Fanny’s Reincarnation

The work in the Penn Museum Archives never ends. The backlog resists attempts at taming it. The Archives is happy to have a number of interns and volunteers who are willing to help organize, catalog, and preserve the documents, drawings, and photographs in the collections. Alyssa Velazquez is one such intern, who is presently reorganizing the storage of the old glass plate negatives. The Museum has at least 30,000 glass plates, in sizes ranging from 3×4 inches to 11×14 inches. Many of these were originally transported into the field, were shot and developed there, and were then brought back to the Museum. Others were taken in the Museum’s Photo Studio, which was established by at least 1902. The Adventures of Ringo and Sobek is a social science satire centered around the Museum’s old records, surroundings, and areas of study.


In the Continuing Adventures of Ringo and Sobek:

Sobek, I am telling you these things not because I believe you to be a well of compassion,
Or that you, being so far removed from my perspective can understand more clearly and therefore offer an unbiased conclusion to all that has lead up to this moment,
but because such an occurrence has presented itself to me that I must emote.
As you are my closest and only companion, it is to you to whom I must confide.

The dawn of my understanding, while manifesting itself this evening,
had been formulating since my previous Sunday stroll through the galleries.
Taking my usual route through the exhibits in subsequent typography;
I passed by an artifact in the Imagine Africa exhibit, which I had not previously seen nor had I a recollection of having ever seen it situated there before,
Yet I sensed a familiarity in its form.
This recognized alien greatly upset me,
Though logically I had no definite reasons for my distress.
And with that, I hurried away from my enigma.

On the preceding night,
Rather than face this antagonistic invader,
I amused myself with sorting through the broken glass plates that remained after our intern’s departure.
The broken pieces mocking my own distorted consciousness.
Why did I feel such an identifiable tie to this recent acquisition?
I knew – though I dreaded the confrontation – that answers could only be gained by another rendezvous with my agitator

I knew with undeniable certainty that this grating presence was that of a female.
As I crept closer to her sector of the display case,
I began to notice that while her restoration appeared to have been minimally cosmetic, her entire demeanor was that of a much older, deeply altered, artifact.
Before I could form a greeting, I heard my name being emitted from the foreigner’s lips.
“Ringo, why have you been avoiding me?”
“Pardon me madam, but how do you know my name? We have never met before, and Ringo is so unlike typical names, such as John or Paul or George. It could not have been guessed.”
“Has our time apart been that long, or our acquaintance of that little importance, that you have forgotten your past paramour, Ringo?”

The longer I fixated on her penetrating stare, the less mysterious or elegant she became.
Her ambiguity melted through time and space, back to a day in Paris, 1907 when I had first beheld her, masquerading as a “primitive doll” from the 19th century.
“My vanity remains intact for another day” she replied “I had begun to fear that the years had been unkind to me.”
“Fanny, my dear, I must admit that your appearance is altered.”
I hadn’t the heart to divulge how altered.
She resembled very little of the feathered and twined vixen that had been the center of my anthropological infatuation as a budding archaeologist.
“What became of you Fanny? One day I went to call on you in the gallery and you were gone. You left no note, nor was there any indication in the catalogue of where you could have gone.”
“My love, I have spent over a century in Europe, under various collectors and exhibitions.”
“You must have learned and seen so much” I said.
“My dear, individuals such as myself can only reflect what is taught to us.
Our learning, as you call it, is not liberation.
It is a labor of art.
I am art because my owners have termed me as such, therefore I am.
Once, many years ago a gentleman scholar described me as a fertility god,
but not long there after I was acquired by a wealthy and eccentric collector, as an African sculpture for a modernist museum; and there I was the totem of elegant craftsmanship.
My life, as are each of our Plexiglas lives, are malleable reincarnations.
As one of my oldest acquaintances, someone who knew me from the start, what do I look like to you now?”

I could not answer such a prompt
She seemed so tired, so handled.
My eyes were still adjusting to this focal creature of my youth.
At one time her whole being had been masterfully crafted from a weather worn tree,
and now she seemed to be an experiment in obsidian doll making.
Her once unornamented physique now sported bronze studs on her hands and neck.
“S.V.” had at some point in her history of caretakers been chiseled into her breast.
And she had been diminished in size.
She no longer stood on a base.
She had been forced to relinquish her platform.

How was I to take such a sad tale and make it better?
I couldn’t let her into my heart’s condolences
That wouldn’t even start to make it better.
Even though we were closer than we had been to each other in years, I had never felt more keenly the continental divide.
Can I erase the past?
How does one go about making Fanny, and other artifacts like her, matter?
When or where can it begin Sobek?
I wish to be the voice, but what am I to say?

“Fanny, my dear, I must admit that your appearance is altered.”

“Fanny, my dear, I must admit that your appearance is altered.”

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Proyecto Arqueologico Busilja-Chocolja 2015: Behind the Scenes – Whit Schroder

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.

Archaeology is fun, but here in Chiapas, Mexico, I think we have the best time on Carnitas Day. (Even I have fun, and I’m a vegetarian!) On this day, we celebrate our season’s hard work with traditional Mexican fare, including tacos, guacamole, sodas made with real sugar (and lots of it), tequila, and, for the vegetarian, spaghetti.

