Creating Beth Shean After Antiquity

This spring, I had the opportunity to sit in on a graduate seminar focusing on the ancient site of Beth Shean in northern Israel (Beth Shean After Antiquity, taught by Dr. Robert Ousterhout). When I first registered, I expected the class to be similar to other archaeology courses I had taken – mostly lectures, discussions, and class presentations, with a few museum visits sprinkled in for good measure. However, as soon as I arrived in the first class, I realized that this was not the case – the professor had announced we were going to make a virtual web exhibit for Late Antique and Byzantine Beth Shean.


Map of the Tel at Beth Shean (Fitzgerald, 1931)

Situated in present-day Galilee, Beth Shean was an important location in Biblical times (ca. 1100 – 700 BCE) and Late Antiquity (ca. 250 – 750 CE). The Penn Museum initiated an excavation at the site in 1921, focusing on the Biblical levels. Today, many artifacts from these early levels of Beth Shean can be found in the Canaan and Israel Gallery. However, finds from later Late Antique and Byzantine Beth Shean are harder to spot. While they were well documented and preserved in the museum’s archives, they remain for the most part unpublished and in storage.

Led by Dr. Ousterhout, our task was to dust the decades off these later artifacts and breathe new life into them online.

We would soon discover that building a digital web exhibit is easier said than done, especially since none of us had significant web design experience. But we had a mission – constructing an engaging, historically accurate online exhibit in a single semester.

For four months, we were in overdrive, designing the site and its content. While developing appealing visual elements was important to engage visitors, the artifacts needed to remain central. The interface had to appeal to everyone, while remaining useful for visitors with scholarly interests.

After experimenting with several platforms, we decided on a layout that used image galleries for navigation. We kept the descriptions short and the background simple. This minimalism highlighted the striking appearance of the artifacts, allowing them to speak for themselves.

Once the foundation was laid, we began creating content. Each student wrote a research paper focused on a broad topic relating to Beth Shean, its people, or its surroundings. These papers were posted to the site’s digital archive.

Mother and Child Figurine from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-103-936

The real stars of the site, however, were the artifacts.

Each student curated a themed gallery, for instance focusing on a specific type of artifact (e.g., glass or architecture) or a context (e.g., a cemetery). We selected artifacts to be showcased by balancing daily experience, for instance, cookware that would have been found in every Beth Shean home, with stunning highlights from the archived collections. We wanted viewers to have a sense of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

The museum archives contain over three thousand Late Antique and Byzantine artifacts from Beth Shean, and the process of selecting precisely which ones to feature in the final exhibit was not unlike a game show. First, we hit the books and chose our contestants. Then, we requested our top picks from the Near Eastern Section storage room and presented these to the entire class. Some made the cut, while others were sent back to the storerooms. Once the set of artifacts was approved, we carefully photographed each piece. The photographs were then edited and uploaded, along with a brief description and scans of related documents. Unlike physical galleries, the web-based interface also allowed us to link artifacts to relevant references, including groundbreaking publications, other artifacts in and out of the museum’s collection, and to each item’s museum record.

Incense Shovel from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-108-28

Incense Shovel from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-108-28

While all of the information we present was accurate and verified, many students have expressed the desire to take advantage of the digital medium and continue to edit and update the site, even though the course has ended.

The movement of this project from the storerooms to the classroom to the web has definitely reshaped the way that I interact with archeological sites and materials myself. It has also impacted how I think about processing and presenting information to the public. If I’m ever lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on this sort of project again, I would in a heartbeat!

Check out our exhibit at

Project Director: Robert Ousterhout

Contributors: Megan Boomer, Matthew Chalmers, Victoria Fleck, Joseph R. Kopta, James Shackelford, Rebecca Vandewalle, and Arielle Winnik.

Beth Shean After Antiquity is a collaborative project of the University of Pennsylvania History of Art Department, the Penn Museum, and the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at Penn Libraries, with support from the Digital Humanities Forum.

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Standing on Stilts: The Glazed Ceramics from Ur

In my last blog post I wrote about the process for firing some of the unglazed ceramics from Ur and I thought I’d follow that up with some information about the glazed ceramics from Ur.

31-43-646: a glazed bottle from Ur

31-43-646: a glazed bottle from Ur

The firing of glazed wares is different from unglazed ceramics in a few key ways.  First they have to be fired in a kiln (no open firing or pit firing), and secondly the pots have to be loaded into the kiln in such a way that none of them are touching.  The vessels cannot touch because during firing the glaze completely melts, which once cool creates a glassy surface over the pot.  Any pots that are touching when the glaze melts will be fused together.  This means that to make glazed ceramics potters had to also have kiln furniture.

