Tamaulipas Orchid

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

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).

A man in a white t-shirt and khaki pants sits in an excavation pit and removes samples.
Scotty MacNeish removes samples from La Perra Cave, Sierra de Tamaulipas, March 1949. Collection of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology 2018.0.0741.

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!

Image of dried plant remains in a labeled plastic bag.
Dried pseudobulbs and roots of orchid from Sierra de Tamaulipas. Collection of Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology 2019.6.396.

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.

Image of a page from an illuminated manuscript showing three scenes of Aztex featherwork in the left hand column.
Image of Aztec featherwork from Sahagun’s sixteenth century Florentine Codex.

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.

Image of pick and white orchids.
Orchids in Ryan Wheeler’s mom’s shadehouse, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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!

Early Sites

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Richard “Scotty” MacNeish (1918 – 2001) was a preeminent archaeologist of the mid to late twentieth century. Along with roles at the National Museum of Canada, the University of Calgary, and Boston University, Scotty was the fifth director of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology (now the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology). First associated with the Peabody in the early 1960s, he worked closely with Frederick Johnson and Douglas Byers, who assisted him with the Tehuacán Archaeological-Botanical Project, probing caves in central Mexico for the world’s earliest corn. Throughout his career, MacNeish sought the intertwined origins of agriculture and civilization, working in various parts of Mexico, Peru, China, Belize, and North America.

Image of Scotty MacNeish, wearing heavy black framed glasses and a tweed blazer holding a large, crude stone chopper tool and the end of a large sloth leg bone.
Richard “Scotty” MacNeish with a stone chopper tool and giant sloth bone fragment from Pikimachay Cave in highland Peru. MacNeish believed the earliest human occupation of the cave dated between 22,200 to 14,700 years ago.

Along with impressive ceramic chronologies and pretty old—if not the oldest—examples of corn, Scotty often also reported evidence of great human antiquity in the Americas. At a site highland Peru MacNeish claimed that the earliest levels had evidence of crude stone tools and Pleistocene megafauna dating to well over 14,000 years ago.

Image of Scotty MacNeish, an older, balding man with wire frame glasses using a jeweler's loupe to examine a point stone tool from Pendejo Cave, New Mexico. Bookshelves are in the background, slightly out of focus.
Richard “Scotty” MacNeish in February 1992 examines a stone chopper tool from Pendejo Cave in New Mexico.

At Pendejo Cave on the Fort Bliss military base in New Mexico he claimed even earlier dates, including occupation levels between 25,000 and 31, 000 years ago. This was at a time when Clovis—named for the type site of distinctive fluted spear points dating to around 12,000 to 13,000 years ago—was considered the earliest human occupation of the Americas. Scotty was a strong proponent of the pre-Clovis hypothesis, which now dominates in archaeology.

Image of brown road signs and Bureau of Land Management sign pointing the way to the Calico Hill Early Man Site. The background is the Mojave Desert of California, with low hills in the distance and dirt and desert plants in the foreground.
Signage for the Calico Hill Early Man Site near Yerma, California, May 1979. From a slide recently acquired by Ryan J. Wheeler.

But Scotty MacNeish wasn’t the only twentieth century archaeologist with claims for early sites. In the 1960s California archaeologist Ruth DeEtte Simpson recruited Louis Leakey to aid in investigation of a site on Bureau of Land Management property in the central Mojave Desert. This was the Calico Hill Early Man site, which produced crude chipped stone tools, some possibly dating between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago! As you might imagine, these early dates caused quite a stir and led many archaeologists to reject the Calico Hill site. Some argued about issues with dating, while others posited that the stone tools were really just natural phenomenon. Prior to his death in 1972, the Calico site may have caused a rift between Louis and Mary Leakey. And despite criticism, Simpson continued excavations.

Image of archaeologist Ruth Simpson, an older woman with short gray hair, a yellow plaid shirt, holding a plaque. In the background is an old field vehicle from the 1950s or 1960s.
Archaeologist Ruth “Dee” Simpson receiving an award on the twentieth reunion of the Calico Hill Early Man site excavations, November 1984. From a slide recently acquired by Ryan J. Wheeler.

A conference on the site failed to garner critical support from other archaeologists—many lauded the careful techniques employed, but balked at the early dates (see report by Walter Shuiling 2015). In his 1978 review of early sites in the Journal of Anthropological Research, MacNeish writes, “The most disputed of these is Calico Hills of California with geological estimates ranging from 50,000 to 200,000 years ago.” He goes on to say that, despite doubts about the site and its contents, he believes the tools are “pebble and slab choppers, spokeshave-like tools, large side scraper and plano-convex scraping planes or cores” like those at other early, pre-Clovis sites.

It is probably not surprising, given his support for the site, that Ruth Simpson invited MacNeish to participate in a thirtieth anniversary celebration of the Calico Hill Early Man site. The event, sponsored by the Friends of Calico, the San Bernardino County Museum, and the Bureau of Land Management, was held over two weekends in 1994. MacNeish delivered his talk, Pleistocene Man & Animals in the Pendejo Caves on Saturday, November 5, 1994. MacNeish acquired a set of nice resin casts of the artifacts from Calico Hill at this time, which he gifted to the Peabody. These include the Rock Wren biface—another large chopper-like tool—that has been dated to a more recent era with thermoluminescence dating.

Archaeologist Ruth Simpson, an older woman with short gray hair wearing a khaki field shirt, poses with a friend--an older, unidentified woman with gray curly hair, wearing a floral shirt and blue jacket. Vehicles are parked in the background, and low desert hills of the Mojave are further back with a dark blue sky.
Archaeologist Ruth “Dee” Simpson (left) with a friend at the Calico Hill Early Man site, November 1986.

The Calico Hill Early Man site, however, does have a little company in the contention for earliest possible human habitation in the Americas. A recent paper in Nature reports on the remains of a 130,000 year old mastodon site with some evidence of intentional bone breakage. Interestingly, the Cerutti Mastodon Site is in San Diego, about 186 miles from Calico Hill in the Mojave Desert. Like Calico Hill, most archaeologists have dismissed the San Diego site. Despite the skepticism around the claims for very early sites, archaeologists have continued to push back the earliest dates for humans in the Americas, with some sites dating to between 14,000 and 19,000 years ago.

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.

Archaeology in the Classroom at a New England Prep School

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

In 1901 Robert S. Peabody lamented the lack of instruction in archaeology at his high school alma mater Phillips Academy, a prestigious New England boarding school. To rectify the situation, he used family funds and artifacts amassed by his personal curator Warren K. Moorehead to establish a Department of Archaeology at the school. A building was constructed and Moorehead and Peabody’s son, Charles, set about teaching classes. The pattern established by Moorehead and Peabody, however, was disrupted in 1914 when the school refocused the program exclusively on research. Classes were offered periodically over the next decades, and some students were inspired to follow their high school passions to lifetime careers in our field. Successive administrators at the institution, ultimately called the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, struggled to find a place for archaeology in the high school curriculum due to a variety of factors. Cyclical trends in teaching archaeology at Phillips Academy and long term struggles to integrate archaeology into the high school classroom mirror nationwide patterns, providing a case study that can inform the broader initiative to harness the excitement and interdisciplinary aspect of archaeology, and to encourage stewardship of  archaeological resources. The experience of the educators at Phillips Academy, however, suggests that these goals may be at odds with one another and require a delicate balancing act to achieve sustained results.

Image of Peabody director Scotty MacNeish showing students how to excavate at the Andover town dump site.
Peabody director Richard “Scotty” MacNeish instructing Phillips Academy students at the Andover town dump, 1970s.

To read Ryan Wheeler’s new article on the history of teaching archaeology and anthropology at Phillips Academy–Archaeology in the Classroom at a New England Prep School–please visit the Journal of Archaeology & Education!

Ayacucho animals migrate to the Peabody

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Artifact collections are not meant to stagnate – museum collections are meant to be researched, examined, and shared.  In a perfect world, all loans are returned promptly and paper-work is meticulous. But, let’s be real, in an institution with 100+ years of history, this is not often the case. Fortunately, some past researchers remember you when it is time to relocate collections.