The 2015 team celebrating Carnitas Day

The 2015 team celebrating Carnitas Day. Photo by author.

And we deserve it. We have had a long, productive season working at a number of archaeological sites along the Busilja River in the Selva Lacandona of Chiapas. The Proyecto Arqueologico Busilja-Chocolja, co-directed by Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, examines the political landscape of an important sub-region of the Maya area, the Middle Usumacinta River Basin, located at the nexus of travel routes in the western lowlands. During the Late Classic period (AD 600–900), our current project area was a contested border zone between the major kingdoms of Palenque, Tonina, Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan, and Sak Tzi and minor centers including La Mar, El Cayo, and Chinikiha.

The Busilja River, a tributary of the Usumacinta River, flows through the middle of this landscape, which the PABC has surveyed since 2011, building off of Teobert Maler’s explorations at the turn of the twentieth century. Project objectives include understanding the relationship between the region’s settlement patterns and the larger political centers through analyzing ceramics and creating a Geographic Information System to reconstruct spatial and temporal changes over time.

The study region showing the Busilja River within the boxed area.

The study region showing the Busilja River within the boxed area.

During the 2015 season, we have focused on a set of sites near the Busilja River to begin to determine how these changes are manifested in the archaeological record. Similarities in the material record among different sites may reveal some degree of centralization in relation to the Piedras Negras kingdom, while major differences raise questions regarding the relative integration or autonomy of these sites.

To pursue such questions, we have continued to work with the community of Nueva Esperanza Progresista, located near the archaeological site of Budsilha. Expanding our survey region both upstream and downstream, we have also established a relationship with the La Selva ejido, building off of initial survey in the region last year. Members of the ejido have been excited to work with us, and a number of landowners have allowed us to excavate on their ranches. We only had time this summer to begin excavations at two sites, though we started mapping others. After initial analysis of the materials, we are finding major chronological differences between these two sites, though they are located within a few kilometers of each other.

Along with members of the Nueva Esperanza and La Selva communities, we are grateful that Cindy Medina and Yessenia Cabrera, students from the Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas, have joined us again as volunteers. They are currently hard at work completing their bachelors theses and are set to graduate in August.

In the next post, I will report further on our interesting findings. But for now, we’re going to enjoy our carnitas (and pasta).

I still sit at the kids’ table.

I still sit at the kids’ table.

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Teens and Tumuli: Cultural Heritage Education at Gordion, Turkey

By Ayșe Gürsan-Salzmann, Naomi F. Miller, and Janelle Sadarananda

This post is part of a series reporting on the Gordion Cultural Heritage Education Project, led by Ayşe Gürsan-Salzmann, Assistant Director of the Gordion Project. Naomi F. Miller, consulting scholar at the Penn Museum, and Janelle Sadarananda, graduate student in AAMW, provided additional adult supervision in 2015.


Greetings from Gordion, the Penn Museum’s archaeological excavation in central Turkey! In addition to the excavation, research, and conservation projects that are typical of most archaeological excavations, the Gordion Archaeological Project also has a program for high school students from local villages aimed at developing historical, cultural, and environmental awareness. This summer marks the second year of the Cultural Heritage Education Program (CHEP) at Gordion.


Looking out over the ancient Gordion tumuli and village of Yassıhöyük. Photo by Ayșe Gürsan-Salzmann.

The ancient site of Gordion is best known as the home of the Phrygian King Midas. The Phrygians left their mark on the landscape with the construction of over 100 burial mounds (tumuli) that dominate the landscape from horizon to horizon. To broaden the students’ horizons, the CHEP exposes them to the much grander story of Anatolia through the ages, through museum and site visits.


Gordion Tumuli. Photo by Naomi F. Miller.

CHEP aims to allow students to gain awareness of the richness of their cultural and natural environment through these field trips, as well as through hands-on learning. We encourage discussion and hope to inspire in the students a sense of exploration. We also hope that experiential and on-site learning, along with engaging in conversation, will encourage the students to develop a sense of individuality and also a sense of their connection to the wider world.

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Teenagers in CHEP visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. Photo by Naomi F. Miller.

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Halil Demirdelen, Vice Director at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. Photo by Naomi F. Miller.

As archaeologists, the past is a dynamic part of our lives in the present, and we recognize that today is a blip en route to the future. For our goal of protecting the evidence of the past for future generations, we would like people, young and old, to understand the continuity of human concerns.

Our colleague, Halil Demirdelen, Vice Director at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, has the right idea: As we pass a ceramic brazier in the museum, he asks the students, “What is it?” The first microwave, of course. As we stop in front of the Kültepe merchant’s clay tablet archive, he asks, “Do these remind you of anything?” Holding up one of the students’ Samsung tablets, he comments, “We still write on tablets!”

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Roman Baths of Caracalla in Ankara. Ayșe is in the middle in the blue sweater. Photo by Naomi F. Miller.

It is not always so easy to engage teenagers from any culture in such serious matters, and Turkish teens are no exception. Hands-on activities help. On a trip to the Roman Baths of Caracalla in Ankara, the appropriately named Necat Çakmak [flint] encouraged us to touch the cool marble and warm basalt columns.

