Ringo’s Repatriation Appeal

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:

to my dear human resource, it is I, Ringo.
pardon if I misplace word or meaning. this type writer is foreign to me.
and these written words though well intended may come off mal-informed and riddled with sentimentality.

I previously wrote to maintenance in regards to a hole that leaks upon the top shelf.
Sobek is highly sensitive. exposure to natural elements is inadvisable.
When the issue was not attended to – I took it on myself –
a construction project that was coming along quite nicely. until disgruntled voices started to come from below.
Voices once unheard began to harass and audibly assault
I invited these invasive sounds to meet Sobek and me, so as to instate peace.
yet they refused to budge. fearing Sobek’s temperament I took my grievance to them, these ground floor tenants.

their tags labeled them as lot 770. What a lot they were.
Salutations neighbors say I
Why came you? said one
Because of the noise was my reply
Yes, said a third. you make and take up clatter.
Your voices have made it difficult to continue building, I retorted.
Building? What are you building? cried the one on the end.
I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in. which is a fact.
you, invasive pest, did not ask stated the third to last
I questioned them: why should I ask?
Building what you please is not permissible snapped one of the first. Especially when you decide to build above us. there is an order. there are rules.
continual conferences with these chiefs of power have been overshadowed with tradition and ethics. they have failed to offer up any proof of shelving patriarchy nor have they complied to any of my personally drafted spatial acts.

My humans. please.
I have tried to reason. but there is no reason to be had.
you must deal with these dictators.
this federally empowered clan that has taken to chanting:
where I belong I’m right.
associated or unassociated, you as human resources must take control.
is my right to pursuit of survival to be drowned out because of a rusted archaic infrastructure?
one of which neither Sobek nor I asked to be housed on, when neighbored with chipped cultural items.
I offer condolences to their ancestors
yet I question our shared future.
Partners? enemies? Neighbors?
What can we be?

as I attempt to simply salvage Sobek, as well as my own, dignity
I am being wrongfully accused of colonialism though I know of no such fraternity at this museum
it is my continual failure with these tribal-antes that has forced me to accept that you are the only individuals with the power to solve this tryst.
when you speak to them, you may refer to my documented complaint,
perhaps my written words will lead to some success.


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Sitio Conte in Real Time: January 5, 1940

“In the meantime we are making all arrangements so that the moment that information arrives we can start the wheel going.”

-Mason to Lothrop, January 5, 1940


Notes from Mason’s meeting with Lothrop on December 22, 1939. See the full list.

As the dust from the holidays settled, Mason returned to work firing off correspondence about everything the team would need down in Panama. Luckily back in December, Samuel K. Lothrop from the Peabody Museum, had given Mason a long list of notes [see Lothrop Notes] about the ins and outs of excavating in Panama and specifically at Sitio Conte.  Here are a few important ones:

1. Ask Schaeffer about customs in and out; Zetek helped.

13. Men live at home and provide their own lunches; we provide water. Camp water is boiled river water. Make a pier at river to get water.

15.  Buy paper bags & cotton for packing in Panama. Cloth bags not securable there. Take from here quantities of small cardboard boxes for fine small specimens. Get packing paper in Panama, old newspapers, etc., but must ask early to have them collected. Old gasoline boxes best for packing. May get excelsion in Panama. Get plaster there.

24. Law does not apply to private land. Article 342 of civil code, 1916. Article 102 of Law 41 of 1924. Decree 7 of 1925, Feb. 23.

27. Need lots of flashlights.

33. Few mosquitoes; none in daytime. Nobody got malaria. First aid goods, aspirin. No quinine prophylaxis. No heavy bush. Very clean country for tropics. Little dysentery. Sick can be taken to Panama quickly. Dr. James best physician, if sober.

38. Buy top of toilet seat and nail on, with a pit and brush fence.

43. Cook can bake; his [Lothrop] had a tin oven but might have to bring one down. No butter. Get stock of canned food in in [sic] Panonome or Panama. Order by case in Panama, not from States except lots of sauses [sic], etc., for poor meat. Don’t use local lard; use canned lard, Crisco or butter. (Danish butter probably hard to get now. ) Meat can be purchased twice a week in Penonome and must by law be sold by 9 AM. Can be kept overnight in water. Might buy one of these refrigerators run by kerosene (Crossley Carp., I think:)–See Abercrombie about these & similar things. Could make ice then. Can get ice & beer from Penonome. Plenty of oranges, some bananas. Pork not good. No local vegetables. All vegetables canned. Rice, potatoes, beans (probably means these available locally or in Penonome). Can occasionally get chicken & eggs; chicken very tough. No milk; take canned or Klim. Take plenty of buillion cubes.

