Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: Survey Far Beyond the Hilly Flanks

Survey in the newly opened archaeological frontier of Iraqi Kurdistan comes with many challenges. Other reports from University of Pennsylvania graduate students on the project about various aspects of our work have been put up on the Beyond the Museum Walls blog but my own work deals specifically with the survey in our area. This season of the Rowanduz Archaeological Project (RAP) included excavations at Banahilk, Gird-i Dasht, Sidekan Bank and Gund-i Topzawa as well as survey in the area of Sidekan. These excavations uncovered material spanning from the Neolithic to the Ottoman periods and make up a large area. Simultaneously, we conducted a survey of the area of the Soran district of Iraqi Kurdistan, but with particular attention on the Sidekan district. In addition to participating in the excavations at Gird-i Dasht and Gund-i Topzawa, my role on the project is to conduct the survey, which has its own challenges and rewards.

Map of RAP 2013 survey area, with sites noted on the bottom

Map of RAP 2013 survey area, with sites noted on the bottom

Survey, in general, consists of traveling the landscape looking for evidence of human occupation and interaction. A great number of posts on this blog have also dealt with this aspect of archaeology. One of the most commonly used methods for survey is walking straight transects along fields and other flat areas to locate and document the presence of pottery on the surface. The amount and location of the pottery sherds is noted and an overall picture of the density of pottery can be seen. This information can then be used to show areas where humans in the past spent time and presumably participated in activities. I performed field transects in areas around known sites and encountered a challenge to survey in the area— dense vegetation covering much of the surface. While it yielded some results, the low visibility of the surface led to imperfect results.

View across the Topzawa Valley. Most of the area has thick vegetation except for the small plowed field.

View across the Topzawa Valley. Most of the area has thick vegetation except for the small plowed field.

Prospection, on the other hand, is a method that usually takes place over large areas and attempts to find sites and features. One can travel by foot, car or anything in between noting areas that look modified by humans or that have artifacts on the surface. GPS points are taken at points of interest and sites and their corresponding characteristics are noted. This became the most productive ways in which to locate sites and gather valuable data. Two major factors make this possible. One is the scarcity of archaeological survey taken in the area. Only one foreign survey by Rainer Boehmer, in 1973, occurred in this area, and it was merely a few days. The second is a massive road cut running parallel to the Topzawa River which cut a number of sites and burials. It was this construction and destruction that first alerted us to the presence of the site of Gund-i Topzawa. Walking this road cut is a special type of archaeological survey; massive walls, complete stratigraphy, burnt layers, complete pottery vessels and even complete rooms with ceilings are visible in the cut. It was my job to record the location of these sites along the cut which will help lead to finding similar sites buried below the surface.

Survey along the road-cut (left) with the highest peaks of the Zagros in the background

Survey along the road-cut (left) with the highest peaks of the Zagros in the background

This season the survey took place almost exclusively in the area around Sidekan, a mountainous valley that extends to the Iran-Iraq border. While the areas under governance of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have been experiencing rapid growth and development, Sidekan remains a rural village of only a few thousand people.

The main commercial area of the village of Sidekan

The main commercial area of the village of Sidekan

Soran’s population, in contrast, swelled over the last few years to nearly 200,000.

View of the city of Soran at dusk

View of the city of Soran at dusk

Most of the population in the Sidekan area lives along the rivers of Topzawa and Senne that wind their way down from the peaks of the Zagros Mountains that form the border. This border was not only an important division in antiquity but throughout recent history. Remnants of the massive destruction during the Iran-Iraq war are minefields that were placed along this frontier, a number of which still remain. With regards to archaeological survey this creates difficulties as these areas obviously must be avoided. They are, of course, also a danger to the many people who live in this area.

Mountains are the defining feature of the terrain in the survey. Sidekan rests in a valley system that forms the last set of peaks before the chaine magistrale, the highest peaks of the Zagros Mountains that form the modern border between Iran and Iraq. Our site of Gund-i Topzawa was at about 4,000 feet above sea level and during a day of survey, our car reached an altitude of 10,000 feet.

View down into the Topzawa Valley. Hiked to current point surveying hill for archaeological remains. Steep way down!

View down into the Topzawa Valley. Hiked to current point surveying hill for archaeological remains. Steep way down!

These high elevations manifest themselves in steep slopes and limited flat areas which make walking many of the areas difficult, many times impossible. Sometimes a moderately difficult hike up the hill can become frightening descent down the mountain. Archaeologically, it also changes the types of occupation compared to the vast flat plains of Mesopotamia. Massive mounds which characterize much of Near Eastern archaeology are near absent from the landscape. Rather, settlement seems to take place in terraces along the rivers into the hills, as the excavation at Gund-i Topzawa has begun to reveal.

This season’s survey revealed a number of sites along this cut with pottery dating to the Iron Age (approximately 1000 BC -300BC), large stone walls and thick layers of burning. These seem to be part of a larger settlement pattern of villages that interacted with each other and were struck by a massive destruction event. The nature of this destruction and the identity of the attackers still must be solved, but it gives a fascinating beginning for the survey to begin.

Penn graduates students: (left to right) Myself, Darren Ashby and Katherine Burge. Sitting in a room at Gund-i Topzawa, likely typical of the type of sites surveyed.

Penn graduates students: (left to right) Myself, Darren Ashby and Katherine Burge. Sitting in a room at Gund-i Topzawa, likely typical of the type of sites surveyed.

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LiDAR Scans and Sacred Lakes: A Report from the 2014 Summer Season at Abydos- Part 2

The Malih in the late 19th Century. Photo from Auguste Mariette, L’Egypt de Mariette: Voyage en Egypte par Auguste Mariette Pacha (Editions Errance: 1999), planche 33

The Malih in the late 19th Century. Photo from Auguste Mariette, L’Egypt de Mariette: Voyage en Egypte par Auguste Mariette Pacha (Editions Errance: 1999), planche 33

In my previous post, I talked about the technological methods utilized in Abydos this season. Another major part of my season at Abydos was to do a preliminary investigation of the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple. The remnants of this sacred lake, known now as the Malih or the Salty, survived into the 20th Century until it was filled in and covered by houses. Even though a few scholars from the 19th  and 20th Centuries recognized the Malih as the remnants of a sacred lake, it appears that modern scholars have forgotten this sacred lake and its association with the Osiris temple and the annual Osiris procession. The goal of this research on the sacred lake is to bring it back into modern scholarship and show its importance to the landscape of Abydos.

The identification of the Malih as the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple has to do with its location at the eastern edge of the Osiris temple within the ancient settlement of the Kom es-Sultan. Textual evidence from two Middle Kingdom officials supports the idea of the close proximity between temples and lakes at Abydos as they indicate the building of temples involved the construction of a lake nearby. According to an official named Meri, the building of a temple to Senwosret I included the construction of a lake that connected it to the Nile River. Another official named Mentuhotep built a temple to a god at Abydos, presumably Osiris, and constructed a lake nearby. These sources help to support the idea that building temples at Abydos involved the construction of a lake in close proximity. If this is the case, then the Malih most likely represents the remnants of a sacred lake constructed for the Osiris temple.

