Start Somewhere – Janelle Sadarananda

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.

2 July 2015
Gordion Excavation House, Yassihöyük, Turkey

I’ll start with an introduction: my name is Janelle Sadarananda, and I am a rising second-year PhD student in Penn’s Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World (AAMW) program. Thanks to a generous grant from the Penn Museum, I have embarked on a summer of archaeological fieldwork in Greece and Turkey.

My summer began when I arrived in Athens at the end of May to participate in the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project (EBAP), an excavation that I have been a part of since 2013. Last week, I started over at a different site when I left Greece for central Turkey, to join the Penn Museum’s Dr. Brian Rose and the rest of the team at Gordion. EBAP excavates at the site of anient Eleon, a settlement that is allowing researchers to better understand the Mycenaean world in the post-palatial period (1450–1100 BCE). Gordion is most well known as the capital of the Phrygian civilization in in the 13th through 6th centuries BCE, but the site also has significant Bronze Age, Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Roman, and Ottoman levels. Both sites are fascinating and exciting places to work.

The start of a new day in Dilesi, Boeotia, home of the EBAP team.

The start of a new day in Dilesi, Boeotia, home of the EBAP team. (Photo by the author)

This is my sixth summer of fieldwork, but it is also a summer of fresh starts and new experiences. During my three weeks at EBAP, I supervised my own trench for the first time. My position as trench supervisor came with new responsibilities. I documented and recorded each day’s activities and finds in my trench, and I played a role in making decisions about the excavation process, consulting with directors Dr. Brendan Burke and Dr. Bryan Burns. Acting as a supervisor allowed me to further my understanding of the principles of archaeology and to contribute to answering EBAP’s research questions, shedding more light on life at ancient Eleon.

My trusty notebook and me in the field at Eleon (photo by Max MacDonald).

My trusty notebook and me in the field at Eleon (Photo by Max MacDonald).

Another one of my responsibilities as a trench supervisor was to direct and oversee students in the excavation of my trench. As I was learning about the ins and outs of supervising, students from the University of Victoria and Wellesley College were learning the ins and outs of archaeology in the field for the first time. Their fresh perspective helped me appreciate archaeology in new ways. It’s difficult to become jaded about “boring” potsherds when students in your trench have never unearthed or touched any kind of ancient pottery before, and are full of questions and opinions about every find. Even mundane tasks, like weeding, are infused with a sense of newness and excitement – after all, as some students remarked, how often do most people clear weeds from the base of an exquisitely engineered polygonal wall?

Eleon’s polygonal wall, being inspected by University of Pennsylvania graduate student Jake Morton and EBAP director Brendan Burke (University of Victoria).

Eleon’s polygonal wall, being inspected by University of Pennsylvania graduate student Jake Morton and EBAP director Brendan Burke (University of Victoria). (Photo by the author)

The learning curve in my trench was steep: as I was figuring out the best ways to stay on top of documentation paperwork, Ashley was learning how to identify different soil textures and to define the edges of a pit, and Arianna was solidifying her understanding of the locus and lot system. Each day was as rewarding as it was exhausting (but an afternoon swim at the beach always made us feel like new). For fresh perspectives and accounts of new experiences in the students’ own words, you can visit The excavations at Eleon continue until July 11th, so follow the blog to see how the season is unfolding!

Newby Ashley Hopper and returning student Arianna Nagle (both University of Victoria) were my first-ever trench workers.

Newby Ashley Hopper and returning student Arianna Nagle (both from the University of Victoria) were my first-ever trench workers. (Photo by the author)

When I said goodbye to the EBAP team, I started another new adventure here at Gordion. This is my first time working on this project, though I’ve studied the site. New trenches have been opened and new features are being unearthed every day, which means the discovery of exciting material is imminent. I am also observing and participating in an outreach program for local high schoolers, run by the Gordion excavation. So far we’ve gone on two great field trips, with more coming up over the next month. I am looking forward to the next several weeks in the field and with the local students!

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Of Words and Matter: Glass Wampum

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.

Student Report from the Wampum Trail
by Sarah Parkinson

Since leaving for the “wampum trail” I have been thinking a lot about words and the weight that they carry, especially in relation to glass bead wampum. First, I am interested in the written word and its productive effect—how words produce real change, and why this matters. The way we write about glass wampum (or any substance) changes the way we think about it, and this affects our interpretations. Second, I am interested in spoken words as they intersect with written words in wampum belts.

