Exploring Etowah One Object at a Time

Contributed by Marla Taylor

A brief exploration of Etowah, an archaeological site in Georgia, is now on display in the Peabody Museum lobby thanks to the efforts of work-duty students.

Along the Etowah River in northwestern Georgia, three massive earthen mounds mark the Etowah site. Etowah was occupied from approximately 1000 to 1600 AD as part of the Mississippian culture that dominated the southeastern United States at the time.

While only approximately 10 percent of the site has been excavated, Etowah has yielded thousands of artifacts ranging from projectile points to elaborate ceramic vessels. These objects reveal a culture with extensive trade routes and an appreciation of fine craftsmanship.

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Students prepare the exhibit labels

The culture of Etowah is explored through four artifacts—a ceramic vessel, a carved shell gorget, a ceramic pipe, and several shark teeth—researched by four students: Alex Hagler ’16, Jacob Boudreau ’16, Katherine Hall ’17, and Daniel Yen ’18. These students worked hard to write the exhibit text and determine the layout of the case.

Stop by the Peabody to take a look at their work and learn more about Etowah!

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The final product

Race and Identity in Indian Country

The end of fall term means the (temporary) end to one of my favorite collaborations – Marcelle Doheny’s Race and Identity in Indian Country course.

During the fall 2015 term, 11 Phillips Academy students explored the complicated relationship between Native Americans, museums and archaeology. Topics included scientific racism, federal Indian policies, museum collection practices, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  The culmination of the course was to use the Peabody collection to re-present the stories in our main exhibit gallery with a more inclusive voice.

Curator of education Lindsay Randall and I co-taught the class with Ms. Doheny. We were able to join most of the class discussions and provide perspective from our archaeology and museum experiences. I also enjoyed making the collection accessible to the students as they worked to create their final projects.

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Students examine a headdress from Lakota Chief Rain in the Face

Watching the final presentations of the student’s revised exhibitions during assessment week was the perfect culmination to the term. Every group succeeded in reimaging how Native Americans are traditionally presented in an archaeology museum, moving beyond stone tools and ceramic pots. The students highlighted the continuity of native cultures despite the history of racism and dispossession.

I loved being a part of this course and look forward to being involved again next year!

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Final presentations!

The Language of Baskets

Contributed by Catherine K. Hunter

Hunter,Catherine_11.17.2015

What can be coiled, plaited, twined, or sewn in the form of a tray, bowl, bottle, cone, or trunk using tree barks or splints, river cane, pine needles, or grasses? If you are familiar with this vocabulary, you will know the answer: Native American basketry. What you may not know is that the Peabody Museum houses more than 350 examples of Native American basketry, including fragments of ancient woven sandals, 19th- and 20th-century utilitarian and ceremonial forms, and a few examples by recognized 21st-century artists.

In my current capacity as a volunteer at the Peabody, I am collaborating with the museum’s registrar and senior collections manager, Bonnie Sousa, on conducting a thorough inventory of the Peabody’s Native American basketry collection. For this project, we are attempting to combine for each example a description of forms, techniques, and materials; identification of people/culture and geographic region; and data from museum records. The first 35 examples I examined include plaited ash-splint storage baskets from the Northeast with distinctive stamped and painted designs; twill-plaited trunks and trays from the Southeast made with natural, dyed orange and brown river cane splints; and a variety of trays of coiled grasses and pine needles.

My first volunteer position was in the 1970s at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum following a recommendation by my mentor, Joanne Segal Brandford, who subsequently published the museum’s basket collection. After studying and teaching fiber arts and design at the University of California, Berkeley, Brandford worked as a researcher, curator, teacher, and fiber artist. Why baskets? In the following paragraph, she succinctly describes the foundation for a career of exploration:

Baskets are often linked to domesticity and smallness, the implication being that these qualities preclude significant artwork. I could counter with basket-shrines made for ritual, or I could point to house-sized baskets (used, indeed, as houses) and so I could ‘elevate’ baskets with religious significance or architectural scale. But all such uses/meanings refer to our humanity, and consequently to ourselves and to our families, to life, and to death. What can be more meaningful for an artist working in fiber, than to honor the basket, with its myriad human associations?

BASKETS: Redefining Volume and Meaning (1993). The University of Hawaii, Art Gallery, Honolulu, Hawaii. Pat Hickman, Curator

[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 has always been interested in the study of basketry and recently wrote feature articles about contemporary Native American and American artists for the National Basketry Organization.

Geometric Patterns Decorate Chacoan Artifact

Contributed by Quinn Rosefsky (Phillips Academy, Class of 1959)

Chaco Canyon is located in northwestern New Mexico. During the period 850–1250 AD, Chaco Canyon was a major urban center of ancestral Puebloan culture. Remarkable for its ceremonial buildings, engineering projects, and distinctive architecture, the site had many uses, among them ceremonial, administrative, trade, resource distribution, and even astronomy. Roads 30 feet wide led out of Chaco. Signal towers were located on mesa tops. Puebloans traded extensively with Mesoamerica as seen in the presence of macaws, parrot feathers, conch shells, and copper bells. A great deal of archaeological research has been conducted on Chaco Canyon, and the site was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.

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Ceramic pitcher, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology #32289.

The artifact you see here—a black-on-white ceramic pitcher, complete except for a missing handle—was one of many that Warren K. Morehead acquired in 1897 for Robert S. Peabody’s collection. This small pitcher comes from Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure at Chaco, with about 800 rooms.