Photo of the interior of one of the chambers of the kiln before firing at Appel Farm in New Jersey

Photo of the interior of one of the chambers of the kiln before firing at Appel Farm in New Jersey

Kiln furniture is anything that is used in a kiln during firing and includes things such as shelves, posts, and stilts (or tripods).   In particular I wanted to talk about stilts as it just so happens that we have some from Ur!

Stilts from Ur: B15238.1, B15238.2, and B15238.3 (U.834B)

Stilts from Ur: B15238.1, B15238.2, and B15238.3 (U.834B)

Stilts can be used in a few ways: they can be used to allow vessels to have glaze on the interior and exterior (including the bottom), as well as to nest and stack them in the kiln.  The glazed vessels from Ur are good examples as they have glaze all over and show evidence of having been stacked and nested.  For example take a look at 31-43-603, a glazed bowl from U16314) with glaze over the entire interior and exterior.

31-43-603: stilt markings on the interior (top images) and on the exterior (bottom images) of the bowl

31-43-603: stilt markings on the interior (top images) and on the exterior (bottom images) of the bowl

This object also has three small marks on the interior and on its base: these marks are from the use of stilts during firing that allowed the bowl to be nested with similarly shaped bowls as is shown in the reconstruction below.

Reconstruction of how stilt were used to stack bowls during firing

Reconstruction of how stilt were used to stack bowls during firing

Most of the bottles, including 31-43-646 (shown at the top of this post) only have markings from a single stilt on one side and so were probably not stacked but set sideways on a stilt. However, there are a few that do have two sets of markings such as 31-43-631.

Stilt markings on the sides of 31-43-631

Stilt markings on the sides of 31-43-631

With the marks on both sides it is likely that this object had at least one other object stacked above it as seen in the reconstruction below.

Reconstruction of how objects like 31-43-631 may have been stacked in the kiln using stilts

Reconstruction of how objects like 31-43-631 may have been stacked in the kiln using stilts

The thing though that I find truly remarkable about the stilts from Ur is how little this form has changed.  Potters today who want glaze to cover the entire vessel (many leave the bottom, or foot unglazed instead) still use stilts and the design is virtually identical to the ones from Ur.  Below are two examples currently available from ceramic suppliers.

The left stilt is a Roselli Stilt DP Series and the right stilt is a DP01 stilt

The left stilt is a Roselli Stilt DP Series and the right stilt is a DP01 stilt

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Shells & Nails on the Wampum Trail

In May, my research assistants Stephanie Mach and Lise Puyo joined me for field research in the northeastern US and Canada, visiting nine museums, four tribal communities, and several private collectors to examine colonial-era wampum (woven shell bead) belts and collars. (For more details, see our blog, On the Wampum Trail.) Our travels on the wampum trail were charted, in part, by following a track that Frank G. Speck (one of the founders of the Penn Department of Anthropology) laid a century earlier, when he collected examples of visual, ephemeral, and material culture among Algonkian and Iroquoian communities. By creating detailed object cartographies and provenance histories, we hope to recover connections between Indigenous objects in museums and contemporary Indigenous communities.


Stephanie Mach and Lise Puyo examining the Fort Shantok collections at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by Marge Bruchac.

We started our tour in Connecticut, analyzing the coastal archaeological collections housed at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven. There, we found dense evidence of early 17th century Native wampum manufacture in materials salvaged from a dig at Fort Shantok (also called Uncas’s Fort, at Trading Cove), a well-known site in the homelands of the present-day Mohegan Tribe. This collection includes local species of shell used for wampum-making—channeled whelk (Busycon canaliculatum) and knobbed whelk (Busycon carica) for white beads, and quahog (Mercenaria mercinaria) for dark purple beads—along with sandstone blocks for polishing shell blanks and bone awls.

An iron nail excavated from the Fort Shantok site, re-worked to fit into a bow drill or pump drill. Item #10289 housed in archaeological storage at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Connecticut Tier 78, Drawer 4. Photo by Lise Puyo.

An iron nail excavated from the Fort Shantok site, re-worked to fit into a bow drill or pump drill. Item #10289 housed in archaeological storage at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Connecticut Tier 78, Drawer 4. Photo by Lise Puyo.

