Rediscovering a Forgotten Egyptian Pharaoh: A Penn Student’s Experience in the Field

In January, researchers from the Penn Museum made an historic discovery in Abydos, Egypt—unearthing the tomb and skeletal remains of a previously unknown pharaoh, Woseribre Senebkay, who reigned in the 17th century BCE. The finding was the culmination of work at the site that began in summer 2013 by a team led by Dr. Josef Wegner, Egyptian Section Associate Curator of the Penn Museum.

Excavation team

Penn student Paul Verhelst (center, in white) sits with the excavation team at Abydos. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Wegner.

Several students from the University of Pennsylvania went along as part of the excavation team, including Paul Verhelst (pictured, in white shirt), a graduate student in the Department of Near East Languages and Civilizations here at Penn. Paul was nice enough to answer some questions about this life-changing experience for the Penn Museum blog.


-How did you come to be a part of this excavation?

While doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, I participated on my first excavation in Egypt through Penn State at the site of Mendes, which sealed the deal and made me determined to become an archaeologist. After earning my Bachelor’s degree in 2011, I took a year off to excavate in Jordan through the University of California: San Diego and work on a cultural resource management project in Missouri. While working in Missouri, I started hearing back from graduate schools and learned that I was accepted into the Master’s Program in Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania. A few days later, Dr. Joe Wegner contacted me to talk about the program and a few weeks later, I accepted the offer to attend Penn in the fall of 2012. I owe a lot to Joe, since he not only helped me to decide on Penn and acts as my advisor, but also gave me the chance to work in Abydos during this past summer and winter. Both times at Abydos have been awesome experiences and I’ve had the chance to work with some great people, including Joe, Dr. Jen Wegner and Alexander Wegner, fellow graduate students Kevin Cahail, Shelby Justl, and Matt Olson, Penn volunteers Jess Cahail and Jamie Kelly, as well as many great and friendly Egyptians.

-What were your responsibilities at the site?

Team photo

From left: Jamie Kelly, Paul Verhelst, Dr. Jennifer Wegner. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Wegner.

This winter season, I worked on material that was stored at the American dig house in Abydos with Jen and Jamie. This mostly involved sorting and drawing pottery from previous seasons along with helping to organize and draw the artifacts that came back from site. No matter how much I fight it, I am somehow drawn to pottery, which is good because there is usually a lot of it. I find it fascinating that so much information can be cram-packed into a tiny potsherd!

I also worked on some of the skeletal material that Kevin had excavated before we arrived this winter. So even before the discovery of Senebkay’s tomb, Matt and I were doing osteology work on the large amount of skeletal remains that came from other tombs in South Abydos. Human and animal skeletal remains fascinate me almost as much as pottery sherds, since they can reveal interesting information on the life of an individual or animal.

-Was the current political climate in Egypt a factor in the excavations?

The political situation in Egypt didn’t affect us while at Abydos. We felt safe at the dig house and the Egyptians who worked with us were very friendly and welcoming as always. There have been some problems with illicit digging at Abydos, which might stem from the political situation, but the excavation directors have taken measures to discourage this illicit digging. The biggest impact we witnessed was when we went to the city of Luxor, which has some of Egypt’s most popular monuments and is usually full of tourists during the winter. However, when we went to Luxor for a weekend, the number of tourists was extremely low and shows the impact of the political situation on the tourism industry.

-Tell us about the discovery of Senebkay’s tomb.


The royal cartouche of the pharaoh Senebkay. Photo by Dr. Jennifer Wegner.

While working on an area in front of the tomb of Sobekhotep I, a line of mudbricks was found, which resembled the layout of previous tombs Kevin had excavated that were non-decorated and didn’t provide much for artifacts. It was getting towards the end of the season, but Joe and Kevin decided to excavate it. The tomb was similar to the previous tombs in design, but the big difference was the decoration in the burial chamber of the tomb, which even early on they could tell was going to be remarkable. The tomb decoration was the only the beginning of the excitement. As they continued to excavate, more decoration and eventually the cartouche containing the name of King Senebkay was revealed in the burial chamber.

Body of Senebkay

Excavation team members surround the skeletal remains of the rediscovered pharaoh. Photo by Dr. Jennifer Wegner.

