Category Archives: Collections

Collections Summer Summary

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Another summer is nearly gone and the school year is about to begin.  Sometimes, I get asked “what do you do when the students aren’t here?” Well… everything!

In the past couple of months, the collections department has inventoried and rehoused over 100 artifact drawers! This included an ambitious project (and maybe a little bit crazy) to reorganize the ceramics from the Scotty MacNeish collection. MacNeish stored the ceramics by typology – useful for analysis, but really unhelpful for collections management.  Objects with the same catalog number were spread out over 8 to 12 different drawers and were not easy to locate for researcher or class use. It took over a week to empty, consolidate, and inventory 55 drawers. But now everything is easy to access!

I have also been teaching Annie Greco, inventory specialist, and Rachel Manning, our new collections assistant, the basics of pest management and mitigation. We inspected artifacts for insect activity and damage and then learned how to properly clean objects that have been affected. Fortunately, nothing serious was found and it was a valuable exercise for all of us.

Annie and Rachel pest
Annie and Rachel examine an artifact for pest activity.

Also, outside research does not follow the school year patterns. I have been working with several professors to facilitate access to Peabody collections for a variety of projects.

Summer at the Peabody is a different pace than the school year, but not any slower!

Exciting Changes!

I have been working as the Inventory Specialist at the Peabody for the past year. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience and I have learned a great deal, not only about the collections at the Peabody, but about collections and artifacts from other institutions throughout the United States as well.


It is with great pleasure that I will be taking on the position of Collections Assistant at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology! With this new position comes a variety of new responsibilities that I am ready to undertake. While I will still be inventorying drawers as time allows, I will focus more on drawers that have been adopted through our Adopt A Drawer program. Through this program, donors can “adopt” a drawer housed at the Peabody! They receive updates on the progress of the inventory and rehousing of the artifacts in the drawer and pictures of what is inside. Upon completion, a write-up with information pertaining to the age, origin and various other details about the artifacts within the drawer is sent to the donor. Interested in participating? Contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler (

Another major part of the position will be monitoring the environment in the various collections spaces. Maintaining proper relative humidity and temperature is imperative to keeping a healthy collection. Fluctuations in these variables can be detrimental to the collection and cause damage to and have other undesirable effects on the artifacts. In addition to environmental monitoring, I will also be in control of the Integrated Pest Management program. Keeping on top of pest activity in any institution is the best way to avoid an infestation. This is especially important in museums where irreplaceable artifacts can be damaged by insect activity.

Here I am, monitoring the environment.

A third big change will be working more closely with our volunteers and work duty students who spend time at the Peabody helping us with a few of the many tasks that need to be accomplished. Once a week groups of students from Phillips Academy assigned work duty at the Peabody will take time doing anything from inventorying drawers to digitally inputting information from catalog cards and ledgers. We also have a group of volunteers who join us once a week to inventory drawers, perform inspections of our ethnographic materials, or do other tasks as they present themselves. If this sounds like something interesting to you or anyone you know, feel free to contact us about volunteering at the Peabody!

I am very excited to be able to contribute to the Peabody in new ways!

Return of the Etowah Spatulate Celt

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

A spatulate celt originally found at the Etowah site recently returned to the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

Image of spatulate stone celt.
The Etowah spatulate celt, recently returned to the Peabody.

Warren K. Moorehead, then director of the Phillips Academy Department of Archaeology, conducted excavations at the Etowah site near Cartersville, Georgia from 1925 through 1929. He published his results in 1932 as The Etowah Papers, through an arrangement with Yale University Press. A few reprint editions were available in the 1970s and in 2000 the University Press of Florida reprinted that publication as Exploration of the Etowah Site in Georgia: The Etowah Papers. Contemporary scholars have struggled to correlate and interpret Moorehead’s work. For example, writing in their compendium of Southeastern shell gorgets, Brain and Phillips (1996:135) note “many conflicts between the published report, the field notes, and the RSPF catalogue entries, and the artifacts that could be located at the RSPF in Andover, Massachusetts.” Despite the issues with Moorehead’s approach, he recovered many amazing objects and in his publication presented the two prevailing models about the origins of Mississippian imagery.

