Ancient fossils meet modern technology in Human Origins

In Human Origins—the Phillips Academy interdisciplinary science course being taught this fall by Peabody Museum director Ryan Wheeler—our once-a-week extended period gives us an opportunity to do some hands-on work with ancient tools or fossil human casts. During our extended period on Wednesday, September 21 we visited The Nest, the campus makerspace at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. There we worked with Claudia Wessner, makerspace coordinator, who was helping us 3D print a model of the world’s newest fossil hominin, Homo naledi.

Image of Claudia Wessner with Phillips Academy students looking at a 3D image of Homo naledi's skull on the computer.
Claudia Wessner (right) shares the 3D model of Homo naledi with students in Human Origins.

In 2013 cave explorers alerted scientists to the presence of fossils in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. Within two years an international team led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger had recovered the remains of at least fifteen individuals represented by over 1,500 specimens. In September 2015 Berger and his associates published their preliminary findings in the online, open source journal eLife, dubbing the new fossil Homo naledi. Naledi means “star” in the Sotho language. The fossil hominin has features that are similar to the ape-like Australopithecines and early members of our genus, Homo. Even more exciting for students and scholars is the availability of 3D files for 108 of the fossils, available on Morphosource. Despite the availability of this data, Homo naledi remains a bit of a mystery. For example, the fossils remain undated, though the excavators suggest they may date between 1 and 2 million years ago. This would make them contemporaries of early members of our genus, like Homo habilis (2.4 to 1.4 M years ago), as well as Homo erectus (1.89 M to 143,000 years ago). Dates will help show if Homo naledi is a potential ancestor of ours or another branch on the already bushy human family tree.

Image from Morphosource website with 3D data on Homo naledi's proximal femur.
Screen capture of the Morphosource website with the 3D data on Homo naledi. Both scans and photographs of a right proximal femur are shown here.

For our 3D print we selected the proximal end of a femur. Berger and his associates report in their eLife article that Homo naledi’s femur is unique. The femoral neck—the part connecting the ball-like head of the bone with the shaft—possess two pillars that define a sulcus, or shallow groove. The origins and functions of these features remain unclear. This was, however, an opportunity to continue our ongoing conversation about the femur and its relationship to bipedalism in modern humans and our fossil ancestors. Claudia had wisely made several prints, including one life sized and one larger than life; another print was ongoing while we visited. We compared these 3D prints to several models and casts from the Peabody Museum, including the femur of modern humans, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and robust and gracile Australopithecines.  It was clear that Homo naledi did indeed combine ancient and more modern features. For example, the hands and feet of Homo naledi are very human-like, while the trunk and crania are more like those of Australopithecines. We saw this when comparing the 3D print with the femurs of Homo erectus and Australopithecines.

Image of modern human and fossil hominin femurs
Femurs, from top to bottom: Homo erectus, life size and enlarged 3D print of Homo naledi, Paranthropus (two proximal fragments), Homo sapiens sapiens (two complete specimens).

Students were quite engaged with this lesson and there was considerable interest in printing other Homo naledi fossils. Claudia demonstrated the technology involved in creating 3D scans, manipulating the files with 3D software, and generating the print. The models produced of the femur took from 5 to 9 hours. We looked at the 3D files of the reconstructed skull and marveled at the software estimates of 60 hours to create a life sized 3D print. A number of the students were already quite familiar with the makerspace and the 3D technology and shared their own experiences with 3D scanning and printing.

Animated gif of a Neanderthal skull from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France.
An animated gif of Marcellin Boule’s 1911 stereo card of the Neanderthal crania from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, from Lydia Pyne’s blog post on The Public Domain Review.

We learned at the end of September that this was not the first time 3D data for a fossil human had been publicly shared. In his 1911 publication on the Neanderthal skeleton excavated at the French site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, Marcellin Boule included stereo views of the skull that could be viewed with a stereoscope. Lydia Pyne—in her terrific 2016 book Seven Skulls: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils—talks about Boule’s work and the stereo views (also see her blog post that highlights free, online versions of Boule’s publication and animated gifs of the skull). Unfortunately, it is difficult (or down right impossible) and expensive to obtain plaster casts or models of most human fossils. Hopefully the sharing of the Homo naledi 3D data will continue with future discoveries and with older fossils that exist in museum collections.