A couple of days later, the excavation of the antechamber exposed the remains of King Senebkay, his canopic chest, and the remnants of Senebkay’s mummy mask. The arrangement of the skeletal remains and objects outside of the burial chamber was an indication that Senebkay’s tomb was plundered by ancient robbers; however, through the excavation techniques of Joe, Kevin and Matt a good amount of information was gathered about the remains and objects. This discovery provided for an eventful and busy last few days of excavation and holds up the saying that all the good stuff is found in the last days of excavating.

-What was your favorite experience?

My favorite experience is the actual work I get to do when I arrive at Abydos. For me, there is no better feeling then getting to apply what I’ve learned in school to the field. Whether it’s getting to excavate or draw pottery, I simply love the work and experience that comes with having a career in archaeology. Another great experience is just hanging out with the team throughout the day, which produced many inside jokes, some interesting stories, and a whole lot of shenanigans!

-How about your least favorite experience?

My least favorite experience is the eight-hour drive from Cairo to Abydos. This drive seems to last forever, which is probably due to a combination of jet lag, the eight-hour car ride and depending on the season the heat. For some reason this is not true for the drive back to Cairo from Abydos at the end of the season. This seems to fly by in comparison, which is probably due to us all sleeping most of the way after the big rush to finish everything at the end of the season.

-What’s next for future excavations at Abydos?

Excavation site

A view of the excavation site, looking south-southwest. Photo by Dr. Josef Wegner.

The area around the tomb of Senebkay was of great interest before this discovery and now I think Joe and Kevin will be making this area the prime focus for future South Abydos excavations. Work will continue on excavating the tomb of Sobekhotep I, which is near the tomb of Senebkay, and further excavations in the area of these two tombs might reveal other tombs in the same or better condition as the tomb of Senebkay.

-What’s next for you?

Right now, I am in my last semester of my Master’s degree through the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) Department. I recently accepted an offer to stay at Penn and continue into the Ph.D. program through NELC. I hope that I will be able to go back to Abydos this summer and help with the excavations as well as conduct some experiments with ancient Egyptian firing practices involving pottery and bricks. Overall, I’m excited to be staying in Philadelphia, continuing my education at Penn and working at the Penn Museum.

-What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing a career in archaeology?

Find out what most excites you about archaeology, whether it is the ancient language, history, and/or unanswered questions of a specific culture, the scientific methods and technology that go into analyzing sites and artifacts, or the thought of getting dirty during excavations, and use that to fuel your ambition to become an archaeologist. Pursuing a career in archaeology requires hard work and determination, but the journey towards that goal will be rewarding as you learn more about the aspects of archaeology that interest you, work on different excavations, visit the places you have seen in books, and my personal favorite, making life-long friends who become your colleagues and support base.

Posted in Egypt, Research, Students in the Field, World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Response

Archives Photo of the Week: The Great Pi-ramid?

General view of the pyramids.

General view of the pyramids at Giza, ca. 1876-1885, by Felix Bonfils.
Penn Museum Image #165370.

A quick note: On most Fridays,  Archivist Eric Schnittke posts cool and interesting photos from the Penn Museum Archives here on our blog. I’m happy to say that Eric is at home with his wife Maureen and their brand new baby, Cormac Xavier, who was born just this past Monday. We at the Museum congratulate the new Mama and Papa, and in Eric’s absence, I’ve taken it upon myself to share an archival contribution of my own. Hope he doesn’t mind.

Today is March 14 (3/14), which means it’s Pi Day – an offbeat holiday in honor of the great, mysterious mathematical constant known as π (pi). And the photo you see above is a general view of the pyramids at Giza, taken in the 1870-80’s by French photographer Félix Bonfils.

Soooooooo… what do these two have to do with each other?

Sir William M. Flinders Petrie

Portrait of Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, 1903. Public domain image.

It depends on whom you ask. Take Sir William M. Flinders Petrie (shown at right), the British Egyptologist who excavated at many sites throughout Egypt, and who surveyed the Giza Necropolis. Petrie was one of numerous Egyptologists—neither the first, nor the last—who suggested the possibility of pi playing a role in the design of the Great Pyramid.

See, the Great Pyramid—one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the tallest man-made structure in the world for nearly four millennia—bears some interesting measurements. For ancient Egyptians, the basic unit of length was the mh, referred to in English as the cubit—roughly the length between an adult’s elbow and the tip of the middle finger. It was generally assumed that the base of the Great Pyramid was planned to be 440 cubits on each side (1760 in total) and 280 cubits in height.

