All posts by Ryan Wheeler

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.

Journal of Archaeology and Education

Journal of Archaeology and Education masthead

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

In 2017 archaeologists Meg Conkey, Dan Sandweiss, Ryan Wheeler, and Nancy Gonlin founded the Journal of Archaeology and Education. The journal is hosted at the University of Maine’s Digital Commons website.

JAE originated with Peabody Advisory Committee chair Dan Sandweiss during strategic planning work and inspired by the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology’s long history of using archaeology in the classroom, one which got a boost in 2002 when this focus became our raison d’être. There has been a growing interest in learning around archaeology—from college and university curricula to service learning, as well as archaeology in the high school classroom and initiatives like Project Archaeology. Despite many connections with allies at the Society for American Archaeology and the Archaeological Institute of America, practitioners in this area are diverse and only loosely connected.

An open-access, online journal is one major step to foster a sense of community and create a platform to share everything from practice to theory and research. This format ensures equal access to interested parties, something which we all believe is critical. During the Society for American Archaeology’s 2017 meeting in Vancouver we held the inaugural meeting of the JAE editorial board, which includes members from museums, educational institutions, academia, government, and more. Editorial board members spent some time getting to know one another and brainstormed ways to encourage article submissions to the new journal.

JAE Mission Statement

The Journal of Archaeology and Education is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal dedicated to disseminating research and sharing practices in archaeological education at all levels. We welcome submissions dealing with education in its widest sense, both in and out of the classroom—from early childhood through the graduate level—including public outreach from museums and other institutions, as well as professional development for the anthropologist and archaeologist. The journal’s founders recognize the significant role that archaeology can play in education at all levels and intend for the Journal of Archaeology and Education to provide a home for the growing community of practitioners and scholars interested in sharing their first-hand experiences and research.

Nancy Gonlin—JAE Editor

Image of JAE editor Nancy Gonlin.Nancy Gonlin is a Senior Associate Professor at Bellevue College, Washington. She earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University, is a Registered Professional Archaeologist, and a former Dumbarton Oaks Fellow of Harvard University. Her specialization is the Classic Maya civilization of Mexico and Central America. Nancy is on the Editorial Board of Ancient Mesoamerica, published by Cambridge University Press. She has taught for over 25 years and is highly regarded for her pedagogical contributions – she is the 2012 recipient of Bellevue College’s Margin of Excellence. As an active member of the Society for American Archaeology, Nancy serves on the Committee on Curriculum and has been appointed as the upcoming Chair of the Book Award Committee. She co-author Copán: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Maya Kingdom, and co-edited Commoner Ritual and Ideology in Ancient Mesoamerica, Ancient Households of the Americas, and Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica. Nancy’s fifth book will be a co-edited volume on a new field of research in archaeology, The Archaeology of the Night.

Submit an Article

We encourage author’s to learn more about JAE and to submit their work to the journal using the online publishing tools at http://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/jae/

As an online only, open access journal, JAE is designed for quick and timely publication of accepted papers. To that end, each year will constitute a volume and each article will be a separate numbered issue. As soon as an article is accepted in final version, copy-edited, and laid out, it can be published instantly.

Katie Kirakosian and John Andrew Campbell Receive Cordell Award

The Peabody Advisory Committee has selected Katie Kirakosian and John Andrew Campbell as recipients of the Linda S. Cordell Memorial Research Award for 2017. This award supports research at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology using the collections of the museum. The endowment was named in honor of Dr. Linda S. Cordell, a distinguished archaeologist, specializing in the American Southwest. Linda was Senior Scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, recipient of the A.V. Kidder Medal for eminence in American Archaeology, and a valued member of the Peabody Advisory Committee.

Image of Katie Kirakosian, 2017 Cordell Award winner.Dr. Kirakosian received her PhD from UMass Amherst in 2014 and is currently adjunct faculty at several schools in Rhode Island. Her project focuses on archival materials from Warren Moorehead, Douglas Byers, and Frederick Johnson to continue her dissertation research and prepare a book on the history of archaeology in Massachusetts using social network analysis. Dr. Kirakosian published some of her previous research using Peabody collections in the 2015 issue of the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology: http://www.archaeologybulletin.org/articles/10.5334/bha.260/

Image of John Andrew Campbell at Port au Choix site.Mr. Campbell is a PhD candidate at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. His research at the Peabody includes a re-examination of collections from the Dennysville site in Maine, as well as several other sites in New Brunswick. His dissertation research is focused on protohistoric and contact period Wabanaki peoples in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.

