Deconstructing Knowledge; Reconstructing Meaning

July 10, 2015

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.

Student Report from the Wampum Trail
by Zhenia Bemko

The act of learning how to conduct the “restorative research” method used by the Wampum Trail team required, not just academic research, but a journey through time and space. To date, the trail has led me from Washington, DC, throughout much of New England. While traveling, I have learned that the practice of shutting down presupposed knowledge about an object (such as wampum) actually enhances the other senses used in observing the object. By disassociating one’s self and one’s opinions from interpretation, we allow the object to reveal more of itself, unclouded by the lenses and judgements used to infer meaning, so that a deeper object story can be recovered. The physical practice of this method can only be done in the presence of the object. You could, for example, read about the object or see photos of it; but you might only be experiencing (or creating) various levels of detachment from it. The “voice” of the object (so to speak), is best heard unfiltered, with one’s eyes and ears wide open.

Penn students Elizabeth Peng, Zhenia Bemko, and Sarah Parkinson examine wampum belts on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Photograph by Stephanie Mach.
Penn students Elizabeth Peng, Zhenia Bemko, and Sarah Parkinson examine wampum belts on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Photograph by Stephanie Mach.

This approach is especially valuable when applied to a contentious material such as wampum. As research assistants, we were asked to release ourselves from any judgements and pre-knowledge that could have shaped the parameters we used to understand each wampum object. Dr. Bruchac explains it this way: “… if you think something is always woven in a certain way, you’re looking for what matches. That’s why I hesitate about comparing objects, because you might be looking for similarities that are in your mind, but are not actually in the objects.” We found that it was all too easy to jump to conclusions when we read provenance data before examining the objects themselves. Sometimes the accession records and display texts contain, not facts, but presumptions regarding where the object originated and what meaning is attached to it. In short, my experience of learning how best to understand wampum required physical contact with the objects themselves.

My journey began in March of 2015, with a trip to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) collections in the company of Sarah Parkinson, Elizabeth Peng, and Stephanie Mach. We surveyed quite an assortment of wampum. This was my first exposure to ethnographic wampum, and the objective of this trip was to see these objects through fresh, untainted eyes, both to develop a visual inventory for wampum, and to gather the visual and tactile knowledge needed to reference particular modes of construction and material.

This excursion inspired a surprising new insight about construction. During our third day at NMAI, a very odd piece was placed before us: a small woven section attached to a long string of wampum. This was collected by Walter C. Wyman in 1907, cataloged broadly as “Iroquois” (from Quebec, Ontario, and New York) and thought by the staff to have been an unfinished experiment of weaving techniques. It was identified as a “Wampum Neck Band in course of construction.” This information alone was enough to obscure the significance of this object to our project.

"Wampum Neck Band in course of construction," object number 014012.000 at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC. Collected by Walter C. Wyman in 1907. Photograph by Zhenia Bemko.
“Wampum Neck Band in course of construction.” National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (014012.000). Photograph by Zhenia Bemko.

We conducted a brief examination and analysis of the object. The incomplete woven section consisted of six rows and 24 columns (approx. 4.9 cm by 4 cm) and the single string of beads was 176 cm long. All of the beads were the dark purple of quahog and fairly uniform in shape (although their color varied). The weft, threads of a malleable material used to loop the beads through the warp, consisted of two strands of a light brown fiber. The warp, which is generally more sturdy to provide structure for the object, was of blue fiber. Dr. Bruchac had informed us that blue fiber is an atypical warp material in Haudenosaunee diplomatic objects (like belts, where leather is normally used), but it is common in Algonkian and Huron personal objects (cuffs and collars). Under the assumption that the object was in a stage of construction, I wondered why this apparently fragile blue material was used for warp as opposed to something more durable? At the horizontal edges, we noticed other colors of thread. Was this perhaps used in the curatorial process to reinforce and prevent damaged warp? We learned from the curator that such repairs are common in museums. This led to another question: in spite of the noble goal of preservation, do these small alterations change the original nature of the object?

Detail of woven wampum piece at NMAI, showing a section where the original twining of weft at the edges is intact. Photograph by Zhenia Bemko.
Detail of woven wampum piece, showing a section where the original twining of crossed-over weft at the edges is intact. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (0014012.000). Photograph by Zhenia Bemko.

There were still more questions to be asked, and more information to be learned. So, I made further measurements. After some thought, I calculated that if finished, this item could have been approximately 14.9 cm by 4 cm: a small belt or, more likely, a collar. It was difficult to determine if the length of strung beads was a result of damage, deconstruction, or unfinished work. Wampum belts are normally constructed by laying out long warp threads and securing each individual column of beads with doubled weft threads. At first glance, it seemed like this piece was composed of a long single string of beads folded accordion-like and stitched together. After some further observation, I noticed small tufts of blue warp fibers wedged between two weft strands, and recognized the traditional crossed-over pattern of weft fibers at the undamaged edges.

Illustration showing the technique of weaving the weft threads across the warp threads in a wampum belt. In Frank G. Speck 's publication, The Penn Wampum Belts, Leaflets of the Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation number 4, New York 1925.
Weaving weft threads across warp threads in a wampum belt.

If you cut the weft, your beads will scatter, but if you cut the warp (as I realized had been done on this piece), you’re left with a single string of beads. It is easy to dismiss a damaged piece like this as unimportant, but even odd objects have something to communicate. In this case, we were not looking at an object in the process of being constructed; this object was being taken apart.

(See illustration, left, showing the technique of weaving the vertical weft threads across the horizontal warp threads in a wampum belt. From Frank G. Speck ‘s publication, The Penn Wampum Belts, Leaflets of the Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation number 4, New York 1925, p. 18.)

When I traveled into the field again in May, and watched Dr. Bruchac’s specific process of observing and analyzing wampum, I gained further insights into the practice and structure of the restorative methodology. As I began to internalize the thought process, the technique came into sharper focus. The method (which Dr. Bruchac describes as tracking skills instilled by her father) goes like this: First, you must learn the habits of your prey (your research subject or question); then, you must learn all there is to know about the environment your prey inhabits; finally, you must equip yourself to live and flourish within your target’s environment. Once this foundation is firmly in place, only then are you able to track down your target.

Zhenia Bemko at Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.
Zhenia Bemko. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

For me, this tracking method speaks to the preparation needed to enter into the study of wampum (or any other object in museums). Each wampum item has its own story to tell. You need to acquire as much knowledge about wampum construction as possible and learn the language. We started the process at NMAI by building a visual inventory, and then added to the experience with the great wealth of referential data that Dr. Bruchac has amassed from various sources. Additional historical background and provenance research also become part of the environment we had to acclimate ourselves to, so as to better understand wampum discourse.

Then, in the field, came the part of living in that environment, and this is where the travels on the Wampum Trail became so crucial. In every museum, we sequestered ourselves in collections and spent hours conducting careful, sensitive, non-intrusive examinations of these shell material items. We recorded our observations, and constantly checked (and re-checked) our assumptions, looking for what made each object unique. This process—meticulously examining the intricacies of cultural details woven into each piece—helps us to determine whether each wampum story we encounter is in the process of coming apart, or (as we hope our work will facilitate) coming together.

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For more information on this project, see the Wampum Trail Research Blog and Wampum Trail Facebook page