Here’s where pi comes in. Petrie noted that the ratio of the base of the pyramid’s perimeter to its height, using these assumed ancient measurements, was 44:7. That’s exactly twice one common approximation for pi, 22/7, which led him to suggest the possibility of something referred to as “pi-theory”—the idea that the Great Pyramid was designed in such a way that, if if you drew a circle around the pyramid, its radius would match the pyramid’s height.

An extremely rudimentary mockup of what Petrie is talking about.

An extremely rudimentary mockup of what Petrie is talking about.

Petrie put it nicely in a letter to a friend when he wrote, “Thus we have a radius set upright [i.e. the altitude] on its parent centre, and its own exact circle’s length delineated systematically around it on the ground.” The implication was that the Egyptians had designed the pyramid with an approximation of pi in mind.

But unfortunately, there’s no written evidence to back up this very specific, but important, detail. While the Great Pyramid’s construction in the 26th century BCE, the earliest written approximations of pi don’t appear in history for another 600 years or more.

The pi-theory became well-known through its consideration or acceptance by numerous Egyptologists, before and since Petrie. But others argue that the perceived role of pi in the pyramid’s design was merely a coincidence. A book called The Shape of the Great Pyramid (2000) by Roger Herz-Fischler offers a fantastically thorough analysis of the history and propagation of pi-theory, as other theories surrounding the design of this fascinating structure.

In the end, we can entertain theories about the motives of those who came before us. But without concrete evidence to support a theory, it’s misleading to assume it as fact, no matter how unique a coincidence it appears to be—which is why we can’t say that the pyramids were designed using pi.

Photo (and baking) by my friend Sarah Lovelace.

Photo (and baking) by my friend Sarah Lovelace.

Eric will be back on the job in a few weeks – look forward to more weekly photos from the archives when he returns. As for me, all this thinking has given me an appetite.

Posted in Archives, Museum | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Hot Pots, Museum Raids, and the Race to Uncover Asia’s Archaeological Past

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008

It’s not every day that an archaeologist helps serve a Federal search warrant, never mind one that was part of a 500-officer dawn raid at multiple museums in California and Chicago. The search was for smuggled Thai archaeological artifacts, brought into the US since 2003 and added to museum collections under suspicious circumstances.

To get a first-person, behind-the-scenes account of the 2008 raids and see the impact of site destruction on archaeological evidence in Southeast Asia, come to this special address at the Association for Asian Studies annual conference:

“Hot Pots, Museum Raids, and the Race to Uncover Asia’s Archaeological Past”

WHEN: Sat., March 29, 5-7PM
WHERE: Grand Ballroom, Salon H, Marriott Hotel-Downtown, 1201 Market St, Philadelphia, PA

(FREE and open to the public)

In my talk I’ll cover Penn Museum’s most recent research on Thai and Lao archaeology, as well as updates on the Federal investigation into smuggling of Southeast Asian antiquities. What happens to knowledge about ancient societies when sites like Ban Chiang are looted to supply antiquities markets? What is it like for the archaeologist to be an expert witness in a big legal case?

My talk will be followed by a conversation with Dr. Thongchai Winichakul, President of the AAS, on the themes I’ve explored, approached from the perspective of a non-archaeologist. Audience Q&A and a reception to follow will allow more opportunity to continue the discussion informally.

Fake Pottery

Fake Pottery

Sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies 

Posted in Laos, Research, Thailand | Tagged | Leave a comment

What are Museum Keepers?

Requests to identify sherds in the museum collection.

Requests to identify sherds in the museum collection.

People often ask me, What does a Keeper do? Which is a fair question—you might think of Zoo Keepers with that terminology. You could equate our work, at the most basic level, as “collections management,” but I think we’d all say we do so much more than that. There are Keepers in all of our museum sections: African, American, Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Mediterranean, the Near East, Oceanian. We also have a small European collection [think stone tools, not paintings] as well as an Historic collection. For all of these sections, we have the same title and same basic “other duties as required” job description. But for each section, those other duties differ.

