Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

May 11

Good morning from Doha in Qatar! Every field season starts with getting to where you work. Often, this seemingly simple task can become its own odyssey. Many research projects are located in the countryside, far from the international airports of the cities. Depending on their situation, archaeologists in the Middle East use a combination of planes, buses, and automobiles to get where they need to be.

Iraqi Kurdistan, northeast Irac

Iraqi Kurdistan, northeast Iraq

RAP is a good example. To get to Rowanduz, you first need to fly to Erbil in northeastern Iraq. From the United States, there are two main routes to Erbil, either connecting in Europe or the Persian Gulf. The northern route passes through any number of European cities, depending on which carrier you choose. From there, these flights travel through Turkey and then curve down towards Erbil from the north. In my six years of summer excavations, I’ve always taken the northern route. It’s usually relatively painless. You sit for six to seven hours as you cross the Atlantic and then another four to five to get to your destination, with a nice stretch and a snack in between.

I say usually painless, but the one year that my dig director sent me through Moscow on Aeroflot, the Russian national carrier, is seared into my brain. On the transatlantic flight, I sat in front of an American businessman who had drunk too much vodka. Halfway through the flight, he came over the back of my chair with his hands, yelling “Arrrrrrrgh,” like a pirate. He remained equally entertaining (and carefully watched!) for the rest of the flight. During my seven-hour layover in Moscow, there were few chairs available for transfer passengers, so I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor. People who clearly took this route more than me had planned ahead and brought blankets; lesson learned. Finally, I spent my flight south in terror of being crushed by the luggage of my neighbor, whose suitcases were piled high between us. So much for Aeroflot. As I recall, the dig director took a different carrier.

Route two takes you through Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, which is what four of us did this year. It’s a much longer flight to Doha, roughly twelve hours, but Qatar Airways has high-quality service and good entertainment. We’ve got a seven-and-a-half hour layover, which I’m using to write this post, and then it’s a quick two-and-a-half hour trip through southern Iraq to Erbil. Luckily, we’re flying during the day, so we should be able to see some of the famous archaeological sites, like Ur, Uruk, and Assur, as we pass overhead. Once in Erbil, we’ll deal with residency issues and then drive north to Rowanduz, but more on those adventures later. For now, it’s time to buy another coffee and slowly persuade my body that it’s 9:30 am, not 2:30 am.

**Read all of Darren’s posts from his field work in Iraqi Kurdistan**

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Archives Photo of the Week: Mosquee Assan Pacha, fontane des Ablutions. Caire.


57 Mosquee Assan Pacha, fontane des Ablutions. Caire. [Assan Pacha Mosque, Fountain of purification. Cairo.]
Penn Image #166024

 I came across this week’s photo by chance and was just mesmerized by it. Taken by Maison Bonfils, it depicts a fountain inside of the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. The photograph was taken in the late 1800s and is an 8.75″ x 11″ albumen print. The fountain and mosque still exist today and you can view an image of the restored fountain here. 

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Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: The Rowanduz Archaeological Program 2014


This summer, faculty and students from Penn are excavating at the site of Gird-i Dasht and burned settlements around Sidekan in Iraqi Kurdistan. Pictured: Dr. Brad Hafford (bottom left), Dr. Richard L. Zettler (top left), Darren Ashby (bottom right), Marshall Schurtz (top right). Not Pictured: Katherine Burge, Daniel Patterson.

May 10

Like swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, archaeologists are once again arriving at excavations all over the world. This summer, Penn students and faculty are back in Iraqi Kurdistan for the second season of the Rowanduz Archaeological Program (RAP). As a field director, I’m one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave. Throughout the season, I’ll be blogging regularly about our excavations as well as daily life on an archaeological dig.

Our project seeks to shed light on the history and archaeology of Erbil Province, part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For over a century, warfare and political strife have limited archaeological exploration in the region. However, in the past few years archaeologists from many countries have started research projects in the KRG in cooperation with their Iraqi colleagues.


