Hopping into the Collection

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Several months ago, I was connected with a PA alum who wished to donate a piece of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican jewelry to the Peabody Institute. It is a gold pendant in the shape of a frog with a slightly unclear origin. It had been passed down within the family and was variably attributed to the Maya, as well as cultures in Panama and Columbia. The owner had the pendant appraised for insurance purposes in the 1960s and again in the 1980s. Each appraisal identified a different culture of origin and left me a little confused.  

Now, admittedly, I know relatively little about Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican jewelry and was out of my depth to evaluate this potential donation. Thank goodness for networking!

My first step was to reach out to a couple members of the Peabody Advisory Committee who have expertise in Mesoamerica and Peru. Even if they could not identify the cultural origin of the pendant, I knew they could point me in the right direction. In collaboration with the Peabody’s director, Ryan Wheeler, it was decided that I should reach out to a professor emeritus, Dr. John Scott, at the University of Florida for evaluation. That was a solid plan.

Lots of photos were taken of every part of the frog pendant. 

The final piece of the puzzle was to determine if the frog was actually made of gold. Again, that is outside of my expertise and I needed to find some help. Fortunately, Andover is home to several amazing jewelry stores. The wonderfully helpful Vice President of Service at Royal Jewelers, Dina, came to my rescue. She hooked me up with a jeweler who had technology to identify the metallurgic components of the pendant without causing any damage.  Technology is great!

The result is that the frog is a mixture of gold and copper that is typical of tumbaga. Tumbaga is the name for a non-specific alloy of gold and copper that is very common in Lower Central American manufacture. The frog is 1,200-500 years old and probably originated in the Central Highlands or Atlantic Slope of Costa Rica.

The next step is to present all this information to the Peabody Collections Oversight Committee (PCOC) in October. The PCOC will then vote on whether or not to formally accept it into the collection. Hopefully, this frog will be making an appearance in a classroom soon!

Note – if you would like to learn more about Latin American art, check out some of Dr. Scott’s publications:

Before Cortes: Sculpture of Middle America by Elizabeth Kennedy Easby and John Scott (1971)

Latin American Art: Ancient to Modern (1999)

Back to normal… Sort of

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Like for so many of us, this summer has been a rather abrupt transition back to “normal” at the Peabody. 

I returned to the office full time in July and had to hit the ground running to help support the other Peabody staff, welcome researchers, jump back into giving tours, and provide back up for Summer Session activities. It has definitely been a transition, but it feels good to have students, researchers, and volunteers back at the Peabody!

For the entire month of July, the Peabody hosted the Summer Session class Dig This! This Lower School initiative takes a closer look at different global case studies from across the ancient world to hone skills and understanding as a historian and archaeologist. Students then get to take part in excavating the lost Mansion House of Phillips Academy – the home of Samuel Phillips. It is always great to see these students get excited about archaeology every summer!

Beyond that, it was a joy to welcome our Cordell Fellows for 2021 – Dr. Arthur Anderson and Dr. Gabe Hrynick. Their research is on the Peabody’s Northeast Archaeological Survey conducted partially in Down East, Maine in the late 1940s. I won’t try to summarize their work here, but will instead refer you to a blog they contributed a couple years ago. Their work in July focused on fully documenting one site, Thompson’s Point. A real plus to hosting researchers is that they do some of the collections documentation work for me – I am looking forward to receiving a copy of all the item photographs they took! 

“Normal” at the Peabody Institute also requires our volunteers to be around. We have all missed them this past year and are thrilled to welcome back our regular collections volunteers (and new ones!)

I don’t know how the next few months will look – mask or no mask, virtual or in-person – but it has been a real pleasure to jump back into the hectic schedule of the Peabody. Stay safe and healthy, everyone!

From Decolonizing to DAMS: the Beauty of Online Learning

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Over the last couple months, I was fortunate to take two online professional development courses – Decolonizing Museums in Practice and DAM for GLAM. These classes covered very different topics but overlapped in some really surprising ways.

The Decolonizing Museums class is directly applicable to so much of the work that I do every day. We have taken steps at the Peabody Institute to incorporate decolonizing into our collections management policy, researcher access policies, and NAGPRA implementation. I am proud of that work, but also wanted to take a step back and immerse myself in the scholarship behind this approach to museum management.

The class was filled with fascinating, thought-provoking, and occasionally uncomfortable readings that stretched my assumptions and gave me a new framework to view my role, as a white settler female, in managing an archaeological collection full of Indigenous material culture. The instructors and my classmates could not have been better. We represented a wide variety of museum roles and perspectives from across three different countries. We were all open and honest about when we were challenged by the readings and I found listening to others work through their decolonizing journey could be enlightening about my own.