Conversations about the 3D print of the Homo naledi femur continued in classes well after the visit to the makerspace as we talked about the origins of bipedalism, its great antiquity to at least 6 or 7 million years ago and the fossil hominin Sahelanthropus tchadensis, and the multiplicity of ideas about the adaptive advantages and disadvantages of bipedalism in hominins (there are at least 13!).

The art of collecting

“Briefly stated, the history of archaeology in the Northeast has been in no way different from the history of archaeology elsewhere: its birth was as relic collecting, for the pure and simple interest of the objects recovered. It was soon recognized that without supporting data such objects were little more than curios, and that even with supporting data as to provenience – all too frequently so vague as to be of little value—they still were closely akin to curiosities and the undertaking little more than antiquarianism.” (Douglas Byers, Peabody Annual Report, 1948)

Since beginning my project at the Peabody, I’ve been intrigued by how American Indian artifacts were collected in the first few decades of the 20th century. At the time, the practice ranged from small-scale hobby collecting to commercial-minded efforts to acquire and sell artifacts for profit, to museums collecting for “scientific study.” The Peabody archives offer a glimpse of how artifact collecting, mostly on a small scale, was conducted, documented and perceived. That distinctions were made between “collectors” and professional archaeologists seems clear, even in the early 1900s. And yet, as the quote from Byers above indicates, relic collecting is part of the story of archaeology in the United States. What role did it play in this story, and what common purposes and/or divides developed between the various actors interested in archaeology and artifacts?

I first noted documentation of avocational artifact collecting in Warren K. Moorehead’s records (1890s-1930s). Moorehead, the Peabody’s first curator and subsequent director (1901-1938), was well known to amateur collectors; he wrote publications catered to them, such as Prehistoric Relics (1905), purchased artifacts from them, sold artifacts to them, and included images of collector artifacts in his two-volume The Stone Age of North America (1910) (which he then marketed back towards those same collectors). Collectors wrote him, seeking his expertise, as well as those seeking to sell larger collections. He was criticized by his professional peers for being overly focused on artifacts and not exercising rigorous archaeological science. Years later, in 1973, retired Peabody Curator Fred Johnson wrote in a letter to a graduate student: “Moorehead was very definitely not an archaeologist even in the frame of reference of his times. He has never published an important archaeological book or paper. He was a collector, a confirmed looter of archaeological sites and he had no other purpose in life than to secure by any means, regardless of any kind of ethics, specimens which were the ‘best,’ unique, unusual, etc.”

A small card bearing the following text: "Save your Indian relics. When you find tomahawks, pipes, spear heads, drilled stone or other things, write me. I buy all such relics. W.K. Moorehead, Andover, Mass."
Warren Moorehead’s “Save your Indian relics” card, circa 1900-1920

Despite those accusations, and the appearance he gave at times of being a salesman, Moorehead denounced those who destroyed sites to acquire artifacts, and had advocated for the preservation of archaeological sites in the past. In “Commercial vs. scientific collecting” (1905) he wrote: “.. [commercial collectors] have ransacked the graves, mounds and cliff houses, dragged forth the humble arts of simple aborigines long dead and sold them for a few paltry dollars. The destruction of archaeological testimony wrought by these vandals is something beyond compute” (114). In contrast, he describes the simple joys of avocational collecting: “For the local student who collects for his own pleasure, we should have nothing but commendation, for at some future date his cabinet may be preserved. His expenditures, his trips to favorite localities that he may personally roam over freshly ploughed fields, his hours spent in arranging his cabinet during winter evenings are all labors born of love” (114). He also notes that these small collections are “gradually drifting to the permanent museums,” rejoining collections obtained through professional excavations.

While looking through the photographs of artifacts sent to him, I was struck by the “arrangement of the cabinet,” how collectors artfully arranged their artifacts into patterns or staged them to be photographed. Current Peabody Director Ryan Wheeler told me the practice continues to this day. It’s almost as if the deliberate act of collecting is put on display through these creative arrangements: the hand of the collector in accumulating these collections is manifest.