Me? I’m the Fowler/Van Santvoord Keeper of the Near Eastern Collections. And sure, on a daily basis, I care for the collections. I take record photography, I rehouse the pieces, I make sure that their numbers are clearly written and are accounted for in the database. But being a Keeper is so much more. Some days, I transcribe someone else’s research into the database. Some days, I do original research on the objects. I make recommendations on objects to loan to visiting curators. I answer questions from the public. I give tours of storage and galleries. I bring out objects for classes. I recommend objects for classes. But the thing that is the bread and butter of the Near East: researchers. On average, our department alone sees 100 individual researchers a year. I am often asked what my area of expertise is. And I explain that I don’t have the luxury of having one. When a researcher comes I need to be an expert in their subject matter as it interacts with our collection. They might think they know what they want to see when they are here, but my job is to pull the objects they didn’t know we had but I know will help their study. So in one week, I might have to know about third millennium Mesopotamian cylinder seals; locally made and imported Terra Sigilata ware found in Israel [so we’re talking the AD/BC change over]; and 9th century BC metal pieces from Iran. That’s a light week-only three diverse subjects.

Don’t get intimidated—it’s what most of love most about our jobs: the challenge of learning something new every day. I’m often asked what my background is in; my undergraduate degree is in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, I worked here at the museum for a few years with the Near East collections, I excavated and taught at a classical field school in Italy for 6 seasons, and my graduate degree is in Art History. So I had the benefit of learning both Classical and Near Eastern sites, statues, pottery types in the classroom; I learned how to identify things from the field level Classically, and just after the field here in the basement of the Near East. I learned how to research and discuss these same materials in a broader sense. I’m diverse, but not really—I couldn’t discuss Manet to save my life.

I received a research request in February, for March [we prefer 3 weeks’ notice so that we have time to locate the objects they request, the objects they didn’t know we had to be requested, and to make sure there is room in the researcher room; again, about 100 a year so most often you are not alone in my researcher room] which was the perfect amount of time. This individual wanted to see Mycenaean ware from a few sites. One site is published with field numbers and often with the museum accession numbers. This part of the request is easy. The other half, even he knew would be difficult. The other site has a publication, from 1933, with black and white images of objects that are very colorful. This site didn’t use a field number system, so I have no way of tracking that publication to the boxes full of sherds. We’re talking thousands of sherds. And so, I have to rely on all those years I studied ceramics. I have to be able to look in a box of sherds, determine if they are likely from the same time period as this imported ceramic, I have to go through all these pieces and see if the fabric looks right, if the thickness is correct, if the painting technique matches what he is studying. And because of all those years studying small pieces of broken objects? I was able to match up 95% of his request.

So yes, we Keepers are collections managers, but ask any of us to tell you about our day, and chances are we didn’t put a single thing in a small box. Those of us who are field archaeologists, get the chance to be archaeologists in storage. And it’s wonderfully satisfying.


Posted in Collection, Community Engagement, Research | Leave a comment

Ur Digitization Project: February 2014

Site Records
Mapping Woolley’s Notes
Spotlight on Letter Designators for area excavations found in Ur notes and reports

As we go through Woolley’s field notes from his excavations at the ancient city of Ur we learn more and more, not just about the buildings and artifacts he found, but about the way in which he approached the site and its excavation.

NB: So much of this would not be possible without the assistance of our many volunteers and students who diligently transcribe, tag and/or edit the notes into digitally searchable text. We are sincerely grateful to all of you!

Among the most notable features of the field cards are the labels Woolley used to identify certain areas as he excavated them. In publications he almost never refers to these designators, and therefore putting the notes into context within the published maps is all the more difficult. Furthermore, no preliminary maps showing these designators have been found either at Penn or at the British Museum.

The latest Ur volumes, published long after close of excavations and even after the death of Sir Leonard in 1960, show a grid overlain on the site. This grid was never in use during excavations; it was placed over the maps in the 50s or 60s in an effort to better locate certain buildings and to discuss the site as a whole. A few of the areas were then transcribed into grid coordinates, but not nearly all of them. Listings of some of these areas appear at the beginning of the latest volumes, Ur Excavations 7, 8, and 9. These were published in 1976, 1965, and 1962 respectively. By this time, a few seem to have been recorded inconsistently and  incorrectly.

Map from UE7 showing Old Babylonian site with late grid placement: original designators have been placed over their excavation areas.

Old Babylonian Ur with grid addition: original designators have been placed over their excavation areas.

