The Peabody’s annual report for academic year 2020-2021 has just been released! This report highlights the Peabody’s response to challenges brought by COVID-19 and all we’ve been able to accomplish despite a global pandemic, including the creation of our Diggin’ In Digital Lecture Series (partnered with the Massachusetts Archaeological Society), virtual lessons and digital resources developed by the Peabody, completion of the Peabody’s Collection Inventory Project, and continuing our NAGPRA consultation and repatriation work.
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 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 archives. His 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.
When thinking about the collections held by the Peabody Institute, I often also think of Warren K. Moorehead. Regular readers of the blog (I know there are a few of you out there!) are certainly familiar with his name and how tightly he is intertwined with the Peabody. To recognize Moorehead’s 155th birthday this week, I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of his story.
Throughout his career, Moorehead was a prolific writer, excavator, and collector. His large-scale archaeological surveys and excavations included the Arkansas River Valley, northwest Georgia, the Southwest, and coastal and interior Maine. His work directly contributed to expanding the Peabody’s collection by approximately 200,000 objects.
However, it must be acknowledged that Moorehead’s field and collection techniques are quite shocking by modern archaeological and museum standards. Early in his career, particularly in Ohio and Georgia, Moorehead would use horse drawn plows to cut into carefully constructed mounds. Often, his work was destructive yet superficial – he would level or bisect the mounds and collect what was of interest to him with relatively little note taking.
Moorehead was also a dealer – he regularly facilitated trades between institutions and with private collectors to fund his own work or to “remove duplicates.” Definitely something that would never be done now. And, it created lots of headaches.
It is perplexing to me that Moorehead was able to see the injustices done to contemporary tribes, but continue to be seemingly unaware that the material that he avidly collected and traded was connected to those same people. I firmly believe that Moorehead is an excellent candidate for a riveting biography. Anyone out there have the time to write it??
In January, the HVAC system in one of our collection storage areas malfunctioned. Repair work required that the system was turned off for several days. During this time, we monitored the objects for any changes. One vessel caught our eye.
Thanks to Marla’s experience with the collection, she noticed that previously documented spalling due to salt efflorescence was likely developing further (see figure). A quick look at older photographs confirmed that the damage had indeed progressed. The vessel was stored on open shelving and an inspection of the area around the object determined that no fragments had fallen completely off. We decided to rehouse the vessel in a box to buffer it against changes in environment during the current or future failure of the HVAC system.
Since I’ve encountered salt efflorescence a few times, I thought I’d add a bit more information. Porous materials, like bone, ceramic and stone, can absorb salt from various sources. Once inside, salts can be dissolved by moisture in the air through a process called deliquescence. Eventually, the water evaporates and the salt recrystallizes. In very porous objects, the salt crystals form on the surface. In objects where the surface is less porous than the underlying body, recrystallized salt can generate massive forces than can spall or pit the surface (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 page 1). In worst case scenarios objects can disintegrate.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, salts can enter porous objects through groundwater or seawater in buried or submerged contexts (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 page 1). They are a major source of salt in archaeological collections such as ours. In the case of ceramics, food and water stored in objects during their pre-burial use life can also leave salt residues (Source: Minnesota Historical Society Page 2). Salts can be introduced to ceramics during manufacture through additives that modify the clay body and through water (Source: Minnesota Historical Society Page 2, Source: Digital Fire). Even clay itself can be salty. When I lived in Arizona, I can remember hearing a potter discuss that they would check their clay by tasting it to make sure it wasn’t too salty.
After ceramic objects are recovered during excavation, salts can continue to be added in archaeological labs and museums. Hydrochloric acid has been used to remove calcium carbonate, an insoluble salt that adheres to ceramics during burial that impedes analysis. An unintended result of this process creates calcium chloride, a soluble salt, which is absorbed into the ceramic matrix (Source: The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works- Studies in Conservation Page 172, Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 Page 2). I would be highly doubtful of repairs that were done years ago. Without detailed treatment records, who knows what glues were used and what contaminants they might introduce.