The European debris collected from Fort Shantok includes bits of copper, clay pipe fragments, a rusty jaw harp, and a single wrought iron nail. The size suggests it to be a ship’s nail, hammered and drawn from quarter-inch squared iron rod stock (typical of the 16th or 17th century), but the shape is unusual. It has been re-worked, and the point has been drawn out and narrowed into a tubular shape. The head has been flattened in such a way that it would never hold a wooden seam secure. Who would alter such a good nail? To what purpose? The answer may be found among the shell debris from the same layer of the same site: a single white shell bead with a channel that matches the diameter of the narrrowed point of the iron nail.

Weeks later, far to the north, at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, we examined two bow drills crafted from bent wood strung with leather cord. Before European contact, Native hand drills, bow drills, and pump drills were fitted with a stone bit (called a mux), secured in a piece of wood which was rotated to generate the necessary heat and friction to bore holes in wood, shell, or stone. Yet, each of these drills was fitted with a cast-off wooden spool and…a nail.

A bow drill fitted with a cast-off industrial spool and an iron nail for a bit. Canadian Museum of History, item #III-H-334 a-c, identified as Huron-Wendat, collected by Frank Speck. Photo by Lise Puyo.

At this juncture, we were delighted to discover that Frank G. Speck’s collections in Canada assisted our research in Connecticut. In 1911, Speck recovered this bow drill from a Huron-Wendat wampum-maker at the Native mission village of Lorette, near Quebec City. During the colonial contact era, Northeastern Native peoples routinely adopted European trade goods, putting them to use for Indigenous purposes. A classic example is cutting up copper pots to make ornaments. Another example (as these wampum collections demonstrate) is using iron nails for drill bits.

For decades, scholars of Iroquoia have been imposing strict timelines on the manufacture of Indigenous materials using European technology. Wampum shell beads were difficult to craft with stone drill bits. Hence (it has been argued), Native people were not able to produce uniform tubular wampum beads until the Dutch introduced metal drills in the 1630s. Technically, shell beads were actually “bored” rather than “drilled,” using high-speed rotation and pressure to puncture the shell without shattering, and water to keep the heat and dust in check. New France journals note that by the 1610s, Native people living along the Saint Lawrence seaway were already familiar with (and specifically requesting) awls as trade goods. But the awl was not the first innovation in drilling technology. Nails from ships manned by Breton fisherman (or even Viking adventurers) could have been procured centuries earlier. A Native artisan could just as easily fit an Indigenous bow drill with an awl, or with a simple iron nail.

Close-up photo of old wampum shell beads from an unidentified New York archaeological site. Note the wide range of hole sizes, variations in color with the faded purple beads, and the striations, cracks, and weathering from exposure. Photographed by Lise Puyo in a private collection in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Close-up photo of old wampum shell beads from an unidentified New York archaeological site. Note the wide range of hole sizes and weathering from exposure. Photographed by Lise Puyo in a private collection in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Early archaeologists habitually sorted materials from Native American sites into “pre-historic” (presumably Native) and “historic” (presumably European and non-Native) categories. This sorting process can obscure evidence of the Native use of European trade goods for new purposes. For example, we examined a collection of old wampum beads recovered from an archaeological site that showed wide variation in hole diameters. Were the wide holes bored by stone, and the narrow holes bored by iron? Or were all of these beads bored by different sizes of nails?

The material evidence for both Algonkian and Iroquoian culture in the northeast suggests that the inclusion of new tools in old traditions is a marker of both material change and cultural continuity. Europeans and their tools clearly enabled, but did not invent, wampum ceremonialism. We found evidence of wampum belts that had been made and re-made, damaged and repaired, purposed and re-purposed, woven together and taken apart. These patterns of wampum use and manufacture resonate with other Indigenous traditions that have persisted from the past to the present. All of these wampum beads and belts and tools demonstrate the rich ingenuity of Indigenous philosophies and technologies. All of this evidence deserves our thoughtful attention.

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Exploring an Autonomous Exclave: Naxçıvan Archaeological Project 2014

CIA FactBook Map of Azerbaijan (1995)

CIA FactBook Map of Azerbaijan (1995)

Salam from Azerbaijan and Hoşgəldiniz to Beyond the Gallery Walls! After a week of preparations and setup, the 2014 season of the Naxçıvan Archaeological Project (hereafter, NAP) is now in full swing. As with any archaeological field project, there are many things that must be taken care of before a research season can begin in earnest – this year being no exception. Before we could dedicate ourselves fully to fieldwork the dig house had to be properly outfitted; this included, among other things, logistical tasks such as stocking and equipping the kitchen, provisioning the sleeping quarters, setting up the data processing workstations, installing the internet, starting a workflow, cleaning, repairing and organizing field gear as well as divvying up chore routines. While these preparations would ideally be finished before fieldwork starts, it rarely works out that way in practice, which leads to a hectic and busy first few weeks. Archaeology is nothing if not a complicated endeavor no matter where one works, but especially so in the former Soviet Union.

