Sitio Conte in Real Time: December 23, 1939

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

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

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

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

A little background

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

J. Alden Mason

J. Alden Mason at the Penn Museum

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

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

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

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

Posted in Americas, Archives, Beneath the Surface, Collection, Exhibits, Museum | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Ayşe interviewing at Hamidiye village

Ayşe interviewing at Hamidiye village

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

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

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

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


Ahmet Başal Family in their courtyard, Çekirdeksiz village

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

Posted in Museum, Research, Turkey | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How to Make Cuneiform Tablet Cookies

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

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


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

Blank tablets

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Posted in Museum | Tagged , , , , | 4 Responses

Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley : Great Wonders Lecture Series

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

Posted in Americas, video | 2 Responses

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

Posted in Exhibits, Museum | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Ecuador, Audiovisual Heritage, and Watson Kintner shines again.

Penn Museum’s film collections are popular with filmmakers and others in Ecuador, this much we knew from the many downloads and requests received. For a story on UNESCO Audiovisual Heritage efforts, the broadcast news producer, Tomás Ciuffardi, paid tribute to the significance of film archives as primary source historical materials. In his research he scoured the physical archives of Ecuador and collections available online to find footage significant to Ecuadorians.

Queue this television news program to 9:41 for a testimony on footage taken by Watson Kintner. (The narration for these sections is translated below)

From the written narration by Mr. Ciuffardi:
@ 9:41 We can also find [footage of] practically all the regions of Ecuador, filmed in 1949 by Watson Kintner, and housed in the University of Pennsylvania, […] showing the daily life of our country, [which attains] incommensurable value in face of the lack of [our own national or personal family] archives.
@ 10:18 …These and other surprising films have recently appeared, which no one knew existed. That is why today the National Council of Cinema is making an effort to obtain copies of these films from outside the country to incorporate them into the National Archives.

Note that the footage within the program by Kintner is some of the clearest, brightest, and most colorful, this is in part due to his use of colorfast Kodachrome film stock, a now discontinued product that was actually based in black and white technology with layers of dye affixed. Mr Kintner, an RCA Chemical Engineer closely connected with the Penn Museum, was prescient in his interest in material culture, and how people made things. In his filming, he seemed to take joy in trying to understand what people did in their daily lives. Perhaps he understood that things would not remain as they were, and that many folkloric patterns would be gone in the not too distant future. We are still grateful to Mr. Kintner for his careful note-taking (which you may find in the catalog records) and the interest he took in people all around the world.

See more 1949 footage of Ecuador from the Watson Kintner Collection.

Posted in Americas, Archives, Cultural Heritage Preservation, Tech, video, Web | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ur Project: November 2014

Tool Complete with Handle
Spotlight on U.8783 (Penn Museum No. B17463)
Awl, Chisel, or Punch from grave PG 422

The Ur Project database is shaping up well and as we add information to it, we have moved on to the examination of metal tools and weapons from the site in the Penn Museum. Recently we came across an object of particular interest, a tool from a relatively simple grave known as PG 422. Apart from telling us something about the potential activities of the person buried here, it also tells us about the specific use of this kind of tool, as it preserves information that is normally missing—the handle.

Tool U.8783, copper end embedded in wooden block covered with bitumen.

Tool U.8783, copper end embedded in wooden block covered with bitumen.

Most of the graves in the ‘Royal Cemetery’ at Ur were far from grandiose. Woolley only assigned the designator ‘royal’ to sixteen of the more than 1,800 graves he uncovered here. It could easily be said that these sixteen get an inordinate amount of attention due to the gold jewelry and other fabulously attractive objects within them. So, this month I want to show that less elaborate graves are of great interest as well.

Indeed, the vast majority of graves at Ur are basic inhumations, a long pit dug into the ground with a body placed in along with a few grave goods. Some were wrapped in matting, others had coffins of sorts. What were these more common people like? Surely we should pay attention to them, since they were the majority, making up the society itself.

Woolley didn’t report the common graves as thoroughly as we might wish—he didn’t save bones from them nor did he draw or photograph most of them. He did, however, catalogue artifacts from most of them and from these we might understand something of the activities that involved average Mesopotamians.

Part of the original field card for PG 422, showing the tool as drawn and described by Woolley.

Part of the original field card for PG 422, showing the tool as drawn and described by Woolley.