57. Best pottery is at bottom, sometimes 12 ft down. Best gold near top.

58. Make small drawings of broken vessels & object & put in later on large general plan.

65. Get snake venom from one of these above. Curtis is practical man who will help with practical methods, house-building, etc. He likes duck-shooting.

66. Chicha for work men on payday. One good expedition ball (best during Holy Week)

Some of these tips are self-explanatory and practical: typical considerations to make when planning an expedition. Perhaps the most important of all the tips are #1 and #24, about Panama’s laws regarding foreign excavations on private lands.  This was going to be the deal breaker: could the Penn Museum legally excavate and bring objects back from Panama to Philadelphia? Lothrop advised Mason to write George S. Schaeffer of the Chase National Bank in Panama about the antiquities laws in Panama.  Schaeffer was Lothrop and Harvard’s agent in Panama and negotiated the contracts between the landowners at the site and the university in the early 30s. Mason asked him to do the same for the Penn Museum and was awaiting his response. As he told Lothrop: “In the meantime we are making all arrangements so that the moment that information arrives we can start the wheel going.”   More on this later…

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Ur Project: December 2014

Tool Complete with Handle (Again)
Comparisons to and a closer look at U.8783 (Penn Museum Nr. B17463)
Awl, Chisel, or Punch from grave PG 422

With the expansion of the Penn Museum’s scientific lab and teaching space (Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials, CAAM) the Museum has acquired a digital x-ray suite. This new equipment allows us to take a closer look at and inside objects. A good candidate for investigation is the awl from PG 422 we saw last month. With x-rays, we can look beneath the bitumen handle.

[Though the X-Ray suite is used by some members of CAAM, it is actually a part of the Conservation Department at the Museum and I’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Conservation personnel in obtaining the x-rays of this object, in particular the work of Tessa De Alarcon.]

X-ray of tool B17463

X-ray of tool B17463

I had expected to see a block of wood encased in the bitumen and wanted to find out if it had been carved in the distinctive bulb shape we see for many awls and for the external bitumen itself. Yet, the x-ray doesn’t show a block of wood at all. It’s possible that the wood is approximately the same density as the bitumen and that it therefore doesn’t show, but that doesn’t seem all that likely. Another possibility would be that wood chips were used to stabilize and harden the bitumen into a usable handle. In fact, additions to bitumen are commonly used since the pure material is not very solid. Just as temper is used in clay, bits of harder material were often included in the bitumen mix just as is done with asphalt for roads today. In that modern case, bitumen is the binder for crushed rock, gravel, or sand. Ancient Mesopotamians knew they needed this mix and pot sherds that are sometimes found covered in bitumen mixture probably show their use as mixing bowls.

Crushed shell was common as a strengthening agent as were vegetal and mineral additives. Such mixtures are seen in bitumen used for waterproofing as early as the Ubaid period (see for example finds at the H3 site in the As-Sabiyeh region of Kuwait). On the mixture of bitumen at this site, used to waterproof reed boats, Robert Carter states: “The vegetal matter, chopped reed and/or chaff, increased its flexibility and tensile strength.”

So it might be that chipped wood was used in the bitumen handle of the awl at Ur. This might explain the burning observed on the wood, since the chips could have been burned before mixing. Of course, the appearance of the piece through the missing bitumen area seems rather solid and the chips of wood would thus have been larger than would be expected for a stabilizing material.

X-ray of tool B17463, rotated 90 degrees from the previous image and at a different wavelength showing less of the bitumen.

X-ray of tool B17463, rotated 90 degrees from the previous image and at a different wavelength showing less of the bitumen.

The copper tool is quite long, reaching well back into the handle. It flares near the back and then returns to a smaller diameter, ending in a kind of narrow nail head. The copper itself is clearly less corroded in the area surrounded by the bitumen, which would be expected. But, would the bitumen, even with strengthening agents, have been able to support pressure on this tool without allowing the back end to press through and shatter the handle?

Another interesting x-ray revelation is that a hole appears in the back of the copper rod. The hole is placed near the widest point of the embedded portion, about 20% from the nail head end. There doesn’t appear to be a purpose for this hole. Perhaps the tool had been something else in a previous usage and the handle had been placed around it later? Or the hole was used to stabilize or attach the shaft in some way, perhaps by inserting a string through it to emerge from the sides of the handle?

