One Woman’s Efforts to Celebrate Women’s History

Robyn Young with Maya stela.

Robyn Young stands beside a Maya stela in the Museum’s Mexico and Central America Gallery.

Robyn Young, who visited Senior Archivist Alex Pezzati and me at the Museum in mid-June, is on a singular mission: to bring the stories and accomplishments of Pennsylvania’s women into the broader conversation of Pennsylvania history. A few years ago, when she did an informal review of the approximately 1,600 official historical markers throughout the state, she found only about 200 of them were about women. She was and is determined to change that, one carefully researched woman at a time, by nominating, and raising the funds for, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historical markers detailing the strengths and accomplishments of Pennsylvania women. Sending proposals for markers to Harrisburg since 2001, she has to date had 14 submissions approved. Nine are up, and five—including a marker for renowned Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff, who got her start at the Penn Museum—go up soon.

It’s a labor of love for Robyn, a paralegal by profession, who puts in at least 15 hours a week on her personal project. “I have not watched TV since 1994. I spend my free time reading about women’s history, traveling to women’s homes and local historical societies and libraries, always looking for more on a woman I am researching.”


Tatiana Proskouriakoff (23 Jan. 1909-30 Aug. 1985), the expedition architect for Piedras Negras in 1936. Penn Museum image #37401

Researching important yet often little-known women, Robyn came upon information about Tatiana Proskouriakoff—a Russian-born American scholar, a gifted artist, and student of architecture, who found her way to the Penn Museum shortly after graduating college in 1930. It was through the Museum that she made her first trip to Maya country—to the site of Piedras Negras in Guatemala—and began a long career in Maya studies that would ultimately have an indelible impact on the field in general, and the reading of Maya hieroglyphs in particular.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was raised in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, and Robyn came across her name and house listing on a Walking Tour of Lansdowne she discovered and printed out around 2008, though she didn’t begin to research her life until four years later, when she found a biography, Tatiana Proskouriakoff: Interpreting the Ancient Maya, by Char Solomon, 2002.  “After I read her biography, I just knew I had a marker quality lady!”

I learned of Robyn’s extraordinary volunteer efforts, and her discovery of Tatiana Proskouriakoff, thanks to an editorial that she wrote for Inspired by her all-volunteer efforts, I connected with her, and, learning that she had never been to the Penn Museum, invited her to come see a bit of the behind-the-scenes where Tania, as her friends called Tatiana, got her start.

Most staff at the Museum know the story of how Tatiana, using a famous Maya stela from Piedras Negras that takes center stage in our Mexico and Central America Gallery, was able to do what no other Mayanist had done before, or even thought was possible—“crack the code” and read, beyond the number system, the stories of the Maya written in hieroglyphs. Walking with Robyn towards the Museum Archives, I stopped in front of the stela with Robyn, who cupped her hand to her mouth and gasped. Here was tangible evidence of the stories she had long researched.


Robyn Young and Alex Pezzati look at Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s sketches in the Museum Archives.

In the Archives, Alex and Robyn had an animated discussion, as Alex showed her some of the exceptional, detailed original drawings Tatiana had rendered early in her career. Here was work that drew upon Tatiana’s strong architectural training, but also had something more—a creative touch that reanimated the world of the ancient Maya.

Alex had one surprise in store for Robyn; we took the windy staircase up to the third floor offices where the young Mayanist-in-training had long ago worked. Here, old American Section office spaces included a well-used wooden drafting table and a wooden stool carved with the words:

T.A.P.   Personal Property
Jan. 1937


Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s inscribed chair:
T.A.P. Personal Property
Jan. 1937

A New Marker and a Celebration to Mark It

On Saturday, August 1, 2015, at 12 noon, there is a public dedication ceremony of the new Pennsylvania historical marker to honor Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985).

The dedication ceremony and unveiling of the new marker, approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, takes place on the corner of Fairview Avenue and South Lansdowne Avenue south of Lansdowne train station. Penn Museum Senior Archivist Alessandro Pezzati, biographer Char Solomon, and Robyn Young will be among the speakers.

Pam Kosty is the Public Relations Director at the Penn Museum. She will be at the marker dedication, to be sure!

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Wampum Research: Notes from the Trail – 2014-2015

Margaret Bruchac, Stephanie Mach, and Lise Puyo at the Canadian Museum of Currency, in Gatineau, Quebec.

Margaret Bruchac, Stephanie Mach, and Lise Puyo at the Canadian Museum of Currency, in Gatineau, Quebec. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

In May 2014, three members of the “Wampum Trail” research team (Dr. Margaret Bruchac with research assistants Lise Puyo and Stephanie Mach) set out to follow a century-old trail left by University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Frank G. Speck. With funding from the Penn Museum and the Department of Anthropology, we made an ambitious list of wampum in museum collections to examine. We also received encouragement and guidance from Haudenosaunee wampum experts like Richard W. Hill (Tuscarora, Coordinator of the Deyohahá:ge Indigenous Knowledge Centre) and G. Peter Jemison (Seneca, Coordinator of Ganondagan Historic Site). Our goal was to chart the distribution of wampum belts into museums; along the trail, we discovered much more.