This assumes that the goods left with the dead reflect their activities in life, and such does seem to be the case in Mesopotamia. Ritual goods, such as representations of gods and goddesses, are not regularly found in the graves of Ur, but occupational tools often are. Pottery is the most common artifact to be found in graves and this is almost surely related to the belief in a need for sustenance in the afterlife rather than showing that everyone was a potter. But more specific objects, the tools of a trade, seem to show that the person was believed to continue their profession after death, and thus they might tell us about their activities in life.

In this case we have a rod of copper or copper alloy that is imbedded in a rather substantial mass of material. The handle is much larger than the ‘business end’ of the tool, which might not be expected were we only to have the copper piece. More interesting still is the way the handle is made. It is a block of wood that has been covered in bitumen (tar) and rounded to fit the palm more securely. The size and shape of the handle implies a good deal of pressure applied at the back and a desire to protect the hand that delivered the pressure from the blocky wood as well as the more pointed copper.

The bitumen is thus a padding layer to make the use of the tool more comfortable, allowing a good deal of work to be done without tiring or blistering. The wood itself is just visible through a small area where the coating is missing and we see that it is blackened. How burning could have occurred through the bitumen is unclear, but the good preservation of the wood (rarely preserved at Ur) is due both to the burning and to the outer coating of bitumen.

Publication of the tool, in Ur Excavations volume 2, plate 229.

Publication of the tool, in Ur Excavations volume 2, plate 229.

Woolley identified this tool as a bradawl, and the picture on the Wikipedia page for this kind of tool is surprisingly similar in appearance to our ancient example. A bradawl is used to create a dimple in a piece of wood to ease the insertion of a nail or screw, and the end of the bradawl tends to look like a flat-head screwdriver. When Woolley published the piece, he suggested it once had a flattened end, comparing it to another piece he found with such an end, U.8307.

The tool, however, could have been pointed and may have been a leather punch or other form of awl. These, too, tend to have large handles to allow for the pressure applied from the hand. So, it was either for wood or leather working, which tells us that the person buried in PG 422 was likely a skilled carpenter or leather worker. The only other objects in the grave were two pieces of pottery whose form tell us that the period in which the person lived was likely to have been Akkadian or Ur III (somewhere in the general range 2300-2000 BCE).

We can’t say much more, but there is a great importance in looking to such people if we are truly to understand the workings of a culture. Who made the great objects of the royal tombs and the household items of the people? Who supplied the muscle and brains to feed and run a city? The common people did. More power to them. And more study of them. Without Woolley’s notes, we would know even less of this case, since he says almost nothing about the grave in the final publication. This continues to show the importance of preserving the original records and tying them back to the artifacts—the primary goal of the Ur Project.

Posted in Collection, Iraq, Museum | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

a BTS of BTS (Behind the Scenes of Beneath the Surface)

The Digital Media Center recently paired up with the Preparation Department to film a series of short five-question interviews that will be used in the upcoming exhibition Beneath the Surface.  Over the last three weeks, we interviewed five experts on topics ranging from the history of the Coclé people of Sitio Conte and the excavation of the site in the 1940s by J. Alden Mason to the conservation of the objects used in the exhibit.

This was my first time helping with an exhibition project and it was a learning experience for all of us.  We had to do a couple of tests to make sure that everyone looks and sounds relatively the same in the final product. Since the interviews will be viewed on vertically oriented monitors, we had to position the camera to shoot sideways. In post-production, we have to rotate the footage counter-clockwise 90 degrees to add the title cards and subtitles, and then rotate the final product back to its original orientation to upload on the monitors to go into the exhibition.

When we filmed Dr. Katherine Moore, we also filmed ourselves for fun.  So here is a quick time-lapse of us getting all the equipment ready and then making a thousand minor tweaks until we had it just right!

Posted in Exhibits, Museum, Tech, video | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Jewelry Making

While last month’s Atlatl Making Workshop put Penn students’ physical agility and swiftness to the test, this month’s event challenged their eye for aesthetics and beauty. In early November, over 30 Penn students came to the Museum to attend Jewelry Making, the second Making Workshop of the series hosted by the Museum’s Academic Engagement Department.

