Beauty Is Pain: A New Look at the Toiletry Kits from Ur

Toiletry kits have been found around the ancient world from the Indus Valley to Britain, and range in time from the 3rd millennium BCE to the modern day, albeit in varied forms.  Nearly every publication that mentions these artifacts acknowledges that we do not know how they were used, but most interpret them as dealing with the application of cosmetics.  The kits found at Ur are usually made of copper, with a conical case (or reticule as Leonard Woolley and our website——call them) containing three or four tools on a wire ring.  They are typically corroded within the case with only their heads visible. Because it is difficult or even impossible to separate them after thousands of years, we must look for individual tools found separately from their cases in order to analyze the different instruments.  The instruments themselves are secured by a ring formed by a piece of wire, so even if they do not have cases, they are grouped together.  At the site of Kish, located upriver from Ur, and containing burials dating to the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 2750-2600 BCE), excavators have found both kits with and without cases.  The kits that contain three instruments tend to have an ear scoop, a pointed tool (or stiletto as Leonard Woolley and our website call them), and a pair of tweezers, whereas the kits that contain four instruments tend to include a small blade as well (Torres-Rouff et al. 2012).  There appears to be no way to prevent the instruments from falling out of the case, beyond jamming them in very tightly.

Picture:  30-12-346 showing ear scoop, needles and points.  35-1-508 showing four instruments, tweezers, point, and knife blade apparent.  35-1-506 showing three instruments in a knobbed conical case.

Picture: 30-12-346 showing ear scoop, needles, and points. 35-1-508 showing four instruments, tweezers, point, and knife blade apparent. 35-1-506 showing three instruments in a knobbed conical case.

The toiletry cases  at Kish are recorded as being decorated, while the ones found at Ur that are housed in the Penn Museum do not seem to be decorated.  Two have pseudomorphs of bands, possibly leather, which are indications of ancient belt attachments (See January’s Ur Blog for more on Pseudomorphs).  At Kish, these objects were found in burials and were located near the waist of the skeletons.  Of the 98 recorded toiletry kits at Ur, 87 were found in graves, but where they were found in relation to the bodies was typically not recorded.

At Kish, toiletry cases were found in eleven of the 162 burials.  Previous studies, however brief, have usually correlated these objects with garment pins, and hence as part of women’s funerary kits.  However, the analysis at Kish shows that only two women were buried with toiletry kits, whereas twelve men were buried with them (Torres-Rouff et al. 2012).  These statistics may be biased due to a small sampling size and possible incorrect sexing of some skeletons; however, it seems that more kits are found with men than women.  In the future, we hope our website ( will make it easier for these types of studies to be performed as well as for more statistical analysis of possible funerary assemblages of the people.

Three different functions are put forth in the interpretation of the toiletry kits.

First is cosmetic.  This is the most common type of interpretation, where these tools were used to modify the body by applying a make-up of some type.  The pointed tool could be used to apply kohl to the eyelids, or add a rouge to the lips.  The ear scoop could be used not only to remove the wax from one’s ear, but also to swipe mineral components onto the eyelid.  Tweezers could be used to remove unwanted hair, usually stated to be used for shaping eyebrows.

Second is hygienic.  In this instance, the tools are interpreted as being used for things like removing thorns from the skin.  The knife could be used to open the wound. The point and/or ear scoop could be used to press between the thorn and raise it, and the tweezers to extract it.  Or they could be used for cleaning and clipping the nails. The ear scoop could be used for pushing back the cuticles at the base of the nail.  The knife could be used for trimming the nails.  Lastly, tweezers could be used for cleaning under the nails or pushing back the cuticles.

Third is medical.  Wendy Morrison (2013) interprets Roman toiletry kits as being used to care for painful eye infections.  She was inspired to look into this function for these kits after seeing a picture of a woman in Kenya with trachoma who was wearing a pair of tweezers around her neck.  Trachoma is caused by living near fly-ridden refuse heaps and in smoky or dusty habitations, and her research has shown this disease existed in the past.  Roman books record it as well as its treatments.  The disease starts by turning the eyelid inside out, and causes hard sores on the inside of the eyes. If left untreated, it can cause blindness.  In looking at the toiletry kits from Roman Britain (which are quite similar to the kits found at Ur), Morrison has shown that tweezers could be used for plucking eyelashes to alleviate pain when the eyelid starts to turn inside out.  The pointed tool could be used to scrape off the hardened sores in order for them to heal.  The ear scoop could also be used to scrape off the hardened sores, but also could be used to apply a medicine to the eye and eyelid.  Roman texts record some recipes for these medicines, and the ways in which they were applied (Morrison 2013).

It has been said that beauty is pain, and the toiletry kits from Ur might represent either or both.  They could be tools for beautification or the treatment of illness.  They have been analyzed as objects that display personal identity and gender, especially in funerary contexts.  No matter how we interpret them, they are fascinating artifacts that deserve more attention.

Examples for toiletry kits found on the internet: 1) 1-200AD, Rhineland, Roman Athlete’s kit 2) 400-700 AD, Oxfordshire, Anglo-Saxon toiletry kit  3) 800-1169AD, Ireland, Model of a Viking toiletry set 4) Our modern day version of a similar kit

Examples for toiletry kits found on the internet: 1) 1-200 CE, Rhineland, Roman Athlete’s kit; 2) 400-700 CE, Oxfordshire, Anglo-Saxon toiletry kit; 3) 800-1169 CE, Ireland, model of a Viking toiletry set; and 4) our modern-day version of a similar kit.

Morrison, Wendy. 2013. A Fresh Eye on Familiar Objects: Rethinking Toiletry Sets in Roman Britain.  Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32(2):221-230.

Torres-Rouff, C., W. Pestle, and B. Daverman. 2012. Commemorating Bodies and Lives at Kish’s “A Cemetery”: (Re)presenting Social Memory.  Journal of Social Archaeology  12(2):193-219.

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Iñupiaq Smoking and Siberian Reindeer

Eskimo (Inuit) ivory pipe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

“Eskimo Tobacco Pipe” from Alaska collected by Captain David Henry Jarvis, and donated to the Penn Museum by Mary E. Jarvis. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 39-10-1.

This semester, my students in Museum Anthropology conducted close examinations of objects from Arctic locales in the collections of the Penn Museum. During our object analysis of this walrus tusk ivory Iñupiaq pipe (item# 39-10-1) in the Collections Study Room, I was intrigued by the idea that it was used for smoking opium, given the absurdly small hole in the bowl. After further research, a very different story emerged. The pipe’s shape was, indeed, inspired by Chinese opium pipes, but a survey of Arctic scholarship revealed cultural exchanges from Siberia. Iñupiaq pipes like this—with a curved tusk shape, wide bowl, and very narrow bore—closely resemble the chukch pipe used by the Indigenous Sami of northern Asia.

"Siberian Eskimo Pipe" sold at Cowan's 2004 American Indian Art Auction. Formerly in the collections of the First People's Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo. Photo from Cowan's Art Auctions.

“Siberian Eskimo Pipe” sold at Cowan’s 2004 American Indian Art Auction. Formerly in the collections of the First People’s Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo. Photo from Cowan’s Art Auctions.