Maiden's Tower (Baku)

Maiden’s Tower (Baku)

As eight years have passed since the beginning of the NAP, much of the diplomatic heavy lifting that has made this collaborative project possible has already been accomplished. Our directors, Dr. Lauren Ristvet of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Hilary Gopnik of Emory University, and Dr. Emily Hammer (soon to be) of the Oriental Institute, have been working in Naxçıvan for eight years now; their hard work in previous field seasons and their success in obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) have made it possible for this project to continue. Under their leadership, the NAP has become a premier archaeological expedition: not only is it the first American project to work in Azerbaijan, but it is also one of only six archaeological projects funded by the NSF to be directed entirely by women. It is an honor and a privilege to be part of a project that is breaking new ground (pardon the pun) in the academy and beyond.

As mentioned above, this is the first American-led archaeological expedition to Azerbaijan; despite it being a relatively easy country for Americans to work in compared to its immediate neighbors, few American or other Western archaeologists have done research in this Caucasian republic. Indeed, few people in the United States are familiar with the recent history of Azerbaijan or its rich cultural heritage.

Our project is based in the Autonomous Republic of Naxçıvan, an exclave that is separated from the main bulk of the country by Armenia. Naxçıvan is mostly formed by the wide valley on the right bank of the Araxes River (the left bank opposite Naxçıvan lies in Iran) and averages approximately 1000 meters above sea level in elevation. The landscape alternates between open prairie, brush-land, agricultural fields and mountainous ridges, but the most conspicuous feature on the horizon is the looming silhouette of Mount Ararat, the purported landing place of Biblical Noah’s ark. Other imposing features include the many Iron Age hilltop fortresses such as Oğlanqala, Sədərəkqala, Qizqala, and Shahtaxtı, all located at strategic access points to the fertile Araxes floodplain from the passes through the surrounding mountains.

The Flame Towers (Baku)

The Flame Towers (Baku)

Ludwig Nobel's Mansion (Baku)

Ludwig Nobel’s Mansion (Baku)

This season we are investigating the ancient societies that flourished in this region during the first millennium B.C.E. We are interested in the relationships between the fortress-based polities that existed here and the contemporaneous local communities that dotted the valley floor. Our team is excavating areas in the lower town that surrounds the fortress of Oğlanqala, as well as conducting geophysical and field-walking surveys in order to delimit the extent and nature of this settlement. While half a dozen seasons of excavations on the citadel mount have yielded much valuable information about the fortress of Oğlanqala, little is known about the settlement that surrounded it. We want to know: was it a planned imperial city, a high-density agrarian city, a low-density agro-pastoralist urban settlement, or was the fortress surrounded by many low-density pastoralist settlements? Our work seeks to evaluate the utility of these four different models of settlement dynamics, each of which represents a particular configuration of social variables including but not limited to: population density, spatial patterning, planning, fortifications, mobility, and degree of economic integration.

Mount Ararat (view from Sədərək Settlement)

Mount Ararat (view from Sədərək Settlement)

Oğlanqala Fortress on top of Kara Depe (View from Qizqala)

Oğlanqala Fortress on top of Kara Depe (View from Qizqala)

These kinds of research questions can be addressed in a number of different ways. Archaeological excavation is a familiar enough idea to most people, through its frequent depiction in television, film, and other media, but archaeological survey is less ‘sexy’ and therefore has a less stable referent in the public imaginary. In my next post I will introduce what it is like to participate in an archaeological survey and how we use a specific set of methods and equipment in order to locate, identify, and characterize archaeological sites and ancient monuments.

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When what you see is not what you get

The museum is getting ready to install an exhibition on this year’s Penn Humanities Forum theme: Color. This alabaster head from South Arabia (30-47-17A) was selected for the exhibition to help illustrate how representations of human heads were achieved in stone in a variety of cultures and throughout time. When it first came to the Conservation lab, it was mounted in a wooden box.


