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!


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


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.


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