First-hand accounts indicate that this pipe style, sometimes called a “Siberian Eskimo” pipe, was particularly prevalent at Point Barrow, Alaska, where Captain David Henry Jarvis acquired it. There, it was called a kuinya or kui’nye (an apparent loan word from the Siberian koy’nin).[1]. Its use was described as follows:

"Portrait of Su-Ku-Uk in Native Dress and Holding Pipe MAR 1894." William Dinwiddle, Glass Negatives of Indians, collected by the Bureau of American Ethnology. BAE GN 03099A 06510000, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

“Portrait of Su-Ku-Uk in Native Dress and Holding Pipe MAR 1894.” William Dinwiddle, Glass Negatives of Indians, collected by the Bureau of American Ethnology. BAE GN 03099A 06510000, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

“A little wad of hair (reindeer hair, at Point Barrow)…is first pushed down to the bottom of the bowl to prevent the tobacco from being drawn into the stem. The narrow bore is then filled with tobacco cut up very fine…lighted with a bit of tinder and smoked entirely out with two or three deep inspirations. The smoke is deeply inhaled and allowed to pass out slowly through the mouth and nostrils… a sort of temporary intoxication [is] produced by this method of smoking…we found the Eskimos at Point Barrow passionately attached to it, preferring their own pipes to those of the civilized pattern even when there was no question of economy of tobacco.” [2]

This pipe style is widely distributed in museums and private collections. The Penn Museum has at least a dozen, collected by George Byron Gordon, William Van Valin, and Edward McIlhenny. A similarly decorated ivory pipe is housed at the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. [3] An 1894 portrait of an Iñupiat, Su-Ku-Uk, shows him holding just such a pipe carved from wood, with a metal bowl and mouthpiece. [4]

It is important to note that David Henry Jarvis (1862-1911), the man who brought this pipe back from Alaska, was not an ethnographic collector. He was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, patrolling the coast of Alaska along the Bering Sea, and he was said to be fully fluent in Iñupiaq (the language of the northernmost Inuit people, the Iñupiat). He photographed families, ceremonies, hunters, and herders, but this pipe is the only Indigenous object attributed to him that I have been able to find, in any museum. It was donated to the Penn Museum in 1939, long after his death, by his sister, Mary E. Jarvis.[5]

Inuit men with domesticated reindeer. Albumen print, catalogue # 2000.100.200.68. Photo Archives, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford,

Inupiat men with domesticated reindeer. Photo c. 1897 by David H. Jarvis. Albumen print, catalogue # 2000.100.200.68. Photo Archives, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

During his time in the Arctic, Jarvis was keen to ensure the survival of both Iñupiat and whalers along the Alaskan coast. He was serving aboard the cutter ship Bear in 1891, when the first domesticated reindeer were delivered to Unalaska, as part of a strategy to provide the Iñupiat with herds that could offset the decline in indigenous game. A few years later, in 1897, Jarvis was in charge of an overland relief expedition sent to rescue 265 distressed whalers aboard eight frozen-in ships.[6] Before setting out, he negotiated with Charlie Artisarlook and his wife, Mary Makrikoff, and other herders to barter for 435 reindeer; some were harnessed, some were shipped, and others were driven across the ice to provide a source of fresh meat on the hoof for the stranded crews.

David Henry Jarvis c. 1898, photo source unknown.

David Henry Jarvis c. 1898, photo source unknown.

In his official report, Jarvis described the generosity of his Iñupiaq friends: “He and his wife, Mary, held a long and solemn consultation… They were sorry for the white men at Point Barrow, and they were glad to be able to help them; they would let me have their deer, which represented their all, on my promise of return, if I would be directly responsible for them.”

Frozen-in whaling ship. Photo by Captain David Henry Jarvis. Albumen print, catalogue # 2000.100.200.43. Photo Archives, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Frozen-in whaling ship. Photo by Captain David Henry Jarvis. Albumen print, catalogue # 2000.100.200.43. Photo Archives, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Jarvis hired Artisarlook and other Inupiat men as guides and herders, traveling over “…what at times seemed impassible obstacle, through frozen seas, and over snow-clad mountains.” [7] When the relief expedition finally found each of the stranded ships and crews (spread across 100 miles of coast), Jarvis oversaw the building of shelters and distribution of medical aid and food, and even organized baseball games on the ice to recover morale. He documented the men, dogs, sleds, reindeer, and ships in hauntingly evocative albumen photographs.[8]

Jarvis also fulfilled his promise to the Artisarlook family, returning nearly twice as many reindeer as he had taken. Charlie passed away in the 1900 measles epidemic, but his wife Mary eventually increased their reindeer herd to such a degree that she came to be known as the “Reindeer Queen.”[9]

Side view of Inuit pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Side view of Inuit pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

David Henry Jarvis became a celebrity, celebrated as an American hero, but the records of his exploits make no mention of this pipe. It may have been a keepsake or a touristic acquisition, but it seems like more than that. This object, made by an unknown Iñupiaq artisan, is wrought with elaborate imagery—dancing shaman figures, depictions of animals and arrows in flight, people jumping onto and falling off of sleds—that allude to hunting activities, while also evoking relationships among peoples, creatures, and other forces in the Arctic world. The pipe may have been designed as a talismanic object, to provide supernatural assistance during the ordeal of hunting. It appears to record transformative events; the shamanic figures move between human and animal forms. The documented practice of using reindeer hair (rather than indigenous caribou hair) to stoke this style of pipe suggests that the pipe and reindeer may be related.

Tobacco was a prized substance in the Arctic, and it was often used for pay or gifts to the Iñupiat. While preparing for his overland expedition, Jarvis’s initial supply of provisions included 40 pounds of tobacco, plus another 10 pounds “for me personally.”[10] Did he barter some of that precious tobacco for this unusual pipe? In the end, regardless of how it came into his hands, it is intriguing to consider that perhaps this pipe was a gift to Jarvis from one of his Iñupiaq friends, ensuring his success in the grueling overland trek, and offering him some intoxicating refreshment to thank him for his efforts on their behalf.

NOTE: For more information about this pipe, see the related blog article—“Searching for Stories: Patiently Listening to an Iñupiaq Pipe”—by Sarah Parkinson.


[1] Murdoch, John 1892. “Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition,” pp. 19-441 in J.W. Powell, ed. Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution 1887-88. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
[2] Murdoch, John 1888. “On the Siberian Origin of Some Customs of the Western Eskimos.” American Anthropologist Vol. I, no. 4 (October 1888), pp. 325-336.
[3] Eskimo Ivory Pipe, Early 19th-Century AD, Norton Sound, Western Alaska, PM 94-57-10/R139 at the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[4] “Portrait of Su-Ku-Uk in Native Dress and Holding Pipe MAR 1894.” William Dinwiddle, Glass Negatives of Indians, collected by the Bureau of American Ethnology. BAE GN 03099A 06510000, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
[5] Mary E. Jarvis, David’s sister, was a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The Penn Museum accession card lists her address as 4216 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia, but no correspondence about the pipe can be found in the Museum Archives.
[5] Strobridge,Truman R. and Dennis L. Noble 1999. Alaska and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service 1867–1915. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland.
[6] Johnson, Paul H. 1972. “The Overland Expedition: A Coast Guard Triumph” in Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association, The Bulletin 34(5):63-71. Reprinted online on the website of the United States Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
[7] U.S. Revenue Cutter Service 1899. Report of the Cruise of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear; And the Overland Expedition for the Relief of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, see p. 51, p. 137, p. 141.
[8] Jarvis Collection. New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.
[9] For insights into the challenges of the reindeer introduction, and the unique success of Mary Makrikoff Artisarlook (“Mary Sinrock”), see Roxanne Willis, “A New Game in the North: Alaska Reindeer Herding, 1890-1940” in Western Historical Quarterly 37 (Autumn 2006):277-301.
[10] U.S. Revenue Cutter Service 1899. Report of the Cruise of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear. p. 141.

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Iñupiaq Pipe

Searching for Stories:
Patiently Listening to an Iñupiaq Pipe

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Sarah Parkinson

As a student intern in the American Section of the Penn Museum, part of my job involves inventorying accessioned objects. When I first started, I was curious about every object I handled. During the first few days, I turned the key to each cabinet with intense anticipation of what might be uncovered in each dark corner of the Museum. I read every accession card, hoping to uncover each object’s story. However, I was often disappointed by the lack of a satisfying plotline. With only a general location and a short description on each card, even the most spectacular objects failed to tell a coherent story. My excitement for museum objects began to diminish, but it was reawakened by a recent class exercise that provided insights on letting objects speak for themselves.

Before going into the Collections Study Room, my professor advised us to be extraordinarily patient with our analyses of objects. Although I did not realize the importance of this advice at the time, I now recognize the value of “listening” to objects. During this class, each student spent nearly an hour silently analyzing each object, before any discussion, and we all discovered more information than we believed was possible.

Eskimo (Inuit) ivory pipe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Eskimo (Inuit) ivory pipe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 39-10-1.

