Combing Through The Phillipian: End of an Era

Contributed by Adam Way

In the June 17, 1938 issue of The Phillipian, it was announced that Dr. Warren King Moorehead would be leaving his post as Director of the Department of Archaeology. This brought about the end of a long and prosperous career that saw Moorehead become an integral part of the Phillips Andover community and a major contributor to the field of archaeology as a whole.

Portrait of Warren K. Moorehead, 1898

Moorehead began his career in the 1880s when he studied at Denison University before becoming an assistant at the Smithsonian Institution and later the curator of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society (now the Ohio History Connection). He joined the Department of Archaeology at Phillips Andover at its inception in 1901 and was appointed as the first curator. In fact, he worked closely with Robert S. Peabody, the Department’s founder, to develop the idea of such an institution. During his time as part of the Department, Moorehead received a Master of Arts from Dartmouth and was made a Doctor of Science in 1927 by Oglethorpe University and again in 1930 by Denison University. He became the director of the Department after Dr. Charles Peabody stepped down in 1924.

            The article that announces Dr. Moorehead’s retirement is not particularly long but does highlight some of the important aspects of his career. The article spends a majority of its content on his education and on his path to becoming the director. The article does include some of his other accomplishments, such as a partial list of publications, and a mention about his work with the US Board of Indian Commissioners. The article concludes by saying that his position within the archaeology community is undisputed and that he will be travelling to Europe with his wife for the summer.

Warren K. Moorehead (far left) with an excavation group

Personally I was surprised with how Moorehead’s departure was presented in The Phillipian, particularly the brevity in which they describe his career. In the numerous issues of The Phillipian throughout the years that I have researched, it became clear just how much Moorehead fought for the rights of Native Americans and how he fought to bring the injustices committed against them to light. This was a frequently recurring topic for Moorehead and yet receives one sentence in his retirement article. This also occurs with his numerous archaeological discoveries from across the country. A significant aspect of Moorehead’s career was his participation in and leadership of numerous excavations and expeditions over the years and, unfortunately, that aspect receives little attention in this article, such as his work throughout New England, the Midwest, and Southeast. Although his methods do not meet today’s standards, Moorehead made multiple important contributions to the field that went unmentioned in his retirement article.

            I think that the reason I was so surprised was that the reception that Moorehead received in this article differs from most of his other appearances in The Phillipian. Many of the articles that featured Moorehead over the years went into a fair amount of detail. Whether it was discussing a lecture or one of his expeditions, the reader was usually given more information. Moorehead was seemingly respected and well liked by the students, as evidenced in numerous articles praising his lectures, yet the announcement of his retirement is rather straightforward and relatively unemotional. One possible reason for this could be declining student interest in the Department over the few years prior to his retirement and his habit of giving very similar lectures every year. Moorehead’s sendoff did not mirror his depiction in previous issues of The Phillipian.

            Warren King Moorehead was a staple of the Department of Archaeology from its inception in 1901 until his retirement in 1938 having served as both the curator and then as the director. He retired at the age of 72 and spent his brief retirement with his family before passing in January of 1939.

Check out the following Peabody blogs for more information and history about Warren K. Moorehead.

Warren K. Moorehead and the Peabody Institute

The ‘Horned Giants’ of Pennsylvania

“…and his spirit still lives”

Behind the Photograph – W.K. Moorehead and the Fort Ancient Excavation

 Archaeology in the Classroom at a New England Prep School

The Art of Collecting

The Ponca, Presidents, Politics, and Partial Answers

Behind the Photograph: Traveler in Tweed

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

Pipe in mouth and axe in hand, a man in a tweed suit stands in front of a 1940s Dodge “Woody” station wagon brimming with suitcases and archaeological gear. The crates on the ground by his feet are labeled, “F. JOHNSON, PEABODY FNDN, ANDOVER, MASS.” Who is this man and where could he be traveling to?

The year is 1948 and this traveler in tweed is Frederick Johnson, curator of the Peabody (known as the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology at the time) from 1936-1968.

Fred Johnson with expedition gear in front of the Peabody, 1948.

Frederick Johnson (1904-1994) joined the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology as Curator in 1936. He held this position until 1968, serving one year as Director before retiring in 1969. During his time at the Peabody, Johnson initiated an archaeological excavation program for students at Phillips Academy. He also organized the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains (1945-1968) and chaired the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Radioactive Carbon 14 (1948-1968.)

