Let’s Meet the Team

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

Excavation is underway at Smith Creek, and we have a stellar team of students, both graduate and undergraduate, working hard in the field to make this year’s field season a successful one. They each bring their own interests, strengths, and levels of expertise to the project. Here’s a brief introduction for each of our intrepid excavators.

MegThe project is directed by Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and Weingarten Assistant Curator in the Penn Museum’s American Section. Originally from the St. Louis, Missouri area, Meg earned her undergraduate degree from Beloit College and her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is the first excavation carried out under her direction.

Our field supervisors:

David CranfordDavid Cranford is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill, originally hailing from Wake Forest, North Carolina. David has worked with Meg in the past, for two seasons at the Feltus mound site not far from Smith Creek, and again on the Mississippi Mound Trail project in 2013. This year, he’s hoping to help Meg have a successful field school, and scout out potential post-dissertation research projects in the Natchez bluffs of Mississippi. David plays the banjo, brews his own beer, and has hiked the Appalachian Trail.

StaceyStacey O. Espenlaub, who grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Penn. She’s also a staff member at the Penn Museum; she’s served as the Museum’s NAGPRA Coordinator since 2002, and a Collections Assistant in the American Section before that. Stacey had Meg as an instructor during this past semester, getting a great sense of how archaeologists work once they’re back in the lab. She’s looking forward to helping Meg in the field, learning more about the Museum’s current Southeast collections, picking up some excavating experience… and, of course, getting out of the office.

susannah picSusannah G. Fishman, a Philadelphia native, is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Penn, with a focus on Near Eastern Archaeology. Susannah looks at ceramic technology using a variety of techniques, including petrography, neutron activation analysis, scanning electron microscopy, and x-ray diffraction to figure out how things were made, where they were made, and how technological change and political change relate to each other. She’s excavated in Jordan and Azerbaijan, but this is her first large-scale excavation in North America.

kyle olsenKyle G. Olson of Columbus, Ohio, is also a Ph.D. candidate at Penn, focusing on Near Eastern Prehistoric Archaeology. Kyle has dug in Azerbaijan, Oman, Hungary, and numerous sites in the United States; he’s also done one Critical Language Scholarship program in Russia, with plans to do another in Tajikistan later this summer. While we’re in Mississippi, Kyle hopes to hone his excavation skills and learn more about Mississippi Valley archaeology in the Woodland period.

And our excavators:

ZheniaZhenia Bemko, of Cranford, New Jersey, is a junior Anthropology major at Penn with a focus in Native American Studies. She’s excited for the opportunity to study prehistoric Native American culture from a perspective that she’s never encountered; she’s also interested in conducting a minor ethnographic study on the local Native Americans in the area. She is interested in untangling issues surrounding identity formation, self-determination, and recognition. Since some members of the local Mississippi Nations embody multi-ethnicity, and blood quantum and federal recognition play key roles in identity formation among Native Americans, she would like to uncover what, if any, obstacles ‘blackness’ adds to these issues.

Chandler BChandler Burchfield, from Atlanta, Georgia, graduated this past semester from the University of Alabama with a degree in Anthropology, focusing on Southeastern Archaeology with a minor in Geography. Chandler is looking forward to learning how to better profile, excavate, and recover artifacts this season; ultimately, he wants to learn more about the Native people who inhabited this land long before Europeans arrived. He’s a huge sports fan.

MonicaFentonHorizMonica Fenton, from the Baltimore/Annapolis, Maryland area, graduated from Penn this past semester with a B.A. in Anthropology, focusing on Archaeology. She served as a student curator in a current exhibition at the Penn Museum, titled “Corn: From Ancient Crop to Soda Pop.” Monica wants to learn the full suite of archaeological excavation techniques so that she can apply them to future projects. She’s also writing a novel about a haunted archaeological site.

Ally MitchemAlly Mitchem is a senior at Penn; she’s an Anthropology major with a concentration on Archaeology and a Cognitive Science minor, hailing from Richmond, Virginia. Ally is also looking forward to gaining field experience, and having been taught by Meg during this past semester, she’s looking forward to helping Meg with her research. Ally has Type 1 Diabetes, but so far that hasn’t stopped her!

Jordi Rivera PrinceJordi Rivera Prince comes to us from Holland, Michigan, a senior Anthropology major at Penn with a focus on Biological Anthropology, and a minor in Psychoanalysis. Jordi has experience in lab analysis of museum materials and spends her days surrounded by skulls in the Penn Museum’s Physical Anthropology Section, but she knows the importance of having training in all four fields of anthropology. She’s hoping to learn more about archaeological field sites and the digging/excavation process, to heighten her appreciation for how we discover and interpret the materials that have the potential to make their way in to museums and other institutions for study.

BenBen Reynolds is a senior General Anthropology major at Penn, hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Ben is joining the project with the hopes of getting dig experience, and the opportunity to travel, meet new people, and learn about how they live their lives. He’s been a guitar player for 15 years, playing heavy metal, grunge, and some good ol’ blues.

sheridan smallSheridan Small, of Chicago, Illinois, is a rising sophomore in Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences; she’s considering an Anthropology major going forward. She’s excited to gain hands-on experience with archaeological excavation, and to learn more about how anthropological data is collected. She’s also a member of the Penn Museum’s Clio Society, a group of Museum-loving students who lead original tours, facilitate engagement with the Museum, and take trips to other museums in Philadelphia.

AshleyTerryAshley Terry is a senior Anthropology major at Penn, originally hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, and currently living near Cleveland, Ohio. She’s hoping to find some cool animal bones this season; she even has her own personalized trowel to use on the excavation. She’s also hoping to discourage her Southern accent from coming back (we’ll see how that goes).

This is quite the team. They’ve all made it to the dig site in Mississippi, and I’ve just joined them in the field. Look for plenty more from us in the coming weeks!

All photos courtesy of the participants and the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

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Ur Project: May 2015

Metal Tools and Weapons from Ur
With yet another look at U.8783 (Penn Museum Number: B17463)
Awl, Chisel, or Punch from grave PG 422

More than 40 years after he excavated at the ancient city of Ur, Sir Max Mallowan had this to say:

“There is still much to be gained through the analysis of Woolley’s discoveries, notably the metal. Indeed it is astonishing to see recent illustrations of the implements discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur and still bearing the caption ‘Copper or Bronze.’ Analysis of the metallurgy should be a requirement demanding the highest priority”

(from the article “Reflections of C. Leonard Woolley” in Expedition magazine, Vol. 20:1, 1977 p.4).

Max Mallowan (far left) at Ur in 1929. Then from left to right are: Hamoudi, Leonard Woolley, Katharine Woolley, Father Eric Burrows.