For more on the Linda S. Cordell Memorial Research Award see our blog: http://bit.ly/22pgzV5

Birch bark, maple sap, and a visit to the White Earth Reservation

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

This blog represents the fifth 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!

The winter 2017 issue of the Andover magazine includes a great piece by Jane Dornbusch on our repatriation of a sacred birch bark scroll to the White Earth Nation in Minnesota. In a nutshell, Peabody curator Warren Moorehead received a number of items from the White Earth Anishinaabeg in 1909 during his investigation of fraud on the reservation. That collection—principally men’s ceremonial regalia and beaded bandolier bags—also included a pictographic bark scroll used in the ceremonies of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society. Jane’s story also mentions my visit to White Earth in March 2016. The following essay was written right after I returned from Minnesota and provides a few additional details about that visit.

Image of White Earth Land Recovery Project Executive Director Bob Shimek talking to tribal members and college service learning students, March 2016.
White Earth Land Recovery Project Executive Director Bob Shimek talks to tribal members and college service learning students, March 2016.

At the end of March 2016 I flew into Fargo and drove east, headed for the White Earth Indian Reservation. As I drove I passed an occasional cluster of houses, farmland with lots of black, rich soil, as well as lakes, streams, and groves of trees dotting the horizon of a really big sky. I learned later from Bob Shimek, executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, that I had driven across a variety of ecosystems, from oak savanna to pothole prairie.

That first evening in Minnesota I sat in the White Earth community center along with college students on a spring break service learning trip while Bob told us about the White Earth Anishinaabeg. We heard about the land and how this Indian reservation—established in 1867—was designed to succeed, starting with 829,440 acres of forest lands with timber and game, good farmland, lakes and streams with fish. Greedy timber companies and their henchmen defrauded tribal members of their lands and by 1934 less than 800 acres were held by the Anishinaabeg.

Image of the drum hall at the White Earth tribal college, taken March 2016.
Drum hall at the White Earth tribal college, March 2016.

Since the 1930s the White Earth Anishinaabeg have done what Bob Shimek refers to as nation building. Efforts include a casino in Mahnomen, an annual indigenous farming conference, the Gizhiigin Art Place, a tribal college, the Niijii radio station, and more. Even repatriation, the recovery of sacred objects stored in museums for decades, is nation building. A lot of these nation building activities revolve around traditional food and foodways, like wild rice and maple sugar.

When the sap runs it is all hands on deck. Even the service learning students abandoned other projects and were recruited to haul sap to the boilers. Like New England, maple sugaring is a big deal in northern Minnesota. Among the Anishinaabeg maple sugar has a deep meaning—hauling and boiling sap recalls the origins of the Anishinaabeg. Ojibwe oral literature tells how in the beginning the maple trees were full of thick, sweet syrup that could be easily collected. Manabozho—the Ojibwe trickster and culture hero—decided the people had it too easy and made the syrup thin and watery. He gave the Anishinaabeg the technology to process the sap, but only during the end of winter. The rest of the year was to be spent fishing, hunting, and in other endeavors needed to earn a living.

Image of mural on the Niiji radio building, White Earth Reservation, taken March 2016.
Mural at the Niiji radio station, White Earth Reservation, March 2016.

But afterwards, in the evening, there was time for more learning. My last night at White Earth I attended the Big Drum ceremony. This began with a potluck dinner, followed by a pipe ceremony, and then Keller Paap, one of the ceremony leaders, told the story of the Big Drum in Ojibwe. This was pretty remarkable, but things got even more interesting.

Keller and Anton Treuer, another ceremony leader, invited the college students to sit around the drum. Then they told the story of the Big Drum ceremony in English. But there was more. Paap is from Wisconsin and teaches at Waadookodading, an Ojibwe language immersion school, while Treuer is on the faculty at Bemidji State University. Together they shared the stories of religious suppression and how this didn’t change until 1978’s American Indian Religious Freedom Act, along with the importance of teaching and learning the Ojibwe language.

