Moving the Big Ones

Contributed by Marla Taylor

I have always thought of the Peabody’s collections storage as one of those sliding tile puzzles.  You have to keep shifting pieces that look like they are in the right place in order to end up with the correct completed final image.  Sometimes it seems never ending, but each shift makes the space more organized, cleaner, and more efficient.

A few months ago, I was faced with trying to find space for a couple dozen boxes that we agreed to store temporarily (maybe a year or so).  These objects needed discrete storage in a place that would not be disturbed.  This was a challenge, but one worth tackling.  After some thought, Rachel (Collections Assistant) came up with the idea of moving our large groundstone collection – that storage was discrete and in an area of the room that we rarely needed to interact with.  Perfect.

You may be asking yourself, What is a large groundstone?  Groundstone objects are stone tools that are formed by grinding and pecking away the larger stone into the desired shape.  These can include axe heads, portable petroglyphs, weights, as well as manos and metates.  The largest of these are often the metates, or grinding stones, that were used to prepare wheat and corn flour. Some of them are easily 40+ pounds!

The first task was dismantling the previous storage bays – a fun day with power drills and a sawzall.  Then I created a plan to install new shelving inside the bays that would be sturdy enough to support all the weight we were moving.  The photos may just look like shelves, but I am proud of all the precise measuring, leveling, and cutting with a circular saw and jigsaw that went into this project.  When we installed the shelves, everything fit perfectly.

To move the 183 objects we had to load everything onto trays and wheel them across the storage space – some were much too heavy to carry that distance.  A quick reinventory assigned everything a new storage location and the process was complete.  All told, this move took about a week.

I can’t pretend for a second that I did this project alone – massive thanks and credit to Rachel, Emily, John, and Ryan for their insights, object moving abilities, and skills with power tools!

Oversize storage
Look at those beautiful shelves!

Friends of the Peabody Repurpose More Drawers

Contributed by Emma Cook

We have had a tremendous interest in our old storage drawers in the last few months. As collections were rehoused in new cartons, we were able to give away over 100 drawers!

Our last blog featured drawers that underwent cosmetic changes, such as being repainted and stained as well as drawers repurposed into storage, furniture, and a jewelry organizer. You can see these projects here.

We are pleased to share that the Peabody Collection Team has reached their end-of-year goal in rehousing and inventorying 1,444 wooden drawers, which is about 67% of the Peabody’s collection. This means staff is about two-thirds of the way through the entire inventory of the Peabody’s collections!

The vast majority of the old drawers have now found new homes and purposes with many friends of the Peabody. We not only thank you all for your interest and for taking these drawers, but for giving these drawers a new life.

This month’s feature of drawers covers projects both big and small. Our first feature uses the drawers as wedding decorations, creating a photo capture area for guests to take photos and leave a message for the celebrating couple.

Another project is tea trays – a great DIY gift idea for family and friends this holiday season!

An example of one of the larger-scale projects for these drawers is a studio storage wall. This unique idea is fashionable as it is functional – doubling as both a storage space and accent wall for this home studio.

We have also received a lot of interest and support from our fellow Phillips Academy faculty and staff. Some of our wooden drawers have been used for material at the new Maker’s Space for students at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library on campus. Keep an eye out for our next blog update showcasing more of these drawer projects! If you have repurposed some of the Peabody drawers, we would love to see your creations! Please share your photos with us at elavoie@andover.edu.

Boxes in the Attic

As some of you blog may know, the biggest project currently being done at the Peabody is the complete inventory of all of our collections. In previous blog entries (these can be read here and here), we have discussed the process, including the fact that we move the artifacts from the original wood storage drawers to custom made gray Hollinger boxes-generously supported by the Abbot Academy Fund. When we received the shipments of these boxes, they were stored off-site in two storage units that the Peabody had rented in town. These two storage units perfectly held all of our boxes and everything has been right in the world.

Image of new storage cartons and old wooden storage drawers.
Side by side comparison of new gray boxes and older wooden drawers.

A few weeks ago, I was up in the attic of the Peabody doing a pest inspection with Waltham Services and I had an idea. I went to my supervisor Marla Taylor and I said, “Do you know what would be an interesting idea? If we rearranged what is up in the attic, closed out both storage unit accounts and moved the rest of the boxes up into the attic.” By this point in time, the first of our two storage units was getting pretty empty, with maybe 15-20 large boxes remaining inside. I told Marla that if this idea worked out, it would benefit the Peabody in two major ways (and possibly more, but these are the big ones).