Museum Object Number: 30-47-17

The box was clearly not part of the original statue and wasn’t doing the head any favors in presentation. We think this type of display mount dates to a time in the general 1950’s. Earlier displays tend to be more customized, and later displays are better documented. While the dating is not precise, it’s more than enough to know that the box will not be part of this year’s presentation.

Removing boxes like this one is not an unusual task in exhibition prep, but you never know what you might find under the wood. In many cases, there is a simple mechanism holding the object in place. Other times, you get a surprise like this:


The neck was set into a solid block of plaster with a bed of unidentified black putty at the bottom! Not what I was expecting! To make it even more interesting, there was a strip of plywood and a bit of paper board imbedded into the plaster on the front. The only upside to this discovery was that it gave me an excuse to break out the Dremel (our rotary power tool that we keep handy for tasks like this one)…


With a little cutting, prying, and chiseling, I was able to free the head and remove the residues. It’s now off to the mountmaker’s studio to get fitted for a new, age-appropriate, brass mount. Come visit the museum in late August to get a look at the head on display!


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Digging up gold

When Penn archaeologists opened Tomb 6A in Lapithos, Cyprus in 1931, they discovered gold ornaments almost immediately. According to Virginia Grace, who wrote about the tomb and its contents in the American Journal of Archaeology nine years later (vol. 44 no.1), the gold objects first drew the excavators’ attention because “one of them caught the candle-light of the man arranging for the first photographs” (Grace, 17). Although some of these finds were kept at the Cyprus Museum, the rest of the jewelry from this tomb (Early Cypriot II era or 2100-2000/1950 B.C.) and successive tombs was brought to the Penn Museum and remains here today.


32-27-385. Fragments of a gold ornament in the shape of a leaf from Tomb 6A.

The few precious metals are kept in a vault in Museum storage, and are rarely removed. Having the chance to look at them up close, and photograph them is a rare opportunity. They were especially awe-inspiring to view since, although extremely delicate, they are in good condition (such is the amazing lasting quality of gold). The tiny fragments pictured above form a leaf, and have incised lines and dot repoussé delineating the outline and stem that runs through the center. This kind of decoration would have been executed from the back.

Diagram of the gold leaf fragments drawn by Tatiana Proskouriokoff (Grace, Pl. XII).


32-27-385 gold leaf fragments, back.

Repoussé leaves were a common motif in Minoan tombs from Mochlos, and this leaf is one of the finds that suggest some kind of Minoan influence in Cyprus during this period. Other examples of Minoan gold leaves can be seen in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Last week I had the chance to show these images to an expert in ancient Minoan jewelry crafting techniques, Jane Hickman, whose name you may recognize because she works here at the Museum as Editor of Expedition magazine.  She had included some objects from Lapithos in her dissertation Gold Before the Palaces: Crafting Jewelry and Social Identity in Minoan Crete and understands a good deal about ancient jewelry making. In her dissertation, she noted a pair of antithetical gold hair rings or earrings found in Tomb 6A near the skull of a woman, which were probably once worn on each side of the face.  These gold pieces appear to have been unique in design to Cyprus. They were kept at the Cyprus Museum.

gold hair rings

Gold hair rings or earrings and their diagram (Grace, Pl. XII)

The more intricate gold pieces from Lapithos are later in date, belonging to the Iron Age, and Jane explained some of the common jewelry-making techniques likely used in their production. For example, this beautiful earring (below) consists of a hemisphere boss at the center that would have been made from a sheet formed over wood or metal. Around the top appears to be a twisted wire, and the larger balls at the bottom likely consist of two bosses bonded together.

32-27-578. Gold earring, front.

32-27-578. Gold earring, front.

Joining in antiquity could have been performed using soldering (the melting of a filler metal at a lower meting point than the pieces being joined), or a technique known as copper diffusion bonding.  Diffusion bonding was developed in ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Etruscan and Minoan civilizations, but was lost after the Roman Era, only to be “rediscovered” in more modern times. It involves mixing a copper compound such as copper hydroxide with glue and water, which allows tiny granules or wires to be set in place with a fine-tipped brush and then placed in a charcoal fire to alloy the copper and gold. The granules, such as the tiny spheres at the bottom of the earring, are made by cutting wire into equally sized pieces, and setting them on a bed of charcoal and heating them. When the wire segments become hot enough, they melt into spheres, which were then rinsed and sorted by size. Watch how this process works with a jeweler named Fred Zweig here.

32-27-578. Gold earring, back.

32-27-578. Gold earring, back.