Image of three college students talking with tribal member Diana King, taken March 2016.
College service learning students talking with White Earth tribal member Diana King, March 2016.

So, there are lots of stories at White Earth. Some are written on birch bark scrolls, others are found in the pages of the Congressional inquiry into fraud and deceit, some drip in slightly sweet maple sap, while others still float on the night air in words of Ojibwe. For us, however, perhaps most remarkable is that we—Andover, Phillips Academy, the Peabody Museum—are a tiny part of the story too.

In January 2017 we met with representatives of the tribe again and agreed to the repatriation of several additional objects that, like the birch bark scroll, are examples of cultural patrimony under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Anton Treuer will be speaking at All School Meeting on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

Culture Areas of North America-the Peabody’s Stuart Travis Mural

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The central staircase of the Peabody includes a mural of American Indian life and history titled “Culture Areas of North America” by Stuart Travis (1868-1942). Travis was an accomplished and prolific American artist, illustrator, and designer who studied at the Académie Julian in Paris. His works—mostly drawings and watercolors—appeared frequently in magazines, books, and advertisements in the early twentieth century. Travis first came to Phillips Academy in 1928 to create the mural “History and Traditions of the School and Vicinity” in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. He continued to work at Phillips Academy, where he painted a total of three murals; he also designed the stone and wood gate that now leads to the Moncrieff Cochran Sanctuary.

Image of the Stuart Travis mural and central staircase.
Stuart Travis Mural at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology. Photography by Gil Talbot.

The Peabody mural measures 13’11” by 10’2” and reflects ideas about anthropology and archaeology in the 1930s and 1940s. Major elements include the Maya Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal on the left and a totem pole of the Northwest Coast on the right, with a map of cultures areas of North and Middle America occupying a central position, surmounted by six portraits across the top of the mural. Details and insets abound, illustrating artifacts, archaeological sites, ethnographic items, and scenes from Aztec and Maya codices. Illustrations of artifacts are drawn from the British Museum, the Museum of the American Indian (now the National Museum of the American Indian), the American Museum of Natural History, the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, as well as several other prominent institutions.

Major Maya archaeological sites are labeled on the central map, but the majority of the map surface only depicts watersheds and topography, suggesting that Travis may have planned to add even more detail to the mural. The shadow of a thunderbird is painted over the central map, with a note explaining the widespread belief in supernatural birds in the Americas. Other details include an inset illustrating details of the Cahokia, Etowah, and Hopewell sites—likely a nod to long-time Peabody Director Warren K. Moorehead’s work. In all, there are over 30 American Indian artifacts illustrated (some in low relief), ranging from an example of Mi’kmaq writing on birch bark to a Tlingit “raven hat.” Many of these artifacts were probably drawn from contemporary books and articles on archaeology, while some may have been suggested by Museum staff. Detailed notes about the artifacts were likely included so the mural could be used as a teaching tool for visitors.

Travis dated the mural 1938, but continued with additions through 1942. The mural was restored in 1997 by Christy Cunningham-Adams through the generous support of the Abbott Academy Association.

Clerkin, Jill, 2011, Stuart Travis: Artist and Artisan Mismatched with Time. Andover: The Magazine of Phillips Academy 104(3):28-29.

Falk, Peter Hastings (editor), 1985, Who Was Who in American Art. Sound View Press, Madison, CT.

Ruth Benedict and the Purpose of Anthropology

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

A quick Google search reveals that Ruth Benedict still looms large in the minds of contemporary anthropologists. Benedict (1887-1948) is known for many things—she was a favorite student of anthropology icon Franz Boas, she conducted multidisciplinary work across anthropology, psychology, and social science, and was close friend and confidant of Margaret Mead. Mead wrote a marvelous biography of her friend that gives her impressions alongside published and unpublished works by Benedict. Biographies continue to appear, including two dual bios of Mead and Benedict. Benedict wrote and talked about the paradigm shift in our field that she witnessed in the twentieth century as Boasian humanism gave way to scientific approaches. She famously argued that anthropology needed both.