Fortunately for me, one of my classmates was local to the Boston area and we were even able to meet up in person to discuss what we had been learning. She works with the collections at the Boston Children’s Museum. We bonded over our shared decolonization journey, but also our overall museum experiences, and an interest in knitting. We also discovered a collections link between our respective institutions and could seamlessly begin to support each other in repatriation consultations.

I loved the course.

DAM for GLAM was completely different. DAM = Digital Asset Management. GLAM = Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums. This course walked me through what a DAM is and what it can do for cultural institutions. Basically, a DAM is a system to track the digital surrogates of the physical items in the collection and the born digital materials that derive from them (think image of an item in the collection, a scan of an excavation map, digitized archives, a video of a presentation, or a course catalog). This course was less intuitive for me, but ultimately really valuable as I had previously struggled to even understand what a DAM was.

During the course, we were asked to use the collections that we were affiliated with as examples to answer the teacher’s prompts. As the questions were regularly about data management, access, and use rights, I would always answer them through a decolonizing lens. It was really helpful at times to apply the slightly more abstract concepts from the decolonizing class to something as practical as metadata. It forced me to think about how challenging the data management will be to make digital surrogates available to tribal partners, researchers, and educators.

I made some positive professional connections in that class as well through conversations about digital repatriation. I think I helped some people understand that making digital copies of everything that will be repatriated so that you still have access to a version of the item doesn’t really jibe with the idea of repatriation. If a tribe asks us to destroy digital copies of repatriated items (images or 3-D scans), the Peabody will abide by that request. Their cultural authority does not end at the physicality of the item, it encompasses the totality of the item. I am grateful for the opportunity to conduct these thought experiments and share with others.

While both classes were really valuable experiences, I want to discourage any of you out there from taking two courses at once while working a full-time job… just sayin’…

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.

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!

Home to Cape Cod

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Sometimes it can take years to repatriate ancestors and funerary belongings back to Native American tribes.  And sometimes, it can take just a few weeks. 

On November 9th, the Peabody partnered with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (PMAE) of Harvard University to repatriate ancestors and belongings to representatives of the Wampanoag Confederacy.  From start to finish, this process took about six weeks – a credit to the partnership work with the PMAE and our established relationship with the Wampanaog.

We are always happy to see ancestors return home and have the opportunity to share that with so many wonderful partners.

Representatives of the Wampanoag Confederacy, the Peabody Institute, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard pose for a socially distanced photograph

Reflections on Repatriation

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Most of my time lately has been spent on repatriation work.  This work isn’t something that I can share lots of details about, but it is probably both the most challenging and rewarding part of my job. 

The Peabody has always had a commitment to working with tribes and Indigenous peoples to ensure that ancestors, funerary belongings, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony are repatriated in a respectful and timely fashion.  I am fortunate to inherit that past work and a strong institutional reputation for fairness and responsibility.  It is a high standard that I constantly strive to uphold.

In late October, I was able to take part in the 6th Annual Repatriation Conference sponsored by the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA).  This conference was a focused on the 30th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  It was fabulous to learn about the work of other institutions and tribes, share strategies to overcome challenges, hear about success stories, and be inspired by so many other dedicated professionals. 

I was the most impacted by a wonderful presentation on decolonization by the Director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, ME and the staff of the Museum of Us in San Diego, CA.  The incredible work they have done, and continue to do, to address the inherently colonial nature of a museum interpreting the material culture of minority and Indigenous communities is inspiring.  Listening to their presentation and thinking about the work we do at the Peabody, I was pleased to identify so much overlap.  The thought we have put into the decolonizing process manifests itself in our collections policies, NAGPRA policy, how we approach education, and approach research inquiries.

I take this part of my job very seriously.  My work can’t erase past mistreatment of these ancestors and belongings, or redress colonial wrongs, but I can make progress.  The changes that I am part of will hopefully become the foundation of a stronger reputation for caring, meticulousness, and a progressive attitude toward repatriation.  Decolonization work is anti-racism work.

In mid-November, a colleague and I will be presenting to the NAGPRA Community a Practice (a group of scholars and NAGPRA practitioners from museum and tribes) on the topic of decolonizing collections care.  I am excited to share my ideas with this group and get feedback.

The process of decolonization will probably never end and there will always be more to learn.  I look forward to the challenge!

This artwork was created especially for the 6th Annual Repatriation Conference by George Curtis Levi, who is a member of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe of Oklahoma and is also Southern Arapaho. This ledger art painting depicts how repatriation builds community and strengthens culture. It was painted on an antique mining document from Montana that dates from the 1890s.

Back to Work!

Contributed by Emily Hurley

It’s been almost two months now since John and I have been back at the Peabody alternating weeks of work. In order to save time while we are in the Peabody, we are using that time exclusively to inventory drawers and spending our weeks at home updating the database with the drawers we inventoried the previous week. Now that we’ll be back in the Peabody more regularly, our work from home duties have shifted to more database work. In his post from last month’s newsletter, you can see all the hard work John’s been doing at home so now I’d like to share some of the things I’ve been able to accomplish from home so far.