Our research and interviews took us into the collections of thirteen museums and five tribal nations across the northeastern United States and Canada, including: the Archives of Nicolet Seminary; Canadian Museum of History; Kanehsatake Mohawk Nation; Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center; McCord Museum; Museum of Currency; Ndakinna Education Center; New York State Museum; Peabody Essex Museum; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University; Penn Museum; Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum; and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, among others.

Chief Curtis Nelson (Mohawk) and Margaret Bruchac with wampum belt recently repatriated to Kanehsatake Oka Nation, Quebec.

Chief Curtis Nelson (Mohawk) and Margaret Bruchac with wampum belt recently repatriated to Kanehsatake Oka Nation, Quebec. Photograph by Lise Puyo.

During the salvage anthropology era (from the 1870s-1920s), wampum belts and other Indigenous items left tribal communities and entered the collections of different museums, often without clear records of their tribal identities or symbolic meanings. Over time, Indigenous meanings were often replaced by misleading stereotypes and idiosyncratic interpretations. In general, we found that misrepresentations of wampum (such as the notion that wampum belts are inherently unidentifiable) reflected, not the erasure of Indigenous memories, but the influence of processes that separated these objects from communities. In some cases, we found that data housed in one museum shed light on poorly identified wampum in another museum. Through close material analysis of a sampling of individual wampum beads, strings, collars, and belts, we recovered a wealth of lost information about these old objects. Through interviews with curators, scholars, and Native American wampum keepers, we also recovered new insights into wampum semiotics and display that reflect the evolving relations among Indigenous people and museums.

Close-up photo of old wampum shell beads from an unidentified New York archaeological site. Note the wide range of hole sizes, variations in color with the faded purple beads, and the striations, cracks, and weathering from exposure. Photographed by Lise Puyo in a private collection in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Wampum shell beads from an unidentified 17th century New York archaeological site. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Detail of mid-18th century wampum belt showing the inclusion of a single blue glass bead in the original weave of shell wampum beads.

Detail of mid-18th century wampum belt showing the inclusion of a single blue glass bead in the original weave of shell wampum beads. Photograph by Lise Puyo.

The most intriguing insights emerged from our observations of the physical details of wampum construction. We found:

  • clear visual distinctions among different sizes and sources of shell beads (quahog, whelk, and conch)
  • anomalous beads (stone, bone, clay, glass, rounded beads, and painted beads) in historic shell bead belts
  • various weaving materials (sinew, hemp, leather, linen, and cotton) and distinct patterns of twining warp and weft
  • various treatments of warp and weft, including rubbing with dye (red ochre, vermillion, ash, and paint), and wrapping, knotting, or braiding of edges and ends
  • evidence of the re-use of older beads and leather warps in newer belts

All of these details bespeak artisanal, aesthetic, practical, symbolic, and cultural choices, and they reflect savvy Indigenous technologies that deserve more careful analysis. After examining more than 50 wampum belts and collars, we realized that we had only just scratched the surface. Current inventories indicate that there are more than 400 extant historic (pre-20th century) wampum belts in the collections of museums and Native American and Canadian First Nations tribes. Our hope is to recover as much data as possible on each of these objects, so as to restore their object histories, and reconnect them with each of their respective tribal nations.

Margaret Bruchac, Zhenia Bemko, and Sarah Parkinson looking out over the landscape of the Connecticut River Valley, an historic site of wampum production and trade. Photograph by Justin Kennick.

Margaret Bruchac, Zhenia Bemko, and Sarah Parkinson looking out over the landscape of the Connecticut River Valley, an historic site of wampum production and trade. Photograph by Justin Kennick.

With that goal in mind, and with additional support from the Penn Museum, in May of 2015 the Wampum Trail research team set out for another round of research in museums. This time, Project Director Margaret Bruchac was accompanied by graduate student Stephanie Mach, and by two new research assistants, Sarah Parkinson and Zhenia Bemko. Watch for upcoming reports on our new research findings along the Wampum Trail!

For more information about the Wampum Trail research, see the following:

Also check out the Wampum Trail Research Blog and Wampum Trail Facebook page for reports on our latest research discoveries and travels. 

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Portraying Nippur: Artist Osman Hamdi Bey’s Early Relationship with the Penn Museum

The Penn Museum is perhaps best known for its impressively large and varied collection of artifacts spanning practically the entirety of human existence, but recently visitors were given a special chance to step into the Museum Archives to learn about some unexpected items housed in the Museum—two paintings and the unique ties they have to the Museum’s earliest days.


Osman Hamdi Bey (seated) with original Nippur excavation director J.P. Peters

On Friday, May 22, I attended an “Unearthed in the Archives” public presentation hosted by Alex Pezzati, Senior Archivist at the Penn Museum, on Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910), renowned Turkish artist, archaeologist, and Ottoman administrator, and his unique relationship with the Museum. Currently, the two paintings by Hamdi Bey that reside at the Penn Museum can’t be found in the public galleries. I learned that each of the paintings holds a unique story, covering both their time within the Museum and outside its walls.