Rowanduz Gorge

RAP is headquartered in Soran-Rowanduz, two cities located in the mountain valleys to the northeast of Erbil. Nestled among the snow-covered peaks of the Zagros Mountains, Soran and Rowanduz differ strikingly from the Iraqi cities along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers further west. During much of the year, the countryside is verdant with tall grasses and trees on the hillsides. In Rowanduz, people’s homes overlook deep gorges cut by mountain streams over millennia. Just over the hill, Soran sits in a river valley at the point where the river enters the Rowanduz Gorge. As the district capital, Soran has grown over the last decade, merging with the neighboring city of Diyana, which has a substantial Christian population.

This year, we’re pursuing two related goals. First, we’re continuing to excavate at the site of Gird-i Dasht, a mound located along a stream just outside Soran. The site consists of both a fortified high mound, which rises 20 meters above the plain, and a low mound that surrounds it. Last summer, we briefly excavated at both the top and the bottom of the high mound. Material recovered from these areas indicates that people lived at this site at least as far back as the 2nd-millennium BCE and as recently as the 19th-century AD. This summer we will work on both the high and low mounds in order to learn more about when people lived at Gird-i Dasht and what they were doing.


Gird-i Dasht

Second, we will work on a series of burned settlements in and around the town of Sidekan, located near the Iraq-Iran border. At the end of last summer, two settlements were uncovered during road construction. More recently, the construction of a bank in Sidekan led to the discovery of more burned remains. We’re very excited about the potential for these sites. Archaeologists love burned remains, because they often contain materials in their primary contexts. If your house is on fire, you’re unlikely to take much if anything before you flee, so remains found in burned deposits are often where they were used or stored rather than where they were thrown away. For the archaeologist, who wants to reconstruct the past, these types of deposits are very important. Additionally, we think that all of these burned sites might be the result of an attack by the Assyrian king Sargon II. In 714 BCE, Sargon II invaded the mountain kingdom of Musasir, plundering the countryside and sacking the capital city. This attack has been known about for a long time thanks to Assyrian inscriptions; however, the exact location of the kingdom is unknown. Some scholars have suggested that the area around Soran and Sidekan was once Musasir and the scant material recovered from these settlements so far dates to the right time period for this kingdom. Whether or not these remains belong to Musasir, their excavation will do much to clarify our understanding of occupation in this area.

As the start of the season finally arrives, we’re all very excited to be back in the field. Part of the appeal of archaeology is the feeling that each pull of the trowel could reveal something you never expected.

***RAP is sponsored by Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Cambridge, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Michael D. Danti (Boston University) is the General Director. Dr. Richard L. Zettler (Penn) serves as the Associate Director.***


Map of northeastern Iraq

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Getting the Murals to the Museum

It’s important to understand how an object actually comes into the museum. The Buddhist murals in the Rotunda are comprised of many different sized panels which entered the museum in stages.  The mural depicting Tejaprabha Buddha came into the museum incomplete in 1926.  You can see the panels are actually framed in large wooden borders showing that some parts of the complete image are missing:

C492 - 1926

Tejaprabha mural showing the three main sections from 1926

It is not until 1929 that the rest of the mural arrives at the museum and is installed with the other sections thus completing the image.  Since each section came in as a separate object, they each have different object numbers.  These are:  C492, C493,C494, C495 and C692.  To complicate matters more, C692 is actually two sections.

C492 with accession numbers

This is important to note because we may not actually have the entire mural.  Therefore any analysis of what is actually depicted and the significance of the number of deities represented and who they represent should be approached with caution. Indeed when this mural came into the museum the central Buddha was believed Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, not  Tejaprabha, with Guanyin to his right (note the Amitabha Buddha in the headdress) and Maitreya to his left.  The murals didn’t come into the museum  with a label attached to them explaining the meaning behind each figure.  The curator at the time Helen E. Fernald, needed to start working out what she was seeing, not only with everything cut into pieces but without the entire mural present.  It is actually reasonable to think this is Sakyamuni because he is sometimes seen as a triad with Guanyin and Maitreya.  The surrounding figures were thought to be Taoist  Moon and Sun gods, not unreasonable given some of the syncretism between Taoism and Buddhism and the iconography of the headdresses.  The correct identification of the Buddha and his surrounding deities came a few years later.  It will take an entire post to unpack that story.