The area of the Kom es-Sultan (A) with the Osiris temple (B) and Malih (C) at Abydos. Photo from Google Earth

The area of the Kom es-Sultan (A) with the Osiris temple (B) and Malih (C) at Abydos. Photo from Google Earth

The close proximity between the Osiris temple and the Malih indicates that the temple and sacred lake had a close relationship. As with similar sacred lakes at sites like Karnak, Dendera and Tanis, the sacred lake at Abydos served as a place for rituals conducted by the priests at the Osiris temple. The sacred lake of the Osiris temple had a specific purpose during the annual Osiris procession, which was a religious occasion when the image of Osiris was taken from the temple in the Kom es-Sultan and led south through the naturally occurring wadi to Osiris’ symbolic tomb at Umm el-Qaab. This procession included many stops and rituals along its route, but one of the first rituals and stops involved some sort of water element in which the image of Osiris crossed a lake at night in his boat called the Neschmet bark. Even though what happened on the lake is not known, accounts by a 12th Dynasty official named Ikhernofret and the 13th Dynasty King Neferhotep, both relate accounts of each acting as Horus and repelling Osiris’ enemies from the Neschmet bark. The close proximity of the Malih to the Osiris temple and the need for a lake during the Osiris procession, gives weight to the idea that the Malih is the sacred lake associated to the Osiris temple and is the lake Osiris’s golden Neschmet bark glided over.

Landscape of Abydos with the Osiris processional route indicated from the Kom es-Sultan to Umm el-Gaab. Photo from Josef Wegner, “Abydos and the Penn Museum,” Expedition Magazine 56.1 (2014): 5

Landscape of Abydos with the Osiris processional route indicated from the Kom es-Sultan to Umm el-Gaab. Photo from Josef Wegner, “Abydos and the Penn Museum,” Expedition Magazine 56.1 (2014): 5

The use of the sacred lake for the Osiris temple and Osiris procession indicates that it was a prominent feature of the Abydos landscape until the 19th to 20th Centuries when its silted-up remnants consisted of two ponds that covered a roughly 200 by 400 meter area and it became known as the Malih or Salty. Some 19th Century scholars identified the Malih as the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple and others included its outline on their maps of Abydos, but the last account of the Malih as a sacred lake came from Dorothy Eady, better known as Omm Sety, in the early 1970’s. She commented on the Malih as a sacred lake, its use in the Osiris procession and stories from locals who say they saw a golden boat floating on the Malih. She also gives the only account of the Malih’s fate as the standing water in the ponds caused a malaria epidemic, which led local officials to fill it in during the early 1950’s. It is as if the Malih’s dwindling prominence and eventual disappearance under houses caused scholars to forget about its identification as a sacred lake and relationship to the landscape of Abydos.

Corona Satellite image of the Malih in 1968 (left) and the modern housing covering, but showing the rough outline of the Malih from a 2014 Google Earth image (right)

Corona Satellite image of the Malih in 1968 (left) and the modern residential covering, which shows the rough outline of the Malih from a 2014 Google Earth image (right)

In order to re-introduce the Malih to modern scholarship, my advisor Dr. Joe Wegner and I undertook a project to investigate the Malih during the 2014 summer season at Abydos. The first steps of this project involved researching the Malih while at Penn and then visiting the area while at Abydos. Upon arriving at Abydos, we walked to the Kom es-Sultan, where I began to take pictures of the Malih to document its current appearance. From the Malih’s western side, which borders the Kom es-Sultan, one can see the houses built into the depression of the lake that still gives the general outline of the Malih. Any visible boundary of the lake at the northern or eastern edges is not easy to see since houses completely cover it and there are no noticeable depressions marking an edge like on the western and southern sides. The chance to investigate the northern and eastern boundaries of the Malih was possible through attending a local wedding within Beni Mansour. Attending the wedding was a fun experience, but it also gave me the chance to realize that unless you had knowledge of the area as the Malih, you would not be able to tell that it was once two ponds, let alone an ancient sacred lake. I will admit that it was not until I started this project that I finally looked at the area of Malih as a body of water rather than just a part of a modern town. Investigating the Malih not only occurred from the ground, but also through satellite images gathered by Joe. By combining what we learned from ground exploration and these images, we gained a better understanding of the Malih’s overall size along with its relation to the Osiris temple and the sacred processional way.

The southwestern edge of the Malih from the Kom es-Sultan

The southwestern edge of the Malih from the Kom es-Sultan

The western edge of the Malih from the remnants of the Osiris temple

The western edge of the Malih from the remnants of the Osiris temple

The culmination of this summer’s research on the Malih/sacred lake occurred in Prague when Joe and I presented our current findings at the Profane Landscapes, Sacred Places Conference held by the Czech Institute for Egyptology on June 26th and June 27th. The conference’s topic of sacred landscape and places in ancient Egypt offered a great opportunity for us to present our current research as well as receive feedback. We were not the only lake people at the conference, other presenters talked about lakes at Giza and Abusir, which provided comparable research and some new ideas concerning the investigation of lakes in the ancient Egyptian landscape. Joe and I co-presented on the Malih/sacred lake the second day of the conference to a well-receiving group of Egyptologists who provided valuable comments and ideas. Overall, the conference was an important experience and concluded with some well-deserved Czech Pilsner.

Now that Joe and I are back from Abydos and Prague, we are discussing the next steps of the sacred lake project. Listening to other conference presenters gave us the chance to figure out how to answer some questions we already had and develop new questions, with two questions that stand out in particular. What was the original size of the sacred lake? Was the water source that filled the sacred lake from the Nile River or a desert source? Answering the first question will involve sediment core drillings across Beni Mansour, which will allow us to look at the sediment pattern of different areas, like the desert and floodplain, as well as distinguish the boundaries of a sediment pattern typical for a lake that could indicate the sacred lake’s original size. Answering the second question will involve learning more about the hydrology of the floodplain and desert, along with looking at studies done on the Osireion and its water source. Another part of this project is to interview locals and record any stories related to the Malih before it was covered. We hoped to find stories like those recorded by Omm Sety, such as the nightly visit of a golden boat on the Malih. These stories might provide some useful details about the Malih as well as preserve some interesting and colorful stories.