Pezzati began our talk in the Museum’s historic Archives, a portion of the Museum many visitors do not see during their time here; public access is typically by appointment. The room that houses the Archives was originally constructed in 1899 to serve as the Museum’s library. As I walked down a long, narrow hallway and passed through the Archives’ heavy iron doors, I felt like I stepped back in time. Black wooden shelves line the perimeter of the room at two levels, connected by beautiful spiral staircases to a balcony that wraps the room. Box after box fill the shelves, holding the documentation behind the Museum’s excavations and expeditions, providing information on the Museum’s practices throughout its history, and having an historical intrigue all their own.

"At the Mosque Door"

“At the Mosque Door”

Before talking about Hamdi Bey’s works at the Museum, Pezzati provided our group with a brief background on the beloved artist. Hamdi Bey was an art expert and painter from Istanbul (former Constantinople) then in the Ottoman Empire (now modern-day Turkey), whose passions for both art and archaeology laid the groundwork for his unique relationship with the Penn Museum. As founder of both the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul and the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts (now known as the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts), Hamdi Bey developed the profession of the museum curator in Turkey.

I learned that “At the Mosque Door” was in the Museum Archives since the department was set up in the late 1970s, known to some scholars but not the general public. It was purchased by the Museum in 1895 after being displayed in multiple exhibitions, as a way to incur favor with Hamdi Bey, and obtain a share of the finds from the Museum’s earliest excavations in ancient Nippur, located in present-day Iraq.

Several distinct figures appear in the painting’s foreground, but a closer look supports the consensus that many of these figures are in fact the artist himself!

The painting’s journey to Philadelphia began when Hamdi Bey created the piece, along with one other, to be shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. However, before making it to Chicago the painting was shipped to France in 1892 for inclusion in the Palais de l’Industrie. After its time in Chicago, the painting made its way to Philadelphia where it was eventually acquired by the Penn Museum.


The group views “The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia” in the office of the Museum’s Williams Director.

Next, our group was offered a unique treat as Pezzati led us to the office of  Dr. Julian Siggers, the Willams Director of the Museum, to view and discuss the second painting by the artist. “The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia,” painted in 1903, depicts the Penn Museum’s late 19th century excavation of Nippur, a Mesopotamian city. It was this excavation that led to the founding of the Penn Museum.

Although Hamdi Bey was not present at the excavation, he recreated the scene using an 1893 photograph of the site taken by John Henry Haynes, the excavation’s field director and an early archaeological photographer. However, the painting is not an exact copy of its inspiration. Hamdi Bey made several deviations from the photograph, including changing the image’s borders and adding several lone figures, including Assyriologist and friend Hermann Vollrath Hilprecht, who oversaw the excavation’s progress. The painting remained in the Hilprecht family until it was loaned to the Penn Museum in 1930 and ultimately donated in 1948.

As compelling and integral as these two pieces are to the founding of the Penn Museum, “At the Mosque Door” flew under the radar in the Archives for several years, until Museum staff was presented with an exciting new initiative to dig deeper than ever into the artist’s history.


The photo behind the painting: “The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia” was inspired by this image of an excavated temple.

“[T]he signature and date were clear, and it was cataloged accordingly in our inventories.  It wasn’t until the Nippur painting came up from Near East Section storage, circa 1989, that the Archives staff delved more into Osman Hamdi,” Pezzati said. “It was finally Dr. Robert Ousterhout, after being presented with these works, who envisioned that [“At the Mosque Door”] could be restored and exhibited again.”

Since its “rediscovery” in the Archives, “At the Mosque Door” has certainly made up for the years it spent resting behind those iron doors. Along with “The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia,” it was first put on display at the Penn Museum’s own “Archaeologists and Travelers in Ottoman Lands” exhibition before appropriately traveling back to Hamdi Bey’s homeland for an exhibition named “Osman Hamdi and the Americans” in Istanbul’s Pera Museum. Finally, the latter of the two works found its permanent home in the Williams Director’s office.

While the Penn Museum is known for its excavations that span the world over, its collection of works by Hamdi Bey prove that sometimes great treasures are more close by than we think, just waiting to be “unearthed in the archives.”

Hannah Effinger is an intern in the Public Relations Office.

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The Spirit of Aloha and Meaningful Knowledge

In which members of the Penn Hawai’i Club tour the archives, make plans for speaking in the fall for Second Sunday Culture Films, and later visit with Oceanian Section Keeper Adria Katz.

In early June two students from the Penn Hawai’i Club visited with Adria Katz, Keeper of the Oceanian Collections, to view the Hawai’ian collections of the Penn Museum. The trail that led to this visit began with the Museum Archives, where we were pulling together speakers for next fall’s Second Sunday Culture Films series, and were happy to meet Penn Hawai’i Club member Alexander Simafranca.