Penn students Sarah Parkinson (left) and Stephanie Mach (right) meet with Richard W. Hill Jr. (Tuscarora), Coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic, Ohsweken, Ontario.

Penn students Sarah Parkinson (left) and Stephanie Mach (right) meet with Richard W. Hill Jr. (Tuscarora), Coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge Centre in Ohsweken, Ontario. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Although wampum is traditionally made from shell beads, we have found belts in museum collections that include glass beads mixed with shell, as well as many belts that are entirely made of glass beads. Given the time and effort that goes into constructing a belt, the careful designs and contexts in which glass bead belts have been found, I find it unlikely that these belts are insignificant. However, before considering what glass beads may signify, it is important to consider how they are talked about—the discourse surrounding them.

It is important to understand the productive power of speech. Although it seems natural that words are connected to any given idea or thing, language is heavily influenced by culture. Words do not necessarily flow from our mouths as neutral, apolitical, disinterested speech. Any given term comes with a long history of literature and discourse, and the associations that people have with that term. What happens when fraught terms are used indiscriminately?

For example, there are two basic terms for wampum beads: shell and glass. These are routinely attached to different values: traditional/real and fake/imitation. In relation to glass bead wampum, what is the difference between imitation and fake? In museum collections, I have seen curators refer to glass bead wampum in a variety of ways. Some museums categorize it in a group of its own, distinct from traditional shell bead wampum. This includes storing it separately and requiring that researchers make a separate request if they wish to examine it. Other museums include glass bead wampum in with their shell bead collections. Most museums label it as imitation or fake. Although these categories may seem inconsequential, I would suggest that the nuances of how we categorize and talk about glass bead wampum have profound effects in terms of its perceived significance.

Stephanie Mach shining a light through the glass belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary. Photo by Lise Puyo.

Examining a glass belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary. Photograph by Lise Puyo.

Some scholars speak about glass wampum based on the assumption that it is insignificant; that it was never used in ceremonies and that it is simply a fake version of the real thing. In our research, however, we have found evidence that suggests otherwise. There are many glass bead belts that have been found in burials, which in itself indicates its significance. In ethnographic belts, glass wampum beads were sometimes used as a stand in for shell beads, and imbued with the same meaning as “the real thing.” By speaking about glass wampum as fake and insignificant, scholars degrade it to a lesser category, one that negates the possibility of it being culturally significant. The more that these scholars cross-reference themselves, and the more that museum categories fail to address the significance of glass wampum, the more this assertion is perceived as true. I suggest that this perceived truth is based on a fraught assumption that persists despite historical and cultural realities that suggest the possible significance of glass beads. As a result, glass wampum is deprived of the attention that it may deserve. In order to undo this, we must write and speak about glass wampum more accurately, avoiding fraught terms such as “real” and “fake” and “insignificant” and “authentic” until we can back them up.

As I thought about the discourse surrounding wampum, I increasingly realized the relevance of the intersection between written and spoken words. Words are spoken into wampum belts so that messages can be recorded and transmitted across time and space. After their messages are communicated and used for a time, some wampum belts are re-purposed, their messages altered in order to adapt to changing situations. Belts are meant to signal ongoing relationships amongst individuals in Native groups, and between Native nations and colonial entities. Like all functional relationships, these require the ongoing presence of living people who can negotiate and interact with one another. Written agreements are intended to be permanent and constrained by strictly defined words. They can function in the absence of living people. Therefore, their words can be “spoken” without any real ongoing relationship, and these dead voices can begin to speak louder than the living, often to the detriment of the people they speak about. In contrast, wampum belts remain relevant to communities because of their ability to adapt meaning to fit the needs of a living relationship. I suggest that wampum belts can be understood as a crossroads between written and spoken words. Like written documents, wampum belts can be fixed records of history (in some instances), but they are also dependent on oral communication in order to adapt to changing situations.

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.

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

Collectors put objects in museums so that they will stay put; so they are saved from the shifting times and all of the messiness that might imply. It seems that this also applies to the knowledge that museums hold; once objects are labeled as “real” or “imitation,” museums are reluctant to change their thinking. Academic discourse surrounding wampum functions in much the same way—the more that scholars build a discourse surrounding glass wampum based on the assumption that it is insignificant, the more ingrained this idea becomes, producing the illusion of truth. Wampum, as ritual complex, is meant to sustain ongoing relationships between living people. These relationships require more words to be spoken. Yet, in their current state, museums and academic discourse tend to operate in ways that run contrary to the essence of wampum.