Image of 1995 commemorative US postage stamp featuring Ruth Benedict.
1995 commemorative US postage stamp featuring Ruth Benedict.

Benedict has fared pretty well in the internet age. Blogger Jason Atrosio, writing at Living Anthropologically, pits Benedict against social geographer Jared Diamond, arguing that Benedict did what Diamond does, only better, more eloquently, with at least as much erudition, more personally, and at least seventy-five years before Diamond. Atrosio’s satiric comparison specifically looks at Diamond and Benedict’s take on what traditional societies have to teach the Western world. Likewise, Alex Golub, in his blog Savage Minds, argues that Benedict’s concise prose presages today’s best blog writing. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of Benedict’s more pithy insights appear on internet sites dedicated to quotation. One of these quotes has gotten a lot of attention recently—here it is:

“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences”

Along with a presence on the quotation websites, this quote has made the rounds as an internet meme (framed against a nice photo of Benedict) and, perhaps most famously, was featured in remarks made by President Barack Obama during a press conference with Afghan President Ghani on March 24, 2015. The President referred to his own mother’s training as an anthropologist, as well as Ghani’s background. The remark, however, doesn’t specifically attribute the quote to Benedict. Simon Kuper, writing in The Financial Times, has dubbed Barack Obama the “anthropologist-in-chief” and a number of others have pointed out that President Obama’s interest in anthropology has tracked a growing interest in our discipline.

Ruth Benedict meme from the Web--photo of Benedict with the quote The Purpose of Anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.
One version of the popular Ruth Benedict internet meme.

Specifically too, that quotation has resonated with a lot of people, myself included. I added it to my e-mail signature sometime over the summer—a place that I usually reserve for my contact info alone. I did notice, however, that while the quote appeared on a lot of websites, there was never any specific source cited. Archaeologist Meg Conkey told me recently that she too like the quote, but was unsure of its origins. She asked me if I knew and pointed out a Reddit post about the quote. The Reddit post argues that “Ruth Benedict never said it, not in any of her published writings. It seems to be merely myth. It is never specifically cited, nor does it make historical sense. In her own time, anthropology was a SCIENCE, not a political party.” The post includes a long list of internet memes, blog posts, and other websites that all attributed the quote to Benedict, but with no specific reference to back it up.

The quote aside for a moment, it is pretty clear that Benedict’s work had a strong political element. In many ways, as a cultural relativist, she sought to challenge American exceptionalism with her work. Benedict, along with anthropologist Gene Weltfish, prepared a pamphlet titled “The Races of Mankind” in 1943, intended as a guide for American troops operating overseas. This became an appendix to later editions of her 1940 book Race: Science and Politics, which makes both a humanistic and scientific case for the equality of all races.

Image of a first edition copy of Ruth Benedict's book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.
A first edition copy of Ruth Benedict’s book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

During WWII Benedict prepared an “ethnography at a distance” study of Japanese culture for the U.S. Office of War Information, which appeared in 1946 as The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns  of Japanese Culture. Along with her earlier work, Patterns of Culture, Chrysanthemum remains one of Benedict’s iconic projects. And it may provide a clue about that quote. This is what Benedict writes on page 14 of Chrysanthemum:

“The tough-minded are content that differences should exist. They respect differences. Their goal is a world made safe for differences, where the United States may be American to the hilt without threatening the peace of the world, and France may be France, and Japan may be Japan on the same conditions.”

Anthropologists certainly are a tough-minded lot, even if we get a bit loosey-goosey on our quotations. I suppose this is a consequence of progress, as brainyquotes.com replaces Bartlett’s.

A trip to the bookshelf provides another clue. On page 402 of their textbook Anthropology: The Human Challenge (15th edition) William Haviland and his co-authors include a nice profile of Ruth Benedict. There they say:

As Benedict herself once said, the main purpose of anthropology is “to make the world safe for human differences.”