Houmdi (left) and I (right) at his daughter’s wedding, sitting in the courtyard of his home built within the area of the Malih. Photo from Jamie Kelly

Houmdi (left) and I (right) at his daughter’s wedding, sitting in the courtyard of his home built within the area of the Malih. Photo from Jamie Kelly

In the upcoming seasons, it will be exciting to see more information about the sacred lake come to light as we continue to conduct research and answer more questions. I hope this research will re-introduce the Malih as the sacred lake of the Osiris temple and show its importance to the landscape of Abydos. In the future, the knowledge gained from this project can contribute to other questions about the changing boundary of the floodplain and desert at Abydos as well as discover additional lakes that once dotted the Abydos landscape.

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Ur Digitization Project: August 2014

Deep Pits and Early Burials
Spotlight on 31-17-404: Ubaid Period Skeleton from Ur
More about the rediscovered skeleton from grave PFG/Z

On August 5, 2014, the Penn Museum released a press announcement about a 6,500-year-old skeleton in its collection that had been reconnected to a key piece of its history by the Ur Digitization Project. The announcement captured imaginations worldwide and we have been inundated with questions about it. So, what better topic for this month’s Ur blog than this, the earliest skeleton preserved from the site of Ur?

31-17-404 in its original crate. Composite photo by Kyle Cassidy.

31-17-404 in its original shipping crate. Composite photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Even though Woolley uncovered thousands of bodies, he only saved about 30 skeletons or parts of skeletons from the Royal Cemetery, ones that were in good enough condition for analysis of the day. Most of these went to Sir Arthur Keith at the Royal College of Surgeons and are now in the Natural History Museum in London.

The majority of bodies at Ur were not in good condition. Woolley preserved a few of these by pouring wax over the fragile bones and the dirt surrounding them. He did this for several skulls from the Royal Cemetery, dating approximately 2500BCE. Penn received two of these skulls, both currently on display. One is the skull of a soldier or guard, complete with helmet. The other is the skull of a female attendant, complete with golden headdress. Woolley meant these for display rather than for analysis, as techniques of his day couldn’t work well with largely flattened ancient bone.

After completing excavations in the Royal Cemetery, Woolley became interested in the earliest periods of the site. Thus, he dug a very deep trench (designated Pit F) in an already low spot inside the Temenos wall (the area surrounding the sacred space). This was a relatively central point and one where he would not be burdened by huge amounts of later remains since it was already worn down. He reported the level of the top of the pit “not more than 18 meters above sea level,” though his section drawing shows it at 17 meters above.

He dug through eight occupation levels at the top of Pit F and then through a large-scale pottery-making area and finally through deposits that were cut through with burials. One of the lowest of these deposits was the ‘flood layer,’ about three meters of water-lain silt. In Ur Excavations volume 4 Woolley reports: “we found some 49 graves dug down to and into the Flood deposit,” though the appendix to the volume only describes 48 (the 49th is almost certainly one mentioned as a possible second burial immediately beneath Grave U). He labeled each with PFG (Pit F Grave) followed by a letter from A to VV, skipping H, I, and II (skipping H was probably a simple error, as he did not skip HH, but it was Woolley’s general practice to leave out the letter I in designators as it would too often be mistaken for the numeral 1).

The burials were not in one mass, but spread across the lower portion of Pit F, the result of an ancient cemetery. Furthermore, they divided into two major groups. In the uppermost group, bodies were ‘flexed,’ that is, they lay on their sides with their knees drawn up. In the lower group, the bodies lay on their backs, stretched out to their full length. Woolley believed that both groups were Ubaid period, but later analysis indicates that the upper group is probably early Uruk period.

Woolley found Ubaid house remains beneath the flood layer and he assigned this period Ubaid 1. The burials in the flood layer he assigned Ubaid 2, but he mentioned the similarity in pottery of both groups. The pottery found with the graves is the chief way we date the skeletons and the particular skeleton 31-17-404, from PFG/Z, had 10 clay vessels buried at its feet. These are of distinctive Ubaid types, but types we now know to be late Ubaid, somewhere around the division between Ubaid 3 and 4, approximately 4500BCE.

Woolley didn’t map the location of his deep pits terribly well, but he did divide Pit F into 5×5 meter grid squares. He didn’t show the exact location of every burial, but he did report them to their five meter squares and to their elevations above sea level. With the help of aerial photos, we can place Pit F in its correct location on the site and show just where each the grave was placed in all three dimensions with relatively good accuracy.

Location of Pit F. At left is an aerial photo from 1930, at right the location of the pit has been inserted into Woolley's map of Ur in the UrIII period (later than the Ubaid burial).

Location of Pit F. At left is an aerial photo from 1930, at right the location of the pit has been inserted into Woolley’s map of Ur in the UrIII period (later than the Ubaid burial).

Pit F Grave Z was found in square D5 at 3.15 meters above sea level (~14 meters below the surface of the mound). It was in the lower of the two groups, but like all of the burials, it was dug down from above the flood layer and into it. This shows that the man in the grave lived after the flood, though we don’t know exactly how long after. He was not covered over by the flood as some might think when looking at the drawing of the location of his body inside the silt.

The bones of the Ubaid burials were in particularly bad condition and the one in PFG/Z (later designated 31-17-404) was the only one that Woolley spoke of as in any shape to be preserved. He covered the bones in wax, just as he had done with the later skulls in the Royal Cemetery, and almost certainly thought of this as a display item rather than a study item. That is probably why he sent it to Philadelphia. We didn’t have a Physical Anthropology Section at the time, but a representative sample of all Ur material was to be sent to each museum, and the human remains had mostly gone to London. The body had been excavated either in December of 1929 or January of 1930 and had spent a long time thereafter getting to London. It then became part of the division that was conducted in March of 1931.

Nearly 85 years later, not only does Penn have an excellent Physical Anthropology Section, we also have new techniques for analyzing the fragile and wax-coated skeleton, such as CT scans, DNA testing, and isotope testing. By reconnecting a skeleton to its records, we have reestablished a key portion of the history of this person and he can now help us to learn about his culture in ways that his excavators never predicted. It’s a great example of why the Ur Digitization Project is doing what it’s doing: reexamining all the records from Ur.

Note: The Ubaid skeleton will be on display in the Penn Museum Artifact Lab in September and October where conservators can be observed working on it. Come see this amazing discovery!

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Archaeology at the border: Survey and excavation in Xinjiang (continued)

As we approach the end of the field season, with 2 weeks remaining, the cold weather  also begins to settle in. Since I last wrote, the grass has yellowed, leaving flocks of sheep and cow to scavenge from what is left from a summer much drier than prior years. The rainmakers had to be called in to induce precipitation by dispersing silver iodide into the clouds.

Up goes the rocket and down comes the rain.

Up goes the rocket and down comes the rain.