Black and white photograph of of American Indian artifacts arranged into a pattern
Photograph sent to Warren Moorehead of American Indian artifacts from the collection of Inez A. Hall, Pennsylvania, circa 1900-1910
Black and white photograph of American Indian artifacts arranged to be photographed on a white cloth
Photograph of artifacts sent to Warren Moorehead by F.P. Graves, Missouri, circa 1900-1910

A fuller portrait of one such collector emerges in the Peabody archives. Massachusetts native Roy Athearn, born in 1895, began collecting artifacts as a boy in the early 1900s. He collected over 13,000 artifacts during the course of his lifetime, within a five mile radius of his home in Fall River. He took extensive notes on the circumstances of his finds, ensuring  his collection was well documented. He was a member of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society. Below is a photograph of his home, taken in conjunction with an analysis and assessment of his collection carried out by the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1982.

This black and white photograph depicts several cabinets in the home of Massachusetts native Roy Athearn, whose 13,000 object collection was significant.
Artifact cabinets from Massachusetts collector Roy Athearn’s 13,000 object collection, circa 1982, photograph by T.C. Fitzgerald

To learn more about avocational and professional archaeology in the United States in the early 20th century, Ryan pointed me to a few books, one of which was Setting the Agenda for American Archaeology : The National Research Council Archaeological Conferences of 1929, 1932 and 1935 (2001). Within the NRC, the Committee on State Archaeological Surveys was founded in 1920 under the Division of Anthropology and Psychology. One problem the committee sought to address was “.. the fact that a nation’s fascination with the past was leading to a rapid destruction of archaeological sites and the commercialization of antiquities.” This had less to do with individual collectors than with state-level museums and historical societies, who carried out excavations with little training or expertise, and “had no guiding voices on how to explore the past without destroying the very record being examined” (x). The committee decided that one solution to this problem might be in reaching out to and educating non-professional archaeologists in standards-based archaeological method, through distribution of instructional literature and organization of seminars on the topic. To really appreciate these efforts, one must read the rest of the book, but a common purpose between disparate actors begins to take shape through the idea that avocational archaeologists could be enlisted in preserving contextual information of sites. How did this play out over the rest of the century? And what was the position of museums during this time, such as the Peabody? What divides continued to exist and what relationships evolved? These are all questions I’m curious to investigate further.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Peabody director leads Human Origins course

Students enrolled in Human Origins (SCIE 470) this fall will come face to face with our distant human ancestors as well as contemporary issues like race and scientific racism that are part and parcel of paleoanthropology’s legacy. Between reading and discussion on a variety of topics, ranging from the so-called “Hobbit” fossil—Homo floresiensis to the debate over multiregionalism, students will do some experimental archaeology, including flint knapping, fire making, and throwing a dart with an atlatl. We also will be visiting “The Nest”—the makerspace at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, where we will be 3D printing casts of the newest fossil discovery from South Africa—Homo naledi and comparing them to traditional plaster casts and resin models of other fossil hominins. Other hands-on projects will include looking for clues to human evolution in the bones of a modern human, bone flute making, and creating our own Mesolithic symbol system, akin to the painted pebbles found in Mas d’Azil cave in the French Pyrenees. Throughout the course students will explore some of the most recent discoveries and newest ideas about human evolution and the scientific discourse and debate that ensue. Students will be challenged to develop their critical thinking skills as we evaluate these new discoveries in light of broader discourse on race and the scientific method.

Image of students in Human Origins make bone flutes with bow drills while their instructor Jerry Hagler looks on.
Biology instructor Jerry Hagler looks on as students in Human Origins make bone flutes using bow drills, spring 2016.

Human Origins is an interdisciplinary science course developed collaboratively by biology instructor Jerry Hagler and personnel at the Peabody Museum and was first taught in 2007. Since then it has been offered most years as a senior elective. The pace of new discoveries—like Svante Pääbo’s work on the introgression of Neanderthal DNA into the modern human genome in 2011—means that the curriculum is constantly shifting, making for an exciting and lively class. Dr. Hagler is on sabbatical this year so Dr. Wheeler–Peabody Museum director–is leading the course.