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What ARE the Buddhist Murals Made Of?

The questions most frequently asked of us while working on the Buddhist murals in the Chinese rotunda involve what the murals are made of. Often people presume they are frescoes. True fresco is done on wet plaster. The pigments used in a fresco are mixed with water and applied to a wet plaster surface. A binding agent (the liquid gel in which pigment is carried) is not required; the pigments are absorbed by the wet plaster and they dry and harden as a single layer. The Buddhist murals are painted on a mud surface and follow a basic mud-ground-paint construction pattern. They have several distinct layers, thus they are quite different from a fresco.

mural constructionv3

This is a simple illustrated cross-section of the layers present in the Buddhist Murals. The wood and plaster are modern layers added for support.

There are two different mud layers under these Buddhist murals. The first (closest to  the wall on which the mural was painted) layer is a thicker, coarse layer with large and frequent straw and seed inclusions. The second is a smoother, more homogenous mud (lacking the visible pieces of organic material present in the coarse layer) and it is less than a centimeter thick. Due to the deterioration and loss the murals have suffered over time, these two mud layers are visible and easily differentiated along the bottom of both murals.

Buddhist Blog Image_Mud

This particular area of loss shows the two distinct mud layers. The flat surface is the coarse layer with lots of straw and seed inclusions. The “walls” of the loss show the fine layer onto which the ground was put.
- click for larger image -


A ground layer, probably kaolin (a fine white clay), was applied over the mud surface. The ground is a bright, pure white color that created a “blank canvas” effect onto which the colored pigments were applied. The ground layer provides a smooth, white, level surface for the paint.

Buddhist Mural Ground

When small areas of paint are lost, they expose the white ground underneath. The ground is a very fine, powdery layer.
- click for larger image -

There is a wide variety of colors used on both murals. The paints used are made of pigments and a binding medium. The pigments themselves are probably mostly mineral based while the binding medium is likely organic. Identification of aged organic materials is difficult under the best of circumstances and we are not optimistic that we will be to determine what specific binding medium was used. We will be conducting analysis on the types of pigments used within the next few weeks, so check back in for those results. If you look closely at the colored robes of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and attendants, you can see carefully and delicately shaded areas indicating folds and creases. These and many other details in the compositions were achieved by using multiple layers of paint over one another in order to achieve depth.


Buddhist Mural Paint Layers

This is a close up of one of the attendant’s robes. A purple color was painted over the red to create a shadow effect. We know the purple was painted over the red since a bright red color is exposed in areas where the darker purple has been lost.
- click for larger image -

When the murals were taken off of the monastery walls, they were assembled into larger panels and backed with plaster and wood for support. These larger panels are the separate segments visible today. The panels were assembled and installed in the Chinese rotunda in the 1920s. There is no documentation illustrating how they were installed or what supports are behind them. As part of our analysis we are trying to outline the framework behind the murals.

The Buddhist murals, in their current condition, appear to be held in a wooden scaffolding type framework against the rotunda walls. The panels are comprised of modern and ancient layers as illustrated in the cross-section above. The wood and plaster are modern supports; the mud layers,ground, and paint are original; and we are slowly uncovering the metal framework behind each panel by means of metal detection. We’ll be posting about that process later so stay tuned for it as well!

Acknowledgements: Work on the Buddhist Mural Conservation Survey in supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng.