Although our closer investigation has left us with more questions than answers, the utility of such examinations is clear. We would not have been able to approach an understanding otherwise without destroying the tool. CAAM and its scientific tools for analysis have thus helped us to pose new questions and approach new answers. And our new vision of the design of this tool can now be more completely compared to the design of others in our collection and in collections around the world.

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Teaching with Objects in ANTH 128: “Peopling Prehistory: Archaeology of Native North America”

This course explored over 10,000 years of the North American archaeological record, investigating the unwritten histories and material evidence of Indigenous peoples prior to European contact. Throughout the class, archaeological studies of prehistory were interwoven with contemporary Native interpretations—much as they are in the Penn Museum’s Native American Voices exhibit. The students visited this exhibit at the end of the course and formed their own opinions about how successfully it dealt with some of the ethical issues that exist within anthropological and archaeological research. In addition to this gallery visit, Penn Museum objects were incorporated into the course through object handling training, three lab days in the Collections Study Room, and a final Object Profile project.

During our lab days, students examined objects made of the three material types most commonly found on North American sites. This included stone materials such as these 10,000-year-old spear points from the Blackwater Draw site, ceramic materials such as this elaborately painted Puebloan pot from Chaco Canyon, and preserved organic materials such as this haunting wooden mask from Key Marco.

Folsom Point 250804, AL1152963 Key Marco

Left: Fluted spear points from the Blackwater Draw site in New Mexico (http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/263636).

Center: Pueblo seed jar from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico (http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/279072).

Right: Wolf head ceremonial mask from Key Marco site in Florida  (http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/240549).


By seeing objects in person rather than just images of objects on a PowerPoint slide, the students were able to connect with them in a much deeper way. This was demonstrated by the questions they asked about the details of the objects’ archaeological context, the processes used to create them, and the cultures who utilized them. In addition, these labs demonstrated the skills necessary for the students to engage in their final Object Profile project.

For their Object Profiles, each student chose one object from the American Section collections and spent a week studying it in the Collections Study Room. In their papers they reported on what they learned from observing and handling the object in the lab. To encourage their deep involvement with the object, they were asked to examine it from all angles and to measure, photograph, and draw the object. Junior Ashley Terry commented that she “found handling the piece [a Puebloan ceramic ladle] extremely useful, as it allowed for the examination of its small details in a way that viewing images would not. And eventually, these small details became the most fascinating aspects of this piece.” For her, this included focusing on the interior decoration, which she illustrated for her paper.


LadleLadle drawing

Left: Puebloan ceramic ladle with broken handle, photograph by Ashley Terry.

Right: Interior decoration on the ladle, drawing by Ashley Terry.


Junior Antonia Diener also illustrated her object, a groundstone effigy, and in doing so recognized a distinct asymmetry that had never been noted before. In her out-of-class research, she focused on objects with similar forms and similar iconography (such as this boatstone from the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University). She concluded that her object likely represents an underwater panther, an important supernatural being in the religion of Native American groups across the American South. This information, along with many of her other observations, will be added to the catalog entry for the object.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 7.40.50 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 7.40.56 PM

Left: Ground stone effigy from the Feltus Mounds site in Mississippi, photograph by Antonia Diener.

Right: Sketch of the effigy showing distinct asymmetry, drawing by Antonia Diener.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 7.41.17 PM     Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 7.41.08 PM

Left: Horned Serpent Monster effigy from the Turner Mound site in Ohio (Rusnak 2010: 7).

Right: Image of the Underwater Panther figure (Reilly 2004: 128).


Likewise, Senior Monica Fenton made major strides in helping us to understand one of the objects in our collections. She reinterpreted her object, recorded in the catalog simply as a “sea tortoise shell plate”, as a net gauge made of turtle plastron. Her research showed that weavers would have created uniform-size holes in their nets by tying the knots around the same flat rectangle. Her discussion of the decoration on this particular net gauge draws on archaeological and ethnography analogy as well as on data from marine biology. In her own words, this research “reveal[ed] not only the history of the object, but hint[ed] at how Key Marco fit into the natural and human worlds of the late prehistoric Americas.”


net gauge 1       Plastron

Left: Net gauge carved with two dolphin-like figures, photograph by Monica Fenton.