So, she did say this, or at least something a lot like this. For the precise, we should likely reconsider using those quotes or their exact placement. It’s not surprising, however, that we still have a special place for Benedict in our discipline. Blogger Atrosio makes a nice point that Benedict, however, isn’t perfect, and that she suffers from the same flaws that afflict Jared Diamond:

“This history reveals the major theme missing from both Benedict and Diamond–an anthropology of interconnection. That as Eric Wolf described in Europe and the People Without History. Peoples once called primitive–now perhaps more politely termed tribal or traditional–were part of a co-production with Western colonialism.”

Johannes Fabian, in his 1983 book Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, makes much the same argument. Despite the shortcomings, Benedict has a lot to offer, from ideas about cultural relativism and race, to the direction that anthropology can take in the twenty-first century. As the contemporary scientific paradigm breaks free of its dialectic with humanism, can humanism assert itself in whatever comes next?

Tiny Phillips Academy Museum Harbors Clues to Ancient Origins of Corn

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Archaeologist Richard S. MacNeish—known as Scotty—devoted his career to untangling two of the biggest questions of archaeology: when did people begin domesticating plants and how did that act impact and influence the development of civilization? During his tenure at Phillips Academy’s Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology MacNeish led multidisciplinary expeditions to Mexico and Peru to search for the heartland of domesticated maize or corn. Before his death in 2001 MacNeish had searched for the origins of rice cultivation in China, studied early cultures of Belize, and planned to look at wheat domestication in Turkey. Evidence for domestication often could be found in dry caves, where ancient plant remains were preserved. Speaking of his research in China, MacNeish quipped, “I’ve crawled in and out of more caves than a Neanderthal caveman.”

Image of Scotty MacNeish.
Scotty MacNeish reviews excavation profiles.

Despite MacNeish’s indefatigable quest for the origins of the world’s most important crops, answers remained elusive. In Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley, near modern-day Puebla, MacNeish and his team reconstructed ancient environments, devised chronologies, and documented a sequence of corn domestication from tiny, primitive cobs to those that look much like the corn that was growing in the area during the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. MacNeish’s suggestion of an early date for corn domestication, however, was met with skepticism, as many archaeologists believed that these crops were developed after significant strides in social organization, urbanism, and the other hallmarks of civilization. A debate ensued, but much of MacNeish’s Tehuacán research was sidelined as other scientists found evidence for even earlier sites of corn domestication in the Mexican lowlands, pushing the dates back to at least 8,700 years ago.

Image of excavators working in Coxcatlan Cave, Tehuacan Valley, Mexico, 1960s.
MacNeish’s 1960s excavations at Coxcatlan Cave, Tehuacán Valley, Mexico.

MacNeish’s collections, preserved since the 1960s at Phillips Academy’s tiny Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, have continued to attract the interests of scientists. A November 21, 2016 article in the journal Current Biology reconstructs for the first time ever the complete genome of an early domesticated plant, based on a tiny, 5,310 year old cob from MacNeish’s Tehuacán project (Catalog number 90.184.36). The specimen was removed from an old exhibit case several years ago and loaned to the Smithsonian Institution’s Bruce Smith, a co-author of the new study. Statistical analyses of the DNA data indicate that the study specimen, dubbed Tehuacan162, is “a step that links modern maize with its wild ancestor.” Of particular interest were genetic markers for domestication—some of which were already exhibited in this early specimen—while others were not. This challenges previous models for corn domestication that focus on two major steps, countering that the history of domestication is more gradual and complex than currently believed. In conclusion, the study finds that Tehuacan162 is an ancient form of maize that is closely related to the ancestor of all modern maize, yet distinct from teosinte, a wild grass that is the closest living relative to maize.

Today the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology provides educational programming to the high school students of Phillips Academy, ranging from classes to work behind-the-scenes with our significant collections. Researchers also are encouraged to use the Museum’s holdings and often share their results with students.

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.

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.

Ancient fossils meet modern technology in Human Origins

In Human Origins—the Phillips Academy interdisciplinary science course being taught this fall by Peabody Museum director Ryan Wheeler—our once-a-week extended period gives us an opportunity to do some hands-on work with ancient tools or fossil human casts. During our extended period on Wednesday, September 21 we visited The Nest, the campus makerspace at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. There we worked with Claudia Wessner, makerspace coordinator, who was helping us 3D print a model of the world’s newest fossil hominin, Homo naledi.