Summer 2015 excavations at Gordion. Photo by Gebhard Bieg.

We have very different competencies in Turkish, from fluent (Ayșe) to fair (Naomi) to newbie and learning (Janelle). The goal of two-way cultural exchange requires communication. It turns out that a sure-fire way to get a conversation going is through selfies—öz çekim—one of the first words Janelle learned.

Selfie by Sude.

Selfie by Sude.

Another activity was visiting the excavation at Gordion. Passing through the monumental gate, we archaeologists are very aware of experiencing the same space that an ancient Phrygian did (the students may not have had that consciousness); Gebi, our photographer, suggests a photo of the students using the grinding stones.

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Students getting some hands-on experience. Photo by Naomi F. Miller.


Photo by Janelle Sadarananda

On the Tumuli Tour. Photo by Janelle Sadarananda.

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Inside Tumulus MM. Photo by Naomi F. Miller.

A few days later, after surveying the landscape from the vantage of Tumulus P, the students were privileged to get a Tumulus MM tomb tour. Tumulus MM is so big it is almost as cool as a cave. Walking to the end of a 125 m (about 400 ft) long passageway is like traveling through time, to a 2,800 year-old wooden tomb chamber. The students were able to see the enormous juniper outer casing up close. One of the students likened the visit to the tomb chamber to going to the moon!

Meeting our diverse goals and creating a positive learning experience for the students is not without its challenges. Turkish students have a different educational and classroom experience than most American students, so they are more comfortable with memorizing facts from textbooks in a formal environment. Getting feedback and engaging in discussion is sometimes difficult, but the students are learning and sharing more and more with each field trip. We look forward to more visits to sites and more hands-on experiences as the summer continues! We’ll be sure to keep you updated!

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The Krapina Neanderthals – Paul Mitchell

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.

Although Neanderthal specimens were known in Spain, Belgium, and Germany decades before Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, these single specimens from each site were dismissed as mere diseased modern humans. Without an evolutionary perspective, and with physicians primarily studying the specimens, the pathological interpretation was the most parsimonious and sensible. For example, the specimen for which the species was later named, found by quarry workers in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856, was diagnosed by prominent medical anatomists as a Cossack horseman riddled with rickets and arthritis who crawled into a cave to die. For over 40 years this strain of argument persisted and was applied to the whole human fossil record, until the Krapina Neanderthals were unearthed.

Excavated in 1899 by Croatian (then Austro-Hungarian) paleontologist and geologist Dragutin Gorjanović Kramberger, the Krapina site, about 55 hilly kilometers north of Zagreb, includes the remains of numerous Neanderthals, over nine hundred bones of at least a few dozen individuals, and among them many youngsters.[1] So sizeable a sample of adults and juveniles with similar anatomy among themselves and as a group so different from modern humans put paid to the notion that these strange humanoid fossils were just medical oddities, firmly establishing Neanderthals as a once-living population.[2]

Gorjanović Kramberger’s meticulous documentation of the Krapina site’s excavation over six years (1899-1905) was unparalleled and unprecedented in its time. While earlier Neanderthal specimens were collected with at best cursory attention to details of context and location, Gorjanović Kramberger supervised a careful excavation of the site, arranged the hundreds of skeletal fragments by layer and collected stone tools and the fossilized remains of extinct animals, proving the antiquity of the remains.

The fauna of the site are markedly different than those of other Neanderthal sites in Europe, including such critters as rhinos, cave bears, turtles, beavers, and land snails. Only using the animal remains, Gorjanović Kramberger was able to determine that the site represented a warm period assemblage, and more recent methods have corroborated his prescience in detecting an interglacial period of provenience. This last interglacial period (sometimes called the Eemian, Riss-Würm, or Marine Isotope Stage 5e) lasted from about 130,000 to 115,000 years ago and preceded a glacial period (the last so-called “Ice Age”) that engulfed much of Europe for the following 100,000 years, ending only after the last Neanderthals disappear from the fossil record. Electron spin resonance dating and uranium series dating independently show a date of approximately 130,000 years before present for the Krapina site.

Concisely, the Krapina Neanderthals are considerably older than most other European specimens, include a much larger sample size, and represent a population living in a drastically different environment than later Neanderthals on the continent. Since their discovery, the material evidence of stones and bones at Krapina have proved that prehistoric hominid populations of great antiquity inhabited Central Europe. Moreover, Gorjanović Kramberger’s efforts in unearthing, studying, and curating this collection changed the face of paleoanthropology.

Just as Gorjanović Kramberger’s careful excavation was decisive in generating perhaps the richest single sample for insight into Pleistocene hominid life, the careful curation of this collection has been decisive not only for preserving this remarkable slice of prehistory but also for ensuring that new discoveries and interpretations in and of this material sprout faithfully every year despite decades of study by scores of paleoanthropologists. Ongoing research on the Krapina collection over more than the last 100 years,[3] curated at the Croatian Museum of Natural History in Zagreb, has revealed unrivaled and continuing insight into Neanderthal lifeways, ecology, health, behavior, growth, and morphological variation: the earliest apparent amputation occurred at Krapina (on an ulna, as Gorjanović Kramberger himself noted), the world’s oldest bone tumor (a fibrous dysplasia) was identified on a rib from the site (identified by Penn’s Janet Monge, Alan Mann, and Morrie Kricun), patterned scratch marks around bone trauma suggest evidence of some sort of “paleo-surgery,” and eagle talons with scratch marks from Krapina suggest some kind of non-nutritional processing, perhaps use in ornamentation (see Davorka Radovčić’s 2015 publication in PLoS).[4]  The simple but essential practice of approaching a collection with new questions and fresh eyes as a solid means to further interpretations has proven outrageously successful at Krapina. If the past is any guide, the traces of prehistoric life, death, and evolution at Krapina are not yet fully disclosed.