Moorehead’s Etowah collection has garnered attention over the years, including work to conserve some of the copper specimens (Byers 1962), as well as research into the preserved textiles (by Lucy R. Sibley, clothing and textile specialist from Ohio State University in 1985) and the incredible array of shell gorgets recovered during the project (Brain and Phillips 1996; Muller 1966). For more on Etowah and the history of excavations at site see Adam King (2003a, 2003b).

Black and white image of mounds at Etowah site, circa 1925-1926.
Etowah’s Mound C, probably 1925-26. From nitrate negative 2009.0.1088, Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

In 1991 it became clear that objects had been pilfered from the Etowah collection assembled by Moorehead. Then director of the Peabody James Bradley learned that Jan Sorgenfrei of Old Barn Auctions in Findlay, Ohio was offering to sell a shell woodpecker gorget from the collection. The prospective purchaser discovered that the gorget had originated at the Andover Peabody and that there was no evidence that the object had been legally traded, transferred, or sold into private hands. Bradley worked with local law enforcement and the FBI to recover the shell gorget, which served for a time as the museum’s logo (see Figure 31 in Moorehead 1932). Dr. Arthur Cushman, the prospective buyer, generously agreed to pay Sorgenfrei for the gorget and donate it back to the museum (Britton 1992). Bradley suspected that other objects from the Etowah collection also were missing.

Such thefts are not unknown. Art crimes in general have garnered more and more attention, beginning with the high-profile theft of paintings from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston and continuing with the wholesale looting of European and Near Eastern sites, often to fund terrorism. In terms of other objects like the Etowah collection, thefts of southeastern Native American pottery occurred in 1974 at the Kolomoki site museum in Georgia (see Georgia Department of Community Affairs website 2006) and, in 1980, at the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository at Moundville in Alabama (see Office of Archaeological Research, University of Alabama website 2003). A few of the objects from Kolomoki have been recovered, but the majority of the Kolomoki and Moundville vessels remain at large. No arrests have been made in either theft.

Museum records and information provided by the late Eugene C. Winter Jr., volunteer and longtime friend of the Peabody, documents at least one known theft. The thefts included the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology as we were then known. Mr. McLaughlin had systematically removed catalog numbers from artifacts. The large number of bifaces and other objects recovered from his parent’s home were divided among the institutions involved since it was impossible to positively identify the bulk of the objects. Both Winter and Bradley suspected that other thefts had gone undetected. In 2005, collector Kurt Spurr returned a number of Maine stone gouges and chipped stone artifacts that he had purchased from Jan Sorgenfrei. The Etowah and Maine recoveries suggest that there were multiple thefts, since those objects retained their catalog numbers, while McLaughlin removed numbers from the objects that he took.

At the beginning of January 2018 I entered into correspondence with Mr. Thomas Rachels of Cordele, Georgia. Mr. Rachels had purchased a spatulate celt at a private sale and was researching the piece, which was reputed to be from Warren Moorehead’s investigation of Etowah. In fact, someone had written “Etowah” on the artifact. Figure 50c in The Etowah Papers seemed to match the artifact and a partial catalog number was written in India ink on the side of the piece. Mr. Rachels wrote and asked if we had any paperwork on the artifact, including documents indicating that the celt had been deaccessioned from the Peabody. I located an archival image of the artifact in question and consulted our original ledger books. Object # 61783 was described as “a beautiful spatulate ceremonial.” There was no indication that the object had been deaccessioned. We searched the collection and found no object bearing this catalog number. I inquired about the celt’s provenance, and Mr. Rachels shared the name of the seller and that of the late Jan Sorgenfrei, who had been in possession of the celt at some time in the past.