In an attempt to relocate the areas of work and thus to better match records to excavated space and objects to their findspots, we have now created a preliminary map with abbreviations placed over their locations (the base map for this image is the one published in UE 7, primarily showing the Old Babylonian period). As we investigate them more closely, we are also cracking Woolley’s code in creating them: each had a particular meaning. Long have I studied area AH, but not until recently did I realize that it stood for “Abraham’s Housing.” In this area, Woolley knew he had come down on a large extent of Old Babylonian houses and that this was the general time period in which the Patriarch Abraham might have lived at Ur. He frequently referred to Ur as the home of Abraham in newspaper and magazine articles in order to stir public imagination.

When he knew the ancient name of a building, Woolley would use that in his abbreviation. These ring strangely to the modern ear, names such as e-nun-mah, e-hursag, and dub-lal-mah. He found brick inscriptions of some of these and in some cases went hunting a particular building. This is especially true for the ehursag, the ‘palace of the mountain.’ Hall believed he had found it in 1919 but Woolley disagreed, thus Woolley’s EH designator actually falls on a housing area for temple officials; what he labeled HT (Hall’s Temple) was the ehursag all along.

Letter designators and their meanings (bold letters where known):

AH = Abraham’s Housing
BC = Bur-Sin Corner
CLW = Central Larsa Wall
EH = E-Hursag
EM = Extra Mural
ES = ???? E-nun-mah South?
FH = ????
HD = Hall’s Dump
HT = Hall’s Temple (also called DP = Dungi’s Palace)
KP = King’s Palace (actually the Giparu)
KPS = King’s Palace South
KW = Kassite Wall
LL = ???? Dub-Lal-Mah (also called DM?)
LW = Larsa Wall
NCF = North Corner Fort (also seen as NNCF,  Neo-Babylonian NCF)
NH = Neo-Babylonian Housing
NT = Nin-ezen Temple
PD = ???? (there is also a PDW here)
PG = Prehistoric Graves (or Private Graves)
PJ = extension of PG to find Jemdet Nasr graves
RS = Rim Sin temple
SM = ????
XNCF = outside(X) North Corner Fort
YC = Y Cemetery (along with X and Z, these were late graves near NCF)
ZT = Ziggurat Terrace

One of the first abbreviations I encountered when examining Woolley’s notes way back in 2003 was CLW and I was convinced it was simply his initials–Charles Leonard Woolley. As I began to see that it was attached to a particular area of the site, I wondered if people’s initials were used for different places. A few other designators could have worked for this, such as KW (Katharine Woolley) and LL (León Legrain), but there was no MM (Max Mallowan) and there were far too many letter combinations to fit the few westerners who were at the site. Slowly I found the actual meaning of most, though a few remain somewhat a mystery.

Some abbreviations seem to have been created after the fact, not being in common use during the excavations (like RS, for example). Furthermore, the last year or two of the excavation did not apparently see new designators, instead referring mainly to buildings by their full names assigned by Woolley as he became more familiar with types of structures and their usage. The main area for which we cannot find a true designator is that in the northeast of the site, the area of the North Harbor. Many have assumed the abbreviation NH stands for this, but Woolley is quite clear that NH designates the area of Neo-Babylonian Housing just west of area AH. He specifically states this in UE 9 page 44. Near the North Harbor are the North Temple (but the designator NT does not refer to this building) and the so-called Bel-Shalti-Nannar palace (no designator known).

Father Legrain made a list of most of the designators in use at the site in his unpublished manuscript on terracotta figurines. This is one of our best sources since it is so close in time to the actual excavation and he was on the site for two years. Nonetheless, he did get a few designators wrong, including area NH. He also includes DM for the Dublal-mah, and DP for Dungi’s Palace (E-hursag), but I have not seen these in use anywhere else.

Finally, Woolley dug a number of deep pits, sometimes labeled with the letter P (most in the area of the royal cemetery and would not fit on the map shown above). The most frequently referred to of all of these is PFT, or the Flood Pit, wherein were found many meters of silt. Woolley claimed in general interest articles that this was evidence of the great flood. He dug other deep pits such as Pit W and Pit X, but realized that designators beginning with P would be confusing due to area PG as the royal cemetery. Some scholars today refer to this area as RC, and some use MS for Mausoleum Site, but these were not in use in the excavations to designate space. Woolley did use RC for types of pottery found in the royal graves, but the site of the Ur III mausolea was always designated BC in the notes.

Maps like the one we are creating will help us to attach notes to physical space, connecting everything into a virtual reconstruction of the excavations at Ur and assisting researchers the world over. Thanks again to all those who have helped us thus far and here’s to continuing discoveries!