Examining an Iñupiaq (Eskimo) Pipe

After glancing over several objects on the table in the Collections Study Room, I chose a large ivory pipe with black etchings covering the stem (39-10-1). The professor instructed the class to delve into the objects first, before reading accession cards, but I had already noticed that the object was labeled “Tobacco Pipe” from an Eskimo tribe in Alaska. I began by focusing on the black etchings on the stem.

Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab with an Inuit pipe from  the Arctic collections. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

On the top portion, each side features what appear to be shamanic dancers; some have animal masks on, and some are bent into various semi-contorted shapes. The bottom portion of the stem depicts a hunting scene with several people holding bows and arrows aimed at a bird, a deer, a rabbit, a fox, and other animals. One hunter hides behind a mound, concealed from his prey. The bottom half of the other side features etchings of a sled and rider. On the end nearest the mouthpiece, two people busy themselves making something, possibly a sled. To the right of this scene, closer to the bowl, there is a house with a drying rack to the side. Read as a story, from mouthpiece to bowl, the stem speaks of a person riding away from a house on a sled carrying a spear. The rider falls off of the sled and lays down beside it. In the last etching, the sled changes direction so that it is pointed back towards the house.

Close-up view of pictographs on the Eskimo (Iñupiaq) Tobacco pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Close-up view of pictographs on the Eskimo (Iñupiaq) Tobacco pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Examining the Eskimo (Iñupiaq) pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Examining the Eskimo (Iñupiaq) pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

I then examined the physical structure of the bowl itself. I noted that the bowl is loose in its connection to the stem, and likely detachable, given the way it is connected to the rest of the pipe. The black etchings are lighter on the bowl than they are on the stem and mouthpiece, suggesting that it was exposed to more wear than the rest of the pipe, or that it was a replacement piece. After looking at the bowl for a few moments, the validity of the accession card came into question. I questioned how this pipe could be used to smoke tobacco—the opening of the bowl is so small that ash would collect quickly and the pipe would be clogged after only a short period of use.

Close-up view of the end and bowl of Eskimo (Iñupiaq) Tobacco pipe.

Close-up view of the end and bowl of Eskimo (Iñupiaq) Tobacco pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

After realizing this, I read the accompanying card to check if the accession number was correct. The card identified this pipe as: “Chinese type with tiny capacity.” At this point, I suspected that this was not a tobacco pipe; maybe it was made to smoke opium. Dr. Bruchac agreed this was possible, especially given the hole at the end of the stem, which could be used to draw air and concentrate heat. I shone a light into the bowl in hopes of seeing residue, but found no ash or discoloring. This could be due to conservation efforts, since this pipe was displayed in two exhibitions in the Museum. On shining a light into the hole in the stem, I found that instead of the flat gray ash expected in a tobacco pipe, there was a crystalline-like substance that sparkled under bright light. If possible, it would be interesting to conduct a chemical analysis of this residue to compare it to the chemical structure of opium and tobacco. Comparing this pipe with images of antique ivory opium pipes supports the possibility that this “tobacco” pipe might be an “opium” pipe. However, there are historical accounts of Inuit people smoking tobacco in pipes with very small openings very much like this one.[1]

Living Narratives in Archival Photographs

Inuit Man Bow-hunting. Photo by Suzanne R. Bernardi Jeffery 1905-7, 1916, Alaska Eskimos Hunting. Penn Museum Archives.

Inuit Man Bow-hunting. Photo by Suzanne R. Bernardi Jeffery 1905-7, 1916, Alaska Eskimos Hunting. Penn Museum Archives.

After conducting this object analysis, I searched the Museum Archives, hoping for more details, but the correspondence among the Museum Director, American Section Curator, and Assistant Curator made no mention of any “Eskimo pipes.” However, I was able to flesh out the story of the pipe in an unexpected manner. By patiently exploring boxes of Iñupiaq (Eskimo) photographs, I could see, with my own eyes, the people, dogs, and sleds traveling on hunting expeditions through the frozen landscape. The static etchings on the pipe began to come to life. Instead of seeing two-dimensional images, I saw a narrative of real, living people leaving their houses, preparing their dogs and sleds to depart, and taking off with bows and arrows and spears with hopes of bringing back meat for their families. When I had first encountered the pipe in collections, it was only a mute object, with an incomprehensible label. Now, a dynamic and far more satisfying story began to emerge.

Captain David H. Jarvis’s Rescue Expedition

Captain Henry R. Jarvis. Albumen print, catalogue # 2000.100.200.143. Photo Archives, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Captain David Henry Jarvis. Albumen print, catalogue # 2000.100.200.143. Photo Archives, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

More of the story unfolded when I researched the collector, Captain David H. Jarvis. Jarvis spent the majority of his career serving along the Pacific coast for the United States Revenue Cutter Service. During this time, he worked throughout the Northwest coast of Alaska and was involved with teaching animal husbandry to the Iñupiaq people in Unalaska in 1891. He gained fame from an overland rescue expedition in 1897-1898, during which he worked closely with Iñupiaq communities to procure provisions, sleds, and reindeer to bring to distressed whalers in Point Barrow.[2] Perhaps the surviving map of this expedition includes details about the location where he collected this pipe. The “Jarvis Collection” in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which includes his photographs of the Iñupiaq, may provide even more detail that could expand the story[3].

Through my investigations of this pipe, I gained insights that might help to recover and enrich its story as part of Iñupiaq history. I also learned something that should have been obvious from the beginning: object stories require listening. The classification and lack of any depth in the record suggested that there was no reason to search further. Yet, if we listen more patiently, if we treat objects with the respect we might give an elder who has a valuable story to tell, we can learn more detailed stories than what appears on a simple label. If museums hope to present richer narratives, they need to collect more complete information about individual objects in their collections, perhaps through patient listening exercises. This kind of study can spark or renew students’ affinity for museum objects and the stories they tell, while also enriching museum collections with additional data.


[1] Since opium was a major Chinese export during the late 1800s, and since pipes of this design are often described as “Oriental,” a new story of intercontinental trade might emerge from further study. The most likely possibility, however, points to shared material relations between Siberian and Iñupiaq peoples. See John Murdoch 1888. “On the Siberian Origin of Some Customs of the Western Eskimos.” American Anthropologist Vol. I, October 1888, pp. 325-336.
[2] Johnson, Paul H. 1972. “The Overland Expedition: A Coast Guard Triumph” in Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association, The Bulletin 34(5):63-71. Reprinted online on the website of the United States Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
[3] Jarvis Collection. New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

NOTE: For more information about this pipe, see the related blog article—“Iñupiaq Smoking and Siberian Reindeer”—by Margaret Bruchac.

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Alaska Harpoon Rest

Alaska Harpoon Rest:
Supported by Bears, Whales, and Chains

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Enika Selby

This Iñupiaq (also called Eskimo or Inuit) harpoon rest (Museum Object Number: NA4796) came to the Penn Museum from Sledge Island, Alaska, a tiny island off the Western coast. It is hand carved from walrus ivory, with effigies of two polar bears and two whales. The item was collected during the Wanamaker Expedition to the Artic, Seward Peninsula and Siberia, and sold to the Museum by William Blair Van Valin.

This collection was discovered in 1912 by one of Van Valin’s Iñupiaq students, Johnnie Tumichuk, who exposed a cave holding the entire whaling outfit.[1] Local people identified the outfit as spiritually powerful items belonging to a shaman who had disappeared. Van Valin recognized it as a rare and valuable collection of exotic artifacts. The sale to the Museum was brokered by E.W. Hawkes, who hoped to gain a fellowship for graduate study at Penn.[2]

Material Examinations

Figure 1: Alaskan Harpoon Rest from the Sledge Island Van Valin Collection. Photo with permission from the University of Pennsylvania Museum

Alaskan Harpoon Rest from the Sledge Island Van Valin Collection. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission from the Penn Museum.
Museum Object Number: NA4796

My initial questions focused on the materials used to make this item, the Indigenous meanings behind the symbols and construction, and the general use. What type of wood, animal parts, unidentified materials, and ivory were used to create this object? What do the bears and whales mean and how do they relate to weaponry? How was this object used with a harpoon to effectively hunt?

