All posts by Samantha Hixson

History of the Peabody Through a Diorama Lens

This blog represents the tenth 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 of the Peabody 25 tag!

Contributed by Samantha Hixson

 

Phillips Academy has had quite a love affair with Stuart Travis. You can see his work all over the campus; At the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, Paresky Commons, the wrought iron gate at the entrance to the Moncrieff Cochran Bird Sanctuary or, more importantly to this discussion, the Peabody. Most people are familiar with Travis’ great mural which flanks the stairwell in our main entrance, but many who come into the building are not aware that one of our two large dioramas was also made by the artist. Pecos Diorama_GTalbotPhoto-L

The Pecos diorama was commissioned by the Peabody to commemorate Alfred Kidder’s famous excavation in New Mexico and to illustrate stratigraphy, a dating technique he used on a large scale, that would form the bedrock of archaeological research. Douglas Byers, the Director at the time, mentioned the diorama in his 1940 annual report, stating,

“in the week before commencement our Southwestern Hall was opened to the public for the first time. This was subsequently closed because Mr. Travis’ model of Pecos was moved upstairs from the basement and remained uncompleted for several months during which time Mr. Travis was taken from this work to assist in the revision of the biology notebook and other projects. It is a pleasure to report that his work is now finished and the model is enclosed by a case designed and built by the School Carpenter Shop” (p4).

Not only does this passage give insight as to just how involved Travis was with the school as a whole, it also touches upon the history of the Peabody itself.

The Peabody has a history of change and evolution. In its 116-years it has gone through four different iterations of its name and the diorama has been around to see all but one through. At the time of the diorama’s creation the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology, as it was known at the time, functioned as a traditional “items on display” type facility. The building was filled to the brim with glass exhibit cases full of objects from the collection, often related to research projects conducted by the Peabody staff.

Indeed, up until the Peabody’s recent past it was an exhibit centered museum, but as our director Ryan Wheeler posted we at the Peabody have entered a new phase in our story and are now the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, and the diorama is still right by our side.

 

Bushels of Baskets

Though the Peabody is small by museum standards we are mighty, especially when it comes to our baskets.  With close to 400 baskets, the Peabody collection covers all major geographical regions and tribal communities of North America, and spans over 200 years.  Baskets from notable artists like Molly Neptune Parker (Maine) and Clara Darden (Louisiana) help to support and curate these artists’ work, and are examples of continued and evolving traditions within Native communities.

One of my first large projects at the Peabody was to completely catalog, inventory, and rehouse this great collection.  The purpose of this was twofold:

First, it was important to consolidate our records regarding these baskets.  Museums are full of information, and it’s usually in five different places! By gathering what we know, and putting it all in one place, we not only gain better control over this knowledge, but we make it more accessible to museum staff, researchers, and students.  The convenience of this newfound accessibility encourages more use in the classroom and more research by professionals, giving these baskets the attention they deserve.

Secondly, by revamping the basket organization and rehousing, we are better able to care for these objects and their specific needs.  Although baskets aren’t usually as fragile as most people fear, they still require some TLC.  By creating storage mounts that are custom designed to each basket, we are able to provide more support to the object, especially when it is being moved and shifted around during handling.  Within our ethnographic storage, space is at a premium, so another byproduct of the rehousing was the space it opened up.  We were able to clear seven shelves!

basket elf
Basket Elf in natural habitat

Happy baskets, happy collection staff.

 

To see previous work done with the baskets by Catherine Hunter, check out these previous blogs!

Language of Baskets

Baskets Explored

Body Modification Adventures in the Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tune in for our next installment of Peabody 25!

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

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

Girl Power! in the Archaeological Record

Contributed by Samantha Hixson

Follow these links to read some awesome stories of how women are helping unlock the secrets of the archaeological record.

Elite ‘Dynasty’ at Chaco Canyon Got It’s Power From One Woman, DNA Shows

Once again DNA analysis of sites is opening up our understanding of how societies operated historically.  By testing bone samples from Room 33 in Pueblo Bonito of Chaco Canyon, scientists were able to shed more light on the inner workings of power, class, wealth and status of ancestral Puebloans, and the major role women played within these.

New Discoveries from Cahokia’s ‘Beaded Burial’ May Rewrite Story of Ancient American City

Mound 72 of the Cahokia culture complex, when originally excavated in 1967, was thought to be a shining example of a burial of elite male warriors.  Fast forward almost 50 years and imagine archaeologist’s surprise when one third of the skeletons found were in fact female!  These findings call into question the idea that Cahokia was a male warrior-led patriarchy.

Grave of Disabled Young Woman Reveals Touching Tale of Care in Prehistoric Arizona

The excavation of young Hohokam woman’s grave is an example of what the excavators and author call the “Bioarchaeology of care.”  The young woman, who lived about 800 years ago had scoliosis, rickets, and tuberculosis. Through looking at this site, archaeologists are able learn more about the community in which the girl lived, and how they supported and cared for her, giving a decidedly human lens to a science that can sometimes become disconnected.

Indiana Jones looks at golden idol.

This Week in Links

Contributed by Samantha Hixson

 

This week it seemed there were a lot of great links discussing new and exciting things happening within the world of archaeology.  Here are just a few that we found:

Ancient DNA reveals genetic legacy of pandemics in the Americas

This article talks about the role of diseases in shaping the genetic diversity of contemporary Native American communities.  Historically these effects were documented by written accounts with little to no physical evidence since most European introduced diseases leave no evidence on bone.  Recent breakthroughs in DNA markers, however, have been able to physically prove the evolutionary effects of these pandemics.

Archaeologists discover man whose tongue was replaced by a stone

This article is a great example of how archaeologists are able to create and test hypothesis when attempting to solve puzzles encountered while excavating.

Teeth of Irish famine victims reveal scientific markers for starvation

An interesting article that not only highlights the use of modern science in investigating historic traumas, but a great example of how important cultural context is both historically and in a contemporary lens.

Cask from the past: archaeologists discover 5,000-year-old beer recipe

Not only is this a super cool article talking about the first example of in situ beer making in China, but also a great example of how archaeologists are able to extrapolate larger and further reaching conclusions from a small snap shot of the past.