We are currently excavating the twenty graves we exposed at the site of Adonqolu this season. The site lies on the gentle south-facing slopes between two mountain ranges (please refer to my previous post for description). The graves are all oriented east-west with their capstones arranged generally in a north-south direction. They are lined with, most commonly, erect stone slabs on all four sides of the grave, and they sit inside quadrangular structures outlined by either erect stone slabs or flat-lying stones. Graves in the same enclosure may be dated to different time periods, and this chronological gap can be discerned by observing the stratigraphy as well as structural configurations. To understand their spatial arrangement and chronological relationship, we are also creating 3D reconstruction models using a photogrammetry software. All archaeological findings are shot in with a total station and the distribution of finds will be correlated with the structures in three dimensional space.

DSCF2912Besides gazing at human crania with Europoid features, the other highlight of my fieldwork has been the bronze objects I excavated in one of the graves, which include bronze beads, bronze bracelets/anklets, small bronze ornaments that might have been affixed to clothing, and what look like bronze mirrors (see picture at left). What is also interesting is that the bronze objects are mixed in a concentrated deposit of burnt human bones. Unlike this grave, most other graves yielded flat bottomed ceramic pots with incised patterns (picture below) that can be attributed to the Andronovo Culture of Central Asia, bronze objects are limited to one or two pieces if not absent. Where the bones of the deceased have been preserved, they are usually placed in a fetal position with the head facing north in the western end of the grave. Secondary burials have also been found.


Since our day is long, starting normally at 9am when the moon still hangs high in the sky, and ending at 8pm when the evening sun is still above the horizon, we take a siesta in our Mongol yurts with a pot of traditional milk tea. In the month of August, the weather has varied from tank top and shorts to thermal wear with fleece and wind jacket. The strong winds in the mountains are unrelenting at times, leaving us covered  completely in dirt at the excavation site. Teamwork is one of the most paramount aspects of archaeological fieldwork, and I am privileged to have worked with a team that has held its own through rain and shine.

Lifting the capstones with a pulley.

Lifting the capstones with a pulley.

While I find the hospitality of the herds equalling endearing as their owners, my companions beg to differ – we often find cows and camels roaming near our site, finding their way into our latrines and once, through our kitchen. They are also the most unperturbed pedestrians, they would stroll into the middle of the road at the most inopportune moments. But to be fair, this vast area of grassland is their home and we are the trespassers. They are the livelihood of many Mongols and Kazakhs who practice pastoralism in the area today, and most of whom I met have enthusiastically showed me their lifeways. I learnt how they make milk products including yoghurt, butter, hard cheese, and what they call milk wine (you add a dollop of butter and drink it hot!), all products derived from animal husbandry. They also showed me how to felt by hand. With increased industrialization, these traditional skills are gradually losing their limelight; it is also difficult for the pastoralists to keep making these products once they move into the urban environment, these processes require communal effort, an outdoor setting, and tools that cannot be found in stores. As I made these observations, it became more apparent to me the importance of documenting these activities before the skill sets are completely forgone by future generations.

[My summer fieldwork is supported by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS and the Penn Museum.]

Making milk wine from fermented milk by distillation.

Making milk wine from fermented milk by distillation.

Making cheese

Making cheese 

Preparing the wool for felting.

Preparing the wool for felting.

Laying the felt

Laying the felt

The kids love kicking and rolling the felt roll.

The kids love kicking and rolling the felt roll.

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A Glance into the Lives of the Roman Peasantry: Four Weeks of Excavation with the Roman Peasant Project

Ceramics from the Tombarelle site

Ceramics from the Tombarelle site

This summer, I had the pleasure of being accepted to be a part of the sixth and final season of the Roman Peasant Project. I excavated alongside a team of professional archaeologists, professors, and graduate, PhD, and undergraduate students in rural Tuscany in Cinigiano, a municipality in the Province of Grosseto. The site we excavated was called Tombarelle. The Roman Peasant Project, directed by Kim Bowes, Cam Grey, Emanuele Vaccaro, and Mari Ghisleni, is one of very few archaeological excavations that seeks to uncover and investigate the lifestyles of peasants in the Roman period. Since a great majority of the material culture of Roman antiquity represents persons of wealth and status, this project is very important for expanding the views gathered from these traditional sources. Being the final season of the project, I was very excited to learn of the accumulation of data over the years and the conclusions drawn from the evidence discovered across rural Tuscany.

Having had no previous experience in archaeology, with the exception of an introductory course taken during the first semester of my freshman year, I quickly learned the elementary concepts of rescue-style excavation. Unlike tradition excavation, this style of archaeology requires the digging and investigation of an area to occur at a brisk pace. The four trenches we excavated were first discovered through use of an archaeological survey. They were dug quickly and were some of the many areas of interest for excavation in Cinigiano.  Following the survey, an excavator was called to remove the first few layers of soil, and we began the excavation by troweling in order to clean the trenches. It was quite a funny thing for one to “clean” dirt, and I have to say, I enjoyed every minute of it.

Discovering artifacts and new methods of surveying was both a very entertaining and exciting endeavor. Within the first week, we began work with pick axes and shovels and discovered our first finds of the excavation, with many of them dating from the fifth century AD. When a found had been made, a series of happy squeals emanated from those of us new to the field of archaeology. By the end of the second week, I had not only worked on every area of the dig site, but also had also learned to take measurements with a dumpy level. This required me to look through a leveled instrument to read certain heights on a measurement stick, almost like peering through a telescope at a vertical ruler. After taking the level of a small find and a fixed point, a small amount of math was applied to find the height of the artifact in respect to the sea level. Whenever such a prominent small find was uncovered, like a piece of Roman glass, for example, a dumpy level and a total station would be the instruments used to document the location of said small find.

Trench 17000 of the Tombarelle site

Trench 17000 of the Tombarelle site

I worked primarily in two trenches during the duration of the excavation. For the first week and a half, I worked mainly on a structure thought to be a cistern. By the end of the dig, we discovered that it had, indeed, been used as a cistern during Roman times but had been reconditioned to serve as a basement of a medieval tower. It was in trench 17000, however, where I spent most of the hours and the remaining two and a half weeks of the excavation. During the third week of excavating trench 17000, we uncovered a tile floor, mostly flat. This floor was surrounded on two sides by what appeared to be walls. This building could very well have been a Roman house. In addition to learning the physical aspects of an archaeological excavation, I learned how to fill out context sheets for my trench and transcribe the written context sheets onto a computer database.

Our finds led us to question the complexity of what a Roman peasant truly was. The peasants we studied in Cinigiano lived in rural societies. It is unknown, however, if they were as poverty-stricken as traditional views would relay. It was interesting to discover that the evidence from the material culture we unearthed suggested that the Roman peasants of this area had a great knowledge of the world outside of their farms and agricultural societies. Throughout the course of the dig, we unearthed pottery sherds, including some pieces of Terra sigillata, animal bone fragments, and pieces of tile and imbrex. Many of the pottery sherds we found were from pots and amphora that were replicas of original pieces found elsewhere across the Roman Empire. Two particular potsherds that we found had leaf-like designs etched into the clay. The pottery specialists on the excavation confirmed that these particular pieces were, indeed, reproductions of the originals. In respect to the animal bones we found, which were the bones of both cows and pigs, some possessed gnaw marks while others did not. This could suggest that these animals, in addition to being raised for sustenance, were used for certain manufacturing purposes. The building we found, if not a house, could have been a tannery or a farm. It could have also served another industrial purpose. This suggests that these peasants were involved in the manufacturing of, importation, and exportation of goods for trade.