Circa 1972, Scotty MacNeish sent faunal material from the Ayacucho Valley of Peru to Dr. Kent Flannery of the University of Michigan for analysis. Dr. Flannery is a prominent zooarchaeologist who specializes in investigating the origins of agriculture in Mesoamerica and the Near East.  Many know Flannery from his 1976 book The Early Mesoamerican Village and his 1982 article The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s. Dr. Flannery completed the Ayacucho faunal analysis and sent data and a written chapter (for Volume I of the Prehistory of the Ayacucho Basin) back to MacNeish. But the artifacts were not returned until July, 2018.

Dr. Flannery, and the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology at the University of Michigan, shipped us 493 bags and 11 small boxes of faunal material.  A loan from 45 years ago, of course, did not have much paperwork, though we did locate the original Peruvian export permits and customs documents. But, all bags and boxes are now inventoried and part of the Peabody collection. The material is from Jaywamachay Cave, Ruyru Rumi Cave, and Chumpas Cave in the Ayacucho Valley.

Why does this matter? These collections can now be made available to a new generation of researchers and are reunited with other materials from MacNeish’s Ayacucho work.

If you want to learn more about the Ayacucho Valley and MacNeish’s work, check out the First Annual Report and Second Annual Report on the Ayacucho Archaeological Botanic Project. Some of the published volumes are available for free via the HathiTrust Digital Library.

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!

Archives collection records now online, and MacNeish archives open for research

Collection records for the Peabody’s archival collections are now online, via the museum collections management database’s online portal: take a look.

I am also very happy to announce that the processing work on the MacNeish archives is complete and that this material is now open for research. These archives have been processed as two collections, the Richard S. MacNeish papers and the Richard S. MacNeish records. The papers were donated by MacNeish in 2000, shortly before his death, while the records resulted from his directorship of the Peabody, 1968-1983, and had not left the museum since then. A finding aid with a folder-level inventory can be accessed via the link at the bottom of each collection record. There is parallel content in the two collections, so researchers are advised to consult both.

Here is one of my favorite photographs of MacNeish, from his papers – I think it exemplifies what an adventurer he was.

Richard MacNeish in canoe in the MacKenzie River, Canada, during his survey work in the 1950s
Richard MacNeish in canoe in the MacKenzie River, Canada, during his survey work there in the 1950s

The Temporary Archivist position is supported by a generous grant from the Oak River Foundation of Peoria, Ill. 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 rwheeler@andover.edu or 978 749 4493.

Dr. Paulette Steeves is ‘decolonizing the past and present of the Western hemisphere’

Dr. Steeves examining the collection

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Last week, the Peabody had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Paulette Steeves as she examined portions of the MacNeish collection.  Dr. Steeves is currently a Lecturer of Indigenous archaeology and anthropology and the Interim Director of the certificate program in Native American Studies at UMass Amherst.  Her research focuses on the peopling of the Western hemisphere, but not through the traditional Bering Strait theory.

Dr. Steeves uses indigenous theory and methodology to explore sites in the Americas that date back as far as 60,000 years ago.  This is actually a big deal and an anti-establishment approach to the subject.  Dr. Steeves is looking into the materials collected by Scotty MacNeish during his work in the 1960s in Peru and Mexico for additional evidence.   MacNeish was also a proponent of the idea of early colonization and much of his collection has remained unanalyzed for decades.

Dr. Steeves was thrilled to see the collection and to meet MacNeish himself on her visit.  We look forward to hosting her again for many research visits to come!

Tiny Phillips Academy Museum Harbors Clues to Ancient Origins of Corn

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Archaeologist Richard S. MacNeish—known as Scotty—devoted his career to untangling two of the biggest questions of archaeology: when did people begin domesticating plants and how did that act impact and influence the development of civilization? During his tenure at Phillips Academy’s Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology MacNeish led multidisciplinary expeditions to Mexico and Peru to search for the heartland of domesticated maize or corn. Before his death in 2001 MacNeish had searched for the origins of rice cultivation in China, studied early cultures of Belize, and planned to look at wheat domestication in Turkey. Evidence for domestication often could be found in dry caves, where ancient plant remains were preserved. Speaking of his research in China, MacNeish quipped, “I’ve crawled in and out of more caves than a Neanderthal caveman.”

Image of Scotty MacNeish.
Scotty MacNeish reviews excavation profiles.