Max Mallowan (far left) at Ur in 1929. Then from left to right are: Hamoudi, Leonard Woolley, Katharine Woolley, and Eric Burrows. Image Credit: Penn Museum Archives

We’re now wrapping up the recording of the metal tools and weapons from Ur at the Penn Museum and, nearly 40 years after Mallowan’s comment, most are still listed as ‘copper or bronze’ or as ‘copper alloy’ since we still don’t know the exact make-up of the metal. There are many reasons for this. To determine the exact composition you really need a sample of the metal, but in most cases we don’t want to drill into an ancient artifact. Plus, some are so corroded that there is little actual metal left. Recently developed tests by X-Ray Florescence are non-invasive but they only examine the surface, where the corrosion is highest. And even when you get results of various elements in the composition, there can be problems in interpreting the true percentages of those elements.

Still, Mallowan’s comment is well taken. We can learn a great deal from the metals and we should continue to work with them. In fact, we are now in a cooperative partnership with the Deutches Bergbau Museum to do just that. They have taken tiny samples of more than 60 of our metal artifacts and recently tested a few at the British Museum as well. They are analyzing gold, silver, copper, lead, and even cosmetic pigments that contain mineral elements. We hope to be able to see more than chemical composition, but also trace the original source of the metals; however, our discussions have shown that it may be quite difficult to do this, or to say more than ‘copper-based’ for some of the artifacts even after analysis. Scientific testing is an excellent tool, but it can’t give us all the answers.

There are many other avenues of exploration on these and other objects from Ur, though. Chemical analysis continues and we will continue to learn from it, but other colleagues are looking at microscopic analysis of wear patterns and manufacturing marks, comparing techniques to traditional methods still in use in some societies today, and even trying to reproduce some of the objects by ancient methods. Others are looking at distribution patterns in graves and at potential belief structures of the ancient people concerning certain types of metal objects such as amulets or votive figurines.

I continue to be interested in tools of the often overlooked mundane types. We see many objects that are listed as chisels, awls, borers, bodkins, or piercers, and perhaps that’s all we can say, but closer analysis might be able to give a few clues as to how they were used and help to better classify them. When we x-rayed the awl (U.8783) that still had its handle, for example, we found the form of the copper rod imbedded in the handle to be different from what we expected. There was no solid wooden block inside and the back of the copper tool had a pierced widened area and a kind of nail head. In fact, this form is very similar to a cloak pin, specifically Type 2 in Woolley’s Ur Excavations volume 2 publication. The hole near the top was often used to attach a cylinder seal, as seen in the example on the left, and the ‘nail head’ was often used to secure a decorative bead of some sort to the top of the pin.

x-ray of U.8783 (B17463) with comparison to published pin types from Ur

X-ray of handled tool U.8783 (Museum Object Number: B17463) with comparison to published pin types 1 and 2 from Ur.

So it seems that this chisel or awl was originally something else–a pin used to secure a cloak or some other garment around the shoulders. Perhaps the pin broke and an enterprising craftsperson then filed down the small end, embedded the thicker end in bitumen, and utilized the resulting piece as a wood- or leather-working tool.

We continue to learn about these objects and the people who made and used them, and with more and more information available through ur-online.org, who knows what we’ll discover?

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The Unusual Legacy of J. Ashley Sibley

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

Scattered archaeological work has been conducted on mound sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley dating back as far as the 1840s, but there’s no documentation of excavation at the Smith Creek site until the 1950s. That’s when a fellow by the name of J. Ashley Sibley visited the site, and brought with him the young members of the Junior Archaeological Society of Baton Rouge. Somewhat similar to a scout troop, this group of mostly boys and a few girls came to the site for a hands-on experience with prehistory, digging at a real Native American mound.

Sibley was a teacher, an author, an avocational archaeologist, and eventual recipient of the Governor’s Award in Louisiana for “outstanding service in education and service in archaeology” for 1981. He cared about knowledge of Native Americans and he worked to instill in the Junior Archaeologists a kind of respect for Native culture. But his work at Smith Creek left something to be desired in a number of ways. For starters, Sibley and his young team chose to focus at Smith Creek on Mound B, the one mound of the three that contained human burials. Their team excavated the remains of several individuals and removed them from the site.

Our project director, Meg Kassabaum, says this is something that our team will most certainly NOT be doing. When speaking to tribes about conducting archaeological work on prehistoric Native sites, Meg says that the main concern is often over ancient burials. Tribes don’t want Native remains dug out of the ground, especially when there’s no pressing research question that will be answered by doing so. So this year’s excavations are being conducted in areas of the site where there is no evidence for the presence of human remains.

Next, it’s safe to say that Meg and her team will be doing a better job of documenting this year’s field season than Sibley’s team of Junior Archaeologists did. But that’s not to say they didn’t try. Indeed, Sibley had his young explorers draw up some pretty adorable records of some kind or another. See two examples here; one is a rudimentary map of the site, and the other is just kind of hilarious; supposedly showing the location of their excavation trench in the mound.

Excavation records, circa 1964, created by the Junior Archaeological Society of Baton Rouge

Excavation records, circa 1964, created by the Junior Archaeological Society of Baton Rouge. Image provided by Meg Kassabaum

Proper fieldwork requires good documentation—a responsibility for our own good and for the good of the people who will study this site and its underlying culture in the future. Needless to say, our team will be producing much more in the way of archaeological records and field notes than Sibley’s team did, both in number and in detail. For comparison, below, you’ll see a map of the site created in 2013; this comes from a brief investigation of the site, conducted by a team from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology; Meg was a field supervisor for this project.

Smith Creek site map, 2013.

Smith Creek site map, 2013. Image courtesy of Meg Kassabaum and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

In fact, perhaps the most notable record of Sibley’s work at the site is a physical one—a gaping scar in Mound B, where he and the Junior Archaeologists dug and did not replace the soil afterwards. This is bad practice for a handful of reasons; beyond its obvious aesthetic damage, it greatly increases the risk of further damage to the site due to issues like erosion, or even looting. That also won’t be the case during this year’s excavations. Every hole that our team digs this year will be refilled at the conclusion of the season, despite the strong possibility that future seasons of excavation will be conducted at the site. The potential for hazards in leaving an open trench at a temporarily dormant site far outweighs any time advantage that would be gained during later excavations.

Mind you, I don’t mean to be too critical of Sibley and his young adventurers. He meant well and made what I can only imagine to be a profound impression on those Junior Archaeologists. He also tried to preserve the artifacts he dug for future generations by housing them in a small museum just north of Shreveport, Louisiana. Sadly, after Sibley passed away, that museum was abandoned and fell into obscurity and disrepair. Recently, the materials in the shuttered museum were taken by Dr. Jeffrey Girard of Northwestern State University of Louisiana in Natchitoches. While the human bone from the museum has been analyzed by specialists at the Louisiana Department of Justice, Meg has analyzed the other artifacts and the preliminary analyses show them to be quite similar to objects discovered at Smith Creek during the brief 2013 site investigation.

Sibley leaves a considerable legacy at Smith Creek. In the end, his work was done in the name of education. The kids in the Junior Archaeology Society got to experience archaeological work firsthand, which was surely an experience that stayed with them beyond their time in the field. And considering it’s not unusual to find mounds on private land, the experience may have led some of those Junior Archaeologists, in later years, to push for preservation of other sites that would have been bulldozed or otherwise destroyed if not for their feedback. In the future, Meg hopes to interview some of the people who were a part of this group and now live near the field site in Natchez, Mississippi.