Johnson is recognized for contributing to the development of an interdisciplinary approach to archaeology, using scientists from various fields to study archaeological problems together. The Boylston Street Fish Weir project (1939) in Boston, MA as well as the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition (1944 and 1948) were two examples of this method.

The image of Fred Johnson above was taken before his trip to the Yukon Territory for the last year of the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition. This five-month field project combined archaeological and geobotanical research in the unknown northwestern interior of North America and was carried out jointly by the Peabody and Harvard University (funded by additional sources, including the Wenner-Gren Foundation.)

The journey began from North Dakota to Burwash Landing, Yukon with research in parts of the Shakwak and Dezadeash Valleys in southwestern Yukon. The project leaders were Fred Johnson and Professor Hugh Raup, botanist and Director of the Harvard Forest in Harvard, MA. Two Harvard graduate students served as assistants in the botanical and archaeological research, Bill Drury and Dr. Elmer Harp, Jr.

Harp was a recent Harvard graduate and Curator of Anthropology for the Dartmouth College Museum in Hanover, NH. He documented the trip through field notes and his own photographs. Below is one of Harp’s photographs taken at the beginning of their trip. Do you notice anything similar between these two images? That is the same station wagon in each photograph and yes, that is Fred Johnson with his pipe again! Harp and Drury were tasked with driving the expedition’s station wagon from Boston to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory – standard labor assigned to graduate students in the field.

Bill Drury, Fred Johnson, and Elmer Harp at the start of the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition, May 4, 1948. Photograph by Dr. Elmer Harp, Jr., Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH.

According to Harp’s recordings from the expedition, Johnson and Raup conducted several projects in the early years of the Yukon project (1943-1944) exploring for evidence of the first appearance of humans in the New World. The 1948 project was to search for archaeological sites along the eastern borders of the Rocky Mountains via the Alcan Highway. This was the first time the highway was opened to civilian traffic since the beginning of WWII. The Andover-Harvard expeditions went on to represent the first systematic explorations of Yukon’s prehistoric past.

Further Readings and Resources

For more information on the Yukon project, see its publication: Investigations in Southwest Yukon, by Fred Johnson, Hugh Raup, and Richard MacNeish, 1964

Explore Elmer Harp, Jr.’s field notes on the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition: North to the Yukon Territory via the Alcan Highway in 1948: Field Notes of The Andover-Harvard Expedition.

For more information on the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition photographs by Fred Johnson check out our blog: Cataloging photographs in our database, and the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition photographs

The Shadow of Scotty MacNeish

Contributed by Marla Taylor

This month marks the 103rd birthday of Richard “Scotty” MacNeish (1918-2001) – past Director of the Peabody Institute, unconfirmed winner of the 1938 Golden Glove award (a regional amateur boxing title), member of the National Academy of Sciences, and all-around remarkable 20th century archaeologist.  When starting to pull this post together, I found this quote describing MacNeish and could not resist including it here:

A strange, bifurcated goatee decorates his chin, and there is a shimmering reddishness about his hair and face. He has spent, literally, more than 20 years in the field — longer than any other archaeologist. He has published more than 400 books and articles. Despite two heart bypass operations, he retains the pounding mental metabolism of a furious shrew. (“Bones to Pick Archaeology” by Richard O’Mara in the Baltimore Sun, May 16, 1996)

Ok, in my first draft of this blog, I listed information about MacNeish’s professional positions and tried to summarize his career.  That turned into something far too long and meandering to share.  So, instead, I will point you to the wonderful short biography from the Peabody Institute archival catalog records and the much more in-depth biographical memoir from the National Academy of Sciences.  I will use this space to highlight his impact at the Peabody Institute and my daily work.

Throughout his career, MacNeish sought the intertwined origins of agriculture and civilization.  He excavated in North America, Peru, Mexico (Tamaulipas, Tehuacán, Coxcatlan, and Palo Blanco), Belize, and China while searching for the early domestication of corn and rice.  Because of this particular interest, the Peabody Institute is home to a number of plant remains and botanical specimens.  Some of these tiny early maize cobs are an important part of a much larger story on the origin of modern corn.  I have a love/hate relationship with these specimen.  They are so fascinating but also so delicate – I want to share them, but decades of storage without climate control have left them brittle.  Gentle handling is required for sure!

