.
Even though the horned giants of Pennsylvania turned out to be nothing more than a tall tale (pun intended), it was fun to hear a story about Moorehead on one of my new favorite podcasts! I wonder what interesting stories I’ll uncover next!
October is one of my favorite times of the year. I love the changing leaves here in New England, the crisp air, and seeing all the creative Halloween costumes that people come up with. This is also a time for sharing spooky stories and strange experiences…
Have you ever noticed this plaque at the Peabody?
Warren K. Moorehead (1866-1939) was the first curator and second director of the Peabody Institute (then known as the Department of Archaeology). If you don’t know anything about him and his relationship with the Peabody, just try searching ‘Moorehead’ on our blog. I’ll wait.
Moorehead was definitely a strong personality. And I, personally, think some part of his spirit does still live at the Peabody.
Several years ago, there were a series of strange disturbances that were happening at the Peabody. I don’t have the space to tell you everything, but here are a couple that I personally experienced:
One morning, Lindsay and I were the first staff in the building and let ourselves into the basement office space. Sprawled across the floor by our kitchen area were paper plates, a glass shelf (an extra for the fridge), and various other little things that had been on top of the microwave. These things could NOT have fallen like this on their own – it looked like something had swiped its arm and pushed everything onto the floor. Lindsay and I had been the last ones out and were now the first ones in. We immediately photographed what we saw (I am so sorry that I can’t find that photo!) and did some follow-up. No motion alarm had gone off all night and our pest management company found no evidence of an animal.
Another time, a couple years ago, I was talking to work duty students and explaining that Moorehead used to exchange or give away artifacts that I really wish had stayed in our collection. Just as I was mid-sentence in a rebuke of his cavalier behavior, a photographic portrait of him fell from the wall and smashed its frame. This portrait had been hanging in the same spot for my entire tenure at the Peabody (at that point, about 10 years) and had never fallen before. The students and I exchanged shocked looks and I quickly apologized to Moorehead for bad-mouthing him.
Shortly after these incidents, Ryan wrote a note to Moorehead explaining that we were taking care of the building and the collections and that we respected and appreciated him. Ryan slid the note behind the plaque by the front door and the strange occurrences stopped.
I am not big believer in the supernatural, but I do think Moorehead’s spirit does reside in the Peabody in some form. In my opinion, he is a pretty benign ghost who just wants to ensure that the collection and the building are getting their proper respect and care – I strive to meet his standards.
It’s been almost two months now since John and I have been back at the Peabody alternating weeks of work. In order to save time while we are in the Peabody, we are using that time exclusively to inventory drawers and spending our weeks at home updating the database with the drawers we inventoried the previous week. Now that we’ll be back in the Peabody more regularly, our work from home duties have shifted to more database work. In his post from last month’s newsletter, you can see all the hard work John’s been doing at home so now I’d like to share some of the things I’ve been able to accomplish from home so far.
Marla has kept everyone busy with various projects since we started working remotely in March. For me, that included digitizing photographs, creating condition reports for textiles, digitizing ledger books, and photographing site records. In total, while working remotely, I was able to digitize nine boxes of photos, complete 120 condition reports, digitize 1,700 ledger entries, and photograph 354 site records.
The majority of my time working remotely has been spent scanning and editing photographs of various archaeological projects from the collection. The photos I digitized were from archaeological excavations in Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and Connecticut. Perhaps my favorite photos to work with were the ones from the Ayacucho Archaeological-Botanical Project in Peru. This project, directed by Richard MacNeish, was meant to investigate the origin of agriculture and its relationship to the development of civilization in New World Centers. The Ayacucho Valley was subsequently excavated between 1969 and 1975, which produced the hundreds of images that I’ve been working on. Many of the photos are of cave excavations, others show sweeping views of the Peruvian highlands complete with mountains and wildlife, and there’s the occasional photo of the archaeologists acting silly.
Since we’ve been back at the Peabody, John and I have been working hard to make up for lost time on the inventory project. So far we’ve been making great progress as we’ve been able to inventory over 60 drawers since being back. Empty wooden drawers are once again piling up like crazy!
Working from home for the past few months has been an interesting experience. It’s been great saving so much money on gas and I loved being able to make myself gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch every day, but I’m very happy to be back working with the artifacts. Hopefully someday soon we’ll all be able to enjoy being back at the Peabody full time!
If you’re in need of some grilled cheese inspiration here is one of my favorites—olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, arugula, and manchego cheese! (I only had pita pockets at the time but I think a nice sourdough would be great)
Last fall, the Peabody loaned ten objects to the Addison Gallery of American Art here at Phillips Academy. They spent nearly a year there for the exhibition A Wildness Distant from Ourselves: Art and Ecology in 19th Century America.
Due to public health concerns related to COVID-19, both the Peabody and the Addison have been closed to visitors since mid-March. But, the behind the scenes work never ends. The Addison regularly exhibits works of art on loan from other institutions and actively loans its own collection to museums around the world. Returning these objects during COVID shutdowns has been a logistical challenge for our friends, and we were happy to coordinate with them to return the materials back across the street to us.
When the objects from the Peabody went to the Addison, a professional fine arts shipping company took care of packing and moving everything. To come home, the Addison staff did the packing themselves – and they are awesome at it!