A closer look reveals intricate details. The torsos of the bears are carved from two pieces of ivory, with carvings of whales on the outside of each half. Sandwiched between the halves is a flat, hard, porous, material, drilled through by wooden pegs that secure the halves together. The most interesting features are the chain links that hang from the figures. Not a single link shows discontinuity, which indicates that they were all carved out of a single piece of ivory. Additionally, the last link on each side has the tail end of what seems to be a whale. Thus, the entire hunting apparatus is surrounded by animals, suggesting the physical and spiritual importance of these creatures .

Figure 2: Harpoon rest chains and whale tails. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission from the Penn Museum..

Harpoon rest chains and whale tails. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission from the Penn Museum.

Basic research reveals the answers to some of these questions. A harpoon rest is attached to the kayak or umiak (on the front or sides of the boat) and used to hold the base of the harpoon in place after the spear was thrust into the whale. Literature on other “Eskimo” harpoon rests mentions that most were made of walrus tusk with holes to lace sinew through, which would eventually be tied and secured to the boat.[3] The Penn Museum’s rest has these features, but also has chain links underneath the body of the harpoon rest. Perhaps the chains secure the rest to the bow of the boat, or assist in holding the rest steady while balancing a harpoon that has already speared a whale.

Beautiful Objects for the Hunt

Historically, the preparation of whaling tools took place within a dwelling known as a kargi. This was the central location of the hunting operation and was assigned to a whaling captain, or umialik. This place was used for social gathering and dancing, and also used for the making and mending of spiritual equipment and weapons. Aesthetics are crucial to whaling rituals, because it is believed that whales are attracted to beautiful things, and can be coaxed towards the hunters.[4] Thus, whaling equipment must be in pristine condition. Special items were created to aid in the hunt, so these chains have both practical and spiritual dimensions. Whale emblems are believed to be imbued with magical qualities that can encourage the whales to reveal themselves to hunters.[5]

Illustration from Walter James Hoffman, The Graphic Art of the Eskimos 1895, fig.573.

Illustration from Walter James Hoffman, The Graphic Art of the Eskimos 1895, fig.573.

Several of the harpoon rests from Sledge Island have chain links, but most harpoon racks from the region lack this feature. Perhaps whaling kits belonging to shamans were more closely associated with the spiritual realm, and therefore displayed extra charms.[6] These links rattle, and the sound is believed to attract animals. Chain link charms and whale carvings were also carried in the umiak for success and luck. Thus, the harpoon rest bridges physical and sacred realms, as both a hunting tool and a spiritual symbol.

A comparable harpoon rest from Barrow, Alaska, housed at the Smithsonian Institution, has carved images of mythical bears with small paws and a giant eagle, depicted in oral tradition as a creature used to hunt whales.[7] The comparison between these harpoon rests shows the variety of spiritual symbolism displayed on whale hunting equipment.

Figure 4: Enika Selby in the Penn Museum Archives, examining photos of Inuit women in fur garments. Photo by Margaret Bruchac

Enika Selby in the Penn Museum Archives, examining photos of Alaskan Native women in fur garments. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Spiritual significance is not just portrayed through symbols, it is also connected to the whales themselves. Among Inuit people, whales are associated with the spirits of young women. Certain ritual equipment was made for the wife of the umialik such as a, “wooden bucket with ivory ornaments and chains.” Just such a bucket was found by Van Valin. The wife would use her charmed bucket to pour water on the umiak to give it a drink, as she would also do with the whale once it was brought onshore. These ritual measures were taken to ensure the success of the operation and the safe return of men.[8] Thus, chains used by women may be symbolically comparable to the ivory chains taken on board the umiak and used in the hunting process. This shows the importance of women and their spiritual roles in the hunt, making whaling a ritual that involves both genders.

Archival Examinations

By combining material analysis with archival visits and surveys of existing research, I was able to recover important understandings about: the history of the harpoon rest; its creation and significance; related objects in other museums; and features that incorporate women into hunting rituals.

However, some questions still remain. I was curious about the material sandwiched between the two independent pieces of ivory tusk, and I found no mention of anything like it in the literature. After close examination, I believe, from its porous appearance, that it seems likely that it could be whale bone. From an Iñupiaq perspective, this would be an important inclusion of, not just symbols of the whale, but part of the whale itself.

Figure 5: “Alaska Eskimo Launching an Umiak.” Photograph by Suzanne R. Bernhardi Jeffery, Alaska. 1905-7, Eskimos, Fishing, Folder 3 of 4. Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives. Note the harpoon rest at the front of the umiak.

“Alaska Eskimo Launching an Umiak.” Photograph by Suzanne R. Bernhardi Jeffery, Alaska. 1905-7, Eskimos, Fishing, Folder 3 of 4. Courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives. Note the harpoon rest at the front of the umiak.

Thus, by dedicating time for simple research and visual analysis, the story of the Inuit harpoon rest began to emerge. The questions that arose while examining this object revealed aspects for further investigation that might otherwise have been missed. Most significantly, this harpoon rest is but one piece of an entire whaling kit. Each piece has its own distinct aesthetics, purpose, and meaning, and the whole kit reflects the complexity of whale hunting. A more complete understanding of the history and details of Eskimo hunting equipment could be recovered by turning to the knowledge held by the Iñupiat today. Whale hunting is still an active practice, and traditional beliefs are still preserved in oral traditions. Any museum story about Iñupiaq whaling tools is incomplete without including insights about the people—and the animals—who made the object.


[1] Kaplan, Susan A., Richard H. Jordan, and Glen W. Sheehan. “An Eskimo Whaling Outfit From Sledge Island, Alaska.” Expedition 26.2: 16-23. Jan. 1984.
[2] Van Valin correspondence, folder 1/2, October 1912. America: Alaska, Point Barrow. Penn Museum Archives.
[3] Digby, Adrian. “An Eskimo Harpoon Rest from Alaska.” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, February 27, 2015.
[4] Kaplan, Susan A. et al. 1984.
[5] Burch, Ernest S., and Werner Forman. The Eskimos. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 1988.
[6] Crowell, Aron L. The Art of Iñupiaq Whaling: Elders’ Interpretations of International Polar Year Ethnological Collections. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2009.
[7] National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian, Washington, DC. Ivory whaling charms, Barrow, 1881–1883, Murdoch–Ray collection.
[8] Crowell, Aron L. 2009.

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Mackosi’kwe’s Baskets: Marking Relationships

On August 1, 1938, before leaving the Maniwaki reserve in Quebec, Canada, anthropologist Frank G. Speck paid a visit to his old friends, Michel Buckshot and his wife Angelique, better known as Mackosi’kwe (also spelled Meshkosikwe, meaning “Beaver Meadow Woman”). Mackosi’kwe was skilled in pyroscapulimancy, a technique for divining future prospects in hunting and travel by scorching the shoulder blades of Indigenous deer, caribou, beaver, and other animals in a fire, and then reading the cracks and marks. In Speck’s case, she started with a deer scapula, followed by that of a hare, to predict an unexpected break in the return trip, but an otherwise safe journey home.[1]

The River Desert Algonquin Band at the Maniwaki Reserve was a small group of a few hundred First Nations people; most were of Algonkian ancestry, some had mixed Mohawk or French heritage.[2] In 1854, under the leadership of life chief Pakinawtik (also spelled Paganowatik, meaning “Lightning Hit Tree”), they had left the Mohawk community of Kanehsatà:ke (also called Kanesatake or Oka, Lake of Two Mountains, near Montreal) to settle permanently in their former summer hunting grounds at the confluence of the Gatineau, Eagle, and Desert Rivers.[3] There, they practiced subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing, in addition to wage work and craftwork, calling themselves Tega’zi bi win in iwag (“farm river people”).[4]

Fig. 4. Mackosi’kwe (Mrs. Michel Buckshot,. Photo taken by Frank Speck. Mss. Ms. Coll. 126, Image 1-2-b. American Philsophical Society Digital Collections.

