The Language of Baskets

Contributed by Catherine K. Hunter

Hunter,Catherine_11.17.2015

What can be coiled, plaited, twined, or sewn in the form of a tray, bowl, bottle, cone, or trunk using tree barks or splints, river cane, pine needles, or grasses? If you are familiar with this vocabulary, you will know the answer: Native American basketry. What you may not know is that the Peabody Museum houses more than 350 examples of Native American basketry, including fragments of ancient woven sandals, 19th- and 20th-century utilitarian and ceremonial forms, and a few examples by recognized 21st-century artists.

In my current capacity as a volunteer at the Peabody, I am collaborating with the museum’s registrar and senior collections manager, Bonnie Sousa, on conducting a thorough inventory of the Peabody’s Native American basketry collection. For this project, we are attempting to combine for each example a description of forms, techniques, and materials; identification of people/culture and geographic region; and data from museum records. The first 35 examples I examined include plaited ash-splint storage baskets from the Northeast with distinctive stamped and painted designs; twill-plaited trunks and trays from the Southeast made with natural, dyed orange and brown river cane splints; and a variety of trays of coiled grasses and pine needles.

My first volunteer position was in the 1970s at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum following a recommendation by my mentor, Joanne Segal Brandford, who subsequently published the museum’s basket collection. After studying and teaching fiber arts and design at the University of California, Berkeley, Brandford worked as a researcher, curator, teacher, and fiber artist. Why baskets? In the following paragraph, she succinctly describes the foundation for a career of exploration:

Baskets are often linked to domesticity and smallness, the implication being that these qualities preclude significant artwork. I could counter with basket-shrines made for ritual, or I could point to house-sized baskets (used, indeed, as houses) and so I could ‘elevate’ baskets with religious significance or architectural scale. But all such uses/meanings refer to our humanity, and consequently to ourselves and to our families, to life, and to death. What can be more meaningful for an artist working in fiber, than to honor the basket, with its myriad human associations?

BASKETS: Redefining Volume and Meaning (1993). The University of Hawaii, Art Gallery, Honolulu, Hawaii. Pat Hickman, Curator

[AUTHOR BIO]

Catherine K. Hunter is an independent museum consultant whose career began in the Department of Textiles at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She has always been interested in the study of basketry and recently wrote feature articles about contemporary Native American and American artists for the National Basketry Organization.

Geometric Patterns Decorate Chacoan Artifact

Contributed by Quinn Rosefsky (Phillips Academy, Class of 1959)

Chaco Canyon is located in northwestern New Mexico. During the period 850–1250 AD, Chaco Canyon was a major urban center of ancestral Puebloan culture. Remarkable for its ceremonial buildings, engineering projects, and distinctive architecture, the site had many uses, among them ceremonial, administrative, trade, resource distribution, and even astronomy. Roads 30 feet wide led out of Chaco. Signal towers were located on mesa tops. Puebloans traded extensively with Mesoamerica as seen in the presence of macaws, parrot feathers, conch shells, and copper bells. A great deal of archaeological research has been conducted on Chaco Canyon, and the site was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.

32289
Ceramic pitcher, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology #32289.

The artifact you see here—a black-on-white ceramic pitcher, complete except for a missing handle—was one of many that Warren K. Morehead acquired in 1897 for Robert S. Peabody’s collection. This small pitcher comes from Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure at Chaco, with about 800 rooms.

The pitcher is covered with finely drawn geometric patterns. These distinctive patterns can be reduced to areas of larger parallel lines (black bordering white) and smaller parallel lines (all black). The larger lines appear as though they are sitting on top of the smaller lines. All lines are carefully laid out, giving the impression that the artist had a high level of geometric sophistication—which is not surprising, coming from an area known to have astronomy and engineering interests.

Pueblo_Bonito_Aerial
Aerial photo of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon by Bob Adams, Albuquerque, NM (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) ], via Wikimedia Commons.

What’s In Your Drawer? Adopt A Drawer Program Supports Peabody Cataloging

Adopt_A_Drawer Logo.fw

In fall 2013 the Peabody launched the Adopt A Drawer fundraising program. Adopt A Drawer invites donors to support the cataloging of one of more than 1,700 artifact storage drawers at the Museum. A gift of $1,000 supports the professional cataloging of one drawer, including data entry, archival storage supplies, photography, and inclusion in the museum’s online catalog, hosted by PastPerfect Online. Work duty students and interns are heavily involved in the cataloging work. Donors receive updates on the cataloging, including before and after photos, as well as acknowledgement in our online catalog. To learn more, view the Adopt A Drawer promotional video produced by the Polk-Lillard Electronic Imaging Center.