Ultimately, education is the goal of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project as well—especially for the students who will be participating in the fieldwork. We’ll meet this year’s team in our next Smith Creek blog post.

P.S.—If you’d like to hear more about this project and the site on which it focuses, we’re creating a Smith Creek Archaeological Project Podcast as a companion to these blog posts. Click here to listen and download.

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Cherokee Dance Rattles

Sound and Motion in Museum Objects:
Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Band Rattles

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Sarah Parkinson

How should museums represent objects that incorporate sound and movement? This seems to be a unique challenge, since museums tend to rely on visual cues alone in displays that are static and mute.

Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab with Cherokee Ankle Bands (Stomp Dance Rattles). Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B.

Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room with Cherokee Ankle Bands (Stomp Dance Rattles). Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

During a recent visit to the Collections Study Room in the Penn Museum, my analysis of a pair of Cherokee ankle bands presented a possible solution to this question in restorative methodologies. Although these objects were made to dance and audibly keep beat, they appeared to be silent and still when seen on the table in the study room. For me, this removed the possibility of imagining them in motion. However, by researching and reconstructing the context of their use and collection, and by connecting them to modern practices, I found that they began to “dance” once more in telling a story of continuing Cherokee traditions.

Ankle Bands: Object Analysis

According to the registration card, the ankle bands came from a Cherokee community in North Carolina called Big Cove Band. They were collected between 1932 and 1940 by Frank G. Speck and John G. Witthoft. The two ankle bands, labeled as 46-6-12 A and B, are nearly identical and were made to be a set. Each consists of a large square hide with some patches of fur. The dark stripes on each strand of fur indicate that this is most likely raccoon fur. On top of the hide backing, five turtle shells are strapped on with strands of leather, four in a square formation with one sitting on top of the square. Interestingly, two deer dewclaws are tied to each side of the bands. According to Native sensibilities, multiple elements can combine on a single object to increase its power. Therefore, the three different animals on these dance rattles—box turtles, raccoon, and deer—may signal the ankle bands’ connections to local fauna.

When I picked up the ankle bands to study the back, they rattled loudly. Unused to such a loud noise in the Museum, I was nervous, even though I had been careful in lifting them. I quickly realized that there were small pebbles inside each turtle shell, and I began to understand a larger story that had been obscured by my sole attention to visual elements. Instead of being purely aesthetic, these bands were meant to rattle and make noise each time the wearer took a step. Imagine them outside the silent Museum, and inside a living world complete with motion and sound—suddenly the ankle bands became more interesting!

Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Bands. Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Bands. Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Motion and Sound in Cherokee Stomp Dances

These ankle bands, when viewed in the sterile context of a museum, only tell a small portion of their own story. Laying on a table, it seems as if their only use is as a visible artifact. Seen in a different context, however, it is clear that these were made to actively participate in Cherokee stomp dances. A woman would wear these bands on her lower legs so that each time she steps, the pebbles beat the inside of the shell to create a steady beat. Sound and movement are clearly key in this narrative.[1]

Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, portrait for "Native American and Hawaiian Women of Hope,” by photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Creek/Diné). Native Peoples Magazine, Spring 1997.

Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, portrait for “Native American and Hawaiian Women of Hope,” by photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Creek/Diné). Native Peoples Magazine, Spring 1997.

During stomp dances, participants dance around a ceremonial fire. Sometimes chanting and drumbeats accompany the sound of the movements. Although both women and men dance, only the women wear these “shell shakers” made from the shells of the box turtle. Native people from several nations, including the Cherokee, still perform ceremonial stomp dances around a sacred fire, continuing this tradition into the present.[2]

Retracing Object Histories: Putting Collections in Context

Often, the act of collecting separates objects permanently from their cultural context, and so objects lose major chunks of their histories. Fortunately, this is not the case with this set of dance rattles thanks to the careful ethnographic work of Frank Speck. Speck and his student, John Whitthoft, collected these dance rattles during the same period when Speck and Leonard Broom were writing Cherokee Dance and Drama.[3] They collected recordings and photographs from North Carolina’s Big Cove Band of Eastern Cherokee along with objects such as this. In doing so, they made it possible to reconstruct a more complete object history of these dance rattles. By seeing and hearing how these particular objects might have been used, it becomes possible to imagine their life outside the Museum’s walls.

When conducting the field research for this work, Speck and Broom worked closely with Will West Long (1870-1947), their chief informant, who was listed as a coauthor.[4] Will West Long was born in Big Cove; the town was culturally conservative, since they were a semi-isolated remnant band that stayed in North Carolina after the Cherokee’s forced removal to Oklahoma. A broad survey of the collection of his notebooks in the American Philosophical Society archives reveals that West Long spent a large portion of his life trying to preserve Cherokee traditions. These notebooks are mostly in Cherokee, and include topics such as medicine, charms, and Cherokee syllabary.[5] Other eminent anthropologists of the age, including James Mooney and Frans Olbrechts, used West Long as an informant on Cherokee tradition. His mastery of Cherokee dance and song, combined with his desire to preserve traditions, made Will West Long the perfect informant.[6]

A Story Reunited

Viewed in isolation, the Cherokee stomp dance rattles cannot tell their full story, in which motion and sound are integral. However, by carefully tracing the history of these objects, a more complete narrative emerges. Thanks to Will West Long’s passion for preserving traditional Cherokee culture, Frank Speck and John Witthoft were able to collect not only the dance rattles, but also recordings and images of the songs and dance that animated them and gave them life. By reuniting these elements, the Cherokee stomp dance rattles can begin to take on a new life in the Museum.


[1] See the Cherokee Nation website for a more complete description of the Cherokee Stomp Dance.
[2] An example of contemporary Native American Stomp Dancing with turtle shell ankle band rattles can be seen in this demonstration at the Battle of Horseshoe Band, Alabama.
[3] Speck, Frank, and Leonard Broom 1951. Cherokee Dance and Drama. Norman, OK.
[4] For detailed information on Will West Long, see “Cherokee Traditions,” a project of the Hunter Library Digital Initiatives at Western Carolina University.
[5] See the Frank Gouldsmith Speck Cherokee Collection, Mss.572.97 at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA, for a full inventory of the Cherokee notebooks, photographs, recordings, and other archival materials.
[6] Witthoft, John 1948. “Will West Long, Cherokee Informant,” American Anthropologist 50.2.

NOTE: For background on the “Speck Connection” project in Museum Anthropology, see Margaret Bruchac, The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects.