Mackosi’kwe (Mrs. Michel Buckshot,. Photo taken by Frank Speck. Mss. Ms. Coll. 126, Image 1-2-b. American Philosophical Society Digital Collections.

Mackosi’kwe, born around 1862, was an artisan with diverse skills. She did trapping, tanning, and Indian doctoring (herbal medicine), and also made “curiosities” like puzzle pouches and decorated baskets for sale to tourists. She was also a keeper of oral traditions; in 1943, while Speck and his colleague Horace Beck were collecting data on Algonquin medicinal knowledge and folklore, she shared tales of the cannibal spirit Windigo and the trickster Wisekedjak.[5]

During a 1929 visit, Speck’s student, Frederick Johnson, commissioned Mackosi’kwe to carve a collection of potato die stamps (called padaki-wàpigon, “potato-flower”).[6] In order to show print proofs of the stamps, she also provided two peeled, trimmed, and stamped ash splints harvested from the inside annular rings of black ash (Fraxinus nigra).  Ironically, although provided to document the technique of basket-stamping, these objects are now trapped in a form that renders them unusable. If destined for a basket, dyes would have been freshly mixed and stamps freshly cut before use. Prepared ash splints would have been soaked and woven into basket form before stamping. But these potato stamps have been saturated with alcohol, and these pre-stamped splints have now hardened into a permanent coil.

A selection of trimmed and etched birchbark containers from River Desert collected by Frank Speck. Photograph is plate 30 from “Art Processes in Birchbark of the River Desert Algonquin, a Circumboreal Trait,” Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnography Anthropological Papers 128, no. 17 (1941): 1-60.

A selection of trimmed and etched birchbark containers from River Desert collected by Frank Speck. Plate 30 from Art Processes in Birchbark of the River Desert Algonquin, a Circumboreal Trait, Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnography Anthropological Papers 128, no. 17 (1941): 1-60.

The items in the River Desert collection have been described as “common” and “utilitarian,” but they are much more. The objects created by Mackosi’kwe and other Algonquin artisans express Indigenous technology, ecological adaptability, and local aesthetics, woven into every piece of raw material, every stitch, every mark. The birch trees that provided sweet sap for food and medicine also provided bark for containers and canoe coverings. Folded bark baskets were covered with a myriad of elaborately etched and trimmed designs. The ash trees that provided wood for canoe frames provided an abundance of splints for baskets. The potatoes were reshaped from a utilitarian food source into a tool that could transform plain baskets into marketable tourist objects. The dyes were made from local plants; among Algonquin artisans, the making of these dyes and mordants were closely kept secrets.[7] The marks made by stamping, etching, and trimming are more than just decoration; they constitute a richly expressive language that Frank Speck identified as a symbolic ecology, evoking local plant medicines, fauna, and rock-art pictographs, with meanings that escape those who only see flowers and leaves.[8]

Collectively, these objects also represent what was once a productive relationship between the River Desert Band and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, woven together by partners who collaborated on the collection of data and materials over the course of several decades. The travel went in both directions. Speck and his students made multiple trips to Maniwaki, and, in 1942, Mackosi’kwe’s adopted grandson, Jean Paul Bras Coupe, spent the winter in Pennsylvania with Speck. Income from the sales of tourist objects and ethnographic collections kept the Buckshot family from starving in the midst of the Great Depression, at a time when their lands were under increasing pressures from sports hunters and fishermen, and the boundaries of their homelands were being constricted by Canadian authorities.

Perhaps to highlight the artistry of Algonquin people, Speck saw to it that ethnographic materials from River Desert were dispersed into multiple museums, including the National Museum of Canada, the Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Denver Art Museum. Yet, when the traveling and collecting stopped, each of these objects were frozen in time, locked in museum cabinets, far from their places of origin. Now, these objects offer opportunities to reconnect with the people who created them and the stories embedded in them. This research calls for a return to Maniwaki, now identified as the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg (“people of the garden river”), a place where people still speak about those anthropologists from Philadelphia who came to visit and walked away nearly a century ago.

NOTE: For more information about these stamps and splints, see the related blog article— “Potato Stamps and Ash Splints: A Narrative of Process and Exchange”—by Elizabeth Peng.


[1] Michel Buckshot (born c. 1860) and his wife Angelique (born c. 1866) are listed in the census records as Catholic Algonquin Indians living at Maniwaki; Michel’s occupation is “Chausseur” (hunter). See Fourth Census of Canada 1901: Maniwaki, Wright, Quebec; Page: 21; Family No: 168. For brief biographical details, see Frank G. Speck 1939. “More Algonkian Scapulimancy from the North, and the Hunting Territory Question.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 4(1): 21-28.
[2] The cultural term Algonkian denotes a common cultural grouping for northeastern Native peoples including Anishinabe, Wabanaki, and Wampanoag, among others. Culturally and linguistically, they are distinct from Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples. The historic term Algonquin is used here to distinguish a particular grouping of Algonkian Indian First Nations bands located in the eastern Ontario and western Quebec provinces, sometimes collectively called the Algonquin Nation.
[3] The Province of Quebec is home to Algonkian, Iroquoian, and Inuit nations. For more information, see “The Nations,” a detailed map with the present-day locations of Indigenous nations and bands in Quebec, on the website of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Government of Canada.
[4] Speck, Frank G. 1927. “River Desert Indians of Quebec.” Indian Notes IV(3):240-252. Also see Speck 1929. “Boundaries and Hunting Groups of the River Desert Algonquin.” Indian Notes VI(2):97-120. Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation.
[5] Beck, Horace 1947. “Algonquin Folklore from Maniwaki.” The Journal of American Folklore 60(237):259-264.
[6] McGregor, Ernest 1987. Algonquin Lexicon (Algonquin-English). Maniwaki, Quebec: River Desert Education Authority.
[7] Clément, Daniel and Noeline Martin 1996. “Algonquin Legends and Customs from an Unpublished Manuscript by Juliette Gaultier de la Vérendrye,” pp. 123-154 in Daniel Clément, The Algonquins. Hull Quebec: The Canadian Museum of Civilization.
[8] Speck, Frank G. 1941. Art Processes in Birchbark of the River Desert Algonquin, a Circumboreal Trait. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnography Anthropological Papers 128(17):1-60.

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Get to know Dr. Elin Danien: 2015 Volunteer of the Year


Dr. Elin Danien is the Penn Museum’s 2015 Volunteer of the Year!

At this year’s Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon I was lucky enough to present the award for Volunteer of the Year to Dr. Elin Danien. It’s always hard to choose just one volunteer to specially highlight, but Elin has always been a standout. In her 40 years of working and volunteering at the Penn Museum she has unswervingly supported our mission to transform the way our visitors think about the human experience. And though she came to Philadelphia to become America’s next great actress, she’s created an amazing legacy as a scholar, educator, and philanthropist.

By Kevin Schott, Guide Program Manager

The Penn Museum is lucky to have a corps of dedicated volunteers that run guided tours, do mummy dusting, and a lot more. Dr. Elin Danien’s work at the Museum, as a volunteer and as a staff member, covers these jobs and quite a few more, including researcher and author.  In 1998, Dr. Danien completed her Ph.D. dissertation, focused on the Penn Museum’s collection of Chama pottery which formed the core of a 2009 exhibition, Painted MetaphorsPottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya. Dr. Danien’s publications include Maya Folktales from the Alta Verapaz and Guide to the Mesoamerican Gallery, which followed her renovation of that gallery in 2002.  Events coordinator for the Penn Museum from 1981 to 1989, Dr. Danien founded the Museum’s annual Maya Weekend (1983-2013), an in-depth weekend of exploration featuring Maya scholars, epigraphers, and educators. A Penn graduate who began her college education at the age of 46, Dr. Danien is founder of Bread Upon the Waters, a Penn scholarship assisting non-traditional undergraduates—women age 30 and older—to attain an undergraduate degree through part-time study.

Learn more about our Volunteer of the Year in the short interview below with Dr. Elin Danien!