2016-2017 Education Course Catalog

This summer we have worked on updating our course catalog that we share with the faculty at Andover. All of our programs incorporate the Peabody’s unique artifacts into classes that allow students to explore topics in art,  history, science, foreign languages, math, music, and many other subjects. While we offer many classes that support the goals and objectives of faculty through meaningful and engaging experiences for their students, we are also always have to collaborate to create new learning opportunities.

This year we are working with the History Department to create a week long activity for all History 100 students. It is an artifact rich class which will rely heavily on the expertise and assistance of our Curator of Collections, Marla Taylor.  The in-depth lesson will focus on the interaction and trade roots of the Moche, Maya, Puebloan, and Hopewell cultures. We cannot wait to get started!

To see what other lessons and activities we offer to the different departments at Phillips Academy, please browse our catalog

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Peabody Study Hours

Contributed by Marla Taylor

As another school year begins, students on the lookout for a quiet place to study in the evening will have a new option.  The Peabody is now hosting study hours every Thursday evening from 5pm-9:15pm.

We will also be collaborating with the peer tutoring program on campus to provide a calm space for focused study and learning.

We hope to see you here!

Shelving to the rescue!

Completed shelving

Contributed by Marla Taylor

As I began working this summer on the reboxing project, it immediately became apparent that the artifacts needed room to grow sooner rather than later.  Moving the objects from the wooden drawers into the boxes revealed just how heavy some of those drawers were – some too heavy to be supported by the new archival boxes.

What I needed was solid temporary shelving to support these materials.  Donnegan Systems, Inc. of Northboro, Massachusetts to the rescue!   Donnegan Systems has been consulting with us periodically to reimagine collections storage once all the artifacts have been boxed.  They saw our need and offered some spare shelving that was taking up space in their warehouse.  Delivered and installed in a single morning, these shelves will facilitate faster progress with the reboxing project.

Reorganizing the archives storage alcove

For the past two weeks, the museum staff (and one volunteer — thank you Quinn Rosefsky!) all pitched in to make the archives storage area neater and more manageable. This physical reorganization had been anticipated and discussed since I began my work here in May. At that time, many materials were still in filing cabinets, with boxes piled on top.

Though most of these cabinets and boxes were labeled, the exact nature of the materials and the period of the museum’s history to which they belonged were not necessarily obvious. Related materials could be spread out among different boxes and cabinets without that intellectual integrity being apparent. If a museum staff member was looking for a specific piece of information in the archives, say when a particular exhibit was on display at the museum, it could be challenging to find it!

As I reached the end of my collections survey, I began to understand which materials belonged together as collections. I boxed up several collections that were in filing cabinets, carefully labeling them as discrete groups of material: the Warren K. Moorehead records (1890s-1930s), the Douglas S. Byers and Frederick Johnson records (1920s-1960s), the Richard S. MacNeish records (1950s-1980s), the Tehuacan Archaeological-Botanical Project records (1959-1960s) and the Coxcatlan Project records (1960s-1970s). Other record groups such as the museum’s Education Department files were physically grouped together, and consolidated into fewer boxes. Empty filing cabinets were removed, new shelving was set up and boxes were arranged deliberately on the shelves.

Panorama of one side of the rearranged archives storages area.
West wall of the rearranged archives storage area.
Panorama of the east wall of the rearranged storage area.
East wall of the rearranged archives storage area.

Records that are still being consulted regularly by museum staff such as accession files and site files were left in filing cabinets. Other material, such as the Ayacucho Archaeological-Botanical Project records (1969-1980s), was left in filing cabinets because we don’t have enough shelf space to accommodate more boxes at this time. There are also a few stray boxes that don’t yet have a home. Further tinkering of the space and rehousing of material will likely occur throughout the year. For now, the focus of the archives project will turn to creating inventories for individual collections, so that the material within them is easily findable for museum staff and outside researchers.

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.

 

 

 

 

Vessels, and Paddles, and Lasers, Oh My!