Image of Claudia Wessner with Phillips Academy students looking at a 3D image of Homo naledi's skull on the computer.
Claudia Wessner (right) shares the 3D model of Homo naledi with students in Human Origins.

In 2013 cave explorers alerted scientists to the presence of fossils in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. Within two years an international team led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger had recovered the remains of at least fifteen individuals represented by over 1,500 specimens. In September 2015 Berger and his associates published their preliminary findings in the online, open source journal eLife, dubbing the new fossil Homo naledi. Naledi means “star” in the Sotho language. The fossil hominin has features that are similar to the ape-like Australopithecines and early members of our genus, Homo. Even more exciting for students and scholars is the availability of 3D files for 108 of the fossils, available on Morphosource. Despite the availability of this data, Homo naledi remains a bit of a mystery. For example, the fossils remain undated, though the excavators suggest they may date between 1 and 2 million years ago. This would make them contemporaries of early members of our genus, like Homo habilis (2.4 to 1.4 M years ago), as well as Homo erectus (1.89 M to 143,000 years ago). Dates will help show if Homo naledi is a potential ancestor of ours or another branch on the already bushy human family tree.

Image from Morphosource website with 3D data on Homo naledi's proximal femur.
Screen capture of the Morphosource website with the 3D data on Homo naledi. Both scans and photographs of a right proximal femur are shown here.

For our 3D print we selected the proximal end of a femur. Berger and his associates report in their eLife article that Homo naledi’s femur is unique. The femoral neck—the part connecting the ball-like head of the bone with the shaft—possess two pillars that define a sulcus, or shallow groove. The origins and functions of these features remain unclear. This was, however, an opportunity to continue our ongoing conversation about the femur and its relationship to bipedalism in modern humans and our fossil ancestors. Claudia had wisely made several prints, including one life sized and one larger than life; another print was ongoing while we visited. We compared these 3D prints to several models and casts from the Peabody Museum, including the femur of modern humans, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and robust and gracile Australopithecines.  It was clear that Homo naledi did indeed combine ancient and more modern features. For example, the hands and feet of Homo naledi are very human-like, while the trunk and crania are more like those of Australopithecines. We saw this when comparing the 3D print with the femurs of Homo erectus and Australopithecines.

Image of modern human and fossil hominin femurs
Femurs, from top to bottom: Homo erectus, life size and enlarged 3D print of Homo naledi, Paranthropus (two proximal fragments), Homo sapiens sapiens (two complete specimens).

Students were quite engaged with this lesson and there was considerable interest in printing other Homo naledi fossils. Claudia demonstrated the technology involved in creating 3D scans, manipulating the files with 3D software, and generating the print. The models produced of the femur took from 5 to 9 hours. We looked at the 3D files of the reconstructed skull and marveled at the software estimates of 60 hours to create a life sized 3D print. A number of the students were already quite familiar with the makerspace and the 3D technology and shared their own experiences with 3D scanning and printing.

Animated gif of a Neanderthal skull from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France.
An animated gif of Marcellin Boule’s 1911 stereo card of the Neanderthal crania from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, from Lydia Pyne’s blog post on The Public Domain Review.

We learned at the end of September that this was not the first time 3D data for a fossil human had been publicly shared. In his 1911 publication on the Neanderthal skeleton excavated at the French site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, Marcellin Boule included stereo views of the skull that could be viewed with a stereoscope. Lydia Pyne—in her terrific 2016 book Seven Skulls: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils—talks about Boule’s work and the stereo views (also see her blog post that highlights free, online versions of Boule’s publication and animated gifs of the skull). Unfortunately, it is difficult (or down right impossible) and expensive to obtain plaster casts or models of most human fossils. Hopefully the sharing of the Homo naledi 3D data will continue with future discoveries and with older fossils that exist in museum collections.

Conversations about the 3D print of the Homo naledi femur continued in classes well after the visit to the makerspace as we talked about the origins of bipedalism, its great antiquity to at least 6 or 7 million years ago and the fossil hominin Sahelanthropus tchadensis, and the multiplicity of ideas about the adaptive advantages and disadvantages of bipedalism in hominins (there are at least 13!).