Upon learning about Mr. Sorgenfrei’s involvement, I contacted the Andover Police Department to seek advice about how to proceed. I also shared with Mr. Rachels that I believed the artifact had been stolen, perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s, when security was lax. Mr. Rachels immediately decided that the piece should be returned to the Peabody. The local law enforcement and FBI art crimes division personnel agreed that Mr. Rachels had not been involved in the theft and had purchased the celt in good faith. They encouraged us to work with Mr. Rachels on the amicable return of the object. At that point Mr. Rachels and I began to work on an agreement for the celt’s return. We ultimately offered Mr. Rachels a $2,500 reward and completed an IRS form 8283, covering the donation of art objects valued in excess of $5,000. The celt was returned on March 2, 2018.

Brain and Phillips (1996:140, 377-379) provide a brief discussion and preliminary chronology of this rare, though widely-distributed artifact type. They note that these artifacts have a short poll and broad bit, often exhibiting a biconically drilled perforation. Other authors suggest that lack of use wear, specialized manufacture, exotic materials, and mortuary associations make these elaborate weapons markers of social status (see, for example, Mainfort et al. 2006). Hally (2008:561) suggests that spatulate celts were markers of an achieved war honor or perhaps even the marker for town war chief. The Etowah example is particularly important, since, as Brain and Phillips (1996:14) note, this is the only site that exhibits the complete range of their proposed chronological sequence; the example discussed here is considered a late form.

We spent four months completely inventorying the Etowah collection and checking our holdings against Moorehead’s original artifact ledger entries. This was complicated. We faced many of the issues raised by Brain and Phillips (1996), including some objects that were not given catalog numbers, some with duplicate numbers, and other objects that were re-cataloged in the 1950s and 1990s and have multiple numbers. At this point we are certain that the following objects are missing:

Image of Etowah monolithic celt of blue limestone.

  • Monolithic ax (Ga-Brt-E63 in Brain and Phillips 1996:141; Moorehead 1932:82 and 100).

Image of shell gorget with dancing birdman figure.

  • Big Toco style shell gorget (Ga-Brt-E8 in Brain and Phillips 1996:45, 141, 418; Moorehead 1932:51 and 54).

Image of shell gorget with stylized rattlesnake design engraved on surface.

  • Citico style shell gorget (Ga-Mu-LE12 in Brain and Phillips 1996:97, 195, and 426; Moorehead 1932:153) from the nearby Little Egypt site.


  • Canoe or basket-shaped ceramic pipe (see Moorehead 1932:Figure 62a).
  • Three shell gorgets, never previously illustrated. The specimen in color is from Etowah, the two in black-and-white are from the Little Egypt site.

We anticipate that the FBI will list these and any other missing objects in their art loss database.

It also is worth noting that the pertinent laws and legal process for recovering stolen artifacts, like those from the Peabody Etowah collection, are not immediately clear. Stealing such items is a violation of both state and federal law. For example, the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) provides additional federal penalties for artifact crimes covered under state law. When so much time elapsed, however, and those involved in the initial theft are deceased, unknown, or outside the statute of limitations, what recourse does an institution have? Possession of stolen property is an offense, but law enforcement may be unwilling to penalize those who have unknowingly purchased or obtained stolen artifacts. Much of the case law revolves around recovery of art that was stolen or disposed of under duress during the Nazi regime in 1930s and 1940s Europe. Now, museums have obtained this artwork, either through gifts, bequests, or purchase. Heirs are interested in recovering the artwork, while museums want to retain valuable parts of their collections. Several legal theories are at play, including the efforts made by former owners and heirs to recover the art.

We are grateful to Mr. Rachels for returning the Etowah spatulate celt. We are hopeful that other collectors will come forward with other objects from the Peabody collection, especially those from Etowah and Little Egypt. We look forward to working with the folks who have these objects in the same spirit of cooperation most recently exhibited in the return of the Etowah spatulate celt. If you have information on the whereabouts of objects from our collection, please contact me and know that our objective is to restore our significant museum collection.