The evening began with a presentation by Dr. Jane Hickman, Editor of the Museum’s Expedition magazine and jewelry scholar. Dr. Hickman spoke about the cultural significance of adornment and jewelry in the ancient world, highlighting examples from noteworthy archaeological sites such as Ur (in modern day Iraq), and Sitio Conte (Panama). Students were particularly captivated by her discussion of Queen Puabi’s luxurious and stunning ensemble made out of materials including gold, lapis lazuli, and numerous beaded strands. After the presentation, students had the opportunity to look closely at jewelry from the Museum’s Near Eastern and Egyptian collections.

Dr. Jane Hickman shows students jewelry from the Museum’s collections.

Dr. Jane Hickman shows students jewelry from the Museum’s collections.

Energized by inspiration and creativity (and, of course, pizza), students tried their hands at fashioning their own jewelry. Justine Frederick, a local Philadelphia Jewelry Designer, provided helpful guidance on the proper methods for creating beaded jewelry such as necklaces and bracelets. Students selected the materials of their choice from an assortment of beads and stones of many different shapes, sizes, materials, and colors.

Students gather around to select their jewelry-making materials.

Students gather around to select their jewelry-making materials.

Choosing the beads was perhaps the most enjoyable and personalized part of the process, but the actual construction was certainly not without trial and challenge. In particular, tying a small knot to start and finish the beaded strand proved to be quite a difficult task that required dexterous finger work, not to mention a great deal of patience.

Thanks to Justine’s assistance, each student was able to leave the workshop with at least one piece of jewelry inspired by the ancient world. It was fascinating to see how each student made unique and creative adornment, despite the fact that they chose from the same selection of materials!

Two beautifully finished products!

Two beautifully finished products!

Interested in learning more about archaeology in a hands-on environment? Keep an eye out for information on the next Making Workshop, taking place in early February of 2015.

Posted in Fun! | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Identifying the Celestial Beings

In my previous post I explained how we identified the Buddha in our Tejaprabha mural.  But what about the other figures?  If we take a close look at the mural we notice that many of the figures have different attributes. For instance, they may be holding something in their hand or have a mark in their headdress. These are clues to their identities. Take the figure (second in from the left) who has a white disk in her hair.

The moon with a white disc in her headdress.

The moon with a white disc in her headdress.

A quick look at the text that this mural is based on reveals that she is most likely one of the following celestial beings: the Sun, the Moon, the five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) or Rahu and Ketu (representing eclipses).  We could reason that this is either the Sun or the Moon given their disc-like appearance.  If we look to her left we see an attendant holding a rabbit.  This is how we know that the female figure is in fact the Moon, as the rabbit is associated with the moon in Chinese mythology.

Attendant holing rabbit for the Moon.

Attendant holding rabbit for the Moon.

We can then work through each figure identifying them based on their respective attribute and corresponding iconographies.  To left of the Buddha there is a figure holding a pipa with a crow in her headdress. This represents Venus.  Across from her on the other side of the Buddha is Mercury, who has a monkey in her headdress.  The Sun is on the right side of the painting with a black disk in his headdress and he is flanked by Jupiter, who holds a plate of peaches. The two eclipsing stars, Rahu and Ketu appear on the right with a sword and a snake.

The Sun with a black disc.

The Sun with a black disc.


Jupiter holding a plate of peaches

Jupiter holding a plate of peaches


Ketu with a snake

Ketu with a snake

Noticeably absent from the mural is Mars and Saturn. Where did they go? If you draw a line down the middle of the Buddha we can start to speculate where these would have originally appeared since often times Buddhist paradise images such as this one were symmetrical. The left side of the mural looks a little sparse. While the Sun, with his black disc, is surrounded by Jupiter and Rahu and Ketu, the Moon doesn’t have any  major figures to her left. However, if you look closely you can actually just make out a sword right near the moon attendant’s shoulder. This is most likely the sword associated with Mars! He probably appeared with four arms to her left when the mural was complete. Where is Saturn? If I had to speculate he probably would have been right above the Moon’s head, mirroring where Ketu and Rahu reside on the right. It’s possible that this piece was already gone when the mural was moved out of it’s monastery. If the piece of the mural depicting Saturn still exists we would expect to find a figure that looks like an Indian ascetic with a bull symbol.

The other figures in the mural are either Bodhisattvas, attendants, or worshippers and speak to the devotional nature of the mural itself. In my next post I will turn my attention to our other mural showing Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, along with his twelve Yaksa Generals.

Posted in Museum | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment