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.

adria1adria2

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.

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

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

Details:  Sunday, October 11, 2015, 2 pm

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

Place in the middle

Place in the middle

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

 

Rell Sunn surfing

Rell Sunn surfing

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

 

 

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

Photos by Kate Pourshariati

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Shades of the Soil: Searching for Archaeological Features

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

This is what an archaeologist looks like...

This is what an archaeologist looks like…

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eskimo Soccer

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

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

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

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

 

May soccer continue to bring enjoyment around the world.

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And We’re Off! – Amanda Ball

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


June 3, 2015
New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

A picture of Beth Potens and me in summer 2013.

A picture of Beth Potens and me in Summer 2013.

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

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A beautiful sunrise as seen by the MTAP survey team.

 

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

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

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

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

lowell_thomas_fireplace

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

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

Ah-ha, now we’ve come full circle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Delivery by Cesarean in China: Now the Norm? – Eileen Wang

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


June 4, 2015
Richmond, Virginia

China_Shanghai

Map of China with Shanghai municipality highlighted. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Tomorrow, I leave the United States for my very first independent project abroad, in Shanghai, China. I will be doing ethnographic research there for two months as part of my senior thesis in Penn’s Health and Societies program. In particular, I am interested in understanding the high rates of cesarean sections in urban China, which are estimated to be around 50-60% (as compared to the World Health Organization’s recommended rate of 15% or the US’s rate of 30%), and, in particular, why mothers themselves are requesting cesarean sections (which are estimated to compose up to 20% of all cesareans in China).

Cesarean sections (also known as C-sections) can be lifesaving procedures for the mother or fetus when medically indicated, but that mothers ask for a C-section without any medical reason was a topic that intrigued me. This is something that does not come as common sense, at least not in the US; after all, cesarean sections are major surgeries with many potential complications, and the medical literature largely promotes the benefits of vaginal delivery over cesarean delivery in the case of low-risk mothers. So what makes China so different from the US and other countries where mothers aren’t requesting cesareans?

As part of this research, I will interview pregnant and postpartum women, their families, as well as doctors and nurses, in order to get a sense of their views on birth and modes of delivery. Furthermore, I will be doing participant-observation at Jiading Central Hospital, which is a secondary-level hospital located in the outskirts of the city, although I also hope to make excursions to tertiary-level hospitals, postpartum centers, and other spaces pregnant women and postpartum women gather.

This will give me a better understanding of how all of these actors intersect in this decision of how to deliver, as well as the larger sociocultural context. For example, is requesting a cesarean seen as an empowering choice for the mother? Or is it merely just a “choice” constrained by the larger social context, for example, one pressured by the family members for a more controlled, “perfect outcome” or by doctors who have a lot of other patients they have to see in a short amount of time? How does information and education about delivery modes get transmitted among groups of mothers or between the doctor and family? I also think this is an interesting public health question in the context of the relaxation of the One Child Policy—if requests for cesareans continue, maternal morbidity may increase as mothers have more children (since a primary cesarean increases the risk of a complication in a subsequent pregnancy).

Me and my fieldwork tool – the recorder.

Me and my fieldwork tool – the recorder.

I am very excited to be putting on my anthropological hat in China because I will be exploring it for the first time on my own terms. As a Chinese-American, I have visited China a couple of times for vacation or to see family, but never to critically understand the health context. Therefore, I will be straddling the worlds of being an “insider” and “outsider” in trying to grapple with and challenge the commonsense notions of birth in China. Not only that, I am also an aspiring physician (and perhaps OB/GYN), so it will be quite fascinating to compare how the medical profession and birthing context compare to that in the US.

We’ll see where this research takes me, whom I’ll meet, and what stories I will encounter, but I am sure it will be an exciting adventure!

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What are we finding?

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.


My time onsite down in Mississippi was planned in such a way that I’d be around for the middle two weeks of the field season – the real meat of the dig. This, of course, means that I missed some of the more dramatic views of earth removal at the outset of the excavation. The top layer of soil is the newest, and as such has the highest probability of containing modern materials mixed with those left behind by the ancient Coles Creek culture that shaped and used this site, starting more than 1,000 years ago. With that in mind, it’s generally safe to dig in with a shovel; in some instances, even more powerful equipment (such as a backhoe) can be employed, though that’s not the case here at Smith Creek. Here you’ll see a shot taken by the team prior to my arrival.