My experience with the Roman Peasant Project in Cinigiano was an amazing one. Not only did I learn about the field of archaeology as a whole, but also I met many outstanding friends and scholars. We spent many days laughing and singing in the trenches and many late nights talking after dinner about careers, the future, favorite television shows, and, of course, the ancient world that we were attempting to uncover. My first bout with archaeology may not have been quite so exhilarating as Indiana Jones might have found it, but, in all honesty, I probably had just as much fun as the good doctor.

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The Corinth Excavations

The Temple of Apollo at Corinth.  This is the view I see each day as I walk from the excavation house to the Museum.

Fig. 1. The Temple of Apollo at Corinth. This is the view I see each day as I walk from the excavation house to the Museum.

I am writing from the site of Ancient Corinth, where excavations under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens have been going on since the late 19th century.  The Corinth Excavations have been a training ground for generations of archaeologists, including me, and I thank the director, Guy Sanders, and assistant director, Ioulia Tzonou-Herbst, for making Corinth such a wonderful place to work.  I’ve been working at Corinth for a long time, so I’m also indebted to the director emeritus, Charles Williams, and the assistant director emerita, Nancy Bookidis, for a scholarly lifetime of support, encouragement, and friendship.

At Corinth, I am working on late seventh and early sixth century BCE pottery from the area known as the Potters’ Quarter.   Up next to the city wall on the west side of the city, the Potters’ Quarter is one of the sites around the city where pottery was produced.   The Potters’ Quarter was excavated by Agnes Newhall Stillwell, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, for several years beginning in 1929, when she was a fellow at the American School.  No kilns where the pottery was fired have been discovered in the Potters’ Quarter, but the large quantities of damaged–misfired, cracked, misshapen–pottery as well as much material associated with pottery production, especially try-pieces, that are found in fills and deposits make clear that pottery was produced nearby.

Corinth C-31-46

Fig 2. Corinth C-31-46

I am working on the very large quantity of material from a well–Well 1929-1 in Corinth nomenclature–in the Potters’ Quarter.  The well was dug in the 7th century BCE and once it went dry, it was filled up with quantities of pottery, discarded no doubt from nearby potteries.  Some of the pottery from the well was published by Stillwell and J. L. Benson (Corinth XV:3:  The Potters Quarter: The Pottery.  Princeton 1984), but much remained unstudied and that is what I am working on.  I am particularly interested in the different painters whose work is represented in the well’s contents, and here I’ll focus on the painters of the shape known in Corinth as the kotyle.  It’s the same as a skyphos, a deep two-handled drinking cup, and the kotyle is very common in Corinthian pottery of the late seventh to mid-sixth centuries BCE.   Some Corinthian kotylai (the plural of kotyle) are very fine, but not the ones I’m working with.   An example, Corinth C-31-46, (fig. 2) from elsewhere at Corinth shows the shape–only one handle is visible here–and the decorative scheme, which includes a figural zone that here has an elongated panther and part of another animal.

Philadelphia 49-33-26

Fig. 3. Philadelphia 49-33-26

I have grown quite familiar with the style of these Corinthian kotyle painters, and one day, a few years ago, when I was looking a drawer of pottery sherds in the Mediterranean Section, I saw a small fragment by a painter well known to me from the kotylai of my Potters’ Quarter well.   The fragment, 49-33-26 (fig. 3), is part of a small study collection of Greek pottery, some of it from the Potters’ Quarter, which came to the Museum sixty-five years ago thanks to the generosity of the Greek government.  The Penn fragment is the work of an artist we call the Painter of KP- 248, whose name vase is from the Potters’ Quarter.  That fragment preserves the head of a panther, and you can see that same panther face in another little sherd, Corinth L-29-10-302, (fig. 4) also by the painter and also from the well.  And you see it again in the group of joining fragments, Corinth L-29-10-92, (fig. 6) which preserves about a third of the kotyle and has two elongated panthers (the head of the panther at the right is not preserved); these fragments are from the well and are the work of the Painter of KP-248.  The Painter of KP-248 was clearly painting his kotylai at a pretty rapid rate and usually stretches out his animals so that there’s only room for three in the picture zone.

Corinth L-29-10-302

Fig. 4. Corinth L-29-10-302

Corinth L-29-10-11 by the Painter of KP 14

Fig. 5. Corinth L-29-10-11 by the Painter of KP 14

To see how the style of the Painter of KP-248 is different from that of other Corinthian vase-painters, compare it to that of the kotyle Corinth C-31-36 above  (fig. 2), again from elsewhere at Corinth, and also to this other kotyle fragment, L-29-10-11, (fig. 5) from the well, by an artist also named for a complete kotyle in the well, the Painter of KP-14 (Yes, the painters have boring nicknames.   Of course, we don’t know the painters’ real names, so we give them nicknames, sometimes rather dull ones.).   You can see that the painters use the same idiom as they delineate their panther faces, with eyes flanking a prominent nose ridge, curved ears a little like leaves, and little lines to mark the muzzle or the whiskers.  But you can also see how alike the Painter of KP-248′s kotylai are and how different they are from the others, how different the details of the style of the Painter of KP-248 are from those of the other painters.

Corinth L-29-10-92

Fig. 6. Corinth L-29-10-92

The group of joining fragments, Corinth L-29-10-92 (fig. 6) by the Painter of KP 248, shows some variation in color because of problems with the firing.  You can see the animals and ornament are brownish instead of black, and there’s a reddish area on the top of the left panther’s head, on the right panther’s tail, and on the dots of fill ornament above the right panther’s back.  This reminds us of the extensive and important evidence that the material from the Potters’ Quarter provides for the study of the technology of pottery production.  And a new generation of scholars is discovering the significance of the Potters’ Quarter material, through new technical and scientific studies.  Amanda Reiterman (fig. 7), graduate student in Penn’s Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program and Kolb Junior Fellow, and Bice Peruzzi, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, are doing new technical and scientific studies of the Potters’ Quarter material so that we may better understand pottery production and technology in the Corinth of the seventh and sixth centuries BCE.

Working on Potters' Quarter material Corinth with Amanda Reiterman, graduate student in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program, last summer.

Fig. 7. Working on Potters’ Quarter material at Corinth with Amanda Reiterman, graduate student in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program, last summer.