MacNeish was also particularly interested in excavating sites that would push back the archaeological framework for understanding when people arrived in the New World.  I think it appealed to his pugnacious disposition to tell everyone else that they were wrong.  His work is proving relevant as Indigenous scholars push to rewrite the archaeological understanding of the Americas.  I love this aspect of MacNeish’s work and hope that more people will come to utilize these collections.

MacNeish kept EVERYTHING from his research and excavations – a double-edged sword for collections management.  This applies less to the object collections (MacNeish was not always allowed to retain the artifacts he excavated in foreign countries) but very much applies to his archivesHis archives include everything from thank you cards to financial records to drafts of publications to excavation images.  With over 100 boxes of archival material, I am confident that I can find the documentation that anyone is looking for – but I am regularly daunted by volume of material.

If all of that wasn’t enough, MacNeish continues to influence how the Peabody Institute’s collection grows.  We recently received archival gifts from his associates Jane Libby and Dr. James Neely documenting their work with MacNeish and beyond.  Once these collections are processed, I will be happy to share the relevant finding aids. Well, I haven’t even mentioned MacNeish’s reputation as a passionately supportive teacher – or what his archives reveal about his feelings toward those who disagreed with him – or his reputation as a flirt.  Alas, we must draw a line somewhere in this conversation.  Clearly there is so much to say about Scotty MacNeish!   I wish I had been fortunate enough to meet him before he passed, but I am fortunate enough to work in his shadow at the Peabody.

dIPPIN’ iN: Quick Conversations with Archaeologists

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Given how wildly successful our Diggin’ In: Digital Lecture series has been, we wanted to expand how our audiences can interact with archaeologists from around the country. 

Our new project – dIPPIN’ IN: Quick Conversations with Archaeologists – highlights the variety of jobs and experiences archaeologists can have by asking each person the same five questions:

  • Describe what kind of archaeology you focus on.
  • How did you get into archaeology?
  • Why should we care about archaeology and history?
  • What is the most exciting thing you ever found?
  • Anything else people should know about archaeology?

It is fascinating to learn about each archaeologist’s career path and what initially hooked them. And, while some answers have been remarkedly similar many are wildly different!

If you want a glimpse into the exciting field of archaeology through the personal lens of an archaeologist, this series is for you.

As we continue to add to the series, you can find the videos here.

And, if you are an archaeologist who wants to participate or if there is someone you want us to interview – let us know!

Warren K. Moorehead and the Peabody Institute

Contributed by Marla Taylor

When thinking about the collections held by the Peabody Institute, I often also think of Warren K. Moorehead.  Regular readers of the blog (I know there are a few of you out there!) are certainly familiar with his name and how tightly he is intertwined with the Peabody.  To recognize Moorehead’s 155th birthday this week, I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of his story. 

Warren King Moorehead, 1898

Warren King Moorehead (1866-1939) grew up in Ohio, where he cultivated a lifelong interest in archaeology and Native Americans.  In his early career, he worked as a correspondent for The Illustrated American and served as the first curator of archaeology for the Ohio Archaeological Society (now the Ohio History Connection).  In 1896, he began what would become a personal friendship with Robert S. Peabody, providing him with several Indigenous artifact collections.  When Mr. Peabody chose to donate his collection to Phillips Academy in 1901, he appointed Moorehead as the first curator of the Department of Archaeology.  Moorehead served in that capacity until 1924 when he then assumed the directorship.  He finally retired in 1938, only a year before his passing.

Throughout his career, Moorehead was a prolific writer, excavator, and collector.  His large-scale archaeological surveys and excavations included the Arkansas River Valley, northwest Georgia, the Southwest, and coastal and interior Maine.  His work directly contributed to expanding the Peabody’s collection by approximately 200,000 objects. 

Moorehead and crew doing a survey along the Merrimack River

However, it must be acknowledged that Moorehead’s field and collection techniques are quite shocking by modern archaeological and museum standards.  Early in his career, particularly in Ohio and Georgia, Moorehead would use horse drawn plows to cut into carefully constructed mounds.  Often, his work was destructive yet superficial – he would level or bisect the mounds and collect what was of interest to him with relatively little note taking. 

Moorehead was also a dealer – he regularly facilitated trades between institutions and with private collectors to fund his own work or to “remove duplicates.”  Definitely something that would never be done now.  And, it created lots of headaches.