The series opener will be two films about traditional Hawai’ian culture as expressed in a current day context. One film is about a legendary woman, Rell “Kapoliokaʻehukai” Sunn, who brought women’s surfing back to Hawai’i after many years of repression by missionary activity. The second film is about the traditional Hawai’ian acceptance of people between two genders, something akin to the two spirits traditions of Plains people. [Film program details, below].

alex nicole adria and ukeleleAfter meeting in the Archives, Alexander asked about seeing the Museum’s Hawai’ian art and artifacts as well. (All Pacific collections have been in storage since the Polynesian Gallery was taken down in 2009.) Alex, fellow Hawai’ian club member Nyckolle Lucuab, and I arranged to meet Adria in the Mainwaring storage wing.


The first object that Adria pulled was a ukulele, dated to the late 1800s. The students studied it closely, noting that it was smaller than the ukuleles they were used to seeing. (It is probably a soprano ukulele, which usually measures around 51 cm long.) There are three scenes etched into the top of the sound box, one of which Alexander immediately recognized as Diamond Head, the volcanic mountain which can be clearly seen from Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. There are also sketches of a well-known pier and a rising sun with an ocean liner in the foreground. “G.C.S. Aug. ’89” is inscribed on the side, as well as the monograms CFP and UP [U Penn?] on the top. Inside the sound box is a sticker with the name of the maker, Manuel Nunes, one of the earliest ukulele makers in Hawai’i. Nyckolle noted the familiar address of his place of business: 46 Hotel Street, Honolulu H.I.

The students then viewed some pestles (some of which they recognized as having been made on the island of Kauai), a carved bird that looked like an ‘iwi bird, and a sinker, in which Alex spotted veins of olivite, making it likely that the volcanic stone originated on the Big Island. Next were old wood poi bowls (umeke poi), made of kou wood (Adria looked this up later) and with multiple native mends. Also viewed were pieces of bark cloth, and – the grand finale – a feathered cape and cloak. Nearly every object that we saw provided wonder to us all and was illuminated by comments from Alexander and Nyckolle.


The film series also benefits from the profound cultural knowledge of its speakers. For the October Hawai’ian program, we are very grateful for the contributions of Alexander, a graduate of the internationally known Kamehameha Schools (Kapalâma Campus) which specializes in the dissemination of traditional Hawai’ian culture, as well as Penn Museum’s Bill Wierzbowski, Keeper of the American Collections and an expert in two spirits traditions.

To get in the spirit of Hawai’i and aloha, save the date for the season opener of Second Sunday Culture Films

Details:  Sunday, October 11, 2015, 2 pm

Two films expressing the spirit of aloha, traditional Hawai’ian values.  Speakers: Bill Wierzbowski, Penn Museum, and Alexander Simafranca, The Penn Hawai’i Club.

Place in the middle

Place in the middle

A Place in the Middle (Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson, 2014, 30 min). A young girl who dreams of leading her school’s all-male hula troupe is inspired by her transgender native Hawai’ian teacher, who knows what it’s like to be “in the middle.”


Rell Sunn surfing

Rell Sunn surfing

Heart of the Sea (Lisa Denker, 2002, 50 min). Called a “love poem to Hawai’i’s matriarchal heritage,” this documentary tells the legend of surfing pro and cultural heritage and breast cancer activist Rell “Kapoliokaʻehukai” Sunn.



(Thanks go to Adria Katz for the visit, her notes, and research).

Photos by Kate Pourshariati

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Shades of the Soil: Searching for Archaeological Features

The Smith Creek Archaeological Project is a new Penn Museum research project, conducting its first season in the field during the late spring of 2015. The Penn Museum’s Social Media Coordinator, Tom Stanley, is blogging about the project.

Archaeology is all about using material remains to learn about people and cultures of the past. In our last post, we discussed some of the artifacts that our team at Smith Creek has discovered during this year’s field season—which have included clear indicators of human activity, such as pottery sherds, arrowheads, food remains, and more. But as I’ve discovered, there’s more to a site than its artifacts.

The archaeological features on a site can tell a great deal about the ways in which it was used, and more broadly, about some of the things that happened there. Typically, features are elements that are not easily removed from their context (as opposed to a potsherd or animal bone that can be dug out and picked up by hand). More specifically, they appear to us as differences in soil, identifiable largely due to their contrast with the color or texture of the soil surrounding them.

Meg’s shadow points to an archaeological feature in the south plaza. Photo by Tom Stanley.

Meg’s shadow points to an archaeological feature in the south plaza. Photo by Tom Stanley.

For a first example, let’s go to Mound A. The mounds themselves can be considered archaeological features, but more specifically, we want to look at the stratigraphy of Mound A, as viewed from inside our excavation unit there. Along the eastern slope of the mound, the team dug this unit almost 3 meters down, revealing a staggering array of soil color levels along the way.

Chandler digging in the excavations unit at Mound A. Photo by Tom Stanley.

Chandler digging in the excavations unit at Mound A. Photo by Tom Stanley.