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The Two Buddhist Murals from Guangshengsi Monastery

Mural showing Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha. C688


Mural showing Tejaprabha, the Buddha of Blazing Light. C492

Two of the most fascinating objects in the Asian section are a pair of  murals reported to have come from Guangshengsi Monastery in southern Shanxi Province, China.   What makes them particularly interesting is the nature in which their provenance, date, and subject matter have fluctuated over the decades since they came into the museum.  This is partly due to the way scholarship works.  The murals came from a monastery that was believed to have multiple murals painted at different times.  When a scholar became interested in one of them, they would end up doing a survey of the other murals as well.  These other murals currently reside in the Royal Ontario Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, and the Cincinnati Museum of Art.  Sometimes insight about one mural shed light on information about another. This has led to many academic articles with differing opinions about where they came from, who painted them (and when), and what is actually being depicted.   Over the next few months the museum is going to be blogging about the digitization and conservation of these two incredible pieces.  Just having high quality images of every inch of these murals will help us to better understand some of the hidden meanings behind them.  It is my goal to shed some light on the larger ideas behind these two murals and fill in some of the background information about them.  What texts are they based on?  Who are each of the figures in the murals?  What are they holding and why? These are just a few of the topics I will try to cover.  I also hope to raise a few questions (based on some of the research I have done) which can only be answered by our conservation team with the help of some cool technology.  Stay tuned for more.

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Seeing with A Haida Master – Robert Davidson

Recording Robert Davidson at Penn Museum.

Jack Litrell recorded Robert Davidson at Penn Museum.

We recently spent the day with renowned Haida artist, Robert Davidson, looking at old Haida carvings in Penn Museum’s collection.  Having flown across the country from Haida Gwaii, British Colombia (Canada!), Robert and his wife Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson (a Haida attorney) arrived with their own photographer, Jack Litrell.  Their goal was to interview and record Mr. Davidson speaking on video camera about masterworks of Haida art in the Penn Museum.

In advance of their travel, Davidson had looked carefully at our website to find the finest early 19th century examples in the collection.  His video documentation will be used to teach students, apprentices, and Haida youth more broadly about the history, design, and artistic legacies of Haida carving traditions.  It will also be used in legal depositions to fuel Haida efforts to reclaim tribal lands.  Terri-Lynn works for White Raven Law Corporation, a Vancouver law firm lead by First Nations’ attorneys devoted to First Nations’ issues.  The Museum is always pleased to accommodate requests in support of cultural and educational goals, but can not comment on the role of Davidson’s video in possible future litigation.

Robert Davidson is a Haida master carver, painter, and print maker from British Columbia, Canada.  His art is in museums around the world, and his newest exhibition just opened at NMAI/NYC.  He and wife, Terry-Lynn, filmed at the Penn Museum in April.

Robert Davidson is a Haida master carver, painter, and print maker from British Columbia, Canada.  His art is in museums around the world, and his newest exhibition just opened at NMAI/NYC.  He and wife, Terry-Lynn, filmed at the Penn Museum in April.

They began filming in our new Native American Voices gallery where Mr. Davidson looked carefully at an antler club, an extraordinary food bowl made of carved mountain goat horn, and an elegantly carved wooden dance rattle with painted human and animal attributes.  After lunch, Davidson studied and then recorded his comments on the distinctive features of the Museum’s 30′ totem poles in the Kress Gallery Entrance.

Davidson described the distinctive features of Penn Museum's 19th century pole carvings from Masset, British Columbia.  His recordings will be used to teach Haida students and to support Haida legal efforts to regain tribal lands.

Davidson described the distinctive features of Penn Museum’s 19th century pole carvings from Masset, British Columbia. His recordings will be used to teach Haida students and to support Haida legal efforts to regain tribal lands.

After a second triple-shot of espresso in the Museum cafe, we moved into the Mainwaring Collections Study Room where, with assistance from Stephanie Mach and Bill Wierzbowski, Robert looked closely at a large and elegantly carved bentwood cedar chest.

Robert was especially excited about a set of ovoid patterns made of cedar bark collected by our early Tlingit curator, Louis Shotridge.

Robert examined a Tlingit cedar bark ovoid pattern set collected in 1905.

Davidson examined each side of the box with great interest, noting the presence and variation of the Grandmother Mouse Woman within the formline design.  He marveled at the carving of an unusually large raven rattle, and was inspired by a rare set of nearly 100 cedar bark oval shaped patterns used by neighboring Tlingit artists to map the “ovoid” shapes so distinctive in Haida and Tlingit formline design. Today Davidson makes his own ovoids out of paper, and just like the Tlingit example, folds his in half to ensure nearly perfect symmetry.