Paradoxically, Moorehead simultaneously served on the federal Board of Indian Commissioners from 1908-1933.  His work there focused on injustices committed against contemporary Native Americans.  He was present at Wounded Knee shortly before the infamous massacre there on December 29, 1890.  He took testimony to investigate the bribery and redirection of funds in the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.  Moorehead wrote The American Indian in the United States, Period 1850-1914 to share his thoughts on the work of the Board of Indian Commissioners and expose the abuses of power that he saw. 

Source: Ohiohistory.org

It is perplexing to me that Moorehead was able to see the injustices done to contemporary tribes, but continue to be seemingly unaware that the material that he avidly collected and traded was connected to those same people.  I firmly believe that Moorehead is an excellent candidate for a riveting biography.  Anyone out there have the time to write it??

Rehousing a vessel with salt damage

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

In January, the HVAC system in one of our collection storage areas malfunctioned. Repair work required that the system was turned off for several days. During this time, we monitored the objects for any changes. One vessel caught our eye.

Thanks to Marla’s experience with the collection, she noticed that previously documented spalling due to salt efflorescence was likely developing further (see figure). A quick look at older photographs confirmed that the damage had indeed progressed. The vessel was stored on open shelving and an inspection of the area around the object determined that no fragments had fallen completely off. We decided to rehouse the vessel in a box to buffer it against changes in environment during the current or future failure of the HVAC system.

Figure 1. Rehoused vessel in open box

Since I’ve encountered salt efflorescence a few times, I thought I’d add a bit more information. Porous materials, like bone, ceramic and stone, can absorb salt from various sources. Once inside, salts can be dissolved by moisture in the air through a process called deliquescence. Eventually, the water evaporates and the salt recrystallizes. In very porous objects, the salt crystals form on the surface. In objects where the surface is less porous than the underlying body, recrystallized salt can generate massive forces than can spall or pit the surface (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 page 1). In worst case scenarios objects can disintegrate.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, salts can enter porous objects through groundwater or seawater in buried or submerged contexts (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 page 1). They are a major source of salt in archaeological collections such as ours. In the case of ceramics, food and water stored in objects during their pre-burial use life can also leave salt residues (Source: Minnesota Historical Society Page 2). Salts can be introduced to ceramics during manufacture through additives that modify the clay body and through water (Source: Minnesota Historical Society Page 2, Source: Digital Fire). Even clay itself can be salty. When I lived in Arizona, I can remember hearing a potter discuss that they would check their clay by tasting it to make sure it wasn’t too salty.

After ceramic objects are recovered during excavation, salts can continue to be added in archaeological labs and museums. Hydrochloric acid has been used to remove calcium carbonate, an insoluble salt that adheres to ceramics during burial that impedes analysis. An unintended result of this process creates calcium chloride, a soluble salt, which is absorbed into the ceramic matrix (Source: The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works- Studies in Conservation Page 172, Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 Page 2). I would be highly doubtful of repairs that were done years ago. Without detailed treatment records, who knows what glues were used and what contaminants they might introduce.

Figure 2. Spalling due to efflorescence

Deliquescence and evaporation of soluble salts can be greatly diminished by keeping the storage environment below 60% relative humidity and by reducing humidity and temperature fluctuations (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 05/06 Page 3). However, there is a continued danger of efflorescence. Display cases and storage shelving made from wood have the potential to release acetic acids. This volatile organic compound has the potential to interact with soluble salts leading to precipitation even in controlled storage environments (Source: ICOM Committee for Conservation Page 640).

There may not be quick or inexpensive solutions to mitigate efflorescence. Our current plans for renovation of Peabody collections spaces call for the replacement of wood drawers and cabinets, but this is expensive. In regards to removing salt from objects, the traditional method is through a desalination wash or soak, wherein the object is immersed in distilled or deionized water until the salt level is reduced. This is a complicated process and shouldn’t be done without involving a conservator. Desalination risks removing important residues and compounds that can reduce the usefulness of the objects for future analysis and weaken the object (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 05/06 Page 3).

Here at the Peabody we’ve taken steps to remove salt through dry brushing, environmental controls, and monitoring. In the future, we have plans to improve our storage space so that these issues will no longer be a concern.

No Vikings at the Peabody

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology is not known for its Viking collections, or are we?

Vikings shopping in York. Bryan Ledgard, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One object, donated to the Institute by Dr. C.A. Kershaw in the early twentieth century, is repeatedly cited as evidence for Viking visitors to Massachusetts long before the days of the Pilgrims.