First of all, we wouldn’t have to pay the monthly fee for storage units anymore. This would ultimately save the Peabody a chunk of change every fiscal year, and who doesn’t want to save money wherever they can? When we had the storage units, we used to have to reserve a rally wagon (an SUV owned by Phillips Academy that only certified drivers can operate) and drive over to the storage unit. With that method we could only fit a maximum of six boxes (each containing 12 gray boxes) into the back of the SUV. Additionally, we would save on the cost of renting the rally wagons, which we have been using more frequently lately since we have three people working on the inventory.

Second, anytime we needed more gray boxes for the inventory, we would be able to just walk upstairs to the attic and grab them. The only way this idea wouldn’t work was if the boxes wouldn’t fit in the attic. Marla thought about this idea for a minute and we had a look around the attic to see if this was feasible. After a few minutes with a measuring tape, she said she thought that this idea was great and had serious potential to work. This response was of no surprise to me, because it is well known that I only have good ideas. I received yet another gold star for my many efforts and great ideas.

My Gold Stars
These are my gold stars for all the good ideas I have come up with. I cherish them.

We then strategized how to get the Peabody ready for the influx of these boxes of boxes.  First, we needed to empty the first storage unit. This involved John and Emily making multiple runs to the unit while Marla, Emma and I unpacked the gray boxes and organized them around the basement. All of these gray boxes managed to fit in various places downstairs. This was great! It meant the attic wouldn’t have to house anything but the second unit.  A week before the big move, we set about cleaning the attic to make as much space as possibly for the contents of the final storage unit. With the help of work duty students, Marla, Emma, Emily and John, the attic was cleaned and looked like a barren wasteland, but a beautiful one that was about to be filled with boxes.

Finally, we rented a U-Haul truck and set to work.  We had set aside an entire day to facilitate this move. Marla and John drove the truck to the storage unit and filled it with as many boxes as possible. When they pulled up outside the Peabody, all hands were on deck. We got all of the boxes into the lobby and started carrying them up to the second floor landing. Marla and John left to go fill the truck with a second load. Once all of the boxes were up on the second floor, Emily, Emma and I started the move to the attic. This part seemed like it was going to be difficult because the attic stairs are very narrow and the large boxes are very wide. But then, I had the BRILLIANT idea to use the stairs as a ramp and literally push the boxes up the stairs. This made the operation go so much faster than originally anticipated.

Boxes in the Attic 1
Seriously, look at how great these boxes look in the attic.

When all was finally said and done, this move that we expected to take all day (and possibly longer) was accomplished in THREE HOURS. GO TEAM – these boxes were MEANT to go into this attic. We were exhausted, but totally deserving of the Indian Buffet lunch we decided to enjoy. The day was a huge success for the Peabody Collections team. Now the attic looks beautiful and it will be much easier for us to restock on boxes when we need them.

Abbot Academy Fund continues to support the Peabody Institute

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Have you ever heard of the Abbot Academy Fund?  (if you said “yes” from one of our earlier blog posts – Gold Star!)  If not, please allow me to introduce them.

One of the first educational institutions in New England founded for girls and women, Abbot Academy opened its doors in 1829 and flourished until Abbot Academy and Phillips Academy merged on June 28, 1973.  At that point, the Abbot Academy Fund (AAF) was established with $1 million from the Academy’s unrestricted funds.  The fund operates as an internal foundation with its own board of directors.  Its goal is to preserve the history, standards, tradition, and name of Abbot Academy by funding new educational ventures at the combined school.

The Abbot Academy Fund has been a foundational supporter of the Peabody Institute, especially in recent years.  With grants going back to 1990, the AAF has given the Peabody over $250,000!  I was recently reminded of this incredible generosity when the AAF once again provided support to complete the transcription of the Peabody’s original accession ledgers.

Looking back over all the successful grants, the AAF has supported a real variety of projects at the Peabody – everything from exhibition support to object conservation to equipment purchase to expeditionary learning trips.  However, the largest portion of their patronage has gone to support cataloging and rehousing the collection.  They provided funds to purchase a server in 2014 to allow for an online catalog.  And again in 2016-2018 to acquire the boxes needed to rehouse the artifacts and gain physical control over the collection.  All told, the AAF has awarded us over $100,000 in the last ten years!

Basically, the Peabody Institute would not look or operate the way it does now without the incredible support from the Abbot Academy Fund.  I can’t thank them enough!

So much work at the Peabody is brought to you by a grant from the Abbot Academy Fund, continuing Abbot’s tradition of boldness, innovation, and caring.