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Peyote Feather Fan

One Fan’s Long and Winding Road to the Penn Museum

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Monica Fenton

This peyote fan (object number 70-9-480) was once in the possession of a Delaware (also called Lenni Lenape or Lenape) medicine man from Oklahoma, variously named James C. Webber, War Eagle, and Wi·tapano’xwe (which translates to “walks with daylight”).[1] The geographically astute reader may realize that neither the plant peyote nor the Delaware people originally come from Oklahoma.[2] During the 19th century, many Delaware relocated westward (away from their East Coast environs), and encountered other nations who had also been expelled from their homelands. Some of their new neighbors came from peyote’s natural range of northern Mexico and southern Texas, where Indigenous people had consumed the psychoactive plant for thousands of years. The contemporary version of the peyote religion in which the fan is used sprung up in the late 19th century, after these nations introduced the concept of peyote ceremonies to the Delaware and other tribes.[3]

Peyote eagle feather fan collected from Wi·tapano'xwe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number 70-9-480.

Peyote eagle feather fan collected from Wi·tapano’xwe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.
Museum Object Number 70-9-480.

Peyote is a small squat spineless cactus that contains alkaloids, primarily mescaline, that produce euphoria and hallucinations when consumed. As the most integral part of the Native American Church peyote ceremony, peyote is a teacher and healer and brings people closer to the spiritual realm. Some versions of the ritual incorporate a Bible and reference Jesus, but the Delaware iteration that Wi·tapano’xwe practiced avoids overt Christian syncretism. The all-night ritual usually occurs in a tipi and involves periods of singing, prayers, blessings, and quiet contemplation.[4]

The role of a peyote fan like this one varies. A handwritten note from Frank Speck accompanies the object, saying it was “used to brush impurities from persons entering and leaving Peyote ceremony,” but that purpose is not mentioned in other ethnographic accounts. According to Wi·tapano’xwe himself, the religious leader and the attendants all carry eagle tail feather fans. The leader’s fan has decorated binding, unlike this one, and the leader passes it around the room and holds it while singing peyote songs. After midnight, everyone uses their fans to draw smoke from the central fire over their heads and bodies. In 1892, an ethnographer who attended a Kiowa ceremony, similar to the Delaware one, observed the leader using the fan to splash water upon the attendees as a blessing.[5]

This fan consists of a single layer of ten golden eagle feathers in a row, arranged from longest to shortest to create an arcing shape. The base of the feather part is embellished with single cardinal and bluejay feathers. The handle that holds these feathers together—a single piece of animal hide folded in half with seam edges exposed—is stitched up the sides with thick double-ply textile fiber string. The leather is worn and crackled from handling. A two-ply leather cord, tied through a hole in the bottom of the handle, could have hung the fan on a hook. The back side of the object is lighter in color than the front, possibly due to how it was used, stored, or displayed.

Detail of underside of peyote feather fan handle. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Detail of underside of peyote feather fan handle. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Any number of conditions could have caused the color difference and other damage. Unlike many other Native objects at the Penn Museum, this was obviously not treated with arsenic or other pesticides, since the feathers have extensive insect damage. The worst damage is near the handle, where pieces of feather are detached from the shaft, or holding on by just a few fibers.

The Penn Museum accession number indicates that this fan was cataloged in 1970, and that it came from the estate of Samuel Pennypacker, but it was originally collected by Penn anthropologist Frank G. Speck. The records of their transactions are vague and incomplete, but it appears that Speck essentially served as an intermediary between his rich friend Pennypacker and Native people in need of money, using Pennypacker as a kind of pawnbroker. A select collection of Native American objects—primarily ceremonial masks and ritual regalia—were displayed in a dedicated “Indian Room” in Pennypacker’s mansion until 1968, when his widow donated the entire collection to the Penn Museum.[6]

The Pennypacker folders in the Archives of the Penn Museum include additional data. A 1968 line item from the estate inventory lists: “Delaware Oklahoma Turkey Wing Fan, Eagle feather Fans” collectively valued at $7.50. A 1933 note in Frank Speck’s handwriting lists one “Enoch eagle wing fan” valued at $5.00. Most poignantly, one folder contains a letter from Wi·tapano’xwe himself. On November 6, 1934, he wrote to his old friend Speck, complaining of continuing pain from a broken leg, strategizing about ceremonial revivals, and offering objects for sale to make ends meet. In closing, he writes, “I thank you every so many time to remember me in the Great Spirit’s name. we will get going again. let me know what became of those peyote things when you write.”[7]

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano'xwe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano’xwe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum.
Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

Since Wi·tapano’xwe was a medicine man, and the leader of a Delaware peyote ceremony was expected to use a decorated fan, this fan with an undecorated handle was likely not his. The name “Enoch” in Speck’s 1933 list is probably Enoch Hoag, the Caddo chief and peyote roadman who taught the Oklahoma version of the adapted peyote ritual to Wi·tapano’xwe. The 1934 letter says that the peyote objects are associated with an “Enoc Moon Delaware.” This may refer to Enoch Hoag himself, or to his version of the peyote ceremony. As the two major variations of the ceremony were called the Half Moon and Big Moon, it became customary to name a roadman’s particular style after him. John Wilson’s ceremony, for example, was called the “Wilson moon.”[8] Whether the feather fan belonged to Hoag or to one of his followers, it’s difficult to speculate how or why it left Oklahoma. Perhaps Hoag gave it to Wi·tapano’xwe. Perhaps one of them was in dire financial need. Regardless, after Speck sold the fan to Pennypacker, it never returned to Oklahoma. As Dr. Bruchac notes, this matches a familiar pattern in salvage anthropology: despite their original intended use, items of ritual regalia routinely flew away from their communities of origin, coming to rest in isolated collections far from home.


[1]  Dr. Margaret Bruchac identified these various names as belonging to a single individual, based upon her research into Frank G. Speck’s relations with Indigenous informants. Wi·tapano’xwe also worked closely with Speck’s Mohegan research assistant, Gladys Tantaquidgeon.
[2] The original Lenni Lenape territory includes: Staten Island and northern New Jersey (home of the Munsee, “people of the stoney country”); parts of eastern Pennsylvania (Unami, the “people down river”); and central to southern New Jersey (Unalactgio, the “people near the ocean,” also called Nanticoke). For historical background, see the Penn Treaty Museum website.
[3] Stewart, Omer C. 1987. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p. 49.
[4] Stewart 1987, pp. 34o-344, 348.
[5] Stewart 1987, pp. 340-356.
[6] These conclusions are based on research in progress by Dr. Margaret Bruchac, who has been tracking Frank G. Speck’s collecting of ethnographic objects from multiple Native American communities, and the subsequent circulation of those objects into the hands of private collectors and museums. Bruchac’s research into correspondence at the Penn Museum Archives revealed that the entire Pennypacker collection originally came from Speck.
[7] November 6, 1934 letter from Wi·tapano’xwe to Frank G. Speck. Dr. Bruchac discovered this letter in a file folder of uncatalogued miscellaneous correspondence in the Samuel Pennypacker Papers, Penn Museum Archives, Philadelphia, PA.
[8] Stewart 1987, pp. 87-94. John Wilson was a particularly influential leader for the Caddo and Delaware peyote practitioners. Wilson’s peyote rattle, decorated with the classic “peyote stitch” style of beadwork, is currently housed in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.

NOTE: For background on the “Speck Connection” project in Museum Anthropology, see Margaret Bruchac, The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects.