Deliquescence and evaporation of soluble salts can be greatly diminished by keeping the storage environment below 60% relative humidity and by reducing humidity and temperature fluctuations (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 05/06 Page 3). However, there is a continued danger of efflorescence. Display cases and storage shelving made from wood have the potential to release acetic acids. This volatile organic compound has the potential to interact with soluble salts leading to precipitation even in controlled storage environments (Source: ICOM Committee for Conservation Page 640).
There may not be quick or inexpensive solutions to mitigate efflorescence. Our current plans for renovation of Peabody collections spaces call for the replacement of wood drawers and cabinets, but this is expensive. In regards to removing salt from objects, the traditional method is through a desalination wash or soak, wherein the object is immersed in distilled or deionized water until the salt level is reduced. This is a complicated process and shouldn’t be done without involving a conservator. Desalination risks removing important residues and compounds that can reduce the usefulness of the objects for future analysis and weaken the object (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 05/06 Page 3).
Here at the Peabody we’ve taken steps to remove salt through dry brushing, environmental controls, and monitoring. In the future, we have plans to improve our storage space so that these issues will no longer be a concern.
Contributed by Marla Taylor and John Bergman-McCool
Every museum is full of stories and story-tellers. Our recent work in the inventory process has uncovered an old story that always gets my attention (Marla’s). But, before I begin, I must give credit to Eugene Winter, the Peabody’s late Curator Emeritus, who was a story-teller extraordinaire – I am sharing a shortened version of his memories. (Another time, I will tell you about the time Gene cooked his lunch in an active volcano or walked on a whale. The man was full of stories!)
In 1986, Gene welcomed a man named George McLaughlin into the Peabody. McLaughlin claimed to be creating a handbook on archaeology for the local Boy Scouts and was looking to photograph objects in the Peabody’s collection. As a teacher himself, Gene was happy to encourage this project and made arrangements for McLaughlin to return a couple weeks later to access the collection.
However, McLaughlin instead returned the next day and told the administrative assistant, Betty Steinert, that Gene had authorized him to examine the collection – alone. Over the next three days, McLaughlin helped himself to an unknown number of objects from the collection.
Less than a week later, Gene received a call from security at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. A man matching McLaughlin’s description had stolen artifacts from a grad student’s work area and ran out of the museum before he could be caught. Because McLaughlin had now crossed state lines, the FBI became involved.
Gene and Betty remembered that McLaughlin had used the Peabody’s phone to call his wife about being late for dinner. This crucial piece of information allowed the FBI to locate McLaughlin’s home. Fortunately, McLaughlin was arrested soon after these incidents and all materials in his possession were seized.
In total, McLaughlin victimized six institutions in New England and stole thousands of artifacts valued at over $800,000 in 1986 ($1.9 million in 2020 dollars). He intermingled the artifacts based on his own system and systematically removed their catalog numbers (often the best clue to their original home). By so drastically removing the objects from their context, it was a challenge to return the objects to their appropriate homes.
McLaughlin had kept his own version of a ledger identifying the objects and where they came from. And fortunately, Gene was able to recognize a dozen or so very specific objects from the Peabody’s collection. The FBI left it up to the victimized institutions to divide the material in McLaughlin’s collection. The Peabody ended up with nearly 1600 objects from McLaughlin.
Ultimately, McLaughlin was sentenced to a three year suspended sentence and four years of probation. He was also fined $10,000 and ordered to pay a small restitution to each institution.
And therein lays the origin of the Peabody’s FBI collection.
Having come across these materials during our inventory and rehousing project it was time for them to be cataloged by myself (John). One challenge confronted us: McLaughlin had removed any identifying numbers applied by the museums and applied stickers with his own numbers. As the objects were cataloged, a careful inspection was made for remnants of original numbers not completely obliterated during the removal process. There were many with tantalizing hints of legible numbers. In the end though, there were just a few objects with numbers clear enough to associate with our museum’s ledger.
The remaining majority of objects needed new numbers. As mentioned above, McLaughlin had organized the objects and transcribed them into a ledger of sorts. His ledger was too general to make a one-to-one comparison with our own museum’s ledger, but it served as the outline of our numbering system. We added our own prefix, indicating that these objects were stolen and returned by the FBI and followed that with the McLaughlin number. In that way the objects will always carry that part of their strange history.
