Category Archives: Classes

Computer science, binary searches, and a card catalog

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

When you think of the binary search algorithm you immediately think an archaeology museum is the perfect place for students to get a hands on example. Right?

Well it certainly was not what students in Nick Zufelt’s Computer Science 500 class expected when they showed up at the museum. To many of the students who had been to the Peabody with their history or science class to look at objects, it was a bit perplexing how they could be combining archaeology with computer science.

What many do not know is that the Peabody has many other resources that PA faculty can tap into.  Mr. Zufelt discovered something that Peabody Museum still had that no other place on campus (not even the OWHL!) still had: our card catalog.

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The card catalog at the Peabody Museum

When Nick first came up with the idea to use our card catalog in an interactive lab activity for his students, we were ecstatic. We love when Peabody resources are utilized for learning in such out of the box ways.  The card catalog was a perfect hands on example for students to understand the binary search algorithm.

To those who are not familiar with this concept (and I was certainly one of them!) Nick began the class with this simple introduction:

When you look up a word in the dictionary, do you start at page 1, look for the word, then move onto page 2, etc.? No, of course not. You have a more sophisticated way of searching through the massive list of words. This activity hones in on the algorithm underlying this process: the binary search algorithm. The basic idea is: chop in half, go to the half that will have your item in it; repeat.

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Nick Zufelt, computer science faculty, explaining the project to the students

Each student was then given a page listing 23 different cards from our card catalog system and told to pick one of them. Then they had to find the card and write down the process of how they found it, but in a manner that a computer could follow.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “wow that seems like a pretty easy project….” WRONG!

While this activity may strike us as simple, it actually turned into a battle of the wills for many students as they struggled throughout the period to create a very simple process that was also accurate. And when some students had a friend try their process, they often found that what they had devised was incorrect (Arrrgggg!!! The FRUSTRATION!!!!)

This type of learning helps to make abstract concepts more accessible for students as they begin learning something that forces them to think in a completely new and different manner.

Mr. Zufelt has already talked about bringing future students back for the activity and we look forward to working with him and his students on this and other computer science adventures at the Peabody!

NOTE: Despite still having a card catalog, the Peabody library is completely cataloged in the system used by the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. Our librarian Mary Beth Clack is currently updating records to make monographic series more accessible.

Dipping into Trade Connections

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Recently the History and Social Sciences Department has implemented significant changes to their History 100 curriculum, required of all ninth graders. One of the new features of the curriculum is the inclusion of “dips” or week long periods where students can delve more deeply into a subject. This allows students to practice historical literacy skills in a more targeted manner, while also offering the opportunity for more hands-on and experiential learning.

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Students looking at a mock excavation site from Andover, MA to learn how to “read” objects as text.

That’s where the Peabody comes in.

Both the Education and Collections programs at the Peabody have teamed up with the History and Social Sciences faculty to offer a week long intensive investigation of trade networks in the Americas. The focus of the week is to learn how to read objects as primary sources and to look for patterns and similarities between cultures to learn about the connections between the groups. The cultures that students will be focusing on are the Hopewell, Pueblo, Maya, and Moche.

For an entire week each Winter and Spring terms the majority of ninth graders will descend upon the Peabody to work extensively with our collections from the four cultures. The objects will be set up in “stations” according to their cultural groups and working in teams, students will rotate through each station examining the object and collaboratively answering questions.

Afterward, the teams will get images of all the objects and will be asked to sort them – using any criteria they want – before sharing their decisions with the class. Looking at objects creatively in this manner has often helped archaeologists to make connections that they might have missed otherwise.

One example of a trade connection is our cylinder jar from Chaco Canyon, which shares its shape with cylinder jars produced by the Maya. Many of the Maya cylinder jars held drinks made from cacao, and so it was thought that perhaps chocolate residue might be found in the ones from Chaco Canyon. And it was!!!

We look forward to working with students and faculty on this amazing adventure! (Although you will probably find us drinking soda or other caffeinated beverages after as we recover from the onslaught of the entire Junior class.)

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.

Dia de los Muertos

November 1 is still a few weeks away but Dia de los Muertos—the Mexican Day of the Dead—came early to the Peabody.  On Thursday September 29 Dr. Marisela Ramos of the History and Social Sciences Department brought her History 200 class.  The class has been learning about different civilizations from around the world and the Peabody’s Dia de los Muertos lesson is a fun and interactive way for the students to learn about a holiday that is still celebrated today, but which has deep roots to a time before Europeans came to the Americas.

The holiday is celebrated in Mexico and is a mix of traditional native beliefs (primarily from the Maya and Aztec cultures) that were combined with European Catholic traditions. It is believed that between October 31 and November 2—coinciding with Catholicism’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day—that the souls of loved ones return. Many homes have alters with images of the deceased.  Marigolds are often placed on the alters, as the smell helps guide the souls home, and food is left out for the souls to eat after their long journey.