Work duty students at the Peabody assist with cataloging tasks.
Work duty students at the Peabody assist with cataloging tasks.

As of June 30, 2015, generous donors have adopted 32 artifact storage drawers. These drawers hold material ranging from Paleolithic sites in New England to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico; from the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico to the homestead of a freed Black woman in Andover. Sixteen of these drawers – over 700 artifacts! – have been fully cataloged and appear in the Peabody’s online catalog.

Black-on-white painted ceramic vessels from Chaco Canyon, after cataloging.
Black-on-white painted ceramic vessels from Chaco Canyon, after cataloging.

Help us reach our goal—the cataloging of the Museum’s 600,000+ objects—by visiting the Peabody’s giving page today.

October 2015 News Briefs and Calendar

On October 15, more than 100 sixth-grade students and teachers from West Middle School in Andover visited the Peabody as a way to kick off the beginning of their lesson in ancient history. The teachers thought it would be useful for their students to have a better understanding of how archaeologists come up with their explanations of sites, particularly sites that are very old. Using the museum’s Shattuck Farm mock excavation lesson as an example, curator of education Lindsay Randall taught the students how to read objects as primary sources. This allowed them to begin making inferences and complex connections regarding what they were viewing.

Dr. Emerson "Tad" Baker '76 discusses his research with a reporter from The Phillipian.
Dr. Emerson “Tad” Baker ’76 discusses his research with a reporter from The Phillipian.

On October 20, Emerson “Tad” Baker, PhD ’76, delighted a packed Peabody Museum with his lecture, “Witchcraft, Counter Magic, and Archaeology in Salem and New England.” Drawing on details from his new book, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, Baker demonstrated that the practice of counter magic to ward off witches and demons in colonial New England persisted through the 19th century and continues today.

Join the Massachusetts Archaeological Society (MAS) Gene Winter Chapter for their fall lecture series. Each month features a presentation by an expert about a variety of topics. All lectures take place at the Peabody Museum at 7 p.m. and are free and open to the public.

Upcoming Lectures:

Tuesday, November 17—Jameson Harwood (Massachusetts Department of Transportation): “Battlefield Archaeology”

Tuesday, December 15—Christa Beranek (University of Massachusetts Boston): “The Tyng Mansion Site: A Project in Three Vignettes”

Celt Search Reveals Cataloguing Challenges

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler and Bonnie Sousa

Jenny Elkus ’92, while perusing our online publications, came across Peabody Museum curator Warren Moorehead’s tribute to museum founder Robert S. Peabody, published in 1906 as the Phillips Academy Department of Archaeology’s Bulletin 3—A Narrative of Explorations in New Mexico, Arizona, Indiana, Etc. together with a Brief History of the Department. What caught her eye was the following passage, which mentions Peabody’s earliest archaeological collections:

“Mr. Peabody spent his boyhood in the valley of the Muskingum and as in that region there are numerous mound-builder and Indian remains, he became interested in archaeology. With his own hands he collected some one or two hundred specimens on his father’s farm. When the collection at Phillips was numbered the records properly began with Mr. Peabody’s personal finds and No. 1 is an interesting hematite celt.”

A celt is a prehistoric stone or metal implement shaped like a chisel or ax head. Hematite is a mineral ranging in color from black to red to brown, often taking on a high polish when tumbled in a rock polisher. The reddish color comes from iron. Hematite was highly prized by Native Americans throughout parts of the eastern United States for making a variety of tools and ornaments, including axes and celts.

Polished hematite pebbles, photograph by Mauro Cateb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Polished hematite pebbles, photograph by Mauro Cateb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons.
Jenny asked if we could provide a photo of the hematite celt—object #1 in the museum’s collection, essentially the founding object. Although many of our collections are well documented and regularly used by students and researchers, others need considerable attention. Unfortunately, the hematite celt fell into the latter category, as Jenny’s seemingly simple request illustrated.

We began our search by checking the original accession ledger and confirming that the first object was indeed a hematite celt collected at Spice Knob, Muskingum County, Ohio, by Robert S. Peabody sometime between 1845 and 1860. A note indicates the celt had a particularly nice polish.