Right: The portion of the turtle (plastron) from which the net gauge was carved.


Finally, the students were asked to reflect on what they would like to know about the object if they had the time and resources to complete further studies. This allowed them to think past their one-week timeline and consider just how much you can learn from a single object. In addition to this recognition, the students also came to understand the difficulties with object-based research. Junior Ben Reynolds, astutely observed that as archaeologists, “we must grapple with the possibility (if not likelihood) that the way we think an object could have been used or what symbolic meaning it might have held might be different from the actual reality,” thus recognizing the importance of incorporating contemporary Native interpretations into our material interpretations.


Works Cited:

Reilly, F. Kent. “People of Earth, People of Sky.” In Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South, 125-137. 1st ed. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004.

Rusnak, Michael. “Creatures of the Beneath World: Hopewell Effigies from Turner Mound: Part I – The Horned Serpent Monster Effigy.” Ohio Archaeologist 60, no. 4 (2010): 4-12.

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Sitio Conte in Real Time: December 27, 1939

“A great deal however depends on the individual in the field, his good judgement, his diagnosis on the condition of the specimen and just how it should be handled, the character of the material he has to treat, how much time is available and its reaction to certain kinds of treatment.”

-Louis Schellbach to J. Alden Mason,  December 27, 1939


Letter from Louis Schellbach to Mason, dated December 27, 1939. See the full letter here.

On December 27th, Louis Schellbach, who had accompanied Samuel K. Lothrop to Sitio Conte, replied to Mason’s inquiry of the 23rd of December with a six-page response. The letter details what conservation methods he used previously and offered his advice about conserving specimens in the field. His extensive notes outline what our Head Conservator Lynn Grant, calls “a very inventive approach” to on-site specimen conservation with his use of gum arabic. Schellbach writes:

Most material in these sites will be found in damp or wet condition and near the water table they of course will be saturated. This will be due to the periodic flooding of the area during the rains.

The best first aid is to make all parts of the specimen hold together by hardening it in situ for removal.

This is done with a solution of gum arabic, not ambroid or celluloid solutions, they have no affinity with moisture. Gum arabic dissolved in water makes an adhesive of any consistency  which will soak into wet objects and when dry holds all together. Apply a fairly thin solution of this gum arabic to the object, either with a pipett or a soft camels hair brush. Allow the solution to soak in and then apply another coat . Allow all to dry slowly in the shade and when hard remove the object and wrap carefully in tissue or toilet paper and set aside for special packing. This treatment holds the specimen together by entering all parts and when dry holds all parts together in place without checking or splitting.

Lynn, who worked on the conservation of some of these same objects during a previous exhibition of the Sitio Conte collection, believes that Schellbach’s method “probably saved many artifacts that would not have survived” after being exposed during the dig.

What made the conditions at Sitio Conte so delicate and required that Mason “tak[e] a man especially for this work”? The geography and wet climate of the area were the main issues that the archaeologists faced. The site of Sitio Conte, situated on a flat coastal plain on the Isthmus of Panama, was discovered when at the turn of the century the Río Grande de Coclé changed course and revealed a pre-Columbian cemetery.  Pieces of pottery and gold washed out of the river banks and the locals began gathering up the found objects, with some of them ending up for sale in Panama City.


The site of Sitio Conte is located 100 miles soutwest of Panama City in Panama.
Image courtesy of the Smith College of Art


These are the wet and humid conditions that Schellenbach and Lothrop worked in, and the same conditions that Mason and his team would encounter. Check back next week for our third installment.

Read the first post in this series “Sitio Conte in Real Time: December 23, 1939

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Sitio Conte in Real Time: December 23, 1939

“We really ought to be leaving about this time and so have to step on the gas to get ready as soon as possible.”

J. Alden Mason to Louis Schellbach, December 23, 1939

hero1As 2014 comes to an end, the museum is in the final stages of installing a new exhibition. Beneath the Surface: Life and Death in Pre-Columbian Panama opens February 7th, 2015 and is a new interpretation of a past exhibit, River of Gold, about a 1940 expedition to Panama. Lasting a little over three months, the excavation yielded 6,600 pounds of pottery and stone and an exquisite collection of gold objects, with a great concentration of objects coming from a site called Burial 11. Moreover, the expedition brought to light a wealth of information about the relatively unknown indigenous group that inhabited the area, from around 450 CE to 900 CE, known as the Coclé. The upcoming exhibition delves into the expedition and Sitio Conte—past and present—by taking visitors literally “beneath the surface” to experience and explore Burial 11, the Coclé people, and the twentieth century excavations.