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On the Rail to the Wampum Trail

May 12, 2015

Amtrak Train to Springfield, MA – Sarah Parkinson

Photo from the Vermonter Line

Photo from the Vermonter Line – Sarah Parkinson

This morning, I boarded an Amtrak train on its way to Springfield, Massachusetts. From there, I will start my three week journey with the “On the Wampum Trail” team to research wampum in museum collections throughout the Northeast and Canada. There’s something about being on a train that makes me want to write, something about the constant motion and the way the scenery passes you by without giving you a second thought. What better way to get my own thoughts in order?

Wampum belts have been used by Northeastern Native Americans to mark important events, record agreements between tribes and with colonists, and to communicate messages between geographically separated tribes. These belts traditionally consist of white whelk and purple quahog shell beads, arranged in such a way that the light and dark beads signify meaning through a semiotics of dichotomy. By means of complex historical events, many wampum belts have now left Native hands and landed in museums.

“On the Wampum Trail” is headed by Dr. Margaret Bruchac, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. For this field trip, I’ll be traveling with Zhenia Bemko and Stephanie Mach, undergraduate and graduate students in Anthropology. Our project seeks to closely examine wampum in museum collections, paying close attention to the materiality, construction methods, and any small detail that may give us a clue about the object’s life both inside the museum and out. Along with close object analysis, we will also track object histories through a process which we call restorative methodologies. By investigating the history of wampum collection and curation, we hope to gain insight about rich object histories, provenance, and respectful curatorial practices.

Some “wampum” belts in museums contain glass beads; several are even entirely constructed from glass beads. This variation in materiality may seem accidental at first, but I suggest that the use of glass wampum in belts is intentional, since it seems to signify something that is absent from traditional beads. During this field project, I will be focusing particularly on glass bead wampum as distinct from traditional shell bead wampum. Because these objects are not constructed with “traditional” “Native” materials, museums tend to classify, curate, and display these objects differently than shell bead wampum. I hope to begin to answer: How do glass bead wampum belts differ from shell bead wampum, and how do museums understand this difference?

My introduction to the Wampum Trail project began with transcribing recordings from last summer’s field research. The object analyses and archival data were of course interesting, but what stuck with me most from these recordings were the personal stories attached to wampum—the way belts have touched people. For example, I transcribed a conversation between Dr. Bruchac and a Native curator in which the curator described a ceremony her community held to commemorate a belt. She reflected on the ceremony with great pride, and the way the belt moved her was evident just from the audio recordings. These moments are what is important to me in this research, the times that remind me that the wampum matters. The belts that the Wampum Trail team is studying are not just dead objects laying on museum shelves. These objects can be intensely culturally significant, and they very much have a life of their own. This project is important to me because the wampum items in museum collections deserve to have their stories told.

I brought these questions with me during a trip to the National Museum of the American Indian in March. Now, I have the opportunity to cover more ground. Today, to get a sense of the landscape, Dr. Bruchac brought us up Mount Skinner to view the expanse of the Connecticut River Valley. Tomorrow, we will traverse the state of Massachusetts on our way to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. From there, we will travel north to New Hampshire, and then on to New York, Ontario, and Quebec, including meeting with members of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee to report our research progress along the way. The next three weeks will certainly be exciting—we know where we’re going, but we don’t know exactly what new understandings we’ll uncover. My plan is to keep my eyes and mind open for new insights along the way.

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The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects

Frank Gouldsmith Speck (1881–1950), acknowledged as one of the most prolific anthropologists of the early 20th century, served as chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania for nearly four decades (1913–1949). He conducted ground-breaking ethnographic research, working closely with Indigenous informants from a wide range of communities (Cherokee, Haudenosaunee, Mohegan, Nanticoke, Penobscot, etc.) and amassed thousands of objects. Although his collections contain seminal data on tribal nations, languages, art, technology, and customs, public understandings of that data and those peoples are often flawed or incomplete, and the objects he collected are widely distributed among various museums.

Frank Speck in his office in College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, c. 1930.

Frank Speck in his office in College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, c. 1930. Photo Credit: University of Pennsylvania Archives

Relations of Collecting and Fictive Kin

The anthropological project, in Speck’s time, was conceived as a large-scale rescue of what was presumed to be rapidly vanishing Indigenous material and data. The physical challenges of this enterprise were considerable: collectors had to travel great distances, navigate unfamiliar landscapes, and communicate in foreign languages, while also endeavoring to identify fixed social, geographical, and political boundaries among and between tribal individuals and nations. Speck’s ethnographic research would have been virtually impossible without the intellectual and cultural contributions from his many Indigenous informants—Gladys Tantaquidegon (Mohegan), Will West Long (Cherokee), Witapanox’we (Delaware), and many others—who should more appropriately be viewed as research collaborators.

Early in his academic career, Frank Speck demonstrated an unusual willingness to interact with Native people on their home ground, practicing what he described to his students as “bedside ethnography,” a deeply personal mode of participant observation. He also welcomed his Native informants as regular visitors to the University…although he often used these visits as an excuse to absent himself from campus. William Fenton recalled:

“No academic appointment, no learned gathering, no university functions took precedence over the visit of an Indian colleague, the summons of an Indian council, or the call to attend a ceremony…. Speck did not covet academic honors; rather, he valued the good opinion of his Indian friends equally with the esteem of his colleagues among academicians.”[1]

Members of the Algonquin Council of New England at Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island in 1924. (left-right) Chief Leroy Perry (Pocasset Wampanoag), Mrs. Steele (Narragansett), Chief Robert Clark (Nanticoke), Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan), Perry Congdon (Mohegan), Gertrude Harrison (Mohegan), Chief Mitchell (Narragansett), Joe Strong Wolf. Photo by Frank Speck, Penn Museum Archives.

Members of the Algonquin Council of New England at Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1924. (left-right) Chief Leroy Perry (Pocasset Wampanoag), Mrs. Steele (Narragansett), Chief Robert Clark (Nanticoke), Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan), Perry Congdon (Mohegan), Gertrude Harrison (Mohegan), Chief Mitchell (Narragansett), and Joe Strong Wolf. Photo Photo by Frank Speck, Penn Museum Archives.

Speck’s Native informants were not, as might be imagined, passive and politically naïve subjects patiently waiting to be discovered; they often had access to culturally authentic knowledges and objects and were willing to interface with non-Native collectors. Some of the most productive informants consciously sought out anthropologists and offered their services as interlocutors. Those who held formal positions of knowledge and authority as faithkeepers or chiefs strove to mediate anthropological relations in ways that could help their kin and communities. At the American Philosophical Society (APS) and elsewhere, the intellectual contributions of these Native informants and gatekeepers can be found buried in the archives that house the papers of prominent non-Native anthropologists.