The way we write and speak about wampum matters. As we all play a part in shaping the discourse surrounding glass wampum, it is absolutely critical to avoid charged terms that might contribute to a pejorative understanding of it without closely considering their consequences. What are the implications of “imitation?” “Fake?” “Insignificant?” Because museums and academia are perceived as authoritative sources, they strongly influence the discourse surrounding glass wampum. This influence can overshadow Native voices in speaking about wampum and its continued relevance. There is a profound difference between speaking for and speaking about a Native group, and the conversation about wampum should not turn into a contest over whose voice is louder. Perhaps most importantly, we should listen to Native people as they continue the conversation surrounding wampum in a way that makes sense for their current needs, as the essence of wampum discourse seems to encourage.

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For more information on this project, see the Wampum Trail Research Blog and Wampum Trail Facebook page

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Field Trips

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.

Our excavation team has wrapped up its fieldwork for the summer after four weeks of working hard every weekday on the site. But there was more to their time in Mississippi than just excavating. In their spare time, they were able to go on some pretty terrific little road trips to a variety of nearby museums and sites of historical (or sometimes prehistoric) significance—as a nice opportunity to expand on the cultural relevance of their fieldwork, and to explore different approaches to presenting stories and artifacts of the past in public settings.

Antebellum home atop the Natchez Bluffs.

Antebellum home atop the Natchez Bluffs.

During the team’s first weekend in Mississippi, they took a ride up to highway 61 to the beautiful city of Natchez. These were old stomping grounds for Meg, our project director, and David, one of our project supervisors, who stayed in Natchez in the past during field seasons at the Feltus site, which is located about 25 miles north of here.

The team takes a stroll along the bluff. Photo by David Cranford.

The team takes a stroll along the bluff in Natchez. Photo by David Cranford.

Natchez is an old city with a very long history, named for the Natchez Indians who inhabited this land at the point of European contact; that tribe was massacred by colonists from France during the mid-18th century, with some of its few survivors abandoning the land and joining with other tribes like the Creek and the Chickasaw. Leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), it was a wealthy American port city, making fortunes in the cotton trade. While many Southern cities were partially or completely destroyed during the war, Natchez was left largely unscathed. As such, it’s home to many magnificent examples of antebellum architecture. The town proper sits atop the 150-foot-tall Natchez Bluffs, overlooking the Mississippi River.

A view from Natchez of the Mississippi River.

A view from Natchez of the Mississippi River.

Natchez is located at the southwestern end of the Natchez Trace—once a trail used by Native people for centuries as a trade route and then by European settlers traveling back north after selling their wares down river. The Trace stretches as far as Nashville, Tennessee, and is now home to the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444-mile drive maintained by the National Park Service. On the Trace, near the town of Stanton (still very close to Natchez), awaits the Emerald Mound Site. Emerald Mound was created and used between 1300 and 1600 CE by the Plaquemine Culture, predecessors of the Natchez Indians and the group that immediately follows the Coles Creek Culture that we’re investigating at Smith Creek.

The SCAP team visits Emerald Mound. Photo taken by a friendly passer-by.

The SCAP team visits Emerald Mound.

This tremendous temple mound is the second largest in the United States, outsized only by Monk’s Mound at Cahokia in Illinois. It has been excavated numerous times, and is known to have once supported temples, ceremonial structures, and elite burials—as well as eight smaller mounds that were built on the mound’s surface. The site is a National Historic Landmark, open to the public with no fee for visitors.

Looking across Emerald Mound.

Looking across Emerald Mound.

The following weekend (by which time I’d arrived with the team), the group spent a Saturday piling into the van and taking a trip west to Louisiana State University’s campus, stopping first at the Rural Life Museum. This museum focuses largely on elements of everyday life in 18th- and 19th-century Louisiana, addressing issues like slavery, industrialization, medicine, transportation, and much more.

Exploring inside the Rural Life Museum.

Exploring inside the Rural Life Museum.

The main hall of the museum was tall and spacious, while various corners of the building were packed with thousands of items of interesting and curious origin. Hearses, spinning wheels, mounted game animals, old cameras, frightening dental tools… I felt like I was in a Southern version of the Mercer Museum.

Getting our (decoy) ducks in a row.

Getting our (decoy) ducks in a row.

Then I got to the back of the main building and realized I’d just gotten started. The back door opened into essentially a small ghost town—a sprawling site dotted with buildings of various uses that would have been fairly commonplace in eras past, all of which were open for exploration. We could have spent a whole day wandering this place.