These soil colors represent various moments in the lifetime of the mound. The wider bands of color show individual stages in the mound’s construction, which as you can see, was not performed all in one fell swoop. Instead, the mound was created one level at a time; the color of each level changes based on the source of the soil and the types of activities that took place on it. One layer was made with baskets of soil from one spot nearby, while the next was made with a different type of soil from another spot, and so on. Between these episodes are mound surfaces, the platforms where prehistoric activities took place. Knowing about the artifacts and features on these surfaces is very important to help us understand how the mounds were used. Very thin layers of soil on top of these mound surfaces are also visible; these are evidence of erosion, as a weather event like a storm caused a portion of the surface soil to erode and leave a trace behind, almost reminiscent of rings in a tree.

“Mounds are like onions. They have layers.” Photo by Tom Stanley.

“[Mounds] are like onions. They have layers.” Paraphrased from Shrek.  Photo by Tom Stanley.

Let’s head to Mound C for a good example of another type of feature, called a midden. A midden is essentially ancient accumulation of trash—a collection of discarded materials such as food waste, broken pottery vessels, and, in our case, really anything that might have been tossed off the side of a mound by a human standing on top of it. In the case of Mound C, we believe its base to be largely surrounded by midden hidden beneath the top layers of fill; to help prove that, our excavation unit is dug on the edge of the mound rather than in the center. In this excavation, we have found both midden zones sitting on mound surfaces, and the flank midden we were hoping to hit at the bottom. These midden deposits are different in terms of color and in texture as well.

A view from above of the midden at Mound C. Photo courtesy of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

A view from above of the midden at Mound C. Photo courtesy of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

At our third unit in the south plaza, where there is no mound, we were particularly interested in the various features we’d be able to find—knowing that some had been identified here during a small excavation by a local avocational archaeologist named Joe Collins some years back. Sure enough, our 2 meter x 4 meter unit yielded a whopping 31 features of various shapes, sizes, and origins.

David the proud supervisor with his bounty of features. Photo by Tom Stanley.

David the proud supervisor with his bounty of features. Photo by Tom Stanley.

The largest feature we identified in the south plaza unit was identified as a pit. This is essentially an ancient hole that was dug in the ground long ago, and refilled with trash and eventually, soil. Further study of the materials identified inside the pit will give us an indication of why it was created in the first place.

An excavated pit in the south plaza. Photo courtesy of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

An excavated pit in the south plaza. Photo courtesy of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

But more plentiful in this area was evidence of postholes. These appear as generally circular discolorations in the soil, and are indicative of standing posts that had once been inserted into the ground for one purpose or another. Often, the purpose was to serve as posts for standing structures—particularly if you find several postholes arranged in line with one another, as if to form a wall. But not all postholes represent evidence for structures; at Feltus, the nearby Coles Creek mound site at which Meg and David each worked for several years, some of the postholes were found to have been filled with unique materials, including (in one particular case) the bones of a young bear interred with the remains of human infants, pipe fragments, and a variety of other materials. This may suggest a religious or ceremonial role for the creation of the feature, and so our team is being very careful to excavate the postholes at Smith Creek in such a way that will allow for extensive analysis of the soil contained therein.

A close shot into our unit in the south plaza. Visible postholes have been circled to help them stand out in the photo. Photo courtesy of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

A close shot into our unit in the south plaza. Visible postholes have been circled to help them stand out in the photo. Photo courtesy of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

Our team is excavating these features by digging “windowboxes.” This is done by bisecting the posthole, and digging a rectangular box that extends from the center of the feature to beyond the end of the feature. This box is dug beneath the lowermost portion of the posthole, and creates a “window” of sorts that allows our diggers to see how wide and deep the feature extends, before removing the feature altogether to closely analyze its soil for any objects within.

Features 17 and 18 in the south plaza, as viewed through a windowbox. Photo courtesy of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

Features 17 and 18 in the south plaza, as viewed through a windowbox. Photo courtesy of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

Dig a little deeper into the archaeological features with David as explains further.

All of these discoveries will allow us to learn more about the chronology of the site’s creation, as well as help to determine which portions of it were being used for what. And ultimately, this information will help us to form a better understanding of the Coles Creek culture, and how it relates to later periods in Native American history in the Lower Mississippi Valley.

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Travel Day(s): No Sleep Till Ben Gurion – Jeremy Cohen

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

3:29 am EST/9:29 am Rome/10:29 am Tel Aviv-Yafo

For anyone who has not yet experienced a long international flight, I genuinely recommend it. It helps, of course, to fly economy—or, in a clear and sensible gesticulation toward my major, a seat in Clássica. Such is the dual-language, Rome-hubbed, inexpensively transatlantic Alitalia’s cheerier moniker for dense, eight-to-a-row, best-in-Airbus seating.

As much as I (tell myself I) enjoy the process of travel, there is a destination in mind: Tel Kabri, an archaeological site located just a few kilometers from the Israeli resort city of Nahariya. (Both are about a half-hour drive north of Haifa.) At Kabri, every other year for the past decade, Professor Eric Cline of George Washington University has led a team of colleagues, post-docs, and students (undergraduate and graduate) from U.S. institutions and the University of Haifa on coordinated excavations of a pre-biblical, Minoan-era Canaanite palace. I’ve studied the historical background of the ancient Mediterranean and biblical worlds, in theory and at a distance; this summer, for four weeks, I mean to be one of them.