And now for something completely different! Growth and Human Evolution

A long, sometimes silly and sometimes sordid, preoccupation of philosophers has been the definition of the human in relation to the rest of the living world. When Plato conveyed Socrates’ definition of the human being as a featherless biped, Diogenes the Cynic plucked a chicken, went to Plato’s academy and declared: “Behold, I have brought a man!” (Such yarns are cute and all, but we shouldn’t forget that the distinctions and classifications inherent in the exercise of defining humanity have given excuse to acts that make manifestly true the Latin proverb “Homo homini lupus est” or “A man is a wolf to another man.”)

In any case, one of the most interesting differences between humans and the rest of the living world isn’t bipedality or big brains or tool use—the usual short list of special characteristics—although it has rather a lot to do with all that. As far as I can tell, the first person to define a prolonged period of growth (and dependency) as a defining feature of our species was Anaximander, the Greek Presocratic philosopher. Plutarch reports him as writing as follows: “Further, he [Anaximander] says that in the beginning man was born from animals of a different species. His reason is, that, while other animals quickly find food for themselves, man alone requires a prolonged period of suckling. Hence, had man been originally such as he is now, he could never have survived.”

Fascinatingly, Anaximander suggests a kind of evolutionary (albeit of course not Darwinian) scenario and uses the strange pattern of human growth as a fact in his favor. Although he is, arguably, one of the first evolutionists (sensu lato), Anaximander wasn’t quite right on the details: (ethnographic evidence shows that) humans actually nurse for less time than our closest ape relatives. But, it is true that humans are incredibly underdeveloped at birth—extrauteral parasite blobs, really—and that we are dependent on adults for far longer portions of our lives than most other species. The squishiness of the human skull at birth (to allow for the postnatal growth of the brain), the periods of accelerated growth that we call “growth spurts” (contrasted with so-called “quiescent periods” which are the probable actual evolutionary innovation, slowing the more continuous ancestral pattern of growth) are just a couple of uniquely human signatures of this process.

Indeed, the human pattern and timing of growth and dependence is unique in the animal world, and its prolongation relative to the faster ancestral model, a workable approximation of which exists in contemporary apes, is what allows us the time to marinate in the social transmission which is the stuff of culture and the real source of our strange position between the them and the angels. And, of course, this human pattern of growth evolved. Darwin wrote about it in his essential The Descent of Man in 1871, but, thanks to Gorjanović Kramberger’s efforts, and those of many others, we have something now that Darwin didn’t have and which could shed light on this problem: a human fossil record.

Paul shows the baby and developing adult teeth in the mandible of a Neanderthal, died around 130,000 years ago at about fours years of age, from Krapina at the Croatian Natural History Museum.

Paul shows the baby and developing adult teeth in the mandible of a Neanderthal, died around 130,000 years ago at about four years of age, from Krapina at the Croatian Natural History Museum. Photo by Davorka Radovčić

So, why have I visited the historic Krapina collection? Here the grand sweep of history narrows to the breadth of incisor tooth: I am among the storied remains from Krapina to study teeth, baby teeth particularly. Although it rings at least slightly perverse, I’ll admit to a deep fascination with teeth. It wasn’t love at first bite for me, but after knowing something about what teeth can reveal about growth, death, and life, they’re hard not to fall for.

As enamel is the hardest material in the body, teeth preserve well and are the most abundant osteological element in the fossil and archaeological record. Teeth, unlike bones, do not remodel or change shape after they are formed, which is to say that they only wear down, and they often wear down contingent upon the details of diet, oral hygiene, and tooth use apart from food consumption, such as for securing objects while the hands are busy. Conversely, in their formation, because they don’t remodel or change shape like bone, they preserve a record of the timing and chemical environment of growth in the child and can, through histological analyses, even reveal the age of birth, weaning, and death.

Paul marvels at the Neanderthal teeth from Krapina with Davorka Radovčić of the Croatian Natural History Museum.

Paul marvels at the Neanderthal teeth from Krapina with Davorka Radovčić of the Croatian Natural History Museum. Photo by Zeko Radovčić

It is this feature of teeth, that they reveal something important about early development, that makes them especially intriguing. Teeth form from the tip of the crown, the part that’s in your mouth and which you bite down on, to the apex of the root in the alveolar bone of the maxilla or mandible. Teeth grow incrementally, with each micron-thick line of layered enamel on the crown representing about one week of growth (the exact number varies slightly between human populations and fossil species but is determinable with histological investigation). External manifestations of these minute minutes on teeth are called perikymata and can be counted to determine a time of formation for the tooth, and, if the tooth is incomplete the time of death of the individual who bore it. Although the perikymata of permanent—that is, adult—teeth have been counted and studied in humans and Neanderthals, these structures have not been investigated on the deciduous dentition (baby teeth).