As long as we were already at LSU, it made sense to pay their mounds a visit, too. LSU is home to two of the oldest known earthen mounds in the country; sitting side by side, these two mounds were built roughly 5,000 years ago—close to 4,000 years older than the Smith Creek Mounds. These mounds are testaments to the longevity of the practice of moundbuilding in the Lower Mississippi Valley.

A photo of one mound from the other, with David scampering in between.

A photo of one mound from the other, with David scampering in between.

On the way back from LSU, a stop in St. Francisville, Louisiana, was not too far out of the way. This small town in West Feliciana Parish is home to Grace Church, one of the oldest Protestant churches in the state, tracing its history back to 1827; it was the site of one unusual occurrence during the Civil War known as “The Day the War Stopped,” an event that is today reenacted on an annual basis. The church itself was closed for repairs during our visit, but we spent a good portion of time wandering its vast and beautiful cemetery.

A view of the cemetery at Grace Episcopal Church.

A view of the cemetery at Grace Episcopal Church.

The following week, the team cut off work early on Thursday to make a trip back up to Natchez, to the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, where David was scheduled to give an evening lecture about his research on the Catawba Indians of North Carolina; the Catawba were one of the Native groups who took in some refugees of the massacred Natchez tribe.

Stepping out at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.

Stepping out at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.

The Grand Village is also a National Historic Landmark, a site occupied by the Natchez during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, maintained today by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The site is home to three mounds across a vast plaza; some early French colonists bore witness to the site’s use by the Natchez, which included the residence of a chief called “the Great Sun” atop the centrally located Mound B. This was ultimately the stage from which the French would eventually wipe out the tribe.

Mound B at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, former home of the Great Sun.

Mound B at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, former home of the Great Sun.

After dodging raindrops and exploring the plaza, we went inside and joined a packed house to listen in on David’s lecture. You can watch his full talk in the video below.

The team took the following day as a weekend day in lieu of Sunday, and we started with a trip back into Louisiana, to the Marksville Prehistoric Indian Site. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, this site was used by the Marksville Culture of Native Americans from about 100 BCE to about 400 CE. Today it’s also home to an underutilized museum, which houses artifacts from this site and others nearby—as well as some very classic signage.

The magic of Carbon-14 dating!

The magic of Carbon-14 dating!

After touring the museum, we roamed through the rest of the site, home to its mound complex consisting of seven mounds of various sizes around (you guessed it) an open plaza. The site featured a convenient “Mythic Mounds Quest” walking trail that brought us around the perimeter, with signs indicating discoveries from the mounds and marking appearances of various flora.

One of seven mounds at the Marksville Mound Site.

One of seven mounds at the Marksville Mound Site.

This was another place where we could have stayed longer, but this time the rain, not the time, chased us back to the van.

The end of our Marksville visit.

The end of our Marksville visit.

From there we continued to the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Museum, owned and operated by the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe. Inside we learned about the Tunica people’s long history in the region, marred by forced movement due to conflict with European settlers, and by the unsanctioned excavation of tribal relics and grave goods known as the “Tunica treasure.” A long but eventually successful lawsuit brought the “treasure” back to the tribe in 1989, less than a decade after the tribe was recognized by the federal government; today, the treasure is housed inside this museum, as is an impressive suite of conservation labs that we were lucky enough to view through the glass.

Tunica pottery and basketry inside the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Museum.

Tunica pottery and basketry inside the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Museum.

Our next stops came in fairly rapid succession along the Louisiana Mound Trail. This driving trail of Indian Mounds of Northeast Louisiana was organized by the state of Louisiana’s Division of Archaeology as a way to inform the public of the existence of, and history behind, some of the hundreds of mound sites throughout the state. The trail is divided into four sections; the segment we toured brought us past a half dozen mound sites scattered among plots of both public and private land. The mounds are identified by prehistoric markers, very similar to the historic markers you see all over the place in memory of this founding father or that famous musician, or what have you. Some were hardly visible, while others couldn’t be missed. Meg has spent the previous two years working on developing a similar driving trail for Mississippi, on which Smith Creek will be one stop.

A quick stop off at the Troyville Earthworks.

A quick stop off at the Troyville Earthworks.

These experiences during the field season came as quite a surprise to me; I was not expecting our extra-curricular activities to be so wide-reaching, educational, and very importantly, fun. But Meg did a marvelous job this season of weaving disciplined fieldwork together with thought-provoking cultural excursions, in a way that brought the team’s fieldwork and its true meaning into much better focus.

All photos by Tom Stanley, except where otherwise attributed.