1. What do you do as a volunteer?
Docent, lecturer, researcher, author.

2. What is the most rewarding thing about volunteering?
The constant discovery. Being in an environment that enriches me and allows me to share with the public the excitement of archaeology, the need to understand other cultures and other times, and the importance of the past to the present.

3. Tell us about the differences between working at the Museum and volunteering at the Museum.
In addition to what I said above, it’s the opportunity to help shape the programs that further the mission of the Museum, to create a public message in ways that feature the traditions of other cultures and the archaeological discoveries that change and enhance our view of the past.


Dr. Danien holds a Maya polychrome chama piece from the Museum’s American collections.

4. What is your favorite thing about leading tours?
The look in a child’s eyes at the wonder of it all; when understanding of other people, other cultures, becomes apparent, and he or she realizes that difference is not a bad thing.

5. What do you like to do when you are not at the Museum?
Oh gosh—write, go to theater and concerts, hang out at other museums, read, walk, play with my puppy, and most importantly, the intellectual stimulation of exchanging ideas with other people.

6. What’s your favorite Penn Museum story? (It doesn’t necessarily have to be related to your work.)
Well, in addition to the research I do for the biographies I’m writing (about an archaeologist and an archaeological artist, who both worked for the Museum), I think one of the best stories I know illustrates how much the staff and volunteers love the Museum: During the Great Depression, when the Museum’s funds were at a minimum and staff was skeletal, the Director could be seen sweeping the galleries after hours. That’s dedication!


Kevin Schott and Williams Director, Jilian Siggers, present Dr. Elin Danien her Volunteer of the Year award at the annual Penn Museum Volunteer Luncheon.


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Deep Description and Reflexivity: Methods for Recovering Object Histories

This semester, students in my Anthropology of Museums class learned new methods for analyzing objects in museum collections by using both “deep description” and “object reflexivity.” Students were trained to combine material analysis, ethnographic data, archival research, and critical scholarship to identify and document object histories. They also gained practice in examining methods of construction, curation, and display that reflect the shifting historical relations among Indigenous people and Indigenous objects in museums. As a result, these students generated thoughtful insights that cast new light on old objects in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Deep Description and Reflexivity

The notion of “deep description” borrows from Clifford Geertz’s “thick description,” a method of densely observing and recording human behavior and discourse. It might seem illogical to apply this to objects where the makers are absent, but traces of human activities can often be readily observed through micro-analysis of small details: the choice of material, shape of a bead, turns of a weave, patterns of wear, and modes of repair. Each of these can signal the intent of an artisan; some of these serve as signatures of particular traditions, cultures, knowledges, and communities. Objects also reflect environments. So, for example, in the midst of a grueling winter, our observations of the practical nature of Arctic fur garments evoked a much deeper respect for Inuit technologies.

An Inuit opium pipe from Alaska, collected by Capt. David Henry Jarvis. Donated to the Penn Museum by Mary E. Javis, accession number 39-10-1. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, permission of the Penn Museum.

An Inuit pipe from Alaska, collected by Capt. David Henry Jarvis. Donated to the Penn Museum by Mary E. Javis, Museum Object Number: 39-10-1. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, permission of the Penn Museum.

When studying objects, I encourage students to reflect upon, and assess, what we “know” about objects in a collection based upon what we are told. Drawing upon the use of reflexive approaches in the social sciences, I direct students to interrogate the influence of previous scholars and scholarship and to look past the exhibit labels to discover a deeper story. In addition (without over-romanticizing) they are asked to reflect upon phenomenological experiences and “object reflexivity.” What might an object feel, sound, and smell like? What music emerged from this drum? How does the fringe move when this garment is danced? Which way did the threads twist in the hands of this weaver? Does the smell of smoked hide evoke the warmth of the fire? Are the plants that produced the dyes visible in the colors of the stamp?

Adventures in Collections

The first stage of this project began in the classroom, by viewing clips from early 20th century films of Arctic expeditions. Then, we moved into the Penn Museum collections, for a broad survey of materials collected during the Museum’s seminal Arctic expeditions to Alaska, Greenland, and Labrador, with American Section Keeper William Wierzbowski as our guide. At first, students were overwhelmed by the dizzying array of objects, grouped by type and by region, with targeted expeditions and incidental acquisitions commingled. Within a short time, however, they had narrowed their choices to a selection of roughly a dozen objects for close study.

William Wierzbowski examines an Alaskan gutskin coat in the Arctic collections, with students Elizabeth Peng and Alexandria Mitchem.  number 39-10-1. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

William Wierzbowski examines an Alaskan gutskin coat in the Arctic collections, with students Elizabeth Peng and Alexandria Mitchem. Museum Object Number: 29-47-189. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

During the next class session, in the Museum’s Collections Study Room, students spent the first hour in silence, narrowing their focus to a single object that attracted their attention. They took extensive notes on construction, and condition, noting minute details that became more visible only after close material analysis. They listed ideas for the type of information they would need to add context to these objects, and where that information might be found. They also considered how knowledge of this object could be constructed by different types of viewers: Indigenous artisans, museum collectors, art dealers, etc. They toyed with theories that might explain certain aspects or uses of this object, and listed questions that further research might answer.

Elizabeth Peng and Karen Thomson, in the Penn Museum Study Lab, examining a pair of Inuit women’s boots with Victorian lace traim. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Elizabeth Peng and Karen Thomson, in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room, examining a pair of Inuit women’s boots with Victorian lace trim. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Students also scanned the Penn Museum’s online databases, where objects can be digitally sorted by number, type, region, etc. However, they quickly learned that object labels, sorting processes, and categories in museums are rarely simple and straightforward. Object identifications result from (and reflect) the social negotiations that take place before and after objects arrive in collections. Despite the apparent efficiency of a database, subjective processes of organization can cause small bits of data to be overlooked. That data might include crucial Indigenous names, knowledges, and relationships. For example, the broad classification of “Eskimo” can blur distinct and important commonalities and differences between “Innu” and “Inuit” peoples. Native names can be confused if individuals go by Christian, Indigenous, married, and/or other names.

The nature of salvage anthropology was such that items were frequently scattered among different museums, often without clear records of their tribal identities and symbolic meanings. In some cases, provenance data was preserved in museum archives, but detached from the objects on display. Items that passed from one collector to another may have been separated from the field notes that identify them. Most confusingly, it is quite common for different museums (and auction houses) holding similar items from the same region to assign different interpretations and values. Thus, data housed in one museum can often shed light on poorly identified objects in another museum.

In general, curators and scholars tend to sort collections in ways that match their interests, focusing on some objects while ignoring others. Speculative and incomplete data can influence modes of identifying objects over time, and small details can be overlooked. Hence, a person seeking an Inuit walrus tusk opium pipe from the Arctic could easily miss that “Oriental-style” “tobacco pipe” with the absurdly small hole.

Applying Restorative Research Methods

How then, does one recover data and restore Indigenous meanings? How can students be directed to review scholarship on unfamiliar objects? Since reflexive research calls for attention to the influence of position and personality, I advise my students to work in a way that may sound backwards: examine the object first, and examine the scholarship second. There is a logic to this. When students examine an unfamiliar object, without preconceptions, they can notice small details that might otherwise be overlooked; the object can, in a sense, “speak” for itself. When students are guided to read research articles first, someone else is speaking. Thus, students may be subtly (or not so subtly) influenced to uncritically accept conclusions that might not accurately reflect the materiality of the object itself. Too early exposure to what is “known” can get in the way of generating new questions. The emphasis here, of course, is to generate factual observations and insightful questions that can point the way to further research (while avoiding leaping to random conclusions).

Enika Selby in the Penn Museum Archives, examining photos of Inuit women in fur garments. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Enika Selby in the Penn Museum Archives, examining photos of Inuit women in fur garments. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

After writing a preliminary description and draft blog entry, students were directed to research all existing primary sources. Alex Pezzati, Senior Archivist in the Penn Museum Archives, was especially helpful in walking us through notes, correspondence, photographs, field notes, and articles from the Van Valin and Gordon Arctic expeditions. On their own, students also researched secondary sources. Whenever publications answered their questions (or raised new ones), they backtracked references to discern where other scholars had derived their knowledge. Then, students rewrote their original observations, adding references, correcting errors, and noting any additional possibilities for nuanced interpretation and further research.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, students were reminded to reflect upon the makers of these objects and the memories of the communities they came from. Indigenous artisans had particular interests in mind when each of these objects was created. Ethnographic collectors, who sought to fulfill particular research goals and aesthetic desires, often imposed their own interpretations. Some Indigenous objects in museums reflect processes of separation, more than processes of creation. Thus, crucial information about Indigenous context may be recovered by both examining the practices of the historical community that created the object, and by understanding what that object means to living Indigenous communities today.

In the end, all of my Museum Anthropology students were remarkably successful in recovering new (and old) data about seemingly silent museum objects. Each of them wrote insightful research reports and blog posts summarizing their observations, while posing new research questions that have yet to be answered. Check out their intriguing blogs in these posts from “Beyond the Gallery Walls”:

Michele Belluomini: Kuskokwim Dance House
Monica Fenton: The Lady in Fur
Alexandria Mitchem: Getting a Handle on the Past: An Arctic Bow Drill
Sarah Parkinson: Searching for Stories: Patiently Listening to an Iñupiaq Pipe
Elizabeth Peng: Fashion: Fur, Flowers, and Flannel
Pauline Saribas: Quillwork-embellished “Cree” Coat
Enika Selby: Alaska Harpoon Rest: Supported by Bears, Whales, and Chains

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Ringo’s Futuristic School of Thought

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

In the Continuing Adventures of Ringo and Sobek:

Sobek, it’s no good.
The dratted mechanics have seized up-
And I can’t figure out what all the reluctance is about.
The world is falling apart.
The pipes,
The typewriter,
They can’t keep up.
If we are to survive these changing times we need to prepare.
When all else fails…
We must always be able to depend on our wits.
Therefore, I’ve decided to enroll us into one of the museum’s nightly seminars.
A very reputable professor teaches a rather exclusive course on the modern world.
While the term modern is puzzling,
His credentials are rather extensive.

I, personally, went to him so as to see about the scheduling of a private session.
I felt I had to explain your condition,
Your lack of mobility,
And the need to be accommodating to your stature.
With your inability to travel, all instructions would have to be had on our shelf.
Which he seemed very obliging to conduct.
I feel this is owing to a decrease in registered students.
Mr. Burrows: our soon to be tutor,
Appears to be occupationally engaged with the enemy.
However, he greatly enjoys this close proximity.

His dwelling is littered with screens and buttons of all imagination.
Wires and cords form a kind of modernistic carpet,
Well-worn and matted from Mr. Burrows’ continued scurrying about the space.
It appeared to me, as our initial interview wore on, that instead of alleviating tasks,
His contraptions made for continual motion and constant monitoring.

The focal point of our instruction will be the utilization of these contraptions.
It is Mr. Burrows’ mindset, that these supportive elements are our future.
Mr. Burrows preaches that all arguments to the contrary are futile.
We then proceeded into my first lesson with a very hands-on exercise.
At his insistence I was made to explore the many controls;
This had to be done blind folded.
It was an example exercise of Mr. Burrows’ proverbial saying: comprehension does not require sight.

At first I thought this mode of behavior was due to Mr. Burrows’ own lack of eyesight
Yet he assured me that all of humanity, regardless of eye and ear size,
Were producing more statistical productivity through generalized interactives.
Particularly those solely based off of sensory stimulation versus antiquated critical thinking initiatives.

I will admit, I did not do particularly well at that first interview.
But I am assured that through continual exposure,
My way of thinking and engaging will adjust itself.
Mr. Burrows’ recommendation to our current predicament is to portray ourselves in digital sensibility, and by doing so, everything else will fall into order.

It my belief Sobek, that you will find the whole experience very formative.
In fact your affinity to the solitary is similar to Mr.Burrows, which leads me to believe that you will be an excellent student in the art of the future.
While Mr. Burrows’ larger screens and controls are not portable, he has devised a specified lesson plan that he promises will provide adequate simulations.
As he said when I left his company the other day, “where there is a wire, there is a way.”

Mr. Burrows stares straight ahead, firm in his convictions.
The future he said is inorganic and our failure to embrace his motorized windows is from our own lack of foresight.
Imagine Sobek, a future full of so many portals.
What if we should get lost?
If we do become lost, I hope that we never lose sight of each other.

Mr. Burrows' Future

The Futuristic Classroom

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Anthropology Puzzles from the Archives

Recently I tumbled down the rabbit hole of the Penn Museum Archives with Senior Archivist, Alex Pezzati.  What started as a search for sketches of the Tiffany mosaics on our building, spiraled into Alex pulling out dozens of other collections of images, sketches, documents, and books for me to look through.  Every manilla folder we opened provided an opportunity for him to show me something else from the Museum’s nearly 130 years of history. When we landed in a box “Museum newsletters,” I spotted one of my favorite pastimes, a crossword puzzle!

This run (ca. 1950-1970) of Museum newsletters came from the Women’s Committee when they used to mail out a brief rundown of the goings-on of the museum, including current research, upcoming exhibitions, and member events.  One particular issue included two word games from a Members’ Night event held in 1965, a crossword puzzle and some Anthropological Anagrams.

After trying my hand at solving them, I’ve digitized both puzzles with some slight alterations and present them below.  The crossword puzzle is a little tough because you have to remember it was written in 1965, but it is not impossible.  The anagrams on the other hand, stumped me pretty good. Perhaps knowing that they were originally part of an exhibition event titled, Man the Inventor, will help in solving them.

Good luck to all you intrepid puzzle solvers out there!

Anthropological Anagrams

RULES: The italicized words form the answer, scrambled, but the whole sentence is a clue to the answer, too. The answers may be made up of one or several words, but not necessarily the same number of words as the underlined portion of the clue. Some of the words, of course, may be plural forms. They are of varying degrees of difficulty, so try them all.
SAMPLE: A slob would get all tangled up in this. Answer: Bolas.

  1. Preparing the feast ruined Popo.
  2. O.K., a bomb fine, but me like quieter weapon.
  3. Rover, the Rat, don’t go there.
    They’ll put you in the dentist’s chair.
  4. O me no brag–the kangaroo got away.
  5. Don’t take plugs, Ben; this fishing rig works without them.
  6. O, a mower?
    No, a thrower!
  7. She’ll daze Malc with her mussels
  8. This woodcutter’s need last grew
    On a cousin of the caribou.
  9. Swap our horn, Al, for a blubber weapon.
  10. A lungbow, exactly.
  11. Board wars won with chessmen;
    Native wars won with these.
  12. O they long, those Watusi! and we love to study them.

Crossword Puzzle

You can download and print the crossword puzzle here.


Answers to both the Crossword puzzle and anagrams are here.

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From Lawyer to Gladiator: John J. Ebel and his Gladiator School


John J. Ebel as the “Murmillo” (heavy fighter).

“Suiting up” means two things for John J. Ebel. As both a trial attorney in New York and co-founder of the Ludus Magnus Gladiatores Reenacting Group, Ebel is no stranger to battle. In preparation for the Penn Museum’s celebration of Rome’s Birthday April 18, at which gladiators from Ludus Magnus will vie to “win the crowd” in a series of sword-wielding battles, I reached out to Ebel to find out more about the men behind the armor and to ask if the “mahogany arena” is really so different from that of the gladiator.

Like so many around the world, Ebel found himself “hooked” on the subject of gladiators after watching the epic film Gladiator over a decade ago. However, his journey to gladiatorial historical reenacting began long before that. Ebel has always had a passion for history, and his interest in the history of Gettysburg led him to visit the site with his wife. Watching the reenactments at Gettysburg he “was inspired by their dedication and emphasis on historical accuracy.” He joined a Confederate reenacting group, the 57th Virginia, “B” Company.