Posted in Iraq, Museum | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Archives Photo of the Week: Russia


Dolgan women riding reindeer, Siberia, 1914-1915.
Penn Museum Image #25297

I absolutely love the Olympics. Winter or summer, I tune in every night to watch the amazing feats of athleticism. I figure, what better way to honor the Olympics than having this week’s photo of the week be from Russia. This photo from Golchikha, Siberia, Russia was taken by Henry Usher Hall between 1914 and 1915.  Featured in the image are two Dolgan women riding reindeer. Perhaps we can look forward to this as a new winter Olympic sport in 2018 in South Korea.


Posted in Archives, Museum | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Olympics at the Museum

I loathe winter (especially this one), but I love the Winter Olympics. I grew up skiing, and a love of the sport stayed with me. Every time the summer and winter Olympics are held, we draw attention to objects in our collection that relate to the games. Working in the Mediterranean Section, I have the opportunity to work with artifacts depicting athletes, a dozen of which are on display in our Greek Gallery in the Religion unit “Track, Field, Wrestling, and Boxing.”

While none of these depict winter sports, they display a variety of fair weather games. Ten years ago, one of the vases on display was selected as the model for a U.S. Postal Service 2004 commemorative stamp issued in honor of the 2004 Summer Olympics games in Athens. Artist Lonnie Busch fashioned the stylized version after seeing a photo of the museum’s Attic Black Figure Lekythos, MS739, which shows runners flanked by figures that may represent either judges or spectators at the Panathenaic Games, in honor of the goddess Athena. The ancient athletes are likely competing in either the stadion, a 600 foot sprint, or the dialos, a race twice that length. It is always exciting to feel a 2,500 year object come to life after watching the living athletes.


The United States Postal Service presented the “First Day of Issue” ceremony at the Museum on June 9, 2004, to unveil the stamp, and some of Penn’s own alumni Olympians even attended the event. I snapped a few photographs that day. I knew plenty about the Olympics, but this gave me a chance to learn about stamp collecting as well.

First DayStampprogram



The ceremony gave collectors an opportunity to purchase collectables, such as a first day cover (with a stamp cancelled on the first sale date in the city where it was issued). The cachet, which appears on the left, is a graphic that refers to the subject of the stamp. Thanks to my colleague, Maureen Goldsmith, for supplying some photographs of her first day covers and program.



We liked the ceremony banner so much we hung it up after the event in our office area, where it still hangs today. I can see this runner with some skis and poles, can’t you?

BannerStampOffices     You can read more about the ancient Olympics at

Posted in Collection, Museum | Tagged | Leave a comment

Archives Photo of the Week: Dancers


North African couple/dancers, traditional jewelry and clothing.
Penn Museum Image #152496

Working in an archives has its definite perks. One of those perks is working with the collections. Here at the Penn Museum, I particularly enjoy working with the photographic collections (hence my weekly blog contribution). This week, we had a Penn class in and the archivists were pulling images for them to view. I had the opportunity to delve in to a collection of images by the photographers Rudolf Lehnert (1878–1948) and Ernst Landrock (1880–1957). Lehnert and Landrock, as they were known, operated a photography studio in Tunisia from 1900 to 1914 and Cairo from 1914 to the 1920′s. This particular image of theirs is a photogravure of two dancers from northern Africa. Despite the age of their images, the Lehnert and Landrock photographs stand out with phenomenal depth and clarity. I count myself lucky to be able to work with treasures like these everyday.

Posted in Archives, Museum | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Telling Stories of Today: Collecting Native American Material Culture in the 21st Century

gtaA lot is going on in the American Section of the Penn Museum as we make our final preparations to open our newest exhibition, Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now, on March 1. The exhibition explores contemporary Native America, and though Penn Museum has its share of older Native American material culture (over 160,000 objects!), we actively do our best to expand the collections a little bit each year by purchasing new Native American objects of today.

Native Americans today make up hundreds of North American communities in both urban and rural settings. Material culture remains one of Native America’s most distinctive and enduring legacies, and we need to continue to collect it today.

Recent purchases for our new exhibition give voice to contemporary concerns and experiences in the Native American community. One of my favorites is by Jason Garcia (aka Okuu Pín), an artist from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. Jason shapes and paints his ceramic tiles using all natural materials from his home region. His amazing graphic art combines traditional Pueblo scenes with popular culture and comments on events happening in his community now. His piece “Grand Theft Auto Santa Clara Revisited,” is inspired by the popular video game of the same name.

In his own words…


The piece is inspired by the video game series Grand Theft Auto, the game is set in a fictional city named San Andreas. I appropriated the box cover art and made some minor and major changes to it. The vignettes reflect my upbringing and observations of Santa Clara Pueblo or Kha’Po Owinge’-“Rose Path village,” this is the Tewa name and refers to wild roses that grew along the water ways of the Santa Clara Creek and the Rio Grande River, when the Pueblo was settled in the 1300s after a major drought forced our ancestors to move from the Pajarito Plateau to seek closer water sources.

The back of the piece has various codes that are a specific succession of buttons that when entered can change different variables of the game play. The codes that are on the back are:

R2 X L1 L1 L2 L2 L2 X FOGGY
R2 X L1 L1 L2 L2 L2 ☐ CLOUDY
↓ X ← → ← R1 ← ↓ ↑ Δ INFINITE HEALTH


The codes that are entered reflect the ceremonial songs and prayers that are incantations for rain, prosperity, and long life.

Key to vignettes:

A—Puje Cliffs and Village is the Ancestral home of Santa Clara Pueblo. Puje= “where rabbits gather,” the Tewa name of our ancestral home. It refers to the ancestors who referred to themselves as P’u Towa or ‘rabbit people.’ Puje is said to have been a major gathering place for many villages that were spread out among the Pajarito Plateau.

B—This vignette is directly lifted from the game cover art, in that it shows a main character of the game. The background shows a silhouette of Pueblo homes in the background and the street signs show the location of where I grew up. On the corner of Agoyo and Nava Alley. Agoyo meaning “star” and Nava meaning “field” both in the Tewa language.

C—The image of the girl is directly appropriated from the cover art.

D—The red polished carved pot represents the strong pottery traditions that have and continue to remain a part of Santa Clara Pueblo’s identity and culture. The water serpent carved is a symbol of water. This image was inspired by a pot created by the late Teresita Naranjo.

E—The table games/blackjack player represents the economic development efforts made by Santa Clara Pueblo. Currently the Pueblo operates a casino in Espanola, the neighboring town, called The Santa Claran Hotel and Casino. Casino and gaming enterprises offer financial security for some Tribes/Pueblos, but also offers many social problems as well.

F—The vignette shows the Jemez Mountains experiencing a catastrophic forest fire. In 1998/Oso Complex Fire and 2000/Cerro Grande Fire burned over 8,500 acres of the Santa Clara Canyon. In 2011, the Las Conchas burned 16,000+ acres of the Santa Clara Canyon which included the upper watershed of the Santa Clara Creek leading to major erosion and closure of the Santa Clara Canyon to visitation.

G—This vignette shows the Summer moiety kiva at Santa Clara Pueblo, which I belong to. The kiva is the ceremonial building in which many Pueblo ceremonies take place. This kiva was built in the mid-2000s and was part of the Pueblo’s efforts to build new kivas and renovate old kivas after the Cerro Grande Fire. This is a representation of how strong Pueblo cultural traditions are and how they will be continued into the 21st century for many generations to come.

F—The Corn Maiden holds a flip phone that is taking a photo or recording a video. This is a representation of technology’s role in the continuance and destruction of a culture. Technology can be a tool to save and promote cultural ideals/languages/etc. But it can also be detrimental as well. The Corn Maiden is also a symbol in my work that represents Mother Earth and how we care for her in our actions and inactions.

Grand Theft Auto, 2013-14-2 front and back. Jason Garcia (Okuu Pin), 2010, photograph by Lucy Fowler Williams

Grand Theft Auto, 2013-14-2 front and back. Jason Garcia (Okuu Pin), 2010, photograph by Lucy Fowler Williams

Museums are pretty amazing places and in this setting, Jason’s tile is preserved for future generations who will one day look back on 2014. How would you choose to tell your story?

Posted in Collection, Native American Voices | Tagged , , , | 1 Response

Archives Photo of the Week: Broncos vs. Seahawks

Super Bowl Sunday is almost here. No matter who you’re rooting for, the Denver Broncos or Seattle Seahawks, the Penn Museum has an object that will represent your choice.


And if it’s the commericals that interest you most about the Super Bowl, we even have that covered!


Posted in Museum | Leave a comment