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Deconstructing Knowledge; Reconstructing Meaning

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.

Student Report from the Wampum Trail
by Zhenia Bemko

The act of learning how to conduct the “restorative research” method used by the Wampum Trail team required, not just academic research, but a journey through time and space. To date, the trail has led me from Washington, DC, throughout much of New England. While traveling, I have learned that the practice of shutting down presupposed knowledge about an object (such as wampum) actually enhances the other senses used in observing the object. By disassociating one’s self and one’s opinions from interpretation, we allow the object to reveal more of itself, unclouded by the lenses and judgements used to infer meaning, so that a deeper object story can be recovered. The physical practice of this method can only be done in the presence of the object. You could, for example, read about the object or see photos of it; but you might only be experiencing (or creating) various levels of detachment from it. The “voice” of the object (so to speak), is best heard unfiltered, with one’s eyes and ears wide open.

Penn students Elizabeth Peng, Zhenia Bemko, and Sarah Parkinson examine wampum belts on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Photograph by Stephanie Mach.

Penn students Elizabeth Peng, Zhenia Bemko, and Sarah Parkinson examine wampum belts on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Photograph by Stephanie Mach.

This approach is especially valuable when applied to a contentious material such as wampum. As research assistants, we were asked to release ourselves from any judgements and pre-knowledge that could have shaped the parameters we used to understand each wampum object. Dr. Bruchac explains it this way: “… if you think something is always woven in a certain way, you’re looking for what matches. That’s why I hesitate about comparing objects, because you might be looking for similarities that are in your mind, but are not actually in the objects.” We found that it was all too easy to jump to conclusions when we read provenance data before examining the objects themselves. Sometimes the accession records and display texts contain, not facts, but presumptions regarding where the object originated and what meaning is attached to it. In short, my experience of learning how best to understand wampum required physical contact with the objects themselves.

My journey began in March of 2015, with a trip to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) collections in the company of Sarah Parkinson, Elizabeth Peng, and Stephanie Mach. We surveyed quite an assortment of wampum. This was my first exposure to ethnographic wampum, and the objective of this trip was to see these objects through fresh, untainted eyes, both to develop a visual inventory for wampum, and to gather the visual and tactile knowledge needed to reference particular modes of construction and material.

This excursion inspired a surprising new insight about construction. During our third day at NMAI, a very odd piece was placed before us: a small woven section attached to a long string of wampum. This was collected by Walter C. Wyman in 1907, cataloged broadly as “Iroquois” (from Quebec, Ontario, and New York) and thought by the staff to have been an unfinished experiment of weaving techniques. It was identified as a “Wampum Neck Band in course of construction.” This information alone was enough to obscure the significance of this object to our project.

"Wampum Neck Band in course of construction," object number 014012.000 at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC. Collected by Walter C. Wyman in 1907. Photograph by Zhenia Bemko.

“Wampum Neck Band in course of construction.” National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (014012.000). Photograph by Zhenia Bemko.

We conducted a brief examination and analysis of the object. The incomplete woven section consisted of six rows and 24 columns (approx. 4.9 cm by 4 cm) and the single string of beads was 176 cm long. All of the beads were the dark purple of quahog and fairly uniform in shape (although their color varied). The weft, threads of a malleable material used to loop the beads through the warp, consisted of two strands of a light brown fiber. The warp, which is generally more sturdy to provide structure for the object, was of blue fiber. Dr. Bruchac had informed us that blue fiber is an atypical warp material in Haudenosaunee diplomatic objects (like belts, where leather is normally used), but it is common in Algonkian and Huron personal objects (cuffs and collars). Under the assumption that the object was in a stage of construction, I wondered why this apparently fragile blue material was used for warp as opposed to something more durable? At the horizontal edges, we noticed other colors of thread. Was this perhaps used in the curatorial process to reinforce and prevent damaged warp? We learned from the curator that such repairs are common in museums. This led to another question: in spite of the noble goal of preservation, do these small alterations change the original nature of the object?

Detail of woven wampum piece at NMAI, showing a section where the original twining of weft at the edges is intact. Photograph by Zhenia Bemko.

Detail of woven wampum piece, showing a section where the original twining of crossed-over weft at the edges is intact. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (0014012.000). Photograph by Zhenia Bemko.