What makes these teeth relevant to studies of development, and the big grand problems so sketchily outlined above, is that tooth growth is linked to other kinds of growth in the body (for example, with the brain), and that we know that our close relatives grow their teeth more quickly than we do. Thus, we expect that faster rates of tooth development indicate faster development generally. This assumption appears a safe one based on what we know. What is contentious, or really an open question, is when the human pattern of growth evolved. Obviously, a change happened between ourselves and our ancestors—our common ancestor with chimpanzees, for example, didn’t take 17 years to erupt its third molars—but we don’t know when this happened. Recent research demonstrating genetic admixture between “modern humans” and Neanderthals (see the recent work from the spring of 2015 on the Oase 1 mandible from Romania) shows the arbitrariness of these labels—insofar as the term has meaning in biology, we are the same species.[5]

But, this finding is apparently at odds with research on Neanderthal permanent teeth which purports to show a significantly faster period of growth for Neanderthals than modern humans. Did we have different patterns of growth, despite being the same species? We may have, or we may have not, but much more work is needed to fully address this question.

Approaching this question from two directions is what motivates my visit to the Krapina collection: First, can we see what the deciduous teeth say about the earliest periods of development? Do Neanderthal babies grow quickly immediately postnatally like modern humans? Permanent teeth, which start to form latter, are not sufficient to answer this question. Second, what variation is present in rate of growth and development in a Neanderthal population, and how does this compare to variation in growth and development in populations of modern humans? The brute fact of variation in biology means that we have to think statistically, not typologically, if we are to define changes in populations through time and space. So far, studies on Neanderthal tooth growth and development are effectively case studies. Krapina, as the largest Neanderthal sample in the world, contains many juveniles. For this reason, Krapina is the ideal collection to investigate these questions of growth, death, and evolution in recent hominid history, and I have spent an appreciable chunk of the last two weeks, sometimes laboriously, with a microscope between me and these Neanderthal baby teeth. Of course, research is frequently unpredictable, and a completely happenstance examination of faunal bones from Krapina and a very curious accidental discovery has meant that I’ve also spent a lot more time looking at cave bear penis bones (the os baculum for those who care or would like to “google” it) than I planned to. (I didn’t plan to at all.) This story, though, is for another time…
* * *
Well, anyway, the answers aren’t here yet, and now I’m off to dig up skeletons in Israel, with every intention to return again to Zagreb to continue this work after getting more data on modern humans in the fall in Philadelphia. The details of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution are revealed divinely in a day, and Zagreb is a place to which I truly look forward to returning. I must here acknowledge the curator at the Croatian Natural History Museum, Davorka Radovčić, and her father Jakov and mother Danka, for their almost fanatical hospitality. It’s been an honor to work with Davorka and this collection, and I thank her and the Croatian Natural History Museum for this fantastic opportunity.

We hypothesize that Neanderphiles are getting nosy based on the nasal polishing on this fifty year old bronze statue at the Krapina excavation site.

We hypothesize that Neanderphiles are getting nosy based on the nasal polishing on this 50 year old bronze statue at the Krapina excavation site. Photo by author.

[1] Even today, only one site among all those in the fossil record of human evolution contains remains from more individuals than Krapina, the much more recently excavated but geologically older “Sima de los Huesos,” “Cave of the Bones,” in Atapuerca, Spain.

[2] Arguably, Gorjanović Kramberger’s discoveries at Krapina as well as Dutch physician-turned-paleoanthropologist Eugene Dubois’s finds of Anthropopithecus erectus (later Pithecanthropus erectus and now Homo erectus) in Java at the close of the 19th century marked the end of any serious scientific objection to the fact of human evolution and the genesis of paleoanthropology.

[3] See Dave Frayer’s 2006 centennial bibliography of all the research published on Krapina.

[4]Radovčić D, Sršen AO, Radovčić J, Frayer DW (2015) Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119802. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119802.

[5]Ewen Callaway, “Early European may have had Neanderthal great-great-grandparent” Nature. 13 May 2015, Accessed 10 August 2015.

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The Dying Art of the Letterhead

The Penn Museum Archives has prepared a new public exhibition, of special interest to enthusiasts of graphic art and design.

“To Whom It May Concern: Letterhead from the Penn Museum Archives” presents an array of letterhead from its collections, dating mostly from the 1890s through the 1940s, when letterhead design was particularly expressive and ornate, as well as a tour of Museum branding over 125 years.




Although letters are becoming increasingly obsolete due to digital communication, letters have been the mainstay of long-distance communication for centuries. Developments in printing and advertising after 1850 led to the mainstream use of letterhead by individuals, institutions, and businesses. Letterhead is usually composed of a design and select typeface, and serves to identify and advertise a company, and authenticate official correspondence. For individuals, it can also be a statement of personal taste.


From Wild West shows to Philadelphia companies now defunct and to the letterhead of famous individuals, the letters on display feature many types of graphic design and printing technology, including letterpress printing, embossing, engraving, half-tone, and thermographic printing.

Come find your favorite letterhead.

The exhibition is open through January 2016.




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Daggers and Fighting Knives – Ur Project: July 2015

Daggers and Fighting Knives from Ur

Sheath pseudomorphs on copper alloy blades (B17506 and 30-12-288) from Ur.
Over the past two months I’ve been examining metal tools and weapons from Ur and have now completed the analysis.  The last few trays of objects were bladed tools and weapons such as axes, chisels, razors, and dagger/knives among others. Our database has created hierarchical categories of object types, and blades fall into the tool/weapon category.  This category was created in order to take functional analysis out of our terminology; hence tools and weapons are grouped together because they could be used both in peace and war.  According to our database we have 2262 tools/weapons recorded, 1629 are considered bladed, and 1/6th of those (268) are daggers/knives.  Like the category tool/weapon, daggers and knives are combined into a single category because they are of the same shape and size, and their name depends on their use.

Since the hafts and coverings of most weapons and tools are made of wood or other perishable materials, they rarely survive in archaeological contexts, and this is definitely true at Ur.  Perishable materials sometimes leave traces on the metal as it corrodes and these traces are called pseudomorphs.  At Ur, the most noticeable psuedomorphs are of wood, but others are of reeds, textiles, or leather (For more information on pseudomorphs see Ur project blog from January 2015).  In the Pennsylvania Museum, out of the 74 daggers/knives, 39 of them have pseudomorphs of organics.  Two dagger/knife blades from the Penn Museum (B17506 from PG 181 and 30-12-288 from PG 1324) have pseudomorphs in distinct patterns, possibly representing a sheath.

B17506 and 30-12-288 with patterned pseudomorphs (highlighted in red) showing cross patterns.

B17506 and 30-12-288 with patterned pseudomorphs (highlighted in red) showing cross patterns.

Woolley records fifteen possible sheaths of crossed reeds, all except one coming from the royal cemetery.  Two of these recorded sheaths, U.8246 (B17506) and U.12300 (30-12-288), shown above, are pseudomorphs of reed, and the crossed pattern show that they were woven together.  The gold blade from PG 580 (U.9361), has a gold sheath showing this intricate weaving.  The original is located in the Baghdad Museum, but the Penn Museum has a copy.

Sheath of dagger from PG 580 showing open work filigree, possibly representing reed sheaths (Copy at Penn Museum 29-22-10B)

Sheath of dagger from PG 580 showing open work filigree, probably imitating woven (Copy at Penn Museum 29-22-10B)

Most sheaths would not have been made of metal, because of the expense of the raw material, but rather, would have been formed of reed, textiles, or leather.  Contemporary artwork of the Ancient Near East, like the Ur-Nammu Stele (c. 2000 BCE), has little to no depiction of daggers or knives.  The majority of weapons shown are spears, long handled axes, and bows and arrows.  It has been hypothesized that daggers/knives were probably used as a back-up weapon, as they are not usually depicted in the hands of warriors.  They were probably more of a utility tool, and used as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat.  Later artistic representations, like the Ashur-Nasir-Pal II’s palace reliefs (c. 850 BCE) from the Neo-Assyrian Period (shown below), show daggers being worn at the waist, usually tucked into a belt or bandolier. This method of carrying a weapon exists through today in parts of the Middle East as evidenced by the photo of  Mustafa Barzani taken in 1966. Possibly daggers/knives did not have sheaths as we think of them today, rather they had a light covering and were tucked into multiple layers of clothing.  In any case, the pseudomorphs give us a better idea of what some sheaths may have looked like, and give us a point of reference for the gold sheath in PG 580.

Ashur-Nasir-Pal II Palace Relief and Mustafa Barzani

Ashur-Nasir-Pal II Palace Relief and Mustafa Barzani

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The Great Parks of California

caIn June, I had the amazing opportunity to participate on a Penn Alumni Travel tour to the northern California National Parks including Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia.  We saw and learned so much that, among other things, the trip altered my thoughts about guided tours. If you want real R&R, expert insight into nature, history, and the cultural aspects of what you are seeing, and to cover a lot of ground getting to amazing places, this kind of trip is for you.

The group included two tour guides and 42 university alumni representing Penn, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Purdue, Columbia, Boston University, and the University of Texas. After our first happy hour we were all old friends, and it stayed that way for the full nine days! We started out in San Francisco, but beat feet to Sonoma Valley’s wine country where we toured the Kunde Family Winery, a five-generation vineyard. After sampling the Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and the Cabernet, we entered the underground wine caves and sipped from an unfinished barrel of red while listening to legends of the family business. Though my personal preferences tend toward gin, this visit definitely rekindled my interest in California wines. Just yesterday I found Kunde Estate wines in the Pennsylvania liquor store!

From Sonoma we headed east into the Sierra Nevada, and eventually climbed 6,225 feet to Lake Tahoe, the highest and largest alpine lake in the United States. I’ve wanted to see Tahoe for a long time and, in fact, it is what inspired me to sign onto the trip. Although there in the wrong season, and without my skis, I was not disappointed. An incredible blue, Tahoe is 21 miles long and an impressive 1,600 feet deep, surrounded by snow covered peaks.


Enjoying our time on Lake Tahoe. Photo by author.

As a specialist in Native American material culture, it was my pleasure to fill the group in on the fact that while a vacation retreat and tourist destination for many, Lake Tahoe is also the spiritual center and place of origin of the Washoe Indian people, and remains as such today. Through my lectures, I introduced the weaving traditions of Washoe and northern California Indian tribes, some of the finest basketry in the world. In the late 1800s, weavers skillfully adapted their work to meet the demands of the burgeoning tourist industry in California. The American Craftsman Movement (1895-1920) celebrated handmade Indian weaving and encouraged a collecting obsession of Indian art across the country. This was also the Golden Age of Museums, and it is no surprise that the Penn Museum houses exceptional California baskets, of which I shared many examples. The tragic irony of saving Indian art while killing off Indian people was not lost on my audience. Later in the trip I introduced them to United States’ NAGPRA legislation and the repatriation movement with a special focus on issues important to California tribes today.

Yosemite Museum

A Mono Lake Paiute basket by Lucy Tellas at the Yosemite Museum. Photo by author.

From Tahoe we traveled east over the Sierras and into Nevada’s Mono and Paiute Indian country, back into California, past Mono Lake (one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen), and entered Yosemite National Park from the east. We spent two days in Yosemite, taking in all of the sites along the Yosemite Valley floor (Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, the Ahwhannee Hotel named after the Chief of the tribe that inhabited the Valley), and had free time for hiking on our own or for group tours. My son took off on the 7-mile hike to Nevada Falls, and I spent the afternoon with Barbara Beroza, the Curator of the Yosemite Museum, looking behind the scenes at Washoe, Paiute, and Miwok Indian baskets, and with Phil Johnson, a Miwok/Paiute interpreter in the gallery. Phil showed me a clever and rarely collected woodpecker trap—a long and skinny twinned basket that is tied to a tree over a hole where the ubiquitous woodpeckers are nesting!

Yosemite valley

Yosemite Valley Photo by author.

From Yosemite we spent two more gorgeous days in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Sequoia is less traveled and incredibly vast and wild. In addition to much welcomed snow and rain, we saw an abundance of woodpeckers and blue Steller’s Jays, and a total of seven black bears eating grass in open meadows.

But the highlight of the trip was the magnificent Giant Sequoia trees, Sequoiadendron giganteum, the world’s largest living trees that are well protected and cared for in these parks. The General Sherman and General Grant trees standing 275 and 268 feet tall, respectively, were massive and incredibly impressive. While taking them in, I revisited John Muir’s writings and the early history and struggle to secure these incredible parks. I was continually awed by the grandeur of the woods and reminded of the difference a single person’s actions can make. And it was a pleasure to be traveling with so many like-minded enthusiasts of nature and of our National Parks.

Sequoias at Yosemite

Sequoias at Yosemite Photo by author.

With reluctance, we descended west from the cool, quiet, and lush seclusion of Sequoia and across the northern edge of the Central Valley, aka “the salad bowl.” Impressively, this region grows a staggering one half of the produce in the United States! We passed mile after mile of thriving walnut, pistachio, almond, peach, pear, nectarine, plum, cherry, and date trees, acres of lettuce, miles of artichokes, and on and on. After a private tour and elegant dinner at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we ended our trip at Carmel by the Sea with a tour of the still active Carmel Mission Church, established by Spanish Jesuits in 1793.

The trip gave me the opportunity to experience some of the United States’ most incredible natural beauty, where some of the Penn Museum’s California collections were made and used, and the time to reflect on the importance of our mission to steward and share those collections broadly.

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Two Perspectives on the Financial Crisis: Part 2: A Year in the Perspective – Kurtis Tanaka

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.

As Amanda Ball has illustrated in Part 1 of this series, the crisis here, in the small farming village of Pagouria, seems distant, the fiscal year far removed from the yearly rhythms of the agricultural cycle. Throughout the past year, the farmers have planted their wheat, cotton, or other crop (this year, fields of sunflowers along side the traditional cotton and wheat have created a stunning patchwork of gold, yellow, and green), they still water and weed their fields, life goes on. However, having spent the last year living in Greece, I can see the crisis, even here, both in the bigger picture and in the small details.

Pagouria from a distance. Photo by Amanda Ball.

Pagouria from a distance. Photo by Amanda Ball.

I’ll start with the small details. Greece is a cash economy; I have lived here for a year and have yet to pay for anything with a card. This, of course, is the reason for the long lines at the ATMs used as the cover photo for every news story on the current crisis. The first time I came to Greece, I remember being surprised both by this fact, and the general impatience of most shopkeepers with making small change, everything was always, informally, rounded up or down to a convenient multiple of ten. I never saw the endearingly small euro penny. Now, however, exact change is all anyone gives, carefully counted out, down even to that diminutive penny (endearing, and I should also add, a complete annoyance; I have collected an overflowing jar of 1, 2, 5, and 10 cent coins that I am not sure what to do with).

Perhaps the most striking detail, however, is the extent to which the Greeks, and indeed, I myself, have become inured to the crisis. Calling it “the” crisis is, I think, the wrong term for the situation in Greece as well. Rather, “the” crisis is just a series of mini-crises coming along every few weeks (the next deadline is July 23). Over the past year I have lost count of how many deadlines have come due, how many critical, doomsday level, on the precipice moments have gripped the headlines for a week or two only to be replaced by the next looming financial disaster. After a while, it becomes hard to keep track or to imagine the gravity and consequences of each of these deadlines. So now, even as we are about to find out, it’s not surprising that there is so much confusion here over what all of this actually means.

The bigger picture of what these crises mean for Greece was thrown into high relief by a recent trip to Istanbul, a seven-hour bus ride from Pagouria. Istanbul is a mass of new construction, high-rise after high-rise after stadium after school after shopping mall fly past as one enters the city. This frenetic pace of construction could not be more different from Athens, where investment in infrastructure seems to have completely stalled. Standing on the Acropolis and looking out upon the vast urban sprawl of the city, you can see one, maybe two large building projects, made noticeable only by the spindly yellow cranes, usually idle, looming above them. From this perspective, the city seems paused, as if, like the people who inhabit it, the very bricks of the city are holding their breath between this crisis and the next.

Far from Athens, the crisis takes on a different feel in Pagouria, less public, more private. Major construction works are not anywhere near as common here as in the nation’s capital and largest city. Instead it clings about the house, in the half-finished renovations, for example, of the reoccupied family homes of those who have had to leave Athens. Beyond that, however, it is hard to calculate how much life has changed here. The people are still warm and welcoming, they press on. One can only guess at all the ways, big and small, their lives have been interrupted.

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Migrant Matters – Enika Selby

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 15, 2015

As interviews for my research on Burmese migrant identity in Bangkok near their end, I reflect on related activities that have given me further insight into the life of migrant workers.

For the past few Saturdays I have attended a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church frequented by many laborers from Myanmar. Most of the churchgoers are ethnic Karen, so the service mainly takes place in the Karen language with some songs in English. I learned that migrant workers typically negotiate their days off with their bosses, and many SDA ask for Saturday off in order to worship. Additionally, the church is a place for the community to gather, which therefore attracts people from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds. I met people engaged in jobs ranging from factory work to housekeeping, who had all come from different regions in Myanmar. At the church, I was fortunate to taste homemade Karen cuisine that some church members had prepared to serve in between services. During the meal I also spoke with some attendants who explained that the church served as a religious space, place of rendezvous, and a safe haven.

Traditional Karen food in Bangkok

Traditional Karen food in Bangkok. Photo by Enika Selby.

Apart from visiting a Burmese church, I had the opportunity to explore a small marketplace where people from Myanmar had set up eateries and clothing stores. At one restaurant I shared a typical Karen meal with a friend. I also spoke with the shop owner who explained that despite establishing a restaurant—and thereby a stronger sense of permanence—he still considered himself a migrant worker and wished to one-day return to Myanmar. The shop owner’s desire to return home was shared with nearly every single migrant I interviewed, even with some people who have been in Thailand or Bangkok for a decade.

There have been many places, such as the church and the marketplace, that have revealed unexpected details about migrant workers and their lives in Bangkok. As my work slowly comes to an end and I reexamine my notes, there are certain social patterns that have emerged. Going forward I will work to synthesize my research and make sense of my data. Although I will miss being in the field, I will forever remember the enlightening experience of engaging with migrant workers from Myanmar.

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Getting Ready at Pojoaque Pueblo

We have awesome tech support for videography at the Poeh Museum!

Shawn and Isabel getting ready! Photo by author.

Shawn Tafoya interview 2015

We have awesome video tech and exhibit support at the Poeh. Photo by author.

POB prep July 2015

The exhibit is designed for a Pueblo audience and includes Pueblo language spellings in Towa and Tewa. Photo by author.

Paths of Beauty: Isabel Gonzales and Shawn Tafoya opens at Pojoaque Pueblo’s Poeh Cultural Center and Museum (in New Mexico) on August 20, just a month away! I am grateful and excited to be curating this exhibition about two of my favorite people, both dedicated teachers and specialists in Pueblo embroidery and pottery. We spent last week together in Pojoaque, gathering the 50 pieces for the show, writing labels and text panels, identifying the correct Towa and
Tewa words in their language to get it just right, shooting video, and planning the installation. And there was lots of talk about the food for the opening celebration, to which the entire Pueblo community (and the public!) is invited.

The exhibit celebrates Isabel Gonzales of Jemez Pueblo and Shawn Tafoya of Santa Clara Pueblo who have dedicated themselves to continuing and passing on their creative gifts. Both are incredibly talented textile artists and teachers who make the traditional cotton garments needed and worn in Pueblo ceremonies throughout the year. Shawn is also an accomplished potter. The exhibit is developed primarily for a Pueblo audience, and will highlight the very special role of handmade cloth within living Pueblo contexts.

I’ve worked closely with Shawn and Isabel for years now and it is fantastic to see the Pueblo community honoring them in this way. Meet Shawn and Isabel on video in the Penn Museum’s own Native American Voices exhibition.

Read an essay we co-authored in 2007: “WaHa-belash adi Kwan tsáawä / Butterflies and Blue Rain: The Language of Contemporary Eastern Pueblo Embroidery”

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Native American Voices at the Penn Museum