How segments were formed and attached can be better viewed from the back (pictured above). At the back you can also see that the very tip of the earring wire that would have gone through the ear has a small lip. It was likely fired and rounded so that it could pass through the ear smoothly. The granulation technique was also used on this pair of earrings, pictured below.

32-27-1203. Gold earrings from Lapithos.

32-27-1203A and B. Gold earrings from Lapithos.

You may notice that the color of these earrings is significantly lighter than the previous objects. Gold would not have been pure, and the color can indicate varying levels of copper or silver that exist in the metal. The lighter colored earrings above are likely to contain more silver, and the redder color of the other objects likely indicate more copper. You may also notice that the granules on 32-27-1203 are varying sizes, so slightly less care was taken with them when they were sorted, possibly indicating a smaller workshop. I love this pair of earrings because although so old, there is something highly modern and contemporary about their design, simultaneously simple yet delicate and elegant.

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting an up-close look at these beautiful pieces as much as I have.

My work on the Lapithos collection is the focus of a Kress Fellowship. This Fellowship is supported by a grant from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation

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The Emergence of Ringo and Sobek

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.

Working with archival materials is not for everyone. Sometimes the tasks are tedious and monotonous. But even then, the old records and the Museum surroundings continue to be fascinating. Here is one such experience, imaginatively elaborated.

Rhonda Byrne possesses a mind that has the ability to transcend pessimism. In an earlier incarnation, it was able to infuse positivity into a physical manifestation that sold 19 million copies worldwide and was telepathically translated into 46 languages. It did in fact create a law of attraction. It was, and is, thought that Mrs. Byrne is neither a scientist nor a mystic. It seems likely to me that she is both. She identified a social question and invented a hypothesis based off of historical research and personal magnetism. Byrne ushered in an era of belief in the strength of the individual to be, to find themselves, their “true selves” through fatalistic self-visualization. 

And since this subject has been reported on, adapted into a cinematic documentary, and seriously received, I am no longer worried about being mocked. I am not self-conscious of the statement that I am about to make. Since I am the sole intern within the museum’s photographic archives, it is my burden to convince you.

I stayed in the storage room later than usual that afternoon, and caught sight of an oversized cockroach jumping about the cabinets. He did not see me, and so, I watched him. He would trek painfully over the towers of boxes and throw himself with all his force over adjoining shelves, head downward, legs pulled in tight. He looked like a miniature cannonball and his simulated force was just sufficient to get him to his intended destination. He refused to travel on any part of the floor; he had a great deal of trouble avoiding it. I assumed he knew about the adhesive bug traps. I never saw such a hardworking, determined cockroach in my life. After about an hour of this truly difficult voyage he fell before an anamorphic statue. Similar to the way a cat, at the end of the day, finds comfort in the vicinity of its owner.   

Feeling quite grand about my invisibility thus far, I crept closer to the critter’s idol, and overheard one of the most curious conversations I have ever had the privilege to eavesdrop on. I transcribe it here-as close to memory as my feeble mind permits- accompanied with a sketching of the curious characters that have left me awake this night, and I feel certain, many nights to come.

If the secret be to thinkRingo's Introduction
Then I have become that which I always knew I should be.
In a past life I was an anthropologist.
I have been returned to dust and dirt in the carapace of a cockroach.

Though I travel in a four-legged shell,
This metamorphosis has given me a new outlook on life.
A roach must look up to see things,
Pictures will inevitably be bigger,
Objects present themselves more forcibly,
My perception is my vantage point.

Thank goodness for friends like you Sebek.
I’ve tried communicating with my fellow antennae crawlers, but they were cockroaches in their past, and remain as such.
They do not wonder or probe.
They die stuck.
I will not get stuck.

Night after night- to you- I will divulge all I learn and know.
I hope you will not become jealous of my mobility,
That you will not make fun of me, because, we are both hybrids.
Provocative creatures.

Won’t you think yourself a pair of working legs?
Not plaster or papyrus.
Reincarnation isn’t for everyone, though.
So, I alone will have to acquaint you with this museum,
When the lights go out,
And the mammals have retreated to their dens.
Packed up with their theories and sense of free will.
I have yet to discover what purpose philosophy serves.
As a cockroach I have no use for it; do you?
Though you still won’t utter a sound (despite me liking you best) I find myself judging your story by your stand.   
At the end of a day, what left is there to do, but judge and speculate?