The object in question is a copper dagger or knife and is pictured in Frederick Pohl’s 1961 book Atlantic Crossings before Columbus. Barry Fell also discussed the piece in his popular 1976 book America BC: Ancient Settlers in the New World. Both authors contributed extensively to the literature on connections between Europe and the Americas, often featuring Vikings; mainstream archaeology has dubbed Pohl, Fell, and allied writers as pseudoscientists who offer provocative theories, but little concrete or testable evidence.

Copper dagger or knife blade from Merrimacport, Massachusetts in the collection of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, catalog # 90.5.1.

Regarding the dagger, here is what Pohl has to say:

Arthur Petzold (of Andover, MA) recently called my attention to a heavily-patinated copper “spearhead or knife” found many years ago by Dr. C.A. Kershaw of Merrimacport, Massachusetts, on Indian Flat near his home. A drawing of it showing two large and two small rivet holes for hafting was published by Warren King Moorehead in 1931. Benjamin L. Smith, who wrote “Supplementary Notes” to the Moorehead volume, says he has always been “troubled” by the copper artifact because its unusual form suggests it may not be Indian. Dr. Gad Rausing of Lund, Sweden, thinks that the general outline and size agree quite closely with the very early Bronze Age daggers of Northern Europe—but he has never seen one with two big and two small rivet holes arranged in such a manner, and so he says he “cannot claim to recognize it at all.” It may be, as he suggests, that the four rivet holes were not made at the same time, but that the small ones were added when one of the large ones got broken. A distinguished archaeologist, a specialist in European pre-history, has written me that the copper object is doubtless a dagger and, he believes, a very old one, from the mid-European early Bronze Age, presumably about 1300 B.C. But, he says, “How could it have found its way to Massachusetts, I wonder. Perhaps brought by some collector, and lost. Who can tell?” On the other hand, Dr. William Ritchie, New York State Archaeologist, assures me that prehistoric Indians of the Upper Great Lakes area riveted some of their spear points to the shaft, and so he says of the Merrimacport specimen that it may or may not be prehistoric. Spectrum analysis should determine its place of origin; for North American Indian copper is quite pure, having only slight traces of silver and iron, while European smelted copper contains antimony, bismuth, lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, Sulphur, gold, silver, arsenic and oxygen. In view of the possibility that the Merrimacport artifact may be early European, it is interesting that it was found only thirteen miles from North Salem and near the river used by boats approaching the North Salem site. [Pohl 1961:15-16]

Pohl’s argument is characteristic of many pseudoscientific claims—two competing ideas about an artifact or site are presented as equivalent—in this case, the Merrimacport artifact is offered as potentially Native American and potentially Bronze Age. The Native American origin of the dagger, however, is much more likely, especially as archaeologists like Ritchie noted similarities to copper artifacts from the Great Lakes. The North Salem site that Pohl mentions is now known as America’s Stonehenge and is located in North Salem, New Hampshire.

Barry Fell, building on Pohl’s arguments, illustrates a photograph of the Merrimacport artifact and cites ongoing research (mid-1970s) by James Whittall. Fell says that museums housing these copper artifacts, which he identifies as Celtic, believed they were from the European Bronze Age, but that they had been recently lost (see Fell 1976:127-128). Interestingly, James P. Whittall Jr., who wrote about the copper object in the December 1970 issue of the New England Antiquities Research Association newsletter, compares the piece to a Bronze Age dagger from Spain—a comparison that is echoed by Fell. And, despite that comparison, Whittall remains undecided about the origins and significance of the artifact, saying, “The dagger does not prove cultural contact between Western Europe and New England in the late Bronze Period, but the fact remains that the dagger was found here. This should be kept on record. When and if more evidence is recovered in this area, this singular artifact becomes more important. For the present it rests in a cultural void.” Writing a few years later, Whittall (1975:4) is more decisive, stating that “copper celts in Vermont and rivet copper daggers in Massachusetts are typical examples of middle bronze age European artifacts.”