Digging at Mound C.

Digging at Mound C.

After the top layer has been removed, the trowels come out, though depending on the context, we do keep using shovels. Troweling through dirt is a much more careful process than shoveling, and is used in areas where many artifacts are present so as not to damage them during their excavation. In the mounds at Smith Creek, our team uses shovels to dig through layers of fill—these are areas of the mounds that are human-made, piled on top of the previous surface of the mound by the site’s ancient inhabitants. We use trowels on surfaces and middens, areas of mounds that were directly impacted by human activity. Each layer can be distinguished from the next based on, among other things, its color and texture; our unit at Mound A shows us a textbook example of contrast between very clearly delineated layers of mound fill and mound surfaces.

Taking a close look at soil layers in the excavation unit at Mound A.

Taking a close look at soil layers in the excavation unit at Mound A.

Susannah, one of our wonderful field supervisors, explains the process of troweling through a fill layer and coming down on a mound surface in this short video.

The layers are identified sequentially as our excavators dig deeper into the ground, and the soil from each layer is run through screens of various measurements, depending on the layer. The idea is that you push the dirt through the screen, causing all the soil to loosen up and fall through; anything harder than soil and larger than the holes in the screen stays on top, leaving us with a collection of small objects like pottery sherds, animal bones, and rocks. At Smith Creek, even the rocks are significant, because the site lies on a bluff made completely of windblown silt—meaning that even small pebbles had to have been purposefully carried there at some point.

Zhenia and our intrepid volunteer, Tim, sift dirt through a 1/2-inch screen.

Zhenia and our intrepid volunteer, Tim, sift dirt through a 1/2-inch screen.

Some layers have higher concentrations of small artifacts than others. Here’s where a method known as water screening comes in. Water screening starts with the same process of dumping a bucket of excavated soil onto a screen, in our case a 1/4 inch screen; however, that screen lies atop another screen with 1/16 inch holes, which prevents even the smallest artifacts from getting through. Of course, this is too small for us to grind through by hand without harming the material, so once the soil is on the screen, it’s sprayed with water from a hose to remove the dirt. The end result is tiny objects remaining on the 1/4 inch screen, and lots of even tinier objects on the 1/16 inch screen, which are bagged and labeled separately from one another. This allows us to recover things like fish scales, rodent teeth, and micro flakes.

Ally working at the water screening station.

Ally working at the water screening station.

After the day in the field is done, the team brings all the objects they’ve discovered back to the dig house. The water screening yields objects that are relatively clean, but that’s not the case for artifacts that get caught in our 1/2 inch dry screens. These are still pretty caked in dirt and have to be washed before they can be analyzed, and it makes sense to clean them here rather than bringing a bunch of dirt back to the labs at Penn. So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, after the team is back at the house and full of dinner, the students fill buckets with water and clean the larger artifacts by hand (and by toothbrush). Nothing makes you appreciate the importance of brushing your teeth quite like an artifact-cleaning session.

Scrub-a-dub-dub.

Scrub-a-dub-dub.

So what are we left with? Well, so far, plenty.

Just a few of the bags of artifacts that have been collected thus far.

Just a few of the bags of artifacts that have been collected thus far.

More specifically, for starters, we’ve found literally thousands of pottery sherds. No whole pots, sadly—Meg has found one whole pot in her entire career and we’re unlikely to find any here. The sherds vary in color and shape, as well as design; many of them show no signs of decoration, while others feature incised, stamped, or punctuated patterns on one side. Many of these patterns are not as elaborate as some that are often found on later pottery, but some are quite dramatic. These distinctions contribute to our ability to tell the difference between periods of occupation at Smith Creek and other sites.

Pottery sherds from the south plaza.

Pottery sherds from the south plaza.