Why just today, I talked to a Mummy.
Following the beaten path I was lead to statues and art.
Stylized spaces free of death.
It was only when I took a wrong enough turn that I found the mortician’s lab.
So eager was I that I leaped onto the chest of the closest sleeping mummy
“Pardon me,” I said, “Do you like being objectified?”
It proved to be a female.
She gaped at me
I thought it might be because I was standing where her heart had been
But all she said was: “ Oh you of little consequence; we couldn’t all be Cleopatra in life. So why not in death?”
In Egypt, her name had been five consonants long, after immigration she had dismantled it to “T.”
She is still waiting for it to catch on.
Despite her loving her luminary eternity, I still recommended to her to not go through the process again.
The next time she died, I strongly suggested that she request to be cremated or composted.

Your silence thus far is not becoming Sobki.
Illusiveness never suited a god.
Particularly, for a Croc who actually knows something about time.
It must be in your blood
Well, I will wait for you to turn your head towards me, and then I will begin.
In the meantime, you must come to call me Ringo.

The Intern 

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Ur Digitization Project: June 2014

Combining Maps and More at Ur
Spotlight on Domestic Burials in Area AH
Observing patterns in spatial data at Ur with Geographic Information Systems

I’m always happy when I can demonstrate the value of our project. We’re working with old data on even older objects, spending a lot of time and money organizing and reconnecting them; why do we do it? Countless books, dissertations, reports, and articles have already been published about Ur. Isn’t it all done?

If you’ve followed these blog posts, you already know the answer is no, it hasn’t been all done—research is investigation and re-investigation, and access to both new and old data is essential if we are to look again into what we think we know. All of the current reports about Ur still do not come close to covering everything there is to cover about the ancient city. Furthermore, there is no complete bibliography of Ur. That alone is a worthwhile task, counting the countless to arrive at a list of books, reports and other writings about this most important site.

We are working on creating that list, but even when it is complete and even if we could put a digital copy of every article online (which we may not be able to do in many cases), people would still only have access to what we knew, or thought we knew. There is still much to learn by reading these reports, testing them against the data, or coming up with new theories based on the data themselves. But even the primary reports of the site do not list all the data. Many of the less-spectacular artifacts, the partial buildings, the damaged graves, and other information of the sort, was deemed less important than the more complete, and thus was never published, or only cursorily mentioned. This is why the field notes and field catalogues are so important.

As a demonstration of just how much was not covered in the reports, let’s look briefly at graves in area AH. Edward Luby at SUNY Stonybrook wrote a most interesting dissertation in 1990 showing that Woolley only published 94 of at least 173 graves he found in this area of about 7,000 square meters–this means that only around half the discovered burials were ever published. If you read Woolley’s final reports and don’t have access to Luby’s dissertation, you might well think that 94 was the total number of burials in AH. And if Dr. Luby had not gotten access to the field notes through the British Museum, he might have thought that as well. Even though his research and analysis was very good, we can now represent it in an even more dynamic fashion with Geographic Information Systems, and we can check the data, re-plot it, and reunite it with artifacts from the field catalogues.

Burials in Domestic Area AH. Those in red are listed in UE 7.

Burials in Domestic Area AH. Those in red are listed in UE 7.

Here is a rough display of the overall distribution of graves from the area. In this case, each dot represents a grave of some type. These are not the royal tombs that Woolley wrote so much about, but burials beneath the floors of houses, primarily of the Old Babylonian period (roughly 1700BCE). Sometimes they were vaulted chambers wherein many family members were buried, other times they were simple pit inhumations, pot burials, or larnax burials (a larnax is a clay coffin of sorts, much in the shape of a bathtub, often turned upside down over the body).

When the burials are coded into a Geographic Information System, their locations are connected to a database of other kinds of information, so we can select and display specific groups: type of burial, burials containing particular artifacts, ones that have been looted, ones that are facing a particular direction, or any other coded condition from the notes. In the above example, the yellow dots represent graves that were not published in Woolley’s final Ur Excavations volumes, or that were so vaguely mentioned as to be unidentifiable without the field notes (these are graves that did not receive an LG number in the list of graves at the back of UE 7). Among these are some where even the exact location is in question—but the database also records how confidently we can assign location and on what information that location is based. Eventually we will move from dots to outlines of known graves where they are confidently placed and will add maps of the bones and artifacts

Burials in Domestic Area AH. Yellow dots represent infant burials.

Burials in Domestic Area AH. Yellow dots represent infant burials.inside the grave wherever it was recorded to that level of detail.