To many institutions, the annual report is one of the most important pieces of information. A single document, yet a powerful tool in communicating an institution’s performance during each fiscal year. Each fall the Peabody presents their annual report to the public, highlighting their achievements, overall performance of the past year, as well as their goals and objectives for the coming year. Not only does the annual report provide a snap shot of what a year at the Peabody looks like, it provides transparency of the institution to the public and its local community.
The making of the Peabody annual report includes several staff members who collaborate in the documentation, writing, and gathering of the material across several departments within the Peabody. These include: Administration (Ryan, Director), Education and Outreach (Lindsay, Curator of Education and Outreach and Ryan, Director), Collections (Marla, Curator of Collections), and Peabody Donors and Support (Beth, PA Director for Museums and Educational Outreach). Once the information is gathered and content is written, I take over to design the overall layout of the annual report.
Using the Adobe InDesign software, I create each page spread using the information that staff give me. When designing, it is important to always keep in mind the overall flow of information and that the format/design features are cohesive throughout the document. Something new I incorporated into the report this year were black and white photographs from the Peabody archives. I used these photographs as transitions between specific sections of the report to provide a natural break, while still maintaining the overall flow of the report. I also had a little fun creating a new page dedicated to our collections remote work during Covid-19.
I really enjoy designing the annual report and watching all the work Peabody staff put into the year unfold with the design of each page. Not only does it provide an opportunity for each department to feature their success and performance, its where all the Peabody’s work finally comes together.
You can view the 2020 Peabody Annual Report here. Enjoy!
Returning to the Peabody Institute on a more regular basis this month led me to rediscovery an interesting little artifact on the window of my office. When I first joined the Peabody in 2012, my colleagues pointed this out to me, but it has remained largely covered up by window blinds since an initial peek.
The artifact in question is a scratched signature on a glass windowpane: S. P. Moorehead. Singleton Peabody Moorehead was our first curator’s youngest son.
When I first saw this little relic of past occupants, I imagined the younger Moorehead scratching the signature using his father’s emerald ring. That ring is a prominent feature in pictures of Moorehead, and I can imagine a mischievous child borrowing the ring and testing the stone’s hardness on the nearest handy surface: his father’s office window.
Robert Singleton Peabody, our founder, lent his name to the younger Moorehead. In fact, S. P. Moorehead was born in October 1900, right around the time that his father Warren and Robert Peabody were imagining the Department of Archaeology, our name in the early part of the twentieth century. Robert had befriended the elder Moorehead and hired him about a decade earlier to help amass a collection of Native American objects. He also provided convalescent facilities when Moorehead was recovering from tuberculosis. In fact, Singleton Moorehead was born at Saranac, New York where his father was recovering at Peabody’s cabin.
So who was Singleton Peabody Moorehead? He grew up on Hidden Field Road on the Phillips Academy campus, and graduated from the school in 1918. During his time at Phillips, Singleton, or “Sing,” played football, swam, and served as art editor for the Academy’s yearbook Pot-Pourri. He also participated in archaeological projects, including Alfred V. Kidder’s excavations at Pecos Pueblo, New Mexico. Both of Warren Moorehead’s sons, Ludwig and Singleton, served in World War I. After a brief military service, Singleton attended Harvard, where he received undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture (BA in 1922 and M. Arch. in 1927). At Harvard, he continued his association with archaeologists, including a friendship with Philip Phillips. One wonders to what extent Moorehead’s exposure to archaeology prepared him for the Colonial Williamsburg project that became his life’s work?
Singleton joined the Boston architectural firm Perry, Shaw and Hepburn in 1928 and almost immediately began work at the firm’s field office in Williamsburg, Virginia. Here he was involved in the restoration work of Colonial Williamsburg, ultimately joining the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1934, where he worked as director of architecture from 1944 through 1948, and then as a consultant. So, if you’ve visited Colonial Williamsburg, you know Singleton Moorehead’s work! Perhaps one of the best-known structures at Colonial Williamsburg is the capitol building, reconstructed based on elevations, archival descriptions, and archaeological investigations conducted under the director of the Perry, Shaw and Hepburn architects. Another Colonial Williamsburg favorite is Chowning’s Tavern; a 2016 newspaper story on the 1939 reconstruction attributes much of the character of Chowning’s to Moorehead, who was interested in the quotidian aspects of eighteenth century architecture.