To learn more about the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology visit us on the Web or see our online collections website.

A version of this story appeared in the April 2018 issue of Horizon & Tradition: The Newsletter of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference. I’m grateful to SEAC editor Sarah Bennett for publishing this account and helping to spread the work about stolen artifacts.

References Cited

Anonymous. 2013 In Memoriam: Jan Sorgenfrei, Old Barn Auction owner, 70. Electronic resource,, accessed March 20, 2018.

Bean, Linda. 1988 Phillips Pair Helped Nab Thief. Eagle-Tribune, Sunday, June 12, 1988. Pages A1, A7. North Andover, MA.

Blustain, Malinda Stafford, and Ryan Wheeler. 2018 Glory, Trouble, and Renaissance at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Brain, Jeffrey P., and Philip Phillips. 1996 Shell Gorgets: Styles of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Southeast. Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Britton, Sharron. 1992 Honest Man Made Their Day. Boston Globe (regional edition), Sunday, December 27, 1992, pages 1, 4.

Byers, Douglas S. 1962 The Restoration and Preservation of Some Objects from Etowah. American Antiquity 28(2):206-216.

Foley, Michael. 1988 Phillips Artifacts in $1 Million Haul. Eagle-Tribune, Thursday, June 9, 1988. North Andover, MA.

Georgia Department of Community Affairs. 2006 Electronic document accessed March 26, 2018.

Hally, David J. 2008 King: The Social Archaeology of a Late Mississippian Town in Northwestern Georgia. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

King, Adam. 2003a Etowah: The Political History of a Chiefdom Capital. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

_______. 2003b Over a Century of Explorations at Etowah. Journal of Archaeological Research 11(4):279-306.

Mainfort, Robert C., Jr., Rita Fisher-Carroll, and Daniel G. Gall. 2006 Sociotechnic Celts from the Upper Nodena Site, Northeast Arkansas. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 31(2):323-343.

Moorehead, Warren K. 1932 The Etowah Papers. Yale University Press, New Haven.

______. 2000 Exploration of the Etowah Site in Georgia: The Etowah Papers, with an introduction by Frank T. Schnell. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Muller, Jon D. 1966 An Experimental Theory of Stylistic Analysis. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Office of Archaeological Research, University of Alabama. 2003 Electronic resource accessed March 26, 2018.

More boxes of boxes

Today we unloaded another truck full of custom boxes from Hollinger Metal Edge.  This batch of 1,500 boxes is our final purchase with the Box Us In! Abbot grant that was generously funded by the Abbot Academy Fund in 2015, continuing Abbot’s tradition of boldness, innovation, and caring.

The ongoing project to obtain physical and intellectual control over our collections continues!

California Basketry Exploration

Contributed by Catherine Hunter

Native American basketry was the subject of a special research visit on June 4th. Ralph Shanks, Research Associate at University of California, Davis, and Lisa Woo Shanks are experts in identifying and analyzing Native American California basketry.  Together, they produced an outstanding 3-volume series on California basketry that has been indispensable in examining the Peabody collection.  The goal of their visit was the examination of over 100 Californian baskets for cultural identification.  The visit developed into a tutorial for staff as the discussions addressed ethnobotany, physical structure, and design elements found on the baskets.

Immersion in basketry required a specialized vocabulary for structures and materials such as twining, coiling, plaiting, overlay, double interlacing, foundation, willow, red bud, juncos and more.  The forms of baskets were confirmed as bowls, hats, seed beaters, burden baskets, winnowing trays, toys, and cooking vessels. Many Californian Indians cooked in water-tight water-filled baskets by adding heated stones; and examples of these were identified in the Peabody collection.