We’re also finding plenty of animal bones, ranging from small fish to large fish, bear, turtle, lots of deer (young and adult), and plenty of small mammals. Some small animals like voles and mice are also being found, but these weren’t necessarily being used for food; in the case of burrowing animals, it’s quite possible that the animal burrowed its own way into the ground and then died naturally. We need to bear this in mind when trying to reimagine the eating habits of the Coles Creek inhabitants.

Animal bone, likely from a deer.

Animal bone, likely from a deer.

Finally, beyond finding plenty of rocks and pebbles that could not have appeared at the site naturally, we’ve also found a few points that were used as heads for spears or arrows as well as the debris that would have resulted from making these points. One of our field supervisors, David, was inspired toward archaeology as a five-year-old when he discovered an arrowhead with his mother in her flower garden; it’s an incredibly powerful experience at that age to hold in your hand something that was crafted by another human being thousand of years ago or more. For some, the experience does not diminish with age.

Jordi shows a stone arrowhead.

Jordi shows a stone arrowhead.

But we’ve found more than just artifacts. Stay tuned for our next post, when we look at some of the fascinating cultural features that our excavations are revealing.

Top photo by David Cranford; all other photos by Tom Stanley.

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Notes from Mississippi – 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.


When thinking about archaeology, the first thing that I imagine comes to your mind is the grand adventures of Indiana Jones. While I can probably recite the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark on the spot, those movies didn’t exactly prepare me for fieldwork. I haven’t been navigating caves and sprinting away from boulders, but I can say for certain that my experience so far in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, will let me do what I think is the truly important part of archaeological work – contribute to the knowledge base of a field that I’m passionate about.

For the past week I’ve been part of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project (or SCAP, as we affectionately refer to it), led by Dr. Megan Kassabaum of the Penn Museum and Penn Anthropology Department. This project seeks to excavate a Native American mound site in the lower Mississippi Valley, which during its time of occupation would have been nestled between the Mississippi River and the much smaller Smith Creek. Though the course of the Mississippi River has changed through the years due to natural causes, after scaling to the top of Emerald Mound on our first day exploring the area, it’s not difficult to look out in all directions and imagine why people would want to build sites in such a beautiful expanse of nature.

Mound sites, from what we can tell, were common ceremonial locations in the Woodland and Mississippian periods. These sites were often constructed with several dirt mounds surrounding a plaza. Our site has one large mound, a smaller burial mound that we are not excavating, and, finally, a third mound that has eroded slightly into the creek.

How do we know all this? Well, partially because Dr. Kassabaum has been working in this area of the country for almost a decade now, and also because archaeologists have spent years excavating sites similar to Smith Creek to understand what they were used for. So now I, and some of my fellow classmates, get to carry on that work. Let me tell you, it is not easy. It’s pretty much impossible to look cool while being an archaeologist. Basically the only thing Indiana Jones got right was that hat, because believe me, the only thing worse than digging in the sweltering Mississippi heat would be digging here with a sunburn. I’m currently covered in blisters, scrapes, bruises, and sunburns. Two days ago, I swallowed a gnat. It just flew down my throat. The fact that I’m not currently covered in dirt as well is an anomaly.

1.1

This is what an archaeologist looks like.

So why do it? Well, for one, the amazingly cool things we find. I first should have realized I wanted to be an archaeologist in 10th grade; my history teacher was talking about writing found somewhere on the Indian Subcontinent that had yet to be deciphered. When I stayed after class to talk to him he said something to the effect of “We may never know….” Naturally, with all the determination a 15 year old can really muster, I decided that I was not going to be kept from knowing things simply because the information hadn’t been discovered then. That pretty much left me with the option of going out and helping to make these discoveries in any way that I could.

I don’t have any illusions about the nature of my assistance. I would be of no assistance to this project if it wasn’t for the help of my professors and the grad students. Everything cool I come across would be essentially lost information if I wasn’t lucky enough to work with people who know how to interpret it. So I do my part, I dig where I’m told, and take special care to recover the information in a scientifically sound way, and I try to learn as much as possible so that one day I can hopefully do the interpretation too.

Soil interpretation

Soil interpretation

I’m so excited to see what information we uncover on this trip, and I hope you’ll stay tuned for all of the updates from those of us in the field, Tom Stanley, and the Penn Museum, and even check out SCAP’s Facebook page.

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