Marla has kept everyone busy with various projects since we started working remotely in March. For me, that included digitizing photographs, creating condition reports for textiles, digitizing ledger books, and photographing site records. In total, while working remotely, I was able to digitize nine boxes of photos, complete 120 condition reports, digitize 1,700 ledger entries, and photograph 354 site records.

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2019.0.706 – A goat on a mountainside in the Ayacucho Valley. (I think this goat is so cute!)

The majority of my time working remotely has been spent scanning and editing photographs of various archaeological projects from the collection. The photos I digitized were from archaeological excavations in Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and Connecticut. Perhaps my favorite photos to work with were the ones from the Ayacucho Archaeological-Botanical Project in Peru. This project, directed by Richard MacNeish, was meant to investigate the origin of agriculture and its relationship to the development of civilization in New World Centers. The Ayacucho Valley was subsequently excavated between 1969 and 1975, which produced the hundreds of images that I’ve been working on. Many of the photos are of cave excavations, others show sweeping views of the Peruvian highlands complete with mountains and wildlife, and there’s the occasional photo of the archaeologists acting silly.

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2019.0.743 – Archaeologists overlooking the Ayacucho Valley

Since we’ve been back at the Peabody, John and I have been working hard to make up for lost time on the inventory project. So far we’ve been making great progress as we’ve been able to inventory over 60 drawers since being back. Empty wooden drawers are once again piling up like crazy!

Working from home for the past few months has been an interesting experience. It’s been great saving so much money on gas and I loved being able to make myself gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch every day, but I’m very happy to be back working with the artifacts. Hopefully someday soon we’ll all be able to enjoy being back at the Peabody full time!

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If you’re in need of some grilled cheese inspiration here is one of my favorites—olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, arugula, and manchego cheese! (I only had pita pockets at the time but I think a nice sourdough would be great)

SAA Announces New Peabody Award

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

In August, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) announced its newest education award, the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology Award for Archaeology and Education.

SAA_logo

The Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology Award for Archaeology and Education recognizes the excellence of individuals or institutions in using archaeological methods, theory, and/or data to enliven, enrich, and enhance other disciplines, and to foster the community of archaeology education practitioners. The Peabody Award will spotlight these contributions and promote teaching ideas, exercises, activities, and methods across the educational spectrum, from K-12 through higher education and public education.

Peabody Advisory Committee member and recent chair Dan Sandweiss ’75 proposed the award to the PAC and SAA. Both organizations agreed that it was a great opportunity to honor those involved in archaeology and education, joining the Journal of Archaeology & Education as another important tool for creating community among those engaged in these endeavors.

One important criterion is that nomination documentation must include materials—like activities or lesson plans—that can be shared with the broader community via SAA’s website.

The award description indicates that anyone may submit a nomination and that nominees do not have to be members of the SAA. Both individuals and programs are eligible. The award committee offered this list as examples of activities that might distinguish a nominee, including archaeology service learning programs, popular archaeology writing, adult or youth training programs, lessons or lesson plans for K-12 educators, archaeological outreach programming, oral history projects, lifelong learning classes or programs, archaeology camp experiences, and collaborative work with other educators or institutions around archaeological pedagogy.

The deadline for submitting a nomination is December 1, 2020 and submission information and guidelines are on the SAA website for the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology Award in Archaeology and Education. Peabody director Ryan Wheeler is serving as the SAA’s Teaching Awards committee chair and can be contacted with questions about the Peabody Award.

Artifacts Return

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Last fall, the Peabody loaned ten objects to the Addison Gallery of American Art here at Phillips Academy.  They spent nearly a year there for the exhibition A Wildness Distant from Ourselves: Art and Ecology in 19th Century America.

Due to public health concerns related to COVID-19, both the Peabody and the Addison have been closed to visitors since mid-March.  But, the behind the scenes work never ends.  The Addison regularly exhibits works of art on loan from other institutions and actively loans its own collection to museums around the world.  Returning these objects during COVID shutdowns has been a logistical challenge for our friends, and we were happy to coordinate with them to return the materials back across the street to us.

When the objects from the Peabody went to the Addison, a professional fine arts shipping company took care of packing and moving everything.  To come home, the Addison staff did the packing themselves – and they are awesome at it!

 

It is now up to me to put these artifacts back into our storage areas – a job I am happy to do!  Typically, we would use many of these in the upcoming school year for classes, but this year is different.  Like most other institutions, any of our classes will be taught online.

But I know that I will be happy to see Champ the auk back at home in his case every time I come into the Peabody.