The visit was facilitated by Marla Taylor, Curator of Collections, and Catherine Hunter, Research Associate, who inventoried the collection of 300+ Native American baskets in 2015-16. Hunter returned to the Peabody recently to continue research for a paper “Indian Basketry in Yosemite Valley, 19th-20th Century: Gertrude ‘Cosie’ Hutchings Mills, Tourists and the National Park Serviceto be presented at the Textile Society of America Symposium in September 2018.  After Hunter consulted Shanks last month, he extended an East Coast vacation to include a visit to Andover.

Hunter selected this topic because of the Hutchings Mills Collection of baskets. Collector and donor Gertrude “Cosie” Hutchings Mills (1867-1956) was one of the first Anglo-American children born in Yosemite Valley to early settlers James Mason and Elvira Hutchings. She collected Native American baskets in the Yosemite Valley region before 1900, recording many acquisition sites and the names of three weavers. Such documentation is very rare; thus, the collection was of special interest to Ralph Shanks.

After marriage to William Elligood Mills in 1899, they lived in New England and their son attended Phillips Academy. In 1937 the collection of fifty-six baskets was donated by Mrs. Mills to the Peabody Institute.

Shanks was enthusiastic about the quality of the basketry, contributed significantly to our interpretation of the collection, and identified rare baskets that would enhance his own research. We were thrilled to host his visit!

Back to Class!

As part of my work at the Peabody, my supervisor suggested that I take an online class in Collections Management. Throughout school, I had never been offered classes that pertained to museum studies or collections management, so I thought that this was a great idea considering it is directly related to my current and hopefully future line of work. Therefore, over the past 6 weeks, I have been enrolled in an online class on Collections Management Policies for Cultural Institutions through

Over the period of the course, I learned a great deal about what it takes to create and implement a collections management policy at an institution such as the Peabody. For cultural institutions, these policies are very important to have because they set up guidelines for almost every aspect of the institution. These guidelines are good to have on file should any issues arise within the institution. For example, if an institution received a collection that does not fit within the scope of the collections, the museum staff could refer to their collections management policy for information on how to handle the situation. The policy also helps to establish consistency in practices regarding the proper management of collections associated with cultural institutions.

Throughout the course of the class, I have been tasked each week with writing various portions of a policy. My classmates and I would upload our segments to the online forum so that we could read and critique each other’s documents before turning them in for grading. The feedback was incredibly helpful and I feel it helped strengthen my policy. An additional part of the class was to participate in a chat room discussion for an hour once a week. These chats were always very interesting and everyone was very engaging. It was really interesting to see how different cultural institutions are run and how similar institutions can end up with very different policies tailored to their individual needs. I think that this class was an excellent decision, and one that will be very useful as I continue to pursue my career in collections management!

In other news, I have recently started cataloging drawers in the South Bay Storage area of the Peabody’s collections space! These bays primarily consist of sites from the American Southeast and Southwest, but also contain sites from Missouri, Kentucky, and even as far away as Labrador. I am very excited to continue working with artifacts that I don’t get to see as often as I would like!

Here is a cool fossil I found in South Bay Storage. I’m not a plant expert, but it looks like a type of fern.

The Inventory Specialist position is supported by a generous grant from the Oak River Foundation of Peoria, Ill. to improve the intellectual and physical control of the institute’s collections. We hope this gift will inspire others to support our work to better catalog, document, and make accessible the Peabody’s world-class collections of objects, photographs, and archival materials. If you would like information on how you can help please contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler at or 978 749 4493.

New Acquisition

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

We are delighted to share this recent acquisition, a contemporary painted vessel made by Jason Garcia. Garcia (Okuu Pin) is a talented ceramic artist from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico known for his mix of traditional materials and methods with pop culture. This piece explores the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 through the media of traditionally built pottery and painting in the style of comic books or graphic novels.

Image of Jason Garcia's Pueblo Revolt 1680 ceramic vessel, with brightly painted, comic-book style figures of Po'Pay and Spanish soldiers.