He married Cynthia Beverley Tucker Coleman, a descendant of St. George Tucker, a colonial resident of Williamsburg. A New York Times (December 12, 1964) obituary notes his involvement in many other historic preservation and architectural projects, as well as contributions to two books, Colonial Williamsburg: Its Buildings and Gardens (1949) and The Public Buildings of Williamsburg (1958), and authorship of many articles. One such crossover project was Kidder’s revisit of his Pecos excavation, including detailed architectural plans executed by Singleton and published as one of the Peabody Foundation “blue books” in 1958.
S. P. Moorehead died in December 1964 and is interred in the Bruton Parish Church cemetery in Williamsburg.
Lounsbury, Carl R. (1990) Beaux-Arts Ideals and Colonial Reality: The Reconstruction of Williamsburg’s Capitol. Journal of the Society of Architectural History 49(4):373-389.
New York Times (1964) Singleton P. Moorehead Dead: Colonial Williamsburg Planner. December 13, 1964, p. 86.
Three distinctive oil paintings attributed to artist Henry Inman (1801-1846) are among the collections of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology. These paintings are part of a larger group of portraits created by Inman to produce the hand colored lithographs that appeared in the three volumes of The History of Indian Tribes of North America (1836-1844) by Thomas McKenney and James Hall. Specifically, the Peabody paintings depict Petalesharo (90.181.10), Ki-On-Twog-Ky, or Cornplanter (90.181.11), and Mohongo and Child (90.181.12). The source material for the Inman paintings were original works created principally in Washington DC by portrait painter Charles Bird King (1785-1862). The bulk of the King originals were destroyed in a fire in 1865.
Today, original editions of the McKenney and Hall volumes and individual lithographs are valuable and highly sought after, but at the time the project was not a financial success. Many of the Inman portraits (at least 100 or more) were given to the Tilestone and Hollingsworth Paper Company of Milton, MA, who had supplied paper for the book project. The families of Edmund Tilestone and Amor Hollingsworth made a gift of the paintings to the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1882. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Harvard museum sold many of the Inman paintings in their collection, ultimately retaining twenty-five.
Comparison with the list of Harvard’s original holdings indicates that the three Inman portraits at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology did not come from that source. The frames also are quite different; the paintings at Harvard have simple wood frames, with descriptive plaques affixed, while those at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology have ornate frames with gold leaf. In correspondence on file, former museum director Richard S. MacNeish told then director James Bradley that the paintings were part of the original gift from Robert S. Peabody. Stebbins and Renn (2014:288) report that Harvard received 107 of the Inman paintings from the Tilestone and Hollingsworth heirs, but that Inman had originally painted 117 and the whereabouts of the remaining paintings is unclear. It is possible that Robert S. Peabody acquired the three paintings when they were exhibited in Philadelphia.
The paintings reflect the classical style of portraits painted in the nineteenth century, and do not attempt to portray people in an imagined “primitive” setting as the photographs of Edward S. Curtis do at the end of the century. Clothing and personal items reflect the blend of traditional and Anglo-European attire resulting from varying levels of cultural assimilation. History and Social Sciences instructor Marcelle Doheny uses the paintings in her senior elective, Race and Identity in Indian Country, and they were part of an independent student project in 2015-2016 that examined Anglo-European portrayals of Native Americans.
The biographical notes that accompany the McKenney and Hall publication provide additional details about the lives of these individuals, at least as documented by the editors. Mohongo’s (1809-1836) story is particularly striking, as she was one of a group of Osage persuaded to make a European tour in 1827. While in Europe, she gave birth to twins, but only one survived. The tour organizer, who had brought the Osage to Europe to perform as a Wild West Show, was arrested for debt in Paris, leaving the rest of the party to fend for themselves. Ultimately, the Marquis de Lafayette learned of the situation and arranged for passage back to North America. During the sea voyage more members of the party perished, but Mohongo and her child survived, ultimately arriving in Norfolk, Virginia, where Charles Bird King painted their portrait. We believe that the peace medal worn by Mohongo depicts Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time. Mohongo and her child made their way back to Missouri. The book, An Osage Journey to Europe, 1827-1830: Three French Accounts edited and translated by William Least Heat-Moon and James K. Wallace, documents the episode.