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Recently I have been interested in expanding our programming around the methods used by indigenous people to create and decorate ceramic vessels. While at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in April 2016 I saw Florida’s archaeology month poster, which features “Artisans of the Woodlands.” The poster described how Swift Creek Complicated Stamped pottery was decorated with intricate designs stamped on the surface of the vessel with a carved paddle; the poster even featured a replica paddle.  Ah ha!!!!! Genius! Now I knew what I wanted to do and I knew just who to contact.

Image of Florida's 2016 Archaeology Month poster titled Artisans of the woodland
The 2016 Archaeology Month poster from Florida.

When I arrived back on campus I contacted Claudia Wessner, OWHL Makerspace Coordinator, and asked if the library’s laser cutter could reproduce one of the complicated stamped paddles. She was sure it could and was excited to collaborate on such an interesting project. I just had to find JPEG images of line drawings that could be uploaded.

With that in mind I began looking through the book A World Engraved edited by Mark Williams and Daniel T. Elliott. The book focuses on the Swift Creek culture, which is centered in the Southeastern United States. The Swift Creek people are famously known for their pottery which features intricate paddle stamped designs. It is believed that by gaining insight and knowledge about these designs that archaeologists might be able to begin to understand more abstract aspects of the culture, such as religion and world view.

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This vessel is from the Peabody Museum collections and was excavated by Clarence B. Moore from a site in Florida. The vessel dates from 100 AD – 300 AD.

One of the designs that Claudia and I selected was a Late Swift Creek design (circa AD 580) which is a mask-like image with slanting eyes, furrowed brows, and a frowning mouth. The image that we used as a starting point for the laser cut design can be found on page 63 (Figure 6-1) in the chapter Swift Creek Design Investigations: The Hartford Case written by Frankie Snow in A World Engraved.

Image of the mask-like motif in clay
Image of the mask-like motif impression in clay

We also picked a design that was used in another type of pottery called Irene Complicated Stamped. The name for this pottery is only used for specific pottery found on the Georgia coast. To be honest I only picked this because we had just hired Irene Gates as our temporary archivist and I thought it was so fun that there was a stamped design that shared her name!

IMG_7522
The five paddle designs that we created. The Irene Complicated stamp design is the farthest on the left, made from 4 swirls that join in the middle.

Claudia and I spent an entire day testing out depth and paddle handle width and have finally settled on what we believe will be the best paddle type for the large variety of people who will be using them.  This has certainly been a fun and educational project!

IMG_7515
The laser cutter hard at work!

 

 

Boxes and boxes of boxes

They’re here!

Fifteen-hundred custom archival boxes were delivered on Monday, July 25 to initiate the Peabody’s collections rehousing project.  Unloading the truck and storing the boxes was hard work, but was an important first step toward completely rehousing and inventorying our large collection. The boxes were assembled to our specifications by Hollinger Metal Edge and are archival quality.

These boxes are made possible by a grant from the Abbot Academy Association, continuing Abbot’s tradition of boldness, innovation, and caring. They will be used to replace the old wooden drawers that have supported our collection for decades, and will provide protection and a long-term home for our artifacts.

A special ‘thank you’ goes out to Will Shahbazian and C. Woodrow Randall for their helping hands (and paws).

Summer work duty students begin rehousing inventory

Work duty student inventorying a drawer

Embarking on a full inventory and rehousing of your museum collection is a daunting task.  Transferring approximately 1,700 drawers into 3,000 archival boxes will take years of work.  Fortunately for me, I have access to an invaluable resource – Phillips Academy students.

For a week in July, two Lowers (10th graders) came to the Peabody every day for four hours to fulfill their work duty commitment for the school year.  I gave them a crash course in artifact identification and object handling techniques before they got down to business.  As they worked through the meticulous process of inventorying everything in the collection, they made crucial observations that will improve my workflow.  Together, these two students recorded the contents of twenty-nine drawers!

Work duty student inventorying a drawer
Work duty student inventorying a drawer

Work duty students will continue to be an essential work force as we move through the collection.  I will share their progress and successes in the months and years to come.

Curator of Collections Marla Taylor and work duty students stand behind the empty boxes
Curator of Collections Marla Taylor and work duty students stand behind the empty boxes