Considering that the planning and the actual digging for this project took place exactly 75 years ago, we are going to explore the expedition as it unfolded from late December 1930 to mid-April 1940 through our blog! Thanks to extremely detailed field notes and archived correspondence, we can share and you can follow the discoveries made in Sitio Conte in real time! So from now till mid-April 2015, check the Penn Museum blog often and follow us on Twitter @PennMuseum with the hashtag #BeneathTheSurface for a live retelling of the excavation.

A little background

While the expedition itself was a great success for the Penn Museum, we ended up there almost by chance. In 1940, with the Second World War raging on and past excavation sites in Europe and North Africa closed off to researchers, the Museum reallocated expedition funds for research in other parts of the world. J. Alden Mason, the head of the American Section, contacted his good friend Samuel K. Lothrop at Harvard about excavating at a site in Panama, which the Harvard Peabody Museum had worked on in the early thirties. Lothrop heartily armed Mason with a great deal of information about the site, the local conditions, and the logistics for archaeological expeditions in Panama via letters and meetings beginning in mid-December. Once Mason received the green light from the Museum board to proceed, he rushed off letters on December 22, 1939 to Donald Scott, Director of the Peabody Museum, and to George S. Schaeffer of the Chase National Bank in Panama to inquire about Panama’s laws regarding archaeological excavations conducted by foreigners, customs policies, and other legal matters that the museum might encounter during their expedition.

J. Alden Mason

J. Alden Mason at the Penn Museum

Eagerly awaiting replies from Panama and Cambridge, Mason continued to plan the expedition from Philadelphia and on December 23, 1939 he wrote to a conservationist with the National Park Service bemoaning the delays, “We really ought to be leaving about this time and so have to step on the gas to get ready as soon as possible.”

From our 21st century perspective, it seems that planning an expedition to a foreign country via telegrams and the post couldn’t have been easy and without unforeseen roadblocks. But Mason was on mission.

Check back soon for our second installment of Sitio Conte in Real Time.

Who’s Who?
Dr. J. Alden Mason, Curator of the Museum’s American Section, was director of the expedition. Robert H. Merrill was surveyor, engineer, and photographer. John B. Corning, a research associate in the Museum, was assistant director. The directors of the former Peabody Expedition, Dr. and Mrs. Samuel K. Lothrop, assisted with arrangements and accompanied the University of Pennsylvania Museum expedition for several weeks.

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Meet Ayşe Gürsan-Salzmann, Assistant Director of the Gordion Project

Ayşe interviewing at Hamidiye village

Ayşe interviewing at Hamidiye village

In 1995 I joined the Gordion Archaeological Project to study the socio-economic structure of the traditional villages in the region. The ultimate goal was to inform the ancient economic practices of the Phrygian kingdom, using the method of ethnographic analogy from the nearby contemporary villages, to help interpret the archaeological evidence. The ancient economy was based on cereal agriculture and animal husbandry through the Roman period and beyond. The contemporary farmers also grow cereals and pastoralists, for at least one hundred years.

sheep feeding on harvested cereal ; behind the shepherd is Gordion’s Citadel Mound, farther behind is another village

Sheep feeding on harvested cereal; behind the shepherd is Gordion’s Citadel Mound, farther behind is another village

Admittedly, a one-to-one comparison between the distant past and the present requires caution, nevertheless ethnographic information can provide insights to explain the past. So, what did I learn from the contemporary farmers living in the region, who were willing to share with me their knowledge of traditional farming practices? As an anthropological archaeologist, I obtained detailed information about non-mechanized farming/herding, land use patterns, social and economic changes with the adoption of mechanized agriculture, and other important details that were archaeologically invisible. So, practices of the present suggested a framework for the ancient economy.


Ahmet Başal Family in their courtyard, Çekirdeksiz village

While most of my field research is done at the village of Yassıhöyük which sits on the ancient settlement, the ethnographic information is derived from 12 village communities in the region.

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How to Make Cuneiform Tablet Cookies

In my own opinion, the best recipes go beyond the taste buds, and serve as a topic of discussion as well. A pre-made jar of salsa doesn’t facilitate conversation, but a recipe with unique ingredients or preparation—something that says something about the person who made it—is all the more valuable for its ability to make connections between the people consuming it.