Postcards from Frank Speck to Samuel Pennypacker, in the Penn Museum Archives. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Postcards from Frank Speck to Samuel Pennypacker, in the Penn Museum Archives. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Collecting was rarely a simple matter of discovering and recovering objects in an orderly fashion; collections resulted from individual encounters shaped by selective manipulations of heritage and negotiations of value. Some Native informants chose to actively conceal items and knowledge; in other cases, sensitive items were given away or sold. The most vulnerable informants were the elderly, infirm, lonely, and desperate. They would sell a story for some friendly companionship, some songs for a bottle, a beaded belt for a loaf of bread. For example, when Cynthia Fowler was starving, Speck purchased the single thing of value she still owned—a strand of wampum beads. When Witapanox’we was ill and impoverished, Speck helped out his old Delaware friend by purchasing his ritual regalia, feathers, and peyote wands. When Cherokee traditionalist Will West Long needed some extra money, he parted with his book of medicinal formulas. Transactions like these suggest a certain degree of trust in Speck as fictive kin, but they also reflect the desperation of the times, and the hope that these objects might be kept safe until they could find their way home again.

Recovering and Recontextualizing Scattered Data 

The sheer volume of objects, publications, and unpublished manuscripts in the Speck collections, scattered into multiple institutions and archives, is so diverse that these collections could inspire multiple projects in cultural recovery and reconnection.  Native American and First Nation objects collected by Speck were deposited in the collections of the Museum of the American Indian, Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History), Peabody Essex Museum, Denver Art Museum, and the Penn Museum, as well as select European museums. However, in virtually every institution, curators and scholars devised individual interpretations of their collections based on what is locally “known.” As a result, related images, items, and data were physically sorted (and conceptually separated) in differing ways, often without clear records of their tribal identities and symbolic meanings.

In some cases, provenance data was preserved in archives, but detached from objects on display. In others, objects and photos of people using or wearing those objects were housed in separate locales. Data housed in one museum can often shed light on poorly identified objects in another museum. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is particularly a matter for concern in college collections that have become imbued with new significances and meanings as curators and students have imposed new (and sometimes misleading) sorting methods over time:

“Institutional memories were inevitably shaped by the handling patterns and hypotheses that surrounded these objects. Museum audiences, in turn, drew their understandings of native collections not from the aboriginal context but from the theories in effect at the moment of discovery, the opinions of scientific experts and curators, the text on the display card, or what they guessed (or wished) to be true.”[2]

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano'xwe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano’xwe. Collected by Frank Speck and accessioned as part of the Samuel Pennypacker bequest. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

As a case in point, one unusual collection of objects at the Penn Museum is cataloged as a donation from Samuel Pennypacker, one of Speck’s wealthy students. The records of transactions between Pennypacker and Speck are vague and incomplete (comprised of a few file folders of postcards and miscellaneous notes), but taken together they represent an interesting set of negotiations. Pennypacker was always a source of ready cash, and Speck essentially served as an intermediary between his rich friend and Native people in need of money, rather like a pawnbroker. There is no record that Pennypacker ever sold any of the items he got from Speck; instead, he kept this select collection of Native American objects—primarily ceremonial masks and ritual regalia—and displayed them in a dedicated “Indian Room” in the Pennypacker Mansion outside of Philadelphia. The collection remained intact until 1968, when Pennypacker’s widow donated the entire “Indian Room” to the Penn Museum.[3]

Engaging Student Researchers

During the Spring semester of 2015, as part of their hands-on experience in restorative research, I challenged each of the students in my museum anthropology course to tackle a single object (out of more than 1,000 objects) from the Speck collections in the Penn Museum. I was certain that the process of closely examining a single object, while attempting to recover data on the Native individual who produced it, would provoke new insights into the nature of Speck’s encounters with his Indigenous informants, and the role these encounters played in shaping anthropological knowledge.

The experience of conducting restorative research in museum collections and archives does much more than train students in museological methods of display and curation. My students learned how to examine minute object details, conduct archival research in primary sources, and critically query the inferences and speculations contained in secondary sources. They also learned about some of the ethics and protocols concerning specialized and sensitive knowledges, thanks to the information shared by my own Indigenous informants, several of whom are direct descendants of the people with whom Speck worked. As a final project, each student produced a report and a blog detailing the insights they gained and pointing the way for further research.

In sum, this kind of focused approach to investigating museum objects, and the stories people tell about objects, can help students develop more nuanced awareness of Indigenous collections, and gain more sensitive understandings of why, and to whom, these collections and these histories matter.


[1] William N. Fenton. 1991. “Frank G. Speck’s Anthropology,” pp. 9-37 in The Life and Times of Frank G. Speck, 1881–1950, Roy Blankenship, ed. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology.
[2] Margaret M. Bruchac. 2010. “Lost and Found: NAGPRA, Scattered Relics, and Restorative Methodologies.” Museum Anthropology 33(2):137-156.
[3] My research into Speck’s materials in the Penn Museum Archives revealed that virtually all of the objects in Samuel Pennypacker’s “Indian Room” were originally collected by Frank Speck. Postcards from Speck and a small collection of letters from Native American informants are housed in a file folder of uncatalogued miscellaneous correspondence in the Samuel Pennypacker Papers, Penn Museum Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

NOTE: For additional posts on the Speck collection at the Penn Museum, see:

Margaret Bruchac: Mackosi’kwe’s Baskets: Marking Relationships
Monica Fenton: One Fan’s Long and Winding Road to the Penn Museum
Sarah Parkinson: Sound and Motion in Museum Objects: Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Band Rattles
Elizabeth Peng: Potato Stamps and Ash Splints: A Narrative of Process and Exchange

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Why Would We Dig Here?

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

The Smith Creek Archaeological Project focuses on a little-known site in rural Mississippi, land that was reshaped by a culture of Native people, beginning as early as 600 CE and continuing for centuries thereafter. Moreover, evidence from nearby sites indicates that people were living in the area many thousands of years before that. The site is located on private land, and has undergone very little excavation in years past. So why would the Penn Museum be sending a whole team of people to dig there?

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project. Photo courtesy of Megan Kassabaum

The answer lies with the project’s director, Dr. Megan Kassabaum. Meg is a fairly new face at the Museum and the University, having just joined us last summer; before that, she was earning her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, under her advisor, Dr. Vin Steponaitis. Meg wrote her dissertation on the site where she, Dr. Steponaitis, and John O’Hear worked together for close to a decade – a site called Feltus, located about 45 miles north of Smith Creek. Both these sites, and many more throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley, are characterized by the presence of several earthen mounds surrounding a central plaza.

Feltus has a relatively long history of excavation, dating back to a visit from a physician named Montroville W. Dickeson III, who worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philadelphia. Dickeson was an “avocational archaeologist” – one who does not necessarily have formal training in the discipline – and excavated at Feltus and other mound sites in the 1840s. Two other excavations at Feltus and a mapping of the site preceded the project that brought Meg to the site in 2006. The Feltus excavations continue to this day under Dr. Steponaitis’s direction.