Several exhibits—for example, the Indian Gallery of Henry Inman, which toured museums from 2006 to 2012—have assembled small collections of the extant Inman paintings, but the examples at the Peabody have never been included, likely because curators and art historians have not known about them.
Christie’s East. 1981. American Paintings and Watercolors of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries (auction catalog). New York.
Ewers, John C. 1954. Charles Bird King, painter of Indian visitors to the nation’s capital. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1953. Pp. 463-473. Publication 4149. Government Printing Office, Washington DC.
Gerald Peters Gallery. 2008. Henry Inman, Twenty-four Indian Portraits (catalog). New York.
Gerdts, William H., and Carrie Rebora. 1987. The Art of Henry Inman. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Stebbins, Theodore E., Jr., and Melissa Renn. 2014. American Paintings at Harvard, Volume 1: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826. Harvard Art Museums and Yale University Press, New Haven.
Viola, Herman J. 1976. The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King. Smithsonian Institution Press and Doubleday & Company, New York.
Viola, Herman J. 1983. Indians of North America: Paintings by Henry Inman from the D. Harold Byrd, Jr. Collection. Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY.
The Peabody lost a great friend with the recent passing of John Lowell Thorndike ’45 (1926 – 2020).
John was critical in the recent history of the Peabody, serving as chair of the Visiting Committee in the 1990s and early 2000s. This was a turbulent period, seeing everything from the reopening of the Peabody in 1990, engagement with Native American tribes through repatriation, and an attempt to become a public-facing institution with relevance on campus, culminating in a near-closure in 2002. He and Marshall Cloyd ’58, played a big part in the decision to keep the Peabody open and refocus our efforts on programming for Phillips Academy students.
I was fortunate in getting to know John a little, as he would visit campus at least once a year to attend the luncheon presentation of the Augustus Thorndike Jr. Internship, which he founded with his brother Nicholas (PA Class of 1951). Students selected as interns spent a year preparing a historical biographic sketch of an interesting Phillips Academy person, often an alumnus or faculty member.
John remained intensely interested in the activities of the Peabody in the years after 2002. He was particularly interested in our relationship with the Pueblo of Jemez and our continued work on repatriation of Native American ancestral remains and funerary belongings. We often had a chance to sit and talk before and after the luncheons, and John and I frequently had e-mail or phone exchanges after he received our monthly newsletter. John was particularly delighted when our ceramic artist friends from Jemez, Dominique and Maxine Toya, joined one of the Thorndike luncheons. They were on campus that week to work with Thayer Zaeder’s ceramics classes, continuing our long relationship with the pueblo.
John also shared with me his pleasure in seeing the publication of our book, Glory, Trouble, and Renaissance at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, by the University of Nebraska Press in 2018. John was not able to attend our launch party at the Peabody, but he called me shortly after receiving his copy in the mail and expressed his delight at our success, the considerable work done by Peabody director Malinda Stafford Blustain and Peabody staff members. He grudgingly and humbly acknowledged that he had some small role in that success, in the understated style of the New England gentleman that he was.
Our condolences to John’s family and friends. He will be missed.
Early in his archaeological career Richard “Scotty” MacNeish, the Peabody’s fifth director, used funds from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to investigate caves and rock shelters in northern Mexico. MacNeish had found that some of these sites contained preserved plant remains, basketry, twine, and other perishable artifacts while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Early in 1949 his crew chief discovered tiny corn cobs in La Perra Cave in the Sierra de Tamaulipas. The rich biodiversity of this area in northern Mexico, near the Gulf Coast and Texas border, had attracted other scientists interested in the flora and fauna of the so-called cloud forests. Perhaps it is not surprising that the ancient people of the area experimented with plants, including early crops like corn. MacNeish’s work in the Sierra de Tamaulipas pushed corn origins back to 4,500 years ago (about half of the now-acknowledged age).