Here Garcia illustrates a dynamic struggle between Tewa religious leader Po’Pay and Spanish soldiers. Po’Pay, from Ohkay Owingeh (also called San Juan Pueblo), is depicted in the style of a comic book superhero. He rose to prominence in 1675 after his imprisonment at the hands of the Spanish colonial government. After his release he planned the successful ouster of the Spanish from New Mexico, carefully orchestrating the insurgency across diverse linguistic, geographic, and cultural lines. The Spanish returned in 1692, but Po’Pay and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 remain significant, though little-known in American history. We work with several Phillips Academy instructors in history and social science to introduce their students to the Pueblo Revolt, which some scholars have suggested provided a template for the American Revolution some one-hundred years later.


Welcome, Annie

Annie Greco just joined the Peabody team as our new Inventory Specialist.  She comes to us fresh from the University of Massachusetts Boston graduate program in archaeology and experience as a field archaeologist in New England.   Annie is already using her knowledge of New England tool typologies and excellent research skills to make a dent in the reboxing project!

Annie’s position is generously funded by Barbara and Les Callahan. Les is Phillips Academy Class of 1968 and Barbara is a member of the Peabody Advisory Committee; both have been active advocates and supporters of our mission.

We hope this gift will inspire others to support our work to better catalog, document, and make accessible the Peabody’s world-class collections of objects, photographs and archival materials. If you would like information on how you can help please contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler at or 978 749 4493.


Collections Reboxing project –Update

Contributed by Marla Taylor

When I last shared an update in December of 2016, we had boxed only 52 drawers in our quest to gain full physical control of our collection.  With the diligent work of students, volunteers, and inventory specialist Rachel Manning, we have now inventoried and boxed over 400 drawers!  More than 75,000 individual artifacts have been counted and documented – including projectile points, bone awls, ceramic sherds, and delicately crafted beads.

At the end of the month, our team will grow again with another Temporary Inventory Specialist – Annie Greco.  Annie’s position is generously funded by Barbara and Les Callahan. Les is Phillips Academy Class of 1968 and Barbara is a member of the Peabody Advisory Committee; both have been active advocates and supporters of our mission. I hope that our next update includes even better news!

Our deepest appreciation goes to the Oak River Foundation for their continued generosity and support of the Peabody’s goal to improve the intellectual and physical control of the museum’s collections.

We hope this gift will inspire others to support our work to better catalog, document, and make accessible the Peabody’s world-class collections of objects, photographs and archival materials. If you would like information on how you can help please contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler at or 978 749 4493.

Fire extinguisher in use

Disaster planning can be fun

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Sitting on my office shelf in a red binder is the Peabody disaster plan.  No institution ever wants to use it, but it is essential to be prepared.  Our plan is in need of its regular update, and fortunately for us, the Addison Gallery of American Art (also part of Phillips Academy) hosted a three-day seminar and full-scale emergency response disaster training for the protection of cultural assets in March.  Over 100 people took part in the workshop, including several members of Peabody staff.

The workshop included presentations from conservators, companies who specialize in disaster clean-up, and organizations that can help think through the disaster plan with us.  We learned the basics of painting conservation, how to mitigate water damage, how to dry/salvage wet books and papers, and how to identify and deal with pests in the collection.  Training stations were presented so that we could try all of these methods ourselves and have the opportunity to ask specific questions relating to our own collections.

The big highlight for me was the triage scenario meticulously installed at the Addison.  The Addison repainted one of their temporary galleries to appear smoke damaged, and they displayed pieces of art that had been previously damaged to replicate how fire damage may present itself in a museum.  As a team, we were given only 10 minutes to remove the damaged artwork (without additional damage!), set up work flow to begin cleaning objects, and isolate the most damaged pieces.  This was fun and realistic.

Now comes the hard work – applying all of this new knowledge to our own disaster planning process.

The emergency response and disaster planning workshop was generously made possible by a grant from the Abbot Academy Fund, continuing Abbot’s tradition of boldness, innovation, and caring.