Work at Feltus revealed clues about the activities that had been practiced in the areas on and around the mounds. It doesn’t appear that many people, if any, were actually living at the site; rather, it’s more likely that the area was once used as a gathering center for feasts, ceremonies, or other communal activities. Deposits of refuse at the site reveal animal bones and broken pieces of large pottery containers; these appear to be contemporaneous with a number of postholes in the ground, into which wooden posts were likely placed ceremonially before being removed shortly thereafter, and then refilled. Limited excavation at nearby Smith Creek has shown indications of a very similar suite of activities as these found at Feltus.

The mounds at Feltus were also not constructed in one fell swoop; each mound consists of layers – in one case with any many as five layers to the construction – similar to the construction of the mounds at Smith Creek. Taken together with unmistakable similarities in pottery remains found at both sites, it’s evident that there were strong temporal and cultural similarities between the people who built and used these two sites.

The pattern that these sites follow, called the Coles Creek pattern, stands in contrast to some other, later and better-known mound sites in the Americas, such as Cahokia where a chief lived on top of the biggest mound and looked down on the people over whom he held power. At Coles Creek sites, there is little evidence that any one person held political rule over any other portion of the population.

After working at Feltus since 2006 and honing her skills as an archaeologist and a researcher, Meg is now bringing her years of experience to Smith Creek in an attempt to broaden the sample for the Coles Creek pattern of site use. The project will use knowledge of similar sites like Feltus to investigate areas of special significance at Smith Creek, and will hopefully provide stronger evidence for these sites’ prehistoric designations as places of gathering, community, and ceremony.

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Greenland Inuit Doll

The Lady in Furs

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Monica Fenton

Eskimo (Inuit) doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 97-14-7.

Inuit (Eskimo) doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
Museum Object Number: 37-14-7.

This Inuit (Eskimo) doll, accessioned in 1937 (37-14-7), is one of seventeen objects from Greenland donated by Samuel C. Ingraham. The collection, consisting mostly of footwear, also includes a model kayak with a human figurine and miniature harpoon. The doll came from the town of Arsuk, and the model kayak hails from Ivigtut, although most lack specific provenience.

Just as the kayak and harpoon are small but highly detailed replicas of adult tools, the doll is an image of how a married Inuit woman of that time (late 19th to early 20th century) was expected to dress. These objects (typically labeled as toys) served a purpose beyond a simple plaything. They modeled how children were expected to conduct and dress themselves in adult life, and helped to teach useful skills.

The Museum’s collections database describes the doll as: “Representing a married woman (note blue hair ribbon). Stuffed cloth body, bone? head, ivory forearms. Wearing plaid silk shirt, sealskin trousers and boots—both embroidered with skin applique.” This textile terminology is incorrect. Embroidery is created by strings sewn through the fabric over and over again; the decorations on this doll’s clothing are appliqués, cut-out shapes sewn onto a base fabric.

Close-up of beadwork collar on Inuit doll from Arsuk, Greenland

Close-up of beadwork collar on Inuit doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

A wide range of material was used in her construction. Her body is made of rough plain yellowish cloth, perhaps linen or cotton. Her blouse is blue, red, and yellow plaid, with large fibers, a coarse weave, and a dull lustre. The orange and peach fabric trim at the cuffs and bottom of the blouse appear to be silk, with a fine weave and distinctive sheen. Fur trim at the neck and ends of the sleeves is important; it would protect a real live woman from the cold seeping in at these openings. An elaborate collar of little glass trade beads—blue, white, clear, purple, black, and red—is sewn onto the blouse below the neck fur.

This doll’s clothing can readily be compared to a full-size suit of Inuit women’s clothing from Godhaven, Greenland (items #97-84-709 A-D), purchased by another collector and housed in the Museum. This woman’s suit is said to have been “made by order of the Governor of the Peary Relief Expedition” in 1892; it was originally housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (item #11180), and was later gifted to the Penn Museum. Even though these suits of women’s clothing are separated in time (and in measure), they are remarkably similar. The adult blouse is of calico rather than plaid European fabric, but it bears the same crisscross bead collar pattern—with nearly identical weave and colors of beads. It also includes fur cuffs and orange silk trim, just like the doll-sized version.

Woman's suit collected from Godhaven, Greenland, during the Peary Relief Expedition 1892. Gift from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Museum Object Numbers: 97-84-709A-D.

Woman’s suit collected from Godhaven, Greenland, during the Peary Relief Expedition in 1892. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers: 97-84-709A-D.

Similarly, the doll’s sealskin trousers, which still have patches of short fur attached, are a miniature version of the longer thicker fur found on the human-size garment. Both pieces of clothing have a vertical strip of skin applique designs on the front of each thigh. On the doll, long red and white strips border a central yellow piece adorned with tiny red, blue, and yellow skin rectangles arranged in geometric designs. The applique is sewn with thread, not sinew, and when possible the maker sewed underneath the upper layer of the skin in order to hide the stitches. Despite the differences in scale, the small individual pieces of skin that make up the patterns are about the same size. The same craft material was used for both the model trousers and the ‘real’ piece of clothing, suggesting that the person who made the doll did not think it should be an inferior or simpler version of reality just because it was smaller. In fact, the doll’s design has more colors and a more complicated pattern.

Close-up of trousers and boots on Inuit doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Close-up of trousers and boots on Inuit doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

The doll’s knee-high boots, like the other garments, are a miniature version of the traditional boots (called kamik) that accompany the adult clothing. Their geometric skin strip design is similar to the trousers, but without the red and white borders.

The catalog card speculates that her head is made from bone, but the color, texture, and grain indicate carved wood. The cloth cap on her head anchors a hank of real human hair, wrapped with a blue ribbon, which, according to the card, indicates her marital status. Her hands are made of ivory, heavier than the fabric parts of the doll, and sewn into the arms of the cloth blouse.

The doll’s condition is good, with a bit of wear, suggesting that she was likely used or played with before being collected as an ethnographic artifact. Her arms are hanging on by literally a thread or two, which could have resulted either from rough handling or improper display. If the doll had been displayed upright without support for the arms, gravity may have slowly weakened the threads.

As I examined this doll for over two hours, I was deeply impressed with the creator’s careful attention to realism and detail. The references to actual adult clothing were so clear that even a non-Inuit non-expert like me could see them. Like the kayak and canoe models, this doll was not just a toy, but a tool for showing children the way things were actually done. Her aesthetics sharply contrast with female dolls in modern American culture, which project a completely unattainable ideal of body proportions that no healthy person could have, and luxury fashions that most people cannot afford. Instead, this doll projects a sturdy and healthy female body, dressed in surprisingly accurate and detailed proper Inuit clothing. Her choices of traditional fabrics and furs not only keep her warm, but they also display her access to trade connections and ability to choose select exotic goods for ornamentation.

NOTE: For more information about this Arctic doll and these clothes, see the related blog article— “Ladies in Fur, Traveling through Time“—by Margaret Bruchac.

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Ladies in Fur, Traveling through Time

Eskimo (Inuit) doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 37-14-7.

Inuit (Eskimo) doll from Arsuk, Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 37-14-7.