It is now up to me to put these artifacts back into our storage areas – a job I am happy to do! Typically, we would use many of these in the upcoming school year for classes, but this year is different. Like most other institutions, any of our classes will be taught online.
But I know that I will be happy to see Champ the auk back at home in his case every time I come into the Peabody.
After four months of working from home, the Peabody is in its third week of a return to almost normal collections work. The two inventory specialists, Emily and myself, are working alternating weeks at the Peabody in order to continue our inventory work. With one week completed, it feels good to be back working toward our goal of a complete inventory of the collection. While working remotely will be an ongoing reality, I would like to share some of what I have been up to at home thus far.
With everything shutting down in March, Marla was quick to come up with projects that could be completed remotely. Her post in April outlined collections materials that were less sensitive and therefore reasonable to take home. I started with photographing site records from Peru and then moved to digitizing vacuum treatment paperwork related to Integrated Pest Management of the collections. We all contributed to finalizing the digitization of the original ledger books, our institution’s version of accession books. Now we have a searchable document with 75,000 records!
My favorite project has been photographing and editing photographic slides held in the collection. They include images documenting past exhibits and openings at the Robert S. Peabody Museum and photographs of the collections. The most interesting slides by far have been of Copeland Marks’s travels in Guatemala and South Korea. Mr. Marks was a textile collector who focused on the traditional clothing of ethnic Maya people living in the Guatemalan highlands. Some of his textiles became part of our collection at the Peabody. He would later write several cookbooks on cuisine covering locales ranging from the Mediterranean to South America. The slides I was working with document his travels in Guatemala spanning the 1960s through the 1980s. The subjects in the photographs cover everyday life, the dramatic volcanic landscape of the highlands and ceremonial life- all of which have been a great escape from the realities of coronavirus lockdown.
It is anybody’s guess when life will return to normal. For the foreseeable future work at the Peabody will be interspersed with the strange blur of working from home with frustratingly cute interruptions from kids and dirty dishes. Until then I have to thank Marla for keeping us safely working from home during these crazy times.
Before COVID-19, the Peabody Institute kept our social media presence to Facebook and Twitter. But this seemed like the perfect time to expand to Youtube. This is definitely a new medium for me and I was puzzled for a few days as to how I could contribute to this platform. And then inspiration struck.
Phillips Academy is home to two cultural institutions – the Robert S. Peabody Institute and the Addison Gallery of American Art. Our friends at the Addison created a delightful short stop-motion video about the work of a registrar and shared it on Facebook. I thought it was fabulous. And I also thought, I can do that!
Well, that started a project that took about a week of evening shoots after the kids went to bed, and an additional couple weeks of sound design (maybe I shouldn’t admit that it took that long…). I wrote a short script and then cannibalized my boys’ Legos to recreate the Peabody staff and create sets. I regret not taking a picture of the carnage to our play room to share, but I am relieved that it is all cleaned up now.
Framing and filming the stop-motion required a level of patience and detailed focus that was challenging for me at times but necessary to make the film work. It is hard to remember to account for everyone and everything in the scene, but not to move it too much to ensure it was fluid. It was pretty fun to hide details in the background too.
Adding the voices and music was a whole separate task. I fully credit my husband with the patience to become my sound engineer. He took all the lines, including those contributed by our 5 year old, and music and ensured that everything synced with the video – and made sure we weren’t breaking any copyright laws with the music use…
I think the end result is pretty great. Viewers learn about what the Peabody does every day, from my perspective, and get to escape for about 3 minutes.
Do gerbils appreciate art? I don’t know, but I stumbled across this article about some art lovers who decided to find out. By all accounts, the gerbils had a positive experience with their private tour! And I hope you do too.
My favorite museum distraction is following the National Cowboy Museum on Twitter. Head of Security, Tim, has taken over their social media and has the best dad jokes around. Wonderfully refreshing and clever, Tim’s tweets bring a smile to my face every day – #HashtagTheCowboy. I can’t wait to find a reason to travel to Oklahoma City, OK and visit.
As the country continues to work from home, the Peabody collections team has gotten creative to keep everyone busy. Typically, our work requires touching and interacting with the objects in our collection as well as collaboration on deciphering difficult numbers or to respond to a research inquiry. I certainly can’t send the artifacts home with our staff, but we have been able to find plenty of remote work.
First, we attacked a backlog of paperwork relating to our pest management projects. Something that I thought would take months to catch-up on was done in a matter of days!
Second, supplies were split up and everyone signed out a few boxes of photographs to digitize from home. Many of them also created spreadsheets that will make for quick addition to our collections management database when we return. Once again, massive progress is being made on projects that have been sitting on the back-burner too long.
Digitizing slides one sheet at a time
Scanning photos from home
Several of us still share the responsibility of checking on the collections in person regularly and the system has been working wonderfully.
For me, like so many others, working from home has been a balancing act. I am caring for two kids under the age of 5 while my husband works a job that is considered essential. My work is squeezed into nap-time, evenings, early mornings with a cup of coffee, and some weekend time. We are all doing the best we can to support ourselves and our colleagues. I cannot thank the Peabody collections team – Rachel, John, Emily, and Emma – enough for their hard work and continued dedication to our mission.
If you have some time to kill, try checking out our collection online – I hope to have lots of new material uploaded when we return to our regular routine.