The pitcher is covered with finely drawn geometric patterns. These distinctive patterns can be reduced to areas of larger parallel lines (black bordering white) and smaller parallel lines (all black). The larger lines appear as though they are sitting on top of the smaller lines. All lines are carefully laid out, giving the impression that the artist had a high level of geometric sophistication—which is not surprising, coming from an area known to have astronomy and engineering interests.

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Aerial photo of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon by Bob Adams, Albuquerque, NM (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) ], via Wikimedia Commons.

Celt Search Reveals Cataloguing Challenges

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler and Bonnie Sousa

Jenny Elkus ’92, while perusing our online publications, came across Peabody Museum curator Warren Moorehead’s tribute to museum founder Robert S. Peabody, published in 1906 as the Phillips Academy Department of Archaeology’s Bulletin 3—A Narrative of Explorations in New Mexico, Arizona, Indiana, Etc. together with a Brief History of the Department. What caught her eye was the following passage, which mentions Peabody’s earliest archaeological collections:

“Mr. Peabody spent his boyhood in the valley of the Muskingum and as in that region there are numerous mound-builder and Indian remains, he became interested in archaeology. With his own hands he collected some one or two hundred specimens on his father’s farm. When the collection at Phillips was numbered the records properly began with Mr. Peabody’s personal finds and No. 1 is an interesting hematite celt.”

A celt is a prehistoric stone or metal implement shaped like a chisel or ax head. Hematite is a mineral ranging in color from black to red to brown, often taking on a high polish when tumbled in a rock polisher. The reddish color comes from iron. Hematite was highly prized by Native Americans throughout parts of the eastern United States for making a variety of tools and ornaments, including axes and celts.

Polished hematite pebbles, photograph by Mauro Cateb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Polished hematite pebbles, photograph by Mauro Cateb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons.
Jenny asked if we could provide a photo of the hematite celt—object #1 in the museum’s collection, essentially the founding object. Although many of our collections are well documented and regularly used by students and researchers, others need considerable attention. Unfortunately, the hematite celt fell into the latter category, as Jenny’s seemingly simple request illustrated.

We began our search by checking the original accession ledger and confirming that the first object was indeed a hematite celt collected at Spice Knob, Muskingum County, Ohio, by Robert S. Peabody sometime between 1845 and 1860. A note indicates the celt had a particularly nice polish.

Map of Falls Township in Muskingum County, Ohio, circa 1860. The blue shading indicates Robert S. Peabody's family farm, labeled Spice Knob, just outside of Zanesville.
Map of Falls Township in Muskingum County, Ohio, circa 1860. The blue shading indicates Robert S. Peabody’s family farm, labeled Spice Knob, just outside of Zanesville.

We then made a quick check of four or five drawers containing objects from Ohio and found a number of items with low catalog numbers that also came from Spice Knob. Unfortunately, the hematite celt was not among them. Further checking of a drawer-by-drawer inventory made in 2002 failed to locate the celt. With the aid of volunteers we searched drawers more thoroughly, with negative results.

A note in one drawer reads “Peabody original collections 1-65 Spice Knob, Muskingum County, Ohio.” Some of the nearby objects are from this earliest accession.

Consulting another early museum bulletin, Warren Moorehead’s 1912 Hematite Implements of the United States together with Chemical Analysis of Various Hematites, we found a detailed study of the tools and ornaments made from this mineral. Figure 3, opposite page 13, illustrates seven hematite celts from the Andover collection. Catalog numbers are visible on three of the celts, so we knew we could rule them out as being the founding object we were searching for, but they are not visible on the remaining four objects in the figure, which meant it was possible one of them was the object in question. We also checked Moorehead’s other publications, which contain numerous illustrations of artifacts, including hematite celts. However, in the end, no definite candidates were identified.

Figure 3 from Warren Moorehead's 1912 study of hematite implements. One of the three objects at the bottom may be Robert Peabody's hematite celt.
Figure 3 from Warren Moorehead’s 1912 study of hematite implements. One of the four objects at the bottom may be Robert Peabody’s hematite celt.

So, what happened to Robert Peabody’s hematite celt?

There are several possible explanations. One is that museum personnel recataloged the object in the 1940s after the introduction of a more sophisticated cataloging system that imposed a two-part numbering technique and avoided some of the confusion that might arise from a simple sequential numbering of objects (e.g., 1 through 70,000+, as Moorehead had done).

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

Another possibility is that the celt was stolen. In 1986 a thief named George B. McLaughlin gained access to museum collections across the Northeast, including the Peabody, as well as institutions in Worcester, Attleboro, Springfield, Deerfield, and at Yale University, before the FBI apprehended him. During his spree, McLaughlin amassed thousands of artifacts and removed their catalog numbers. Although many objects were recovered, there was confusion regarding which artifacts belonged to each museum. We currently have drawers of objects returned to us by the FBI.

Some of the Peabody Museum's artifacts from Ohio.
Some of the Peabody Museum’s artifacts from Ohio.

And so the search for Robert Peabody’s hematite celt continues, illustrating the challenges of locating an object from an older collection that has limited intellectual and physical control. A multiyear effort began in 2013 to gain better intellectual and physical control with the help of Abbot Academy Association grant funding for a new database system. The effort will continue for years to come as collections are cataloged and storage is upgraded.