Introducing Our Newest Team Member

Contributed by Emily Hurley

My name is Emily and I have been working as the new Inventory Specialist at the Peabody Institute for about a month now. My job is to assist with the current inventory and rehousing project. My day to day work consists of moving artifacts from their old wooden storage drawers into new archival boxes which better preserve the objects.

I grew up in a small town called Andover, New York (I know, how ironic) before moving to Buffalo to pursue my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. From there, I spent a year in Florence, Italy doing coursework for my MA in Museum Studies which I completed this past August. During my time in Italy, I learned collections care and management from some of the most famous museums in the world including the Uffizi Gallery and the Vatican Museum. This is only my first position working in a museum but I have completed museum internships back home in Buffalo as well as in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Emily Hurley photo
This is me overlooking the beautiful city of Florence!

I have always been passionate about archaeology and indigenous studies so I am excited to be in a position where I can apply my knowledge of both and continue to learn more. Even though I have only been here a few weeks, I have learned so much already. It is amazing to be able to work with and handle objects every day which are hundreds of years old and come from all over the continent. Objects that I have been studying for the past five years are now a part of my everyday life and it is truly such a rewarding experience.

Overall I am very excited to be in this position and can’t wait to see what else I will learn and do during my time at the Peabody!

Wild Ride No More

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

Cups and Coaster
The collections environment before and after rehousing in archival boxes

Back in March I wrote a blog post summarizing efforts to rid collections objects of mold and salt uncovered during inventory and rehousing. We identified and isolated affected objects and cleaned them by dry brushing and vacuuming. The cleaned objects were rehoused in archival boxes that included a sachet of silica gel. The purpose of the gel is to reduce relative humidity (RH), thereby robbing mold and salt of the environmental conditions necessary for their growth. To better understand what the environment is like inside the boxes, we are monitoring their temperature and relative humidity with two data loggers. One is placed inside a box without silica gel and one is placed inside a box with silica gel. These conditions will be compared against a data logger that is recording general conditions in the basement not far from where these test boxes are located. We will be watching these data loggers over the coming year, but we already have some interesting results.

Temp and RH graph for John August 2019
Environmental Stats for April

First, the boxes are working well as a buffer against relative humidity cycles. The graph above shows RH and temperature for the month of April; the basement is shown in red and the boxes with and without silica are blue and yellow, respectively. In April the RH in the basement was quite volatile. However, the RH inside the boxes is remarkably tranquil in comparison. The boxes are exhibiting small daily shifts of 1 or 2%, which is acceptable. Keeping RH from shifting dramatically is an important factor in collections care. Organic materials such as basketry, bone, and wood are hygroscopic, meaning that they can absorb and release moisture in the air. Rapid and large changes in RH can cause organic materials to swell and contract leading to damage such as cracking or delamination. It is best to keep collections from experiencing RH shifts exceeding 10% over a given month and on that count the boxes are doing a great job. As they are found, the most sensitive organic collections are being moved to another part of the museum that has a better environment.

Layerd Storage
Layered Storage

The National Park Service recommends creating a layered approach to collections storage. Every enclosure within museum storage can act as an environmental buffer. The first enclosure is the building itself. It may seem pretty obvious, but keeping collections inside a building greatly reduces the effects of environmental factors. The same is true of every subsequent layer of enclosed storage. Here at the Peabody Institute we have wooden storage bays that, when closed, serve as another layer. The archival boxes act as a final layer.

 

Interestingly, the basement seems to be effective at buffering daily temperature cycles. The temperature in the basement has been hovering around 70 between February and June leaving little for the boxes to mediate.

Sachet
Silica Gel Sachets

The second finding of note is that the sachets of silica gel were spent faster than anticipated. As mentioned above sachets of silica gel were placed in the boxes with cleaned objects. The gel, in solid pebble-like form, starts out orange and as it absorbs water it changes to a deep blue. The expectation was that the gel would keep the RH at a reduced and steady level. The graph above shows that the silica gel was keeping relative humidity lower than that of the box without gel, but it is only a matter of a few percentage points. Most likely the boxes are not well enough sealed for the silica gel to more significantly moderate RH levels. The silica was active from mid-February until mid-April (see star on graph) when RH graphs inside both boxes started to match almost perfectly. A visual inspection in June indicated that the gel was spent. We replaced the silica in mid-June and it was spent within two weeks given the higher RH levels generally in the basement.