There were still more questions to be asked, and more information to be learned. So, I made further measurements. After some thought, I calculated that if finished, this item could have been approximately 14.9 cm by 4 cm: a small belt or, more likely, a collar. It was difficult to determine if the length of strung beads was a result of damage, deconstruction, or unfinished work. Wampum belts are normally constructed by laying out long warp threads and securing each individual column of beads with doubled weft threads. At first glance, it seemed like this piece was composed of a long single string of beads folded accordion-like and stitched together. After some further observation, I noticed small tufts of blue warp fibers wedged between two weft strands, and recognized the traditional crossed-over pattern of weft fibers at the undamaged edges.

Illustration showing the technique of weaving the weft threads across the warp threads in a wampum belt. In Frank G. Speck 's publication, The Penn Wampum Belts, Leaflets of the Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation number 4, New York 1925.

Illustration showing the technique of weaving the weft threads across the warp threads in a wampum belt. In Frank G. Speck ‘s publication, The Penn Wampum Belts, Leaflets of the Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation number 4, New York 1925, p. 18.

If you cut the weft, your beads will scatter, but if you cut the warp (as I realized had been done on this piece), you’re left with a single string of beads. It is easy to dismiss a damaged piece like this as unimportant, but even odd objects have something to communicate. In this case, we were not looking at an object in the process of being constructed; this object was being taken apart.

When I traveled into the field again in May, and watched Dr. Bruchac’s specific process of observing and analyzing wampum, I gained further insights into the practice and structure of the restorative methodology. As I began to internalize the thought process, the technique came into sharper focus. The method (which Dr. Bruchac describes as tracking skills instilled by her father) goes like this: First, you must learn the habits of your prey; then, you must learn all there is to know about the environment your prey inhabits; finally, you must equip yourself to live and flourish within your target’s environment. Once this foundation is firmly in place, only then are you able to track down your target.

Zhenia Bemko at Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Zhenia Bemko at the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

For me, this tracking method speaks to the preparation needed to enter into the study of wampum (or any other object in museums). Each wampum item has its own story to tell. You need to acquire as much knowledge about wampum construction as possible and learn the language. We started the process at NMAI by building a visual inventory, and then added to the experience with the great wealth of referential data that Dr. Bruchac has amassed from various sources. Additional historical background and provenance research also become part of the environment we had to acclimate ourselves to, so as to better understand wampum discourse.

Then, in the field, came the part of living in that environment, and this is where the travels on the Wampum Trail became so crucial. In every museum, we sequestered ourselves in collections and spent hours conducting careful, sensitive, non-intrusive examinations of these shell material items. We recorded our observations, and constantly checked (and re-checked) our assumptions, looking for what made each object unique. This process—meticulously examining the intricacies of cultural details woven into each piece—helps us to determine whether each wampum story we encounter is in the process of coming apart, or (as we hope our work will facilitate) coming together.

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For more information on this project, see the Wampum Trail Research Blog and Wampum Trail Facebook page

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In Situ(lin): Digging with Diabetes – Alexandria Mitchem

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.

I was diagnosed with type I diabetes in September of 2005. Anyone who has ever been diagnosed with a chronic disease knows that there’s a good deal of inspirational ‘coaching’ mixed in with the medically necessary lifestyle changes. I was taught how to count carbs and how often to test my blood sugar, but also assured that I still had the freedom and ability to do whatever I wanted to do. Yes, indeed, my 11-year-old self was determined to continue eating ice cream, even if it would now be carefully portioned out of a measuring cup (spoiler alert, I totally ate more than one serving.)

Over the almost ten years I’ve had diabetes, I’ve been through various ups and downs. I still get frustrated with it from time to time and still feel a little helpless about controlling it. Yet here I am, off doing all sorts of out-of-the-ordinary things and trying to test my blood sugar at the same time. While the medical advances in controlling diabetes are amazing—certainly leaps and bounds better today that when I was diagnosed—I still very much have to work with my diabetes in the field. But I am working with it. It is possible.

One clean finger!

One clean finger!

The adventures I’ve had doing archaeology with diabetes range from things I found funny at the time they happened to things that I’m probably never going to find funny. An example of the former: I take my meter into the field to test my blood sugar at lunch. The only problem with this is that I typically don’t wear gloves when I’m working, leading to a second skin of mud. Potentially great spa treatments aside, this makes pricking my fingers a little difficult. Therefore, I have mastered the art of pouring water out of my already leaky bottle, onto exactly one finger, like so:

Cute, right? It’s so little extra effort that it far outweighs the alternative of passing out in a trench. Other things are fairly innocuous: every morning at 10:30, we break for a snack, as per the strong suggestion of Dr. Kassabaum, whose wisdom we all defer to on this matter. Most people bring crackers. My friend Chandler brings a sandwich (different from the one he’s packed for his lunch). I quickly realized that a 10:30 snack followed by a 12:00 lunch isn’t enough turnaround time to bring my blood sugar back down to a normal level for lunch. The solution? Carb free snacks, in this case cheese sticks. A bit annoying to not be able to have crackers, but honestly, cheese sticks are so delicious who’s really missing out in this case? Not me.