A good example: a batch of cuneiform tablet cookies, baked up by Katy Blanchard, Keeper of Collections in the Museum’s Near East Section. Here’s how she did it.


For starters, you’ll need some cuneiform to inspire you. A simple image search will yield more results than you’ll ever need—or you can always check out authentic examples from the Museum’s Babylonian Section on our Online Collections Database.

Blank tablets

Next, whip up some gingerbread dough using your favorite recipe. In case you don’t have one, here’s Katy’s:

3 C. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground allspice
1 t. ground cloves
½ t. salt
½ C. unsalted butter
½ C. brown sugar
½ C. maple-flavor OR ¼ C. maple flavor syrup plus ¼ C. molasses
1 large egg

Mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and salt in large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat butter, brown sugar and syrup mixture until creamy. Add the egg and beat until fluffy. Gradually add in the flour pix mixture and mix until thoroughly combined. Use a wooden spoon to stir in the remaining 1 cup of flour* until dough is stiff but pliable. Chill dough for 15 minutes. Working with small batches and keeping the rest refrigerated, roll dough to desired thickness on lightly floured board. Transfer to lightly greased or parchment lined baking sheet. 

*Yes. It never tells you to only use 2 cups at the beginning and every year I forget until I reach that line. Which means every batch of cookies I’ve ever made I’ve used all 3 cups in that first step and I’ve never had a problem. Cut the dough into “tablets” of varying sizes.

Katy’s recipe calls for baking at 350 degrees Fahrenheit—do this for seven minutes, and remove the tablets from the oven.


Next, choose your tool wisely—the cheese knife works very well for this part.


Carve the symbols you’ve chosen, and return them to the oven for another seven minutes.


And voilà! You’re left with a delicious snack and a great segue for those inevitable family conversations about the history of writing.

Of course, our cuneiform-writing friends in ancient Babylonia did not have the luxury of gingerbread in their lives. For a great selection of indigenous recipes from regions around the world, check out Culinary Expeditions—a full-color, hardcover book featuring 80 tested recipes, cultural and culinary stories, and glorious photography of food-related artifacts from the international collections of the Penn Museum.

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Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley : Great Wonders Lecture Series

Stretching over 2,500 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River Valley is among the richest archaeological regions on the North American continent. Home to thousands of earthen mounds, it contains both the oldest and the most elaborate monumental architecture in North America. The earliest of these monuments was constructed at least 1,000 years before the Great Pyramids at Giza and the largest is 10 stories tall and covers an area significantly larger than that covered by the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan. Centuries of archaeological research have shown us that mounds were constructed by both hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists and by both egalitarian and highly hierarchical groups. Accordingly, their functions and meanings differ dramatically across space and time. Archaeologists have come to understand the various uses of earthen mounds by studying the artifacts left behind by the people who built, used, and lived near them. In this presentation, I give an overview of six mound-building cultures, the sites they built, and the incredible variety of tools and art they created.

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Mounting the Mounts: A Behind the Scenes of Beneath the Surface

mounts_5Matt Gay, the mount maker here at the museum, allowed a sneak peak of what he has been working on for the upcoming exhibition, Beneath the Surface today.  After months of careful planning, measuring, drafting, and constructing the various mounts for all the objects going on display, he was able to put some elements together for first 3-D visualization of the pièce de résistance of the exhibition, a partial reconstruction of Burial 11.

This new exhibition seeks to re-interpret the famous Sitio Conte expedition by taking visitors literally “beneath the surface” to experience and explore Burial 11, the Coclé people, and the twentieth century excavations.  Hence why some of the pieces look like they are floating. Sorry! No more spoilers here considering there are only two short months left until the exhibition opens on February 7, 2015.


Matt had to make and paint mounts for all types of objects, including ceramic and bone objects, not just the renowned gold ones found at Sitio Conte in 1940.


Some of the mounts look like true works of art.  The curve of this mount perfectly and discretely cradles the carafe that will sit in it.


The placement of each mounted object is specific to the location where it was found in the burial site. All of this information was gleaned from careful examination of the excavation records housed in the Museum Archives.


After several hours, Matt had all of the mounts secured and was putting objects in place for review by the exhibition staff.

mounts_11Here Matt and Bill Wierzbowski, Keeper of Collections in the American Section, fit the carafe into place. Each mount was made to fit the object in a specific position. Matt was constantly referencing his camera where he recorded how each object fit its mount.

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