 

Our data shows that the boxes are acting as a significant buffer against potentially damaging cycles of increasing and decreasing RH levels. For now, we are forgoing replacing spent silica gel. Later in the fall we’ll see how the archival boxes work with our dehumidifiers at keeping mold and salt inducing RH at bay.

Halfway there…and funding for the finish!

Contributed by Marla Taylor

I am thrilled to share that we have officially inventoried half of the collection!

As of mid-June, the collections team has inventoried 1,079 artifact drawers – half of the 2,159 that hold our collection.  Those drawers translate to 243,967 individual artifacts that have been counted and rehoused in the process!

A massive “thank you” goes out to all of the staff and volunteers who have contributed to the inventory so far: Rachel Manning, John Bergman-McCool, Emma Cook, Annie Greco, Alex Hagler, Quinn Rosefsky, and dozens of work duty students.

With excitement and deep gratitude, we also announce that funding has been secured to complete the inventory by our target deadline of December 31, 2020.

The Oak River Foundation of Peoria, Illinois has renewed its support for a temporary inventory specialist for another two years.  Our deepest appreciation goes to the Oak River Foundation for its continued generosity and commitment to the Peabody’s goal of improving the intellectual and physical control of the museum’s collections.

But that is not all!

Barbara and Les Callahan have agreed to provide critical funding to extend the appointment of our current inventory specialist – John Bergman-McCool.  Les graduated from Phillips Academy in 1968 and is an active volunteer on campus. Barbara has served on the Peabody Advisory Committee since 2013.  Both have been steadfast advocates and supporters of our mission and we cannot thank them enough for providing this deeply meaningful gift.

We hope these acts 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 rwheeler@andover.edu or 978 749 4493.

Calling All Volunteers!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a museum? The Peabody, like many museums, has a small force of volunteers who dedicate a few hours each week to helping our staff further our work. We are currently looking to expand this group of volunteers.

Our volunteers have assisted us with a huge number of projects. We currently have one volunteer who works with our textile collection. In a museum setting, it is very important to protect artifacts from pests that can occasionally work their way into the building. Our textile artifacts are particularly susceptible to the damage from carpet beetle and clothes moth larvae. An infestation of these pests can completely destroy a textile collection without proper intervention and pest management. In order to stay on top of any potential pest problems, one of our volunteers systematically goes through our textiles and inspects them for evidence of damage, insect excrement, and live specimens. This involves vacuuming the textiles, inspecting them, and putting them through a freezing process designed to kill living pests. Once this two week process is completed, the textiles are removed from the freezer, isolated, and then inspected again for any signs of life. Once we are satisfied that pests are not present, the objects are returned to the collections storage space. Our volunteer has done an excellent job with this, and has made significant process on this project.

Our other current volunteer is a P.A. alumnus who works on a wide variety of projects. One of the most important projects is our complete inventory of the collection. We hope to renovate the Peabody in the next few years and before we do that, we need to have a completed inventory of our collections. This involves inventory of our storage drawers and recording information about collections, including objects present, count, geographic origin, and current storage location.  Volunteers can help with this most important project.

In addition to helping out with the inventory, volunteers help out as needed across the Peabody. Other projects include organizing portions of the archives for researchers, pulling out and putting away objects for classes, creating labels for our artifact boxes, and transcribing catalog cards into a digital system. There is never a shortage of work to be done at the Peabody!

If this sounds like an opportunity that you would be interested in, feel free to contact me with for more information at rmanning@andover.edu. I would be glad to speak to anyone about potentially volunteering for us!

Fowled in Collection

Contributed by Marla Taylor

This skeleton is from a site near Glorieta, New Mexico – just southeast of Santa Fe – and collected by Alfred Kidder during his work at Pecos Pueblo.

As discussed in a previous blog, The Macaw Factor, the presence of macaws in the southwest is certainly note-worthy.  These birds have a natural habitat approximately 1000 miles to the south and were clearly transported to the region as status symbols.  They may have been kept for their feathers or displayed as a sign of wealth and connections.

Two scarlet macaws
Scarlet macaws

As we continue to move through the collection, who knows what we will find next!

Further reading:

Hill, Erica. “The Contextual Analysis of Animal Interments and Ritual Practice in Southwestern North America.” Kiva 65, no. 4 (2000): 361-98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30246334.

Wu, Katherine J. “A Macaw Breeding Center Supplied Prehistoric Americans With Prized Plumage.” Smithsonian.com, August 13, 2018.