Tissue paper marigolds
Tissue paper marigolds

Our alter has images of notable people connected with the Peabody:

  • Robert Singlton Peabody – Our founder and PA class of 1857. His image is always in a place of honor.
  • Charles Peabody – Son of Robert and the first director of the Peabody Museum.
  • Warren Moorehead – Excavated many important archaeological sites and appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to the federal Board of Indian Commissioners.
  • Alfred Kidder – Considered the “Grandfather of American Archaeology” for his work at Pecos Pueblo.
  • Douglas Byers – Helped to professionalize the field of archaeology into a legitimate science.
  • Frederick Johnson – One of the first archaeologists to engage experts from other fields while investigating the Boylston Street Fishweir site in Boston.
  • Adelaide Bullen – Excavated the Lucy Foster Site in Andover, one of the first archaeological studies of a free Black
  • Ripley Bullen – Husband of Adelaide. Excavated many sites locally in and around Andover while doing graduate work at Harvard.
  • Richard “Scotty” MacNeish – Investigated the origins of agriculture and civilization in the Americas.
  • Gene Winter – Served as museum caretaker in the 1980s and served as honorary curator. He was associated with the museum for over 70 years.

Students in Dr. Ramos’s class helped arrange the altar and made paper flowers to decorate the shrine as they also enjoyed traditional Mexican candy given out during the holiday.

The completed alter as arranged by the students
The completed alter as arranged by the students

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!).

Peabody director leads Human Origins course

Students enrolled in Human Origins (SCIE 470) this fall will come face to face with our distant human ancestors as well as contemporary issues like race and scientific racism that are part and parcel of paleoanthropology’s legacy. Between reading and discussion on a variety of topics, ranging from the so-called “Hobbit” fossil—Homo floresiensis to the debate over multiregionalism, students will do some experimental archaeology, including flint knapping, fire making, and throwing a dart with an atlatl. We also will be visiting “The Nest”—the makerspace at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, where we will be 3D printing casts of the newest fossil discovery from South Africa—Homo naledi and comparing them to traditional plaster casts and resin models of other fossil hominins. Other hands-on projects will include looking for clues to human evolution in the bones of a modern human, bone flute making, and creating our own Mesolithic symbol system, akin to the painted pebbles found in Mas d’Azil cave in the French Pyrenees. Throughout the course students will explore some of the most recent discoveries and newest ideas about human evolution and the scientific discourse and debate that ensue. Students will be challenged to develop their critical thinking skills as we evaluate these new discoveries in light of broader discourse on race and the scientific method.

Image of students in Human Origins make bone flutes with bow drills while their instructor Jerry Hagler looks on.
Biology instructor Jerry Hagler looks on as students in Human Origins make bone flutes using bow drills, spring 2016.

Human Origins is an interdisciplinary science course developed collaboratively by biology instructor Jerry Hagler and personnel at the Peabody Museum and was first taught in 2007. Since then it has been offered most years as a senior elective. The pace of new discoveries—like Svante Pääbo’s work on the introgression of Neanderthal DNA into the modern human genome in 2011—means that the curriculum is constantly shifting, making for an exciting and lively class. Dr. Hagler is on sabbatical this year so Dr. Wheeler–Peabody Museum director–is leading the course.

2016-2017 Education Course Catalog

This summer we have worked on updating our course catalog that we share with the faculty at Andover. All of our programs incorporate the Peabody’s unique artifacts into classes that allow students to explore topics in art,  history, science, foreign languages, math, music, and many other subjects. While we offer many classes that support the goals and objectives of faculty through meaningful and engaging experiences for their students, we are also always have to collaborate to create new learning opportunities.

This year we are working with the History Department to create a week long activity for all History 100 students. It is an artifact rich class which will rely heavily on the expertise and assistance of our Curator of Collections, Marla Taylor.  The in-depth lesson will focus on the interaction and trade roots of the Moche, Maya, Puebloan, and Hopewell cultures. We cannot wait to get started!

To see what other lessons and activities we offer to the different departments at Phillips Academy, please browse our catalog

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Students Interogate the Peabody Dioramas

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Ann Wilkin asked if she could bring her two sections of Writing for Success students to the Peabody during summer session, July 2016. Ann said in her e-mail, “This week’s theme is ethics and responsibility, and I recall a particularly exciting experience another one of my classes had with you guys (possibly with you?) two years ago, as we discussed what it meant to put all kinds of artifacts of other cultures (particularly colonized cultures) in gallery spaces.”  She related too that her students had been reading Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” as well as excerpts from Susan Sontag’s 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others.

Image of the Peabody's Pawtucket village diorama circa 500 years ago.
“A Pawtucket Village on the Merrimack River, 500 Years Ago,” diorama built by Guernsey-Pitman Studios of Cambridge, Mass., 1939.

As I reflected on what we could do I thought it might be interesting to have the students conduct their own critical reading of one of the Peabody’s dioramas. The Peabody houses two dioramas of American Indian life.  The oldest, built in the 1930s by the Guernsey-Pitman Studios, illustrates life at the Shattuck Farm site in Andover, Mass. circa 500 years ago.  The scene is a bustling village, with a variety of daily activities depicted, from the construction of a birch bark canoe to firing pottery.  We understand that the scene was heavily influenced by curator Fred Johnson’s ethnographic work in Canada.

Amy Lonetree, in her 2012 book Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, explains that “many critics have argued that this form of representation (dioramas) reinforces commonly held belief that Native cultures were static and unchanging and that they have since disappeared….” Further, an issue with many museum exhibits about American Indians is that they lack contemporary Native voices.

I asked the students to spend some time looking at the diorama and to do some writing—specifically to answer a few questions which we would then discuss.  The students wrote about the following:

Who are depicted?

When is the diorama depicting?

Whose perspective is shown?

What is shown?  What isn’t?

What are we supposed to understand by looking at the diorama—in other words, what’s the message?

Image of students looking at the Pawtucket diorama
Ann Wilkin’s students examine the Pawtucket diorama.

The answers to these questions were quite interesting, and as our conversation about the diorama unfolded we gained a greater appreciation of some of the inherent biases built into the exhibit.  Several students pointed out that there were a disproportionate number of men depicted and we discussed demographics and talked about why so few women and children were shown. The question of perspective was interesting and we noticed that it depended on whether one was standing or kneeling.  We also kept returning to the question about when was depicted.  Most students wrote that it was 500 years ago (after all, that’s what it says on the diorama’s title), but we talked about what was happening 500 years ago and also about how there are many ways to answer that questions—the time of year, the day, the time of day, etc.  We talked about how many “whens” seemed to be collapsed into one single moment and that it was unlikely all of these things would have happened at the same time.  One student ultimately observed that the diorama might say more about the archaeologists and artists that constructed the model than the Native people being depicted.

The exercise produced some interesting dialogue and gave us an opportunity to talk about contemporary American Indians in Massachusetts and exercise our critical thinking skills when confronted with a museum exhibition.

The Language of Weaving

Contributed by Catherine K. Hunter

Warps, warp-face, wefts, weft-face, ikat or jaspe, brocade, coiling, twining, plaiting—these technical terms come from the language of weaving. For students in Therese Zemlin’s art class, an exploration of weaving was motivation for a tour of collections at the Peabody Museum in April and May 2016 with research associate Catherine Hunter. The themes were textiles of Guatemala and Peru, and Native American baskets.

Weaving involves the interlacing of two elements: warp and weft. The loom supports vertical elements or yarns (warps) under tension. Then, weaving is the process of interlacing horizontal elements (wefts) side-to-side perpendicular to the warps. The weaver manipulates the colors and density of the warp or weft, making the potential for new designs endless.

Forty items were selected from the museum’s collection of 400+ 20th century Guatemalan textiles and back-strap looms, and ancient Peruvian textiles. The majority were blouses called huipiles, assembled from several parallel lengths of cloth. Among the Maya distinctive traditional designs have been associated with specific villages. Communities consistently favor bright colors with beautiful sophisticated geometric and zoomorphic designs.

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Students examines a vibrant Guatemalan textile on backstrap loom.

From an inventory of 350 19th-20th century Native American baskets, 20 were chosen to represent the cultural preferences of five geographic regions. This tradition is acknowledged as the finest expression of its type, setting the standard for anyone who studies baskets as art. The basic techniques are coiling, twining and plaiting.

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Catherine Hunter sharing the vast array of baskets in the Peabody’s collections.

There is remarkable ingenuity in the variety of plants and trees discovered for basketry materials, including ash splints, river cane, pine needles, roots, grasses, and red cedar. Harvesting and processing of materials was a time-consuming community activity with an appreciation of seasonal and sustainable practices.

There is amazing vitality in the forms of baskets including bowls, jars, rectangles, cones, trays, and plaques. Fascinating objects in themselves, it is all the more interesting to know their uses include food gathering, cooking (in water tight baskets), water bottles, seed bottles, pictorial trays illustrating mythology, feather-covered gift baskets, hats, and forms targeting the interest of tourists.

Both traditions—Guatemalan weaving and Native American basketry— continue today as a source of cultural pride for communities and as professions for artists.

AUTHOR BIO

Catherine K. Hunter is an independent museum consultant whose career began in the Department of Textiles at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She began an inventory of the Peabody Museum’s basket collection in November 2015 and will complete the project in summer 2016.