Moorehead (1931:13), as noted by Pohl, includes an illustration in his Merrimack Archaeological Survey, though does not comment on the artifact other than to describe it as a “copper spearhead or knife,” while Charles S. Willoughby (1936:114-115) includes the piece with other Native American copper objects in his Antiquities of the New England Indians, saying:

The unique specimen figured in g [referring to Figure 59g], is from an old site on the bank of the Merrimack, at Merrimackport, Massachusetts. It is probably a knife, and was lashed to its handle through two perforations near its base, one of which has been torn out. In repairing this damage two more perforations were made just above the others. This is now in the Andover Museum. In all of the above [copper] specimens one side is flat. On the opposite side the blade is beveled from a central strengthening ridge to either edge.

Copper objects from Wisconsin in the collection of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

So, you might ask, “what’s the harm in all this?” We do know that the Norse settled in Greenland, at least for a while, and that one Norse site has been confirmed in Labrador, so it’s not impossible that other sites or objects could be found. Ken Feder (2020:131), in his great book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, notes that “a growing number of native sites in Arctic Canada show evidence of widespread, occasional, but sometimes intimate contact for centuries between local people and Norse visitors.” Every year in my fall Human Origins course, we discuss the distinction between science and pseudoscience. We learn that science relies on falsifiability, where proving a hypothesis true is less important than the ability to prove it false. Possibilities and probabilities often fail to meet the falsifiability test—could Vikings have been in Massachusetts and neighboring states? Yes, but those possibilities must be subject to testing. Also, there’s a darker side to these Viking stories, which negate the long land tenure, accomplishments, and technology of Native Americans. As archaeologist William Ritchie reported to Frederick Pohl in the 1960s, Native Americans worked Great Lakes copper into an array of tools and ornaments thousands of years ago, and these objects were transported by travelers and through exchange networks. Before conjuring Celts, Vikings, Irish monks, or other trans-Atlantic European travelers, Native Americans are much more likely to have fashioned artifacts like the Merrimacport dagger.

References Cited

Feder, Kenneth L. 2020. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fell, Barry. 1976. American B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World. New York: Pocket Books.

Moorehead, Warren K. 1931. The Merrimack Archaeological Survey: A Preliminary Paper. Salem, MA: Peabody Museum.

Pohl, Frederick J. 1961. Atlantic Crossings Before Columbus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Whittall, James P. Jr. 1970. An Unique Dagger. New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA) Newsletter 5(4, Issue #19):77.

___. 1975. Precolumbian Parallels between Mediterranean and New England Archaeology. Occasional Publications of the Epigraphic Society 3(52):1-5.

Willoughby, Charles C. 1935. Antiquities of the New England Indians, with Notes on the Ancient Cultures of the Adjacent Territory. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

C14 Dating the Collection

Contributed by Marla Taylor

You have probably heard of radio-carbon (C14) dating.  An invaluable tool for contextualizing the past, C14 dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by measuring stable and unstable (radioactive) isotopes of Carbon.  Developed by University of Chicago physical chemist Willard Libby in the 1940s, C14 dating was a game-changer for the field of archaeology. Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960.

Instead of relying solely on relative dating – the basic concept that an object found below another is older than one found closer to the surface – archaeologists gained the ability to specifically identify a year range for organic artifacts.  The Peabody Institute was a contributor to this work through past curator, Frederick Johnson, but that is a story for another blog.

This profile is an example of relative dating – more recent objects are closer to the surface while older material is deeper.

Lately, I have been working to facilitate C14 dating on bone artifacts from Pikimachay Cave in the Ayacucho Valley of Peru at the request of the 2019 Cordell Fellow, Juan Yataco.  Juan is revisiting work done in the Ayacucho Valley by Scotty MacNeish.  Back in the 1970s, MacNeish made some pretty bold assertions about the dates of human occupation in that region.  At the time, the C14 dates from animal bones supported his claims, but other archaeologists doubted whether those bones were associated with human occupation. 

While Juan’s specialty is stone tools, he also wanted to use improved technology to obtain an updated date for Pikimachay Cave.  Unfortunately, the first bone sent for testing failed to yield an appropriate collagen sample and could not be tested.  A second bone is on its way now.  Both bones were modified by humans and will provide a fascinating glimpse of the past.  Fingers are crossed for a better outcome this time around!

FBI Collection – Origin and Update

Contributed by Marla Taylor and John Bergman-McCool

Every museum is full of stories and story-tellers.  Our recent work in the inventory process has uncovered an old story that always gets my attention (Marla’s).  But, before I begin, I must give credit to Eugene Winter, the Peabody’s late Curator Emeritus, who was a story-teller extraordinaire – I am sharing a shortened version of his memories.  (Another time, I will tell you about the time Gene cooked his lunch in an active volcano or walked on a whale.  The man was full of stories!)