Despite MacNeish’s indefatigable quest for the origins of the world’s most important crops, answers remained elusive. In Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley, near modern-day Puebla, MacNeish and his team reconstructed ancient environments, devised chronologies, and documented a sequence of corn domestication from tiny, primitive cobs to those that look much like the corn that was growing in the area during the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. MacNeish’s suggestion of an early date for corn domestication, however, was met with skepticism, as many archaeologists believed that these crops were developed after significant strides in social organization, urbanism, and the other hallmarks of civilization. A debate ensued, but much of MacNeish’s Tehuacán research was sidelined as other scientists found evidence for even earlier sites of corn domestication in the Mexican lowlands, pushing the dates back to at least 8,700 years ago.

Image of excavators working in Coxcatlan Cave, Tehuacan Valley, Mexico, 1960s.
MacNeish’s 1960s excavations at Coxcatlan Cave, Tehuacán Valley, Mexico.

MacNeish’s collections, preserved since the 1960s at Phillips Academy’s tiny Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, have continued to attract the interests of scientists. A November 21, 2016 article in the journal Current Biology reconstructs for the first time ever the complete genome of an early domesticated plant, based on a tiny, 5,310 year old cob from MacNeish’s Tehuacán project (Catalog number 90.184.36). The specimen was removed from an old exhibit case several years ago and loaned to the Smithsonian Institution’s Bruce Smith, a co-author of the new study. Statistical analyses of the DNA data indicate that the study specimen, dubbed Tehuacan162, is “a step that links modern maize with its wild ancestor.” Of particular interest were genetic markers for domestication—some of which were already exhibited in this early specimen—while others were not. This challenges previous models for corn domestication that focus on two major steps, countering that the history of domestication is more gradual and complex than currently believed. In conclusion, the study finds that Tehuacan162 is an ancient form of maize that is closely related to the ancestor of all modern maize, yet distinct from teosinte, a wild grass that is the closest living relative to maize.

Today the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology provides educational programming to the high school students of Phillips Academy, ranging from classes to work behind-the-scenes with our significant collections. Researchers also are encouraged to use the Museum’s holdings and often share their results with students.

Processing the Richard S. MacNeish papers

Since October, I’ve been focusing on the largest collection at the Peabody, the Richard S. MacNeish papers. MacNeish donated about 220 linear feet of his papers and books to the museum in 2000, soon before he died. These papers span the length of his life and career, from childhood scrapbooks on the Maya to his MA and PhD theses, to field records and administrative files from his Tamaulipas, Ayacucho, Pendejo Cave and China projects, to research files on a variety of geographical regions and subjects, to records from his positions at Boston University, as head of the Andover Foundation for Archaeological Research (AFAR), and as director of the Peabody Museum itself. MacNeish, known as Scotty, was such a significant figure in American Archaeology in the 20th century that his papers are likely to have a high research value.

Color photograph of Scotty MacNeish, taken around 1980
Scotty MacNeish, around 1980

An extensive amount of work was already carried out on this collection since it arrived at the museum. An item-level inventory was done, and about half of the boxes had their contents rehoused into acid-free folders (papers) and mylar sleeves (photographs). More recently, the museum decided to separate out the large number of books from the papers, many of which will be added to the Peabody library. Volumes that were annotated by MacNeish or bear a personalized dedication to him are being retained in the archives. After separating books from the archival materials the remaining papers now measure only 90 linear feet – a huge difference in terms of storage space.

I’m now working on a few remaining steps: foldering loose items in boxes, determining date ranges for folders, updating the inventory to reflect those changes as well as the removal of the books, rearranging the materials into logical groupings, and rehousing contents into acid-free record cartons. Lastly, I’ll integrate within the guide to this collection the other Scotty MacNeish materials we have at the museum, his director’s records. MacNeish left about 20 linear feet of material at the museum at the end of his directorship in 1983. To preserve the provenance of these two groups of material, we decided to process them as separate collections – even though there is a lot of overlap between the two. I’m looking forward to having all of this material be easily accessible to researchers soon, and anticipate that this work will be completed and the collection guide available by mid to late January 2017.

The Temporary Archivist position is supported by a generous grant from the Oak River Foundation of Peoria, Ill. 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 rwheeler@andover.edu or 978 749 4493.