It was an honor to listen as Davidson generously shared his knowledge and to see his excitement as he experienced these old pieces.   Careful and deliberate, he was deeply impressed by the rich detail and quality of the 19th century craftsmanship, and humbled in the presence of the old master carvers.  Clearly Davidson is always learning.  Challenged and alert to the nuances of his ancestor’s individual carving styles, Davidson was amused and even surprised to learn that in a couple of instances his predecessors used design techniques that he thought he had invented on his own.

Davidson designed this cashmere button blanket in the Penn Museum collection in 1995 - you can see it on display in the Native American Voices Gallery.

Davidson designed this cashmere button blanket in the Penn Museum collection in 1995 -  see it on display in the Native American Voices Gallery.
Collection Object Number: 95-25-1


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Conserving the Buddhist Murals: An Introduction

Just because artifacts have been in our collections or even on display for a long time doesn’t mean we know all about them. A case in point is the large Buddhist Murals in our Chinese Rotunda, probably the largest artifacts in our collection, at least in area. Although they’ve been on exhibition there since the 1920s, there’s a lot we don’t know about them and even the things we think we know may not be true.


Details of the murals showing (left) areas on C 688 where mud plaster is powdering, and (right) lifting surface on C 492

As conservators, one thing we are sure of is that the murals are showing signs of instability: areas of lifting surface and areas where the mud plaster substrate is turning to powder. But identifying the cause of the instability and determining a method to conserve them is a job as big as the murals themselves. Starting last fall, supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng, we’ve begun work on a survey of the murals’ current condition that will enable us to do just that. The first step was to take high resolution digital images of the murals current appearance. These photographs, taken by professional architectural photographer Joseph Elliott, form the basis of the condition documentation. Our methodology for the survey is based on advice from two conservators who have worked on similar murals in their own collections: Cathy Stewart of the Royal Ontario Museum and Kate Garland of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA). The NAMA mural is particularly similar in condition and type to ours and Kate Garland’s visit in December 2013 was invaluable in helping the conservators and conservation interns see the finer points of the mural construction and restoration.


Photographer Joseph Elliott taking high resolution digital images of the murals.

Since early February, two pre-program* conservation interns, Cassia Balogh and Morgan Burgess have been recording the current condition using a multi-layer photo editing program. Working with one area at a time, they closely examine each centimeter of the surface, documenting more than fifteen different condition phenomena, such as previous restorations, cracks, flaking surface, exposed ground, and others.

Pre-program interns Morgan Burgess (left) and Cassia Balogh (right) work recording the current condition of  the mural C 688

Pre-program interns Cassia Balogh (left) and Morgan Burgess (right) work recording the current condition of the mural C 688

*Pre-program interns are those who plan to pursue a career in conservation but have not yet been accepted to one of the graduate training programs. Acceptance into these programs is very competitive and candidates need to have a lot of relevant experience when applying. Cassia and Morgan have been working with the conservation Department as volunteers, paid Technicians and now paid interns while they gain the necessary experience.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Unearthed from the Archives


Advertisement for library shelving in the Elkins Library
Penn Museum Image #245775

This Friday at 2PM, the Penn Museum Archives will open it’s doors to show off some of our treasures as part of a new program called “Unearthed from the Archives”. Each week, the archivists will choose a different item from the archives to present. We’re blessed with the gift of gab here in the archives and love sharing what we work with.

In honor of this new program, this week’s image is an advertisement featuring our current room. Before becoming the archives, our space was the home to the museum’s library, the Elkins Library. Storage space is always an issue in the library/archives/museum world and at one point, the library invested in stacks for the room. The company who provided the stacks featured the library in an advertisement for their product. Eventually, the library completely outgrew the space and the archives was moved in. So this Friday, come join us to see what our room looks like now and to learn about some of the museum’s exciting history.

