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Body Modification Adventures in the Museum

Sometimes within our discipline of archaeology and anthropology we are so caught up in they “why’s” of a situation that we sometimes take for granted the “how’s.”

In 1891 and 1892 Warren K. Moorehead (former curator and director of the Peabody) was tapped to lead an excavation of mound sites in Ohio by Frederic Ward Putnam, director of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. These sites, which Moorehead would later name after the land owner Mordacai C. Hopewell, became benchmarks in archaeology, not only for the number of objects found but their scope as well.

In looking through our collection for this installment of Peabody 25 I gravitated towards two copper ear spools from the Hopewell sites.  I had seen them used in classes here at the Peabody, including Race and Identity in Indian Country and Trade Connections, respectively, and thought they would be a good starting point for delving into the Hopewell culture complex for this blog entry.  What I didn’t anticipate was the interesting rabbit hole these two seemingly innocuous objects would send me down.

Being a metal worker myself, I was mystified by the complex steps needed to create these ear ornaments–indeed, I was not alone as there are quite a number of articles out there that investigate ear ornaments.  But from this question of “how were they made” I quickly jumped to my next question, “how were they worn?”

This question was triggered by the unusual form of these two ear spools. The objects themselves are what is termed “bicymbalic” and are interesting because of their thin inner taper.  Typically, one finds “pulley” style ear spools or even “ear flares” if you’re down in Mesoamerica.

But what really got my gears working was a passing reference that stated that these bicymbalic versions were easier to wear because the hole in the earlobe did not have to be as large as other versions.  Upon reading this I was flabbergasted, I just couldn’t get my mind around how one would wear these without having an impressively large hole to fit over them (the diameter measures over an inch!!).  So I set about contacting experts.  I talked with curators and collections staff charged with housing significant Hopewellian collections around the country about this question, and surprisingly, we were all stumped!

Then I thought outside the metaphorical box.  In my youth I dabbled in the piercing arts and once upon a time even had my ears stretched.  I decided to reach out to a professional piercer (Noah Babcock of Evolution Piercing in Albuquerque, NM) who had once poked holes in my very own body, to see if he could give me any insight.  The turnaround was amazing.  Once I sent pictures of the objects he got back to me in a matter of minutes describing in detail how these were worn, and the effect they would have on the wearer as well.  For this style of ear ornaments the wearer would have had to have impressively stretched ear lobes that would then be able to fit around the outside flare.  Noah went on the explain to me that the unusual taper would have acted as a weight, allowing for further stretching to occur naturally should the individual wear them over an extended period of time.  Mystery solved!

While going on this adventure, one started by some of the smallest artifacts in our collection, it really occurred to me how beneficial it can be to look beyond our own institutional boundaries.  By opening up dialogues with groups that we normally wouldn’t associate with archaeology or ancient Hopewellian communities, we are able to answer some questions that might have historically been over looked.  Is finding out how ancient Native Americans once wore earrings a ground breaking moment in archaeology? Not at all, but was it awesome feeling like Sherlock Holmes for a little bit? Absolutely.

Tune in for our next installment of Peabody 25!

P.S. These mound sites, including Hopewell have been extensively written about.  Below you’ll find some great references for not only Hopewell, but research that has been done on ear spools as well.

  • Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interaction, edited by Carr, Christopher & Case, D. Troy, 2005. New York (NY): Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
  • Ruhl, Katharine C. “COPPER EARSPOOLS FROM OHIO HOPEWELL SITES.” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, vol. 17, no. 1, 1992, pp. 46–79., www.jstor.org/stable/20708325.
  • The Hopewell Mound Group of Ohio; Field Museum of Natural History Publication 211, Anthropological Series Vol. VI, No. 5, 1922, Chicago (IL).

Katie Kirakosian and John Andrew Campbell Receive Cordell Award

The Peabody Advisory Committee has selected Katie Kirakosian and John Andrew Campbell as recipients of the Linda S. Cordell Memorial Research Award for 2017. This award supports research at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology using the collections of the museum. The endowment was named in honor of Dr. Linda S. Cordell, a distinguished archaeologist, specializing in the American Southwest. Linda was Senior Scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, recipient of the A.V. Kidder Medal for eminence in American Archaeology, and a valued member of the Peabody Advisory Committee.

Image of Katie Kirakosian, 2017 Cordell Award winner.Dr. Kirakosian received her PhD from UMass Amherst in 2014 and is currently adjunct faculty at several schools in Rhode Island. Her project focuses on archival materials from Warren Moorehead, Douglas Byers, and Frederick Johnson to continue her dissertation research and prepare a book on the history of archaeology in Massachusetts using social network analysis. Dr. Kirakosian published some of her previous research using Peabody collections in the 2015 issue of the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology: http://www.archaeologybulletin.org/articles/10.5334/bha.260/

Image of John Andrew Campbell at Port au Choix site.Mr. Campbell is a PhD candidate at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. His research at the Peabody includes a re-examination of collections from the Dennysville site in Maine, as well as several other sites in New Brunswick. His dissertation research is focused on protohistoric and contact period Wabanaki peoples in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.

For more on the Linda S. Cordell Memorial Research Award see our blog: http://bit.ly/22pgzV5

Dia de los Muertos

November 1 is still a few weeks away but Dia de los Muertos—the Mexican Day of the Dead—came early to the Peabody.  On Thursday September 29 Dr. Marisela Ramos of the History and Social Sciences Department brought her History 200 class.  The class has been learning about different civilizations from around the world and the Peabody’s Dia de los Muertos lesson is a fun and interactive way for the students to learn about a holiday that is still celebrated today, but which has deep roots to a time before Europeans came to the Americas.

The holiday is celebrated in Mexico and is a mix of traditional native beliefs (primarily from the Maya and Aztec cultures) that were combined with European Catholic traditions. It is believed that between October 31 and November 2—coinciding with Catholicism’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day—that the souls of loved ones return. Many homes have alters with images of the deceased.  Marigolds are often placed on the alters, as the smell helps guide the souls home, and food is left out for the souls to eat after their long journey.

Tissue paper marigolds
Tissue paper marigolds

Our alter has images of notable people connected with the Peabody:

  • Robert Singlton Peabody – Our founder and PA class of 1857. His image is always in a place of honor.
  • Charles Peabody – Son of Robert and the first director of the Peabody Museum.
  • Warren Moorehead – Excavated many important archaeological sites and appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to the federal Board of Indian Commissioners.
  • Alfred Kidder – Considered the “Grandfather of American Archaeology” for his work at Pecos Pueblo.
  • Douglas Byers – Helped to professionalize the field of archaeology into a legitimate science.
  • Frederick Johnson – One of the first archaeologists to engage experts from other fields while investigating the Boylston Street Fishweir site in Boston.
  • Adelaide Bullen – Excavated the Lucy Foster Site in Andover, one of the first archaeological studies of a free Black
  • Ripley Bullen – Husband of Adelaide. Excavated many sites locally in and around Andover while doing graduate work at Harvard.
  • Richard “Scotty” MacNeish – Investigated the origins of agriculture and civilization in the Americas.
  • Gene Winter – Served as museum caretaker in the 1980s and served as honorary curator. He was associated with the museum for over 70 years.

Students in Dr. Ramos’s class helped arrange the altar and made paper flowers to decorate the shrine as they also enjoyed traditional Mexican candy given out during the holiday.

The completed alter as arranged by the students
The completed alter as arranged by the students