This is what an archaeologist looks like...

This is what an archaeologist looks like…

For now, though, I am that person awake and working while the plane’s silent majority tries to sleep. The cabin is darkened artificially; through a slightly open window, across a dozen seat backs, I see the sun rise over the Atlantic. Archaeological discovery, and the sun’s first tentative rays, I think to myself, constructing the sort of awful metaphor only viable in a witching hour: slow, yes, sure too, and shimmering across the waters of… uh… humanistic discovery? Lest I become too inspired, an observant stewardess mercifully shuts the window.

Yes, this airline’s attendants make up in southern European charm what they may lack in comprehension of the finer, inevitably sardonic elements of Northeast Coastal American English. My naive, halfhearted attempt to order a vegan entrée results in cheese-adorned (yet endearingly warm!) pasta. Thankfully, it was flanked by more palatable (and less allergy-inducing) cucumber-tomato-lettuce insalata and fruit, erm, assortamiento. Earlier, the woman who checked my 19.4 kg (under the limit!) suitcase assured me that my luggage would be transferred properly. “Do I need to pick it up in Rome?” I ask. “Tel Aviv,” she intones, in an accent best compared to the date-fruit: rough in texture, sweet by intention, and of undeniably Mediterranean provenance. I can only hope (knocking crossed fingers on wood) that my suitcase makes it to Ben Gurion when I do, and not four days later, as happened to my family (flying the same Italian airline on the same connecting route) some eight years ago.

In fact, within twenty-four hours of arrival, I’ll be on a bus headed north. No longer a precocious (read: obnoxious) twelve-year-old, accompanied by family, I’ll be making a Shabbat-morning walk to a Tel Aviv station alone. Once at Kabri, I’ll really need what’s in my checked suitcase: handy trowel, thick textbook, field notebook; clothes that are lightweight, long-sleeved, and open to receiving a plethora of dirt stains; the afternoons run into the high twenties, Celsius, and my Black Sea skin pigmentation loses to direct sunlight every time. Pens, books, and a versatile towel, of course, I carry in my backpack for ubiquitous access. (N.B. I welcome endorsements for “savvy traveling” on LinkedIn.)

Despite being able to fall asleep (book on lap and mouth hanging open) during my one-and-one-half-hour JetBlue jaunts between Boston and Philadelphia, my journey has thus far been restless. Naturally, one tiny cup of the airline’s delicious coffee—appearing suddenly in the hands of every attendant, poured from tall pots devoid of brand or mark—makes the entire seven-hour-forty-minutes worthwhile, and bearable. (Full disclosure: I’d read online that Alitalia’s coffee is the best part of its flying experience, so confirmation bias is likely.) I hope that, with a terminal change and a two-hour layover at Rome’s international airport, I can find a decent (and likely overpriced) cup of espresso. Better yet, I hope I can find someone who’ll take dollars—or sheqalim.

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In among the Hills: Prepping for the Excavations at Oglanqala – Petra Creamer

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

Just like every year, the summons to the field is upon us! My first year at Penn as a graduate student in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program (AAMW) was supremely rewarding, and I’m thrilled to have the Penn Museum’s generous support in rounding it off with a summer of survey and excavation! I cannot wait to feel dirt under my fingernails once again as my team and I strive to unearth new and exciting features, objects, and hopefully, insights.

Oglanqala and its surrounding areas.  The Araxes River separates Naxcivan from Iran.  (Taken from Ristvet et al. 2012.  “On the Edge of Empire: 2008 and 2009 Excavations at Oglanqala, Azerbaijan.”  American Journal of Archaeology.  Vol. 116, No. 2.)

Oglanqala and its surrounding areas. The Araxes River separates Naxcivan from Iran. (Taken from Ristvet et al. 2012. “On the Edge of Empire: 2008 and 2009 Excavations at Oglanqala, Azerbaijan.” American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 116, No. 2., Pages 321-362.)

The focus of my summer will be the Iron Age site of Oglanqala in the Naxcivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan. Excavations at Oglanqala are part of the joint American-Azerbaijani Naxcivan Archaeological Project, with participants from many different institutions. Oglanqala is located roughly 15 km from the Iranian border in the northern half of the Serur Plain, the most fertile valley in Naxcivan. One of the most notable features of the site is its Iron Age fortress; this, combined with its strategic position high on a hill overlooking the valley, most likely allowed Oglanqala to control both the plain and a mountain pass further north along the Arpacay River. This will be my first season excavating at this site, and I’m extremely excited to see the site and landscape, experience Azerbaijani culture, and learn how to camp in a tent for two months without going insane! (I’ve been camping before, but more to the tune of eight days, not eight weeks – this will be interesting, to say the least.)