Other things are slightly more annoying. As I mentioned in my last blog post, the bugs are ferocious down here, so we cover ourselves in bug spray every morning. In addition to getting arms and legs, I’ve also been advised to spray along the hem of my pants and shirt to avoid anything particularly feisty crawling up my clothing. All good, sage advice. More advice for those who wear insulin pumps? Avoid spraying the attachment site with bug spray. It will get infected and you will regret all the decisions you’ve made that led you to this point. Additionally, sweat and adhesive do not mix. And the thing about archaeology, even if you aren’t in Mississippi—you do sweat. So I’ve found it necessary to attach my insulin pump far away from anywhere my pants will rub on my stomach, for fear of coming home like I did on the first day and finding it uselessly hanging in my pocket, distributing insulin to my dirt-covered thigh rather than anywhere it will actually be of use.

Then some things are just a little scary. High blood sugar comes with all sorts of complications including dehydration, nausea, and dizziness, none of which mix well with fieldwork. Having to go home from the field to discover the tubing to your pump was leaking and your blood sugar is very high is frustrating. It’s embarrassing because you feel like you should have caught it before it got bad; it’s guilt-inducing because you’re at home while everyone else is working; it’s downright unpleasant, because being very sick is just unfortunate all around.

All this being said, I’m here. I’m in good health and I have opportunities available to me that I would not have with my health had I been born in another time. My job, then, is to take advantage of this. Yes, I have to take extra steps and precautions and be very careful not to lose track of where my health is, but I also get to do what I love. I hope I never take that for granted.

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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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Ur Project: June 2015

Mapping the Early Trial Trenches at Ur
Reconstructing the sequence of excavation
A look at TTA-TTG as archaeological contexts

Locating Woolley’s trenches on a map is a trying exercise. In most cases he did not record the locations of exploratory excavation trenches specifically, as he was less concerned with them than with the location of buildings they might reveal. So, we must piece together evidence (sometimes contradictory evidence) in an attempt to reconstruct a complete excavation map. It is an important endeavor, however, because, although Woolley gave precedence to building locations, he often recorded finds from trial trenches with no other information. In order for us to get a good idea of the general find spot for these objects, we must know where the trenches were.

RAF aerial photo of Ur in Nov. 1922 showing Hall's excavations and Woolley's Trial Trench A and B

RAF aerial photo of Ur, 22 November 1922, showing Hall’s 1918-19 excavations and Woolley’s Trial Trenches A and B.

When Woolley began excavating at Ur in 1922, he set out two Trial Trenches, Trial Trench A (TTA) and Trial Trench B (TTB). These are easy to locate since the Royal Air Force (RAF) kindly photographed the site from the air on 22 November 1922. For the next few years, Woolley concentrated on expanding TTB to uncover the building it struck—known as the e-nun-mah (Sumerian, roughly translated = Lofty Storehouse)—and uncovering the ziggurat and other buildings near it. But in the 1925-26 season he opened a new Trial Trench C (TTC). Like those before, he did not make a map to show where the trench was located, but the RAF again photographed the site on 21 May 1926. By this point, a good deal of excavation had occurred and the exact location of the trench is hard to discern, especially because there is so little other evidence of where it was located. In all likelihood, it is near the building known as the e-hur-sag (Sumerian, roughly translated = Mountain House) in the southeast of the sacred area and there is a trench on the photo here that could be TTC.

Most artifacts recorded from the trench have only the note ‘from TTC’ written on their cards. In two cases, however, we have other information. One says “alongside mud brick wall running NE by SW, S of Egigpar and parallel with the Temenos wall.” E-gig-par (Sumerian, roughly translated = Cloistered House) is what we now call the Giparu (Akkadian, roughly translated = Priestly Residence) and is the major building south of the ziggurat, but there is no clear wall south of it that could meet this description. The note probably meant to write “Ehursag” or “E-hur-sag,” which is the large building just southeast of the Giparu and one that H.R. Hall excavated in 1918. The other object card related to TTC includes the note “back of Hall’s Excavation,” which would seem to confirm the location near this building. And, in fact, there is a large mud brick wall to the south (part of the earlier Temenos Wall). When we look at the 1926 aerial photo, we see that the length of this wall had been excavated and there is also what appears to be a trench cutting at a diagonal from the wall to the northeast. This is probably TTC.