Gene Winter – the best story-teller I knew

In 1986, Gene welcomed a man named George McLaughlin into the Peabody.  McLaughlin claimed to be creating a handbook on archaeology for the local Boy Scouts and was looking to photograph objects in the Peabody’s collection.  As a teacher himself, Gene was happy to encourage this project and made arrangements for McLaughlin to return a couple weeks later to access the collection.

However, McLaughlin instead returned the next day and told the administrative assistant, Betty Steinert, that Gene had authorized him to examine the collection – alone.  Over the next three days, McLaughlin helped himself to an unknown number of objects from the collection.

Less than a week later, Gene received a call from security at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.  A man matching McLaughlin’s description had stolen artifacts from a grad student’s work area and ran out of the museum before he could be caught.  Because McLaughlin had now crossed state lines, the FBI became involved. 

Gene and Betty remembered that McLaughlin had used the Peabody’s phone to call his wife about being late for dinner.  This crucial piece of information allowed the FBI to locate McLaughlin’s home. Fortunately, McLaughlin was arrested soon after these incidents and all materials in his possession were seized. 

Eagle-Tribune article from 1986 recounts George McLaughlin’s theft of artifacts from the Peabody Museum.

In total, McLaughlin victimized six institutions in New England and stole thousands of artifacts valued at over $800,000 in 1986 ($1.9 million in 2020 dollars).  He intermingled the artifacts based on his own system and systematically removed their catalog numbers (often the best clue to their original home).  By so drastically removing the objects from their context, it was a challenge to return the objects to their appropriate homes.

McLaughlin had kept his own version of a ledger identifying the objects and where they came from.  And fortunately, Gene was able to recognize a dozen or so very specific objects from the Peabody’s collection.  The FBI left it up to the victimized institutions to divide the material in McLaughlin’s collection.  The Peabody ended up with nearly 1600 objects from McLaughlin. 

Ultimately, McLaughlin was sentenced to a three year suspended sentence and four years of probation.  He was also fined $10,000 and ordered to pay a small restitution to each institution.

And therein lays the origin of the Peabody’s FBI collection.

Having come across these materials during our inventory and rehousing project it was time for them to be cataloged by myself (John). One challenge confronted us: McLaughlin had removed any identifying numbers applied by the museums and applied stickers with his own numbers. As the objects were cataloged, a careful inspection was made for remnants of original numbers not completely obliterated during the removal process. There were many with tantalizing hints of legible numbers. In the end though, there were just a few objects with numbers clear enough to associate with our museum’s ledger.

A page of McLaughlin’s inventory

The remaining majority of objects needed new numbers. As mentioned above, McLaughlin had organized the objects and transcribed them into a ledger of sorts. His ledger was too general to make a one-to-one comparison with our own museum’s ledger, but it served as the outline of our numbering system. We added our own prefix, indicating that these objects were stolen and returned by the FBI and followed that with the McLaughlin number. In that way the objects will always carry that part of their strange history.

I (Marla again) do want to note that to our knowledge, McLaughlin is not responsible for the missing artifacts from Etowah and Little Egypt discussed in our blog in 2019.

Diggin’ In: Season 2

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

We are tremendously excited to announce the continuation of Diggin’ In: Digital Conversations with Archaeologist. Co-hosted by the Peabody Institute and the Massachusetts Archaeological Society the lecture series brings leading experts and their work directly to our viewers. All lectures are free and open to the public.

Building on the success of the inaugural season of Diggin’ In, which reached over 1000 individuals, Season 2 promises to continue to be especially robust. Outstanding scholars such as Dr. Whitney Battle-Baptist, Dr. Lindsay Montgomery, and Kimberly Smith will cover fascinating topics ranging from Black feminist archaeology, to Comanche rock art, to the artifact patterning of the Victorian practice of picnicking in cemeteries.

Join us on Wednesday January 27, 2021 for the launch of the new season with Joe Bagley, Boston City Archaeologist for his talk Privy to the Past: The History of (and in) Privies. All lectures begin at 1:30 pm. 

If you want to attend one or all of these lectures, please sign up at rspeabody@andover.edu to get on the ZOOM invitation list.

Each episode will be recorded and uploaded to YouTube afterwards.