The settlement at Oglanqala was founded in the Early Iron Age around 1000 BCE. Five levels of occupation have been identified at the site, spanning from its establishment to medieval times. Its location is especially interesting to us because it was settled on the fringes of several empires, including the powerful and widespread Achaemenid Persian Empire. We are interested in exploring this relationship between the Serur Plain’s sites and the empires which undoubtedly interacted with the area. The excavation and survey in the area aim to answer questions we have about the origins, operations, and collapse of a series of 1st millennium BCE polities in the Serur Plain.


Oglanqala was right at the edge of multiple empires, which makes it an exciting place to excavate! (Taken from Ristvet et al. 2012. “On the Edge of Empire: 2008 and 2009 Excavations at Oglanqala, Azerbaijan.” American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 116, No.  2, Pages 321-362.)

This summer, I will be arriving in Azerbaijan on June 9th as part of the survey team under Dr. Emily Hammer (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago). Surveys in previous years have worked to map the surrounding areas of Naxcivan and the sites contained within it, while also working to measure and map Oglanqala. We will be expanding that work this year with two weeks of active surveying to gather as much information on the surrounding area as possible. After the survey is over, I will then be joining the rest of the Oglanqala team at the beginning of the second week of excavations. This season we will be focusing on uncovering parts of the local settlement and its houses surrounding the fortress, and might also continue work on the site’s Iron Age cemetery.

The internet will be a rare luxury while camping on the hillside, but I will continue to give updates on the site and my experiences in Azerbaijan (whether related to archaeology or not!). Right now, however, I have to finish packing…

ONE of the two huge suitcases I am bringing. Also absent is the Total Station I’m in charge of!

ONE of the two huge suitcases I am bringing. Also absent is the Total Station I’m in charge of!

To learn more about the site and past excavation seasons, please check out, which gives a much more comprehensive overview of the site than I could fit here. Excavations at Oglanqala are led by Dr. Lauren Ristvet (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Hilary Gopnik (Emory University), and Dr. Vǝli Baxșǝliyev (Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, Naxcivan) as part of the joint American-Azerbaijani Naxcivan Archaeological Project.

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Eskimo Soccer

In conjunction with the 2015 Copa America, and especially the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the Penn Museum offers this photograph to the soccer world. Last year, I found this photo of soccer amongst the Eskimo of Point Barrow, Alaska, taken by ornithologist and Tabasco sauce heir, Edward Avery McIlhenny in 1897-1898. That photograph shows a likely game of soccer, but it is hard to tell.

After continuing a search through McIlhenny’s photographs (actually, while looking for something else), I found incontrovertible evidence of a soccer player: a girl in furs, mittens, and boots, with an unmistakable leather soccer ball on the ice in front of her.

Eskimo girl with soccer ball.  Point Barrow, Alaska.  Photograph by E. A. McIlhenny, 1897-1898.

Eskimo girl with soccer ball. Point Barrow, Alaska. Photograph by E. A. McIlhenny, 1897-1898.


May soccer continue to bring enjoyment around the world.

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And We’re Off! – Amanda Ball

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

June 3, 2015
New York


A picture of me surveying in Summer 2013. Taken by Chantel White.

This summer I will be taking part in my third field season at the Molyvoti, Thrace Archaeological Project (MTAP). The excavation, a collaboration between Princeton University and the 19th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, studies an ancient city on the Molyvoti Peninsula, identified as the Thasian colony, Stryme, by the first excavator of the site. In this upcoming season, five students of the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program at Penn will be participating in MTAP.

The site known as Stryme is on the Molyvoti Peninsula, on a plateau 15 meters above sea level. This strip of land lies east of the Nestos River, between Porto Lagos and Maroneia, 25 km southwest of the modern city Komotini. Stryme was a port city on the coast of Aegean Thrace, most likely founded in the second half of the 7th century BCE. The earliest finds found thus far date to the end of the 6th century BCE. The rich natural resources of the region, for example, gold, marble, and timber, attracted Greek colonists. Excavation and survey has revealed that the city prospered most in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, due to trade contacts with Greece, Thrace, and the greater Mediterranean world. Stryme is mentioned a few times in ancient literature; notably Demosthenes mentions the city in his Orations as the source of conflict between the nearby cities Maroneia and Thasos (Demosthenes Orations 12.17).


A map of several significant Greek sites on the coast of Aegean Thrace.

The archaeology of northern Greek colonies is of particular interest because it has not been studied in the same depth as western Greek colonies. Evidence has been found that indicates Greeks traveled to this region from southern Greece and cohabited in cities with the indigenous Thracians. When the Thracians reached their height of power with the rise of the Odrysian kingdom, Thracians and Greeks traded with each other to the benefit of both. That said, no evidence has been found thus far indicating a Thracian presence at Stryme, though we hope this will change in the upcoming field season.