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Baths in the Dirt: Season 2 at Cosa

“Depart, work and troubles! Now I sing of the baths that sparkle with shining stones…”
-Statius, Silvae 1.5

Roman baths were famous for their opulence and ubiquity, and are spoken of admiringly by a number of ancient authors. To excavate a Roman bath, however, is a different matter. The baths do not sparkle, nor do the stones shine. Caked in millennia of dirt, their walls emerge mud-stained and crumbling. Only after cleaning and conserving our finds can we glimpse the gleam of the marble, the luster of the glass. Little by little, we begin to imagine the baths as they were meant to be.

Thanks to the generous support of the Penn Museum, I was able to return for my second season at the Roman site of Cosa. Founded in 273 BC, Cosa sits high on the Ansedonian hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Although American excavations at the site began as early as 1948, they have been intermittent, and much remains unexplored. Our new project, directed by Andrea de Giorgi, Russell T. Scott, and Richard Posamentir, is focused on the large bath complex just northwest of the forum.

Sitting on a Roman street at Cosa

Sitting on a Roman street at Cosa

In our first season (2013), we uncovered the substantial remains of a laconicum—a round heated room popular in Roman bathhouses. Initial investigation of the building’s facades were also begun, and explored in more detail during the 2014 season. My trench is in the southern sector of the complex, and was opened in order to investigate the relationship of the building’s exterior (made clear by the presence of an ancient Roman street to its south) to the large western cistern area.

We uncovered several well-preserved masonry walls that intersect at right angles and help clarify the axis of the building. The rooms they separated are paved with Roman waterproof concrete which, we discovered much to our chagrin, worked all too well when the site was hit by relentless rainstorms in mid-June.

Rainwater pooling on a floor made of  (still working!) Roman waterproof concrete

Rainwater pooling on a floor made of (still working!) Roman waterproof concrete

Two large thresholds were also discovered in the southern sector of the bath complex, and must have served as principle entrances to the building.

Entrance to the bath building

Entrance to the bath building

Exploring the tunnel

Exploring the tunnel

Because the hill of Cosa has no natural water source, a major question of our project is how the hydraulic system functioned: how was water collected, stored, transported to the bathhouse, and distributed within the building? Part of our work this summer involved a detailed investigation of the nearby reservoir system, which is connected to the baths by a tunnel beneath the ancient street.

A new and exciting aspect of the 2014 season involved the increased use of digital technology. Our Quadcopter UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) was able to take aerial photos of the site, improving mapping capabilities and creating 3D models of standing features (the city walls, the arx, and the forum) and of our excavated trenches. These models will allow archaeologists to study and explore the site remotely, even after the excavation season ends.

Aerial view of the arx (photo courtesy of Matthew Brennan)

Aerial view of the arx (photo courtesy of Matthew Brennan)

After a fascinating and productive season, much remains to be explored at Cosa’s baths. I hope to return again next summer, whether or not they “sparkle with shining stones.”

The team (photo courtesy of Matthew Brennan)

The team (photo courtesy of Matthew Brennan)

For more information on our project, visit: http://www.cosaexcavations.com/index.html

To see our 2014 daily blog, visit: http://cosaexcavations.blogspot.it/

To view 3D models of the site, visit: https://sketchfab.com/matthewbrennan/folders/af22e37edf8840c0be5bcc07c0a52c4e

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Sitz Unseen: Looking at Archaeological Sites

ams venice

Anna Sitz

Many people think that archaeology is mainly about doing: breaking the ground with a pickaxe, shoveling and sifting dirt, using a trowel to uncover artifacts. These activities are all part of the archaeological process. But a large part of archaeology is about looking rather than doing. I am a fifth year PhD student in Penn’s Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program, and I want to share some of my experiences with looking.


Ceramics from Alabanda, after washing

Several of my colleagues have written about archaeological surveys, in which a team walks through fields or over mountains, scanning the ground for pottery sherds (pieces of broken ceramics) or traces of walls. I participated in a survey a few years ago as a part of the Philosophiana Archaeological Project on Sicily. After a couple weeks of surveying, an archaeologist’s eyes become trained to pick out the colors and sharp edges of pottery fragments from the surrounding dirt, stones, and vegetation. Despite the bright Sicilian sunlight, I preferred to survey without wearing sunglasses, because accurately seeing color was such an important part of picking out the ceramics.

marsyas perge

Marsyas watches museum visitors in the Antalya Museum

Even when the digging begins, looking is still a major part of an archaeologist’s work. Each time a pickaxe, shovel, or trowel pierces the dirt, excavators watch the soil for artifacts or bones. The more spectacular of these items might end up in a museum, where the public encounters them as the most visible products of archaeology.  While digging, however, archaeologists are watching not just for these objects, but also for subtle changes in the dirt itself: a change in color, texture, or inclusions (such as pebbles or mortar). These variations are evidence of a change long ago- a flood, a new floor, a pit, a fire, etc. Ideally, the archaeologist can connect the changes in the color/texture of the dirt with artifacts (such as coins or ceramics) in order to date the layer.

DSC_0413 (2)

Dirt, Alabanda excavation

Of course, archaeologists are not often lucky enough to find securely dated artifacts and a distinct type of soil all at once. And even an archaeologist most carefully watching the dirt underneath her trowel may miss some of the more gradual changes in the soil taking place in the trench as a whole. At times, looking too closely can obscure the bigger picture. For this reason, many trenches have an area supervisor, whose job it is to watch, record, and assess.

myra tombs

Lycian rock-cut tombs, Myra

The looking doesn’t stop even when the archaeologist exits his trench. In order to better understand the artifacts, walls, and contexts that emerge from the dirt, archaeologists have to look at other sites that have been previously excavated. This summer, I have been visiting several sites in Lycia, in southwestern Turkey.  This is the region just south of my normal area of fieldwork, at Alabanda in ancient Caria.


View from the acropolis of Olympos (Lycia)


Church at Patara (Lycia)

When archaeologists visit other sites, we enjoy the spectacular views and well-preserved buildings just like everyone else, but we are also keeping our eyes open for small details that can better help us understand our own work. We might look at a building’s layout and its masonry in order to see how it compares with what we are finding.

arycanda church view

View from the church at Arykanda (Lycia) into lower courtyard

We pay attention to sight lines, in other words, what an ancient person would have seen when standing in a building. We also think through the logic of building a structure in one place instead of another (for example, on a hilltop rather than in a valley), and the effect that location had on visitors.

xanthos tomb

Tomb at Xanthos (Lycia) overlooking the valley

myra painting

Byzantine painting in church of St. Nicholas, Myra

My undergraduate training was in art history rather than archaeology.  While looking at a masonry wall is a completely different experience from looking at a Botticelli painting, there is quite a bit of overlap in the skills set needed to understand each one. Both art historian and archaeologist must develop an “eye” for the material they study – the ability to pick out pertinent details quickly, to identify the style of painting or construction technique, to draw connections with other material.

iasos wall

Acropolis wall with reused blocks, Iasos (Caria)

botticelli madonna book

Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, c. 1480. Wiki images







In this way, looking becomes an act in itself, a process of selectively seeing certain features and drawing mental connections. So the next time you visit an archaeological site, try to practice looking at the walls, ceramics, artifacts, and plans like an archaeologist. You don’t even have to get dirty to do it!