Map of Falls Township in Muskingum County, Ohio, circa 1860. The blue shading indicates Robert S. Peabody's family farm, labeled Spice Knob, just outside of Zanesville.
Map of Falls Township in Muskingum County, Ohio, circa 1860. The blue shading indicates Robert S. Peabody’s family farm, labeled Spice Knob, just outside of Zanesville.

We then made a quick check of four or five drawers containing objects from Ohio and found a number of items with low catalog numbers that also came from Spice Knob. Unfortunately, the hematite celt was not among them. Further checking of a drawer-by-drawer inventory made in 2002 failed to locate the celt. With the aid of volunteers we searched drawers more thoroughly, with negative results.

A note in one drawer reads “Peabody original collections 1-65 Spice Knob, Muskingum County, Ohio.” Some of the nearby objects are from this earliest accession.

Consulting another early museum bulletin, Warren Moorehead’s 1912 Hematite Implements of the United States together with Chemical Analysis of Various Hematites, we found a detailed study of the tools and ornaments made from this mineral. Figure 3, opposite page 13, illustrates seven hematite celts from the Andover collection. Catalog numbers are visible on three of the celts, so we knew we could rule them out as being the founding object we were searching for, but they are not visible on the remaining four objects in the figure, which meant it was possible one of them was the object in question. We also checked Moorehead’s other publications, which contain numerous illustrations of artifacts, including hematite celts. However, in the end, no definite candidates were identified.

Figure 3 from Warren Moorehead's 1912 study of hematite implements. One of the three objects at the bottom may be Robert Peabody's hematite celt.
Figure 3 from Warren Moorehead’s 1912 study of hematite implements. One of the four objects at the bottom may be Robert Peabody’s hematite celt.

So, what happened to Robert Peabody’s hematite celt?

There are several possible explanations. One is that museum personnel recataloged the object in the 1940s after the introduction of a more sophisticated cataloging system that imposed a two-part numbering technique and avoided some of the confusion that might arise from a simple sequential numbering of objects (e.g., 1 through 70,000+, as Moorehead had done).

Eagle-Tribune article from 1986 recounts George McLaughlin's theft of artifacts from the Peabody Museum.
Eagle-Tribune article from 1986 recounts George McLaughlin’s theft of artifacts from the Peabody Museum.

Another possibility is that the celt was stolen. In 1986 a thief named George B. McLaughlin gained access to museum collections across the Northeast, including the Peabody, as well as institutions in Worcester, Attleboro, Springfield, Deerfield, and at Yale University, before the FBI apprehended him. During his spree, McLaughlin amassed thousands of artifacts and removed their catalog numbers. Although many objects were recovered, there was confusion regarding which artifacts belonged to each museum. We currently have drawers of objects returned to us by the FBI.

Some of the Peabody Museum's artifacts from Ohio.
Some of the Peabody Museum’s artifacts from Ohio.

And so the search for Robert Peabody’s hematite celt continues, illustrating the challenges of locating an object from an older collection that has limited intellectual and physical control. A multiyear effort began in 2013 to gain better intellectual and physical control with the help of Abbot Academy Association grant funding for a new database system. The effort will continue for years to come as collections are cataloged and storage is upgraded.

 

Pseudomorphs and LEGOs Delight Visitors to MOS Archaeology Fair

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

October 16 and 17 marked the 9th annual Archaeology Fair held at the Museum of Science in Boston. This event is one of my favorite outreach programs each year. Numerous archeologists from across Massachusetts and New England converge on the Museum of Science with hands-on activities for kids and adults of all ages. It is always interesting to see the creative ways my colleagues are able to engage new generations with archaeology. It is also a blast to see how excited everyone gets when they get to touch real artifacts. This year I brought the museum’s LEGO archaeology activity and our Pseudomorphs detective game and both were a big hit with the participants. I am very excited for next year’s 10th anniversary and we are already talking about ways we can make it even bigger and better!

MOS Arch Fair

Here students are creating a Maya temple, ball court, and cenote. Very creative!

More about Pseudomorphs: In Pseudomorphs, students are handed objects and asked to identify which are natural formations, which are genuine artifacts, and how they arrived at their conclusions. For example, one pair of objects in our game includes a polished stone ax (the artifact) and a waterworn stone cobble (the natural formation). While the students don’t have to speculate how the objects were used, the exercise invites them to develop their visual literacy skills. Visual literacy has received a lot of attention over the past few years. In 2008, Sheila Naghshineh and her colleagues published a study suggesting that formal art observation training improves medical students’ ability to visually diagnose disease. In teaching art history at Harvard, Jennifer Roberts requires her students to spend a long time looking at one painting, acknowledging that these techniques help students understand that to really take in what an object can tell you one needs to engage in a critical examination. These skills can start with a simple game like Pseudomorphs.