RAF aerial photo of Ur in May 1926 showing extensive Woolley excavations and TTC (though note there is another mystery trench to the west of the Temenos).

RAF aerial photo of Ur, 21 May 1926, showing extensive Woolley excavations and TTC. There is also an unidentified trench west of the Giparu.

The original TTA had revealed no architecture but had produced small pieces of jewelry. Woolley felt that this might indicate a graveyard and that his team was not yet experienced enough to dig what could be an important cemetery. In the 1926-27 season, he finally returned to TTA and opened more trial trenches near it. Indeed, this area would begin to produce many spectacular objects, revealing the royal graves in this season and the next.

Once again, Woolley did not draw a map of the trial trench locations or even give their measurements. Unfortunately, the next aerial photo was not taken until 1930. Gathering as much evidence as I can, I’ve been attempting to place the trenches on a map as accurately as possible. It’s been an interesting puzzle, at times frustrating, but I think I have a working hypothesis of the locations now.

Object cards, field notes, and field reports have been the most helpful since they record Woolley’s process as he was going through it. Still, they rarely give complete details. For example, in a report dated 28 November 1926, Woolley states: “…most of the men were again moved, this time to cut a long and deep trial trench across the unexplored part of the site lying between the Nebuchadnezzar Temenos and the heavy buttressed wall running south-east of the ‘Palace’.” The palace is the e-hur-sag; other field information shows that Trial Trench D ran from TTA at the mud brick wall to the east corner of the Neo-Babylonian Temenos wall. This means that it can be located pretty securely, though whether it literally ran from the head of TTA or only near it is in question as is its exact width.

Trial Trenches E through G (TTE, TTF, TTG) are all located in the Royal Cemetery area. This we know from the notes that show the various graves found within the trenches. Of course, Woolley didn’t map the trenches, nor did he map the earliest graves found. He began mapping graves only after the trenches were expanded to cover the entire area of the royal cemetery. In 1966, Hans Nissen published new interpretations for the dating of the graves and briefly tackled the problem of the trial trenches. In 1982, Wolfgang Gockel spent more time with the problem. Citing Nissen who cited object cards in the British Museum, Gockel placed PG337 in TTE and PG580 in TTG. The cards do show that PG337 was in TTE, but so was PG580. Even though PG579 and PG581 were in TTG, the numbering of graves often jumped between trenches that were being dug concurrently. TTE also revealed the stone work of PG777. All of this information should help to locate the trench very solidly and a trench connecting the points is possible, though other information makes it harder to fit in.

Gockel's 1982 speculative map of trench locations in the Royal Cemetery area. (He uses RT for PG numbers here)

Gockel’s 1982 speculative map of trench locations TTE, TTF, and TTG. The trenches must actually run about 90 degrees to his placement since RT(PG)337 and RT(PG)580 are both in TTE.

The field report dated 31 December 1926 says: “Further to test the ground, I started a second trench roughly at right angles to the first and extending to the corner of the south-east gate of the late Temenos.” This is TTE. The south-east gate is rather confusingly in the south, not southeast, and on most maps is labeled only as the south gate. So, TTE should run at approximate right angles to TTD and include at least part of PG777, PG580, and PG337 (notably dug before mapping of graves was conducted and so Woolley’s placement of it on the overall map may not be completely correct). Both it and TTD are also said to run from the head of TTA.

My speculative map of trial trench locations across the site shown on the background map from Ur Excavations volume VI.

My speculative map of trial trench locations across the site shown on the background map from Ur Excavations volume 6.

TTF contains PG513, one of the only private graves numbered before 580 on which we have any locational data. This grave was cut down into the northwest wall of PG777 and thus gives us a boundary between TTE (PG777) and TTF (PG513). Putting all we know from these statements together, however, gives no completely satisfactory orientation. The most archaeologically sound procedure would be to dig parallel to a trench already existing (TTA) but this would cover the northwest wall of PG777 and would not lead to the southeast gate. Any other orientation would leave out the trench beginning from the head of TTA. Tentatively we can suggest the layout in the map above, but the exact location of these trial trenches may never be known. At least we have narrowed it down and can have some idea of where the unmapped graves were found in the overall cemetery area.

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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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Beneath the Surface at the Penn Museum