The Penn Museum holds a variety of dolls from Arctic environs, including those collected by William Van Valin, George Byron Gordon, Captain George Comer, and the Peary Relief Expedition. Most of the items classified as “dolls” are small wooden figures; only a few represent realistic renditions of Arctic clothing. This Inuit (Eskimo) doll from Greenland (object number 37-14-7) stands out in that she reflects a meticulous level of detail from the minuscule stitching on her kamiks to the precise mode of styling and wrapping her hair to signal marital status. As noted by Monica Fenton in her blog, “The Lady in Furs,” the construction of this doll’s clothing matches the construction of adult Inuit women’s clothing. Who made this doll, and what was her purpose? Her dress is said to represent a married Inuit woman, but does she also represent a specific individual? Whose hair is on her head? How did she make her way to the Museum?

Questions of Provenance

The history of the doll’s accession reveals an interesting chain of provenance. A note housed in collections storage indicates that she was originally: “…made by an Eskimo of Arsuk, Greenland, and given to Governor Korse’s wife and then given to me,” during the Peary North Greenland Expedition in 1894.[1] The artisan who created this doll and the Governor’s wife are unnamed, but the “me” (written on a note curated with the doll) happens to be Eivind Astrup (1871-1894), a budding scholar who left Philadelphia in 1892 to join the Peary Relief Expedition mounted by Angelo Heilprin, Curator of the Academy of the Natural Science in Philadelphia.[2]

Detail of Greenland Inuit doll's hand. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum.

Detail of Greenland Inuit doll’s hand. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum.

Astrup is legendary in the annals of Arctic exploration. He assisted Peary in mapping northern Greenland, and was second in command while mapping Melville Bay in 1893-4, with the assistance of Inuit guide Kolotengva. He described his encounters with Inuit people and practices in his book, With Peary near the North Pole (1898, published posthumously).[3], Yet, he was not an ethnographic collector. Why, then, was this doll “given” to him by the Governor’s wife? Was the doll intended as a gift for a young girl, or for another woman? Was she collected as a tourist curiosity? There are some curious scratchmarks on her left hand; these might be a date and signature, but they are illegible. The collection of objects attributed to Astrup (donated to the Penn Museum by Samuel Ingraham) is sparse—a few tools, a few items of clothing—with virtually no contextual details that shed light on their origins. It’s likely that those objects, along with this doll, were found among Astrup’s possessions after he perished during a solo ski journey in 1894.

The Penn Museum holds a few similar items associated with another expedition to Greenland: a suit of life-sized Inuit women’s clothing collected from Godhaven. The collection card reads: “Made by order of the Governor of the Peary Relief Expedition 1892.” There is no indication, however, who these clothes were for or from. These clothes are clearly not new; they show marks of use and fading that suggest everyday outside wear. The shoulders and arms of the parka are faded from exposure to the sun over time (while the underarm colors are still bright), and the boots and trousers show creases from walking. The name of the Inuit artisan is not recorded, but close material examination reveals that she used precisely the same dyes, same threads, and same patterns as the maker of the doll. This suggests that these items reflect, if not the same maker, then the same regional tradition, with shared materials and techniques. Eivind Astrup noticed this marked conformity in Inuit clothing, writing, “Not one of them has a single dress which is not cut exactly from the same pattern, and made of skins from the same source.”[4]

Ladies in Fur: World Travelers

Greenland Eskimo Dolls, lot 805, sold at Cowan's American Indian Art Auction, September 18-19, 2004. Formerly in the collections of the First People's Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo.

Greenland Eskimo Dolls, lot 805, sold at Cowan’s American Indian Art Auction, September 18-19, 2004. Formerly in the collections of the First People’s Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo.

Although her history is somewhat mysterious, the doll herself is not unusual. Similarly detailed miniature representations of Arctic people and clothing survive in other museum collections. One stunning pair of dolls, in winter and summer dress (shown here) was de-accessioned from the First People’s Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo and sold at a Cowan’s auction in 2004. The sheer volume of these dolls, in public and private collections, suggests that they were likely made for home use and for trade. Over time, they acquired meanings that served multiple purposes. In their home communities, they provided cultural role models and training in techniques of sewing for Inuit girls. Outside of Greenland, they communicated authentic representations of Greenland’s Inuit women to the rest of the world.

Two Greenland Eskimo Dolls. Sold at Cowan's American Indian and Western Art Auction, September 15, 2007.

Two Greenland Eskimo Dolls, lot 44. Sold at Cowan’s American Indian and Western Art Auction, September 15, 2007.

The Greenland tourism site notes that this style of clothing (with some modern adaptations) is also a form of cultural performance when donned for special occasions (including the arrival of tourist ships).[5] Today, some Inuit girls and women wear sealskin and leather with appliqués and parkas of trade cloth and glass beads; others don elaborately beaded multi-colored collars and lacy kamiks in bright colors that nod to the aesthetics of the past while celebrating the vibrancy of the present.

In all of these iterations, Greenland’s “traditional” garb combines Inuit and Euro-American materials in ways that reflect Indigenous aesthetics: Native ivory, leather, and fur; Euro-American cloth, silk ribbon, and glass beads; and thread and stitching techniques that indicate the use of a small metal needle.[6] This syncretic style was, in fact, made possible by the abundance of trade objects offered to the Inuit by Arctic explorers. The Peary Relief Expedition from Philadelphia, for example, brought the following goods to repay Inuit people for their services and assistance: “…pots, kettles, knives, scissors, thimbles, and needles for the women, and for the men, lances, saws, gimlets, knives, timber and other hardware items.”[7]

With all of this in mind, the Arctic doll given to Eivind Astrup is more than a toy, and more than a mere tourist collectible. This doll, when presented to an outsider (under the right circumstances) held the almost magical potential to reproduce herself by attracting (and transacting for) more of the valuable trade resources that were, and could be, used to dress her and her kin.


[1] From notes on the collection card and a typewritten note in the Penn Museum storage area, curated with the doll in collections.
[2] See Eivind Astrup – An Arctic Pioneer—a 2014 documentary by the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway.
[3] Astrup, Eivind. 1898. With Peary near the North Pole. Translated from the Norwegian by H.J. Bull London: C. Arthur Pearson Ltd; Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company.
[4] Ibid. P. 89.
[5]  “Greenland Eskimo Dolls” Lot 805. Ex First People’s Museum of the American Indian and Eskimo. Cowan’s American Indian Art Auction, September 18-19, 2004.
[6]  “Traditional Dress.” About Greenland. The Official Tourism Site of Greenland.
[7] Ethnographic photos show the persistence and uniformity of these material and designs. See, for example, the garb worn by these two teenagers photographed in 1930 by Henry Iliffe Cozens, during the British Arctic Air Route ExpeditionFreeze-Frame: Historic Polar Images. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.
[8] Henderson, Bruce. 2005. True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole. New York, BY: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 77.

NOTE: For more information on traditional and modern Greenland Inuit dress, see J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat, and Robert Storrie, eds. 2005. Arctic Clothing of North-America-Alaska, Canada, Greenland. Montreal, Quebec: McGill Queen’s University Press.


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Beneath the Surface at the Penn Museum