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Update from Iraqi Kurdistan


So thrilled!

Covered with dirt from the excavation, I strive to make myself look presentable as a dust cloud in the distance signals the impending arrival of the director of antiquities and his entourage traveling in a caravan of white pickup trucks. As I bend down to retie my shoe, my eye is drawn to a rather strange looking potsherd. Only it isn’t a potsherd, it is my first epigraphic discovery; a fragment of a clay tablet written in the Neo-Assyrian script. For a cuneiform enthusiast there are few experiences more thrilling. This occurred during my first field season at Qasr Shemamok in 2012, and I have had the incredibly good fortune to return for 2013 and 2014.

My name is Katherine Burge and I am beginning my second year as a PhD student in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World graduate group at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to the generous support of the Penn Museum, I was able to participate in two archaeological projects in Iraqi Kurdistan this summer. In addition to participating in the Rowanduz Archaeological Program, this support also allowed me to continue my participation in the French Archaeological Mission to Qasr Shemamok, directed by Professor Olivier Rouault (Université Lyon 2) and Professor Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault (EPHE-Sorbonne).

The tell of Qasr Shemamok

The tell of Qasr Shemamok viewed from the North

Qasr Shemamok is a large mound site located about halfway between Erbil and Mosul. The site shows evidence for a long sequence of occupation, but was especially important at the time of the Assyrian Empire as the provincial capital of Kilizu. According to numerous references in administrative texts of the Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods, Kilizu appears to have ranked among the major urban and administrative centers of Assyria. The ongoing excavations at the site have confirmed this importance, yielding extensive layers of occupation and monumental building dating to the Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods, including large mudbick terraces, as well as baked brick constructions bearing inscriptions of the Assyrian kings Adad-Nerari I (1295–1264 BC) and Sennacherib (704-681 BC). Excavations on the top of the tell have further revealed several phases of construction belonging to the Hellenistic and Parthian periods. For a more detailed overview of the project and its findings, please refer to the following links:

Neo-Assyrian levels on the southern slope of the tell

Neo-Assyrian levels on the southern slope of the tell

Mudbrick structures dating to the Parthian period on top of the tell

Mudbrick structures dating to the Parthian period on top of the tell

As in previous years, my participation in the project this season centered around an operation on the southern slope of the tell. This operation began in 2011 as a step trench extending from the base of the tell to its surface, and has since been expanded to expose a series of occupations dating from the Middle Assyrian to the Parthian periods. Last year’s excavation revealed a Hellenistic settlement cutting into the remains of an extensive mudbrick terrace dating to the Neo-Assyrian period, and it was a particular goal of this season to better understand this sequence. We therefore decided to open an area on the surface of the tell, in line with where we had been excavating on the slope. Just under the surface, we discovered a layer of fill and occupation, probably consecutive to a modern military function of the site. At a depth of around 80 cm, lines of mudbrick walls began to appear. These walls belong to buildings of the Parthian period, dated by the associated pottery. Excavating below the level of their foundations, we discovered a large layer of pebbles and gray sand, and showing traces of extensive culinary activity (fireplaces, ashes, animal bones, cooking pots, rocks and baked bricks organized as makeshift furniture, etc.) belonging to an earlier phase of Parthian construction. Under this layer we found mudbrick buildings and pottery dating to the Hellenistic period. This proved to be the northern extension of the settlement discovered on top of the Neo-Assyrian terrace last year. We further discovered that this terrace extends nearly to the top of the tell.

I am especially thankful to have had the opportunity to return to Qasr Shemamok this year in light of recent events that may prevent my going back for a very long time. Recent months have seen the advance of ISIS into northern Iraq, and in the last week militants managed to penetrate Iraqi Kurdish border areas southwest of Erbil, taking the cities of Gwer and Makhmour. Friends in Erbil communicated to me that Qasr Shemamok, which is accessible from the road to Gwer, had also been taken. Fortunately, the area has since been reclaimed by the Kurdish military.

Military trench on top of the tell, looking over the plain towards Mosul

Military trench on top of the tell overlooking the plain towards Mosul (Also pictured: a dog that would not move)

Qasr Shemamok is no stranger to warfare. It has witnessed many military conflicts in modern times as well as during the ancient periods under archaeological study. Military trenches dating to the first Gulf War trace the perimeter of the tell’s surface where hoards of rusted artillery shells and even a plastic military map have been found. Cement floors from installations dating to the same conflict were discovered just under the surface layer in one of the excavation areas. The tell was also hit during the American bombing of the region in 2003, giving its surface a pockmarked appearance. The modern name of the tell, Qasr Shemamok, probably refers to an Ottoman fortress, the ruins of which were noted by 19th century archaeologists A.H. Layard and Victor Place during their respective visits to the site. We know from inscribed bricks that the mound was heavily fortified by a double system of city walls during the reign of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. It is not difficult to see why the site has been so attractive for military occupations throughout history: at a height of 30 m, the tell provides a strategic vantage point from which one can see for miles across the Shemamok plain.

Celebrating the last day of excavation

Celebrating the last day of excavation

However damage to the site during the present conflict is the least of our worries. Although the tell of Qasr Shemamok is currently unoccupied, there are two villages situated on either side of it. Several of the local inhabitants have worked with the French mission every season since the excavation began in 2011. We are anxious for the safety of these friends and coworkers, as well as for the safety of their families and neighbors.

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On the Wampum Trail: Balancing Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum

My name is Stephanie Mach and I am the Student Engagement Coordinator at the Penn Museum. I work closely with Penn Museum’s collections, University classes, and student researchers. My position acts as a bridge between the Museum and the Penn community, therefore, I am often asked about issues of cultural heritage, repatriation, museum best practices, and protocols for cultural sensitivity regarding the care of our collections.

This spring, I joined a new research team for travel to museums in the northeast (New England, Canada, and New York) to survey wampum collections. This project is directed by Dr. Margaret Bruchac, faculty member in Penn’s Department of Anthropology specializing in Museum Anthropology and Native American Studies. We were accompanied by Lise Puyo, an exchange student from Université Lumière Lyon 2 in France. In the field, we surveyed wampum construction techniques such as material, weaving methods, and repairs. My research interests were especially focused on museum curatorial methods associated with the care and display of wampum objects. For more information on our research, see the blog, “On the Wampum Trail.” Participating in this research project has allowed me to not only learn more about material culture studies, but to experience first-hand how many museums like ours navigate the complex and delicate balance between museological collections management and traditional care of cultural heritage.

