And We’re Off! – Amanda Ball

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

June 3, 2015
New York


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

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

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


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

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

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

A picture of Beth Potens and me in summer 2013.

A picture of Beth Potens and me in Summer 2013.

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


A beautiful sunrise as seen by the MTAP survey team.


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

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

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

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


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

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

Ah-ha, now we’ve come full circle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 4, 2015
Richmond, Virginia


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

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

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

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

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

Me and my fieldwork tool – the recorder.

Me and my fieldwork tool – the recorder.

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

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

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What are we finding?

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

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

Digging at Mound C.

Digging at Mound C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ally working at the water screening station.

Ally working at the water screening station.

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



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

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

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

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

Pottery sherds from the south plaza.

Pottery sherds from the south plaza.

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

Animal bone, likely from a deer.

Animal bone, likely from a deer.

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

Jordi shows a stone arrowhead.

Jordi shows a stone arrowhead.

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

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

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Notes from Mississippi – Alexandria Mitchem

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

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

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

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

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


This is what an archaeologist looks like.

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

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

Soil interpretation

Soil interpretation

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

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Digging In

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.

By the time I arrived down here in Mississippi, the team had already been at work for just over a week. Meg came out to pick me up from the airport in Baton Rouge, and updated me on some of their progress during our hour-long drive to the site. We got there right at the end of the work day, so I got just a peek around the landscape. The next morning, Meg walked me around and gave me a good tour of the full site.


A westward view of the central plaza.

At a first look, the land didn’t exactly jump out at me as a place of any archaeological significance. It’s a big, beautiful property with a sizeable field next to a home, with a driveway cutting between them, and thick woods encircling the property. Highway 24 West cuts through the property and an occasional car (typically a pickup truck) speeds down the two-lane highway every five or ten minutes at often breakneck speeds.

The largest mound on the site is called Mound A, located on the west side of the landscape, on the far side of the highway from the house. It rises gradually from the north and south sides, and dramatically from its east end next to the road (where the highway construction actually destroyed one corner of the mound).  Mound A’s summit is nearly 30 feet high, and from below bluff it looks even taller. Like the other two mounds on the site, it’s been completely swallowed up by the woods, making it quite difficult to identify as a manmade land feature unless you really know what you’re looking for.

The east side of Mound A, with Highway 24 West at the bottom.

The east side of Mound A, with Highway 24 West at the bottom.

We walked up the side of the mound to the first excavation unit, where one of our project supervisors, Kyle, was working about halfway to the summit. He was digging about five feet down in a perfectly rectangular pit, measuring two meters long and one meter wide. A ladder sat aside to help him out when the time came.

Kyle Olsen standing in the excavation unit on Mound A.

Kyle Olsen standing in the excavation unit on Mound A.

On the north end of the site is Mound B, a roughly 12.5-foot-tall mound that was excavated decades ago by J. Ashley Sibley and the Junior Archaeological Society of Baton Rouge. The scar in the mound, left unfilled after their excavations, was quite visible, and the area around it had eroded significantly. As I’ve mentioned before, leaving an open excavation unit is not something our team will be doing this year; all of the holes they dig will be refilled at the conclusion of the field season. As Mound B is known to be a burial mound, our team is not digging there.

Mound B and its gaping scar.

Mound B and its gaping scar.

To the east, Mound C stands at about the same height as Mound B; its own eastern edge plummets downward into the creek which gives the site its name. A good deal of the mound has already eroded away, so it is important to excavate here in order to understand what’s left. Here at Mound C was a second excavation unit, also measuring one by two meters, but not quite as deep as the unit on Mound A.

Our excavation unit at the base of Mound C.

Our excavation unit at the base of Mound C.

There is no mound at the south end of the landscape. However, another small excavation project in that area was carried out in the 1970s by a fellow named Joe Collins, revealing significant signs of human activity including pottery sherds, animal bones, stone plummets, and the remnants of prehistoric postholes and hearths. So the team has dug another excavation unit here, this one measuring two meters by four to try to uncover more prehistoric features.

Our unit in the south plaza.

Our unit in the south plaza.

At the center of the site is the plaza. Meg’s research and work at Feltus and other similar Coles Creek sites have shown their central plazas to be generally bereft of significant amounts of artifacts. However, the plaza is very flat…almost too flat. It’s a distinct possibility that the landscape was originally much bumpier than it appears today, and that its current smoothness was also a result of prehistoric landscaping by the Native people. To that end, Meg instructed Sheridan and Zhenia on how to use an Oakfield Apparatus; this tool allows narrow tubular samples of earth to be removed and analyzed, in hopes that the samples will reveal where the fill layer ends and the original landscape beneath it begins.

Meg shows Zhenia and Sheridan how to use an Oakfield Apparatus.

Meg shows Zhenia and Sheridan how to use an Oakfield Apparatus.

I spent a large portion of my first day on site running around and snapping photos for posterity. Meg shot some photos at times as well, documenting the progress at the individual units and making note of the changes in soil color as the holes got deeper. Jordi and Kyle are shown holding a sheet to shade the unit, in order to create an accurate representation of those soil colors in the photographic record.

Jordi and Kyle working the lighting on Mound A.

Jordi and Kyle working the lighting on Mound A.

Part of that color identification process necessitates the use of something called the Munsell Color Chart, sort of a definitive book for describing the various shades of grayish, brownish, darkish layers of earth that appear as the hole gets deeper. Each color is assigned both a numeric value and a name.

Meg and the Munsell

Meg and the Munsell Color Chart.

Back at David’s unit in the south plaza, the team was also recording soil colors. Here you can see David spraying a small amount of water into the unit; he’s using a fine mist sprayer to add a small amount of moisture mainly to the walls of the unit. This is because after being open to the air for a period of time, the exposed walls begin to dry out, which causes the colors of the walls to become somewhat muted. Spraying them very gently helps to bring those colors back to their original state for the team to record. The floor gets a little spray as well, as small bits of dirt can dry and slightly obfuscate the photographic record; spraying them down helps them to disappear somewhat.

David gives the south plaza unit a little mist.

David gives the south plaza unit a little mist.

Besides taking color measurements, the team also measured the lay of the land and mapped in important cultural features using a total station – the same kind you see being used in construction projects. These highly accurate measurements indicate exactly where a point is in space (both east-west and north-south, as well as elevation above sea level) and will allow Meg to enter her data into various software programs and create detailed maps of the excavation features and site topography.

David at the total station.

David at the total station.

I know what you might be asking at this point – what is the team finding? Well, hold that thought. We’ll explore exactly that in our next post, and take a look at the methods being employed to make those discoveries.

All photos by Tom Stanley.

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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, 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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Beneath the Surface at the Penn Museum