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“When the Sap Starts Running in the Spring, the Blood Starts Running in Our Men”

Probably one of the fastest growing games in the world, it seems that everyone wants to play lacrosse. The Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee will field a team at the World Outdoor Championship Games to be played this summer in Denver (July 9-19). In 2015 they will host 16-18 countries competing in the Indoor Box Lacrosse League on their home turf near Syracuse, New York. Their boys will be on the field with their flag, their anthem, and their colors against USA, Canada, and England, all those good old boys they have known for 500 years.

Oren Lyons at the Penn Museum in April 2014.

Oren Lyons at the Penn Museum in April 2014.

Oren Lyons, the Honorary Chairman of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team, and world renowned advocate for Native American and indigenous peoples around the globe, presented the 2014 Annual Elizabeth Watts and Howard C. Petersen Lecture at the Penn Museum last week as the inaugural guest speaker for our new exhibition – Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now. He explained that there are two kinds of lacrosse – games for fun, and games for healing, both called Deyhontsigwa’ehs (translated roughly from the Iroquois language as “we bump hips”). He spoke eloquently about the less familiar, medicine game and its sacred role in the community today.

Oren Lyons spoke to the Penn men's lacrosse team and Coach Mike Murphy on Franklin Field.

Mr. Lyons spoke to the Penn lacrosse team on Franklin Field before his lecture at the Penn Museum.

In the Spring we have a ceremony. We open it when the sap begins to move in the maple, generally in February. Maple is the leading tree of our cosmology. When that sap starts to move, the blood starts to move in our men, and they are getting ready for the game. The game is open now. When the sap finishes running we will close that ceremony.”

Holding a 170 year old Cayuga lacrosse stick in Penn Museum’s collection, he offered…“So this stick was made for somebody. I have no idea who, but somebody was not well and they called for a game. When that happens, when you call for a game, immediately it will go to a leader and an elder who will call in a speaker who will announce that we have a game. The word will go out to the players, and the community goes into full action. The women have a great deal to do with this game – they handle the feast side of it. If you are having a game for someone it will be a feast and a spiritual event. Everything has to be made that day including the ball. So you put the word out. We usually play 3, the first to 3 goals wins, and that’s the old style. No referees, no whistles, no nothing. You play fair, and you play hard. The harder you play the better it is for the person you are playing for. You represent the spiritual side of things. Everyone who picks up a stick is moving into a spiritual arena – our people love that medicine game. We played about 18 games last year at Onondaga.”

Cayuga medicine stick, ca. 1840, Six Nations, Ontario.

Cayuga medicine stick, ca. 1840, Six Nations, Ontario. The stick is carved of hickory and laced with rawhide. Penn Museum 53-1-17.

Cayuga wooden stick handle showing clasped hands.

Cayuga medicine stick handle showing clasped hands and ball.

This stick here, I saw sometime back around 1998 when we were looking at your Museum and at what you had in your collections and I saw this. It’s from 1840, not that old, but I saw it was a medicine stick – made for somebody who called for a game. I know because it has a ball here at this end, and I looked at the handshake, and I knew it was made for somebody. And if you look at it, it looks a little different that those used today. This was designed for big fields. I made a stick like this just to see what it was for, and I found out you could throw 150-200 yards with this – it was designed for lonnnng fields. Today the fields are short and sticks are short, designed for short passes…So this was made for somebody. I have no idea who, but somebody was not well and they called for a game…Before the game they build a fire and speak on behalf of the person it is for and all the players lay their stick on the fire and he will talk about why this game and why this tree is involved, why this lacing which represents all the animals in this world, how they serve the people and their duties. This is about the responsibility we have for this earth. Because this is representing the spiritual side. When the game is over the ball is the medicine – you don’t know where it’s going. You do your best to get it in the net or the goal. But the ball is the medicine and it is made that day from the leather of the deer. When the game is over, the ball is given to the person and they become part now of the society. They have a responsibility for the next person that is coming, the next person who asks.

So that’s what this stick was for. I don’t know the person it was for, but at one time it served a very strong purpose for an individual.”

Listen to Mr. Lyons’ entire lecture here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZ1FReeRGAk

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