Natural objects can be collected almost anywhere (check with property owners first!), and artifacts can be borrowed from museums, historical societies, or private collectors. So take a crack at building your visual literacy skills by creating and playing your own Pseudomorphs game!

axe

Above is a pair of stone objects that are used in the Peabody Museum’s pseudomorph game. The object on the left is a random rock and the object on the right is an ax. The groove visible near the center of the ax would have been used to help attach the stone to a wooden handle.

To read Sheila Naghshineh’s 2008 article: http://www.ihi.org/education/ihiopenschool/resources/Pages/MedicalStudentsTransferObservationSkillsFromPaintingToPatient.aspx

To learn more about Jennifer Roberts’ Harvard classes: http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience

PALS visits the Peabody

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Each Wednesday during the academic year, students and instructors from the PALS program visit the Peabody to learn about the history of their communities. To kick off their program I shared the rich and important Native American history of the area. Using real archaeological material from the Peabody’s collections, I asked the group to analyze animal bones, shells, rocks, and pottery fragments to tell me what Native Americans living in Andover 500 years ago were doing. After working in small groups, students used the evidence of pottery making, stone tool production, and the post molds of a wetu to surmise that native people were living in Andover for a significant period of time. This assertion by the students matches the scientific assessment by professional archaeologists and historians that Andover was a major trading village in the region.  As a reward for their amazing detective skills, the students received postcards depicting what the site looked like at the time.

To learn more about the PALS program: https://www.andover.edu/summersessionoutreach/palsprogram/pages/default.aspx

IMG_2119

Students examining artifacts at what was later revealed to be the stone tool production area of the site

Art Students Study Pueblo Pottery for Inspiration

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The Peabody Museum houses an impressive collection of Pueblo pottery, including iconic black-on-white painted pieces from Chaco Canyon and vessels made around the first part of the 20th century.

From left to right: Casas Grandes Polychrome jar, Arizona; vessel with water spirit design, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico; large Anasazi olla, Poncho House, Utah.

In October, students in art instructor Emily Trespas’s Art 225A Visual Studies Studio class visited the Peabody to examine some of our graphic painted pottery as they prepared for a lesson in printmaking. Emily wanted her students to look at an array of ancient and contemporary pottery, primarily from the American Southwest. The ceramic traditions of the Anasazi, Casas Grandes, Hohokam, and modern Pueblos emphasize bold, graphic designs that often play with negative and positive space—perfect inspiration for printmaking.

IMG_8199

The students were invited to spend the first few minutes of their visit moving around the room and examining each piece closely. We asked them to look at the designs and issued a challenge: could they find the one piece that was not from the Southwest? The students used deductive reasoning to rule out the Anasazi vessels, which are clearly unified by their bold black-on-white geometric designs; the black-on-black vessels of Maria Martinez; and some of the historic pieces from the San Ildefonso and Santa Clara pueblos. Many students settled on a bottle form with a distinctive cross-in-circle sunburst motif rendered in ghostly black pigment. Remarkably, one student offered that the piece is from the Southeast, possibly Georgia. She was right—the bottle is a negative-painted vessel from the Etowah site, just outside Atlanta.

Art student examines a negative painted bottle from the Etowah site, Georgia.
Art student examines a negative painted bottle from the Etowah site, Georgia.

We talked a little about where these pieces are from, how old they are, how they were made and decorated, and the lives of those who made them. I shared the story of Maria Martinez and how she and her husband, Julian, created a sensation in the 1920s by combining traditional forms and designs with their innovative black-on-black technique. Their glimmering black pieces with matte geometric designs appealed to collectors interested in the streamlined and precise aesthetic of Art Deco, and the pieces became highly collectible as Maria demonstrated her technique and marketed her pottery.

Black-on-black plate by Maria and Julian Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico.

At the end of their visit, the students had an opportunity to tell us about their favorite pieces and capture some photos for later inspiration. Some liked the polychrome Casas Grandes vessel, which harbored abstract animal or human forms, while others were captivated by the subtle asymmetry of a beautiful water jar from Zia Pueblo. We look forward to seeing the prints the students create!

To read more about Maria Martinez and Pueblo pottery making, check out Peabody archaeologist Carl Guthe’s pioneering work from the 1920s at InternetArchive: https://archive.org/details/pueblopotterymak00guth