Reproduction of the 1794 George Washington Treaty of Canadaigua wampum belt. Made with electrical wire insulation and artificial sinew by Jake Thomas. Object # III-I-1867, Canadian Museum of History. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Reproduction of the 1794 George Washington Treaty of Canadaigua wampum belt. Object # III-I-1867, Canadian Museum of History.

In May, we visited ten museums and noticed a variety of protocols, handling practices, and storage methods. Since certain kinds of wampum are specifically listed in NAGPRA as being objects of cultural patrimony, we were aware of the fact that we were asking to see culturally sensitive material, and museum staff informed us about objects with active claims. We are keenly aware of the delicacy of our position as researchers moving among multiple tribes and institutions. Our intent is to gain a broader understanding of wampum use and production while simultaneously focusing on minute details of material and construction that may help to clarify temporal, regional, and cultural differences. Hence, we consulted with the Haudenosaunee and others ahead of time, and we are sharing what we’ve learned with relevant tribal nations and institutions.

In general, institutions with active claims were more cautious in their approach; they placed more strict protocols on our visit, particularly regarding photography and handling. For example, before confirming our visit, several museums contacted tribal representatives to ask permission to show the collections to outside researchers. Another museum does not allow photography of wampum without prior tribal representative approval. At one museum, we were prohibited from photographing certain collections, understandably because they were from a burial context. Yet, we were allowed to photograph reproductions of these same collections that were on public display. In another museum, we examined a reproduction wampum belt constructed of plastic beads and artificial sinew that was treated with the same respect and restrictions afforded to historic shell wampum. The strict protocols placed on these reproductions raise interesting questions. Does it matter whether these objects are reproductions or not? Are wampum belts sacred in and of themselves, or are they made sacred by the rituals and meanings attached to them? This experience allowed me to think about wampum in an entirely new way.

If we consider the fact that wampum belts are made of organic material–shell, sinew, hemp, leather–then we know that these materials will not last forever. However, there are no fixed expiration dates on meaning and significance. What happens when the material severs, cracks, or breaks? Does the meaning also diminish? Or does the significance get passed into a new material–new shell beads, new leather strands, a new generation? Can a reproduction embody the significance of the original?

Cotton twill tape and polyethylene foam used to support and transport wampum at the Penn Museum. Top: NA3879; Bottom: NA3878. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Cotton twill tape and polyethylene foam used to support and transport wampum at the Penn Museum. Top: NA3879; Bottom: NA3878.

On the subject of preservation, we can compare the various ways that museums have chosen to preserve, conserve, and store wampum. In collections storage, belts were laid out on padded tables for us, handling protocols were explained, and gloves were provided so we could carefully lift the ends of the belts to see their construction techniques. To ease the movement of these objects, wampum belts and collars were typically placed onto strips of polyethylene foam or archival-grade paper board and tied down with cotton twill tape in storage. A few museums cut cavities into thicker foam and laid the object into the cavity. Both of these methods allow collections managers to transport these objects more safely from shelf to table, since the foam or board supports the weight of the belt and the ties and foam cavities ensure that the object does not move or fall.

The Fort Stanwix Treaty belt has been sewn to a fabric backing for support. Object # 37415 in the New York State Museum, Albany, NY. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

The Fort Stanwix Treaty belt has been sewn to a fabric backing for support. Object # 37415 in the New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

At several institutions, we encountered wampum belts that had been sewn down to fabric backing. In each case, this had apparently been done for display purposes and presumably left intact post-exhibition to provide added support in storage. Some belts were quite fragile, so the stitching provided reinforcement, but the foreign threads interfered with our ability to examine original construction and condition. In a more extreme case, one belt had been glued to a plexiglass backing and was completely immobilized. We also encountered a very long belt that is roughly five feet in length, however, less than half of the belt was visible due to an artistic display mount that coiled the belt at two mid-points. These curatorial strategies likely created dramatic visuals for display, but became a disadvantage for the objects in storage and for potential researchers and tribal visitors. I was understanding, as a Museum professional, of the various factors that impact care such as cost, time, and staffing, yet disappointed as a researcher not to be able to see details of the other side. Of greater concern is the fact that tribal members visiting these belts would not be able to lift them freely from their storage mounts.

When I first encountered a belt attached to a backing, my first thought was that I selfishly wanted to see the other side, but understood that this arrangement provides the belt with more support and stabilization than if it were free moving. However, my mind was quickly changed when we visited a repatriated wampum belt under the care of Chief Curtis Nelson at Kanehsatake. This belt is stored in the same box that it arrived in from the museum, including the standard foam support and twill ties. Everything seemed quite similar, until Chief Nelson lifted the belt from its box, draped it over his shoulder, ran his hand down the beads of the belt, and began to speak about its significance to his community, historically and presently. It dawned on me that the reason I had not seen a belt move or be moved in this manner before is that it would be inappropriate for a museum collections manager or curator to handle a belt in this way. Until this point, I could have considered the museum protocols for careful handling to be aligned with the goal of preservation–but I now see they are equally aligned with cultural sensitivity.

Condoled Chief Curtis Nelson at the Mohawk Nation of Kanehsatake (Oka, Quebec, Canada) holds up the repatriated wampum belt in his care. Photo by Lise Puyo.

I was impressed by the efforts of several museums to consider and respond to the challenge of managing these and other culturally sensitive materials. One museum had a separate area of storage specifically for housing culturally sensitive material. In this space certain objects were draped with cloth to hide them from sight, offerings of tobacco were allowed to lay loose on shelves, and the entire section was roped off from the rest of storage to signal that this area was restricted. We encountered offerings left on or near objects in storage at several other museums as well. Those offerings included tobacco pouches, medicinal herbs, and quahog shells. One museum allowed smudging in storage, while several others had a room specifically designated for consultation meetings where smudging is permitted. I also noted at least two museums that had smudging kits available for use by visitors. Lucy Fowler Williams, Keeper and Associate Curator of the American Section at the Penn Museum, discussed the difficulties of finding the best smudging space at our Museum, noting that on one occasion, despite being out of doors, smoke was pulled through the vents and set off the fire alarms anyway!

A box of smudging materials is available for use by Museum visitors. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

A box of smudging materials is available for use by Museum visitors.

After witnessing the care of wampum at so many different locations—tribal museums, non-tribal museums, and in the hands of a traditional Wampum Keeper—we are able to consider the many negotiations to be made among tribal members, collections managers, curators, conservators, and so on when balancing traditional care and standard museum collections management. I return to my job, but continue this research, with a renewed appreciation for Museum staff and tribal members who work together to care for material culture–a relationship that flourishes under the framework of open communication and shared understanding.

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