 

Half-Life: Radiocarbon Dating Tehuacán Carbon Samples

Contributed by Emma Cook

In my last blog I discussed soil analysis and its importance in dating and understanding a site. Another form of analysis used in the Tehuacán Archaeological-Botanical Project by Richard “Scotty” MacNeish was a process called radiocarbon dating, a technique developed by University of Chicago physicist Willard Libby. Carbon samples were collected during excavation and sent for carbon dating to be used for the Tehuacán Chronology Project.

There are two techniques for dating in archaeological sites: relative and absolute dating. Relative dating, in a stratigraphic context, is the idea that objects closer to the surface are more recent in time relative to objects found deeper in the ground. This relates to the law of superposition, which in its plainest form, states soil layers in undisturbed sequences will have the oldest materials at the bottom of the sequence and the newest material closer to the surface. Although this form of dating can work well in certain cases, it does not work for all.

Jars of Carbon Samples from various sites in the Tehuacán Valley.
Jars of Carbon Samples from various sites in the Tehuacán Valley.

Many sites include soil layers that have been disturbed and this can happen several ways. Natural disasters, such as floods, can erase top layers of sites. Rodents can move around layers in a site as they burrow underground, sometimes moving items from one context to another. Even current human activity can change the stratigraphy of a site through construction, post holes, and pits.

This takes us to our second dating technique. Absolute dating represents the absolute age of a sample before the present. Examples of objects that can be used to find absolute dates are historical documents and calendars. However, when working in an archaeological site without documents, it is hard to determine an absolute date. If a site has organic material present, radiocarbon dating can be used to determine an absolute date. Radiocarbon dating is a universal dating technique that is used around the world and can be used to date materials ranging from about 400 to 50,000 years old. Radiocarbon dating may even work on very recent materials.

Part of this carbon sample sent to Isotopes lab for radiocarbon dating.
Part of this carbon sample sent to Isotopes lab for radiocarbon dating.

Organisms such as plants and animals all contain radiocarbon (14C). When these organisms die, they stop exchanging carbon with the environment. When this occurs, they begin to lose amounts of 14C overtime through a process called radioactive decay. The half-life of 14C is about 5,730 years. Radiocarbon dating measures the amount of stable and unstable carbon in a sample to determine its absolute date. As a result, the older the organic material, the less 14C it has relative to stable versions of the isotope.

The carbon samples recovered from the Tehuacán Valley were collected specifically with this in mind. Many of these samples had labels or notes stating that some of each sample was sent to labs for radiocarbon testing. The carbon samples are organic material and their properties of radiocarbon were used to determine the age of the material, which in turn, helped date each site.

Map of the Tehuacán Valley and some of the sites the carbon samples came from.
Map of the Tehuacán Valley and some of the sites the carbon samples came from.

The following sites are represented in some of the jars of carbon samples I catalogued from the Tehuacán Archaeological-Botanical Project.

Site Number                        Site Name                     Radiocarbon years

Tc 35                                         El Riego                                 6800 to 5000 B.C.

Tc 50                                         Coxcatlan Cave                  5000 to 3400 B.C.

Tc 307                                      Abejas                                     3400 to 2300 B.C.

Tc 272                                      Purron Cave                          2300 to 1500 B.C.

Ts 204                                     Ajalpan                                     1500 to 800 B.C.

These results were published in Volume Four of MacNeish’s Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley: Chronology and Irrigation and can be found on Page 5. MacNeish and Tehuacán Chronology Project director, Frederick Johnson, selected carbon samples to be sent for testing, which resulted in the determination of 218 radiocarbon dates. Johnson played a prominent role in radiocarbon dating, serving as the chair of the Committee on Radioactive Carbon 14 set up by the American Anthropological Association. This project not only produced a chronology for the Tehuacán sequence of excavated sites, but later contributed (along with 400 additional radiocarbon dates) to the chronology for all of Mesoamerica. The dates, however, were made within the first two decades of radiocarbon dating and lack the accuracy and precision now available with newer techniques, especially with the older dates.

To read more about the Tehuacán Archaeological-Botanical Project and the Tehuacán Chronology Project visit Internet Archive.

Further Reading

Libby, Willard F. Radiocarbon Dating, 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1955. Print.

MacNeish, Richard S. et al., The Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley: Chronology and Irrigation. Vol. 4. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, 1972. Print.

Stromberg, Joseph. “A New Leap Forward for Radiocarbon Dating.” Smithsonian.com, October 18, 2012. Web. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-new-leap-forward-for-radiocarbon-dating-81047335/

Taylor, R.E. and Ofer Bar-Yosef. Radiocarbon Dating: An Archaeological Perspective. 2nd ed., Routledge, New York, NY, 2016. Print.