As an example of distribution analysis (plotting items of particular types and looking for patterns) I show another image at right. In this case, the yellow dots represent infant burials. Woolley did not always record age or gender of the skeleton (he did not have a physical anthropologist with him and he did not save many of the bones) but he did record infant and child graves separately. Almost all of them are pot burials, i.e. the body was placed inside a pot and buried beneath the floor. And with these burials, we see a definite spatial pattern. Some houses have a large number of them, typically appearing in a small room behind the domestic chapel (there is a thin blue circle around groupings in the image at left). Not all houses had their own chapel, but many did, and this was the place to bury those who died at such an early age. In Area EM there is one house with more than 30 infant burials.

Infant mortality was likely quite high at Ur, but whether there is sufficient data to analyze the proportion remains to be seen. Indeed, there is a great deal we can learn from this and other data, so long as access is provided. Our project holds the express aim of providing that access.

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Identifying the Tejaprabha Mural

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the mural depicting Tejaprabha Buddha originally came into the museum and was published with the central figure identified as Sakyamuni Buddha.  However a few years later someone noticed that one of the figures on the left was holding a small book with an inscription on it.  It was thought this could shed some light on the identities of the figures in the mural. Unfortunately, some of the characters were illegible and so it was hard to make out what the book actually said.

Sutra Detail

Detail of a Bodhisattva holding a sutra

In an article by Helen Fernald she writes that a J.E. Lodge [John Ellerton Lodge] was able to make out the characters after some experimental photography. They read:


An abridgment of: 佛說熾盛光大威德消災吉祥陀羅尼經

Translation: Buddha’s teachings concerning the dispelling of calamities

Translated into Chinese by Amoghavajra (471-771 CE)

This is actually the title of a sutra, or Buddhist teaching.  Once we know the title of the sutra it becomes fairly easy to  get the rest of the text.  There are multiple online repositories that have compiled the Buddhist canon for scholars and lay people alike.  They are almost always in Chinese or Japanese but once you work your way through them you can see what the sutra is about and make out who is being depicted in the mural.   Aschwin Lippe published the complete name of the sutra in English:

“Sutra Spoken by the Buddha, [giving] the Mantra of the Gold-Wheel Buddha-head of Great Virtue,Tejaprabha Tathagata, Which Dispels All Calamities.”¹

Sutra close-up2

Close up showing the near illegible characters

So now we have the name of the Buddha, Tejaprabha mentioned in the sutra title and visible in the middle of the mural.  But who else is in the mural?  A small excerpt from the sutra was translated by Alexander C. Soper which describes who should perform ritual rites to the Buddha in order to avoid cosmic calamity:

Practice of the rites described therein is recommended for “all monarchs, their great ministers and dependents, and the common people as a whole, who may suffer the oppression of the sun, moon, five planets, Rahu, Ketu, comets, (or other) portents and malign stars.”²

The rest of the figures fall into place now, the sun, moon, five planets, and Rahu and Ketu all of whom surround Tejaprabha in his paradise.  Now we just need to identify each celestial figure based on their iconography.  A task I will tackle in a later post.


¹Lippe, Aschwin. “Buddha and the Holy Multitude.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 23, no. 9, part 1 (May, 1965).

²Soper, Alexander C. Hsiang-kuo-ssŭ: An Imperial Temple of Northern Sung.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, v.68, no. 1 (Jan-Mar.1948).

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Hot pepper and ice – and the earliest photograph of soccer north of the Arctic Circle

The 2014 FIFA World Cup has begun in Brazil this afternoon.  Since it is being played in a tropical country this year, the Penn Museum Archives thought it fitting to show what is most likely the earliest photograph of a soccer game played north of the Arctic Circle.


Iñupiat children playing soccer on the ice, Point Barrow, Alaska. Photograph by E. A. McIlhenny, 1897-1898.
Penn Museum image no. 143224

Taken at Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost spot in the United States, in 1897-1899, by Edward Avery McIlhenny, this image clearly shows a number of Iñupiat children playing with a ball on the ground.  Can we say for certain that it is soccer?  We’ll leave it to readers to decide.

Edward Avery McIlhenny was an accomplished ornithologist, though he is best known for being the son of Edmund McIlhenny, the founder of the Tabasco Sauce Company, which E. A. inherited and is still in operation today on Avery Island, Louisiana.  Below is a letter from McIlhenny to Stewart Culin, director of the Penn Museum at the time, written on the company letterhead.


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