A few years later, he was studying for the New York State Bar Exam, and it was during a break in his studies, in 2001, that he watched Gladiator. Ebel then had what he calls a “Confederate yard sale,” the proceeds from which he used to buy a complete collection of gear, and became a Roman soldier in George Metz’s Legion XXIV (a group that will also be participating in our April 18 demonstrations). Soon after, Ebel created his own gladiator school, and Ludus Magnus Gladiatores was born.


A few members of Ludus Magnus Gladiatores assembled in front of their unit tent. Ebel (far right) wears the Roman military style “scutum” and crested helmet.

When asked whether the members of Ludus Magnus have a common thread in their stories about becoming gladiators, Ebel explained that all of the gladiators feel a deep connection to the past:

The one common undercurrent to our reasons for participating in historical reenacting is a deep and abiding love of history, and for many of us, the feeling that we have lived before, in many different lives and incarnations. Just about all of us feel that we have been alive during the Roman era in some way or another.

Despite each individual’s story being different, wherever they are engaging, once the fight begins, many of them feel transported back in time “and can feel the sun on our backs, the smells and sounds of the arena, and the roar of the crowd.”


Albert Barbato, co-founder of Ludus Magnus, as the Retiarius (trident-and-net fighter). Of Barbato, Ebel said, “Only a fool would want to face this man in the arena without proper training and conditioning.”

It is not only during these fights that the gladiators are transported but often before as well. As there is no training manual to learn how gladiators employed different styles, Ludus Magnus uses a technique they call “archaeological reconstruction.” They simply step up and engage each other, coming to conclusions through a process of trial and error much like their Roman counterparts would have. For example, after many trial runs with his co-founder, Al Barbato, they realized that if the Retiarius (trident-and-net fighter) attempted to plunge his trident into the Murmillo’s (“heavy fighter’s”) shield, it would get stuck in the shield, and a strong Murmillo could simply cast the shield aside and disarm the Retiarius. Thus, they concluded that it is likely a Retiarius would not have thrust at the shield, but rather would seek to hit the Murmillo on the sides. It is through this kind of engagement, reasoning, and repetition that Ludus Magnus deduces what the most effective use of any fighter’s weaponry would have been. It seems their technique is on point, as they have “compared some of our learned techniques to actual Roman mosaics depicting gladiatorial fights, and we know we have come up with styles and techniques that were most likely used by our Roman predecessors.”


Ebel “walking the net” (a technique learned from the group’s method of “archaeological reconstruction”) as he and Barbato engage.

When asked how he would classify his work with Ludus Magnus, Ebel made an important distinction. His work as an attorney is his profession, and historical reenactment is his passion, his avocation. Despite the distinction, Ebel pointed out that there is a definite parallel between the two. The same aggressive style he uses in gladiatorial reenactment he also uses in the courtroom. However, there is also professionalism in both arenas: “I treat everyone that I come into contact with: judges, opposing counsel, court officers, etc., with respect and dignity, not unlike ancient Roman gladiators did their opponents.” Using a “gladiatorial ethic” in his profession has made him a successful trial attorney, and that there have even been times the residual energy from an event “crosses over and makes for a stellar result in court.”

However, for Ebel it’s not just about doing battle. There’s an educational side of his passion that aligns with his advocacy work as an attorney. He has fought hard in the courtroom for battered and abused women and children, regularly doing such work pro bono. It is a time when he can “step up and defend those that cannot defend themselves.” It is gratifying, but can take its toll. Working with the victims of such violence has added an important message to his work in the gladiatorial arena. Events such as Rome’s Birthday are not only opportunities to wow the crowd, but are also times to demonstrate temperance. Ebel and the members of the group always take particular pleasure in getting an enthusiastic response from the younger members of the audience. However, he has also found, perhaps due to exposure to more violence, that they are the most “bloodthirsty,” being the first to shout “Kill!” when the mob is polled to see if a competitor should be spared (in true Gladiator fashion). At the end of an event Ebel always issues a cautionary disclaimer, particularly to the younger audience that the group does not put on the shows to endorse excessive violence. Rather, they aim to “show a fascinating and dark side of what was a brilliant and glorious empire, lasting almost 1,000 years.” Indeed, Ebel reminds the audience of all the things Rome gave us: our system of law, architecture, roads, irrigation, language, and so many other legacies that last to this day. He shared that he often asks the spectators if, considering “reality” shows on the air, where people degrade themselves for money, if the ancient Romans were all that different from us today:

I “hold a mirror” up to the crowd and ask them to look into it, asking themselves: “Am I all that different than an ancient Roman citizen who came to the arena to enjoy the ‘spectacle’ of people being degraded and abused?” The answer is evident from the look on the faces in the crowd, and their nods of admission; they know that not much has changed in the human experience.

Indeed, the group adheres to a time-honored principle: “Those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them.” Ebel characterizes the violence in the world today as a pandemic that shows no sign at all of abating. He feels that because life is more complicated, filled with pressure and competitiveness, we have become depersonalized and somewhat lost our way in our lives. To counter this, he has instilled a deep love of history in his 16-year-old daughter, and stressed that this area of study needs to be promoted more. He is proud that his daughter is a historical scholar in her own right and can “hold her own with her old man in any discussion of antiquity, no matter what era.” History, he lamented, is an ever-diminishing area of interest for too many young people, and it must be revived. Too much attention, in his opinion, is placed on the sciences, technology, and mathematics. That’s not to say that these aren’t very important areas of study in the modern era. However, he argued, history and literature must be preserved and kept alive in new generations. “If not, we truly will be ‘doomed to repeat the past,’ and will never go forward into an era of peace, humanity, and prosperity.” His advice to every thinking person, young or old, is to embrace history and all the valuable lessons it teaches. Embracing a love of history is a true labor of love, which is quite literally the case for the members of Ludus Magnus.


Barbato (left), Ebel (center), and James Massimilo, the Greek “hoplite” or “heavy fighter” (right).

It’s truly a show for anyone and everyone, of all ages, and perhaps nothing is more indicative of that than the gladiators themselves. From an 18-year-old high school senior to the 61-year-young Ebel, the members represent a diversity of ages and occupations. There’s Al Barbato, 46, a Postmaster for the United States Postal Service (USPS), his two sons Patrick and Ryan, 24 and 18 respectively, the former a recent graduate of film school and the latter a high school senior. James Massimillo, 45, and Elizabeth Servidio, 42, are letter carriers for USPS. Dan Bluman and Dave Romero are both 24 years old, the former an electrical engineer and the latter a personal trainer. Connor Dwulet, 19, is a recent high school graduate who will be attending college next year. Barbato shared that the group has some new blood showing up for Rome’s Birthday in his 18-year-old nephew, Brian Mathieu, and his youngest son’s girlfriend, 19-year-old Gracie Soto. All of these individuals have the same passion that Ebel does, and he is certain the other members of Ludus Magnus use some of what they feel and learn as gladiators in their respective occupations as well. He stressed that, despite their differences, they all have the deepest respect and admiration for one another.

That admiration Ebel has for his fellow gladiators and the love of what they all do, will never fade. Although he considers himself to be in much better condition than many men his age, he knows that the time will come when the risk of injury will outweigh the thrill of vigorous participation. When the time comes to put aside his sword, he said, he will most likely play a role similar to that of Oliver Reed’s character, Proximo, in Gladiator. When the time comes to retire from the arena, Ebel will happily be the “crusty old trainer” and owner of a “ludus” (school). The group has had men and women in their late seventies to even early eighties reenact as senators, civilians, and the like. Ebel said that as long as one has the spirit and enthusiasm to participate, there is no reason to retire from reenacting. After speaking with Ebel, it’s hard to envision him ever “retiring.” Like gladiators before him, the spirit and enthusiasm he possesses is timeless.

Rome’s Birthday is Saturday, April 18, 11 am to 4 pm. Events and activities are all FREE with Museum admission ($15 general admission; $12 for seniors [65+]; $10 for full-time students [with ID] and children [6-17]; free for Museum members, children under 6, active U.S. military and PennCard holders). Attendees are encouraged to get in the spirit of the day; those daring enough to wear a toga or gladiator attire receive half-off the price of admission!

Brittany MacLean is a Marketing Assistant at the Penn Museum

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