This summer, I will be a survey team leader, leading a team of students in archaeological survey in the farmland around the ancient Greek site. These teams are composed of five people. The survey squares are 20 meters by 20 meters. The survey team members are spaced regularly in each square and they walk in straight lines, looking for pottery and terracotta sherds, coins, and other artifacts on the ground. The pottery and terracotta sherds are counted and recorded at the end of every square. Coins and other artifacts are recorded separately, with the exact coordinates of where they were found recorded as well.

A picture of Beth Potens and me in summer 2013.

A picture of Beth Potens and me in Summer 2013.

This past year I completed my Masters in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean world program. As a part of this program, I wrote a Masters Paper concerning the burial mounds associated with the Greek colony of Stryme and the role they played in interactions between the Greeks and native Thracians. This summer the survey team, of which I am a part, will be surveying more burial mounds in the surrounding landscape. I am hoping to find evidence of Thracian activity to support my hypothesis that burial mounds resulted from the economic and political cooperation of Greeks and Thracians. However, no matter what we find, I highly anticipate my return to the Molyvoti Peninsula.


A beautiful sunrise as seen by the MTAP survey team.


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“Phony-British ‘Announcer Speak'” and the Penn Museum

“Phony-British ‘Announcer Speak'” You’ve definitely heard it before. The style, colloquially known as “announcer speak” but categorized as Mid-Atlantic English by linguists, is characteristic of a past era when radio was the dominate medium and newsreels played before films in theaters.

Two recent articles posted to The Atlantic’s website asked readers about this “phony-British announcer speak” wondering “Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?” and “Where It Came From and Why It Went Away.” The author, James Fallows, provides an informal history of the Mid-Atlantic English accent in the second post, where he draws on the Mid-Atlantic English Wikipedia page and comments from readers who responded to his first query with their own theories. One of the responses posits that the “announcer speak” style came about due to “primitive microphone technology” causing the announcers to speak in such a way so the microphones would pick up their voices more clearly. The commenter then offers the example of Lowell Thomas, a CBS radio announcer, remembered as a master of the “phony-British announcer speak.”

So what does any of this have to do with the Penn Museum?


Originally published in Expedition magazine Vol. 48:1, with the following caption:
This Week Magazine of The Sunday Bulletin featured Lowell Thomas and his “History of Civilization” fireplace, June 11, 1950. Courtesy of Urban Archives, Temple University. Used with permission.”

Well, while Thomas is better known for his long career in radio, film, and television, he was also on the Penn Museum’s Board of Managers from 1938 to 1946. And it just so happens, that earlier this week I was flipping through some images in the Museum Archives, when I came across the clipping to the right from June 11, 1950. Here we see Lowell Thomas posing in front of his “History of Civilization” fireplace at the Quaker Hill Country Club in Pawling, New York. Lowell’s “History of Civilization” fireplace contains stones from famous buildings or historic sites from around the world, with a row left open at the top for future civilizations. You can read more about this in Alex Pezzati’s article, “‘So long, until tomorrow’: Lowell Thomas and the ‘History of Civilization’ Fireplace.” Lowell acquired the pieces for his fireplace during his travels abroad as a war correspondent and film producer. Yet, one stone (an ancient brick from Ur) he received from the Penn Museum in lieu of payment for lending his announcer voice to two documentaries produced by the Museum.

Ah-ha, now we’ve come full circle.

The two documentaries, Ancient Earth: Making History Everlasting (1940) and Primitive Peoples of Matto Grosso (1941), both feature expeditions undertaken and filmed by the Penn Museum. They also prominently feature the “Phony-British Announcer Voice” of Lowell Thomas.

Ancient Earth: Making History Everlasting is perhaps my favorite film that we have up on YouTube. It begins with this grand music playing as scenes from ancient sites around the world flash across the screen. Then Lowell Thomas says “There has long been established in Philadelphia an extremely interesting institution, the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.” Intended as a promotional piece for the Penn Museum (then known as the University Museum), the film champions its early work as a research institution and as a world-class repository of archaeological objects. Moreover though, the film is an interesting source for the study of early 20th century research and collecting museums.

Thomas’ narration takes the viewer along on an excavation at Tepe Hissar in Iran. Following the dig, half of the artifacts and all of the expedition field notes arrive at the Museum for processing, conservation, and exhibition. While, many things have changed, it is neat to watch the Museum staff of 1940 perform tasks that we still do today in 2015. If you watch the whole thing, you’ll see some of our greatest objects highlighted in the film, as well as familiar looking rooms, like the Museum Archives, which was formally the Museum Library.

The film ends with a wide shot of the Penn Museum and Lowell Thomas saying:

“The work of a research institution, such as the University Museum, literally never ends, its expeditions and its detailed studies are constantly adding, though ever so slowly, to our expanding knowledge. Beneath the countless mounds of ancient earth lie buried untold centuries of history.”

And, of course, we know this to still be true 75 years later.

Lowell’s second narration for the Museum was for Primitive Peoples of Matto Grosso. According to our film archivist, it is “the first film recording of non-Western people containing sync-recorded speech.” Filmed in 1931, the footage was re-edited and re-released with Lowell Thomas’ narration in 1941.

So now you know what “announcer speak” has to do with the Penn Museum.

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