The Peabody houses a small type collection of materials from MacNeish’s work in Tamaulipas, including artifacts, photographs, and fieldnotes. Last year we collaborated with the Boston Public Library’s Digital Commonwealth project to digitize the archival records associated with MacNeish’s Tamaulipas project, primarily to facilitate access by Mexican archaeologists working in the region. Those files are available on InternetArchive. We also digitized many of the photos from the project, available via PastPerfect Online. Recently, Peabody staff member Emma Lavoie has been cataloging the artifacts from Tamaulipas. Looking over Emma’s shoulder one day at the many preserved plant remains, I was surprised to see part of an ancient orchid!
The Orchidaceae are one of the largest families of flowering plants, known to most of us from the cultivated examples with colorful and fragrant blooms available at grocery stores and garden centers. Commercial growing of orchids as houseplants began in the nineteenth century as the demand for “parlor plants” increased and diverse hybrids were created, many with fantastically shaped and colored blooms. Most of the orchids available for sale are of the genus Phalaenopsis. In the wild there is considerable diversity too, with terrestrial and epiphytic examples and a range of shapes, sizes, colors, and scents. Perhaps the best-known orchid is vanilla, a terrestrial form from Mexico.
We do not know what genus or species the dried pseudobulbs and roots of the Tamaulipas orchid represent. Notes on file show that botanist C. E. Smith, a student of Paul Mangelsdorf at Harvard, identified the orchid. Mangelsdorf worked closely with MacNeish on his early corn project, and Smith pioneered the field of archaeological botany. Quick searches of the literature did not reveal many examples of archaeological specimens of orchids in the Americas. We do know from some of the few preserved screen-fold books made by the Mixtec, Aztec, and their contemporaries that a variety of orchids were used in medicine, some may been collected for their hallucinogenic properties, and others were used to produce a special glue used in featherwork.
Carlos Ossenbach, in his 2005 study “History of the Orchids in Central America, Part 1: From Prehispanic Times to the Independence of the New Republics,” laments that the destruction of the majority of the screen-fold books by the Spanish also destroyed considerable information on the use of orchids in Mesoamerica. Between 1547 and 1577 Bernardino de Sahagún compiled his History of Things of New Spain (also called the Florentine Codex), which includes considerable information on the use of plants, including orchids, among the Aztec. Here Sahagún documents the use of the Encyclia pastoris orchid for glue making, when he describes how the pseudobulbs of the orchid are cut and soaked in water to produce a sticky substance called tzacutli. The complete codex can be viewed online: https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10096/view/1/35/ Researchers have documented at least twenty-three different orchid species and their use by the Aztec, Maya, and their neighbors, primarily as medicines, adhesives, fixers for pigments, and as ornamental specimens.
The Tamaulipas orchid reminded me of the many terrestrial and aerial orchids that we often encountered at archaeological sites in Florida. Limestone and shelly soils encouraged their growth. It also brought back memories of my work at the Miami Circle site in late 1999. During the fieldwork I stayed with my parents and I was fortunate to accompany my mom on an orchid ramble one Saturday. A bus packed with orchid enthusiasts left Fort Lauderdale and visited at least half a dozen orchid growers in Homestead and Redlands, south of Miami. During the ramble we entered a raffle. I was surprised to receive a call Sunday evening. The gentleman calling informed me I had won a raffle prize and asked if I could collect it after work on Monday. After another intense day at the Miami Circle I navigated my Ford F-150 long-bed pickup through Miami’s crowded streets, onto Florida’s Turnpike, and then onto the Homestead extension. It was dark by the time I found the orchid grower. We entered the massive greenhouse and the grower–the gentleman who had called me the night before–gestured to one of the tables covered with orchids. I assumed I had won one of the orchids. He corrected me in a mellifluous English accent, I had won ALL of the orchids on the bench, approximately 100! He helped me load them into the F-150 and I headed north. My parents were disbelieving upon my return home. After I persuaded them to come outside, however, they acknowledged the enormity of the prize. My dad helped me unload and we struggled to find room in my mom’s orchid shade house. Some are still thriving today, while others were lost to hurricanes.
I’m interested in our Tamaulipas orchid. Could we determine the genus and species? Would that help us better understand why the orchid was in a cave deposit? Maybe as a drug, or for glue making, or as a mind-altering hallucinogen? Perhaps we can connect with a specialist and answer some of these questions!